KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 5

5 12 2017

By Tyler Derksen

As a reader of Pop & Pour from its inception, and a lucky participant in many tastings written up here, it is a thrill to be a guest-writer this Advent season.  While I am a big fan of wine, scotch is my first love when it comes to alcoholic beverages and it was a with enthusiasm that I accepted the opportunity to assist in writing up the whisky offerings in this year’s Kensington Wine Market’s Whisky Advent Calendar. I will certainly do my best to try to keep my personal biases out of these reviews; however, today is an unfortunate day for such an attempt, as the whisky du jour is the Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice bottling of 2004 Caol Ila.  Caol Ila (pronounced “cull-eela”) comes from the island of Islay, my favourite scotch region – so much so that I may have named my daughter after the island due to my love of the scotches produced there.

The Caol Ila distillery is located on the northeast coast of Islay overlooking the Sound of Islay, for which the distillery was named.  From the distillery one can look across the sound and see the island of Jura close by.  The distillery was founded in 1846 and is now part of the global spirit powerhouse Diageo.  Although Caol Ila makes remarkable single malt scotch, much of its significant production is used for blending, including in Johnny Walker.


Today’s whisky is the younger (but more aged) sibling of the Connoisseurs Choice 2003 Caol Ila from the 2015 KWM Whisky Advent Calendar.  Judging by those tasting notes, however, this bottle is quite different.  The whisky was aged in first and refill bourbon barrels and is a light golden colour in the glass, characteristic of Caol Ila which is typically lighter in colour than many of its Islay cousins.  On the nose, the 2004 Caol Ila has the characteristic Islay peat, pronounced but not overpowering.  Mixing with the peat are aromas of fresh baked bread, caramel, banana and a subtle citrus note.  On the palate, the smoky peat remains well-balanced and does not obscure flavours of orchard fruit, vanilla, banana and baking spice with a hint of citrus zest lightening things up.  The finish is long and surprisingly it is the baking spices, not the peat, that stick with you.  I have yet to try a Caol Ila that I did not enjoy, and this offering is no different.  An auspicious start to my blogging career!

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 8

8 12 2016

Through 8 days of Whisky Advent, it’s Gordon & MacPhail 3, All Other Whiskies In The World 5.  You may remember Gordon & MacPhail from seven days and three days ago; they are basically everywhere.  However, I will forgive the repetition in this case because (1) this is NOT a Connoisseurs Choice whisky and is from the separate Distillery Label series, which is as close as an independent bottler like G&M can get to releasing a whisky as if the distiller itself bottled it, and (2) the distillery in question is named Miltonduff, which might be the Scottish-ist word I’ve ever seen.  You hear “Miltonduff” out of context and you know it’s either a whisky distillery or a Braveheart extra.  Of course, you almost never hear “Miltonduff” at all, because the distillery doesn’t often get a turn in the spotlight, mainly reduced to being a core component of the Ballantine’s blend (with which I am all too familiar thanks to some law school whisky-regret purchases).  This bottle, inexpensive at $80, may be the closest thing to a distillery release of Miltonduff we ever see in our neck of the woods.


And it’s…fine.  Paler and less forward in colour, it also smells somewhat muted, delivering bold aromas like peaches and cream and carrot cake (with icing) laced with breezy florals, but all in a subtle, sepia-toned kind of way.  It is bigger on the palate, but not necessarily brighter, meandering and expansive, casually melding creme brûlée, honey and applesauce with graham crackers and a slight celeriac vegetal tinge, not in any hurry to get anywhere.  Mellow and chill, it is pleasant but likely not memorable; if I was writing a wine review I’d call it “quaffable”, but I don’t want to think about the personal health consequences of quaffing scotch.  To the next.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 5

5 12 2016

It was an immediate case of double whisky deja vu tonight, as another Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice whisky emerged from the calendar, the second in five days following Day 1’s ultra-exuberant dram.  But the recall did not stop there:  rewind 10 Whisky Days to Day 20 of 2015, where the Connoisseurs Choice in question was a single malt from the little-known Inchgower distillery.  Now jump back to the present, where the Connoisseurs Choice in question is…a single malt from the little-known Inchgower distillery.  Um.  The cool thing about the 2016 version of Inchgower is that it was bottled this year and isn’t even available for purchase yet in Calgary; you can pre-order it at KWM now for $100.  While last calendar’s Inchgower was a 14-year malt, this one may be the first ever 11-year single malt I have ever seen, distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2016; whisky in prime numbers, I guess.


A familiar face, a familiar result.

Inchgower is the type of distillery that the Connoisseurs Choice lineup was created to showcase, a hardworking but under-the-radar producer that almost never sees its whisky bottled under its own name.  To paraphrase myself from 10 whisky blog entries ago in order to avoid unnecessary work, less than 1% of Inchgower’s production is labelled and sold as an Inchgower malt:  most of the fruits of its labour anonymously form part of the backbone of big-time Diageo blends like Bell’s, Johnny Walker and White Horse.  It’s located in Speyside, which the label of this bottle optimistically refers to as “the Premier Cru of single malt scotch” (inadvertently leaving open the question of who the Grand Cru is…I’ll let the Highlands and Islay fight it out).


They’re known as the WHAT??

This 11 year-old bottling is somehow darker than its 14 year-old older brother, despite both being matured in refill sherry casks.  A slightly grungy nose blends shoe polish, leather, salt lick, pinecones and almonds, and isn’t helped much by the addition of water.  Things thankfully get somewhat more pleasing once the Inchgower hits your lips, where you try to decipher a strange but interesting mix of peanut shells, apricot, pennies and celery salt, all of which hang around cautiously after you swallow like high school kids in a new social situation.  It’s fun to meet a new distillery once, no matter how the whisky is; with Inchgower, I think twice is enough.  Onward.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 1

1 12 2016

All right, team:  let’s do this.  Another blogging year has come and gone, another December has arrived, and another 25 straight days of whisky blogging madness stands before me.  I will not break, although I will occasionally wonder what the hell I’m doing.  To set the stage, for those of you new to this year-end PnP tradition:  every year the indomitable Andrew Ferguson, the owner of Kensington Wine Market and (for my money) Calgary’s primary whisky authority, meticulously sources and compiles 25 mini-bottles of premium whisky that go into the shop’s annual Whisky Advent Calendar.  Two years ago I got such a Calendar as a present and decided to write up each whisky inside on a daily basis.  Last year I decided I probably couldn’t leave well enough alone and did it again.  This year I resigned myself to the fact that I’m a slave to precedent, and here we are.  Note that these mini-whisky bottles were NOT provided as samples for review purposes; I bought the calendar to support Andrew’s great work and am doing these reviews because I am clearly slightly deranged.


Bring it, 2016.

Day 1 of 2016 Whisky Advent was an instant flashback to many different days of 2015 Whisky Advent; the all-too-familiar beige and brown labelling of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice series haunted my dreams on many a December night last year.  Day 4, Day 10, Day 18 and Day 20 of the 2015 calendar were dedicated to Connoisseurs Choice whiskies (and yes, I know there’s an apostrophe missing in that possessive, and yes, it bothers me, but I didn’t name the whisky line, so blame Scotland).  That may sound repetitive, until you find out that there are ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FOUR DIFFERENT WHISKIES in the Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice line.  174!!  And that’s only one of G&M’s many, many ranges!  They are (obviously) one of Scotland’s largest independent whisky bottlers, purchasing barrels of whisky from a plethora of distilleries and bottling them itself.  The Connoisseurs Choice sub-label is largely intended to showcase distilleries that would not otherwise ever see the light of day as a single malt and would instead be stuffed into anonymous blends…but this one might be the exception to that rule.


This particular bottling is a 17 year-old expression from the Tomatin Distillery, which most certainly sees the light of day under its own name as one of the largest and best-known distilleries in all of Scotland.  (It’s also the first distillery in Scotland to be wholly owned by a Japanese company, which is not as surprising as it might seem given the latter country’s massive jump into premium whisky.)  Distilled in 1997 and bottled in 2014, this G&M expression starts off Advent with a bang thanks to a set of aromas as exuberant as a pent-up Golden Retriever:  sassafras, honey, cream soda, banana Runts, cinnamon sticks.  Smooth, lush and nutty, it unfolds repeatedly on the tongue, continuing to expand and unfurl every time you think it’s done, exploding with gobs of marzipan and almond rocca, maple syrup, pina colada, marshmallow, reams of spice and toasty wood.  As you might expect after the above slew of candied notes, this is absolutely delicious, thrilling and hedonistic if not overly intellectual.  It is also not fooling around with its $180 full-bottle retail price tag, the first time I can remember that KWM Whisky Advent has gone posh to start off Day 1.  I like the approach.  24 days to go!

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 20

20 12 2015

We’re getting close to being able to call this the #GandMCCWhiskyAdvent calendar:  tonight is the FOURTH offering from independent bottler Gordon & Macphail’s Connoisseurs Choice portfolio to come out of the 2015 KWM calendar, after Day 4’s Ledaig 1999, Day 10’s Auchroisk 1996, and just two days ago, Day 18’s Caol Ila 2003.  Thankfully G&M has sufficient options in its insanely huge lineup of whiskies not to have to repeat a distillery, so Day 20’s Connoisseurs Choice has a brand new origin, the Inchgower Distillery…which I can confirm I’ve never heard of before tonight.  This is because almost nothing it makes is bottled under its own name:  less than 1% of its production is labelled and sold as an Inchgower malt, with the bulk of its whisky being routed for major blends like Bell’s, Johnny Walker and White Horse.  Inchgower was somewhat optimistically founded as “The Great Distillery of Inchgower” in 1871, but it won’t surprise you if you’ve been reading along this season that it was liquidated in 1903, sold in 1936, sold again in 1938 and sold at least once more in the 1980s.  It was apparently near-impossible to keep a distillery open and belonging to its original owner in the 20th century.  Inchgower is now part of the Diageo empire, and Gordon & Macphail are one of the very few independent bottlings showcasing it on its own.


G&M are famous for their absolutely impeccable wood cask selection and whisky maturation program (a massive focus since they don’t make the spirit themselves), to the point where they have an entire separate website devoted only to their cask matching program, which is actually found at  You can’t make this stuff up.  They chose refill sherry casks for this Inchgower, a vintage whisky distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2014; the re-used nature of the casks definitely tones any sherried notes way down in the scotch, to the point where the type of barrel didn’t really stand out at all for me.  In fact, not much stood out, in a good or bad way:  the Inchgower had a grassy, stalky, cream soda- and maple-tinged but otherwise very quiet nose, to the point where I got out my Vinturi Spirit aerator to see if it could coax something more out of it.  Post hyper-decant, the aromas may have come across as rounder, but they were still subtle and subdued.  Things brightened up somewhat on the palate, a more energetic mixture of honeycomb, pancakes, whipped cream and vanilla bean, without the vegetal edge I had been smelling.  All in all, though, a pretty straightforward whisky, with a mouth-drying finish.  After some of the incredible values we saw last week sub-$90, I’d be pretty choked to shell out $108 for this unless I was a true whisky connoisseur (maybe the G&M range name is onto something) seeking out a solo Inchgower effort.  That would be some serious scotch dedication.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 18

18 12 2015

It is exactly one week until Christmas.  Seven more days, team.  Seven more whiskies, after this one.  Hang in there.  My mild-to-medium annoyance at opening the Day 18 window and pulling out yet another Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice bottling (the third of the calendar, after Day 4 and Day 10) turned to instant excitement once I saw the name of the featured distillery on the bottle:  Caol Ila, one of my favourites, and one of the best Islay distilleries at managing that delicate but critical balance of peat influence within a whisky’s flavour profile.  Having talked about Connoisseurs Choice twice now, I will avoid repeating (three-peating) myself and talk about Caol Ila instead.  Its name is pronounced “cull-eela”, meaning that I actually was almost saying it right before looking it up, a name that means “Sound of Islay” (referring to the body of water of the same name, not an actual sound, although that would be cooler).  Owned by global spirit behemoth Diageo, Caol Ila is, surprisingly to me, by far Islay’s biggest distillery, churning out more than double the production of the other distilleries on the island.  Much of this whisky is designated for use in blends — like the 2014 calendar’s super-awesome Big Peat, which champions its Caol Ila content on its label — but a smaller percentage of it is bottled in the distillery’s name, either under its own label or by independent bottlers like this.


This particular bottle of Caol Ila is from a single vintage, 2003, and was bottled this year, making it a 12 Year malt.  It is classic Islay on the nose, a combination of rawhide, old catcher’s mitt, seaweed, liniment and salty sea air, but in a way that smells far nicer than that sounds, using those aromas in the most comfortable way possible.  The depth of flavour and sheer intensity of both the peat-induced and the other notes is just remarkable.  The peatiness has layers, descending from briny/herbal at first to campfire and ash down to something more dank, like tar and pitch.  This ominous progression somehow doesn’t interfere with the development of equally potent notes of peanut brittle, celery sticks, ginger, oiled leather, poached pear, shoe polish…I could go on.  There’s a lot happening in this whisky, especially at only a dozen years of age.  For me it’s one of the best of the calendar so far without question.  I actually wrote at the end of my tasting notes:  “If this is under $100 it’s a screaming deal.”  Well, guess what?  It’s $99.99.  Scream away.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 10

10 12 2015

My immediate thought upon pulling out tonight’s whisky was:  “Again?”  Hadn’t I just seen this bottle before?  Well, yes and no.  Day 4 featured another scotch from independent bottler Gordon & Macphail’s Connoisseurs Choice range, the 1999 Ledaig.  Tonight’s bottle, six days and five whiskies later, featuring a slightly differently shaded but otherwise identical label, was the 1996 Auchroisk, at 18 years the oldest whisky of the calendar to date (quick tangent: the age figure on a whisky denotes its period of maturation and ends at bottling, so this whisky, bottled in 2014, is an 18-year rather than a 19-year in whisky-speak).  As this is a totally different scotch from a totally different distillery and region (the Ledaig was from the Isle of Mull, while the Auchroisk is from Speyside), I suppose I have no grounds to have felt a twinge of disappointment at seeing the familiar label come out of the box, but I think I would try to keep any and all similar bottlings as far apart from each other in the Advent order as possible.  That said, don’t think the presence of both the Ledaig and the Auchroisk in the Connoisseurs Choice lineup makes them kindred spirits or anything; the Gordon & Macphail website lists 152 different CC whiskies, so it’s not exactly an exclusive club.


Auchroisk (actually pronounced “oth-rusk”) was built rather recently in distillery terms, in 1974, and is found in the northeast of Speyside, which itself is in the northern part of Scotland.  This bottle states that whiskies from Speyside “are known as the ‘Premier Cru’ of Single Malt Scotch”, which I have literally never heard anyone say, and which might well cause a revolt in the other regions, but who am I to doubt a label slogan?  The ’96 oth-rusk was a pale watery lemon colour and went through an instant metamorphosis on each sip from nose to palate.  It smelled flowery, like potpourri, and soapy, like Thrills gum, with clear vegetal notes, sharp salinity and a lingering Brie cheese aroma (the latter two of which made me write down:  “sherry casks?”  Answer:  yes.).  But it was much more approachable, comforting and pleasurable once you tasted it, sweet and spicy, balancing cornbread, orange and tangerine fruit flavours with charred oak, smoke and pepper, but finishing deft and pure rather than bitter.  I can’t decide if the two-faced nature of the whisky made it more interesting or more annoying or both, but at $140 even that uncertainty is a problem.  Quite happy to have it in 50 mL form, however.  40% done the spirit blogging marathon!

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