KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 23

23 12 2017

By Tyler Derksen

As all good things must end, so too does my tenure as guest blogger for Pop & Pour and this year’s KWM Whisky Advent Calendar.  It has been an absolute pleasure and I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring these eight (as of today) whiskies with me.  My final whisky of this calendar, the Gordon & MacPhail’s Collection Highland Park 8 Years Old, ties back to a number of the previous seven I have written up in a number of ways.  First, as with my first write up on Day 5 (the Caol Ila) and Day 13 (the Balblair), this whisky comes to us from independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail (the Balblair was also part of the MacPhail’s Collection).  Second, including today, exactly half of the whisky that I pulled from the Whisky Advent Calendar come from a Scottish island.

Highland Park Distillery is located on one of the Orkney Islands, a collection of over seventy islands north of mainland Scotland (only twenty of which are inhabited).  The Orkneys were conquered by Vikings from Norway in the late 800s and were a staging ground for their raiding efforts in Britain, and they did not become part of Scotland officially again until 1472.  Located where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, the islands are exposed to such severe weather that no trees grow there.

The main island of the archipelago is fittingly called The Mainland and it is in the burgh of Kirkwall on The Mainland that Highland Park is located.  The distillery smokes its barley over 9000 year-old peat cut from Hobbister Moor (and has done so for over 220 years).   Their newest kiln is over 100 years old!  Highland Park embraces the islands’ Viking heritage and its founder, Magnus Eunson, was a direct Viking descendant and sounds like he could have a show on the History Network as well.  By day, Magnus was a mild-mannered butcher and church officer, but by night he was a smuggler who set up an illicit still at High Park.  The Highland Park distillery claims 1798 as its official date of foundation, but that was merely the year that Magnus was finally caught – whisky was being distilled at High Park before that.  Highland Park’s Viking heritage can also be seen in many of its bottlings, including Valkyrie, Voyage of the Raven, Thor, Freya and Loki – the latter three being part of the Valhalla Collection with phenomenal wood packaging.


The Highland Park 8 Years Old is a pale straw in the glass and is bottled at a restrained 43%.  The nose smells of malt, apple, vanilla, as well as peat and brine which call back to the whisky’s island birthplace.  The palate is a wonderful combination of leather, wood, smoke, sea salt, pepper and a bit of honey.  For only 8 years of age, this whisky has a remarkable depth and I could definitely see myself drinking it on a longship on the way to sack a coastal English monastery.  Skol!

Merry Christmas everyone!

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 20

20 12 2017

Tyler and I have repeatedly lauded the 2017 version of the KWM Whisky Advent Calendar for its diversity and novelty, for giving new whiskies and new brands who have never before graced the inside of a decorative Christmas countdown box an opportunity to shine.  Tonight’s whisky is – not an example of that.  If there is one label that is a common denominator of every Whisky Advent Calendar I’ve drank my way through, it is most definitely the Connoisseurs Choice line from massive independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail, as seen on Day 5 this year and in at least a half dozen other incarnations in calendars past.  Day 10 of 2015 featured an 18 Year malt from a G&M CC bottling of a relatively obscure distillery called Auchroisk, and tonight we get its younger brother, an 11 Year distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2016 under a highly questionable scrubs-green label colour scheme.  Auchroisk is not often seen bottled under its own name but is generally known to produce fruitier whiskies due to its use of taller, slender-necked stills, which tend to result in a lighter spirit during distillation.


Totally not sold on the hospital green colour scheme for this CC label.

The 2005 bottling doesn’t appear at all on the comprehensive Gordon & MacPhail website (which shows over 150 different Connoisseurs Choice whiskies), but it appears to have been matured in American hogsheads and retails for around $100 (it’s also not on KWM’s website, making it doubly difficult to research).  It is a friendly Labrador Retriever of a scotch from the get-go, immediately presenting with easy and appealing aromas of bananas foster, cinnamon, rum raisin cake, honey and celery root/lemongrass.  Fresh, rich and floral on the palate, it melds peach and cantaloupe fruit with honeycomb and vanilla bean creaminess, not overly expansive or complex but pleasantly direct and unabashedly charming.  A worthy CC dram, though hopefully the last we’ll see of G&M until 2018.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 13

13 12 2017

By Tyler Derksen

Today we take a trip to the Scottish Highlands to visit Balblair Distillery, care of independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s “The MacPhail’s Collection”.  Located on the coast of the Dornoch Firth (which is almost due north of Inverness in the very northern part of mainland Scotland), Balblair was established by John Ross in 1790.  Interestingly, the original distillery was located half a mile from its current location and was moved in 1895 to take advantage of the Highland Railway.  As is the case with so many distilleries in Scotland, it was mothballed in 1911 and the last whisky being released in 1932.  The distillery continued to provide a valuable service when the army commandeered the buildings during World War II.

After the War, Robert James “Bertie” Cummings purchased the distillery in 1948 for £48,000 with production resuming the following year.  As a lawyer from Calgary, I’m tickled by the fact that Cummings was a solicitor from Banff – the original one in Scotland, not the one in the Rocky Mountains.  In 1970, Cummings sold Balblair to Hiram Walker, which later became Allied Distillers, which owns over 100 distilleries.  It is now owned by Inver House Distillers, which purchased it in 1996 (and which has a regional headquarters in Airdrie – the original one in Scotland, not the one north of Calgary).

IMG_4145For many years, Balblair has released its whisky as vintage offerings, with each one released based on the year it was distilled rather than with an age statement on the bottle.  As today’s bottle does not come direct from the distillery, we see a more conventional (for whisky) age statement of 10 years on the bottle.  The whisky was aged in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 43%.

Before today I had never tried Balblair and I genuinely enjoyed this whisky.  My first thought upon bringing the glass to my nose was that it smelled “dry”.  Not dry as one would describe the sweetness (or lack thereof) in wine, but rather dry as in the absence of moisture.  While I was able to pick out smells of unripe pear – you know the kind when you cut it and get mad at yourself because it’s not ready to eat yet – the predominant scent was that of cut grass.  Not green fresh-cut grass, but rather dried grass being raked after a couple of days after being mowed.  The palate delivered sweetness that was not evident (to me) on the nose.  I was able to taste candied orange, shortbread and something toasted.  It was reserved, but had a pleasant burn that I was not expecting based on its 43% bottling.  The Balblair 10 Year Old didn’t do anything crazy, but it didn’t have to.

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.

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!

Whisky Advent Calendar: Day 16

16 12 2014

On Day 16 of this Advent quest, I will admit that I’m getting a bit of whisky fatigue.  I still appreciate the little bottles and the flavour complexity and the chance to learn more about the various distilleries, and I feel like I’m starting to get better at picking out hints left behind by various production and aging choices, but my sense of wonder is starting to come up a bit short.  My first note about my first sniff of tonight’s whisky was simply:  “Sherry NOOOOOOO!!” — and sure enough, the Gordon & Macphail bottling of Mortlach 15 Year Speyside Single Malt scotch was aged in refill sherry casks.  I need a bit of an Oloroso vacation.

Just bask in that box.  You can't look away.

Just bask in that box. You can’t look away.

But enough negativity.  Obviously the greatest part about the Mortlach distillery is that it sounds like a Tolkien villain.  Excellent (and evil) name choice.  Coming up close behind in terms of awesome is the hyper-cool tartan box this whisky came in; all whiskies should have their own tartans.  Gordon & Macphail are well-known bottlers, previously seen back in Day 1 of this calendar, who pair up with distilleries and allow for a wider range of releases to hit the market; G&M has over 300 single malt bottlings on the market right now.  This Mortlach was distilled exactly 2.5 times (I’m not sure what half a distillation looks like…do they just turn the still off halfway through?) and retails for a slightly pricy $95. Read the rest of this entry »

Whisky Advent Calendar: Day 1

1 12 2014

Obvious disclaimer out of the way first:  I am not a whisky expert.  I have always been a fan of whisky – it was my parents’ drink of choice and so the grown-up beverage that I grew up smelling and tasting (in tiny, adult-supervised sips).  Now that I can supervise my own drinking habits, I have drifted away from whisky slightly, but this is no slight to scotch and mainly a testament to my near-all-consuming devotion to wine.

My kind of Advent calendar.

My kind of Advent calendar.

But now I have a reason to venture back to my roots…24 of them, to be exact.  My ultra-incredible wife surprised me yesterday with Kensington Wine Market’s 2014 Whisky Advent Calendar, possibly the most glorious thing ever to come out of the holiday season other than my eldest son (born New Year’s Day).  I don’t have occasion to venture into KWM often, but when I do it’s to see Andrew Ferguson, Calgary’s preeminent whisky expert and all-around good guy.  Andrew has hand-selected a (50mL) bottle of whisky for each day of Advent and put them all in a calendar with a special embossed Glencairn whisky glass on day 1.  The packaging is beautiful and the idea is equally stunning.

Whisky 1!

Whisky 1!

To commemorate the occasion, I’m going to try and do a quick post each night about the day’s special mini-whisky.  Apologies in advance to the many folks who are kind enough to subscribe to this blog, but hopefully flooding your inboxes with whisky tales will be slightly more appealing than Cyber Monday spam and the breathless news about whatever invented holiday sale comes after it.  Day 1’s whisky is the Gordon & MacPhail bottling of the Linkwood 15 year single malt from Speyside.  It was aged in refill sherry casks (I promise that it’s actually true that I wrote “sherry” as one of my first tasting notes) and retails (in full bottle) for about $80.  My 1-minute tasting notes:  orange zest, lemon drops, brine, maple syrup, brown sugar, joy.  It’s a straightforward but exuberant scotch with some nice weight to the body and an inviting sweetness that’s warm, friendly and ultra-non-threatening.  It’s the big fluffy dog of malt whiskies.  Great start.

I presume these Whisky Advent Calendars are all sold out for the year, but check back in September next year – they retail for $350ish and sell fast!  Props to Andrew and KWM for an absolutely brilliant holiday package.

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