Whisky and Words Number 29: Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009

We’re off the NAS train for a bit, coming back from the underwhelming Dalmore KA III, back at you with another Bruichladdich. I’ll do a little compare and contrast with the Bruich’ Scottish Barley, AKA Classic Laddie. Note, the Islay malt does have an age statement. On the bottle it states “Distilled in 2009, bottled in 2015. Aged 6 years in oak casks.” So, this has been sitting around in bottles for two years. Similarly, the currently available Islay Barley shown on the Bruich website is from 2010. (Oddly, where the 2009 is redundant stating the time spent in cask, the 2010 bottle is silent on that subject.) So, you wonder, how does a 6-year old stack up to the standards from other distilleries aged 10-12 years? We’ll see below. Let’s see what goes into making this whisky.

Click to expand, you can read their record of provenance.

First of all we have to recognize Bruichladdich as a distiller with an intense focus on how the whisky is made and from what. Not that other distillers are unfocused–I did visit a number of them this year–but these folks really take terroir to a fanatical level. My Islay Barley’s canister (photo alongside) boasts ‘Uber-provenance’ and names the Islay farms from which they sourced their barley. There is a lot of text about what was happening on the farms the year the barley was grown. It’s worth a read. We also find their credo on the canister, they “believe in Islay…in people..in authenticity provenance and traceability. We believe in slow.”

Regarding ‘slow’: the Bruichladdich people don’t stop at focusing on grain. On their website they describe in detail the old-fashioned equipment and methods used onsite: Oregon pine washbacks, Victorian equipment, little mechanization:

From their website. Go Oregon!

“The testament to their vision is that today the distillery is exactly the same as Robert designed it, and with most of the original machinery still in use….The Boby mill is the most precision piece of kit in the set up. We can regulate the crushing rollers with an astonishing degree of accuracy so that each variety of barley, each terroir’s produce, each harvest can be milled to precise tolerances. It was refurbished by the only man in the country with the expertise to do so, two weeks before he died.”

Cold, in their focus, working a man within weeks of his death. We can hope, I think, he died of old age <g>. Actually, the people there were quite friendly and outgoing. (More on that when I write up my whisky tours and visits.) I tried this expression on our visit there, and remember it from the tiny ‘driver’s taste’ that I had as being pretty damn good. The wife (who got to taste a whole dram) was so impressed she bugged me as soon as we got home to find a bottle. Hence these reviews!

We’ve tried both the current Scottish (Classic) and Islay Barley expressions. Both are bottled at 50% ABV and with no coloring or filtration. The Islay Barley, like the Classic, is an honest straw color, as you can tell from the photos — and sold in a clear bottle to show it off. Let’s get down to smell and taste.

Winter light makes the bottle look darker. The Glencairn glass shows the true color of the whisky.

On the nose, the Islay Barley is a bit gentler than the Classic — no sting on the nose, but also less of the grass and floral aroma the Classic has.  That’s probably a trade-off of the longer maturation. What you get is a smoother delivery of the essential mineral character of the nose. I also noted a pleasantly funky maritime wrack — thanks to the casks being aged onsite, right next to Loch Indaal (a bay, really, so salt water). This aroma brings me back to that bleak Islay coast. The whisky is also smoother over the palate than the Classic. Where the Classic is prickly with white pepper and its toffee is in the background, with the Islay Barley, toffee is in the foreground. Its peppery notes and tannins are more reserved. This is not a ‘smooth’ dram, however. It’s not Lee Ritenour smooth, but more like a young George Benson where the Classic is Al DiMeola.

Tasting Notes

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009, Islay single malt, 50% ABV, not chill filtered or colored

Nose (unwatered): Did not sting me like the Classic did. Mineral and wrack, hints of toffee.
Palate (unwatered): Creamier than classic, it really brings the flavor forward. The foretaste is toffee and  both treacle and vanilla. Less white pepper on the sides of the tongue but still plenty of tannins to balance the sweetness. A touch of water loses the creamy intensity, but does not uncover any hidden tendencies.
Finish (unwatered): The Islay Barley is certainly a step up from the Classic. If you find the Classic too lively and spicy, the Islay is your step towards refinement. It loses a little of the Classic’s youthful exuberance and interesting nose in exchange for a luxuriously rich palate. There is still some liveliness to the flavor — you won’t mistake this for a 12-year Speysider by any means. It is worth a try for its unique approach to the Islay tradition.

Bottom Line: Note that I tasted these at their bottled strength. That is a testament to the smoothness of the product. Yes, I call out these malts from Bruichladdich for being lively, but remember, that’s at 50% ABV. They’re lively, not harsh, and that’s not bad. So, does the distiller’s maniacal attention to detail pay off? Do you get what you pay for? The Classic is a rougher, though nicely complex, NAS expression for $50 around here. I think it is worth it and a good daily driver. In fact, the wife prefers the Classic. I prefer the Islay Barley and at about $70, I would consider this a ‘special occasion’ whisky — where Friday might be a special occasion. It’s in the same class as a Glenfarclas 17 or Balvenie Doublewood. Different than these, but good.

It’s no wonder Uncle Charlie, our taxi driver for a day, spoke highly of the Bruichladdich folks. We probably would not have made the trip that final day to visit the distillery if it weren’t for him. Thanks Charlie!


The Islay Barley 2009 and ‘Classic’ Scottish Barley malts from Bruichladdich

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Whisky and Words Number 28: Dalmore King Alexander III

KAIII box rear

This whisky, the Dalmore King Alexander III (KA III forthwith) was a gift, and I am grateful for it. Especially as this retailed for over $300 when our local stocked it (it’s a state-owned store and they rotate brands, it is gone now). That price is definitely out of my ‘I’ll try it on a whim’ range. One wonders at the price, especially for a NAS whisky. What are we buying? There is a fancy box, as you can see (bottom of post), and all those flaps provide lots of inspiring verbiage:

  • A note about the box art, The Death of the Stag, about a fine painting at the Scottish National Galleries (I saw it, an impressive painting) on the right inner flap.
  • A note about the Dalmore Custodians, their loyalty program on the left inner flap.
  • Dalmore history, Dalmore’s general approach to marrying spirit, and KA III tasting notes (box rear).

So what does Dalmore bring to the party? Does this hyped-up NAS hold up?

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Whisky and Words Number 27: Bruichladdich ‘Classic’ Laddie

Known alternately as Scottish Barley and The Classic Laddie, this expression from craft-distiller Bruichladdich is a NAS whisky.

I have to admit a fondness for the place after having visited; I like their style. It was our last day on Islay, and after a busy morning walking from Port Ellen to Ardbeg (more on that later!) we decided to head out into the hinterlands for a drive. We took the road out to Port Charlotte, a tiny village at the end of which the A847 went from two lanes to one. That was all for me, I had had a bellyful of driving on tiny little roads and we headed back the way we came. Portnahaven would wait for next trip!

On the way back, we dropped by Bruichladdich. The distillery had been enthusiastically recommended to us by ‘Uncle Charlie,’ our taxi driver for the Bunnahabhain/Caol Isla visits (more on that later as well). I unfortunately has well tired of photography (and the day was spitting rain as well) so I have no photos, sad to say. Except this one, of some local creatures which had just scurried out of our way:

What, they think they own the road?

Just a dram, please.

It’s an interesting little place, a whitewashed structure and wall, through which you pass into an intimate little courtyard to park. The tasting room is through a brightly painted (turquoise) door, low-ceilinged, liberally provided with couches on which whisky overs lounged in quiet repose. There was the usual display of t-shirts, jackets and the like, and a wide bar where a kindly woman of mature years welcomed us gaily and immediately offered us a taste. Why, of course, why not? I expected the usual: “Here’s our standard, if you want more sign up for a tour.” But she led us energetically through tastings of four expressions (of which I took the tiniest sips, as I was still driving, grr.) We had the Classic Laddie, the Islay Barley (both unpeated), the Port Charlotte and Octomore (latter two peated). Note: though I growl about NAS whiskies, these all lacked an age statement and yet I enjoyed them all.

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Whisky and Words Number 26: Talisker Storm


Talisker Storm

This is the first of three straight NAS whisky reviews. I relented on Talisker’s Storm when the price came down, from over $55 locally (Oregon) to just under $50. The original price was not so obnoxious as some NAS whiskies — I tried a Dalmore King Alexander III recently, for example, which runs $305, and Ardbeg’s Corryveckan is about $90. But still, $55 is the range where you can get a nice 12-year-old.

The standard Talisker 10, one of my favorites, isn’t cheap of course, at about $65 locally, so the opportunity to fill the Talisker-sized hole in my liquor cabinet for fifty bucks was too good to pass up. So, how does the Storm compare? After all, it is a Talisker, and we have expectations: of light peat smoke, a unique medicinal nose, shades of wrack and seaweed, citrus and fruit. Those expectations are whetted by the marketing message prominent in this expression: it comes in a big bluish box with stormy clouds and splashing ocean waves, as you can see from the photo. The text reads that this whisky “takes the most intense experiences to a new level.” Well, that’s a marker thrown. We can expect this dram to be a bit combative, eh?

I’m relieved to see they bottle the Storm at the traditional (and offbeat) Talisker ABV percentage, 45.8. Must be an inside joke on Skye. Side-by-side with the 10-year-old (oh dear, sibling rivalry) I see right off the color is comparable, but the Storm is a shade more straw to the 10-year’s gold. That’s to be expected, in the absence of coloring (but Diageo isn’t telling one way or the other), if we assume younger malts in the Storm’s marry.* Less time in cask == less color.

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NAS Again…

Sure NAS whiskies get flack from whisky lovers. We consider the age statement a definitive mark of quality, care, and investment by the distiller. The distillers will come back at us with arguments that ‘no age statement’ expressions give them the freedom to pick the best casks, etc. But I have to think, if we as consumers roll over and accept this, we’ll be on the road to what wine has become. Manufactured. And there will be apologists for manufactured whisky as there are apologists for manufactured wine. Take the article in the New York Times by Bianca Bosker just last March. When I read it I was certain, until it concluded, that the piece was a tongue in cheek sendup. I mean, oak dust? Liquid oak tannin ‘(pick between “mocha” and “vanilla”)’ — really? Ms. Bosker promoted the idea that we should accept products designed by committee for easy drinking palates, further straining credulity. I do not exaggerate:

“many mass-market wines are designed by sensory scientists with the help of data-driven focus groups and dozens of additives that can, say, enhance a wine’s purple hue or add a mocha taste. The goal is to turn wine into an everyday beverage with the broad appeal of beer or soda.”

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Whisky and Words Number 25: Springbank 10

The Springbank website crawler hint says “Springbank is a unique Campbelltown distillery’ and this is no mere marketing. Read on.

I’ve really looked forward to trying this malt. I had to afford it first, it’s pricey ($78 in Oregon). But as “the only Scottish distillery to complete 100% of the production process on site” (link) and their claim that Springbank 10 is distilled ‘two and a half times’ — I had to know, how much magic resulted?

Honest coloring

I’ve had a bottle pf Springbank on my desk for three months. And just a week or so ago, I found myself within a an hours’ drive of the distillery. My wife and I were returning from three glorious days on Islay, and had to get all the way to Glasgow, turn in the car by 6, and catch a train. The thought of taking a few more hours out of an already hectic day seemed daunting, and in retrospect, I’m glad we passed Springbank by. It would have been too much for one day, and it gives me a reason to return to that corner of Scotland (besides the wonderful people on Islay).

I don’t remember my first impressions of the whisky, so I opened the bottle today and gave it a good whiff. I expected peat for some reason, but got instead a distinct maritime note and a higher nose of grassy overtones. Quite pleasant — no hint of oil or phenols. There’s lemon, honeysuckle and a touch of spice on the nose that’s completely distinct and unique. Obviously, bourbon casked.

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Whisky and Words Number 24: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig's Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask is actually a bit lighter in color than in this shot (another cloudy day in Portland).

We’re still on Island expressions, and time to address a No Age Statement offering from Laphroaig: the Quarter Cask. A quarter cask is a cask one quarter the capacity of a hogshead. Sounds official and specific, doesn’t it? It does, until you start looking at what a hogshead is, which is ‘a large cask or barrel‘ of anywhere from 55 to 63 US gallons. It depends. The Laphroaig folks explain that they use a ‘small‘ cask, which gives, compared the their normal casks, a 30% greater cask (interior) surface area for a given volume of whisky. A higher whisky-to-oak ratio, if you will.

That ratio, it is presumed, allows the goodness of the charred oak to infuse more quickly with the spirit, rendering a quicker maturation. They also point out that the surface-to-spirit ratio also increases the ‘Angel’s share’ of alcohol which evaporates out of the oak. True enough, and that evaporation is displaced with good sea air, of which Laphroaig distillery has plenty. In the end, this is a gambit to allow the whisky master to create a whisky with the balance and sophistication of a fully (e.g., 10 or 12-year) matured whisky with spirit what hasn’t aged as long. Alchemy, I say! Can you get gold from lead (well, without a nuclear reactor)?

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