It’s staff picks time again (where does the time go, how time flies, ah I remember the days when.. etc.) and it seems variety is the spice of life this time around, with no less than three countries and four styles being championed. The focus seems to be on individualistic, characterful whiskies as you might expect and, with value for money taken into account, each is of excellent quality.
First up is a Japanese blend which ranks very highly on the quality-to-cost ratio and works beautifully as a Mizuwari (tall with water and ice), ideal as the summer takes hold. Next, in the cooler climes of bonny Scotland is the often under-rated Old Pulteney distillery, with perhaps their best standard release and one that has a growing band of followers. The third on the list comes from my personal adventure into the world of bourbon, compelling me to recommend one of the best I have yet tasted before heading back to Scotland for a recently reviewed, and beautifully constructed blended scotch.
Bowmore whisky is arguably one of the most interesting and varied of all Scotches, and not always for the reasons one might hope. On one hand this beautiful distillery on the shores of Loch Indaal has given us some of the most spectacular “malt moments” in history with, among others, its gloriously fruity 1964 Trilogy (‘Black’ Bowmore, ‘White’ and ‘Gold’) releases, and yet on the other hand we see the now all but infamous production of the 1980s with its seemingly inexplicable perfumed, soapy notes that many (myself fully included) find anything but desirable. The reason for this stark change of character during the 80s is hard to tie down to one specific factor, though we can be reasonably certain that it did not make itself so apparent in the new make at the time.
There is no question that many things have changed in the industry over the last 40 or so years and this is probably the greatest barrier to pinpointing the reasons behind Bowmore’s split personality. Centralised malting and maturation, new barley varieties, changes in fermentation time in response to demand and radically revised wood policy are just some of the many changes that may have played a part in what is clearly a complex picture. Had Bowmore remained draped in parma violets and lavender soap in its current production, I doubt we would find the situation fascinating so much as a tragedy. Gladly however the 90/00 spirit is as much a departure from that distilled in the 80s, as the 80s spirit was from its 60s and 70s forbears. As a result of this the current spirit is winning people over once more, with releases like the widely acclaimed Bowmore 10 year old Tempest and an array of quality bottlings from the Independents.
There’s so much to say about Glenfarclas whisky that it can be somewhat difficult to know where to start. Given that this is the first of what will be many posts to feature this venerable distillery, it seems only fair to highlight a few of the things that make Glenfarclas so special in the modern world of Single Malt Scotch. Situated in the rolling valleys of Ballindalloch, this Speyside distillery is unusual in having been family owned since 1865, with the Grant’s consistent stewardship having allowed it to avoid some of the modernisation common throughout the majority of the industry. The stills remain direct fired to this day, the full production is matured on site and the stock held in the warehouses is perhaps the most far-stretching and comprehensive of any distillery in Scotland.
Just this last week the sheer depth and wealth of the casks maturing at Glenfarclas was highlighted once more by the announcement of their oldest release yet; a 58 year old and one of the last four casks filled in 1953 left at the distillery. It is these old and frequently heavily sherried bottlings that have helped to cement the Glenfarclas reputation for quality. In all the reverence that surrounds the distillate produced in 50s, 60s and 70s, the standard releases can become a little overlooked, so before we get to posting reviews of those old sherry monsters (restraint can only last so long), let’s have a look at the more widely available 21 year old.
After Tuesday’s review of the ever-excellent Lagavulin 16 year old, it seemed like a fair idea to stay with the Islay whiskies for one more dram and head just a mile up the road to Laphroaig distillery, the Island’s best-selling single malt. Laphroaig is often said to polarise opinion with its profoundly medicinal, phenolic spirit frequently confounding Whisky newcomers, while cultivating a loyal following of initiated devotees. There are some of us though that have less overtly partisan feelings about the distillery, enjoying a number of bottlings and certainly not being adverse the spirit’s brazen, intense character, whilst also not being so enamoured as to view it as the undisputed king of peated whiskies.
Laphroaig’s core range has developed a reputation for its consistency over the last few years, with the Laphroag 10 year old and Quarter Cask expressions being very reliable and well worth exploring. However, the consistency of quality also means that cask strength expressions from the independent bottlers have been a pretty safe bet for some time. For fans of the distillery wishing to experience a less “branded” or even “tamed” (40%abv and/or chill-filtered) version of Laphroaig there are a plethora of credible options on the market. This bottling from the recently introduced Archives series is one such option, and if the other new releases in their range are anything to go by this should be a good example.
For many malt fans (myself firmly included) Lagavulin is both a special and deeply significant distillery. By virtue of this 16 year old expression’s position in Diageo’s Classic Malts series, the whisky is many people’s first experience of the Islay heavyweights, and you could hardly wish for a better or more engaging introduction. Lagavulin distillery sits on the drier side of the proverbial “smokey spectrum”, less medicinal than Laphroaig whisky and more rounded and approachable than many Ardbegs.
If you are lucky enough to visit Islay and find yourself at the doors of this historic distillery, the importance of the place and its spirit only intensifies further. From the old larch washbacks and distinctly squat, short-necked stills to their long still runs of over 10 hours and lovely old-school warehouses, there’s much to love. It’s true that all of this is lent a bittersweet edge by the lack of staff per shift and the inescapable presence of computer-led automation, however when you’re stood on Lagavulin Bay, gazing across to Dunyvaig Castle with a dram straight from the cask in hand, it’s hard to avoid falling more deeply in love with this classic distillery.
Longmorn distillery has a sustained and excellent reputation amongst blenders and whisky lovers alike. The rich, well flavoured make serves as a good top-dresser for blends and, happily for us, delivers some exceptional casks when the independent bottlers get involved. Sadly the distillery remains quite under-represented as a single malt in its official form, with its current owners (Chivas Brothers) restricting its range to a fairly underwhelming Longmorn 16 year old and Cask Strength 1997 Limited Edition. It would be a great pleasure to see this expanded as these few official releases often leave Longmorn overlooked and under appreciated by newcomers.
This 1976 bottling was released under The Whisky Agency’s frequently outstanding “Perfect Dram” label last year and, predictably, sold out almost instantly. Along with several other fairly new bottlers like Malts of Scotland, Thosop, Asta Morris, The Nectar/Daily Drams, The Whisky Man etc, The Whisky Agency has built a remarkable reputation due to the quality and consistency of its selections. While many of these bottlers have released high quality Longmorn’s from the 70’s, it is this bourbon cask from 76 and the incredible 1972 Perfect Dram/Three Rivers Tokyo Sherry Cask released in 2010, which seem to shine about the others.
By now you probably know Compass Box whiskies well; indeed since its inception in 2000 John Glaser’s self-styled boutique blending company has made quite a reputation for itself. Part of this must be down to their willingness to experiment and push at the boundaries of an often conservative industry, but its undeniable that quality of flavour lies at the heart of the company’s continued success. Blends such a Spice Tree, Oak Cross and the ever-popular blended grain Compass Box Hedonism display what the company is perhaps best known for; big, oak-forward whisky full of heady vanilla, spice and a leaning towards rich sweetness.
The Compass Box Great Kings Street series was introduced last year, in part to celebrate their first decade of business, with the debut bottling being this; the Artist’s blend. With this release Compass Box are sticking to their ever-present standards and avoiding chill-filtration and colouring (props for this as always), while attempting to produce an accessible, high malt content blend that will suit both those wishing to savour it on its own, or use it as a mixer.