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.