Glenmorangie Spios

It’s that time of year again! Christmas is over, we’re back into the daily grind and then Dr Bill Lumsden and his team come along a drop the latest quirky experiment in their annual Private Edition collection.

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The ninth edition in this annual collection is known as Glenmorangie Spios (Scots Gaelic for spice) and has spent its whole life maturing in American Oak casks. What’s so unusual about that? Well, these aren’t the typical American Oak ex-Bourbon casks, instead, this has been fully matured in ex-rye casks. For the non-Bourbon and rye whiskey drinkers in the room, that might sound like a trivial point, but it’s really not. Here’s why.

Unlike scotch whisky (made from 100% malted barely), bourbon and rye use a mashbill of different grains to create the base spirit. To be called Bourbon, the mashbill must comprise at least 51% corn, with the remainder often being made up of rye, malted barley or wheat. You’ve probably guessed it, but to be called a rye whiskey, the mashbill needs to be at least 51% rye.

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I drink/ own a fair bit of rye whiskey and it can be quite an interesting beast. It still has that backbone of sweet syrupy caramel and char (that you find in Bourbons), but you often get forward notes ranging from baking spice and pastry, to pickle brine, mint and dill. Above all, the one characteristic I always get is ‘spiciness’ and I’m yet to meet a rye whisky I would describe as delicate. So given the forward character that rye whiskey often exhibits, I was very intrigued to see what kind of influence an ex-rye cask would have on the lighter, citrus, highland malt characteristics that Glenmorangie is so famously known for.

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Launch night in Sydney

From the basement theatre of Sydney’s QT Hotel we joined a live global cross to Dr Bill and his henchman, Brendan McCarron, in a secret whisky lair somewhere in Edinburgh. In introducing Spios, Dr Bill and Brendan explained that this was a project that came to life around 10 years ago when they sourced a parcel of casks through Speyside Cooperage that had previously held rye whiskey for six years. The rye whiskey they held was made from a mashbill of 95% rye (the remaining 5% was more than likely malted barley) and the aim was pretty much to see what kind of influence these casks would have on the ‘house style’ of Glenmorangie (ie the Glenmorangie Original).

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With that in mind, in was time to taste and after re-familiarising ourselves with the Glenmorangie Original and the (completely moreish) Nectar d’Or, it was time for the main event.

Tasting Glenmorangie Spios

On the nose I got notes of melon, citrus, stone-fruit and chewy caramels – make that caramel topping, the kind you’d put on ice cream. Going back for round two; shortbread biscuits, a bit of ginger heat, cinnamon and clove. One other aspect I loved is that after being bottled at 46% ABV, you also get this great fatty creaminess on the nose that I don’t personally get in the Glenmorangie Original.

On the palate, there was something slightly herbal and savoury, a faint touch of citrus and grassiness, but give it a very brief moment and it launches into a wave of soft spice. I don’t mean alcohol heat, but fragrant spice; clove, big red chewing gum, dark cherries, toffee and cereal grains. The finish was long, remained sweet, quite lush and flavourful, with nicely integrated oak.

Some final thoughts

Is it a huge departure from Glenmorangie Original? I wouldn’t say so, no. But then again, I don’t get the impression that was the point in the first place. After listening to Dr Bill and Brendan explain their thought process, you begin to understand that aim of the Private Edition series is to release experiments – one-off projects – that showcase what can be done with the Glenmorangie spirit by tweaking an element of the whisky-making process.

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We’ve seen them play with peated malt (in Finealta), use an old barley strain (in Tusail) and finish what’s essentially Glenmorangie Original in a variety of casks (in the likes of Bacalta, Companta and Milsean). And now, we’ve seen what happens when you ‘simply’ swap ex-Bourbon casks for ex-rye casks.

Fans of Private Editions that have been finished in wine casks (eg Artein, Milsean, Companta, Bacalta etc) might be a tad underwhelmed by the more subtle nature of Spios, but I really appreciate what’s been done here. It’s a hugely educational release, a tasty, enjoyable whisky and I think they’ve nailed the brief. I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with for the tenth release.

Cheers to Dr Bill Lumsden, Brendan McCarron and Moet-Hennessey Australia for hosting another great evening.

Ardbeg An Oa Review

Recently I received a nice little care package from Ardbeg Australia; a bottle of the classic Ardbeg Ten year old and the brand new Ardbeg An Oa along with a simple request – ‘please host a gathering of five people to enjoy this new release’.

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Unsurprisingly, it was pretty easy to find a whole bunch of people who were more than happy to get together and drink whisky, so that’s exactly what we did. Before we get into that though, a little bit about the whisky itself.

A new addition to the core range

With their annual Ardbeg Day releases and other special bottlings (such as the Committee bottles and the recent Ardbeg Twenty One) you’d be forgiven for thinking Ardbeg’s core range is massive, but it’s actually not. Since the official release of Ardbeg Corryvrecken in 2009, the core range has consisted of just three bottles – the Ten year old, Uigeadail and Corryvrecken, which makes An Oa the first permanent addition to the Ardbeg range in over eight years.

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Named after the Mull of Oa, it joins the latter two in having no age statement and is made up of whisky matured in a range of different cask types including new charred oak, PX sherry and first fill bourbon. These casks are then married together in what Ardbeg are calling a ‘gathering vat’ (sometimes commonly known as a marrying vat or tun), before being bottled with no chill-filtration at a very respectable 46.6% ABV.

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Some will no doubt criticise the enthusiastic marketing and story-telling, whilst others will have a whinge that it carries no age statement, but the only thing I really care about is whether An Oa tastes any good! I’ve always looked forward to new Ardbeg releases and even though I’ve enjoyed some more than others, for me their strike rate is pretty high. I find it hard to fault the value for money equation of their core range offerings, especially when you consider that their prices have hardly changed over the last ten years.

Ardbeg An Oa – The gatherings

So with two fresh bottles in hand I had a great time in joining forces with a couple of good whisky friends including Whisky & Wisdom, Dramnation and Sydney Cocktail Club to really put the new Ardbeg An Oa through its paces.

The first gathering had a group of us tasting the new An Oa against the Ardbeg Ten, which really highlighted the contrast between the two.

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The Ten year old – especially a freshly opened bottle – is a big, fresh and zesty beast. It’s got loads of crisp dry bonfire smoke, almost as if someone has thrown a bunch of firm lemons and citrus onto a blazing hot grill and has charred the crap out of them. There’s nothing shy about it and that’s what makes a freshly opened Ardbeg Ten so much fun! When put up against the Ten, An Oa can best be described as a softer, more subdued, mature offering – but part of me feels as though it’s a bit hard to really get to know it when drinking it alongside the brash Ten year old..

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Still yet to make up my mind on An Oa a second gathering was in order and this time it rather extravagantly involved a harbour-side studio, some deliciously smoky Ardbeg cocktails and more seafood and late night shenanigans than you could poke a stick at!

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As we settled in for the evening – with the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic playing in the background – a round of An Oa was poured and as a group we heartily recited the oath:

“I swear this oathing stone to be true to my untamed spirit. To stand with peat beneath my feet; smoke on my lips; a dog by my side; and Ardbeg in my heart. Slainte!”

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Ardbeg An Oa review

Both nights were loads of fund, though perhaps not the best environments to really get to know the new An Oa, so I’ve since sat down with it a few more times and here’s what I reckon.

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On the nose it’s softer and subdued. Instead of big bonfire and citrus I get lots of oily maritime notes like charred oily fish, herring, prawn heads, caramelised salmon skin and liquorice. There’s smoky earthy weed in there (kelp/ seaweed?), cured meats, citrus and creamy vanilla custard.

On the palate it’s certainly softer on entry where that balance continues; smoked oily sea notes, saline, and pepper, but with a warming hidden sweetness of runny honey and vanilla. You definitely know it’s an Ardbeg on the finish when that dry smouldering ash note appears.

Some final thoughts

The new Ardbeg An Oa unmistakably carries the Ardbeg DNA. To me, it’s the most composed offering in their core range; it’s got the peat, maritime notes, citrus and ash, but it has been put together in a restrained way. I can imagine this appealing to a lot of people, including those who may have previously found some of the other Ardbeg offerings to be a bit too big and brash. It fills a gap that I didn’t know existed and does so in a very classy way.

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The Ardbeg An Oa is a permanent addition to the Ardbeg core range and can be found on shelves now for a recommended retail price of around $120.

A very special thanks to the team behind Ardbeg Australia for helping us host our own gatherings to celebrate the arrival of An Oa. Check out The Whisky Ledger on Facebook for a full gallery of images from the two gatherings.

Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish

Tasting & Review

I think it’s fair to say that Johnnie Walker are best known for their mainstay blended whiskies, the kind you’re likely to find on pretty much every back-bar across the globe. They’re not one to put their feet up and stop experimenting though. Their quest to continue focusing on developing and understanding alternative flavour profiles has led them to the launch of the new sub-range known as the Blender’s Batch series.

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Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Dr Jim Beveridge, tells us that “At any one time, there are hundreds of experiments into flavour being carried out by our blenders which involve making adjustments to atmospheric conditions, the types of wood and grain used, cask finishes and other elements of whisky-making in the pursuit of exceptional new flavours.”

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The first release in the series is the Johnnie Walker 
Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish, which is the result of experiments that have been conducted into the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavours, on Scotch. For the non Bourbon and Rye drinkers in the room, American whiskeys can often be characterised by their particularly sweet nature, something that comes from their use of alternate grains like corn and wheat and also from the fact that they’re matured in heavily charred, virgin American oak barrels. Rye whiskey (where the grainbill is predominantly rye) often carries notes of fresh mint, spearmint or dill and has a general spicy character that sets it apart from a low-rye whiskey. So even before tasting this new expression, I suppose I had those notes in mind when I spotted that it had a ‘rye finish’
 
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Tasting notes

On the nose I got some sweet vanilla grain notes, runny caramel sauce and a hint of soft spice. Digging deeper, a touch of fresh pineapple, grilled peaches and maybe the faintest suggestion of mint. If I had to characterise the nose, I’d probably refer to it as round and creamy.
 
It’s fairly thin on the palate (to be expected given the low ABV), but it carries that creamy sweet grain profile nicely. A touch of spice (baking/ mixed spice), vanilla and some orchard fruits present themselves in what is a fairly balanced delivery.

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What’s in the bottle

As for what’s in the bottle? I’m not entirely sure to be honest! But we’re told it contains a decent amount of malt whisky from Cardhu (the backbone of most Johnnie Walker expressions), along with grain whisky distilled at the now-closed Port Dundas distillery. For those of you playing at home, Port Dundas closed in 2010 so the grain component would have to be at least 5 – 6 years old. The remaining malt and grain components could come from any number of Diageo’s other distilleries, but any guess on my part would be purely that. The components were all matured in first-fill American Oak casks, before being finished for up to six months in ex-rye whiskey casks.

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You’ve probably already guessed it from the photos, but I was recently invited along to the Australian launch held at the brand new Bouche on Bridge Street, Sydney. Sean Baxter, a man who’s equally enamoured with the idea of developing magical flavour profiles – as Jim Beveridge and his team – treated us to an evening of decadent food and cocktail pairings with some help from the Bouchon on Bridge team.

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Sean made no secret of the fact that the Red Rye Finish can be used as a perfect mixing whisky and we got to see this first hand in a series of pretty smashing cocktails, such as the;

Rye-talian: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Cascara Campari, blood orange and potato maple
Rye and Dry: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Capi ginger ale and basil
New Yorker: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, lemon and grenadine
Red Rye Manhattan: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Dolin rouge, bitters
Whisky cocktails can be hit and miss in my opinion and rarely do I have a ‘wow moment’ when drinking them, but these were all executed to perfection in my opinion. Big props to Sean and Matt Linklater (pictured above) for brining us these seriously tasty treats.

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The new Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish is already available in good bars and has started to hit shelves at a retail price of around AU$50 a bottle. For more cocktail inspiration using the Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish, check out this link.
As always, a sincere thanks goes out to the team from Diageo and Leo Burnett for the generous invite to an enjoyably decadent evening.

Westland Whiskey

Craft distillers of the world, take note

It seems like every other month or two someone, somewhere in the world is setting up the newest, craftiest ‘craft’ distillery. Don’t let the term ‘craft’ fool you into thinking that they’re all created equally though. Some of these ventures are far better thought-out than others and one of the ones that has really caught my eye is Seattle’s Westland Distillery. But we’ll get to that in a sec.
Often when I’m trying a new whisky for the first time I like to do a bit of homework and find out as much as I can about what’s in my glass. No, it doesn’t always add to my enjoyment, but occasionally it does provide me with new-found appreciation for what I’m drinking and it also helps to satisfy my inner whisky nerd.

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So when I was recently sent a few samples of Westland’s core range by the new Australian importer – Alba Whisky – I went on this same homework journey and the amount of information that was forthcoming really surprised me. With many big, established whisky brands, getting any kind of detail out of them can sometimes be like pulling teeth. But a few emails back and forth between Alba and myself yielded a goldmine of information and in my mind, it would be a total shame not to share it. It’s a long post, but I reckon it’s worth it.

Westland’s grain bill

All single malt whisky starts off with the same base ingredient of malted barley. But at Westland they’ve taken this slightly further and have come up with a “five-malt” grain bill which is used in their American Oak expression (among others), and it contains:
– 70% Pale malt from Washington State
– 10% Munich malt from Washington State
– 12% Extra Special Malt from Wisconsin
– 4% Brown malt from the UK
– 4% Pale Chocolate malt from the UK

The whole concept of a grain bill is not something you hear about that often with Scottish whisky and is far more prevalent in the bourbon and beer worlds. But Westland believe that each one of these malts adds a slightly different dimension of malt flavour, which is something they want you to taste in their whiskeys.

The source of their malt

You’ll note in the above list that most of the malt is sourced locally from Washington State and there’s a good reason for that. According to Westland, Washington State has two distinct growing regions that make it one of the best places in the world to grow barley. The first being the Skagit Valley (about 60 miles north of Seattle) and the second being Palouse (about 250 miles east of Seattle), which roughly correlates to a UK and continental European climate respectively. Climate is just one aspect of it though. Many of the farmers in Washington State operate outside of the commodity system which allows them to grow barley varietals that aren’t accepted on the commodity market. What that means is that in Washington State there’s effectively a system of academics (barley breeders), farmers, maltsters and distillers who are all working together outside of the commodities and can focus on new varietals. For Westland, this means that they’ve already been able to lay down casks with three new varietals of barley that no other distiller anywhere in the world has access to. And they supposedly have many more coming.

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Peated malt is absent from the above, but in the case of Westland’s peated expression, sometimes their peated malt comes from Scotland’s Baird’s Maltings, alternatively they source it locally from Washington State at Skagit Valley Malting. Irrespective of where the malt is coming from, they target their peating levels to 55 parts per million (PPM).

The yeast

At Westland they use nothing but brewer’s yeast, specifically a Belgian saison strain which they believe gives them “amazing citrus, red fruit, and spice element that balances the malt components quite nicely”. I’ve tasted a single cask expression that was bottled for Binny’s in the US and it had the most outrageous stout profile I’ve ever tasted in a whiskey, with bucket loads of roasted, toasty malt, chocolate stout notes. No doubt the chocolate malt barley played a big role in this, but I’m convinced that the brewers yeast was also a big contributor to that true, stout flavour profile.

Wood and maturation

For their new oak casks, Westland fill exclusively into casks made from slow-grown, air-dried oak which has been dried for a minimum period of 18 months where they believe they see more refined oak notes and less bitter and resinous flavours. When it comes to their ex-sherry casks, they work with Toneleria del Sur to source both PX and oloroso sherry casks. In a rather costly move, they ship the casks whole from Spain instead of breaking them down into staves for transport.
If you’re wondering why – Westland believe it provides them with a certain depth and fresh sherry character that can’t be imitated. They’ve also recently released a pioneering whiskey in the States that has been matured in a local species of white oak, Quercus garryana. This oak only grows in the Pacific Northwest around the cities of Seattle, Vancouver B.C. and Portland.

When it comes to maturation, Westland mature their casks outside of the city of Seattle, in a coastal town called Hoquiam, where humidity is always high, rainfall is prevalent, it rarely gets warmer than 23 C and it never freezes.

The whiskey

One of Westland’s chief concerns is balance.  They want the wood to be a part of the whiskey but not all of it and they’re upfront in saying that they want their whiskey to derive flavour from three sources: the malt, the yeast/ fermentation, and the cask. On that note, let’s see how that actually plays out.

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Westland American Oak

The nose is loaded with rich malt notes, stewed apples and pears, light citrus and pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar (the thick kind you’d find in the crust of a homemade apple pie). There’s a sweetness to it as well that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s balanced, integrated and cosy.

Sweet, round and creamy on entry with some nice oily notes followed immediately by a massive malt attack. Those heavier roasted/ dark malts really burst through here with flavours of chocolate-coated coffee beans, powdered drinking chocolate and roasted nuts. Anyone who’s a fan of a good dark beer (or even the Glenmorangie Signet) will find much to love here.

Westland Sherry Oak

The sherry influence is immediately apparent on the nose here, especially off the back of the American Oak expression. There’s an elevated sweet note, malt again, tart mixed dried fruits (dehydrated apples and apricots included!)

Sweet, round and creamy again on entry, showing a whole lot more restraint when it comes to the malt notes. There are still hints of those roasted, toasty notes (especially on the finish), but it seems softer, more balanced and integrated on the palate than the American Oak expression. Liquified pastry with a hint of boozy cherry-chocolate brownie (go on, imagine it!)

Westland Peated Whiskey

Malty and oily on the nose with an underlying soft smoke, char-grilled pears and citrus. It’s quite a dry nose. It’s creamy, sweet and oily again on entry, but there’s a tangy, sooty, earthy peat note that soon becomes apparent. I’m not sure I’d call it smoky and I definitely wouldn’t call it coastal (like I would a Caol Ila), but it’s more mature and earthy. Again, a really nicely balanced and integrated palate that shows off those roasted chocolate notes on the finish.

In the words of Westland “We do not want to simply replicate Scottish whiskey in the United States, we want to make as authentic a single malt whiskey as we can. The sum total of Westland is a mixture of tradition, local terroir in the ingredients and the innovative culture of the Pacific Northwest and America at large. All of these factors come together to make our single malt whiskey as authentic and compelling as possible”.

I think that sums it up pretty nicely. Westland might be fairly young in the scheme of things, but boy are they already hitting home runs and they still have plenty of rock-solid ideas up their sleeve. Whilst it can be difficult for the established players to experiment to this degree, it’s something that smaller ‘craft’ distillers can certainly do and Westland are producing some mighty impressive results.

Glenmorangie Milsean

A review of Glenmorangie’s latest Private Edition

It’s that time of year again when Dr Bill Lumsden raises the curtain on Glenmorangie’s latest Private Edition expression. In it’s seventh year now, the Private Edition collection is Dr Bill’s chance to play with parts of the whisky production process and showcase the versatility of Glenmorangie’s spirit.

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Last year he brought us the Tusail, Dr Bill’s vision of an old-school Glenmorangie made with Maris Otter barley that rose to popularity in the brewing industry in late 60s/early 70s. Prior to that we’ve seen Glenmorangie made with lightly peated barley (Finealta), Glenmorangie matured in a host of different ex-wine casks (Artein, Companta) and even a 19 year old expression (Ealanta). And in terms of coming up with yet another crazy concoction, this year’s release is no different!

Milsean explained

The Milsean (‘meel-shawn’ – Gaelic for ‘sweet things’) starts life as regular Glenmorangie spirit matured in ex-bourbon casks for 10 years, before being further matured in ex-wine casks for an extra two and a half years. So whilst it doesn’t carry an age statement on the label, you can do the math on this one!

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The ex-wine casks in question are former red wine casks from Portugal that have been re-toasted specifically for this whisky. If you’re not familiar with the process of toasting, it involves heating the wood (in this case, with a direct flame) to scorch or lightly char the inside of the barrel. This process re-invigorates the cask and caramelizes both the natural sugars in the wood and those in the wine residue left behind. The result? Some super sweet toasty goodness, ready to impart bucket-loads of flavor into the Glenmorangie stored within.

Milsean: Tasted

The name Milsean translates to ‘sweet-things’ and the candy-striped packaging conjures up images of an old-school sweets shop, so I’m expecting this to be, well, pretty darn sweet. So is it?

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Very first impression on the nose? This thing is sweet. Confectionary sweet. Dig a little deeper though and its oh so rewarding. It instantly reminded me of a freshly opened bag of marshmallows, toffee nut brittle, gummy bears, sweet macerated berries and a hint of hot chocolate powder. There’s loads of creamy vanilla that reminds me of custard powder – the kind mum used to use when we were kids.

On the palate it’s got that classic Glenmorangie backbone you find in the ten year old, but it’s layered with an oily sweetness you definitely do not find in the ten year old. Oily chewy wine gum notes, honey, candied orange peel (including that bitter pith) and super ripe sugary plums. It’s followed by a fair whack of drying spicy oak on the finish, but I feel as though it’s accentuated by the preceding sweetness, which seems to linger into the finish as well.

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Australia has received an allocation of 200 cases of Glenmorangie Milsean and it’s available right now in both specialty retailers and through Moet-Hennesy Collection at a retail price of $150. If you – like I – have a bit of a sweet-tooth when it comes to whisky, I have a feeling this will be right up your alley.

Thanks goes to both Moet-Hennessy Australia and the great people at EVH PR for providing the bottle reviewed here.