Islay Festival Day Five: Ardbeg and Laphroaig

Day 5 –there’s no way a Chinchilla can play drums like that….

After shaking the bed out to check for any errant sand fleas that might have escaped the heel of a brogue the night before, our team assembled around the breakfast table for scotch pancakes and Sugarpuffs.

Ardbeg Distillery. It was a beautiful day for a change

Ardbeg Distillery. It was a beautiful day for a change

Darrell, looking particularly tired, remarked that room-mate Tim’s snoring was akin to a cornered Rottweiller, or, to be slightly more specific, a suffocating wild boar.  As expressions of wonder and condolence were wished to the long-suffering Mrs F, an abashed Tim announced his intention to sleep in self-imposed exile on the sofa for the rest of the festival.

After much guffawing (mostly at Tim’s expense), we hot-footed it down to Ardbeg for our first tasting of the week with Mickey Heads.

Ardbeg's pagoda roof

Ardbeg's pagoda roof

The line up promised some recent committee bottlings, as well as a mouth-watering flight of recent single casks which got our pulses racing the moment we strolled into the newly refurbished tasting room upstairs at the distillery.  Luckily for us, the two Feis Ile bottlings were included so, with a huge smile, we let battle commence!!

Corryvreckan – Committee Bottling- 57.2% – 70cl

N: Notes of creosote, cloves and mint, with a really oily overtone.

P: Linseed oil, sweet minty humbugs with hints of licorice.

F: Long and oily.  A delicious dram- will we see this as part of the core range soon??  Come on Ardbeg!! (and please keep it at cask strength!!)

Supernova – 58.9% (already reviewed recently, but still a cracking dram, if not a little expensive now it’s commercially released)

Ardbeg – Single Cask Bottling – cask number 772 – 55.7% – 70cl – First fill bourbon.

N: Honey, lemon, a light waft of sea spray and some menthol notes, mixed with a lovely  undertone of pralines and mature cheddar.   There’s also fruit salad sweets and sugared almonds on this as well.

P: Very detailed on the palate, with rosewater and fondant notes plus some sherbert and rich toffees. Coffee powder.  Dime bars.  Then the peat – pretty huge – with wood spice, cocoa and marshmallows.

F: Salty sea spray again, with throat lozenges and a touch of light milky coffee right on the death.  Highly drinkable and an indication of some great whisky to come.

The best tasting line-up so far

The best tasting line-up so far

Ardbeg – Single Cask Bottling – cask number 1189 – distilled 11/5/98 – bottled 10/12/08- 54%  – 70cl – Toasted oak – 252 bottles exclusive to the 2009 Feis Ile

For a young whisky, the colour of this whisky was truly something else!!

N: orange peel, clear honey, hints of bacon smoke, church pews, wool and that milky coffee again.  With water some wonderful vanilla notes come to the fore, giving you aromas of Caramac, and custard tart.

P: Initial sips reveal very dark Arabic coffee with more of the dry wood vanilla notes and tannic flavours.  Toast, furniture polish, leather, old books and stewed fruit.  Becomes slightly drying.

F: A rich, woody finish with some dried fruits. Excellent, balanced and overall, a sensational bottling.  We all adored this.

Ardbeg– Single Cask Bottling – cask number 1190 – distilled 11/5/98 – bottled 10/12/09 – 54.7%  – 70cl – Toasted oak –282 bottles exclusive to the 2009 Feis Ile

N: Noticeable orange bitters (Tonka beans anyone…. ;-) with more woody notes like its sister cask. This one has a much more dark zesty element (blood oranges), mahogany furniture and a sweet aromatic note, rather like Dr Pepper!  Some almost rancio-esque notes of leather, raisins and old wood.

P: The wood influence gives this a very dry mouth feel, but it isn’t all one-sided, with a lovely rich vanilla sweetness like home made ice cream milkshakes. Faintly briney.

F: Very heady and aromatic, with something vaguely botanical coming through at the very end.  Cask 1189 edges it in the perfection stakes, but don’t underestimate this dram- it’s another killer dram. Ardbeg’s bottlings are both sensational this year.

By the time we’d finished our tasting, the Kiln Café was heaving and we managed to find a table, for a spot of lunch with Willie JJ and pal Malcolm.  Several sensational meals later (including an eye bulging tablet ice cream Pavlova for dessert) and we ambled down to Laphroaig for our 2nd tasting of the day.

Laphroaig looking rather lovely

Laphroaig looking rather lovely

Last years FI bottling of Cairdeas was a let down, compared to the others available, so we had high hopes that this years, a caskstrength, 12 yo version was considerably better.

The filling store was our destination for a very informative demonstration from Distillery Manager, John Campbell, Master Blender Robert Hicks and UU Brand Ambassador for Laphroaig, Simon Brooking.   Before any whiskies were actually drunk, Robert took the group through a nosing of 3 poor quality casks, to highlight the problem of bad wood and its effect on the spirit inside.

The tasting consisted of five very different whiskies:

Another very strong line-up at the Laphroaig tasting

Another very strong line-up at the Laphroaig tasting

Laphroaig Cairdeas – 12 yo – caskstrength release- Feis Ile 2009 – 5000 bottles

N: Pencil shavings, red berries, dry leaves and strawberries with fresh cream all leap out the glass.  With water, aromas of  toffee and bananas develop.

P: Saltiness at first, but a very fruity dram with a restrained peat (unlike the Quarter Cask or Cask Strength 10 yo)

F:  Long peaty and fresh.  A huge improvement on last years bottling, that’s for sure!

Laphroaig – Triple Wood

This is a whisky matured in 3 types of cask- Bourbon barrels, Quarter casks and then finally rested in European sherry for 9-10 months.

N: Hints of vanilla custard, nutmeg Menthol, with a slight farmyard/wet hay undertone. With a little water, the peat aspects come through mixed with a little lemon drizzle cake.

P: Earthy and very dry, with a slightly hot and cloying mouthfeel, mixed with Brazil nuts.

F: The dryness continues with more nuttiness and very dark chocolate.  A mixed dram.

Laphroaig – 25 yo (2008 edition) – 50.9%

N: Tropical fruit (passion fruit/melon) mixed with white chocolate, white wine notes with a darker dried fruit backbone.

P: Unreduced – a mixture of moist dried fruits, peaches and cream, with the classic Laphroaig medicinal note and flavoursome licorice. Very good indeed.

F: Lovely soft creamy feel and a lengthy sweet finish.

Laphroaig 30 yo – 2004

N:  Lovely notes of old polished mahogany wood, plus some sherry influence – raisins, treacle etc.  With time, develops nougat, sugared almonds, Edinburgh rock and damson jam.  A nose you can get lost in – it’s easy to see why this is such a popular dram amongst aficionados.

P:  Medium-full, with an incredibly silky mouthfeel displaying polished barley, pepper and soft wet peat (and I mean peat, not smoke or anything else.  REAL peat).  The fruit and candy-store notes from the nose pop in and out of the mix, everything is seamlessly integrated into the whole.

F:  Long soft and generous.  Pretty amazing stuff.

Laphroaig 1981 27yo  -  Oloroso sherry casks

N:  Hugely sherried as you would expect.  Incredibly dense, sweet and rich.  Hints of balsamic vinegar over rich Oloroso character.  Over-ripe bananas, massively concentrated raisin aromas, mixed peel, dark chocolate, dates, and old polished wood.  This is very big, if you hadn’t yet guessed.

P:  Continues on from the nose.  Very big and chocolatey, with rich dark coffee in the background. The sherry influence is everywhere, threaded through every facet of the dram.  The faintest hint of (natural) sulphur is here, alongside rich dark chocolate orange notes and tingling spice, but it seems to fit somehow without spoiling the enjoyment of the dram.

F:  The fruit and turfy notes survive the sherried onslaught and the surges of oakspices.  Big and brooding.  A massive improvement on the original 1980 27yo which was too sulphury for comfort.  This is the real thing.

The Kildalton Cross (massive pile of scallops not pictured)

The Kildalton Cross (massive pile of scallops not pictured)

Also this afternoon, Joel and Tim took a spin around the island to visit the Kildalton Cross.  Despite a mysterious (and gigantic) pile of empty scallop shells situated just outside the churchyard, the cross was as beautiful as ever.  The random fact of several hundredweight of scallops seemed to fit perfectly with the enjoyably surreal tone of the festival so far, particularly as Tim has eaten so many scallops himself in the course of the trip.

In the evening the team kicked back at the lodge, wrote up the previous day’s events, had a good giggle at some silly You-Tube stuff and reflected on a good job well done and some tremendous new drams tried on the day.  Joel began a list of everything we’d drammed so far on this trip.  The total came to 68 different malts tried between the four of us since Friday, so we’re on course for the ton by the end of the week – wish us luck!

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