A Bruichladdich Tasting with Jim McEwan

Since 2001 Bruichladdich tins have carried the tag line "Progressive Hebridean Distillers". The 'Laddie has built a reputation as a distillery willing to experiment - Octomore, Black Arts, and the quadruple distilled X4 come to mind - and certainly the packaging is very modern.

Bruichladdich (like many an Islay malt) has also acquired a fanatical following, at least in part because of the work that Head Distiller Jim McEwan has done over the last thirteen years. So when Glasgow's Whisky Club invited him to host a tasting, there was a rush to sign up - I've never seen so many club members gathered in one place before.

Mr McEwan is a compelling and passionate speaker, and we were treated to a fiery defense of the Way of the Laddie, along with some great anecdotes of how distilleries worked in the 1960s. And of course, some very fine whiskies.

The first three were from the latest iteration of the Bruichladdich range. Bruichladdich Classic is a no age statement malt bottled at 50%, which replaces the Laddie Classic 10 Year Old (which was bottled at 46% and cost rather less). It has the pure, clean, malty character which, along with the lactic or sour note, defines Bruichladdich. Sadly, the new Classic isn't as elegant as the Ten. It's a fine dram, but the quality has dropped a notch. Here's hoping the distillery can manage to build up stocks to the point where the Ten can be reintroduced.

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 is one of the products which justifies the "Progressive" tag. I wish more producers were exploring this kind of ultra local provenance, but at the moment there's just Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, and the not yet released Daftmill. Comparing it with the Classic, this whisky seems sweeter and creamier, and also more elegant. A very fine drop indeed.

The third "standard" was Port Charlotte. Again, no age statement (although peaty whiskies - for me anyway - seem to taste better at a young age). Really rather smoky, but also very very fruity, it still manages to show some of the Bruichladdich elegance.

The other three drams were (I think) cask samples. In the past you could be sure they would be released, but the latest Bruichladdich range is minimalist, so these may never be commercialised.

A 22 year old which has spent four years in a Haut Brion cask was my dram of the night. I have a real weakness for wine cask flavours, and this had everything I love. Elegance, vinosity, fruit (strawberry jam on buttered toast into raspberry balsamic vinegar), a slightly dirty note (faint struck match, plus very faint mushroom), it was truly complex. Superb whisky.

Don't even ask
A 28 year old from an Oloroso butt was perhaps not the best example of Bruichladdich character, but it was an outstanding example of sherry cask character. Rounded, sweet (but with big drying, grippy oak spice in the finish), nutty, treacle-y, I really enjoyed it. On reflection, there was some 'Laddie character to be found, in the balance and elegance of the finish. Another superb whisky.

We finished with some 2008 Octomore from a virgin oak cask. Of all the Octomore releases, I've only ever really enjoyed the Comus, which had some sweet wine cask influence. My first taste of this left my palate anaesthetised (64.7% ABV you see), but once I got over that the combination of ultra-peat and ultra-oak resolved into a rather tasty barbeque sauce effect. I'd still call Octomore a concept whisky rather than a drinker's dram, but this one was better than most.

At the end of his presentation Mr McEwan got us all to stand on our chairs with a foot on the table, so that we could toast each other properly (that is, by roaring at each other in Gaelic). All tastings should finish thus. A very fine evening. Here's hoping that 22 Year Old Haut Brion cask gets bottled sometime soon...


Glenglassaugh Torfa

Newly arrived this week is a no-age-statement peated whisky from Glenglassaugh distillery, Torfa (which means turf in Old Norse. I spent an entertaining twenty minutes trying to look this up. The closest I could get was torf).

Glenglassaugh, since the change of ownership in 2008 have been pursuing a strategy of releasing very old and very young whiskies - a necessity after twenty two years silent. There were a series of three new make spirit drinks, alongside such beautifully aged drams as the 26 Year Old and the 30 Year Old. The current core dram is the Evolution, which was initially released at cask strength but is now bottled at 50%.

Torfa is, like the Evolution, bottled at 50%. It's a pale whisky. The nose is fairly intense and has lots of dry smoke, with lighter notes of heather and iodine or salt. I also found a suggestion of honey.

The palate is soft and slightly oily, with honey and plenty of dry smoke, shading into a metallic warm aroma (like heating a cast iron pan with nothing in it). The palate doesn't have any of the iodic notes from the nose, which is a definite difference from Islay style peated whiskies.

With water this is a very easy drinking dram, nicely smoky, although perhaps a little simple in the finish. Best to drink it at full strength I think.

Overall I'd say this is a pretty decent whisky from Glenglassaugh. Onwards & upwards!


Indeterminate Validity

Germana Cachaça Caetano's
This is the kind of drink I just love - and that's even before the bottle is open. The bottle (which is surely just a re-purposed beer bottle) is too big for the 60cl it contains, so it only looks three-quarters full. It's sealed with a crown cap, for goodness' sake, as if you are meant to drink it all in one sitting. The label proudly declares the contents to be of "indeterminate validity", whatever the heck that means. Frankly, I find all these eccentricities very appealing.

The liquid does not disappoint. It smells and tastes like nothing else I have ever experienced. The nose has three distinct and very different phases. Initially is is very green, vegetal and herbal, with sour-sweet notes of dill and fermentation aromas. Then there's a much sweeter phase, with buttery honey, chalk, and cherry. The third phase is savoury, oscillating between olive brine, dill balsamic vinegar, and olive honey. And that's just the nose.

The palate is sweet, and very new-make spirit or grappa-like. It's a little hot or peppery initially, then there's a very strange flavour which I can best describe as something like an olive and honey tapenade on buttered bread.

This is a deeply interesting and unusual spirit which got me quite excited - I'd rate it as most excellent.

About Cachaça
Cachaça is a kind of rum - unique to Brazil - made from sugar cane juice. This makes it roughly comparable to rhum agricole, such as is produced in Martinique or Guadeloupe. It's probably best know as the spirit ingredient in a caipirinha. Most cachaça is unaged, and according to David Wondrich it "looks like vodka and tastes like it was aged in old truck tyres".


Tasting the new Arran 17 Year Old

I'm rather fond of Arran. The 10 Year Old is a good every day dram (and the bottle goes down mighty fast in my house). Some of the limited releases have been superb, such as the Peacock, and the Sleeping Warrior. I'm not so keen on the Machrie Moor  - it needs more peat - but overall I like their whiskies.

I recently tasted a single cask bottling of whisky distilled in 1996 which was outstanding, and left me thinking that Arran's plan to have an 18 Year Old as part of the core range was A Good Thing, because the mellow, rounded nature of that limited release 17 Year Old really suited the sweet toffee apple house style.

So, to this 17 Year Old, which is a limited release on the way to the Eighteen due out at some point in 2015.

The nose is sweet toffee, but with much less of the green apple note Arran usually gives me. There's a really attractive marzipan-nutty aroma. It seems a little more spirity than usual for Arran.

The palate is very rounded and mellow. Sweet syrupy apple juice, musty-dusty wood, and a little bit of the almond I found on the nose.

With water the nose opens up. Still nutty, but more macaroon or coconut, and biscuity. Not apple-y. The palate is now mouth coating and silky, very sweet and not so apple. The finish is really satisfying - lipsmacking even.

Overall, I'd rate it as Very Good Indeed.