Back to Islay today and a chance to look at what, since the sale of Bruichladdich distilery earlier this year, is the island’s only remaining independent distillery. A sad thought perhaps but the young Kilchoman is flying the flag for small scale production with considerable aplomb. Opening in 2005 as the island’s “farm distillery”, Kilchoman was always intended to offer spirit that was sown, grown, malted, distilled and bottled on Islay. However, in order to deal with the considerable pressures that face any new distillery, the majority of the production has relied upon barley sourced from external maltsters.
The desire to taste whisky from Islay’s first new distillery in 124 years was always going to be considerable. Indeed, since opening Kilchoman has offered a surprisingly constant flow of offerings. It’s fair to say that the spirit quality has always met with wide acclaim; however the same may not be said for all of the sometimes pricy releases. That is always a hazard of offering whisky that is clearly in a process of maturation rather than at the peak of its powers of course, though in my view Kilchoman distillery is not the very worst of culprits. This bottling draws us back to the beginning of the story though; the first release of a true, 100% Islay produced whisky and that must surely pique the interest of any whisky lover.
In the main this blog has so far focussed on recent, if not always widely available bottlings from both the distilleries themselves and Independent bottlers alike. Those that are generally only seen within the walls of an auction house or, if you are lucky, poured at the hands of a dear and probably quite affluent friend have so far been neglected. Not so today though, as it feels like as good a time as any for something very special indeed. Bottlings like this 12 year old White Horse Lagavulin offer a rare, often deeply delicious chance to build some sense of the way in which whisky has changed over the years.
Lagavulin whiskies certainly enjoy one of the most consistently fine reputations of any single malt, the now classic Lagavulin 16 year old is a staple tipple for a great many whisky lovers and every bit deserving of such a position. The distillery must surely be one of the most beautiful and evocative in Scotland but, in a production sense, it was a very different place when the spirit that found a home in these White Horse bottlings was distilled. Flowing from the stills in the mid-late 1960s, this Lagavulin pertains from a time of on-site floor maltings and a much more hands on approach to production, something the whisky itself lays bare with stark clarity.
As you might expect, there is no shortage of whisky companies issuing bottles to commemorate the Queen’s 60th year, and with the industry enjoying considerable interest at the moment it’s equally unsurprising that several of these new releases head down the fancy box/crystal decanter route at the “ultra-premium” end of the market. Thankfully though, this landmark occasion is also soliciting more accessible bottlings than the likes of Diageo’s £100,000 1952 Johnnie Walker, with this more modest Bunnahabhain whisky from TheWhiskyBarrel certainly being one example worth checking out.
Bunnahabhain is well represented by the Independent Bottlers and just recently we have seen a raft of quite heavily sherried casks reaching the grubby hands of the masses. In fact this is the second of two such examples the good people of TheWhiskyBarrel.com have graced us with, and it’s clear from a mere glance that this second release is considerably lighter and less sherry influenced than the first. Speaking personally, this pleases me greatly as the Bunnahabhain spirit is more than capable of speaking for itself, and less cask influence also helps to avoid the strong sulphury notes that seem quite common in the darker examples.
Bowmore whisky is arguably one of the most interesting and varied of all Scotches, and not always for the reasons one might hope. On one hand this beautiful distillery on the shores of Loch Indaal has given us some of the most spectacular “malt moments” in history with, among others, its gloriously fruity 1964 Trilogy (‘Black’ Bowmore, ‘White’ and ‘Gold’) releases, and yet on the other hand we see the now all but infamous production of the 1980s with its seemingly inexplicable perfumed, soapy notes that many (myself fully included) find anything but desirable. The reason for this stark change of character during the 80s is hard to tie down to one specific factor, though we can be reasonably certain that it did not make itself so apparent in the new make at the time.
There is no question that many things have changed in the industry over the last 40 or so years and this is probably the greatest barrier to pinpointing the reasons behind Bowmore’s split personality. Centralised malting and maturation, new barley varieties, changes in fermentation time in response to demand and radically revised wood policy are just some of the many changes that may have played a part in what is clearly a complex picture. Had Bowmore remained draped in parma violets and lavender soap in its current production, I doubt we would find the situation fascinating so much as a tragedy. Gladly however the 90/00 spirit is as much a departure from that distilled in the 80s, as the 80s spirit was from its 60s and 70s forbears. As a result of this the current spirit is winning people over once more, with releases like the widely acclaimed Bowmore 10 year old Tempest and an array of quality bottlings from the Independents.
After Tuesday’s review of the ever-excellent Lagavulin 16 year old, it seemed like a fair idea to stay with the Islay whiskies for one more dram and head just a mile up the road to Laphroaig distillery, the Island’s best-selling single malt. Laphroaig is often said to polarise opinion with its profoundly medicinal, phenolic spirit frequently confounding Whisky newcomers, while cultivating a loyal following of initiated devotees. There are some of us though that have less overtly partisan feelings about the distillery, enjoying a number of bottlings and certainly not being adverse the spirit’s brazen, intense character, whilst also not being so enamoured as to view it as the undisputed king of peated whiskies.
Laphroaig’s core range has developed a reputation for its consistency over the last few years, with the Laphroag 10 year old and Quarter Cask expressions being very reliable and well worth exploring. However, the consistency of quality also means that cask strength expressions from the independent bottlers have been a pretty safe bet for some time. For fans of the distillery wishing to experience a less “branded” or even “tamed” (40%abv and/or chill-filtered) version of Laphroaig there are a plethora of credible options on the market. This bottling from the recently introduced Archives series is one such option, and if the other new releases in their range are anything to go by this should be a good example.
For many malt fans (myself firmly included) Lagavulin is both a special and deeply significant distillery. By virtue of this 16 year old expression’s position in Diageo’s Classic Malts series, the whisky is many people’s first experience of the Islay heavyweights, and you could hardly wish for a better or more engaging introduction. Lagavulin distillery sits on the drier side of the proverbial “smokey spectrum”, less medicinal than Laphroaig whisky and more rounded and approachable than many Ardbegs.
If you are lucky enough to visit Islay and find yourself at the doors of this historic distillery, the importance of the place and its spirit only intensifies further. From the old larch washbacks and distinctly squat, short-necked stills to their long still runs of over 10 hours and lovely old-school warehouses, there’s much to love. It’s true that all of this is lent a bittersweet edge by the lack of staff per shift and the inescapable presence of computer-led automation, however when you’re stood on Lagavulin Bay, gazing across to Dunyvaig Castle with a dram straight from the cask in hand, it’s hard to avoid falling more deeply in love with this classic distillery.
Few distilleries closed or otherwise have a more ardent following than Port Ellen. Drinkers, collectors and speculators scramble to buy the best bottlings, meaning few of the more revered releases remain on shelves for long. The official bottlings in Diageo’s annual “Special Releases” collection are particularly good examples, with last year’s 11th release disappearing as soon as it was listed on websites or stocked on specialist’s shelves. This caused much irritation among retailers who failed to get the allocation they had hoped for and, as you might expect, that particular bottling is now being sold for considerable profits on the auction market.
Between the notable retail prices, feverish purchasing and speculating, the official releases are less than accessible for the majority of whisky fans. This, happily, leads us to the independent bottlers as even with such a following Port Ellen remain one of the best represented of all closed distilleries. It’s true that things seem to be slowing and the stock is obviously finite but, for now at least, retailers have a whole range of single cask bottlings on offer and with Port Ellen whiskies being particularly consistent, there are many excellent casks amongst them.
Bruichladdich can be somewhat controversial and here at WhiskyMarketplace we have certainly tasted drams from the distillery that draw varied opinions. These have tended to be part of the distillery’s wide range of the extra matured (finished, ACE’d etc) bottlings though, and it’s fair to say that they are frequently a hit and miss affair for many whisky lovers.
This is the first 10 year old entirely distilled by the current owners and it is a great pleasure to see the new output reach this significant age. My honest hopes were to find a Bruichladdich whisky that reminded of the original predominately bourbon matured releases seen shortly after re-opening, and could at least be considered of similar quality. Since reopening in 2001, we have seen the Laddie team weather those undoubtedly challenging first nine years and, in releasing this landmark 10 year old, solidify the future of this charismatic rhinns distillery.