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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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