Islay revisit – Bunnahabhain, Bowmore + Ardbeg

Our original Mumbai based whisky tasting club has an unwritten rule – no repeats. We also taste blind so as not to be influenced by brand or pre-conceived notions about a particular whisky or distillery.

Yet after so many years, our obsession with exploring new territories presents a challenge to find something ‘new.’

So why not have an evening that deliberately sets us up to sample whiskies we’ve had (or similar to ones we’ve tried), but each with a twist… being expressions that aren’t necessarily representative of a distillery ‘house style’ – if such a thing even exists anymore!

We also observed that our impressions bore little relationship to official distillery tasting notes… Past experiments have helped provide insight into possible reasons with a range of factors including the whisky temperature, ambient aromas and environment, tasting order which can influence perceptions of the whisky to follow,  conversation and company, and frankly just the mood of the taster!!

What did our host “trick” us with?

  • Bunnahabhain Eirigh na Greine “Morning Sky” Batch 5, 46.3% – Provided by our host exactly 2 years ago from Batch 1 – August 2015
  • Bowmore Gold Reef 43% – Not sampled by our original club but I tried as part of a Bowmore Travel Trilogy by the Whisky Ladies in April 2017
  • Ardbeg Uigeadail 54.2% – I could have sworn we sampled it in our early days before I documented our dramming experiences… certainly I had it kicking around in my cupboard and re-tasted the dregs back in April 2015

Our tasting notes to follow, comparing with previous experiences and distillery  notes…

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Speed Tasting – Mystery Malt Blend…

Last month, we had a remarkable experience “Speed Tasting” and rating five different drams in the space of just a few minutes, quickly assessing and determining a score based on nose, palate, finish, character and complexity.

With three down and just two to go… the clock was ticking!

What were my hasty impressions of Dram “D”?

Mystery malt aka “House blend”

  • Nose – Tight berries, clear sherry stamp, then resin, mocha, and waves of peat, campfires
  • Palate – Very accessible… perhaps a low alcohol strength? Yet high in flavours. Peat, sweet grass and more… again those rich berries, more chocolate
  • Finish – Lovely, not over powering with a sweet peat that holds
  • Character & Complexity – Delicious, great interplay between sherry and peat

For quite a few – including me – this was the highest rated dram of the evening.

What exactly was it?

It was Keshav Prakash’s own home blend… with leftover Glendronach 15 year and 4-5 Islay malts. A bold blend that somehow worked!

Photo: Keshav Prakash

What were the other whiskies “Speed Tasted“?

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Old Particular’s Laphroaig 19 year 53.9%

Just as we were about to dash out the door after our zip through a remarkable set of minis from Krishna’s Collection, this 19 year old Laphroaig from Douglas Laing’s Old Particular  was opened.

Me? I took one sniff and knew rushing through this wouldn’t do justice so took my wee sample home…

However the other gents gamely carried on… enjoying immensely!

My turn came a few weeks later, on a relaxed evening after a manic few weeks of work.

Laphroaig 19 year (Oct 1996-Feb 2016) Cask No 10720 53.9% (Old Particular) Bottle 1 of 22, Refill Hogshead

  • Nose – Medicinal, smoky, maritime sea salt, a bit of black pepper peaking behind, then mellowed into an incredible cinnamon sweetness, chased by an almost pine freshness… after some time more like creme brûlée, chocolate caramel. cappuccino with a dusting of mocha… in short yum!
  • Palate – Wow! All chewy leather and toffee, nicely smoky and spicy, all swirling about, chocolaty even
  • Finish – Leather, tobacco, more of that cinnamon sweetness, long and lingering

It gave the impression of a beautiful complex nuanced dram… As I literally only had two small sips, no chance to try with water but it was a delight to have any at all to try!

It also was my first snifter of the evening, with no hint of harshness for the 1st nip of alcohol, let alone a cask strength one. An exceedingly good sign of it being a dangerously drinkable dram!

I’ve not had the pleasure of “Old Particular” bottles but if this was any indication… I wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out…

No luck tracking down further details about this particular sample, however the Old Particular Laphroiag 18 year can be found at The Whisky Exchange for £150.

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection evening in July 2017?

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Cadenhead’s Caol Ila 36 year (1980) 52.3%

After the Glen Garioch, we seemed more in the mood to return to the Islays and a peatier dram. Particularly if it happened to be a Caol Ila 36 year, bottled by Cadenhead’s! Who wouldn’t be tempted? And what did we find?

Caol Ila 36 year (1980 – July 2016) Bourbon Hogshead, 52.3% (Cadenhead’s) 210 bottle

  • Nose – Paint shop, fevicole adhesive, creamy, muted, original bitter hing (asefetodi) , ritaful (soap nut), burnt orange peel, echo of peat. As it opened up, it revealed a sweet spice
  • Palate – Lots of vegetables, from an echo of peat, it grew into a proper peat and soooooo sweet and smooth
  • Finish – Green capsicum then a long cinnamon spice

And Krishna’s reaction? “OMG! This is beautiful for a winter day.”

This is definitely a whisky that benefits from time to open as it became more brilliant as it aired. For me, the nose was the most rewarding element. Perhaps not for everyone. And certainly not for everyone’s pocketbook but worth settling down with if you get a chance.

This whisky last appeared on Scotch Whisky Auctions in Nov 2016 for a winning bid of £280.00. 

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection evening in July 2017?

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Glen Garioch 17 year (1996-2016) Cask No 3730 55.7%

After the absolutely stunning Glen Grant 60 year, dangerously drinkable Bowmore 12 distilled in the 1970s, the peculiar The Prestonfield Vintage 1972 Bowmore 16, we shifted gears to a meatier sherry style whisky from Adelphi‘s single cask bottling of Glen Garioch.

Adelphi Glen Garioch 1993 (note image from different year)

Glen Garioch 17 year (1996-2016) Cask No 3730 55.7% (Adelphi) 152 bottles

  • Nose – Top note of varnish, orange cream cookies or that fanta fizz, citrus zest, sweet honey, clove, a teasing nose that later revealed a musty quality – in a good way
  • Palate – Spicy, old style wood, sweet spice orange like clove studded oranges at Christmas, an almost brandy-like quality, red and green stewed apples, a dash of cocoa, continued to evolve taking on a meaty quality like a quality wagyu steak
  • Finish – Lovely chewy dates

There was a nicely mature quality to this dram, exceedingly smooth and no sense of it being full strength at 55.7%. A lovely sherry quality, more in keeping with what we normally expect – and that’s a mighty fine thing indeed!

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection from July 2017?

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Bowmore 16 year “The Prestonfield” Vintage 1972 43%

The more we explore the remarkable range of whiskies out there, the more we push into sometimes quite rare territory. Even expensive territory. And yet even highly acclaimed and coveted drams can sometimes lose their lustre. Old + rare + pricy doesn’t always = mind blowingly brilliant!

And every once in a while it is good to have that reminder.

After the truly dangerously drinkable and most enjoyable Bowmore 12 year distilled in the 1970s, we were primed to be transported to celestial levels with “The Prestonfield” vintage 1972 aka Bowmore 16 year.

Yet what did we find…..?

Bowmore 16 year “The Prestonfield” Vintage 1972 (28 Feb 1972-1988), Sherry Wood, CS No 1036 – 1039, Bottle no 9861, 43%

  • Nose – Phenoylic, like walking into an old Scottish hotel with the scents of an old rug, worn leather chair and the fire burning (promising but unidimensional)
  • Palate – Sooth – like sacred ash mixed with camphor, a weird peculiar ‘queerness’ like carbolic soap
  • Finish – Limited with an almost tallow or lard-like quality

So here is the thing. The nose was promising once past the carbolic acid, an initial sip was sooty yet bland, then had a strongly ‘off’ quality. I’ll admit. I made a face. Both times I sipped. Even a bit on the 3rd when I was braced for it and ready for something decidedly different. Something like the tallow from animal fat used to make candles, that had gone slightly rancid. The most complimentary description I could think of was raw bitter chokecherries.

I had to admit it didn’t work for me and tried to understand why Prestonfield whiskies are so highly rated if this was an example. What about that strange, frankly to me quite awful tasting quality, that makes it be deemed ‘good’? Just because its rare? Costs a lot? Sorry. Doesn’t cut it for me.

Speculation turned to whether this bottle could have gone off – yet there was no rust on the cap and the miniature was opened just before we tasted. So…?

Who knows. Perhaps something had indeed gone wrong between when initially bottled and our opening… after all, nearly 30 years had passed. Or perhaps there was some small drop of something else that got into the bottle when originally filled that turned it queer over the years. Or even still, it could be that much more discerning palates than mine found something remarkable in what to me was unusual to the extent of being not enjoyable.

Do I regret trying it? Absolutely not! Would I be tempted to try again? Perhaps… just to see if something happened to this particular miniature that was not representative of the original whisky. But not enough to put a lot of effort into tracking it down.

This 5 ml bottle was purchased by Krishna Nakula for £35. On Whisky-OnlineAuctions.com, the last available miniature’s bid closed at £45 in February 2015.

What do we know about Prestonfield whiskies? Here’s what La Maison du Whisky shares:

The Prestonfield range of whiskies is without doubt one of the most well-known among connoisseurs, and yet few people are aware of its origins. Created in the 1980s by the Symington brothers, the famous label with the drawing of the Prestonfield Hotel is now available exclusively through La Maison du Whisky. The whiskies selected for this range have always been some of the best but, from 2000, the decision was made to bottle them all at cask strength from a single cask. Almost exclusively single malts, these whiskies are extremely sought after, and often appear at the major auctions.

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection from July 2017?

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A remarkable 1970s Bowmore 12 year 40%

Much has been said about how whisky styles have changed over the decades. That opinion is widely shared by those who started their sampling journey in the 1980s where most single malts were distilled in the 1970s or earlier. Yet most of these impressions remain in memories rather than the opportunity to test the theory.

Today, obtaining a sample of such earlier styles is challenging… most are found in private collections or auctions. Which is where this lovely little Bowmore 12 year miniature from the 1970s came. A wee dark coloured squat bottle that simply stated its age, alcohol strength and that it was matured in sherry casks. No hint of further details as this was simply a standard issue bottling for its time.

Bowmore 12 year (1970s – 80s) 40%

  • NoseHing (asafetida), pomelo, passion fruit vying with grapefruit, smoke and peat yet quite restrained, subtle, as it continued to open more fruit like cashew, pineapple and mango
  • Palate – Just as hing was the 1st predominant aroma, cashew fruit was on the palate, intensely sweet and dangerously drinkable with just a kiss of peat, brilliant body for a 12 year as it really sits on your palate
  • Finish – Peaty, leather, chocolate

This may sound a bit fanciful, but it had a joyful character on the nose, bright and fruity, superbly accessible and enjoyable on the palate with peat most pronounced in the rather delicious finish.

Like the Glen Grant 60 year old just sampled, this Bowmore was matured in sherry casks – but clearly of a different calibre and character than today’s sherry. Again, much more restrained overall, even the peat quality was faint – leading to speculation of re-fill sherry casks and curiosity about how the “barely there” peat quality came into play.

It truly was such a contrast in style to any Bowmore sampled in the last few years – which are often quite bold in character. Whereas this wasn’t clamouring for attention by swaggering into our senses, instead gained exclamations of “Fantastic! Stunning! Superb!” for its much more nuanced dimensions.

For some, it was the clear favourite of the evening – no simple feat given its competition!

Krishna shared his opinion that this Bowmore 12 year has all the “beauty of the old style.”

He went on to regale us with the tale of the term “FWP” (French Whore’s Perfume) used to describe a shift in character – particularly pronounced from Bowmore post Suntory coming into the picture for a few years. First detected by some whisky enthusiasts, they identified a peculiar soapy quality that they felt ruined the whisky… later linked to the soap used to clean the stills!

Since corrected, another Malt Maniac Serge shares:

The original ‘problem’ originated in the 1980’s and was corrected at some point during the 1990s. The FWP spirit sort of worked its way through the system and you shouldn’t detect the unsavoury FWP trait any more in bottlings that were released in recent years.

This 5 ml bottle was purchased by Krishna Nakula for £8. For those interested, a 740ml bottle could be found on Whisky.Online.com for a mere £450.

Whisky.Online.com

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection from July 2017?

PS you can contrast my sampling of a more recent incarnation of the Bowmore 12 year here.

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A 60 year old whisky?! Yes please! Glen Grant 60 year (1950-2010) 40%

Mature whiskies are rare and beyond the means of most whisky imbibers.

Thanks to a few events, generous fellow malt explorers, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling a couple of older drams – Glendronach, Glenfarclas and Auchentoshan come to mind. Yet none crossed the 50 year mark, let alone touched 60 years…

Until a fine evening of malting with Malt Maniac Krishna Nakula who started our evening off with this beauty from Glen Grant.

And best yet – my sample began completely blind so I had no idea what I was experiencing…

Glen Grant 60 year (14 Oct 1950 – 22 Nov 2010), Cask Strength No 2750, 2760 40%

  • Nose – Musty, like a granary with my being transported to the Manitoba farms of my youth, cereals, then shifts more into the old, polished wood of antique furniture, followed by a light sweet honey, a delicate perfume, flowers, fruits, cream, the slightest hint of bitter mocha, as it kept airing with a just drop remaining, a delightful piquant aroma emerged
  • Palate – Rubber, smoky, more of that antique wood, coffee, very elegant and nuanced, exceedingly easy on the palate, great mouthfeel
  • Finish – Such staying power! Yet delicate with a light clove spice

Slow, complex with a hint of smoke without a pinch of peat. The more you sip, the more you marvel. Very sophisticated. This was one that if you had a full dram, it could last hours… sit, savour and let it continue to speak to you, revealing different elements along the way.

The two casks were both ex-sherry – one first fill and the other re-fill. While we do not know the balance between the two, given its nuanced character, the re-fill may have had more play.

We spoke of the contrasting character of sherry matured whiskies – with the younger Kavalan’s on one end of the spectrum with its intense very berry sherry character to the Glendronach grand dames matured for 39 – 42 years in Pedro Ximénez Sherry puncheons dripping in rum-soaked Christmas cake with dry fruits and nuts.

Whereas this Glen Grant was much more gentile, with a fresh ripe fruitiness not dried dates or prunes, light honey drizzle not rich dark maple syrup… a quite fabulous balance of subtle elements in perfect harmony.

Apparently this is a Gordon & MacPhail bottling can be found for £3,500 through Whisky.online. Here’s what they have to  say:

A 1950 Glen Grant bottled in 2010 at 60 years of age. There is no other company in the world that still holds stocks of whisky like this, another super aged masterpiece by Gordon & MacPhail. Glen Grant is a spirit that ages beautifully, this is a beguiling mix of antique wood aromas, simmering spice, all kinds of layered fruit complexity and utterly perfect balance. A truly beautiful, utterly classy whisky that captures just how beautiful the really old whiskies can be, mesmeric stuff.

And yes, for once, words like “beguiling”“layered fruit complexity”, “classy” and “mesmeric” really do apply…

What else did we sample in our Krishna Collection from July 2017?

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Krishna Collection – Enjoying a few drams with a Malt Maniac

India’s Malt Maniac Krishna Nakula is a rather fine fellow to dram with… So when we thought July would be a slow whisky month, a few of us decided it would be an absolutely brilliant idea to see if Krishna would be free for a short visit to Mumbai. Lucky us – he was!

And he didn’t come empty-handed… Nope. He brought along an assortment of miniatures that we had the pleasure of enjoying a wee nip… quick glimpses all concentrated in a brief but memorable one hour of discovery.

What did we sample?

Links to more detailed tasting notes are provided above. Some were truly quite an eye-opener, so be sure to check out what we discovered!

Other evenings with Krishna Nakula include:

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Speed Tasting Whisky

One fine monsoon weekend, a few folks decided to get together for a lighthearted whisky activity.

Keshav Prakash, of The Vault Fine Spirits, took complete charge and decided we would play a whisky game in 3 parts:

  1. Individual rating
  2. Discussion with comparisons and speculating
  3. Reveal and revisit

In front of us were 5 drams, pre-poured and covered. The rules were simple:

  • Label our rating sheets with our initials and corresponding whisky letter “A… B… C…” as per our table mat
  • Sample each whisky then rate out of 5 on its nose, palate, finish and overall character & complexity
  • Individual activity only – strictly no speaking, comparing impressions or ratings
  • 15 minutes only start to finish then pencils down! Just like in an exam…
  • Beyond that no rules – could get up and walk around, write down more than just the score, whatever worked to achieve a complete rating within the allotted time!

The clock started, the covers came off and the whisky speed dating began…

Part 1 – Speed tasting and rating 

Now… I must confess… I could not rate without documenting my impressions. Long ago I made a conscious decision to not numerically ‘rate’ whisky. So I have never ‘trained’ myself or had the ‘discipline’ of putting hard numbers next to the different elements.

So I pulled out my handy whisky tasting notebook and busily began to scribble random thoughts. That helped sharpen focus and give me enough to then make a split second assessment of each.

Part 2 – Comparing, discussing and guessing

The first question was – are all of these whiskies? Yes.

Then whether some were bourbon, most thought two were ryes… With our votes on which could possibly be which.

Talk turned to some of the different characters – one reminded of cognac cask matured whiskies. Another had peat. We took a stab at guessing some were not Scottish…

Then we shared our individual top rated dram with the overall “winner” the 4th whisky (D) as it had the most character with both sherry and peaty elements.

Photo: Keshav Prakash

Part 3 – Revealing…

This is where the real fun began… three were Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible winners, one was an Irish grain and the winner? A house blend made by accident more than design!

What a surprise and what a treat!

Click on the links above to ready my hastily scribbled notes compared with Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible or official tasting notes, where applicable.

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