Tuesday, 30 December 2014

... sprung from my only hate.

Brora Batch 2 - That Boutique-y Whisky Company - 52.1%

Just close your eyes and think of Scotland

December the 24th rolls around and I open the final door of my whisky advent calendar to find a Brora. The only word that comes to mind is 'Jackpot'. I note with some amusement, however, that this particular Brora is part of the Boutique-y Whisky Company range of releases.

For those of you yet to read my first whisky review, I love Brora. Love it. I love Clynelish too. There's something about the waxy, smoky, soapy, maritime, citrussy goodness that enchants me. What you probably don't know is that TBWC releases irk me. It's not the whisky inside, you understand, but the way in which it's presented. Here we have (otherwise good) whisky sold in 500ml bottles, without an age statement, with gaudy (or should that be gaud-y) labels and, dare I say it, overpriced to boot. It's the 'anti-SMWS', if you will.

There's something a little Romeo & Juliet about this review. Not in the underage sex, killing spree or double-suicide sense, rather discovering something enchanting and then finding out it stems from something to which you are morally opposed. I bite my thumb, sir.

A small alcohol prickle is followed by everything that is good about Brora. Waxy lemons and honey-roasted almonds to start with a wave of candied peel, polished oak and sea spray. A hint of smoke and the merest suggestion of soap towards the back end. 

A huge hit of acacia honey followed by beeswax and chilli flakes. This is a little hotter than expected but soon dies down into delicate floral soapiness with a maritime bite.

Long and warming with plenty of oak, spice and a hint of smoked salt. 

I wanted to hate this. I wanted to say that it's second-rate, hyped-up dross. I can't though; its bloody beautiful. 

Grade: A
Going on the whisky alone, it easily gets the top grade. A word of warning though; scaled up to 700ml, it's hugely overpriced when compared to other independent, and even some OB, Brora bottlings and the lack of age statement disturbs me. Brora and TBWC - a plague on both your houses.

Red, Red Whine

BenRiach 1977 - 34yo Rioja Barrel #2588 - 44.1%

Apply Bonjela liberally

Wine finishes, eh? To some, they're a portent of doom; a sign of the shortage of quality sherry casks out there. To others, they're a revelation; taking whisky into a brave new era. Whatever your feelings, let's face it, they're like ulcers. A lot of them are red and, eventually, you're going to find one in your mouth.

You may be wondering, given my evident distaste for them, how I happened upon this particular one. Was I lured in by the intriguing packaging? Did my fierce love of BenRiach temporarily cloud my judgement? No. Put simply, and I must stress this is where the ulcer simile ends, my wife gave it to me.

Big, big nose on this. The wine influence is immediately noticeable with rich vine fruits, noble rot, grape must and a hint of sweet balsamic vinegar. Once you've fought your way through the vineyard, you are rewarded with wood varnish, cafe latte and mild spearmint. The third act brings fragrant peppercorns and a hint of clove. Hugely enjoyable.

Massive red wine hit with tannins coming from the wood, although there's a bitterness reminiscent of grape skins. Spicy and stern with a gentle sweetness nearing the finish. The quality of the malt is evident but it struggles to shine when faced with the brashness of the Rioja influence. 

Like Pinocchio having impure thoughts, it's long, woody and not particularly pleasant.

The nose beats the palate by a country mile. The woody, savoury, bitter-sweet flavours just don't hold up to the rich sweetness the nose projects. This is the perfect example of a quality malt that has been overaged and finished to its detriment. Shame. 

Grade: B
Good, but could have been so much better if bottled sooner.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Johnnie Does Lagavulin

Thursday 21 August 2014 - 9:30am

Price: £24.00

Proof that sundials work on Islay

Lagavulin 16 was the first peated whisky I ever got my taste buds around. I can recall the experience with absolute clarity and dare say I'll still remember it on my death bed. It was in a garish Luton casino on a night that was supposed to be Agent X's stag-do; he'd had a change of heart following a recent assassination attempt, although that's probably a story for another time.

I remember Cecil coming back from the bar with three glasses of what we called La-GA-vulin back in those innocent, halcyon days; with knowledge comes cynicism, it would seem. He has since told me that the woman behind the bar had to check with the manager before serving him as she wasn't sure if she was allowed to serve whisky without a mixer. Yup, it's a classy establishment folks, but I digress.

The first sip had barely touched my lips and I knew that this was the drink for me. Smoke, flavour, structure and a wonderful finish; I was hooked. Agent X screwed his face up and looked like someone had just kicked his dog and I don't know what was going through Cecil's mind but he didn't touch peated whisky for well over a year after that (he loves it now, for the record). To say I was excited to visit the distillery would be the biggest understatement since Oates' line before popping outside for a smoke.

No pipe and slippers?
Naturally, my excitement meant that despite the alarmingly early start time of 9:30am, we found ourselves at the distillery a good fifteen minutes before that. We were escorted into a reassuringly traditional lounge area, complete with peat burner and wingback chairs. Following the soulless sterility of yesterday's Caol Ila visit, this was just the ticket. Over by the window sat a few bottles and glasses, from which visitors are invited to pour a dram or two while they wait. Had this been an afternoon visit, I may well have made use of the opportunity, however I have a rule about drinking before breakfast on holiday and, once or twice, I've even kept to it.

The Tour

We were greeted warmly by our tour guide, Rachel, and escorted to the old kiln. As it happened, we were the only ones taking this tour, leading Rachel to ask us a few questions about prior knowledge so that she could skip over the kind of things we already knew and concentrate on some of the more obscure stuff. This meant that rather than feeling we were being talked at by someone just reeling off lines from a script, we had our own customised tour; a lovely touch.

Those of you who had the misfortune to be subjected to my Caol Ila rant will know that Diageo distilleries will not allow you to take photos. Rachel made this very clear from the outset, although almost apologetically. I dutifully tucked my phone away and pulled out my notepad.

No pictures allowed, so here's an idiot in a bunnet
Lagavulin, like many distilleries, uses a mixture of Optic and Concertina barely. Also, again like many distilleries, it sports a Porteus mill, this one from 1963. Porteus mills, so we were told, are so high-quality and low-maintenance that the company went out of business. The barley itself is brought in from the Port Ellen maltings, where it has been peated to 36ppm, and tastes startlingly similar to Lapsang Souchong tea when chewed.

The mash tun is made from stainless steel and is relatively new when compared to other distilleries. It takes in 4.4 tons of barley at a time and does this four times a day. Lagavulin houses 10 washbacks, although instead of Oregon Pine, these are made from American Larchwood and were installed in the 1930's. A quick taste of the wash reveals another hit of Lapsang smokiness but with the fruitiness you'd find at Laphroaig.

The still house contains four stills; two onion-shaped wash stills and two pear-shaped spirit stills. These were taken from the now defunct Malt Mill distillery (pretty sure I've got a bottle of that somewhere, ahem) and are used to distil the wash/low wines slowly, leading to a richer heavier spirit. Six distilleries in and I'm slowly getting to grips with this process, although I'm still convinced the occult has something to do with it. Before we knew what's what, the tour was over. Rachel led us over to the warehouse and bid us a fond farewell. This was where some chap called Iain McArthur was going to let us have a crack at a few of his casks. Apparently, he's worked at Lagavulin for quite a while.......

The Tasting

Iain shows us his wood
After being ushered into the warehouse and adjusting to the dim conditions, we could clearly make out that we were far from being the only ones attending this part of the experience. The room was packed with at least a dozen fellow whisky fans who had decided to forego the tour and jump straight to the tasting; that's bloody cheating, in my book.

To kick things off, we were handed a glass of new make spirit. After a little taste one of the group asked Iain the strength of the spirit. He took the opportunity to single us out as for the answer as we had just done the tour and, naturally, I got it wrong. In my defence, I gave the strength at which the casks were filled, but felt like a bit of a tit nonetheless. 

He proceeded to show us how whisky behaves at different strengths, gave us a bit of background on cask management, wood interaction and then promptly popped open the first in a long, looooong line of casks.

Iain McArthur: He gives good measures
After pouring the first sample, Iain gave us a few details about what we were trying, namely the strength, year and type of cask. I asked Iain if he could furnish me with the cask number and he afforded me a strange look. "In all my years doing this, nobody has ever asked me the cask number", he replied, although he kindly checked the cask over and read it out to me. This led to a nice American couple sat next to us leaning over and whispering "Why do you want the cask number?" Mrs S, well practised in fending off queries about my odd behaviour, launched into an explanation about lists of whiskies tried, reviews and blogs, etc. but the glazed eyes of the once-intrigued couple told me that all they understood was "total dork".  

The older, the better. Right?
The next hour or so was a blur of different barrels being popped open, valinches, drams and sarcastic comments about cask numbers from Iain. We went from 2004 through 1998, '93, and '82 and all the while I had my eye on one particular cask. This cask was so old and mouldy, the original markings had faded and a piece of paper had been used to preserve its details. This is, we were told, the oldest cask in the warehouse; the 1966 - cask 552, an ex-Johnnie Walker refill cask. Iain refused to tell us the strength of the liquid inside, suffice to say it was at least the minimum 40% required by law to be considered whisky. 

Let's just have a think about this for a moment. Last year, Diageo released a 37yo special release bottling of Lagavulin with a RRP of £1950. Here we have a cask of 47-48yo Lagavulin. I had no idea whether Iain was going to pop this one open and let us have a try but all the while he was getting closer and closer. Then he opened it and poured us all a dram. This was it, this was the pinnacle. It was insanely old, it was unbelievably rare....

....and it was painfully average.

During this series of distillery reviews, I've saved you the annoyance of tasting notes. This is mainly because I was having far too much fun tasting to write anything down, but also because a lot of the drams are cask samples that you'll only get at the distillery. Even then, the samples I got to try may not be the same you've tried/will get to try when you go.

I will, however, make one observation. Having tried the cask samples ranging from 10-48 years old, in my opinion, Lagavulin peaks between 16 and 21 years old. After that, although good whisky, you tend to lose that signature Lagavulin flavour. This isn't uncommon with peated whiskies. Some people will say that 18 and 25 year old Talisker is incredible; I personally think that by the time it hits 18, it has lost most of the spark and zip that makes Talisker, well, Talisker. I can still honestly say, hand on heart, that trying a Lagavulin of this age is a once in a lifetime opportunity and an incredible privilege. You should do it, if you get the opportunity.

Until we meet again......
After a quick trip to the distillery shop to stock up on liquid gold, we bade farewell to Lagavulin and started on the road to Bruichladdich. Mrs S spent the majority of the journey attempting to explain the reasons behind her evident dislike of 'that warehouse man'. 

"He's brash, cantankerous and arrogant.", she remarked. 

Pretty much three reasons why I took an instant liking to the fellow. I've also heard (from an 'anonymous' guide at another distillery) that he's quite the dancer when he's had a few.

To be continued..............


The Tour: B+
Again, a Diageo distillery so not being able to take photos was a bit of a drag. Despite it being 9:30 in the morning, Rachel was warm and welcoming. As there were only the two of us on the tour, she gauged our level of prior knowledge and pitched her spiel at the perfect level. She encouraged us to ask questions and didn't miss a step when faced with some of the more obscure/geeky questions. Fair play. 

The Drams: A
Lagavulin 2004 Warehouse Cask #7746 58%
Lagavulin 1998 Warehouse Cask #1712 52.4%
Lagavulin 1993 Warehouse Cask #4504 50%
Lagavulin 1982 Warehouse Cask #681 48%%
Lagavulin 1966 Warehouse Cask #552 ??%
Lagavulin 2014 Friends Of Classic Malts Bottling 48%
PLUS a free Glencairn glass.

Six drams and a glass for £24 is serious bang for your buck by most standards but when you consider that five of those drams were pulled straight from the cask, it's even better. Add to that the chance to try some seriously rare whisky (47/48yo Lagavulin is unheard of) and you're looking at pure whisky gold.

The Shop: A
Surprisingly good, given the limited core range. Standard 16, Special Release 12 and DE were all on show, as were the distillery exclusive Feis Ile 2014 and Friends of Classic Malts releases. I vaguely recall seeing some of the older, insanely priced bottlings tucked away behind glass too, if that's your thing.

The shop also had a range of non-whisky items, including some rather fetching bunnets. All in all, it's decked out rather well.

Overall: A
Some people say Lagavulin is going through a dip in quality, others profess it to be the king of Islay whiskies. Whichever camp you fall in, if you like the Lagavulin style, it would be a crime to pass up a chance like this, for a price like this. Great staff, loads of whisky and a well appointed shop. Simply unmissable.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Old St. Andrews Tweet Tasting

Old St. Andrews - The Series

You can't miss an Old St. Andrews bottle; they stand out a mile on any whisky shelf. Strangely, however, I've managed to give them a complete swerve until now.

For me, whisky and golf have always gone hand in hand. I've spent many a winter's morning hacking and slashing away at flora and foliage like a demented samurai, fuelled purely by incandescent rage and a hip flask full of tartan tastiness. So, when those nice chaps at OSA whisky and The Whisky Wire asked me if I fancied putting (that's the last golf pun you'll get out of me) four of their drams through their paces, I jumped at the chance.

Samurai fuel

Clubhouse - 3yo Blend - 40%

Richer than expected, given the stated age of 3 years, although with an unmistakeable whiff of youth. Fresh and lively to begin with but settles nicely into leather and beeswax after a time. Light wood, almonds, fudge and an aromatic spice that I can't quite pin down.

Initially peppery but this fades, being replaced by a dry, malty citrus. A few more sips reveal a building smokiness; the spice has died away and has left a spirity, sweet note.

Yup, this is young and a little spirity. It's also insanely approachable and very drinkable. If you're a fan of cask strength monsters and phenolic beasts, it's not going to rock your world on the flavour front, but for this price it's viable hip-flask fare for the demented samurai in your life.

Crap film, good whisky

Twilight - 10yo Blended Malt - 40%

Light and grassy to kick off with a slight winey note. Bags of fruit and a little honey follow this up and there's also a substantial, although not overpowering, floral element. A little longer and coconut creeps in, dragging lemongrass and fudge with it.

Fresh, Speyside profile to start but a little stern approaching the finish. I'm put in mind of a young Glenburgie, initially. A few sips in and the stern note is more pronounced; puts me in mind of lemon rind and pine.

It's zippy, fresh and interesting; very much a 'session-starter' There's always room for something like this in the Stumblevault.

Wingback chair not included

Fireside - 12yo Blended Malt - 40%

This is a deeper, richer number with waxy, treacly aromas with a fair whiff of peat. A little patience brings roasted nuts, marzipan and baked meringue, quite sweet as is develops. A little more time gives smoky lemons and sets my Caol Ila spidey senses tingling.

Doesn't deliver the instant peat hit I'd expected from the nose, but a waxiness that I'd normally associate with good Clynelish. No sooner have I thought that, the peat makes an appearance. Sour cherries, honeycomb, a little lemon and some winter spices. Approaching the finish there's some mildly bitter walnut.

It's aptly named and delivers many layers of flavour. A middle order batsman, if you'll forgive my mixing sports. The smoke, the waxiness, the rich fruits; it's all very well constructed and this hits all the right notes for me.  Attractively priced too. I'd definitely buy a bottle of this.

Keeps more than your head warm

Nightcap - 15yo Blended Malt - 40%

A sweet bourbony nose with honey all over the shop. A few swirls release oak, smoke and a faint aroma of dill. A little time brings a cardamom-infused milk chocolate and the dill note evolves into cornichons. A little longer and the bourbony aromas seem to have died off leaving a sherry profile; wax, wood and nuts.

A little austere to begin with but, after a while, appear wood, black pepper and vine fruits glistening with noble rot. Rich, sweet and waxy with a fair puff of smoke on the back end. This would be a very capable after-dinner dram.
Very interesting, this one. Such a layered and changeable nose is always entertaining, although the palate doesn't quite reach the heights the nose offers. As the name suggests, you'd probably deploy this to finish your evening or after a big meal. Again, very attractively priced, especially when you consider its age.

In an age of overpriced and overhyped releases, it's refreshing to see reasonably-priced whiskies are still available. It seems to me that Old St. Andrews has here a series of 'mood whiskies'; each one exhibits a different profile and, accordingly, each has their own occasion.

I hearth-ily recommend you buy a bottle

For me, the Fireside is the clear winner, with Nightcap, Twilight and Clubhouse coming home second, third and fourth respectively.

Sincere thanks to the team over at OSA Whisky, to Steve for orchestrating the whole thing and to my fellow tweet tasters. Always a pleasure.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Johnnie Does Caol Ila

Wednesday 20 August 2014 - 1:30pm

Price: £15.00

It ain't pretty but it does the business

I'd heard rumours about the Caol Ila distillery. Workhorse, unloved and industrial are three of the descriptors that immediately spring to mind. Whereas this morning's visit to Islay's smallest distillery was a masterclass in small-scale distilling, it was evident as soon as I pulled up in the Caol Ila visitor's car park that we had reached the other end of the spectrum; big, grey and to be fair, quite ugly. None of this perturbed me in the slightest, I should add. 

You see, while some will extol the virtues of Port Ellen, swear allegiance to Ardbeg or wax lyrical about the majesty of Lagavulin, Caol Ila is, by some distance, my favourite Islay malt. It's big, bold and (for now) bountiful in the independent sector. It's inexpensive when compared to most other Islay fare and when it's good, it's absolutely spectacular. This distillery is the proverbial sow's ear, as far as I'm concerned.

Crazy Oban Lady was right
As we had arrived a little early, we took the opportunity to check out the view of Jura. I remember the tour guide from last year's Oban visit telling me that the Caol Ila distillery manager had a better view from his office than her boss did. I have to admit, I wholeheartedly agree. It was at this point that we were set upon by a gang of 'roided-up midges thirsting for our soft, southern blood. Residing for the week by the blowy shores of Loch Indaal had clearly led us into a false sense of security as far as beasties were concerned. We retreated to the confines of the car until it was time for the tour to begin.

*Rant Alert*
Before we go any further I must point out that Caol Ila, like most (if not all) Diageo distilleries, does not allow photography within the confines of the distillery itself. Most distilleries I have visited have had a policy about flash photography, presumably due to alcohol vapour or explosive flour hanging in the air, but it seems that only Diageo has a zero tolerance apporach where cameras are concerned. I'm not sure of the reason behind this. Maybe they have an over-zealous H&S Director, employees sourced solely from the witness protection program or a Chief Exec who once went to a Paul McKenna show and now barks like a dog every time he hears the word 'cheese'. Whatever the reason, it's bloody annoying when you're trying to put together a review. Anyway, enough of my wittering.
*Rant Alert*

The Tour

South Central L.A. for midges
We were met by our tour guide, Jennifer, and taken outside for an introduction to the distillery. Naturally, I didn't catch a word of it because I was engaged in a clandestine kung-fu battle with several of the midge gang-leaders mentioned earlier. If I'm honest, I had the best of the early rounds but quickly tired. Thankfully, Jennifer led us back inside before they could call reinforcements and we began the tour proper.

No photos allowed inside, so here's a picture of some lemons
Once we were inside, the first thing that struck me was how sterile and high-tech everything was. From the large, sealed, stainless steel mash-tun to the eight Oregon pine washbacks, everything seemed so functional and impersonal. Upon entering the still room we were confronted with six giants stills (3 wash, 3 spirit) and it dawned on me; there we were, in the belly of the beast, and there wasn't another soul to be seen. Where were all the staff members? It wasn't until I looked up towards the still arm that I saw a small windowed office housing some monitors. Evidently, near enough the whole process is controlled by computer from this small room. Clearly, Caol Ila is all about pumping out the maximum amount of product with maximum efficiency. 

Bad year for Canadian sprinters, good year for whisky
Of the 3.75 million litres of spirit produced each year, 85% goes towards satisfying the world demand for blended whisky. Let's just think about the sheer scale of that for a minute. If you were a maniacal Bond villain hell-bent on reviving the temperance movement, Caol Ila would be high on your sabotage list. Additonally, you know there'd be no photographic evidence linking you to the scene. (Temperance-loving Bond villains - Please don't sabotage Caol Ila; I like it too much and Diageo can afford better lawyers than me.)

Demand is now so high that, like a lot of other distilleries, Caol Ila stopped selling casks to independent bottlers around three years ago. Jennifer advised us that the majority of Caol Ila spirit goes into second-fill Kentucky bourbon casks and that, for the sake of consistency, E150a colouring was added to the final product. Other types of cask used are Oloroso (see picture above) and Moscatel, a sweet fortified wine.

The Tasting

Caol Ila Moch(a)

After a thoroughly uninspiring tour, we were shepherded into a converted warehouse to sample some of the bottlings put out in the last few years. Due to an admin cock-up, two of our party had been unable to attend their whisky and chocolate experience earlier in the day and so Jennifer decided that we would all sit down together, five whiskies would become six and we'd all have some artisan chocolates to pair with our drams.

Some worked better than others; Moch worked very well with lemongrass and lime, ditto with the 2001 Distillers Edition and mild velvet truffle. The lime and chilli chocolate was fantastic, although not so great when combined with the 12yo. The orange and clove worked quite well with the 25yo but the star of the show was the 2013 Feis Ile bottling with milk praline.

My sherry amor
To finish off the tasting Jennifer drew some rather dusky looking whisky from a 1988 Oloroso cask. A very tasty dram indeed and, given that I was again on double rations (Mrs S hates Caol Ila), enough to put my third sheet to the wind. 

I stumbled back to the shop, letting the midges have their way with me in the process. A quick, complimentary dram of the 2014 Feis Ile, a quicker purchase of the 2013 bottling and I was away to the car, ready to sleep through the journey home.

To be continued........


The Tour: D
Our guide was very robotic and 'by the numbers', although you could argue that she's perfectly suited to such a soulless distillery. Thankfully, she warmed a little during the tasting and expertly answered any questions we had. 

The Drams: A
Caol Ila Moch
Caol Ila 12yo
Caol Ila 2001 Distillers Edition
Caol Ila 25yo
Caol Ila Feis Ile 2013
Caol Ila 1988 Warehouse Cask #985 56.5%
PLUS a free branded Glencairn glass.

Strictly speaking, this was a hybrid tasting experience and we ended up getting an extra dram in the tasting and chocolates instead of the second cask sample advertised but I have to call this how I find it. Six drams, chocolates and a free glass for £15 is superb, any way you cut it.

The Shop: B
An afterthought, it would seem. A small room with half a dozen bottles and a couple of t-shirts. Having said that, two were distillery exclusives and we were invited to try some stored behind the counter for free. I grabbed the opportunity to try the Feis Ile 2014 but there were also others on offer.

Overall: B-
If you're expecting a quaint taste of Islay life, this isn't for you; it's as close to the mainland in character as you'll probably experience on the island. Its humourless atmosphere is testament to the fact that this is a distillery built for one thing; pumping out millions of litres of spirit per year. I get the feeling that the only reason they offer tours is because every other producer on the island does. That being said, if tasting whisky is your thing, the sampling session was superb and is well worth the visit. Bring some midge cream.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Johnnie Does Kilchoman

Wednesday 20 August 2014 - 11:00am

Price: £6.00

The morning of day three had arrived and I was particularly excited to jump in the car and head off to Islay's newest (and only independent) distillery. I must declare that it's going to be hard to review this distillery with any level of disinterest, and I mean that in the original and correct sense of the word, as I'm a huge fan of what Kilchoman are doing. For a small, farm distillery to be pumping out the quality they have, despite being tender in years, is something to be admired. Even Agent X, not known for his love of peat, professes to really like Machir Bay. Admittedly, he says it smells of horse shit and wet dog but insists he means it in the best possible way. High praise indeed.   

Before we get to dissecting the tour, I simply must point out that the final road leading to Kilchoman is by far the most horrendous surface on which this city boy has ever driven. Presumably the military used it at some point to test short range missiles but I dare any chaps to drive at over 12 mph and come away with anything less than moderate testicular trauma. My Ford happens to have the same type of suspension you'd find on Fred Flintstone's car and so I dared not break even half that speed. Anyway, once parked (and boys adjusted) we set off in search of the shop.

On the way across the courtyard, we noted that the distillery was situated right next to a horse-riding school. I tried to convince Mrs S that we should go searching the site for a wet dog but she was having none of it. Once at the shop we were greeted by Eva, a very knowledgeable lady with a thick, Eastern European accent and an unnerving, almost mechanical style of delivery. She rounded us up expertly and took us to the malting floor to begin our tour.

The first thing I noticed at Kilchoman was that everything was done on a much smaller scale than any other Scottish distillery I had visited. This by itself would not have been an issue, however, our group numbered 15 and a lot of the areas were a tight fit. It made me feel quite sorry for the chaps who were trying to get on with their day's work, but I digress.

Quite the learning curve (They'll only get worse)

Kilchoman is a family-owned distillery in the west of Islay that puts out around 120- 130,000 litres of spirit a year. Just to put that into context, we were told that that's roughly the same amount of spirit Caol Ila (Islay's biggest distillery) produces in a week. 30% of the barley used at Kilchoman is grown on Islay and malted on site. Rather than laying the barley on the malting floor and spraying, it is wetted in a steep (pictured). It is then spread out over the floor using wheelbarrows and turned by hand with shovels and a small manual plough.

Kilning it softly

Once malted, this 30% is then peat dried for 8-9 hours in their on-site kiln, giving a peating level of 20-25ppm. This barley is used in their 100% Islay release and is more lightly peated than the other 70%, which is bought from the Port Ellen maltings, peated to 50ppm. Yup, that's right folks, the stuff that goes into their other releases is more highly peated than Laphroaig. 

Appropriately copper-topped

Barely enough room to swing a bottle on a string

The metallic, copper-topped mash-tun (located in the still house) is a tiddler compared to other distilleries and the four washbacks follow suit. Stainless steel was chosen over wood, we were told, as wooden washbacks tire after a while and this impacts the flavour. It's worth noting that this was the exact opposite of what we were told at Ardbeg. The members of the group were then given a chance to sample the wash.

Interestingly, and unlike some other places, instead of using a skimming arm to cut down on excess foaming in their washbacks, Kilchoman employs a rather high-tech solution. Look carefully in the above picture and you will see what looks like the bottom of a plastic bottle tied to some string, in fact I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it is. It is filled with an anti-foaming oil which negates the need for larger, deeper washbacks. Space at Kilchoman is clearly at a premium and with 15 of us on the tour, it all got rather claustrophobic in there.

Have I said witchcraft yet?

No? Ok then, witchcraft

Skipping the mill room (again, too many of us on the tour to fit in) we headed back into the combined mash/still house for a closer look at the gear. Kilchoman uses one wash still and one spirit still. Two tons of barley will produce 600 litres of new make spirit and the downward-angled still arm apparently allows more of the heavier vapours to be collected, much like Lagavulin in that respect but let's not get ahead of ourselves; that's a story for another day. We were offered a taste of new-make spirit but, surprisingly, only two members of the group took the chance. Yes, I was one of them, purely for the sake of science you understand. It was surprisingly complex and came at me in waves of cereal, fruit, peat and smoke. Whatever they're doing in there, they're doing it right; it was frankly delicious. Off to the filling store.

Forty litres of unleaded and do the windows, please

Four barrels? I reckon we could do that in about a fortnight

One of the benefits of being a relatively small operation is being able to get away with filling and bottling on site. Not all casks are kept in-house to mature; from what we were told a deal has been struck with another distillery and the Kilchoman casks are stored in their warehouses. The bourbon casks used come fresh from Buffalo Trace, are used no more than twice and then sold off. Other types of cask are used (Machir Bay 2014 is 90% bourbon, 10% Oloroso) but this is mainly an ex-bourbon operation.

Magic sloshy-filly box

Poking our heads round the corner revealed an absolute treasure trove as we came upon a few chaps filling empty bottles with the good stuff. Jamming my fist in my mouth to stop me from leaping lustfully at the machinery and trying to suckle straight from the teat, I watched, mesmerised, as the bottles were filled four at a time. Looking for a place to secrete myself until such time as I could pounce unnoticed, I was cruelly lured away by Eva with the promise of tasting some whisky back in the shop. Yeah, fair enough.

Back in the shop we were presented with a mini glencairn as a souvenir and got to sample a couple of drams. In addition to the ever-excellent Machir Bay, I had my first taste of the 100% Islay. I'd like to go on record as saying that it was damn-near the dram of the week for me; in a week that contained 70's Ardbeg and 60's Lagavulin (more on that later), that's no mean feat. I was won over by its creamy, sweet smokiness. Definitely on my hit-list.

No sooner had the last drops touched our lips, we were advised that the tour was over. A quick word at the counter revealed that I was two weeks too early to buy a bottle of the Port-matured and I set off on the cross-island journey to Port Askaig, fearing for my fertility along the way.

To be continued............


The Tour: C
I've said before that your guide can make or break a tour and this is a perfect case in point. Whilst very knowledgeable, it was unfortunate that our host lacked any real warmth or humour. Having said that, ask me to give a presentation in a second language and I'd be no stand-up comedian either.

The Drams: A
Kilchoman 100% Islay - 4th Edition
Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014
PLUS a free miniature Glencairn glass.

Yes, I know there were only two drams at the end of the tour - not nearly in the same league as Laphroaig/Ardbeg, but remember, this tour cost only £6. Plus, you got a free glass to take away afterwards. Compare this to Bowmore and you can see that this is great bang for your buck. An easy A.

The Shop: B-
Four bottlings on offer but no distillery exclusives, including one distillery exclusive (thanks to Jon for putting me right). Shop is massively weighted towards non-whisky items but, refreshingly, it wasn't the usual bunch of stuff with the brand logo emblazoned across it. A closer look shows that the shop is a platform for Scottish craft and local trinkets (reclaimed sea-glass jewellery, anyone?). There's a cafe too. 

Overall: B-
Mixed feelings on this one. It may be a little unfair to judge Kilchoman by the same criteria as distilleries established in the 18th century, as it's a mere fledgling in comparison. Having said that, when you're cramming eight tours into five days how can you not hold it up against its peers? It's certainly worth a visit to get a real taste for the whole process, from malting to bottling. Give this a few years and it could be a real belter.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Johnnie Does Ardbeg

Tuesday 19 August 2014 - 2:00pm

Price: £35.00

After Monday afternoon's excitement, and a much needed lie-in, I embarked upon Chapter 3 of my Islay distillery experience. Once more I set out on the road to Port Charlotte, bound for the most easterly of the south coast heavyweights. 

Mrs S kept eerily quiet as we drove past the Laphroaig peat bogs, the scene of yesterday's emasculating failure, only to ridicule me 300 yards down the road - the precise moment I had let my guard down. My protestations around being tipsy at the time and having to use a bent peat cutter was met with howls of laughter and I silently licked my wounds all the way to the distillery.

I can't even take level pictures when I'm sober
Having arrived a little early, we decided to have lunch at Ardbeg's much-lauded Old Kiln Cafe, named so due to the building formerly being used to dry the malted barley. Being around lunchtime the place was packed and I can see why. The food was very good indeed (Mrs S raved about the sticky toffee pudding for a good three days afterwards) and many people were taking the opportunity to sample some of the whisky on offer. A quick nose around the gift shop later, we were ready to begin our tour.

Part 1 - The Distillery

Heaven for photographers, hell for Customs
Neil, our guide, was a born and bred Ileach and a genuinely likeable chap. We began our tour with a dram of the Ardbeg 10 and a potted history of illegal distillers on the island, smuggling and the benefits of Ardbeg's rocky waters as a way of preventing the British government from sneaking up on the farmers and their quickly-dismantled stills. He took us through the history of Ardbeg's ownership, the closure of the maltings in the late '70s, the mothballing in the early '80s, all the way up to the current day under LVMH where Ardbeg finds its place as a luxury brand and one of the most sought after malts in Scotland. We soon drained our glasses and began the tour proper.

Ha ha, he said 'boaby'
Wandering into the heart of the distillery, we were shown the 1921 Robert Boby mill still used today. Whereas the majority of Islay distilleries use the nigh-on indestructible Porteus mills, Ardbeg has stuck to the age-old adage of 'if it ain't broke......'. This sentiment was echoed throughout the buildings as it seemed that, despite the marketing and luxury status, this is a distillery that doesn't want to forget from where it came.

Porridge, anyone?

Old meets new
For instance, rather than fully replacing the old iron mash-tun, they decided to install a new stainless affair within its shell. Additionally, we were told, no modern computers are used in the production of Ardbeg and everything is still ledged by hand. Ardbeg uses a mixture of Optic and Concerto barley and uses the Port Ellen maltings to peat it to 55ppm. 

My wash addiction takes hold
The washbacks were a mix of old and new, some dating back a number of decades. All are made from Oregon pine and only replaced when absolutely necessary. Rather than being a by-product of good old-fashioned Scottish thrift, we were told that when your whisky is so popular, it'd be foolish to change aspects of production unnecessarily. At this point we were encouraged to try a sample from within one of the older washbacks. As I began to sup away, I could see that there was a marked difference between this and what I had tasted the day before at Laphroaig. Maybe there's something to this after all.

Yup, still no idea how it works. Witchcraft.
To my surprise, the still room contained only two stills, one wash and one spirit. From the arm of the spirit still hung an odd-looking drop pipe. Neil informed us that nobody was quite sure who installed it, however, nobody dare remove it, lest it introduce heavier vapours into the spirit and alter the flavour of the end product.

Sleep well, my pretties

No lie, he curled it in the warehouse door from 30 ft

A trip to the warehouse followed and, on the way, we were bombarded with facts about Ardbeg's process. Casks play a huge part in Ardbeg's story and will continue to do so as the prices begin to skyrocket, albeit in a more experimental way (paging Dr Lumsden). We were advised that the casks are never used more than twice and that they always arrive at the distillery ready for their first fill. Like many Islay distilleries, the whisky is bottled on the mainland, Livingston, in this case.

Due to the struggle to keep up with demand, casks are no longer sold to independent bottlers. Feeling a little panicky at this, I asked whether this also applied to SMWS, seeing as it too is a part of the LVMH family. Neil smiled and corrected himself, saying casks are no longer sold outside of the family. Whew, after a scare like that, does anyone else fancy a drink?

Part 2 - The Tasting

If your name's not down......
We were swiftly lead to the Chairman's Study for the tasting part of the experience. According to the blurb on the website we were to get a chance to sample some rare drams from the 70's, 80's, 90's and 00's, all the while listening to some music perfectly tailored to suit our whiskies. I resigned myself to having to put up with the shrieks of Adam Ant and the banal warbling of the Spice Girls. Years of drinking in grotty London pubs in the 90's had meant that I was virtually immune to crap music anyway. If that's the price of trying some rare Ardbeg, bring it on.

I'm not going to lie, I felt a twitch down there
Behind the rather unassuming door was a cosy little room in which was housed a collection of whisky bottles that would make Ardbeg fans shiver and investors drool. Single casks, special releases and a good selection of 70's bottlings had me briefly scanning the room for security cameras. The apparent lack of them made me even more nervous and I sat down on my hands. 

What followed was 45 minutes of jokes, drams, stories and best of all, no music! Cask samples were deployed and enjoyed from 2004, 1994, 1989 (80's Ardbeg is absurdly rare) and 1975 (one year past the jackpot, bugger!). All too quickly, it seemed, it was time to go.

As a result of Mrs S having to drive back, I had effectively consumed double rations and once again found myself all warm and fuzzy, mumbling farewell to my brothers-in-arms as I stumbled towards the gift shop. Three down, five to go.

To be continued.......


The Tour: A
The quality of your guide can make or break a tour and Neil is one of the best I've experienced. Well paced, informative and genuinely fun. True class.

The Drams: A
Ardbeg 10
Ardbeg 2004 Warehouse Cask #1245 58.2%
Ardbeg 1994 Warehouse Cask #781 55%
Ardbeg 1989 Warehouse Cask #18 52.3%
Ardbeg 1975 Warehouse Cask #1379 54.6%
PLUS a free miniature Glencairn glass.

Pure whisky porn.

The Shop: A
Like Laphroaig, the shop is weighted more towards merchandise than whisky, although there were several bottlings on offer including, at the time, one distillery exclusive. The Old Kiln Cafe serves high quality food, although you're taking your chances during peak times as the place packs out. Plenty of gifts for the folks back home, from hip-flasks to clothing. Additionally, the 'Across the Decades' experience gives you £5 off any purchase over £25.

Overall: A
We all know that Ardbeg is massively in demand and now very much aimed at the luxury market. It's getting harder and harder to snag a bottle of their non-core releases without hitting the overpriced secondary market, let alone try some of the older vintages. Therefore, the chance to try some truly incredible Ardbeg is not to be missed. Throw in an excellent tour guide and you've got yourself an absolute bargain at £35. Outstanding.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Johnnie Does Laphroaig

Monday 18 August 2014 - 12:00pm

Price: £82.00

With my first distillery tour of the day, and indeed the week, under my belt, I jumped on the road to Port Ellen and headed to Islay's south coast to visit my first of what some would call "The Big Three". 

My first experience of Laphroaig took place when I was 14 and was asked to stick my nose in a glass and have a whiff. I remember thinking that nobody could possibly drink something like that and enjoy it. 21 years later and I wouldn't be without at least one bottle in the Stumblevault. You could say I've been looking forward to this one.

Whereas my trip to Bowmore was a fleeting visit, the Laphroaig visit was to be an all-singing, all-dancing affair. After all, this is no mere tour; this is a five hour monster covering all aspects of the whisky and carried a price tag to match. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

Dark clouds, light spirit

Part 1: The Distillery

Our experience began with a tour of the distillery. I found myself in a group of eight people; a mix of Brits, Germans and Aussies. As most of the distillery tours I have experienced have been led by chirpy, Scottish ladies, I was amused to find out that our guide for the day was not only a chap, but an English chap; what's more a southern English chap. Once I managed to get over the fact that James sounded like he lived around ten miles away from me, it was clear to see why he worked at Laphroaig. Not only was it immediately obvious that he was knowledgeable, laid-back and witty, you could see he has a real passion for what he does.

Its technical name is the diesel, grainy, turny machine
Our first stop was to be the Malting Floors. Unlike our morning visit to Bowmore, these floors were covered in germinating barley. We had a chance to examine it up close and James informed us that approximately 15-20% of the barley that Laphroaig uses is malted onsite, with the rest coming from the Port Ellen Maltings. We were taken into an empty kiln where we were given the chance to chew on some smoked, malted barley. Let me tell you, if Tesco ever start stocking this in the cereal aisle, I may just go bankrupt; lovely stuff.

Like a British pub in the nineties

The source of all its power
Next, James opened the door to one of the other kilns which was at that point being pumped with smoke from the peat fires below. Laphroaig, we were told, is peated to 45ppm on average. We were invited to climb the stairs and have a sniff. My pleas for fifteen more minutes in there fell on deaf ears and, after a quick stop to throw some more peat on the fire, we were led outside to clear our heads.

Space. The final frontier.
After going back inside to have a look at the mill, we found ourselves in the heart of the distillery and James gave us a bit of history behind the equipment being used. I must say that, far from being the antiquated, traditional set-up I had imagined, the whole affair was quite modern and precise. A necessary part of putting out so much spirit each year, I imagine.

Some idiot
We soon found ourselves by the big, metal washbacks, at which point James dipped a container inside one and promptly offered us all a dram of the contents. Having never tried the stuff before, many of the group (me included) jumped at the chance. Their enthusiasm waned a little after having tasted it. The last time I saw Mrs S pull a face like that was....well, that's probably a story for another day. Personally, I found it wonderfully fruity, although a little bitter on the finish.

More witchcraft
Laphroaig uses seven stills; three wash and four spirit. The arms at the top of the stills have a slight upward angle. James advised us that this meant that only the lighter vapours make it out of the still and there's a lot of reflux. This allows plenty of contact with the copper, presumably reducing sulphur compounds and giving the new-make spirit a fruitier flavour. As I said in my Bowmore ramble, it's all witchcraft to me.

Part 2: The Great Outdoors

After all that indoorsy stuff, we were about ready for a little bit of the countryside. We all bundled into a van and were driven down a bumpy lane into the sticks. After ditching the van, we began our hike to the water source. 

A small patch of blue in the sky to remind us of home
They say that you don't go to Scotland for the weather and, admittedly, it was as windy as balls out there. Nobody seemed to care much as the views were wonderful. One ten minute game of 'dodge the cowpats' later and we arrived at the Kilbride stream. To my surprise, they'd cunningly placed a picnic table in a little hollow and we sat down to eat.

My kind of picnic
Lunch was vegetable soup, wraps containing smoked salmon and venison, scotch eggs, cheese (made with Laphroaig), fruit cake (also made with Laphroaig) and shortbread (probably not made with Laphroaig). This was all washed down with a couple of drams, cut with the green, peaty water our host had collected from the stream. Once we had all eaten, and drank, our fill, and one of the German chaps had filled his water bottle from the stream as a souvenir, we set off for the van.

These captions are terrible, for peat's sake!
Our next stop was the Laphroaig peat bogs. We were treated to a drop of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and told that now we had been fed and fuelled, we had to work it off cutting peat.

Mrs S in her Stormtrooper costume. Not sure about the wellies though.
I convinced Mrs S that I would be best placed to take the photos at this stage and that she should crack on with the heavy work. She muttered something that sounded like 'glass bowl' (not sure what she meant) and she set about cutting some peat. My workshy attitude was soon noted by James and I was told to get in there and start digging. Annoyingly, while Mrs S seemed to be able to cut perfect blocks, my effort resembled the sort of thing you'd normally find at the bottom of an elephant enclosure. Back to the distillery anyone?

Part 3: The Warehouse

What dreams are made of
Upon our return to the distillery, following a coffee and a quick comfort break, we were led into Warehouse 1 for the grand finale; the cask tasting.

The Prince of Wales indulging in a spot of graffiti there
What greeted us was the wonderful aroma of breathing casks, peat and sweet vapour. If this is one of the perks of being an angel, sign me up. Beyond the royally autographed (but apparently empty) cask of 1978 Laphroaig, lay row upon row of slumbering barrels, just waiting for the right time to be bottled. Three duty-paid casks had been selected for us and we were forced, absolutely forced I tell you, to sample them. 

Now that's what I call a menu

That idiot again
We were asked to pick a favourite, so that we could bottle it to take with us. From the three vintages available, all the chaps went for the '99 and all the ladies picked the '05. To the drivers amongst us who were unable to sample no more than a couple of drops (yup, you guessed it, the four ladies), James presented 30ml dram jars of each cask to enjoy at a later date. We grabbed a valinch and got to work filling our jugs.

The spoils of war
Once our bottles were filled and labelled, we were asked to enter our details onto a line in the log book, ostensibly to make the whole affair legal. Mrs S decided to put her nationality down as English (inflammatory at the best of times, let alone in the current political climate), much to James' amusement. I decided to adopt a touch of diplomacy and register myself as British, although by this point I was a little wobbly and unable to follow basic instructions, somehow ending up authorising my own bottling. I was afforded a pitying look and presented with my bottle and glass as a souvenir.

The experience was finished and so was I. We said our goodbyes and retreated back to the safety of our Bowmore cottage to recharge, safe in the knowledge that we could have a lie-in before tomorrow's experience.

To be continued.......


The Tour: A
Like I said before, this isn't a tour; it's a monster. The bracing walk, the stunning views, the picnic at the water source, the camraderie, the misshapen peat lumps and the charred splinters settling at the bottom of your self-fill bottle. All fantastic.

The Drams: A
Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength Batch #006
Laphroaig 18yo
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Laphroaig 1999 Warehouse Cask 5175 - 60.9%
Laphroaig 2002 Warehouse Cask 6930 - 57.0%
Laphroaig 2005 Warehouse Cask 127 - 59.2%
PLUS a 250ml self-fill bottle of your favourite of the three warehouse casks and mini Glencairn glass in a presentation box.

The Shop: A
The shop is weighted a little heavily towards merchandise as opposed to whisky. There are a good few whiskies on offer, from the new Laphroaig Select through to some of their older, premium bottlings. Plenty of merchandise; everything from bar runners to clothing to cheese. Free coffee for visitors, a bar and not forgetting the Friends of Laphroaig Lounge. I could happily spend a whole day (and a fortune) here.

Overall: A
Put simply, this is a wonderful, full-on experience. Yes, it's bloody pricy and, yes, it takes nigh-on five hours but, for anyone who is a fan of Laphroaig, I can't recommend this highly enough. If, as we did, you find yourself in a group of easy-going, like-minded people, you'll never want to leave.