Saturday, 28 February 2009

Auchentoshan 1978 18-year-old 58.8% Dram #28

With this Auchentoshan I'm reverting to sweet alcoholic memory as opposed to my imagination. It is impossible, after the dispensation of first-hand experience, not to sensorily relive your time at a distillery. Each one is so unique, and so earnest is my desire to absorb and process all that is about me, only just short of leaping into a washback, that with each dram which can trace its origins back to that site, the place, the people and the atmosphere are evoked.

Nothing has as yet been a truer reflection of the above than the Auchentoshan 1978. As my visit in September of last year for the purposes of my eighteenth birthday came to an end and I decided that the fee for drawing my own dram from a cask and bottling it was just a little beyond my means, we debated in the wonderful visitors' centre what expression we should take home as a souvenir of our excellent tour (apart from the smile, obviously). By this time I had already tasted the Classic, the 18-year-old (and a Bowmore 12-year-old to compare), the Three Wood and the Limited Edition Oloroso 18-year-old. Therefore, my system was completely acclimatised to the Auchentoshan style and whilst it took a comfort break, my parents bought for me a bottle of this, only available at the distillery.

Since, there has been a measure of the whisky on four select occasions (I would not recommend this as an aperitif unless you have a very small measure with quite a lot of water), each of which have reminded me so vividly of the neat, functional distillery and the magical fog created by tortured barley.

As a marriage of thirteen Sherry butts, this is one of the few malts to have seduced me on appearances alone. Whether you take my descriptions of rich honey gold or golden syrup, what is assured is that this looks as softly sweet as a sniff and a sip will later prove it to be. In the nose you are struck immediately by a light, blooming sweetness, typical of Auchentoshan's triple distillation cycles and the excellent woods which can be filled up to three times. At 58.8%, an undiluted inhalation alludes to the booziest trifle ever. Water imparts an entirely different character. The Sherry deepens as the cask asserts its affect but the malt, light and zesty, is the star performer. There is evidence of delicious praline shortbread, as well.

Anyone familiar with the Rocky biscuits should mark their particular caramel flavour in the palate. Sherry and chocolate envelope each other and what seems like coconut oil coats the mouth. I'm transported back to the washback room.

The finish is exquisite with the juiciest summer fruits. It is after the whisky has been swallowed that the qualities of its core ingredients and their maturation stewards undergo the most lovely interchanges. There is a grape-y character that is somehow jam-like but this, very very slowly, dissipates and descends into an underlayer of rich grains. At the very end, it is almost as if you had been drinking from the cask as you mull over the sweet sticky oak.

There is just one complaint with this malt as far as I can see. Having been in the bottle for twelve years before I got hold of it, the alcohol has got to the cork. It hasn't quite disintegrated, but little flakes of it bob in the amber ocean and do lend a dry, fibrous note. Such is life, though, eh?

Saturday, 21 February 2009

My Leaderboard

Caol Ila 18YO 43% 73/75 (C14, N15, B15, P14, F15)

Highland Park 25YO 50.7% 73/75 (C15, N15, B14, P15, F14)

Bowmore 18YO 43% 73/75 (C15, N15, B14, P15, F14)

Talisker 10YO 45.8% 72/75

Caol Ila 12YO 43% 72/75 (C14, N15, B14, P14, F15)

Talisker 18YO 45.8% 72/75

Auchentoshan 1978 18YO 58.8% 72/75 (C15, N15, B13, P14, F15)

The Dalmore 15YO 40% 71/75

Lagavulin 16YO 43% 71/75 (C13, N15, B14, P14, F15)

Glenlivet 18YO 43% 71/75 (C14, N15, B14, P14, F14)

Tomintoul 16YO 40% 71/75 (C14, N14, B14, P14, F15)

Caol Ila Distiller's Edition 43% 71/75

Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% 71/75 (C14, N15, B14, P14, F14)

The Macallan 10YO 40% 70/75

Tomintoul 27YO 40% 70/75 (C14, N14, B14, P14, F14)

Cragganmore 12YO 40% 70/75 (C14, N15, B13, P14, F14)

Highland Park 12YO 40% 70/75 (C14, N15, B14, P14, F13)

Glenfarclas 15YO 46% 70/75

Mortlach 16YO (FLORA & FAUNA) 43% 69/75

Longmorn 15YO 45% 69/75

Auchentoshan 3Wood 43% 69/75 (C15, N13, B13, P14, F14)

Glenfiddich Ancient Reserve 18YO 40% 69/75 (C14, N14, B14, P14, F13)

Balvenie DoubleWood 40% 69/75 (C14, N14, B14, P13, F14)

Ardbeg 10YO 46% 68/75 (C13, N14, B14, P12, F15)

The Dalmore 12YO 43% 68/75 (C14, N13, B13, P13, F15)

Bunnahabhain 12YO 40% 68/75 (C14, N14, B14, P12, F14)

Glenfarclas 10YO 40% 68/75

Linkwood 12YO 43% 68/75

The Macallan 10YO FINE OAK 40% 67/75

Springbank 10YO 46% 67/75 (C14, N14, B13, P13, F13)

Glenlivet 12YO 40% 67/75 (C14, N14, B13, P14, F13)

Dalwhinnie 15YO 43% 67/75

Royal Lochnagar 12YO 40% 67/75

Auchentoshan 18YO 43% 67/75 (C14, N14, B13, P14, F12)

The Balvenie 15YO Single Barrel 47.8% 67/75

The Balvenie 10YO Founder's Reserve 40% 67/75

Glenmorangie Lasanta 46% 67/75

Ben Nevis 12YO 40% 66/75 (C14, N14, B12, P13, F13)

Glencadam 15YO 40% 65/75 (C14, N13, B12, P13, F13)

Glenfiddich 12YO 40% 65/75

Bowmore Legend 40% 65/75

Oban 14YO 43% 64.5/75

Glengoyne 10YO 40% 64/75

Bowmore 12YO 40% 64/75 (C13, N12, B13, P13, F13)

Glen Scotia 12YO 40% 64/75

Auchentoshan 10YO 40% 64/75 (C13, N14, B12, P13, F12)

Aberlour 10YO 40% 64/75

Ardmore 100% Peated Traditional Cask 46% 63/75 (C13, N13, B12, P12, F13)

Aberfeldy 12YO 40% 63/75

Jura NO AGE STATEMENT 40% 62/75

Laphroaig 10YO 40% 61/75 (C14, N13, B11, P11, F12)

The Dalvey 10YO 40% 60/75 (C13, N12, B11, P12, F12)

Glenkinchie 12YO 43% 60/75

Glenmorangie The Original 40% 59/75

Tormore 12YO 40% 58/75 (C14, N12, B9, P11, F12)

Tobermory 10YO 40% 56/75

Glen Grant PURE MALT 40% 53/75 (C11, N10, B12, P10, F11)

Arran 10YO 46% 53/75 (C12, N10, B10, P10, F11)

Benromach Traditional 40% 53/75 (C11, N13, B9, P9, F11)

Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% Dram #30

I step out of the car - red in 1980, rusty cherry now. I had only just managed to pull it into the side of the road with the last of its momentum after noticing greasy black smoke curling out from under the bonnet.

This I now lift, carefully and cautiously. Even in my mechanical ignorance, I sense that my old Rover needs urgent care, her black blood oozing about the engine bay. Lifting my mobile to my ear, I wonder if the AA is to be found on Islay. Whatever the eventuality, I quickly decide that breaking down on South Shore, in May, with the sun kissing the sea, the verge, the road, the surrounding fields and even my old Rover - is not such a curse after all.

From where I stand on the verge, its plant life breathing vegetally, I can see a steep dune cliff swooping into the Atlantic. The scents of salt, sand and my gasping car sweep up my nostrils, reminding me of a dram I'm quite fond of. The industrial tang of the Rover blends with the blooming grass verge, turning somehow into a flower bed of malt. The tar in the road throbs as though a heart beats in its hardcore.

I sniff and I sniff - it is quite fantastic. It occurs to me to retrieve the car's service history and upon opening the glove compartment a whiff of the banana I had sequestered there the other morning makes the parallels between my local atmosphere and an expression of Ardbeg become all the more astonishing.

After another deep sniff, I dump the pack of manuals in the passenger seat. But something catches my eye through the windscreen - a man in a high-visibility jacket.

"That was quick of them," I think to myself and duck out of the proving car. However, the closer this man draws and the more the AA van which I expect to accompany him doesn't appear around the bend in the road, I begin to suspect that this person is not here to treat the car.

"You've broken down?" he asks once within calling distance.

"Yes," I reply.

"Well then," he says, walking up to me, "have some of this."

He proffers a flask from which an aroma not unlike the air I've been savouring for the past half an hour wafts.

"I work at the distillery," he says and points away down to my left. How had I missed the pagoda rooves? "I was making my commute when I saw the car. I'll be away and phone the local breakdown folk."

With that he leaves me, I holding his flask.

"Thankyou!" I shout, before taking a sip. I taste the sweetness of a charred Sherry cask, a sharp maltiness and then a rich smokiness. Little strawberries and currants make their way across my palate. I exhale - I have to - in amazement and ardour. A couple of grains of peaty malt roll about on the back of my tongue and is that tirimasu I'm getting at a quarter past eleven in the morning?

I take another sip to make certain and lean against the flank of my cunning old Rover, squinting out to sea.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Laphroaig 10-year-old 40% Dram #34

If this whisky had a first name, it would be short. Maybe Bert... Bert Laphroaig.

The reason I say so (and the thinking behind a male name) is because I have seen this dram. It sat in the window of a little coastal pub, little more than a bothy with a picnic table outside (no takers for this item of furniture what with it being five o'clock at night and unmistakeably January). I was perched at the bar, feeling obtrusive and a touch nervous, believing that the barman offered some sort of asylum from the Atlantic ocean and the folk who managed, year on year, to avoid sliding into it. This Laphroaig is as much that location: unique, and introverted, confident of its own business, as the character who later, once I had made in roads into my reviving dram and endured his measured stare for some minutes, extricated himself from his window seat, introduced himself as Bert and then gently but firmly squashed my head into his thick woollen jumper.

I guessed that he worked at the Port Ellen maltings yet I was surprised by how soft the smoke that teased my nostrils was. Maybe it was a new jumper. The overall aroma was one of driftwood slowly smouldering after it had done its job as a beach barbecue. In addition to that there was a matte saltiness, no doubt the sea spray clinging to him after his walk along the harbour wall in order to enter the pub. I was a little surprised, and wasn't comfortable with asking him about it at the time, to smell seaweed, too, rubbery and mineral-rich.

He released my head yet would not let me return to the dram I had bought. Instead, he beckoned me to follow him out of the pub. I stopped in the porch as it was quite plainly raining. Bert Laphroaig, however, was standing in the deluge. He winked at me, then walked back towards the pub and stood beside me in the doorway.

"Better when a bit wet," he said to me, and before I could evade him, he had my nose pressed into his jumper again. He was right. The scents were much stronger than before, more assertive, and seeping out of the wool was a richer maltiness. I pulled myself free, but nodded at him with approval. As I straightened up there was a memory of something else, something entirely unexpected. Bert Laphroaig held a note of marshmallow and... yes... Peach. Who could have guessed?

I wandered back into the pub but couldn't find my dram. I was on the verge of getting upset when the barman pushed another tumbler of straw-gold liquid at me.

"Bert's home stuff," he said. I brought it to my nose and had to take it away again. It was uncannily like Bert's jumper. I sipped. The taste didn't assail me straight away. It coiled and wriggled in my mouth before delivering in smoke, peat and dusty malt.

"Interesting," I said as the spirit slid to my stomach. "It's sort of green, isn't it?"

The barman raised an eyebrow.

"The malt is almost still alive. There's a slight bitterness... Chorizo."

The barman raised the other eyebrow.

"Yes, chorizo." I finished the measure. Upon handing him the glass, I felt a thin film of sand in my mouth. As I walked away, I wondered how often Bert Laphroaig washed his jumper.

I'll do a few back-catalogue posts - but I had the Laphroaig last night and so the ideas were still very much in action. This was my second taste of Islay back in 2007 (I'd had Bowmore prior to that but before I knew what single malt was) and it rather put me off. The smoke was just so ferocious! However, in the year and a bit since I have been logging all sorts of whiskies in my notebook and Caol Ila is my absolute favourite. It just demonstrates how different the malts from this island can be. However, despite being able to appreciate it now, the body, palate and finish just aren't of the style that I enjoy. Not much to be done there, then. Next, I'll have to talk about some Auchentoshans I met recently...