Normally, I review whiskies one can find at a reasonably well stocked liquor store. But now and then I cover something a bit harder to get. In this case, my wife had the Talisker 57° N shipped from Scotland for my (57th) birthday. I can imagine the cost of shipping rivaled that of the whisky. I have searched about 10 online liquor shops in the US and none of them had this expression. But if my wife can get it, so can you. It just takes will…and some extra cash.
Talisker intended this whisky to be a tribute to their remote location on the isle of Skye, 57° North latitude. What do they say about it? On their website, Talisker 57° is said to be “an untamed, natural expression of the Talisker’s full power: a volcanic, intensely appealing flavour that most drinkers will have only experienced in a cask strength bottling.” Indeed, 57% alcohol is pretty strong, a true 100 proof. True cask strength whiskies (except for the oldest) are typically higher than that, but 57% is on the cusp. Their flavor map has it dead center in weight, and pretty high on the smoky range. It’s not far from where they put their 10-year expression. I also find the label appealingly similar, the classic off-white label with Talisker in an embossed-style font.
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 is the first of three straight NAS whisky reviews. I relented on Talisker’s Storm when the price came down, from over $55 locally (Oregon) to just under $50. The original price was not so obnoxious as some NAS whiskies — I tried a Dalmore King Alexander III recently, for example, which runs $305, and Ardbeg’s Corryveckan is about $90. But still, $55 is the range where you can get a nice 12-year-old.
The standard Talisker 10, one of my favorites, isn’t cheap of course, at about $65 locally, so the opportunity to fill the Talisker-sized hole in my liquor cabinet for fifty bucks was too good to pass up. So, how does the Storm compare? After all, it is a Talisker, and we have expectations: of light peat smoke, a unique medicinal nose, shades of wrack and seaweed, citrus and fruit. Those expectations are whetted by the marketing message prominent in this expression: it comes in a big bluish box with stormy clouds and splashing ocean waves, as you can see from the photo. The text reads that this whisky “takes the most intense experiences to a new level.” Well, that’s a marker thrown. We can expect this dram to be a bit combative, eh?
I’m relieved to see they bottle the Storm at the traditional (and offbeat) Talisker ABV percentage, 45.8. Must be an inside joke on Skye. Side-by-side with the 10-year-old (oh dear, sibling rivalry) I see right off the color is comparable, but the Storm is a shade more straw to the 10-year’s gold. That’s to be expected, in the absence of coloring (but Diageo isn’t telling one way or the other), if we assume younger malts in the Storm’s marry.* Less time in cask == less color.
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.
The blog has covered a number of blends, and also eleven unpeated, mostly sherry-finished single-malts (see sidebar for the list and links). They all share similar influences in their flavoring.
It’s the water, and a lot more
Some of those malts, Bunnahabhain* and Glenfarclas, for example, are notable for the taste of what the French would call terroir. Peat bogs, soil and rocks through which their water sources run flavor that water. In addition to the water, the spirit’s flavor is heavily influenced by the ingredients (mostly barley malt) and how they are treated at each step. In the preparation of what will become new make spirit, there is much attention to manipulating temperatures at each stage. The temperature of the wort is chosen to enhance the activities of enzymes converting sugars and later, to encourage fermentation. Variation in stages and their temperatures can affect flavor. One also reads of claims that the shape and composition of tuns, stills and washbacks will influence the flavor of the new-make spirit. Once distilled, the spirit meets the cask, where interaction with the oak (and its preparation, be it lightly toasted or charred) will have the second largest effect on flavor.