Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Johnnie Does Bruichladdich

Thursday 21 August 2014 - 2:00pm

Price: £30.00

Six distilleries down, two to go and next on the menu was the whisky geek's favourite, Bruichladdich. Still reeling from the morning's mammoth tasting in the Lagavulin warehouse, I fortified myself with a bite to eat from a small establishment in Port Charlotte. Part-shop, part-cafe, part living room; it was an absolute godsend.


As I sat outside at one of the picnic tables, bathed in early afternoon sunshine and head swimming, my saviour marched out of the shop towards me with a plate full of cheesy, toasty goodness. Far from being the dyed-in-the-wool Ileach I'd expected, his accent was about as Scottish as mine. Clearly, we're infiltrating the island at an alarming rate. Expect a coup any day now. Head clear and belly full, I marched on Bruichladdich.

Not sure how they heat it

I've often mentioned how I feel like I came into the whisky game too late. I was completely oblivious to the Mark Reynier Bruichladdich revolution. By the time I knew my glass from my Glenmo', The Laddie Ten had already been released and I'd missed the plethora of series' and releases that delighted and frustrated collectors in equal measure. That's not to say I'm unaware of just how good the distillery's releases can be. While I found the Laddies 10, 16 and 22 all high in quality but low in 'wow', the Port Charlotte and, to a slightly lesser extent, Octomore releases I've tried have all rang my bell in no small way. Additionally, the Black Art and Cuvee releases have been hugely entertaining. It's fair to say that this was going to be educational.

The Tour

Blue anchor
I remember a certain member of the #whiskyfabric once remarking on Bruichladdich's hiring policy. Baffled at the time, I must say that I instantly caught his drift the moment I walked through the doors. If you're not following me, I'd urge you to visit the distillery and see for yourself. 

The experience we booked was a two part affair, the tasting being tacked on to the end of the standard tour. As with most standard tours in August, the group was rather large, rather boisterous and a mix of nationalities. The result was a cacophony of laughing old men, sons and daughters translating rather loudly and the poor tour guide trying to be heard above it all. To make things more difficult, the mill was in full swing at the start of the tour. Who'd be a guide, eh?

I snigger every time
The tour started with a potted history of the distillery, although the previously mentioned issue made it nigh-on impossible to hear most of it. We managed to catch snippets like "Original dresser from 1881" and "Last belt-driven mill in Scotland". There was an interesting anecdote about the new Bruichladdich blue being the colour of the sea opposite the distillery the day Mr Reynier bought the place. Having looked at the sea opposite the distillery, I can only assume that either a container ship ran aground that day and spilled a cargo of paint, or that this is utter bollocks. 50/50 I reckon.

Some gymnastics required
We were led into a somewhat quieter area and up some stairs to look at the mash tun. A number of us had to duck under some pipework and file round to accommodate everyone on the platform but we all made it in one piece. Open topped and cast iron, we were told that this was the original from 1881 (later contradicted by the chaps at Bunnahabhain who stated that they gave it over to Bruichladdich towards the latter part of the last century, but that's a story for another day) and that, as a result of the heat loss from being open-topped, they run four cycles of water through the barley, as opposed to the industry-standard three.

Jimmy needed to work on his tan
The distillery houses six washbacks, all made from Oregon Pine and of varying ages. Unlike some other distilleries which use blades to cut the foam produced by fermentation, or Kilchoman's space-age 'oil-in-a-bucket' technique, Bruichladdich cunningly manages to overcome the problem by filling their washbacks to 36,000 litres, some way short of their 60,000 litre capacity.

Not sure if really small or just hidden
I probably would
The distillery uses five stills; two wash stills from 1881, two spirit stills from 1971 and one refurbished Lomond still, lovingly named 'Ugly Betty', from which Bruichladdich distils their Botanist Gin.

Safe, yeah?
The spirit safe dates back to the 70's and keeps the new-make spirit out of general circulation, allowing HMRC to sleep at night. That being said, our gracious host pulled a bottle of, presumably taxed, new-make from out of a shelf and allowed us all to take a sip before whisking us away to the warehouse, home of Bruichladdich's famous/infamous ACEing experiments.

No chootanoofydoofypoopy?
ACE I'm reliably informed, stands for Additional Cask Enhancement. Some whisky drinkers will swear on their mothers' graves that Bruichladdich are just ahead of the curve when it comes to cask experimentation; the owners had the foresight to note that with the rising sherry cask prices, wine finishes were the way forward. Others will tell you that Mr Reynier was saddled with a warehouse full of crap whisky and it was the only way he could get rid of it. 

I personally like to think that on the day he bought Bruichladdich, the sea across from the distillery was the colour of a recycled Tokaji cask. Whatever your belief, there's no denying that Bruichladdich doesn't shy away from the unusual.

After a quick trip to the bottling plant and a dip into the distillery shop for a complimentary dram, it was time to head off to another of the warehouses for a closer look at a few of their casks.

The Tasting

Three of the best
As mentioned earlier, the tasting was an additional element you could tack on to the standard tour, As a result I found myself in a group of three people, one of which was my wife, intently listening to our new host (same hiring policy though). It was an altogether more intimate affair and our host was engaging, funny and informative. We got to draw and sample from three casks - one Bruichladdich, one Port Charlotte and one Octomore. All were of excellent quality, we weren't rushed in any way and after the hustle and bustle of the main tour, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Well deserved, let me tell you
Afterwards, it was back to the shop for a few souvenirs and the sad realisation that we only had one distillery to go.

To be concluded..........


The Tour: C
Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, although the whole thing seemed a little 'by-the-numbers' and I feel the group was probably too large and boisterous for there to be any real rapport between the guide and guests.

The Drams: A
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006 50%
Bruichladdich 1989 Warehouse Cask #45 53.5%
Port Charlotte (Grenache Finish) 2006 Warehouse Cask #1586 61.8%
Octomore (Chateau D'Yquem) 2002 Warehouse Cask #1115 56.4%
PLUS a free Glencairn glass.

Four drams and a glass may pale in comparison to some of the experiences offered by Islay distilleries, however, the shop dram was tasty and the three whiskies at the tasting were all straight from the cask, all generously poured and, most importantly, all spankingly good quality. I can't fault it.

The Shop: B+
Hampered somewhat by Remy Cointreau's decimation of the core range, although still displaying a fair amount of choice. A hand-fill cask was available; one of Bruichladdich's 'Valinch' Series from 1989 and ACEd in a Rioja barrel.

The shop also sported a large range of non-whisky items; souvenirs, glasses, nik-naks and clothes.

Overall: B
I'm a fan of Bruichladdich and while I can't quite work out if this fixation on terroir is just a load of arse to cover up a switch to younger bottlings, the product still tastes good and they still know how to finish a whisky. The thinking behind their hiring policy is quite evident but somehow fits in nicely with the sans-serif font and the jazzy, blue/green paint. Definitely worth a visit.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Distinguished Gentleman

Caol Ila 25 - 43%


Over the years, I've very much signed up to the notion of naturally-presented whisky. To this day, when researching a potential purchase, I find myself reciting internally the mantra, "cask-strength, unchillfiltered, natural colour" over and over. As a result, the Stumblevault houses a butt-load (technical term) of >50% abv bottles. This is always a good thing.

Except, of course, when it isn't. Every now and then, I'll find myself looking for a nightcap that doesn't shout, doesn't prickle my nose and leaves my taste buds well and truly unslapped. Something refined, something.....something civilised. Normally, this has me marching towards the top shelf for a drop of old Glenmorangie or rummaging through the bottom for a beautifully-constructed Bruichladdich but what do you do when you're in the grip of a peat craving? You grab a bottle from one of Islay's most underrated distilleries, that's what.
The peat's not immediately obvious, but it's there. This isn't the carnival of lemon and bonfires that I'd usually associate with Caol Ila either. There's smoke, certainly, but it's dialled down and infused with sweetcure mackerel, vanilla, toffee and a restrained earthiness. This is far from industrial; it's white collar Caol Ila. A little patience rewards you with a sweet citric hum and a hint of liquorice.
Age has tamed the citric peatiness I associate with the standard 12yo but hasn't washed it away. It's still there but with an elegance resulting from the supporting notes of butter-toffee, carefully-measured wood spice and aniseed. Sweet smoke lends a helping hand towards the finish with a hint of sea-spray.
Long, but gentle. Elements of salt, ash and lemon peel with a mouth-coating peatiness that has you pouring a second glass before you know it.
A lot of people, including me, bemoaned the 25yo's drop to 43%. When compared to the dozens of cask-strength indie offerings out there, this is going to seem a little tame. However, on those days you want something refined and restrained, yet entertaining, very few can beat this.
Grade: A
It's a mood whisky, but I'm in the mood.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Johnnie the Woodlouse

AnCnoc 12 - 40%

Where have you been all my life?

This is a distillery that intrigues me. It has quite an extensive range, a few peaty bottlings and a laudable pricing structure, yet I've tried barely any of them. I'm late to this particular party. I have missed the boat, been found wanting and have come up short. To summarise, I've clearly been living under a rock for the past few years.


A particular example of this is the 12 year old AnCnoc (or Knockdhu, for you traditionalists). It's the whisky equivalent of Miley Cyrus' nipples; much admired, absolutely everywhere these days and yet I have somehow never managed to get my hands on one. We'll leave that simile there, shall we?
Light, fresh fruit salad. Pear drops to follow with that mild acetone aroma. A hint of cider vinegar brings a little bit of depth before being smothered by a pillow of toasted marshmallows. It's a sweetie.
Hmm. A little thin to start with. The first thing that strikes me is oak and prickly citrus, followed by a heavy sweetness; think honey and barley sugar. After a while the pear drops evident on the nose make their way into the mix.
Reasonable length with a drying sweetness. Becomes moderately spicy after a while with a build-up of thick citrus rind in the back of the throat - unlike any whisky I've tried before; the only way I can describe it is glace lemon peel. Very interesting.
I'm surprised. At 40%, I expected something a little blander and flatter, but this is punchier than the ABV would suggest. A tad too sweet for my particular tastes but there's no denying that this is well made and flavoursome. Throw in the reasonable price tag and you've got a good all-round experience here.
Grade: B
A good entry-level malt, if a little unbalanced. I won't be leaving it so long to try the rest of the range.

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Dalwhinnie Triple Matured - Friends of Classic Malts - 48%

It's Dalwhinnie, Jim........

A few years ago, back at the start of my whisky journey, my boss bought me a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 as a leaving present. More than likely it was on offer at the local supermarket and she grabbed it on her way to the checkout. I remember politely thanking her, all the while thinking "Dalwhinnie? Sounds like a rip-off of Balvenie." Yup, if I could go back in time I'd slap me too.

I don't remember much about that bottle, save for the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it. A year or so later, I managed to grab a bottle of the Distiller's Edition as a birthday present for Agent X (he's a real person, allegedly). I don't remember much about that bottle either, although I know he poured me a glass and I know I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later on that year at TWE's Whisky Show, I got to try the 1987 25yo. I don't remember much about....meh, you get my point. Dalwhinnie, to me at least, is the Rohypnol of the whisky world (Diageo - you can have that for your next ad campaign). So when I heard that it was being added to the triple matured FoCM releases, I told myself enough was enough; time to get a bottle for myself.

Like the school tuck shop on a summer morning. A whole host of fizzy sweets flood the senses, mixed in with dew-drenched flowers and cut grass. Underneath it all there's a rich maltiness with the occasional threat of spice coming to the fore. Nothing is really taking centre stage here; it's all so complex and well-balanced.

Drier and spicier than you'd expect. The sweet, heather-honey of the standard 15yo is present but there's a rich, almost savoury spiciness that dominates and challenges the taste buds. A small slug of water dials down the spice and boosts the honeyed sweetness. Beautifully layered and balanced now. 

Sweet and drying in turns. A good hit of spice and a solid length. Malty and, dare I say it, a touch of bitter smoke in the dying seconds. 

This is a big, ballsy, grown-up Dalwhinnie, closer in nature to the 25yo than the 15. Wonderfully balanced on the nose but really benefits from a teaspoon of water to get the palate going. If I was being really picky, I'd say a tad too sweet on arrival and tad too spicy on the back end but that's about it. It's a very, very good whisky.

Grade: A
Though it just scrapes the top grade, this is definitely one to watch out for. Bold, beautiful and worth every penny.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My Old Dram's a Dustman....

Master of Malt 50yo Speyside - 4th Edition - 43%

One of these things is not like the other

The tree has gone, the halls have been un-decked and the fire is alarmingly devoid of roasting chestnuts. Long story short, if you can forgive the syllepsis, it's January and depressing. In an attempt to cling on to the last remnants of festive cheer, I rummaged through the sample collection, looking for a well-aged fruitcake gem to give my palate one last blast of Christmas.

Some time ago I sampled the Master of Malt 40yo Speyside, a whisky that exhibited one of the finest 'Christmas pudding' noses I've ever experienced. So much so, in fact, that I seriously considered buying one despite the (comparatively) less than stellar palate. I never did, however, for the reason stated in my last review, although it's well worth a look. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the sample collection. Sitting behind a plethora of glass jars, sporting the handwriting of a galaxy of whisky-blogging stars, was the older brother of the aforementioned Master of Malt dram, the 50yo Speyside. If anything could banish the post-Christmas blues, this was it. Right?

Sweet. Very sweet. Not Christmassy but a huge hit of caramel apple crumble followed by crystallised ginger and creme brulee. Overripe grapes, butterscotch and a hint of spiced cafe latte. As time passes, lightly polished wood appears.

Hmm. This is not what I expected at all. This wears its age incredibly lightly. Fresh apples and pears; the kind of profile I'd usually associate with a young Glenburgie or Glen Grant. Given time, an underlying dusty sweetness comes through. The dustiness amplifies towards the finish, bringing a little balance to the orchard fruit carnival. This is joined by a whack of wood spice, which really is the only indication of the length of time the spirit has lain dormant. Very strange indeed.

Cigar boxes, wisps of smoke and a hint of black pepper. A strange flash of crisp cider is followed by a long, dusty, drying final stretch.

If you're expecting, as I was, a rich, nutty sherried dram, you're going to be disappointed. This is closer in nature to a young, well-constructed, fruity Speysider, albeit with a woody, dusty undercurrent.

Grade: B
The nose should come with a complementary insulin shot and the palate could do with a little less dust and a little more polish. Having said that, this is still a good whisky, just not a great one. Additionally, it's done nothing for my January blues. Where did I put that Glenfarclas? 

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Shot in the Park

Highland Park 30yo - 48.1%

What the hell

I, Johnnie Stumbler, am an old woman when it comes to buying whisky. Actually, that's not fair. I'm doing old women everywhere a disservice by lumping them into the same category as me. I'm truly awful. I will spend hours upon hours researching a particular bottle, reading the marketing blurb, the online vendor blurb and the blogger blurb and weighing up every other bottle available before actually making a purchase. It's why I never got a bottle of the Devil's Punchbowl or Devil's Cask and why my collection of Ardbeg is woeful; by the time I've convinced myself I want one, the bloody things have sold out.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found myself walking out of a well known Inverary whisky shop, giddy with excitement, clutching a 30yo bottle of Highland Park. As is often the case with pricy impulse buys, the excitement soon fades and concern pops up in its place. Should I have done it? Was it worth the money? (Hugely debatable across the whisky world these days) Will it taste good?
Admittedly, as impulse buys go, you could do a lot worse than a Highland Park. The 21 and Dark Origins aside, I've found the core range to be of excellent quality and, until quite recently, reasonable value (the price of this bottling has gone up by £170 in 17 months). It's no secret that I consider the Highland Park 40 to be one of the finest whiskies I've ever tried. How does this one measure up?

Wow! Wonderfully rich. Sherry all over with freshly-polished wood, chocolate orange and wisps of smoke. Time to breathe brings marzipan, black cherries, sea spray and a whiff of dry peat.

A little tart at first with the wood tannins taking centre-stage. Once the mouth acclimatises, the richness comes through with Morello cherries, stewed plums. beeswax and a decent whack of salt. A little time gives dark chocolate, a flash of peat and more wood to complete the picture.

Textbook Highland Park. Long and drying with a smoky, salty finale. Mouthwatering and moreish.

A multi-layered sherry bomb. Superb structure, engineered delivery and exhibits the level of balance for which Highland Park is famous. It doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of the 40yo but very few whiskies do.

Grade: A
Eye-wateringly expensive these days, taking it firmly out of the realms of impulse, but a taste sensation nonetheless. When these guys get it right, they get it very right.