Ardbeg Grooves Committee Release

Thanks to a pesky little thing known as the TTB database (the United States’ online database for liquor label approvals), the annual Ardbeg Day releases have become the industry’s worst kept secret, with mock-up labels leaking online months in advance of any official announcement.

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I too am guilty of scouring the database in moments of boredom, and when I spotted the mock-up for the 2018 Ardbeg Day release – Grooves – on there last year, I thought Ardbeg had well and truly lost the plot. What kind of name is ‘Grooves’ I thought? And how the hell are they going to craft a marketing story around the flower power movement? As more info has started to come out, it’s starting to make a bit more sense.

What’s in a name?

Breaking with the Gaelic and geographic naming used in their core range, the ‘Grooves’ reference has absolutely nothing to do with the psychedelic era, but has everything to do with the casks used in the maturation process. The official marketing word goes a little something like this:

“This year’s Limited Edition festival bottling is a deeply mellow dram.. It has been matured in ex-wine casks that have been intensely charred to form heavy grooves in the surface of the wood, releasing flavours of smoked spices, distant bonfires and chilli-seasoned meats”

I’d normally have to just sit back and be satisfied with that level of detail, but thanks to a little trip across the ditch to New Zealand the other week (for DramFest – more on that one soon!), I can bring you a little more.

Groovy groove grooves

Before lunch one morning, an impromptu little Ardbeg tasting took place in Christchurch and the guest of honour was none other than the creator of this very whisky, Dr Bill Lumsden himself. In one of three plain-packaged bottles, a mystery whisky awaited us. As we eventually made our way on to the third sample, it was revealed that we were actually the first consumer group in the world to be tasting the standard (46%) release of the new Ardbeg Grooves! Groooovy baby! (Sorry, you should’ve known that was coming at some point..)

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In taking us through the dram, Dr Bill elaborates ever so slightly on the marketing spiel above, but at one point he lets slip that Ardbeg sourced the uniquely grooved casks for this release from their friends at Brown Forman. That got the ‘ole cogs turning in my head. Didn’t someone else use a ‘grooved cask’?.. Indeed they did, and it was Jack Daniel’s with their Sinatra Select that came out a few years back.

In that story, Jack Daniel’s used “unique Sinatra Barrels that have deep grooves specially carved into their staves to expose the whiskey to extra layers of toasted oak”. If you’re struggling to picture what a ‘grooved cask’ looks like, here’s an image (I knicked off the web) of the casks Brown Forman created for the Jack Daniels Sinatra Select.

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You probably know where this is going, but Jack Daniel’s just so happens to be owned by Brown Forman! A bit of a coincidence, eh? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but despite the marketing descriptions being a bit different, I reckon there’s a fair chance the casks used in the new Ardbeg Grooves share a strong lineage with those used in Sinatra Select. Time to give this thing a proper whirl.

Tasting the new Ardbeg Grooves

I don’t normally comment on colour, but the new Grooves has an incredibly alluring copper hue. Sitting in the glass it’s warm and almost iridescent .

Straight away on the nose it has the hallmark Ardbeg dry smoke. Behind that though, I get charred citrus, a hint of liquorice, smoked muscles (the ones from Loch Fyne!) and a sweet element; perhaps a smoky orange marmalade and some apricot jam. Coming back to it over the course of half an hour, I find a certain mineral quality to it as well. Crushed gravel, graphite and stagnant rockpools. There’s a lot going on here.

On the palate it’s immediately oily, but suddenly hits with an effervescent, fizzy note. White pepper and tangy brine. A few moments in and I get what I can best describe as a briny black forest cake that’s been charred to a crisp (dark fruits, a saline mineral tang and heavy char, with a healthy dose of powdery dark chocolate and cherry jam). The finish is incredibly long and full of residual sweetness, sooty, tangy ash and leather. It never turns overly oaky or drying.

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The new Ardbeg Grooves will be released to Ardbeg Committee members this month (I believe), but at this stage I don’t have any further details on pricing. Post will be updated in due course. A big thanks to Moet Hennessey Australia for the advance-sample tasted here!

Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

A tasting and review

It was the year Queen Elizabeth II visited my home country of Australia, the first time a reigning monarch had ever done so. It was also the year an unknown hipster by the name of Elvis recorded his first demo and the year Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. That year was 1954 and it also happens to have been the year this particular whisky was distilled by Glen Grant.

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A lot has changed in the years since this was distilled, including the way whisky is made at Glen Grant. Back in 1954 Glen Grant operated with four coal-fired stills, which you could argue would’ve produced something of a rich, heavy spirit. In 1973 two further stills were added, but this time they were gas heated. Impressed with their performance, the distillery added a further four gas-heated stills in 1977 bringing the total to ten. At some point in the future coal firing ceased altogether.

Aside from this being incredibly old whisky, the bare bones of it – the spirit – are fundamentally quite different to what is being produced at Glen Grant these days, which makes it even more a piece of liquid history in my mind. Thanks to a generous sample from the kind folk at Gordon & MacPhail, I recently had the chance to sit down, relax and a spend some quality time with liquid time capsule.

Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

The first thing that struck me about the nose is how active it still is. It’s slow moving, but there’s a lot in there. Old oak, cedar boxes, melon (cantaloupe) with honey drizzled on it, leather, earthy dried tea with a hint of soft smoke, tobacco, some soft stone fruit notes (fleshy blood plums, peaches, apricots) and raisins. Really quite fruity for something of this age and very well integrated, as you might expect.

On the palate it’s slightly oily but light in weight. I found it had a rum-like sweetness to it with lots of integrated soft oak spice at the front. After a few seconds lots of juicy tropical fruit salad/ oak notes emerge (like green mango, papaya, paw paw). There’s some light acidic sourness to it (grapefruit and orange marmalade) and some menthol or eucalypt notes. Toward the finish sweet rum-soaked dried fruits emerge before the finish turns drying with fragrant wood, light spice and lots of oak tannins.

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The idea of whisky that’s been deep in slumber for more than half a century is always alluring, intriguing and attractive. However from the limited selection of old whisky I’ve tasted, the reality of it is not aways so grand and I’m sure there are plenty of hyper-aged whiskies out there that are simply an over-oaked mess. This is not one of them though.

It has a gorgeous nose, almost ‘Japanese’ in the way it manages to integrate fruit, smoke and a leathery-tobacco in a sophisticated way. It took me right back to the times I sat at The Mash Tun in Tokyo, drinking some incredible Japanese whiskies at the bar.

There are just 610 bottles in existence and this expression is available now globally. What’s more, it has recently been awarded a double gold medal – the highest award – at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as gold at the 2017 International Spirits Challenge. So I guess Im not the only one who thinks this whisky is pretty great? A very special thanks to Gordon & MacPhail for the sample tasted here.

A Benromach whisky quartet

Tasting four whiskies from Benromach

Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Benromach has had an eventful history of ups and downs over the years. It was originally founded back in 1898, but over the course of the next one hundred years or so it was sold, closed and re-opened numerous times, before falling under the ownership of Diageo (known as DCL back then). It was then closed for last time in 1983.

If that year sounds familiar to seasoned whisky fans, that’s because it’s the very same year DCL closed numerous other distilleries inducing the likes of Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene.. and we all know what happened to them; they were lost forever. So the simple fact that Benromach managed to survive the 1983 closing-spree is something quite special in itself.

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Fast forward to 1998 and the distillery was eventually purchased by one of Scotland’s oldest independent bottlers, Gordon and MacPhail. It is they who lovingly brought things back to life at Benromach and are essentially responsible for producing the whiskies I sampled below.

Benromach Organic 43%

Organic eggs, organic yoghurt and now organic whisky! Not just a health-food fad, the Benromach Organic truly is an organic whisky. When it was originally certified, it was the first whisky to meet the rigorous standards set by by the UK Soil Association which cover the full whisky production process, from barley growing through distillation, maturation and bottling.

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The nose smells quite bright, fresh and young with green notes of cut grass, underripe banana, orchard fruits and fresh oak. There’s also some light vanilla, honey and dry malty cereal in the background.

A nice medium creamy weight to the palate with flavours reminiscent of honeyed oats, porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and some toffee. Much sweeter on the palate than the nose would suggest, fading to a medium length finish loaded with a good whack of young toasty oak spice and coffee grounds (many of these notes coming from the virgin oak maturation, I suspect).

Benromach 15 year old 43%

Not long after Benromach released the highly anticipated 10 year old 100 degrees proof (tasted here), a slightly more mature and demure sibling was announced, the Benromach 15 year old. As I raise the glass to my nose for the first time – fresh from tasting the spritely Benromach Organic – I find myself in a whole different world.

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The nose is rich and deep; slow-moving if you will. There’s a heady old-world combination of sherry, malt, wood and funk. Stewed apples, dusty bookcases, leather chesterfields, butterscotch and orange skin. There’s also a peated vegetal note in the background with the faintest trace of dry earthy smoke. Really quite complex and plenty here to keep you entertained for a long while.

Another nice medium creamy weight to the palate, this time softer in its delivery with lots of sweet stewed fruits, runny honey, poached figs and vegetal earthy peat. There’s a decent amount of oak on the finish, which runs for quite some time. It tastes stately and has a definite old-world charm that you really don’t come across too often; especially not in any other modern 15 year old whisky I’ve encountered.

Benromach Sassicaia 2007 45%

The next expression starts life as ex-bourbon cask matured Benromach before being finished for a little over two years in former Sassicaia wine casks. Sassy-what now!? Sass-ih-kay-ah. A single-estate Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Bolgheri, in Tuscany, Italy. It’s an estate that is so critically acclaimed it was even granted its very own DOC (controlled designation, similar to the appellation system used in France).

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On the nose it’s almost somewhere in between the Organic and the 15 year old, but with a big berry-whack to it. It’s got that youthful fresh, bright note with an undertone of tart red currants, berries, oak, jam and some earthy smoke.

Slightly thinner on the palate than the 15 year old with bright punchy fruits, menthol, earthy spice, crystallised ginger, citrus pith and cracked pepper. There’s a definite berry sweetness in there from the wine casks with a lot of earthy oak, spice and smoke char on the finish.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006 46%

When I see the word ‘peat’ I know I immediately think of those big smoky, briny whiskies from Islay, but although this is peated, I’m expecting it to be a little different as we’re dealing with Highland peat here, decayed vegetation that has a very different composition – and flavour – to that found on the rugged west-coast of Scotland. Peated to a hefty 67 parts per million (PPM), these small-batch peated releases are full-term matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels.

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On the nose it’s immediately crisp, dry and ashy with some lemon zest, cracked pepper, green apple skins, light floral honey, and some light oak. A fresh, crisp light campfire smoke lingers in the background somewhere.

Nice and oily on the palate with the crisp, dry theme from the nose continuing. Stewed apples, a touch of honey, star anise, tobacco leaf, macerated strawberries, lemon, earthy tea and dry smoke on the finish.

The Benromach range

Whisky drinkers can be a funny bunch sometimes. It seems like everyone talks about the whisky they can no longer find, the whisky that’s too expensive these days or the whisky that’s lost its age statement or become homogenised. In my mind, here we almost have the complete opposite of the whisky described above. We have a whisky that’s widely available and affordable, a core range that proudly carries age statements (or vintages) and a whisky with loads of individual spirit character, especially in the 10 and 15 year old expressions. Yet even with all of that up its sleeve, Benromach still seems to fly under the radar for so many. Wake up people!

In a few months time I’m hoping to visit Benromach for myself, so watch this space. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you some interesting tidbits on my return.

A special thanks to Ian and the team at Alba Whisky (the Australian importer of Benromach) for providing the samples tasted here.

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.

Lagavulin 8 year old

One of Islay’s favourites celebrates its 200th anniversary

Lagavulin hits the big two-zero-zero this year and to celebrate the milestone they’ve released a trio of limited expressions. At one end of the spectrum there’s a 25 year old Lagavulin matured solely in ex-sherry casks. Then there’s the 18 year Feis Ile bottle that was only available at the distillery during the Feis Ile festival.

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They’re two expressions that sound absolutely incredible, but probably not what you’d describe as overly ‘accessible’ to the average Lagavulin fan. For that reason, I think Diageo has been rather clever in releasing a third expression, one that the vast majority of us fans will be able to access, afford and enjoy. Say hello to the 200th anniversary Lagavulin 8 year old.

Lagavulin to me

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Lagavulin. If I were to rewind the whisky clock a number of years, I can honestly say that the very first bottle of peated Islay whisky I ever purchased was the Lagavulin 16 year old. I vividly remember the first time I tried it. I was out to dinner for my birthday and being new to the world of whisky I thought I’d try something I’d never heard of. Out came a glass of this smoulderingly smoky, sweet yet salty whisky. At that point, my interest was well and truly piqued. It was the kind of whisky that made me riase an eyebrow each time I brought the glass close to my face and it was barely a couple of days before one of the three bottles on my shelf was a brand spanking new Lagavulin 16 year old.

Lagavulin 200 news

I’m not the only one who’s been charmed by it either. You still regularly see people post on facebook or message forums who’ve newly discovered the world of peat when trying their first Lagavulin. It’s quite incredible to think that the distillery has garnered such a fan base with essentially one core bottle; the mainstay 16 year old.

Lagavulin 8 launches in Sydney

So all of that being the case, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to trying the new 8 year old ever since it was launched overseas back in March and I recently had the chance when I was invited along to the Sydney launch event at The Wild Rover.

Sean Baxter

Diageo National Ambassador, Sean Baxter, was on hand to walk us through the 8, 12 and 16 year old expressions, but before we did so, we were treated to a sensory experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before – a 3D virtual tour of the Lagavulin distillery!

I’ve always found the whole 3D goggle thing to be a bit of a kitsch novelty, but using it for a virtual distillery tour? Now that’s pure genius! We donned our branded goggles, put on our headphones and were transported to the isle of Islay.

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Starting on the pier, we took in our surroundings before moving through to a field of barley, then to a malting room where the raging kiln was charged with peat. The still house was up next, followed by the warehouse and finally to the Lagavulin tasting room. I wish I could have somehow captured the tour itself in photos, but you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say it was pretty damn cool.

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Our visual and auditory senses weren’t the only ones being tantalised. As the tour progressed, a team of helpers (or as I like to call them, scent ninjas) introduced various scents to complement the scenes. Think being misted with sea spray when we were on the pier, the smell of oak and earth whilst we were in the dunnage warehouse and even the the burning of peat whilst we were checking out the kiln (damn it smells good).

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Oysters were shucked, canapés were served and some blazing libations were crafted to round out the evening, but not before the hero was sampled.

Lagavulin Cocktail

Tasting notes

The new Lagavulin 8 year old is solely matured in refill American Oak casks and bottled at 48% ABV. Before I get stuck into the notes, I’ve got to hand it to Diageo for releasing this at a very respectable ABV and with a young age statement boldly (and proudly) printed on the label. Well done chaps!

Nose

Where the 16 year old could possibly be described as round, even supple, I’d say this is bright, punchy and active. A clean pronounced sweet peat note, oily charred citrus zest, face-puckering lemons, fresh tart pineapple and a salty saline tang. It smells youngish, a tad mescal-ish, feisty and fun.

Palate

Again, compared to the 16 year old, the palate is noticeably oily and creamy in texture, thanks in large part to the higher alcohol strength and lack of chill-filtering (a very welcome addition in my books). It’s bright and hits the palate high with a sweet rock-salt tang, crisp smoke, smouldering coals and ash before some fruit kicks in (green pears and underripe peach). On the finish I felt it turned sweeter again, whilst being both drying and ashy, with very little in the way of oak or bitterness.

Lagavulin

The 200th anniversary Lagavulin 8 year old is available in Australia right now at a recommended retail price of $95. A big thanks to Sean and the team from Diageo for inviting The Whisky Ledger along as a guest.