Friday, November 6, 2015

drams by the water: Laphroaig

And so we come to the end of our wild romp in Islay.

If I was that kind of fellow, I would call this trip life-changing. Let's put that hyperbole to the side for now. What I will say is that the entire time we were on the island, we felt how special Islay is. Its rolling hills, its green pastures, its friendly people ... what an amazing little corner of Scotland.

Laphroaig was our last stop. And truth be told, we were tired. What an incredible touch then, for our host to just say Don't worry about a thing. Let me pour you a few drams and you go enjoy yourself by the water. So we sat by the harbour, taking in the sun. It's in these moments of quiet thought, when you're so relaxed yet focused on tasting that you experience things. Such a rare moment, but I was struck by how much what I was tasting in the glass was making sense with what I was also experiencing from my surroundings ... the slight salinity of the wind blowing off the water, the smell of seaweed laid out by the retreating tide, the whiff of malting barley coming off of Port Ellen. Wow. Truly an imitable experience. As it turns out, Laphroaig has some pretty impressive marketing chops as well. They have a membership program in which you 'own' a square foot of land, receiving payments in the form of a dram of whisky whenever you visit. We planted our flags, we staked our claim. We are now proud owners of 4 square feet of land in Islay.

What a trip. What a run on the whisky trail.


Select: Sweet peatiness, good roundness from the oak. Alcohol is hidden. Spicy on the palate, some oak. A soft, round whisky.

10 Year Old: The standby. Honey and some spice, integrated alcohol. Gives you some saline, mineral elements.

10 Year Old Cask Strength: Bottled at 58% abv, very sweet here, thick and slightly candied. Again, very well integrated alcohol. A very powerful, spicy palate.

18 Year Old: Sweet, almost like bourbon. Thick and rich. Spicy and saline, but remaining quite elegant.

Triple Wood: Lots of, you guessed it, woody notes. Some smokiness. Very spicy, viscous, and round, finishing slightly bitter.

Quarter Cask: A very young whisky at around 5 years of age. and finished in (as the name suggests), small casks for about 10 months. Of the 6, definitely the most peat-forward. Saline and bright - very good indeed. Thick, creamy texture. Great peat flavours, finishing quite spicy. At 48% abv, alcohol near imperceptible. A fantastic expression.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

the shelter of the beast: Ardbeg

We look pretty good don't we. My boy even soaked his socks trying to get that shot. Totally worth it.

Ardbeg was different - polished, elegant, and yes, the distillery that gives off the most obvious 'my parent company is rich' vibes - but man, what a whisky. This is an LVMH property with all the benefits that that entails ... above all, master marketing. The product diversification and storytelling is one thing (blasting bottles to the International Space Station, one-off anniversary bottles, etc.), but check this out: once they did a press event where they invited famous beverages journalists and writers to come camp in Islay. Only this wasn't some ratchet plastic tents and sleeping bags weekend of roughing it. LVMH don't do that shit. Luxury tents, attendants, furs laid out ... you can imagine.

I love marketing because of the possibilities it gives you to share stories. I don't know if the perception still holds of marketers being glorified pitchmen, selling fugazis to poor, unsuspecting victims, but that's not what it is. Marketers shouldn't create stories out of nothing. You distill the essence of what you're trying to communicate about something - a product, a service, anything - and you find ways to share that message with the right audience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never market for a company whose offerings and business you don't truly believe in. Anything less, and you're selling your soul.

This place is cool. There are pictures of their jack russell mascot everywhere - and you get so bummed when you find out he died. First thing you see on the way is the shop. Bottles of whisky on sale, claro que si, but they also sell glassware, souvenirs, and even clothing. Yes, Ardbeg branded overcoats available for a few hundred quid. On the other side of the building is a restaurant, where we had (an excellent) lunch on our last day. Good beer on tap too. Once inside the actual distillery though, a throwback just like the rest. After Lagavulin ... almost too much of a good thing. Almost


10 Year Old: Bottled at 46% abv. Lovely peaty notes, and really smoky. Slight salinity. Great texture, lots of peat following on the palate. Powerful.

Corryvreckan: Cask strength. Much sweeter, almost like new make out of the still. Very spicy, lots of alcohol on the palate. A little difficult to drink - harsh and very unforgiving.

Uigeadail: Some roundness from the oak, but very peaty on the nose. You feel the alcohol, at 56.3% abv - cask strength. Spicy and powerful, lots of texture. Very good here, with a slight sweetness, plenty of richness. Incredibly exciting, and a bottle I had to take home with me.

Galileo: A one-off bottling. Sweet and round, an almost blended malt character. Good but otherwise unremarkable.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

making the pilgrimage: Lagavulin

This was not a visit - this was a pilgrimage.

As solemn as stepping foot into an ashram, Lagavulin's name inspires awe, wonder, and even a little bit of fear. And although (thankfully) the pants remained dry, for the first time in my life as a wino, I had doubts. Would I be worthy of fully appreciating what I was about to see and taste? Would it live up to the expectations I had in mind - everything emitting a soft glow, angelic choruses singing praises, a cathedral organ hidden somewhere? I went in as a believer. I came out as a fanatic.

Perhaps our amiga on this trip said it best (her quote below in the tasting notes). What lingered was this sense of privilege that we were here, that I was living some sort of Ron Swanson-ian dream. You see, Lagavulin is a throwback. Their legacy bottling, the 16 Year Old, is one of the older expressions of Islay whisky, and is unapologetic for how it's produced. There's this trend of brand positioning happening in whisky - that is, the notion that being non-interventionist is a good thing, that that preserves the true character of the whisky. Namely, the techniques of colouring and chill-filtering are being described as bad, and processes that strip the whisky of all that is interesting about it. Nearly everyone we met insisted (and it is now printed on all labels) that their whisky's do not use these techniques.

So first, maybe we should explain what these two procedures are, and their purposes in whisky production.

Colouring: Caramel colouring for spirits, designated E150a, is just that - used to adjust the colour of a whisky. You can make the argument that it affects/distorts the flavour, but really, it doesn't. A great piece on this by Dramming.

Chill-filtering: This is the process whereby the whisky is chilled to between -10° and 4°C, and then filtered. Its purpose is to remove residue, namely oils from the whisky, and acts to make a more stable dram. It prevents any residue from forming with age, and avoids the whisky becoming cloudy or hazy when water (or ice) is added. Important to note: cloudiness occurs only with whiskys under 46% abv. Again, its critics claim that for cosmetic reasons, distilleries who use this technique are also stripping the whisky of a lot of character.

In the end, what is in the glass overrides all else. And what I want to say is that even with added colour, even with chill filtering ... Lagavulin 16 Year Old is a superior whisky. Rich yet subtle, with exceptional pedigree and breed. He is truly a regal scotch - a powerful expression of the Islay character, perfect in balance and elegance.


New make spirit: Fresh off the still - moonshine! At 63.5% abv, had to reduce with a drop of water to even put my nose near the glass. Great sweetness from the malt. Smoke and peat come up underneath, surprising complexity even at this fetal stage. Intensity and force. Sweet on the palate, slight smokiness. Truly exciting stuff, and something I wish I could have bottled to take home.

16 Year Old: The old standby, the great-granddaddy of them all. Reduced to 43% abv out of the cask. Aged in mostly American oak. Beautiful fresh citrus notes on top, with a slight salinity. Peat comes up at the end. So subtle and elegant. Complex on the palate, giving you nutty, smoky, and mineral notes. What a texture, oily and long. Truly the gold standard for what it means to be an Islay whisky. As one of our buddies said: Before coming to Islay, my favourite was Lagavulin 16. Now, it is still Lagavulin 16. 

Distiller's Edition: This is a 16 year old whisky aged in bourbon casks, and finished for 6 months in pedro ximenez casks. Bright aromas, slightly raisiny. Very elegant. Lots of wood on the palate. Round, with the alcohol well-concealed. Slight spice as well, and clearly a softer, sweeter expression of whisky.

Friends of Lagavulin Triple Maturation: A one-off - possibly over 14 years old, aged first in American oak, then European, then back in American. Bottled at 48% abv, total of 4000 bottles. Aromas of sweet oak, with a lot of depth and richness. Smoky, spicy palate.

12 Year Old Cask Strength: A young Lagavulin bottled at 55.1% abv. Aged in bourbon casks. Very fragrant aromas of sweet corn. Alcohol well integrated, but nevertheless powerful. Slight peatiness as well on the nose, which then comes up big on the palate. With water, builds in complexity. Interesting, but just not as elegant or put-together as the 16 year old. 


Monday, October 19, 2015

just made it: Caol Ila

And I thought pronouncing it correctly would be our biggest challenge. Turns out it was making it to our appointment on time.

We didn't. Bruichladdich took much longer than expected, and we took a wrong turn heading out. So, an hour late, and with our tour guide already at home in front of the fire, we were shit out of luck. Nothing to do but have a quick taste and well, bugger off. It was our own damn fault.

No real story here - just a mess of taking our sweet time at the previous appointment, getting lost in country roads, and ultimately, having too good of a time to care. You'll have to excuse the notes. We were rushed, and perhaps I don't quite do them justice, but it is what it is. This distillery is owned by Diageo, another example of great stewardship. Beautiful facility, all glass windows and modern. The largest production of all Islay distilleries, and my buddy Hiro's favourite dram ...

Caol Ila

Moch: A simple whisky - smoky, grainy, a little rough.

12 Year Old: Lean here, aromas of straw. Alcohol quite prominent.

Distiller's Edition: Slightly smoky here, a little lean. Definitely fuller in body than the rest though, with good concentration on the palate.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

being progressive: Bruichladdich

Super cool, old mechanical machinery, fabulously expensive barrels, and a taste of a whisky no longer produced.

Bruichladdich has had an interesting story - a bit of mess of acquisitions and almost buy-outs, closed down for a few years, before finally being acquired in 2000 by a group of private investors. Its modern history, thus, begins as of May 29, 2001, with the commencement of distilling following months of restoration work on the facilities. From that mess comes now a distillery that, some might say, is one of the most well-known and well-distributed Islay whiskys. From a marketing perspective, Bruichladdich follows a philosophy of (extreme) portfolio diversification, well-designed hospitality packages, and an embrace of modern branding. How so? It all became apparent as we wandered through the distillery, making our way to the cellar for a very special tasting ...

Let's start with the hospitality. Most distilleries/wineries/breweries follow the typical itinerary: we'll take you on a tour around the facility, we'll do a tasting, and then it's your turn to buy shit. But why not shake things up? What not offer visitors tiered packages to choose from? Bruichladdich offers this - a tasting in their cellar from cask of some of their rarest whiskys, followed by a more conventional tasting in their visitor's centre. How could I say no? Especially when they even offer to let you handle the wooden pipette to draw out samples yourself. A different, memorable experience indeed.

The portfolio diversification. Unlike many (most) other distilleries, Bruichladdich isn't too considered about producing a legacy bottling (10 yr, 12 yr, 16 yr, etc. bottlings). That may be due to a simple lack of sufficient stock due to those decades of mismanagement and mothballing of the distillery leading up to its acquisition in 2000. Why not take what you're given - a low inventory and a cellar full of random casks - and shape your entire production/marketing strategy around it? You take what casks you have, offer limited quantity bottlings, and market a product that's not particularly 'fine' or 'typical', but simply rare and different. That's the strategy many New World wineries take ('Reserve' and 'Single-Vineyard' bottlings), and it remains to be seen whether it's prudent long-term, but in the meantime, the bottles are selling. These companies understand the modern consumer, who in many ways, no longer has taste, judgement, or patience, but instead demand novelty as a misguided notion of connoisseurship. The other perspective, I suppose, is the spirit of experimentation being exhibited by the distillery, which should be commended. The cellar is full of used casks from some of the most famous (and expensive) estates of Bordeaux - all the First Growths, including Yquem. They also do vintage, single-cask bottlings, which is very rare for Scotch (and rather meaningless in terms of quality, as we were to taste). They even dusted off an old still, and now produce a gin.

And finally, branding. In a sea of dark bottles and embossed, grand-looking labels, Bruichladdich has certainly adopted a unique look. Not much more to say, really, but that the next time you visit a liquor shop, stand at a distance in front of the Scotch display. Which bottle do you notice first?

I enjoyed the visit, I really did, despite a pair of truly obnoxious American tourists who joined the tasting. Relative to the other distilleries we visited, however, Bruichladdich seems so ... slick. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but as a marketing professional and whisky enthusiast, sometimes it's hard to reconcile the two.


1989 cask sample: Unpeated and aged in bourbon casks. 53.5% abv. Sweet, malty characters, complex, light, and fine. Slight salinity, fabulously clean mineral aromas. Alcohol hidden, despite its strength. Good texture - long, intense, spicy finish. 

Port Charlotte (2005 cask sample): Aged in Spanish garnacha casks. At 61% abv, the most alcoholic whisky we would taste. Sweet and raisiny, lots of creamy, butterscotch notes. Alcohol very obvious. Slight salinity here as well. Spicy, very dry on the palate - I would nearly say tannic. Very peaty, lots of extract and spice. Powerful is an understatement. A really exciting whisky to taste.

Octomore (2002 cask sample): The most heavily peated whisky, aged in Yquem casks, 56.4% abv. Sweet nose, plenty of butterscotch and caramel notes, underlined by peat. Very saline palate, and yes, peatiness. Extract and grip, with a fabulous malt character.

The Botanist Islay Dry Gin: Resurrecting an old still, this gin is produced with botanicals found on Islay. Lovely aromas, but lacking texture and depth. Alcohol again a touch unbalanced. In a gin tonic, easily overpowered by the sugary mess of a tonic that is UK Schweppes. 

Overall, the cask samples were a really wonderful opportunity to taste rare, single barrel, and vintage-dated whiskys. But could they be bottled as is? I don't think so - to me, they seem to lack the 'completeness' of good whisky. Each one had an element that would elevate it, whether it was complexity in the aroma, texture, or balance. While cask-strength whiskys are currently in vogue, there's a reason why most distilleries bring the strength down to the low 40's abv. More than anything, this tasting was a lesson in the importance of blending.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

by way of introduction: Bunnahabhain

I'm almost a little sheepish in saying so, but I'm not really a whisky man.

Or rather, I was not but now I am. Heading into this tasting trip, I was the lone man out in our group of 4. I was the one who was 'not really a whisky drinker, just intellectually interested'. What a crock. MBA's can be so full of shit sometimes. It took half a day of visiting distilleries for me to drop that line. I was in whisky heaven.

So, as way of introduction, we began the whisky trail at Bunnahabhain. As you may know, this distillery produces more rounder, tamer, and less peat-forward whiskys, and is more well known for its blends. We were taken around the distillery, and saw, smelled, and even tasted every single step along the way. A great education in whisky-making and the distilling process, but what struck me was this notion of ownership in Islay. You see, each of these distilleries here has been acquired by a multinational beverages company, including the giants Diageo and Suntory. The company that owned Bunnahabhain, Burn Stewart Distillers, was itself bought by Distell Group Ltd. in 2013. So, no local owners. Certainly no 'original family' per se. Being owned by these conglomerates gives these distilleries access to virtually any market on the planet, as well as the keys to heavy marketing resources, distribution infrastructure, and some very deep-pocketed customers. That changes some things, doesn't it? When demand is off the charts and all the distilleries on Islay are compelled to run 24/7 (no joke), it's time to emphasize less on age expression and more on the brand, no? 

What an eye-opener to see that no, that's not what they're doing. That, despite the horrors told about those profit-hungry, moral-less multinational bootleggers, these companies are actually really responsible, protective stewards of these brands. It's what we found inside that proves it. The workers are still all locals, and amazingly enough, many are from the same family. Who knew that working in whisky factories was a generational vocation, like Michigan Ford plants. At most there are only a handful of people in the distillery at one time - workers are divided into 3 around-the-clock shifts, and the factories are designed in a way that there really isn't that much heavy lifting to do. I asked about the age expressions - if demand was so high, at some point the distilleries are going to run out of old whiskys for the blend, no? That's why we have to be careful, was the answer. We have to limit how much we produce, both to ensure our age expressions remain, and our brand doesn't fizzle out


12 Year Old: This is their first singe-malt bottling, and is unpeated. Aged in bourbon and sherry casks. No chill-filtering, and bottled at 46.3% abv. I get more bourbon influence, more sweet char and caramel. Good malt aromas, but a bit shy. Lean texture. A whisky that really benefits from a drop of water to fill out.

18 Year Old: Almost aged entirely in sherry cask, unpeated, and also bottled at 46.3% abv. Immediately sweet on the nose, lots of fruit. Big palate, intense and concentrated.

Toiteach: Peated at 15-17 ppm, bottled at 46% abv. Very light in colour, but showing lots of smoke. Very powerful alcohol, smokiness continues on the palate. More elegant with water.

Cruach-Mhòna: Purely peated malt at 35-40 ppm, 50% abv. You get a lot of smoke again, but with great depth and earthy, peaty qualities. Great palate, very balanced and viscous. Peatiness follows on the palate. An extraordinary whisky.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

the overnight in Glasgow to catch a boat in the morning


Islay's always had this mystical, storied sheen to it - the sort of place only people who know talk about, a sort of misty, rolling hills place of dreams. Last October, I was privileged to spend 3 days on this magical island on a tasting trip with classmates, all of whom were whisky enthusiasts. As the only one who had a background in wine & spirits, I wanted to firstly learn about the whisky category as a whole, before understanding the specificities of Islay whisky. And as someone who rarely drinks whisky, what started out as an intellectual interest quickly turned into something much, much deeper ...

That cool cat in the red is my buddy Hiro. Hiro-San is a finance guru from Tokyo who also is an extremely experienced whisky drinker. We met during Intensive Spanish classes, before school even began. Our first conversation, during one of the first BoW (Bar of the Week) events, went something like so:

Hi, I'm Hiro, from Japan. My dream is to go to Scotland, and taste whisky. 

      Oh really? What do you like? I've actually always wanted to visit this little island called Islay.

I love Islay. That is my dream too. Let's plan a trip.

And so, nearly 13 months later, we found ourselves boarding a Ryanair flight to Glasgow. During the summer, as I was planning the trip, we recruited 2 more classmates to join - we would be the IESE contingent on the whisky trail, spreading our good name and hopefully making some connections for the Wine & Spirits Club. After a dinner and quick nap in a Glasgow hostel, we set out at 3am for the ferry dock, a good 3 hour drive away. We had a full day of classes the day before, and by the time we boarded the ferry, I was wrecked. Passed out on the sofas on the upper deck the entire ride. It was nearly 10am by the time we caught glimpse of Ardbeg, saw the smokestacks of the Port Ellen malting factory. 

We were finally on Islay - mystical, storied, magical Islay.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit ...

Last year, on the first weekend of October, I flew to Munich with a big group of friends. We had been planning this trip since June.
We saw monuments and the cathedral - the only pre-war building remaining (Munich was nearly razed flat by British bombs).
We saw beautiful gardens, despite the gloomy weather that was a world away from bright, sunny Barcelona.
But really, we were here for this. To experience the madness of Oktoberfest.
And what madness it was.
We brought a little bit of Catalunya with us to Bavaria ...
... but amidst the haze and singing ...
... toasting and napping ...
... we decided it would be more fun to make some new friends ... 
... and begin accumulating Maß ...
... after Maß after Maß ...
... until we (I) had drunk ourselves to oblivion. Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, Der Gemütlichkeit!! What a trip.