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.
This whisky is one of my wife’s favorites, which is odd, since she’s a real Irish fan and never been a proponent of phenolic (tarry, smoky) whiskies. But Caol Ila, as you might guess from the name, is very much an Islay whisky (it’s name means ‘Islay Strait’ in Gaelic) and it indeed has a peaty nose and a considerable dose of phenols which is typical for Islay expressions. It’s the kind of whisky you can open for a moment and then smell it for an hour. It’s a stinker!
The label says the distillery is not an easy place to find, and that its “secret malt” is highly prized among Islay whisky fans. I don’t know what’s secret about it, but Caol Ila certainly has a unique flavor profile. I found it herby and medicinal under that whiff of peat and (light) smoke. It is a unique taste and aroma and that has earned it a number of medals in the current century (double gold at SF). There is a full flavor profile on their website, below the soundbite “a delicate balance of tastes.” Note they did not say a ‘balance of delicate tastes.’ In fact, they describe in addition to citrus fruit, ‘a dentist’s mouthwash.’ A lot of folks find it medicinal, like a Listerine or other antiseptic mouthwash on the palate. Strange, but it works with the citrus. As for phenols, they claim just a trace of smoke and bath oil — for me, it’s more like machine oil. Altogether, their guide is pretty accurate. Note, although Caol Ila 12 has a phenolic profile, you never get that ashy taste you do from a Lagavulin 10, for example.
Ah, Laphroaig. They advertise themselves as “The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies” on their website and on their bottle (at right). And when they say ‘flavour’ they mean smoke, peat, seaweed and iodine. Oh, there’s malt in there, too. Quite a bit actually.
I think Laphroaig is great for chasing mothers-in-law from the room. Just crack open a bottle, pour a little, and the more delicate souls will run for the hills. If you’ve never had this whisky, this superlative might get the message across. During the U.S. Prohibition, Laphroaig whisky was (famously) still being imported to the U.S., as “Such was the pungent seaweedy nose of Laphroaig that Ian persuaded the officials that the “Iodine” smell surely meant that Laphroaig had medical properties.”
Medicinal is one of the words used to express what folks taste in this whisky, but despite the billows of smoke, peat, iodine and phenolics, Laphroaig 10 is a quite well-balanced whisky. The malt that hits your palate at first is full, sweet and well-rounded, forming a pleasant base for the tar and iodine to expand into your nasal cavities and sinuses. So, too are the medicinal aspects balanced. Medicinal, yes, but there is much more going on than that — I never would compare this to Caol Ila 12, for example (review coming) which I do think of medicinal.
The first expression in our peaty Island series is an old gentleman, Lagavulin. I’m starting here because I think ‘Laga’ is a damned fine whisky and, though a bit pricey, represents a benchmark for quality and complexity. It’s well-finished and very smooth despite the smokiness of the peat. They achieve smoothness and a full flavor without using sherry casks, and here is where the extra years in the barrel make a difference: most of its competitors (Islay whiskies) use a 10-year-old as their main expression. The extra six years Lagavulin spends in cask mellows the smokiness and allows lovely aromas to work in from the wood. You pay for that aging of course, this is about $90 a bottle in my area.