Laphroaig Triple Wood

Laphroaig Triple Wood 01Distillery: Laphroaig
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 48%

Laphroaig Triple Wood’s name is a bit of a giveaway. As you might expect, this whisky has aged in three different types of cask, making it essentially an Oloroso sherry finished Quarter Cask. What the name does not tell you though, is that this is a fantastic drop of whisky, a Laphroaig with a twist. Compared to some of the distillery’s more youthful offerings, Triple Wood is a mellower, more sophisticated dram. The nose is expressive, the body velvety and rich, while the finish still provides plenty of peat smoke.

Although Triple Wood was formerly a travel retail exclusive, its popularity has earned it a place among Laphroaig’s core range. It is a distinction well earned, as this is one of the distillery’s very finest whiskies.

Colour: Burnished copper

Nose: There’s a deep, winey smell to the Triple Wood, and it’s not instantly recognisable as a Laphroaig. The usual medicinal character is much more subdued, but this is substituted for an almost enigmatic complexity. Scents of sandalwood and rich red fruit give way to earthy notes of autumn leaves and fragrant heather. The coastal aromas are never far off, carrying a whiff of peat smoke and just a hint of seaweed. Absolutely fascinating.

Palate: Oily, velvety and extremely full-bodied, this Laphroaig oozes sophistication. Any restraint that was present in the nose is thrown into the wind, as flavours of charred wood and barbecued meat kick in. Oaky notes mingle with tantalising flavours of dried fruit and allspice, like fragrant wood on fire, or a bottle of perfume set alight. Although this is a sumptuous whisky, you could never call it delicate, so it remains right up Laphroaig’s alley.

Finish: Not overly fiery, but quite long nonetheless. The Triple Wood leaves behind a very pleasant aftertaste of grilled seafood and mellow peat smoke.

Verdict: Whoah did I enjoy that! Laphroaig Triple Wood is an extremely distinguished dram, combining the bold, outspoken distillery character with a complexity that three different types of cask have imparted on the whisky. True, other Laphroaigs have undergone similar maturation, but as the Four Oak makes clear, adding extra casks is no guarantee for success. The Triple Wood is in another league altogether though, making its sherry sibling PX Cask (a dram I really like) seem thin and sharp by comparison. Combine this with Triple Wood’s attractive price point and you’ve got a real winner. Good thing then that the Triple Wood now forms part of Laphroaig’s core range, because a whisky this superb is worth coming back to!

Laphroaig Triple Wood 02

 

Arran Madeira Cask Finish

Arran Madeira Cask Finish 01Distillery: Isle of Arran
Region: Islands
Age: No age statement
abv: 50%

Despite its young age, the Isle of Arran distillery uses very traditional production techniques. Even so, they have not shied away from experimenting with different types of casks. And this is all to the good: drams such as the Port Cask Finish and the Amarone Cask Finish are delightful whiskies, and the Madeira Cask Finish forms no exception. As the name indicates, this Arran has received an additional maturation in casks that previously held Madeira wine. And while this whisky bears the influences of not one, but two different islands, it ironically does not have an obvious Island character. Like most Arrans, the Madeira Cask is an unpeated, fresh and floral whisky, but now overlaid with extra fruity, nutty flavours from the Madeira cask. The result is a delicious dram, which thanks to its bottling strength of 50% does not lack for vigour.

Colour: Pale gold

Nose: Takes a while to open up, but then aromas of raisins and marmalade shine through. The profile is very floral, brimming with a zesty energy. Notes of pear and powdered sugar drift out of the glass like a fresh summer breeze. Underneath lurk some slightly briny notes, but they’re quite subdued. With water, the nose becomes a bit more earthy, developing scents of lavender, honey and autumn leaves.

Palate: Sumptuously sweet with a dash of spice to it, like blood oranges sprinkled with nutmeg. Notes of shortbread and chocolate praline give way to barley and baking flour. Add a drop of water and the flavour becomes even more intensely fruity, without ever losing its oomph. If anything, Arran Madeira Cask becomes more sophisticated and more mature when watered down ever so slightly. This is excellent stuff!

Finish: Deliciously smooth and warming, with a spicy sweetness and the aftertaste of dried fruit with a tinge of salt.

Verdict: What a pleasant dram this is! Arran Madeira Cask is fresh, aromatic and incredibly likeable. I’ve had many floral, fruity whiskies that sacrifice flavour for smoothness and delicacy. Yet this Arran offers both: it’s sweet without ever being boring. Quite the contrary, with its bottling strength of 50%, Arran Madeira Cask provides plenty of kick and manages to balance smoothness with a rich bouquet of interesting flavours. This dram is perfect for a sunny spring day when you’re in a good mood and everything seems to be going your way. Or to cheer you up when it’s not… Actually, you can just drink this Arran any time, it’s a mighty fine whisky!

Arran Madeira Cask Finish 01

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Ardbeg Uigeadail ReviewDistillery: Ardbeg
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 54.2%

Named after the loch that forms the distillery’s water source, Ardbeg Uigeadail is a vatting that marries younger, traditional Ardbeg spirit with older whiskies from casks that previously held sherry. Launched in 2003 at a time when no age statement bottlings were still a relative rarity, Uigeadail has certainly set a shining example for all NAS whiskies that have followed since. Although so far nothing comes close to the otherworldly Ardbeg Galileo, Uigeadail is definitely my favourite of the core range. And the 120.000+ members of the Ardbeg Committee agree: they have chosen Uigeadail as their most beloved Ardbeg. For me, Uigeadail has long been the go-to dram for finishing off a flight of smoky whiskies (be they Ardbegs or not). Having said that, it’s of course also great on its own, and I consider it to be the ultimate nightcap. However you drink it, Ardbeg Uigeadail is a phenomenal whisky and it’s well worth keeping a bottle in your collection.

Colour: Sparkly copper

Nose: Sweet and smoky, like grilled pork glazed with honey. Complex, aromatic and brimming with energy, there are the usual briny seaweed notes, as if a salty sea breeze were blowing over an Islay peat bog. The aroma of dark fruits mixes with Lapsang souchong and freshly ground coffee. Through it all wafts a fairly subdued smoke, like a peat fire that’s long since died down. There’s a lot going on and this promises to be an intricate yet fiery dram.

Palate: Oily and incredibly rich, with a luscious sweetness throughout. Ardbeg’s maritime character mingles with more sophisticated notes of sherry infused oak and floral cigar smoke. The balance is exquisite, like a fruit basket sprinkled with peat and honey. Then an earthier profile takes over with notes of heather and peat bogs, with just a hint of smoked fish towards the end.

Finish: Long and intense, with pure, clean peat smoke cascading over rocks of dark chocolate. There is a pleasantly salty, peaty aftertaste that lingers on for what seems like eons. Breathtaking stuff!

Verdict: Uigeadail offers a less medicinal, sweeter version of Ardbeg. Bottled at cask strength, Uigeadail still manages to deliver a mighty punch, but combines this with delicious complexity. The combination between Ardbeg and sherry is a sumptuous one, with the peaty Islay flavours being perfectly complimented by the European oak, all the while being impeccably balanced. I’ve long had an internal debate (with many a glass poured) over whether Corryvreckan or Uigeadail is the better dram, but I think Uigeadail may just edge it. It’s an incredibly rewarding whisky that can be counted among the true Islay greats!

Ardbeg Uigeadail Review

The Campbeltown Boom and Bust

If you’ve ever visited Dufftown in Speyside, chances are a local will have proudly told you that “Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown stands on seven stills”. And while a cluster of seven distilleries in a village of 1600 people is indeed impressive, there was once a time when Dufftown’s claim to be the whisky capital of the world would have been brushed aside without a second thought.

Nowadays, few whisky fans make the long drive down the Kintyre peninsula. In fact, many are even unaware that Campbeltown is a whisky region in its own right. And this is perhaps not surprising, given that there are now only three distilleries operational. How different this once was. In its heyday, Campbeltown was the undisputed Whisky Metropolis (to use Alfred Barnard’s words), boasting no less than 26 distilleries. Coming in by sea through the Campbeltown Loch, the sight of all those chimneys belching out smoke must have been quite something to behold. The town, never housing more than a few thousand inhabitants, was a bustle of whisky making activity, buildings blackened with soot and the smell of peat reek permeating everything. So successful were Campbeltown’s whisky barons in attracting the business of large Lowland blenders such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s, that by the 1890s, Campbeltown boasted the highest per capita income anywhere in Britain. And not only the local economy was thriving. Converted into today’s money, every inhabitant was contributing the equivalent of £30.000 a year to the Treasury in excise duty. Clearly, Campbeltown distillers were getting things very right. The sky was the limit and one could not imagine a Scotch whisky industry without Campbeltown at its forefront. But fast-forward 30 years and Campbeltown paints a much bleaker, more desolate picture, one of financial struggle, distillery closures and rampant unemployment. At its very lowest point, only Springbank distillery remained open, and even they ceased production for a few seasons. How did Campbeltown’s fortunes reverse so dramatically? What were the factors that brought down this mighty force in whisky making? And what might the future hold for this proud town that once lived and breathed whisky? This is a story of impossible highs, heart-wrenching lows and glimmers of hope on the horizon. This is the story of the Campbeltown boom and bust.

Campbeltown

The many chimneys of Campbeltown

Like any good tale about whisky should, Campbeltown’s story starts off with Irish monks, illicit distillers and nosy excisemen. It has been fairly well established that Ireland is where the distilling of whisky first took place. Considering that the Kintyre peninsula is just 12 miles away from the Irish coast of Antrim, and that Saint Columba is known to have spent three years in Campbeltown before moving to Iona, it is not wholly unlikely that Campbeltown is in fact the true cradle of Scottish whisky making. Alas, we will never know, but it can be said with certainty that distilling took place on the Kintyre peninsula as early as the 16th century. There are few records from this time, but if we fast-forward two centuries, it is clear that distilling had become part and parcel of life. Water, barley and peat were all available in abundance, but what really made Campbeltown an ideal location was its natural harbour and proximity to Glasgow. During the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow was referred to as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ and numerous ships made a stop at Campbeltown, eager to pick up some whisky along the way.

Not that any legal businesses had sprung up; the tax regime was far too onerous for this. As a result, between 1797-1999, no less than 292 illicit stills were confiscated by excisemen. Although Campbeltown Distillery was the first to take out a legal license in 1817, others did not follow suit until after the Excise Act significantly lowered taxes in 1823. Over the next 5 years, 15 new legal distilleries sprang up. While this should have been enough, distillers, blenders and investors all chased ever-increasing profits, and a further 13 distilleries were built between 1830 and 1835. At this point, competition was fierce, resources were stretched and it was clear that the first casualties would soon fall. Indeed, no new distilleries were built for almost a decade, and several smaller, less financially viable distilleries were forced to close up shop. Even so, the whisky industry as a whole remained in relatively good shape, with economic stagnation and increasing church opposition to alcohol the only clouds on the horizon. In response, many distillery owners put their wealth to building churches, which much mellowed the church’s attitude to this ‘devil’s drink’. In fact, on his tour of Campbeltown, Alfred Barnard remarked that “there are nearly as many places of worship as distilleries in town”. It was a fine example of what we would now call corporate social responsibility.

Temperance Poster

Alcohol was not always so popular with the church and the government…

Another few distilleries closed just as Glen Nevis and Ardlussa opened its doors. At the turn of the 20th century, the number of distilleries had levelled off to around 20. This was a time of unprecedented growth in the whisky industry, in no small part due to the Phylloxera epidemic that had ravaged the vineyards in France. Campbeltown distillers ramped up production significantly in the face of ever-increasing demand from the blending houses. So large was Campbeltown’s production that the Kintyre farmland was stripped bare, and barley was shipped in from as far away as Denmark and Russia. Everything indicated that Campbeltown had a golden future ahead of it and money continued to pour in achieve ever higher output. Annual production was around the 10 million litre mark, a staggering amount for that time. Speculation was rife, as investors bought up huge quantities of whisky for future resale, thereby further fuelling overproduction. Distillers naively assumed that demand would always be there, leading to a sense of complacency. During this Golden Age of Whisky, not a lot of investments were made in hardware or upkeep, which would negatively affect the quality of the whisky later on. Although no one realised it, the Scotch whisky industry was a bubble ready to burst, with Campbeltown at its very forefront. When the bubble did burst, it did so in spectacular fashion, bringing giants crashing down and almost decimating the whisky industry altogether. The landscape of Scotch whisky production would never be the same, as Campbeltown distillers would soon find out.

The trouble started when Pattison’s of Leith – a major blending company – defaulted on its loans, dragging 10 other firms down with it into bankruptcy. Suddenly, investors became shaky, confidence was gone and loans could no longer be repaid. Years of overproduction left distillers with huge quantities of stock, for which demand simply did not exist (and in truth hadn’t existed even before the bubble burst). The price of whisky fell dramatically, tumbling to half its previous value within a matter of years. Due to its huge stocks, Campbeltown whisky was even harder hit. Where spirit sold from Hazelburn to blending houses was valued at 8 shilling per gallon, distilleries such as Craigellachie and Ardbeg were able to command up to 18 shillings.

In the decades that followed, external factors were also at play, brewing up a perfect storm of adverse conditions that almost toppled the whisky industry. The First World War depressed the internal market and saw curbs on the availability of grain. In Campbeltown, not a single distillery was active during the War, and many distillers simply gave up and relocated to London or Glasgow. Around the same time, the Temperance movement gained traction under the leadership of David Lloyd George. While there had always been a somewhat adversarial relationship between alcohol and the government, Lloyd George now claimed that alcohol was more damaging “than all the German submarines put together. We are at war with Austria, Germany and drink; and as far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink”. As a result, the tax on alcohol production was increased sixfold, further dampening consumption in the light of higher prices. In the United States, as similar sentiment had taken hold, and Prohibition officially came into force in 1920, removing an important export market for Scottish distillers. To top it all off, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded in the Great Depression, a time of poverty and hardship for many. In Glasgow, unemployment reached 30%, and people had far more pressing items on their shopping lists than whisky.

In the face of all this adversity, you can hardly blame the Campbeltown distillers for cutting some corners and trying to reduce costs. Rumours of whisky being aged in barrels that previously held herring were never proven, and it seems likely that the phrase “stinking fish” was simply a derogatory term introduced by Speyside distillers who were in direct competition with their Campbeltown counterparts. Either way, it is undeniably true that some poor quality spirit was being aged in very substandard casks, putting a big dent in Campbeltown’s previously sterling reputation for quality whisky. As a result, most blending houses began sourcing their whisky in the Speyside. This was a trend that had been ongoing for some time, to the detriment of Campbeltown distillers. In order to accommodate the more delicate tastes of the English upper classes, the softer, sweeter Speyside style was much in fashion with blenders. Campbeltown whiskies had traditionally been heavily peated, but now distillers started using coal fuelled fires to dry their barley, resulting in the lighter style of Campbeltown whisky that we know today. Alas, it was not enough to stem the tide. With Speyside now more accessible due to the Strathspey Railway, Campbeltown lost many of the transport advantages that had fuelled its initial growth.

The results for Campbeltown were outright disastrous, as distilleries closed in rapid succession. Most were able to stay afloat for a few years simply by selling their stock, but very little distillation took place during these years. The following overview of closures pretty much tells the whole story.

Campbeltown Distillery Closures Timeline

The closures of distilleries came thick and fast after 1920. Each red flag indicates a distillery closing its doors and never reopening.

By 1935, only Springbank and Scotia distillery remained, and neither of them had produced whisky during the previous 5 years. This took a serious toll on the local population. The distilleries used to employ numerous locals, with many more working in supporting jobs such as carting, coopering, bottling, or even growing barley. Unemployment was rampant and these were certainly hard times for the Campbeltonians, who had worked in the whisky trade for generations. Many left for Glasgow in search of new opportunities. Abandoned distilleries were knocked down and converted into housing projects, garages, or even just a parking lot. In 1930, it all became a bit too much for Duncan Maccallum, then owner of the Scotia distillery. After a business deal reportedly went very wrong, he committed suicide by drowning himself in Campbeltown Loch. His ghost is said to haunt the distillery, although this is of course not actively marketed by Glen Scotia.

Further periods of inactivity notwithstanding, Springbank and Glen Scotia continued to make quality malts. Yet around the turn of the millennium they were in for some bad news. The Scotch Whisky Association was deciding to scrap Campbeltown’s status as a whisky region, owing to the fact that there were only two distilleries operational. It seemed that despite its proud heritage and long tradition of whisky making, Campbeltown would be demoted to just another town that happened to boast a distillery or two. This was too bitter a pill to swallow for Hedley Wright, owner of the Springbank distillery and descendent of its original founder. He decided to buy up the dysfunctional Glengyle distillery and breathe new life into it. This put the number of distilleries in Campbeltown at three, on par with the Lowland region. The Scotch Whisky Association agreed that Campbeltown deserved the same recognition, and the town’s future as a distinct whisky region was secure once more.

Campbeltown Distilleries Timeline

Each green flag indicates a new distillery being opened, whereas a red flag depicts a distillery that closed its doors forever. The periods of boom and bust are clear: a flurry of new distilleries after 1823, and a huge amount of closures after 1920.

By 2004, the new Glengyle distillery became operational, and now produces whisky marketed under the name Kilkerran. With Springbank also producing three different styles of whisky (unpeated Hazelburn, medium peated Springbank and heavily peated Longrow), Campbeltown distilling is seeing a bit of a resurgence. Malt whisky enjoys an enormous popularity at the moment, and many whisky fans are rediscovering Campbeltown. And with distilleries springing up like mushrooms everywhere, who knows if Campbeltown can further expand its portfolio. Times will never be like they were, but perhaps that’s for the best. With branding more important than ever, the uniqueness of Campbeltown whiskies certainly helps to boost sales. Without a doubt though, Campbeltown has had a major impact on the development and popularity of Scotch whisky. Now a useful reminder of the dangers of boundless optimism, Campbeltown has weathered more than its fair share of bad fortune. It is a testament to the sheer perseverance of the current distillers (as well as the quality of their whiskies) that Campbeltown drams continue to be enjoyed the world over. And that’s a good thing, because a place with the heritage and pedigree of Campbeltown should not disappear from the whisky regions map. So here’s to both the turbulent past and the future of Scotland’s most historic whisky town: slàinte!

A Visit to Eimverk Distillery

With its frosty temperatures and dark winter months, Iceland seems as good a place as any to pour yourself a warming dram of whisky. And while you’re at it, why not opt for a locally distilled whisky, as the perfect companion for exploring Iceland’s stunning natural beauty. Until recently this would not have been possible, but fortunately Eimverk distillery has since entered the scene.

Apparently in Icelandic, there is no word for ‘distillery’, so a bit of linguistic creativity was required.  Eim is short for distilling in Icelandic, while verk means ‘a job being done’, and this is exactly what this small distillery has enthusiastically kept busy with since 2009. The result is not only the Flóki whisky range, but also a selection of award winning gins and the traditional Icelandic spirit called Brennivín.

Eimverk Distillery Logo

The Eimverk logo displays the Vegvísir runic compass, as well as the three ravens used by Hrafna-Flóki, the first person to deliberately navigate to Iceland. The runes around the compass read ‘the way from home is the way to home’. Not only is this an excellent adage for exploring and settling on new shores, it is also useful advice for drunkenly making your way back home after a few too many whiskies!

Based in the outskirts of Reykjavik on an industrial estate, the distillery is not exactly located in a very picturesque location. But although unassuming from the outside, on the inside the distillery is bustling with activity and brimming with enthusiasm. Eimverk was started by three brothers, initially operating out of their garage. The first few years were spent experimenting with a home-made still. Many tries and 165 different recipes later, the first Flóki-to-be was left in casks to mature.

Eimverk Distillery 01

From the outside, you’d not suspect the massive surprise that waits within…

To create Flóki, Eimverk uses organically grown Icelandic barley. As you can imagine, Iceland’s sub-arctic climate and short growing season do not provide ideal conditions for crops to flourish. As such, Icelandic barley is not very rich in sugars, meaning that Eimverk uses up to 50% more barley per batch than distilleries in other countries. Although uneconomical, this does have a positive effect on the flavour of the whisky and helps to create Flóki’s distinctive spicy, oily character. For producing the wash, Eimverk has found a convenient water source: tap water! Having been naturally filtered over layers of volcanic rock, Iceland’s tap water is of exceptional quality, something which was confirmed by a Scottish expert, who declared it perfect for making whisky. The water is heated using geothermal energy, making Eimverk a lot more environmentally friendly than most other distilleries. Plastic fermentation tanks are used instead of the traditional oak or stainless steel washbacks, after which the entire contents are transferred to the wash still, itself a repurposed milk tank. This includes even the dregs at the bottom the tank (husks, grist, etc.), which supposedly contributes to Flóki’s smoothness. The final distillation takes place in a still called Elizabeth, named after the great grandmother of the distiller – a tradition among whisky makers. Everything is rather makeshift, but this is what makes this distillery so fascinating, like a masterclass in start-up whisky entrepreneurship. In many ways, Eimverk distillery seems more like a hobby gotten out of hand, and I do believe this passion translates into the quality of the whisky.

Eimverk Distillery 02

One of the plastic fermentation tanks at Eimverk

To create the Flóki Young Malt, the spirit is placed in North American virgin oak barrels. Since the wood has never been used before, it has tonnes of flavour to add to the spirit, meaning that the maturation happens rather quickly. Once the Young Malt is bottled, the casks are then re-used as refill barrels to create the 3 year old Flóki Single Malt, which will be released in November 2017.

The result is a drink that is astoundingly smooth and flavourful for a spirit so young. I won’t spend too much time describing the whisky in this post, as you can read a full review here. Suffice it to say that all the signs indicate that Flóki whisky has a bright future ahead of it!

Eimverk Distillery 03

Elizabeth, the spirit still at Eimverk

The Flóki range also consists of the Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve, Eimverk’s answer to smoky whiskies. Since Iceland does not have any peat bogs to speak of, the barley for this whisky has been smoked over a fire fuelled by sheep shit. While this may sound a bit unappetising at first, it is actually a common way of curing food in Iceland. All over the island, you will find salmon or ham that’s been smoked this way, and although pungent, it doesn’t taste the least bit shitty. The Sheep Dung whisky is bottled at only 10 months, but the smoke masks some of the impurities. This spirit is sweeter and a bit lighter than the Young Malt, like a boisterous younger brother. Although the Sheep Dung Reserve does display a definite degree of smokiness, it’s completely different to the peated whiskies you’ll find in Scotland, and particularly unlike the medicinal type produced on Islay. While I love these peaty whiskies, it’s very refreshing to see smoky whisky done differently.

Although the whiskies were the main draw for me, the Vor gin selection is definitely worth a try. Made using largely the same process, but with a third distillation, during which botanicals are added to the gin to provide extra flavour. Although it comes with challenges, only herbs and plants that naturally grow in Iceland are used, meaning that Vor really is a reflection of the Icelandic climate. In addition to the standard expression that received double gold at the World Spirits Competition, there is also a bottling at higher strength, as well as a version that’s received a short maturation in oak casks. All of these make a delightful gin and tonic, but if you add splash of Vor Blueberry sloe gin it becomes an absolute treat.

Eimverk Distillery 04

Icelandic botanicals, ready to be mixed with the Vor gin

With these products being sold in the duty free store at Keflavik airport, at bars all over Iceland and even in web shops abroad, Eimverk is certainly off to a good start. The main question now is not one of quality but of quantity: how is poor old Elizabeth going to handle the immense popularity of Vor and Flóki? With an annual production of just 300.000 litres (whisky, gin and Brennivín combined), it seems clear that extra stills may need to be installed to really be able to present Icelandic distilling to a global audience. Whether this might make the distillery lose some of its current charm is another matter. For now, if you are visiting Reykjavik, be sure to drop by Eimverk distillery for a tour and a tasting, it’s absolutely worth the effort! Even if you have nowhere near as much passion for distilled spirits as the folks at Eimverk, their enthusiasm and the sheer quality of their drinks is sure to put a smile on your face.

Eimverk Distillery 05

The distillery tour comes with an extensive tasting of all Eimverk’s products

Flóki Icelandic Young Malt

Floki Young Malt 01Distillery: Eimverk
Country: Iceland
Age: 13-14 months
abv: 47%

When you think of Iceland, you may picture glaciers and waterfalls, or volcanoes that annoyingly bring whole continents to a standstill. Perhaps you may even think of Vikings, Björk or fermented shark meat. But rarely will you hear the words Iceland and whisky uttered in the same sentence. Not until recently at least, because now Eimverk distillery is producing Iceland’s very own malt whisky. True, it will not be ready until November 2017, but there’s already a taster available for those who cannot wait. Fittingly subtitled First Impression, Flóki Young Malt is exactly that: a first introduction to an Icelandic whisky that’s far from a final product.

Bottled after having been matured for just over a year, this Flóki may not even call itself whisky yet. Despite this, it’s a very captivating drink, thanks in large part to the unconventional way in which Flóki is produced. For more background on Eimverk and Flóki, you can read about my visit to the distillery here. What is good to mention though is that because of Iceland’s harsh climate, barley produced on the island is much less rich in sugar content. To make up for this, Eimverk uses up to 50% more barley in each batch, and this has a very positive impact on the flavour of the spirit. You can expect lots of sweet cereal and an almost oily spiciness in this Flóki.

It has been great to make acquaintance with this Icelandic experiment in whisky making, even just for a first impression. It’s left me eager for more, and I will definitely be keeping an eye out to see how the Flóki range develops in the future. For now though, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this Young Malt. Skál!

Colour: Sparkling gold. Despite the young age, no artificial colouring was used, meaning that the deep shade of gold is solely from the virgin oak. This in itself is an indication of how quickly the spirit has matured.

Nose: Aromas of hay and fresh wood shavings spout from the glass like a geyser, carrying zesty notes of orange peel and bubblegum in their wake. The nose is like heather growing on a volcanic slope: darkly brooding but floral. There are clear scents of toasted vanilla, betraying the influence of the virgin oak. This Flóki does display a degree of sharpness, but none of the pungency you’d expect from such immature spirit. On the whole, very clean and quite promising.

Palate: Light-bodied, with a very distinctive malt profile, quite unlike any whisky I’ve ever tasted before. The extra barley is working wonders here, complementing the raw spirit and fresh oak flavours beautifully. Belatedly, a spicy character opens up, with notes of ginger and aniseed slowly giving way to fruitier flavours of raisins and dried figs.

Finish: Not quite a volcanic eruption, but rather a soothing, warming plunge in a geothermal pool. The oaky vanilla notes dissipate into a dry but pleasant aftertaste of fragrant barley. The finish is exceptionally smooth, you would never guess that this Flóki isn’t yet old enough to be called whisky.

Verdict: The distillers at Eimverk said they did not want to simply recreate a Scottish whisky in Iceland, and indeed they have not. Flóki is whisky done the Icelandic way, and I must applaud Eimverk for their pioneering boldness. In staying true to local inputs and making the best of the unconventional equipment available at the distillery, Eimverk have created something quite special. Of course Flóki Young Malt isn’t a refined product, heck it’s not even whisky yet. But at just one year old, the spirit is enormously promising. Many whiskies-in-the-making at this age would be quite undrinkable – I’ve tried some spirit you really wouldn’t drink for the fun of it. Taking this into account, Flóki Young Malt is a phenomenal drink and I simply cannot wait to see what it will taste like at 3 or even 12 years old. I expect big things from this small Icelandic distillery.

Eimverk Distillery Logo

The Eimverk logo displays the Vegvísir runic compass, as well as the three ravens used by Hrafna-Flóki, the first person to deliberately navigate to Iceland. The runes around the compass read ‘the way from home is the way to home’. Not only is this an excellent adage for exploring and settling on new shores, it is also useful advice for drunkenly making your way back home after a few too many whiskies!

Highland Park Dark Origins

Highland Park Dark OriginsDistillery: Highland Park
Region: Islands
Age: No age statement
abv: 46.8%

Leaving the usual Viking theme aside for a moment, Dark Origins pays homage to Highland Park’s founder, Magnus Eunson. Magnus lived a bit of a double life, being a preacher during the day and a smuggler at night. He was rightly famed for his cunning, and there are many stories of him outwitting local excisemen, often in his guise as a servant of god. The Lord doesn’t seem to have minded very much, since fortune shone upon Magnus’s business, and Highland Park has become a very successful (legal) distillery indeed.

Dark Origins has been aged mostly in first-fill sherry casks, and these have not failed to leave their mark on this whisky. Dark Origins is much heavier on the sherry front than other Highland Park bottlings, with flavours of dried fruits and dark chocolate very prominent. As such, this dram has lost some of its maritime freshness, but instead displays a more sensuous complexity that fits the theme all the better. The same can be said of the packaging, which is stunning. The only drawback is that it keeps you guessing as to how much of that precious liquid is still in the bottle, but being enigmatic as he was, I’m sure Magnus Eunson would have agreed.

Colour: Dark amber

Nose: Deep, sweet and musty, much like an underground wine cellar. The sherry profile is positively bursting from the glass, exuding aromas of raisins and Christmas cake. The nose reminds me of Aberlour A’bunadh in that it’s a true sherry bomb. Fruity intertwines with nutty, as scents of blackberries and walnut tingle the senses. The maritime distillery character has been very much forced into the background by the influence of the cask, meaning this whisky is not instantly recognisable as a Highland Park. But I’m not complaining, this is compelling stuff!

Palate: Full-bodied, with an oily lushness to it. Dried fruit and nuts are in bountiful supply, eventually giving way to notes of allspice and cracked black pepper. Then dark chocolate and butterscotch take over, guiding this whisky towards the finish.

Finish: Pleasantly warming, with a lingering nutty aftertaste. Finally cracks appear in the facade of sherry sweetness, as Highland Park’s salty, smoky character breaks through and Dark Origins at last reveals its Island pedigree.

Verdict: This dram is right up my alley, as I am a fan of both sherry bombs and peated whisky. Highland Park Dark Origins provides a delicious mixture of these two styles. Admittedly the sherry cask has drowned out the peat character somewhat, but towards the finish the balance is restored. On top of this, the sherry flavours are so tasty that any lack of balance is easily forgotten. As much as I love this whisky, I’ve also seen some negative reviews. My advice is simple: if you like sherry finishes, this is an excellent dram. If you don’t, well, then better stay away. Dark Origins doesn’t come particularly cheap, but in my opinion it comfortably beats many other bottlings in this price range. It’s a truly terrific whisky that never fails to put a smile on my face 🙂

Highland Park Dark Origins

 

Bunnahabhain Toiteach

Bunnahabhain Toiteach 01Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 46%

Toiteach is Gaelic for “smoky”, and that’s really about as much introduction as this whisky needs. Bunnahabhain normally produces whisky that’s barely peated at all (around 2 ppm), but they’ve decided to create something different with Toiteach. Very different. Because Toiteach is smoky. Very smoky. Let’s see how it compares to some of Bunnahabhain’s Islay neighbours, as well as Toiteach’s less peated siblings.

Colour: Honey

Nose: Immensely peaty and rather acrid. Medicinal aromas of iodine and fresh seaweed blend effortlessly with huge quantities of smoke and brine. Underneath this thick, somewhat obtrusive layer of peat it’s hard to discover much else, but with a bit of imagination you can find orchard fruits, bog myrtle and a whiff of heather. The nose also faintly reminds me of a Pritt Stick, with some unpleasant glue-like qualities to it. Completely different to a normal Bunna, but then again that’s exactly the point of this whisky.

Palate: Not surprisingly, very peaty, but more pleasant than the nose would suggest. It’s like peat smoke wafting over an Islay bog, with smoky and earthy notes taking centre stage. There’s not much else going on though, as this whisky is quite one-dimensional. Notes of caramel and black pepper do make an appearance, but the smoky character dominates.

Finish: Medium long and slightly underwhelming. Again there’s plenty of peat smoke, but the aftertaste is ashy, dry and a rather bitter.

Verdict: It’s always exciting when distilleries experiment, as it can lead to some unexpectedly delicious results. The likes of Octomore, Mackmyra and Glenfiddich IPA come to mind. However, for each success story there are inevitably some less palatable experiments, and for me Toiteach unfortunately falls into the latter category. Although it’s interesting to try a peated Bunnahabhain, I feel that in the case of Toiteach the peat is a bit overdone, leaving little room for other flavours to develop. While I would have loved to experience the interaction of the peat smoke with Bunnahabhain’s fresh, fruity character, that’s simply not happening here. So although I’m an avid peathead, I am not convinced by Toiteach, and would much rather buy the excellent Bunnahabhain 12 year old.

Bunnahabhain Toiteach 02

Glen Scotia Victoriana

Glen Scotia Victoriana 01Distillery: Glen Scotia
Region: Campbeltown
Age: No age statement
abv: 51.5%

Although historically standing in the shadow of its more famous neighbour Springbank, Glen Scotia survived the carnage of the Campbeltown bust for a reason. The distillery produces a quality spirit, known for its fresh, salty, oily characteristics. Although traditionally softer than other Campbeltown whiskies (and therefore more attractive to blenders), Glen Scotia’s whisky is no less distinctive and has gathered a loyal following. Production was rather irregular until the distillery was bought by the Loch Lomond Group in 2014, who invested heavily in both hardware and marketing. The result was a new range of whiskies between 10 and 21 years old, instantly recognisable by the Highland cow on the front of the bottle. Since then, the range has changed yet again, with just three bottlings now making up the core range.

One of these is Glen Scotia Victoriana, meant to be a modern interpretation of what a classic Campbeltown malt from the Victorian era might have tasted like. To achieve this result, Victoriana has been aged in heavily charred oak and bottled at cask strength. The result is a deliciously rich whisky that packs quite some punch. Whether it’s is anything like the drams Glen Scotia used to make in years gone by is impossible to say, but if it were up to me, the distillery should continue producing whisky very much like Victoriana!

Colour: Dark amber

Nose: Extremely oaky, with lots of toasted vanilla. Aromas of caramel and praline give way to dark forest fruits, before being replaced by coffee grounds and cooking pears. There’s plenty of tannins too, with scents of resin and aniseed battling for prominence. Neither wins out to the aroma of charred American oak though, which is apparent throughout. On the whole, the nose is extremely rich and leaves few secrets about what’s coming next.

Palate: Heavy and oily, with some pungency due to the high alcohol content. Notes of chocolate and crème brûlée mingle with a toasted smokiness to produce a dram of dark, deep complexity. What follows is an explosion of spices, with pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon coming to the fore. Through it all, the woody undertones remain distinctly noticeable, as they balance perfectly with the other flavours on offer.

Finish: Long, slow, delicious; like drinking smouldering oak. A heap of brown sugar slowly caramelises into an aftertaste of liquorice and the lingering remnants of a wood fire. A really rewarding dram!

Verdict: Glen Scotia Victoriana produces flavour so thick you can almost chew it at times. Yet for all its intensity, this dram is not one-dimensional, and that’s quite an achievement. The heavily charred oak gives off strong flavours of vanilla and toasted wood, but these do not drown out the distinctive Glen Scotia distillery character. Quite the contrary, the two styles complement each other to produce a fine dram. There are some slight smoky notes to be found, but it’s definitely wood smoke, not at all similar to the peaty whiskies found just a short boat ride away from Campbeltown. Glen Scotia Victoriana provides a great sensory experience and is a hugely enjoyable dram that’s well worth a try.

Glen Scotia Victoriana 02

Bowmore 12 year old Enigma

Bowmore 12 year old Enigma 01Distillery: Bowmore
Region: Islay
Age: 12 years old
abv: 40%

Although Bowmore Enigma has been discontinued (and replaced by the likes of Black Rock, Gold Reef and White Sands), it can still be found in some specialty stores. Once a proud member of the Travel Exclusive range, Bowmore Enigma comes in a 1 litre bottle, and boasts a higher percentage of whisky that’s been aged in European oak compared to the regular 12 year old. These ex-sherry casks give this whisky a sweet, almost juicy character.

I have to admit that I’m still searching for a Bowmore expression that’s really satisfying. Maybe it’s simply not my style, but I find many of their whiskies to be a bit too shy. In fact, you don’t often hear someone proclaim that Bowmore is their favourite distillery. Peatheads will tend to go for something else, whereas in my view Bowmore simply does not compare favourably with other medium peated whiskies such as Talisker or Highland Park. But perhaps Enigma will stand out, so back to the matter at hand.

This particular Bowmore isn’t actually all that enigmatic, especially compared to many of the NAS bottlings that are currently on the market. We actually know Enigma’s age, as well as the casks it’s been matured in, which is more than can be said of  Bowmore’s current Travel Exclusive range. Then again, Enigma sure does have a mysterious ring to it, so let’s try to decipher what this whisky is all about.

Colour: Tawny

Nose: Salty and quite medicinal. Aromas of polished wood and crushed almonds give way to milk chocolate. There is an unmistakable sweet sherry dimension, but it’s fairly subdued. The nose is rather friendly, with fruity notes of orange peel and lavender.

Palate: Light bodied, with a clear coastal influence. Brine and subtle seaweed open up to an oaky character, with notes of fresh wood shavings and vanilla.  There’s a faint hint of some spices too, but they’re very much on the background.

Finish: Disappointing. The finish is simply too flat and too soft. The aftertaste is ashy with some peat smoke, but does not leave a warming sensation.

Verdict: This whisky is so sweet and soft that it feels like you’re sipping lemonade. The only problem is that I don’t want to be sipping lemonade, I want to drink whisky. Bowmore Enigma is by no means a bad dram, but it’s just not very engaging. Although there are some classic coastal, smoky notes to this whisky, they are a bit drowned out by the sweetness from the sherry cask. In many cases an additional cask finish can provide a whisky with an extra dimension, but here it only seems to distract from the positive aspects of Bowmore’s distillery character. Sad to say, the result is another underwhelming Bowmore expression. Fortunately I bought this whisky at a steep discount, but at full price I would think twice before buying Bowmore Enigma again.

Bowmore 12 year old Enigma 02