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April 27, 2011

Caol Ila 30yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

We all have our own idiosyncratic methods of getting through the day: overcoming the arduous, tedious or simply mystifying duties whose application to ourselves is impossible to account for, and yet equally impossible to escape. Instead of model-building, gardening, recreational drug use or wandering about with a concealed weapon, I reach for a sample of whisky to reconnect me with a region of satisfaction and fulfilment.

With exams not at all far away, therefore, I need all the help I can get and fortunately enough, those charming people at Master of Malt are doing all they can to provide that assistance. Having already encountered their own expression of Highland Park, I had a wax-sealed jar of seriously mature Inner Hebridean nectar in the desk drawer. Perhaps my favourite distillery, I was anxious that this Caol Ila would represent an improvement on the Orcadian malt. Find this wee dram for yourself here.

Caol Ila 30yo 57.4% Distilled in 1980, filled into refill Bourbon wood. £99.95

Colour - Reasonably rich full gold/amber.

Nose - This one came in a trio of waves, each more involving than the last. The notes go on and on but I shall summarise: intense and quite dry golden apply sweetness at first with an assertive waft of crisp and quite deep fruity peatiness. This peat note is the first to develop, turning industrial with soot-blackened Islay jetties with impressions of a cool warehouse filled with old hogsheads. Lemon and orange sneak in. Finally it becomes perfumed with spearmint chewing gum. Very soft and creamy with grist and salt. Cow shed-like peatiness appears with bonfire wood and there is also a very fetching baked earth sweetness.

      Water accentuates the seaside much more with fresh fishy sweetness – all seared scallops with a delicious liquid tablet quality alongside. Stewed green apple and almond/hazelnut. The oak is very generous but not overpowering, allowing masses of sweet flavours to emerge such as lemon and lime tart, barley sugar and grape with jellied sweets. More time does this dram every possible favour, becoming – to my mind – a classic Caol Ila: peaty with dry husky-sweet malt, nuttiness, wet logs and a touch of stem ginger.

Palate - Peppery and spicy with plenty of peat and soft, chewy-sweet citrus. The peat is more evident in this expression than a Bladnoch Forum Caol Ila 30yo I have had.  Caramelising sugar sweetness comes along, too.

      Water ramps up the fruitness to the point where it is acetone-esque. Hot, very sweetly spicy with smooth peat and Earl Grey. Clean and not as cutting, with a little toffee. Rich and complex.

Finish – Warming and extremely smooth. Delicate soft fruits and maritime. Peated wash. Grassy and gentle with a conifer-like sweetness.

      Water transformed this malt, for me. Beginning with a medium-sweet maltiness it builds into gently earthy phenolics and sloe gin. Clean and syrupy, it coats the tongue and continues to enthrall long after it has gone down. It lent me the impression of May in the Hebrides, beginning on the beach with the dunes and sun-bleached shells. A spirit of adventure draws you towards the low-lying cliffs, however, surrounded by rocks and covered in tough, new-green and wind-clipped turf. This Caol Ila, once the fireworks have died away, is exactly like lying on one of those wild lawns. I felt the sun’s heat and the earthy aromatics released from the dark soil beneath. Fantastic.

So…?      As the biggest producer on Islay by some distance (and with expansion plans approved it will only get bigger) it goes some way to explaining why so many Caol Ilas appear under independent labelling. That they appear to be all so intriguing is testament to the inherent quality of the spirit produced in such quantities. and after 30 years? Caol Ila doesn’t age like other whiskies. There is none of the darkness velvety richness I have noted in other 25yo+ drams - just, as I said, never-ending panoramas of sweetness. I would quite happily go for a full bottle of this – so deftly-handled is the Caol Ila signature I love so much.

Master of Malt have chosen a stonkingly good cask to bottle for their customers and with only 154 bottles emerging from that hogshead, I’d be quick. I’m extremely grateful to Master of Malt for giving me the opportunity to try such a marvellous whisky – and forget about exams for half an hour.

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April 5, 2011

Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

The text from home read: ‘there’s a parcel for you down here. I think it’s whisky.’

It was just about the only news which could have perked up the nauseous, limping and suffering agglomeration of body parts which some suspicious dried apricots had rendered me. It might not have been the apricots, but either way it hadn’t been an easy morning.

Having been authorised to rummage, I was told that Master of Malt had been kind enough to send me out their two latest independently-bottled single malts. One was the Caol Ila 30yo, which Chris had airily mentioned over a Coco Aztec hot chocolate in January might be on its way. The second was a single cask Highland Park, and one I was only to eager to try. A favourite of independent bottlers, it is also a favourite of mine following a peerless distillery tour last May. Never having had the fortune to come by an expression drawn from a single cask – and being profoundly partial to those, too – I shattered the ever-so-cute wax seal during my break from university and poured. Find this dram for yourself here. I would urge you to read Graeme’s review of this malt on Edinburgh Whisky. A much more exciting venue for a tasting!

Highland Park 13yo 57% Distilled in 1997, filled into refill Bourbon wood. Bottled 2010. £44.95

Colour – Clean intense gold.

Nose – At first very light with intense sweetness. I find honey-accented peat with creamy vanilla from the cask. Gristy in texture. Dipping my nose into the glass, there are freshly-baked white rolls with a lush grassiness and root vegetable sweetness. This sulphur unfortunately persists a little too long: dark grains plant, mushroom ketchup. However, it clears at last to reveal maritime character: like kelp-covered malt. Cow sheds make a not unwelcome appearance together with coal smoke, bonfires and appley citrus.

      Water plucks out delicate and rounded pear notes with more characteristic Highland Park heathery peatiness. It’s spicy, too, with creamy oakiness. The earthy peat notes are attractive, but the alcohol just intrudes a little too much. Slowly, the nose freshens with more of that maritime sweetness. I detect some charred cask, too, and nail polish.

Palate – This is very intense indeed with dark maltiness, peat and smoke. Creaminess from the American oak gives way to an equally intense char.

      Water creates a more balanced and integrated experience with peat, soft malt and drily oaky citrus. However, it loses much of its oomph in the process.

Finish – Burning logs and eventually embers. There is an interesting blend of hard and soft textures, with cereal sweetness being of the latter sort. Bread on the barbecue. Quite short.

      Water confuses things: flavour is delayed but it does come. Double cream, wood chippings and faint peat. Stewed apple appears with barley, charred oak and crumbly earth.

So…?      A metaphor for this dram came quite quickly to mind: imagine an over-enthusiastic schoolboy rugby player – maybe a flanker or centre – who has spent more time in the gym than honing his skills on the pitch. The intensity is there, but it isn’t coordinated and ultimately lacks endurance in the final quarter. It is great for the big hits but the savvier off-loads and distribution is not there yet. Whisky-wise, then, I think a few more years in cask may have worked wonders. The Highland Park spirit appears more rambunctious than the standard bottlings have led me to believe, and the cask here has not yet been allowed to perform its subtractive and interactive functions. I would stick to the standard 12yo.

I owe a massive thank you to Natalie and co. at Master of Malt for the samples, and I shall see how the Caol Ila measures up, both to the Highland Park and another 30yo single cask I have had the good fortune to come across from the Bladnoch Forum.

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January 30, 2011

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990

When the online retailers Master of Malt announced last year that they were to launch a constantly expanding and varied range of whisky samples alongside their regular operations, I and many others sat up and took note.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

'Drinks By The Dram' from Master of Malt.

‘Drinks By The Dram’ is a dedicated service on the part of Master of Malt to allow whisky fans to try before they buy. For folk such as myself, single cask, cask strength independent bottlings which would normally retail at around £75 can now be experienced for a fraction of the cost. However, with tasteful and considered little touches with regards to the packaging with their red wax-dipped tops and faded old-effect paper labels, these 3cl samples powerfully exude the ’boutique’.

In order that word of these products could be more widely circulated, who better to approach than whisky bloggers already familiar with the sample-style trappings of pre-release whiskies. I have to thank Natalie from Master of Malt for my sample: one from a range of single cask vintage releases produced by one of the few truly independent Scottish distilleries that put Diageo’s Managers’ Choice to shame.

To my delight and relief, my 3cl sample of the Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 made it through the snow to my door and so becoming a object was it to behold and to contemplate that I abstained from breaking the wax-covered seal until I sensed my olfactory faculties were firing on all cylinders. It was worth the wait.

This particular bottling of Glenfarclas from 1990 is sold out, but a sample from the Fifth Release of the Family Casks is available here.

Master of Malt on Facebook.

Master of Malt on Twitter.

Read my tour review for Glenfarclas here.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick.

Look at the colour! So full and buxom is the body that a translucent residue was left on the rim of the glass - as if I had been wearing lipstick. Which of course I hadn't been.

Glenfarclas Family Cask 1990 Sherry Butt 9246 58.9% ABV

Colour - Blood red. Very striking.

Nose - Careful nosing from a distance reveals velvety soft Sherry influence: darkly nutty with stewed fruits. The biting claws of the high proof are withdrawn and it is possible to enjoy the heavy, spicy-rich vanilla reminiscent of some Bourbons I have had recently (Buffalo Trace comes to mind). It is so sweet with orange, cinnamon, tropical flowers, marzipan, redcurrant and cherries.

      Water lightens the experience with raw malted barley sweetness. Rich, soft toffee and oak notes which reminded me of the heat and woody spice notes which pervaded the Speyside Cooperage. The European oak is medium-dry and intense. More vanilla appears, in addition to dried fruits and fruitcake. There is an impeccable balance between the rich and the sweet, with the heavy juiciness and malt notes of Glenfarclas standing up to the wood.

Palate – This was a first for me. Despite the strength there was ne’er a prickle. The whole thing was delightfully rich and smooth with oak and malt. Mouth-coating and heavily-sherried, it was plain that not much had been done to this from leaving the cask. The texture was astonishing, as it felt as if raw sugar or red liquorice was being sprinkled on my lips.

      Water enhanced the smoothness slightly, and the Sherry, oak and caramel notes remained. Orange appeared, however, as did added dryness. Biscuity with tablet notes, this was unmistakeably Scotch, and Glenfarclas.

Finish – Jam-like and syrupy with such softness and smoothness. Superbly complex and evocative. Rich fruit skins and creamy almond. Orange and mango. Book binding.

      Water revealed more of the nutty sweetness, as well as rich toffee. Dark and smooth maltiness melded into a toasty, rich spiciness. As things began to simmer down, heather, thick clear honey and latterly beeswax appeared. An extremely glossy and sophisticated malt.

So…? I will unquestionably be using the ‘Drinks By The Dram’ option again, and sampling more of the Family Casks. This was one of the most involving and exciting whiskies I have tasted for a long while. Unusually, I left a malt feeling grateful for the wonderful diversity within Scotch: how I can savour the fruity sweetness of Balblair one moment, the fragrance of Linkwood and Longmorn the next, the island power of Lagavulin and Ardbeg afterwards, and the rich complexity of The Dalmore and Glenfarclas at the next convenient opportunity.

This 1990 release had the presence, the depth and the authenticity at cask strength to transport me back to my forays around the Ballindalloch/Aberlour area last year. Especially undiluted, the finish acted like a well-serviced and rapid cable car: tugging me between the rough russet grass and heather of Glenfarclas at the foot of Ben Rinnes, and the rich, leafy mystery and delight of Warehouse No. 1 and the banks of the Spey itself in Aberlour. The wild and the sensuous were epically combined and evoked a particularly auspicious time on the Scotch Odyssey as I began my assault on Speyside. I had the remote and beautiful Glenfarclas all to myself on the Wednesday while I witnessed the wonder of excellent Sherry casks at Aberlour on the Thursday morning. With water the semi-dry spicy and dark leafiness recalled the mellow, fragrant bowers of the Speyside Way. Riverside and heathland in one glass, with the presence of deciduous lichen-clad forest a common quality. I have yet to be disappointed with Glenfarclas, and this is the fourth encounter.

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