Peating the Unpeated: Bunnahabhain Ceòbanach

Music: Magneta Lane, “Broken Plates”

As a quite note on the hiatus, I have a couple of reviews to write up, but this year has been short on both money for whisky, and decent whisky to purchase. While the former has since passed, there state of new, decent whisky offerings is slim. I do have an Octomore 6.1 in my possession now, but I have yet to open it. Reviews on Bowmore Tempest 2 and 4 are coming (in a doubleheader review), but I’ve been underwhelmed by the 4, and as such, have not been motivated to write the review. Some critics relish the opportunity to slag a mediocre product; I simply become disinterested.

I’d always wondered what a peated Bunna would be like, if it would be peppery and coastal, citrus and rock, or smoky bacon and brine. I almost expected their peated offering to be sherried, much in the way of an Ardbeg: a dark bog, with hints of fruity sweetness. Instead, the Ceòbanach (at 10 years) comes out much like a Caol Ila, with the soot and citrus at the fore-front. A beauty dram, if different from their 12yo.

Nose: Sooty, fireplace-mantle-type ash and smoke. Vanilla and citrus. So unlike the Bunnahabhain 12yo, but not in a bad way.

Palate: The palate is very fresh, and bright. Not spirity, just bright with flavours of vanilla, citrus, and a silty ash. Smoke and peat are here, but more accents than anything. A beautiful dry, tart note that I’ve come to expect from Bunnahabhain. Nothing too complex, but what it does, it does very well.

Finish: The earthiness of the peat rests on your tongue, and the citrus turns into slightly salty notes to complement the smoke in your breath.

Grade: B+

A leg up on the standard Caol Ila 12, as it hits with some of that patented Bunna sourness. I’m a fan, and it makes for an excellent summer smoke dram, thanks to the brightness of the flavours.

“Everybody falls down darlin’, but I’ll stay the same for you.”

In the Lap of the Gods: Bunnahabhain 18

Music: The Junction, “The Break Makes a Turning Point”

This 18yo really underscores something I’ve come to terms with on my whisky journey: Bunnahabhain is my dram. When I don’t have a particular craving for a peat or sherry bomb, but instead long for a good, complete Scotch, I’ve learned that I’m craving a Bunnahabhain. Their 12yo and 18yo are so well-rounded in all the flavours that make a good Scotch, that I’m always satisfied when I decide to have a sliver of Scotch, and reach for my Bunnahabhain. The 12yo is the perfect daily dram, and when I’m looking for something special, their 18yo is often what I have in mind.

Nose: Its got so much of what the Glengoyne 18 has, and then some. The brown sugar is more of a molasses with this one, something like sticky toffee pudding. Then, the sherry influence makes itself present. There is a hint of smoke, and a really great coastal salt note.

Palate: The smoothness of this dram is unparallelled. Sweetness, oak and smoke. This one comes up like a Highland and comes down like an Islay: instead of a huge sherry influence, it’s more of that port sweetness than anything. Unexpected, but very pleasant. The wood influence from the cask is strong, but again, very pleasant. Sometimes words fail you when you look for the details to describe something that hits all the right notes.

Finish: The wood influence is still there, and the backdrop is slightly sour.

Grade: A

I fell in love with Bunnahabhain’s 12 about a quarter through the first bottle. Before it had a chance to air over the better part of a month, it was a little rocky, but once it opened up, it was spectacular. Bunnahabhain’s 18 is much the same as it’s younger brother; but if I have to open it and walk away for a couple of weeks to come back to this, you better bet I’d enjoy the stroll.

“Break down, and open your heart to me–now that’s a start.”

Cozy in Copenhagen: Ian Macleod’s `As We Get It’

Music: Genesis, “It”

While on a business trip here in Copenhagen, I figured that three weeks in the same place necessitated a bottle of Scotch to enjoy as the nights grew colder. Completely fitting, too, that the most interesting bottle I came across ended up being a young Islay. Smoke and ash do well to warm a soul when the nights are a tad chilly. I liked the gimmick of this one from the start: a young Islay that could be anything, but at least you know that the seasoned whisky shop owner liked it. Even better that the lads and lasses in the shop were in conflict as to which distillery it was from. A true guessing game where your prior was unbiased by previous distillery experiences—a game I eagerly wanted to play.

Nose: Peat, light BBQ smokiness and citrus. A bit of sweet pickles, and a bit of cinnamon hearts, oddly. Plenty of coal, but the brightness of it, with the medicinal background make me say that this is easily Lagavulin. It could possibly be Caol Ila, but I’d give the edge to Lag. Somewhere in between the Caol Ila NCS, and the Lagavulin 12yo CS. Nose is a bit restrained.

Palate: Quite hot with an acetone background without water. Can handle quite a bit of water, and I recommend adding at least a teaspoon. Sweet sugary citrus, peat, smoke and salt. A real mix between the Caol Ila and unsherried Lag.

Finish: Medium, sooty and slightly sweet. Vanilla, peat and smoke.

Grade: B+

Youngens can be too spirity, and need water sometimes. Doesn’t make them worse in my books, if they do well with it; in fact, the bottle lasts longer that way. In short, a poor man’s Lag 12 or Caol Ila NCS. Nothing particularly remarkable about it to vault it into the A- region, but still a damn good peated whisky. For the price, an absolute steal.

“It is only knock and know-all, but I like it.”

The Last of its Kind: Bruichladdich 12 (2nd Edition)

Music: Teddie Films, “Dream and Shout” (“Scream and Shout” Les Miserables parody)

As I get ready to “get hitched”, I find myself looking back on the past, and wondering how much things will change after the papers are signed. It has led me to look back at some sample bottles I’ve stored from bottles long depleted to finally put pen to paper on them and write up reviews.

Nose: Gentle coastal salt and vanilla. The bourbon cask is very noticeable here. Vegetal notes. Apricot and pear. Similar to an Arran Malt. Still a bit young so as to be a bit prickly, but it’s still really good.

Palate: Sweet, barely sugar. Lemon and pear. Slight bit of varnish. Somewhat peated at the end.

Finish: Medium length, warming and tart. Lemon cough sweets.

Grade: B

This one is bittersweet, both in profile and in sentiment. There is something glorious about enjoying a piece of a distillery’s past (which, I guess, any dram is), but somewhat saddening to know that this is the last dram you’ll ever have of this chapter in the distillery’s history.  Mixed feelings, but a damn good dram. If you see a bottle sitting on a shelf this summer for a reasonable price, do pick it up, as it’s a perfect summer dram: light, fruity and sweet.

“Here we go, goin’ take this town, because everywhere we go is revolution.

A Stroke of Luck, Genius: Bowmore 15 ‘Laimrig’

Music: Daniel Mehrmann & Kara Baldus, “Missed Out”

A dirty ‘farclas. A candied Laphroaig. One of those great drams that straddles the line between two types of Scotch well: a briny, smoky peat bomb, and a sweet, rich sherry bomb. Sometimes they marry terribly, sometimes they’re well balanced. This one fits into the latter category.

Nose: Elements of salt and smoked meat, wood, and sawdust. Peaty. Sherry, cherry, berry! There’s noticeable fruit in the one, that’s for sure. The smoke on this one is a damp, hot tobacco. A bit of a solventy note, like shoe polish… Neat! This one takes time to calm down, as it’s sharp on the nose right off the pour.

Palate: Sour berries, smoked meat, peat and leather. The palate then turns to dark chocolate and pepper. A real mixture of the stormiest Islay and and the richest Speyside sherry bomb. Like a slightly younger Bruichladdich Black Art in many ways, at a fraction of the cost. It’s got more heat than the Black Art, but sometimes you have to ask yourself whether that’s a bad thing. I don’t want my whisky to be so mellow that it’s like drinking candied barley; I mean, I could just buy that instead, and it’d be a hell of a lot cheaper.

Finish: Long. Dark Chocolate, brazil nuts and sawdust. Lingering peat.

Grade: A-

I’ve come across a number of great drams lately, after what felt like a long streak of average ones. This happens to be one of those great ones. It’s not the smoothest, easiest beast to get along with, but that’s what makes it great. It is smooth, no doubt, but if you want liquid gold, you’re going to pay.  In a way, it’s like a less mature (and more briny) version of the Bruichladdich Black Art. At 40% of the price, I’d take 2.5 bottles of this over the Black Art any day. While I thoroughly enjoy the Black Art, this is a great mature sherried Islay for the budget conscious. Also, given that it is only $3 more than the 15 yo Darkest, I better not see the Ontario stocks of Darkest drop before this is sold out in Ontario… else, someone is making a grave error. Laimrig + water > Darkest, 8 days a week.

Update: About half way through the bottle now, after dedicating much of the last 2 months to exploring it, and it’s quirkiness loses some of that charm after a while. Still a great dram, but more an A- than an A. Doesn’t make it into the league of Ardbeg just yet.

“Do you ever wonder if you missed out, missed out on it? If you think it’s worth your time to try and find out, find out yourself.”

Scotch Party VII

This year, I was invited by an old friend to take part in a Scotch party (of which this was the 7th edition). Great drams, and great people. Nothing better than sharing whisky thoughts with those who really, truly, love whisky.

Glenrothes 1995 – B

“The Scotchiest Scotch that Ever Scotched”

This is your sweet, biscuity, desserty dram. It is complex enough to be interesting, but isn’t show-stoppingly enthralling. A solid B that may be something great at 46% or higher. Still reasonably viscous at 43%.

Glenrothes Robur Reserve – B

“A nice, light snack”

In the lineup this evening, this one comes across as the 1995’s little brother. Much of the same, but a little bit more sugary without much more flavour.

Glenlivet XXV – B+

“Aged cherry cough sweets”

Plenty rich, strong cherry and other berries, thick and present, and then it’s gone. Really no finish to speak of, but the rest is really quite pleasant. A plenty good whisky, but at 25 years old, you’d expect much more.

Talisker 57 North – A-

“Warm leather arm-chair”

I began the night with this one, and it was most of what I’d expected. Everything the Talisker 10 should be (and maybe used to be,) but isn’t. Strong peppery leather, coastal salt, and your typical Talisker flavours. Warming like nothing else I’ve ever tried. It’s an excellent whisky for what it does, but it is missing that either solid second gear, or a neat 3rd to get it into the A range.

Tomatin 12 – B-

“A good aperatif”

Sweet, somewhat thin, just all around inoffensive, if not overly interesting.

Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask – B+

“Banana marshmallows”

This one has those banana marshmallows all over it. Sure there is malt, and typical baked speyside goodness, but the note that hits you over the head first and foremost is the banana. It’s quite a delicious Balvenie, that makes me forget about their disaster of a triple cask.

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – D+

“Cinnamon Farts”

Just something awful. It’s like the Valinch gone wrong. Nothing but farm.

Bruichladdich Black Art 3.1 (48.7%) – A

“Pungent, sweet, leathery goodness”

The black art is tart, leathery, subtle, but complex. Berries, sherry, sour with light peat all around, and this nice leathery finish. Truly the star of the night.

Longrow CV – B

“Lightly peated, candied citrus.”

I was surprised by this in two ways: it wasn’t all that peated, more of a speysider than a wannabe Islay. It was also sort of disappointing, as I was expecting a show-stopper in this one, on the back of all the hype.

Bowmore 15 Darkest – B+

“Dark, rich, sherry almost-monster”

A bit of a dark horse for me. I was expecting something weak and mildly inoffensive. It’s sherry, raisins and chocolate. A bit medicinal on the palate, which makes it kind of a one-two punch of dark sherry sweet, and Islay smoky. They’ve done a nice job with this one, and might be worth about $80. The almost $100 that it comes in at here in Toronto is way too much to ask, however.

BenRiach Bernie Moss – C+

“Lightly peated, slightly sweetened new-make

A poor man’s Longrow CV. The peat isn’t very strong, and neither is much of the flavour.

All in all, a successful night with the lads. Looking forward to next year, when we raid the LCBO stocks again.

An Ardbeg Double-Shot: Corryvreckan (2013) vs. Uigeadail (2011)

Music: Queen, “Ogre Battle”

This might just be it. I might just have to except that Ardbeg is my dram. Depressing as it may be in Toronto (it is prohibitively expensive here). So much so that my stock of Ardbeg has come entirely from other provinces/countries, by the good graces of friends bringing me bottles. This Uigeadail is a follow up to the 2010 I enjoyed a year or so ago, and the Corryvreckan is a 2013. The rumours that the Corryvreckan has fallen in quality makes me a bit giddy with delight, if something this good could have been much better under the stress of less demand. It means we may see that day again, in the far off, distant future.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (2011)

Nose: More caramel and less sherry than it’s 2010 brethren. Very sweet, actually. The chocolatey bog is still here, though! Peaty goodness. Give it some time and we get a dusty sticky toffee pudding. Smoked mussels underneath it all.

Palate: Creamy, sherried and peated dark chocolate. It really has that elegance that so many other Islays fail to marry with the brute force of smoky peat.  Seaweed and a touch of salt.

Finish: Long, drying, cocoa, brine and charred wood.

Grade: A

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (2013)

Nose: This one is sweet, too, but immediately brighter. Like salted toffee. Of course, “toffee and caramel” are pretty much the same, but the key point is the brightness of hardened, crunchy, SKOR-like toffee, vs. your typically dark and chewy square caramels. The big note after the immediate sweetness is freshly-shucked oysters; that salty, briny, but bright shellfish smell. Peat and smoke hide in the background.

Palate: Peat, tar, iodine, smoke and ash. A real peat monster if there was one. The attack is somewhat sharp, but it’s more an onslaught of Islay than ethanol. As the Islay tidal wave subsides, there is this creamy, sweet and bright toffee from the nose, as well as some marmalade. How in the world does peat just wash away to leave something so delicate behind? Unbelievable.

Finish: Less drying than the Uigeadail, but just as sweet. Sponge toffee (think the filling of a Crunchie bar). Leather, peat and smoke.

Grade: A

What some would call “unbalanced”, I call magic. Ardbeg does this sort of sleight-of-hand so well with their NAS whiskies: it gives you one thing in the nose, but then completely turns the tables on the palate. Sure, there are common themes throughout, but what is bright and forefront in one, is understated in the other. Together, these two provide a complete experience: the power of Islay, with the elegance of more mainland whisky. The Uigeadail manages to marry their brand of peat and brine with what I can only describe as a Glenfarclas 15, whereas the Corryvreckan marries itself to an american oak Highland Park (something like the 10 at cask strength). Ardbeg shows again and again that “Age does not a great whisky make”. Arguably, without the age statement, a whisky has to work just that much harder to sell you, and I feel like the fine folks at Ardbeg take that to heart.

And with this, the Corryvreckan takes my #1 spot. A momentus occasion. Cue the horns!

“He gives a great big cry, and he can swallow up the ocean.”

2014 Year in Review

It’s that time of year again where whisky fans/bloggers/maniacs alike are likely posting their favourites from their 2013 journeys. A banner year for my whisky cabinet has made deciding this year’s favourites very difficult! Some of the same categories as last year, some new ones. Because I was able to try so many great whiskies this year, I’ve given suggestions for Gold, Silver and Bronze instead of winner and runner-up.

Eligible Whiskies:

Highland Park 18
Glenfarclas 15
Glenfiddich 15 Distillery Edition
Ardmore Traditional Cask
Glenfarclas ‘105’
The Arran Malt 12yo CS
Bowmore 12
Amrut Fusion
Auchentoshan 12
Laphroaig 10
Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006 (Dunlossit)
Bruichladdich 12yo (2nd ed.)
BenRiach 10yo Curiositas
Lagavulin 12yo CS (2012)
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)
Bunnahabhain 12
Caol Ila 12
Tobermory 10
1998 Caol Ila Distillers Edition
Glendronach 12
Macallan Cask Strength
Highland Park 10
Port Charlotte 10yo
Caol Ila 19yo TWE

*Eligible whiskies must have been tasted for the first time in 2013, and I must have owned at least a 20cl bottle, and had at minimum, 4 drams of it.*

Favourite “Daily Dram” (cost effective @ Ontario prices, non-cask-strength)
Bronze:
BenRiach 10 Curiositas
Silver
: Highland Park 10yo
Gold: Bunnahabhain 12yo

Favourite Cask-Strength/Overproofed
Bronze: Macallan Cask Strength
Silver: Caol Ila 19yo TWE
Gold: Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Peated
Bronze:
Lagavulin 12 CS (2012)
Silver
: Caol Ila 19yo TWE
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Unpeated
Bronze: Highland Park 18
Silver
: Glenfarclas 10yo `105′
Gold: Macallan Cask-Strength

Favourite No Age Statement
Bronze: Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 39)
Silver
: Macallan Cask-Strength
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Overall
Bronze: Bunnahabhain 12yo
Silver
: Macallan Cask Strength
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

After arriving too late in Montreal to grab the Cairdeas there this summer, a stroke of luck would have it that the LCBO stocked several cases in the late summer. Turned out to be my favourite whisky of the year. Sadly, the Cairdeas is a limited edition, but I’ve got 2 bottles in my inventory, one of which is ear-marked for my bachelor party in late summer. This year wasn’t without its unfortunate whisky news, with the Macallan Cask Strength being discontinued this year. It may be the last affordable Macallan of that level of quality we may see here in Ontario… or anywhere. Even with its dwindling worldwide stocks, it’s still worthy of this year’s Silver. Lastly, I’m excited by what Burn Stewart has done with the Bunnahabhain line, and I was thoroughly impressed by the 12yo, which is why it earns the Bronze spot for 2013, earning points for a combination of deliciousness, affordability and availability. While the 19yo TWE Caol Ila is better, it’s also considerably more expensive, and limited edition. I don’t know what the 12yo was like at 43% personally, but the 46.3% bottling has earned relatively more praise in the whisky community, and gets thumbs up from me. My hope is to try their 18yo before the year is out.

Here’s to another great year at “Whisky, Empirically”, where we will get to review #100. I’m about 15 drams shy of that at the moment. I have also recently tried the Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which will give any other whisky a fight for top spot in 2014… and we’re only a week in. Perhaps a worth contender, we will also finally get a review of my 1991 Mortlach Signatory from the Whisky Exchange that I picked up in November 2011. I have been saving it for the next meeting of the Scotch Lads, who have sadly been cities apart all year. With luck, we’ll remedy that this month.

From London, with Love – Caol Ila 19yo “The Whisky Exchange”

Music: The Cranberries, “Dreaming My Dreams”

Caol Ila reminds me of London. The last (and only) time I was there, I spent one sunny May afternoon working in a small flat, enjoying Shropshire cheese, fresh bread, and some Caol Ila Cask Strength. Everything just seemed to work. It was there that I picked up this TWE bottling of a 19yo Caol Ila. Now, independent bottlings are largely a hit and miss, so I’ve read. With that level of risk, however, comes a higher return. When you get a good’en, you get one for a bargain. Independent bottlers also provide the chance for folks like me to try older whiskies that are usually unaffordable when packaged by the providing distillery.

Nose: It takes time a little bit of water (5 drops or so) to open up. Whereas the 12yo is upfront with its nose, this 19yo is mellow. Fresh top soil. Fireplace mantel. Vanilla. Similar to the Laphroaig Cairdeas, it has that unlit cigar tobacco. Olive oil and espresso. Coastal sea air, and seaweed, much like you’d expect with Caol Ila. An odd (but pleasant) pairing of lemon merangue and coal soot. Cherry cough drops. Some furnisher polish (distinctly lemon Pledge). Anise and, oddly, Pho.

Palate: Cool, refreshing, and oily. Bloody hell, there’s really nothing like an oily bourbon-cask whisky, something I find more often in older whiskies. It’s somewhat nippy, so in a way it’s still young, but that’s ok. Sherried whiskies like Glendronach’s 15yo give you that oily mouthful at 46% with a middle-age. It’s great, yes, but it’s almost a given. When I get that viscosity from a bourbon cask, I’m just all that much more astonished and appreciative. Coal smoke, sweet and sour citrus (in a good way), and fresh oysters in salt water. Chocolate and anise. Hints of leather, pear and coffee.

Finish: Long, with lingering peat smoke, lemon and salt water. Barbeque sauce. Hazelnuts on the tail.

Grade: A-

At first, I was really disappointed with this whisky. I opened the bottle, and the first two drams were so restrained on the nose, as to almost be lifeless. The palate was sharp and bland. The finish was long, but not all that interesting. I thought that I’d wasted some good money on this bottle until I watched Ralfy’s video on the 30yo Mackillop’s Choice Caol Ila. Old whiskies, he said, needed some time in the bottle to open up. Then I remember the sample I tried at the TWE came from a bottle 1/3 done, and I understood.

One month in, and this bottle is different.  The nose is somewhat quieter than the Caol Ila 12yo OB, but it’s much more talkative.  It reminds me of the Signatory 19yo Mortlach UCC I had a while back: oily, complex, but quiet. The whisky fans are right, too, that peat is sexy when it’s older. It becomes understated in the nose, present in the palate, and lingers throughout the finish.

I’ll summarize that it’s not the earth-shattering whisky I hoped it would be (I’d hoped to grade it an A), but it’s definitely a damn good one. As far as older whiskies go, too, it was reasonably cheap, so it has that going for it as well.

One last note: A Caol Ila is a Caol Ila is a Caol Ila. There are some drams out there that, if you’re blindfolded, you may not be able to guess that they’re from the same distillery. Caol Ila, so I’ve found, is not one of those. Every Caol Ila has that distinct coal smoke, lemon and sea salt base, and in that way, the distillery is remarkable.

“All the things you said to me today, changed my perspective in every way.”

Port Choco-lotte: Port Charlotte 10yo

Music: Summertime Sadness (Cedric Gervais Remix) – Lana Del Rey

I’ve been rooting for Bruichladdich since their plan to resurrect the Port Charlotte distillery. Of course, the An Turas Mor was my first foray into PC, due to afforadability and availability. When the Laddie Ten came to Ontario at a reasonable price, I bought 2, and shared them liberally. A great dram at a great price. Now the PC 10 is coming to Ontario, and I’m equally excited. This review comes about from a scotch night with a good friend.

Nose: Very Laddie! Caramel, leather and rubber. Creamy.  Very lightly peated on the nose, despite being young and “heavily peated”. Some Fireworks sulphur, cool!

Palate: Medium viscosity. Spicy, peat, leather, milk chocolate.  A tad sour on the end of the palate, but not overwhemingly so.

Finish: Medium, milk chocolate and peat smoke.

Grade: B+

Like the Laddie Ten, it’s a B+ for it’s uniqueness. Bruichladdich has a knack for novelty, and this is no exception. A peated Islay that has characteristics unlike most Islays, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

“Honey, I’m on fire; I feel it everywhere. Nothing scares me anymore.”