Caol Ila 18 Unpeated Style, Special releases 2017 – “Port Askaig by way of Campbeltown”

Introduced as part of the Special releases in 2006 with an 8 year old unpeated style Caol Ila, we’ve progressively seen older expressions appearing every year. Rumour has it the unpeated Caol Ila was created as a blending tool for the Diageo stable, it would not be surprising considering how much of the output of this distillery is used for blends and sold to brokers.

I would love to be able to try unpeated whisky from some of the other Islay set. I remember seeing a photo of the control room at Lagavulin and the board used to label the malt bins had one marked as unpeated?! Do they use it to do a few runs at the end before cleaning the systems or do they vat it together with the more heavily peated barrels to use in blends?

Either way it’s been interesting to see this style evolve over the years but take note there will be no unpeated style Caol Ila in 2019!

Nose: Fresh fruit, apples, apricots, rich and a phenolic touch like the embers on a campfire. Very mineral, oyster juices and lemon with a green fruit and grass and a touch of engine grease.

Palate: Sweet, oily, juicy fruit chewing gum, stone fruit, some spicy oak & salted lemons. A bit of earthiness, tapioca/white chocolate, then settles on a slight fuel or kerosene note, salt & a bit of camphor or carbolic soap.

Finish: A touch of something like machine oil, super fruity, you can barely feel the heat, doesn’t feel like 59%. Sweet and chewy oak a slight green feeling. Like tree sap. The feeling of something dirty and sweet.

The Blab: This is pretty amazing, loads of porridge and fruits. A great texture, that slight peat, earthy, spice and sea shells. The oak is present, it makes it chewy. Smooth and full. A great dram. I kept thinking of Springbank while drinking this.

Caol Ila “Unpeated Style” 18 yr old

59.8% ABV

89/100

Bruichladdich Organic 2009 – “Barley Exploration Part III”

I scrapped my original intro to this review, I should have called this series “against the grain” or “down with big Ag!” all kidding aside, I don’t mean to come off as preachy, I am just trying to gather my thoughts coherently about these questions that are often on my mind when this type of subject comes up.

Suffice to say that it is easy to become too focused on the big picture and lose sight of all the little steps that contribute to the whole, you can remove some of these and cut corner and “innovate” and still arrive at a result that is similar but upon close inspection isn’t. The taste of whisky is more than just anonymous grain spirit + barrel finishes. Caring about the little steps requires more than good marketing and fancy tales.

2008 harvest distilled in 2009 Organic unpeated barley, 9 years old, matured in ex-bourbon casks.

Nose: Creamy digestive biscuits, cooked barley, lemon curd, whipped cream, cantaloupe, Satsumas. Lime oil, some vanilla and sweetness there is definitely some active first-fill casks at work.

With time a a few drops water a feeling of caraway, yeasty fermenting beer and a bit of ginseng, IPA??

Palate: Oily AF, lemon zest, salty, creamy vanilla and a good dose of oak and something a little charred. Whole whet bread and honey, with a spicy, peppery & “grippy” oak.

you have to take your time with this one, it needs air to reveal the interplay between the spicy, floral, sweet and oily.

Finish: Medium length, still that feeling of heavy cream a bit of juniper/pepper and lime pith & honey, even a slightly earthy side.

The Blab: This is a pretty round and characterful whisky, it has a hint of sharpness (but not harsh) and this young beer like, yeasty, floral hoppy aspect. It’s crazy to think this thing is only 8yrs old, real character not just weirdness, good to drink now but would love to see what it tastes like when it hits 12-14 yrs.

Bruichladdich The Organic 2009

50% ABV

86/100

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2010 – “Barley Exploration Part II”

It would not have been that long ago that most distilleries would have sourced their barley from within their locality or at the very least their own country to meet their needs. As production of most distilleries grew and consolidation took hold of the industry, efficiency and cost have become the leading factor in the production of spirits for most distilleries.

They will bandy about the origins, history and lore of their locality but very little of that applies anymore. If your barley is grown in France, is malted in Scotland and then trucked to the Isle of Skye to be distilled. The then resulting new make is put in a tanker and shipped to Fife to be aged, can it still truly be called a maritime malt?

There are many in the Scotch whisky industry that will tell you that the barley variety and provenance add little to nothing to the flavour of the whisky. Yet in most other spirit and beverage categories they have doubled down on the importance of terroir (yes an overused word), variety and climate, it is intrinsic to the creation of the DNA of their product.

The truth for these conglomerates is that it just doesn’t fit their mode of operation, it is contrary to the way their businesses are run. Dealing with the minutiae of sourcing, the variability of crop outcome and of production that come with this model is contrary to their structure. They could charge more for the result, certainly that is appealing but it would invariably cost more to produce and require more hands on deck and that they can’t live with. Besides in their mind the average client cares little and if you use the right smoke and mirrors that are lore, legend and scarcity you keep them from looking too closely.

Just food for thought, I’m not saying local is best nor the only way to do things, I am just weary of many talking from both sides of their mouth at once, locality and history is only important when they say it is, much like age.

2009 crop from eight Islay farms from Uxbridge & Optic unpeated barley distilled 2010, 7 years old, majority first-fill Bourbon with some Rivesaltes, Juran├žon & Banyuls casks vatted in.

Nose: Waxy lemons, a little struck match, melons, wet hay, loads of barley a little bit of vermouth. There’s a touch of cured ham, an oily almost shoe polish feel but nonetheless that air of freshness.

With time I feel like there’s a kind of slight wine cask type of influence earthy, blackberries, slight touch of olive and aniseed.

Palate: Peppery, oily & spicy. Sweet frosting, loads of musky fruit, salty ham, green coriander seeds a bit of green bell pepper. It really pulls your taste buds in many directions.

Finish: It finishes dry, a bit of cardboard and astringent fruit, cooked barley, caraway and spicy oak.

Blab: A nice whisky, the palate starts off the same as the nose but then it feels as if the wine casks take over. A bit of funk. Astringency and that earthy fruit thing, more a summery kind of whisky. I have preferred others in the series especially the 2007 Rockside farm release.

As with many of these Islay Barley whiskys it is hard to know if what you are tasting is due in part to the locality of the crop or not, it would be great to have comparison whisky of the same age and vatting but from a mainland crop to see the difference. That’s the whisky nerd in me talking.

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2010

50%/ABV

84/100

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008-2017 – “Barley Exploration Part I”

In the summer/fall of 2018, Bruichladdich issued new editions of it’s “provenance” driven whiskys, the 2010 edition of it’s Islay Barley variant, the 2009 Organic barley and the 2008 Bere Barley. Right around the holidays they smartly assembled a new “Wee Laddies” kit of 3 x 20cl bottles, one of each expression. I was able to pick up a set at a very fair price during that time, I figured it was a good way to taste multiple expressions. I would also be able to use those handy 20cl bottles when empty to decant bottles in the danger zone, win-win.

Bere Barley is a varietal that was prized for it’s performance in low ph soils and it’s short growing season, making it ideal for a place like Scotland and specifically Orkney, where the crop for this whisky came from. It also has a high protein and nitrogen content making it difficult to deal with and reducing it’s yield, yet it was prized for it’s flavor and continues to be used by many in the brewing industry for that very reason. Only a few distilleries have experimented with a purely Bere barley whisky, of the ones I know there was Arran, Bruichladdich and Glan Ar Mor.

Distilled in 2008 from the 2007 harvest, unpeated Bere barley, 9 yrs old and vatted from first-fill an re-fill ex-bourbon casks.

Nose: Sharp, citrus peel, pumpernickel, caraway. it’s very fresh on the nose. Then some latex, powdered sugar & marzipan. It reminds me of pot-still Irish whisky in some ways, there is a slight banana note as well.

Palate: Tropical fruits, lots of grain, lemon, astringency and a firm sharpness. It develops into a tangy creamy feeling a bit like those campino candies with a bit of spice on the tail end.

Finish: There is a bit of rye bread and water crackers at first and then a lemony, salty feeling, paraffin and a touch of arugula.

Blab: There’s something irresistible about this whisky. The palate is weird, very different than a lot of what I’ve had. It’s hard to describe. It’s coastal, oily and has almost a lowland vibe to it but then there’s that fresh side also that lifts it up. An interesting whisky it eventually became my favourite of the set.

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2008

50% ABV

86/100

Highland Park Valknut “Sweet Home Valhalla”

Everyone loves to talk trash about Highland Park, more so than Macallan. I think it’s largely in part to how far they’ve leaned into this whole Viking mythos, coupled with the sheer volume of new releases.

I personally don’t mind the whole Viking thing that much. What’s at issue along with other Edrington properties is that one feels as though the marketing department has taken over all aspects of the product. Anyone who’s watched early episodes of Mad Men will be familiar with the kind of cynical marketing techniques that cares very little about the actual product itself.

With this series they’ve combined several tried and true marketing techniques. “limited” editions (15,000 to 20,000 bottles isn’t really that limited), creating a new series of 3-4 scheduled releases and finally a story or myth to bind them all together. With the promise of more “sherry” and more peat what could go wrong? Let’s lean into this one.

Nose: Burnt hay, peameal bacon, it’s a bit closed at first, then opens up with vanilla & seaweed. The sherry eventually shows up and takes over the proceedings. Lots of dried grape, and grape candy, yeast, a bit of ink and plasticine and sulfur.

Palate: Ashy, mineral very sweet like glycerin and honey. Further time brings, vynil, old books, wine gums, faint smoke a touch of BBQ pork. Sour oak, stir fried broccoli, then the return of a lot of sweetness.

Finish: yeasty, grape reduction, a touch of balsamic and seaside. The finish is medium in length but mouth drying.

Blab: Underdeveloped nose. Sharp and stuffy peat. There’s sulfur but no depth to the sherry. Plenty of that weird plum/grape sweetness that is almost cloying like PX. I never thought I’d say that I missed dark origins but I do.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006/2016 “Orchard Fire”

While Benromach has won over many with their old school style malt, it hasn’t quite stirred up the frenzy that each Springbank release has caused. It might seem unfair to compare them but I believe them to be related in many ways. Family owned, longer fermentation styles, less automation, good cask policy, both are the distilling arms of Independent bottlers. The 10yr old and it’s Imperial strengths counterpart are confirmed winners, let’s dive into the range.

This 2006 Peat Smoke is part of what they’ve dubbed their contrast range, peated malt in the 67ppm range (no source listed), first fill bourbon casks, 46%, no mention of chill filtration though.

Nose: Farmy, earthy peat when first poured, then abruptly a surprising note of pears, apricot paste, it’s very unusual. Underneath all of that the it’s very close to the grain, a touch of old lemons, glycerin & talcum powder.The smoke is there but not overwhelming once it subsides there is a bit of oak and vanilla but surprisingly isn’t dominant for a first-fill bourbon. A nice nose, very round, the peat doesn’t dominate.

Palate: Sweet, dark, jujubes, that instant peaches & cream oatmeal with smoke blown over the top. There is a bit of citrus, linseed oil & powdered sugar with loads of grain and a touch of oak, the texture is a bit thin.

Finish: It keeps bouncing between earthy tones, plantain, mezcal and a strange sweetness, almost artificial, like those swirled strawberry and yogurt candies. The oak is most present at the end.

The Blab: It’s a nice take on the genre (young heavily peated bourbon cask) its different than the Islay style in that it has no maritime influence but I think it’s much closer than peated whiskys by Glendronach or Balvenie for example. Yet it’s not distinct enough, it doesn’t really pull you in like the 10 yr old, perhaps if it was at higher proof like some of their single barrel releases it would be more effective. The 10 yr old is a tough act to follow, it’s a testament to how well it is vatted together.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006-2016

46%ABV

83/100

Mortlach 12-The Wee Witchie “Basic Witch”

Mortlach is one of those Diageo stepchild distilleries that was used mainly as blend fodder, for years it had no regular output under its name save one lonely 16 year old Flora & Fauna release.

It gained notoriety as a darling of the Indie scene, many praising the almost meaty, full bodied characteristics of it’s distillate especially when applied to ex-sherry casks. It’s precisely this trait that made it such a great asset to use in blending.

The distillery engages in a complex distilling scheme where the tail runs from its first two wash stills are accumulated and distilled several times in their smallest spirit still (the eponymous Wee Witchie). This is done in order to produce a small quantity of heavy style distillate that will be then included with the other two stills spirit runs. Add to that the use of worm tub condensers which also contributes its unique sulfury character and it explains the meaty, heavy adjectives that are often used to describe Mortlach.

Let’s see if we get any of those signature flavours in the new 12 yr old.

Nose: initially a bit feisty, stone fruit, Yellow plums, a bit of gooseberry. Underneath that first wave there is barley, gristy cereal notes, a good dose of vanilla. There is a touch of sulfur and a phenolic feeling overall & sweet citrus. As the nose opens up further I get a kind of sweet, red delicious apples, a touch of cardboard.

An interesting nose, there’s lots of spirit left attached to it but it’s got a lot to keep you interested.

Palate: Lemon lozenge, astringent, sharp oak, a bit sour, overproofed bread, mineral, chalky. Almost gritty, a feeling of dry vermouth.

Finish: Sour oak, a bit of vanilla, lemon scented cleaning products, fades fast leaving mostly a slight mustiness

Blab: The nose is rather full and round but overall this isn’t memorable. The finish is short and leaves behind the more cardboard like elements. It starts of promising but overall this is a let down I don’t get much in the way of what we think of as sherry character either.

Mortlach 12-The Wee Witchie

43.4% ABV

81/100