E-pistle 2009/06 – A Dozen Chaotic Drams

By Luca Chichizola, Italy

I think I am one of the less organized people in the world. And lazy, too. So it’s not often that I bother myself to take exhaustive tasting notes, and when I do I usually scribble them on whatever piece of paper I happen to find around. Thus, sometimes I casually stumble on these notes (usually when trying to clean my desk and make some order), but it happens no more than once a year: sometimes with surprising results, finding things I thought were lost for good. So, imagine my joy when during one of these cleaning sessions I managed to find no less than eleven complete tasting notes of very interesting malts… Only eleven? No problem… since on the same day a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova had arrived from Islay, and that made twelve: after all I imagine that many readers will be curious to know if it lives up to the hype since all the bottles went away in a couple of hours, so it was a perfect choice.

So, knowing how these tasting notes were gathered, you won’t be surprised if there actually isn’t a theme: quite simply and honestly, they are all malts which I tasted repeatedly from a personal bottle in the past 18 months AND which were interesting/unusual/good enough (at least to me) to propel me to write something more than the usual “great stuff”, “lots of tar”, “excellent sherry”. So, not necessarily the absolute best malts I tried in the past months although many of them sure are in my top 2008 list. And please note that I said “from a personal bottle”: although some of these malts were actually tasted at the 2008 Awards, too, I picked only bottlings which I have had in my possession for months and which I took a long time to rate and write the notes for. Let’s start with the Supernova, then…

Ardbeg NAS ‘Supernova’ (58.9%, OB, Advance Committee Release, 2009)
Nose: pears, melons, ripe lemons, green apples. Sweet, farmy, organic… with a hint of wet dog. Less organic, vegetal and feinty than some other recent young bottlings (including the Renaissance). And here comes the surprise: it’s also surprisingly much less smoky than expected! Yes, we have leather and peat, and the smokiness is obvious… but no way as intense and brutal as the high ppm might have suggested. Maybe adding water will help to release more smoke? No: damp earth and wood, but peat stays well-behaved and not dominant. Perhaps some more organics. Sandalwood.
Palate: Syrupy, very rich on cereals, banana, bread. Black liquorice, lots of it. Still sweet and relatively “soft” in spite of the high ABV, perfectly drinkable at cask strength, not monstrous at all. Again, it doesn’t seem particularly more peated than other young Ardbeg expressions (the Very Young comes to mind as more aggressive and in-your-face). With water, it gets slightly more lemony, with organics and disinfectant. Peat still is not brutal: it is there, very present but well integrated. It doesn’t scream on top of everything else, it doesn’t taste like you’re licking an ashtray or some freshly laid tar on a road at all. Compared to the Very Young/Still Young/Almost There/Renaissance, I found the Supernova “cleaner”: less organic, green, vegetal notes. Much more straightforward, purer, and very smooth (though certainly not wimpy!). Very pleasant “modern-style” Ardbeg, then: highly enjoyable, rich and drinkable… but alas also a bit simple and predictable.
Comment: Can you feel the 100ppm peat, which is the selling point of this malt (in addition to being a very limited release for Committee members… and for eBay profiteers)? Actually I think there is a saturation level, that taste and smell work like other senses like hearing and vision do: doubling the ppm does not result in double an impact on the palate and nose (our senses are logarithmic, in case you didn’t know). So, it actually is only slightly more peaty and smoky than other young Ardbeg cask strength expressions. I have no comparison with the equally peated Octomore, which I have never had an occasion to taste, but to make a comparison I slightly prefer it to the very intense and smoky PC7 (which is a bit astringent and butyric, IMHO). Score: 86 points

Let’s try another recent “limited and collectable” Ardbeg, then… I remember waiting VERY long for this bottle (something like 2 months), as probably Ardbeg wasn’t expecting such a huge success and was swamped by orders from fans and from the above mentioned profiteers. It looks like they learnt their lesson after this experience, since the Supernova was delivered to me in only 7 days…

Ardbeg NAS ‘Corryvreckan’ (57.1%, OB, Committee Reserve, 5000 Bts., 2008)
Nose: Haha, this is so much better than the (already good) Supernova! Enormously tarry, deep, dark, brooding, ashy. Green vegetals, lots of unsugared liquorice, damp earth. On top of that, a slightly winey character: do I detect some sherry here? Not sure about that, but it sure has some common points with the Uigeadail, and after all there are rumours about a particular choice of (red wine?) casks for this very special release. Anyway, it’s probably more intense than the Supernova… no, wait, not more intense but fuller and juicier. Sea and earth flavours beautifully integrated.
Palate: Punchy, peppery. Adding water makes it more juicy and balanced, but not less intense. Again, very tarry peat, orange peel, tea, and that same sherried/winey feeling I had found in the nose. Not astringent, though: it remains very syrupy, chewy and chocolaty. Coffee, too, and some camphor. Green leaved vegetables (spinach) and balsamic vinegar. Very nice and mouthfilling.
Comment: What a strange Ardbeg! Certainly one of the best official releases they’ve had recently (at least in the “affordable price” range)! I still prefer the maturity of the best batches of Uigeadail, but this one is excellent too: I wonder why they don’t make it a regular release… although I suspect that it was a one-shot experiment. Luckily I have two more bottles stashed away in a secret place. Score: 89 points

After trying these two very nice modern Ardbegs, let’s switch back in time… with a very rare bottle that I bought on an impulse knowing that it couldn’t certainly be bad…

Ardbeg 12yo 1990/2003 (46%, High Spirits, 312 Bts., D09/’90 B01/’03)
Nose: Wow! Lots of camphor, mint, peat, old musty drawers, black coffee, shoe polish, balsamic vinegar (again, the good quality ones from Reggio and Modena… not the industrial ones!), leather. Exactly the profile I love! Some organics (horse dung?), and ripe peaches. Intense and rich, but not explosive and still subtle and elegant. Very nice red wine-like tannins (Barolo, and I’m not kidding), and as the ruby colour suggests, a nice oloroso dryness.
Palate: I will cut it short and simply say that all what the nose suggested is replicated here, plus a wonderfully astringent dryness and lots of liquorice. Very winey but not over the top sherry, with crème brulèe and burnt sugar, and no nasty sulphuriness at all. Make a mix of Uigeadail and Lagavulin 21yo 1985, then dilute, and you’ll have an idea… though this one is sweeter, creamier and subtler. Less tarry than the two official Ardbegs reviewed above.
Comment: Maybe some more intensity and flamboyancy would have propelled this one even higher: it’s so incredibly drinkable at this ABV (I couldn’t stop refilling my glass), but maybe at cask strength it would have been even better and a real punchy stunner. Anyway, it’s incredible how a simple 12yo can compete (and in some ways surpass) some older cask strength sherry/peat monsters. Not to mention that it’s more elegant and complex, and also juicier when compared at roughly the same ABV, than the two young releases above. Well done! A bottle worth hunting… even at the high (but not outrageous) prices it goes for: to put it straight, it might even cost you less than what the “collectors” on eBay are often asking for a Supernova… Score: 92 points

Since I mentioned the Lagavulin 21yo that recently won the MM Awards, why not speak of this one too?
Since its release, I have drunk two whole bottles of it, and that should say how nice it is.

Lagavulin 21yo 1985/2007 (56.5%, OB, 6642 Bts.)
Nose: If you are sensitive to sulphur in your whisky, this might be at the border between “OK, I can feel it and it is stimulating” and “This is already too much”. I am not particularly troubled by sulphury notes, but be aware that it becomes more evident after leaving it exposed to air: it was particularly obvious in the Awards sample. Winey (old tannic red wine), with sour fruits (raspberries), then getting leathery, smoky and minty. Crème brulèe, orange, seaweed, camphor, eucalyptus, Latakia pipe tobacco… a whole array of intense flavours, truly fantastic (and extreme). Tarry and peaty like all good Lagavulins are, of course.
Palate: Great integration of sherry and peat… but extremely astringent, so much that it will make your teeth shiver. Again, initially very dry and sherried… then getting on a chewy liquoricey sweetness. Extremely long finish, leathery and minty, with camphor and bitter candied oranges too. Give it time, and the astringency will partly go away. Chewy, leathery, organic. Adding water does not make it significantly less “brutal” and punchy, unless you really drown it. Not simply a mix of the intensity and attack of the 12yo with the richer character of the 16yo, and certainly VERY different from the subtler 25yo and 30yo expressions: a whole different beast, quite wild and unique.
Comment: When this one was released, it was said that it would be the last of the “full European Oak sherry” Lagavulins, and this certainly propelled sales: in the first two weeks from its release, most bottles in the UK were hoovered by collectors. Oddly enough, in other countries this bottling arrived a couple of months later… when the initial craze was over (in the meanwhile, the collectors’ attention had shifted towards the even rarer – but much duller – Longrow 18yo). And so it was possible to find little liquor stores in Italy where they had it in full CRATES, with no one paying attention to it (and that’s how I managed to cellar four more bottles at a nice discounted price…). Funnily enough, six months later the distillery released another “European Oak” release (the sweet, fruity, excellent and affordable 12yo for Friends of Classic Malts) so one might wonder if the 21yo truly will be the last bottling from casks of this kind… Anyway, a malt that really deserves to be remembered for long: maybe I have even been a little severe with my rating (Serge considers this the best Lagavulin ever), but the Gold Medal at the Awards should leave no doubts in case you still had some.
Score: 91 points (same score from my bottles and, months later, blind at the Awards)

While we are on Islay, why not reverting to a subtler style, a trip back in time to when even ordinary and affordable official bottlings were the rule? Hold on, because you might be in for a surprise… I have never been a fan of Bowmore: their core range in the ’90s and early ’00s was rather dull (when not plagued by the FWP…) and always left me flat, while the older collectable bottlings (you know, the legendary vintages from the late ’60s) were out of my reach. The only Bowmore I had really found excellent so far was a 1979 dumpy Signatory bottling. So, imagine my surprise when I had the chance to taste a rather old official one… only to find it so different from all other Bowmores I had sampled before. This bottle was still bearing the original price sticker of 23000 Lire (12 Euro in today’s currency), and this made me awfully nostalgic because nowadays this money won’t even buy you the cheapest and lousiest bottle of blended whisky…

Bowmore 12yo (43%, OB, Dumpy Golden Label, early 1980’s)
Nose: Salt, rotting seaweeds on the beach (don’t misunderstand me… it’s actually pleasant!!!), mint, camphor, nice dry sherry, wet dog, farmy notes, and peat. Not the usual blatant and phenolic peat: it still is rather intense, but also incredibly subtle and not immediately obvious, not screaming on top of everything else. Fermented hay, coffee with milk, chocolate and cocoa powder. Candied oranges, fruity and sweet. Thick and juicy. Give it time, because it may seem quiet… but it has lots to tell.
Palate: Extremely smooth mouthfeel, creamy and luxurious. Some slight “aged wine” rancid impression, very very pleasant, like a wonderfully oxidized dry sherry (the OBE that Serge often writes about?). Exactly the same flavours found in the nose, but more intense and even richer: the candied orange, the milk and coffee are what stands out clearest. Then we also have “extravergine” olive oil, alpine herbs, sweet chocolate and just the right amount of peat: if I had tasted it blind, I certainly wouldn’t have said it was an Islay malt… maybe some delicate expression of Talisker. Chewy, smooth, like liquid honey… delicate but at the same time rich and flavourful. Again, give it time because it really improves in an open bottle and in the glass: very pleasant at first, monstrously complex and full of subtleties as long as it stays exposed to air. You really could drink this one for hours, and the ABV is perfect. Absolutely not comparable to later versions of the 12yo: no lavender, no geranium, no offbeat aftertastes, just great whisky… perhaps only a bit too subtle for lovers of extreme impact malts. Now, imagine if this one had been bottled in an unchillfiltered version and at cask strength: it would deserve no less than 96-97 points…
Comment: A true blast from the past, a marvellous bottle that was so good, complex, fascinating and utterly drinkable… that I finished it in two weeks (with the help of a friend). I think it’s a close relative of the bottle that Serge, Olivier and Davin raved about and I must say that they were so f*cking right! At least it’s nice to see that Bowmore is slowly returning to this style: a bottle of “modern” 12yo I tasted recently (the one with the new bottle shape and label style) was very nice and with a similar profile to this oldie. Of course less complex, less chewy, less wonderfully multifaceted, less fascinating and less balanced… but in comparison to the mediocre stuff they have stubbornly kept bottling for more than a decade, it’s already a huge improvement. Score: 92 points

Speaking of Bowmore, I must say that in the same period I also had a chance to taste another very interesting “modern” independent bottling… and a “finished” one too! Usually I am not fond of finishing, and Port IMHO comes out as one of the most offensive ones around: most Port finishes I have tasted are way too fruity and bubblegummy for my taste. So imagine my surprise when I found that this Port finished Bowmore was not only tolerable, but even very very good! It’s not a coincidence that it won a silver medal at the 2008 Awards…

Bowmore 16yo 1991/2008 (59.3%, Wilson & Morgan, Port Finish, C#15058-15059)
Nose: Fruity (banana, red apple, peach), spiced and astringent. There’s some smoke, but not overpowering. Very nice oak, with a whiff of old musty drawers, a hint of camphor, some sandalwood and liquorice. Slightly organic, like damp earth. Adding water reveals more of this oaky and organic character. Herbs, candied orange, hint of incense. Rather intense, pleasantly spicy and full.
Palate: Chamomile, tea and big tannins, but also a very quiet and subdued sweetness. Very intense. With water, it remains intense and quite tannic, but it becomes fruitier: candied oranges, some mint, a hint of green banana. Almonds, olive oil and mint, and a whiff of sea aromas. As noticed in the olfactory inspection, peat smoke is delicate and never overpowering. Very nice balance, an intense and clean Bowmore.
Comment: Of course placing this one after the old bottle of 12yo might sound unfair, but I really can’t find anything to complain about this modern Bowmore: it clearly looks like they have gone back on track with their distillation techniques in the ’90s, as shown by this bottling which is highly enjoyable, stimulating and also rather unusual in style. Another positive thing is that it would really be hard to detect some blatant Port influence in this malt, so I must say that this is one of the best finishing works I have tasted in the past months, and Serge seems to agree with me. Score: 88 points (86 when tasted blind at the Awards)

Another excellent Wilson & Morgan bottling that was submitted at the 2008 Awards (IMHO their best bottling of the past 4-5 years, even better than a certain yummy Glenglassaugh) curiously got away with only a bronze medal, but Serge and I think it would have truly deserved more… but it’s no mystery that I am particularly fond of heavily sherried Mortlachs. I have enjoyed a whole bottle of it, and I heartily recommend it if you can find it.

Mortlach 18yo 1990/2008 (56.8%, Wilson & Morgan, Sherry Butt, C#4422)
Nose: Very intense, bold sherry character: rich, winey, with crème brulèe and a whiff of smoke. Alternately sour and sweet, with dried fruits (especially plums, figs, cherries) and tamarind syrup. Nutty, yeasty and with some really nice balsamic vinegar notes. Passing impressions of oranges and bergamot.
Palate: Very tannic, winey, spicy and astringent sherry. Again crème brulèe, fruit jellies, coffee, candied oranges. Burnt sugar, and other grilled/toasted notes (cereals, meat…). Very mouth-drying, juicy, fruity and appetizing: when tasted blind, it reminded me of some classic sherried Springbanks. In the finish, I seem to detect the pleasant malty bitterness typical of some English ales.
Comment: A sherry monster with a lively character, and at a perfect age. Mature and chewy, very in-your-face, but still fresh and dynamical (luckily not as swamped by oak and wine as some other sherry monsters we’ve had at the Awards). Personally I think it would be a more affordable (and maybe simply better) alternative to the outrageously overpriced sherry oak 18yo that Macallan sells nowadays…
Score: 89 points (90 when tasted blind at the Awards)

Speaking of Wilson & Morgan, I finally had the chance to taste one of their legendary older bottlings too: the “brother” of the Port Ellen I had written about two years ago. Same vintage, but different cask… and very different end result! While cask 5538 was a good clean and austere Port Ellen, cask 6769 is a sherried one: many fellow Maniacs raved about this expression which was submitted at the 2004 Awards (winning a gold medal and the “Islay Award of Excellence”), and after much effort I finally managed to get my hands on a bottle. Yes, it’s a very rare whisky so don’t expect to find one easily…

Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2003 (46%, Wilson & Morgan, C#6769)
Nose: Dry sherry, very winey and nutty. Obvious peat, rubber (slightly sulphury), camphor, strawberry jam, vinegar, salt. Old, musty and dusty pinewood drawers. As it often happens, the combination of dry sherry and peat results in some slight notes of astringent denaturated (pink) alcohol, which I am usually not very fond of. Luckily here they are very unobtrusive and don’t spoil the pleasure of this complex and balanced experience.
Palate: Initially licorice, then slowly exploding into a huge nutty peatiness. Propolis, big and austere tannins, bitter gentian root. Obviously winey, but never too fruity: it stays lively and spicy but still quite austere. Some green leaf vegetables, too. And, in case I haven’t made myself clear, very very nutty. Finish is spicy, peppery and dry. Extremely appetizing.
Comment: This is said to be the best of the two casks of sherried Port Ellen that were bottled in 2003 by Wilson & Morgan. I haven’t tried the other one, but as I said I have tried the unsherried version bottled the year before. This sherried bottling is probably a bit less subtle, but certainly bolder and more flamboyant (and, as a consequence, fun)… Of course you have to like the combination of dry sherry and peat, but it’s a great bottle. Score: 90 points

Speaking of interesting old rare bottles, another nice jump back in time is due…
Ok, this one is rather easily available from collectors and auction sites, but of course be prepared to shell out quite a bit of money…

Highland Park 12yo (43%, OB, Ferraretto Milano, +/-1975)
Nose: Sweet rum, chocolate, coffee. Like a well made Irish coffee with sugar. Licorice, ginseng, herbs liqueur. Rhubarb, cinchona, spinach. Not particularly intense, but deep and rich, very juicy. Tar, rubber, bandages, subtle peat/smokiness. Complex. Hint of camphor and that slightly oxidized feeling you get from aged red wines.
Palate: Incredibly soft and never aggressive, you can barely feel the alcohol, but not weak or watery. On the contrary, quite chewy and “fat”. All kinds of tea (black, red, green, white), chamomile and medicinal herbs. Fresh. Some mint, a very delicate smokiness and a big sweetness (crème caramel). Rubber bandages. Some slightly metallic and dry feeling in the finish, like a red wine past its age: again the OBE at its best? Not as flamboyant, wild and intense as I would have hoped (it lacks a bit of “oomph”), but still very nice.
Comment: This one is probably not up to the very similar (identical shape and label) bottle from 1979 that Serge had a chance to taste (http://www.whiskyfun.com/ArchiveNovember04-2.html#291104) either due to batch/year variation or to different bottle aging. And sure, the Bowmore 12yo mentioned above is way sexier and more striking. But still, this is a very nice bottle and I’m glad I was lucky to taste this whisky: it’s so better than the HP 12 of nowadays (yes, even the most recent batches are objectively good but they don’t tickle my fancy very much). My wife who usually doesn’t like whisky loved every drop of it and said it’s probably the best malt she’s ever tasted, wonderful creamy stuff. Score: 87 points

The following malt, on the other hand, is both expensive AND extremely rare. Not to mention that it’s a real cult classic, from a very limited collection released by Italian wine giant Gancia: considering the high quality of these bottlings, it’s a true pity that they never released another series after this one.  When I saw a dusty bottle on the shelves of a local winery… my heart tumbled and I quickly reached out for my wallet. Best 250 Euro ever spent on an old bottle, a true masterpiece!

Longmorn 18yo 1971/1990 (58.1%, Antica Casa Marchesi Spinola, Collection No 1, 75 cl)
Nose: Straight, it’s a feast of peaches, grapefruit, mangos, passion fruit and other various tropical flavours. All still quite dry and compact, though: not an exceedingly sweet red fruits galore like some other sherried expressions. Licorice, gentian root, candy floss, coffee, rum-filled chocolates. With some water, the oaky notes and some camphor become dominant and put the tropical fruits in the background. A very intense nose, you could sniff it for hours without getting tired.
Palate: Yummy! Extremely syrupy and flavourful, but it absolutely needs some water for disclosing its real treasures. Not because it’s too intense (it is bold, full and strong, but still drinkable and delicious at full ABV), simply because there’s so much hidden there when left neat. Sweet but not in a cloying way, full of the same tropical fruits mentioned above, strawberry jam, notes of herbal liqueur, almonds, dried figs and raisins, a wonderful oakiness (just the right amount of tannins) and an impressive mouthfeel…  thick and fresh at the same time. Very big, with lots of character and presence, and a perfect balance. Long finish, winey, continuously dancing between sweet and dry, spicy and fruity. Excellent, my words cannot make justice to this malt.
Comment: What a stunning whisky! So strong and powerful, yet so elegant and full of many faces. You can really feel how the sherry perfectly got integrated with the malt instead of masking its character. Boldness and balance, one of the best bottles I have ever had the luck to try. Good luck finding one, because it will be tough! Score: 94 points

Let’s come back into more affordable territory… with a terrific bottling that truly is a bargain for the price.
Maybe not a collector’s item, but lovely whisky. Technically it’s a “bastard bottling”, but the label says that it’s from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye… so not exactly a mystery!

G&M Secret Stills 1986/2007 (45%, G&M, 1.2, First Fill Sherry, C#1361-1363, 1860 Bts.)
Nose: Fresh sherry, not too winey, just a bit nutty. Very sweet and malty. Smoke, hay, and other nice earthy organic notes. Yellow apples, black tea and a whiff of iodine. Very compact.
Palate: Liquorice, mixed cereals, a pleasant honey sweetness, dark bread, dried plums and raisins. There even is some waxiness, somehow close in style to Clynelish/Brora. The sherry influence is not immediately evident (it’s not winey, and even less astringent) but it clearly helps in defining a fuller, fruitier, nuttier character. Moderate peat level, not an extreme Talisker. Very chewy and mouthcoating. Finish is long and peppery, as expected. Overall I would say that it tastes halfway between the rounded refinement of the official 18yo (but fuller and more intriguing) and the fruity sherry character of the ultra-classic 20yo 1981/2002. I can definitely say that it’s a malt which will satisfy drinkers more than nosers, as the palate is much richer than the olfactory impression: very classy and smooth.
Comment: A more delicate, sweeter, less extreme cousin of Talisker 20yo 1981/2002. Sure, that OB was more exciting and explosive (also thanks to the crazy ABV)… but today you can buy 2-3 bottles of the Secret Stills for the same price, and if you don’t like a full sherry attack (sulphur included) you might actually prefer the G&M bottling. I love them both. Score: 91 points

The last malt I will recommend this time is a little known gem. Actually those who really know and appreciate whisky know it very well, since word-of-mouth quickly spread out the “secret” of this excellent bottling. Maybe you can still find one at decent prices, since (although Douglas Laing is known for consistently bottling great malts) it certainly doesn’t look like a collector’s item.

Banff 32yo 1974/2007 (47.8%, Douglas Laing OMC, DL REF 3521, 272 Bts.)
Nose: Sweet and fruity, one of the most intensely fruity malts I have ever tried. Lots of honey, wax, mostarda di Cremona, pears, bananas, ripe tropical fruits, yellow apples, vanilla… It may seem a bit monodimensional at first, but it’s a hell of an entertaining nose.
Palate: Identical to the nose, exactly the same profile. The fruits seem so ripe that you might also feel that it’s going slightly over the top: in particular, the bananas seem not only ripe… but going black and starting to ferment. Actually it’s very pleasant, not nauseating or cloying at all, though of course you need to have a sweet tooth to appreciate all this. This sweetness is made even more pleasant by some backing spices: mustard, and especially plenty of cinnamon. To top it all, a touch of chocolate and wafers.
Comment: Did you understand that it’s fruity and sweet? I hope so! No, really, it doesn’t taste like a candy/bubblegum infusion. It’s great whisky, and something in it reminded me of the stunning Prestonfield Clynelish (which was much more flamboyant and multifaceted, but the example is just to give you an idea). Score: 91 points

So, we have reached the end of our dozen… In case you enjoyed these tasting notes and want more, you’ll simply have to wait for some more months until the inspiration comes back! 😉