Log Entry # 100 - December 31, 2001
Topic: Amsterdam Ardbeggeddon & Mission Status
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(This report was so huge I had to put it on a seperate page; CLICK HERE for reports #101 - #109)
It's snowing. Oh yes, the Islay season is upon us once more!
Before I get on with the more esoteric topics of this historic 100th log entry I'd like to take a moment and reflect on tonight's tasting. The weather
inspired me to go for an genuine ISLAY EXTRAVAGANZA, covering all seven active distilleries on Islay - and then some...
At the beginning of 2001, fellow malt maniac Louis reported on the amazing 'Ardbeggeddon' event in the USA where he tasted 41 (!) different single malts over the course of two days. Sampling 41 different single malts is beyond my tasting capabilities, but I wanted to have a special 'Bye Bye 2001 Celebration' anyway - my own modest 'Amsterdam Ardbeggeddon', if you will.
For tonight, I selected 14 different Islay contestants from my shelves;
- Ardbeg 10yo (46%, OB)
- Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB)
- Bowmore Cask Strength (56%, OB)
- Bowmore Darkest (43%, OB)
- Bruichladdich 15yo (43%, OB)
- Bunnahabhain 12yo (40%, OB)
- Caol Ila 1989/1999 (43%, Mackillops Choice)
- Caol Ila 26yo 1974/2001 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
- Lagavulin 14yo 1984/1999 (46%, Murray McDavid)
- Lagavulin 16yo (43%, OB, 'White Horse')
- Laphroaig 10yo Original Cask Strength (57.3%, OB)
- Laphroaig 15yo (43%, OB)
- Laphroaig 15yo 1985/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
- Port Ellen 18yo 1981/2000 (43%, McGibbons Provenance)
Of course, I didn't plan on sampling them in alphabetical order.
With so much Islay power on the table, it's easy to overwhelm your senses a long time before the evening is over. A succesful Islay session requires
careful planning and lots of constraint. To complicate things further, I decided to divide the malts into pairs and taste them head-to-head. A Hopalong H2H would be cool, but too exhausting with all the malts I wanted
to try tonight.
So, these are tonight's H2H battles;
1 - Bunnahabhain 12yo vs Bruichladdich 15yo (old)
2 - Port Ellen 18yo 1981 vs Caol Ila 26yo 1974 OMC
3 - Laphroaig 15yo vs Bowmore NAS 'Darkest'
4 - Lagavulin 16yo vs Ardbeg 17yo
5 - Lagavulin 14yo 1984 vs
Laphroaig 15yo OMC
6 - Ardbeg 10yo vs Caol Ila 1989 Mackillops Choice
7 - Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength vs Bowmore Cask Strength
It's 18:27 sharp.
Let's get ready to rumble!
1 - Bunnahabhain 12yo vs Bruichladdich 15yo (old version)
It's too early for graphic violence, so I started with two relative weaklings. I bought a bottle of the 'Bunny 12' especially for the occasion - it was the only Islay malt that wasn't on my shelves already. And it would
be a good match for the Bruichladdich 15 because all the other Islays on the table would probably overpower it.
Previous results: Bunnahabhain 12 = 81 points, Bruichladdich 15 = 78 points.
Nose: In the start, the Bunnahabhain 12 appeared sweet & sour while the Bruichladdich seemed a little fruitier. All in all, they are remarkably similar with an obvious sherry character and a glimmer of oil shining
through. After 5 minutes, the Bunny 12 becomes much stronger and peatier; the Laddie 15 quickly follows. It also shows some less pleasant 'veggy' notes. Spicier than the Bunny. After 10 minutes, the Bunny proved to be
the one with the most endurance; the Laddie turned distinctively oily/spirity/veggy.
After 20 minutes the Laddie was gone, while the Bunny kept on going...
Taste: The Bunny starts soft and grows into a gentle,
peaty/sherry burn. The Laddie starts rougher and remains so while it grows stronger and saltier. The finish of the Bunny is MUCH smoother that that of the Laddie, which isn't nearly as refined. It seems a little thin in
comparison with a beer-like finish with some cinnamon.
Bunnahabhain 12yo = 81 points
Bruichladdich 15yo = 78 points
Looking at the matrix, few people seem to agree with me preferring the Bunny over the Laddie. I have to admit it's a very
personal preference, but it has a more obvious sherry character that always makes me see the Bunny as the baby brother of Lagavulin 16. The Laddie is more of a cross-dressing illegitimate nephew in disguise. It just
doesn't have what Islay is all about for me. Let's hope the new distillery owners will be able to produce a peatier malt that's more to my liking.
2 - Port Ellen 18yo 1981 vs Caol Ila 26yo 1974/2001 OMC
I proceeded with the two 'oldies' of the evening because earlier tastings indicated that the McGibbon's Provenance Port Ellen and the Douglas Laing OMC Caol Ila were a little bit milder than most Islays. The bottle of
Caol Ila was donated by Arthur when he came over for the Laphroaig JOLT last week. He left the bottle when he... erm... left. There was still enough whisky in the bottle for five or six serious samplings - plenty to add
it to 'the final pages' of my old Little Black Book under the new rules of engagement.
Previous results: Port Ellen 1981 = 84 points, Caol Ila 1974 = 85 points.
Nose: The Port Ellen showed organic, earthy notes in the start, the Caol Ila was lighter and sweeter - almost citrussy. Over time, the Caol Ila remained fruity in comparison and much cleaner. Fresher too. Both become
smokier after a while. Neither one showed a lot of peat, though.
Taste: The Port Ellen started powerful with a strong sherry sweetness in the center. The higher proof of the Caol Ila is obvious. It's more
bourbon-like with a peppery burn. Both have a fair dose of peat and a long, powerful finish - although the Caol Ila performs slightly better here. A nice example of the differences between bourbon-aging and sherry-aging.
Port Ellen 18yo 1981 = 84 points
Caol Ila 26yo 1974 = 84 points
A tie. Both malts are very different, but I like them just as much. The Port Ellen is like a cello, the Caol Ila like a
1/2 violin. The Port Ellen wins on the nose, the Caol Ila on the taste. Two very sophisticated, accessible single malts. Please note that the bottle of Caol Ila may have been breathing for a long time - fresh bottles
may score differently.
3 - Laphroaig 15yo vs Bowmore NAS 'Darkest'
People who look at my scores for these malts in the matrix (88 and 65 points, respectively) might think this isn't a fair match. Well, since the price lies around 60 Euro's in both cases, I figured they should both offer
similar value. Tough noogies when one of them should turn out to be an overpriced freak of a whisky.
Previous results: Laphroaig 15 = 88 points, Bowmore Darkest = 65 points.
Nose: Hey! The Bowmore finally seems to have improved. A lot, actually. Smoky sweetness, with deep sherry and woody tones. Some fruity elements as well. The character hasn't changed, but everything is much more balanced
than before. The Laphroaig seems much more subtle with organic ('forest'?) and oriental notes over the peaty, sulphury base. The bourbon aging of the Laphroaig is really obvious when confronted with a sherry monster
like the Darkest. In this case, I prefer the bourbon subtlety over the screaming sherry.
Taste: The Bowmore starts very sweet, opening up into fruity elegance. The smoke is still there, but it's not overpowering
everything like before. Still weak and thin in the finish, though. The Laphroaig starts sweet as well, but becomes smoky much more quickly. Peaty with a barley bitterness. Iodine and salt licorice on the tongue.
Laphroaig 15yo = 88 points
Bowmore NAS 'Darkest' = 75 points
Oh, boy - who would have thought I'd live to see the day. A long time of breathing in an 3/4 empty bottle has finally softened up the rough edges of the Bowmore Darkest. It has improved a full 10 points worth, but since
I opened the bottle more than a year ago (see Log Entry #49) I won't adjust my rating in the matrix or any other lists. Meanwhile, the Laphroaig 15
performed wonderful as ever. The rating of 88 points stands for now, but I'm leaning towards 89 points.
4 - Lagavulin 16yo ('White Horse', 1999) vs Ardbeg 17yo
After a short break to give my senses a rest, two of my Top 3 malts went H2H. I've performed this H2H before in the past, but that was with previous bottlings of Lagavulin 16. I've noticed a slight slipping in the
quality of the Lagavulin 16 over the years, so I'm curious how the fresh bottle on my top shelf compares to its competitor. It's from the same batch as 3 of the 7 others in my reserve stock, bottled in the 2nd half of
Previous results: Lagavulin 16 = 94 points, Ardbeg 17 = 92 points.
Nose: The Lagavulin starts of much stronger, smokier and more sherried than the Ardbeg, which seemed lighter and fruitier - more oily as well. Wonderful complexity and balance in both noses, but the Ardbeg seems a little
lighter. The Lagavulin seems sweeter than the fresher Ardbeg. Cookies in the Ardbeg? The Lagavulin has just SO much! Old leather. Fish and shoepolish? I'm sure that doesn't sound appetizing, but it's amazing.
simply too much going on to describe, so I won't even try.
Taste: Oh boy. The Lagavulin hasn't lost its peaty punch. Smoke, wood and sherry. The Ardbeg 17 tastes much softer and sweeter. Honeyed and fruity in
comparison, with a long salty burn in the finish. Both are excellent winter-warmers. Every now and then I need a reminder why these malts score so high on my hitlist.
Lagavulin 16yo = 92 points
Ardbeg 17yo = 90 points
This batch of Lagavulin (bottled in 1999) isn't quite up to the old Lagavulin standards. The batches bottled between 1990 and 1995
would probably score 96 or 97 points on my current hitlist. This batch is notably stronger and more leathery in the nose than later batches I've sampled by the dram.
Let's hope future bottlings will return to the
pure peaty power Lagavulin is famous for.
5 - Lagavulin 14yo 1984 vs Laphroaig 15yo 1985 DL OMC
Two independent bottlings go H2H in the fifth bout of the evening. The Lagavulin was bottled by Murray McDavid, while the Laphroaig is a Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask bottling. Both are bottled at a percentage somewehere
between 'standard' and 'cask strength'; 46% for the Lagavulin and 50% for the Laphroaig.
Both bottlings are not coloured and not chill-filtered.
Previous results: Lagavulin 1984 = 88 points, Laphroaig 1985 = 85
Nose: Bourbon aging is obvious in both noses; fresh and almost sparkly. Neither one shows a lot of peat. The Laphroaig is more expressive at first; sweeter with more organic notes. Fruitier with time. The Lagavulin shows
much more salt and brine - and a little peat after a while. Overall, the Laphroaig appears more subtle in the nose than the Lagavulin. Especially after 15 minutes, it is much more expressive with a wider range of
fragrances. The Laphroaig is the undisputed winner in the battle of the noses. On the other hand, the Lagavulin shows more pride in its Islay heritage.
Taste: The Lagavulin starts dry and peaty and develops into a
wonderful big burn. Sweetness in the middle - and lots of it. It lasts very long and ends in a wonderful crescendo with peated malt and some smoke. The Laphroaig is dry and peaty with lots of tar and tobacco in the
finish. Here, the Lagavulin wins on points - although it doesn't respond to water as well as the Laphroaig.
Lagavulin 14yo 1984 = 89 points
Laphroaig 15yo 1985 = 90 points
Tasted apart from 'official' Laphroaigs, the 1985 OMC performs much better. Tasting it after (and against) the overwhelming power of the 10yo Cask Strength may have masked out some of the more subtle elements that shine
through on closer inspection. Or maybe it just needed to breathe for a few days to bring out its true spirit. I'm affraid I seriously underscored it with 85 points - tasted in other company it holds up remarkably well.
It scores a whopping 5 points more than at the JOLT.
This bottling offers a completely different perspective on the distillery.
6 - Ardbeg 10yo vs Caol Ila 1989 Mackillop's Choice
German correspondent Klaus Everding has been pestering me to open this bottle of Caol Ila ever since he muled it over about a year ago. It's not available in Holland so I have to find out wheter or not I want to order
any spare bottles when Klaus visits again next year. The Ardbeg 10 needs no further introduction - it has been rising steadily through the ranks since I bought my first bottle two years ago.
Previous results: Ardbeg
10 = 88 points, Caol Ila 1989 = ? points.
Nose: Neither one starts very 'Islay' in the nose, but there's plenty of peaty power after a minute or so. The Mackillop's seems slightly dusty while the Ardbeg showed more fruity notes. Both noses are very expressive,
but hard to describe after 12 drams. The Ardbeg wins by a nose-length; it's notably more complexed and balanced.
Taste: Again, I found dust in the Caol Ila. After a relatively soft start it grows into a big, peaty
burn. Very nice. The Ardbeg is a little smoother on the palate. The famous Ardbeg explosion is there - the peaty burn emerges much later than in the Caol Ila. More development and a longer finish alltogether.
Ardbeg 10 = 88 points
Caol Ila 1989 = 85 points
The Caol Ila does quite well for such a young malt, although the taste of the Ardbeg is notably better. I'll investigate the Caol Ila further in future tastings; wheter Klaus has to bring me spare bottles depends on the
price, I guess.
7 - Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength vs Bowmore Cask Strength
And now (02:15 AM) for the latest H2H of the evening; two cask strength Islays will fight until the finish. Both are litre bottles; the Bowmore is bottled at 56%, the Laphroaig is slightly stronger at 57.3%. Let's hope I
don't get drunk... Previous results: Laphroaig = 90 points, Bowmore = 81 points.
Nose: Remarkably enough, the Bowmore is much stronger in the start than the Laphroaig. The Bowmore is rough with lots of alcohol in the front of the nose. In comparison, the power of the Laphroaig is much more subdued.
There are layers of complexity around a strong peaty/smoky heart. A touch of iodine. Simply amazing. Next to the Laphroaig, the Bowmore seems unusually unbalanced and chemical. There is sherry, but very little
refinement. Water brings oilier notes to the Bowmore while the Laphroaig became fruiter - and much more powerful.
Taste: Neat, the Bowmore was sweetish with smoke and licorice in the finish. Lots of power. It seems
fine, until you take a sip of the Laphroaig. It has roughly the same elements as the Bowmore, but so much more... The peat is much better distinguishable and the different elements (smoke, licorice) appear in
succession. There are just a lot of more different dimensions to this malt. Water brought something dusty to the palate of the Bowmore, the Laphroaig became smokier with more salt licorice.
Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength = 92 points
Bowmore Cask Strength = 81 points
Whoah! The Laphroaig 10 cask Strength is a really exceptional whisky. It makes the Bowmore Cask Strength look
bad, even though I'll always have a soft spot for its uncomplicated ruggedness and the cask strength fun factor. The Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength easily makes it into my Top 10.
Phew - it's 2:45 and I have survived the Amsterdam Ardbeggeddon.
Tonight's results, rated from best-to-worst:
- 92 Lagavulin 16yo 'White Horse' (43%, OB)
- 92 Laphroaig 10yo Original Cask Strength (57.3%, OB)
- 90 Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB)
- 90 Laphroaig 15yo 1985/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
- 89 Lagavulin 14yo 1984/1999 (46%, Murray McDavid)
- 88 Laphroaig 15yo (43%, OB)
- 88 Ardbeg 10yo (46%, OB)
- 85 Caol Ila 1989/1999 (43%, Mackillop's Choice)
- 84 Caol Ila 26yo 1974/2001 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC)
- 84 Port Ellen 18yo 1981/2000 (43%, McGibbons Provenance)
- 81 Bowmore Cask Strength (56%, OB)
- 81 Bunnahabhain 12yo (40%, OB)
- 78 Bruichladdich 15yo (43%, OB)
- 75 Bowmore NAS 'Darkest' (43%, OB)
This ranking confirms what I already knew.
As far as I'm concerned, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are the prime Islay distilleries.
Caol Ila and Port Ellen have produced some excellent single malts but
the quality of the many different bottlies isn't as consistantly high as with the big three. And then there's Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain. Bowmores can be very good, but I've also encounterd a few
sub-standard bottlings. The old Bruichladdichs are just too soft for me and I can't say much about Bunnahabhain because I've only tasted one version from the distillery, the 12yo OB.
For a moment, I contemplated opening one of the old Ardbeg OMC's in my reserve stock as well, but to tell you the truth I've got plenty of excellent Islay malts on my top shelf to get me through the winter. Seven out of
the fourteen bottles on my top shelf come from Islay and there are a few others on my middle and bottom shelf as well. With only three months of genuine Islay weather in front of me it looks like I'll have to work
pretty hard to clear them away in favour of some 'fair weather malts'.
- - - >
OK - This was an evening well spent.
Time to switch to more serious matters...
My 'dram diary' for example... After tonight's session, I can add two more Laphroaigs and Caol Ila's to my infamous Little Black Book, bringing the number of
seriously sampled single malts since the end of 1996 to exactly 200. (That's right, ma! And I don't care who calls me an alcoholic...) At the moment (December 31, 2001 to be precise) there are about 90 active distilleries in Scotland. Since a few weeks I can proudly say that I've sampled at least one bottling from each one of them. (See log entry #93 for details.)
That means I've kind of finished phase 1 of my mission.
This seems like a good moment to close my little black book forever and start phase II of my
mission with a new book; my Big Black Book. All my little black book contains are tasting notes and scores of the single malts I sampled 'seriously' since 1996. More and more, I start to feel like this doesn't paint a
complete picture of my liquid adventures.
For one thing, I've sample far more single malts than the 250 mentioned in my little black book.
Depending on how I define 'seriously' and
'different', I've sampled either +/- 250, 350, 400, 500, 600 or 750 different single malt whiskies. Check out my calculations if you want;
250 if I only count the big bottles of SMSW that have passed through my collection.
(The large bottles I sampled and emptied between 01/01/1997 and 01/01/2002.)
if I also count different batches of the 'same' big bottles I tried since 01/01/1997.
(Official bottlings like Lagavulin 16 years old and Talisker 10 years old are released in different batches.)
+/- 400 if I also count the big bottles that have passed through my collection before 01/01/1997.
(I had been dramming away happily for quite a few years before I became 'malt mad'.)
+/- 500 if I also count the miniatures and drams I've sampled in bars - and reported on.
(Between 01/01/1997 and 01/01/2002 I've reviewed roughly a hundred malts in small quantities.)
+/- 600 if I also count the drams and miniatures I've sampled - and didn't report on.
(Between 01/01/1997 and 01/01/2002 I've sampled a lot of whiskies I didn't report on.)
if I also count the 'bastard malts' and non-Scotch malts (mostly Irish) I've tried since 01/01/1997.
(I'm no fundamentalist, so I've been enjoying vatted malts, bastard malts and foreign malts as well.)
Of course, I would be very happy to run around bragging about the 600 malts I sampled, but I can't in all honesty say I sampled all of them 'seriously' - not even half of them if I use the criteria I used up
The problem is that I didn't keep ANY notes on the tastings I didn't deem serious at the time - and now I very much wish that I had. I had forgotten that one of the most important parts of scientific research is the
accumulation of as much raw data as possible. You can always determine later if it's useful or not.
So, one of the first things I'll change during phase II of my mission is the way I keep track of the scores and basic data on the single malts I've sampled.
I will start a TRACK RECORD of all the single malts I've sampled since the start of my mission.
Apart from data like distillery, age and alcohol percentage the Track Record will contain scores for all malts. During phase I of the mission I used to give 'preliminary' scores to the first few drams from a bottle; only
after I had (almost) finished the bottle I felt secure enough to declare a 'final rating'. Usually, I just 'averaged' the scores of the drams I've tasted to arrive at a final rating for the bottle.
But there are just so many different factors that influence a particular tasting experience; factors like 'nasal condition', type of glassware, temperature, amount of water, dinner consumed before, other malts
tasted before, time the bottle has been open, etc. As a result, I frequently find a deviation in ratings for drams from the same bottle. Often it's just a matter of one or two points, but in a few cases it's almost like
I've been tasting two completely different malts.
The problems with my old system of 'final' ratings became even bigger when I discovered that considerable differences could occur between different batches of the 'same' official bottling. I've sampled many
different batches of Lagavulin 16yo for example, scoring anything between 92 and 96 points. This phenomenon forced me to keep adding different batches of OB's to my old 'Best-to-Worst' list. That list was growing out of
proportion anyway, partly because of the large numbers of SMSW's that scored 'average' during the years.
The new HITLIST should solve some of my problems.
For one thing; most of the 'average' scoring malts have been removed from the list. The focus of the new list lies on the 'recommendable' malts (scoring 80 points or more) on one end and the 'questionable' and 'avoidable' ones (scoring less than 70 points) on the other end. I won't list more than one batch of an official distillery bottling; I will rank an OB according to the score for the latest batch I sampled. As far as I'm concerned, a malt is only as good as its latest batch. Whenever I tried more than one batch of a certain a malt I've added a link to the Track Record where you can find a full overview of all the batches I tried of that malt.
At the same time I've said goodbye to preliminary ratings. From now on, I will try to give a rating as soon as I've opened a bottle. That rating will be likely to change while I take my time to finish the bottle, but
at least 'highly recommendable' malts will appear on my hitlist as soon as I've discovered them.
Since it usually takes me over a year to empty a bottle, a lot of interesting bottlings (especially IB's) were sold out
by the time I arrived at a final rating in the old system. Not anymore. Starting today, I will rate a malt 'by the dram' instead of 'by the bottle' and publish the results on my hitlist as they come in.
The third addition to the black book is the DISTILLERY DATA section.
Although all my serious tasting notes are published in my Liquid Log I figured my research during phase II would benefit from collecting as much data as possible about a particular distillery at one place. That would make it easier for me to scientifically establish what my favourite distilleries actually are.
You would think that after seriously sampling 200 different bottles in five years compiling a 'Distillery Hitlist' would be easy. Let me assure you that it isn't. Since the start of my mission I've grown to understand
that it's nonsense to try and judge a distillery by a single bottling. Nevertheless; I have made a list of the results of my tasting efforts so far. The list gives an overview of 91 currently active distilleries and 28
more that have been closed or mothballed. Hundreds more have been active over the last centuries but listing them would be pointless because their product is no longer available to the general public.
OK, get ready for the...
PRELIMINARY DISTILLERY DATA - 31/12/2001
Distillery = the name of the distillery
Region = region of production; see the map of Scotland
= the current situation; subject to change.
A distillery that has been closed or mothballed and then reopened is listed as active. The 'since' date indicates the year the distillery was founded. Inactive distilleries are printed in a lighter shade of brown.
# = Number of different bottlings I've 'officially' sampled (= by the bottle)
= the 'Still Score', expressing my respect for the distillery on a range from 1 to 5 stars.
The minimum score is 1 star, awarded for releasing a single malt in the first place. If the malt is actually any good the distillery is awarded extra stars. The scores for distilleries I've only tasted 1 version of shouldn't be taken too seriously. You could interpret these scores as the probability of me purchasing more bottles from that distillery;
***** = Absolutely
**** = Very probably
*** = Likely
** = Unlikely
* = Almost certainly not