I’m sure we’ve all experienced these little twists of fate that inexorably draw us towards a place we hadn’t intended on. So it was when I found myself in Tokyo’s Ginza district, ready to immerse myself in the local bar scene. Before coming to Japan, I had read Stefan van Eycken’s excellent Whisky Rising, which features a chapter on the best whisky bars in town. Clearly Bar High Five was the place to go, or so I thought. Alas, I’ll never know (or at least not until my next trip to Tokyo), for High Five was jam-packed, with a line stretching all the way to the elevator. Fortunately, another of the book’s recommendations was just around the corner. We almost missed the entrance (a sliding door in a dim alley), but once inside we were able to descend the stairs into the bar.
Distillery: Isle of Arran
Age: No age statement
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really enjoy Arran’s Cask Finishes range. There’s something about Arran’s fresh, fruity profile that just lends itself very well to an additional few months in ex-wine or port casks. For this bottling, Arran used oak that previously held Amarone, a rich Italian red wine. And oh my, has it left its mark on this whisky. Dark of colour with sweet, nutty flavours, a silky mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish, Arran Amarone Cask is a dram to savour. For the past few years this bottling has been in a bit of a limbo, being discontinued and reintroduced several times over. Let’s see if the Amarone Cask sticks around, but surely a dram this good has earned its place in Arran’s core range..?
Age: No age statement
Noun. a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth.
Laphroaig is no stranger to a bit of Gaelic here and there, but today’s bottling is in plain good old English. Which means it’s possible to look up a definition, and as always the folks at Oxford Dictionary were happy to oblige. So if you consider that the particular group are distillers, blenders and craftsmen, and that the subject is distilling Laphroaig, then the name Lore is really quite fitting. For indeed this bottling is meant as a celebration of the knowledge passed on through the ages, all the way from 1815 until the present day. Somewhere along the line someone must’ve passed some knowledge on the virtues of NAS whiskies, because Laphroaig has very much followed this trend. But enough has been said about this, for it’s quality that counts, not age statements. And on this front Laphroaig Lore is certainly not holding back. Current distillery manager John Campbell claims that Lore is the richest Laphroaig ever made, and given that it’s composed of 7 to 21 year old whisky, including some aged in sherry butts and quarter casks, there may be some truth to this statement. Certainly Lore has picked up plenty of awards, and was named as best NAS Scotch in Jim Murray’s 2019 Whisky Bible. While I far from always agree with Jim Murray, I certainly did enjoy this luxuriously spicy Laphroaig!
Age: Distilled in 1997, bottled in 2012
When legendary whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited Oban in 1887, he described the distillery as “a quaint old-fashioned work”. On the face of it, not much has changed, with Oban distillery employing the same traditional production methods. In the meanwhile though, owners Diageo have invested significantly in both hardware and marketing, and Oban has become one of their flagship Classic Malts.
As a town, Oban is known as the Gateway to the Isles, and indeed many a ferry departs from here to the Hebrides. Perhaps it’s unsurprising therefore that Oban’s distillery character holds the middle between a Highland and an Island whisky. Fresh and fruity but with plenty of briny notes and a whiff of smoke, Oban is the quintessential coastal malt. I count Oban amongst my favourite distilleries, but somehow never end up drinking much of their whisky. Perhaps it’s the fact that there aren’t many expressions on offer. Or perhaps it’s the fact that Oban is never truly outstanding, but never lets you down either, like that dependable old friend you really ought to pay a visit more often. This particular expression has received a second maturation in Montilla Fino sherry casks, providing a nutty richness on top of Oban’s sweet, coastal profile.
Age: No age statement
Popularity always comes at a price. This is certainly true for Japanese whisky, where overwhelming demand and sluggish supply have put immense pressure on stocks of aged spirit. The result has been predictable: a move towards no age statement (NAS) bottlings, with whole ranges of age statement whiskies getting the axe. Sure enough, it’s always sad to see beloved whiskies disappear, but when done right, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NAS bottlings. For some proof in the proverbial pudding, look no further than Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve. Launched in 2014 as Yazazaki’s entry-level whisky, the Distiller’s Reserve fills the gap left by the now hard-to-come-by 12 year old. And for a first foray into NAS whiskies, owners Suntory have certainly not been stingy on the composition of this dram. Featuring whisky finished in ex-Bordeaux casks, older sherry matured spirit and even some of that precious mizunara oak, this Distiller’s Reserve is a captivating concoction. Perhaps all this justifies the hefty price tag – although having said that, this whisky sells for as little as €30 in Japan. And while this bottling is unlikely to make Yamazaki fans forget about the 18 or even 25 year old, the Distiller’s Reserve bears all the hallmarks of a worthy addition to the range.
Whenever I’m asked for a recommendation on where to go in Scotland, the Isle of Skye is without fault the first thing that comes to mind. While there’s plenty to see and do on the island, its the beauty and diversity of its landscape that is undoubtedly Skye’s biggest draw. From the lush green hills near the Storr to the jaw-droppingly sheer cliffs of Neist Point, with the dark, foreboding presence of the Cuillins a continuous backdrop, Skye really does have it all. And whisky fans won’t be disappointed either. While Skye stalwart Talisker has been producing quality whiskies since 1830, with Torabhaig distillery there’s a new kid on the block too. In short, plenty of reason for another visit! Of course I’m not the only one with this bright idea, and in fact Skye has been paying a price for its popularity. In order get away from the crowds and to experience the island as it was meant to be enjoyed, I set out into the wild with two friends. Armed with a tent, waterproof clothes and plenty of whisky, we would be spending some quality time on this handsome Hebridean isle.
Age: No age statement
Macallan Amber forms part of the distillery’s 1824 Series, named for the year in which Macallan took out a license to distil. The 1824 Series is a range of four whiskies, each exclusively aged in ex-sherry casks. Nevertheless, there is a clear gradation in colour and intensity, from the light, citrusy Macallan Gold to the dark, lavish Macallan Ruby. Amber is the second bottling in the series, balancing the obvious sherry influences with Macallan’s fruity, spicy profile. Although Macallan’s website already lists 1824 under “past releases”, its whiskies are nonetheless still widely available. If you do feel like snapping up one of these drams I wouldn’t wait too long though, they’re not bound to get any cheaper…
Distillery: Glen Garioch
Age: 12 years old
First things first, let’s get those pesky phonetics out of the way. For with Gaelic nothing is ever quite what it seems, and Garioch is actually pronounced Geerie. Its namesake glen earned fame as The Granary of Aberdeenshire for its rich, fertile fields and top quality grain. With barley in such plentiful supply, its perhaps not surprising that Glen Garioch distillery established itself here as early as 1797, making it one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Indeed, the barley profile is still very much present in Glen Garioch’s house style, with malt, honey and toffee shining through in many bottlings. Given all this, you might be surprise to hear that the distillery faced severe input shortages, but – unusually – the limiting factor was not barley, but water. Glen Garioch was mothballed in 1968 due to “chronic water shortages and limited production potential”, and subsequently sold off to Stanley Morrison, who also owned Bowmore distillery. He intiated a search for a new water supply, and struck liquid gold when a well was found on a neighbouring farm. The new water source was so good that production increased to ten times its previous level, facilitated by a new pair of stills.
Age: No age statement
When it was announced that the 1990 release of Airigh Nam Beist would be the last in the series, a collective sigh went through the Ardbeg fanbase. But of course every end leaves room for new beginnings, and fortunately Ardbeg chose to release Corryvreckan as a replacement. It’s safe to say the new bottling has been a great success, enjoying huge popularity and squarely earning its place in Ardbeg’s Ultimate Range.
Corryvreckan displays all of Ardbeg’s usual peaty, coastal characteristics, but with an amped up alcohol content. Aged primarily in bourbon barrels, there’s also some virgin French oak thrown into the mix (and even Burgundy casks it is rumoured), lending a spicy freshness to Corryvreckan. The result is an intense, eye-watering dram that’s a real feast for the senses.
Age: No age statement
Freshly rebranded, Miyagikyo Single Malt replaces the previous Miyagikyo NAS bottling, as well as the distillery’s 10, 12 and 15 year old expressions. The reasons why are obvious, as skyrocketing demand continues to put pressure on aged stocks of Japanese malt. In fact, Nikka’s other stalwart Yoichi has received identical treatment, with the entire range being replaced by a similar NAS bottling.
Having said that, all signs point to the fact that Nikka has included some older whisky into Miyagikyo Single Malt. This is very much a good thing, and reverses a trend whereby Japanese NAS whiskies were becoming ever younger. A large portion of this dram was aged in ex-sherry casks, complementing the delicate distillery character with sweet, nutty undertones. This whisky was my travel companion during a recent camping trip in Japan, and sure kept me warm and cheerful on some cold Hokkaido nights. So while for me this Miyagikyo scores points for sheer nostalgia, it’s also objectively a very pleasant, rewarding dram that I can confidently recommend to anyone taking their first steps in Japanese whisky.