Feis Ile Special Releases Tasting

Once a year, the alluring west coast island of Islay welcomes thousands of visitors to its shores to help celebrate the Feis Ile. A week of distillery tours, music, celebration and you guessed it – whisky. Each distillery holds an open day, welcoming the hordes of passionate followers through their doors for tastings and special releases. Some might call it a pilgrimage for whisky fans and aficionados, and they’re not wrong.

I’ve only been to Islay once and it sadly wasn’t during the Feis Ile. In fact it was only two weeks post festival season. This meant that we got to visit the distilleries and try many of the special bottlings without having to battle through swarms of other whisky fans. (Saying that, I am desperate to make it Feis Ile some point in the near future). This leads nicely onto the Feis Ile Bottlings. As previously mentioned, each distillery releases a number of special bottles to celebrate the occasion each year and I was lucky enough to get my hands on five of the eight different distillery bottles, plus one extra one to finish with. So how did they do?

Laphroaig Cairdeas 200th Anniversary (51.2%)

laphroaig-cairdeas-2015N: Withheld start. Wet wood, uncooked peppered steak. Iodine and chlorine. Peat seems slightly astringent, but there’s a nice cigar box note. Relatively old style Laphroaig it seems, but less intense than many OB’s. You won’t find much TCP, unless you add water.

P: Dark, dirty and earthy from the word go. The Laphroaig character is somewhat hidden under layers of dark fruit. Anise, salt water and cigar leaf. Quite a sticky undertone before the sweetness rolls around palate. Water brings our cherries.

F: Medium. Very drying, fizzy and pretty briny with some dust and diesel. This is interesting. I think with time in the bottle it become an easy drinker. Different and nice. Won’t blow you mind like some Laphroaigs though! 86.

Kilchoman 10th Anniversary (57.2%)

kilchoman-10th-anniversaryN: Wow, a pretty intense blend of flavours there. Barley, wood, vanilla and bourbon come through first. Wide splashings of peat with car tyres and dark sherried fruits. Slightly fragrant though with some menthol, especially with water. It is like a freshly valeted car. Polish and wax!

P: Powerful and dark with prickly peat – but less than the nose suggests. Nice balance of the peat with the sweet sherry and oaky dryness. Raisins and sticky toffee pudding swirls a nice sweetness around the palate, with it staying just shy of cloying.

F: Long, menthol, barley and fruits. Astringent spearmint chewing gum. This was a really solid dram. One that I would have bought if it had been available. Moorish and lingers beautifully. 87/88.

Caol Ila 17yo (1998) Feis Ile 2015 (57.3%)

caol-ila-feis-ile-2015N: Full nose, lots of big is lay peat and warm oaky tones. Wine tannins, dark cherry and hoisin sauce. Fiery and amazingly powerful. Water opens this a bit, with more salt water and lovely iodine like peat. I could nose this for quite a while.

P: Huge, peppery yet creamy peat. Strong yet still remaining delicate. The peat integrates so well the tannins. Dark forrest fruits, burnt treacle. Some really good casks seem to have been used here. Water dulls everything down, especially the fruit. I prefer it neat.

F: Medium. Brown sugar, dull sweetness and fizz. Peat lingers nicely. Water actually prolongs the finish and adds peppered sausages. Nice choice of cask for this. Another cracking bottle. My favourite so far. 89.

Ardbeg Perpetuum Distillery Release (49.2%)

AA-JW-3N: Honeycombe, banana split and lavender. These seems like quite a light nose to start with. Evoked memories of swimming pool changing rooms with dull chlorine. After giving time to open up, there was some prickly petrol notes. Sweet notes dominate the nose with the peat masked by bitter sweetness. Sticky BBQ ribs towards the end.

P: I prefer the palate to the nose. A bit of Ardbeg character starts to shine through. All the warm peat I wanted on the nose appears, but it brings some pepper, grit and sweet rose petals. Slight brine. Lacks power and intensity I like in Ardbeg. Hints of sweet oak and sherry at times.

F: Short, drying and slightly bitter. Flavours disappear leaving some ashen wood and brine. It’s easy to drink, but lacks flavour and integration. Considering it’s an NAS, it shows its youth sadly. This just didn’t do much for me. Shame. A bottle of their 10 year old or Uigeadail is half the price and twice the whisky. 83

Lagavulin 24yo (1991) Feis Ile 2015 (59.9%)

lagavulin-1991-2015-feis-ile-2015N: Beautiful start. I’m transported to the Lagavulin warehouse. You can tell this is a more mature whisky. Light woody flavours, sticky toffee pudding, dusty sawdust. Leather, gentle peat balances beautifully with the sweet PX sherry. Raspberries, wood polish and chocolate.

P: Fantastic balance of peat, engine oil and ashen woodiness. Sherried fruits, slightly briny and cake mixture. Quite leathery and vibrant considering its age. Salty and sweet popcorn. Finally some BBQ mackerel. A palate that keeps on giving. Incredibly enjoyable.

F: Long, delicate and aged to perfection. Hint of bitter lemons on the end. Perfectly balanced with hints of tobacco leaf, minty chewing gum, cold meat and leather wax. This was awesome. Not quite as epic as the 2014 release. But that had a special place in my heart. It’s not far off though. 91 and best of the bunch (I’m glad I got a bottle).

And the final bottle is from my independent bottler, The SMWS. It’s a 17 year old Bowmore and big thank you to them for sending me a sample to review.

SMWS 3.243 ‘Dark, Smouldering Flamenco Gypsy) (57.1%)
Bowmore 17yo

img_3958N: Pretty dark and dusty with some big sherry from the offset. Much better with some time in the glass. The is a bed of smoke and mint leaves here, upon that plenty of chocolate and caramel. Sweet sherry soaked christmas pudding also. Towards the end the Bowmore Character appears above the sherried nose. Water definitely softens everything, bringing with it calm, nuttiness and some parma violets (oh hello older Bowmore).

P: So there *might* be some sherry here. It’s slightly overpowering to start with, before the briny and meaty notes appear, giving it more substance. Delightfully playful between the light and dark though and I really enjoyed the mix between the tar and leather. Brown sugar and the Bowmore character shines through toward the end.

F: Long and drying. Dark sherry, rough sweetness, dark berries and raisins. Slightly too sweet for me, although I’m sure many would appreciate this. Sad to see so many bottles on this on auction sites before the official release. I guess that’s the same with most special releases nowadays. Solid 86.

If you haven’t got them now, then you probably won’t…unless you’re happy to pay over the odds at auction. The Lagavulin and the Caol Ila were top tasters for me, so well done Diageo. The Kilchoman was strong too. Bring on next year.

An Evening With Dominic Roskrow

I sometimes think to myself: “Why do I like whisky so much?”

The smell? The flavours? The experience? The quality?

I can’t narrow it down to one singular reason. Yet there’s something that will continually enthuse me and keep me smiling. The people.

This can range from friends you share a Saturday night dram with, to drinks writers. The main reason this “review” is one of the later.

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Back in May, I was persuaded by Nigel Crew of Sassenachs Dram Whisky Club to cancel my plans and come along to a joint tasting with Lyn Adams of Guildford Whisky Shop. What made this even more tempting, was the fact that it was being taken by celebrated whisky writer Dominic Roskrow. I’m not going to tell you all about him as that’s what Google is for; but suffice to say, he knows his stuff. He had chosen three world whiskies, with Lyn choosing three from the shops range. They were as follows:

– St.Georges English Malt Whisky – Four Lions (Discovery Road)

– Dutch Rye 7yo (Discovery road)

– Dunedin New Zealand 15yo DoubleWood

– Redbreast 15yo

– Balcones Single Malt

– Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014

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Dominic is a fun and welcoming chap, who is obviously enthused by whisky and the people around it. His background includes journalism, music writer/critic and a move out to New Zealand (we both share a love of this marvellous country). One of his opening lines – “I’m going to say things that are controversial”, certainly brings excitement, and his interesting views on Scotch whisky are met not only met with raised eyebrows, but many nods throughout the room. He discussed different viewpoints of blending, use of colouring (cynical about it, rightly so), politics and the good ol arguments behind Non-Age Statements, or NAS if you will. Even with his terrible German accent (Sorry Dom), the crowd warmed to him instantly, discovering quickly his passion for world whisky. He just couldn’t contain his excitement whilst talking about St.Georges distillery – his “local”.

Although he loves world whisky, this doesn’t stop him enjoying scotch. He spoke fondly about many Scottish distilleries and I have experienced this first hand after sharing and discussing enthusiastically a magnificent 1972 Balvenie with him at The Whisky Exchange Show this year. His argument for why Scotch whisky is the best in the world: Not cutting corners… i.e. the quality oak.

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For me, I have been in tastings where I’ve been told what to do and what to expect. Whereas here, Dominic instantaneously told everyone “You do what you want with whisky, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!” Wise words. He continued to tell us the reason he “…does that he does”, is because he has practiced, not because he is the best taster in the world.

He was engaging and humorous throughout, remaining entertaining all night. His insights into areas such as Irish whisky and conflicts in the whisky world were eye opening, and I came away not only enthused, but educated also. If you get the chance to pop along to one of Dominic’s tastings, I would recommend it. You won’t regret it.

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Here are some quick tasting notes on the whiskies we tried.

St.Georges English Malt Whisky – Four Lions (Discovery Road) (46%)

English Malt Whisky - Four Lions

N: Fragrant and very slightly floral. Buttery softness, some vanilla, maltiness and sweet fudge before quite a bit hit of pineapple. Towards the end I get a hint of dustiness.

P: Nicely smooth. Big malty hit upfront before some gentle woodiness. Sawdust, heather, pineapple and sweet pears. Some light spices balance out the sharpness here.

F: Medium. Liquorice on the upper palate and some raisins lower down too. I look the woody quality here. Quite enjoyable.

Dutch Rye 100% 7yo – Smile (Discovery Road) (46%)

IMG_6320N: Sweet nose. Grain like. Slightly grape-y with some polish/waxy notes. Pretty soft overall with some gentle spices and toffee notes too.

P: Good arrival. Vibrant and exciting. I found some similarities to certain bourbon sweetness. Although pretty sweet, it remains quite dry. Soft toffee, warm spicy tones and even some red liquorice laces.

F: Medium. Slightly dry. Rip fruits including banana. Spices slowly simmer down. This was pretty quaffable.

Dunedin New Zealand 15yo DoubleWood (40%)

Dom discussed the difficulties Willowbank distillery had been having with the naming of this DoubleWood, as you might recognise the name from a certain well brand- here. He also explained that the spirit spent 6 years in American Bourbon barrels, before finishing in French Oak NZ wine barrels, giving its slight pink hue.

IMG_6318N: Quite a light, closed and over ripe nose. With time, I found it a tad thicker with a certain sweetness with dark fruit notes. A slight floral sweetness too.

P: The wine cask jumps out straight away. Far more fruity here with some damp wood and fresh sawdust. Sweet vanilla tones, heavy toffee and slight dry tannic notes.

F: Pretty long. Lots of stewed fruit. Slight savoury/meaty note. Lots of the wood profile comes at the end. Pretty complex and needs time. But overall quite enjoyable.

Redbreast 15yo (46%)

IMG_6319N: Slightly withheld to start with. Dark sweetness, demurrer sugar, sultanas and vanilla pod. Lots of old sweet shop flavours here, especially sherbet fountains. Very fragrant, oily and rich. Similar to certain old grain noses.

P: Light on the palate yet retains the oiliness. Big sweetness followed by some big malt tones. I get some salted meat, especially bacon before some sweet American candy takes over.

F: Medium. Sweetness is there for quite a while. Some sweet apples and light citrus too. This is very drinkable and glides down the throat beautifully. I’m glad I have a bottle already.

Balcones Single Malt (53%)

IMG_6323N: Big bacon and BBQ Ribs notes to start. Not as smokey as other Balcones. Some banana, vanilla and honey before you get the pancetta and peppered notes. Slightly dark and sour too. Pretty creamy character.

P: Warming, brown sugar. Far more fruity than expected. Quite buttery with notes of burnt caramel. I think I get banana bread here.

F: Medium/Long. The wood spices reveal themselves towards the end, with quite a doughy character. Fiery yet relaxed. Another good bottle from this crazy awesome distillery.

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014 (46%)

Having just finished a bottle of this the previous month, I was well acquainted with this lovely bottling. It actually came out as the favourite dram for the evening with the Dutch Rye and Redbrest 15yo taking runner up spots.

IMG_6321N: Pretty sweet peat here. Soft stewed fruits and vanilla custard take the lead role to begin with. Sweet chocolate floating on a sea of peat. The smoke continually builds, leaving the sweetness to waft around.

P: I could tell this was Kilchoman straight away. Great powerful arrival with some strong burn straight away. Peppery, citrus and oily. Quite a nutty flavour later on once the young vibrant peat subsides.

F: Medium/Long. The peat doesn’t run away, instead dancing upon the tastebuds. Ashy, wood smoke. The sweetness again maintains its course, balanced with the citrus, a hint of chocolate and a slight cereal note too. Considering the age, this is fantastic. In fact, forget the age… it’s fantastic. I cannot wait to see what Kilchoman is like in 5 years time!

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A massive thank you to Nigel and Lyn for putting on this tasting, and of course to Dominic for bringing the fun and insight!