Thursday, June 27, 2013

Whisky Review: Gordon & MacPhail Bladnoch 13 Year 1988/2002

Bladnoch has a number of distinctions - southernmost whisky distillery in Scotland, one of three
remaining active Lowland distilleries, one of the smallest in terms of output (though this is due to contracts, rather than physical capacity) - that make it a very interesting place.

© Bladnoch Distillery
The distillery was founded in 1811 by the McClelland brothers and remained under family ownership until 1938. Its location a short hop across the North Channel from Ireland meant that it received a lot of influence from Irish whiskey distillers, with stints of ownership by the Royal Irish Distillers of Belfast. So it used to operate very much like an Irish distillery, using unpeated malt and triple distillation. The distillery closed during WWII and was revived by new owners at the end of the 1940s, only to suffer further sporadic closures and transfers of ownership.

The distillery was closed in 1993, seemingly for good, during one of DCL/Diageo's periodic rash of closures of their stock of malt whisky distilleries. However, the distillery was once again saved by the Irish, this time in the form of Raymond and Colin Armstrong, who purchased the shuttered distillery as a holiday home. Though their original contract stipulated that the property would never again be used for distilling, they were able to finagle a renegotiation that allowed them to start up distilling again in 2000. However, there was a clause that they would not produce more than 100,000 liters of spirit a year, despite the distillery cranking out 1.3 million liters a year during the 1980s.

One of the most interesting features of the distillery is their whisky school, which lets amateur's learn how to operate a distillery over the course of a few days. I really wish I could do this myself, though it does tend to be a bit on the pricey side. Even if I won't get to do more than take a tour, I'm really looking forward to visiting the distillery this summer during my tour of SW Scotland.

In an effort to get to know the distillery from afar, I trekked to the Highland Stillhouse to try an old bottling of their pre-closure whisky.

G&M Bladnoch 1988/2002 13 Year

Nose: rich honied malt, lightly fruity (berries, grape, banana, raisins), floral (roses, violets), vanilla, almost undetectable oak, bubblegum. After adding a few drops of water, a lot more vanilla comes out, the floral and malt notes merge, it becomes creamier, and the sherry influence is more clear.

Taste: honey vanilla malt and light sherry influence throughout, a burst of grape near the front, floral tangy oak with a lot of creaminess mid-palate, then big black pepper near the back. After dilution, the flavors become more integrated/less distinct, but the sherry becomes more apparent with a bit of sourness and strawberries at the back.

Finish: malty, milk chocolate, light oak, grape, black pepper, a touch of salt?

Despite being bottled at 40% and probably having sat open for years, this whisky was full of flavor. This is exactly what I want a Lowland whisky to be - fresh and malty, a bit fruity and floral, with just enough oak influence to keep it in balance. I could drink this for ages, but sadly one dram will have to do. I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for more Bladnochs, if this one is any representation of what the distillery can do.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Whisky Review: Glenfarclas 15 Year

Glenfarclas is a distillery with a long and tangled history. Begun as a farm distillery in 1836 by Robert Hay, it was purchased by John Grant in 1865, remaining at least family-owned company for the rest of its subsequent history.

That's the simple version of the story, but there are a number of wrinkles. First, after being purchased the distillery was almost immediately leased to John Smith, a situation that continued until he went on to start up the Cragganmore distillery. The Grants took back full control until 1895, at which point they sold a half stake to Pattison, Elder & Co. This proved to be a rocky relationship, as the Pattison brothers were one of the most flamboyant elements of the late-19th century whisky boom. Using creative advertising (see Malt Madness for the crazy details) and borrowing from the capital markets, they built up a large whisky empire. However, when the bubble burst, it turned out that a number of their business practices had been illegal, so they were shipped off to prison in 1898. At that point the Grants regained full ownership of the distillery. Despite going through a major rebuild in 1896, the company was in financial disarray and did not regain a firm footing until 1914 (just in time for WWI to put the pinch on whisky production). While the 20th century was not without its bumps (the late-1960s slow down, for instance), Glenfarclas has done rather well, finding itself as one of the few remaining wholly independent scotch whisky distilleries left.

As some interesting side-notes, Glenfarclas has the largest stills in Speyside, which are also some of the last stills to be heated directly by gas burners rather than indirectly by steam.

Glenfarclas 15 Year

Nose: delicate but with oomph, balanced sweet malt and sherry/raisins, cinnamon chocolate, floral, very light oak, eucalyptus, vanilla cookies. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes fresher and more malty with integrated floral notes, the chocolate overtakes the fruity sherry notes, with a bit of fresh grape.

Taste: sweet peppery malt throughout, light prickles of sherry, medium tannins, lots of ginger mid-palate and back. After dilution, it becomes more rounded with only slightly diminished intensity, more bittersweet than sweet overall, the pepper and ginger die down a bit, the sherry is more integrated, and floral notes come out at the end.

Finish: creamy malt, lightly tannic, slightly sour floral sherry, dried fruit, chocolate

I was extremely pleased with the balance in this whisky. Despite another three years in casks compared to the Glenfarclas 12 Year that I reviewed a while back, the sherry seemed less dominant. This resulted in a very balanced whisky, with both maturity and freshness. This may be because the 15 Year has a higher proportion of refill rather than first fill sherry casks compared to the 12 Year, but I'm honestly not sure. Especially since it's also bottled at a higher strength than most of Glenfarclas' whiskies (46% vs. 43%), I would highly recommend this one. While I just got a sample from Master of Malt, full bottles are very competitively priced from MoM and The Whisky Exchange if you can swing a big enough order to keep the shipping costs down.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Whisky Review: Longrow 14 Year

I've covered some of the younger Longrow single malts before, namely the CV and 10 Year releases. This the first one that I have a full bottle of, so it's been nice to go through pretty much the whole thing before forming a final opinion. As with all Longrows, this whisky is made from heavily peated (~50 PPM) barley. It spends its whole life in ex-sherry casks (though I have seen other statements that it's a blend of bourbon and sherry casks or bourbon cask whisky finished in sherry casks - but this may just be different releases), putting another layer on top of the usual Springbank malt and salt.

Longrow 14 Year

Nose: very sweet, juicy berries, light sherry influence, fresh floral malt, caramel, vanilla, subdued vegetal/grassy peat, smoldering logs, bacon, seaweed, maritime air, mineral notes. After adding some water, the focus shifts towards the malt and peat, with the sherry moving back a bit.

Taste: sweet and rounded sherried malt with just a hint of sourness and bitterness up front, slowly wending its way into a pool of vegetal peat, black pepper and oak. After dilution the palate becomes much more malty sweet, with more creaminess and the sherry retreating.

Finish: very mild peat, black pepper, creamy malt, sherry, a hint of salt

I will give the same caveat that I give for most Longrows - don't expect a big Islay smoke bomb here. Especially on the nose, the peat isn't going to beat you over the head with phenols. It's spice rather than the main course. With that said, I really like the interplay of sherry and peat in this whisky. While initially sweet, especially on the nose, it has excellent balance. This is head and shoulders above the 10 Year I reviewed a while back. It's a much more cohesive expression of what Longrow can be. The sherry gives it more weight, but doesn't go so far as to smother the malt. And despite the extra years, it still seems very fresh and there's actually more pronounced peat than in the 10 Year (though that may have been a function of the sample I had). Overall Longrow 14 Year is a very, very enjoyable whisky. And while it's generally overpriced in the US ($100+), it can usually be purchased at much more reasonable rates from the UK, e.g. Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange (I accidentally bought a bottle from each of them due to different naming conventions).

Because I happened to have some on hand, I was curious to see how the 14 Year compared to one of its younger brethren. Longrow CV is noticeably less mature - the malt and peat nearly jump out of the glass and have that bright agricultural character you get before the barrel really leaves its mark (e.g. Kilchoman). There are still a few feint-y notes from lighter compounds that haven't had enough time to evaporate or be transformed into something else, but it gives the whisky a pleasant edge. It's very green and vegetal rather than smoky, which makes me think of open fields rather than fire and ash. That wonderful Springbank saltiness is still there, which provides such a delicious accent to the other flavors. With time some oak tannins and meaty notes emerge to give the spirit a little more weight, but the focus is always on the inputs - malt and peat. The various finished whiskies that went into making this expresion will peek out, but are more bit players than stars of the show. What's nice is that the shared lineage between these two whiskies is clear but the emphasis is different. The 14 Year is more august, but the CV has youth and vitality behind it. Which I enjoy more really depends on my mood.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Future of Ardbeg - or What is in Their Warehouse?

This week seems to have turned into Ardbeg week, with reviews of the 10 Year and Uigeadail expressions following on the heels of Ardbeg Day last weekend.

© K&L Spirits Journal Blog
The fundamental question I got out of those reviews is "what does Ardbeg have in their warehouses these days?" When the distillery was purchased in 1997, it took roughly another year to rebuild it to the point where it could operate at full capacity again. By then, most of the stocks were either from before 1983, when the distillery was shuttered for six years, or from 1990 onward, though not much of it. So the first release was a 17 year old, which drew from stocks produced in the early 1980s. However, that only continued until 2004, when they hit the hole in their stocks. A stop-gap was created, in the form of Airigh Nam Beist, a 1990 vintage dated whisky (there were three bottles released in 2006-2008, which varied from 16-18 years old) made from stocks produced right after production restarted. There was also a one-off 25 year old Lord of the Isles release in 2007, composed from a vatting of whisky distilled in 1974-1976, but it was phenomenally expensive and very limited.

Throughout this period, the only other age dated whisky in Ardbeg's stable was the 10 year old. This has been put out consistently since 1999. However, by doing some math, it's not hard to see that a lot of much older whisky from the pre-1983 period must have gone in, because 10 year old stocks from the post-1989 period were extremely limited. This meant that the 10 YO bottles were often spectacular, because so much old stock was being added to pad them out. However, it was clear that this situation wouldn't last forever. Distillation began again in 1998 and Ardbeg started releasing yearly bottles as their stock aged, beginning with Very Young (For Discussion) in 2003, followed by Very Young (2004), Still Young (2006), Almost There (2007), and finally Renaissance (2008), which was the first 10 year old whisky distilled under Glenmorangie's ownership. This was a watershed moment, because it meant that Ardbeg finally had enough stock to keep their product pipeline full. However, it also meant significant changes in flavor, both because the distillery was no longer packing their 'younger' and cheaper bottles with old stock and because distilling practices had changed. This is clear both in the tasting notes made by those following Ardbeg's evolution.

As I noted at the beginning, all of this begs the question of what's left in Ardbeg's warehouses. One of
the eternal dilemmas for any distiller is how much whisky to sell now and how much to save for later. Because of the 1980s hole in their stocks and the lower production volumes during most of the 90s, Ardbeg had to cannibalize its older stocks just to keep putting out its basic expressions during the early years of Glenmorangie ownership. For instance, all of the Airigh Nam Beist expressions were from a single year, 1990. Why didn't Ardbeg continue the series by releasing whiskies from 1991-1996 as they aged? Was all of the stock consumed in putting out the 10 Year bottles? If they still had much stock from the 1990s, a lot of it could now be bottled as 18+ years old, which could be sold for a mint. But pretty much all of the old stuff bottled by Ardbeg has been from the mid- to late-70s.
Bordeaux Casks © Whisky-News

Instead, when special releases have been put out since 2008, they have pretty much all been NAS. I've talked about this a bit before and it's now clear that Ardbeg is trying to conserve the older whisky that it does have on hand, rather than using it to enhance their NAS releases. When Ardbeg does let us know what's inside, it's all 9-12 years old, usually with some kind of cask finish. This seems to highlight the influence of Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden, who is a big proponent of complex wood management to produce new flavors in whisky. The obsession is, as noted by Oliver Klimek, a fairly new trend that may be a way to deal with the fact that modern techniques for fermenting and distilling have made the whisky coming off the stills less flavorful, making it necessary for the spirit to get more from the casks. In Ardbeg's case, this may be a combination of their lack of supply (there's only so much flavor you can get into a whisky in under a dozen years) and the change in distilling practices since Glenmorangie took ownership (in addition to older changes like the loss of on-site maltings). Given the huge variety of casks used in special edition Ardbeg's of the last few years (alligator char casks, marsala, French oak, etc.), it's clear that this has been a focus for the new management in dealing with their supply issues. But it also feels a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks.

All of this is to say, don't expect anything old out of Ardbeg any time soon. Bill Lumsden has categorically stated on the K&L Spirits Journal podcast that he will not be rereleasing the 17 Year, despite demand, both because he doesn't think he can recreate the late-70s/early-80s style of whisky that went into those bottles and because they simply don't have the stocks of 1990s whisky to do it. It's possible that age dated whiskies older than the 10 Year will come on-line again, since the whisky created under Glenmorangie ownership is now potentially 15 years old, but I wouldn't count on it. Ardbeg's customers seem more or less happy to pay good money for younger whisky with no age statement, so I expect that they will ride this out unless sales start to slip. Which is certainly a risk given the changes that they are going through. Their reputation in the new millennium was built on selling older whisky at young whisky prices, but now the situation is reversed. Will their reputation be able to withstand the lack of anything really mature in their pipeline? Will the new style whisky age as gracefully as that made before Glenmorangie took over? All unknowable right now. As they say, only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Whisky Review: Ardbeg Uigeadail - or Really Don't Believe the Hype

This review follows on the heels of Ardbeg 10 Year, as the gift pack I picked up also contained a mini of Uigeadail.

I've talked a bit before about Ardbeg's radical shift towards no age statement (NAS) whiskies and Uigeadail was what got the ball rolling. Ardbeg was shuttered for most of the 1980s and all but closed during the 1990s, leaving a large hole in the distillery's stocks after it was purchased and refurbished by Glenmorangie and their parent company LVMH. Uigeadail, named after the loch that supplies most of the distillery's water, was originally put together to utilize a number of ex-sherry casks that were distilled in the 1970s. To balance them out, younger, peatier (peat flavors tend to decrease over time) ex-bourbon cask whisky was blended in to make an expression that combined the mellow sweetness of sherry with the fiery peat of the younger malt. No age statement was added because it was felt that labeling the whisky with the age of the youngest component wouldn't do justice to the old sherry casks added in. First released in 2003, it was an almost instant hit.

However, there was always a limitation to this plan - the finite supply of old sherry casks. While I was never able to sample older bottles, talking to a number of friends who have been drinking it for some time and reading reviews suggests that there has been a significant decrease in quality of Uigeadail releases over the last few years. This tends to suggest that those old whiskies are tapped out and the expression is now made from much younger sherry casks. Let's see how it goes.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (purchased late 2012)

Nose: big sherry with amontillado/oloroso savoriness, cherries, moderate vegetal peat is an accent rather than the main show, salty, creamy malt, vanilla, Christmas cake. After adding a few drops of water, there is more peat and salt, the sherry becomes more savory and integrated, the overall effect is more creamy, raisins (but not sweet ones), malty background, a bit floral, and some barbecue/wood char comes out.

Taste: sherry and peat occupy different zones with a crossover mid-palate, salted malt and black pepper come in the middle, the peat is very earthy, and there are some tannins at the back.

Finish: earthy, tar, a little tangy vegetal peat, oak tannins, savory sherry, salt

I'm going to come out and say that I think this is nothing but young whisky now. I'm not alone in thinking it's a totally different beast than it used to be. To me it reads like a mashup of Aberlour A'Bunadh and Ardbeg 10, which would be totally in line. Ardbeg, and a number of other distilleries *coughMacallancough* are running into the same issues as a lot of microdistilleries - you can't cheat time. Despite the best efforts of master blenders, there is simply no replacement for whisky sitting in casks for many, many years. Young, first-fill sherry casks are fundamentally different than thirty year old sherry casks (which doesn't even cover the fact that Ardbeg's fermentation and distilling practices have changed over the intervening years). With all that said, this iteration of Uigeadail isn't bad, I'm just not sure that the higher price tag is justified anymore. I'd pay $60-65 for this, to cover the higher proof, but the $75+ that they ask for it in many places is just too much for me unless I can find a bottle from an earlier batch that still contained those old sherry casks.

Edit: check out Michael Kravitz's post today comparing a recent (L12) version to an older (L6) version of Uigeadail. The differences sound very apparent, which stokes the notions that Uigeadail is changing.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Whisky Review: Ardbeg 10 Year - or Don't Believe the Hype

Ardbeg has a long but complicated history. The distillery was founded back in 1815, passing through a number of hands before it was shuttered from 1983-1989. It was brought back to life at reduced capacity during the early to mid-90s, before it was bought by Glenmorangie in 1997 - who in turn are owned by Louis-Vuitton-Möet Hennessy.

As an interesting side-note, when Mark Reiner was looking for a distillery to buy he considered purchasing Ardbeg, but eventually picked the neighboring Bruichladdich distillery instead. One can only imagine what its rebirth would have been like under his and Jim McEwan's quixotic hands instead of the corporate behemoth of LVMH.

I wrote a bit about the distillery before, largely in the context of their bevy of No Age Statement releases, which have become a hallmark for them. But today I will be considering their single remaining whisky with an age statement, the entry-level 10 year old.

Ardbeg 10 Year

Nose: Triscuits (salty, oily, grainy), lightly sweet creamy malt under an herbaceous (rosemary?) and vegetal cloud of peat, some industrial notes of tar, smoke, and grease, a thin layer of oak, some maritime notes, a little bourbon barrel caramel, a little chocolate. After adding a few drops of water, the nose is significantly diminished and seems to fall flat - it gets maltier, with more integrated but weaker peat, which becomes ashier.

Taste: black pepper, olive oil, and salt throughout, with sweet malt and vanilla up front, which becomes more bittersweet with a moderate dose of peat, then slides back towards sweetness at the end. After dilution, the black pepper becomes dominant, with more malty sweetness and bitter tannins, while the oil fades a bit and some chocolate appears near the back.

Finish: sweet peat and malt, with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and flashes of oak and peat

While reasonably pleasant, Ardbeg 10 reminded me of another whisky on my shelf with a similar flavor profile - Kilchoman Machir Bay - so I decided to see how they stacked up against each other. From the first sniff, it's clear that the Kilchoman simply blows Ardbeg out of the water. The depth and intensity are something the current iteration of Ardbeg 10 Year can't even hope to touch. Kilchoman simply does everything Ardbeg 10 does, but better. It's not a matter of craft presentation - both are bottled at 46% without chill filtration or caramel color. Kilchoman is simply better at distilling, wood management, and cask selection. Admittedly, Kilchoman does get a bit of a boost from finishing some of the whisky in ex-sherry barrels, whereas Ardbeg reserves their sherry barrel stock for their Uigeadail expression, but even a pure bourbon barrel Kilchoman would be head and shoulders above. I can only imagine what their single malts will be like when they have a comparable amount of age behind them. Ardbeg needs to step up their game - while they have the volume to undercut Kilchoman by a bit (though they're more or less the same price here in the great state of Oregon), it's not enough to make up for the lack of depth in their whisky. While Ardbeg 10 was a bruiser in the early 2000s due to the inclusion of a lot of older whisky being blended in to cover up the distillery's production holes, I'm guessing that in the Glenmorangie era a) their distilling practices have shifted to focus on getting more spirit out of a given weight of malt, which means that there's less flavor making it into the whisky and b) LVMH is saving all of the really good stuff for their higher priced and limited edition bottlings. But with an introduction like this it's going to be hard to convince me to pony up for those pricier offerings. If nothing else, Ardbeg really needs to be throwing more first-fill casks (and maybe a precious sherry cask or two) into their entry level offering to cover up the weakness of the underlying malt. Going forward I'd love it if they'd shift their fermentation and distilling towards creating more depth. The tiny farm distillery on the other end of the island is utterly putting them to shame.