Saturday, 17 March 2012

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Whilst wandering around my local supermarket on my weekly trip, I found myself down the tea aisle. The usual suspects were there, English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Assam etc, but one caught my eye, on the edge of the shelf, on the far side. Lapsang Souchong. I had never encountered such a name, but being that it was a black tea, I knew I would be safe in trying it. I didn’t even take the time to read the box.

I therefore was intrigue when I awoke the next morning and went downstairs for breakfast. My usual routine is to pop the kettle on straight away for a cup of tea and that morning was no exception. I went round to where the tea is stored and opened the box. Oh my.

The waft of smoke from the box took me back, it was quite shocking at 03:30am, when I was expecting the normal aroma of tea! This smoky, bonfire smell instantly reminded me of the couple of glasses of Islay whisky I had enjoyed only recently, a Lagavulin 16 and an Ardbeg 10, filling the kitchen as it brewed.

At first, like when I first experienced an Islay malt, I was quite wary. This strong, smoky, pine bonfire aroma was confusing the senses and being in conflict with everything I knew about tea, was it going to taste ok!?

It was with trepidation that I encountered my tea mug and dove in for the first sip. Wow. Much like single malts, this is a tea to be savored and enjoyed, with a complex nose full of pine and smoke and a smooth and flavoursome taste.

A quick Google and I naturally delved deeper into the history of Lapsang Souchong. Much like Islay malts, its pungent aromas and distinctive taste make it a Marmite product, people either love it or hate it. Again, like Islays, those in the know and ‘experts’ the World over eulogize about it. Lapsang Souchong has an interesting, maybe enigmatic history which some might be interested to read about.

This unique black tea is dried over pinewood, giving it a heavily smoky aroma and a deep, rich liquor. The tea leaves are first withered over pine root fires, then pan-fried, rolled and oxidized. The leaves are finally placed in bamboo baskets and hung on wooden racks over smoking pinewood fires to dry and absorb the smoke. This results in a powerfully smoky aroma coupled with a smooth taste.

Legend has it that the process for this smoked black tea came about during tribal times when a village burned all their possessions and inadvertently smoked the tea. Another story states that during the Qing Dynasty, an army unit passing through a village occupied a tea factory filled with fresh leaf awaiting manufacture. When workers could get back into the factory, they realized that for their tea to arrive at market in time, it was too late to dry the leaves the usual way and open fires of pinewood were lit to hasten the drying. When the tea reached the market, the smoke flavour created a sensation and a new product was born.

Naturally then, after having a Lapsang Souchong to start my day, what better way to finish it off with another hit of smoke and bonfire, one of the true greats of the Islay world, Caol Ila. This is the first sampling of a whisky which runs true the website name of this blog, a wonderful hit of peat and smoke.

As has been said above, I have sampled Islay malts previously, Laphroaig 10 years old, Lagavulin 16 year old and Ardbeg 10 year old, so I knew what to expect with the peat and smoke profile they represent. Nothing prepares you for your first tasting. My first was the Laphroaig on a New Years Eve. On first uncapping the bottle, I thoughts I had inadvertently reached into the medicine cupboard rather than the drinks cupboard. It instantly reminded me of TCP, the mild antiseptic whose active ingredient is a mixture of phenols. Phenols are also a measurable component of aroma and taste in Islay whiskies. Whilst the smell was initially distracting, the whisky flavour was much like others, with malt, sweetness and nuttiness but with the added intrigue of the peat. 

Caol Ila is a Gaelic name, translated as Sound of Islay in reference to the distilleries location facing the body of water between Islay and Jura. Being owned by the drink magnate Diego, Caol Ila is a large component of the Johnnie Walker products, so many of those who have never drunk from the bottle of Caol Ila, may very well have tried it indirectly through Johnnie Walker, the World’s best selling whisky brand.

If you ever see a picture of Caol Ila, it is quintessentially idyllic, the bay waterfront, craggy rocks, gentle rolling hills all beautifully framing the purveyor of what we love best, Scottish single malt whisky.

So what makes Islay whiskies so distinctive? Peat, partially decayed vegetation covers the island. This can be harvested and dried and then used as a fuel, much the same as wood or coal. Many other distilleries used other methods to dry the malt, but on Islay, they used what they knew best, the natural fuel source to the island, peat. A friend of mine told me that when you visit Islay all you can smell in the air is the smell of burning peat, such is its importance as a fuel to the island. When burning the peat, the smoke formed imparts flavours of the vegetation that decomposed to make up the peat. In Orkney, peat used by the Highland Park distillery has strong heathery flavours due to the peat being dug from heathlands. The peat used in Caol Ila is dug from the coast of Islay and is made up of moss vegetation.

Now I have suitably introduced you to Caol Ila, lets move on to the sampling. The bottling in question was a 200ml bottle of the entry level 12 year old. As I mentioned in the Balvenie 12 year old DoubleWood sampling, 200ml bottles are an excellent way to try new whiskies. Diego in particular market a number of such bottle across their classic malts selection.  Therefore everyone can easily sample a number of new single malt whiskies to broaden their horizons, easily without the burden of purchasing full size bottles and the associated cost. Another thing to mention is that this Caol Ila 12 year old is bottled at 43% which is a welcome change to the common 40% level which most entry level whiskies are bottled at.

So the light green bottle is removed from the outer box and the excitement levels increase. Time for a whisky, time for a new experience, time for an Islay. Pop the cork and take a sneaky sniff of the contents within. The first thing that will strike you is when you poor the whisky in the glass, after such an interesting and stimulating nose, the last thing you would expect as a novice to Caol Ila 12 year old, is the colour. Pale straw and unimposing. One may falsely think that this is a soft, bland malt.

The poured glass is lifted and the first thing that strikes you as you inhale is the interesting nose. There, at first, you have the most obvious component of many an Islay, the smoky aroma caused by the burning of the peat to dry the malt. In addition, citrus lemon essential oil and the scent of acidity, which conjures up thoughts of a crisp dry white wine. Faintly, the hint of soap (perhaps lemon soap) and unscented candle wax. Aside from the peat, the nose of the Caol Ila is as light as the colour suggests.

So now the first sampling of a whisky that represents ‘peat and smoke’. On the palate, the smoky nature of the Caol Ila can instantly be tasted, this develops into a strong peppery taste, reminiscent of Talisker whiskies. The light freshness of the lemon nose intertwines with the peppery smoke from the peat, with the acidity on the nose taking more of the limelight than the lemon. This is not a peat overload that Caol Ila’s neighbouring distilleries might produce. It is balanced, with acidity, fruitiness and smokiness making it somewhat lighter that what you would expect.

The finish to the whisky is long and peppery but not overpowering, it gives that satisfying tingle that a good quality single malt has just been enjoyed.

Caol Ila’s 12 year old is an excellent introduction to Islay whisky. It is not overpowering on the senses but is a gentle spirit that eases you into the world of Islay. Many of its characteristics share a resemblance to those found in expressions from Talisker, which is by no means a bad thing. They are however a little bit more subdued, the raw harshness is not present here as you find from those coming from the volcanic Isle of Skye, though the inclusion of peat adds a different dimension. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Caol Ila and look forward to revisiting the distillery and sampling other expressions, it certainly has a lot to offer!

As I said previous, Islay whiskies are a Marmite product, people either love or hate them….and I love them!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old

As I sit here and write this, on a lovely late Saturday afternoon, the sky is clear and the sun is out and I am able to catch up on a sampling that I have been trying to find the time for, for a number of weeks. I wrote back in the Talisker 57° North sampling that life is what happens when you plan something else. After the Glenmorangie Lasanta sampling, things went a little bit hectic for a time, but today, I have some spare time to sit back, relax and write about the Balvenie DoubleWood 12.

I will start off with a negative as I have a small gripe with Balvenie. If I clear the air here, then I can carry on to enjoy the sampling without it hanging over me. Recently, Balvenie did an online tasting, whereby those who managed to sign up were sent a 10cl sample along with two tasting glasses. Nice for those who received them. This was all to do with a new Warehouse 24 exclusive whisky and was a rather ingenious way of gathering up interest and anticipation. I have no problem with this. Afterwards, it was published quite widely that this sampling would be a limited edition bottling of some 300 or so bottles of a whisky that was to be known as Craftsman’s Reserve No1 - The Cooper.

Well, there I was waiting patiently for my e-mail, as a member of Warehouse 24, to inform me that the whisky had been released. Therein would start my race to get a bottle of this whisky. I wanted to purchase it because it had a good background story and would make an interesting whisky to sample and write about. But no, it seems that not everyone who is a member of Warehouse 24 got an e-mail. Hardly fair. So by the time I came across the news that it had been released, a day later, it had, hardly surprisingly, sold out.

Things happen for a reason I guess. But I decided that I would, as a blog author and disappointed customer, e-mail Balvenie, airing my disappointment that not all Warehouse 24 members appear to be equal and that I did not receive an e-mail informing me of the release. Normal customer service protocol usually rewards those who send a message, a reply at the very least, which is all I was after. The world goes round to word of mouth marketing and although a good experience usually goes unspoken, a bad experience travels the world. Through this blog I have the ability to have my thoughts and voice heard, or at least read.

Customer service within the whisky distillery world seems to be bafflingly non-existent. When I started the blog, I sent out some e-mails to distilleries, none replied and I have read through other blogs with authors commenting that they request information, for instance regarding casks, or a process, and it seems that in the majority of occasions their request goes without response. It is a shame really, all customers deserve a response, or further information if so required but the whisky world seems to operate outside of that. Look at the back of a Coca Cola bottle or a Mars Bar and all those companies, massive multi-nationals actively detail how to contact them, such is their desire for you to be satisfied with your purchase, because of the strength of a bad experience. You would like to think that positive customer relations would be a key area for a company to fulfil, especially with those who spread the word of the company, through blogging, free of charge. The majority of people will come across Super Single Malts and read through my sampling of Balvenie DoubleWood 12 as it is a first hand, independent opinion of a product, which they are going to spend a reasonable amount of money on. A bottle of Coca Cola is £1.98, whisky is considerably more!

So, negative over. I will happily submit an amendment if Balvenie chose to respond to me, back to the sampling.

Balvenie DoubleWood 12 was the first ever bottle of whisky that I purchased. I cannot remember whole heartedly why I chose it, when I first started drinking whisky, I did not research it online, nor did I know the difference between Bells, Jameson or indeed Balvenie. I believe it may very well have been on special offer, which is always a good reason to purchase. My little memories of it were pleasant, I liked it enough to carry on drinking whisky and exploring single malts.

This time around, I picked up a 200ml (20cl) bottle from Tesco for £12.99. I wish more distilleries would produce this size of bottle, it is an excellent way of establishing whether you like a whisky without throwing all your money away if you do not. It also gives you enough to get a good idea of the flavour profile, miniatures (5cl) are gone within one, maybe two glasses!

The DoubleWood 12 is similar in its development to the Glenmorangie Lasanta, however the finishing time within the sherry casks is shorter. Primary maturation is in ex-bourbon casks for the majority of the 12 years, before a few final months in ex-sherry casks. The sherry casks are sourced from Spain and there is no detail as to the origin of these, be it from Oloroso sherry etc.

Next time I crack open a bottle of Balvenie, I will return with more information about the distillery, but for now, I will go straight ahead and let you know how the DoubleWood 12 performs. Afterall, it is likely that my thoughts on a whisky are what people are most interested in! (You can let me know about this point in the comments section at the bottom.)

What always interests me with a sherry matured whisky is the colour it absorbs from being in ex-sherry casks. My eyes might be deceiving me, but there always seems to be a slight (more pronounced the longer the whisky is matured in the casks) hue of red in the colour. The red is only the faintest of touches as the DoubleWood has only a short period in the ex-sherry casks.

On the nose, the biggest influence is vanilla, some might suggest a richness that indicates vanilla custard. At the top of the glass rim is the feint hint of raisin, something I have thus far found in every sherry matured whisky I have tried. As you come up out of the glass, hints of honey and almond fill the air and at the top, a touch of oak. The nose is pleasant though not very expressive, don’t breath in too harshly otherwise you will get a nose full of alcohol.

The whisky is medium bodied in the mouth, not too oily. Strong flavours of wood as you swirl around your mouth, honey on the tip of your tongue. A bitterness is also present, some have said chocolate, others citrus fruit. I am more inclined to suggest that this is citrus peel, from an in season bitter Seville orange.

As you swallow, you feel the whisky as it passes the back of your tongue, but after that, it has gone, very short finish.

Overall, the Balvenie DoubleWood 12 years old is quintessentially what I expect a whisky to taste like. Maybe this is because it was my first single malt experience, maybe because it has flavours which do not challenge the nose or palate and is therefore accessible to all. It is easy drinking, but therefore perhaps, boring. Nothing jumps out at you, it has to be hunted down and requires a lot of concentration to find, both on the nose and in the mouth. Recommended for every day, but if you like an adventure, this is not for you.

For prosperity, as I finish this, it is dark, another day has passed. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Lasanta

Following the revival of Super Single Malts with the look at the cask strength Talisker 57° North, today’s sampling takes a look at the rather more mainstream Glenmorangie Lasanta (or La Santa / LaSanta depending on how you like it written), which is much more accessible to purchase. I picked up my 35cl bottle in my local Sainsbury’s supermarket.

The Lasanta, whilst sounding enigmatically foreign is actually Gaelic for warmth and passion. The whisky is matured in ex-Bourbon casks of American white oak for 10 years, before being transferred to finishing casks for two years. The casks chosen to finish the Lasanta are Oloroso sherry casks from Jerez in Spain. It is presented non chill-filtered at an ABV of 46%.

Chill-filtering is a process used by distilleries before bottling the final whisky.
Most whiskies are initially filtered to remove the sediment, particularly particles of wood from the burnt insides of the ex-Bourbons casks, from the liquid as this is off-putting to consumers. However, chill-filtering is a method which goes one step further to ensure a visually stable product that will not go cloudy if water or ice is added to it. It involves lowering the temperature of the whisky down to around freezing point, 0°c, whereby proteins and oils which cause the cloudiness clump together and then can be removed through passing through a fine adsorption filter. However, this process extracts components of the whisky which affect the nose and taste.

In presenting the Glenmorangie Lasanta as non chill-filtered, the full impact of the sherry cask finishing can be appreciated.

Glenmorangie is globally one of the bestselling whisky brands, along with Glenfiddich and Glenlivet following a strong focus on marketing during the 1990’s. Part of the Mo√ęt Hennessey stable, the distillery has actively pursued the idea of finishing the Glenmorangie Original 10 year old in a variety of different casks to produce different expressions. Alongside the Lasanta with a sherry finish are the Nectar D’or which is finished in Sauternes (a sweet French wine) casks and Quinta Ruban which is finished in Port casks. These expressions are finished for 2 years, resulting in a 12 year old bottling.

Glenmorangie is classified as a Highland whisky with the distillery located in the North West Highlands just outside Tain. Water is sourced from the Tarlogie Springs which is the product of rain which has forced its way through layers of limestone and sandstone. These natural minerals give it a hard water quality unique to Glenmorangie amongst Highland distilleries.

On removing the Lasanta from its outer box, you can immediately see the influence of the sherry casks on the final product. Through the bottle, the whisky has a golden amber appearance with reddish hues present. It is an inviting and appealing colour.

First on the nose is the sweet scent of honey and oak, reminiscent of Church pews. Rolling it in the glass opens up sultanas and raisins mixed with candied peel. There is a slight hint of pastry, perhaps culminating in a raisin danish drizzled with icing.

On the palate the Lasanta is not perhaps as sweet as the nose would suggest, on the tongue it is fairly liquid and loose. Whilst honey is evident, the woody oak is the more dominant factor translating from nose to palate. The sultana, raisin and candied peel combine with the finishing of sherry to give a hint of Christmas cake. In the background is the essence of almond and the slight warming of pepper, not a strong black peppercorn but a milder, softer white peppercorn.

The finish of the Lasanta is warming with a spike of the pepper present. It is medium in length.

To summarise, the Lasanta is a perfectly drinkable sherry finished single malt. The nose is pleasant and the palate throws up no surprises from the initial senses. It is a refined finish with no sharp burn of alcohol, but a warming presence in the finish. It would be interesting to take a look at the Quita Ruban and Nector D’or to see how these finishes compare.

On reflection, having sampled the Glenfiddich 12 year old and Glenlivet 15 year old French Oak Reserve and 18 year old expressions, I would say that thus far this Glenmorangie 12 year old Lasanta is preferable. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Talisker 57° North

So, I said Super Single Malts would be back in the New Year and here we are with the first sampling of 2012. 

Many years ago, at a village fete, I received a small piece of paper from a representative of the local Church of England church after making a donation. On this piece of paper were the words, “Life is what happens when you plan something else.”

This is apparently not an endearing quote from the Christian Bible, but is attributed to the Beatle, John Lennon, but may well have been quoted before. The source is irrelevant, but the words run true. All too often in life, plans are made, but then, well life comes along and just changes them.

When I first began writing the Super Single Malts blog, I needed something to preoccupy my time, give me a sense of purpose and to share my thoughts on whisky to similarly like-minded people. Life then came along and changed all that, so the blog remained on the original 6 postings, with the 3 whisky samplings. I deliberated deleting the original posts and reposting them under 2012 and to continue the blog from there, but that would be cheating the evolution and life of the blog. So a new year has dawned and a new start for the Super Single Malts blog.

It is amazing that all that time has passed since the last posting on the 14th April 2010 and now. The World has changed, people have changed, even the taste of whiskies has changed, but through all that, people, the World over have still come and visited the blog. It astonishes me that people in the USA, India, Brazil and afar have all come across this little old place on their search for information and I hope I have duly provided them with the information they have sought. The blog has been limited to Glenlivet and Glenfiddich thus far, with searches for Glenlivet, namely the 15 year old French Oak being the most popular. The samplings have also been commented on within other reviews around the internet, it is good to feel that my opinion is valued.

The blog will be expanded through 2012 and beyond, starting now with a look at Talisker’s 57° North bottling.

I have long been a fan of Talisker whisky and along with Highland Park, form my favourite brand of whiskies. My tasting of Talisker thus far had only taken in the 10 year old which is very accessible due in part to it being a brand of the drinks conglomerate Diego. Therefore, I decided that for my Christmas whisky, I would further explore what Talisker has to offer. Talisker can often be found behind a bar and so on many evenings out enjoying a beautiful meal, a Talisker 10 year old has been my accompaniment.

The distillery of Talisker is based on the Isle of Skye and is located between Loch Harport and the open Sea of the Hebrides. The distillery is sited at the foot of the imposing Cuillin Hills and is fed by the spring Cnoc nan Speireag (Hawk Hill) which flows over beds of peat which impart their flavour in to the whisky. Talisker whiskies have a reputation for being fiery, peppery, smoky and brooding. The Talisker core range comprises of a 10 year old, 18 year old and 25 year old, Distiller’s Edition and 57° North.

The 57° North’s name is a reference to the distillery’s high latitude on the Isle of Skye, and the whisky rather appropriately measures in at 57% vol, cask strength, original and unadulterated.

I picked up the 57° North from The Whisky Exchange, which was an excellent way to source the whisky. It was a simple case of choosing my whisky, placing the order and waiting for the parcel to arrive. Hassle free and at £38.95, a 25% off special offer including a free Talisker glass, an excellent price.

So the parcel arrived in advance of Christmas, the whisky ready and waiting for its star appearance. The parcel was well packaged with Styrofoam pieces meaning everything arrived in one piece. I un-wrapped the box as if it was already Christmas, but then, it was my Christmas present to myself! I opened the Talisker’s box and was greeted with a beautiful rich golden coloured liquid. Could I wait until Christmas to open it?

It was a struggle and by Christmas Eve, I had to give in and open the bottle. I had finished work for the festive period, so what better way to celebrate the season than to open a beautiful bottle of Talisker.

As you pour out the 57° North, the beautiful rich golden liquid flows with a light, oily consistency. The excitement continues as you swirl it in the glass and it gingerly clings to the glasses edge before sinking back to the base of the glass.

On the nose, the Talisker transports you back to its spiritual home, the Isle of Skye. Mental images of the rugged Scottish coastline are instantly conjured up with the scent of air on a cold day and salty sea water breaking against the rocks. You can only imagine that a day out here is finished with a whisky by an open fire, the scent of smouldering, burning, smoky oak filling the remaining aromas.

As the rich golden liquid, sweet, syrupy and oily to the tongue, first touches the palate, the most present feature is the hot and peppery spice qualities of this cask strength whisky. Bursts of peat, salt and the subtle hint of lemon zest can be found. Subtle flavours of the American oak casks that this whisky matures in are also noticeable. The 57° North has a long, warming finish that feels entirely appropriate for consumption in the depths of winter.

This is my first experience of a cask strength whisky and it has not failed to live up to expectation. It is powerful, big bodied and unmistakably Talisker. This reaffirmed my appreciation of Talisker and I now hope to be able to sample others including their award winning 18 year old.

If you are feeling cold this winter and find yourself by an open fire, definitely ensure that a glass of 57° North is firmly in your hand. It is a drink to be enjoyed and is thoroughly recommended. You might note from the photograph just how much I have enjoyed the 57° North, this whisky suffered for the Christmas period and is now fast approaching an empty bottle.

One final note, it is good to be back!

More information on Talisker can be found here - Talisker