Macallan Classic Cut Limited Edition 2017

Tradition and change

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.)

macallan

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.

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Easter Elchie’s house – now go and look at the Macallan label!

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.

macallandram

Nose: Buttered toast, rich crème caramel, oranges, walnuts, vanilla and raisins.

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.

16/20

Check the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here

Hakushu Distillery

A long way from Scotland… and Australia!

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.

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The tree-lined path to Hakushu

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.

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.

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The massive warehouse

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!

Highballin’ in Japan

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.

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Morikarou Highball on the deck at Hakushu Distillery

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.

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Hakushu Distillery in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

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).

lets make

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 Blood Oak

Light but not boring

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.

auch outside

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.

auch stills

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.

auch dram

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.

15.5/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here

Mortlach 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old

Robust big hitters bringing meat, malt, spice and sweetness to the table

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year one and all! I hope everyone was lucky enough to get some malty goodness in their stocking or at least have the opportunity to sample a few festive drams. Here in Australia the summer weather is uncomfortably hot for drinking whisky but, of course, I don’t let that stop me.

Welcome to the final post in my series of Mortlach reviews. It started innocently enough with a review of a Wemyss Malts Mortlach but has now expanded to include reviews of the entire distillery range. If you haven’t already seen them, please take a moment to read my earlier Mortlach reviews of the Wemyss Malts bottling here and the Rare Old and Special Strength here. As I have mentioned previously, prior to 2014 the Mortlachs available on the market were mainly independent bottlings, but this all changed when the new distillery range was released, comprising the Rare Old, Special Strength (travel retail exclusive), 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old. Today we’re looking at the final two of these whiskies.

The Mortlach 18 Year Old comes in a hefty and very striking bottle, decorated with beautiful metalwork at the base and curling up the sides. The whisky inside is a vatting of whisky matured in first-fill sherry casks and refill casks, and is bottled at 43.4% ABV.

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Look at the beautiful metalwork on the base

Nose: Robust and dark, with opening notes of fruitcake flavours like sherry, raisin, orange, walnut and cherry then banana and pineapple. There’s a touch of Christmas ham (which frankly, I have had more than enough of this past week :P) that gives it an underlying meatiness.

Palate: Soft and complex, slow increase in intensity, clove, white pepper, coffee beans and grapefruit pith. There are notes of intense vanilla, dark stewed stone fruit and malted milk.

Finish: Gentle spices and citrus, not overly long.

16.5/20

The Mortlach 25 Year Old is also packaged in an absolutely remarkable bottle, shapely and intricate. The whisky is aged in refill American oak for a quarter century but remains rich and flavoursome, with only a light suggestion of oak and just a hint of smokiness.

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Nose:  Violet, creamed honey, vanilla custard and brioche followed by some more tarter fruity notes (orange and red apple).

Palate: Here it really opens up; ginger, warm cinnamon buns, pineapple, milk chocolate, banana bread and chestnuts and walnut. It is rich and full, developing even more over five or ten minutes.

Finish: It coats the whole mouth and is ridiculously long and warming

17/20

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Metalwork on the 25 Year Old

Both the 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old in the Mortlach range are whiskies to be savoured. Both, especially the 25 Year Old, are quite expensive – but sampling these aged drams is certainly a treat with near perfect balances of spice, fruit, sweet and savoury notes.

In my eyes, Mortlach is certainly one of the great Speyside distilleries and comparing its different expressions is fascinating. They are enjoyable in their own right; they are even more enjoyable as part of an exploration of the distilleries signature characteristics, comparing the bottlings, ages and casks. I am very partial to the Christmas flavours on the nose from the 18 Year Old. Having said that, the richness of the mouthfeel and finish in the 25 Year Old is quite remarkable. Try one or try both, or try a Mortlach of your choice – just make sure you sample something from Mortlach; it’s easier to get your hands on an expression than ever before.

 

Mortlach Rare Old & Special Strength

A side by side comparison looking at the different effects of distillation and maturation.

Here we return to Mortlach, a Speyside distillery that I am fascinated with because it produces such an intriguing array of flavours in its whiskies. A few months ago I reviewed the independently-bottled Wemyss Malts ‘Ginger Glazed Gammon’ and if you want to brush up on the general information about the Mortlach distillery and its idiosyncratic distilling process you can find that here. Since that earlier post I have been lucky enough to try some additional drams from Mortlach. Moving from the independent bottlings to the official distillery bottlings, my palate has now run the gamut of the Mortlach core range all the way from the (presumably) younger NAS bottlings through to the venerable 25 year old.

mortlach lineup

In this particular review we’ll cover the two NAS offerings: the Rare Old and the Special Strength. The Rare Old is the opening gambit in the newish Mortlach range that Diageo launched in late 2014. It is bottled at 43.4% ABV, and was matured in a mix of four different types of casks: bourbon, sherry, refill bourbon and recharred barrels. The Special Strength is apparently pretty much the exact same liquid, but bottled at a higher 49% ABV and released as a Travel Retail Exclusive. Hunting down this particular bottle helped me while away some of the time during my long layover at Changi airport earlier this year! Because of the close similarities between the Rare Old and Special Strength they provide an interesting side-by-side tasting comparison. So, how exactly does this slight increase in proof impact on the profile of these whiskies?

 

Rare Old

rare old

Nose: Butterscotch at first sniff and then a refreshing hit of menthol, opens up into honeycomb, roasted pineapples and glazed ham with burnt bits, a big hit of red apple.

Palate: Initially spicy then mellows into quite a light dram; prunes, ham steaks, wood (that hot dry wood from a sauna), tobacco and drinking cocoa.

Finish: Definitely dries out your mouth a little, still spicy (cloves, white pepper), very long, no alcohol burn, a light pleasant finish.

16/20

The Special Strength

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Nose: Vanilla custard from packet mix, dark unsweetened cocoa, then the sweetness comes through with hints of honey, orange peel, raisins, hazelnuts.

Palate: Dark cherries in syrup, cacao, pineapple, ginger spice. Surprising rounded flavours of caramelised banana and arrowroot biscuit then the typical Mortlach charred-meat characters shine through.

Finish: Honeycomb (Violet Crumble – a classic Aussie chocolate bar for those who may be overseas!) and treacle tart

15.5/20

Whilst these two bottlings are undeniably similar and both carry the signature Mortlach notes of sweetness and meatiness, the difference in proof makes them distinctly different. Whilst the Special Strength’s higher proof translates to an initially harsher mouthfeel, this difference is reflected more deeply in two whisky’s flavour profiles as well. In particular, the sweetness in the Rare Old come through more fully, whilst the spicy notes are more to the fore in the Special Strength. Taken together, they provide an interesting study in the impact the distillation has on the whisky as opposed to the cask maturation. Both are lighter and less challenging than some of the other ballsy Mortlachs out there; they definitely go down easily and make a good summer dram.

In the coming week I’ll finish off my look at the Mortlach core range with reviews of the 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old. As we approach the festive season stay tuned for more interesting drams!

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Ardbeg An Oa

The highly anticipated new edition to the Ardbeg core range!

In this review we return to Ardbeg distillery which is located on Islay’s Kildalton coast. Today’s whisky is the brand new An Oa, the first addition to the core Ardbeg range of expressions since the introduction of Corryvrecken in 2009.

The name ‘An Oa’ is a reference to the Mull of Oa which is a peninsula located nearby to the distillery. Just like this rocky and windswept part of the coast, the An Oa has the rugged oomph that one expects from a heavily peated Ardbeg dram. And yet the An Oa also displays the more approachable side of this distillery as these wild notes are tamer than in other Ardbeg core expressions.

This whisky was matured in a combination of casks including Pedro Ximénez, charred virgin oak and ex-bourbon, which were all then married together in Ardbeg’s new bespoke oak Gathering Vat by Master Distiller Bill Lumsden. In keeping with the most of the core Ardbeg range (apart from the 10 Year Old), it does not have an age statement. It is bottled at 46.6% which is lower than both the Corryvrecken and the Uigeadail.

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Nose: Typical Islay peat, Terry’s chocolate orange, smoky streaky bacon grease, a touch of lemon. Then there is an oak note and a hint of vanilla.

Palate: A sweet and creamy dram. Peat at the fore, dark chocolate and liquorice.  It mellows into buttery banana bread, honey, vanilla and stewed peaches. There is a little Christmas spice, flavours of nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. The palate becomes a little dry towards the finish.

Finish: Seductively long. Still quite sweet but with a slight tang of resinous pine and an excellent, warming mouthfeel.

an oaOverall, a very drinkable dram and a good addition to an already strong core range. You will start by intending to have just a single splash in the evening and will soon find that a good part of you bottle has gone. Initially I did think that the An Oa was a little one-dimensional but this notion was dispelled as I discovered more to it over time. Whilst it is not as intense in peat or proof as the Uigeadail or Corryvrecken, the An Oa’s more relaxed profile makes for easier drinking for Islay whisky lovers here in Australia as we have now begun to enter the (very warm) Australian summer season.

16/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Have a look at my review of the Ardbeg Kelpie.