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.

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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

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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!

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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.

Kilchoman Tasting

Core range and the newly bottled Australian Cask Exclusive. The ‘barley to bottle’ ethos works a treat!

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Kilchoman is the youngest distillery on Islay. Established in 2005, it was the first new distillery to be built on Islay for 125 years. Kilchoman is a family-run affair and relies on a strong ‘barley to bottle’ ethos. It is one of a very small number of Scottish distilleries to grow the majority of their own barley, run their own floor maltings (a production step now largely outsourced) and even bottle on-site. To say they are passionate about their whisky is an understatement.

Earlier this year a Kilchoman representative travelled from Islay to Australia to host a series of whisky tastings from coast to coast. In true small business style, this representative was the founder’s son, Peter Wills. When I attended one of these tastings it was quite special to hear Peter’s fascinating (and often hilarious) stories about the early and very hands-on days starting up the distillery. He recounted the fun of filling 7000 bottles using a teapot from their onsite café in the early days. Following the whirlwind Australian tour, Peter and his brother were planning to hit up the west coast of the US of A, in order to bring Kilchoman to even more lucky whisky lovers.

The Australian tasting that I attended brought back memories of the time I visited Kilchoman in 2015. I had previously tried some of their core range (and I also have a Sauternes Cask Matured 2016 hidden away for a rainy day) but I was not familiar with the distillery’s more recent releases and so the tasting was a good opportunity so see where Kilchoman is at now and where they are going in the future. Whenever you get the chance to try multiple expressions from one distillery in a single sitting – do it. It gives you a much greater appreciation of the distillery’s style and character.

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Below I have written down my impressions of the whiskies at the tasting. As it was a tasting my notes were a bit briefer than normal and based on just the one dram of each (I do find that I warm to certain whiskies when revisiting them a second or third time.)

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100% Islay 7th edition

Matured in bourbon barrels, mainly first-fill ex-Buffalo Trace. This particular edition is 7 years old and bottled at 50% ABV. There are only 12,000 bottles available a year worldwide.

Nose: barley, newmake, a little peat, lemon and strawberry.

Palate: vanilla, butterscotch, milk arrowroot biscuit.

Finish: sweet but not overpowering, very long.

Machir Bay

A mix of maturation in 90% bourbon barrels and 10% Oloroso sherry casks. Does not have an age statement but apparently is about 5 years old on average. Bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Lemon, citrus, pear, a little hint of sweetness and then the sherry.

Palate: Smoke, peat and fruit in perfect thirds.  Takes about five minutes to open up and when it does the peat and smoke really come to the fore.

Finish: More peatiness that overpowers anything else.

Sanaig

Made in the same way as the Machir Bay but goes into different casks, namely 70% Oloroso sherry hogsheads. Bottled at 46%.

Nose: sherry sweetness, a little citrus and some light smoke.

Palate: peppery, peat then a lighter lemon curd and toffee note comes through – definitely much richer and heavier than the Machir Bay.

Loch Gorm 2017

Their sherry cask, limited edition annual release. This is the sixth version and is a 7 year old whisky matured in sherry butts, mostly first fill. It is a yearly release, with 13,500 bottles released this year.

Nose: raisins, dark chocolate jaffa and slight smoke.

Palate: peat, dark chocolate, BBQ smoke, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Australian Exclusive Single Casks 691/11

This exclusive bottling was distilled on 11 November 2011 and bottled on 25 May 2017. It was initially matured in an ex-bourbon cask before being finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The cask yielded 261 bottles and it is bottled at 57.5%.

Nose: buttery, cinnamon, stewed fruits and a little citrus.

Palate: raisins, dark treacle, scones with jam and cream.

So, did I have a favourite? The Loch Gorm 2017 was a standout from the core range. The dark chocolate orange on the nose and smokiness on the palate really rubs my tastebuds the right way. I was not a big fan of the Sanaig. I usually enjoy whiskies matured in Oloroso casks but the Sanaig was, to me, a little thin and one-dimensional. Perhaps it needed maturing for a bit more time? The Machir Bay and 100% Islay are both solid drams with a complex palate and a long finish.

And the Australian Exclusive Single Cask? It was a very different experience to the others. The delightful Pedro Ximenez came through strongly on the nose and heavily influenced the palate. I snapped up a bottle and I’ll happily keep sampling this one, enjoying it that little bit more for knowing what I do now about its provenance, about the people that made it and the passion they have for whisky.

Highland Park Ice & Fire Editions

ASOIAF: A Sip of Ice and Fire

I couldn’t resist reviewing two very special drams to celebrate today’s premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones. Ever since reading the first book, I’ve been firmly in the camp of the Stark family and have been enchanted by the entire world of the North of Westeros: the ever-changing ‘King in the North’, the weird wildlings, the giants and other beasties who live Beyond the Wall, and the Greyjoys who plunder up and down the coast. So, naturally, my thoughts turn to the distillery that best captures and reflects this northern and wild spirit … Highland Park.

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Highland Park has recently rebranded itself as the ‘Orkney single malt with Viking soul’. Their new tagline is:

“Our whisky, like our island home, is shaped by a wild climate and stormy seas, and by the Vikings who settled here over 1,000 years ago, leaving their mark on our people and our culture.”

This is far from a cynical marketing ploy and truly reflects the unique history and character of the Orkney islands, which are located some 16 kilometres (but an entire world away) from the north coast of the Scottish mainland. Orkney has been inhabited for some 8500 years, first by Neolithic tribes whose houses, standing stones and burial cairns remain on the island to this day, and then by the Picts who brought their own traditions and culture. In 875AD the islands were annexed by Norway and settled by the Norse. Even though the Scottish Parliament annexed the earldom to the Scottish Crown in 1472, Orkney still retains many Norse/Viking traditions to this day and they say that one third of Orcadians have Viking DNA.

Highland Park distillery itself is located in the Orcadian town of Kirkwall and was founded in 1798. It still fundamentally operates today in much the same way it always has: the distillery maintains a traditional floor maltings where the barley is turned by hand, the peat is still cut from nearby Hobbister moor, and maturation still occurs in warehouses on Orkney.

Given the history of Orkney and the proud traditions of Highland Park, it is only natural for the distillery to integrate the local Viking history into their branding. I fondly recall the Valhalla Collection, which was a series of four limited-edition annual releases named after the Norse gods Thor, Loki, Freya and Odin. Following on from the Valhalla Collection, Fire and Ice were released in 2016 and were the next two Nordic-themed bottlings, inspired by the great sagas of the Viking age recorded in the oldest Norse poems, the Poetic Edda.

 Highland Park Ice Edition 17 Year Old

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This release was inspired by Niflheim, the Norse realm of fog, frost and darkness and home to the ice giants. It was matured in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at a respectable 53.9% ABV.

Nose: A fascinating and complex mixture of tropical fruits, milk chocolate, and milky arrowroot biscuits.

Palate: Phwoar! A cacophony of flavours vying for attention –  distinctive and fresh notes of pineapple and mango, mellowing into coconut, a hint of cherry cola, sherbet, and at the end definitely some maritime influences, a little peat, lingering smoke and baked apple.

Finish: Rich and viscous, lingering spices, dry woodiness.

Highland Park Fire Edition 15 Year Old

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This release was inspired by Muspelheim, the Norse realm of fire, the crucible of the suns and stars, and home to the fire giants. It was matured exclusively in refill port-seasoned casks and bottled at 45.2% ABV.

Nose: Comforting aromas of warm spices, coffee, mixed peel, smoke.

Palate: Opens with dark chocolate and lightly roasted coffee (absolutely no bitterness), then come the red fruits (sweetened cranberry, plum), a hint of vanilla pods, and maple roasted pecans.

Finish: Spicy and smoky.

Both releases are imposingly (and somewhat ostentatiously) packaged in their own wooden case, which is reminiscent of a jagged mountain (for the Ice Edition) and volcano (for the Fire Edition). There are also beautifully illustrated mini-books of Nordic tales included alongside the whisky.

If you can manage it, it is fascinating to trying these whiskies side-by-side because of their many contrasts. On my initial tasting I preferred the Fire Edition because of its big, rich flavours of chocolate and red fruit— something I expect and love from a port-influenced dram. However, on subsequent tastings I preferred the Ice Edition because of its incredible complexity. Coquettishly, the Ice Edition refused to give up all its secrets at once, and every time I went back to it I changed my tasting notes as I discovered that something else was coming to the fore. However, I can finally and definitively say that, for me, the lingering notes of pineapple and coconut on the palate of the Ice Edition make it the ultimate winner in this battle of ice and fire.

Ice: 17.5/20

Fire: 16.5/20

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Ardbeg Kelpie (Committee)

Ardbeg Kelpie will wrap its seaweedy tendrils around you

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The beautiful Kildalton coast on the tiny island of Islay is home to Ardbeg, a distillery that celebrated its 200th birthday in 2016. With experienced master blender Bill Lumsden at the helm and under the ownership of Moet Hennessy, Ardbeg has gone from strength to strength since it was rescued from its mothballed state in 1997. I find it interesting that whilst you see Ardbeg on the shelves of every Dan Murphy’s and almost every local liquor store, the bottles are shmickly packaging and their marketing campaigns are clever, underneath all of this the production at Ardbeg is actually quite small. Just Six Oregon pine washbacks and one pair of stills – that’s right, one pair! Despite this limitation the distillery produces 1.3 million litres a year, which all goes into an impressive number of expressions.

Ardbeg is a distillery that has a fascinating history intrinsically intertwined with its remote location on the craggy coast so they play on this mythos and lore to draw one in. Yet combined with this history is a sense of innovation, experimentation and vision for the future. The Ardbeg core range are like a group of friends that you have known forever and that you know you can count on anytime. However, the Ardbeg annual releases are like the cool new kids who capture your attention and impress you with their moxie. Ardbeg’s annual releases over the last few years have been nothing if not interesting. Some have been received more favourably than others. For example, Perpetuum in 2015 was a little underwhelming but the committee edition shone. Dark Cove in 2016 was good, but again, the committee edition was richer and lingered longer.

For those that may not be familiar with Ardbeg, let me explain the concept of the committee edition. Being part of the Ardbeg Committee is basically being part of their fan club or on their mailing list. The best part of this is the chance to purchase special bottlings reserved exclusively for members of the Committee. Each year a new expression is released for Ardbeg Day, 3 June. There is always a general release of the expression that is pretty easily available. However, before the general release is on the shelves, committee members have a chance to purchase the committee edition. On the release date you need to get up at the crack of dawn to click around on a website in a nervous but sleep-addled state, all with the hope of quickly securing a bottle for yourself within the short window before the entire lot is sold. If you’re lucky, your prize will be getting to try the Ardbeg annual release at cask strength instead of 46%. And it’s fun to have the more exclusive version 😛

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This year, the annual release is the Kelpie. What exactly is a “kelpie” you may ask? Being an Aussie, I certainly wondered! As I said, the mythos and lore of Ardbeg is strong, because of their connection to the sea, which has always been associated with adventures, tall tales and mystery. This release plays on all of that. Apparently, a kelpie is a Scottish version of a shape-shifting water spirit. They are said take the form of a horse but to be able to change into human form, and they lure sailors and those close to the shoreline to their doom. Lurking in the Gulf of Corryvreckan (just off the coast of Islay) and various lochs and seas around Scotland, they try to fool humans into following them into the murky depths. If they can throw in a cheeky dram of Ardbeg as well then I might just follow! To me, the idea of kelpie celebrates the seashore upon which the distillery stands and the folklore that surrounds it.

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Without further ado, however, my review of the committee edition…

This year, the committee edition of the Kelpie is bottled at 51.7%. It has no age statement and has been matured in a combination of bourbon barrels and virgin casks made from Russian oak grown in an area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

I tasted this without water. You may want to add a drop to open it up or if you don’t usually drink cask strength whisky.

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Nose: A seaweedy, salty hit like a wave breaking. The distinctive iodine, medicinal note. Smoked fish – I thought smoked salmon, my husband thought something oily like mackerel. Invigorating pine characteristic of Ardbeg. Black pepper finishes it off.

Palate: Really peat forward and more of the smoked fish flavours that you get on the nose. Black olives, very bitter dark cocoa and pepper follow. A charry taste of bacon grease.

Finish: I tasted this last weekend… I’m almost still tasting it 😉 petroleum, smoke, toffee that’s been on the stove a moment too long because you were distracted.

I absolutely loved this. My favourite Ardbeg annual release to date. Fingers crossed that the general release is just as good and keep your eyes peeled for a comparative review when I get a chance to taste it too.

17/20

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