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Ardbeg An Oa

With so many different special releases of Ardbeg that catch everyone’s attention each year (i.e. the annual Ardbeg Day releases such as Kelpie, Dark Cove, Perpetuum, Auriverdes, etc, or the limited release of the 21yo), it’s easily to forget that Ardbeg’s actual core range consists of just three bottlings:  Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and the 10yo.

Of course, a decade or two ago, a distillery with multiple expressions in its portfolio usually showcased its core range via a diverse spread of different age statements, for example, a 12yo, an 18yo, and, say, a 25yo.  However, as is widely reported and acknowledged these days (see here), distilleries today are increasingly turning to No Age Statement releases to manage their stocks and inventory.   (Talisker is a classic example – arguably one that has gone too far – with core range NAS releases such as Skye, Storm, Dark Storm, Neist Point, Port Ruighe, and 57o North)Given Ardbeg’s chequered history, with such small and sporadic production between 1983 and 1997, it’s no surprise that Ardbeg must also make a virtue of NAS releases.  Fortunately, as anyone who’s tasted them can attest to, Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two very good whiskies.  But what if you’re a huge Ardbeg fan and you still yearn for something more?  Relief is now at hand…

An Oa is the first new addition to the core range (i.e. a permanent expression) in almost 10 years!  On paper, it immediately arouses curiosity and gets one salivating:  It is a vatting of Ardbeg spirit matured in a tantalising cocktail of different cask types:  Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and fresh virgin oak casks.  However, the secret and the success lies in how they have been combined:  The contributing spirits from the different cask types are combined together and allowed to settle and fuse over time in the so-called Gathering Vat – a special marrying vessel made from French oak.

The Mull of Oa

If you’re wondering about the name, The Oa is the southern tip of Islay – the protruding peninsula that extends out south-west of Port Ellen.  The Mull of Oa is at the far south-western end of The Oa, and features some of Islay’s most rugged and untamed cliffs and coastline.  Yours truly has walked all over The Oa and wandered perilously close to those cliffs:  The American Monument – a memorial to the victims of two separate maritime sinkings in 1918 – is perched at the head of the Mull of Oa and can be reached on foot for those who are keen.  It is a bleak and windswept headland, yet effectively cushions Port Ellen and the Kildalton distilleries (of which Ardbeg is one) from the brunt of the winds and storms off the Atlantic.   Ardbeg’s new release is said to pay homage to the Mull of Oa, contrasting powerful intensity and sweet silkiness to celebrate the location where storm meets calm.

Click on the thumbnails below for Whisky & Wisdom’s pictures taken at the Mull of Oa in 2009

As part of the launch of An Oa, a number of whisky folks and bloggers were provided with a bottle, some glasses, and an oath stone (more on that in a moment), and encouraged to hold a wee gathering to taste and assess the whisky.  Well known blogger (and exceptional photographer) The Whisky Ledger was also amongst this crowd, and so it was that Whisky & Wisdom and The Whisky Ledger combined their forces for a joint gathering.  10 people gathered in the boardroom of a suburban office and put the An Oa through its paces.   For reference and comparison, the standard 10yo was also included in the tasting, and we explored the 10yo first so as to set the benchmark.

An Oa

If a new expression is to be sleeved into a brand’s core range portfolio, it obviously has to have and showcase a point of difference.   The first thing you notice is that the An Oa is softer.  It would be going too far to describe it as being subtle, but – compared to the 10yo – the An Oa seems more gentle and invites exploration.   Peat and smoke are here, but it’s a smouldering camp fire rather than a roaring bonfire.  The distillery’s maritime character is more evident, with strong notes of kelp and drying seaweed on the beach wafting from the glass.   Other expected “house” characteristics of Ardbeg are happily present, such as vanilla, and also citrus, but they manifest themselves in different shades and accents than the regular 10yo.  (For example, the oaky vanillins in the 10yo present as vanilla slice and custard in the An Oa; and the famous lemon citrus of the 10yo takes a subtle turn and presents as orange citrus in the An Oa).

The inclusion of Pedro Ximinez in the cask recipe obviously elicits interest and intrigue, although its contribution here is subtle and complimentary to the flavours, rather than being an obvious or dominating whack of sherry.  However, one thing it definitely does is insert a delectable note of smoky bacon.  Beyond this, the whisky is also strong with aromas and flavours of forest floors, fungi, squid ink, root licorice, some iodine, and good ol’ drying smoke.

As part of the fun of the night, we were provided with our own Oathing Stone  – a traditional Celtic ceremonial symbol for binding people together and to a place.  Clutching our oathing stone, we pledged our allegiance to Ardbeg by reciting the following words:

I swear this oathing stone to be true to my untamed spirit.  To stand with peat beneath my feet; smoke on my lips; a dog by my side; and Ardbeg in my heart. Slainte!

Keen to leave no stone unturned, we also tested the An Oa’s ability to work with food pairings.  The combination with two different blue cheeses worked a treat, and – as one would hope with an Ardbeg – the match with dark chocolate (a 78% cocoa from Lindt) was perfect.

 

An Oa

The group agreed unanimously that An Oa is a softer, arguably more refined expression of Ardbeg.  As you’d intuitively assume, the contribution of different cask types creates a whisky that definitely boasts complexity.  However, it takes a reasonably experienced or capable nose and palate to identify and extract this complexity, and some drinkers may just prefer the bombastic fun of the brasher 10yo. But make no mistake:  This whisky will have its fans, and I suspect it will also turn and win many drinkers to the brand.  For those who might find the 10yo too peaty, the An Oa is slightly more approachable and less confronting.  What’s more, the mouthfeel is exceptionally silky and oily, and it leaves a rich and unctuous imprint on your palate.   Tasted by itself and without any of its siblings around – as I discovered in an unadulterated tasting the following evening – the An Oa is a delicious Islay experience.

An Oa is bottled at 46.6% ABV and has an RRP of $119.  Available now at all good whisky stockists.

With thanks to Ardbeg and EVH for the opportunity.

Photos above by Whisky & Wisdom and The Whisky Ledger

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Glen Moray & Mastery

Glen Moray celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, having been founded way back in 1897.   The distillery had humble beginnings and had already endured over a decade of silence and inactivity when it was bought by Macdonald & Muir (effectively Glenmorangie) in 1920.  Glenmorangie held the reins for the next 88 years, during which time the distillery became a workhorse for the many supermarket blends that Macdonald & Muir were behind.   If you believe the folklore, Glen Moray was also the playground for Dr Bill Lumsden, who would conduct all manner of trials and maturation experiments on Glen Moray spirit before transferring his more successful undertakings across to Glenmorangie.

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Matching a whisky to every James Bond film

Whisky has been paired with food for decades, although in more recent years we’ve seen whiskies paired and matched to cigars, watches, albums, bands, and even movies!   If you’re going to sit down in your comfy sofa and pass away a few hours being entertained by 007, then having a good dram in your hand goes a long way to enhancing the experience.

Of course, Jimmy’s drink of choice may be a vodka martini, but we can shake and stir things up for the whisky drinkers out there who are James Bond fans: Here is our attempt to pair and match the perfect whisky to every (official) James Bond film.

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The Top Six things to do on Speyside

Yes, the obvious thing to do on Speyside is to visit distilleries and drink whisky.  But there’s so much more on offer if you look beyond the distilleries…

Any punter who’s been to Speyside can tell you to visit Distillery X or to make sure you do the “Experts Tour” (or some similarly badged experience) at Distillery Y.   The problem with such advice or recommendations is that most people giving you their tips can only draw from their experience of the five or six distilleries they’ve been to, or they simply tell you to go to their favourite distillery – which is a subjective opinion and experience at best.

There are 50 operating distilleries on Speyside at the moment, and Whisky & Wisdom has visited and toured all but one of them.  (Ironically, the one Speyside distillery Whisky & Wisdom has yet to step inside of is the Speyside Distillery at Drumguish!!).   Roseisle, Dalmunach, Mannochmore, Macduff, Strathmill, Ballindalloch, Glenburgie, Allt-a-bhaine, Braeval, Speyburn, Balmenach…..you name it, W&W has been there; met with the staff; and seen around it.  Which means we can take a more objective view of what’s on offer and provide a balanced opinion of what appeals or what provides value to the visitor.

However, this piece is not titled “The Top Six distilleries to visit on Speyside” – we’ll save that article for another day.  Rather, it’s the top six things to do.   The distilleries that are open to the public generally have tours between the hours of 10.00am-4.00pm (in the summer months), and – as you’ll discover, if you haven’t already – trying to schedule your tours and dovetail your visits so that you can sequentially get to multiple distilleries in a day is not the easiest of tasks.   This means you’ll have gaps in your day, or you’ll have time to do other things – particularly after the visitor centres close their doors.   So here are a few other things to keep you amused:

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Ardnamurchan – The western jewel of Scotland

(Or everything you wanted to know about Ardnamurchan but were afraid to ask!)

In this digital age of whisky websites and social media activity, there are very few secrets left in the whisky industry.  Once upon a time, a new distillery would suddenly appear and no one knew much about it except for what might have been published in a subsequent book.  Today, by the time a new distillery’s first release is bottled, it seems we’ve all followed the journey of the distillery breaking ground; building the stillhouse; installing the stills; starting production; and filling the casks.  We’ve done the virtual tour of the distillery before the Visitor Centre has even opened its doors!

One of the primary reasons for this is simply because most of us will never get to make the journey to the distillery, and thus we live and drink vicariously through what we read and view online.   Consider, also, that not all distilleries are blessed by geography:  Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, for example, are an easy bus ride from the big city centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but things are trickier for the more remote distilleries that sit well off the tourist trail or are located on the fringes of Scotland’s reaches.

Ardnamurchan is one such distillery.  If you’re looking to start up a new distillery, your choice of location is fairly critical.  In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery venture – why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland?  In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple:  Because they can.

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The Whisky Lover’s Guide to climbing Ben Rinnes

Each year, thousands of whisky tourists make their way to Speyside to visit their own personal mecca.  Each pilgrim no doubt has their own favourite and plans their itinerary around getting a glimpse into the factory that produces their most revered malt.

Of course, no one travels all the way to Speyside just to visit just one, single distillery and thus it’s not uncommon for we pilgrims to set up camp in one of the many hotels or B&B’s and use it as a base to explore multiple distilleries over several days.

Outside of the distilleries, however, your average whisky tourist quickly runs out of things to do in Speyside.  The only other pursuits are the outdoors – golf, salmon fishing, and hiking.  And it’s this last category that offers something pretty special to the whisky enthusiast.

Ben Rinnes is the highest mountain in the Speyside region.  At 840m, it’s officially a “Corbett”, being 300 feet shy to qualify as a Munro.  It towers above many of the distilleries, and the snow melt and water run-off from the hills goes a long way to supplying many of the surrounding distilleries in its foothills.  Needless to say, the view from the summit is incredible, and distillery spotters can have fun trying to identify the many distilleries visible from the top.  For the whisky enthusiast or jaded Speyside visitor looking for a new perspective, a hike to the top is a highly recommended and rewarding journey.  So here’s the whisky lover’s guide to climbing Ben Rinnes…

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Ardbeg Kelpie – The 46% Retail Release

With Ardbeg Day now an entrenched part of the whisky calendar, it seems unnecessary to go into great detail about the day itself and what it entails.  Of course, whilst the day itself is a great hive of fun and activity, most people’s  focus and attention is on the special release bottling.  This year’s release, Kelpie, is a belter, and an Ardbeg to make the purists happy.

The Committee Edition release – bottled at a higher strength of 51.7% – was released earlier this year and found many friends.  The commercial or retail bottling, bottled at 46%, will be released on June 3rd to coincide with Ardbeg Day.

Of course, many people make the mistake of simply dismissing the retail version as being a “watered down” version of the Committee Edition.  Chemically speaking, they’re correct, but from a sensory perspective, there’s so much more to it than that.  Yes, whilst the retail version simply has more water added to it to bring it down to a lower strength, the effect of this on the whisky is very pronounced.  The influence of the ABV is huge when it comes to how our palates react to the whisky.  Master blenders and independent bottlers often carry out multiple tastings or samplings to establish whether a special release should be bottled at, say, 46%, 48%, 50%, or 51.5%.  The different ABV’s influence how the alcohols and flavour compounds are balanced, and thus a different bottling strength will pronounce (or, in contrast, diminish) certain aspects of the flavour spectrum.  For example, a whisky bottled at 46% might seem saltier, or sweeter, or fruitier than the same spirit bottled at 48%.

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The dark side of samples and bottle-splits

Last week I walked into a fancy steakhouse – one that’s run by one of Australia’s leading and most well-known restauranteurs and celebrity chefs.  I was shown to my table and handed the menu.  Wow! It showcased an amazing selection of gourmet choices, although with price tags to make most of us squirm.  There was one particular steak that stood out – it was a particular cut of wagyu that sounded out of this world.  As was its price tag!  I’d love to have treated myself to it, but it was more than what my budget could justify.  Besides, there were much cheaper steaks that also looked pretty tempting, and I couldn’t order two meals now, could I?  I resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably have to order one of the cheaper, more regular cuts.

As I pondered this situation, a waiter brought the main course out to the couple who were sitting at the table next to me.  I couldn’t help but notice that the man had ordered the very wagyu steak I was lusting for.  As they settled into their meal, I leaned across and said, “Excuse me – I was just wondering if you’d mind cutting off a piece of your steak and giving it to me so that I can try it?”

– – – – –

It’s nonsense, isn’t it?  You’d never have the temerity to do such a thing or to make such an undignified request.    So why does this very situation play out in the whisky world?  We wouldn’t do it with food at a restaurant (yes, for the record, the above story was a fictional allegory), yet plenty of people are quite happy to make similar requests when it comes to whisky.  It’s the dark side of samples.

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Ardnamurchan – 2016/AD

It’s hardly shiny or earth-shattering news to write that new distilleries are popping up all over Scotland.  In fact, such a statement is unlikely to pique any interest amongst the more learned whisky enthusiasts.  However, what does become interesting is when you start to look at the geography of these new distilleries.  Many are now re-populating the Lowlands, such as the Glasgow Distillery, or the wee-explosion of distilleries in Fife (e.g. Kingsbarns, Daftmill, etc).  Others are adding to the spectrum of Speyside, such as Ballindalloch or Dalmunach.

When starting a new distillery in these current times, the owners will be looking for some key necessities when deciding upon the site of their distillery.  In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of raw materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery start-up, why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland?  In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple:  Because they can.

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2016 Diageo Special Releases

For anyone who’s entered the single malt whisky scene in recent years, the choice and array of bottlings, brands and releases can be overwhelming.  Almost 30 years ago now, the situation was very different when Diageo launched “The Classic Malts” – first into travel retail in 1988, and then into the domestic market in 1989.   Those six whiskies (Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, and Lagavulin) became the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to malt whisky.  For close to a decade they were almost the definitive collection and – notwithstanding the omnipresence of the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet – it was only by the late 1990’s that other brands and recognisable labels started to consistently appear in regular retail outlets.

Never one to rest on their laurels, Diageo continued (and continues) to expand their range.  The so-called Rare Malts range ran from 1995-2005, and the Managers Choice range also kept hardcore fans happy with its single cask, cask-strength releases.  The original Classic Malts range was also expanded in 2006, adding the likes of Clynelish and Caol Ila, in addition to others that were custom selected for individual markets (e.g. Cardhu for the USA).

One of the longer-term and more interesting projects has been the Diageo Special Releases range, consisting of a specially selected and crafted series of bottlings released annually each year since 2001.  As the name inherently suggests, the releases are “special” and typically include Diageo’s rarest stock, such as whiskies from closed distilleries – Port Ellen, Brora, and Cambus being three examples.

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