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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

This was a giddyingly stunning, breathtaking sight. I had made it to the cult home of Islay single malt.

This was a giddyingly stunning, breathtaking sight. I had made it to the cult home of Islay single malt.

Port Ellen, Islay, Argyll, PA42 7EA, 01496 302244. Glenmorangie Co. (LVMH). www.ardbeg.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Ardbeg’s immediate environs are a little flatter and less knobbly than the other two, but there are even more little islands in the bay. There are cliffs if you walk down between the kilns towards the sea that look out towards Northern Ireland and have all sorts of seaside flora to admire. You can also marvel at the clear, gently lapping sea at the foot of the rocks. I came to this spot twice, once where I joined the German family who took a photo of me before the warehouse that has “ARDBEG” emblazoned on it and whom I had met at Lagavulin, and at the end of my tour when I scoffed some food ahead of my ride back to the holiday cottage. Each time the malt whisky-specific significance and more general beauty of where I was ensnared me. I was at Ardbeg!

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £4.

It is possible to arrange a more in-depth tour if you phone up in advance.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A single cask, 11YO, refill Sherry hogshead bottled at 55.6%abv. There are only 270 bottles and that, together with the fact that it is an Ardbeg, mean it is yours for £180.

My Tour – 14/05/2010

Me at Ardbeg!

Me at Ardbeg!

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes:      If you want to see a lot happening at Ardbeg (and by this I mean on the production side, not the hoardes of people side) then don’t come for a tour on Friday afternoon. At lunchtime on a Friday the production staff are either cleaning things or they’ve ran home for the weekend. We saw the stills running, and a half-full wash back (they can only charge the wash still with the contents of half a washback at a time). It felt a bit dead, though: like the prolific tourist attraction it is. There is a long, although very interesting, talk on the distilleries chequered history before the tour. The maltings stopped in the seventies, and whilst everyone salivates at the idea of starting up the process at Ardbeg again, in is nigh on 100% certain it won’t happen. The intermittent production in the later part of the last century has meant that a lot of the older stocks have gone. They have two casks from 1975 left and after that it will be that spirit produced under the Glenmorangie reign which began in 1997. Casks are chiefly ex-Bourbon, although Sherry is used in some expressions and they have been experimenting with French wine casks, of which the Corryvreckan (voted Scotch of the Year in the latest Whisky Magazine) is the primary result.

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram as part of the tour, although you are given a choice: either Uigeadail, Blasda or Corryvreckan. In the VC, you can also request to try either the 10YO, Uigeadail, Blasda or Rollercoaster (while stocks last).)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

If you go to Islay's distilleries, brace yourself for a wealth of human company.

If you go to Islay's distilleries, brace yourself for a wealth of human company.

COMMENT:      Tragically, this was another disappointment. Of course, it was always going to be difficult to live up to my experiences at Lagavulin, and maybe I was beginning to succomb to washback over-exposure. Whatever, I was largely tired and irritable during the tour. It was hot, I was hungry, and there were 20 other people with me. All men, interestingly enough. The place when I go there was heaving. It was like a circus. Staff were red-faced and smiling weakly. The cafe was overflowing and the whisky shop had something of a lotting atmosphere. I had thought that the four different Ardbegs on the table were to be poured by yourself. “No no,” a lady said. “Please ask and we will pour one for you.” It was pandemonium. I asked how busy they got during the festival, was it possible to fit anymore in? The manager gave me a wry smile lacking in humour: they get busier. The cafe is excellent, from the looks of the plates of food and drinks that were being put down in front of hungry tourists and islanders alike. My parents tried to get in for something earlier and were defeated by the busyness. It seems being on a little island in the Atlantic is no barrier for the attentions of global whisky drinkers and they will come in their millions. Some fellow members of my tour had plainly been sampling the Scottish hospitality and their hijinks were a bit of a distraction. I felt I had been robbed of this very important moment with Scotch’s maverick and rockstar. The Islay distilleries, with the exception of Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain, had no time for me personally. This was a shame because the mainland distilleries had all welcomed me and made me feel very much at home. Hitherto I had been lucky enough to receive one-to-one tours at seven distilleries: even Highland Park! Not on Islay, though. Here it is a mass of young men from the continent wishing to grab what they can and thrust whatever amounts of money is required back across the counter in exchange, and the VCs are geared up to maintain this conveyor belt of supply and demand.

The only place where peace was to be found. Such an inspiringly, achingly romantic setting. I could have done with a few more seaweed-flecked waves to satisfy my terroir cravings but beggars can't be choosers.

The only place where peace was to be found. Such an inspiringly, achingly romantic setting. I could have done with a few more seaweed-flecked waves to satisfy my terroir cravings but beggars can't be choosers.

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Glenmorangie

This is another Scotch giant, although you wouldn't know it. Only from the train can the metropolis of warehouses be appreciated.

This is another Scotch giant, although you wouldn't know it. Only from the train can the metropolis of warehouses be appreciated.

Tain, Ross-shire, IV19 1BR, 01862 892477. The Glenmorangie Co. (Moet Hennessy). www.glenmorangie.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      If you ignore the brutal A9 behind, this is a flawless distillery location, and I saw it on a very good day. On the Dornoch Firth, facing the rugged north eastern coast, Glenmorangie is very picturesque distillery.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £2.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A fortuitous find following a re-shuffle of certain corners of the premises uncovered a single cask release in the old-style bottle: a minimum of 10-years-old, £50. They also have limited numbers left of a 15yo Sauternes-matured Glenmorangie which is priced at £65. A new release for the distillery is expected for February/March: a single cask 1385. Watch this space.

My Tour – 30/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:     **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:     **

Notes:      This is another distillery which has undergone recent expansion. It does lose, with its modern interiors, something of the feel of a truly working distillery – everything is too clean! A fine tour, however, with all stages of the process clear and interactive.

Everything is very cool and damp in here. It would have been nice to have gone into one a little closer to the sea, because this is a coastal distillery.

Everything is very cool and damp in here. It would have been nice to have gone into one a little closer to the sea, because this is a coastal distillery.

GENEROSITY:      ** (The tour only states that one dram is on offer, but I was kindly given two (Sonnalta PX and Signet) when I said that I had tasted all of the standard range. From the looks of things, most other people were poured more than a nip of the Original. Good on you, Glenmorangie!)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s

COMMENTS:      I had a personal tour, as it happened. On the way to the mill room who should I bump into but my Czech friends! They had enjoyed their experience at Glenmorangie and were glad of the opportunity to compare. They actually came to see The Dalmore’s characteristically claustrophobic buildings as a good thing: they warmed to the family-run, traditional feel. They weren’t so keen on the very modern facade of Glenmorangie: “too much metal.” I wrote down some recommendations for when they are next in Scotland, because they were keen to return. I really enjoyed the tour. I did find some of the revamped areas a little… sanitised. It did have the feel of a factory about it, unfortunately: the stillroom is sheer beauty, though. In the warehouses there are good displays explaining the finishing process in the core range, with a Port Pipe, a Sherry butt and a Sauternes barrique for visual aids. There are only 2 degrees centigrade of difference in the warehouses between summer and winter making for relaxed maturation. Obviously this is broadly the same in all distillery dunnage warehouses, but this was the first time I’d been given the actual climatic figures. As I mentioned above, I was deeply grateful for my tastes of the Sonnalta (I have a positive memory of Pedro Ximenez casks when associated with whisky maturation thanks to the Auchentoshan 3Wood) and the Signet was very unique. I’d been given a jar of toasted malt to smell in the mill room and the fragrance was wonderfully rich with coffee and chocolate. This came across in the whisky which was velvety smooth to boot. A good day’s whisky touring which spurred me on for the last 20 miles.

You could hardly wish for a more scenic, yet accessible, distillery location. The A9 thunders past the front door.

You could hardly wish for a more scenic, yet accessible, distillery location. The A9 thunders past the front door.

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