Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet – who will win the heavyweight title bout?

If someone asked “What does a Speyside whisky taste like?” you could do worse than pour them a dram of either Glenfiddich 12yo or The Glenlivet 12yo.

Both exhibit that classic Speyside style of being grassy, floral, sweet and malty, with that little extra “zing” for good measure. With Glenfiddich, the zing comes in the form of pear drops, whilst Glenlivet, for me, has a wee hint of citrus tang.  Both drams are  textbook examples of Speyside whisky.

Depending on your age, and certainly if you were introduced to malt whisky a decade or two ago, then there’s a very good chance that one of these two whiskies was probably your first ever single malt.

The two brands are giants of the industry and mutually respected (and respectful) competitors on the playing field. Glenlivet is the single malt flagship of Pernod Ricard (via Chivas Bros), whilst Glenfiddich remains one of the last bastions of independent, family ownership, being the bedrock of William Grant & Sons.   Both brands command significant market share. The Glenlivet has been the biggest selling single malt in the USA for years, whereas Glenfiddich can boast the global title of being the biggest selling single malt in the world.

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As these two heavyweights front up to do battle, let’s compare their credentials: Continue reading “Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet – who will win the heavyweight title bout?”

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.

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:

Continue reading “10 ways to annoy a whisky nerd”

The Top Five Things That Malt Drinkers Do Wrong

From the most recent malt-newbie to the more seasoned long-term malt enthusiast, we all fall for the same traps and mistakes – repeatedly.   Here’s my Top Five things that malt drinkers do wrong…

1. We’re always yearning for the next malt up the ladder

You’re sipping on a sensational Glenfarclas 30yo; a rare treat in itself…..when suddenly you wonder what the 40yo must be like?  Or you’re comfortably enjoying the Laphroaig Feis Ile 2013 bottling, when it suddenly occurs to you that the 2014 bottling might be even better.

Too often, we have a great dram in our hands, but our brains get ahead of ourselves and yearn for the next expression or age statement up the ladder.  We need to learn to be content with the “now” and appreciate that, for most of the distilleries with an extended core-range of products, even the flagship or entry level expression can be a wonderous and top-notch whisky.  Glenmorangie “The Original”, Glenfarclas 15yo, Ardbeg 10yo, Talisker 10yo, are all great examples of such drams.  Yes, there are other expressions in the range, and they might be older or have had some exotic cask finish regime, but it doesn’t necessarily make them better than the gem you’ve already got in your hand.

2. Falling for colour

We’re suckers for colour, ain’t we?   Despite everything we know about the influence of ex-sherry casks versus ex-bourbon casks, not to mention the presence of E150 caramel, we still fall for the trap of thinking the darker whisky will be better.

I’ve deliberately tested this many times at tasting events and whisky fairs when I’m exhibiting, where I’ve poured out two different drams into separate glasses.  One is dark, one is pale, and I offer them to the punter.  Invariably, they reach for the darker whisky first.

Continue reading “The Top Five Things That Malt Drinkers Do Wrong”

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?

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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.

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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,

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