Located on the west coast of Scotland, Oban is a dainty port town built around a natural bay (indeed the word “Oban” translates to “little bay” in Scots Gaelic). Whilst Oban may be a small town it has a lot going on. The port is a hive of activity with grizzled fisherman plying their trade, local seafood restaurants serving up the days’ catch, and tourists and locals alike being ferried in and out of the far-flung Hebridean isles. The inner parts of the town are crammed with shops, pubs and hotels, whilst houses perch on the steep surrounding hills. At the top of everything is McCaig’s Tower: an unlikely and imposing granite monument, modelled after the Roman Colosseum, that overlooks the entire town below.
At the heart of the town—just a street or so from the water, down a side-alley and opposite the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant— is Oban Distillery. It has been here since 1794, long before much of the rest of the town. Like the town itself this distillery is small, producing just 650,000 litres a year from its two stills. Nestled against the cliff-face and hemmed in by the growing town around it, the distillery’s owners once unsuccessfully tried to make more room by trying to carve directly into the rock itself. But despite Oban Distillery’s small size their ownership by the beverage giant Diageo gives them global reach- I can vouch for the fact that their whisky can be found half a world away in Australia.
The core Oban Distillery expression is the 14 Year Old. In this whisky the distillery’s use of minimally-peated malt and practice of maturing mainly in refill American oak barrels produces a crowd-pleasing salted caramel flavour profile (with the barest whisper of smoke) that’s bottled at an easy-drinking 43% ABV. Last year, however, saw the release of a whisky which showcased a very different side to Oban. The Oban 21 Year Old came out as part of the limited-edition 2018 Diageo Special Releases range. It is matured instead in refill European oak butts and is bottled at a much higher cask strength of 57.9% ABV.
Nose: Green apple and cut grass at first, giving way to raspberry jubes, peach and honey blossom. A surprising hit of freshly ground coffee.
Palate: Orange, cinnamon spice and black pepper heat. Oak and a follow-through of the bitter coffee notes from the nose.
A warming and long finish.
Oban whisky but certainly not as you know it! A complex dram that has a very different flavour profile from the core expression, with no salted caramel in sight. And like the town of Oban itself this whisky has a lot going on. Oban may be a small distillery in a small town—but good things do come in small packages after all.
A wild windswept part of the world, and a distillery exclusive
Welcome whisky drinkers, I am back after a short hiatus!
Today I’ll be reviewing a whisky from a distillery located on the rugged Orkney Islands. You may have read my previous review of whiskies from Highland Park, but this will instead be a review of their nearby Orcadian compatriots at Scapa distillery.
Scapa was established in 1885 and is located just outside Kirkwall, a quick 5-10 minutes drive from Highland Park. The distillery is perched high up on the cliffs that surround the picturesque Scapa Flow and the distillery itself is a great vantage point for viewing the tumultuous swirl of waves through the bay. Apparently, this area was a very important naval base in both World Wars due to its strategic location. Many sunken wrecks of various warships now litter the surrounding seabed, hidden from view to all but the intrepid diver.
Like many Scottish distilleries, Scapa has had its high and low points. Production ceased during World War II and the distillery was even mothballed at one stage (1994-2004). Refurbishments have since been carried out and the distillery and visitors centre were warm and welcoming during my visit to the Orkney Islands in mid-2017.
Currently Scapa produces ~1 million litres per year. A particularly interesting aspect of this process is their idiosyncratic use of a Lomond still as one of their two stills. Lomond stills look very different to the usual kind of still – they consist of a pot topped with a neck fitted with several plates, each of which can be turned on or off in order to imitate the effects of a still with a very short neck, a long neck or anything in between. These changes to the still shape consequently change the flavour profile of the spirit that the still produces. Lomond stills have now largely vanished from whisky production and only a handful remain in use in Scotland. Bruichladdich, for example, now uses their Lomond still to produce their “Botanist” gin. However, Scapa continues to use theirs for whisky and this is a rare treat indeed.
Scapa does not have a particularly large core range nor does it have much market presence in my home country of Australia. In recent years Scapa’s flagship bottling was a 16 Year Old but this has been discontinued and replaced by the NAS bottlings Skiren and Glansa. However, from time to time you can find a Scapa limited edition, often thematically linked to the naval history of the Scapa Flow area, or an independent bottling from brands like Gordon & McPhail or Douglas Laing. The particular bottle I am reviewing today is a distillery exclusive, so unless you fancy making the trek to Orkney you might need to cross you fingers that your go-to local or internet distributor gets some stock in.
The Distillery Reserve Collection is a 12 Year Old bottled at cask strength – 58.5%. It was distilled 10 June 2003 and bottled 29 July 2015. The high ABV is a welcome feature of this whisky.
Nose: Tropical fruits – pineapples and peaches. Bubblegum; really saccharine sweet. Definite hints of banana and toffee.
Palate: Crisp fresh pears. Vanilla. Light caramel. Cereal kind of notes – Weetbix with a generous spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk. Under-ripe almonds.
Finish: Although its not a short finish it is a little one-dimensional. More sweet caramel notes and some pleasing warmth.
Conclusion: This is a nice whisky, quite straightforward and easy-drinking. The nose is very sweet and so is the palate but the palate gains some additional depth from its freshe fruit notes.
I’ve been a whisky fan for a good few years now and therefore tasted a wide variety of different drams. When seeking out my next whisky I usually find myself drawn to something exciting: waiting with bated breath for the latest expression releases, trawling through dusty bottleshop shelves and auction websites for the old and obscure, and salivating over weird and wonderful forms of maturation with their promise of unique flavours (ginger beer barrels, IPA barrels, or tequila barrels anyone?) However, there is something to be said for those whiskies that are familiar and reliable, even though their novelty may have long since worn off. Those work-horse drams that may not be flashy but that stock the shelves of most every bar, introduce new drinkers to the pleasures of single malt and provide a comforting “daily drinker” for their fans.
The Original from Glenmorangie’s core range is just such a whisky. It is a straightforward and simple whisky, ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive.
The Original is matured for ten years entirely in bourbon casks, specifically first and second fill American white oak ex-bourbon casks. The Glenmorangie house style is already light and clean and this easy-drinking nature is accentuated by the Original’s 40% ABV. Glenmorangie typically injects additional complexity into their whiskies through the process of double-maturation, finishing some of their bourbon-matured whiskies in barrels that held port, sauternes, sherry, etc, but the Original dispenses with this kind of fuss. The result is a soft and floral dram, perfect for drinking either neat or as the base for a cocktail.
Nose: Immediate malt and cereal notes that open up into tart pears and crisp green apples.
Palate: The promise of the nose delivers on the palate. Cereal notes followed again by fruit, but this time with some fresh banana added. It also develops some sweet and creamy notes, think vanilla icecream and orange sherbet.
Finish: Gentle but a little short, with a mellow malt flavour.
Glenmorangie’s The Original will not blow your socks off, especially if you are well-versed in whisky. But not all whiskies need to do this and admittedly this is not what this particular whisky was designed to do. Instead, this whisky delivers on being approachable, easy to drink, and elegant in its simplicity. It may not be something new, bold or bizarre, but it is a reliable whisky to keep on hand. Sometimes the comforting lullaby of the familiar is a welcome distraction from the siren song of the new.
Macallan is one of the big names in the whisky world. I would wager that many a non-whisky drinker will know something about them, probably from either seeing a Macallan bottle perched on the top shelf of a local bar or reading some of the endless cavalcade of newsmedia articles about how a new record has been set for the most expensive whisky sold at auction. (This whisky is always a Macallan and the amount of money involved is always eye-wateringly high.)
But despite their extensive brand recognition it can be difficult to pin down Macallan’s identity. At times Macallan plays up tradition: with cutesy pictures of the historic Easter Elchies house (built circa 1700) on some labels, prominently-displayed age statements and a distinctly gentlemen-at-the-golfing-clubhouse vibe. This is not to say that Macallan is stuck in the past though. At other times Macallan is seemingly all about innovation: with special bottlings released in collaborations with artists and perfumers, the occasional psychedelic label (the Ernie Button edition) and a jam-packed schedule of interesting limited releases.
This dual-identity makes it difficult to get to grips with Macallan and results from something that many whisky brands struggle with: the need to have one foot planted firmly in the past and simultaneously one eye focused on the future. As the world keeps turning, distilleries and their whiskies need to preserve their past but embrace change too. Not all change is necessarily good. For example, Macallan was an early adopter in the broader trend of replacing age statement whiskies with NAS alternatives – a move that has been criticised for hiding important information from the consumer. But some change certainly is good. For example, Macallan’s just-opened £140 million distillery and visitor centre reflects environmentally-focused architectural design, new technology in the stillroom and a top-class visitor experience. It is now Scotland’s biggest distillery in terms of output with a capacity of 15 million litres.
What can be said about Macallan whisky itself? It remains the third most sold single malt in the world and the older and limited Macallan releases sell for ever-increasing amounts in both the primary and secondary markets. However, some of their newer releases have received a mixed critical response and for the price of a premium bottle of Macallan a discerning whisky-drinker could probably pick up a couple of bottles of comparable quality from other distilleries.
The whisky I am reviewing today is the Classic Cut Limited Edition 2017. This bottling was released in autumn 2017 for the American domestic market though it can also be found online in the secondary market in other places. It is a NAS whisky and is bottled at 58.4%. It is exclusively matured in oak casks seasoned with Spanish Oloroso sherry. The colour is a gorgeous burnished copper and is natural from the casks.
Palate: A little restrained at first but then baked red apples and luscious apricot comes to the fore, with well-rounded oak notes and a beautiful, unctuous mouthfeel. Mainly sweet but also a little bit spicy.
Finish: Long, lingering and intense- due to the high proof. The sweetness of the palate segues into some light bitterness.
I enjoyed it neat but a drop or two of water might open up those sweet flavours even more.
While it might be hard to pin down the brand identity of Macallan, ultimately it is the quality of the whisky that really counts. The whisky in the bottle speaks louder than any marketing drive or fancy packaging/label. Regardless of the ongoing tension between tradition and innovation, the past and the future, “good” change and “bad” change, it is clear the Macallan has produced an excellent whisky here: a comforting and warming dram that is perfect on a cold night.
On my recent trip to Japan I spent a week in Kobuchizawa, a regional town located about 2 hours by train from Tokyo. As luck would have it this town is incredibly close to the Hakushu whisky distillery in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. How could I not stop in for a visit?
My first full day in town was a glorious spring morning and the perfect time to go. On weekends a regular shuttlebus runs from the Kobuchizawa train station to Hakushu. In true Japanese fashion the shuttlebus ran exactly to time, with the second hand clicking over the minute mark on my watch at the same time as we pulled away from the kerb. The shuttlebus then began to wind its way through the vibrant and densely forested foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake (about 700 metres above sea level). This area is part of the ‘Southern Japanese Alps’ and the spot was specifically chosen for Hakushu distillery because of the mild climate and pristine water sources nearby.
After about 15 minutes we arrived at distillery itself, nestled deep within the forest. There were two tours on offer and I opted for the longer of the two, the “Story of Hakushu” tour and tasting. Given that the distillery is located in Japan it is no surprise that the tours are conducted in Japanese. Audio guides in other languages are available and I found the English guide to be fairly informative but basic. I did wish that I knew a bit more Japanese so that I could have asked the tour guide some questions.
The tour started with a video presentation on the history of both Hakushu distillery and its parent company, Suntory. Shinjiro Torii opened a store in 1899 to sell imported wines. In 1921 this business became the Kotubokiya Company, which two years later built Yamazaki distillery, Japan’s first whisky distillery. In 1963 the Kotubokiya Company changed its name to the (more familiar) Suntory Limited. Given the demand for Yamazaki whisky Suntory decided that they needed an additional distillery and thus Hakushu was built in 1973. In 1981 Hakushu was the largest distillery in the world! Master Blender Keizo Saji, the son of the company’s founder Shinjiro Torri, wanted the whisky from Hakushu to be distinctly different from that of Yamazaki. One of these key differences is the local Hokuta water sources, which pass through granite rock and are therefore apparently incredibly light and pure.
After the video the tour continued with a visit to the mash tun and wooden washbacks. We stopped outside the stillroom (sadly cordoned off behind a glass barrier) where we saw the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still Hakushu uses for the first distillation and the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still they use for the second distillation. These variations in still size apparently produce great variation in the resulting spirits and thus give the Master Blender lots of options to work with when determining the profile of a Hakushu whisky. You can see the different necks in the photos below.
Stills for first distillation
Stills for second distillation
We then hopped on a bus that took us to the warehouse. The audio system on the bus played a recorded message that warned passengers that the warehouse smelled very strongly and to remain on the bus if they were concerned! The idea that someone could dislike the heavenly warehouse aroma of oak, earth and whisky is wholly inconceivable to me- personally, I love it. The warehouse itself was massive with row after row of casks on metal shelves stretching far away into the darkness.
When we returned from the warehouse the tasting part of the tour began. This started with tastes of each of the component whiskies of Hakushu: white oak cask, lightly-peated, heavily-peated (certainly not by Islay standards), and the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. Next we learned all about the mixed-drink “Morikarou Highball” (see my post on Japanese Highballs here). The tour then ended in a very fitting Japanese manner with everyone bowing to each other.
There was also lots to do at Hakushu beyond just the tour. There was an onsite restaurant where I had a delicious lunch, complete with a couple more Highballs. I picked up some small gifts and chocolates at the gift store but the distillery exclusive bottling I was hoping to purchase was unfortunately out-of-stock. Not to worry, however, as the highlight of my visit to Hakushu distillery was yet to come…
If you were to do one thing whilst visiting the Hakushu distillery it should be spending some time at the distillery’s whisky bar. If the vast range of unique and rare whiskies on offer is not exciting enough then the very affordable tasting prices should seal the deal. Tastings also come in 15ml pours so you can sensibly work your way through a fair number of them. I tried the Hakushu newmake (58%), which they call ‘new malt distillate’, and was surprised by the fruity notes (particularly apricot) that were much more prevalent than in the barley-forward newmake I have had at Scottish distilleries. I then tried a 12 Year Old single-barrel Yamazaki matured in a Mizunara oak cask before finishing up with the Hakushu 25 Year Old. I had high expectations for this particular whisky given its recent gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge 2017 and the eye-watering prices it goes for in the Australian market. It certainly delivered. I got plum notes on the nose, with a little smokiness and light caramel/vanilla. Brioche and caramel stood out on the palate, alongside sage and a long, smoky pine needle finish. Truly a beautiful and delicate whisky, made all the better by my newfound appreciation of the distillery in which it was made and the scenic splendour of its forested surrounds.
If you are a whisky fan then Hakushu distillery is certainly worth a detour or day trip from Tokyo. The pristine natural environment is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Japanese city life, and Hakushu’s whisky is as beautiful as its location.
Now back to scotch, my first whisky love. New review up soon!
Something a little bit different for this scotch aficionado…
Highballs. As a self-proclaimed purist who typically drinks her whisky neat, or occasionally with ice or a dash of water, the idea of adding a mixer to my dram has never really appealed to me. But a recent trip to Japan— the home of the whisky highball— has forced me to admit that there may be more to mixers than I previously thought.
A “highball” is the generic name for a drink made up of spirit mixed with a large proportion of a non-alcoholic carbonated mixer. Gin and tonic is a highball. So too is rum and coke. But in Japan the highball of choice is whisky and soda. As with most mixed drinks, the origins of the whisky highball are unclear and many different bartenders and venues claim bragging rights for its invention. What is clear, however, is that despite being around for decades the whisky highball’s popularity persists unabated in Japan. In my visits to various bars and restaurants across Tokyo I found the whisky highball pretty much everywhere – it was even available in vending machines and from the refreshment cart on the train. Occasionally they would change things up and add shochu (a local spirit) but more often than not the highballs were made up of a light, floral Japanese whisky mixed with soda water. This kind of highball is very refreshing on a hot day and goes down exceptionally well with a variety of izakaya food, including yakitori, grilled meats, pickled vegetables and edamame. When the world flocks to Tokyo for the Olympics in 2020 I foresee a global spike of interest in this popular local beverage.
Although I enjoyed a number of different whisky highballs in my trip, a particularly memorable experience was visiting Hakushu Distillery and learning firsthand from a Japanese whisky producer about what the highball format can add to the experience of whisky. As part of my tour at the Hakushu Distillery (stay tuned for a post in the near future about this) they taught us how to both make and appreciate what they called their “Morikarou Highball”: a drink made with Hakushu whisky, soda water, lots of ice and a sprig of mint. They explained that the idea behind this highball is to bring out the fresher flavours of the whisky – think pear, apple, cucumber and citrus notes. The carbonation means these flavours waft pleasantly, tickling your olfactory senses but with none of the alcoholic “burn” that can be off-putting to some people. The Morikarou Highball is also designed to be eaten alongside a wide variety of different foods, and apparently works well with anything that is smoked (duck, bacon, fish), pickled or creamy (apricot and cream cheese was suggested but personally I’m not sold on this one).
So, how do you make the perfect Morikarou Highball?
To start you will need a tall or Collins glass.
Fill the glass to the very top with lots of ice and allow it to chill the glass for a few moments.
Pour in one part whisky. I think it’s certainly worth trying it with Hakushu Distillers Reserve or Hakushu 12 Year Old but any lighter or sweeter style of whisky would be a good substitute.
Stir the glass ten times – no more and no less!
Add more ice to the glass until it is full again.
Add three parts soda and give it one final stir.
Lightly crush a mint sprig by clapping your cupped palms around it to release the aroma. Use it to garnish the drink
Enjoy and kanpai! (Quick note: whilst toasting in Japan don’t use the Italian “chin chin” because it sounds like “penis” to locals!)
As you know, when I am not on holiday I am based in Perth, Western Australia. Summer temperatures here regularly push past 35 degrees Celsius. Despite my whisky “purism” I think that as the mercury rises I might find myself reaching for the soda water and ice to provide some much-needed refreshment with my whisky fix. Let me know your thoughts on how you enjoy your highballs below!
Auchentoshan distillery is located in the Lowlands region, more specifically it lies somewhere in the gritty outskirts of Glasgow. This is not the most beautiful location; it lacks the charm of undulating green hills and gently burbling streams that surround other distilleries.
But despite its industrial locale Auchentoshan nevertheless produces a light and very pure whisky. This is due to the triple distillation method that they employ to strip away some of the “heavier” notes from their whisky. The vast majority of Scottish distilleries just distil twice but Auchentoshan has gone down the path of triple distillation in order to create a more floral distillate that can be easily influenced by the oak during maturation.
Ordinarily, lighter styles of whisky like this are not really my thing. I have tried a number of Auchentoshan whiskies in the past (Three Wood, American Oak, etc) and have been somewhat underwhelmed. But the Auchentoshan whisky I am reviewing today, the Blood Oak, is different. Despite Auchentoshan’s generally light character this particular whisky is intense: just bursting with juicy fruit and spice notes.
The Blood Oak is part of Auchentoshan’s Travel Retail Exclusive Range. I picked up a bottle during a stop-over in Changi Airport, Singapore, and I am glad that I did. In terms of technical information, the Blood Oak is a NAS whisky, bottled at 46% and has been matured in a combination of bourbon casks and red wine casks (hence the dramatic name). This maturation gives the whisky a very rich flavour. This is reflected in the deep red packaging of the bottle and the crimson gold colour of the whisky itself.
Nose: Vanilla, creamed honey, citrus (blood orange and grapefruit), cloves and almond.
Palate: Juicy red fruits immediately come to the fore (plums, strawberries and summer raspberries), spicy notes of cloves and ginger, marzipan.
Palate: Peppery, long and lingering, with a little dryness at the end.
Blood Oak is the most rich, vibrant and complex of the Auchentoshan range that I have tried to date. I am enjoying the general whisky industry’s ongoing experimentation with different cask maturations/finishes and Auchentoshan’s combination of red wine and bourbon casks here is particularly well-matched. The sweet and vanilla flavours characteristic of bourbon cask maturation is complemented well by the red fruit and spicy notes of red wine casks.
With the Blood Oak Auchentoshan proves that a light whisky doesn’t have to be boring. It also proves that a distillery doesn’t need an idyllic pastoral location in order to create a beautiful dram.