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Ardbeg Supernova 2014 and Cutty Sark 33YO

Today I conclude my run-through of the different Scotches sent my way before Christmas. This pair could not be more different: one of the smokiest single malts on the planet, and an elderly, genteel blend.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 55% GBP 125 (sold out)

The original Supernova from 2010 was peated to over 100ppm and caused quite a stir. This new vintage was launched with some rather exclusive blogger miniatures, some of which may or may not have ended up on auction sites… Mine was a common-or-garden clear glass affair with a typed label so no windfall for James…

Colour – pale lemon yellow.

Nose – remarkable focus and angularity - like a cubist piece, blocks of crackly peat meet blocks of lemon sherbet and blocks of creamy American oak (is there an Ardbeg that doesn’t ooze American oak these days?). That quintessentially Ardbeggian oily sheepiness. Toasted hazelnut and salted caramel. Very good indeed.

Palate – dry, hugely phenolic. Spreads steadily over the tongue with a barbecue intensity. A pillar of dense black peat, spinning gently. A hint of dark chocolate, seashells and seaweed.

Finish – peat (obvs) with flecks of ginger. Lightens gradually to a tasty caramel oakiness. Crushed peat, dry peat, peat a thousand ways. Buttery, kippery, seemingly endless.

Adding water reduced the cubist effect of the nose, although it remained powerful. A fuller fruitiness was on display with banana and apple. Youthful but attractive. Marine-like notes and lemon. The palate revealed smooth apple and pear, an IPA hoppiness, and spicier, sweeter peat. Still sharp. Chilli pepper heat and charred ribs. The chilli heat continues into the finish with an oaky creaminess and thick, ashy peat.

Cutty Sark 33YO 41.7% 3,456 bottles GBP 650

An Art Deco blend according to the press release, harking back to the 1920s and 30s when Cutty started to make in-roads on the American market.  This is the oldest blend ever released under the Cutty Sark label, put together by Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Colour – dark honey amber

Nose – initial notes of coconut, egg custard and an epic creaminess. Further in, that creaminess is both Chantilly and patissiere. Then ripe warm apricot but also a firmness and brightness at the edges where a strange but attractive rose and carbolic soap scentedness lies. The super-sweet grains relax and out steps honey-drizzled peaches with lime zest. Passion fruit, now pineapple syrup. Now and again some Bourbon oak spiciness. Warm apple pie with time and clotted cream. Pain d’Epices syrup on raspberries.

Palate - velvety spice and creamy coconut, plenty of presence. Cinnamon, liquorice root and then passion fruit again. Black cherry in the background. Thick but not heavy, there is some seriously good wood gone into this: warmth and spicy sweetness. Maple syrup.

Finish - creamy with vanilla essence but at the core it is surprisingly firm. Creme caramel, toffee apple. A slight tartness develops with lime and rosehip. Cinnamon biscuits.

So…?       I heap praise on a Glenmorangie, having been a little sceptical in the past, and now I must be a little critical of its sister distillery, having been supremely fond of just about everything it’s released of late. I have not tasted the previous two Supernova releases so cannot compare it to earlier efforts, but I have enjoyed a couple of Octomores, its arch-rival. The hyper-peated version of Bruichladdich combines its dense, mossy smoke with a lovely fat, cereal-driven sweetness. Though young, it feels complete. The SN2014 unfortunately did not feel complete; while there were many tasty and exciting dimensions to it, there wasn’t enough that was exceptional. It is a very good, very smoky whisky, but does not justify the price tag in my opinion.

On to the Cutty Sark. Blended Scotch, you say? Had I been told it was a blended grain I’d have believed it. When I first sample it, in a cold Northumbrian bedroom over Christmas, the slight chill pulled out the grain components to the exclusion of all else. No matter, the grains that have gone into this are of the very highest calibre, nearly on a par with a certain 38YO Invergordon bottled by Compass Box a few years ago. Tasting it again at Dubai room temperature, I could at last detect some malt influence but the grains were still the stars, testament to great skill and sensitivity in the blending room to the lighter style that is Cutty. Absolutely outstanding blending and it was a privilege to taste it.

Sincere thanks to Quercus for the Ardbeg, and Wendy Harries Jones at Cutty Sark.

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Ardbeg Auriverdes

There may be some of you – just maybe – who tried to bring up the Scotch Odyssey Blog on your PC, tablet or mobile device last week and could not. Regrettably, I was too snowed under with essays to troubleshoot or indeed even notice that the site had vanished from the Internet. My theme programming had sprung a leak (I use the technical term) and the upshot was that I was a blogger without a blog.

Good intentions for what I wanted to write about when academic pressures eased - of those I had a few. Useful material was also plentiful and, having tasted the sample sent to me by Marcin Miller of Quercus Communications a second time, I’m delighted my tech support web hosting people could fix the problem and restore my soapbox. Because the latest Ardbeg limited edition is worth shouting about.

It may be news to no one that I ride my bike quite a lot, and training is progressing ahead of the second Scotch Odyssey in June. However, I am only just beginning to admit to liking football again. As the stars align for Liverpool to win the Premier League title for the first time since the year I was born, videos on the BBC Sport web page count me down to the start of the World Cup in Brazil this summer. For folk with gear to flog, time is running out to tie it in with the beautiful game’s global competition.

Ardbeg Auriverdes (named in honour of the World Cup host nation’s team) accompanies another mad-cap initiative by the Islay distillery to entertain (and possibly injure) peat freaks. Ardbeg Peat Football will occur (quite how, I don’t know and haven’t dared ask) at various Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbeg Day, which is May 31st for the uninitiated. If you want to don wellies and wade through two feet of peat slurry without obvious gain, but precipitous loss of dignity, check out Ardbeg.com for your nearest Embassy. You should also be able to try the Auriverdes, and that is something you really ought to do.

Another of Dr Bill Lumsden’s creations, and following on from recent smash hits Galileo (one of my all-time favourite whiskies) and Ardbog (a bit of a let down in comparison), this new malt has been matured in American oak barrels with two differently custom-toasted heads. The idea is that one imparts ‘mocha coffee’, the other ‘creamy vanilla’ into the finished whisky. There is no indicator as to age, unlike the Galileo (about 13yo) and Ardbog (about 10yo).

Ardbeg Auriverdes 49.9% £79.99

Colour – dark brassy gold.
Nose – on the top of the glass, this is sweet at first with a seashore saltiness before oily tarry smoke and vanilla pod emerge. Nose in the glass there is plenty of dry and rich biscuitiness and a medicinal edge that I didn’t notice on first nosing. Sooty with capsicum heat and freshly cut grass. Thick, textured wood sugars but well integrated. A crisp, frothy lemon curd lift. Beach bonfire. With time, golden syrup, dried cherry and light zesty oak appear.
Palate – spicy oak immediately: black liquorice and cayenne. Peat is a dry, roiling presence on all sides. Major release of wood sugars on the tongue with crunchy malt and vanilla supporting.
Finish – more maritime Ardbeg character with lots of dry peat smoke and sea shells. Thickens with a stout-like sweet weight. An interesting caramel and carbolic soap fusion.

Like previous releases, I felt this needed water. With the alcohol toned down, the Auriverdes came into its exuberant own.

Nose – buttery but with abundant impressions of dry old cottage fireplaces: polished iron fender and coal dust. Autumn leaves in the grate. Then a trace of banana and Black Jack sweets. That dense carpet of black/blue peat that I associate with this distillery unfurls together with pine sap and a “sheepiness”. Pistachio and sugared almonds come next. Pricking the nostrils is a fabulous double-team of peat and smoky oak. Clove and roast sweet peppers appear later.
Palate – sweeter, malt, red liquorice and Chinese sweet chilli sauce. Strong oak presence yielding espresso and Demerara sugar notes. Malt returns with a floral overtone. Dense, bold, drying peat.
Finish – not quite as Ardbeg-like as when undiluted but as with the palate this is a sweeter encounter: chocolate truffles, pot ale and peat.

So…?      This is a characterful whisky, make no mistake about it, and far more straight-ahead with the Ardbeg DNA than the Ardbog, in my opinion. Some have suggested that this is a step up, in nature, from the 10yo and I’d agree. If that whisky is the graceful youth, the Auriverdes is the same entity after a couple of months at the gym on the protein shakes.

With all Ardbeg’s I taste, it is the texture of the peat throughout that captivates me, but it is never overplayed. Here, softer, even fruitier flavours are allowed room to express themselves. This isn’t quite the surprise that Galileo was, but with a dash of water especially the layers of flavour become overwhelmingly vivid. In a good way. Much like the country of your denomination scoring the decisive penalty in the World Cup final would be.

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Kilchoman at the Quaich Society

‘James! Great to meet you at last!’
‘Err, I’m Peter, actually. But don’t worry, it happens a lot.’

When dealing with Kilchoman, plans are likely to change when you least expect them to; new faces emerge, different ways of doing things are trialled out, flavours defy belief. Or at least, this is what I took from Peter Wills’ presentation to the Quaich Society earlier this month. He – and not his brother – arrived at the venue, glanced at our tasting mats and requested a modification to the order. Then our projector refused to have anything to do with his laptop. Still, at least nothing burnt down.

Peter is one of the three sons of Kilchoman founder, Anthony Wills. Together with his brothers, Peter bangs the drum for his family’s whisky with both passion and real insight. This makes sense: he grew up with the distillery as it took shape on Kilchoman farm in the north west of Islay, where relatives on his mother’s side still live.

Wills Senior moved from the wine trade to independently bottling whiskies before deciding that, if he was to make available the kind of dram he aspired to, he was going to have to produce it himself. Peter admitted that, in hindsight, such a decision would not be made again; the rigmarole of building a distillery and making whisky is financially and emotionally sapping. The current estimate is that running Kilchoman costs between £30,000 and £40,000 per month. From December 2005 to September 2009 when the first official single malt whisky was released from the purpose-built warehouse, optimism and resolve were held together with sticky tape and string. Fortunately, the whisky was good – astonishingly good – and Kilchoman has weathered the initial storm.

Peter outlined the production regime at Kilchoman, dubbed on the label ‘Islay’s Farm Distillery’. One third of the roughly 150,000 litres of alcohol produced per year is their signature 100% Islay spirit: from barley to bottle, the whisky doesn’t leave the island. 100 tonnes of barley per year are grown on the farm, malted on their own floors, kilned to impart a bit of smoke but not to the same degree as the malt they buy commercially from Port Ellen, turned into whisky and matured on Islay. Impressive stuff. The remainder of the spirit is heavily-peated (50ppm), used to create a consistent character with which they could test the reaction of the world’s peatheads.

The whisky has been ‘engineered’ by Dr Jim Swan, who has worked with many a start-up distillery since the millennium. The emphasis has been on a smoky but very sweet spirit, filled into fresh oak, especially ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to accentuate that sweetness and weight on the palate. Overseeing production is former Bunnahabhain distillery manager, John MacLellan.

But I mentioned that plans change or, to use Peter’s words: ‘things break down at Kilchoman’. Whether this is a temperamental boiler or human error, the team at the distillery are forever adapting to changes, nuances and accident. Perhaps the best example of these latter instances would be Peter lighting the kiln as a 16-year-old, heading away to watch the Six Nations rugby and getting a call to say that the whole thing was on fire. This put back 100% Islay production by a week or two.

But what of the spirit itself? When they aren’t putting out fires or laboriously filling 11,000 bottles by hand and can actually focus on making whisky, what comes out at the other end? Peter had six whiskies to show off, the latest multi-vintage Machir Bay (a mix of differently-aged malts from ex-Bourbon, often married in Sherry butts), the latest single vintage 2007, the Loch Gorm all Sherry-matured malt, the second release of the 100% Islay, a single cask 100% Islay and a bottling for the Kilchoman Club.

The 100% Islay Second Release starts life as barley peated to 25ppm, so fairly mild on the smoke-o-meter. The result is a grassy-smelling whisky with pistachio, steamed milk and white chocolate maltesers. The palate reminded me of sea shells, minerally peat and smoked oatcakes with a grassy finish.

The Machir Bay was sweet, zesty and smoky, with a lovely herbal edge throughout. The 2007 is the oldest whisky the distillery has released to date, a 6yo from Bourbon barrels. Thick apple and mossy, turfy smoke on the nose, I then found lemon rind, cough syrup and proper artisanal chorizo. The palate was the smokiest I’ve seen from a Kilchoman: ashy, bonfire smoke with little thrusts of oak. Ardbeg territory.

I’ve written about the Loch Gorm before, and the latest batch was released last week. The first of the single casks was delightful: vanilla ice cream and barley sugar, pear softness and white chocolate filled the nose while a heavy biscuit sweetness and nudges of oak came into the palate. The Kilchoman Club release benefited from a little water to bring down the strength revealing sticky date, barley, thyme and honey on the nose with a sweeter smoke. The palate was gentle and oaky with banana chips, apple and plum making for a really fruity experience. A trace of peat appeared at the end.

I have said it many a time but this distillery is going places. The charm of the liquid is more than embodied by the people representing it, and Peter was an excellent speaker who could not be ruffled on technical matters. He was even good enough to hint that Kilchoman from Port pipes should be available from September and that there are other wine casks stashed away over on their little patch of Islay. I cannot wait.

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Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon

I ran on Islay once. My tenure at Laphroaig had nibbled away at the brief window I had allowed to get myself from the Beautiful Hollow by the Broad Bay to my next port of call, and consequently I was late for the 11AM Lagavulin tour. My canter from my bike to Ruth and the rest of the tour party was all of 20 metres, however: on August 3rd, 165 people put trainer to tarmac to cover 13 island miles in the Ardbeg Islay Half-Marathon.

A percentage of those entrants sprinting out from Bowmore to Islay airport and back hailed from the whisky writing and retailing industries. Their goal overtook that of personal glory and a new PB, however. Last year Alan Lodge, a writer for The Spirits Business, passed away as a result of a brain haemorrhage. He was 29. Journalist colleagues, Ardbeg distillery staff and whisky retailers busted a gut to raise more than £5,000 for the National Brain Appeal.

Some of the drinks writers pounding through Bowmore. Photography by Phill Williams.

 

‘My family has been overwhelmed by the support we have received from the drinks industry folk since my brother passed away last year,’ said Hannah Grace Lodge. ‘It is evident how much Alan was loved by all in the industry; Ardbeg’s sponsorship of the half and for all of these wonderful people to run and raise money in Alan’s memory is such a testament to him. He always joked about being a legend… turns out, he kind of was one. Thank you so much to all who have been involved in supporting The National Brain Appeal in Alan’s name, he would be honoured.’

To convey a little of the cut-and-thrust of the event, Quercus’s press release suggests that high-drama sporting reportage as well as whisky broadcasts could be the company’s new niche: ‘Chris Losh was the first Ardbeg runner to finish (in 31st place overall) taking six minutes off his personal best with a blistering time of 1 hour 36 minutes. Richard Woodard finished in 1 hour 51 minutes beating his own PB set 30 years ago. Hamish Smith finished in just under two hours, a milestone that eluded veteran Olly Wehring. Joel Harrison entertained spectators by running in fancy dress. After an engrossing five miles of cat and mouse and cheered on by an ecstatic crowd, Sandrae Sharpen pounced to thrash a disconsolate Marcin Miller in the final straight. Several team members, including Laura Foster, Richard Siddle and Eduardo Vivas, bravely ran through injuries and extreme pain. Sian Deegan and Rachel Ramanathan adopted a bizarre strategy of starting 45 minutes before anyone else with a self-imposed handicap of running the course pushing a wheelbarrow full of peat…’ Splendid.

One competitor, Caskstrength.net’s Joel Harrison, remarked that running has become something of a passion. ‘Getting the correct kit has been key and makes running much more enjoyable (and the obvious results of increased fitness and the ability to eat and drink more, as I’m working it all off!)’ When asked about what he partook of in the race’s feed zones, Joel asserted that nothing bar water passed his lips. It must be said, of course, that Islay water is far more invigorating than your regular drop.

From my time cycling around the island, I remember the rearing, pitted roads and often relentlessly malign winds. ‘I’ve cycled around the island before, but with running, you get a sense of how the weather changes so quickly,’ Joel revealed. ‘One minute you’re boiling hot, the next soaking wet and so the cycle continues!’

‘I’d highly recommend everyone to have a go. It’s not easy, especially when you’re training is all in Central London (and as a result totally flat), but the challenge was excellent.’ Keep an eye out for entry forms for the 2014 event on the Islay Half-Marathon website. I am very tempted to have a go myself: leave the bike at home this time and see Islay with a running vest on.

 

Photography by Phill Williams.

 

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Ardbog After a Hard Slog

Many people ask for ‘no fuss’ on their birthdays, but you aren’t supposed to believe them. Perhaps British reticence and conditioned modesty compel this caveat, but everyone secretly wants others to take notice of their special day.

Ardbeg operates more from the US ‘Super Sweet 16′ model for throwing an annual look-at-me jamboree, however, swapping the hideous convertible sports cars of the MTV shows for a tractor, and supplanting the yappy youths with bearded Germans and barrel-chested Swedes. No other Scotch whisky can muster quite such a hullabaloo.

June 1 dawned with the reek of peat thick in the air. Around the globe, Ardbeg disciples uncorked their Corryvreckans and guzzled their Uigeadails in sacramental whisky worship of their favourite distillery, while in London inflatable sheep were driven about the streets, culminating in one almighty party. Meanwhile, Ardbeg distillery closed the Feis Ile festival of malt and music with much frivolity and fun. I, however, was working.

Nevertheless, Ardbeg wanted me to feel part of the occasion, and sent a sample of the new Committee release my way. Ardbog was also available for the general public to try at the numerous international Ardbeg Embassies on Ardbog Day itself. Bottled without an age statement, all we have to go on is that this whisky is roughly 10-years-old, with dual maturation in American oak and ex-Manzanilla casks. It is also cask strength. Is it a fit toast for this cult distillery?

Ardbeg Ardbog.

Ardbeg Ardbog 52.1% £79.99

Colour – rich caramel gold.

Nose – at first, a tickle of ashy peat with freshly sliced apricots and a fat maltiness drizzled with honey and syrup. With nose really wedged in the glass I find a classic Ardbeg arrangement: a rich cummerbund of peat, echoes of the kiln and dark, medium-sweet malt. Treated fenceposts, worn leather and spice gradually, with Manchego rind (a hard Spanish sheeps’ milk cheese) and pink peppercorn-laden white chocolate later. With more time, I get wholemeal bread from a wood oven.

Palate – thick with a boiling blackcurrent depth to the peat. The peat element dries and darkens before lemon and honey fill the palate. Just at the end is a rock salt and rosemary savouriness.

Finish – the star of the procedings: rich dark chocolate torte, with a sulphorous match note coming next for complexity. Bonfire night. For a while, flavour defers to impressions and sensations, although at the end there is bold, smouldering wood ash and shards of honeycomb malt. Complex and evocative, as the best Ardbegs are.

Adding water weakened the experience, where it had engineered lift-off with the Galileo. The nose was sharper with the malt and oak stabbing up through the peat. I found a central aroma of gooey sweetness, like the fruity-caramel combo of a tarte tatin. Over the peat was an invigorating menthol presence with hints of almond flour and cherry stones. Overall, it didn’t express itself quite as well. On the palate, there was greater smoothness and more fruit, with the peat and a vanilla note closely aligned. A puff of smoke dried everything before chantilly cream trickled back in. Wholemeal returned on the finish with salty vegetal notes, like sea cliff top verdure. Hay introduces a wispy smoke and the rich honeycomb returned together with the sulphur. However, it failed to hit the allusive heights.

So…?      I must confess that, first time through, this was a crushing disappointment. Tasted alongside Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm this appeared lazy, incoherent and uninspiring while the younger whisky boasted dynamism, energy and originality. Indeed, I found this distinctly un-Ardbeg-like, the finish excepted. The Manzanilla had adulterated the overall character, rather than enhanced it.

On a second tasting, I found more to like, and – praise be – more that was unmistakeably Ardbeg. I do worry that it has set its sights on earthlier pursuits, while Galileo sought for the stars, but this is certainly above average liquid. I remain conflicted about the sample, but my anxiety to taste the next Committee release when it comes along will remain undimmed. More Marsala wood, Bill, that’s all I’ll say.

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Kilchoman Loch Gorm

By golly, they’ve done it again. While I always hope and intend to say insightful things about whisky, now and again all metaphor, analogy or apt digression must be supressed in place of an indulgent grin. Nice one, Kilchoman. Get in there, etc.

The email promised a new range from the youngest of Islay’s eight distilleries. Loch Gorm (named after a distinctly peaty body of water near the distillery) joins Machir Bay in a regular line up of two whiskies, which doesn’t seem terribly extensive. You might also be forgiven for thinking that core ‘range’ is not terribly accurate, considering that both expressions are intended to showcase the Kilchoman spirit as it evolves. The first incarnations, emerging from Islay’s western shore since 2008, have suggested a seriously precocious whisky, however, and indeed a couple of months ago, the International Whisky Competition announced Machir Bay as its Whisky of the Year 2013. This is an extraodinary accomplishment for a single malt which is still, relatively speaking, in its nappies.

Loch Gorm introduces the peaty product from Islay’s farm distillery to the close, sensuous attentions of Sherry casks from the off. Aged in the freshest Oloroso butts, the Loch Gorm whisky is then finished in ex-Sherry hogsheads for six weeks. Kilchoman does not artificially colour or chill-filter its whiskies.

The new Kilchoman Loch Gorm.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2013 46% £56

Colour – medium amber.

Nose – immediate youthful fruity sweetness led by poached pears in syrup and a dab of punchy passion fruit. The peat lends a warm cherry cola aroma. It is definitely Kilchoman under there: dazzling bright barley with the sweetness of tablet and authenticity of green malt. Almond pastry. The smoke keeps its distance at first, evidenced perhaps in a sweet and oily pepperoni heat. Lime pickle and mango chutney. The peat sits at the foundation, providing its own sweetness.

Palate – a cascade of sweetness with raisins and dried cranberries. The malt is the chief delight for the sweet of tooth. The peat digs in with a thick and fuzzy texture before drying to leave impressions of the kiln, as well as that outstanding malt and echoes of walnut.

Finish – increasingly dry with a beautifully acrid and industrial peat character. Singed hay, rich caramel and vanilla pod.

With water, this moved into another gear with a nose of dried fruits and coal smoke, double cream and milk chocolate. Red apple, orange and cinnamon appeared, before things became heathery and bog-like. With time, strawberry coulis and lime-doused Granny Smiths emerged, with a blackcurrant character to the peat. Fabulous. The palate begins with a charming softness, before sharpening to pin-point and precise flavours. Fruity sherry accentuates the apple/pear core of the Kilchoman spirit. Strawberry jam next, with thick charred peat which reminded me of Toulouse sausage. To complete the picture, juicy peach arrived. The clean and malleable barley sets up a beautifully simple and well-judged finish, with apple strudel and dying beach bonfire staying true to the Kilchoman character.

So…?      What a joyous, satisfying whisky. Manager John MacLellan and Dr Jim Swan have mitigated whatever risk may be attached to drawing young peated whisky from Sherry casks to reveal another, even fruitier side to Kilchoman. This is a seriously sweet whisky at times, but the strength and purity of peat wins out in the end.

If you can come by a bottle, grab it. I can think of no better companion to a twilit summer evening.

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Whisky Re-Entry

Since gazing in wonderment at the stars of Whisky Luxe, I have been in orbit around planet whisky – Apollo XIII-style – without an obvious means of returning home. I hope you will forgive my absence, but alternative galaxies demanded my full attention. For example, it is difficult to indulge in single malt space exploration when the gravitational pull of earthly academic matters fixes you leadenly to the ground.

Spurring me on to further cosmological discoveries, however, was the Halley’s Comet of whisky: Ardbeg’s latest special release, Galileo. Earlier in the year, Dr Bill Lumsden - Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie Co. – stepped out of his space suit long enough to discuss an extra-terrestrial experiment which involved Islay’s cult distillery and zero gravity. Micro-organic compounds found within Ardbeg new make spirit will be studied on board the Internation Space Station as they interact with cask shavings. After two years, the results will be compared with samples stored in the United States and, of course, on the Islay south coast.

Ardbeg Galileo.

In honour of the man who contributed so much to our understanding of the universe and all matters astronomical, Lumsden has devised a new concoction of phenolic ferocity pointed squarely at the final frontiers of whisky under serious rocket propulsion.

What better way, therefore, to suggest that there is life on the Scotch Odyssey Blog than with a review of this intriguing expression? The first Ardbeg release to boast an identifiable age statement, outwith the 10yo, this contains whiskies all distilled in 1999. Some spirit had been maturing in first- and second-fill Bourbon barrels, some in Marsala wine casks, for all that time. Bottled at 49% abv. with no chillfiltration, this fruitier slant on the Ardbeg juice has proved popular throughout the universe.

Ardbeg Galileo 1999 49% vol. £69.99 on release

Colour – lightish, clean toffeed amber.

Nose – at first, very thick and sooty smoke, with an insistent orange zest sweetness underneath. Sweet and spicy vanilla. The phenolic notes have a garlic-like fragrance. Drying, dark peat forms a superb platform of weight and texture, on top of which there is so much sweetness: wildflowers and smoky honey. Soft damsen plums with icing sugar. Toulouse sausage, tarred fence and earth. It takes a while for more fruit to emerge, but when it does there is sultana, apple cores and cherry wood.

Water lifted the nose and added a scented quality: a log-burning fire just lit, with a sticky but light smoke. Lots of vanilla and big oak sugars lend excellent texture. The smoke and sweetness put me in mind of smoked shellfish. Weighty red berries – like tayberries – sidle in. It becomes steadily autumnal with leaf mulch. Rich honey. Bold aromas of fruitcake and marzipan with more time.

Palate – everything you would expect from an Ardbeg: sweet malt and wood sugars with a fixing, prowling smoke. Then the smoke thickens into dry peat ash.

Water reveals one of the most fascinating combinations of flavours I can remember. Things commence with that Ardbeg sheepiness: lanolin, sheep sheds, iodine. Then there is something that reminded me immediately of Cashmere: a texture and fragrance. Red fruit bubblegum appears next before drying on lovely lovely peat.

Finish – spicy and sweet with building creaminess. Thick and rich with dark, ashy peat. Long and elemental: earth and warm sea breezes.

Water added, this is perhaps the greatest finish to a whisky since… I can’t think of one, this is flawless. Big, with allusions to the thickness of the undiluted sample. Then there are impressions of the distillery, between the kilns and the warehouse: light toffee oak and aromatic peated malt. Some of the garlic from earlier. Saddlery and carbolic soap, farm supplies warehouses. Dune grasses and sand in typical Ardbeg fashion. Gentle barley sweetness underneath and the scent of heather in the rain.

So…? We have lift-off! This is why I miss peated whiskies, and why I need to get some money together for a smoky specimen. I would happily plump for a bottle of this, but I see online that prices are creaping up towards the £125 mark, which is where I start to lose interest even for a whisky as stratospherically superb as this one. Neat, it is enthralling enough, without really escaping the earthly sphere, and does everything you would expect an Ardbeg to do. With a couple of drops of water, however, the subtlety and playfulness of the spirit leapt out at me, and I would go as far as to say that this is the sweetest Ardbeg I have ever tasted. The Madeira influence is not as dramatic as I was expecting, but beautifully illuminates dimensions of the Ardbeg spirit when required.

I have the tasting glass from six hours earlier sat, unwashed, on the desk. Like the best variety of incence, it exhales sweet smoke into the room. With Galileo’s help, I’m focusing my telescope on my favourite whisky galaxy once again.

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The Port Charlotte Paradox

The latter years of the noughties will go down in the annals of history as the Peaty Arms Race, when two forces from the Wild West of the whisky world competed for smoky supremacy. Both of the two distilleries involved had been only recently resurrected. One, Bruichladdich, wished to couch its rebirth in terms of independence, innovation and inspiration; the other, Ardbeg, boasted a cult following and a long legacy of phenolic excellence. Who would emerge the victor?

Bruichladdich - site of some seriously clever WMDs (Whiskies of Monstrous Deliciousness).

Octomore played Supernova in a titanic bout akin to Alien v. Predator, Barcelona v. Real Madrid, Charizard v. Mewtwo (I’m showing my age, there). Each vied with the other for PPM points: phenols became nuclear warheads as one sought to annihilate the other – and the drinking public – with an atom bomb of smoke. I must confess that I have yet to do battle with a rendition of Supernova, but two Octomores have made it as far as my taste buds. In fact, in pursuit of the prize for the peatiest, Bruichladdich may have won. While only a couple of Supernovas were released, the Octomore range has welcomed a fifth addition with Comus. At 167ppm, you would expect this to be as close to licking the inside of malt kiln as you could get.  And yet…

Port Charlotte PC8.

Bruichladdich is not Ardbeg simply plonked on the shores of Lochindaal. With those Octomores, the peat presence was undeniable, but so too was a lovely rich biscuitiness – all the more beautiful for the unlikelihood of its existence. No matter how much earth you throw at it in the beginning, those Bruichladdich stills are hard-wired to produce a spirit with beguiling sweetness at its heart. Perhaps this points to its appeal beyond the smoke-singed lunacy.

The same can be said of the distillery’s Port Charlotte bottlings. Medium-peated in comparison with Octomore, it still butts heads with the old guard of Islay’s fire-breathing dragons. Since 2006, peat freaks have salivated over the latest PC vintage, of which there have been five in addition to the An Turas Mor multi-vintage expression. On the face of it, with the same ppm rating as Laphroaig you cannot help but anticipate an ash tray experience. In reality – as I found recently – it is anything but.

Port Charlotte PC8 60.5% £125

Colour – full and syrupy yellow gold.

Nose – straight away there are overtones of the forceful Islay peat profile, but there is a pillowy softness there, too. Cask staves ooze vanilla. Immediately there is sweet spice, especially ginger, at the heart of this whisky in addition to medium-sharp green fruit and red liquorice. There is also the sweet shortbread note I find with all Bruichladdichs. The smoke is at the margins, with sandalwood scents. With time, there is a gorgeous one-two punch of tablet and ashes.

Water pulled out more wood sugars with the smooth yet prickly peat texture continuing. Creamy, buxom and clean barley is right at the core, with a side show of dark brown peat and caramel (Benromach 10yo-esque). There are aromas of burning twigs, tablet again and a cumin/cayenne heat. Warm and ‘squidgy’ pear drops surge upwards out of nowhere. The whole effect is now dominated by pear, shortbread, seashells and invigorating smoke. With more time, insistent saltiness fixes the nose in place with a little lime.

Palate – oh yes, there is the peat. Fairly prickly with the alcohol and the peat really digs in with full-on earthy and smoky flavours. Mouthcoating. Some warm cookie dough behind.

Water lent some sanity to the delivery but the peaty power is maintained partnered by full-bodied maltiness. There is a crush of green fruit then spades of rich peat just on the kiln. The peat is so thick it has a gravely crunch. Remarkable breadth and clarity.

Finish – if the palate took you deep into the West Coast earth, as the finish develops you slowly rise out of it to rest on the cropped grass above. Loose green tea. Very good peat notes at the back with suggestions of a summer driftwood bonfire. TCP hints, too. A whisky that is permanently in a buoyant mood.

Water opens up the peaty palette still further with Arbroath Smokies and crumbs catching in the toaster. Sweet Coal Ila-like peat settles in before the sweetness crystallises around peated grist. Some creaminess.

So…? I have known for some weeks that I need more peat in my life and this stunning whisky only highlighted the gaping chasm in my drinks cupboard. This is the sort of whisky to revive your spirits: to remedy any feelings of despondence or uninterest. There is so much goodness and wonder to pay attention to besides the smoke, as lovely as it is. The wood policy (Business Development Manager Craig Johnstone shares my view that there is a lot of first-fill Bourbon in there, with some refill) complements the clean, rich flavours of the malted barley and at cask strength the flavours boast so much exuberance.  Perhaps it cannot claim to be balanced in the same way as a Bowmore or a Coal Ila, but for intensity of fruit, cereal and smoke in glorious combination look no further.

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King Kilchoman?

Though in the eyes of some it may have a few years of its single malt minority still to overcome, I would suggest that Kilchoman, Islay’s infant princeling, has already staked several bold claims to the crown. That crown is ‘My Favourite Distillery Out There’.

Kilchoman’s sudden surge to prominence and notoriety has, I’ve always felt, paralleled my own passion for whisky. Bubbling away significantly from the later part of the last decade, 2009 onwards witnessed a dedicated assault on the whisky establishment, its institutions and its received wisdom. That last bit is meant to describe the distillery, you understand, although if encountering whisky on two wheels counts as an innovation in discovery I suppose the Odyssey may fall under the same umbrella.

I missed out on the Inaugural Release, but I enjoyed the Autumn 2009, Spring 2010 and Summer 2011 expressions enormously. At times I have been nothing short of astounded by the breadth of flavours this young whisky boasts and I think I am gradually isolating a house style. Gorgeously peaty and seductively sweet, the spirit speaks of Islay and also centuries of whisky knowledge harnessed to best effect, with at times miraculous results from brief maturation regimes. That peat note is at times ‘brown’ and dirty, at other times dry and fragrant. I often detect cow byre. The malt is full, juicy and rounded. Between the two, meanwhile, I find a beguiling herbal quality close to oregano or sometimes green tea. The Autumn 2009 will reside long in my memory for its extraordinary length of finish.

In a move away from incremental, work-in-progress style releases, late last year the single malt community could celebrate Kilchoman’s fifth birthday with the launch of the 2006 vintage. The significance for the Kilchoman brand was clear: could those ‘clever casks’ which had helped the 3yos taste so magnificent continue to augment and embellish the spirit without showing their hand roo much?

Ahead of our Quaich Society Committee Tasting next week, I grabbed a couple of bottles from Luvians in St Andrews, pouring myself a dram by way of a finder’s fee. Here are my thoughts on the whisky, tasted in parallel with an expression from my existing ‘King’ distillery: a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Caol Ila.

The first 5yo Kilchoman.

Kilchoman 2006 46% £49

Colour – Pale gold.

Nose – Straight away tight, smudgey peated malt, painted in browns and greens. Damp peat. With nose in the glass, there is a remarkable thickness of peat residue: very kippery. Quickly rising above this is toffee malt and incredibly light, creamy green fruits. It is fuller and more engaging than the Caol Ila. Vanilla-coated apple peel. Some shellfish. The oak provides a liquorice-like lift. Garden bonfire – autumnal suddenly. Stunning.

Water adds a gloss to all that sweetness, although the ‘brown’ peat retains its crackle and roughness. So soft and creamy. Sweet apple peel appears beside a beach bonfire. Vanilla toffee. Oregano. Some oiliness, hinting at the phenolic, dark underbelly of this spirit but it disappears the next moment into soft, endless smoke and grassiness. More time reveals sweet butter and a bit of rosemary. Burning turf. There is the kind of toffee malt I would only expect from your more assured 12yo Speysides. Awesome.

Palate – Thick, fruity and lively with bags of thick peat, charred beach bonfire and slivers of sweet malt. There is a concluding interplay between malty sugars and dry, dark peat.

Water provides a sharper tableau: a summer day on a West Coast beach with a storm coming in. Barbecued vegetables and sea scrub. Malt and apple. Coriander and ginger paste. Dry peat and oak hit later on and the sustained intensity is utterly brilliant.

Finish – A little bit of toffee and gingerbread in the oven. Sweetness dominates but the dry peat continues to tickle. Like licking a pencil sharpener. A bit of vanilla. Becomes exceedingly dry.

Water gives the impression of the distillery: malt bins, mill room. Creamy with a balancing dryness.

 

Caol Ila 9yo 66.6% (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 53.134)

Colour – Clean, full gold.

Nose – Soft and scented to start with, it picks up vanilla custard and a vein of smoke. Pear. With nostrils in the glass, soft butter tablet appears alongside creamy, ‘golden’ oak. Pear switches to green apple. Very oaky, however. Juniper and lime jump out with a bit more time. Dirty smoke and caramel biscuit emerge, too.

Water creates spicy and savoury aromas: cheese and onion crisps. Some oak influence but mostly wash scents at this early stage. Mint humbugs. Sour apples spell the beginning of the end as the shouty, sharp Bourbon cask cannot be held in check any longer. Bin bags. Some burnt toffee appears late on.

Palate – Lots of smoke and alcohol with wood sugars galore. Gently peated malt and apple cores emerge. Ferocious.

Water witnesses a disaster zone with bin liner-wrapped hay bales and shallots. A bit of peat and samphire before resolving into alcohol bite and lethargic, heavy oak.

Finish – Big, clean oak flavours, starting with vanilla and honey. A little green smoke appears.

Water, to persist with a theme, ruins the experience with oak sugars squeezing all but apple pip notes out.

The youngster beats the 9yo all ends up. I still haven’t decided whether the SMWS bottling is an almost excusable momentary aberration, or that the Kilchoman alongside it was simply peerless, but the wrong whisky had come out of the wrong cask and done itself no credit. I goggle at the quality the Kilchoman guys – with the help of Dr. Jim Swan – have achieved here, and seriously skilful stock management is on show. If I had the money, a bottle would be sitting on my shelf now as the spirit has so much going for it. Not only does it generate conversation based on its ‘craft’ and bespoke credentials, but the flavours are so crisp and precise, whilst remaining evocative and complex. I hope our guests at the Quaich Society will agree on Thursday.

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Bruichladdich at the Quaich Society

The Bruichladdich line-up.

Lazarus-style reappearances are not unheard of at the Quaich Society; last year, for example, Diageo’s Duncan showed up for a return fixture with a lot of Clynelish and some Johnnie Walker Blue Label, building upon Talisker 57 Degrees North on West Sands (we couldn’t quite get the geography right) the previous semester.

However, Craig Johnstone’s second stint in St Andrews was, if anything, still more eagerly anticipated. The kind of extraordinary, surprising arsenal of  whiskies he had brought along with him then from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only be matched by one Scottish distiller and that just so happens to be the one now employing him: Islay mavericks, Bruichladdich.

The first innovation of the evening was Craig pouring and distributing the tasting’s drams. This is normally something the Society Committee busies itself with 15 miunutes prior to commencement. The second was enlisting an ambassador from a rival company to help with the set-up. We were delighted to see Patsy Christie of Highland Park, but also of ‘Patsy and Craig’, on hand for support and – at times – an extra element of dialogue during the tasting. Without Patsy’s ruthlessly efficient harvesting, cleaning and filling of glasses, we would not have been able to enjoy our sixth dram of the evening, but more of that later.

Craig’s opening statement concerning Bruichladdich: ‘we’re pretty unstandard – the only consistent thing about us is our inconsistency’. The tasting roster epitomised this. We opened with the Organic, a roughly 7yo whisky under the Bruichladdich name, although ’I didn’t bring this because it says ‘Organic’ on the label,’ Craig asserted. ‘I brought it because it is an excellent whisky.’

Very sweet on the nose, it added aromas of heavy butter and cream before light floral tones emerged, together with shortbread. Very firm overall. The palate was clean, sharp and firm with plenty of malt while vanilla built in the finish. 53% of Bruichladdich’s barley consumption is organic, the rest coming from Islay farms where organic practices have to be dropped if the plants are to withstand the West Coast gales. The company aims for absolute traceability of one’s bottle in the very near future which would make for a most intriguing drive around Islay, spotting the fields which contributed to your bottle of Laddie Ten, or Black Arts.

‘I thought this was a whisky tasting?!’ piped up a voice in the corner when we arrived at the next spirit. What we had instead was The Botanist, a gin produced by Bruichladdich using 22 native Islay botanicals. That might sound like a lot, and it did to many people who know far more about gin than I do, but the result was magnificent. Incredibly lemony on the nose, it had the flavour of a Gin & Tonic without the Tonic added. Other notes included struck matches and coriander. The palate, for all its 46% delivery, was remarkably soft with waves of citrus and perfumy flowers. To those unique minds on Lochindaal, this is their tribute to whisky back in the unverifiable mists of time, when their uisquebeatha would have tasted a lot like our gin now.

A cask sample of the forthcoming Islay Barley.

Returning to the traceability theme, Dram #3 promised much. A single cask sample of 5yo spirit produced with barley harvested solely on Islay. This will be released, in vatted and reduced form, very soon. Despite measuring 66% on the Richter scale, it was remarkably well-mannered and I detected chocolate sauce mixed into vanilla ice cream on the nose: very spicy, rich and creamy. A little bit of char emerged, also. The palate began with a promising dark earthiness with a sinew of cereal. Then rich oak developed, developed some more and ultimately killed the thing, for me. An active cask had been relied upon to provide the spirit with a life-raft of sweetness and guts, but the barley experiment was unfortunately nullified as a result. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear Craig describe the skilled, human adjustments every varietal change demands at the distillery. From the mill to the spirit still, distillery workers have to adapt their processes to ensure the best whisky and the right flavours result from whichever strain of malt they are using.

I’ve talked about the Laddie Ten previously and suffice it to say that it remains in my mind a solid, charming customer with presence beyond its years. While underlining the significance of a first age milestone achieved by the new Bruichladdich regime, Craig discussed how the frankly bewildering range would evolve in the next 18 months. Presently, they have 31 products, excluding special releases. This number will diminish to 15.

Remaining on the roster will be the Black Arts. This batch came off the still in 1989, but since then has been in more different woods than Bear Grylls. Bourbon, wine, sherry – you name it, Jim McEwan will have stashed some whisky in it. The undiluted nose oozed with red fruits, especially grape while the palate was full and oily. However, the word ‘butyric’ came to mind, which to you and me is a welcome euphemism for ’baby sick’. The acidic flavours from the Euopean woods curdled the creaminess from the American oak with less than successful results. Water improved matters, however. Charred on the nose with lots of dark honey, while rich oak, malt and toffee developed in the glass. With its sandy aroma and orangey tar qualities, it reminded me of a Mortlach. On the palate, I could still detect some acid reflux, but fat, booze-soaked sultanas rescued the performance. I don’t mean to be controversial (my neighbour and many others around the room raved about it) but the Black Arts did not enchant me.

The final dram of an enthralling evening appeared before the Quaich Society members courtesy of Patsy and we could get our teeth into Port Charlotte. This provoked a discussion on Bruichladdich’s peating policy. The latest Octomore exhibits – in Craig’s own words – ‘a stupid amount of peat’: Sauternes-finished and coming in at 61%, it boasts a peating level of 167 ppm. ‘At what point do you stop drinking whisky and start eating peat?’ one person asked. ‘We’ll let you know,’ Craig replied.

The Port Ellen maltsters experience genuine headaches providing Bruichladdich with peated malt. At one stage, before McEwan started prodding them, they believed the highest they could achieve would be 60ppm. But Jim wanted more. ‘How high a level do you want?’ they ask. ‘What is the highest you can do?’ asks Jim. ‘Well, to be honest up to now we have been peating barley for two weeks and then cutting that with unpeated malt to reach your specifications.’ ‘How peaty is the uncut stuff, then?’ ’305 ppm.’ The whisky arms race, my friends, has been won. Last year, barley peated to 305 ppm came of the stills at Bruichladdich and vanished into a cask, not to reappear for another five years.

In the meanwhile, we have Octomore and our specimen the other night: Port Charlotte. At 40 ppm, we are still talking Laphroaig territory, but it does not taste like it courtesy of the dramatically different distillation regime in taller pots. Buttery digestive biscuit malt on the nose, together with very sweet peat, apricot and vanilla. Fish on the barbecue. The palate and finish are marvellous: at first chunky peat and gooey barley, before drying and concluding with notes of honey and fresh peated malt. Superb.

Mr Johnstone once again proved to be excellent value, as intriguing and assured as the whiskies he brought along to us. We hope to see him and the Bruichladdich experiments back again very soon. Once again, many thanks indeed to Patsy for her selfless pouring and distribution work, without which efforts to accommodate a sixth dram would have been far more shambolic.

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