KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 24

24 12 2017

First of all:  Merry Christmas Eve everyone!  Thanks for following along down this long and windy Whisky Advent road — it’s been a thrill to discover and discuss these incredible whiskies along with you!  Second of all:  UGGGGHHHHHH.  I had thought that I might be able to skate through the 2017 calendar without encountering my nemesis distillery, the one I admire in so many ways but can’t quite wrap my head around hedonistically, the one featured in FIVE prior hopeful but ultimately unhappy PnP whisky reviews from calendars past.  I had thought that by reaching the prestige cardboard door #24 I would be officially safe.  I was wrong.  Kilchoman is BACK.

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Advent cannot escape.

To be clear, this is probably very good news for most calendar drinkers, and certainly most whisky connoisseurs.  Kilchoman is a fascinating new distillery, the first that has opened its doors on Islay in over a century (during which time a great deal many of them shut down or were bulldozed), and one of the only ones that plants and farms its own grains (as noted with respect to Vancouver Island’s Shelter Point and its identical approach on Day 11).  This particular bottling of Kilchoman is also a special, exclusive one:  retailing for $200, it is a KWM-selected 25th Anniversary Single Cask, and also the first 10 Year Kilchoman for sale anywhere in Canada (not a huge surprise, since the producer is only 12 years old).  Only 212 full-size bottles — and obviously 380-odd tiny sample bottles — were made out of Kilchoman Cask 255 of 2007, matured in ex-Bourbon barrels and clocking in at 56.6% abv.  I would be more hopeful were it not for the fact that this is the third straight Advent Calendar with a Kilchoman Single Cask in it, and no prior one has turned me around (see here, here, here, here and here if you’re a masochist).

The Kilchoman 10 Year KWM Single Cask is a strange aromatic mix of the refined and the rugged, peaches and cream on top of oily peat, a delicacy in a longshoreman’s vessel.  Tar, pitch, pepper and dank undergrowth roil around, with some of Bourbon’s friendly maple and vanilla trying to peek through.  That off-putting (to me) cheesy Parmesan-rind funk that I’ve come to associate with Kilchoman is the first thing that hits on the tongue, followed by heavy briny peat, scorched apple, iodine, liniment, charcoal and grime; anise and melted plastic predominate the finish.  The complexity is all there, the flavours impressively layered, and any Kilchoman fan will likely find this their finest hour.  It still just misses me, unfortunately.  It’s not you, Kilchoman, it’s me.

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KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 21

21 12 2016

Into the 20s, guys.  Five days left – and we start the final countdown to Christmas with a mystery.  I pulled out an old-school-looking bottle of Stronachie 18 Year Small Batch Release and thought:  “Cool, another lesser-known distillery find.”  Then I saw the A.D. Rattray logo, last seen in Day 14 with the independent bottler’s Cask Islay release, and thought:  “Cool, this must be like their Distillery Label series”, similar to fellow independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s collaborative set of releases with smaller producers tasted in Day 8 and Day 16.  Then I saw the tiny notation in the top right corner: “Distilled at Benrinnes Distillery”.  Um, what?  That’s one label headliner too many.

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Here’s the story.  Stronachie IS a lesser-known distillery…but it’s lesser-known because it was mothballed in 1928 and destroyed in 1930.  It was first built in the 1890s in a (questionably chosen, in hindsight) remote, nearly inaccessible mountain location that required the construction of a 5-mile private railway just to get the spirit to a transportation route.  The initial distributor of Stronachie was actually a relative of A.D Rattray, and in the early 2000s, consumed by curiosity about the distillery, Rattray’s present owner bought at auction a bottle of Stronachie that was distilled a century prior, in 1904, one of only 4 bottles left in the world.  After tasting it (props to them for actually opening it), Rattray then embarked on a project to try to re-create the historic distillery’s flavour profile using spirit from a similarly situated high-altitude producer.  It’s one part honourable and one part creepy, like going from trying to commune with your dead aunt via seance to building your own effigy of her for your living room, but it is certainly bold and unique, two things I don’t get to say enough about the whisky world.

Benrinnes is another distillery that often does its work anonymously, not often receiving the single malt attention, which makes me feel sort of bad that it’s getting this particular star treatment as a sort of tribute cover band for another producer that’s been closed for 88 years and a pile of rubble for 86.  Its faux-Stronachie 18 Year was aged in a combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks (which is becoming the main maturation theme of Whisky Advent 2016) and smelled as pleasantly old-fashioned as it was probably supposed to, mixing saltwater taffy, unsweetened licorice, smoke and bitter orange.  Smouldering and long-acting on the palate, its flavours are almost on delayed release, starting spicy and peppery but then blooming into vast florals, citrus fruits, hickory, creme brulee and candied ginger.  In spite of that it never gets away from itself, staying straight-laced and minding its manners, like the quiet distillery up on the mountain that’s now nothing but a ghost, kept alive through loving tribute.





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.





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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