Whisky and Words Number 39: Talisker 18

Talisker 18, looking pretty.

This bottle of Talisker 18 was a gift from my wife who knows I am a huge fan of Talisker’s 10-year-old, and knows I was blown away by the Talisker 25 I had in a New York restaurant. (That was Aureole, a great combination of superb food and service without pretension. A Michelin starred restaurant, and there were folks eating there in jeans and t-shirts…) But I digress. When I woke up Christmas morning and found this bottle stuffed in my stocking I broke out in a broad grin. Santa sure knows my taste.

This is a whisky with a serious price (about $165 around here) so I’m going to give it a detailed analysis. I’ll be comparing it to the Talisker 10 of course and the Caol Isla 18, which is comparable in some ways (age, Island flavor profile) though the Caol Isla is unpeated. (I have to find a peated Caol 18!)

The 10 (l) and 18 (r) in glass

From the photo above you can see the understated carton and classic design of the Talisker bottle. The label looks like one you could find going 50 years into the past: classic fonts on a cream-colored background. A map of the island (Skye) and their roaring mer-lion fading into the background. Pretty typical Diageo. The color of the spirit is ‘russet muscat‘ and exactly the same as the 10 (see second photo). That they match so well makes me suspect a little bit of alchemy at the bottling. You would think an extra 8 years would render a darker whisky.

A deep and refined dram

The first thing you notice when pouring a Talisker is the aroma. This is not a shy whisky that waits for you to stuff your nose in the glass…it comes and gets you. The air within a few feet of your Glencairn glass will carry that unique combination of seaweed, peat, and a solid midrange of malt and fruit. Since both the 10 and the 18 are bottled at Talisker’s odd 45.8% strength, we can do a solid head to head comparison on aroma. The 18 is very similar to the 10, though smoother. Whereas the 10 can sting a little in a deep draught and has noticeable aromas of drying grass and grapefruit, the 18 is smoother on the nose and less grassy; the 18 is more citrus peel than citrus, carrying as well heavier notes of prune, fig, and worn leather — hence Diageo listing it on the ‘rich‘ side of their tasting chart, versus the 10 being on the ‘light‘ side. Both have a solid background of peat – reminding me of the peated barley we sampled at one of our tours (Caol Isla IIRC). The peat is not overpowering by any means, which is why I love Talisker so much—it’s not heavily phenolic like a Laphroaig (in fact the Diageo folks rate this on the ‘lighter’ side of their tasting chart), but it is complex, balanced, and a treat for the palate.

On the palate, the 10 has a wonderful foretaste of caramel, followed by citrus and peat, a little peppery on the tide of the tongue and the citrus lingers into the aftertaste, where the oak really comes forward—not too bitter but definitely a strong note.

In the 18-year, the citrus and medicinal nature of the dram give way to a refined mid-palate. The peat is more laid back, but the caramel is tempered, like toffee—more caramelized (though not burnt) than in the 10-year and less a factor overall. The more laid back sweetness allows the subtlety of vanilla to come through. A softer oak finish riding on soft billows of peat and seaweed completes an overall smoother, less lively (although more complex) dram. Note there is not a lot of fruitiness in a Talisker. You are getting mostly ex-bourbon casking, just a small percentage of sherry butts (for great detail on the technical side of Talisker, read Difford’s guide.)

About the Caol Isla 18: it is a different beast entirely. I had to add a little water, it being almost 60% ABV. The Caol Isla 18 has a lighter aroma and palate, with toffee (but not as carmelized), grassy notes more like the Talisker 10, and of course no peat. The sweetness is lighter, and the finish smooth and not as interesting as either Talisker. Not as much punch. I would consider the Talisker altogether a more interesting dram, even outside the peatiness. Color me surprised. The Caol Isla single casks we tried at our tasting, and the Moch NAS that the wife brought back, have a magic I think is missing from the unpeated variety.

Talisker 18, Island (Skye) single malt 45.8% ABV

Nose: Gentle, but aromatic! Seaweed and saltwater, peat smoke, malt, citrus peel, figs.
Palate: Toffee, honeysuckle, vanilla, peat smoke and burnt seaweed, a bit of that ‘old spirit’ leathery/meaty magic, less so citrus peel and a touch of peppery/listerine medicinal liveliness around the edges for balance. None of these dominates or is abrupt.
Finish: Lengthy. Toffee, vanilla, oak tannins gently fading in to balance the sweet side, but not a trace of harshness. The peat rides on as well! A little of the listerine-medicinal/citrus peel from the palate.

Bottom Line: The great 10-year expression is a tough competitor. While the Talisker 18 comes in with refinement and improved mid-palate richness, is it enough? Or is it too laid back? The price is not outrageous for an 18-year-old, in fact it’s about even with the Highland Park 18 (coming soon to this blog BTW). But it is not cheap and I think about the 25-year I had in New York which blew my mind and wonder if this is a spirit that reaches its pinnacle with just a few years more. Where the 18 shines is in the aroma and finish. I find it enjoyable just having a glass poured somewhere in the room, and the finish lingers on for paragraphs.

The Talisker 18 and a few oddities

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla (technical)

Our enchanting guide, in the tiny visitor’s center.

I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.

Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.

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Whisky and Words Number 38: The Singleton 15 (Glendullan)

Glendullan 15, color in the bottle is more accurate (the glass is taking some color from the gourd behind).

This was a gift from a very considerate member of the family. It sure beats getting a tie! But of course, then the giver risks the chance I’ll critically review the gift. In this case, they can rest easy. The Singleton 15, an American-only release, comes from Glendullan distillery in Dufftown. You won’t find much about the place online, though the folks at Malt Madness have a pretty good history of the place here. It’s a modern Diageo operation, producing 5M litres of spirit a year from six stills. I found it interesting that it has larchwood washbacks. Does it matter? Probably not; you can read more at ScotchWhisky.com.

The Singleton 15 presents well for its price, and offers a very compelling value in a 15-year whisky, about $50 locally (Oregon). What you are hoping for in a 15-year is a noticeable step forward in maturation over a 10 or 12-year: a gentle nose, complex flavors, and depth as the flavor profile moves from taste to finish. In this case, the malt master has gone for a gentle and sweet dram, very approachable even for a non-Scotch-drinker. For the Scotch aficionado, this dram lies on the lighter side.

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Whisky and Words Number 37: Clynelish 14

I first encountered Clynelish 14 at the Whisky Library in Portland. I had taken a group of whisky-loving friends there for an end of year celebration. We tried a number of whiskies and the Clyne 14 caught my eye as at that time I had not had many highland malts. I found it quite pleasing, interesting on the palate and went to buy a bottle a few weeks later. The salesman directed me instead toward the Oban 14, and I went for the Oban. But I’ve been on the hunt for the Clynelish ever since and recently picked up a bottle. Time for a comparison—does it stack up against the Oban?

Clynelish 14, lovely straw color.

The parallels between the two are interesting. Both are owned by Diageo, and presented in similarly classic packaging. Both are coastal Highland distilleries (Oban west coast, while Clynelish is not far north of Glenmorangie on the east coast), both are 14-year expressions. There is quite a difference in output. About 4.8M litres produced yearly, the modern Clynelish facilities produce about seven times the output of Oban. (ScotchNoob has a great writeup on the history of the distillery).

Both malts have a dry, nutty nose, with Clynelish being drier, and the wood shows more. Oban has a more complex nose loaded with more fruit and extends the palate considerably. The 46% ABV makes itself known with the Clynelish, as it can sting the nose, while the Oban 14 is, at 43%, completely gentle on the nose. I have to hand it to my local beverage store guy, he was right. Oban is like Clynelish, but more so. More so in price too, by about 45%.

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Distillery Tour: Bunnahabhain

This being a dream come true, I hoped for a good experience. I had a great one. We were picked up after a restful night at our inn (the Bridgend, highly recommended) by Uncle Charlie, the proprietor’s ex-merchant marine uncle. A great guy was Charlie and full of information. He worried me a bit, explaining that Bunnahabhain was getting a bit frayed around the edges He was more animated by the prospect of a new distillery being built on the same one-track road where Bunnahabhain lies.

And on arrival we saw a distillery that looked like distilleries did before they were tourist attractions: a working factory, with the dark grey coating the distilleries get from the odd collection of microbes that flourish around the Angel’s share. And out front, stacks of casks. Besides a crop, I have not retouched the photo. It was that grey and gloomy.

Bunnahabhain, a working distillery. Click for hi-res.

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Whisky and Words Number 36: anCnoc 12

Four anCnocks, Edinburgh style.

This is one of the whiskies in our cupboard which has a (brief) story behind it. Like the Caol Ila 18, this one is a pick by the wife. While in Edinburgh a year ago, we stopped by the very same whisky shop where my single-malt obsession began many years ago. A friendly, energetic woman invited us for a taste of her wares and had on a little table a number of Balblair, anCnoc, Speyburn and Old Pulteney whiskies. These are all owned by the same conglomerate, ThaiBev.

We tried the anCnocs and my wife was quite taken by the one in black — the Rascan. I remember liking all three of the anCnoc whiskies, so when the anCnoc 12 appeared at our local shop, I was amenable when the wife suggested we give it a go.

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