Nightmare

Your worst whisky nightmare (Int)

(There are two versions of this article:  One intended for Australian readers, and one intended for readers in other countries.   This is the International version.  If you’re reading this from Australia, click here).

 I should preface this piece by stating up front that it reflects the thoughts of an Australian and the general state of the whisky industry as it presented itself within Australia 10, 20, and 25 years ago.  Readers in other countries may have had different experiences and opportunities…

Picture the following two scenarios:

 

  1. You walk into your favourite bottleshop or off-licence looking to see if there are any new and exciting releases, or simply just to pick up new single malt expression that you’d recently heard about.  You head to the whisky section of the store, where there’s normally a selection of 30 to 40 different malts and brands to choose from.  You get there, only to find that the shelves have been stripped almost totally bare. The only whiskies left on the shelf for you to choose from are Glenfiddich 12yo, Glenlivet 12yo, Johnnie Walker Red and Black Labels, and VAT 69.
  2. Exiting the store in despair, you rush to your favourite whisky bar,  in need of a good Scotch to calm your racing pulse. You scan the shelf behind the barman, desperately looking for a juicy, non-filtered, cask-strength dram. Instead, you see only a bottle of Chivas Regal 12yo.

 

Is this your worst whisky nightmare?  No. It’s reality.

 

It’s what life was like in 1989.

 

I am genuinely thrilled and delighted in the boom that the whisky industry is currently experiencing.  Whisky is fashionable, it has an audience, it has a market, the distilleries are in full production, and people of all ages and demographics are flocking to its door.  There are thousands of web pages, internet groups, and discussion pages devoted to whisky; there are whisky clubs that meet throughout cities and suburbia each night of the week; and there are books and magazines galore.   Drinkers who are new to the category have never had it so good.  But it wasn’t always this way……

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Nightmare

Your worst whisky nightmare

(There are two versions of this article:  One intended for Australian readers, and one intended for readers in other countries.   This is the Australian version.  If you’re reading this from another country, click here).

 

Picture the following three scenarios:

 

  1. You walk into your favourite bottleshop or off-licence looking to see if there are any new and exciting releases, or simply just to pick up new single malt expression that you’d recently heard about.  You head to the whisky section of the store, where there’s normally a selection of 30 to 40 different malts and brands to choose from.  You get there, only to find that the shelves have been stripped almost totally bare. The only whiskies left on the shelf for you to choose from are Glenfiddich 12yo, Glenlivet 12yo, Johnnie Walker Red and Black Labels, and VAT 69.
  2. Exiting the store in despair, you rush to your favourite whisky bar,  in need of a good Scotch to calm your racing pulse. You scan the shelf behind the barman, desperately looking for a juicy, non-filtered, cask-strength dram. Instead, you see only a bottle of Chivas Regal 12yo.
  3. Convinced the world is coming to an end, you head around to your friend’s house. “All the great new Scotches have been removed from the shelves!” you exclaim, “But it’s okay, we’ll just drink some great, award-winning Australian whisky instead.”   Your friend calms you down, nods sagely and goes over to his drinks cabinet, returning with a tumbler filled with precious, golden nectar. Relieved, you grab it and hold it up to your nose for a sniff and a taste. Hang on, something’s not right here – it smells metallic, spirity, and like oxidised acetone. Suspicious, you have a sip, only to spit it out immediately, spluttering “what the hell is this?” Your friend looks at you strangely and says “It’s Corio, of course.   What did you think it would be?”

 

Is this your worst whisky nightmare?  No. It’s reality.

 

It’s what life was like in 1989.

 

I am genuinely thrilled and delighted in the boom that the whisky industry is currently experiencing.  Whisky is fashionable, it has an audience, it has a market, the distilleries are in full production, and people of all ages and demographics are flocking to its door.  There are thousands of web pages, internet groups, and discussion pages devoted to whisky; there are whisky clubs that meet throughout cities and suburbia each night of the week; and there are books and magazines galore.   Drinkers who are new to the category have never had it so good.  But it wasn’t always this way……

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Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich Excellence 26yo gets its Australian release

There are many things to like about William Grant & Sons and their whiskies.  One of the things I particularly like is that when they decide to do something, they do it well:   Can they make a classic, approachable Speyside whisky that has broad, mass appeal?  Check.  Can they make a rare, special release whisky that services the luxury end of the market whilst still delivering a sublime experience for the tastebuds and which justifies the higher retail price?  Check.  Can they put on a great event to showcase and launch this new expression?  Double check.

 

Tuesday 23rd September saw the launch of the new Glenfiddich Excellence 26yo expression in Australia.  Held at the elegant and ye-olde-world-charm Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney, the evening unveiled not just the new whisky, but also an incredible photography exhibition that captured and reflected the journey of the wood and the casks that contributed to the whisky.

 

Any whisky brand ambassador or even the typical whisky packaging that wraps most bottles will make a point of talking up the whisky’s “pure, soft water”; it will play on how they used only the “finest Scottish barley”; and they will give a nod to the “long and careful maturation in oak casks”.   But how often do we actually think about the casks?  Not just the fact that they sat in a warehouse for 26 years, but what about their life prior to that?  For example, the cask’s previous life where it sat in Kentucky maturing bourbon?  What about transporting it to Scotland for the second phase of its life?  Or what about the simple fact that it came from a tree in the US mountain ranges and was felled, quartered, and allowed to season before the coopers got their hands on it in the first place?

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Ardbeg SN2014

Ardbeg Supernova – 2014 release

Many whisky commentators today make reference to cult whiskies or distilleries with cult followings. As best as I can tell, such references really didn’t exist until 1997. Then Ardbeg was reborn.

 

Ardbeg has a weight, a brand, a persona, that is bigger than itself. It has a reputation for huge, bold, peaty whiskies, and its name travels so far and with such reverence that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the biggest distillery on Islay. In truth, it’s actually one of the smaller ones. With just one pair of stills churning away, its potential annual production capacity is just a tick over 1.1 million litres.  But as we all know, size doesn’t matter:  It’s what you do with it that counts.

 

Fans of Ardbeg can rejoice this Christmas, with the distillery launching a new release of Supernova. Supernova is Ardbeg’s super-peated expression.  The malt used for “regular” Ardbeg is peated to a phenol level of 55ppm, whilst the Supernova-make ups the ante to over 100ppm.  It was first released in 2009, with a follow-up release in 2010.  After nearly four years’ absence from the scene, Supernova returns with a bang.

 

The return of this Ardbeg is timed with the return of another Ardbeg spirit – the widely publicised vial of Ardbeg that was launched into space in October 2011.  In a fantastic experiment designed to study the effect that gravity has on maturation, two identical vials of Ardbeg were created.  One, the base sample, was left on Islay; the other was sent into space where it has been orbiting the earth for just under three years aboard the International Space Station.  Having returned to earth this month, the space vial can now be reunited with its sibling, and the two will be sent to Houston, Texas for scientists to study and compare how the space spirit and the earth spirit molecules interact with charred oak.

 

Of course, most of us will be happy to let the scientists have all their fun in the lab. In the meantime, fans of heavily peated whisky can look forward to Supernova once more tantalising our tastebuds.  I was fortunate to receive a sample of the new Supernova this week (tagged SN2014), and I’ve given it a good thrashing to test its credentials.  My tasting notes for this are further below.

 

One of the reasons Ardbeg has such appeal is that, despite its high peating levels, it has never been one dimensional. In addition to the mandatory peat and smoke, Ardbeg’s whiskies typically deliver delicious complexity that take the form of sweetness, citrus, vanilla and floral notes.  In recent times, we’ve also been privileged to taste Ardbeg in many different forms and at various different peating levels.  Comparing Ardbeg with different levels of peat influence gives you some insight into the actual base spirit and the character of the distillery.  The original Kildalton release in 2004 (with spirit distilled in 1980) was the first OB to showcase very lowly peated Ardbeg (it was a vatting of both lowly peated and non-peated Ardbeg), and then Blasda came along in 2008 with the phenols downplayed to 8ppm.   Members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society were particularly lucky, as the Society bottled quite a number of single casks from all three variants, i.e. Blasda, regular, and Supernova casks in 2011 and 2012.  All three types made it on to the Australia Outturn over that period.  Cask 33.118, released by the Australian branch of the Society in early 2013, was a young 7yo cask of Supernova-make Ardbeg, and no doubt from the same distillation runs that are contributing to this new 2014 Supernova release.   So how does this new release, bottled at 55% ABV, stack up?

 

Colour: The colour is pale, bordering on the lightest of straw gold, suggesting a relatively young age and/or bourbon-cask maturation.

 

Nose: Earthy peat and carbon notes waft out of the glass and hit my nostrils before I’ve even finished pouring my first dram.  The signature sweet creaminess and vanilla is immediately evident, and very soft lemon citrus follows shortly afterwards.  There are mint & pine sap notes wafting around, together with charcoal pine.  It’s that glorious aroma of waking up next morning and smelling the charred remains of the camp bonfire that was lit the night before.

 

Palate: Unmistakably Ardbeg! Whilst the nose put the peat to the foreground and the smoke to the background, the palate – and finish, for that matter – reverses the roles, and this is massively smoky.  The sweetness takes the form of dark chocolate (obviously, a dark chocolate that’s not overly bitter), and it strikes me immediately that this was dram would pair deliciously with any number of chocolate desserts.

 

Finish: The finish is dry and ashy, leaving the sort of oaky footprint more commonly associated with much older whiskies.  But that oakiness, regardless of age, is undeniably burned, seared, and charcoaled.  I’m not sure I’ve ever sucked on a lump of coal in my life, but I reckon the finish it would leave behind would be akin to this.

 

Comments: 55% ABV is the perfect strength for this whisky – it carries the weight superbly, and at no stage in the experience does one feel it overbearing, aggressive, or hot.  Instead, it is smooth, sultry, and delivers an experience not unlike liquid smoke wafting and draping over your tongue. I enjoyed this tremendously and found it worked both as a pick-me-up dram for a quick quaff, and also a contemplative dram for long and enjoyable assessment.

 

This dram is a winner. More importantly, it achieves and delivers precisely what it is supposed to do:  Give Ardbeg fans a massive whack of peat and smoke.  It’s a high-octane effort that differs significantly enough from the regular 10yo release to be an essential resident on your whisky shelf.   Given it’s a limited and special release, it’s unlikely to be widely available through regular retail stores, but you should look for it via the Moet Hennessy Collection at http://moet-hennessy-collection.com.au  in December.  Listed RRP is $240.

Angry

10 ways to annoy a whisky nerd

The growth and boom in the single malt industry in the last 15 years or so has given birth to the rise of the Whisky Nerd.   The sort of person who knows (or think they know) every last detail about a distillery, or a particular bottling, or the latest industry gossip.   They’ll be able to tell you which distilleries still use wormtubs; what year Laphroaig was founded; and – if you hand them a glass of anonymous whisky – they’ll sniff the glass and tell you which distillery it comes from; what its age is; and which warehouseman farted on the day the cask was filled.

 

They are the same people who can get very passionate if they hear you say something about whisky that they disagree with or believe to be incorrect.  Fights have started and blood has been spilt over such simple opinions like which vintage release was the best ever Ardbeg!  (Okay, readers, so was it the 1977 or 1974?)

 

So – if you’re the sort of person who likes to upset an OCD sufferer by visiting their house and tilting all of their hung pictures so that they’re crooked on the wall – here is a list of things you can say or do to annoy a Whisky Nerd:

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Chivas Regal Extra

As someone who’s more known for championing the cause of single malt, it’s very rare for me to pour myself a blended whisky, let alone to then sit down and ponder it for half an hour or so.  It’s even rarer for me to subsequently then make some tasting notes and to give a blend a write up.   But, sometimes, you just can’t turn your back on a good whisky.

 

The good folks at Chivas Brothers have put together a new expression in their Chivas Regal range, going by the simple name of “Extra”.  It doesn’t have an age statement but, price-wise at RRP $73, it sits between the Chivas Regal 12 and Chivas Regal 18 expressions.   Flavour-wise, to my palate, I rate it considerably higher than the 18yo expression, but that’s obviously a very subjective observation.

 

I’m a big fan of Chivas Brothers and what they do in the industry.  From the production guys who are at the coal face at the washbacks and stills, to the tour guides that lead their devoted fans around the distilleries, to the marketing guys who are on the frontline of sales, Chivas is a company I’ve enjoyed collaborating with over the years.   And, on the single malt front, I have a special place in my heart for the likes of Glenlivet, Aberlour, Strathisla, and Longmorn.   But to be fair and honest, Chivas Regal 12yo is a whisky I’ve struggled to warm to.  Chivas Regal Extra, on the other hand, is one that I’m extremely happy to embrace.

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Tobermory Distillery

Something to Mull over – Tobermory & Ledaig

Any whisky lover making the pilgrimage to Scotland invariably makes their way to the west coast, and sooner or later will end up passing through Oban.  Whether heading north to Skye, or south to Islay, sadly, too many travellers overlook the opportunity to jump on a ferry and head west to Mull.   For it is there that a small, hidden gem awaits:  The Tobermory Distillery.

 

The 45 minute ferry trip from Oban chugs slowly through the isles & islands, and on a sunny day, it’s an incredibly scenic and relaxing ride.  Alighting at Craignure, you then have a 10 minute drive north-west on a very rare, luxurious strip of dual-lane road before it transitions to the main highway system of Mull:  The single lane track with a passing bay every 100 metres!  (Wherever you’re driving to on Mull, don’t plan on going any faster than 40-50km/h, and get used to pulling over incessantly to let oncoming traffic pass you).  A further 30 minutes driving from there, and you reach the exceptionally quaint and attractive town of Tobermory.

 

Multi-coloured houses, shops, cafes and pubs hug the road that, in turn, hugs the harbour.  You sense immediately that it’s a relaxed town with that classic, relaxed “island” way of life.  The distillery is located at the southern end of the harbour, but it’s an unassuming building and would take a trained eye to pick its purpose in life.  That, or the ability to read – some well-placed signage gives the game away.

Tobermory Harbour
Tobermory Harbour

 

My day at the distillery was a particularly warm and sunny one, and I was greeted and hosted by the immensely charming, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic Alison Brown.  Alison manages the Visitor Centre, whilst her husband, Graham, is the Distillery Manager.  They’ve been a part of the community here for 17 years, and you sense their warm attachment to the place.

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Balvenie

Balvenie 14yo Caribbean Cask – the Australian launch

Monday 28th July saw the official launch of the eagerly anticipated Balvenie 14yo Caribbean Cask expression in Australia.  Held at The Cuban Place / Parke Davis bar in York Street, Sydney, it saw a gathering of the usual suspects to enjoy what William Grant & Sons Australia do best:  Putting on a great whisky event.

 

Entering the venue, one was greeted immediately by a musical duo playing an intriguing & entertaining mix of songs on an electric guitar and a steel kettle drum!   But before you could quite work out whether you were hearing ABBA or La Bamba, the inimitable James Buntin, Balvenie Ambassador, was there to offer you a dram or a cocktail.  The cocktails – creations of the talented Dick Blanchard – were stylish, attractive, and…it must be said…dangerously more-ish.  But when you walk in the door and you’re handed a glass of Balvenie 21yo within two minutes of arriving, you know you’re at a good event.  The Doublewood 12yo & 17yo expressions were also on hand to try, making for a wonderful spectrum of Balvenie goodness.

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Why nagging about NAS is just noise

Out there in whisky consumerville right now, there are three little letters causing a stir:  NAS.

 

Neutral Alcohol Spirit?

New Amber Strathisla?

How about Non Aggressive Speysiders?

 

No, it’s “No age statement”.  If you read the spite and vitriol from some commentators – mostly chided bloggers who feel the industry owes them something – you’d think it was the most sinful development in whisky since Robert Pattison turned to his brother Walter and asked, “Why don’t we buy some parrots?”

 

(Or, if that reference is a bit obscure for you, then how about the worst sin since the Cardhu Pure Malt fiasco?)

 

The story goes that aged malt is in high demand; supply is short; and bottlers want to flog younger, cheaper whisky.  It’s no longer practical for a distillery portfolio’s “entry level” expression to be 12 years old, and – believe it or not – whisky is made to a price point.  And so it is both simultaneously sensible and opportunistic to create blends or vattings with a large proportion of mostly young stock (say 3-7 years), add in a smaller proportion of older stock, and then bottle the new expression without an age statement, so that the whisky’s youthfulness is not apparent on the label.   Shocking, isn’t it?  The perpetrators should head straight to confession and say three hail Johnnie Walker Blue Labels, right?

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The Top Six Distilleries to Visit Before You Die

Everyone has a bucket list, and I daresay most whisky drinkers would probably list visiting their favourite distillery as a “must do” at some stage in their life.  But if you’re really serious about your whiskies and you could actually get yourself to six distilleries before qualifying for your entitlement of the angels’ share, what are the Top Six to visit?  In no particular order….

 

1. Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich's warehouses
Glenfiddich’s warehouses

 

Is it because it was the first distillery to actively and commercially market its own single malt?  Is it because it’s the largest selling single malt in the world?  Is it because it’s one of the largest distilleries in Scotland?  Is it because it’s still independent and family-owned?  Yes, it’s all of those things, but there’s one other key reason to visit here:  It’s actually a really good distillery to see and experience!

 

There are a range of tours on offer at the Visitor Centre, from the free Classic Tour (which, amazingly, still includes a dram of the 12, 15, and 18yo expressions), to the incredibly comprehensive Pioneer’s Tour (£75) that includes some very special tastings and warehouse visits along the way, plus you can draw and bottle your own 200ml sample from a selection of four different casks.   The guides are professional, knowledgeable, and entertaining, and – despite the fact that this is a major tourist attraction – you do see and experience the real deal.

 

From a technical point of view, despite being one of the largest distilleries and brands, production is still very traditional – including direct fired stills and stillmen who take the middle cut when the strength and purity is right, rather than when the computer goes “bing”.   All in all, it’s the perfect glimpse into the malt whisky industry.

 

2. Edradour

Edradour's Production House
Edradour’s Production House

 

It still claims to be “the smallest distillery in Scotland”, which actually stopped being true quite a few years ago now, but Edradour can certainly lay claim to being one of the prettiest.  Yes, it is small, and its production is quaint…..right down to the draff being hand-shovelled out of the mashtun and onto an old timber cart.  But the valley, the stream, and the buildings are stunning, and the whole of production takes place in a building that’s smaller than most family homes.

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