We’re still on Island expressions, and the first No Age Statement release I’ve reviewed is coming Real Soon Now (Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask). But let’s talk NAS first. The lads at Whisky Waffle did an entire week on NAS; they tightened their belts and screwed down their green eyeshades and really went at it with as much seriousness as they can muster (they were pretty tough, actually). Their series is worth a read for getting some background on NAS, so I’m not going to re-fight that campaign. However, before I get to Quarter Cask, I’d like to get a couple facts about the NAS expressions we are seeing out in front.
The odd Supply and Demand Curve for Whisky
My feeling is that, while these days of rising sales and a limited supply of aged whisky have led to high prices for aged single malt, NAS should be a way for distilleries to produce more volume of good whisky. They can be a bit creative and mix in some newer whisky with the old and bottle more product. NAS should be a way of increasing supply, thus reducing price. I know this, I took a major in Economics, ceteris paribus and all that.
However, the opposite has happened. We’ve got more expressions than ever, and I have to surmise more whisky being shipped, but at higher prices. That’s counter-intuitive, and that got me curious. Here is a short survey of current aged and NAS offerings in my home state, Oregon. (Prices are set by the state, so are not affected by locality or time of year.) I have rounded to the nearest buck.
Finally, Ardbeg 10. I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this. I’ve had a bottle for almost a year. I drink it, like most of my single malts, sparingly. It’s in a class I call Damn Fine Whisky. So, what’s it got?
First off, Ardbeg is sort of the snazzy new kid on the block, but he’s got some classic threads to back up his bling. Ardbeg is one of those distilleries that was shuttered for years, only to be resurrected by ‘craft’ style distillers. By craft, we mean a few notable aspects to the whisky production:
Non Chill-filtered – proudly declared front and center of the bottle
Higher (than typical) alcohol content, in this case 46%
Attention to detail in production and presentation
Yeah, they have some attitude, declaring right on the label: not only the best Islay malt, but the best whisky in the world. That’s fightin’ words for the folks at Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. So, what’s behind the bluster?
If I remember correctly, I read about Highland Park 12 in Jason Debly’s blog back in early 2014. I was just starting to expand my horizons into single malts, after a long hiatus brought on by the financial strain of an old house, growing children and various stock market crashes. Those challenges behind me, I felt like spoiling myself a little. Jason’s review of Highland Park caught my eye as I was looking for a scotch with a lot of character, a touch of peat and a reasonable price tag.
Highland Park is one of the older distilleries, founded in 1798, about half a century before the big boom in distillery foundings in Scotland. Probably the folks up in the Orkneys needed a local supplier. Considering the long winter nights, not a bad idea.
The elegant canister boasts of hand-turned barley maltings, so along with Bowmore and The Balvenie, HP is yet another distiller holding on to the old customs. Given a 2.5M liter/year production, I wonder, how much of their malt is local? I inquired of them and received a helpful answer in a few days from Mark Budge, Visits Co-Ordinator at Highland Park:
We are malting 20% of the total malt we use onsite. We then peat this malt before drying. Our makeup of malt is 20% peated (malted and peated on site) and 80% unpeated (bought from commercial maltsters).
Onward with our Islands series. We jump from Islay to Skye, for Talisker 10.
Like Bunnahabhain, Talisker 10 and I go back a long way. But in the way-back, some twenty years ago, Talisker was a bit much for me. Perhaps they’ve tapered off on the phenols, but who knows, I may have changed too. At any rate, back when I was a Scotch noob, the smokiness and medicinal qualities of this whisky were a bit much for me.
The Talisker distillery is on Skye, an island far to the north of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. It’s the most northern of the inner Hebrides, and like Islay, there aren’t a lot of trees on Skye. Peat is the traditional fuel for malting here, and although Talisker distillery took out their malting floors in 1972, their flavor profile was established by then and Talisker is still produced with a fairly hefty dose of phenols for a “richly flavored maritime malt” (from the label) that flavor is a combination of the smoked malt (from the mainland) and a peaty water source (Hawk Hill).
On the Talisker web site, they don’t say much about their ’10’ — they focus most of the marketing muscle on the NAS offerings that are all the rage these days (newer whisky, more $$, WTF?). The 10 is “smooth, smoky, with a warm afterglow.” I’d agree, with a caveat — since the bottling strength is nearly 46%, a few drops of water are called for.
Up next in our Island series is Bowmore 12. Bowmore certainly talks up its heritage on its packaging — founded in 1779, almost a century before the majority of distilleries on the island. Located on Loch Indaal (in the bight that nearly bisects Islay), the distillery is unique in that it has been in near-constant production since inception.
The Bowmore folks are proud of several key points: the balance of their whisky, the peatiness and smoke, and the use of their own malting floor. Note, however, like other distilleries (the Balvenie for example), modern production volumes outstrip the capacity of the island to produce barley or the old malting floors malt. At 2M liters produced yearly, Bowmore imports some of its malt. Still, the retention of their own floor malting shows a commitment to maintaining the old traditions and skills.
As for the flavors, Bowmore is, to this malt maniac, a fairly subtle introduction to both peat (in the guise of earthy flavors from the water) and smoke. I can’t argue with the packaging — the front side of the box says “Puffs of peat smoke and pools of honey, sharpened by lemon zest.” And I agree it is balanced. But on the whole, the Islay character of this ‘first malt’ is subtly played. Bowmore is no peat monster, and in fact, when I tried a bottle a year ago, I was disappointed. I was in the throes of peat-craziness at the time and Bowmore came across as a bit muted. This year, having tried a number of Highland and Speyside malts in the interim, I can appreciate the more light-handed approach to peated malt. So, if you are a fan of big, brawny smoke-filled drams like Laphroaig, you might give Bowmore a pass. But for the drinker of Highland and Speyside whiskies who is just starting to investigate the Island expressions, Bowmore 12 would be a good start. In fact, if you know someone who is interested in Islay whiskies, and they like Johnnie Walker Black, this is a reasonable step up from JWB in complexity and smoke.
Bowmore 12-year old Islay single malt, 40% ABV
Nose: Very light smoke, subtle earthy peat, citrus, prunes, dry cocoa. Palate: Earthy peat, honeysuckle, a touch of smoke. Decent complexity, but not much depth. An easy drinker. Finish: Fairly quick sweetness (sucrose) balanced with a touch of tannic bitterness, light smoke that lingers nicely and fades into just a touch of ash. Bottom Line: This is not a phenol-boosted monster. The smoke in Bowmore is delicate and not accompanied by oil, iodine or diesel, as are some of the more powerful Islay malts, and thus the finish doesn’t linger quite as long. A lot of folks will think that is a good thing. It’s better suited for a summer evening on the porch than a cold blow huddling indoors. At $52 a bottle in my area, it’s competing with Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10 and Highland Park 12. Those expressions have more depth and more character, and I think they reward a more adventurous palate. But for a relaxing dram while chatting with friends or watching the game, the promise of “the most perfectly balanced” single malt is certainly delivered.