Review Stub: The Arran Malt – Sleeping Warrior

I had a chance to try this excellent 11 year old malt tonight, at a birthday meet-up for my dear brother. The price charged was a tad steep, but I can’t say I was all that disappointed.

Nose: Vanilla. That vegetal note (grassy—mossy, even) that the Singleton of Glendullan imparts, but so much better. Sherry. Soft fruits and almonds. Hints of tobacco.

Palate: Caramel, sherry, almonds and more soft fruits (think apricots, peaches).

Finish: Mostly toasted almonds, vanilla, and a great tobacco ending.

Grade: B

A nice dram that requires a bit of water. At 54.9%, it’s a bit too hot to truly enjoy neat, but with a little water it really opens up. A pleasant dram that is not all too terribly complex, but quite comforting in its simplicity.

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A Coal Islay: Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength

A friend from England brought me a quarter bottle of this little gem on a recent visit of his to our side of the pond. Caol Ila is not something that is readily available here in Ontario, so despite being a rather serious fan of Islay whiskies, I had only the experiences of Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Lagavulin to date. After enough peated drams, I’ve begun to think that there is no more room on the peat spectrum in my head for more “unique” whiskies, and at some point, they have to start tasting like each other, in some linear combination or another. Caol Ila’s NCS, however, has managed to find some more room on the spectrum.

Nose: Peat, of course, but this one is more about the coal smoke (straight-up BBQ), tar and phenol. The coal smoke sets itself apart from the other notes that are more mingled–that is, the lemon, grape, and coastal sea salt that follows, along with some seaweed notes. There is also something like the smell of good baking. A little sweetness in the baked good, likely honey. Lastly, there is some requisite smoked bacon, as is par for a really good smoky dram.

Palate: Oily as all hell, in the most pleasant way. Mouth-coating, and not all that hot for something that’s 58%. The previous batch of 61.6% may have been a bit much, (just speculating) but this one is perfect. Honey, lemon and a hint of grape. Then comes the salty bacon and tarry ashy BBQ smoke. It’s a sweet-then-salty palate. While water opens it up, it’s perfectly drinkable at 58%, and there are very few drams I’ve tried where I can say that at such a high percentage.

Finish: Long peaty finish with coastal sea salt and spicy bacon.

Grade: A-

They’ve managed to find that nice balance of smoke and peat, coupled with a unique flavour (in this case, lemon, salt and bacon) that Bowmore’s Tempest III and Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask have managed to do, and it works so well at such a high strength that in some cases, you don’t even need the water. A truly great whisky that I wish we were able to stock over here.

Update (05.07.13): I’m here in London for a conference, and decided to pick up another quarter bottle of this to enjoy while I’m here for the week. For a late lunch today, I sat down with some smoked mackerel, sourdough, plum tomatoes and Shropshire cheese, which I paired with the Caol Ila NCS. This dram and smoked fish are made for each other. Full stop.

Christmas Lite: Glenmorangie 12yo ‘Lasanta’

This review is a bit of a redemption for my earlier faith in Glenmorangie (note: I use the phrase “a bit”). I had really high hopes for their ‘Original’, but upon trying it, it failed to live up to my expectations on so many levels that I was very disheartened with the distillery. I try not to do this after only trying a couple drams of one expression at a bar, but it really wasn’t all that spectacular, and I felt let down. Especially the way I’ve heard other blogs tout ‘The Original’ as the place where everyone should start their Single Malt journey.

Why, then, did I pick up the Lasanta? Well, the LCBO was having (and might still be having) a great sale where they slashed the price roughly 25%, so I thought to give it a try. For a wintry, sherried dram on the cheap, it was definitely a pleasant surprise. Permits me to save my a’Bunadh for special occasions with friends.

Nose: Honey heather (much like mead), sweet caramel and sherry, but not the sherry bomb it looks like it would be. Your typical package of ‘Christmas’ spices: cinnamon, nutmeg. Rum-raisin and christmas pudding. This nose is rather unspiritous, lacking the prickly nature you’d expect from a 12yo. However, there are some of those sulphury notes that sherry casks are guilty of from time to time. There is also a bit of souring on the end of the nose. Sometimes these off notes are there, sometimes not.

Palate: Bright, noticeably but yet delightfully warming. Creamy, but not too thick. Sherry, toffee, sultanas, christmas spices (cinnamon, nutmeg) and slightly malty. Just delightful. I can’t really pick everything out, but I don’t want to because it marries so well. Just delicious… and that’s what counts. With a drop or two of water, the spiritous heat calms right down, and all that remains is that initial delightful warmth. The sour note sometimes transfers to the palate, but not always.

Finish: Much of what the nose and palate advertise, with that wonderful chest-warming feeling that you want in a winter dram. Creamy vanilla and caramel. Ending with notes of honey and tobacco.

Grade: B-

Now, this whisky won’t force you to buy a case, and you won’t want to drink it for a month straight, etc. It’s not the a’Bunadh, and it doesn’t have the overwhelming complexity of the a’Bunadh, but that’s alright. It’s great at what it does, and that’s providing a reasonably contemplative whisky that is reasonably delicious, albeit with some off-notes here and there. If the sulphur and sour notes were gone, I’d give this a B.

Would a few more years in the barrel (say, to 15) make this any smoother? Probably, but then it might lose some of this pleasant warmth that you want in a winter whisky. May not be as nice in the heat of the summer, but for this time of year, it’s a keeper.