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.

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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!

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KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 14

14 12 2016

Back-to-back Islay for the first time in Advent 2016, but this particular bottling is shrouded in mystery!  Day 14’s dram marked the biggest unknown for me coming out of the calendar to date, with a label that looked like a film noir movie poster and that did not contain any immediately identifying marks or distillery names, only the opaque moniker “Cask Islay”.  Cask Islay from where?  Whose casks?  A closer look revealed that this was a scotch released by independent bottler A.D. Rattray that intentionally does not reveal the distillery that made it — but we know that there’s only one and that this isn’t a blend, as it still states itself to be a single malt.  Rattray’s website advises that for each batch of Cask Islay, they hand-select a few casks (5 to 10 at most) from the stealth distiller; these are then matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks for somewhere less than 10 years before bottling.  KWM’s rumour is that the black box producer of this whisky is Laphroaig, but no one’s talking.  The benefit that you get from all the secrecy is that the bottle only costs $75, a massive value play if the quality is there.

fullsizerender-507And it is, in spades, if you’re a fan of the Islay style of peated whisky.  The Cask Islay contains 35 ppm of peat phenols, chemicals released in the smoke of burning peat moss used in the distillery’s kilns while drying malted barley which are absorbed by the barley itself.  35 ppm is not overly high as far as peated scotch goes; the peat bombs that push the issue can get all the way up to 200 ppm (at which point they basically taste like solid charcoal).  But even the lower figure is enough to establish peaty dominance in the Cask Islay’s nose, all oily smoke, seawater brine, clamshells, beach fire pits, iodine and (weirdly) Comet cleaning powder.  Happily, it is more personable to taste than to smell, adding warm peach cobbler and baked apple fruitiness to the swirling peat mass of shoe polish, diesel, sulphur and topsoil, finishing hearty and rich.  This is a great fireside malt, although it would certainly not make a good pick for a whisky neophyte’s scotch initiation.  Frankly a spectacular buy for any Islay lover at this price point.  I’m in.





KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 13

13 12 2016

We have now crested the summit of the 2016 Kensington Wine Market Whisky Advent calendar and are starting the long trek down the other side, and I don’t mind telling you all that I’m a little bit wiped.  Call it the pre-holiday doldrums, the end-of-year blues, the 13-days-blogging-in-a-row sanity implosion, whatever you like.  One or more members of my family has been continuously sick, on a rolling or parallel basis, for the better part of two months — nothing serious, just enough to make me question any and all extracurricular activities and hobbies.  As a reward for persevering through 50% of whisky Advent despite the biohazard zone that is my household, and particularly for powering through a less-than-likeable Day 12, I was hoping to open the window on Day 13 and pull out a nice little OH COME ON.

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I will not rehash my Kilchoman woes, covered off extensively in Day 2.  Suffice to say that it is a really cool new distillery on Islay that’s doing amazing things and that many people deeply enjoy, but that I just can’t bring myself to like despite multiple head-against-wall efforts.  I wish it nothing but success, but it was the last thing I wanted to see today.  However, there was some intrigue that snuck through my malaise with this particular bottling, especially thanks to the mini KWM logo proudly displayed on the front label, and in part also thanks to the almost-shocking 57.5% abv it recorded.  Yes, tonight’s Kilchoman is a Single Cask bottling (Cask 446/2011 to be exact) that Kensington Wine Market purchased and bottled exclusively for the store, which is admittedly awesome, as is the PX (Pedro Ximenez, the grape used for sweet dessert-based sherry) cask finish on the whisky.  While last night’s 18 Year was the oldest whisky in the calendar, this may well be the youngest, distilled in July 2011 and bottled just shy of five years later (and also only five months ago!) in July 2016.

I certainly got more of a sense of Islay on this Kilchoman than the others in calendars past and present, huge whiffs of bacon and sausage grease, rusty cast-iron pots, motor oil and seaweed, but that pervasive off-putting Parmesan cheese funk that has become unfortunately synonymous with the distillery for me was still there, lingering in the background.  This is as explosively fiery and alcoholic as you might expect for something that’s almost two-thirds pure spirit and absolutely requires water to soften and open, but once it’s hydrated it’s laced with butterscotch and molasses sweetness (thanks PX!) to go along with more transportive memory-based flavours:  freshly polished old leather boots, your favourite armchair with a wet dog on it, a log cabin in the woods with the fireplace crackling.  Concentrated and long-lasting, it leaves traces of oily peat lingering on the tongue for well over a minute after you swallow.  It’s still not my cup of tea, but I will say this:  best Kilchoman yet.  Maybe this is the ray of hope for the rest of December.  Bring on the next 12 days.





KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 7

7 12 2016

Oh snap.  Let’s get greasy.  Ardbeg is in the house.  When a distillery can scarcely be described without the use of the word “notorious” (in this case, for its well-known bone-crushing use of peat, like most other Islay distilleries but times ten), you know you’re in for some fun.  And when you can’t pronounce the name of the whisky even before you down its cask-strength madness (54.2%, the first bottle out of the 40s to date), all the more so.  It turns out Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, named for the lake that acts as the distillery’s water source, is pronounced “OOG-a-dal”, a suitable caveman name for a pretty caveman whisky.  That’s not necessarily a put-down — this is a $110 bottle, and one that Ardbeg’s 120,000-person-strong fan club voted their favourite out of the distillery’s whole lineup — but more a recognition that this sherried expression of Islay’s most ferocious peat bomb gets to something primal.

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It starts before your nose even gets close to the glass.  The massive alcohol content is apparent from the glass-coating syrupy way the Oog comes out of the bottle, shining sullenly like burnished gold.  The aromas are unsurprisingly filled with nostril-tinging peat, which lingers in the sinuses with a slight alcoholic burn after the other smells fade away:  dirty rags, kerosene, mechanic shop floor, moss, burnt cinnamon and spice.  Even with a fair dollop of water, this is still rich and lush and radiating power, honeyed maple-bacon sweetness offering a beat of relief before the oily smoke and swampy peat flavours, charcoal briquettes and skidding tires, ashtrays and latex gloves, take over and run wild.  Oog is not a whisky that sounds good when reduced to flavour descriptors, but it does hit you on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, something I don’t always get with scotch, as much as I enjoy it.  There is some bass and some soul to this liquid fire and brimstone, an oozy gravitas that I can’t help but admire.





KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 2

2 12 2016

Damn it.  2016 Whisky Advent was off to a happening start, excitement was building, I was sliding into my spirits-writing groove…and then Day 2 came along.  First of all, it took me about five minutes to get the cardboard mini-whisky box out of the calendar (unnecessary cardboard boxes:  not a fan).  Second, once the cardboard maiming was complete and the whisky was free, my heart sank as I again came in contact with the one Scottish distillery that I would LOVE to love, but can never seem to.  Kilchoman has a great backstory (it’s the first new distillery to be opened on the Scottish island of Islay in generations), is an incredible inspiration for the modern Scotch movement (they actually farm their own barley that is fermented and distilled into their whiskies, which is basically unheard of), has a ton of street cred and critical acclaim, but just never seems to have a flavour set I can fully get behind, often featuring an odd hard cheese-y aroma that just doesn’t do it for me.  Completely a personal preference thing, and not a slag on this revolutionary new producer.  I wish it weren’t so, but I am 0 for 3 in Whisky Advent history with my Kilchomans:  Day 15 of 2014 may of been the worst experience, but Day 11 and Day 21 of 2015 didn’t bump it by much.

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I’m so sorry, Kilchoman.

This particular bottling couldn’t have played a part in the 2014 or 2015 calendars because it’s a new continuing release inaugurally revealed this year.  The Kilchoman Sanaig, with its rather fetching violet label, is named after a small inlet just northwest of the distillery in the far top left corner of Islay (as indicated on the semi-destroyed box below).  Its deep orange-y colour seems suggestive of lengthy maturation, but since Kilchoman’s only been around since 2005, that’s not possible.  The alternative explanation is the correct one, which is that the whisky has been primarily matured in my nemesis of aging vessels:  Oloroso sherry casks, villain of Advent calendars past.  The oxidized deep-hued Oloroso that previously occupied the casks left a dark stain behind that the Scotch greedily sucks up, lending maximum colour in minimum time.

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The Bourbon-to-Sherry Cask Meter on the box is a nice touch.

I was feeling a bit better after the whisky’s visual intrigue, but I stuck my nose in the glass and there it was, that parmigiano reggiano sort of funk, overlaying everything, partially obscuring the supporting aromas of diesel/kerosene, moss, orange peels and molasses.  The Sanaig comes across as way boozier than its 46% abv, delivering heat and smoke and honey on the tongue in that order, begging for a few drops of water to help balance it out.  Hints of apple cinnamon try to peek through the grime, but this is neither designed nor executed to be a “pretty” scotch.  At $92 it’s a value for a Kilchoman fan; I just wish I was one.  Better luck tomorrow?





Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 25

25 12 2015

Merry Christmas everybody!!  I do not mind telling you that I will not be blogging tomorrow.  Or the day after.  Or the day after.  My calendar odyssey ends tonight with a special super-sized offering from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a group that buys single casks from renowned distillers, bottles them itself and sells them only to subscribed members, giving each bottling a unique name and number.  Christmas Day’s 100 mL bottle was from Society Single Cask No. 3.160 and was titled “Islay beach scene”; all I know about it is that it was aged for 10 years and is a highly potent 59.9% abv, making it (I believe) the booziest whisky in the calendar, just in time for the holidays [ed. note: not quite true, as it turns out, as Day 21’s Kilchoman KWM Cask clawed over the 60% abv mark].  The label also provides some handy, if overly poetic, tasting notes to guide your drinking experience:  this whisky is supposed to smell like “pork chops and lemony prawns on a beach barbecue, then hints of buttery mint” and taste like “burnt heather and barbecued meats with fruit”.  I did not get the pork chops, although I did quite enjoy the aromas on this whisky, which started out very clean for Islay, sea spray, breezy peat and mineral notes, before sneaking in the diesel oil and woodsmoke we were all expecting.  The peat is richly balanced and far from dominating on the palate, which actually did remind me a bit of BBQed meat, or at least a brisket smokehouse, along with sweet honey, oyster shells and canned pear.  With a dash of water, this SMWS offering holds together and restrains its monstrous alcohol exceptionally well — a strong finish to what I feel was a substantially better Advent Calendar this time around.  I only was really missing one thing in the 2015 calendar:  something from Japan.  Maybe next year?

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I rolled through the Day 25 whisky so that I could end my string of calendar posts with my personal KWM Whisky Advent award-winners, my favourite bottles from the past month.  Here we go:

  • Best Value Dram:  BenRiach 10 Year (Day 16) — How this bottle only costs $64 is a complete mystery, but I would highly recommend that you grab it before somebody changes their mind.  Incredible balance and complexity for a scotch this young and inexpensive, from a distillery that keeps churning out winners.
  • 3rd Place (Tied):  Kavalan Sherry Cask (Day 23) and Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice 2003 Caol Ila (Day 18) — Kavalan is nothing short of a revelation in the whisky world to me, and everything I’ve ever tried of theirs has been just prime quality.  With a whopping 4 Connoisseurs Choice bottlings in the calendar, G&M stood a good chance of scooping a podium finish, and their deft handling of Caol Ila took them to the promised land.
  • 2nd Place:  Kavalan ex-Bourbon Cask (Day 5) — Call me predictable, but I don’t care.  I couldn’t get this bottle out of my head for days after tasting it.  The Kavalan Sherry was deeper, darker and more complex, but the ex-Bourbon hit on an emotional level and delivered amazing purity and a nose to be savoured for days.
  • 1st Place:  GlenDronach Revival 15 Year (Day 7) — Can you believe it?  For the second year in a row, a scotch from the GlenDronach distillery takes the heralded Pop & Pour Whisky Advent Calendar crown.  A worthy successor to its big brother Parliament from last year’s calendar, the Revival packed an unbelievable flavour punch in its teenaged frame and was simply one of the most abjectly delicious things I have ever tasted.  It is a no-brainer purchase if you ever come across it.

A quick thanks to Kensington Wine Market and its owner/whisky guru Andrew Ferguson for another year of hard work and brilliant sourcing to create a 25-day whisky experience like no other.  It cannot be easy to find that kind of array of quality 50 mL bottles year over year, and in some instances Andrew’s dedication took him directly to the distilleries themselves to have the mini-bottles made just for this calendar; the effort certainly shows through and the result is remarkable.  Same time next year?





Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 21

21 12 2015

Aaaaaaaghh.  That was my admitted reaction when I opened the door to Day 21, one of four whiskies left in this year’s calendar before the Christmas Day finale from the Single Malt Whisky Society, and came face to face with Kilchoman again.  These last few days before the finish line in the 2014 calendar were home to some real zingers, including my favourite whisky of last year (and one of my favourites ever), the GlenDronach Parliament; to see this coveted calendar spot taken up by a distillery I can’t quite bring myself around to like was a bit painful.  Now, to be clear, as discussed on Day 11 when Kilchoman showed up the first time in 2015:  they are a very highly regarded distillery with a super cool story (the farm-to-table equivalent of the scotch world, Islay’s first new distillery in forever), and I have whisky-savvy friends that go nuts for them, so there’s nothing wrong with them whatsoever, but they just don’t match my taste for whatever reason.  However, if I decipher the label correctly, there seems to be some reason for excitement with this particular bottling, which may only be available in the singular place from which I got the calendar.  The tiny Kilchoman bottle features an even tinier Kensington Wine Market logo right on the official label, which I’m guessing means that this was from a cask purchased by and bottled for the store only.  (Further research just undertaken confirms the theory – cool!)  This Single Cask whisky is from a bourbon barrel identified only as cask #440, from the year 2010.  That means we’re dealing with, at most, a 5 Year malt, one of the youngest whiskies in the whole calendar.

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The KWM Single Cask was bottled at cask strength (meaning that no water was added to it to dilute it and reduce the alcohol to a standard 40%, 43% or 46% level).  In this case that means the scotch is at a mind-melting 60.4% abv, meaning that adding water is imperative to this one unless you’re using it for sterilizing wounds.  This ultra-special Calgary-only version of Kilchoman smelled like, well, Kilchoman, a must-be-from-Islay combination of moccasins, smoky peat, solvent, tennis balls, kelp, orange zest and melted cheese.  A little more fruit shone through on the palate, banana and cantaloupe, but the Islay grime still carried the day, with tons of old shoe leather, burnt tires and exhaust, maltiness and toast, with a glycerol-laden viscosity from the elevated alcohol and a sweet smoothness on the finish – the bourbon cask coming through at last.  This was certainly my favourite Kilchoman that I’ve had so far, although also the most expensive at $140, making it one of the pricier 5 year-old scotches on the shelf.  There is certainly a lot going on here for a spirit a half a decade old, but I still can’t say it’s my thing.  I feel legitimately bad about it, Kilchoman.








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