Laphroaig PX Cask Triple Matured

PSA: drink more sherry!

Laphroaig PX Cask Triple Matured is an absolute joy. It was matured first in ex-bourbon hogsheads, like the Laphroaig 10 Year Old, before undergoing a second maturation in quarter casks and then a final maturation in European Oak casks that originally held Pedro Ximenez (PX). Pedro Ximenez is a naturally sweet dessert wine made from grapes with a high concentration of sugars, as a result of either being picked when they are very ripe or being dried in the sun after picking. PSA: every whisky fan should drink more sherry in order to ensure that sherry casks are available for these kinds of delicious maturations! The PX Cask is bottled at 48% ABV, does not carry an age statement and is available as a travel retail exclusive in a hefty 1 litre bottle.

Laph

Nose: as always with Laphroaig the tang of peat is the first thing you notice, followed by a hint of raisins and the nutty almond flavours from the sherry

Palate: the peat and oak are undeniably forward but then rich, sultry flavours of port wine, dried figs, rich dark berry jam, a slightly sweet liquorice come through. The mouthfeel is oily and rich.

Finish: dry like a Spanish sherry, peat and oak linger. It is very mellow and very easy to down a dram.

Laph five casks

This is a truly excellent dram. The combination of peat smoke and rich sherry is in perfect balance. The typical Laphroaig characteristics shine through but are mellowed somewhat by the beautiful mouthfeel and sweetness of raisins and sultanas. If you are lucky enough to see a bottle on your travels then snap it up. I think fans of Laphroaig will appreciate it and those who are not as familiar with Laphroaig or Islay whiskies may find this to be a gentle, sweet introduction.

PX cask

18/20

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Have a look at my review of the 25 Year Old here

Edradour Chardonnay Cask Matured Aged 13 Years

A full chardonnay cask maturation is interesting to say the least!

edradour sign

“Hmm, no, don’t try that one, try this other one”. When I insisted he relented with some reluctance: “It’s really not … umm, well, it’s not to my taste”. In this way the gentleman pouring sample drams at the Edradour distillery made it pretty clear that he was not a big fan of the whisky I am about to review, even though he worked at the place that made it. Jim Murray has also condemned a similarly-matured expression from Edradour (though a bit younger and bottled at only 46% ABV) as being ‘grim’. Read on to find out if it’s as bad as these two choice comments suggest!

Edradour is a picturesque little distillery in the town of Pitlochry, Perthshire, which is situated within the Southern Highlands. Edradour previously billed itself as the smallest working distillery in Scotland— the ‘farmhouse distillery’— but the recent upsurge of micro distilleries has since usurped any such claim. Another reason to abandon this description is their plans for expansion. When I visited earlier this year construction work was happening on the second still house and set of warehouses being built onsite. Last year Edradour produced 130,000 litres and apparently hope to increase their capacity to 400,000 litres when this extension opens.

Despite no longer being quite so small, Edradour still has an old-fashioned and quaint feel to it, with the entire production process currently being managed by only three stillmen. Its white buildings with red trim, narrow bubbling stream and flower gardens full of daffodils all combine to make this a beautiful place to visit. When you factor in the extensive (and very reasonably-priced) range of Edradour expressions available for tasting then a trip there is certainly worthwhile.

edradour bridge
The quaint tasting room at Edradour, lots of expressions on offer for a very wee price!

The particular expression I am reviewing here is a distillery exclusive, the Edradour Single Cask Bottling Chardonnay Cask Matured. I should make it very clear this is not a whisky that has simply been finished in a chardonnay cask, rather it is a whisky that has been matured for its entire 13 years in a chardonnay cask. It is quite rare to see a whisky fully matured in a white wine cask like this. This particular bottle was distilled 23 June 2003 and bottled 10 August 2016 from an out-turn of just 288 bottles. It is bottled at its natural cask strength, which is a rather hefty 53.4% ABV. The colour is a rich, deep copper and is entirely natural, taking its beautiful hue only from the contribution of the chardonnay hogshead.

edradour chardonnay

Nose: Tight and restrained, I’m not getting an awful lot from it at first. It opens up after a few minutes with oak and honeysuckle at the fore followed by some sweeter aromas; jaffa and sweetshop licorice (not aniseed, something a little less intense). A drop of water reveals peach and green apple.

Palate: The presence of a lot of woody oak almost goes without saying (given the chardonnay cask maturation). Apple pie made with tart, green apples. Softening into flavours of honeyed, orange syrup.

Finish: The high alcohol gives this a bit of a rough finish, it burns a little, the mouthfeel and lasting impression is almost reminiscent of a liquor like Cointreau.

This is an interesting experiment by Edradour. It is well worth a try, though I don’t think we’re going to be seeing wine cask maturations like this taking the industry by storm anytime soon! The oakiness masks the more subtle flavours a bit but it is something different for those who like something unusual.

14/20

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Mortlach Single Cask Release 1998 (Wemyss Malts)

Ginger Glazed Gammon!

mortlach sign
Sadly, as close as we could get to Mortlach without scaling the fence!

The region of Speyside is the heart of whisky production in Scotland and nestled within Speyside is the small but picturesque location of Dufftown. Dufftown boasts not one but seven distilleries, and both The Balvenie and Glenfiddich can be found there. However, the first distillery founded in Dufftown way back in 1823 was Mortlach. Mortlach is not a whisky you usually see at your local bottle store as the vast majority of its prodigious output goes into blends and accordingly it doesn’t often end up as a single malt. Indeed, the distillery itself keeps a low-profile being closed to the public and unavailable to tour even if you make it all the way to Dufftown. This is all quite a shame really, as Mortlach’s single malt is quite distinctive and fascinating to drink: possessing a heady mix of savoury, meaty and (when sherry-influenced) fruitcake characteristics.

There are six washbacks and six spirit stills at Mortlach. These are not, however, paired off in the usual way and Mortlach’s idiosyncratic distillation process follows a labyrinthine course that cannot easily be summarised (even with a flowchart). Without getting too technical, at Mortlach one pair of stills acts as a double distillation. The low wines are redirected and in one of the spirit stills, redistilled twice. The upshot of all this is that the final spirit at Mortlach is, according to the distillery, distilled ~2.81 times. This is quite unusual for scotch as most distilleries generally just distil their spirit twice. Ordinarily, the more you distil the spirit the lighter the final product, as heavier components like oils are left behind. Think, for example, of the very clean spirit at triple-distilled Auchentoshan. However, Mortlach’s whisky is certainly not light. Instead, the multiple distillations result in a spirit that has had a lot of contact with the copper of the still but that hasn’t been stripped of heavy components, resulting in characteristics such as barbequed meat notes. If you are interested in this process, can I recommend having a look at the following explanations, which are far clearer than mine!

This is a good explanation from the folks over at Scotch Whisky and here is the even more detailed version at Whisky Science for those who understand and appreciate the chemistry of distillation.

mortlach castle
Balvenie Castle in Dufftown, originally known as Mortlach

The Mortlach whisky that I am lucky enough to be reviewing here is an independent bottling by Wemyss Malts. I bought this bottle at The Whisky Shop in Dufftown, just a few hundred metres down the road from Mortlach itself. It is a single cask release that was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2016, making it 18 years old. There were only 306 bottles produced at a respectable 46% abv. Wemyss has not provided any information about what the whisky was matured in but if I were to hazard a guess from the flavor profile I would take a punt on it being a refill sherry cask. ‘Ginger Glazed Gammon’ is emblazoned across the label which, if nothing else, made me laugh. I don’t think many people would be enticed by a drink being described that way! It is a pretty accurate description though!

mortlach dram
A lovely golden colour. Aussie wildflower in the background; I really am blogging from Perth, Australia, not Perth, Scotland!

 

 

Nose: Stewed pears moves towards apricot, then into savoury notes as the mouth-watering honey ham gains traction, a hint of sulphur, sherry (plump raisins) and woody/barky spices (cinnamon stick, ginger) round it out.

Palate: Salty green olives then spiced barbequed slow-cooked meats take their place, mellowing into beef stock, with a final foray into dark chocolate and sage.

Finish: A light metallic taste that (thankfully) fades into a more tannic, herbaceous finish with a honey sweetness.

This whisky really grew on me. I didn’t really like my first couple of drams, but I did find it intriguing and kept finding myself wanting to try it again. I am glad that I persevered as this whisky was rewarding when I finally got my head around the strange flavour profile. The meaty characteristics are certainly like nothing else. Overall, a complex, multi-layered and an interesting foray into a distillery with an idiosyncratic process. Despite the higher-profile company it keeps in Dufftown, Mortlach is not a distillery that should be overlooked.

16/20

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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.

hp

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

ice

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

fire

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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Brainstorming Boilermakers

Welcome to the weekend!

I have only recently come to love boilermakers, which is surprising given my longstanding love of both good beer and good whisky. Over the last six months or so I have had some excellent boilermaker experiences. Firstly, I visited a bar called Boilermaker House in Melbourne which lives up to its moniker by having an entire section of their menu devoted to boilermakers. Secondly, my husband’s brother gifted him a selection of boilermakers for his birthday: three miniatures of scotch and three bottles of beer, all carefully paired. Finally, when I visited Orkney the distillery manager at Highland Park let us in on her favourite boilermaker pairing involving their whisky. I tried it that same night, and it was VERY good. I’ve included it below.

So what is a “boilermaker”? When referring to drinks and not people-who-make-boilers, the term boilermaker can mean a variety of different things and so a little explanation is in order. In parts of the UK a boilermaker means a mixture of half a pint of draught and half a pint of brown ale. By contrast, a traditional American boilermaker involves shotting a dram of whisky in a single gulp and then drinking a beer. An alternative boilermaker approach is to drop a dram of whisky (with or without shot glass) into a beer, and then drinking them both together.

Now I am a big proponent of each to their own when it comes to drinks. You want to add ice to your whisky? Go right ahead. A splash of coke? Not my style, but sure. Dropping your whisky into your beer? No worries. Life is simply too short to have others dictate to you how to enjoy your drink. That said, my own favourite way to enjoy a boilermaker is to drink a dram of whisky and a glass of beer side-by-side: no shotting or mixing, just alternating between sipping the two as and when I feel like it. This seems to be the current style of boilermaker in Australia at least.

The crucial part of putting together a good boilermaker in this style is the pairing of whisky and beer. To me, a perfect pairing involves;

  • A beer and a whisky you are happy to drink by themselves
  • Complementary flavor profiles, like a smoky dark beer and a smoky peated whisky. For example, you wouldn’t pair a stout and a light, floral whisky.
  • Trying to pair standout flavours. Spiced bacon notes in a bourbon are likely to match really well with similar notes in a dark craft beer, fruity notes in a Lowlands whisky are likely to match well with a light ale or a saison and so on.

Based on these criteria, and my own personal experience, here are a few favourites:

oogy and feral

Ardbeg Uigeadail + Feral Smoked Porter

The smoky porter with dark chocolate notes matches well with the peat in the whisky. Both have flavours of smoked bacon.

kaiju and caribbean cask

The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask + Kaiju Crush! Tropical Pale

The pale has a bit of hoppy bitterness but mellows out with summery pineapple flavours. Their shared tropical fruit characteristics take you to an island paradise.

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old + Swanney Brewery Scapa Special

Light, easy to knock back, both have a lovely balanced sweetness with citrus notes.

Feel free to leave your suggested boilermaker pairings in the comments section. Happy drinking!

 

Visiting the great Brora

A lucky visit to a mothballed legend

brora.jpg

When you live far away but you’re a big whisky fan like I am, planning a trip to Scotland is no easy task. The biggest ‘problem’ is the range of choice. Of Scotland’s roughly 110 distilleries, with around a third having some kind of visitor’s centre or tour, how do you go about choosing the mere handful that you realistically have time to visit? As much as I wish I could somehow spin this into a job like the late, great Iain Banks and his search for the perfect  dram, when you live in Australia instead of the UK you don’t have the ability to visit numerous distilleries in a series of brief, casual weekend jaunts and instead must be very careful and selective. This results in some tough choices! Do you hit up the distilleries that produce your favourite whiskies? Or do you use the opportunity to discover those you’re not so familiar with and hope to discover a new favourite? Of course then there is the risk of being underwhelmed and possibly realising that there’s a good reason you have only tried a certain distillery’s core expression once.

On our recent trip we mixed it up and planned a combination of beloved familiar faces and those we knew but were keen to explore further. Love Glenmorangie and wouldn’t miss it. Enjoyed the Caribbean Cask but haven’t had much else from the Balvenie range, so it is definitely worth a visit. Aren’t Clynelish the one with a wildcat on their logo? Sounds good and they’re right on our driving route, so on the list it went.

“Clynelish emailed me back” I called out to my husband, some months out from our trip. “It’s closed for refurbishment so we can’t tour it, but apparently we can tour Brora instead?!” Exciting stuff. Although I didn’t really know much about Clynelish and had only been vaguely aware that there was some kind of connection between Clynelish and Brora, I had heard a little bit about Brora. It is spoken of within whisky circles in the same hushed tones as Port Ellen, has an almost a cult-like following and its whiskies sell for outrageous sums of money on the primary and secondary markets. I didn’t know too much about Clynelish/Brora beforehand but after the tour I now know a lot more.

The original distillery at this Highlands site was built in 1819. It was called “Clynelish” and operated from 1820 to 1967. In 1967 Clynelish closed its doors. A new distillery opened adjacent to the old one (just a few metres away) and was identical in structure and production but a bit more modernised. This new distillery was then named “Clynelish”. However, the old, closed distillery did not stay silent for long. In 1969 it was reopened and renamed ‘Brora’. Confused yet?

From 1969 Brora produced a heavily peated whisky for blending purposes in order to make up for a shortfall in the parent company’s portfolio, apparently as a result of Islay’s Caol Ila closing and being rebuilt from scratch. Brora was only supposed to reopen for a year or so but it continued to produce whisky, albeit on a small scale, for the locals for another 12 years. It then finally closed again in 1983, never to reopen. Because of the limited production time and amounts, there is only a small, finite quantity of Brora whisky. It is now hard to get and highly sought after as every release is very much a limited edition!

brora stencils

When the day of our tour finally came around, we set off driving from Tain that morning with great anticipation. An ominous grey pall hung over the Dornoch Firth as we drove past but the mood was lightened by a cute sign warning of “otters crossing”! We pressed on through the picturesque ‘blink and you’ve driven through it’ town of Golspie and along the winding roads at the slopes of Beinn Bhragaidh. “Is that a statue up there on that hill?” I wondered as I took our lives in my hands and craned my neck out of my driver’s side window, only later learning (courtesy of our Clynelish/Brora tour guide) that what I was looking at was a hundred-foot statue of George Leveson-Gower. He was the first Duke of Sutherland and was an infamous historical figure for his role in the Highland clearances, something which rather overshadowed the fact that he also had a role in founding the original Clynelish distillery. Finally, we passed the turreted, Disney-esque Dunrobin Castle (well worth a stop) and got to the town of Brora. The sharp turn-off to the distillery leads down a short single-track road. Emerging from behind a grassy bank, we could see a construction site enrobing the new Clynelish distillery to the left and, just metres away, old Brora rising from the mist to the right. We were booked on the Brora Experience Tour and therefore fortunate enough to be on a private tour with our young guide. There were apologies again for not being able to tour a working distillery due to the ongoing maintenance of Clynelish but we quickly reassured our guide that we were very excited to tour Brora instead.

brora fillbrora washback

First stop, the warehouse. As soon as the wooden doors are unlocked and thrown open a musty, pungent smell hits you. A chthonic combination of damp, dirt, wood and the beautiful ‘angels share’, which tickles your nostrils with with a hundred years of history. Like most distilleries, the precious cargo contained in the warehouses on-site is not the entire stock of the distillery. Clynelish and Brora whiskies are stored in many warehouses around Scotland – better to spread around the risk just in case something catastrophic happens to one location, like a fire or an explosion. In fact, there were only two remaining casks of Brora on site. Two beautiful bourbon barrels with red ends, located in pride of place right at the entry point of the warehouse. A quick rap of the knuckles on the side of one of them and the hollow noise that rang out indicated the steadily decreasing amount of liquid gold inside. Our tour guide told us that contents of just one of these casks was probably worth about one million pounds!

brora casks

The tour continued into the other Brora buildings, no less imposing for their advancing decrepitude. A huge filling room, complete with an empty tun, cobwebs, cracked windows, archaic rusted tools and the original stencils used to paint the ends of the Brora casks. The still room: two tarnished copper vessels, adorned in bird poop and out of commission longer than I’ve been alive, but still breathtaking in their size and presence. Their dull metal in sharp is in contrast to the gleaming stills of, say, nearby Glenmorangie or Balblair down the road, but remains magnificent nonetheless. They haven’t been taken for repurposing or scrapped but instead remain preserved, trapped in time without a job to do.

brora still 2

The yards of Brora were quiet but not still. A few burly blokes loaded casks into the back of a lorry. A colony of baby rabbits compromised an embankment with their burrows and peered skittishly out at us. No wildcats were to be seen, unfortunately, except on the postcards in the visitors’ centre (proceeds of the sale of which go to the conservation of these strange-looking felines).

We went inside to one of the newer Clynelish building for a tasting. We started with some very nice Clynelish expressions but I am going to skip straight to the much anticipated highlights of the tasting, a Brora 35yo (2014 release) and a Brora 37yo (2015 release). Both bottled at cask strength. Utterly sublime. Both drams, particularly the 37yo, lived up to very high expectations. The 37yo had slight touch of peat and a soft mouthfeel, with a waxiness that complemented flavours of light caramel, vanilla and lemon curd. It was warming but not spicy, peppery nor overpowering on the palate, and lingered long after swallowing. It was a whisky that I would be thinking about for days afterwards.

brora drams

We left Clynelish/Brora feeling as though we had spent the morning travelling through history. Many distilleries in Scotland still operate much as they did in the last century. It is an industry very much based on tradition, determination and patience, and where a vision for the future will not bear fruit until ten, twenty, thirty years hence. I have often felt the weight of time when visiting distilleries but nowhere did I feel at as clearly as standing in the abandoned still room of Brora just metres from its shiny, new copy in Clynelish. It is a place where an obsolete distillery produced, for all too short a time, one of the world’s great single malts. And it did it within the shadow of its own replacement, within the shadow of the future.