E-pistle 2009/04 – My Best Whiskies of 2008

By Krishna Nukala, India

2008 has been yet another bountiful year. To collect Awards 2008 samples personally itself is a valid excuse to make a trip to Europe, to meet some maniacal friends there and when it came with the opportunity of an American chauffeur taking me around in Europe highways, it became a bonus. Well, my brother joined me all the way from US in Amsterdam and we hired a Jaguar to travel to some of the most beautiful places in Western Europe. Also I promised my Danish friend Hans Henrik that I shall be bringing  his three special private vintages of Glenfiddich from India. Many of you already know Hans. Well, he is a well know face on the Facebook and a maniacal Glenfiddich collector and I hope to write a full Epistle on him some day. There are so many worth telling stories about him and his Glenfiddiches.

It has been a whirlwind, autobahn tour of Europe as we traveled four countries in 7 days and had some memorable dramming sessions with Johannes, Davin, Michel and Hans. In Nykobing Hans treated us with some his awesome Glenfiddiches from his cellar and a surprise dram was a 20 yo Pappy van Winkle’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon ( 45.2%) which earned a respectable 84. Initially my plan included a visit to Regensburg also to meet Pit Krause, but my brother became fatigued and could not make the journey from Oostende to Regensburgh and so the plan was dropped. Well, after having tasted 300 whiskies in 2008, why not brag something about it and rate my 10 best whiskies of the year?  Here is the list from bottom to top.

10. Cooley 15yo 1993/2008 (46%, The Nectar Daily Dram, Madeira Finish, 370 Bts)
Irish whiskies rank pretty low in my list but this one blew me off during blind tasting and I never expected this to be an Irish whisky. Cooley is situated north east of Dublin on the scenic foothills of Cooley Mountains and claims itself as the Ireland’s only independent distillery.  I am told that the place itself is a traveler’s paradise to visit, even if you are an alcohol abstainer. Incidentally, Cooley also makes two of my favourite drams of Ireland- the peaty Connemara and Tyrconnel. Tasting Notes: “Fruity Bubblegum” according to Johannes. Passion fruits, later on followed by leafy organics and fennel seed. On palate too it is very fruity, just like on the nose. Not terribly complex like Speyside or Highland whiskies, but very pleasant. A must get bottle if you can get one.

9. Glengoyne 19yo 1988/2007 (58.3%, OB, Pedro Ximinez butt, C#718)
Glengoynes never fail. The distillery, situated just a short drive from Edinburgh actually in fact confuses me whether it should be called a lowland whisky or a Speyside but whenever I taste a Glengoyne, I find the unmistakable Speyside character in it. Glengoynes are universally liked due to their robust feel on palate and many of their cask strength whiskies named after their staff are special attractions. Tasting Notes: Loads of wood with some organics and Port-wine-like. Profile grows bigger and more complex after breathing. Subtle fruity sweetness in the background. Definitely improves after some 30 minutes and you get dried fruits and spices and camphor. On palate it is honeyed and treacle with mild organics revisiting. Excellent mouth-feel with strong and hint of smoky finish.

8. Strathisla  35yo 1969/2005 (56.3%, Danish Malt Whisky Academy for Hotel Falster, Sherry C# 2516)
One of trade mark whiskies of Seagram’s, more known for Chivas Regal (a lot of Strathisla incidentally goes into blending of Chivas Regal), Strathisla is in fact the oldest distillery in Northern Scotland (est. 1786). A lot of stuff distilled at Strathisla actually ends up in the private warehouses in Elgin belonging to Gordon and Macphail (who else?) , the world’s largest independent bottlers and this rare bottle actually beat the Strathisla 48 yo 50% G&M for LMW version (AWARDS 2008 sample) to enter into this list. Tasting Notes: Lots of spices- Cinnamon, Nutmeg and cloves too. Heavy wood. Beautiful rich complex nose with roasted nuts. Very dry and lots of tannins, like eating a paan. Very long finish with lots of organics.

7. Glenfarclas 30yo (43%, OB, +/-2008)
The folks at Glenfarclas (GF) keep a low profile and let their fans speak about their whisky and I am yet come across a person, who, after enjoying a dram of Glenfarclas has not rated it among his/her top 5 Speysiders.  Glenfarclas is improving day by day as this simple fact shows. I used to possess a GF 30yo, (not a 30 year old Girl Friend!) a bottle bought at the very distillery in 2003 which happened to be the best Glenfarclas I ever had, but the present 30yo, bottled some time in 2008 had beaten all records. Tasting Notes: Nose is like aroma coming from steaming Chinese fried rice, fennel, dried fruits and licorice. Later on developing into lots of fruits and spices. Touch of smoke and wood too. Well-balanced profile and brilliant mouth feel. Honey drops with excellent woody finish.

6. Yamazaki 18yo 1990/2008 (60%, OB, sherry butt, C#0N70645)
It is not a surprise any more if any Japanese whisky wins top accolades at a whisky competition. The Yamazaki 20y.o (1985-2006, 56%) has been declared as the best whisky in 2006 by Malt Maniacs and Whisky Magazine in 2007 voted the Yoichi 20yo as the best whisky in the world. Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, Yamazaki (meaning confluence of three rivers) is the oldest distillery in Japan. The distillery is now owned by Suntory (remember Bill Murray in Lost in Translation?) Tasting Notes: Typical nose of a top class oloroso finish with lots of oriental spices, sultanas, prunes and betel leaf. Polished and woody with a subtle sweet undercurrent. Very sweet, spicy and menthol like, tannins with excellent hot finish.

5. Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2007 (56.5%, OB, 6642 Bts.)
This is the over all winner of Awards 2008 and actually I rated this 78 points during blind tasting. After the results were declared, I re tasted the left over and realized that I made some mistake. This is a legend of a whisky although I am not changing my score. No other Scottish distillery evocates such passion and a feeling of obeisance than Lagavulin and if you must drink a whisky with head bowed, this is it. If you are serious about whisky and want to learn more about Lagavulin, just make pilgrimage to Islay to know more about this legend than reading books or surfing blogs for second hand information. I warn you that your life would not be the same again. Tasting Notes: Smoke from dried leaves with peat. Great complexity, with lemon and honey flavours although it scores more on the palate. Smoke returns on palate with hints of salt licorice. Syrupy sweetness. Brilliant balance with loads of smoke in the finish. This is a legend of a whisky.

4. Ardbeg 25yo 1976/2002 (53.1%, Feis Isle 2002, C#2390, 494 Bts.)
Sitting in small hotel room in Amsterdam this was tasted along with Davin, Johannes, Michel and my brother. After having a dozen ordinary drams, this was fished out by Johannes from nowhere and it blew us off. I think none of us gave it below 90 points. Tasting Notes: Delicious beef stock on nose.  Dried fruits, more like raisins and succulent citrus notes. Spicy and leafy organics on palate with the trade mark smoke and peaty notes of Ardbeg displaying all along in the background.

3. Glenglassaugh  30yo 1975/2006 (45.6%, Doglous Laing & Co, 94 Bts)
The sad part of Glenglassaugh is that the distillery is closed since 1986 and surprisingly nobody came to rescue this wonderful distillery. Situated on coastal edge of Spey and Deveron rivers in Speyside, most of the spirit from this distillery went into blending of Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Laing’s. This bottle has been given as a gift by some American fan of Johannes and it was really nice of Johannes to bring it for the evening. It made me and Davin go crazy. Tasting Notes: Spicy and strong. Almonds and camphor with sweet oaky notes and then you catch hints of smoke. On palate you get green peppers, more smoke coming back with passion fruit. Excellent, full bodied and satisfying finish with loads of syrup and smoke.

2. Carsebridge 42yo 1960/2002 (41.6%, Chieftain’s Choice, Oloroso, C#15010, 135 Bts.)
Carsebridge defeats Single Malt Scotch Whisky purists. This is a grain based Lowland whisky and the spirit has been distilled from those unromantic, continuous column stills. But who cares when you get a stunning out put after the spirit had slept over 40 years in magic cask? Most of the magic of this Carsebridge is an outcome of marriage of alcohol with the wood of the exquisite Oloroso cask chosen by master blender, Gordon Doctor. The distillery has been dismantled in 1983. Tasting Notes: Nose Aberlour Abu’nath like- full of oloroso sherry, all kinds of dried fruits, Christmas cake and spices, this is a quality spirit spent a long time a quality sherry cask. On palate you get sweet sherry, mellowed, mild tannins with super mouth-feel, orange skins, smooth, long and superlative woody finish!

1. Balblair 1973/2006 (45%, G&M Private Collection, C#3184-3185, 385 Bts.)
Another one of the oldest distilleries (est. 1790) in Scotland, Balblair lies just on the left hand side cleft of picturesque Dornoch Firth (on the other side is Glenmorangie) on route 9. All things pertaining to Balblair are ancient- its library, the stone walls and its water source running down Ben Dearg hills in the rear. Gordon & Macphail has sizeable number of single casks of Balblair and this bottle is from one of the exclusive Private Collections of Gordon & Macphail. This is the best whisky I have tasted in 2008. Tasting Notes: Rich sherried nose, dried fruits, raisins, plum cake, some spices like cloves- this reminds me of Yamazaki 20yo, 2006 winner. Leather cover note book- looks like a whisky spent long age in a quality Spanish cask. Sweet and good tannins, excellent rich taste, exceedingly satisfying. 101% GM winner.
In the race for top honours of Malt Maniacs Awards 2008.

Slainte Mhath!