Thursday, 12 July 2012

Coal Ila 12 Year Old

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review so I thought I’d ease my way back in with a  familiar favourite.. Coal Ila 12 Year Old.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a Coal Ila that I didn’t enjoy and I’ve just enjoyed a bottle of the 12yo. Not all at once I should add. So, what are my last impressions as I drain the bottle? I think Coal Ila is possibly the only whisky I’ve come across that I’d describe as refreshing. No in a lightweight/speyside kind of way. It’s still distinctly Islay, the smokey, medicinal character is still there. But it’s sweeter than many others from Islay and has a distinct freshness to it. It’s almost like a mouthwash in its invigorating mouthfeel. It’s smooth too (I found it doesn’t really need water) with very little burn and extremely moreish.

The freshness comes right from the start, sticking my nose in the glass, the smell rushes up like a bracing gust of wind. I’ve heard the smell described as a TCP, usually in a degroatory way from non-whisky drinkers. I can understand that although it’s less acrid than that. It’s a ‘clean’ smell that hits you. Once that dies away I picked up hints of vanilla fudge. A tiny hint of smoke. But a dry smoke, not thick with damp peatiness.
The pale straw colour of the whisky belies its characterful nature, but it clings nicely to the sides of the glass.

I’ve always found it to be very consistent. Sometimes a whisky (even from the same bottle), doesn’t quite taste as good (or the same) as the last time I tried it, which is much more down to me than the whisky. But Coal Ila always seems to retain the same characteristics I remember.

It’s not the cheapest 12yo out there, hovering around £35, which puts it a fiver or so above a lot of other 10-12yo distillery standards. But it’s worth the extra. This is one of my go-to whiskies, either to share or if I see it in the pub.

As for Coal Ila itself. Well it’s on Islay and it looks fantastic (as all Islay distilleries do). But it’s owned by Diageo (big business - boo!) and the whisky itself is probably matured off Islay itself (as its stablemate Lagavulin is). It doesn’t do much to endear itself in terms of promotion, although some might argue that they don’t hide behind marketing and mission statements. But what can I say, the whisky is amazing. It might not be the most romantic and as much as we all love independent distilleries this really is one of the best.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Bright Young Things

So I was just talking about whisky possibly being “too old”. But what about youth in whisky? As I said in my last post, the impression you get when starting out in the world of whisky is that single malt has to be at least 10 years old to be any good. 10 or 12 seems to the minimum age of most distillery entry level bottlings.

Obviously whisky can be younger (although it needs to be at least 3) but most stuff released before it turns 10 goes straight into making up the numbers in blends. But is there any good single malt whisky under 10?

Yes, of course there is. I just didn’t know this until recently. The realisation came about during two distillery visits on Islay. The first was genuinely a shock. You may have heard of Octomore whisky – it is produced by Bruichladdich and is the world most heavily peated whisky. It is £100 a bottle.
Also it is only 5 years old.
It seemed amazing that they would try and charge £100 when you could get a 20 year old for that kind of money. Thankfully I was lucky enough to try Octomore 4.2 at Bruichladdich and it’s one of the most amazing whiskies I’ve ever tasted – it was fresh and smooth and surprisingly light given the extreme phenol levels. I didn’t take any proper notes and this isn’t a review but one of the things that surprised me the most, considering the age, was how smooth it tasted. £100 is a lot of money but I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to shelling out that much for a bottle.
So an exceptional young whisky – but maybe that was it, it was an exception. An experiment with high phenol levels that’s produced a freakishly good 5 year old.
The next encounter with young whisky also took me by surprise but mainly because I didn’t realise it was under 10 until after the tasting. I stopped by the Laphroaig distillery, firstly trying the 10 Year Old (a familiar favourite) and then tried the Quarter Cask for the first time. I was won over by this – it really is very flavourful and I’ll post a review in due course. However I had assumed at the time it was a variation on the 10yo but didn’t realise until much later on that whisky is only 6 or 7 years old. The whisky spends 5 years or so matured in full sized casks and then is finished in ¼ cask. The greater surface-area to whisky ratio of the smaller cask means its finished differently and more speedily. Not to the detriment of the whisky I hasten to add - quite the opposite.
So two young whiskies discovered within a couple of days. One of them an experiment but the other a widely available standard bottle.

And the more I’ve looked into this they seem to be everywhere (often referred to as No Age Statement). Sometimes it seems they are bottled at a younger age to get a preview of what they will be like later on. The consensus on tasting notes is that younger whiskies are shorter on the finish but a bit fresher in the taste.

So that’s it. My interest is piqued and it is another facet of whisky to explore. The next whisky in the crosshair is an expression of the highly regarded Kilchoman - the oldest of which is only 5. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Never too old?

When I first became interested in drinking whisky properly – tasting it, as opposed to putting cola in (for shame!), I tried to determine a few principles that would see me right. The most obvious thing was to start drinking Single Malt whisky and move away from cheap blends. This generally holds true.

The next thing for a Whisky newbie to hook onto was age. It’s seemed clear from the shop shelves that a standard single malt bottling from a distillery was around 10 or 12 years old. Therefore the obvious conclusion to draw is that whilst the liquid need only(!) be 3 years old to be called whisky it has to be at least 10 to be considered any good.
And from that it must surely also follow that the older a whisky is, the better it is. You know – like wine (sort of). Certainly that’s reflected in the price, an 18yo can be nearly twice the price of a 10/12yo. With an almost exponential curve upwards the older they get – browse any whisky shop or website and try and find a cheap 40 year old.
It makes sense – older whisky takes longer to produce, the cost of making it is higher and this is reflected in the price. As for the taste, when I’ve been lucky enough to try them, older whiskies have generally been smoother and more complex than younger whiskies. The Highland Park 18yo is a thing of beauty in comparison to its (excellent) younger sibling.

So that was easy. Old = good.

But - as you may have guessed from the fact you’re only halfway through this blog post – there’s so much more to it than that. At both ends of the timeline.
The first revelation I had a few years ago was that whisky can spend too long in a barrel – there is such as thing as too old and it doesn't necessarily follow that keeping the stuff in a barrel means it keeps getting better and better (and better). The basic reason for this is that if it stays too long in the barrel the whisky takes on too much ‘woody’ character from the barrel, to the extent that it could end up quite flat and dull. So whisky needs to be freed at the right time.
And not all barrels are created equally. They do not all flavour and colour the whisky at a uniform rate. So what ends up being 25yo whisky is most likely something that didn’t taste right after 12 years (or even 18) - or it was judged to have more potential if it stayed where it was for a few more years. It wasn't just any old barrel that they left to mature for longer than the others.
Old whiskies are almost like ugly ducklings – not good enough to be bottled at the same time as everyone else but in the long-term even better for having to wait.

Even with standard 10 year old bottling - the age on the front of the bottle is only the age of the youngest whisky in there (a legal stipulation). So a 12yo might have whisky that’s 13yo or 16yo or whatever age it was when it was deemed right to come out.
So my original idea that whisky has to be 10 years old kind of holds true but it’s more complicated than that. Whisky isn’t simply bottled the minute it hits its 10th birthday, it's far less exacting. And older whisky is generally better but it’s not a simple process of waiting for anything to turn into great whisky.
What a fascinating liquid to enjoy.
Still surely my 10 year old rule holds true? – I’ll explore this in the next post…

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Old Pulteney 12 Year Old

One night, years ago, I visited a friend for dinner. I can’t remember what we had – most likely a bastardised bolognese (a cheap dish we could all cook). But having a bit of Dolmio and pasta wasn’t intended to be the highlight, because my friend was especially keen to move onto the dessert. This was because he wanted to try out a trick he’d read in a Jamie Oliver cookbook…
The trick was to have vanilla ice-cream, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle a bit of salt on it. So we tried it out and it tasted… quite nice. The three flavours remained very separate, rather than combining to create a new one. And yet they worked together in a very unexpected way. The salt tempering the super sweet ice-cream but with the oil acting as a kind of balance between the two, making the combination of sugar and salt less jarring.
So by this point you probably won’t be surprised to hear that this somehow relates to Old Puleteney 12 Year Old. Well funnily enough it was drinking a glass of OP that reminded me of that taste. Salty, oily and with a hint of vanilla.
It doesn’t sound like it should work but it does, and it is such an unusual tasting single malt. It calls itself the Maritime Malt presumably because of that saltiness. It comes through in the smell too – a pervading saltiness but there’s something else there. After much thought the best I could come up with was driftwood. It has a combination of wood, beach and sea on the nose, quite bracing to take a good niff at. You’d probably hear the sea if you put you ear to the glass.
So that’s my impression of it. I suppose the only negative thing to say is that despite the unusual flavour it’s not the most complex whisky in the world, but it is smooth enough – possibly a touch too smooth. I’d be interested to try a cask strength OP to see what it’s like before they water it down…

What else to mention? The colour is lovely and golden. The bottle is very nice with a gorgeous bulbous neck and stocky lower half – it makes a great glugging sound the first time you pour it out.
The price – well this really is the thing. I bought a bottle on offer in ASDA for £21 (yes ASDA, sorry Royal Mile Whiskies) which is an absolute steal, a really very good drop for that kind of money. Now it seems to be around £27 mark which is still excellent value.
I can’t make a recommendation about this whisky in terms of "if you like x,y or z then try this". But I can wholeheartly recommend trying it out. It’s very well priced (even when not on offer) and adds something a bit different to a whisky collection.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A note on “authenticity”

A few thoughts on whether “authenticity” matters.

Lagavulin produces some very, very good whisky. It has a very charming old distillery, stone-built with white-wash walls, right on the rocky southern coast of Islay. The d├ęcor in the tasting room is very erm… tasteful. Big armchairs, wood panelling and tartan print wallpaper, it feels like you’re sitting in a Laird’s hunting lodge.
So when I was sitting in that  tasting room a couple of months ago everything was set for an enjoyable tour. And like every distillery tour it was enjoyable, but two things left me feeling slightly disappointed and maybe even a touch disillusioned. The first was hearing that the Lagavulin distillery runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and only requires one person to run its operations. And the second was that, once distilled, the spirit is put in a tanker, taken to the mainland and put into barrels to mature.

This wasn’t my first trip to a distillery – I already knew that most of distilleries are owned by large parent companies (Lagavulin is owned by Diageo). And that most distilleries don’t do their own malting, and that in fact many of them use barley that isn’t even grown in the UK.  That’s fine and understood.
But being hit with those two further things just seemed to make it a little bit too far removed from the romantic image of whisky production I had in my head.

The image of one man watching a computer screen and monitoring computerized systems from an office and then pumping 20,000 litres into a tanker to be shipped to a warehouse on an industrial estate outside Edinburgh just doesn’t seem quite as romantic as one might hope.

Now obviously I’m clearly a bit of a sucker for being buying into by the hoary old sales guff that the whisky industry peddles about the tradition and mystery of their product. But it is a seductive image nonetheless, and that’s the problem – if you’re being sold the image of whisky being the “authentic” taste of Islay or Speyside or wherever it is disconcerting to have that image rattled.

I don’t mean to pick on Lagavulin either – I know most distilleries operate in similar manner. And at least they were honest on the tour - would I have preferred it if they had tried to pretend that everything was produced on-site by kilt-wearing, barrel-chested yeomen using wood tools and going on about the “art of making whisky”? That would have been just as inauthentic. Maybe it is just my realisation that whisky making isn’t an art after all, maybe it’s a science – or at least merely an industrial process. Just because the end product is magical and evocative doesn’t mean what goes into it is too…

So does it really matter? I suppose not. Certainly it’s not going to matter to Diageo what I have to say. Making Whisky is an industrial operation and it just so happens that a small proportion of whisky-drinker prefer drinking single malt to blends. And a smaller proportion again of those are actually have enough of an interest to visit a distillery. They are hardly going to change their production so single malt enthusiast can feel slightly more contented.
And even despite my minor disappointment I can honestly say that when it came to the tasting I enjoyed Lagavulin as much as ever. Coal Ila (like Lagavulin owned by Diageo) has always been one of my all time favourites and remains so.

The closest thing I think of as an analogy for this experience is that it’s like reading an interview with your favourite musician and hearing them say something you don’t like. It might lessen your opinion of them slightly and even annoy you. But they won’t change anything that they do and despite what you think, the next time you hear your favourite song, your hairs will still stand on end. There is no fooling your ears. Or your tastebuds.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Bruichladdich Infinity 3

To Infinity and Beyond…

With the tiresome pun out of the way the question is, is this whisky any good?

And the answer is a resounding yes. This is an excellent whisky. Why is it excellent?

Firstly the finish is wonderful. Long after going down there is a satisfying and warm clinginess. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the mouthfeel after having had a glass of full-bodied red-wine. It has the same rich, red fruit taste mixed in with a hint of wood and peat. This is no doubt due to part of the whisky mix having been finished in Tempranillo casks.
It’s kind of whisky you need to pause and close your eyes after drinking so you can focus of the flavour and the feeling.

The wine-y-ness doesn’t come through immediately though, as the whisky passed first my lips, the initial thought was that it was akin to a light fruit cordial drink, or watered down lemonade.  Quite unusual that it seems quite light to start with, then settles in to a complex and rich after taste. It is 50%abv but it is delightfully smooth with no alcohol burn, maybe a little sting on the tip of the tongue. I put a tiny drop of water in but it’s just as good without.

The smell is what really sets this whisky up as something exceptional. Very complex and whenever I pour myself a dram I can't help but keep drawing in deep sniffs of it - it really is rather addictive. There is lots going on here but it’s all complimentary. There wine influence is there again, this time reminiscent of standing in a cool cellar amongst wine barrels. The woodyness is much stronger and there is a touch of smoke too. It’s a hugely comforting and evocative aroma. I also picked up a bit of burnt sugar, possibly due to the influence of some sherry finished whisky.

Given what I’ve just said you expect it to look pretty and it does. A pleasingly deep, dark gold colour, it looks like it will promise a depth of flavour.
I can’t let this review pass without mentioning the bottle either. As you can see from the picture it is black and completely opaque. Personally I think it looks very sleek and stylish. Producing such a stand-out bottle could have gone one of two ways, if the whisky hadn’t been up to scratch this bottle would have definitely made the whole package worse –  it would give it an air of fur coat and no knickers, style over substance. As it is, given the excellent whisky contained within the bottle it actually makes revisiting the whisky rather satisfying. Although one minor criticism is that it’s almost impossible to tell how much is left.

I would add in a word about Bruichladdich here but I think they might be worth a separate blog post. A recent trip to their distillery was in turn enlightening and thought-provoking and, like them or not, they’re one of the most interesting distilleries out there.

Finally a word on cost. I picked up my bottle at the Bruichladdich distillery for £42 (using a £5 off tour voucher). A quick look on-line shows it’s generally available for around that amount. For me that puts it in the price bracket of ‘treating myself’ or ‘generous gift’ from someone close, rather than regular go-to bottle.
But what a treat it is.


Hello and welcome to the first post of the Whisky and Writing blog.
I enjoying drinking single malt scotch whisky and I enjoy writing so I thought I’d combine the two things to create this blog. Now I’m aware that the world probably isn’t crying out for another website reviewing whisky, and it definitely doesn’t need another blog from an aspiring writer.
So I’m sorry that it’s not what you asked for, the world, but putting up a blog within the infinite realm of cyberspace can’t seem to do any actual harm so I thought I’d go ahead with it.
If anyone reads this blog and likes it I’d be delighted, if no-one reads it at least I will get some writing practice.

Mainly I’m planning to review whiskies that I come across, I’ve got a few to start me off so this blog will last at least 4 or 5 posts. I will also put up any musings about whisky in general (the drink, the industry, the idea) as they occur to me; hopefully these will prove to be interesting and/or enlightening.

For structuring the reviews – as an enthusiastic amateur I hardly feel in a position to slap numbers on a distillery’s years and years of hard work. So I’m going to steer clear of using a scoring mechanism; I’ll leave that to Jim Murray.
Equally, the Scottish Malt Whisky Society has the business of leftfield, scatological tasting notes sewn up, and they’re very good at it too, so I’ll side step that approach as well.

What I’m aiming for is to do a traditional review, but in reverse order. Starting with the Finish if you will. I think the most important thing is how the whisky makes you feel once you’ve had a drink of it. So that’s where I’ll start.
Then I’ll try to write about what has contributed to that feeling. The key thing obviously being the taste, followed by the smell and finally the look.
I’ll mention the bottle and packaging too. It seems daft but it all counts towards the experience of drinking whisky. I wish I could honestly say that the liquid is the only thing that matters but I would argue that you’re predisposed to enjoy a whisky that is well presented. In the same vein you might baulk at being poured a glass from an old jam jar. If I’ve got any thoughts on the distillery I’ll throw that in too.
Finally I will mention the unpleasant business of the bill. Value for money is a highly subjective concept and I’ll only be able to give my personal view on it. I may need to devote a blog post to explain how much I think whisky is worth at a later date.

So on to Review No 1…