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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Douglas Laing’s The Epicurean

Douglas Laing Epicurean 01Distillery: Blend
Region: Lowland
Age: No age statement
abv: 46.2%

In 2009, Douglas Laing (an independent bottler from Glasgow) launched the Remarkable Regional Malts range, with the first release of the Big Peat. The concept is to take malt whisky from several distilleries and fuse these into a blended malt that is typical of a certain whisky producing region. Examples include Scallywag for Speyside and Timorous Beastie for the Highlands, but perhaps the best known example is the Big Peat from Islay. The Epicurean is the latest addition to the range, representing the Lowlands, and was launched in 2016.

The Remarkable Regional Malts are not blends in the traditional sense, as no grain whisky is used in their production. Instead, they are what would have previously been called a vatted malt, until the Scotch Whisky Association changed the rules in 2011. Although the Lowlands produce more whisky than any other region in Scotland, only a handful of malt distilleries remain. The vast majority of output comes from large, industrial grain distilleries, which form the heart of the blending industry that’s based in the Lowlands. Perhaps then it is only fitting to try to capture the true spirit of the Lowlands in a blend. Many of Douglas Laing’s whiskies have been nothing short of exceptional, so I’m very curious to see what The Epicurean has in store.

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Scapa Glansa

Scapa Glansa Review 01Distillery: Scapa
Region: Islands
Age: No age statement
abv: 40%

Things have been pretty quiet around Orkney’s lesser known distillery for the past decade. Scapa’s 12 year old standard expression was changed to a 14 year old version (much to the dismay of Scapa’s loyal fan base) and more recently upgraded to a 16 year old bottling (much to the dismay of Scapa’s loyal fan base), but not much else was happening on the marketing front. Until recently, when owner Pernod Ricard decided to shake things up by introducing a new range. The 16 year old was discontinued (presumably to the dismay of Scapa’s remaining fans?), to be replaced by Scapa Skiren, a smooth, honeyed dram aged in first-fill bourbon casks. But Skiren now has some company, with the launch of its peaty brother, Scapa Glansa. While the barley used for Glansa’s spirit remains unpeated, it has been finisheded in casks that used to hold peaty whisky, giving Glansa a subtle smokiness.

While some people really dislike the notion of “second hand peat”, I have no particular beef with it. These days whiskies are aged in all sorts of different casks, from the weird to the wonderful. If distillers get to use casks that previously held rum, Sauternes or cloudberry wine, why not one that previously held whisky? In fact, this is common practise, as refill barrels are used everywhere, only this one just happens to have held peaty whisky before. It’s transparent, and the consumer knows what to expect. If you’d rather drink a properly peaty whisky, there are enough great Islay drams on offer 🙂

As an added bonus, Scapa Glansa comes in some very stylish packaging, making it a nice gift for friends or family. It’s certainly an interesting offering from a distillery that’s traditionally been a bit cautious, and I’m looking forward to seeing if there will be any additions to the core range in the near future.

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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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Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Port Charlotte Scottish BarleyDistillery: Bruichladdich
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 50%

It’s been some years now since Bruichladdich distillery decided to split its range: Bruichladdich for its unpeated whiskies, and Port Charlotte for its peated expressions (plus Octomore for the ultra peaty stuff). This means that at least you know what you’ll be getting with a Port Charlotte: smoke!

Port Charlotte is named after the village close to Bruichladdich distillery, which is where much of its whisky spends time maturing in the warehouses. Port Charlotte Scottish Barley is peated to a level of 40 ppm, placing it in between Lagavulin and Ardbeg in terms of smokiness. The stills used at Bruichladdich use a process known as trickle distillation. Combined with the unusually tall shape of the stills, this creates a clean, floral spirit, so clearly on display in drams such as the Classic Laddie.

The fact this Port Charlotte is made with Scottish barley isn’t really anything special, as most Scotch whiskies are. If you are partial to this kind of sentiment, I suggest you try the Islay barley instead, which is in fact locally grown. Bruichladdich rightfully style themselves as progressive Hebridean distillers, and they really have pushed the envelope with projects such as Octomore (hugely successful) and X4 (a flop), as well as several unconventional cask finishes. There’s not much progressive about the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley though, as this whisky was aged in traditional bourbon barrels – no matter how hand-picked they may be. Instead, the Scottish Barley is a solid Islay dram that’s bound to please.

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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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Laphroaig Four Oak

Laphroaig Four OakDistillery: Laphroaig
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 40%

Over the past years, Laphroaig has been happily experimenting with different types of maturation. Quarter casks, bourbon barrels, sherry casks and virgin oak are just some of the casks used in Laphroaig’s recent NAS expressions. But why choose when you can actually use all of them? This is exactly what Laphroaig has done for their new expression, aptly called Four Oak. Given this name, it may not come as a surprise that the Four Oak one-ups the Triple Wood by adding an extra layer of maturation. While the Triple Wood is essentially a sherry finished version of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Four Oak adds the virgin oak character that’s also found in Laphroaig QA Cask, meaning it really has a wealth of influences to draw upon. The QA Cask and Triple wood are both excellent Laphroaig expressions, albeit quite different in terms of character. Do the two styles mix? Let’s find out!

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