Some quality time at Jura Distillery

You have to feel sorry for Jura. In terms of Scotch whisky’s regions, it is officially classified as Highland (sub set – Island), but when you think of the Island distilleries, names like Highland Park or Talisker seem to get most of the limelight and romance. Geographically, Jura may as well be Islay – and yet it isn’t, and it can’t claim or borrow Islay’s appeal. It therefore sits as a peculiar distillery, often off people’s radar. Until you taste it. And once you have, it won’t fly under your radar any more.

 

Of course, I write this as an Australian, in a market where Jura has a relatively lower profile. Its biggest market is the UK, where it is the fastest growing malt whisky brand. And, courtesy of my time spent with Willie Cochrane, the distillery manager, I now see it’s no mystery why this distillery is kicking goals.

 

For the unaware, Jura is an island off the west coast of Scotland, sitting immediately north-east of Islay. In fact, the two islands are separated by just 600m, via a body of water known as the Sound of Islay. (The gaelic for this is Caol Ila, which is a name you might already be familiar with!) No one seems to be able to describe Jura without mentioning that it was where George Orwell lived for two years whilst writing 1984, or that the island’s population of just over 200 people are outnumbered by an estimated 6,000 deer! (The name itself is believed to come from the old Norse name for “Deer Island”, so it would seem things haven’t changed much for a millennia.) The fact that every writer – including yours truly now – trots out these two pieces of insignificant trivia suggests that there isn’t much else noteworthy about the island. However, the distillery is fast changing that perception.

 

It is not being unkind to describe Jura (the island) as being remote, barren, and bleak. Driving from the Feolin ferry terminal (a 5 minute jaunt across the water from Port Askaig on Islay), I was struck by the barren and lonely nature of the place.   It says something that the main road is single lane and barely wide enough to accommodate a wide van! From a farming perspective, it is largely infertile and in stark contrast to its close neighbour, Islay, which has enjoyed a much healthier population and a more-than-respectable agricultural industry. Interestingly, in a list of the Scottish islands, Jura ranks 8th largest for its size, yet 31st for its population. And yet it was precisely these concerns about the island’s dwindling population that led to the establishment of the distillery we enjoy today.

 

The original distillery was founded in 1810 and had a fairly typical history for the era until it was closed and dismantled in 1901, subsequently falling into ruins. By the late 1950’s the local community was concerned about the island’s lack of employment prospects and the ability of the island to retain the next generation. A whisky distillery was seen as a passport to improving the island’s economy and prospects, and the new distillery was subsequently built at the site of the original distillery at Craighouse. When the first spirit flowed from the stills in 1963, it’s said that the distillery alone provided employment for a quarter of the island’s male workforce! Willie tells me that whilst the distillery certainly created employment to the island, it didn’t necessarily fulfil its intention to re-generate the population. (He jokes that he was brought to the island for that very task in 1977!)

 

Although the original distillery’s whisky was said to be heavily peated, the spirit flowing since 1963 has been entirely unpeated and blend friendly. Of course, such statements are never absolute, and modern Jura undertook its first peated campaign in 1999. It continues to make heavily peated whisky (peated to 48-55ppm) for one month each year. As such, the various OB single malt expressions of Jura available can vary significantly in their peating levels, and it is a distillery whose style is difficult to pigeonhole today. (But then the same could be said of many other distilleries). The “Superstition” expression for example, readily available and popular in Australia, is a vatting of around 85% older unpeated Jura casks ranging from 13 to 21 years old, with 15% casks of seven year old heavily peated Jura. In contrast, the “Origin” release is unpeated. One of the more interesting expressions is “Prophecy”, a creation using entirely heavily peated spirit that is matured first in 1st fill bourbon casks, then transferred to amoroso sherry butts, and then finally finished in cognac casks. With a range of styles available from the one distillery alone, it’s a brand with many fans and broad appeal. And perhaps this leads me back to where I started – it’s a distillery that is neither Islay nor typically Island/Highland. These days, it rather successfully plays both sides!

 

One of the things that struck me during this visit was how small the production house is, and yet how HUGE the stills are. The mashhouse, turn room, stillhouse, and filling store take up a relatively tiny footprint in building area, compared with many other distilleries of similar production size, but the stills are arguably amongst the biggest in Scotland. Glenmorangie’s stills are famed for their height, and whilst Jura’s stop just a few inches shorter than this, their shape and girth makes Glenmorangie’s stills look like toothpicks! But, of course, it’s all about flavour, and there’s no doubt these four massive lantern stills play a huge role in shaping Jura’s character.

Willie admiring his stills
Willie admiring his stills

 

Willie is one of those great distillery managers who offers a touch of everything: Plant management, production controller, and brand ambassador & raconteur. A warm and engaging man with a great sense of humour, his passion for the distillery is instantly obvious. He came to the distillery from Glasgow as an engineer in 1977, but shortly afterwards moved into production, before eventually becoming manager. He was offered the gig at Arran Distillery when the opportunity arose, but turned it down due to concerns about the international travel that might be involved in promoting the brand. The result is another wonderful story that is so common in the industry: Someone spending over 37 years with the one distillery.

 

Up until recently, roughly 40% of Jura’s production was bottled as the brand’s own single malt, which is impressive for the distillery’s scale and corporate background. (The other 60% was destined for blending). However, with the brand growing so quickly, it’s thought as much as 100% of all maturing casks may need to be reserved for distillery bottlings in the near future.   It’s on the record that the distillery embarked on a strategic plan in 1999 to improve quality and increase market share. Your whisky is only as good as the wood you put it in, and significant investment went into ensuring quality casks were sourced. In fact, for most of the year 2000, thousands of already-maturing casks were re-racked into better quality oak, and sales have increased threefold in the last four years alone as the whisky and its marketing gain traction. The distillery has been operating 24/7 since 2007, running close to its maximum capacity of 2.3M litres per annum. Its five warehouses on the island are full, and new fillings are being transferred to Invergordon on the mainland for maturation. Such is the price of success.

 

At the conclusion of my time with Willie, I was left in the capable hands of Danielle, who led me through a tasting of some of the core-range, plus a number of very special bottlings.   I was privileged to taste:

–          Elixir (10 years in 1st fill bourbon, followed by 2 years in sherry)

–          Diurach’s Own (14 years in 1st fill bourbon, followed by 2 years in sherry)

–          Prophecy (around 14 years old, from a regime involving bourbon, sherry, and cognac casks)

–          Feis Ile 2013 (As a 14yo, it was originally filled into 1st fill bourbon casks, then re-racked in a burgundy barrique, and then given a second finishing period in a vintage 1963 sherry butt. One of only 663 bottles at 52.4%, this was a truly amazing and incredible whisky, winning my vote as best bottling in what was already a very impressive line up.

–          Feis Ile 2014 “Tastival” (Okay, I was lucky to taste this a few days before it was officially launched. I’m sworn to secrecy until the actual release, so come back in a few days and I’ll spill the beans regarding its details and creation).

–          Turas Mara (Meaning “Sea Journey”, this was a particularly coastal whisky, with a touch of brininess, and another fascinating cask regime that involved bourbon, burgundy, and ruby port casks.

–          Air (This very left-of-centre bottling was incredibly salty and dry, thanks chiefly to being matured in European oak that had been seasoned outdoors by the coast.)

–          30yo (Most 30yo expressions can start to get weighed down by oak, but this was still vibrant and full of life. It offered glorious dark chocolate and coffee notes.)

IMG_2351

 

I scribbled tasting notes as we went through each of these, but I won’t indulge myself or bore you by reproducing them here. And whilst each whisky offered a different shade of colour on the spectrum, one thing they all had in common was a wonderfully rich, oily mouthfeel. Regardless of whether the whisky was 40% or 52%, each had a warm and velvety texture that scored extra points.

 

 

My exposure to Jura prior to this visit was limited only to the Origin and Superstition expressions available in Australia. And, despite four previous visits to Islay, I’d never taken the time to cross the water and get to Jura. On a whirlwind journey that saw me go from Sydney to Glasgow to Islay (by car!!!) to Jura to Oban all in less than 48 hours (before subsequently heading up to Speyside), I’m so glad I made the effort to get to Jura – I feel I’ve finally come to know the distillery, and turned it from being an acquaintance into a friend.

 

 

My sincere thanks go to Jill Inglis at Whyte & Mackay for facilitating this visit; to Willie Cochrane for his generosity and time (on what was a very busy day for the distillery!) and to Danielle for sharing her passion and some drams with me.

 

Slainte,

AD

 

(For those interested, my visit to Jura was at 10.30am on 26th May 2014, and this was written up in its entirety whilst catching the 3.30pm ferry from Islay back to the mainland that same afternoon!)

Scoring whisky – does it really add up?

If you’re roughly my age and vintage (or older), it’s possible one of the earliest information resources you used to start your whisky journey was Michael Jackson’s “Malt Whisky Companion”.   First published in 1989, it was a book that took whisky writing to new heights for many reasons, but one of the more far-reaching elements it introduced was the concept of scoring whiskies.   Each entry in the book would be given a score out of 100 and, suddenly, whisky readers had a point of reference and a measuring stick to judge one whisky over another.

Jackson’s scoring system was interesting.  He scored whiskies out of 100, and yet he explained that each whisky was actually given a starting score of 50, just for turning up!   He’d then add points to reflect the quality of the dram, and one of the pages in the book then explained his scale so that you could interpret each score and calibrate it to a level of quality.  However, being the slightly mathematical person I am, this system troubled me:  If a whisky’s score starts at 50 just for turning up, and Jackson gave a whisky a score of 80, was his score actually 80/100, or was it 30/50.   One suggests a mark of 80%, the other only 60%.  Quite a difference in perception, wouldn’t you agree?

14 years later, Jim Murray came along with his Whisky Bible and his own scoring system.   A whisky’s qualities were defined and critiqued by four characteristics (Nose, Taste, Finish & Balance), and each characteristic was given a score out of 25, thus arriving at a final score out of 100.   However, whereas Jackson would start with 50 and then add marks for quality; Murray would effectively start with 100 and then deduct marks for faults or flaws.  My point here is simply that a whisky that scored 80/100 in Jackson’s book couldn’t really be compared with a whisky that scored 80/100 in Murray’s.   And that’s assuming that both writers had the same tastebuds, preferences, likes, and dislikes – which they didn’t!

One of the biggest problems with scoring whiskies is that it is so subjective.  There’s no international standard or system in place for scoring, and – even if there was – we’ll never escape the fact that what tastes great to one palate might be awful to another’s.   And if someone – be they a famous whisky writer, or just a humble punter – gives a whisky a score of 9/10, is that really the gospel indicator of the whisky’s quality?   Should a whisky’s reputation live or die by a number that is assigned to it?

The other – and more complicated – issue with scoring is that everyone calibrates differently, i.e. we all work to different scales of value and relativity.  Again, there is no international or standardised system or scale in place.  I might work to a scale where anything over 75/100 is an exceptionally good whisky.   However, if you’re used to reading Jim Murray’s Bible, you’re probably accustomed to thinking that a whisky has to get to 85/100 before it rates in the upper echelons.   At least with Jim, you see a large and diverse range of scores that hit the full spectrum of quality.   Conversely, I remain amused (if not confused) by one particular blogger I’ve noticed who scores every single whisky he tastes somewhere between 87 and 92 out of 100.  Since a mere (and ridiculous) 5% separates his best ever whisky from his worst ever whisky, what can you realistically take from his scoring?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against scoring whiskies and, indeed, I critique and score whiskies incredibly frequently in my various whisky roles and activities.  I have my own system and scale, and I rely on scoring whiskies to distinguish the goodies from the baddies.  It’s a good thing.   But I readily acknowledge that my scoring really only relates to my palate; my preferences; and reflects my own personal whisky journey and experience.   And I’d suggest that that’s not transferrable.

Following on from that very point, there are two great examples which illustrate why praising or condemning a whisky based on someone else’s score is fraught with danger:

1. You have to know the scorer’s journey and experience.   Someone who’s been drinking and critiquing whiskies for 20 years will have a very different outlook on a particular whisky to someone who’s been at it for 6 months.  That’s not at all being dismissive or disrespectful to the newbie; it’s just a fact that we judge and rate based on experience and by comparing back to what we’ve had previously.  Someone who has only just been introduced to Macallan will probably score their latest releases very differently to someone who was enjoying Macallan 15 years ago when the likes of Macallan Gran Reserva were going around!

2. Almost every whisky drinker I know has had the experience where they’ve identified a whisky that scored extremely highly in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and then gone off and sourced a bottle of same.  They’re high with hope and expectation that they’re about to taste a gem, only to be underwhelmed or wonder what Jim was making all the fuss about when the whisky fails to impress them.  “Did Jim get it wrong?”   “Was his sample different to what’s in my bottle?”    “Did my bottle get left out in the sun?”   These are the doubts and questions we ask as we struggle to comprehend why something we perceive as being plain or nothing special was scored 95/100 by one of the great whisky writers.    No, Jim didn’t get it wrong, and neither did you.  The point is, Jim’s score was Jim’s score, and your score is yours.

My final observation of why scoring whisky can ultimately be unhelpful is demonstrated in most issues of Whisky Magazine.  The new releases that get published are typically scored by two panellists, together with some short tasting notes.   If the same whisky gets a score of 9.1/10 by Dave Broom, and 5.9/10 by Martine Nouet, how can you possibly gauge if it’s a good whisky or not?   All you know is that one person loved it and the other didn’t.

My advice instead is to focus not on the score, but on the tasting notes.  Look for aroma and flavour descriptors that appeal and that you know you like, and you’re far more likely to be satisfied.   ‘Coz I don’t know about you, but I drink whisky for its flavour…not for its score.

Glenmorangie Companta Private Edition

If there’s one thing that gets hard-to-please whisky enthusiasts excited and eager in anticipation, it’s news of a new Glenmorangie release.  Even more so when the release in question is from the annual limited Private Edition range.  The Private Edition range has included such previous gems as Ealanta (Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year, 2014), Artein, and – my personal favourite – Sonnalta PX.

And so, not surprisingly, I was pretty keen and eager when I learned the latest instalment, Companta, had finally reached our shores.   After hearing so many wonderful things about it from some industry friends & colleagues whose palates I trust, I was delighted when I finally had a chance to taste this new expression.  I’d love to just hit you with my tasting notes and call it a day, but I wouldn’t be doing the whisky or the distillery justice if I didn’t give a bit of background information first.

First of all, let me put all my cards on the table and confess that I have quite a personal affinity for Glenmorangie.  I’ve visited the distillery many times; I’ve enjoyed pretty much every release they’ve put out; and I’ve spent some time with Dr Bill Lumsden over a meal or two to know what makes him tick.   But as someone who’s always at the coal face of tasting and critiquing whiskies for the purposes of SMWS imports, I can certainly be objective enough to know when a whisky is good or bad, regardless of its pedigree.  In this instance, make no mistake: Companta is a stunningly good whisky.

Glenmorangie is famous for many things and it’s hard to write about the distillery without making mention of them for the uninitiated.   Tucked away up in the Highlands, north of Inverness in the township of Tain, the distillery draws its water from the Tarlogie Springs; a very rare example of a Scottish distillery using hard water.  (Almost every other distillery uses soft water).   Glenmorangie features the tallest stills in Scotland, resulting in its famously light, fragrant, complex whisky.

Glenmorangie Stillhouse

However, where Glenmorangie has really broken from the pack in recent years is its wood regime.  With up to 60% of a whisky’s final flavour being influenced by the oak cask it matures in, the quality of the wood is critical, and Glenmorangie goes to great lengths to ensure a supply of top quality casks.  Its wood regime is legendary, as is the man behind the magic – the aforementioned Dr Bill Lumsden.  Whilst Glenmorangie can’t claim to have invented cask finishing (or extra maturing, as it’s often termed these days), they certainly excelled at it, and Dr Bill has been at the helm of enormous research into both wood science, cask preparation and treatment, and learning what casks can (and can’t) do.   Carrying the title of Glenmorangie’s “Director of Whisky Creation & Distilling”, he has tried all manner of experiments and exercises in finishing whiskies in casks that previously matured or seasoned some other wine or spirit.  Bourbon casks, sherry casks, wine casks, rum casks….the list is impressive.  And, bear in mind, the public only hears about and tastes the finishes that work.  Bill doesn’t mind sharing that plenty of experiments miss the mark…..or worse!

Glenmorangie Distillery

But if you wanted an insight into just how complex and creative Dr Bill’s work can be, this Companta release illustrates it perfectly.  The whisky is a vatting (a combination, or assemblage) of two different extra maturation campaigns.   Firstly, Glenmorangie spirit that was happily maturing in traditional American white oak ex-bourbon barrels was transferred into casks that had previously held Grand Cru wine from Clos de Tart.  Secondly, another batch of spirit undergoing traditional ex-bourbon maturation was transferred into casks that had previously held a sweet, fortified wine from Côtes du Rhône.   After a suitable period of second maturation, these two campaigns were then combined (evidently taking many trials and attempts to get the balance just right) to create the magic that is Companta – the Scots Gaelic word for friendship.   

And so, finally, to my tasting notes:

Nose: Glenmorangie’s DNA is readily identifiable at the heart of the nose, but there’s plenty of new colour and decoration around the sides.  There are some rich fruits like currents, berry compote, and stewed plums to tempt and tantalise, as well as rhubarb and….toffee?  It’s one of those noses that offers you something new each time you go back to it.

Palate: Sweet toffee, butterscotch, dark chocolate and Cherry Ripe bars.  Honey drizzled on oats.  At 46% ABV and non-chillfiltered, the mouthfeel and texture is rich, soft and heavenly.  A hint of Highland heather smoke lilts around also.

Finish: More chocolate notes (choc custard?), and finally the malt has a chance to rear its head and remind you that this is whisky, not dessert.

Comments: Yet another shining light in the Glenmorangie stable, and a great example of what finishing in exotic casks can do when it’s done right.  I love that this offers all the staples of a good Glenmorangie dram, but then goes in other directions and broadens the spectrum to embrace more chocolate and fruit notes.  Amazingly and intensely complex and complete.  Well done (again), Dr Bill.

Companta is available now in all good liquor outlets around Australia, and has an RRP of $170.   Get it before it’s gone and enjoy one of the most unique and complex drams I’ve tasted for quite some time.

Slainte,

Andrew

SMWS Whisky Dinner with Franz Scheurer at Bentley Restaurant & Bar

Whisky dinners are a dime a dozen these days.

Actually, that’s not true…I concede they’re not that frequent, and they definitely cost more than a dime.  However, where they often become tiresome is that they are usually just no more than a regular dinner with some whiskies thrown into the equation – rarely with much thought (or expertise) being applied to match the two.

Anyone can match a whisky to a dish.  It’s relatively easy to taste a dish and then reach for your nearest whisky that vaguely shares commonalities.  The classics get wheeled out all the time – smoked salmon with Talisker; venison with Glenmorangie; Ardbeg with dark chocolate; etc.  Yawn.

Where real skill lies is to actually match the food to the whisky.  Did you catch the distinction?  Who out there can taste a whisky, and then go off and create or re-shape a dish that is built around the whisky’s flavours; builds or contrasts against the malt’s texture, depth, and alcohol; and then – most amazingly of all – create a pairing where the whisky improves the dish, and the dish improves the whisky?   I know of only one man who can do this.  And his name is Franz Scheurer.

Franz’s chief philosophy with food and whisky pairing is some simple maths:  1 + 1 = 3.   It’s not enough for the whisky and the dish to complement (and compliment) one another – they should enhance and improve one another.

Franz is a legend in food and whisky circles, and I’d be straying too far from the main thrust of this article if I was to present his CV here.  Plenty has been written about him in other online and hardcopy publications (including the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine) and if you want to jump onboard, you can subscribe to his thoughts and reviews at Australian Gourmet Pages, and follow him on Twitter.

The Society (SMWS) has teamed up with Franz many times in the past to present Whisky Dinners of unrivalled depth, complexity, creativity and achievement.  These events have seen Franz collaborate and work with some of Australia’s best chefs – Neil Perry, Tetsuya Wakuda, Darren Robertson, Guillaume Brahimi, Jared Ingersoll….the list goes on.   For this particular event, Franz worked with one of his favourite colleagues – Brent Savage, of Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Sydney.

The dinner was on Thursday 8th May, and 50 diners gathered at the restaurant to be greeted with one of Franz’s traditions:  Starting the night off with a whisky cocktail of his own making.  This particular cocktail, coined “Cŵn Poeth” (Welsh for white dog), used Buffalo Trace White Dog, Amer Picon and Green Chartreuse, and set the tone nicely for the evening.

The menu was as per the listing below, and the evening flowed smoothly and satisfyingly.  At the conclusion of each dish, yours truly said a few words about the whisky, and Franz explained his thoughts and strategy behind the match.  To help curtail what is already a long post, I’ve simply added a few comments under each course below.

Course 1
Sweet Western Australian Prawns with Fennel, Mushroom & Shiso
SMWS Cask 76.115 (Mortlach) 18yo alc 56.5 – “Glamping in a Yurt”

IMG_3651Resized

This dish alone gives you insight into Franz’s brain: Who would taste a heavily sherried, meaty Mortlach, and then elect to pair it with a dish consisting primarily of raw prawns?   The match worked a treat, and immediately set the bar extraordinarily high for what was to come….

Course 2
Charred Rangers Valley Beef Tartare with Black Tahini
SMWS Cask 131.2 (Hanyu) 13yo alc 55.1 – “Magic carpet in a sweetie shop”

IMG_3654Resized

This ultra-rare Japanese whisky was from a 1st-fill sherry cask, and Franz drew upon the smokiness in the black tahini to create an amazing fusion with the sweet, savoury raw beef.

Course 3
Pea and Buttermilk Soup & Spanner Crab
SMWS Cask 73.62 (Aultmore) 24yo alc 57.8 – “Magical, mellifluous marvelosity”

IMG_3655Resized

Yet another sherried dram, and arguably the most complex and sublime whisky in the line-up. Again, you see Franz go well outside the box with a pairing of very “green” flavours, using the peas and mint to good effect.

Course 4
Kurobuta Pork with Macadamia Milk, Wattle Crumbs & Rhubarb
SMWS Cask 37.55 (Cragganmore) 12yo alc 56.6 – “Surprising smoky and savoury”

photo

The whisky must be one of the rarest Cragganmores on the planet, with a very discernible hint of peat and smoke.  The textures, spices, and flavours afforded by the wattle crumbs and macadamia milk struck a resonant chord.

Course 5
Aerated Chocolate, Fig Leaf Ice Cream & Lemon Aspen
SMWS Cask 53.198 (Caol Ila) 18yo alc 59.1 – “Wasabi on a California Roll”

IMG_3658Resized

 Well, I won’t deny it, this dish was the whole reason for the dinner. When I work with Franz, I always give him free rein to do whatever he likes.  This dish was the exception.  The dessert is a regular on the Bentley menu, and I told Franz we were to feature it (without tinkering with it) and it was up to him to find the whisky to go with it.  The Caol Ila, with its vanilla maltiness, brooding peat, and slightly tangy flavour combined so well with the dish, I was devastated when my aerated chocolate ran out!

And so that was the night that was.  Yet another pinnacle in the history of SMWS Whisky Dinners, with all and sundry spellbound and delighted with the dance that had just played out on their tastebuds.   For Franz, you got the feeling this was just another day at the office.

Sincere thanks are due to Brent Savage for the magic he served up on the plate, and to his team for their wonderful hospitality.  Thanks are also due, as always, to Suzy Tawse, in the engine room of the Society, for handling the logistics on the night.

 

Lagavulin or Laphroaig – which is better?

It’s a question almost every Islay fan asks themselves at some point in their whisky journey:  Laphroaig or Lagavulin…which one is better?

IMG_2791

Is there a definitive answer?  Yes, there’s some juicy stuff we can explore over the next minute or two:

For the sake of any comparison, let’s get a few obvious things out of the way first:

  • Both whiskies come from Islay, and yes, they are next door neighbours, just one mile apart from one another.
  • They both make heavily peated, smoky, medicinal whisky.
  • Laphroaig is owned by Beam Global (now Suntory!) and Lagavulin is from the Diageo stable, one of their original “Classic Malts”.
  • The flagship expression of Laphroaig is the 10yo, whilst the flagship expression of Lagavulin is the 16yo. Thus, any comparison of the two main combatants has to take into account a six year age difference.
  • There are numerous core-range expressions of Laphroaig available (e.g. Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, PX Cask, and older variants such as the 18yo and 25yo).
  • For Lagavulin fans, the core-range alternatives are much thinner on the ground – depending on which market you’re in, you may be able to source the Distillers Edition version and/or the 12yo Cask Strength expression.
  • Laphroaig is pretty easy to find amongst the independent bottlers. Lagavulin, on the other hand, is a little scarce amongst the IB’s.

IMG_8625

To be frank, no one can possibly assert that distillery “X” is better than distillery “Y”.  We can certainly discuss which one we prefer, or which one tickles our tastebuds more than the other.  We can even play the emotional angle and declare which distillery we warm to most or feel a stronger allegiance to.  But, in the context of whisky, “better” is a hugely personal and subjective measuring stick, and I’m not about to start World War III by declaring one better than the other.  It’s really about which one is better for you.

Making broad, sweeping statements about certain distilleries or whiskies is increasingly fraught with danger these days, as there seems to be an exception to every rule. (For example, you can’t make the simple statement that Ardbeg peats its malt to 50ppm phenols, when it simultaneously produces heavier peated expressions (Supernova) and lighter expressions (Blasda)). But I’ll make a few generalisations now, and ask that the more precise readers don’t get too distraught if I blur a line or two.

Generally speaking, Laphroaig peats its malt to 35ppm. Officially, that’s the same as Caol Ila and Lagavulin. However, long term Lagavulin fans would be aware that Lagavulin used to peat much higher than this – for a good stretch back in the late 20th century, it was typically around 50ppm.   The decision to reduce the peating level back to 35ppm was made in the mid 1990’s, and so over the last 5 years or so (as the casks containing lower peated spirit have reached 16 years old), the vattings for each release have been carefully blended to manage the transition, so that Lagavulin fans don’t wake up one day and notice a sudden change! What I’m saying, however, is that if you can compare a Lagavulin purchased today with one that was available on the shelves, say, 6 or 7 years ago, you should notice a difference.

Of course, the malt’s simple phenol rating in ppm is only one contributor to a whisky’s final style and flavour, and there are many other influencing factors. The best way to appreciate this is to look specifically at Lagavulin and Caol Ila for a moment. Both distilleries use precisely the same, identical malt, sourced and peated to the same specification, and produced at the same maltings, i.e. Port Ellen. However, the two whiskies share very little in common when it comes to the final flavour, and – to the palate – one tastes peatier than the other, even though they both started with malt that was peated to the same level. Why is this? The answer is a little scientific: Lagavulin ferments for 55 hours, Caol Ila for 80; Caol Ila’s stills are tall and plain, Lagavulin’s are described as “plump”; the stills at Lagavulin are charged to 85-95% capacity, Caol Ila to 50%; Lagavulin takes a wider cut of the spirit run, from 72% ABV down to 59%, Caol Ila collects just from 75% down to 65%. I appreciate these are dry statistics that may not interest all readers, but they go a long way to explaining why the flavours and textures from each distillery are so markedly different and why one is peatier than the other. (Bear in mind that we haven’t even put the spirit into wood yet, and we know that the cask will contribute around 60% to the final flavour in the whisky).

So it is for these reasons and more that Lagavulin and Laphroaig will always offer you a different experience, even though they both use malt with similar peating levels. But it’s worth exploring the differences in their peat, also: For starters, Laphroaig’s barley comes from three sources: Roughly 15% is malted at the distillery in the traditional way, using local, Laphroaig peat. (More on that in a moment). Of the remaining 85%, the majority comes from Port Ellen, and some from Crisp Maltings on the mainland.

And this is where the principal difference between Lagavulin and Laphroaig is discernible on our palate: Malt made at Port Ellen uses Lagavulin’s / Diageo’s peat, which is dug from a bog at a very different location and altitude to Laphroaig’s peat bog. The peat bog at the lower altitude, which in millennia past may have been below sea level, has a much brinier, seaweedy composition than the peat from the other field. So if you’ve directly compared Lagavulin and Laphroaig and felt that one seemed more maritime-like, with perhaps a saltier tang or a more seaweedy undertone, then this might well explain it. (So which distillery owns which peat bog? Taste the two whiskies and tell me what you think!)

And so, ultimately, it comes down to what floats your boat. At 10 years old, the Laphroaig is a bit more vibrant and energetic. At 16 years old, the Lagavulin is slightly more refined and genteel (noting that peatiness diminishes with time in the cask). To my palate, Laphroaig offers a green, mossy bonfire smoke and a sweeter malt, whereas Lagavulin offers a drier, toastier, more maritime experience. I honestly can’t tell you which one I prefer, because my answer will change each time, depending on the day, the weather, the mood I’m in, and other variable parameters.

So let’s answer the very original question:  Which one of these is better?  Whichever one is within arm’s reach.  There…I’ve said it.

Cheers,

AD

 

The Glenlivet Guardians’ Chapter Limited Edition

Fans of Glenlivet may recall a bit of noise in September last year when Ian Logan, International Brand Ambassador for Chivas Bros (Glenlivet, Chivas Regal, etc), flew into town to present a series of Masterclasses that were co-ordinated through Vintage Cellars.  Attendees were presented with three unique expressions of Glenlivet, aptly named Classic, Exotic, and Revival, and asked to vote for their favourite of the three.   The same exercise was undertaken in 36 other countries around the world, in order to find out which of the three would be the global hit.   A month or two ago, it was subsequently revealed that “Exotic” got the gong, evidently winning favour with the majority of tasters.  Personally, I was pretty chuffed with that outcome, as Exotic was certainly the expression that got my vote, and it was the hands-down winner in the session that I attended.

That same whisky – Exotic – has now been bottled and released as a Limited Edition, and launches this month in Australia, badged as “The Guardians’ Chapter”.   More about the whisky in a moment…..

For me, the whisky itself is only half of the story.  The other half relates to the Guardians of The Glenlivet.   The name sounds like some sort of group or sect you’d encounter in Lord of the Rings, but it’s basically Glenlivet’s fan club, set up to both reward and incorporate its loyal drinkers.   Ever since Laphroaig launched the Friends of Laphroaig club back in 1994, many other brands and distilleries have followed suit and created similar clubs (e.g. The Ardbeg Committee, Balvenie Warehouse 24, etc), and such initiatives are a tremendous vehicle for better connecting whisky drinkers with the distilleries they love.

Signing up as a Guardian has its benefits – not the least of which was the chance to participate in this crowd-sourced whisky!  Being a Guardian also gives you members-only access to private tastings, limited edition releases, and exclusive downloads.  And if you visit the distillery, you’ll also be granted access to the Guardians’ Library.  Reached by a narrow, almost secret set of stairs, you can enjoy a complimentary dram in some VERY nice surrounds.  Below is a photo I took inside the library during my 2011 visit.  (Incidentally, the exterior shot above was taken on the same day).

IMG_2986

But back to the whisky.   Glenlivet is one of the mighty brands – indeed, it is the distillery that nearly every other distiller in Speyside (and beyond) tried to emulate or ride on the coat-tails of when its name became synonymous with quality whisky in the 19th century.  Today, it is the biggest selling malt whisky in the USA, and – since the distillery expansion in 2009/10 – it is now one of the biggest producing distilleries in Scotland.  Its flagship 12yo expression is simply classic Scotch whisky, offering sweet maltiness, soft citrus,  and that textbook Speyside grassiness.

Glenlivet Guardian

And that is where and why the Guardians’ Chapter release (pictured above) is such a winner – because it offers a new and unique colour on the Glenlivet spectrum.  The regular 12yo expression is crafted using almost entirely ex-bourbon barrels, with very little sherry influence.   The Guardians’ Chapter, in contrast, uses a higher proportion of sherry butts in the vatting, thus injecting a healthy dose of dried fruits, nuts, spice, and sweetness.

This limited edition release (there are only 2,000 cases available worldwide) has been bottled at 48.7% and is non chill-filtered.  In my book, these two things instantly make it a dram worth paying attention to.  (Again, it also provides further contrast and a point of difference from the regular core-range bottlings, which are bottled at 40 or 43% and are chill-filtered).

I make no secret of the fact that I love sherried whiskies, and that’s one of the reasons the Guardians’ Chapter pushes my buttons.  No, it’s not heavily sherried, like a Glenfarclas or Aberlour a’Bunadh for example, but it strikes a good balance that many other vattings of different cask types struggle to get right.  On the palate, it shares some of the features of the 18yo, which has long been famed for its depth and  richness in flavour, and its luxurious mouthfeel.    But enough blether – how about some tasting notes, right?

The nose is a classic Speyside nose, and the Glenlivet DNA is readily identifiable.  The sherry is soft, gentle, and well integrated – it sits happily in the vatting and doesn’t dominate or upset the balance.  I also found hints of cloves, ginger snap biscuits, and white pepper.

The palate was gentle and caressing in texture (bear in mind that most of the whisky I sample and drink is cask-strength, so 48.7% was actually a step down for me!) but wonderfully rich, spicy, and invigorating.  I found shortbread, dried fruits (raisins, apples, and figs), and hints of marmalade.  The finish was medium in length, and stayed sweet.

If you enjoy Speyside whiskies and you’re looking for a whisky with a bit more zest, this is one malt I’m happy to recommend.  It’s available exclusively through Vintage Cellars and will retail for around $115.   And don’t forget that Limited Editions are…………..exactly that!

Slainte,

AD

 

Whisky fairs – from the other side of the table

Whisky enthusiasts in Australia (and the rest of the world!)  will no doubt be aware of the rise of various whisk(e)y fairs, expos, and shows being put on in various capital cities around the country.  From the original MWSoA Convention Expo in Canberra in 2003 (and its subsequent incarnations in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in 2005, 2007, and 2013 respectively) to the emergence of Whisky Live in 2009 in Sydney and it subsequently becoming a capital city road show in more recent years; there are more shows around than ever before.  Sydney this year actually has three big shows – The Whisky Show, Whisky Live, and The Whisky Fair, in that order, respectively.

To those not familiar with the set up, such fairs & expos offer punters a tremendous opportunity to taste and experience a huge range of different whiskies.  Typically held in halls or function centre venues, local exhibitors and distributors all set up their own tables/stands and showcase their portfolio and range of whiskies for all and sundry to taste.   Imagine walking into a huge room and being confronted with anywhere between 50 and 200 different whiskies to taste at your own pace and discretion!  The phrase “kid in a lolly shop” is an apt comparison!

For the brands and distributors, such expos offer a fantastic forum to get their whiskies “out there” and on the radar of whisky drinkers who might otherwise only be familiar with what’s stocked at their local bottle-o.  The supermarket liquor stores aren’t about to crack open a $150 bottle of whisky in their store so that you can “try before you buy”, but whisky expos offer the perfect opportunity for you to taste and try a plethora of different whiskies for a modest entrance fee, so you can then decide where best to direct your hard-earned at the bottleshop.

On the local scene, the whisky expos have also been a fantastic vehicle for the Australian whisky distillers to get their whiskies, name and faces out amongst the punters.   Despite the plethora of expos and the huge demands on time and stock, the Australian distillers have been quick to embrace the expos and commit to showcasing their wares.   Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this development, at least for this observer, has been the surprise, warmth and enthusiasm with which Aussie whisky drinkers are embracing their locally-made malts.  And why wouldn’t they?  You only need to taste a dram or two to discover what the rest of the world has been saying for some time:  Australia is making some very good single malt whiskies.   The best in the world, actually, if you saw the recent major Whisky Magazine awards!

And whilst these expos are wonderful events for the industry and genuinely a thrill and a privilege to be involved with, it’s not all fun and games – and certainly not always when you’re on the other side of the table.   My role in the whisky industry enables me to sit and play on either side of the fence, and I’m happy to be a regular punter on one day and a consultant/educator/writer the next.  Whether freelance or wearing my Scotch Malt Whisky Society hat, I’ve had plenty of experience of standing behind the exhibitor’s table and pouring drams, as well as being in front of the table with glass outstretched.  And this gives one perspective that I doubt too many others will have considered – what is the experience like for those actually serving the drams?

For the punter, it’s all a great deal:  Plenty to taste and drink; a bite of food; the luxury to proceed at your own pace and try whatever you like; and the opportunity to speak casually with the various brand ambassadors or even distillery owners.  For the folks behind the table, yes it’s mostly fun, and yes, it’s a worthwhile and rewarding undertaking.  But let me give some further insight….

For the exhibitor, the two biggest challenges are time and stock:  Committing to an event means sacrificing your time and your precious whisky.  For brands that bring in vast quantities of ubiquitous core-range stock, the latter probably isn’t much of a concern.  But for specialist bottlers and importers (such as the Scotch Malt Whisky Society) that might only bring 24 bottles of a rare, specific, single-cask bottling into the country, it’s a bittersweet feeling when you have to “lose” three or four of those precious 24 just to pour out on the day!  For some of the shows that have three sessions over two days (typically a Friday & Saturday), it’s also a physically demanding affair:  It means standing on your feet non-stop for 3 x 4-hour sessions; leaning forward and straining to hear the questions and enquiries over the din of the room, and repeating yourself several hundred times as the same questions get asked again and again.  It might not sound like much, but if you have ambitions to be a whisky brand ambassador, first give this exercise a go at home sometime:  After a long and hard week at work, when all you want to do is relax and unwind on the weekend, get up on Saturday, spend an hour setting up your display, and then stand behind a table, leaning forward slightly from 12noon until 4pm.  Give yourself a break for an hour, then do it again from 5pm until 9pm.  For the full eight hours, regurgitate out loud in an uncomfortably raised voice the same 45 second sales pitch about your brand every four minutes.  Trust me, you’ll sleep well on the Sunday, and your voice might return by Tuesday!

Of course, it’s a happy and rewarding experience when you connect with a genuinely interested or passionate punter who wants to know all about the whisky you’re pouring or the brand you’re representing.   When you’re showcasing a brand or a distillery that few people have heard of, it’s an honour to educate and impart knowledge and awareness to folks who truly want to learn, taste, and expand their whisky knowledge.  For the most part, the majority of attendees at these events buy into the exchange and it’s a great two-way experience.   However, in an environment where high-strength alcohol is freely flowing, the ugly side can also rear its head.   It’s usually at around the 90-minute mark of a four-hour session that you start to see it emerge.  First-timers who either aren’t used to the format, the pace, or the high ABV can quickly be overwhelmed and have to make hasty exits – and not always unescorted!  Despite good intentions and awareness, RSA is hard to police at these events and the reality is that punters continue to dram long after they should have stopped or been stopped.  Some events have a notional voucher system which is intended to limit the number of drams each participant can try and hence control the extent of inebriation.  However, collecting the vouchers is neither encouraged nor enforced, which certainly detracted from one event that got particularly awkward during a Saturday session.   At recent shows, I’ve seen people completely lose balance and collapse on the floor (one person actually taking out a stand and a banner in the process); people vomit and make a mess of themselves and the toilet floors; and – for the first time this year – I encountered a particularly aggressive punter who made things pretty uncomfortable for those around him.  By the four hour mark of these sessions, it’s not always rosy.

Theft from one’s stock or display stand is also an issue – this year, all of the various elements and components of the Society’s Ultimate Whisky Tasting kit were knocked off from the stand over the course of a session at one of the expos.  Specially badged tasting glasses also disappeared, as well as display items and literature from our stand that clearly weren’t under a “Please help yourself” sign.

As a sober participant in a room that is becoming increasingly tipsy, it’s also amusing to observe the various messages, trends, behaviour and rumours and that make their way around the room.  Stories and snippets quickly circulate around the crowd, e.g.  “The guys at the stand over there are pouring really big drams compared to the rest” or “Give that stand over there a miss; the bloke serving doesn’t actually know anything about his whisky, he’s just been employed to pour” are two oft-heard classics.  My favourite is “The XYZ stand has something special under the counter – make sure you say that Marty sent you and they’ll get it out for you.”  Manning the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s stand, I’ve found myself in the position of showcasing the oldest and/or most expensive whisky in the room at some of these events.   Many would flock to the stand citing “I hear you guys have got the good stuff”, or “My mates told me you have a kick-arse Caol Ila”.  Yes, it’s good for the ego.  And, in all truth, I don’t mind pouring out a dram of an $800 rare single cask bottling at the start of the session when interest and appreciation is high.  However, by the end of the session, when folks with glazed eyes and slurred words rudely thrust their empty glass at you from two rows back in the crowd, you know they have neither the sense nor the faculties to remotely understand or appreciate the rare and special nectar you’re in charge of dispensing.  “Are you aware this distillery closed in 1986, and there are only 18 bottles of this whisky in the entire country?” I’d explain.  “That’s nice mate, just *#@%ing pour it” was a common reply by the end of the sessions.  It truly breaks your heart.

The increase in such expos and their close proximity to one another means there’s a degree of event cannibalisation and over-familiarity creeping in.  As mentioned above, Sydney drinkers are blessed this year to have three such expos all taking place within a few months of one another.  The individual (and very separate) organisers of these three expos are all fishing in the same pond and whilst there is no fear of under-subscription from the punters (each session is always a sell-out) I wonder for how much longer the major (and minor!) drinks companies can continue to support these events every time?

Whisky is a social drink, and it’s no different for the exhibitors.   We tend to all know one another, either from previous chapters in our CV’s, or simply through being neighbours at previous expos.  When a session comes to an end and the last punter is ushered out the door, it’s great to unwind with one another; share stories, swap drams, perhaps head out for dinner together; and to re-charge the batteries – all in time for the next session!  Would I swap these experiences or decline the chance to be involved?  Not in a heartbeat.

So, in the event of some of the preceding paragraphs sounding like a bleating whinge (which they certainly aren’t intended to be!) you may well ask why do we knowingly sign up for these gigs time and time again and put ourselves through it?  The answer is short and simple:  Because all of us have an undying love for whisky and a deeply ingrained desire to share its joy with other people.    For every ill-behaved punter who might make the moment a chore, there are a hundred wonderful punters whose eyes light up when they taste that special dram that makes their day – and subsequently yours.

Slainte,

Andrew

Ardbeg and Auriverdes

Ardbeg Day and Auriverdes


Ardbeg. The very name conjures up evocative images, flavours, and pre-conceived ideas. For many, it means a big, peaty, smoky, Islay whisky. For others, it represents complexity, refinement, sweetness, and quality. Some link the name to the decline and downturn of the Scotch industry in the 1980’s, resulting in distillery closures and cutbacks. Many of those same folks also link the name to a Phoenix-like resurrection, given the distillery came back from the dead in 1997 and now struts the roost with style and finesse.

For me, it is all of those things, plus one more: Fun.

Ardbeg small

Ardbeg is a fun brand. The distillery and its blending/creation team can produce some of the most refined, stylish, and unbelievably-good drams on the planet, but the brand has never become stuffy or weighed down under a Rolls Royce-like persona. Rather, Ardbeg presents itself as being fun, vibrant, innovative, inclusive, cheeky, and left-of-centre.   And its whiskies are all the more endearing as a result.

The Ardbeg Committee adds another string to the bow – a global club for Ardbeg drinkers, fans, and enthusiasts. It started back in 2000, originally delivering special once-off releases for its members that blitzed the competition. (One of the early Committee Reserve bottlings in 2002 was one of the whiskies of the decade and still rates up there on my list of all-time greats!) Today, the features and activities of the Committee have grown and expanded, including the now annual Ardbeg Day, which continues to gain traction and attention each year.

Ardbeg Day this year falls on May 31st and is themed around the Football World Cup. Ardbeg Embassies all around the globe will feature Ardbeggian celebrations, and whilst Australian events are yet to be announced at time of writing, you can join the Committee and keep up to date at www.ardbeg.com

The distillery produces a new, special Limited Edition whisky to coincide with Ardbeg Day each year, and 2014 is no different, with the forthcoming release of Ardbeg Auriverdes. The name comes from auri (gold, representing the colour of the whisky) and verdes (green, the colour of Ardbeg’s bottles and brand). Join the gold and green together, and you get the link to this year’s World Cup, being hosted in Brazil.   The whisky itself was matured in American oak casks (quercus alba) that were produced with specially toasted ends or heads. Toasting the oak typically results in more lignins and vanillins being released and made accessible by the spirit, imparting richer sweetness to the spirit, and – not surprisingly – vanilla flavours.   The whisky’s creator, Dr Bill Lumsden, has pioneered new wood treatments and cask maturation techniques and finishes over the years, and this effort is – once more – a winner.

Ardbeg warehouse

It would be dull or boring if the Auriverdes was just another shade or two away from the regular Ardbeg releases on the flavour spectrum, and Auriverdes is certainly a different Ardbeg. The nose is sweet, intriguing, and inviting; throwing off the textbook Ardbeg smoke, with traces of vanilla, citrus, and spice. On the palate, the peat is not as intense as regular variants, and it reminded me a little of Blasda, a lowly peated Ardbeg released several years ago. However, turning down the peat allows other features to shine brighter, and I found marzipan, almonds, vanilla, custard, sweetness, and a delicious creamy maltiness that left a wonderful footprint on the finish – with even just a nip of salt to round out the experience and remind you that this is from Scotland’s west coast.

Auriverdes will be available through good whisky stockists from next month, retailing for roughly $190. And if you can’t wait to get to your bottle store, get along to your nearest Ardbeg Day event on May 31st.

Slainte,

AD

First blog – fresh off the stills?

Andrew - low res

So, I’ve been writing about whisky professionally for over 10 years.  I’ve written for & been published in Whisky Magazine, Tumbler Magazine, Unfiltered, Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, and a dozen or so other printed mags and periodicals for numerous organisations (e.g. Virgin inflight mag, Seniors mag, etc).  And also other printed media, such as the Sydney Morning Herald.

I’ve also written about whisky for a tonne of other organisations’ or other people’s online or internet-based publications.  (e.g. Australian Gourmet Pages).

And, it goes without saying, I’ve written a million articles, reviews, profiles and distillery feature pieces for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, both in print (e.g. Outturn, Unfiltered) and online.  (Well, maybe not a million but it sure feels like that).

But I’ve never created or written my own blog.  Until now.  I’m looking forward to this….for starters, it will be nice to use more than 140 characters, which is what Twitter has been reducing me to for the last few years! 😉

Looking forward to sharing all that I have in a new forum and outlet.

Slainte,

Andrew