Wednesday, January 6, 2016

More on Feis Ile... Guest opinion - the infamous Steffen Bräuner

OMG He cracks me up!!!
So in continuation with my Feis Ile review and stories it's time to share another point of view from someone who has been to Islay 5 times but this was his very first Feis Ile festival. If you don't know Steffen Bräuner, by golly please get to know him. He's probably one of the funniest if not smartest bloggers I've ever met. Here is the blog he wrote about his trip to Feis Ile for 2015:

 I also asked Steffen to answer my 10 question survey that I had sent out to a few people who attended as I felt it was important to get as many opinions (from first timers like myself and Steffen to hardcore fans) Here is what he thought:

1. Do you think every whisky geek should attend Feis Ile at least once?

"Feis Ile
 is one the major whisky festivals in the world. If you were to make a survey I would guess most enthusiasts will have this in their top 3. I think this already answered the question! I wouldn't go every year because I like to visit many different whisky festivals. Of course, I can't do them all every year but I come back now and again."

2. What do you think is the best option for accommodations during the festival and why?

"I feel the best option is to get a cottage. Go with a group. Bring some whisky. Invite some people over. Drink some whisky. It's quite nice if you have a private dramming place for the evenings if nothing much else is going on." 
3. What was the best distillery day for you and why? 

"This is a tough question to answer. The distillery days are more less similar. I managed to get around Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Lagavulin. All distillery days and distilleries will have some special events, but they just sell out too fast. It would help if events capacity matched the interest.  

Laphroaig stood out for me. It had an ongoing set of mini tastings, around 5 different ones I think, if not more. All were three drams for a tenner, with different themes. These tasting went on all day and you couldn't book them in advance. But there was plenty. This was a great idea in my opinion. Laphroiag also offered the best whiskies for me and I really enjoyed all their anniversary bottlings: Cairdeas 2015, the new 15yo and the new 21yo.

Caol Ila and Lagavulin had similar events, on a much smaller scale though, where you could taste 2 or 3 casks samples in a blind tasting quiz. Also a very good idea."

4. What distillery day did you not enjoy and wouldn't recommend? 

"I didn't like Bruichladdich day at all. All events were basically sold out before they even hit the internet, and the possibilities to taste some interesting whiskies at the event were quite limited. For gods sake, take the whisky out of the events and make something fun available on the day itself as well. The few whiskies you could try were not my favourites, and for me personally I go to whisky festivals to try whiskies."
5. What did you appreciate and enjoy the most about visiting Islay?

"All the nice people I met and all the good whisky they brought along."
Our whisky hike up to the American Monument - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (I didn't forget Peter this time!!)

6. What about a visit to the youngest distillery - Kilchoman, would you recommend it? 

"I did not visit Kilchoman because… I have some issues with Kilchoman, and this trip didn't help, it just got worse. Anything they bottle not from ex-bourbon is terribly terribly sulphured for my palate (but not for most others), so this is a distillery I just can't get along with. A few odd things happened for me with this distillery as well when I was on Islay, some of them my own fault, but it all builds up to the fact that I will never be a big fan, to say it mildly."

7. What surprised you the most about this festival?

"The thing that surprised me the most about Feis Ile and/or Islay was the generosity of other festival guests, and the amazing whiskies they brought. A big part of the quality of this festival is created by the people attending."

8. What is the most valuable piece of advice you can give to someone about Feis Ile? 

"Start planning well ahead, probably 2-3 years in advance if you can because you need accommodations, which can be hard to find. I would also make sure to go with a group, as you have to spend 9-10 days on Islay if you want to experience the whole festival. That's a long time, and not much happens on Islay, which might suit some better than others. All the other times I have been to Islay was outside the festival and just 3-4 days every time, but the festival visit was my favourite."

9. Budget...?

"I don't usually do budgets but I guess the trip was cheaper than most other whisky trips I do. We didn't spend a lot of money on restaurants and bars, which, for me, has a huge impact on lowering the price of a holiday. Home cooking and private dramming can make a holiday cheap."

10. If someone said they only had one day to spend on Islay during Feis Ile  what would you recommend?
"Driving around to as many distilleries as possible to get some bottles, because… One day is way too short for Islay!! Both inside or outside of the festival dates. I would try to hit as many distilleries to get whisky. Not necessarily the festival bottling as there are a lot of other good offers. Bunnahabhain just introduced a very good 'bottle your own facility" with three casks, which in my opinion were some of the better offers. In fact these bottle your own Bunnahabhains were better than their festival bottlings. 
I would also make sure to get around the distillery day that just happens to be on the day you are there, just so you can experience the festival mood and if possible try to find in a Lagavulin Warehouse Tour. It's available outside of the festival timeline as well. I love it so much I've done it several times."

Well there it is, one of the most well travelled whisky people I know and love. It's funny how sometimes opinions can be so opposite. From my perspective I disliked Laphroaig day, loved Bruichladdich day and thought the Kilchoman day was superb!?  We agreed on a lot of the other stuff though like the kindness and generosity of other whisky enthusiasts from around the world. In the end, Steffen and I think the same which is sometimes if you simply take the focus OFF whisky, some pretty amazing things happen that usually involve fantastic whiskies...  Go figure!? All I can add to what Steffen thinks is that for me, Steffen, Bryan and yes Peter (I always seem to forget that poor guy) MADE my Feis Ile quite a special and amazing visit. I highly suggest you go with a group of people you like and bring out the best in whisky and friendships!

Here's to the lovely people we meet during the festivals we attend and may those friendships continue to grow over the years! I personally cannot wait to Spirit of Speyside where I will get to see many of the same people I hung out with at Feis!
May your whisky adventure be as full and wonderful as mine! I have a few more Feis Ile reviews to post. Up next was my day on Jura which was one of the most unforgettable days on my Scotland trip and a review from Ansgar and Thomas Speller, whisky writers/bloggers from the Netherlands. 

Huzzah my fine whisky fiends!!!


Monday, January 4, 2016

Guest Blog - Benoit Bailey, the peathead with a penchant for Littlemills

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! What better way to start 2016 with an interesting piece from a fresh faced whisky enthusiast! You see... Benoit Bailey and I have not met, yet... well not in the physical sense but we have been friends on twitter for some time (@RatherBeOnIslay) and most recently we had a fantastic evening on Skype sharing some whisky samples. During that conversation we also discovered we are going to be on Islay at the same time in May 2016 so we are both looking forward to hanging out, visiting distilleries or hiking together once we are there. 

Benoit loves peated whiskies, there is no doubt about that. So you can imagine my surprise when one of our twitter conversations turned to talking about Lowland whiskies?! Specifically, he has a healthy obsession with Littlemill. So when I received a sample of the Littlemill 25, 2015 Private Cellar Edition for review I thought it would be a great idea if he would review it with me. What followed was very unexpected but so much fun! Between the two of us we had 7 different Littlemills so we sent each other samples and picked a date to have a horizontal tasting. The results of that will come in a later blog, but for now here is Benoit's first whisky post ever: 

"Littlemill… Did you say Littlemill? I could understand Port Ellen, or even Brora, but, Littlemill…?? Well for a peathead like me, this is a strange choice as a favorite lost distillery especially in Canada where it is difficult to find Littlemill bottles. Well, in fact, it is Littlemill just because I am a peathead! 

This was the first non-peated whisky (Berry Brothers & Rudd Littlemill 1992 20 yo cask 9) that I tasted and truly enjoyed. You know that feeling of something being so good you want to open a new bottle as soon as the first one is finished! It's also the first time that I bought a bottle when in fact should have purchased the remaining lot before it was sold out ->Hart Brothers Littlemill 1989 21 yo first filled sherry butt, oh my!! 

I'm sure you have had that unfortunate feeling of regret at one time or another. After tasting that very first Littlemill, the floodgate opened and suddenly, there was way more to whisky than just the peated variety.

I understand that Littlemill mostly seemed to have a bad reputation. This is why up to recently, I was only buying the bottles that I could find tasting notes for. The low scores of the young official bottling’s on the Malt Maniacs’ Whisky Monitor Database are examples of this bad rep. 

No wonder this Lowlands distillery closed: a distillery needs to have a good "teen" whisky to be successful. However, if we look back at the Malt Maniacs’ Whisky Monitor Database, it is also apparent that the older independent bottlings of Littlemill get much better ratings – as well as much more appealing tasting notes. Could it be that Littlemill needs to spend at least 20 years of quality time in casks in a dark corner of a warehouse or simply that the independent bottlers got rid of the bad casks? Who knows? 

Maybe the recent official releases by Loch Lomond, the actual owner of the Littlemill brand, could give us an insight into that. However, my bottles of the 2012 as well as the 2014 release of the 21 yo are still unopened. I tried to register for the Whisky Wire Littlemill Flash Blog review of the 2015 Private Cellar Edition 25 yo to taste it but sadly to no avail…

From the few Littlemill I sampled, I can draw my own humble flavor profile of Littlemill:

1) Icing powdered sugar: Until recently I had never seen any review mentioning this. I was pretty insecure when I used this description. However, I now have found out that Michael Jackson described the Littlemill as “marshmallow, perhaps powdery icing sugar?” Talk about confirmation that I should stop being insecure about my description!!! 

Interestingly, this flavor was still present in a first filled Port Pipe I tasted as well as in the sherry butt bottle I mentioned earlier– the later tasted like candied white powdered doughnuts, and Homer Simpson would have liked them a lot. I have never done a pairing with these white powdered doughnuts, but as I write this, I realized that these two bottles might make a perfectly paired dessert dram with it! For me this is the staple flavor that defines Littlemill.
2) Fruity: Usually citrus but also tropical fruits. And lots of fruits, enough to get your daily ration of fibers and vitamin C in a dram! This is what I am looking in the tasting notes when I am on the hunt for the Littlemill. This is what got me hooked on it!

3) Vegetal: It's a flavour that I would describe as hay in a bad way, almost decaying hay - never tasted that but I am sure this is it! I could pick it up in some of the samples I tasted before but not as much as in the official 12 yo I recently open. This explains why this bottling is rated so low and probably why I was able to find one very recently in the USA at a decent price. But luckily, you can still taste the icing powdered sugar in it, which rendered it mildly enjoyable despite the vegetal notes.

I am likely to update this flavor profile as I open more Littlemill bottles in the future. I just wished I had as many different Littlemill bottles to taste as Menno, the initiater and owner of the web site, and the likely foremost collectionner of Littlemill.

On a final note, on my first trip to Islay, I decided to stop in Bowling, on the site of the former distillery, 15-20 minutes away from Glasgow International Airport to do a recon. The amazing header picture of the new @Littlemill2015 twitter account would have been useful as a guide at the time of my visit. Of the Littlemill distillery, not much is left. We can still see the enclosed distillery Exciseman's House on Dumbarton Road. Its deterioration is sadly chronicled on the Buildings at risk Register for Scotland

There are also remains of the distillery that were incorporated at each end of a modern apartment building at Littlemill Place that is across the Exciseman's House.  The other buildings were either demolished or destroyed by a fire. However, there is also a Littlemill Lane just west of the Exciseman's House with a building just off Dumbarton Road made in the same stones as the remains of the distillery found at Littlemill Place. If it was not part of the distillery, it must have been built in the same years.

I also walked to the Auchentorlie Burn, the water source of the former distillery and brought back would could have been future whisky. Did I say that I am a Littlemill fan or what? It can be easily access by a footpath/bicycle route that parallels and is between the main road, the A82, and Dumbarton Road.  This burn supplied water for the Little Mill, the mill on the estate of Auchentorlie, which was on the same site as the distillery and explains its name. Interestingly, we can see the burn disappears under Dumbarton Road to reach the River Clyde near the Exciseman's House on what was the distillery site. Further down Dumbarton road, well east of the Exciseman's House are also Littlemill Court apartment buildings that commemorate the mill and the distillery but without remains. 

There is an interesting YouTube video that shows the inside and outside of the abandoned distillery in September and October 1996. At 3:47 you can see shelves with bottles apparently left behind as well as some casks. The emptied racked warehouse as it appeared on October 1st 1996 is also shown at 5:26. Finally, the video shows crew at work from October 15th to the 30th demolishing buildings adjacent to the Exciseman’s House when it was clearly in better shape. Well, all this talk about Littlemill has left me really thirsty… Johanne, how about a tasting?"

Thank you Benoit for not only providing us with a walk through your experience in Scotland but some insight on this silent distillery. I've written previously that I had had a pretty bad first experience with Littlemills to the point where I was somewhat reluctant to try them again. Super glad I did a few times in 2015 as it's changed my mind, and with some insight on what bottlings I should be looking for, they are still somewhat reasonably priced as far as silent distillery whisky goes. 

In the coming days, I will be posting the results of my and Benoit's Facetime Littlemill horizontal tasting of 7 different bottlings. It was a great night with new discoveries including what we both thought of the Loch Lomond Group Littlemill 25. Stay tuned, there were some very interesting whiskies that night.

So here's to a new year, may your discoveries be as interesting as mine!



Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lassie's top 10 memorable drams for 2015 - #1 - Changing of tides

Well, here we are January 2016 and I've not only survived what was a super crazy 2015 but probably one of the best as far as whisky discoveries. I travelled extensively and shared some old or rare drams. I also tried many of the new whiskies on the market including NAS (I don't judge any whiskies until I try them first).

As mentioned before I topped over 400 new whiskies in 2015, so how does one choose THE most memorable dram for an entire year? In this case, it truly was easy because as soon as I tasted this particular whisky I knew... and with only 3 months left of the year, I highly doubted any other whisky would knock me flat on my ass the way this one did.

I need to say one thing before I reveal what it is. A huge thanks to Davin de Kergommeaux for the introduction to the whisky madman behind this whisky. It happened on a hot summer night in New Orleans and resulted in my most exciting whisky roadtrip of the year. You see, most of the "big" Canadian distilleries don't allow visitors, tours or explanations of how the whiskies are made. The new, independent or small craft distilleries are completely the opposite and not only invite the public in but promote complete transparency. 

Don, Johanne & Dave - Tales of the Cocktail NOLA
So, when Don Livermore handed me his business card and said shoot me an email if you ever want to come to Windsor to visit our operations I was not only intrigued but somewhat excited at the thought of touring a distillery that has traditionally been off limits. Once I got back home, I started to plan my annual trip to Toronto. I emailed Don and asked about making a detour to Windsor (it's about 5 hours away) to visit. Not only was I going to get to see every aspect of the Hiram Walker Distillery, Don was gracious in extending the visit to as many #whiskyfabric friends that I wanted to bring. I put the call out to the Toronto possé and quickly received a response from 3 people. Total there would be 5 of us lucky enough to get the most comprehensive distillery tour I have ever been on. There were no corners that were off limits so we truly did see the whole experience from grain to bottle AND then some...  

Any other distillery I have ever visited has never allowed access to the laboratory. Now mind you I never asked (well except for Macallan which was an immediate NO). I can tell you that being a whisky geek, going into the lab was heaven. The discussions that took place, the information we were allowed to see AND the new strain of rye they were working on was beyond magnificent to experience. I seriously got an adrenaline headache from the excitement that day. (We also toured the Canadian Club Brand Center with Tish Harcus that day - SIMPLY WOW)

The afternoon culminated with Don bringing us on a cornucopia of scents and flavours, which again I had never experienced before in all of the distillery tours I have ever been on. I and the others there with me that day received the most interesting and educational experience when it comes to barrel science. The end of our day with Don came with a full tasting of some of their best selling whiskies as well as three new products that were coming to the market for 2015. 

1. Gooderam & Worts, which I liked much better with water then without. Davin writes about it here:

2. JP Wiser's Double Still Rye, which I enjoyed immensely and purchased a bottle to bring home to New Brunswick.


3. JP Wiser's Hopped Whisky -> Which blew my whisky mind!

Let me tell you just a little bit about this very innovative product and yes, I'm not using that word lightly. About 10 years ago Don Livermore had a goal to create something unique that no other Canadian whisky distillery was doing. He wanted a flavour profile that would encompass bitter, sweet, spicy and sour. He began to examine and experiment with hops. 158 different samples to be exact. 

He made rye whisky, then let it age somewhere between 5-9 years then post production dry hopped the whisky with Bravo(western USA style hop). The result is simply divine (in my personal opinion).

Davin had wrote about the Hopped whisky in August and I had received a marketing email about its launch. I have to admit, I sort of did the whole eye roll thing when I read it all thinking.. yeah sure, bla bla bla... new interesting whisky, sure sure!

So that afternoon when Don handed me the third and final glass with the Hopped Whisky I seriously thought to myself... well here we go with another "flavoured" whisky on the shelf... 

Don handed me the glass and said: "I'm not going to say anything about this last whisky and let you tell me what you think". I smiled politely and took my glass over to a small table. I reached for my pen and notebook and began the usual process of nosing and tasting the whisky. 

Here was my first impressions that day:

Nose: WTF?! Rich, deep, hints of very delicate floral and really malty. Winter hay (the stuff that's been sitting in the barn since July)

Palate: Smooth, roasted coffee, dark chocolate. Stout? Porter beer?!

Finish: Slightly citric, nice sweetness at the back that lingers. Grapefruit pith. 

I looked up at Don completely perplexed and honestly just a bit freaked out. He smiled a big toothy grin and clapped his hands. I walked over to the bottle and picked it up. I poured myself a second dram (almost not believing what I had tasted the first time). "This taste like a creamy chocolate porter beer" I said to everyone. Don laughed out loud and watched the rest of the reactions take place. It's something completely different than anything else I have ever tasted. It's unique and yes, dare I say innovation done right. 

Again, I'll quote Davin: "This is not the first whisky ever made with hops. From time to time, early distillers in Canada and the US would use hops to improve sanitation in their fermenters." There are currently a few American distillers using hops in their process, but not like Don did. So, this is history in the making and I'm excited to see what Don has up his sleeve next.

JP Wiser's Hopped Whisky is only available on the Canadian market, so far and from a price point sells for less than $30/bottle. It is by far the best new whisky I have tasted in 2015 and for me also boast the absolute best value for money!

I'm no Jim Murray, but I also am picking a Canadian Whisky as my best memorable dram of 2015. I know my giving this my thumbs up won't cause the masses to run to the liquor stores which is absolutely fine by me. But I will say that unlike the one Mr. Murray chose as "near perfection", I will say I give my top 2015 dram an 89 based on nose, palate, finish, price tag and enjoyment factor. If you are a huge Canadian whisky fan, you'd be crazy not to get at least one bottle of this, especially for the price tag.

I very much look forward to what Pernod Ricard has in mind for JP Wiser's. A visitor center as well as public tours are in the works. They are the first of the large distilleries in Canada who see the potential for whisky tourism and that... is not only refreshing but a changing of the tides.

That was the year that was for this Lassie. It's January 2nd and I've already tasted 6 new whiskies so it's going to be quite interesting to see what 2016 brings.