Its early days and I suppose things can only get better. However, my first two tastings of Abhainn Dearg have left not only a bad taste in the mouth but a reluctance to even countenance buying a dram. Buying a bottle was out of the question anyway. £150 for 50cl of a 3yo whisky stretches my sporan a bit too much.
Earlier this year, I was intrigued to see a quarter-cask of 9-month old Abhainn Dearg at MacSorelys in Glasgow. It was interesting though I have tasted spirit of a similar age that has been fantastic. Recently, I was very pleased to see a bottle of the recently released 3yo in Queensferry's famous Ferry Tap. In short, it was vile. I actually struggled to finish the dram. It tasted like the contents of the cleaner's pail - dirty, watery and not at all pleasant. A long long way from elegant and pleasant peaty drams of which we now have many.
As I've not heard anyone else mention this, I wonder if its a case of the emperor's new clothes? If so, apologies for rocking the boat but sometimes a spade has to be called a spade.
Its a shame as it is one new distillery that I'd really like to succeed. Outer Hebridean malts have been missing from the market for too long. As well as that, new enterprises in these sparsely populated areas are very much welcome. The bottom line is, that if they make unpleasant whisky and sell it at sky-high prices, then that success may be as remote as Uig itself.
Good news today from BBC Alba that permission has been given for a new distillery on East Loch Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. Eilean na Hearadh for those who don't know is a stunningly beautiful and rugged island but one with an ageing population and few job prospects for locals. The Isle of Harris Distillers company are hoping to create up to 20 jobs. This is major employment for an area that usually sends its youngsters to the mainland for employment or further education.
Its also good to see our uisge-beatha being made again in our Gaelic-speaking heartlands. Further up the coast is an Abhainn Dearg whose first 3-year old malt was recently released on the world. Unfortunately, the price as £150 for only 50cl is a bit steep. Having tasted some Abhainn Dearg 9 month old spirit earlier this year which was best described as 'interesting but rough', it's probably fair to say that AD is a work in progress.
There are also the persistent rumours of a distillery in Barra. Uisge-Beatha nan Eilean has apparently been raising funds for some years now and secured planning permission. However, its 'distillery' appears to be little more than a windswept moor at this point in time. Ditto, the late Sir Iain Noble's plans for a new distillery at Torabhaigon Skye's Sleat peninsula. Another Skye malt would be very welcome.
Here's hoping that there's a new 'archipelago' of island malts which we can savour in years to come as well as a new clutch of distilleries to visit.
Inchgower must be one of the most underrated of all malts. It is not difficult to purchase from online sources but not much seems to be made of this joy of a whisky though I have yet to taste a mediocre dram from this distillery. Independent bottlings seem to make up most of its available public presence. As most of it goes into Bells, not much more that 1% actually makes it to a single malt. The first time I encountered it though was via the Flora and Fauna bottling released by its owner Diageo. Bottled at a 'low' 43% it was nevertheless a fine dram with a long slightly salty finish that seemed to bungee back to the tongue after you thought it was all over.
From there, things moved onto a 11yo single cask bottling from Cadenheads which came in at a healthy 61%. A fruity nose with some salt gives way to a creamy palate before finishing like salty throat pastilles.
There was no way I was gonna fork out £250 odd for Diageo's 'Manager's Choice' offering. However, thanks to a Jolly Toper tasting in Edinburgh, I got the chance to try this expensive wee gem. Superb stuff indeed. But was it any better than the Cadenhead's one at £40ish?
The Bladnoch Forum bottlings were always excellent value for money and the 28yo from hogshead 6965 at 50.4% didn't disappoint. Great nose - like spilling mango smoothie on a machair meadow. Another reviewer thought the palate was like eating lemon meringue pie with a metal spoon. I'd go with that but replace the metal spoon with a dollop of molasses. The finish is smooth like a lemony Baileys. Very tasty.
Bladnoch as previously mentioned was kickstarted by Raymond Armstrong. Now, his son is in on the business and sells a few casks and bottles under the name of Whisky Broker. He seems to be continuing the trade in good value but good quality whisky if his Inchgower 36yo for a mere £50 is anything to go by. Other 36yo bottlings from the same batch go for between £75 and £115. This one is from hogshead 7756 and was distilled way back in 1974. A review of a 'sister cask' isn't far of the mark for this one either. Here the nose is a mixture of lemon and honey. Palate is very smooth but light and citrus with some metallic notes and yon Inchgower salt. Finish is medium to long with some grass and brown sugar.
The only Inchgower that I haven't been that impressed with was the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's 'Hippie Dram' and that's probably because of the high benchmark set by other bottlings.
Inchgower is an intruiging dram that rarely disappoints and one that I look forward to tasting a lot of in the future. Lastly, here are some interesting articles which give more background to the distillery and status of this whisky:
Fife is a strange place. It houses Scotland's oldest university which is also the one of choice for those who don't make it to Oxbridge. It's East Neuk is hoachin' with beautiful old fishing hooses that have been turned into potteries and galleries. The fishwives are thin on the ground these days. Fife was also the only constituency ever to return a Communist MP to the Westminster parliament. It still had a few Communist councillors until recently. It also sent hundreds of volunteers to fight Franco and the rise of fascism in '36 Spain. No reds in today's East Neuk though... Fife like most of Scotland has embraced Salmond's vision for our nation.
Fife now has its own malt whisky distillery - Daftmill - named after a quirk in the local topography whereby the Daft Burn appears to run uphill. Daftmill is actually a working farm though its relationship to the whisky industry is not a new one. For years it has sold award-winning barley to various key players in the industry including Macallan. It maintains that operation but is now operating on a 'traditional' basis. Tradition has it that in the auld days, farmers would, once the season of toil was over turn their hand to whisky distilling during the winter months. This is the plan for Daftmill anyway.
Daftmill started distilling in 2005. The oldest whisky currently maturing is 4 years old. Fine stuff it is too. Most of it is in first fill bourbon casks though there are some sherry around. Some new distillers, including a certain small Islay enterprise, have due to the pressures of investment, rushed out new spirit as well as 3 year old bairns. Daftmill hope to wait until ten years before releasing the fruits of their labour onto the market.
The setting for this farm distillery is superb. A large millpond is visible on the approach to the farm steading. Various old buildings have been redeveloped and now house washbacks and stills. An auld byre now acts as the treasury.
Daftmill don't do 'distillery tours' as of yet but a polite email or phone call to the Cuthbert family who have farmed here for six generations could result in an invitation to view the new enterprise. In the company of an interested German whisky connoisseur and tour operator, I get an indepth viewing from grist to cask sample. Funnily enough, we are told that visitors are few and far between. Surprisingly, certain well known writers in the whisky world have yet to knock on the door.
This is certain to change as the date for the first bottling gets closer. I for one feel privileged to have tasted Daftmill in its infancy.
Daftmill will be aiming to produce a classic Lowland malt, matured in bourbon casks. We're told that a Rosebank type malt is something that is aimed for. Whatever, we get the current full menu of new make spirit, bourbon and sherry. All are superb.
The sherry cask was my personal favourite though it was probably just a scrotal hair ahead of the bourbon in quality. The other two disagreed. The Daftmill sherry at 4 years old reminded me a lot of Aberlour's lip-smacking A' Bunadh. It has a full, sweet and viscous palate. There was something musty about it too - like an old library with antique leather chairs. Absolutely delicious. If I were to hazard a comparison with other drams then the aforementioned A' Bunadh would be there along with the Gordon & MacPhail 12yo Imperial and possibly even the Edradour Natural Cask Strength.
The bourbon cask was altogether different - lighter and with the expected vanilla and toffee flavours. I was reminded of a Glenkinchie cask strength that I had tried though this didn't find favour with Mr.Cuthbert. He preferred Rosebank as a comparison.
I won't bother regurgitating the history of Daftmill here - their website provides all of that. Should the opportunity present itself though, go and visit it. I for one would welcome the chance to taste a 6 or 7 year old from the cask. Its refreshing to meet ordinary Scots who have the vision and balls to go out and create something of quality. Independent distilleries are very much to be supported. I'm sure that all this fits well into the 'new' Scotland and Salmond's own vision.
Always good to get in a distillery or two during the spring break. And its always good to get to the Isle of Skye. Unlike the much smaller Islay, Skye only has 'two' whiskies though only one has its distillery on the island and only one has its offices based there.
Talisker is of course the only distillery and makes up the 'island' element of Diageo's Classic Malt collection. Talisker must be one of the remotest distilleries in Scotland due to the sheer size of Skye and the lack of regular and reliable public transport. The new Abhainn Dearg on Lewis is certainly as remote in geographical terms - tucked away as it is in far flung but beautiful Uig - but Comhairle nan Eilean Siar at least seem to run fairly regular buses to all corners of Lewis and Harris.
Back to Talisker though and despite having my 'Classic Malts' passport thingy handy, I really don't fancy another sanitised Diageo tour. Especially one that is reputedly less than generous when it comes to tasting the product. Glenkinchie is to be praised for giving the interested whisky student a chance to sample more than one malt from Diageo's vast range. Talisker though, like the disappointing Dalwhinnie, can only muster a thimbleful of its standard malt. For this reason, I phone ahead to book a place on their 'Connoisseurs Tour' which gives you an indepth tour and tasting of five malts from the Talisker stable. This only seems to happen once a week outside the summer season so I satisfy myself with a visit to the shop. Fortunately the local lass behind the counter is very welcoming and allows me to taste the 25yo which as expected is mellow but complex and generally lip smacking. The £150 price tag is beyond my budget though I settled for the equally excellent 57 North. This is far superior to the Talisker Distiller's Edition but is also cheaper and bottled at a higher "special" strength of... 57%.
As our but 'n ben is situated in Sleat peninsula, we stop of for photo ops at the stunning Eilean Iarmain, home of the Pràban na Linne or the 'Gaelic Whiskies' as its marketed to tourists. This is the whisky company set up by the late Gaelic enthusiast and merchant banker Iain Noble. This is the only whisky with its head office based in the Skye Gaidhealtachd though the whisky itself is something of a mystery to me. They bottle the blends Tè Bheag and Mac na Mara as well as the single malt Poit Dhubh at various ages. Free tastings are available on demand here in their office tucked behind the Hotel Eilean Iarmain and Pràban bar.
Pràban announced some years ago that they intended to build a new distillery in Sleat near the township of Torabhaig which would also give its name to the new malt. Plans were drawn up to utilise an old farm steading not far from the historic Caisteal a' Chamais and planning permission sought. However, this was more than five years ago and to my knowledge nothing more has happened. Iain Noble himself died recently and one hopes that whoever succeeds him at the wheel of Pràban na Linne or his Fearann Eilean Iarmain estate persists with this. A distillery on Sleat would no doubt provide further stimulus to this rural community which has already been revived by Noble's principle legacy here, the Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic-medium college.