SMWS 127.37 Dinosaurs dancing to Stravinsky

A young refill sherry Port Charlotte

This peated powerhouse is one pour away from the bottle graveyard, so I thought I’d document a few notes here before it’s gone for good. What you’re looking at is actually the first ever SMWS bottle I purchased, a nine year old Port Charlotte that I picked up back in 2013.

SMWS 127.37

If you’re not overly familiar with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) and these unique bottlings, have a flick through this. In a nutshell though, all SMWS bottles are single cask, cask strength whiskies, bottled without chill-filtering and without the addition of colouring. It’s whisky at its purest.

The whisky

On the nose I get thick, sweet and creamy vanilla notes, Stroopwafel (those Dutch caramel waffle biscuits), smoked honey, a slight BBQ char note and hints of that trademark putty/rubber glove scent that I always associate with Port Charlotte. Despite the strength, the nose is round and whilst there’s a prickle, it doesn’t quite give away the immensity of this dram.

On the palate I get an immediate prickle and burst of salivation that gives way to a big, juicy and oily mouth feel. There’s coal fired vanilla desserts and white pepper. It’s sweet, thick and creamy with salted crème caramel and char. As you’d expect, the finish is long and warming, but there’s also a lingering and comforting sooty ash note.

SMWS tasting glass

In case you can’t quite see it on the label, this bottle weighs in at a heft 66.5% ABV. I know some purists out there would happily tackle this sans water (Andrew, I’m looking at you) and indeed I have on many an occasion. However, I actually really enjoyed this one with the smallest dash of water.

If the high ABV spirit is the dinosaur, then I guess that quality sherry cask is Stravinsky, taming a big ballsy whisky and making it dance. It’s lovely stuff.

Was it open for too long?

From start to finish, this bottle was open for a good 12 months or more. Like most diehard whisky fans, I’ve read plenty of articles about the dreaded ‘oxidization’ of spirits and started to get a little paranoid about the numerous open bottles I had, such as this one. I went and bought sample bottles to decant them and picked up various inert gas sprays used by the wine folk to displace oxygen in open bottles. Then I started to realise that it was all a bit annoying and couldn’t be bothered.

I’m kind of glad I did, as this bottle is just one example of how much whisky can actually open up and evolve with some airtime. I’m sure not every bottle will be enhanced by air, but I’m convinced that some of them will be, and it can be quite a fun learning experience revisiting them over time and seeing how they evolve.

Best of the rest 2014

It’s that time of year again where some things start to ramp up and hit full-swing, whilst others take a bit of a breather and have slowed down slightly. Sadly (though thankfully for my wallet), whisky tastings and whisky events are one of the things that seem to taper off around this time of year, so it’s a perfect opportunity to catch up on some posts.

The tasting

In late December it was time for one last hoorah when the Oak Barrel in Sydney held their end-of-year ‘Best of the rest’ masterclass. I went along to one the year prior and they had some killer drams, including what was perhaps my whisky highlight of 2013, a Glendronach 1978 single cask.

Could they match that stellar line-up again this time ‘round? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that one. Here’s how the evening unfolded.

Mackmyra Brukswhisky

First up was a whisky from Swedish distillery, Mackmyra. Despite their young history, there are some truly fascinating facts and figures out there about Mackmyra. For example, did you know that most of their whisky is matured 50 metres underground in a dis-used mine? Nope, me neither. Pretty cool though, just like the Brukswhisky bottle.

Mackmyra

I found the Brukswhisky to be very light (and quite bright) on the nose. I got some hints of orange citrus, peppery juniper berries, crème caramel and vanilla. After some air-time, some notes of apple and pear.

The ‘light’ theme continued on the palate, with some vanilla notes toward the back of the palate and some lightly spiced, malty flavours giving way to a fairly tame – but warming – finish. Quite interesting and summery , but I thought it still had a bit of a banana new-make spirit note to it as well (certainly not off-putting, just an observation).

Adelphi Liddesdale Batch no. 5

This interesting offering comes from Adelphi, an independent bottler who purchase casks from distilleries then bottle and release the whisky when they feel it’s just right. Despite the name, there isn’t actually a Liddesdale distillery and the liquid in this bottle is from the Bunnahabhain Distillery on the Isle of Islay. Five different refill sherry butts went into this one to be exact, each at least 21 years of age.

Adelphi Liddesdale

Notes of rich wine gums or gummy lollies on the nose. Some grimy workshop oils, rubber inner-tubes, damp vegetal smoke, a ginger dustiness and well integrated sherry notes. The ‘dense’ theme continued on the palate, with this being noticeably heavier and oilier than the Mackmyra (which could be credited to many factors, but mainly due to the Adelphi being non chill-filtered and bottled at 46% ABV). Some spice presents right up front on the tongue before clearing to a warming, sweet – yet spicy – salted dark chocolate finish.

I’ve tasted this on many an-occasion (I have a bottle) and I find that I get the most out of this by sitting with it over a longer period of time. Something of a contemplative dram if you will.

Adelphi Highland Park

The third dram of the night was also from Adelphi, but we were now moving into cask strength territory with this well-aged, 26 year old single cask offering from Highland Park.

Adelphi Highland Park

I’m quite familiar with what the standard, official bottlings of Highland Park smell and taste like..and I found this to be nothing like those!

Tropical coconut and woody notes presented first up on the nose. I found this to be quite restrained and delicate with a difficult to describe underlying ‘tropical’ note that presented in a number of different ways, like green grapes, desiccated coconut, bees wax and a light forest/vegetal note. The tropical theme continued on the rich and oily palate with overripe soured berries, grapefruit and hints of liquorice ending in a somewhat drying and tannic finish that became malty and cloying (not oaky and bitter). Confused a little? I think I was too.

Glendronach Cask Strength Batch no. 3

We stayed in the cask strength territory with this next one too. A no age statement marriage of both Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry cask Glendronach, bottled at 54.9% ABV. I liked batch no. 1 better than no. 2 so it was going to be interesting to see how this stacked up.

GlenDronach

So creamy, sweet, rich and full on the nose. There’s nothing shy, restrained or delicate about this at all. It’s not an all out sherry monster, but there’s loads of juicy raisins, honey, vanilla, dusty 70% dark chocolate and some estery varnish notes.

Immediately oily and hot up front on the palate, but it gives way to sweet rich sultanas and raisins, crisp red apples, vanilla pods, candied ginger and spice. A super solid and enjoyable Glendronach.

Laphroaig 1976 Scotia Royale 35 year old

Yes, that’s right, the little heading above isn’t a typo! One of 211 bottles, this 35 year old Laphroaig was bottled at cask strength of 43.3% ABV. Forget nearly everything you think of when you think of Laphroaig, the whisky pictured below was super unique.

Laphroaig

Straight away it became apparent that this had a very deep and layered nose. Fresh mint, herbal and vegetative with tropical notes of papaya and overripe mango (I generally get traces of these last two notes in the standard 18 year old expression as well). It mellowed the longer it was uncovered, revealing coconut oil and a yeasty trace, but never became overly woody which was interesting considering its age.

Despite the low ABV, the mouth feel of this was still oily and rich. The palate stayed pretty close to the nose with lots of tropical fruit and vegetal mossy flavours giving way to a faint iodine and spice finish.

An undeniably interesting dram, but I personally struggle to think of a time when I’d go ‘ah yes, I feel like that flavour profile tonight’. It would be a special occasion pour, that’s for sure.

Port Charlotte PC8

If you’ve ever had something from the PC series (or even a standard Port Charlotte), then you know full well why this was the last dram of the evening.

PC8

Before the glass comes within 12 inches of your nose you already get a face full of smoky, salty, charred ashes. There’s freshly laid tarmac, putty, latex gloves and vanilla rich desserts… that have been set on fire… This stuff is pretty exciting.

The palate and mouth feel of this whisky are just as big as the nose. It’s oily, instantly warming and loaded with the flavours of a spicy, smoky coastal barbeque. Charred, cured meats and sweet butterscotch eventually give way to an ashy and slightly floral finish that lasts for ages.

Group

Thanks to Dave and all the friendly guys at the Oak Barrel for for holding a number of a fantastic tastings throughout the year (such as this and this). Looking forward to seeing what you have in store for us in 2015.

An evening with Jim McEwan

Hosted by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Australia

I’ll start and end this post with the same basic comment. If you ever get the chance to go along to a tasting hosted by Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan, don’t think about it, just do it.

I had such a chance the other night when the Sydney branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) held an evening with Jim McEwan at the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in Sydney. If you’re not too familiar with the SMWS, who they are and what they do, check this out.

SMWS water jug

I wasn’t too sure whether I was going to blog about the evening. Part of me just wanted to just sit back and enjoy it like every other punter in the room. But in the days following, when I looked back at the pictures I couldn’t help but crack a smile. That made me realise, yeah, I’ve got to have a go at sharing this with those who couldn’t make it and to also put something up for those who just want to relive it. Here’s my account of how the evening unfolded.

Bruichladdich + SMWS

Walking into the Macquarie room at the RAC, waiters roamed with substantial canapés and gin and tonics. G&Ts at a whisky tasting aren’t really the norm I suppose, but these were made with Bruichladdich’s very own The Botanist Gin. I can tell you now, they were as good as any G&T can be and absolutely no one was complaining!

Ginandtonic

I soon found my seat and eyed off the evening’s tasting lineup, consisting of six core range expressions from the Bruichladdich distillery and something a little bit special from the SMWS’s archives.

Tasting lineup

Everyone loves a dram or seven, but truth be told, the whisky would be playing second fiddle for me this particular evening. The real reason I was there was to hear from a man – a legend – who I’d heard so much about. This guy.

Banner

Cellarmaster of the SMWS, Andrew Derbidge, soon took to the microphone.

“There are three people in the whisky industry you should move heaven and earth to see – one is Dr Bill Lumsden from Glenmorangie. The other is Richard Patterson from Whyte and Mackay – and even those two would go out of their way to see this guy here with us tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Jim McEwan”

Jim McEwan Bruichladdich

It was at this point Jim stepped up and got right into it. We heard about the whisky, but perhaps more importantly – and this would become a theme of the night – we heard about the people. From the Dux of the local school on Islay who works as a Mashman to the inspiring Christine, who’s perhaps a little less fortunate than some of us. We learnt a lot about the institution that is Bruichladdich and how they’re very much a part of the community of Islay.

Bruichladdich: The whisky

I’m not going to weigh in with all-out, whimsical tasting notes, because I didn’t spend the night writing them down. Plus, Jim didn’t sound like the biggest fan of the things anyway! One thing you should know though, is that all Bruichladdich is non chill-filtered and bottled at its natural colour. It’s real whisky, made for drinking.

Bruichladdich

Laddie Classic Edition_01

First up was the Laddie Classic. Although a No Age Statement whisky, Jim tells us that it comes in at around seven years of age.

Laddie Classic

Really fresh, light and clean on the nose. Lots of vanilla, a slight sourness and some faint tropical notes that I often associate with younger, ex-bourbon matured whisky. This all translated pretty accurately to the palate – light and fresh with sweet vanillin finishing clean and creamy. I honestly think you could use this to introduce anyone to the world of proper whisky.

Islay Barley 2006

A pretty self explanatory one here, but Islay Barley is made with – you guessed it – barley grown on Islay! Barley to bottle, this one is all done on Islay.

Bruichladdich Islay Barley

Slightly more heat on the nose this time (50% ABV vs. 46% ABV on the Laddie Classic), but it also has this lovely, distinct cereal note that reminds me so much of porridge with honey. A stronger tropical fruit note – apples, pears, pineapple and banana – but pretty well balanced. Fuller mouthfeel, vanilla, citrus and malt on the palate finishing quite long and warming. Lovely stuff.

Black Arts 03.1

This next one was something I’ve been hanging out to try for a while. What can I tell you about it? Not much really. Jim won’t give away any details of the Black Art 03.1 other than its age (22 years) and its ABV (48.7%).

Black Arts

Nosing it and tasting it my initial reaction was ‘ah, ex-sherry’. But then I remembered that Bruichladdich probably have the biggest range of wacky wine-finished whisky on the planet, so who really knows what this is comprised of!

I found it sweet and jammy on the nose with berries and a touch of spice. It’s rich, fruity and dense. Thick and viscous on the palate, layered with all sorts of red fruit flavours, a slight nuttiness and sweet vanilla toward the end.

I may not know what it is, but it’s a pretty tasty dram, that’s for sure. I’m leaning toward a decent whack of wine cask in there, moreso than Oloroso or PX cask.

Port Charlotte 10 year old

‘Jim, this is the fifth whisky, what about number four?’

What?

‘the fourth whisky – you missed the fourth whisky!’

Yeah, yeah we’ll get to that one.

Okay then?.. so we moved on to whisky number five, the classic Port Charlotte 10 year old, peated to around 40 ppm.

Port Charlotte 10 year old

If there’s one note I personally get from all Port Charlotte whisky, it’s a distinct rubber washing-up glove note. That, or the smell of taking off powdered latex gloves, then sniffing your hands. Sounds weird? Try it! Some also describe this note a putty.

Don’t judge me, but I personally love the smell! Add in some vegetal peat, smoking coals, pepper and a certain freshness and that’s the Port Charlotte 10 year old to me. This all translates to the palate (minus the rubber glove note), along with charred meats, a big salty saline tang and a touch of something sweeter. Lovely stuff.

SMWS 127.39 ‘Intensely tasty’

This next one was a bit special. It’s an 11 year old Port Charlotte, distilled in 2002 and bottled by the SMWS at a whopping 66.7% ABV!

SMWS 127.39

There’s no hiding from that ABV, though it’s nowhere near as ferocious as you’d expect on the nose. A light prickle with some vanillin; it’s sweet, juicy and malty. I almost feel like this could be from the same base as the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley variant, but I guess we’ll never know. I thought it took a few drops of water quite well, bringing out my rubber glove notes.

Oh so warming on the palate, a fair whack of citrus tang and sweetness up front, with some spice developing up the back. It’s called ‘Intensely tasty’ and it certainly is – especially the ‘intense’ part. I currently have its younger sibling at home (SMWS 127.37) and I love the stuff.

Octomore 06.1

If there’s one line of whisky that the modern-day Bruichladdich distillery is best known for, it’s probably their fabled Octomore line, which pushes the boundaries of peating to a whole new level.

Octomore 06.1 weighs in at 167 parts per million (ppm) of peat. How much higher can they go? Jim tells us that they’ve just had their latest batch of malt tested and it has registered at a slightly crazy 240-245ppm!

I’m happy to admit that I haven’t enjoyed every Octomore that I’ve tasted, but I do rather like this one. I found it sweet and malty on the nose with well integrated vegetal notes. Nicely balanced in my opinion with some citrus, lemon sherbet and peppery spice. The kicker for me is the mouthfeel though. It’s so oily and sweet with this lovely smoke and char on the finish. More restrained than previous iterations, but I’d happily have a bottle of this one at home.

Mystery malt time

If that wasn’t enough, Jim had one further dram to share with us all. Waiters soon circled with trays of official society tasting copitas. In them a golden mystery malt of some description.

Mystery Malt

A quick nosing delivered a big waft of sweet peat, toasted wood chips, toffee and creamy honeyed vanilla. Marvelously oily, sweet and full on the palate with some tannins and loads of wood character which just seemed to work so well.

Holding glass

We’d go on to learn that we were actually tasting a work in progress Octomore, sitting at around 5.5 years in age, 67% ABV and peated to 175 ppm. What made this extra special though was the fact it was solely matured in Virgin French Oak (Limousin Oak) casks. Not only that, we were the first group in the world to be tasting it.

I can assure you that it wasn’t the whiskies before it talking, but this was genuinely lovely stuff. Jim assures us it will be bottled – and bottled soon – so watch this space. My only hope is that it’s a mainstream release that makes it way to Australia. Truly fantastic stuff and my personal whisky highlight of the evening.

A highland toast

It was at this point of the night where Jim invited everyone to get up and join him in a Highland Toast. One foot on the table, one on your chair, glass charged in your right hand.

Jim McEwan

And so with great gusto the room chanted. “up with it, down with it, away from me, towards me, drink it off and no other shall ever drink from this glass again”

Group toast

I’m pretty sure we were saying it in Gaelic. But if you can actually speak Gaelic, then you’d probably say we were all chanting gibberish. Whatever we did, I think we did an alright job of it.

Jim McEwan

As an aside, the whisky used in the toast was the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, whisky number four that we missed earlier. And it was bloody fantastic. All the cracking elements of the Port Charlotte 10 year old, plus that malty porridge note from the barley just works a treat. Tasty underrated stuff in my opinion.

Signing bottles

Jim stayed around for a good while afterwards, signing bottles, chatting to fans, posing for photos and just being an all-round nice guy.

And so the evening came to a close

I hope this post doesn’t make it sound like we sat through a simple tasting and presentation. Because it was so much more than that.

It was the stories and the banter that made the night as enjoyable as it was. From Jacky losing his teeth in a cask, to Jim’s finger sniffing lost in translation moment in Japan, to Günter, the Nuremberg Highlander. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t really convey in pictures or words. You just had to be there. I could go on and on about the institution that is Bruichladdich and the legend that is Jim McEwan, but it would do neither of them justice.

Although Jim was billed as the evening’s guest, when he speaks and presents, it almost felt as though you were the guest at his tasting.

A sincere thanks to Jim McEwan and SMWS Australia and Southtrade International for making the evening a truly memorable one. To Jim, I genuinely do hope our paths cross again at some point. Perhaps in your hometown of Islay next time, instead of mine here in Sydney.

As I said at the beginning, If you ever get the chance to go along to a tasting hosted by Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan, don’t think about it, just do it.