Legends of Whisky Tasting

Legends of Whisky

Time for a bit of a throwback. Obviously the COVID pandemic means we haven’t been able to enjoy any large scale whisky tastings or festivals. Maybe it’s because I miss these type of events, but I recently started thinking back to one very special tasting I attended in 2018, called the Legends of Whisky. And what an event it was! Featuring three absolute titans of the whisky world, it’s safe to say this was an incredibly unique occasion. Jim McEwan, David Stewart and Richard ‘The Nose’ Paterson had hosted an event together once before, but to have these three icons together in the same room was something very special. And it was so nearby! The venue in Leiden, Netherlands was just a short train ride away, so this opportunity was simply too good to pass up. Just after the event I had started writing about it, but somehow I never finished. Time to set the record straight.

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Suntory Toki

Suntory Toki Review

Producer: Suntory
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

The newest entry to the Suntory stable, Toki is a blend made up of spirit from the company’s three distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. The latter – a grain distillery – reportedly makes up the bulk of this whisky, which helps explain the rather modest price tag. Although Toki may be meant more for the bar scene, the fact is that there isn’t really another affordable entry-level Suntory bottling out there (at least not in Europe). This means that Toki may be the first encounter many whisky drinkers have with Suntory, and unfortunately it’s not one that does justice to the amazing range the company has to offer. There’s Suntory The Chita, but this is of course a single grain whisky. In this sense, Nikka has really stolen a march on Suntory, with excellent bottlings like Nikka from the Barrel and Nikka Coffey Malt that are bound to excite and entice someone to further explore the range.

Toki is Japanese for time. It’s an odd choice given that this whisky doesn’t carry an age statement and probably hasn’t matured for all that long, but perhaps it’s a nod to that classic line from Lost in Translation..? Either way, it certainly is time to give Toki a try.

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Deanston 18 year old

Deanston 18 year old review

Distillery: Deanston
Region: Highland
Age: 18 years old
abv: 46.3%

The stern brick walls of Deanston are not what most people have in mind when they picture a whisky distillery. And that’s because for most of its life, it wasn’t. The building that now houses Deanston was founded as a cotton mill by none other than Richard Arkwright, one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t until 1965 that the building was converted to a distillery by Glasgow blenders Brodie, also owners of Tullibardine. Their initial idea was to use Deanston’s cavernous vaults for maturing whisky, but a good water supply and working turbines made them reconsider. Naturally, most of Deanston’s production disappeared into blends, as was the fate of most distilleries at the time. Deanston fell silent from 1982 until 1990, when it was brought back into production. The distillery is now owned by South African based Distell, which owns other popular distilleries like Bunnahabhain and Tobermory. Despite its unconventional looks, Deanston distillery has made it to the silver screen, being the filming location for the 2012 movie The Angel’s Share.

This 18 year old Deanston was originally matured in second fill casks, before receiving a finishing period in first fill bourbon casks for an extra dose of honey and vanilla. No flashy stuff here, just good old whisky… and nothing wrong with that!

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Longrow Peated

Longrow Peated Review

Distillery: Springbank
Region: Campbeltown
Age: No age statement
abv: 46%

Launched in 2012, Longrow Peated is the successor to the popular Longrow CV. It’s essentially the same whisky, but given a new name and fresh packaging (although not too fresh, it reminds me of something my grandma would’ve had in her cupboard). I suspect the name change is because Peated is a much better description of what this dram is all about. The sole whisky from Springbank to be double distilled, this Longrow has been peated to around 50-55 ppm, so that’s a hefty dose of smoke! While the peat level is comparable to Ardbeg, the type of peat is rather different. Peat is essentially decomposed plant matter, so terroir matters. While Islay’s peat is largely composed of seaweed and moss, Highland peat contains shrubs and grasses that give it a much sweeter, friendlier taste. Let’s see how it’s influenced this Campbeltown malt.

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Age Your Own Whisky – Alligator Char

Having matured port, beer, jenever and three different whiskies in my cask, I started noticing that I didn’t get as much flavour from the oak as I used to. This is common in the whisky industry too, where casks have a limited lifetime. Distillers will typically use first fill or refill bourbon barrels, with first fill having held only bourbon before, and refill both bourbon and one batch of whisky. After this, the casks become less active: the oak has fewer flavour compounds left to pass onto the whisky. Distillers of course don’t discard cask that easily and have found ways to reuse them. One common approach to reactivating the oak is to toast or char the inside of the barrel. This opens up new surface area for the spirit to interact with, thereby replenishing those lovely oaky flavours that are needed for a maturing a good whisky.

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Hazelburn 13 year old Oloroso Cask

Hazelburn 13 Oloroso Sherry Review

Distillery: Springbank
Region: Campbeltown
Age: Distilled in 2003, bottled in 2017
abv: 47.1%

More than any other distillery, Springbank has contributed to the revival of Campbeltown whisky and its enduring status as a distinct whisky region. Not only did owners J&A Mitchell re-open Glengyle distillery, they also produce no fewer than three styles of single malt in their celebrated Springbank distillery. Of these, unpeated Hazelburn leans towards the lighter, more gentle end of the spectrum. Moreover, Hazelburn is triple distilled – quite rare for a Scotch – resulting in a purer, smoother drink. That’s not to say Hazelburn is tame, it still packs plenty of coastal punch. This particular release has been matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry casks. And it shows: not only does this whisky have a beautifully dark hue, but those 13 years in European oak have turned this Hazelburn into a true sherry bomb. This expression was distilled in 2003 and limited to 12.000 bottles. Other sherried versions soon followed (2004 and 2007), as well as a 14 year old from 2008. All this indicates that these Oloroso bottlings have been a success story and may be on their way to becoming a (semi-)regular feature in Hazelburn’s line-up. I certainly don’t mind, this has fast become one of my favourite Hazelburn expressions!

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Caol Ila 25 year old

Caol Ila 25 year old review

Distillery: Caol Ila
Region: Islay
Age: 25 years old
abv: 43%

Caol Ila 25 year old was introduced in 2010, after Diageo had piloted cask strength versions a few years earlier. Nowadays this Caol Ila is bottled at 43% abv. Although the better part of this whisky has spent a quarter century in bourbon barrels, there’s also a few ex-sherry casks thrown into the mix. As a member of Caol Ila’s core range, this 25 year old is now the oldest regular offering from this oft-overlooked Islay distillery.

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Flóki Sheep Dung Smoked Reserve

Flóki Sheep Dung Smoked Review 01

Distillery: Eimverk
Country: Iceland
Age: 3 years old
abv: 47%

Gordon Ramsey recently caused a bit of a stir shovelling sheep shit on an episode of his show Uncharted. Sure enough, a celebrity chef and excrement are an unusual combination, unless we count the stuff coming out of Gordon’s mouth. The particular poop being shovelled was meant for production of Wholly Shit whisky, distilled in Tasmania. And while the use of sheep dung is sure to grab attention, it’s not necessarily a gimmick. Icelandic distillers Eimverk have been using sheep dung for years now, and to them it’s second nature. Although peat is traditionally the fuel of choice for drying barley, peat simply doesn’t form in Iceland’s austere landscape. In looking for an alternative, Eimverk needed to look no further than their local cuisine, where it’s very normal to smoke foods using sheep dung. I’ve tried Arctic char and lamb smoked this way, and although distinctive, it was an excellent meal. That’s not to say I will be collecting faeces for my next smoking session on the grill, but I am happy that Eimverk decided not to import peat from Scotland. It’s the sustainable choice too: while peat bogs can take centuries to regrow, sheep produce dung on a daily basis. How’s that for a renewable resource!

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Flóki Sherry Cask Finish

Flóki Sherry Cask Finish Review

Distillery: Eimverk
Country: Iceland
Age: 3 years old
abv: 47%

When Eimverk introduced Iceland’s first ever single malt in 2017, it was a young, intrepid dram full of bourbon-like flavours. Although I enjoyed it, I immediately wondered how Flóki would fare with some time spent in European oak. Well, the wait is over, because Eimverk has since released a whole new range of whiskies. And what interesting expressions they are! There’s the next iteration of Flóki’s Sheep Dung Smoked whisky, a Beer Cask Finish, and even a whisky that matured in birch wood. Of these new bottlings, this Sherry Cask Finish is perhaps the most traditional. While the other expressions add an extra Icelandic dimension to an already uniquely local product, a finish in sherry casks is a more conventional next step for most distillers. This cask type tends to help in showcasing a gentler, sweeter side of a whisky, complementing the distillery character with fruity, nutty flavours. But not only the whisky is different, the packaging also received an overhaul. Gone are the shiny Viking inspired patterns, now replaced by beautiful earthy colours. As always, the bottles are numbered and signed by hand, a nice personal touch.

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Flóki Icelandic Birch Finish

Flóki Birch Finish Review 01

Distillery: Eimverk
Country: Iceland
Age: 3 years old
abv: 47%

Whisky is matured in oak. That’s a given. Oak is easy to shape, not prone to cracking and abundantly available. Moreover, it’s got the right level of porosity, allowing the cask contents to evaporate and oxygenate, but not at rates that cause spoilage. Different types of oak can imbue a spirit with different flavour types, whether it’s European oak, American oak, or even Mizunara. The previous contents of the cask also significantly impact a whisky’s flavour, meaning there is an extremely wide array of flavours that distillers can work with. And yet… what if you were to use a wood other than oak? For the reasons mentioned above, it can be challenging to use other wood types, but whisky makers have started experimenting. Japan-based Kamiki offers a cedar wood and cherry wood finished whisky, while Irish distillers Method & Madness produce a chestnut matured expression. I’ve only tried the Kamiki Cedar Wood, but the results are astounding. Even a short finish in a different wood type offers up a wealth of new flavours to explore.

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