Whisky Geek Paradise
By Hunter Sullivan
Over the last five years that I have worked at the Kensington Wine Market, the rotating whisky tasting schedule has almost always included the “Classic Single Malts” class. Usually, after performing one of these tastings, I would write a short synopsis of the event, describing in short the whiskies tasted along with a brief description of what the intent of the tasting was. Even now I am tempted to write something similar, saying that “We don’t intend to just show you the classic malts of Scotland, we want to show you more.” Though such descriptions are true to our philosophy at the Kensington Wine Market, being a guide to the lesser known whisky world is becoming less of an expedition into unknown territory and more of a roped off tour into a well lit tourist destination. To be clear, what I am getting at is the current state of the whisky market. As more people become acquainted with this joy bringing liquid, the less there is hidden. Only the most out of the way, darkened corners are yet to be explored and even those are not far off from being byword names in the whisky industry.
Lamentation aside, a new direction must be taken to maintain the intrigue of whisky expert aspirants and new comers alike. If names like Tomatin, Wolfburn, and Arran become common place all the better, but allow us to go beyond the fold of the classics and taste something a little off the beaten trail.
At the moment, Arran is part of the handful of distilleries that I truly respect. Now that may not be much coming from this 25-year-old whisky virtuoso but I would argue that if there is any distillery that should have a special place on your whisky shelf, Arran is it. The spirit will speak for itself.
This particular release is matured in sherry wood barrels, Pedro Ximénez once held within the walls, adding a velvety decadence to Arran’s already oily character. A perfumed wood box that contained demerara candied mandarin orange slices and ginger blooms on the nose. Among the bright tones are wisps of darker characters, figs, dates and golden raisins wrapped in new leather. The full proof of this bottling is a trifle held against the silky oils, creating such a harmony of character that this bottling may usurp my favourite release from Arran’s flagship range, the 14-year-old.
Not all distilleries need a lengthy foreword to describe their nature, Tomatin would be one of those. What is important is Tomatin’s ability to create and sell great whisky at great prices, the main factor in my choice to include this bottling in the line up.
As described in the name, this release is matured in French oak barrels, the kind of wood that perhaps may have been used to mature Armagnac in. I say Armagnac because there is no explicit mention of Limousin, which I would presume Tomatin would be at least a little proud of for obtaining such highly sought after barrels (for clarification, Limousin oak is highly prized for maturing Cognac, not that Armagnac is of a lesser esteem, but that is a whole other discussion). This bottle holds black pepper set in a block of white chocolate with a vanilla bean topper, coconut shavings not excluded. This bottling seems to be a richer and spicier version of an American oak barrel.
G&M Glenburgie 10 Year – $80
An exclusive to Kensington Wine Market, thus I am obliged to say only good things about it for fear of being smited by the powers that be. Luckily, I do not have to compromise my integrity to say that this is a truly lovely bottling. I still hold that Gordon and MacPhail, as such a long standing independent bottler, has managed to secure a very safe and enviable position within the whisky world when it comes to getting their hands on quality barrels. Here is what the lesser known Glenburgie has to offer.
Once more, a sherry cask matured single malt, this bottling is more inclined to it’s Speyside heritage, entailing a more honeyed and sweet style. The sherry compliments the nectary, floral tones by adding ginger molasses cookie and sticky toffee pudding. This bottling is a pinch hitter: it works for and on everything. Do you need something to drink while in front of the fire? Bam, Glenburgie 10. How about a pre-dinner dram? (Emeril reference).
The big gun of the night, showing off all the wonderful aspects of the ocean and seafood buffets in a single glass. Jura has been a wishy-washy dram for myself a long time standing. When they are great they are some of the most outstanding drams out there. I will leave you to fill in the latter part of this half-baked adage.
This bottling sets the scene aboard an oceanic voyage, the rustic ship skippered by an expert sea-fare chef. Imagine your head over the deck railing, sea spray in your nose as if you just smelled the ocean air for the first time. Wait? What is that, the bell for dinner perhaps? Sliding across the wood of the deck, pitted and reeking from years of service, you take your steps into the galley. Prawns, scallops, shellfish and most particularly, oysters with their brine and oily tang (especially on the palate) laden the table before you. This wonderful dram finishes on a dessert course of delicate crème brulee and vanilla-strawberry cream wafers. A delight for anyone wanting to explore the sea from the comfort of their armchair.
This is no joke or salesman scheme, try this and be astounded. I told the tasting group that one of the whiskies we were trying that night was a blend (the tasting was blind), not one person was able to guess. I would grant the difficulty was due to the sheer quality of this blend. Do not be fooled by the hilarity of the “Dancey Man” on the label or stretching list of adjectives telling us the bottle is “Special – Loyal – Old – Private – etc.”, something special is going on within the confines of the glass. If you still do not believe, ask the tasters who selected this bottle as their third favourite of the night.
The nose does not offer the world, instead, a delicate come hither from a slender hand reaching out from behind a curtain. Romantic fantasy novels in mind, a bowl of sensuous fruits, ripe strawberries, dark cherries, liquid milk chocolate and old leather waft from beyond. Luckily, you have the constitution to refrain from endeavouring further and are left with only echoes of the experience. This scene reminds me of something from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more modern but with less 50 Shades garbage.
Wolfburn First Release – $85
One thing that the recent surge of whisky interest has brought about is a boom in new whisky distilleries. Though this is thrilling for those interested in the avant-garde, not all options have been good. It perhaps should be questioned whether a new distillery is genuinely interested in the culture or is just there to catch the wave. Now I’m not implying locals only, but I would say that the proving ground has deemed Wolfburn worthy and added it to those bobbing on the horizon beneath a setting sun. For myself, I have added them to my mental list of distilleries that deserve respect. With grit enough to show off their youth and be proud of it, there is something to be said about this. In the current age of whisky it is far too easy to hide mistakes behind bold barrels. Showing off young spirit is a gamble; it better be good and it better have character. I for one look forward to future releases from Wolfburn.
Huddled around a smouldering fire on the beach, waves gently splashing against the rocky cove, the light only extends to the surrounding faces. The beauty of this whisky is in the lack of an open image, it is confined to the blind feeling of a locale at night, not knowing beyond your sense of smell. Take a sip from a mezcal sour, lemon and lime tang, slight jalapeno pepper tones, smoke lingers on the tongue. Wolfburn is a truly cerebral experience, a quality far too few other releases share, at least for now. Here is to hoping that changes. I almost forgot, this was the landslide favourite of the night, beating the runner up by double the votes. Quite impressive Wolfburn.
Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira – $122
Since my early days of whisky, six long years ago, I have had a soft spot for Laphroaig. Admittedly, I was disgusted by it when I first tasted the ‘Quarter Cask’ bottling, so much so I tried to return it thinking the bottle was faulty. Over time Laphroaig has converted me (took about a month in my 18th year), so much so that it numbers as the most common distillery amongst my collection. Being a devout Laphroaig fan I could not help but want to try this limited-edition bottling; thus, guiltily, I chose this release for the tasting to share both my love of the distillery along with my lusty need to taste this bottling I wouldn’t chance to try again. Here is what we experienced.
The Madeira cask used to mature this bottling is not apparent right away, instead the classic Laphroaig character of equal parts billowing cedar/hickory smoke, iodine, and brine. Brush fires, something like a cracked pomegranate under your nose, dried cranberries, a variety of trail mix from exotic origin, not entirely inviting instead intriguing, leading you on. This bottling is a noir movie and you have just met the enigma. If you aren’t interested you aren’t worth your salt kid, hit the streets and enter the blue smoke filled room…while eating a savoury fruit leather. Cut, this movie is bad.