Springbank 10 year old

Springbank 10Distillery: Springbank
Region: Campbeltown
Age: 10 years old
abv: 46%

The lone survivor of what was once termed the ‘Whisky Capital of the World’, Springbank is the quintessential Campbeltown malt. While in its heyday Campbeltown was a mighty force in whisky making, boasting no less than 28 distilleries, its fall was equally dramatic. Springbank was the only distillery to survive the onslaught and is the only Campbeltown whisky to remain in constant production since the 1820s. This was not entirely down to luck. Where Campbeltown’s commercial success led some distilleries to become complacent and produce inferior spirit  (there are even rumours of whisky being aged in herring barrels, although whether these are based on truth no one can say), Springbank never compromised on quality. As such it managed to stay popular with Glasgow’s blending houses, at a time when Speyside malts were much more in vogue.

Springbank distillery is still family-owned; something quite special in today’s corporate setting. In addition to Springbank, it also produces Hazelburn and Longrow. The distillery is the only in Scotland to malt all of its own barley, allowing it to carefully control the peat levels in the malt. While Hazelburn is unpeated and triple distilled, Longrow is heavily peated and double distilled. Springbank falls somewhere in between: lightly peated and distilled two and a half times.

With Glen Scotia and Glengyle distillery also back in production, Campbeltown is seeing a slow resurgence in popularity. Although the golden days may never quite return, thankfully Springbank is here to stay.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Ardbeg 10 year old

Ardbeg 10 year old reviewDistillery: Ardbeg
Region: Islay
Age: 10 years old
abv: 46%

Ardbeg celebrated its 200th birthday in 2015, but it hasn’t always looked like the distillery would make it that far. Although Ardbeg produced 1 million litres of spirit as early as the 1880s, output dwindled to next to nothing a century later. A change in ownership was meant to turn Ardbeg’s fortunes around, but the distillery ended up closing its doors for a second time in 1991. It remained mothballed until as recently as 1997, when it was acquired by The Glenmorangie Company. Since then, Ardbeg has seen a true revival that has propelled it into its current standing as one of Islay’s favourite malts. Ardbeg enjoys a loyal fan base (not least through the Ardbeg Committee members), allowing it to experiment with limited editions, some of which have been excellent. Nevertheless, as one distillery employee told me: “Ardbeg 10 year old is so good that we will always struggle to make a better whisky than our standard expression”.

Peated to 54 ppm, Ardbeg offers the smokiest spirit on Islay (not taking into account exceptions such as Octomore). Despite this, its whisky is deliciously smooth. This is largely due to a copper purifier attached to the still, a rarity in whisky making. Without it, Ardbeg is said to be undrinkable; this is certainly not the case today. Enjoy this peatiest of Islay malts!

Continue reading

Age Your Own Whisky: Before the First Batch

This year I was given a brand new, toasted, 1 litre American Oak barrel for my birthday! While it’s possible to buy new make spirit and mature it from scratch, I intend to use this cask to give a special finish to some of my favourite whiskies. Excited to get started, I got right down to business. Upon taking the cask out of the plastic, the smell of freshly toasted wood immediately filled the room. The bung and tap still had to be inserted, and although this required some force, it was otherwise easy enough.

Cask 01

The cask is ready for use after inserting the bung and tap.

Continue reading

Macallan 12 year old Sherry Oak

Macallan Sherry Oak ReviewDistillery: Macallan
Region: Speyside/Highland
Age: 12 years old
abv: 40%

Obtaining a license to distil legally in 1824, the Macallan distillery is located in a beautiful manor house right on the banks of the river Spey. However, due to a set of regulatory changes in 2009, the Macallan is officially no longer a Speyside distillery and its bottles are now labelled as a Highland malt. Unburdened by legal wrangling, whisky experts nonetheless continue to consider Macallan as a Speyside malt. Being located only a mile away from Aberlour distillery, which is a Speyside whisky, this seems to make sense to me.

Either way, the Speyside/Highland debate is somewhat irrelevant, as Macallan stands out in whichever category you place it. It is praised by experts as one of the finest malts in production, and often sells for record prices at auctions. Macallan can even boast the likes of James Bond and Harvey Specter among its fans. Such marketing has paid off: Macallan is now the third best selling single malt in the world by volume. While I never ranked Macallan as one of my favourite whiskies, I recently tried the Macallan 12 years old Sherry Oak in a blind tasting and placed it head and shoulders above the other drams on offer that night.  Where other whiskies might receive an additional few months in sherry casks, Macallan 12 years old was matured exclusively in sherry casks, and it shows. This is an exquisitely smooth and luxurious dram, to be savoured in front of a hearth fire on a cold winter’s day.

Continue reading

Phylloxera

Phylloxera: The Bug that Saved the Whisky Industry

Looking at the worldwide popularity of whisky these days, few whisky drinkers would guess that the contents of their glass might have been very different, had it not been for the interference of a tiny insect native to North America. 1mm long,  0.5mm wide, and listening to the name of daktulosphaira vitifoliae, this bug does not sound like much of a superhero. Yet it played a huge role in popularising whisky, at a time when the industry’s future looked far from bright.

During the Victorian era, the UK spirit market was a very stratified place. As a general rule of thumb, the working classes drank gin, while Britain’s high society enjoyed brandy. Towns with a strong naval tradition would typically drink rum, leaving whisky to fight an uphill battle, particularly outside of Scotland. Yet help arrived from a very unexpected corner, in the form of a tiny unassuming aphid called Phylloxera.

Continue reading

Old Pulteney Duncansby Head

Old Pulteney Duncansby Head 01Distillery: Old Pulteney
Region: Highland
Age: No age statement
abv: 46%

Named after a lighthouse near the distillery town of Wick, Duncansby Head forms part of Old Pulteney’s travel retail Lighthouse Collection. Like so many other travel retail expressions, this is a no age statement whisky. It has been matured in both bourbon and sherry casks and aims to combine the distillery’s maritime character with richer, fruitier flavours.

Old Pulteney is the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland and was established in 1826. At this time, the distillery was accessible only by sea. Coupled with a strong fishing tradition, Old Pulteney is proud to have retained some coastal influences in its whisky. Expect tangy, salty notes from this award winning distillery.

Continue reading

Glenkinchie Distillers Edition

Glenkinchie Distiller's Edition ReviewDistillery: Glenkinchie
Region: Lowland
Age: Distilled in 2000, bottled in 2013
abv: 43%

Glenkinchie is one of only a handful of distilleries in the Lowlands. Situated just 15 miles from Edinburgh, it is a popular day trip for tourists wishing to visit a Scottish distillery. Part of Diageo’s Classic Malts range, Glenkinchie embodies the ‘typical’ Lowlands character of gentle, grassy whiskies. As with the other Classic Malts, Glenkinchie produces a Distillers Edition; a whisky that has received an extra maturation. For Glenkinchie, Amontillado sherry casks were chosen, giving the whisky a dry, fruity character. This version was distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2013, meaning it is likely a few months older than Glenkinchie’s standard expression.

Continue reading

Talisker 10 year old

Talisker 10 year old reviewDistillery: Talisker
Region: Islands
Age: 10 years old
abv: 45.8%

Talisker may have been “made by the sea”, but there is nothing fishy about their whiskies. Being the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker is a perfect reflection of the island on which it was produced. Rugged, windswept and utterly breathtaking, Skye’s favourite drink has weathered the storms since 1830.

Despite a flurry of No Age Statement releases in recent years, Talisker 10 year old continues to hold its own as one of the distillery’s finest expressions (the same coincidentally can be said for the 18 year old). Bottled at the distillery’s customary 45.8%, Talisker 10 has taken on many of Skye’s coastal influences during the maturation process. The result is a bold whisky that packs quite a punch, despite being only mildly peated.

Continue reading

The waterfront of the abandoned Port Ellen distillery.

Longing for Islay’s Lost Distillery

On the shores of Kilnaughton Bay on Islay stands one of the most important buildings of the global whisky industry. Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings, responsible for providing malted barley to all of Islay’s distilleries. Touch (almost) any bottle of Islay whisky anywhere in the world, and its raw ingredients will have passed through the Port Ellen plant. Yet for all its industrial success, the maltings form but a sad remnant of one of Scotland’s most beloved whisky producing sites. For in the shadows of the big, grey factory lies the now dysfunctional Port Ellen distillery. Its twin pagodas still contrast proudly against the Islay sky, while wafts of peat smoke can still be caught in the air. Yet for all its beauty, the distillery is now an eerie place. After years of inactivity, the stillhouse and the surrounding buildings have become a veritable ghost town, its warehouses reduced to storage space for its more commercially successful counterparts.
 

The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.
The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.

Although no longer operational, the distillery continues to capture the imagination of whisky fans everywhere. Much like a Van Gogh painting or an Emily Dickinson poem, Port Ellen whisky gained huge fame posthumously. The mere mention of Port Ellen often evokes a sense of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness. For its spirit is of undeniable quality; its character typical of the Islay whiskies so loved around the globe. The dwindling stocks of Port Ellen whisky have now become so popular that Royal Mile Whiskies advertises one of its expressions by claiming that “we could tell the world this tastes of rotten fish and stagnant sewers and it would still sell out instantly”. Indeed, the 2013 annual release sold out before it even hit the website. As a result, Port Ellen has become so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the most affluent whisky aficionados. Selling at just £30 a bottle three decades ago, it now easily commands £1500 or over. A quick search on Master of Malt will bring up many more sold out and discontinued bottlings, while Port Ellen’s ‘dearly departed’ section on Royal Mile Whiskies is among the longest of any distillery. Port Ellen whisky can occasionally still be found at festivals, but in addition to a wonderful tasting experience provides the drinker with a lingering sense of regret for what might have been. How is it that a whisky so universally loved came to be resigned to the pages of history?

Continue reading

The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 year old

Balvenie 14 Caribbean CaskDistillery: The Balvenie
Region: Speyside
Age: 14 years old
abv: 43%

The Balvenie Caribbean Cask has been around for some time, but was
previously branded as the Cuban Cask (shh don’t let anyone know the Commies might have had anything to do with it) and Golden Cask (too nondescript). What all these different names point at is that the whisky has received an extra maturation in casks that previously held rum, giving it a sweet, spicy character. There are not too many rum finishes out there, so be sure to give this one a try. You won’t be disappointed!

Continue reading