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..
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.
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.
This post will appeal best to those who read The Economist. If that’s not you, this entry will appear rather wonkish; you might want to skip to the bottom for the summary of tested expressions.
Why NAS? NAS as a concept has taken the industry by storm in the last five years. This trend is driven by two factors: a restriction in supply of aged whisky used in traditional expressions and increased demand in the Far East (backstopped by continuing popularity in the West). And unlike other products, the supply of suitably aged whisky is restrained in an insurmountable way: there is no way to go back in time and put more whisky in barrels.
The supply and demand interaction has two facets: if the distillers don’t react to higher demand with higher volume, the inevitable result is higher prices for their product and customer discontent; secondly, if the distillers fail to capture their share of the growing market, they risk losing market share to rivals.
I have my wife to thank for the Astar. She had spotted an unpeated Caol Ila she wanted to try. We went to the local shop together and spotted Astar. We both like Glenmorangie’s offerings – they are reliably well done, balanced and focused. Their 10-year is a standard for us and what I serve guests who want to try a single malt for the first time. We have had tastings with the sherry, port and sauterne finished versions and they were well received. I also have a bottle of the ‘very rare’ 18-year old, which is some serious whisky. At $115 locally, it should be.
The Astar is nearly as expensive at $99.95 and caught the good wife’s eye. If regular Glenmorangie was good, she reasoned, this expression, aged in barrels crafted with select woods, must be better. I was a bit more skeptical, noting the absence of an age statement. But given the malt master at Glenmorangie has produced so many good offerings, I relented and we decided to give it a go.