Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Islay Whiskey Distilleries

There are eight Islay Whiskey Distilleries in this region of Scotland

Ardbeg | Bowmore | Bruichladdich | Bunnahabhain
Caol Ila | Lagavulin | Laphroaig | Port Ellen

It wasn’t until I’d spent time on Islay — strolled the streets of Bowmore, sat in a pub in Port Ellen, talked with the locals, and walked the malting floors of Laphroaig — that I developed a love for the strength and character of Islay malts.

My first day on Islay I drove the length of the island, ending up at the bar in the Port Askaig Hotel. As I sipped a measure of Caol Ila, a short distance from the distillery, the sun set on the Paps of Jura across the Sound of Islay. I savored the unspoiled beauty, ruggedness, and fierce individuality of the people of Islay.

An interesting note about Islay: It is the home of the world’s first commercial-scale wave-driven power generator. In November 2000, the Wavegen company, collaborating with the University of Belfast, began producing electricity by the use of partially submerged chambers that utilize changes in tides to displace air and drive turbines. The twin turbines generate 500 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 300 average homes.

The Islay Whiskey Distilleries

Ardbeg distillery

For Islay malt lovers Ardbeg is practically the Holy Grail. At one time thought lost forever, the distillery was purchased and reopened by Glenmorangie plc (formerly McDonald & Muir), the owners of Glenmorangie and Glen Moray.

The Ardbeg Distillery

Distillery Bottlings:

The 10-year-old (46 vol.) is a pale gold color, with a powerful smoke, seaweed, iodine, and faint nutty notes to the nose. The body appears a bit oily but feels thinner on the tongue. The palate is very sweet at first, then a big rush of smoky, iodine flavors. The finish is bold and peppery, with a lingering interplay of sweetness, salt, smoke, and pepper.

A wonderful whisky in the way it controls and restrains the potentially powerful, young whisky.

Comments from visitors
Quite simply the only lunchtime malt — Rebecca Welch

The 17-year-old (40 vol.) is a rich, complex malt. In a few words: big, smoky, sweet, with seaweed and some pepper. As Ardbeg ages it develops an amazing smoothness and depth of character.

I am new to whisky (came to the US from Russia less than 5 years ago), but becoming a scotch fan very fast. After I tried the 17-year-old Ardbeg, I will never drink vodka again.– Vladimir Tankhimovich

Special Bottlings: There are quite a few special edition bottlings from Ardbeg and there will probably be more made available as the new owners experiment with their new acquisition. It’s a pleasure to see so many releases after the long period of having to rely on merchant bottlings.

1975 Vintage a limited edition release commemorating the purchase by Glenmorangie and subsequent rebirth of the distillery

Ardbeg 1976 a very limited edition from two casks, made available to members of the “Ardbeg Committee” (information is available at the distillery Web site), or it can be purchased at the distillery.
1978 Vintage (43 vol.) a limited edition 20-year-old release. No longer available.

Ardbeg Provenance (55.6 vol.) a limited, numbered edition of a 1974 distillation (24-year-old) commemorating the purchase by Glenmorangie and subsequent rebirth of the distillery. This has already become a treasured collectors’ item.

Very Old Ardbeg (30-Year-Old) (40 vol.) though not a true “limited edition”, the information provided on the wooden box states that it is released in “very limited quantities”.

Merchant Bottlings: There have been several bottlings from Gordon & MacPhail (20, 30 and recently 22 and 30-year-old), all very good but hurt somewhat by dilution to 40 vol. A big malt like this begs a higher alcohol content.

Several Signatory bottlings (28 and 23-year-old) are bottled at cask strength (about 51 vol.) and are much more enjoyable.

A Signatory 8-year-old (1991-99, 43 vol.) is a special treat. Until the distillery release of the 10-year-old (above), I had only encountered older bottlings of Ardbeg that were smooth and rich with smoke, seaweed, peat and oak. Having sampled (and loved) younger Port Ellens and Longrows I was curious about what surprises a young Ardbeg might hold. I was not disappointed.

It is almost clear, with a slight yellow cast and a dullness to the color. The nose is huge, smoky, with notes of seaweed, sugar, salt, and iodine — very medicinal. The flavor is sweet, then dry with youthful (pleasant) sour notes. The finish is long, smoky, peppery, and salty.

It’s a raw, full oIt’s a raw, full of rough edges, seemingly “straight-from-the-spirit-safe” whisky. It lacks complexity, but God is it good!

www.ardbeg.com

Bowmore Distillery

Bowmore distillery with Bruichladdich across Loch Indaal.
Bowmore is operated by Morrison Bowmore (who operate Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch), and owned by Suntory of Japan.

Distillery Bottlings: A young Bowmore can put a strong man off spirits. The briny, medicinal, phenolic character may taste like sucking on an old band-aid to the uninitiated, but add some age and those same characteristics soften and become the stuff of legend.

Bowmore DistilleryA wide selection of distillery bottlings begins with Bowmore Legend (no age statement), and continues through 10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, and 30-years-old expressions. While it’s interesting to go back and sample the younger expressions, if you haven’t tasted Bowmore before stick with an older bottling — the 15-year-old is bracing and full of character, the 17 starts to soften and meld all the contradictory flavors together, and the 21-year-old ages those flavors to perfection.

As Bowmore ages the rough edges are worn away and an almost soft (though thick and syrupy), elixir emerges.

Comments from a visitor:
Your description of a young Bowmore is about dead on. My god, that was a horrific experience! It does improve with age though. — Charles Greig

Special Bottlings: In the past few years Bowmore has been releasing many special bottlings or limited editions among which are Bowmore Darkest (sherry cask), and Bowmore Surf (whisky stored in warehouses closest to the ocean).

Additional special bottlings:

Bowmore Dusk (50 vol.) is finished in bordeaux (claret) casks. The color is a full amber with a reddish-purple cast. The nose is all Bowmore, medicinal, but not as evident as in other young Bowmores. There’s an interesting, old leather aroma. The palate is again all Bowmore, but smoother, softer. The claret is subtle, becoming evident as a grapey sweetness mid palate. The finish is a typical, big, briny, smoky, medicinal burst.

Bowmore Voyage (56 vol.) is the product of 12-year-old bourbon cask Bowmore, finished for 18 months in port pipes. It has a an amber color with a slight reddish cast. Similar to the Bowmore Claret the nose and palate are definitely Bowmore, medicinal, phenolic, smoky, salty and peaty, but softened to an extent by the port finishing. The finish is all Bowmore, salty, phenolic, medicinal, peaty, and smoky.

Bowmore Claret (56 vol.) is 12-year-old bourbon cask Bowmore, finished for 18 months in claret casks. The color is a full amber with a reddish cast. The nose is unmistakably Bowmore, with strong iodine, salt, seaweed, and smoke, but there’s a soft and subtle undercurrent of fruit and flowers. On the palate the powerful Bowmore flavors are the first impression but nuances of fruit and honey persist. The finish has lingering notes of fruit, oak and peat smoke with lots of salt and seaweed.

The best of the “finished” Bowmores and an exquisite whisky.
These wine finishes are from fairly youthful Bowmores (12 years in bourbon casks, plus “finishing”). Unquestionably, older Bowmores (17 years and above) rank among the finest single malts, but the distillery is having problems mass-marketing the fierceness of young Bowmore to a world clamoring for sweet, “flavored” whisky. The result is this string of “masking” experiments.

Glenmorangie is having huge success with similar “finishings”, but they are starting with a light whisky that accepts and melds with the subtle wine flavors. Bowmore, on the other hand, tends to fight any attempt at softening. I hope the distillery will continue the endeavor for another decade or more. It’s my guess that another ten or fifteen years will produce some magnificent and highly prized whiskies. It’s my guess a 21 or 30-year-old port finished, or even port cask Bowmore would be amazing.

Very Special Bottlings: Black Bowmore: What can I say? It’s truly a great malt. It’s the special bottle you pull out and share when you get married, have a son or daughter, or are made a partner in the firm.

It’s so thick you can cut it with scissors. It touches your lips and stays there — it takes all your willpower to pull the glass away. It’s that good.

There were three editions in 1995, only 500 bottles of which were exported to the US. Many bottles were purchased by collectors and occasionally become available at prices upward of $1,000.

Merchant Bottlings: I haven’t noticed a great many merchant bottlings though a recent Signatory was very interesting. The 20-year-old (subsequently a 23-year-old from the same 1975 distilling became available), was unlike the distillery bottlings — delicious, but missing the briny, medicinal character. Without being stored at the distillery and exposed to the coastal extremes the flavor was much cleaner, more Highland-like.

www.morrisonbowmore.co.uk

Bruichladdich Distillery

To the west, across Loch Indaal from Bowmore, Bruichladdich produced a quite enjoyable, though un-Islaylike malt. Perhaps that’s the reason for its closing in 1995. With the intensity of the other malts in the area Bruichladdich was easily overlooked.

Fortunately, Bruichladdich was rescued from extinction by Jim McEwan, formerly of Bowmore, and a small consortium (led by independent bottler Murray McDavid). The group plans to reopen the distillery on a smaller scale, with an output of 200,000 liters per year (about 10% of its capacity). There are plans to produce both the traditional Bruichladdich, as well as a more heavily peated version.

Bruichladdich has been released by independent bottlers under the names Lochindaal or Loch Indaal. The name Lochindaal actually comes from a another distillery that was dismantled in 1929, the remnants of which can be seen in Port Charlotte (two miles south).

Distillery Bottlings: Currently 10, 15, and 25-year-old distillery bottlings are available are available in the US. This may change, as the new owners have purchased 1.4 million liters of maturing stock dating back to 1964.

The 15-year-old has a dusty, salty nose with traces of cookie dough. The palate has a malty sweetness and creamy, buttery quality. A well balanced malt that finishes warm, salty, and slightly spicy.

Merchant Bottlings: There don’t seem to be large quantities of Bruichladdich in merchant bottlings which is unfortunate since it is a quite enjoyable malt. A Cadenhead 26-year-old (1969) is a good example — a touch of salt added to spice, flowers and a bit of wood.

Bunnahabhain distillery

Like Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain has a clean taste, almost light, a definite contrast to the more intense tastes of other Islay malts.

bunnahabhain distilleryDistillery Bottlings: The distillery release is a very pleasant 12-year-old. Much less powerful than other Islay malts, it’s much closer to a Ledaig in it’s combination of fruit-and-nut maltiness and sea-air heartiness.

Merchant Bottlings: A Murray & McDavid 17-year-old has a wonderful, spicy, herbal nose — ginger snaps and Brazil nuts. Very smooth with a little salt in the finish.

Caol Ila distillery

Caol Ila (pronounced “coal-eyela”) is a big, powerful malt that revels in character. The smoky, sea air Islay character is different, however from the South Islay distilleries — there’s a smooth, sweet, civilized tone. It seems to meld the unruly power of an Ardbeg or a Port Ellen, with the gentleness of a Bruichladdich or a Bunnahabhain.

A few years back a friend and I would play a game late in the evening on tasting occasions. We would pick the five whiskies we would want to have with us if we were stranded on a desert island. A Caol Ila was consistently one of the choices.

Distillery Bottlings: There aren’t any distillery single malt releases in the US, though in the UK there is a 15-year-old release from United Distillers as part of the Flora and Fauna line. Much of the distillery output goes into Bell’s 8-year-old blend.

Carol Ila DistilleryMerchant Bottlings: There are many merchant bottlings, and all are excellent to one degree or another. Recent 8-year-old bottlings from Signatory and Cadenhead are very good. Older 20 and 22-year-old bottlings from Cadenhead, Adelphi, and Rare Malts are all excellent. In the middle are some very good 12 to 14-year-olds from Cooper’s Choice, Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseur’s Choice and Signatory. The Cooper’s Choice selections are especially attractive, considering that they sell for about $35 in the US.

One note about the Cooper’s Choice releases — I don’t know where they store their casks after purchase from the distilleries but some seem to have a characteristic “melon rind” nose and palate. This is actually pleasant in the Caol Ila, but overpowers a more subtle malt like a Clynelish or Dallas Dhu.

No matter who bottles the whisky, or at what age, there is a consistent Caol Ila flavor: “big, dry, salt, and smoke”. In the younger bottlings there’s a youthful, sourmash and pepper factor. In the older bottlings the rough edges are worn smooth to create a big, balanced, complex malt.

An 8-year-old Cadenhead (1989-98, 60.2 vol.), has a white wine color and a big, briny, dry, and slightly oaky nose. The palate has a youthful explosion of dry, oily, seaweedy, peppery, and smoky flavors. The finish is long, dry, peppery, and smoky.

Lagavulin Distillery

Distillery Bottlings: The distillery offering is a 16-year-old (43 vol.) — surprisingly old considering that Laphroaig, (only a few yards down the road), and Ardbeg, (only a few yards up the road), are released in 10-year-old expressions. The extra six years is worth the wait. Lagavulin (lagga-voolin) is big and strong yet soft and refined, like a powerful race horse gently eating an apple from the hand of a baby.

The color is a full amber. The nose has the Islay intensity (salt, peat, iodine, and smoke), but is softened by a measure of sherry. The palate has an intriguing interplay of smoky dryness and sherry sweetness, combined with a richness of intertwined, subtle flavors (grassy notes and salt water taffy in the foreground). The finish is big, dry, and peaty. One of the great malts.

Lagavulin DistilleryTo the fan of Islay whiskies the flavor is the perfect balance of contradictory sensations. The older whiskies in the mix give a wonderful depth, softness and complexity. Every time I taste a sample I marvel that a malt this big can be so subtle and nuanced.

Comments from a visitor:
Earlier this year I experienced Lagavulin for the first time. It is exactly as you say — big, robust, but gentle. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Scotch more. — Albert Flootman, Ontario, Canada

Merchant Bottlings: Independent bottlings of Lagavulin are relatively rare, though there’s a notable exception. A release of Finlaggan (40 vol., no age statement) from the Vintage Malt Whisky Company is actually a youthful Lagavulin.

Finlaggan has an amber color, similar to the distillery release. The nose has a dry mixture of iodine, seaweed, phenols, a faint sherry sweetness, and smoke. The palate is surprisingly smooth and balanced for a presumably young whisky. It is dry, peaty, salty, and smoky. The finish is the same, but adds a peppery spiciness.

Finlaggan isn’t nearly as complex and balanced as the distillery 16-year-old, but it is a very enjoyable single malt, and sells for less than half the price of the distillery release.

A new variation of Lagavulin is an 8-year-old released under the Dun Bheagan name.

Lagavulin is also bottled as Signatory Vintage Islay.

Laphroaig Distillery

I remember a famous silent film era documentary titled “Man of Arran,” about the harshness of life on the nearby island. It could have been about Islay. Every time I drink Laphroaig I think about that film — the cold, harsh winters, the salt spray of towering waves crashing on the rocks, the warmth and sanctuary of a peat fire, the companionship of friends, and a dram of whisky in a local pub.

Distillery Bottlings: Laphroaig’s (“lah-froig”), most popular bottling is a 10-year-old (43 vol.), and what a whisky it is — strong, briny, phenolic, and seaweedy. Lagavulin (above) may be a gentle race horse, but this Laphroaig is the wild bronco that refuses to be broken. You already either love it or hate it, nothing I can say will ever change your opinion.

Laphroaig DistilleryThe color is full gold with orange highlights. The nose is unmistakably medicinal, briny, and smoky. Faintly reminiscent of smoked salmon. The palate is surprisingly soft, with a seaweedy, salty character.. Lightly sweet at first, it turns dry and peppery in the finish.

Comments from a visitor:
You described the first taste I had of Laphroaig perfectly, it took us a while to come to terms but now we are the best of friends! — Eddy Saul

A 10-year-old “Original Cask Strength” bottling has been introduced but I haven’t had the opportunity to sample it.

The 15-year-old (43 vol.) is another matter. It’s the gentrified older brother of the 10-year-old feral child. The added age knocks off many of the rough edges — age has a way of doing that with people and whisky. If you love the wildness of the 10-year-old you may not care for this older expression, but it’s a special pleasure.

It has a gold color, slightly lighter than the 10-year-old, and a nose full of phenols, iodine, brine, salt spray, smoke, and a hint of mustard. The palate has an initial sweetness and creamy richness (in flavor and texture). Then a quick transition to powerful iodine, sulphur, salt, and a peat smoke nuttiness. The finish is long, with echoing salty, iodine notes, combined with an earthy peatiness. Exceptional.

The 30-year-old bottling ( 43 vol.), puts me in mind of an old, landlocked sea captain, reminiscing about his youth at sea.

It has an amber color with a slight greenish cast. The nose is big, aromatic, with elements of sherry, oak, phenols, iodine, seaweed, and smoke. The body is a bit thick and oily. The palate is rich and complex with the contrasting flavors that make the 10-year-old wild and unruly, but in this older expression they become subtle nuances. The finish is long, oily, medicinal, salty, smoky, and a little peppery. Quite exceptional. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, but you’ll find it worth the expense.

Originally this was released as a special limited edition of 2,400 bottles, all to be distributed in the US. Since then it has quietly become part of the standard distillery line. Many people who bought the early release as an investment had a rude shock when they learned that it wasn’t really a limited edition after all.

Merchant Bottlings: A 15-year-old Old Malt Cask (1986-2001, 50 vol.) is a very pale gold with a greenish cast. The nose has all the Islay characteristics, briney, medicinal, phenolic and smoky, but somewhat understated. The palate is firey and peppery at the 50 vol. bottling strength, but a splash of water softens but doesn’t tame the flavors. The palate is clearly Islay but very different from the 10 and 15-year-old distillery releases. Its a raw whisky, not tempered by the addition of older whiskies. Delicious, but closer to an Ardbeg that the Laphroaig you’re used to.

A 12-year-old Cadenhead and an 11-year-old Murray McDavid are both softer than the distillery bottling, most likely the effect of maturing in warehouses in other parts of Scotland. Both are very enjoyable.

Alas, no longer available is a 26-year-old Hart Brothers bottling that was delightful. Again, the wild Islay origins become subtle nuances in an older, mature whisky. Those nuances are exquisite.

Comments on Merchant Bottlings: There has been a long-standing battle between the distilleries and the merchant bottlers over the use of the distillery’s name on the independent bottlings. In most cases the original intent when the whisky was sold was that it would be used in blends. With the current enthusiasm for single malts, many blenders have found there is more money to be made by bottling the individual whiskies rather than blending them. In the case of Murray McDavid, Allied Distillers (the parent company of Laphroaig) sued them and won a restraining order preventing them from using the Laphroaig name. Murray McDavid then adopted the name “Leapfrog” and were again sued. At long last the case has concluded and Murray McDavid has won the right to use the Laphroaig name.

In many cases distilleries are now selling whisky with legal provisions that it not be bottled as a single malt, or not be bottled under the distillery name.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has adopted a system of numbering its bottlings to circumvent the use of distillery names on the labels of their releases. Members are sent a list with a number for each distillery.

www.laphroaig.com

Port Ellen distillery

Silent In what has to be one of the great crimes in the world of single malt whisky, Port Ellen ceased production in 1983. The distillery is no longer licensed, and the stills have been dismantled. The likelihood that it will ever function as a distillery again is very remote.

In a way it’s unfortunate that UDV still produces maltings at the distillery, (which are sold to all the other Islay distilleries). Since Port Ellen is self-supporting (if only as a maltings facility), it’s unlikely that it will be sold to any parties interested in reopening it. Considering the cult-like following of Port Ellen, it’s very unlikely that UDV would sell what would certainly be competition for its other Islay distilleries, Lagavulin and Caol Ila.

Port Ellen DistilleryWe can only hope that if the reopening of Ardbeg by Glenmorangie plc, and the planned reopening of Bruichladdich prove successful, UDV may feel there is enough interest in Islay malts to warrant the reopening of Port Ellen.

Distillery Bottlings: In 1998 a rare distillery bottling of Port Ellen was released under the name Port Ellen Maltings. The 21-year-old was released on the 25th anniversary of the maltings at Port Ellen (sadly, and without note on the label, it was the 15th anniversary of the silencing of the stills.

Merchant Bottlings: There are still many merchant bottlings available, but they are beginning to become less frequent. Samples from Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail, and Cadenhead have been excellent.

An exceptional 22-year-old (1975-98, 43 vol.) is available from Hart Brothers. The color is a light gold, and the nose is briny, smoky, and medicinal. The palate is sweet and smoky, with an exquisite balance of heathery sweetness, peaty smoke, and seaweedy salt. The finish is dry, smoky, and somewhat peppery. Delicious.
I’m sure there are many casks set aside in vaults, and for many years to come bottlings of 20, 30, and 40-year-old Port Ellens will be available (at ever increasing costs). The real tragedy is the absence of young Port Ellens.

A few years ago Cadenhead released a 12-year-old from the last year of operation at the distillery (1983-95, 57.8 vol.). Most older bottlings have the powerful smoke, seaweed and malty sweetness, but the 12-year-old had a youthful sweet-and-sour quality to the nose and palate, which tapered into a long salty and peppery finish.

I’m slowly working my way through my last bottle. Each sip brings a tear to my eye.

Visiting a Whiskey Distillery

Whiskey Distillery

You visit to a Whiskey Distillery

For those of you with an interest in how whiskey is produced, then a visit to a whiskey distillery is a must. In fact if you are travelling to the United Kingdom and are a whiskey enthusiast, then no trip should be complete without a visit to Scotland the home of Whiskey and some of the best distilleries in the world.

Distilleries in Scotland are divided into five regions : Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.

These are the notes from a whiskey enthusiast Charles Shields, who describes them as “one mans impression” Sadly his website is no longer running, but I thought it an absolute waste of one mans Whiskey Distillery experiences not to share them.

Campbeltown Distilleries

CAMPBELTOWN DISTILLERIES

The most beautiful (and shortest) route to Campbeltown, if you arrive at Prestwick airport or are coming from the Glasgow area, is by ferry. Start from Ardrossan where you take a ferry to Brodick on the Isle of Arran. Then drive across, or around the island to Lochranza, perhaps taking in a tour of the Arran distillery before boarding another ferry to Cloanaig on the Kintyre peninsula.

Then take the road south along the east side of the peninsula to Campbeltown. It’s a beautiful way to approach Campbeltown, and can be easily done in a day. It’s such a popular way to travel to the Kintyre peninsula that the ferry fare is referred to as a “hopscotch” ticket.

Aside from the beauty of the countryside, Campbeltown has not brought good fortune to distilleries. From a high of about 30 distilleries at one time there are only two left, one of which, Springbank, produces two distinctive malts, Longrow, and Springbank, and has recently begun distilling a third, Hazelburn.

Glen Scotia Whiskey Distillery

Glen Scotia Whiskey DistilleryPerhaps the distillery is cursed. It is said that the ghost of a former owner who drowned himself in Campbeltown Loch now walks the malting floors.

Opening in 1832, Glen Scotia managed to stay afloat for 150 years before closing in the mid-1980s. It was reopened briefly at the end of that decade, but closed again in 1994. Since then it has been purchased by the Loch Lomond company and has been refitted and has begun producing again.

Glen Scotia has been intermittently available in 12, 14, and 17-year-old distillery bottlings (43 vol., full gold to light amber). All are distinctive with a spicy, slightly briny nose with notes of juniper, ginger snaps, and peat smoke. The body has a rich, oily smooth character. Initially sweet, the palate becomes dry and malty with salty and nutty undertones.

The 17-year-old is the optimum expression and quite exquisite — creamy smooth, well balanced, and a long, spicy, and slightly peppery finish.

Glengyle Distillery

Glengyle Whiskey DistilleryRecent developments are very good news, a third Campbeltown distillery will be opening. J & A Mitchell & Co., the owners of Springbank have purchased the former Glengyle distillery which closed in 1925. It seems the distillery has been kept fairly well intact over the years. In 1957 there were plans to refurbish the distillery that never came to fruition. Since then the buildings have been used by an agricultural firm.

J & A Mitchell plan to completely refurbish Glengyle and begin producing by 2004. Don’t look for a bottle on local shelves for at least another ten years after that. It is something to look forward to however, and very encouraging that Campbeltown is seeing a resurgence.

Hazelburn Distillery

Hazelburn Whisky DistilleryThis is a new malt produced at the Springbank distillery. It’s so new, in fact, that it won’t be on the market for several years to come. The first run of this triple-distilled, Lowland style whisky was produced in July of 1997. Since the lighter, Lowland malts tend to stand better at a young age, look for some interesting bottlings in the next four or five years.

Longrow Distillery

Longrow is an another malt produced by the Springbank distillery. It is distinctly different from Springbank, and a real treasure if you can find it. It bears a strong resemblance to a somewhat lighter Ardbeg with a smoky, salty, sweetness. Springbank originally produced Longrow on rare occasions and bottlings were hard to come by but has distilled Longrow each of the past ten years, assuring a continuing supply. Older expressions can be anticipated in the future.

In 1999 there was a dual release of a 10-year-old (46 vol.). The distillery offered both an oak cask bottling as well as a sherry cask bottling. The oak cask is a greeny-gold, the sherry cask is a bit darker with greenish-amber highlights. Both have a smoky, seaweedy nose. The oak cask is somewhat cleaner, crisper, with the smoke a bit more forward. The sherry cask nose is a bit more muted, with a slightly nutty, creamy character.
The palate is similar in both instances. The oak cask is crisp, smoky, and a bit medicinal. The sherry cask is richer, a bit “chewy”, sweeter, and has a soft, nutty character. Both have a long finish that is peppery, warm, smoky, and salty.

My only complaint is the rather steep price for a 10-year-old whisky (about $100). Springbank has been distilling Longrow every year since 1990 and the plan is to release a 10-year-old every year from now on. Springbank releases have traditionally been priced quite affordably. I hope that the continued release of Longrow will come with a price reduction.

An aside: Comparing the two 1999 10-year-old Longrows mentioned above, with a 10-year-old purchased several years ago (3-4?), and an 8-year-old merchant bottling has afforded a unique look at mixing procedures of distilleries.

Starting with a Cadenhead 8-year-old Longrow (mentioned below), there is a raw, spirity quality, countered by a powerful smoky sourness (quickly rebutted by a malty sweetness). A salty element makes this all combine into a very special mixture. A youthful exuberance that is infectious.

Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (from two years ago). A very slight bit darker than the Cadenhead, a bit of a leather quality to the nose. Smoky flavors are still very present, but tempered by a pleasant “old leather” quality. Sourness begins to disappear.

Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (1999, oak cask), the “old leather” flavor now becomes more “nutty”. This release has a dry, “oaky” quality — very creamy and rich. Distillery Longrow 10-year-old (sherry cask). Suddenly this becomes clean and crisp again. At this point, 10-year-old Longrow has become quite civilized. Not as nutty, it’s now deeper, richer, and sweeter. It enters that smoky, sweet, saturated realm that is reflected in older releases.
In 1996 Springbank released a 1974 21-year-old Longrow. It has a light gold color with bright orange highlights. The nose is big, smoky, salty, and creamy with vanilla notes. The palate is smooth, oily (slightly buttery), seaweedy. The finish is very long with continuing smoky, peaty and salty notes

Merchant Bottlings: A Cadenhead 8-year-old (1987-95, 57.7 vol.), bears a strong resemblance to a young Port Ellen. A huge nose and palate, with smoke and peat, and a peppery sourness. One of my favorites.

Springbank Distillery

Euan Mitchell and Frank McHardy at Springbank distillery.
Springbank releases have traditionally combined a special mixture of salt, oil, peat, brine, oak, and especially sherry. Recently, however, the distillery reconfigured its line of releases. The introduction of a 10-year-old bourbon and rum cask bottling displays a different side of Springbank — a very rich, but unsherried whisky.

Springbank DistilleryI visited recently with distillery manager, Frank McHardy, and sales executive, Euan Mitchell. They expressed their belief that the buying public seems to be tiring of wine flavored whiskies and tends to place increasing importance on “distillery character”, hence the release of the new 10-year-old. Though finished in rum casks, it expresses more or the essential Springbank characteristics than the sherry cask releases. Frank went on to say that as a small, family owned distillery, Springbank doesn’t feel the necessity to bottle a consistent distillery release from year to year and decade to decade. They have the luxury of changing the distillery releases at any time to bottle what they feel are the finest whiskies in their warehouses.

Distillery Bottlings: 10-Year-Old: (46 vol.). The whisky starts in bourbon casks then spends a minimum of three years in Demerara rum casks. The color is a light gold with slightly greenish highlights. The nose is assertive, with rich vanilla, butterscotch, and a touch of sea air. The palate is creamy, buttery, sweet — though the sweetness is balanced by a lemony, somewhat minty crispness. The finish is very long, dry, slightly peppery, and elements of smoke, peat, and salt linger. A wonderful malt.

12-Year-Old: (46 vol.). This expression is the classic Springbank. Light amber in color, with a rich sherry and coconut nose that a hints of sea air. The palate is creamy, sweet, and has notes of raisins and chocolate. The long finish brings out emerging notes of peat and salt.
21-Year-Old: (46 vol.). A special treat with a cult-like following. The nose is big and rich with a uniquely balanced mixture of sherry, peat and salt. No other whisky has quite the same meld of extreme elements: Springbank manages to intermingle the fruity/sherry sweetness, with a toasty, malty dryness, and a salty, seaweedy crispness. It’s is one of my favorite whiskies.

Special Bottlings: Springbank has released a number of special bottlings over the years, including vintages of 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50-years-old available in a millennium set.

One of my favorite special bottlings was a 12-year-old 100 Proof, bottled at 50 vol. without the addition of water. The alcohol volume was reduced by adding older expressions with lower alcohol content. You can definitely taste some wonderful older whiskies in this bottling. It’s no longer available from the distillery but there are some bottles to be found on store shelves.

The most sought after recent special bottling is Springbank 1966 (32-years-old). Bottled at cask strength (55 vol.), the whisky was produced from materials obtained from within an eight mile radius of the distillery (with the exception of American oak bourbon casks).

Even the coal used to heat the mashing water and stills was from a local mine that was shut down soon after this whisky was produced.

The color is a deep gold/light amber. The nose is big and rich with promise of flavors to come — sweet and complex, undercurrents of peat smoke, salt, and a flowery dryness. The palate is creamy, luxurious, with a toasty dryness. The finish is long, smoky, dry, and a bit salty. One of the finest whiskies I’ve tasted.

Unfortunately, the 1966 bottling is no longer available. The good news is that there are plans for a similar release of a Springbank 1965. It must be a wonderful experience to dig through the back of a warehouse and find an overlooked cask of a special whisky.

Casks: There have several inquiries from people interested in purchasing a cask of whisky. Springbank is the only distillery I am aware of that has a program that makes this possible. You purchase the cask from the distillery’s US distributor, Preiss Imports. The cask has a brass plate on it with your name, and you can visit it at the distillery. You can eventually have cases of bottled whisky from your cask delivered to you through a local liquor store.

Merchant Bottlings: In 1995 a 26-year-old Signatory bottling became available (thick, rich and full of age).

A 32 year old Adelphi bottling is exceptionally deep and complex.

Recently I enjoyed a special distillery cask strength bottling of a 7-year-old. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Pale white, flowery nose with a dry, cereal-grain presence. The finish is a bit salty with some wonderful smoky notes. A Murray McDavid 8-year-old is very similar.

Cadenhead Distillery

Cadenhead DistilleryJ. and A. Mitchell, the owners of Springbank also own the independent bottler Cadenhead. A short block away from the distillery is the Cadenhead’s shop (there is another on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh). The chalk board on the right is a day-to-day listing of available single malts.

If you visit the shop, be sure to purchase a bottle of cask strength Springbank, drawn directly from a cask.
The famous round church of Bowmore (built so the Devil couldn’t hide in any corners). The twin pagodas of the distillery can be seen to the right of the church.

Highland Whiskey Distilleries

Highland Whiskey Distilleries

Highland Whiskey Distilleries

Like the Inverness district, the Eastern Highlands distilleries have not fared well over the past two decades. Of the nine distilleries above, only four are still producing whisky.

Fettercairn aka Old Fettercairn

Fettercarin DistilleryAlthough it began at a site a few miles away, the current Fettercairn distillery was built in 1824. There have been many owners over the years. In the late 1800’s the chairman of the distillery was Sir John Gladstone. His son eventually became prime minister and was instrumental in passing legislation to alleviate taxes on the “angel’s share” (spirit lost through evaporation while the whisky is maturing).

Fettercairn is a component of the Whyte & Mackay blends.

Fettercairn is released in the US in a 10-year-old expression, and unfortunately is easily dismissed because of its low price. It’s a very enjoyable malt.

For lovers of leafy, earthy malts this is a special pleasure. The nutty, leafy nose has hints of toffee and sherry, perhaps cookie dough. The palate is clean with a sweet maltiness and hints of oatmeal and raisins. A warm, sweet finish.

Merchant Bottlings: A Glenhaven 10-year-old is currently available.

Glen Garioch

Glen GariochPronounced “Geery”, the distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1785. It has been operated by Morrison Bowmore Distillers which is owned by the Japanese company, Suntory. The distillery was mothballed in 1995, then in 1997 it was reopened.

I recently sampled an 8-year-old distillery bottling. The color is full gold. The nose is very interesting with elements that are Lowland-like (burnt sugar, toasted marshmallow sweetness), combined with a youthful sourness (a faint hint of vinegar?), with an underlying bit of peat and perfume. The palate is quite sweet and somewhat perfumy at first, and feels thick on the tongue. As the flavor develops it becomes drier and more peaty.

There are also bottlings of a 15-year-old and a 21-year-old, as well as Selected Cask Bottlings and Individual Cask Bottlings.

A 27-year-old 1970 Individual Cask Bottling (42 vol.) is an amber color with bright orange highlights. The nose is dry, oaky, phenolic (reminiscent of creosote), and earthy. The body is full and thick. The palate is extremely dry with cough syrup and mint notes. The finish is very long, dry, and minty.

Special Bottlings: In 1997 Glen Garioch celebrated 200 years of distillations with the release of a special 37-year-old 200th Anniversary bottling.

www.beamsuntory.com

Glencadam

Glencadam DistilleryThe distillery is located half a mile east of the ancient town of Brechin near the East coast of Scotland. There are no distillery releases of Glencadam as most of the output goes into Ballentine’s blend.

A Cadenhead 11-year-old (1980-92, 61.2 vol., sherry cask) is amber, with a very fragrant nose — flowers, raisins, tobacco, licorice, and unfortunately, a slight unpleasant “rubbery” quality. The palate is sweet, dense, raisiny, with an underlying dry smokiness. The finish is dry with a citrus-like astringency.

Not a great malt, but this is a sherry cask bottling (though not stated on the label) and can’t be considered a fair test of the distillery product.

Glenesk aka Glen Esk, Hillside

Silent Glenesk has had a spotty past with many name changes and even converted to a grain distillery at one point. The distillery was closed in 1985 and unlikely to reopen. In the past it was an important element in the Vat 69 blend.

Merchant Bottlings: A Cadenhead 13-year-old (1982-95, 66.5 vol.) Glen Esk bottling. It has a very pale color, almost clear, with yellow-green hints. The nose is dry and malty with fragrant cedar notes. The palate is quite sweet with honeydew melon flavors. There’s an underlying element of sourness (not unpleasant), that balances the sweetness. A very pleasant malt.

A Rare Malts 25-year-old Hillside (1969, 61.9 vol.) is a white wine color. The nose is nutty, earthy, grassy, and cedary. The palate is very smooth, creamy, dry, with sweet apricot notes. Finish is herbal, slightly salty.

Glenugie

Dismantled Glenugie was closed in 1982 and the stills subsequently dismantled. The buildings still stand but have been converted to other uses.

Distillery Bottlings: Glenugie has never been available in a distillery bottling.

Merchant Bottlings: There have been several independent releases in the past, most noticeably Gordon and MacPhail bottlings. Though never considered a particularly outstanding malt, as stores diminish Glenugie is becoming quite rare and highly sought after. If you happen across a bottle, by all means grab it quickly.

Glenury Royal

Glenury DistilleryDismantled I have to admit that there is a soft spot in my heart for Glenury Royal. Back in the days when I drank blended Scotch, I came across some rather inexpensive bottles of Glenury Royal at my local market. I, of course, abused it by pouring it over ice cubes. Something special must have registered with me, however, because it led me to eventually experiment and learn more about single malt whisky.

Unfortunately, the distillery was mothballed in 1985, and sold for residential development in 1992.

Distillery Bottlings: Distillery releases are no longer available.

Merchant Bottlings: There are still occasional independent bottlings. A Cooper’s Choice 19-year-old (1978-98, 43 vol.) has a gold color with greenish highlights. The nose is dry, aromatic, with peaty and lightly fruity notes. The palate is a pleasant blend of dry, lightly earthy notes, balanced by crisp, honey-like sweet notes. The finish is surprisingly long and appetizing.

Lochnagar aka Royal Lochnagar

Lochnagar DistilleryDistillery Bottlings: The 12-year-old bottling from the distillery is complex and rewarding. Definite sherry cask qualities come through in the nose and palate. The color is a rich gold. The nose is big, with vanilla and slight oak notes, even a touch of smoke. The palate continues the richness with the addition of some fruitiness. The overall impression is of malty sweetness with a creamy vanilla oak. Delicious.

Special Bottlings: Lochnagar produces a “Selected Reserve” (no age statement, 43 vol.), which is shipped in a polished wooden box. Though a bit expensive it is very enjoyable. It has a full bronze/amber color, and a nose that is rich with fruity, toffee, smoky, cedary, and faintly earthy notes. The palate is dry, highlighted with some sweet raisiny notes, and slightly spicy, smoky undertones. The finish is long, dry, raisiny, and smoky. Perfect for those special winter evenings by the fire.

Merchant Bottlings: I haven’t sighted any merchant bottlings of Royal Lochnagar.

Lochside

Dismantled Lochside began producing whisky and grain spirits in 1957, housed in a former brewery that dated back to the 1890’s, and looking very much like a romantic German castle. The founder, Joseph Hobbs, died in 1964 and his son (also Joseph Hobbs) continued to run the distillery until 1973 when it was sold to a Spanish firm. Unfortunately, through a series of acquisitions Lochside ended in the hands of Allied Distillers who mothballed it in the 1980’s, reopened it briefly, then halted production in 1992. Five years later the property was sold to developers and the distillery demolished.

The saddest part of the story is that Lochside is an outstanding whisky. Since much of the distillery production went into blends or was exported for sale in Spain, few lovers of whisky had an opportunity to sample Lochside and it never established a reputation as a single malt.

Distillery Bottlings: There are no distillery bottlings available.

Merchant Bottlings: Lochside is becoming increasingly rare. Though the distillery was producing as recently as 1992, most of the output was sent to Spain where it was the basis for a very popular blend. There are still stores in the hands of independent bottlers that occasionally make their way to the market as single malt releases.

An 18-year-old bottling (1981-2000, 46 vol.) is available from Murray McDavid. It has a slightly deeper gold color than the Cadenhead (above), and a very light, almost transparent nose. Slight hints of dry oak, a very faint peatiness, and a thin wash of peach pit fruitiness. The palate is again quite light, sweet at first with a malty and fruity notes, then a creamy, nutty richness. The finish is surprisingly long, creamy, and a bit spicy.

A Cadenhead 19 year-old (1981-2000, 58 vol. sherrywood cask) is a light gold color. The nose has notes of oloroso sherry, along with oak, a peaty creaminess, an apple-like fruitiness, and a faint floral quality. The palate is quite smooth, dry, and has echoes of green apples.

North Port

Dismantled North Port was closed in 1983 and has been demolished. It is only available in increasingly rare independent bottlings.

Merchant Bottlings: North Port is enjoyable but not an outstanding malt.

Samplings from a 19 and a 20-year-old Cadenhead (both from the same 1976 distilling ) were very similar. The 20-year-old (61.7 vol.) had a light gold color and a light, dry, winey, cereal grain nose. The palate was slightly thick and chewy, with a dry fruitiness at first. The finish was somewhat spirity with lingering pear and some smoky notes.

A 1970 Connoisseurs Choice that I sampled in Scotland was more complex with a slight oakiness and salt added to mild sherry and smoke flavors.

Aberfeldy

Aberfeldy DistilleryIn 1846 in Perth, John Dewar, was one of the first merchants to sell whisky in “branded bottles.” As business grew, his son’s joined the firm and eventually opened the Aberfeldy distillery in 1898 to supply whisky for blending. In 1973 a new stillhouse was built.

Aberfeldy is still a major component of the Dewar’s White Label blend.

Distillery Bottlings: Unavailable in a distillery release in the US, though available in the UK in a 15-year-old bottling in United Distillers’ Flora and Fauna series.

Merchant Bottlings: A Cooper’s Choice 14-year-old (1982-97) is very pleasant. Pale gold in color, the nose is dusty, dry, slightly smoky, oaky, and peaty. Perhaps a touch of banana. A fairly thick body coats the tongue. Very smooth flavor, sweet then dry. Hints of banana again with an underlying peatiness.

Blair Athol

Blair Athol DistilleryI became lost as I drove into the village of Pitlochry, where Blair Athol is located. When I asked directions to the distillery at a local pub, the bartender and patrons had a great time upon learning that I was looking for the distillery. Jokingly, they begged to be taken along so they could have some of the free samples offered at the end of the tour.

Distillery Bottlings: Unavailable in a distillery release in the US, though available in the UK in a 12-year-old bottling in United Distillers’ Flora and Fauna series.

Merchant Bottlings: There are two Cadenhead releases available, a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old, both from a 1978 distillation.

Deanston

Deanston DistilleryThe Deanston distillery began production in 1965-66 in buildings that were originally built in 1785 as a cotton mill. Architect Richard Arkwright covered the weaving hall roof with earth and planted a garden as a method to cool what was then the weaving hall. The consistent temperature has proved perfect for warehousing the maturing stores of Deanston.

The product was originally released as 5-year-old Brannock Burn Malt, then released as an 8-year-old Deanston when the distillery was acquired by Invergordon. Like many other distilleries, it was closed in the mid 1980’s. In 1990 the blenders, Burn Stewart, purchased Deanston and began producing again. In 1993 Burn Stewart also acquired the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull.

Deanston uses only malted barley that is dried without the use of peat smoke. Deanston collects water from the river Teith in a dam about one-and-a-half miles from the distillery. A byproduct of the dam is electricity which powers Deanston, making it the only distillery in Scotland that generates its own power.

Distillery Bottlings: Deanston is released in 12, 17, and 25-year-old expressions.

The 12-year-old (40 vol.), is quite enjoyable. The nose has a pleasant creaminess with oak and vanilla. There’s a definite taste of age and maturity in this malt — my bet is there is a good amount of older whiskies in the mix. The palate is very clean, light, and continues that pleasant softness of oak and age.

The 17-year-old (40 vol.) has a bright orange-amber color an aromatic, earthy, and nutty nose. The palate is nutty, buttery, with a raw sugar sweetness. The finish is buttery, nutty and slightly chewy. A delicious whisky, unfortunately harmed by the reduction to 40 vol. There are hints of a potential richness that disappear in a watery blandness.

Merchant Bottlings: There are not many merchant bottlings available. My only samplings are two Cadenhead bottlings, both from a 1977 distillation.

A 19-year-old is unique and superlative. At 53.8 vol. the whisky is very drinkable but a touch of water opens up an exquisite nose — creamy, butter cookie, sponge cake. The nose goes on and on. The palate exhibits the same buttery richness which continues into a long, sweet finish.

The 20-year-old is naturally quite similar, and builds on that same buttery-nutty-creaminess. At cask strength (49.1 vol.) the nose has a pleasant oakiness with toffee, butter notes, hints of chocolate, and a slight smokiness. A bit of water brings out that incredible buttery, caramel-like sweetness. This isn’t a particularly complex malt, and the finish is somewhat one-dimensional, but that sweet rich, creaminess leaves you begging for more.

Edradour Distillery

Edradour DistilleryEdradour is the smallest, and one of the most picturesque of the distilleries. Rising up a small hillside, the buildings are quaint and village-like. I don’t know anyone who has visited the distillery and hasn’t come away loving it. Its very smallness contributes to a romantic image of owning, working at, or living next to a distillery.

Distillery Bottlings: The distillery started releasing a 10-year-old, (43 vol.), in the late 1980’s. The color is a full gold/bright amber. The nose is aromatic, with a ginger snaps spiciness layered over peat smoke, cookie dough, and toffee. The palate is sweet, clean, soft, and well balanced with fruity, brandy-like notes at first, then creamy and minty notes. The finish is drier, a bit spicy, slightly buttery, with notes of peat and smoke.

Merchant Bottlings: Probably due to the small output from the distillery (12 casks per week), few casks escape into the hands of independent bottlers, though merchant bottlings do appear from time to time.

A Signatory 21-year-old (1976. 52.3 vol.) is light gold with greenish highlights. The nose is sweet, with grassy, minty notes (and hints of peat and vanilla). The palate is creamy, buttery, and oaky. The finish is spicy, oaky, and slightly smoky.

Glenturret Distillery

Glenturret DistilleryGlenturret lays claim to being the oldest distillery in Scotland. Illicit distillings can be dated back to 1717 though the date of legal distillings is hard to trace. The date of 1775 is set in the foundation, so it is certainly one of the oldest distilleries. (Littlemill started as a brewery and converted to a distillery in 1772).

One interesting note: The distillery cat, Towser, was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world champion mouser. She reportedly caught a whopping 28,899 mice during her lifetime!

Distillery Bottlings: Glenturret is released in many expressions, from 8 to 25-year-old bottlings, and several older bottlings (1966, 1968, 1972). To my knowledge, none of these are available in the US.

Merchant Bottlings: A Signatory 20-year-old (1975-95, 53.6 vol.), was a very pleasant experience.
Yellow-gold in color, the nose had a delightful combination of nuttiness, oakiness, and an underlying hint of spices and anise. A medium, mouth-coating body, led to a creamy, smoothness. The palate had a sweet nuttiness that becomes quite dry in a long finish.

A 20-year-Old Blackadder bottling (1980-2000, 52.8 vol.), is a medium gold color with a lightly flowery, lemony nose that hints of tobacco and coffee. The palate is smooth and dry, with sweet, lemony and flowery notes. The finish is crisp, cleansing, and has a lingering pepperiness.

www.theglenturret.com

Tullibardine Distillery

Silent Tullibardine Moor is best known as the home of the Gleneagles resort and golf course. Whisky lovers know it as the home of the Tullibardine distillery.

The town of Blackford has a brewing history that dates back to at least the 12th century, and a special ale was brewed there for the coronation of James IV’s in 1488. There was a distillery in the town in the late 18th century but the current distillery was erected in 1947. Most of the distillery output has gone into the Scots Gray and Glenfoyle blends.

The distillery was mothballed in 1995.

Distillery Bottlings: Tullibardine is available in the US in a 10-year-old expression (43 vol.). It has a light gold color with a distinctive nose reminiscent of lemon meringue and sweet pastry. The palate is pleasantly sweet with a soft, buttery creaminess and vanilla notes. The finish has a cookies-and-cream sweetness. Very pleasant.

Merchant Bottlings: A bottling from Lombard’s Jewels of the Highlands series (1989-2000, 50 vol,), has a white wine color and a nose that has a mixture of cereal grains, a fruity-lemony sweetness, and a peaty creaminess. The body is thick, oily. The palate is similar to the distillery 10-year-old: sweet but not cloying, fruity with a crisp citric tang, and a rich buttery softness. The finish is buttery and fragrant, with spicy notes.