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!)
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.
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.
Oban distillery is a petite operation by Scottish standards. Comprising only two stills, their output is listed on Wikipedia at 670,000 barrels a year. That’s about half the rate of Ardbeg, itself a distillery of modest output. With such limited production, Oban concentrate on their 14-year old, though there is a Distiller’s edition and some older releases.
Oban distillery is located in the seaside town of Oban. That’s a good place to stop and spend some time if you are working your way to the islands. Oban is a port of call for Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry service. (You can get to Jura and Islay from there, though it’s a much longer trip than from Kennacraig.) The town has a lively main street, with lots of shops, hotels, and restaurants. There’s even a really nice bookshop, Waterstones. The distillery, shop and visitor’s center are right off the main drag. The visitor’s center is nice and spiffy but not lavish like the LVMH joints like Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. The Oban distillery is owned by Diageo, which is foremost a spirits company, not a luxury brand like LVMH. It is interesting to note that the other Diageo facilities we visited — Caol Isla and Lagavulin — were similarly nice and modern, but not lavish and marketing-forward like LVMH.
This is the final post in the NAS series for now. I’ll write up a wrap-up article in a week or two.
I read about Ardbeg long before I had a chance to taste it. A distillery raised from the dead, so to speak, it had been shuttered for eight years in the 1980s. Production resumed slowly under a caretaker administration by Hiram Walker in the early 1990s. Glenmorangie bought it in ’97 and resurrected Ardbeg to full production. Blessed with great stocks of old whisky aging in the warehouse, they released notoriously good (and peaty) whiskies throughout the early 2000s. They presented Ardbeg in a craft style – no coloring, non-chill-filtered, higher ABV. Their 10-year is released at 46%, and it is a damn good whisky, as I reviewed here. Despite relatively low production, about 1.25 million liters a year, they have a number of expressions.
Our second tour was at William Grant & Sons in Dufftown. At this site are the Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries. Where Glenfiddich is nearly ubiquitous worldwide as ‘the world’s best-selling single malt‘ and a high-volume product (13M liters/year, produced from 32 stills), the Balvenie site next door is William Grant’s craft distillery. The Balvenie retains its own malting floor (producing 10% of its malt, much of which is grown locally), and has its own cooperage — a rarity in the Scotch whisky industry. Their output is less than half that of Glenfiddich — but that is still considerable. In fact, they about double the output of Glenfarclas. You may not see the Balvenie Doublewood, their most common expression, in every bar, but you’ll see it in many upscale spots. Not all of the production from this site goes into Balvenie expressions, some goes into Kininvie, a malt used in Grant’s blended whiskies.
I usually end with a bottom line, but this time, I’m starting with one: the presentation and execution at The Balvenie is designed to connote a handcrafted, old-fashioned approach to whisky making. Where Glenfarclas is small and spiffy, the Balvenie is organic, even rustic in character. This is the tour to take if you take only one.
Another in the NAS series! Again I’ll weigh the stratagem of the distiller, and we’ll see if the malt master and his minions have created value for both distiller and imbiber. In this case, the Magnus is presented to us as a hearkening back to old ways:
A whisky crafted in the old way by a new generation of Vikings, MAGNUS bears the soul of our Viking ancestors and the name of just one – our founder, Magnus Eunson.
Magnus, a chap who set up a still on the Highland Park site in the 1700s, was a descendant of Vikings. I’m reading Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and pretty much everyone in the UK and northern Europe in general is a descendant of Vikings. They got around, those Vikings. Anyway, that’s the theme set by the marketing wags. The presentation is heavy on atmosphere, with the opaque black bottle (right) and a distinctive new cap, which is a combo cork/screw-in with a lot of detail embossed (detail below). The screw-in feature is handy if you are too tipsy to push the cork in without letting slip the bottle. Drink responsibly.
What can we expect from the whisky? They explain they have brought forward Magnus’s “bold and uncompromising approach to whisky making… a single malt whisky, matured in Sherry seasoned American oak casks, that delivers notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.”