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 caramelized), 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

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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