Scotch Whisky Regions

Scottish Whisky Regions Tasting

Tonight I was invited to host a tasting for a group of 25 whisky enthusiasts at the local tennis club. As is almost customary for an introductory whisky tasting, we decided to journey through each of the Scottish whisky regions to sample what its distilleries have to offer. Although the Scotch Whisky Association formally only recognises five whisky regions, I decided six whiskies is better than five, so we added the Islands as a separate region.

What I find amazing about whisky is that it’s made using only three ingredients, which are transformed into a wealth of different flavours, the variety of which is truly mindboggling. Tonight’s line-up traverses this spectrum from grassy, delicate Lowland all the way to peaty Islay. While each of the whiskies was chosen because they embody their region’s style, they have also received different types of maturation, further adding to the diversity on offer. You can find a short description of the whiskies below, including a link to the full review. Slàinte!

Scotch Whisky Regions Tasting

A fantastic line-up, ordered from left to right

Lowland: Douglas Laing’s The Epicurean
It’s always a bit of chore finding an original Lowland whisky, given the limited number of distilleries to choose from. With Bladnoch all but unavailable and Daftmill and Annadale not yet on the market, the choice inevitably came down to Glenkinchie or Auchentoshan. Having used both in recent tastings, I opted for something else instead: a Lowland blended malt by Douglas Laing. Part of the company’s Remarkable Regional Malts range, The Epicurean is family to bottlings such as Big Peat and Scallywag. Displaying the delicate, grassy character so typical of Lowland malts, The Epicurean nonetheless lacks the smoothness and finesse you’d expect for a whisky from this region. Perhaps it’s the bottling strength of 46.2%, but this dram comes off as a little raw and rough around the edges. Although it’s nice to try something new, I can’t say this choice paid off very well.

Speyside: Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean Cask
Balvenie is the quintessential Speyside malt, silky smooth with lots of honey, barley and dried fruit. The Carribean Cask adds to this the effects of a finish in casks that previously held rum, imbuing the whisky with notes of caramel, brown sugar and tropical fruit. Although rum casks have a tendency to overpower any whisky placed inside it, this dram is a brilliant display of balance between distillery character and maturation. Bottled at 43%.

Highland: Fettercairn Fior
It’s of course impossible to speak of a real Highland style, given the huge geographical spread of the region. Still, Fettercairn Fior fits the bill, being a bit more fruity and robust than most of its Speyside neighbours. A vatting of 14-15 year old sherried whisky and heavily peated young spirit, Fior is wonderfully floral, with notes of heather and raisins, mixed with a healthy whiff of smoke. A pleasant dram that forms the perfect bridge to the Campbeltown whiskies. Bottled at 42%.

Campbeltown: Glen Scotia Victoriana
One of Campbeltown’s three remaining distilleries, Glen Scotia is known for its fresh, relatively light character. However, Victoriana has been aged in heavily charred oak and bottled at cask strength, giving this whisky quite some punch. Notes of caramel, crème brûlée and dark chocolate mingle with a toasted smokiness to produce a quality dram that’s come as a very positive surprise. Possibly my favourite in this tasting, bottled at 51.5%.

Islands: Talisker Port Ruighe
Continuing the streak of special casks in this tasting, Talisker Port Ruighe has been finished in port casks. Medium-peated, this Island whisky adds the first real peat smoke to tonight’s line-up. I’m a big fan of Talisker’s maritime distillery character, and the typical salt and smoke fuse effortlessly with the sweet, fruity notes that Port Ruighe brings to the table. There are many quality Island whiskies I could have chosen for this tasting, but Talisker Port Ruighe is a dram I will gladly keep coming back to. Bottled at Talisker’s standard strength of 45.8%.

Islay: Port Charlotte Scottish Barley
Arriving to Islay at last, Port Charlotte Scottish Barley is a smoky heavyweight, being peated to 40 ppm and bottled at 50%. Despite these figures, this dram is quite accessible, even for those new to Islay whiskies. Its sweet, floral character combines nicely with the peat smoke to produce a clean, crisp dram that’s an excellent introduction to the even smokier Islay whiskies from the south of the island. But that’s for another tasting 😉

Kilchoman Distillery

Kilchoman Tasting

Today I had the pleasure of attending a whisky tasting led by Peter Wills, son of Kilchoman distillery owner Anthony Wills. Naturally then, there were some fantastic Kilchomans lined up for us to explore, and Peter was able to share his wealth of knowledge with us. A full description of the whiskies can be found below, but first a short introduction to Kilchoman distillery.

Kilchoman distillery was opened in 2005, becoming the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. Located in a farmhouse where all processes from malting, distilling, maturing and bottling take place, Kilchoman provides an interesting insight into what a traditional whisky distillery may have looked like two centuries ago. Correspondingly, Kilchoman is by far the smallest distillery on Islay in terms of capacity, and indeed one of the smallest in Scotland.

Kilchoman Tasting

Peter Wills sharing his stories from Kilchoman

Kilchoman produces a typical Islay style whisky, with medium to heavily peated expressions. The distillery still malts about 30% of its own barley, which spends about a day under a peat fire in the kiln. The result is a medium peated barley, to about 20 ppm. For the remaining 70%, Kilchoman depends on the Port Ellen Maltings, which delivers the barley to a specified 50 ppm, putting Kilchoman on par with Ardbeg in terms of smokiness. However, the distillation process at Kilchoman is designed to produce a clean, fruity spirit, which smooths out the peaty flavours and the young age of the whiskies somewhat. Since Kilchoman’s stills are small, the spirit has more contact with the copper, taking out many of the impurities. What’s more, the stills are relatively high, allowing only the lighter alcohols to make the cut. This is one of the reasons that Kilchoman’s whiskies are so very drinkable from a young age.

For maturation, Kilchoman chooses casks that previously held Buffalo Trace bourbon. Since the distillery’s production capacity is so small, fewer casks are needed, which means they can be shipped whole, rather than be taken apart and reassembled as is standard practise. This means that the wood doesn’t dry out, and there is often still a small amount of bourbon in the barrels when the first whisky goes in. This benefits Kilchoman’s whisky in terms of flavour and speeds up the maturation process.

Kilchoman Distillery

Some of the casks at the Kilchoman distillery

From the moment the distillery opened, Kilchoman has experimented with different types of casks, selling their whisky in numerous limited editions. Anthony’s background as a wine merchant and independent bottler has given him a good knowledge of the effect that different casks have on whisky maturation, meaning that these limited editions have by and large produced excellent results. As a result, Kilchoman has gained a loyal fan base, who eagerly purchase the limited number of bottles that the distillery can produce (unfortunately this is also driving up the price). This also means that Kilchoman hasn’t seen the need to sell their whisky to blenders, as every precious drop is bottled and sold as single malt. This is all for the best, as Kilchoman produces some fantastic whisky. Tonight I was lucky enough to try seven different ones, which are described below.

Kilchoman Tasting

Tonight’s line-up, in order from left to right

Kilchoman 100% Islay, 2nd Edition
This whisky was entirely produced at the Kilchoman distillery, using barley grown on the farm. As such, this whisky is only mildly peated at 20ppm. Using first fill and refill bourbon barrels, the 100% Islay is quite a soft Kilchoman expression. The nose is subtle and fruity, with aromas of citrus and pear. There’s also more than a whiff of new make, and the nose is not overly peaty. On the palate, the smoke is given more space to develop, and is accompanied by notes of vanilla, toasted oak and breakfast cereal. The finish is long and warming, with the not at all unpleasant aftertaste of raw spirit. Bottled at 50%.

Kilchoman Machir Bay
Peated to 50 ppm and bottled at 46%, Machir Bay is a vatting of 90% bourbon casks and 10% Oloroso sherry butts. There is almost no smoke on the nose, which instead displays notes of tropical fruit. The palate is a different story though, as the peat rushes in full force. The finish is less warming than the 100% Islay (due to its lower alcohol content), but the increase in smokiness more than makes up for this.

Previous bottlings were labelled with the year in which they were released, since the distillery was still experimenting with different styles. Apparently Kilchoman have now settled on one single variety, as the whisky is now bottled simply as Machir Bay. The vatting of different ages of whisky seems here to stay though.

Kilchoman Sanaig
Sanaig is a vatting of 70% Oloroso and 30% bourbon casks. Although peated to the same level as the Machir Bay, the sherry influence gives this whisky a sweeter, mellower character. There are hints of raisins and red fruit throughout, and the smoke is never far away. On the whole, a definite step up from the Machir Bay. Bottled at 46%.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm – 2014 Release
Loch Gorm is a vatting of whiskies that were all aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. This becomes immediately clear on the nose, as the sherry scents are much stronger than in the Sanaig. Notes of pepper, cloves and dried red fruit mingle with a subtle hint of peat smoke. Loch Gorm is more full-bodied than the previous Kilchomans in this tasting and provides a deal more complexity and sweetness. Although peated to 50 ppm, the sherry casks have smoothed out much of the smoke during Loch Gorm’s five years of maturation, but the finish is still intensely warming. This is a gorgeous whisky, and my favourite in the core range. Bottled at 46%.

Kilchoman Original Cask Strength – Quarter Cask 2016
Aged in traditional quarter casks (a process being popularised at Laphroaig) that allow for more contact with the oak, this Kilchoman has a rather friendly vanilla character. The nose is light and floral, with notes of tropical fruit. The palate has a very pleasant sweetness to it, with hints of Demerara sugar and vanilla. The finish is huge, thanks to the 56.9% at which this whisky was bottled.

Kilchoman Single Cask #559 – Oloroso Sherry 2016
Although the sherry is less apparent on the nose compared to Loch Gorm, things are decidedly different on the palate. This dram is very rich and full-bodied, and a true sherry bomb. This is partially due to the fact that this whisky was aged in a sherry hogshead rather than a butt, allowing for more contact with the wood due to the smaller volume. Bottled at 58.2%, this single cask whisky is essentially Loch Gorm on steroids. The result is an amazing dram that’s easily my favourite in this tasting.

Kilchoman Single Cask #678 – PX Sherry 2010
Pedro Ximénez casks are traditionally less used for maturing whisky than Oloroso butts. This is because PX casks are so powerful in terms of flavour that they tend to overwhelm any whisky that’s placed inside them. That’s why this Kilchoman did not receive a full maturation in PX casks, but rather a 3 month finish. As a result, this PX finished Kilchoman is actually less sweet than the Oloroso aged version, and has a better balance between sherry influence and distillery character. Bottled at 57%.

Kilchoman Tasting

And at the end of the night, only empty bottles left…

Rum Finish Tasting

rum-finish-tasting-01Rum finished whiskies are a bit of a rarity on today’s market. One reason may be that the marriage of whisky and rum is quite an acquired taste and does not sell as easily as the more traditional sherry or port finish. But it is of course also a matter of necessity. There simply aren’t so many good and affordable rum casks available for whisky to be finished in, and the reliability of supply for these casks is even more problematic.

This scarcity makes today’s tasting all the more fun, because I’ve been able to get together three different rum finished whiskies for a comparison. While these whiskies have all been finished in the same type of cask, let’s not forget that they each have a unique distillery character, which sets them apart from each other. Below is a short description of each of the whiskies, including a link to the full review.

BenRiach 15 year old Dark Rum Wood Finish
Of the three, this dram smells and tastes the most of actual rum. The influence of the rum cask is huge, with dominant notes of vanilla, caramel and brown sugar. Unfortunately, the rum flavours are so strong that they overpower much of the whisky, making it a struggle to detect BenRiach’s distillery character. If it’s rum influence you want, this is the dram to go for, but then why not just drink a rum instead? Bottled at 46%.

Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean Cask
The soft, smooth Balvenie character is balanced perfectly with the additional flavours from the rum cask, creating a beautifully subtle fusion between Caledonia and Caribbean. Balvenie’s typical barley and honey flavours are complemented by nutmeg and tropical fruit. The rum influence is less obvious, but integrates a lot better with the whisky. Of the three, this is by far my favourite. Bottled at 43%.

Mackmyra Vinterdröm
This whisky has an outspoken oaky character. Mackmyra Vinterdröm retains a huge amount of spices from the rum cask, but is less sweet than the BenRiach and Balvenie. It is a little rough around the edges, and provides quite a woody bite, possibly a result of the maturation in Swedish oak. I’m a big fan of young, feisty whiskies, and although I prefer the Balvenie, this Mackmymra has lots of character. Bottled at 46.1%.

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Islay Tasting

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For a long time now I had been intending to organise a tasting that includes each of Islay’s eight distilleries, and tonight the time had finally come. Known for its distinctively peaty, smoky whiskies, the island of Islay is often considered a whisky region in its own right. This is no wonder, as the island lives and breathes whisky, providing the lifeblood for a population of just over 3000 people. Peat bogs are ubiquitous, the salty sea breeze can be felt anywhere and the sight of a distillery’s chimney is never far away.

Islay Whisky Distillery Map

An overview of Islay’s distilleries

Since much of the island is covered by hills and peat bogs, the production of barley has long since fallen behind the voracious appetite of Islay’s whisky industry. Most of the barley is now grown on the Scottish mainland, before being shipped to Port Ellen Maltings, where it is peated to the exact specifications of each whisky distillery. As such, each distillery has complete control over how smoky they like their whiskies to be, and can even vary this within their range (Bruichladdich for example uses different levels of peatiness for different whiskies).

islay-barley-bruichladdich

Some of the barley is still grown locally

While it would have made sense to compare the core expression of each distillery, I decided to go for something a little more interesting. In deciding the order of the line-up, I took into account smokiness (often measured in ppm – phenol parts per million), as well as alcohol content. The result was the ultimate Islay tasting, a true treat for a peathead like me.

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The line-up for this whisky tasting. Not bad at all!

Below is a short description of each of the whiskies, including a link to the full review.

Bunnahabhain Eirigh Na Greine
Given that its whiskies are virtually unpeated (1-2 ppm), Bunnahabhain is the perfect distillery for kicking off this Islay tasting. There’s enough peat and smoke still to come, so let’s start off with something more mild and gentle. Eirigh Na Greine is a new Bunnahabhain expression, and has been finished in casks that previously held red wine, adding a sweet, fruity twist to the usual maritime distillery character. Bottled at 46.3%.

Bowmore 15 year old Darkest
Upping the smoke ante a little bit, Bowmore’s whiskies are medium-peated to around 20 ppm, a similar level to Island whiskies such as Talisker and Highland Park. This particular expression has aged for no less than 15 years, with the last 3 years in Oloroso sherry casks. This whisky is the oldest dram in the tasting and it shows: the Bowmore 15 is more mellow and distinguished than some of its Islay counterparts, while the sherry finish has added a layer of sweetness and complexity. The initial gentle smoke only really explodes into full force towards the finish. Bottled at 43%.

Caol Ila 2001-2013 Distillers Edition
Of course every Classic Malt comes with its own Distillers Edition, and Caol Ila’s has been finished in Moscatel wine casks. Although peated to the exact same level as Lagavulin (35 ppm), Caol Ila produces much softer whiskies. The explanation can be found in the shape of each distillery’s stills: while Lagavulin’s are low and onion-shaped, Caol Ila’s are tall and pear-shaped, allowing only the smooth, purer alcohols to make the cut. For this reason I would not count Caol Ila amongst the ultra-smoky Islay distilleries, but they produce a very enjoyable dram, and one that serves nicely as a build up to the other whiskies in this tasting. Bottled at 43%.

Kilchoman Sanaig
Peated to a reputed 50 ppm, this whisky is not only smoky, but due to its tender age also packs quite a punch. The sherry finish adds some welcome flavour and complexity compared to the peaty onslaught that is Machir Bay. For those who like young, smoky whiskies, this a great dram, and it’s possibly my favourite in this tasting. Bottled at 46%.

Laphroaig QA Cask
Usually Laphroaig is one of the peatiest whiskies out there (40 ppm), and in many ways, the QA Cask is no exception. This dram still displays Laphroaig’s medicinal, smoky distillery character, but in a softer, friendlier jacket. The fact it’s been finished in a virgin oak cask means there’s a huge vanilla influence, taking some of the sharp, smoky edges off this Laphroaig. The resulting dram is a more welcoming version of the 10 year old, but one that’s definitely just as enjoyable. Bottled at 40%.

Port Charlotte Scottish Barley
We’re leading up to the really big guns now. While it would have been possible to pick a whisky from the unpeated Bruichladdich range, I much prefer this feistier option. Not only does the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley have a higher alcohol percentage, its barley has been peated to a level of 40 ppm. I suspect this is a rather young whisky, and somewhat similar in taste profile to the Octomore series. Although this Port Charlotte is of course far less peaty, it’s still an eye-wateringly good dram. Bottled at 50%.

Lagavulin 8 year old
Whoah this is good stuff! Lagavulins are usually old whiskies (by Islay standards anyway), and this is not without a reason. Although peated to only 35 ppm, the shape of Lagavulin’s stills allows many of the rougher, impure alcohols to make the cut. Therefore a long maturation is needed to smooth this whisky out a bit, and the 16 year old is a wonderfully distinguished dram as a result. This 8 year old Lagavulin lacks that slow passage of time, resulting in a powerfully smoky dram that packs a mighty punch. This dram is savage stuff, but I absolutely love it. Bottled at 48%.

Ardbeg Uigeadail
As the most peated of Islay’s distilleries (54 ppm), it feels only right to finish off this tasting with an Ardbeg. I am a big fan of the distillery, and always make sure to have a bottle in my collection. While the 10 year old is a deliciously smooth but smoky dram, the Uigeadail raises the bar further with a higher alcohol percentage and an additional sherry finish. The sherry notes are very subtle though, and do not interfere at all with the wonderful distillery character. While I have never been able to make up my mind on whether I prefer Ardbeg Uigeadail or Corryvreckan, I can tell you that they are both very fine drams indeed. Bottled at 54.2%.

Laphroaig Tasting

laphroaig-finishes-tasting-02Tonight I was lucky enough to get together a fantastic line-up of different Laphroaigs for a comparison. While each of these whiskies is made of identical spirit flowing from Laphroaig’s stills, the end result is vastly different. As such, this tasting gives a great insight in the effect that maturation has on a whisky. Although Laphroaig is secretive about the age of their whiskies, clearly some of these expressions have matured longer than others. With no actual ages at hand, we are limited to looking at the effects that the different casks have had on the Laphroaig spirit. And indeed, this choice of cask makes a world of difference, producing a spectacular range of diverse drams. Below is a short description of each of the whiskies, including a link to the full review.

Laphroaig 10 year old
As the core expression, this whisky perhaps best embodies the Laphroaig house style. Its maritime character comes with a big kick of iodine, smoke and seaweed. Lacking an additional finish, this whisky is drier and less sweet than some of the other Laphroaigs in this tasting. Bottled at 40%.

Laphroaig QA Cask
This dram is much softer and sweeter, both on the nose and the palate. The fact it’s been finished in a virgin oak cask means there’s a huge vanilla influence, taking some of the sharp, smoky edges off this Laphroaig. In many ways this is a friendlier version of the 10 year old. Bottled at 40%.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Finished in smaller ‘quarter casks’ for extra contact with the wood, this Laphroaig provides a noticeably bigger kick in terms of alcohol percentage. The medicinal character of the 10 year old is less pronounced here, but is replaced by an even thicker screen of smoke, with notes of grilled meat. Provides the perfect bridge between the 10 year old and some of the Laphroaigs described below. Bottled at 48%.

Laphroaig PX Cask
Taking its name from the Pedro Ximénez sherry casks it’s been finished in, this Laphroaig is much fruitier on the nose, and both sweeter and more complex on the palate. While the PX Cask is initially less smoky than the Quarter Cask, its feisty finish more than makes up for this. Bottled at 48%.

Laphroaig Triple Wood
This whisky has aged in three different cask types, and is essentially an Oloroso sherry finished Quarter Cask. Compared to its sherry sibling the PX Cask, the Triple Wood is a more mellow, sophisticated dram. The nose is more expressive, the body velvety and full, while the finish still provides plenty of peat smoke. Bottled at 48%.

Laphroaig Brodir
This Laphroaig is something else entirely. Not your typical youthful Islay whisky, Brodir oozes elegance, maturity and complexity. Finished in a port cask, this dram is much fruitier and richer than other Laphroaigs. The body is amazingly full and the usual peatiness is more subdued. This smooth and sophisticated version of Laphroaig is a wonderful addition to the range. Bottled at 48%.

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