Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A one day tour of Islay's distilleries. Part 2

The Castle from Lagavulin distillery

(...Continued from Part 1)

We arrived at Port Ellen and I had the keys in my hand for our rental car within ten minutes. This was just as well as our first distillery tour was about to begin in a few minutes. Our first stop off point was at Laphroaig distillery. From Port Ellen, you drive down the village street, the shops and houses on your left, the open sea on your right, and make the first left. Within three minutes you reach the turning for Laphroaig, just in time for our tour.
The Laphroaig Peat Oven
The Stills

The shop at Laphroaig was very impressive with their entire range of whiskies plus various distillery related gifts and clothes.

Laphroaig distillery was the most beautiful I had ever visited, until that is I visited Lagavulin, another three minutes up the same road, which manages to surpass it. (Traveling along the same narrow country lane for another three minutes brings you to Ardbeg distillery).

The Lagavulin water source

We stopped for a quick lunch in the gardens and harbour inside Lagavulin distillery and after that had a very interesting conversation with one of the managers there regarding their use of sherry and bourbon cask. It seems that their 16 Year Old makes heavy use of sherry casks whilst their 12 Year Old uses almost exclusively ex-bourbon. This is also substantiated by the colour, the 12 Year Old being substantially lighter than the very dark 16 Year Old.

After the tour, a selection of whiskies awaited us...

The plan was to visit Caol Ila distillery and if there was time, Ardbeg, only a few short minutes from Port Ellen to catch the ferry back to the main land. We would have loved to have visited Bruichladdich on the West coast as well but there is a limit to what you can do in half a day. Maybe next time Be'ezrat Hashem.

Being short of time, we decided to travel up to the north of the island via the beautifully scenic but very narrow B8016 which we thought would be quicker as it bypasses Bowmore. We swung a right and changed onto the A846 straight to Port Askaig. As we were passing right by it, we decided to stop off at the famous tourist spot of Finlaggen just to look around, then back in the car and a short drive further north to the Caol Ila distillery.

Being such a fan of Caol Ila, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the distillery tour experience. I found the tour guide rather dry and unfriendly and a bit cagey when it came to answering my questions. The guide used the same excuse a number of times that it was Diageo’s policy not to divulge a lot of information and not to allow the tour a closer look at the machinery. This was in complete contrast to their sister distillery, Lagavulin, also owned by Diageo.

I was also a bit disappointed with the shop. It was small with very little merchandise at all. On my number one purchase wish list was a Caol Ila 12 Year Old Cask Strength or failing this, an 18 year old Cask strength but neither of them were in stock. The only bottles they had available were the standard 12 Year Old, the no age statement “Moch” and a very expensive limited edition 12 Year Old Unpeated Cask Strength at an incredible 64% abv. I was intrigued to know what a Caol Ila would taste like without the peat influence and seeing as it was cask strength and would need a lot of added water when drinking, despite it being only 70cl, it should hopefully mean that the bottle would last at least as long as a 1 Litre Duty Free size if not longer.

A glimpse of the stills from outside the distillery building

Caol Ila 12 Year Old Unpeated Tasting Notes:

Initial nosing brought  massive punch of alcohol heat which would have surely burnt the inside of my nose had I not taken a cautionary light sniff, knowing that this was after all 64% abv.  I then proceeded to carefully dilute the Caol Ila, drop by drop until most of the alcohol heat on the nose had dissipated and then left the glass for a few minutes to settle down.

Once most of the alcohol heat had been reduced somewhat, there was not actually much aroma left at all except of mild dry roasted grain reminiscent of an old farm grain barn. It reminded me very much of Tormore, a Speyside whisky, known for its understated, mild and elusive character and taste. The taste of this unpeated Caol Ila was that of a freshly baked digestive biscuit. There was slight vanilla sweetness, biscuity baked barley and Scottish oak cakes(?) and perhaps a hint of a milky chocolate in the background. If I really wanted to be kind then I'd say that it reminded me of Chocolate Digestives.

This was all subdued however by a sharp nip of flavourless pure alcohol on the finish. Experimenting with different amounts of water eventually reduced the whisky down so that it extinguished the alcohol nip but also any remnant of flavour along with it. Like Tormore, An Cnoc or Glencadam, very often that alcohol nip dissipates once the bottle has been opened and left for a week or two. Not so with the Caol Ila 12 Year Unpeated.

However, most striking of all was not that there was no peaty smoke but to my shock and not a little dissatisfaction, there was not a hint of briny sea air and sweet and sour lemony seaweed so associated and characteristic of the whole Caol Ila range. In fact, this whisky had absolutely no connection to the aroma and taste that one usually associates with any Islay whisky.

I had made an amazing discovery. It was clear that as a result of removing the peat influence from this Caol Ila, they had also removed all trace of that romantic Islay sea air personality. The peat used to heat the oven which dries the barley that goes into regular Caol Ila is dug up locally. In fact we saw whole trenches of peat bricks on the side of the road as we were driving up Islay. This peat is rich in seaweed, seashells and many other marine influences. Not only does this peat impart an earthy  smoke flavour to the finished whisky, it also is responsible for giving it that seaweed briny character.

Photo of Islay Peat taken from Google Maps
Breath in that sea air...

Despite the Caol Ila Unpeated getting some rave reviews, you can probably tell that I was less than impressed. What is the point of a Caol Ila that tastes nothing like Caol Ila? I’ll tell you. So that you can have the wonderful and immensely enjoyable opportunity to present “The Coal Ila Brine Mystery” to your friends.

The Caol Ila Brine Mystery Solved!

Where does that briny sea air experience come from? It's in the Peat!

Present them with three glasses. One contains Caol Ila 12 Year Old unpeated, one contains the regular 12 Year Old Peated and the middle one, a blend of the two. Next, you ask them where they think that briny sea air personality comes from. The water? The air?, the casks? You then invite them to partake of the whiskies and compare the unpeated and peated. Sit back and just watch the utter surprise on their faces when they realise where that sweet and sour briny taste is actually coming from. You can then ask them to taste the middle glass and they will then be under no doubt what is going on.

From Caol Ila distillery, we drove back down the same way we came and made a mad dash for Ardbeg distillery. We only had about 40 minutes before we needed to be back in Port Ellen.

Ardbeg distillery

We did not have time for a tour but we did spend some time in their very impressive shop which was packed with all sorts of goodies. So ended our one day tour of Islay. We parked the car outside the ticket office and handed the keys into the ticket collector before boarding the ferry back to the main land. We left with a feeling that despite packing so much into a single day, there was so much more to see which deserves a second visit. We were already planning our agenda - A stroll round the capital, Bowmore, a tour of the west side of the island and a visit to Bruichladdich and Kilchoman distilleries. Maybe next year...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A one day tour of Islay's distilleries. Part 1

The view from Lagavulin distillery
Islay whiskies are famous for their heavy smoky peaty island style.  The truth is that there are plenty of exceptions. Bruichladdich mostly produces unpeated whisky and Bunnahabhain’s standard output is light and delicate. Nevertheless, most distilleries on Islay do live up to this reputation.

When I visited Islay last year, one of the things I wished to achieve was to get an answer to a question which had bothered me for some time. Where does that salty seaweed sea air smell and taste come from that you experience in Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Caol Ila?

After reading as much as I could on the subject there seemed to be two distinct opinions:

That salty, sea air, seaweed taste and smell comes from:

1. The natural Islay water they make the whisky from.

2. The sea air that penetrates and impregnates the wood of the casks with sea salt as the whisky is maturing in the warehouse.

Most people discount the first opinion. Talking about pure peaty Scottish water that comes from the stream that rolls down the mountains of the Highlands is all part of the marketing “sphill” that surrounds whisky and shifts so many bottles. I don’t have a problem with this. However,  most true whisky experts will admit today that actually the water source they use to malt the barley and produce the wort has only a minuscule influence (if that) on the final flavour of the whisky and that it has all been a very clever marketing tool aimed primary at the Americans.

I had always assumed that the second opinion was by far the most obvious. After all, who hasn’t noticed that after visiting the seaside, your clothes and skin still smell of the sea air and salt? Think what influence that would have on a wooden barrel sitting in a warehouse by the sea for 10 or more years?

Almost all Islay distilleries are to be found on the coast.


This all made perfect sense until the whole theory of the salty sea air permeating the wood of the cask was dispelled when I learned that, straight after distillation, almost all of that delicious seaweedy sea breeze Caol Ila Single Malt was poured into tankers and shipped off to the mainland where it was put into oak casks and sat in a central warehouse near Glasgow for 12 years!

So where does this sea air flavour come from so dominate in Islay whiskies?

My answer came in the form of a very special bottle of whisky I bought in the distillery shop in Caol Ila while visiting the island with my wife and daughter.

At 5:00am we set off and took the A83 and then the A816 from Oban to Kennacraig where we caught the ferry to Islay at 7:00am, arriving at Port Ellen at around 9:00am.

On the ferry, on our way to Islay. We passed many little islands. Simply breath taking!

As we were heading towards Islay we met the ferry going the other way.

Arriving at Port Ellen

For ferry Information:

Our rented VW Polo parked in Port Ellen village
It costs a fortune to bring a car on the ferry but actually costs very little to hire a car on the island so we pre-booked a Volkswagen Polo for £32 from D & N MacKenzie  for the whole day.  They met us at the port as we came off the ferry. Documentation was over within a blink of an eye and off we went to our first distillery tour at nearby Laphroaig within five minutes.
D & N MacKenzie Car Rental:

Not surprisingly, the tours at the Islay distilleries reflect the ferry arrival times. Laphroaig’s first tour is at 10:00am. Ardbeg’s tours start at 10:30am and Lagavulin’s first of the day is at 9:30am. By carefully noting the tour times of all the distilleries we were able to visit Laphroaig, Lagavulin, then Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and then dash back down to Ardbeg  and still had time to drop the car off at Port Ellen and jump on the last ferry. Whew! It was a bit of a mad rush but an absolutely superb day. Having said that, if you really want to do justice to Islay and its eight distilleries, I’d recommend booking a place over night.

For a list of Islay distilleries and tour times see here:

To be continued.... in Part 2

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bruichladdich Carmel "Kosher" Cask 1989 is no more kosher than any other sherry matured malt

You can still obtain  this bottle marketed under the title "Bruichladdich Scotch Islay Single Malt Carmel Kosher Wine Finish 1989"
However it turns out that this whisky is no more kosher than any other Single Malt matured in yayin stam (non Jewish) ex-sherry casks!



The question I needed answered was whether the wine which was previously in the Carmel wine barrels was yayin mevushal (boiled) or not. If the wine was lo-mevushal then as soon as a gentile touches the barrel, the barrel would take on the same kashrus status as any non-Jewish ex-wine barrel. However, if the wine which was previously in those barrels was mevushal then the barrel and any remnants of wine in the barrel remain kosher.

I wrote to Carmel Wines and asked them whether the wine which was previously in the barrels they sold to Bruichladdich was mevushal or not. They passed my query onto Adam Montefiore, the famous Carmel Wines spokesman. Within a day I received a very detailed email from him where he told me that he was personally involved in the sale of the Carmel Mizrachi wine casks to Bruichladdich. He said that he can state that those barrels previously contained wine which was lo-mevushal! In other words, as soon as they arrived at the Distillery the casks took on the same status as non-Jewish wine. That is, it became yayin stam. So, although they were mareketed as "Kosher Whisky" they actually had the same kashrut status of any other non kosher sherry cask matured whisky.
He wrote on the 03/07/2012:

"...Bruichladdich purchased barrels from Carmel which were used for maturing Carmel’s Single Vineyard and Eizorit / Appellation wines at the Zichron Ya’acov Cellars. None of the wines aged in these barrels were Yayin Mevushal but all were 100% kosher. 
The barrels were shipped after being sealed by Carmel’s Mashgiach. However after arrival in Scotland Carmel has no knowledge of how they were looked after. In other words Carmel claims responsibility only to the gates of the winery!... By the way, the label on the actual bottles and the gift boxes do NOT refer anywhere to Kosher Wine Finish. This would be misleading. They instead refer to additional cask enhancement in wine casks from Carmel Winery, Israel.
Of course, these were not Carmel products. Carmel only produces or distributes kosher products. However for those who wanted a whisky with a taste of Israel, these came as close as any. For the whisky lover, they were also magnificent whiskies (in particular the 1989.)I wish to reiterate, that these whiskies did not have a hechsher.
Regards, Adam "
I wish to personally thank Adam for taking the trouble in writing to me with a very detailed reply which fully answers my query.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tobermory and Ledaig comparison Review

Tobermory and Ledaig from the Isle of Mull

Oban Harbour

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog posts on peaty whiskies.
Last August, as promised, we took a holiday with my parents in the Western Highlands, renting out a chalet just south of Oban in order to tour and visit the Whisky distilleries in the area.

Our Log Chalet.

Oban Distillery is in the heart of the town.

Scottish Honey
The first day I took my family up to Fort William for some tourist shopping. We got some delicious Scottish blossom and heather honeys which we thoroughly enjoyed during the Rosh Hashana to Succos season. The honey was packed with complex flavours of wax, flowers and fruity sweetness and greatly increased the simcha of our Yom Tov seudos (Festival meals). What a chutzpa to call that jar of brown syrupy sugar you find in the supermarket by the same name?
We bought three bottles of Heather honey and only one Blossom, just for comparison. The reason? Well, the Heather honey’s brown enticing colour sold it for us. The Blossom honey looked dull in comparison which fooled us into thinking that it would have less taste. In fact, just the opposite was true. The blossom honey had more character and flavour than the Heather honey. It had a stronger creamier honey taste with a more subtle sweetness. Simply yummy! You would have thought that I should have known better from all the years of telling people not to judge a whisky by its colour but only by its taste?

While my wife and daughter were clothes shopping I popped into The Whisky Shop opposite to look around. I was intrigued by a quarter cask sitting in the middle of the shop with the label Ledaig Cask Strength printed on the side.
The shopkeeper informed me that Ledaig (pronounced “Lechaig”) was a virtually unheard of peaty whisky from the Isle of Mull and they were promoting it in their shops. They were selling small 20cl medicine bottles of the stuff for £8.00. I decided to give it a try.

Medicine Bottle
We opened the bottle that evening after dinner and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next day we got up at 5:00am to take the ferry to Islay to visit Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Caol Ila.  Because my parents did not wish to get up so early they decided to take a more leisurely trip to the Isle of Mull.

Whilst there, they visited the Tobermory distillery and came away with a bottle of cask strength Tobermory.

Later that evening back in the beautiful log chalet, after dinner, we all sat down to compare these two Isle of Mull malts.

Both these Mull malts shared a vegetable salty character. However, that’s where the comparison ended. They are two very different whiskies.
Because they were both cask strength we added a lot of water to our glasses. The water from the tap in the chalet was an amazing brown colour. The owner assured us that it was perfectly safe to drink and was naturally brown because of the peat in the ground. The water was actually delicious and made a great cup of tea. It was however a bit disconcerting washing with this brown water in the morning.
Tobermory is light, delicate and herbal with a malty barley grainy base. It reminded me of fresh rain water and green vegetable juice.  We all tried to identify the vegetables. We came up with fresh spinach, fennel, parsley and water cress.  The finish is quite short, dry and briny.
In total contrast, Ledaig is full bodied, oily, big, smoky and peaty assort on the tongue. Smell and taste of seaweed, spinach, minerals, flinty with a long sweet toffee peaty finish. The more you drink it the more complex it gets. It has layer after layer of contradictory sweet and dry flavours making this a very interesting drink indeed. Definitely not for the beginner, that’s for sure.
My daughter and I both preferred the Ledaig despite the fact that my daughter is not usually too keen on peaty whiskies. Perhaps it was because the Ledaig had that delicious sweet finish whereas the Tobermory remained dry throughout. My parents on the other hand found Ledaig too heavy and overpowering for them. They preferred the lighter more subtle taste of Tobermory.
A fascinating comparison of what we thought were two malt whiskies form Isle of Mull. What we didn’t know at the time was that in fact they are the same whisky. There is only one distillery on the island and that is Tobermory. The distillery produces a peated version and a non peated version. The unpeated version they market as Tobermory and the peated version is, you guessed it, Ledaig!
This was the first experience I had had of trying an unpeated and peated version of the same single malt and what an experience it was too! Maybe it was the magic of sitting in a cosy log chalet in the middle of the Western Highlands but it was a very special occasion and one I will not forget in a hurry.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dalton Oak Aged Range

Dalton Petite Sirah 2010   NIS 55.
Dalton Fume Blanc 2011    NIS 45.

As mentioned in my last slighty weird post, I am reviewing two medium priced wines today from Dalton winery. I have already reviewed their top of the range “Reserve” line and praised highly their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc all of which were excellent.  The “Reserve” range are all around NIS 100 to NIS 120 price range. Let’s see how their “Oak Aged” Series for around NIS 40 to NIS 60 fair.
The Dalton Label
I have mentioned in the past how much I like the Dalton’s label design. Obviously a wine label has two functions. Its primary function is to inform you as to what the contents are but the label must also be able to entice you into picking up the bottle and buying it.
The understated minimalist design succeeds in both these areas lending the wine an aura of confidence.
I'd rather trust a man who doesn't shout what he's found,
There's no need to sell if you're homeward bound.
If I choose a side,
He won't take me for a ride.
(Genesis, “The Chamber of 32 doors”, 1974)

Teudat Hechshir

Machon LeKashrus, HaRav Mordechai Unger, New Square, NY.
OU (Orthdox Union) America
Local Rabbinut Merom HaGalil
Haschgachas Yoreh Deiah, Rav Shlomo Machpud
There are a few blends in this Oak Aged range but I decided upon a Petite Sirah 2010 for Friday Night and a Fume Blanc 2011 for Shabbos lunch.
Pitite Sirah 2010

Petite Sirah is a grape which is known outside of America and Israel as Durif. It is a modern red grape produced by cross breeding Syrah and Peloursin grapes. In theory, it produces a full bodied heavy tannins plummy wine. They enjoy maturation in oak casks and produce spicy vanilla notes over time.

I won’t bother typing out the label description as you can read it from the label in the photograph above. For such a modestly priced wine, Dalton certainly make a lot of fanciful claims!

I like the sound of "American Oak barrels which results in a taste of lavender, leather and old world complexity". However I think they've gone too far when they start talking about “old world complexity”. What on earth does that mean?

I placed the wines directly in the wine cooler and kept them there until we needed them on Shabbos. Interestingly, as the temperature in Israel has gone up, so has the temperature in my wine cooler. Constantly set to 14 degrees Celsius, it has been showing between 15 and 16 degrees indicating that it cannot reach its assigned temperature. This is a bit worrying as we haven’t reached the really high values yet of 30 degrees plus.
Friday night we came back from shul and opened the bottle of red. After everyone was assembled and Shalom Aleichem, Eishes Chayil and the kid's brachos in front of the Shabbos candles, we were ready for Kiddush. The bottle was standing for about 15 minutes and had problably gone up about two degrees in temperature by the time I came to pour it.

Getting to the Shabbos table I poured the wine.  Its almost totally black colour with hints of purple was very striking. The Nose was very very promising. Swirling the wine around in the glass brought an assortment of very solid attractive aromas of heavy plum juice, warm berries, vanilla fudge, oak spices and a hint of smoke.
After Kiddush, we sat to drink the wine. Ummmmh, glorious. As my two sons were home from yeshiva, we had the full complement of six family members at the table so there was only enough for one glass each. This was no where near enough to really sample this complicated wine. Medium to heavy body with rich matured plums and berries yet certainly not syrupy. Definite taste of creamy vanilla ice cream as it goes down and a long lasting finish.

The strange thing is that all these flavours seemed to come along, one after the other, not in layers. Was the wine lacking complexity? I can’t say as I drank half the glass down for kiddush in two gulps (as is the halachah) and then didn’t have sufficient wine left over in my glass to properly judge it. I wasn't the only one. Requests for more were met with dissapointment as we extracted the last drops of this wine from the bottle. We shall certainly be purchasing this Petite Sirah again (beli neder) but this time, we are going to buy two bottles so that we can try it with the challa and hors d'oeuvres to further enjoy its many tastes. I'd also be interested in knowing if any other Israeli winery produces a Petite Sirah. I think I like this grape.
Dalton Fume Blanc 2011

I was looking forward to this one. I like smoky whiskies and remember how delighted I was with the Dalton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which was full of sweet cigar smoke.
Fume Blanc is actually what they call Sauvignon Blanc in California. According to Wikipedia, the name Fume Blanc was simply a marketing ploy to try and shift some cases of Sauvignon Blanc when it went out of fashion. Why Dalton decided to use the American name for this grape rather than the name which everyone knows this grape by in Israel, I’m really aren’t sure.
Typical characteristics of this grape are tropical fruit flavours, tartness and refreshing. The label adds to this description” a rich smoky character”. Intriguing indeed!

We opened the bottle at 14 degrees Celsius straight out of the wine cooler, opened and poured it immediately.  Veshomru Kiddush said, we tasted the wine. This Shabbos we had guests who I know like their wine and whisky so I was hoping they would be impressed with this one.
Oh Deary me! I noticed something funny from the start. Even after the wine had settled in the glasses there were still bubbles rising to the top as if this was a sparkling wine. There was a slight smell of bitter lemon and yeasty dough. Tasting the wine, it was barely drinkable. Dry, fizzy and furry on the tongue. Yuk!
Now we have had a similar experience before with a bottle of Bravdo Chardonnay. I don’t know if this fizziness occurred after it was bottled, that is, the wine has spoiled or, the wine was ruined during manufacturing process by for instance, adding too much yeast. Whatever it is, I’m not willing to buy another bottle to try out.
 Slightly embarrassed, I quickly asked everyone to wash for HaMoetzi and we began our seuda (my daughter’s delicious challa with a Tuna salad, Egg and onion salad and homemade chumos salad) with a bottle of Glen Grant Single Malt, followed by Ardbeg with two teaspoons of water. After the excellent whisky we forgot all about the Fume Blanc!

In conclusion, one fantastic success beyond all expectations followed by one complete and utter disaster. Sounds rather like Arsenal’s game results for this season doesn’t it.