Whisky Lounge – Islay ‘Blind Fury’ Tasting

Having rather foolishly double booked myself during the last Whisky Lounge event in London (a Springbank tasting that I was rather looking forward to that got dropped in favour of an evening of sherry) I grabbed a ticket to Mr Ludlow’s December extravaganza as soon as I could. This time the format was slightly different in that it was to be a blind tasting, with the whiskies revealed at the end of the night, focusing on whiskies from the whisky obsessed island of Islay.

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There are currently 8 distilleries on the island (with a 9th in the planning/building stages), which isn’t bad for a piece of land less than half the size of London and inhabited by only 3500 people. While traditionally Islay is known for its peaty spirit the distilleries produce a range of whiskies, with Bunnahabhain producing unpeated spirit (most of the time) and Ardbeg producing face melting bottles of smoky mud (also, most of the time). A blind tasting of these is quite interesting, as while each distillery has its own style different bottlings borrow ideas from the other producers, making things all a bit muddled. There are a few bottlings and distilleries that I reckon I could pick out, but I was interested to see how many I could guess. In the end though this blind tasting wasn’t about guessing. Knowing where the spirit in my glass has come from will often prompt an attitude or tasting note that comes from inside my head rather than from the glass. Tasting blind removes all of that and hopefully lets us taste without preconceptions.

IMG_6364It was a full house in the upstairs room of The Red Lion in St James’s and the man behind the Whisky Lounge, Eddie Ludlow, led the group through the whiskies. The plan was simple – we were to taste the whisky, talk about it and then give him a tasting note from each table to add to a record of the evening and compare against the other tastings of the same whiskies that he’d done around the country. We were the penultimate leg on his tour of the UK and the room did well in coming up with yet another totally different set of tasting notes for Eddie to try and consolidate. I was sat next to Chris Matchett, one of my occasional whisky buddies, a man well known for his lyrical descriptions of flavours – he was the one who came out with comments about bacon at the unsmoky The Glenlivet tasting last month…

IMG_6366First up was a coppery bronze dram that Eddie let us know was between 46 and 50% alcohol. On the nose it was sweaty and muddy, with camphor, apple, sea salt, a hint of oranges and salted caramel. To taste it had vanilla and light smokiness (more woody than peaty), with a syrupy texture and a dry, spicy wood finish. Water brought out more sweet creamy vanilla and some perfume from the wood, as well as some sticky glacé cherry. The tasting note we ended up providing was ‘Soggy marmite toast with salted butter and golden syrup, all spread with the same knife’, although Chris’s ‘Birkenstock sandals that someone else has been wearing all summer’ as one for just the nose almost pipped it. As an overall description his note of ‘A speyside whisky on holiday’ pretty much nailed it – not your usual Islay fair. My prediction for this one was that it was a sherried Bunnahabhain and I was rather pleased to see that I was right – it was Bunnahabhain 12 years old. This is a new version of their standard whisky, bottled at a stronger than before 46.3% and made up of a mix of bourbon and sherry casks. Totally unpeated and quite rich, it was a tasty start to the evening.

IMG_6369Next was a very lightly coloured whisky which we were told was between 50 and 55%. On the nose it was quite a big difference to the previous whisky – woody/muddy peat, mulchy seaweed, mint, mushrooms, pears, strawberry, cracked granite, meaty butter, a hint of the farmyard and a floral centre (maybe roses). To taste it maintained the muddiness from the nose adding in some piney smoke. It had a minerally, grassy finish that lingered around with a hint of the sweetly syrupy middle  flavour. Water tamed it nicely, adding orange, lime and a generic ‘fruitiness’ to the nose, pushing the smokiness back a bit. This revealed more stoniness and some sweet citrus hanging around in the middle. I didn’t have much of a clue on this one and put it down as maybe one of the peaty Bruichladdichs, focusing on the mineraliness. As expected I was entirely wrong – it was a Berry Brothers and Rudd 1989 Bowmore, bottled at 50.9% and 20 years old. Probably from a quite inactive cask and totally unlike any Bowmore I’ve tried before.

IMG_6372We then moved on to a darker dram, a nice yellow gold, which were told was 40-50%. On the nose there was sweaty salted butter, leather, marmalade, toast, lemon, mulch and Bisto gravy thickener (the brown cornflour rather than gravy granules). To taste it had a light caramel sweetness to start, with an oily mouthfeel, leading to a hot peaty finish through a core of creamy sugar and woody spice. Water extended the sweetness into the finish and softened the wood to a green twig sappiness. The smoke of the finish gave way to woodiness with orchard fruit and sweet and sour sauce. For this I guessed an Ardbeg, focusing on the peat/wood/sweet combination (which may not be general Ardbeg but for some reason sticks in my head), but was yet again entirely wrong. It was, instead, a bit of a ringer – Jura Prophecy. This has no age statement (although it’s probably 12-16 years old), is bottled at 46% and is the heavily peated expression of their range – a range of whiskies from the next island along from Islay, separated by a mere 250m of water. Eddie got round this ‘semantic’ argument by claiming that Jura was connected to Islay via an underwater causeway, and thus counted. There were murmurings…

IMG_6375Next up was a coppery dram that we were told was between 55 and 60%. On the nose there was turkish delight, dark chocolate, raisins, burned apple pie (very specifically listed by me as the burned bits on the top of the pie where the pastry cracks and the filling bubbles out, and by someone else as the layer between the filling and the pastry when the top has burned), bread and butter pudding, and a bed of meaty peat under it all. To taste it was very smoky, with a heavy coal smoke flavour almost obscuring vanilla and more apple pie. Water helped separate the flavours, leaving a spike of peat at the front leading to a sweet muddy mulch. The coal is calmed down to reveal vodka-like grain. Our note for this was ‘Apple pie and ice cream beside an iron coal stove’. This was the first whisky I was fairly certain of, writing down a definite Bowmore – the specific sweet smokiness is the flavour that I find in Bowmore and few other Islay whiskies, and this time I was right – Bowmore Tempest, a 10 year old whisky bottled at 56%. This one was from the second batch they’ve made of this and was matured in first fill bourbon casks.

IMG_6374Our penultimate dram was very light and between 46 and 49%. From the nose I was certain I knew which distillery it was from – a strong smell of the farmyard, light alcohols, white cabbage, menthol, caraway, vodka, a light oiliness (the smell of ‘flavourless’ cooking oils) and white pepper. It smelled young and was quite thin and prickly. To taste it had a creaminess combined with the smoke, bringing to mind Bavarian smoked cheese tubes. It also had sweet root vegetables, lots of caraway and a pleasantly creamy mouth feel. A drop of water brought out tropical fruit, sour wood and mulchy peat as well as more cream. I was certain that this was Kilchoman, the island’s newest distillery, as the whisky tasted very young and similar to the new make spirit and not-mature-yet ‘whiskies’ that I’ve had from them. Yet again I was wrong – it was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat Batch 10, a blended malt bottled at 46% and made up of whiskies from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen (although as the latter is closed and bottles go for silly amounts of money we assumed that there wasn’t much of it in there). This is a really young tasting whisky and ones that makes me want to crack open the bottle of Kilchoman I have hiding at the back of my cupboard.

The last whisky of the night was a pale gold, and between 55 and 60%. On the nose it had golden syrup and salt, burning grassland, mint, white grapes and a stony minerality. To taste it was sweet with and almost cloying peatiness backed up by wood smoke. There was also sweet fruit (apple and strawberry?), fragrant tea and pepper. Water brought out lime and vanilla on the nose, and sherbert, wet carpet, cinnamon, lemon & lime, spiced orange peel and a tarry finish to the taste. Again, I was fairly certain I knew what this one was (especially bolstered by 6 drams as I was by this time) and both wrote down and called out Laphroaig Quarter Cask, focusing on the sweet peatiness and minerality that I find in that whisky. Predictably I was wrong again – it was a cask sample from Ardbeg. Drawn from the cask (a first fill bourbon barrel) quite recently it was at the cask strength of 56.3% and was distilled in 2000.

In the end I was quite pleased with two out of six, especially as most of my other guesses made sense (at least to me) and weren’t blind stabs in the dark. It was also nice to taste things without any foreshadowing, letting my subconscious whisky snob stay asleep and not jump in with its ideas. The evening was wrapped up by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Hain knocking out a quick rendition of his song One More Dram (last heard at The Whisky Show a month or so ago, accompanied by Colin Dunn in the Connosr Whiskypod) before Eddie had to run away to the snowy north again. There are already plans afoot for next year’s events and there is also a new Whisky Lounge dram appearing soon – Dram 101. It’s a blended malt with about 50 components and was put together by Eddie as a follow up to last year’s Whisky Lounge Festival Dram. It should be available from the Whisky Lounge website soon, maybe even before Christmas but so far the only evidence of its imminent existence are a couple of tweets and this video

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At the end of the tasting we all scored the whiskies out of 100 (something that I hate doing, hence the lack of scores on this site) and Eddie is now collating the results from all of the tastings ready for release to see which whisky came out top overall. My favourite of the night was the Berry Brother’s Bowmore, followed by the Big Peat, so I’ll be interested to see what the group reckoned.

Bunnahbhain 12 Year Old (new bottling)
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46.3%. ~£30 from The Whisky Exchange.

Berry Brothers & Rudd 1989 Bowmore
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 50.9%. ~£60 from BBR.

Jura Prophecy
Single Malt Jura Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£50 from Master of Malt.

Bowmore Tempest 10 Year old
Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56%. ~£40 from Master of Malt.

Big Peat
Blended Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 46%. ~£30 from Master of Malt.

Ardbeg first fill bourbon cask sample
Single Cask Single Malt Islay Scotch Whisky, 56.3%. Not available unless you go to the distillery and beg or rob Eddie.

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