October 29, 2012

Ardbeg - from mothballs to medals

It's really quite remarkable what the folks at Ardbeg distillery have accomplished in the last 15 years. Back in 1887, Ardbeg produced over 1 million litres of whisky and was the biggest producer on Islay, as well as one of the biggest in Scotland. But, about a hundred years later, changing fortunes and times saw production dwindle to virtually nothing and, in 1991, the distillery closed. Six years later, it was purchased by the Glenmorangie company, currently owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. Since then, Ardbeg, its people and its whiskies have won countless awards.
I'm a big fan of the whiskies, but I'm certainly not alone. Ardbeg has a passionate following that broaches on the fanatical. The Ardbeg committee (one of over a hundred that exist on Islay) has reported over 50,000 members for a few years now. In addition to spreading the Ardbeg message (which I am doing, as a good committee member), members have early access to special bottlings and other rewards of membership. If you live in an accommodating part of the world, these special bottlings can be shipped to you. 
With so many committee members having Elite access (to use an Air Canada analogy), some bottlings sell out very quickly, which generates even more demand for limited bottlings, and Ardbeg in general. All very clever.
Still on the subject of serious Ardbeg fans, Tim Puett from California has to be one of the most serious of all. If you love Ardbeg whisky, check out his unbelievably detailed website - The Ardbeg Project
There are many expressions to choose from. In addition to producing a core range that currently includes the very lightly peated Blasda, the "blow your socks off" peated Supernova, the consistently super 10 year old, the big and powerful Corryvreckan and my favourite, Uigeadail, Ardbeg distillery has produced over 100 whiskies, including committee bottlings and single cask bottlings, since being acquired by Glemorangie in 1997.
Jim Murray, who updates his annual Whisky Bible each year, named different Ardbeg whiskies as World Whisky of the Year in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010 - big accolades for a distillery which had its renaissance a mere 15 years ago.
The southern Islay distillery will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2015. It's reasonable to expect all kinds of parties and surprises during that year. I recently spent some time with Jackie Thomson at Ardbeg, Whisky Magazine's 2013 Visitor Centre Manager of the Year, and she's the instigator of many celebratory events at the distillery. With a  focus on good fun and a passion for Ardbeg, it's clear that the thinking cap is already on for some 2015 events. Jackie, (who won the same award on 2002),  flits around the visitor centre, wearing many hats in a very capable fashion. When she isn't talking about whisky, showing folks around or leading tastings, she might be tending cash at the enormously popular shop or working in the terrific restaurant, where hungry tasters can sample some great Islay food.
I sampled some whiskies with Jackie and it became clear to me that the clever handling of older stock, as well as very new, post 1997, stock was a huge factor in regenerating demand for Ardbeg.
In 2000, Ardbeg 10 was launched, but with older stock. From about 2008, the 10 year old character started to become more consistent, from the newer stock - all pointing to some interesting vertical tastings that can be held with Ardbeg 10, from 2000 to 2008. In 2003, the enormously popular Uigeadail was launched but, do the math, and it's clear that this is another whisky that changed with time before becoming Jim Murray's world whisky of the year in 2009. Between 2004 and 2008, various committee bottlings appeared, with names like Very Young, Still Young, Almost There and Renaissance, all selling out and continuing the buzz. Corryvreckan and Blasda were launched in 2008, Supernova in 2010 and, in other years, limited edition products like Alligator (re-charred casks), Rollercoaster, Serendipity ( a blended malt), and many others have continued to  fuel interest and demand. Just this year, a quirky, limited edition product called Galileo was launched, in celebration of the fact that some Ardbeg was sent to the international space station in 2011 for maturation experiments. Some of the whisky was matured in ex-Marsala casks and it's bottled at 49%. With a fruity nose and a peaty aftertaste, it's a different Ardbeg but, as always, has sold out. I managed to pick one up before it was gone.
Among the other whiskies I tasted was a 17 year old from older stock, which reminded me of Lagavulin 16 year old. The peat was more subdued, and it was fruity and elegant. The Blasda was light, as would be expected; the Supernova, big, bold, cask strength, enormously peaty and really tasty; and the Serendipity - a blend of Glen Moray and Ardbeg - had layers of aromas and flavours and was quite delicious. This whisky was apparently produced "by mistake", when some Glen Moray stock found its way to the distillery. It was then released as a committee, blended malt bottling and, to my mind, is proof positive that there should be much more blended malt production to explore new flavour combinations.
It could be argued that there are so many Ardbeg expressions out there, that it's all a  bit confusing for the consumer. (Back in Ontario, we only see one or two, most specifically the 10 year old, so we're not confused at all - sad, but not confused!). However, the fans seem to have no problem whatsoever with the wide range, and demand for Ardbeg, of any kind, keeps growing.
I haven't said much about the distillery itself, but it's quite charming and has some unique characteristics, such as one of the oldest working Boby mills in the world, a purifier on the lyne arm, and another of these long fermentation times to accommodate the high phenolic content, which requires more time for the yeast to break down the sugar.
After looking around with Jackie, and tasting a wide collection of Ardbeg whisky, I spent some time with Michael Heads. Mickey, as he is known, is the 17th Distillery Manager, a position he's held since 2007. Mickey's also a big fan of Uigeadail (it's much beloved by many!) and you can see him chat about this brilliant dram on you tube.
Ardbeg recently lost Master Blender extraordinaire, Rachel Barrie, to Bowmore distillery. Rachel was responsible for the creation of some very fine expressions for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, so we will stay tuned to see what the next game plan is to be at Ardbeg. Meanwhile, if the distillery keeps producing whiskies in the same class as the 10 year old and Uigeadail, there will be many happy campers for a long time to come.
Next up Laphroaig.

October 17, 2012

Bunnahabhain - crazy roads, rustic stills, great whisky

The last few kilometres of the road to Bunnahabhain distillery is not for the faint-hearted! Although very charming, and offering up gorgeous scenery, we have here a single track road with few passing places, scary blind corners, and neck-stretching brows of hills.
On the other hand, the scenery on that road and surrounding Bunnahabhain, the most north - easterly Islay distillery,  is simply stunning, even on a  grey, drizzly day.
It was comforting to reach the distillery - a surprisingly large complex at the end of a wee road -  where distillery manager,  Andrew Brown, was there to greet me with a smile, some distillery stories and history, and several nice drams.
Very few distilleries in Scotland are independent. Most are owned by other companies which, in turn, might be owned by bigger companies.  It's a reality of the global economy and the huge amount of financing required to be a global player. For example, Ardbeg is owned by Glenmorangie Co Ltd, which is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. LVMH own many luxury companies like Tag Heuer, Chateau d'Yquem, Givenchy, Sephora, Donna Karan and others. So, who owns Bunnahabhain?
The distillery is currently owned by Burn Stewart Distillers Ltd, which also owns Tobermory and Deanston distilleries, and produces Black Bottle whisky, a much favoured blend. Burn Stewart is owned by CL World Brands Spirits Group, which is owned by CL Financial, a Trinidadian based industrial conglomerate. This company is currently government controlled, and one can spend many hours reading about the various reasons leading to this status.
As it happens, CL also owns Angostura, so later that day I shook up  a cocktail, involving Bunnahabhain 18 year old (shame on me), angostura bitters, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and ice. I'm currently calling this the Margadale Special, in honour of the river nearby.
Andrew has been with Bunnahabhain distillery since 1988 and has undertaken most roles, until being recently appointed as distillery manager. He clearly enjoys sharing the history. The distillery was built in 1881, and the current owners have been in place since 2003. The name means "mouth of the river" in Gaelic and the river in question is the Margadale, (hence the cocktail name). The pure spring waters of the river are used in the production of Bunnahabhain whisky - not for cooling water, but in the other key areas.
As with quite a few distilleries, there have been periods of mothball, and some changing of hands and fortunes over the years. Until about 1963, the distillery produced a warm and peaty style of whisky, all of which went to blends. In that year much of the equipment was upgraded and Bunnahabhain started producing unpeated whisky - more of a Speyside style, according to Andrew. That style is much loved by Bunnahabhain fans, who enjoy the core range of 12 year old, 18 year old (a personal favourite) and 25 year old. Andrew was excited to share the news that a 40 year old would be coming out soon. The quantities will be very limited at about 750 bottles worldwide, more than 100 of which will be going to Taiwan, apparently. There will be about 10 available at the distillery in the £2500 range. In 2003 the distillery, once again, started to produce peaty whiskies, such as the new Toiteach (totche). The current range offers both peated and unpeated whiskies.
Andrew indicates that current production levels are about half of the 2.7M litre capacity, and last year about 90% of production went to blends. Presumably, the plan is to increase production to keep building stocks for anticipated future global demand. The core range was relaunched in 2011, with much acclaim, at a higher alcohol level, unchillfiltered. and with no caramel colouring. With the addition of new peaty expressions and World Duty Free offerings, Bunnahabhain should be seeing some of that increase in demand.
The peated malt at about 35ppm, comes from Port Ellen, and the unpeated, at about .8ppm, from Inverness or Berwick upon Tweed - all to Bunnahabhain's exact specifications. The mash tun uses about 12.5 tonnes of malt per mash and is fed with spring water. As with many distilleries, the draff residue in the mash tun goes to cattle feed. Many distillery folks will refer to fermentation times as having impact on the character of the new make spirit. At Bunnahabhain, however, fermentation time is typically longer at weekends than week days,  for labour reasons. Andrew reckons that there's no discernible difference in the spirit, although there will be slightly more alcohol in the washbacks for longer fermentation times, and the washback water temperature will be varied a bit. It was interesting to hear his perspective, since slow fermentation time is a definite aim at some other distilleries.
Much thought has gone into mitigating against power cuts. Bunnahabhain is more remote than the other distilleries and power cuts happen. Among the various things in the distillery bag of tricks, in the event of a cut, is to grate a little natural soap into the washbacks to "take the head out" when fermentation is raging.
The four stills at Bunnahabhain are uniquely shaped and, although they're made of copper of course, they have a rustic appearance that I hadn't seen in other distilleries. External appearance will have no impact on the whisky inside, but I realized that other distilleries, with gleaming stills, actually polish them!
With so much of the current production going to blend, a lot of the whisky is filled into tanks and taken elsewhere for maturation. But there are lots of barrels maturing on site and others waiting to be filled.
It was time for a tasting so, with some other keen enthusiasts, we headed into the tasting room, where Andrew treated us to some fine drams. First up was Darach Ur, a new, unpeated, duty free offering at 46.3% and no age expression. It had a fruity and vanilla nose and was very spicy. It softened down very nicely with a drop of water.
The relatively recently relaunched Bunnahabhain 12 year old, at 46.3%, was fresh, with citrus, vanilla and spice again. The 18 year old, a lovely whisky, is all elegance with great flavours. It's sweeter, fruitier, still with that characteristic spice, dried fruit and Christmas pudding. Both of these are available in Ontario at around $80 and $160. Ouch! Weep with us, my friends who have access to more favourable pricing.
The 25 year old was the most elegant, with vanilla custard cream aromas and flavours coming into play, along with everything else.
We were treated to a wee dram of the 2011 Feis Ile special bottling - a 14 year old, 59.4% whisky which had spent the last 3 1/2 years in a cognac cask. It was rich on the nose with orange and ginger spice, a cornucopia of flavours and fire on the palate, and a big spicy finish. This was also created to celebrate 130 years of Bunnahabhain. Thanks for sharing that one, Andrew. I'm sure there are few, if any, bottles for sale anywhere.
The Toiteach (means smoke on Islay, mist on Lewis) had a smoky, medicinal, young nose, and was sweeter and chewy on the palate. It had a nice smoky finish.
The other new duty free addition to the range is the Cruach Mhona (Peat stack/peat moss). This is another unaged expression, but drinks very nicely and is a good one to buy to get a feel for peaty Bunnahabhain.
In the distillery shop, there are all kinds of rare, unique and pricey bottles that collectors will love.
As you approach Bunnahabhain, signs on barrels point to the distillery. On the way out  a quirky barrel sign points to "other places". Brilliant! This is definitely a distillery worth visiting - for the drive in (not everyone will be as wimpy as me), for the warm welcome and the chance to taste some fine drams.

Next up Ardbeg, but not for a few days, while my travels take me to Munich. I feel a beer story coming on...............

October 16, 2012

Kilchoman - the little distillery that could

If you wanted to pick one distillery on Islay that's quite different from the other seven, it would have to be Kilchoman. It's situated inland, in a wild and rugged part of Islay, rather than on the coast; it's very young (2004) relative to the others, independently owned (the only one on Islay now)and it's tiny (check out the size of the one wash still and one spirit still). But this charming little distillery is building a reputation and has no shortage of buyers for its still young whisky. Nearly every pub on Islay is stocking the stuff and, at the distillery, people were lining up to buy a bottle or two. Although Kilchoman currently buys in most of its barley, it's also producing its 100% line, i.e. whisky made from its own barley, grown in its own fields, malted on site, obviously made on site and then bottled on site in a tiny bottling room. Bravo!
The distillery used to be a farm, and still looks like one from a distance, apart from the telltale pagoda. The water from the taps and in the cisterns runs brown, thanks to the island peat. I was delighted to find this, as elsewhere on the island the water is filtered and normal, probably because brown water in the bath tub gets old and tired pretty easily. Kilchoman is relatively new, but folks are visiting in good numbers, thanks in part to a fine wee cafe, where I had some brilliant Cullen Skink, and a shop, which sells an assortment of local stuff as well as whisky.
John MacLellan has been the distillery manager at Kilchoman since 2010, following 21 years at Bunnahabhain. John was at Whisky Live in Paris when I visited and Anthony Wills, the Managing Director, was also away, so Tony Rozga, who used to be the stillman at Bunnahabhain, showed me around. 
We spent a bit of time looking at barley initially and sniffing the unsprouted barley (negligible aroma) then the partially sprouted stuff, which reminded me of alfalfa sprouts. When the malting floor is not covered in local barley, it's cleared and doubles as a stop on the tour and a bit of a storage area. This will change soon as production increases and more space is created to meet the demand. At this juncture, we tasted some 100% Islay 2nd edition at 50% ABV - still less than 5 years old, but with nice citric and pastry notes, quite tangy and spicy on the palate. Water toned down the alcohol and also the flavour, but there was still a nice kick on the end. There was something really warming about drinking an entirely local, "made on the farm" product, with lots of promise for more mature stuff down the road.
Kilchoman whiskies are lightly peated at about 20ppm, and the barley is milled to extract the maximum sugar from the barley, thus producing a more sugary wort. In Tony's opinion, mashing is the most important part of the production process. The malt that goes into the mashtun has to have the right percentages of flour, grist and husks to produce the desired sugar levels; the husks retain the peat flavours and also help in proper drainage of the wort. All the equipment at the distillery is new and  purpose built. The mash tun is stainless steel with a copper top. It produces 6000 litres of wort to feed the four stainless steel washbacks. The wash still has a capacity of  3230 litres and the spirit still is 2070 litres. The low wines from the first distillation have aromas of apples, wax and oil. The residue pot ale from this distillation goes back to the fields to continue the magical cycle. Kilchoman aims for a light and floral character, so the whole distillation process is taken nice and slowly. According to Tony, 300 litres of new make spirit is the cut taken daily  from the spirit still. When you think of the 6000 litres of wort that started the process, that's a mere 5% of the original liquid which will find its way into casks. It's not often that one gets  a  chance to see Cask number 1 in a distillery warehouse, especially one looking as pristine as this. Tony jumped onto the racks of casks, valinch in hand and extracted a bit of whisky from a  2006 ex bourbon cask. 80 to 90% of the maturation is in ex bourbon barrels, most of them from Buffalo Trace.It had a way to go in the maturation cycle - fresh pears, nail polish, a bit of peat and a sharp ending, but there were other folks with me and several ooh-ed and aah-ed over that one. That's the great thing about whisky - there's no such thing as bad whisky, it's just a  matter of taste. Or so it is said...........
Another similar aged whisky from a  sherry cask was very nice for its age.
We popped into the tiny bottling room/shipping area  for a quick look, and saw the chart on the wall with the upcoming shipments. Kilchoman is selling its products quite far and wide, a result of the extensive marketing efforts of Andrew Wills and John MacLellan I imagine. When Kilchoman is diluted down for bottling, the water is put through a UV and fine filter to mitigate against that brown colour I referred to earlier. Probably not a bad thing. The brown colour is - well - brown.
Back in the tasting room, we tried the Machir Bay Kilchoman, bottled at 46%, unaged but taken from 3, 4 and 5 year old bourbon barrels, and then married for about 6 weeks in sherry casks. It was fruity, sweet and quite nicely balanced. The Vintage Kilchoman, as it is known, was matured in bourbon casks, about 80% first fill, the rest refill. Still about 5 years old, it was fresh and had a long finish. It was quite nice. There was a single cask sherry 2006, at 50.5% which I didn't care for - something about the cask - but, again, there were proclamations of joy from others.
Anyway, everything is young at this point, but there's a lot going on at Kilchoman with much enthusiasm and pride, so I look forward to returning to this wee distillery on a future trip and tasting more of everything, especially the very local 100% Islay whisky.
On a trivia note, Kilchoman is Scotland's most westerly distillery - another claim to fame.
Next up - Bunnahabhain.

October 12, 2012

Caol Ila - the biggest whisky producer on Islay

The view from Caol Ila distillery across the Sound of Islay to the Island of Jura is so breathtaking that distillery manager, Billy Stitchell, reluctantly sits with his back to his office window to minimize distractions. In August and September, Billy saw a number of 20 feet long basking sharks in the sound and, he says,  it's not unusual to see killer whales, seals and other marine life swimming in the waters close to the biggest distillery on Islay. I suspect that he often delights in the same magnificent view from his house, perched on a hill, right above the distillery.
The 6 massive stills at Caol Ila sit behind a floor to ceiling picture window, oblivious of the jaw dropping view beyond. The distillery has been in  operation since 1846, with a couple of short mothball periods. About 90 to 95% of its vast production goes to blended whisky - mainly Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle. It has produced a lot of interesting Single Malts though, some of which I had the opportunity to sample later in Billy's tasting room, where we sat on comfy chairs and nosed a few fine drams while drinking in the view. Very nice!
When I arrived at Caol Ila, the first person I met was Hayley, a fellow Canadian, from St John, New Brunswick, who had found her way to the east coast of Islay to work at the distillery for a while, giving tours and learning as much as possible about the world of whisky, which had captivated her imagination. We chatted for a bit until Billy arrived to show me around the distillery.
Billy Stitchell is the fifth generation in his family to be involved in whisky. He has worked in the industry on Islay for 38 years, 22 of them in management. His eyes sparkle, his words are fresh, and he delights in talking about Caol Ila and its products.
When I say that Caol Ila is big, let me put it in perspective. In approximate terms, Caol Ila produces in a week what Kilchoman, Islay's smallest distillery, produces in a  year. Eight times a week a tanker, with 2 containers of 12,500 litres of whisky each, leaves the distillery and heads for the mainland. The construction of these Mundell Ltd lorries (trucks) is quite interesting. The two tanks take up the bottom part of the lorry and  a refrigerated space is on top. When the lorry returns from the mainland, the empty space is filled with goods needed on the island. According to Billy, this efficient idea was invented by Mundell, but no patent was taken out. Now, this style of lorry is used all over the world. Oops!
Still on the theme of big, Caol Ila uses 330 tonnes of malt a week, mainly from Port Ellen maltings in the south of the island. That's a lot! The distillery had a £3M upgrade last year to increase capacity. There are 8 large Oregon pine washbacks and 2 stainless steel ones. The distillation process is computerized. While some may balk at this, in favour of a more manual, hands on approach, in reality, if the whisky produced is largely the same style of spirit on an ongoing basis, it makes a certain amount of sense to automate it, especially if, like Caol Ila, you're trying to make about 6M litres of whisky a year, to help meet the increasing global demand. Last year, Scotch whisky exports, to about 200 markets, were £4.23B. That's about 25% of all UK food and drink exports.
The whisky produced at Caol Ila uses malt, peated to about 35ppm. In previous years there have been unpeated bottlings, some of which are still available for purchase, but now the intent is to only produce the peated stuff. Production processes have to be altered quite a bit to produce unpeated whisky and to make sure that the interior of the stills are peat flavour free. Fermentation time has to be increased to make the wash more acidic and allow more interaction with the copper in the stills, aiming at a lighter spirit with a clean, green, grassy character. Processes have to be shut down temporarily for the change, causing disruption in a  high volume environment.
All of the Caol Ila spirit is taken away for casking, but some returns to mature on the island, in dunnage or rack warehouses.
After our wander around, Billy took me upstairs  to the tasting room - a lovely cosy room where many glasses and bottles had been laid out for sampling.
My friend, Geoff K, back in Ottawa, came up with TCP as a primary aroma of 12 year old Caol Ila. TCP is an antiseptic mouthwash, commonly used when I was growing up and not necessarily pleasant. The Caol Ila 12 is much more pleasant but definitely has that medicinal, antiseptic, carbolic soap meets TCP nose which is unique among Islay whiskies. The Caol Ila distillery character aroma reminds Billy of when he was a wee lad and sent to take sandwiches to family members working the 2pm to 10pm shift in what was then a noisy and aromatic environment - a wee bit scary and a wee bit exciting for a young lad.
To start of the nosing, Billy produced some new make spirit. The unpeated spirit was sweet and spicy and the peated was sharper with aromas of nail polish remover. Lots of potential there for the cask!
I tasted the 10, 12 and 14 year old unpeated, (now limited) whiskies and I liked them. Good to drink, good to collect. The 10 year old is cask strength and a whopping 65.8%. There's nice citrus fruit on the nose and huge alcohol (surprise, surprise) on the palate, with a spicy aftertaste. This, unsurprisingly, benefits from the addition of some water, to tone it down. The 12 year old, limited edition release from 2010 is also cask strength, but a more subdued 58.4%. I thought this had a sweet and tree fruit nose, especially peaches and apricots. It was fruity and lively on the palate with a bit of that antiseptic quality (but in a good way!). Nicely balanced, I liked this.

Caol Ila Moch (Dawn) is an unaged expression, probably around 8 years, a crisp and clean malt with easy smoke. The Distillers Edition, double matured in Moscatel casks offers up honeyed sweetness to mingle with smoke. Quite nice. For Ontario readers, this is the only Caol Ila distillery edition available at the LCBO right now and an interesting whisky to pick up. By contrast, and I don't want to make anyone unduly sad, take a look at this website to see the astonishing range of Caol Ila that might be available to you if you lived elsewhere. Granted some of them are now discontinued, but it gives some idea of the range of offerings from this distillery over the years.
The 18 year old was my favourite - just fabulous and, to my palate, more balanced and livelier than the 25 year old - always a matter of taste. Occasionally the 18 year old arrives at the LCBO and should be tried. I've mentioned before about the single cask, cask strength, special bottlings produced for Feis Ile, Islay's whisky festival in May. Billy let me try the 2009, 2010 and 2012, all from sherry casks, and suffice to say that any one of them would have been reason enough to go visit Islay during Feis Ile. If you're in Europe and can find any of these bottlings, they'll be in the $250 to $400 range.
We finished off the tasting with a 14 year old, again cask strength, from an oloroso sherry butt, which had been stored at Lochnagar for master classes. 99% of the whisky from Caol Ila ages in ex Bourbon casks, and the 12 and 18 year old are fine examples of this maturation. But to my mind, Caol Ila produces splendid whisky matured in sherry casks, and bottled at cask strength. Look out for those if you can find them.
Next up, Kilchoman - the little distillery that could............