August 13, 2014

Laphroaig at the Feis (Book early)!

As I write this, there are 622968 Friends of Laphroaig - folks who have purchased at least one bottle of Laphroaig and signed up to be a friend, which comes with a lifetime lease of a square foot of land at the distillery, and many other fun perks. Based on how quickly the Laphroaig events at the annual whisky festival were sold out, it's just possible that most of these Friends attended Feis Ile 2014! That's a bit of a "tongue in cheek" comment, but is testament to the huge popularity of this soon to be 200 year old Islay distillery.
Laphroaig means "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay" in Gaelic, and the name is apt. Nestled in a gorgeous spot on the south coast of Islay, Laphroaig is where some of the smokiest whiskies on Islay are produced, and where generous drams of many whisky expressions were poured on Laphroaig Day.
Months before the festival, I somehow missed the fact that events were open for reservation - probably because I had never bothered to sign up as a FOL. Silly me! Events I wanted to attend included a Burns Supper, a blind tasting, cask strength whisky tasting with John Campbell, and a Laphroaig expedition. Nobody, but nobody, cancels out of Laphroaig events, probably because if you drink Laphroaig every day you never get sick! In any event, no amount of emailing and begging got me into any of these fine functions but, having learned my lesson, we trotted off to Laphroaig Day anyway to see what would transpire.
First up, the weather was glorious. Off to a good start!
Second, the FOL bar was serving up shots of the following expressions.........
Laphroaig Select - matured in American oak (not ex-bourbon), sherry casks, Oloroso sherry butts, 1/4 casks and PX sherry casks. A cornucopia of sweet, dry, fruit and smoke.
10 year old original - cask strength version of the beloved Laphroaig 10. Powerful, medicinal, smoky.
Quarter Cask - a perennial favourite and possibly the best value Laphroaig in our fair Province. Matured in ex Bourbon casks, then small American oak 1/4 casks. Laphroaig with toffee.
Triple Wood - the 1/4 cask with added maturation in oloroso casks. Think smoky, peaty, dark toffee, dried fruits, nuts, smoky, oily, spicy, smoky, sweet, smoky. I like it a lot.
18 year old. Heavenly, elegant Laphroaig. Matures very nicely to advanced years.
Cairdeas (Friendship) 2014. The annual Friends of Laphroaig bottling, which does double duty as the festival bottle. Laphroaig finished in Amontillado sherry casks for a year. The finishing casks come through loud and clear and provide a fruit flavour spectrum from citrus to dried, as well as a lot of nutty character. The Laphroaig smokiness is more subdued in this one, but I loved the whole package. A very nice dram!
Third, the music by the Simon Moran Trio was jolly!
Fourth, I snagged the last signed bottle of Laphroaig Cairdeas (by Distillery Manager, John Campbell), which I'm opening later on this evening for a birthday dram.
Fifth, I had my interview with Jean Donnay of the new Gartbreck Distillery. (I know I keep referring to this, and that interview will appear eventually)!
Sixth, some Christmas gifts were purchased in the Laphroaig shop.
Soaps, lotions, marmalade, scarves -& Scotch!
Seventh, we managed to fit in an outing to the beautiful and inspiring 1300 year old Kildalton Cross,
Imposing Kildalton Cross

Simply leave money in the  blue box for hot drinks and baked goods.
Beautiful moors around Kildalton
Very jaggy nettles!

and a walk on the Mull of Oa,
Mull of Oa

as well as a chat with a fellow working at the Port Ellen malt storage and filling station,
Demand for malted barley on Islay outstrips local supply
a quick bite at the White Hart Hotel,
the whisky menu
Silent Port Ellen Distillery next to Port Ellen Malting works
and a get together with the rest of the family at Lagavulin Malt Mill for a wee local ceilidh! As they say in Scotland - "jings", which, roughly translated in this case, means "that's a lot of stuff to pack into one day". And it was.

GrapeScot Islay Tour 2015

I'll be back at Laphroaig as part of the GrapeScot Islay Whisky Tour, August 2015. Drop me a line if you'd like to receive the details of a grand experience there, and at all the other great distilleries on this beautiful Hebridean island. For more on Laphroaig distillery, you can read my post from my previous visit.
Next up will be my visit to the neighbouring island of Jura, home to a fine distillery (also on the tour), and one that hosted a grand day during the whisky festival. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates. You'll only receive an email when a new story is posted.

August 05, 2014

Lagavulin Day @ Feis Ile 2014 - Cool Cocktails & Wonderful Whisky

We flew in from Glasgow and were met at the Islay airport by John, our charming family friend, and rental home host for the week. John arrived to pick up our luggage and take it back to Port Charlotte. Our plan was to take the bus to Lagavulin and enjoy whatever was on offer.
While catching up on Islay news, over a coffee, one of the airport security folks asked us if we'd mind leaving, as the airport was closing. There's only one flight from and to Glasgow on a Saturday morning, so the airport closes mid morning. Lillias, one of the security guards, asked us where we were going, then kindly offered to give us a "lift". Turns out that she had been busy baking, and was about to serve food at the filled rolls and baked goods stand, run by one of the local churches.
And so we found ourselves at Lagavulin Distillery in record time, joining a long line of happy people, queuing up to buy the festival bottle. It turned out that the line was about two hours long, but it was both cheery and productive.
We chatted with a few folks in the queue, none of whom knew any details about the bottle they were lining up to buy. It probably didn't matter. It was Lagavulin. It was a special bottling. It would be good. With our place in line secured, I wandered off to find out more about the bottle; and also to go begging to see whether I could get us into any of the special tasting events that had been sold out from almost day one. It turned out that one coveted spot had become available for Georgie Crawford's Masterclass, which I snapped up, with a request to track me down if another should miraculously appear. Georgie is the Distillery Manager at Lagavulin, and a bit of an icon in the  whisky women world, so I was super excited to snag a spot at one of her sessions. With a couple of passes to a cocktail session and some information about the distillery bottling, I wandered back to the line, which had progressed - a little, just in time to receive a dram of 16 year old, which was being poured to help pass the time. And it did - very nicely!
While we were enjoying the dram, the fine weather, and good chats with folks whom we would encounter many more times during the week, we spotted this van turning into the car park.
Gartbreck is to be Islay's newest distillery, with construction starting this year, and production targeted for next year. I left the line again to go see who was in the van and, to my delight, it was the new owner, Jean Donnay, with his wife, Martine and their daughter.
We'd been hoping to meet up during this trip, so this was a serendipitous occurrence a couple of hours into our visit. Later in the week I would meet up with Jean at Laphroaig to chat about his plans for the distillery. That interview will be appearing shortly, in a subsequent post.
Before long the, as yet untasted, Festival bottle was procured, just in time to join the piper-led parade up the road to the historic Malt Mill for Georgie's Masterclass - for which, by this point, a second ticket had been procured, thanks to someone missing a flight.
The event was fun. Georgie has done this before! Apart from a great collection of whiskies, she had anecdotes to share about the distillery, the folks who work there, Islay trivia and history and completely unrelated fun stories. She showed two hilarious clips from a couple of episodes of "Parks and Recreation". The main character, Ron Swanson, enjoys his Lagavulin. Here, courtesy of Scotch Cinema, is an under three minute clip, worth watching.
On the distillery front, new efficiencies are in play, resulting in significantly higher production levels, i.e. more Lagavulin. Thirteen vent pipes have been installed to capture vapour losses in the Still House during production. This successful venture, one of several, is being rolled out to other Diageo distilleries - of which there are many!
On the tasting mat were six Lagavulin logo-ed, Glencairn crystal tasting glasses, each topped with a transparent cover to seal in the lovely whisky aromas.
First up was a cask strength Manager's Dram, bottled from 5 rejuvenated hogsheads, featuring lemon, peat and a youthful exuberance.
Next up was the 2013, Lagavulin 12 year old, cask strength. This was the 12th year for this product, and for me, this one displayed pineapple, white pepper and drug store perfume (that might sound bad, but it was an interesting nose). It was fruitier on the palate than the previous whisky, and very smooth with a droplet of water.
Diageo's Classic Malts Distillery Editions are each finished in different cask types. Dalwhinnie is finished  in Oloroso, Talisker in Amoroso, Glenkinchie in Amontillado, Cragganmore in Port, Oban in Montilla Fino and, last but not least, Lagavulin Distillers Edition is finished in PX sherry casks. This gives a rich dried fruit and spice character which is very appealing, alongside the peaty character of the whisky. The 1997 version, complete with new packaging, displayed anise, oranges, dried fruits, ginger and cloves - rich, delicious and warming.

The 2013 Friends of the Classic Malts triple matured, no age expression (but around 16 years) was next. This limited edition, 48% ABV, started life in refill casks, then moved house to European oak, before finishing its maturation in freshly charred American oak. Deep amber in colour, this one displayed brown sugar, bourbon aspects, raisins, ginger spice, sweetness on the palate, and a long, spicy finish. Delicious!
Lagavulin sponsors the Islay Jazz Festival held in September. Sadly, I only have about an inch left in my brilliant 2012 bottle. The 2013 bottling, which we tasted next, was also superb, smooth and elegant. Here's a good reason to visit Islay in September - jazz and the likelihood of another yummy Lagavulin special.
The final dram of the tasting was, not surprisingly, the Feis Ile 2014 Festival bottle. This elegant, gentle and subtle dram was from a  batch of 3500 bottles, distilled in January 1995, matured in a few refill European sherry casks, and bottled in 2014 at 54.7%. Gentle on the nose, with some butterscotch, light fruit and spice that carries through the palate and the finish, this is a nice dram that belies its high ABV rating. A drop of water brings out more perfume and makes it softer on the palate. I preferred it at full strength. This is a fine example of subtle maturation in refill casks enhancing but not overwhelming the Lagavulin character.
After a bite of lunch, featuring Islay scallops, a live band, and a wander about the beautiful coastline, it was time to take in a cocktail making session, in a barn, with swallows flying around overhead - very atmospheric! The session starred David Sinclair, ex head barman of the Gleneagles Hotel, and Colin Dunn, both Diageo whisky ambassadors. David used the finest of ingredients - Lagavulin 16 year old, fresh citrus fruits, interesting bitters and syrups, fresh mint, Grand Marnier and more, to concoct a couple of fabulous cocktails, each one successful because of the tasty balance of alcohol, sweet, sour and bitter.
If I'm deciphering my notes correctly, here are the recipes.

Cocktail One

40ml Lagavulin 16, 20ml Grand Marnier, dash of agave syrup, dash of orange bitters. Stir it all up, add some ginger beer and garnish with mint leaves.

Cocktail Two

I'm fuzzier on this one, but it was awesome!
Lagavulin 16, some whisky barley bitters, maple syrup, over ice, a squeeze of orange juice, garnish with orange zest.

Lagavulin and Coke

Although this wasn't served, we were encouraged to try Lagavulin 16 and Coke. Later, I did, and it was surprisingly tasty, given that I don't like Coke! It was definitely a notch up from my famous Ardbeg Alligator bacon cocktail.

From Free to Fabulous

There were dozens of other tastings, tours, music and dancing events, food experiences and more going on during Lagavulin Day and the rest of the week, suiting every price point from free to about $650. The Ultimate Islay Tour was an 8 hour experience on land and sea, including exceptional tastings, wonderful food, signed Festival bottles of Caol Ila and Lagavulin,  and top notch experiences at Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen maltings.

More fabulous experiences on the GrapeScot Islay Tour 2015

A visit to Lagavulin Distillery will be part of the GrapeScot tour to Islay in late August 2015. This will be a small group experience with terrific events at each of the distilleries, an opportunity to meet some wonderful whisky people, great accommodations, transportation, food, cultural activities and some very fine whisky. To find out more, please drop me a line and I'll send you the itinerary and details. To read more about Lagavulin Distillery and my previous visit, just click the link.

Next Post - Laphroaig

The next post will be about Laphroaig. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates. You'll only receive an email when a new story is posted.


July 24, 2014

Chocolates, Michelin cuisine, World's best oysters, Stunning Scotch - this is Bunnahabhain Day at Feis Ile 2014

Whisky galore at Bunnahabhain.
Whisky tasting takes stamina! By 9:30am on Friday 30th May, I had taken a morning run along the coast from Port Charlotte, wolfed down some porridge, and was on my way to Bunnahabhain Distillery, where our first tasting of the day was with Brand Ambassador, Dr Kirstie McCallum. Sweet Taste of Home was a whisky and chocolate pairing - just the thing for 10:30am. The chocolates were provided by Iain  Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier, who concocts his creations in Grandtully, an absolutely tiny village on the River Tay where, as it happens, my sister and brother-in-law live. So, I already knew about the quality of Iain's chocolates.
Bunnahabhain whisky with Iain Burnett chocolates.
Kirstie had assembled a fabulous collection that paired beautifully with the selected whiskies. Clearly, a PhD in Chemistry, and previous work as a blender, provides awesome training for such culinary exactitude. The Doc told us that she had tasted dozens of chocolates to find the best matches!
It's a bit cruel to dwell on the tasting, but here's a rundown in any event.

Bunnahabhain 12 year old 

With a drop of water, this was brilliant with a lemongrass praline. For me, the B12 displays lemon, hazelnuts, honey and a bit of perfume on the nose; with an oily mouthfeel, and gentle fruit and cloves on the palate. The alcohol dominated a wee bit with the chocolate, but a droplet of water did the trick.

Bunnahabhain 18 year old

I'm a big fan, even without chocolates, but this was pretty divine with a dark chocolate, orange and clove truffle. The B18 is rich and smooth, with orange, dried fruits and toffee from nose to tail. All of our tasting companions were equally impressed.
Everyone's a new friend at a tasting.

 Bunnahabhain 25 year old

When my dessert island stranded time arrives, (misspelling intended) let this one be in the box! Beautiful, elegant, plump dried fruits, the best vanilla pods, soft and smooth, so balanced and perfect that tasting notes can only underestimate the delight of this dram. Kirstie had paired this with  pistachios and almonds on dark chocolate. My handwritten notes show a smiley face. I guess I liked this.

Dram an Stiureadair

In keeping with the nautical theme of the day, the name means The Helmsman's Dram. (See below for the full name with accents). Many of Bunnahabhain's bottlings are at a generous 46.3% alcohol by volume, but this one is a robust 56.7%ABV. It's a peated dram, with no age expression, although it appears about 10 years old, with most of that time in Bourbon casks, and some final time in Marsala casks. Unlike other Islay distilleries, many of Bunnahabhain's whiskies are unpeated, and seem to do very well in that configuration. The process of changing production from  unpeated to peated whiskies, or vice versa,  is a big task for a distillery, but well worthwhile in the quest for a wide range of products. Bunnahabhain makes peated whiskies about 4 weeks of the year, some of which finds its way to Duty Free stores.
I did not win this
Dram an Stiureadair was, of course, vastly different from the 25 year old we had just tasted, but a nice dram nevertheless. Peat, vanilla, cream, nuts and spice mingled together well in this youthful whisky, which was nothing short of superb, with the raspberry and black pepper truffle. In a complete understatement, this was not a bad pre-lunch tasting!
Earlier in the day, Kirstie started off proceedings with a nosing test. Nine aromatic bottles had to be matched up with their corresponding descriptions - peat smoke, nuts, vanilla, oak, malt, sherry, spice, fruit and Bunnahabhain. This was a lot of fun, a good way to meet other table guests, but not a walk in the park by any means. Isn't the nose a marvelous thing!
Nosing test
By now, the sun was shining, the awesome folk/rock band Skerryvore was belting out great songs in the courtyard, people were milling around enjoying fabulous views across the Sound of Islay, having a dram, waiting for the famous Helmsman's boat to arrive, or chomping down on all the great street food. It was lunch time and there, before me, was a cart filled with freshly shucked Islay Oysters, from Loch Gruinart, a tidal estuary on the north coast, with a mild marine climate. The waters around Islay are warmed by the Gulf stream, and two daily tides bring in fresh food for the oysters.
I'll go out on a limb here and say that these are the best oysters in the world.
Granted I had just had four fine drams and some pretty decent chocolates, but these were the best, sweetest oysters I have ever tasted - bar none.
View across the Sound of Islay
But the day was far from over. In the afternoon, we toddled over to a big marquee to enjoy another tasting - this time paired with tasty food prepared by Michelin star Chef, Geoffrey Smeddle, from The Peat Inn near St Andrews.
It mattered not a whit that the first three Scotches were repeats from the morning - 12, 18 and 25. Let me attempt to describe the food!
The 12 year old was served with Pork Cheek and Onions. The pork was infused with caramelized, sweet onions, topped with a ring of pickled shallot with sugar and served on a  brown malted flour biscuit. Yum!

The 18 year old was served with a duck pastilla. This might look like one of those frozen appetizers which one buys in a  box around the holidays to cook, and delight guests. It was, in fact, a mixture of nuts, dried apricots and figs, cooked in PX sherry and Bunnahabhain 18, and mixed with slow cooked shredded duck, then wrapped in a  delicately thin firm pastry. Oh my!
Not a frozen appetizer.
 The 25 year old was served with a cheeseburger. What?!? Well, this was a play on a cheeseburger in a  dessert form. The "bun" was a miniature malted milk and almond macaroon, the "burger" was 53% (very specific) dark chocolate and milk chocolate ganache, and the cheese was mango jelly. Very, very innovative - and tasty.
Not your average cheeseburger
The final piece de resistance was a taste of Bunnahabhain's very limited17 year old, single cask festival bottling - Westering Home. The beautiful bottle was designed by a young, Swedish artist, Mathilda Holmqvist, who won the design competition. She was there, beaming, with bottle in hand.
Westering Home
The whisky had spent about 10 years in a refill cask, then 6 years in a  Cognac cask, followed by a few months in a Sauternes cask. Sweet tree fruits, coconut, tropical spices, honey and toffee  all came into play through the nosing/tasting/enjoying journey. And - there was another delicious truffle to enjoy with this one. Even better, proceeds from the sale of this whisky were destined for the Fisherman's Mission.
What a speculator day! And we only grazed the surface of all the events on offer. Distillery Manager, Andrew Brown, is the best possible host and, no doubt helped by a small army of equally passionate folks, he put on a proper party! Here's another of my Bunnahabhain stories from a  previous visit.

GrapeScot Islay Whisky Tour August 2015

My next trip to Bunnahabhain will be in August 2015. You can join me, and a small tour group, on this whisky adventure to my favourite Scottish Hebridean Island. Drop me a line and I'll send you the itinerary and details.
My next post will be about Lagavulin. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates. You'll only receive an email when a new story is posted.



July 15, 2014

Islay Whisky Festival 2014 - Ardbeg

Let's start with Ardbeg! In this series I'm writing about visits to each of the Islay distilleries during Feis Ile 2014.
At the annual festival of music and whisky, each Islay distillery hosts a day filled with whisky tastings and events, food, music, special Festival bottlings and loads of excitement and anticipation. Some events are free, some are ticketed and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the ticketed events sell like hotcakes! Take a look at the Ardbeg festivities to whet your appetite for a  future Feis Ile.
The official Ardbeg Day was on the final Saturday when, sadly,  we had to be out of our rental house and on the Calmac ferry from Port Askaig back to the mainland. Luckily, many of the events were duplicated on other days throughout the week and so, thanks to Mickey Heads, Ardbeg's Distillery Manager, and probably too much pleading and cajoling on my part, I secured a place at a midweek Heads Up tasting - a much sought after warehouse experience, and rightly so.
Salty character?
Like many of the folks in the Islay distillery world, Mickey's an Ileach (an Islay native). After previous experience at Laphroaig, and as Distillery Manager at Jura, he's been the Distillery Manager at Ardbeg for seven years, so he's had time to nose and sample a good number of the carefully coded thousands of casks maturing in the Ardbeg warehouses. For the heads up tasting, about fourteen of us headed down to the dunnage warehouse, where a number of Mickey's favourite casks had been rolled out for us to select and taste. Crystal tasting glasses and plates of nibbles waited invitingly on upright barrels, which are just the right size for a stand up tasting.
Let the tasting begin

The first barrel selected for tasting was a 1994 2nd fill bourbon barrel. There is no finer way to taste a dram than straight from the barrel where the whisky has been resting all its life, maturing through cool winters and warm summers, slowly building its character year after year. This 20 year old was a real beauty. At 55% alcohol by volume, and with aromas of apple and smoke and elegance (yes, that is an aroma, in my opinion), it tasted beautifully balanced, fruity and creamy, with some ginger, then a long spicy finish. Yum!
Mickey Heads
Mickey has a great style - easy going, gentle spoken, warm and friendly. His knowledge and experience comes through in his quiet and confident manner. It's easy to tell that he loves his work, and his whiskies, but he doesn't get worked up with differing opinions. Pleased as punch if people in the group liked a particular barrel, he was equally interested in listening to preferences, comments and tasting perspectives, as well as answering any and all questions that came his way.
Ardbeg whiskies are in high demand. Back in the 60's and 70's, one cask from each distillation was filled for single malt and the rest went for blends. Today, it's a completely different story, with an enviable global demand and everything going to single malt. About 36,000 tons of barley comes annually from Port Ellen maltings, but that's not enough to meet demand, so some is sourced from other malting works on the mainland.
The second barrel selected was a first fill oloroso sherry barrel from  1998. The oloroso barrels are mainly used in the brilliant Uigeadail, one of my all time favourite whiskies. This one, at 56.9% ABV, had a wonderful and typically rich sherry cask nose, with dried fruits and a big, juicy, spicy palate.
Next up was a first fill bourbon barrel - cask 2053 to be precise -  from 1999 at 51% ABV. Perhaps the angels took a slightly bigger share of this particular barrel! Or more likely it was its particular higher level position in the warehouse. Incredibly light in colour, with a perfumed, creamy vanilla nose, this one was elegant, balanced, lengthy and simply excellent.
Roll out the barrel
Around this point in the proceedings, we wandered deeper into the warehouse, where a few strong souls tried their hands at rolling barrels along the tracks to their maturation resting place. The barrels weigh about 260kgs and have to end up with the bung holes on top. This is not a lightweight or trivial exercise but it's one of the things to be mastered by a warehouseman. Ardbeg currently has about 3.3M litres of whisky maturing in bond, with about 70% of that at the distillery. There are lots of barrels to be moved around!
Back in our tasting area, one of Mickey's favourites from the selection was poured - cask #2437, refill sherry from 1998. This one displayed orange citrus and spice with sweet smoke. It was very nice. They were all very nice! I kept revisiting the whiskies during the session and my personal favourite was the 1994 second fill bourbon barrel.
So with all that whisky maturing, how does Mickey and his team keep a handle on how the barrels are tasting and which ones are ready for marrying or bottling? This is where experience comes into play. The whisky is all individually labelled and positioned, and the team simply knows when the barrels need sampling. The final call on barrel selection lies with Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation and Distilling at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, but the job of regularly testing and selecting the main contenders lies with Mickey's team - the proverbial "tough job but someone has to do it".
Another refill sherry cask from 1998 displayed a menthol, herbal nose, a sweet palate, followed by smoke, then a salty, chewy finish - so different from the previous one. Magic!
Tasting from the last barrel was a poignant experience. The 33 year old, third fill oloroso sherry cask was filled on March 11th, 1981, just before production at the distillery dwindled to nothing. The distillery was closed in 1991 until its purchase, in 1997, by the Glenmorangie company, and the subsequent phenomenal revival and success. What a joy to taste something so old and delicious that's been lying around through the historic turmoil of over three decades.
A fine collection
And what does one do after such a brilliant tasting? In my case, I headed to the Old Kiln Cafe, Ardbeg's well-loved cafe, for a haggis stuffed baked potato. Of course!
Yummy haggis stuffed baked potato
A visit to Ardbeg, with a special tasting and lunch at The Old Kiln will be a popular item with my Islay 2015 Tour group. The small group tour will be happening near the end of August 2015. Drop me a line and I'll send you all the details. No obligation, just some great information on what will be a fabulous week. If you'd like to read more about Ardbeg distillery, you can check out the story from my previous visit.
My next post will be about Bunnahabhain. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates and you'll only get an email when a new story is posted.