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.

SlĂ inte!


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.


July 07, 2014

Feis Ile 2014 Islay Whisky Festival - Highlights

Paps of Jura
It's just as simple as this. If you like Islay whiskies, go to Islay. There is nothing to compare with sipping a dram at its source - the distillery where it's made. So, in May, I headed off again to this magnificent island, along with five favourite family members and several thousand other visitors, for the annual Feis - Islay's festival of music and whisky.
Bruichladdich open day
Feis Ile had its roots back in 1984, when dedicated locals decided to initiate a Gaelic, music and culture festival. This was expanded in 2000 when the distilleries became more involved and started holding open days and producing special festival bottlings. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is one of the most successful whisky festivals in the world, and a decision to attend benefits from planning a year in advance. Ferries, flights, accommodations and distillery activities are snapped up like hotcakes for the last week in May. Eagle eyes are useful for figuring out when distillery events become available for purchase, and much tenacity is required to snag a place at some of the headliner whisky extravaganzas.
But ask anyone who's attended Feis Ile - and many return year after year - and you'll hear the same accolades time and time again. This is one fine festival!
New friends and regular attendees from Sweden in their custom Feis Ile 2014 shirts
This year, the sun shone on Islay for the whole week, and I fairly scurried around the distilleries soaking in the atmosphere, local food, fabulous whisky events, happy people and great music.
Over the next few weeks, summer notwithstanding, I'll be writing separate stories about the whiskies and each of the distilleries, including Gartbreck - soon be Islay's ninth distillery - an impressive number for an island of about 600sq kms.
To kick things off, I'm going to pick a few pictorial highlights - a difficult task from a week with endless delights, but here goes.
Cool blades on Flybe flight to Islay

Great views of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin
2 hr queue for Lagavulin Festival bottle - worth the wait, met great people
10a.m. a wee dram of Lagavulin 16 to pass the time in the queue
Fabulous whisky and chocolate pairing at Bunnahabhain
Islay oysters - best I've ever tasted
Cocktail session with whisky ambassador David Sinclair
Jim McEwan's Masterclass at Bruichladdich. What a rock star that man is!
Delicious baked goods everywhere!
Jura Distillery day - awesome.
Honour system for tea and cake at Kildalton Cross
Beautiful views on the Mull of Oa
Awesome Ardbeg warehouse tasting with the one and only Mickey Heads
Running along Machir Bay
Caol Ila  tasting with Distillery Manager David Woods
Meeting Jean and Martine Donnay - creators of Gartbreck Distillery
Malting room at Kilchoman - serene and aromatic
I'm sitting  with a big smile of nostalgia on my face as I post these photos. Check back soon to read and see more about Feis Ile 2014 - never a distant memory!

GrapeScot Islay Whisky Tour September 2015

If you like what you see and fancy joining me on a  small group, very special tour to Islay next September 2015, drop me an email and I'll send you all the details.