Archive for April, 2012
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay them, is that the smoky Islay whiskies are nothing but themselves. They are difficult, brash, and challenging to the palate, and they make no bones about it. They brook no compromise. You take and appreciate them for who they are, and they expect no less.
I’m not talking of smoky whiskies tailored for an audience that thinks they’re the exciting next thing. There are a range of recently released whiskies whose goal is little more than to be the smokiest beast of them all, boasting ever higher PPM numbers. But these are not true smoky Islay whiskies. They’re whiskies devised to appeal to a current taste in Scotch and to compete for notoriety. This is very reminiscent of the way that brewers recently went through a spate of competition to see who could create the “hoppiest” IPA. Concerns over balance and drinkability went out the window as brewers succumbed to the lure of IBUs.
But a true smoky Islay whisky is one that seeks simply to express its true self. It is a whisky whose smoke is an aspect of who it is, and not its sole reason for being. What’s more, the smoky element that inhabits each distillery’s product is wholly unique from the island’s other distilleries. And alongside the smoke you’ll find a range of other flavors. What those are will depend on the distillery, and (in the case of a single-cask whisky) the cask that it was aged in. But the flavor profile and the experience will speak of that distillery and its whisky. No two are alike, and someone whose thoroughly immersed themselves in each can readily identify them by their nose alone.
This bottle from Caol Ila perfectly demonstrates this, as it captures the experience and range of flavors so intrinsic to their whisky. I’ve never drunk a Caol Ila without immediately being transported back to my days on the high seas, the spray of seawater all around me, the visceral sense of brine, ocean, seaweed, and salt…or something like that. Anyone who’s spent any time around the coast, salt water, and beaches will recognize that experience in a glass of Caol Ila.
That’s what makes their whisky so unique, and so amazing. Every glass of Caol Ila speaks to its origins in that distillery, is so distinctly and unequivocally a Caol Ila whisky. This is why it’s a special distillery and a big part of why their whisky is so good.
Of course, once you venture into the realm of single-cask whiskies, things can become a bit more dicey. Each cask is so unique, and can oftentimes be a very different expression of what is typically a very consistent whisky*, and in that respect Blackadder has done a good job selecting this cask for bottling. This is one of their Raw Cask series, a range of single-cask whiskies bottled at cask-strength, and with the pretense that the flakes of char in the bottle are from the barrel it was aged in (although I now believe quite firmly that this is not true). Each of the bottlings in this series that I’ve had has been very good, and it’s clear that they choose the casks for it quite seriously.
This particular whisky was distilled in 1996 and aged for 14 years in a refill bourbon hogshead. It was bottled in February 2011 at 60.3%, and produced only 268 bottles.
The whisky has a lemony green hue. The nose has salt, smoke, brine sweeping over the bow, lime sherbet, and charred beach wood – picture yourself standing on the beach, on wet sand, with sea spray all around you, and the charred remains of last night’s bonfire at your feet, while you ponder the bowl of vanilla lime sherbet in front of you.
The palate has a voluptuous mouthfeel, full and viscous, with flavors of smoke, salade frisée, lemon ice, simple sugar, and crispy salt pork. All in all, very smoky and surprisingly sweet, pork ribs, heavily charred and smoky on the outside, giving way to sweet, moist pork on the inside, all flavored with a chili lime marinade.
The finish brings to mind the lingering remnants of a beach bonfire: salt, ash, and seaweed suffusing the air around you.
Blackadder whiskies are top notch, and this one is no exception.
*Note: Single cask whiskies are often very different from the typical bottlings released by distilleries, given how different one cask can be from another. This is why distilleries initially insisted that the Scotch Malt Whisky Society could only bottle their whiskies if they refrained from naming the distillery on the label. This is where the Society’s unique numbering system came from.