Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve

glenlivet

The Glenlivet distillery is situated in the eponymous Glen of Livet, Ballindalloch, Speyside. As you drive through the rolling hills and picturesque valleys of this part of the world it is easy to imagine the frustration experienced by the excise men as, in days gone by, they scoured the hidden pockets of the countryside. They knew that illicit distilleries were operating in the area but in order to tax them they first had to find them, and that was a tricky matter indeed. The Glenlivet, however, has long operated on the right side of the law. George Smith founded the Glenlivet distillery at Upper Drumin in 1824 and was the first licensed distiller in the local area (a fact that made him quite unpopular with his unlicensed neighbours). Later he purchased a farm at nearby Minmore and built a second, grander distillery that opened in 1859. The Glenlivet passed through various generations of family until 1921 and since 2001 it been owned by Chivas Brothers, which is part of Pernot Ricard. The Glenlivet is currently the second bestselling single malt worldwide. The distillery is equipped with seven pairs of stills and produces around 11 million litres annually. Three pairs of stills are located in a huge stillroom, whose floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the beautiful glen.

The whisky I am reviewing today is The Glenlivet’s entry level expression, the Founder’s Reserve. It was released in 2015 and whilst it is not apparently intended as a replacement for the 12 year old— which is being slowly discontinued in the UK market— it seems like this is the new go-to Glenlivet and the expression most commonly available at your local bar and bottle shop. It has no age statement, is bottled at 40% ABV and has been matured in a combination of aged oak casks and American first-fill oak casks.

The Founder’s Reserve is a delicate, light, smooth and creamy dram. It is easy to drink, inoffensive and has an appropriate price point (in Australia I have regularly seen it for just over $50). However, it is quite a simple whisky and I found it difficult to discern much on the palate.

founders

Nose: Floral, delicate fruits like pears and green apples, honey and a little bit of vanilla from the American oak.

Palate: Light and sweet. A little watery at first but it opens up into fresh just ripe pear, vanilla and ginger. Finishes with an increasing dry woodiness.

Finish: Medium length but a rather one-dimensional vanilla note.

The Founder’s Reserve is a pleasant enough dram. It will not blow your socks off but it has a time and place. Perhaps best used for mixing in cocktails, introducing someone to whisky who hasn’t drunk much before or sharing with friends as something easy-to-drink whilst playing board games.

I should note that I am far more excited by other Glenlivet expressions. For example, the Nadurra range is consistently good, the Cipher is both complex  and fun (it was released in an entirely blacked-out bottle with no information but the legally-mandated ABV: a real mystery!), and all of the single-cask expressions that I have tried have been excellent. The conclusion that I draw from the above is that, for me, The Glenlivet shines when it bottles at a slightly higher ABV (say, 46% and above). However, I appreciate the fact that the Founder’s Reserve is approachable and widely obtainable, and if it broadens the appeal of whisky to more drinkers then that can only be a good thing for whisky generally.

12/20

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Bruichladdich Classic Laddie

Terroir matters.

laddie front

Bruichladdich is perched on the north shore of Islay’s Loch Indaal, a place where the waves gently lap at the shore and sheep roam contentedly (and also freely as there are no fences to stop them wandering onto the winding road that passes right by the distillery). In recent years, Bruichladdich has demonstrated their dedication to locality within their innovative approach to whisky-making. ‘Terroir matters’ has become their catch-cry and it is hard not to feel the special nature of location when you stand at the entry to the distillery, the wide-open sky above you, the gentle murmur of Loch Indaal behind you and the damp grass beneath your feet. Bruichladdich use various different kinds of barley in their whiskies– including some barley grown on Islay itself and the rare ‘bere’ barley varietal from Orkney— but it all 100% Scottish and their casks are all matured exclusively on site. Bruichladdich are also striving to achieve the highest level of phenol parts per million and thus the peatiest whisky ever, with the Octomore expressions being the fruits of this particularly daring and delicious experiment. Their ambition, however, belies their size: just two wash stills and 2 spirit stills, which do manage to output some 1.5 million litres a year.

When visiting the distillery in 2015, we were told the origins of the beautiful aquamarine color associated with the Bruichladdich brand and so prominently featured on the packaging of the Classic Laddie bottle. Apparently this color is the exact hue of

the sunlight glinting off the brilliant blue waves of Loch Indaal on a beautiful warm day.

Now I doubt that I’ve ever seen water quite that blue even in sunny Australia, let alone in frequently gloomy-weathered Scotland. But it does make a nice story. Personally, I quite like the aquamarine and the opaque bottling of the Classic Laddie, though I suspect this might be a love it or hate it kind of a deal more generally. A lot of people would probably rather be able to see the whisky within the bottle (to check the color, fill level, etc).

 

 

laddie bottle

In addition to being champions of terroir, Bruichladdich have also recently been at the forefront of transparency. You can find out a lot of information about your Bruichladdich whisky if you know where to look. If you are lucky enough to have a Bruichladdich bottle to hand, go grab it. See the five digit number in tiny print near the barcode on the back? Jump on the Bruichladdich website and plug it in. Voila! You now have the ‘recipe’ for that particular batch- all is revealed! The information that Bruichladdich is legally not allowed to put on the bottle (thanks to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 and Regulation (EC) No 110/2008), such as the various ages of each the different casks that made up this particular vatting, is all there to see. It is absolutely fascinating.

I followed this process with the particular bottle of Classic Laddie that I am reviewing and here’s what I found. It was made with barley from the Scottish mainland, including some organic barley. It contains a vatting of whiskies aged in six different types of casks – bourbon barrel first fill, French Bandol red hogshead second fill, French Rhone Cote Rotie red hogshead second fill, Rivesaltes sweet red & white hogshead second fill, Bordeaux Pauillac red hogshead first fill  and Burgundy red hogshead first fill. The oldest was distilled in 2005 and the youngest was distilled in 2008, all eventually bottled in 2016. I understand that not every whisky-drinker is going to want to know this much detail about their whisky, but some people (myself included) surely do. The ins and outs of whisky labelling laws and (the lack of) transparency is a post for another day. Let me just note in passing, however, that by making this kind of information available I believe Bruichladdich is demonstrating their respect for the consumer. Every distillery knows exactly what goes into every one of their bottles, but as consumers we only get to know what the distillery chooses to share with us. And Bruichladdich shares a lot.

 

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The Classic Laddie is what you would call the signature Bruichladdich: the entry-level, core whisky in their range. It has no age statement and effectively replaced the Laddie Ten when it was introduced (now no longer available except at the distillery). Somewhat confusingly the Bruichladdich distillery produces three distinct lines of whisky: the Bruichladdich (unpeated) line, Port Charlotte (peated) line and Octomore (heavily peated) line. As a whisky from Bruichladdich line, the Classic Laddie is unpeated. It is also bottled at 50%. I really appreciate this little jump up in ABV from the more typical 40%, 43% or 46% from other distilleries’ core whiskies, as I find it makes a positive difference to the intensity of flavor and length of finish.

Nose: A delicate honey note opening up into stonefruit (stewed ripe peaches) and spring pears. These initial aromas are followed by citrus (mandarin) and floral notes (apple blossom). Finally, on revisiting it a second time, a buttery aroma bursts through which complements the honey and peach nicely.

Palate: The first thing to come through baked green apples, followed by bold and assertive citrus notes. A little bit of spice heat like a fresh ginger biscuit. Finally a sea saltiness washes through, a nod to the island terroir.

Finish: A long lingering finish. A citric tartness at first then a little maritime astringency at the sides of the tongue.

Overall, this is a good introduction to the Bruichladdich range. It is flavor-packed and more complex than you might originally expect. As it is unpeated it is a bit different from other Islay whiskies, it also doesn’t have the same ‘smack you in the face with a tarred fish’ quality of Laphroaig (I say that from a place of love) nor the resinous pine of Ardbeg. But it is still bold and interesting in its own way. Revisit it or visit it anew.

14.5/20

laddie truck

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Visiting the great Brora

A lucky visit to a mothballed legend

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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.

Glenmorangie Astar

Glenmorangie’s Astar is a sweet, creamy dram perfect for a cold evening

glenmorangie

Glenmorangie has been owned by Moet-Hennessy since 2004 and is the fourth-most sold single malt in the world. The distillery is located in the northern Highlands and it never occurred to me that it was a coastal distillery. Unlike many other coastal distilleries, Glenmorangie never plays on the idea of it being a coastal whisky. The marketing doesn’t focus on seafarers tall-tales nor do the tasting notes say anything about casks in a warehouse being battered by the waves and imparting that maritime influence. However, it is very much a coastal- as evidenced from the fact you can almost feel the sea spray as you visit the distillery and when we were there we saw a seal cavorting just off-shore (for real!). The distillery is a beautiful place with narrow lanes, grey brick buildings and cherry-red painted doors. It has twelve stainless steel washbacks and six pairs of stills which they claim to be the tallest stills in Scotland. Apparently they are the height of a giraffe! Animal comparisons aside, the stillroom is truly an awe-inspiring sight and it also produces an awe-inspiring 6 million litres a year.

glenmo stills
The whopping Glenmorangie 8 metre stills with a 5.14 metre neck

There are a lot of different expressions in the Glenmorangie. The core range has consisted of the Original (10 year old), 18 year old and 25 year old, but the 25 year old has now been discontinued (although the tour guide hinted that it might comeback when the older stocks replenish in a few years). There are three different 12 year old expressions that begin maturation in bourbon barrels but are finished in different casks; the Quinta Ruban (port), Nectar D’Or (sauternes) and the Lasanta (sherry). These three are all crowd-pleasers. At my birthday party last year my supposedly ‘non-whisky-drinking’ friends drank the bar dry of the Quinta Ruban. I admit that it does go down quite easily! There is also the high-end core expression Signet (bottled with a satisfyingly weighty stopper) which is made using 20% chocolate malt. Finally, there is a myriad of travel-retail and annual Private Edition expressions, all with beautiful Gaelic names such as Sonnalta, Finealta, Artein, Ealanta, Companta, Tusail, Tayne, Duthac and my favourite Milsean. Phew that’s a lot! The dram that I am reviewing today is a slightly older Limited Edition release from 2008 called Astar.

astar

Astar means ‘journey’ in Gaelic. This dram certainly is a journey and the destination is delicious. It is bottled at 57.1% but is deceptively light considering the high ABV. I do not find it rough around the edges like some bottled at this strength. Matured in bourbon barrels made from slow-growing Missouri oak, it has all the rich and spicy bourbon characteristics that you would typically expect. The colour is a glowing golden hue.

Nose: Sweet over-ripe apricots and orange segments. Honeysuckle on a spring day. French caramels with sea salt flakes. Cinnamon warmth.

Palate: Orange sherbet from my childhood, moving into vanilla custard and crème brulee. Some pineapple, a little hint of mint freshness cutting through the sweet notes at the end.

Finish: A lovely lingering ginger warmth, and honey. Perfect for a cold evening.

I really enjoyed this dram, it is sweet and creamy. If you can still find a bottle somewhere then Astar is certainly one to get your hands on. But think twice about letting your ‘non-whisky-drinking’ friends join you for a dram though, they might drink you dry of it. 😉

16.5/20

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glenmo car
Wouldn’t it be nice to drive off into the sunset with a bottle of Astar and this honey!

 

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 😛

ardbeg out

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.

ardbeg kelpie

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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A Cheeky Dram scoring system

Tasting whisky will always be incredibly subjective. Some people love peat, some love the lighter floral styles, some love cask strength and others want an easy drinking dram for a night by the fire. Preferences can also change over time, and sometimes mine change depending on the company I’m with, where I am, the experience I’m having, the weather, my mood and a multitude of other factors. This is my personal scoring system. Make of it what you will 🙂

0-7: Spit it out. Clean your teeth immediately.

8-10: Don’t bother. Have a dry night and make yourself a nice peppermint tea instead.

11-12: This is okay. I wouldn’t necessarily drink it again. Some redeeming characteristics.

13-14: A good dram for this style of whisky, some things about it I felt were lacking, unpleasant or just not to my taste.

15-16: A great dram, definitely keen to keep drinking this and would recommend to friends.

17-18: A really excellent dram. A lot of good things about it. Savour this bottle.

19: This is up there among one of the best drams I’ve tasted, get a bottle or two if you can.

20: A dram that cannot be beaten. Pure perfection.