Friday, November 30, 2018

Whisky Review: Ardbeg An Oa

For most of the 2000s Ardbeg had a static standard lineup composed of the 10 Year, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan. With their near neighbor Laphroaig throwing off new NAS releases with unusual rapidity, Ardbeg seemed almost staid in comparison with the only variation coming from their annual one-offs. But more recently it seems that they've been paying attention to Laphroaig's strategy, most notably with their Select release that took something of a kitchen sink approach and prominently featured new American oak casks in the mix.

Ardbeg decided to copy that strategy with An Oa, which is composed from first-fill ex-bourbon, PX sherry, and new American oak casks that are blended together in a French oak vat. The final result is bottled at 46.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

Ardbeg An Oa

Nose: young-ish Ardbeg peat, balanced herbal and smoky, a little charcoal, clean malt and a whiff of sweet sherry in the background, some new American oak, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer and the sherry notes integrate with the peat and the oak becomes more savory.

Taste: strong bourbon cask and malt sweetness up front, new American oak in the middle and a touch of sherry in the background, slowly fading into drier oak at the back. After dilution the sweetness and oak become more balanced, but the peat at the back is significantly reduced.

Finish: dry peat smoke, fading into balanced malt and sherry, a lingering weed-y aftertaste

This is pretty OK. The grab bag approach has its downsides, especially in the new oak influence, but this is a decent addition to their standard lineup. If you're looking for a sherry-influenced Ardbeg this doesn't provide anywhere near the experience of Uigeadail, but it's also a lot cheaper. I can also see this appealing to fans of Laphroaig Quarter Cask as the oak-driven character has some similarities. In the places where An Oa is at an equal price to the 10 Year, I think it would be a bit of a toss-up between the two depending on your taste, but around here where it's $12 more, the less fancy pick is the right one.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Whisky Review: Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs. Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Until the release of An Oa, Corryvrecken was the most recent addition to Ardbeg's core lineup of primarily NAS releases. It nominally replaced the vintage dated Airigh Nam Beist and was built on the model of Uigeadail, with a core of younger bourbon cask malt inflected with a speciality cask, in this case French oak rather than sherry.

This whisky is aged in a combination of American and French oak casks for an indeterminate amount of time, then bottled at 57.1% without coloring or chill filtration.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan L13

Nose: dry Ardbeg smoke, fresh malt, vanilla, thick American oak, fresh cedar, background French oak, a little floral. After adding a splash of water it becomes softer with more balanced peat and oak, plus a little tar and berries.

Taste: moderate malt and cask sweetness up front, quickly trumped by a thick layer of oak tannins with a raisin-y quality and sharp smoke in the background. After dilution it becomes much sweeter, with the oak and peat pushed towards the background, joined by berry overtones in the middle.

Finish: oak tannins, cedar, dry peat, woody sweetness

This reads like the Ardbeg take on Laphroaig Quarter Cask. There's smoke and oak and not much else. Quite a contrast to the more complex French oak cask that I tried at the distillery, this is mostly young American oak with the fresh lumber quality that I have found in so many other younger Islay whiskies lately. Proofed down a bit it reads fairly similarly to the standard Ardbeg 10 Year, albeit with more oak. That's not to say this is bad, but I don't see that it's worth the premium over Uigeadail. If I'm going to pay this kind of money for a young product it will be to support smaller players like Kilchoman.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (Sample)

Nose: strong but not overwhelming mossy/smokey Ardbeg peat, smoked fish in the background,  creamy malt, lots of vanilla getting floral around the edges, American oak verging into sherry, berries. After adding a few drops of water the smoke and oak integrate and soften, edging out the other aromas.

Taste: lots of oak-y sweetness up front, berries and dried fruit appear in the middle with dried chilies without a lot of heat in the background, a very creamy mouthfeel without a lot of malt flavor, becoming more tannic and joined by dry Ardbeg peat at the back with fairly strong heat. After dilution it becomes softer and sweeter up front, but the oak tannins at the back are amplified and it loses much of its complexity.

Finish: lots of alcohol heat, juicy oak, cedar, creosote, savory peat residue, dried fruit

While there are some differences, this is fairly consistent with the L13 bottle I tried above, though the flavors are more dynamic and nuanced here. Much like the L18 Uigeadial, the nose is better than the palate, but they're a little closer to being in balance. There is significant oak influence, but it continues to read primarily as American rather than French oak. Overall I could see myself drinking more, but this doesn't change my feeling that its quality doesn't justify its cost. Unfortunately as long as enough consumers disagree, I don't think we'll see any change.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Whisky Review: Ardbeg Uigeadail Revisited (Twice)

Uigeadail has been one of Ardbeg's mainstays since it was introduced in 2003. Combining bourbon cask whisky with sherry casks whisky, it sought to incorporate the two characters without losing the distillery's trademark peat smoke.

While the initial batches were produced using sherry casks from the 70s, these inevitably ran low and were allocated for more expensive releases. Since then it has become increasingly clear that most or all of the spirit going into the mix is relatively young - when I went to the Deconstructing the Dram tasting at the distillery in 2013 we were giving a sample from a six year old sherry cask as a representative component. This has raised questions about the quality and value of the expression now compared to when it was first released. Since I first tried Uigeadail from a miniature I've thought it is as relatively simple but still fairly good. So I wanted to give it another go to see where it stands today.

As with all Uigeadail, the whisky is aged in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 54.2% without coloring or chill filtration.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (Unknown bottling date)

Nose: a little thin, moderate Ardbeg peat, background oak, a layer sherry, vanilla, cacao nibs, a touch of something floral. After adding a splash of water it becomes softer and flatter with more bourbon than sherry cask character.

Taste: rather hot throughout - malt and sherry sweetness up front, mild peat, vanilla, and oak near the back, a little flat. After dilution it becomes noticeably sweeter up front, but flatter and less overtly peated at the back.

Finish: hot, light oak and peat, sherry residue

Wow, what a letdown. Compared to the miniature I tried in 2013, this comes off as thin and hot, without the depth of flavor I found before. There are some nice touches in the aromas, but they were difficult to find behind all of the hot alcohol. It feels like a bad batch made when they were running low on quality casks, whether sherry or bourbon. There's just not much going on here, definitely nothing that would make me want a whole bottle.

Not my finest photography, but that's
what happens in a poorly lit bar
Just to check if this was simply a bad sample, I also had a pour from a freshly opened bottle at the Highland Stillhouse. So hopefully this is more representative of what you'd be getting at the moment.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (L18)

Nose: thick sherry, a respectable level of smoky Ardbeg peat, cured meat, juicy raisins and berries, vanilla, herbal, cinnamon, roasted malt. After adding a few drops of water the sherry retreats to reveal more peat and it becomes saltier.

Taste: thick, sweet sherry throughout, hot but not overwhelmingly so, peat doesn't really come in until the finish. After dilution the malt shows up behind the sherry and the peat comes in earlier.

Finish: peat arrives, sherry residue, licorice, mild oak

Well, this is quite a bit more like it. While the flavors were a bit of a letdown, the nose had pretty much everything I would have expected at this point. Hits all of the sherry cask and Ardbeg notes with solid intensity. With that said, I still can't see myself paying more for this than for any other NAS sherry monster. There's just not enough complexity to justify a higher price point.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Whisky Review - Bunnahabhain Mòine

While Bunnahabhain has primarily been known for its unpeated spirit, following a successful experiment with peated malt in 1997 the distillery has been regularly producing peated spirit for a few weeks each year since 2003. This peated malt whisky has generally been known as Mòine, occasionally appearing on independently bottled releases over the last ten years or so. More recently the distillery started releasing its own whisky under that name, without any age statement.

This whisky was aged in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 46.3% without coloring or chill filtration.

I tried this as a purchased sample from WhiskySite.nl

Bunnahabhain Mòine

Nose: lots of young, dry, spicy peat, a little sour (yogurt?), overripe oranges, green malt, seaweed, very light oak, a little vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it peat becomes softer, but it remains largely unchanged.

Taste: strong malty sweetness up front, fairly hot throughout, berry overtones starting around the middle, moderate oak and young peat at the back. After dilution it remains more or less the same, but with less heat and a thicker body.

Finish: light peat, sweet malt, slightly astringent oak tannins

This is... OK? There's nothing particularly wrong if you enjoy younger heavily peated single malts, but by the same token there's nothing about it that stands out compared to other entrants in the field. It makes me want to try Ceobanach, which is nominally the same spirit aged for at least ten years, which would hopefully push it closer to its stablemate Ledaig 10 Year.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain Stiuireadair

Bunnahabhain is one of the Islay distilleries that used to have an extremely compact product line, much like Laphroaig. There was a 12 Year, an 18 Year, a 25 Year, and the occasional special release at a higher age. More recently they have been radically filling out the price spectrum, largely with NAS malts. Perhaps sensing that they needed something to bring in new customers who weren't willing to splash out for their more standard 12 Year, Stiùireadair comes in at a more manageable 30-odd euros.

This whisky was aged in first-fill sherry casks, then bottled at 46.3% without coloring or chill filtration.

I tried this as a sample from WhiskySite.nl

Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair

Nose: rich sherry overlaid on young-ish green malt, vanilla, milk, orange peel, American oak, slightly floral. After adding a few drops of water the sherry retreats a bit in favor of creamier malt and a little more oak

Taste: sweet sherry with a fair amount of heat up front, clean malt in the background, becomes more bittersweet with a little oak towards the back, but remains uncomplicated. After dilution the structure remains more or less the same but with less heat, brighter sherry up front, and more sherry bitterness at the back.

Finish: thin - sherry, malt, oak

If this is meant to be competition for the OB 12 Year, it fails. It might be more overtly sherried, but it doesn't have the intensity or complexity to stand up. As an entry-level malt it may be more successful, but I'm still not sure it's a particularly compelling experience, even at that price point. Maybe if this was released at 50% or batch strength it would have a bit more to offer, but as is I would give it a pass.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Cognac Review: François Giboin 22 Year 1995/2017 Borderies

Giboin is a small cognac house with vines located in the Fins Bois and Bordaries regions. It has been family owned since 1830 and produces no more than 4000 cases a year. They use different amounts of lees (the solids remaining after fermentation) depending on how long the spirit will be aged for - younger cognacs are distilled without lees to give a cleaner product, while more lees are used for cognacs destined to age for longer periods of time to give a more complex product.

This particular cognac is a single cask distilled from 100% ugni-blanc grapes in 1995 and bottled in 2017 at 44% without coloring or chill filtration for Astor Wines.

François Giboin 22 Year 1995/2017 Borderies

Nose: marshmallow, vanilla, whipped cream, cotton candy, caramel, fresh and baked apples, banana, baking spices, uncooked pie crust, floral. After adding a few drops of water it shifts into a slightly drier mode with more oak, some citrus (lemon), and subdued sweet notes

Taste: rather sweet and thick up front, maple syrup, berries, grapes, floral background, mild oak underneath, not a lot of development. After dilution it becomes creamier with a little more oak

Finish: a little distant, cognac grape-iness, dried flowers, slightly drying oak

Much like the Dudognon, the bulk of the action here is in the aromas. If you're content to sit and sniff, this has quite a bit to offer. While a lot of the descriptors I gave are very sweet, I didn't find it cloying. The flavors are good if simple and this could be a pleasant sipper to enjoy with a book, but you would miss most of the action that way. Also like the Dudognon, the lack of adjustments is clear. While this is a sweeter cognac, it's cleaner than the thicker sweetness you're likely to find in more mainstream releases. Overall, while I think it could offer a bit more complexity for the money, this was a solid cask pick by Astor.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Cognac Review: Dudognon Vieille Reserve Grande Champagne

The Dudognon family have been growing grapes in the Grande Champagne region since 1776. While they sell some of their limited (~200 barrels per year) production to larger houses such as Hine and Remy Martin, they save some of the best to be labeled under their own name. The eau de vie is first distilled to 28%, then redistilled to ~70%. The new spirit is generally put in new oak barrels, then reracked into used casks for further maturation. Contrary to standard practice among cognac producers, their brandies have no additives.

I have seen claims that this cognac has an average age anywhere from 20 to 25 years. It is bottled at 40% without coloring, but possibly with chill filtration.

Dudognon Vieille Reserve Grande Champagne

Nose: dry cognac grape-iness, vanilla extract, maple syrup, honey, grapefruit peel, floral/herbal undertones, sunflower seed oil. After adding a few drops of water the sweeter elements come to the fore and a bit of gentle oak is added to the mix.

Taste: sweet grapes up front, apple/pear/grapefruit right behind, moderate tired oak from the middle back, berry overtones. After dilution it becomes noticeably sweeter up front, the oak becomes a bit brighter, there is a touch of tropical fruit in the background, and the berry notes are stronger.

Finish: light oak tannins, grapes, savory, more grapefruit, pear/tropical fruit, lingering dried flowers

This is something of an odd duck for me. The quality is clearly there, especially in the aromas, but it took a while for me to find this cognac very engaging. It's a little too dry without further dilution to be an easygoing sipper, but the flavors and finish don't quite have the complexity to reward studied engagement. While it's not flabby at 40%, I do wonder what the spirit would be like at a higher strength.

With all that said, I'm not sure if it really comes down to the spirit itself or my inability to tease apart its structure. I'm still relatively new to brandy as a category, so I'm not sure I have the experience to break it down in the way that I do with whisky.

I will give them a nod for the lack of boise and other 'adjustments' that are so common in the industry. It doesn't have the syrupy quality I've found in many other cognacs and that alone is a pleasant surprise. I'd like to try more from this producer, though I think I'll want to try before I buy next time.