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.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

#TomatinCuatro - The Launch

Tomatin Cuatro - The Series - 46%

Life, it would seem, is full of coincidences. At the end of July, I finally plucked up the courage to slay a heel I had been nursing for a good few months. Very seldom do I feel genuinely sad when I finish a bottle of whisky (usually, by that stage, I'm positively merry) but this one in particular was so nice, I felt quite deflated.

Gandhi: Probably more of a Tomintoul fan

A mere two days later, The Whisky Wire announced that there was to be a Tomatin Tweet Tasting at the beginning of September. Details were frustratingly scarce, save for a hint that there may be the launch of a new bottling on the horizon. I duly applied and, as luck would have it, my grief was to be short-lived.

So what's it all about then, Johnnie? Well, I'm glad you asked. On 15 January 2002, those chaps at Tomatin distilled up a whole load of spirit and put it into ex-bourbon casks. The casks laid dormant for over nine years and on 29 June 2011 were recasked in four different types of sherry butt. Yup, this isn't one new bottling they're putting out there, it's four. From there the whiskies were allowed to mature for a further three years until finally being bottled just a fortnight ago.

Each whisky in the series carries an age statement of 12 years, is bottled at 46% and has not been chill-filtered. Three big ticks in my book. How do they taste?


Tomatin Cuatro - Fino Sherry Finish - 46%

A slight nip of alcohol as we kick things off followed by a light fruitiness. A little honey going on with wisps of heather and a note that puts me in mind of white wine. A little time to open up brings waxy pears and digestive biscuits. None of the grapefruit I'd usually associate with a Tomatin but a very interesting nose indeed. Lots going on.

Hello grapefruit! I was hoping you'd show up. Quite dry to begin with, then there's just an explosion of citrus as it develops. The citric sharpness dies down a little after water is added and the whisky strikes a more balanced tone with dry woodiness and just a hint of smoke creeping in as we approach the finish.

Plenty of wood on the back end with pencil shavings and fine leather coming to mind. Leaves you wanting another.

This exhibits all of the characteristics I've come to know and love from Tomatin. The Fino doesn't overpower the spirit and allows it to shine through. I could happily spend an evening with a bottle of this.

Close, but no cigar. Apart from on the palate, that is

Tomatin Cuatro - Manzanilla Sherry Finish - 46%

Worlds apart from the Fino finish. More assertive with vegetal, herbal aromas and marzipan humming along underneath. Give it a moment and there's a wave of vanilla that washes over you and brings with it fruit, grass and creamy butter.

Bold, salty blast up front. Wasn't expecting that at all. It's almost coastal in nature. A little while to acclimatise and the vine fruits creep in with rich sherry and a wonderful cigar/cedar combo.

Warming with playful spices. Peppercorns, more cedar and, again, a little flash of smoke.

This is a good whisky and the quality is almost up there with the Fino. Bringing personal preference into play, I'd have to leave this one on the shelf. I wouldn't necessarily be happy about it, mind.

I'm sorry I doubted you

Tomatin Cuatro - Oloroso Sherry Finish - 46%

Wonderful. I'm not a sherry drinker and don't know an awful lot about it but this just screams Oloroso casks; there's a nuttiness and that fresh fig note that I always seem to get from them. Further nosing gives a menthol quality which does nothing to change my mind. Raspberries and dates. More figs. Even more figs. If this turned out to be anything other than Oloroso, I'd have never lived it down. Lucky for me then.

Gah! Conflicting emotions when tasted. I love sherried whisky but this is almost overpowering the light, crispness I associate with good Tomatin. A virtual slap from one of the other tasters (Cheers, Dave; I was humming the theme from Titanic for the next hour) brings me to my senses and I give it a few drops of water and half a chance to develop. That's better. Christmas in a glass and yet the cask is taking a back seat, giving the spirit chance to drive. Beautifully balanced with plums, raisins, cinnamon and a touch of eucalyptus.

Great balance; not too dry, not too sweet. Woody, but not overoaked. The best finish of the night, so far.

This has blown the race wide open. Despite a jittery start, this really grew on me and the water just opened it up brilliantly. It's almost a coin toss between this and the Fino.

Warming, but waning

Tomatin Cuatro - Pedro Ximinez Sherry Finish - 46%

Sweet, sweet aromas with a muskiness underneath. Treacle, wax and blackberry jam. Given half a chance, there's grape must, muscovado sugar and red peppers. A little while longer and I get the aroma of warm, spiced bread and butter pudding.

Chewy, spicy, fudgy and the four other dwarves nobody ever remembers. A sweet, balsamic note with peppercorns and creme brulee. Not as much wood as I expected and very easy-drinking.

Not particularly long and maybe a tad flat when compared to the others. Still warming with those peppercorns hanging on 'til the last moment, joined by tobacco and beeswax.

Another very capable whisky; I can't pick too many faults with this one either. The quality is there and I do love dark sherry finishes. Maybe a touch unbalanced.

It's not often you get a chance to sample the same whisky finished in four different ways. This has been highly educational and it just so happens that the whisky was bloody tasty too. Fair play to Graham Eunson and the Tomatin team for sticking with sherry casks at a time when a lot of other distillers are looking elsewhere, due to the high cost of sourcing them. Additionally, in an age of new NAS releases, they've been decent enough to tell us how old the whisky is. Bravo.

Each of the four expressions has a limited release of 1500 bottles and will soon be on sale worldwide (apart from the USA) with a RRP of £49.99.

Which one's the best though? It seemed that at the end of the tasting, each taster had a different order of preference. I can understand why; each of the whiskies exhibited a high level of quality and if the only thing you're changing is the cask finish, it's probably all going to be down to personal tastes.

There can be only one. Ok, two, but no more. Three?

For me, the Fino takes first place from the Oloroso in a photo finish. The Pedro Ximinez comes in third with the Manzanilla bringing up the rear.

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