Producer: Compass Box. Distiller: various (see below). Region: Islay/Islands/Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement. Price: $55-65.
I have a special weakness with Compass Box whiskies. The Flaming Heart 2015 was my favorite whisky of that year, and I have yet to write a review. I went through an entire Christmas bottle of Compass Box Peat Monster without writing a review. The problem is that they’re so good, and in such a particular way–which I attribute to the blending genius of founder John Glaser–that I get too absorbed in them to take notes. I just want to enjoy.
But revisiting the Peat Monster, I managed to get my act together. This beauty is a blended malt (also known as a pure malt), meaning it’s a mix of single malts, with no grain whisky. The malts come from Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardmore, Ledaig, an unnamed Highland distiller.
The peat is intense, but there are many peatier whiskies on the market by far. The priority here is on balance and nuance.
Nose: lively, fresh, grassy, but with the density and richness that only come from a fair proportion of older malt in the mix. Minimal sweetness. Dark vanilla. Almond flour. Mesquite. Lemongrass. Dry vermouth herbaciousness. I could nose it all night.
Three kinds of peat intertwine on the palate: briny, toasty, and savory/BBQ. The Laphroaig brings the ashiness and brine; the Caol Ila light lemony fruits, tilting from lemon to lime to grapefruit. Charred pear and watermelon candy later on. The finish is very long, with grapefruit rind, grenadine, white ash, and salty sea spray.
The Compass Box Peat Monster should be a staple in any peat lover’s cabinet. Sure is in mine.
Distiller: Kilchoman. Region: Islay. ABV: 46%. No age statement (about 4-5 years). Price: $55-70.
Kilchoman is Islay’s youngest distillery. It opened in 2005, and quickly began winning converts with its young but surprisingly rich and supple single malts. The flagship is the excellent Machir Bay, which is mostly first-fill bourbon-matured, with a little sherry finish thrown in at the end.
The Sanaig, a new release in 2016, ups the sherry-matured component to 50%. No age statement, though it’s around 4-5 years old, and it’s bottled at a healthy 46% ABV.
The nose on the Sanaig is a mix of tart, sweet, and salty notes. Sea
breeze. Blackberry crumble. Salted caramel. The peat keeps itself fairly well concealed. The palate is sweet and buttery: blueberry pie filling, burnt butter crust. Blackberry cordial. Very mild clove. Peanut brittle. Mild toasty peat emerges bit by bit. The finish recalls the end of an old fashioned: the echo of the sweet bourbon intertwines with bitter oak and aromatics.
Beautiful compliment to the Machir Bay, and for me, a clear success. If you’re looking for a new Islay, the Sanaig’s a great place to look.
Distiller: Highland Park. Region: Islands/Highlands. ABV: 45.9%. No age statement. Price: $60-70.
There are moments when this Axis gig isn’t too shabby. As, for example, when Highland Park’s senior brand ambassador, Martin Markvardson, walks you through some new expressions over dinner. I dig pretty much all Highland Park (though Baldo found the Harald and Dark Origins less than stunning), and I was very happy to see that the distillery continues its winning streak with the Valkyrie.
It’s the first in a “Viking Legend” series that will have two more releases over the next two years. This one is distilled from half peated barley, a considerably higher proportion than with the HP 12 or 18, which are about 20-25% peated. Orkney peat, which HP uses exclusively, contains no wood–it’s a different peat beast altogether than what’s used in other parts of Scotland.
The Valkyrie is aged in a mix of American oak and European sherry casks, and continues the no-age-statement trend. (HP is in the process of phasing out its 15- and 21-year-old releases entirely.)
The nose hints of beeswax and honey. There’s that less woody peat, then glorious honey. On the palate, slow-cooked smoked pork. Warm apple fritter. A seemingly mildly abrupt finish, but it’s sneaky, because half an hour later, you’re still catching the remnants of the peat and honied heather. It was one dram, but I can’t wait to try more.
Here’s to experiences that delight. Cheers, friends! – TM
Speyburn Bradan Orach – Distiller: Speyburn. Region: Highlands. No age statement. Age: 10 years. Price: $25.
Speyburn Arranta Casks – Distiller: Speyburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement. Price: $35.
We all love the fancy pours when a buddy is buying, but it’s crucial to have some value drams in the cabinet–everyday standbys, the kind of single malts you can bring to the party to enjoy yourself without feeling something die inside when some knucklehead mixes it with Sprite.
Speyburn is a Highland single malt that’s solidly in value dram territory while having plenty to offer a seasoned whisky lover. (It’s been picking up some award recognition recently.) Their core line consists of the 10-year-old, the no-age-statement Bradan Orach, and the Arranta Casks release. Let’s try ’em out!
Speyburn 10: Nose of fresh malt, field grass, heather. Coconut. Toasted almond. Fresh baguette. Palate adds lemon and grapefruit. Tart. Fairly tart. Toast with marmalade. Finish has a little smoky barrel char and dry grapefruit rind.
The Bradan Orach has lemongrass and wildflower honey on the nose, then candied orange and lemon wedges. The palate’s unexpectedly substantial for its 40% ABV. Wildflower honey. There’s less complexity than in the 10–the impression is of a quality blend: Loch Lomond, say. Dry, tart finish. Wet cinnamon stick.
The Arranta Casks release is so named for its all-first-fill bourbon maturation. It shows. Boldest and most robust of the line at 46% ABV. Big orchard fruit on the nose: apple, pear, peach. Hints at a young bourbon. More vanilla and sweet oak with time in the glass. The palate has fresh vanilla bean, toasted tobacco, and a white grape note. Finish brings more sweetness: vanilla cake with white frosting and toasted almond. Just enough bite.
Amid the numerous overhyped and overpriced letdowns these days, Speyburn is a welcome discovery. Hope your weekend’s been a good one!
Cheers, friends! – BO
Speyburn graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.
Wolfburn Northlands Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.
Wolburn Aurora Sherry Oak Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.
Even before my first taste of Wolfburn, I had questions. Why go through the massive expense and effort of setting up a new Scotch whisky distillery at a time when even the big boys have to fight to keep their market share?
“Fortune favors the brave,” Wolfburn founder Andrew Thompson told me. “Put it all on black and spin the wheel.”
Once I’d tasted, the question became: How did they make whisky this good this fast?
“I spend my life doing two things,” Andrew said. “One, convincing people to try a 3-year-old whisky–well, now mostly 4, but only just. Two, then explaining why it is good. The first one is irritating but the reward comes with the second one after they try it.”
They don’t have a secret, but they do have a method. Andrew’s full explanation deserves a staging as a one-man show–or at least a trip to the far-northern Highlands distillery, opened in 2011, to hear it yourself.
In a nutshell, it involves custom stills from legendary coppersmith Richard Forsyth, zero automation, 25-year industry vet Shane Fraser (ex-Oban, ex-Glenfarclas) as distiller manager, and a relentless focus on producing the best new make they can.
A little more than 3 years later, they’ve got a product that is changing people’s minds about just how good a very young single malt can be–mine included.
“There really are no secrets at Wolfburn, hence people like Ichiro Akito from Chichibu, amongst others, send their people to chat to us and learn,” Andrew said.
“A fully automated system creates one kind of consistency. A man using his nose and hands creates another. By no means a better one, just a different one. For us, as a new start up, obsessed with looking after the whisky above all else, with no pre-programmed set of rules, it’s the later type of consistency we look for.”
“So now we have our new make–it’s really good new make,” Andrew said, “Let’s now put it in the best casks we can possibly find and then put it in our own warehouses and stack it, dunnage style, ourselves.”
On to the results. Both current releases are 46% ABV, $55-60, just over 3 years old (the minimum by Scottish law).
“Would we have delayed if it wasn’t ready?” Andrew said. “Absolutely. Look after the whisky and it will look after you.”
Wolfburn Northland is matured in Quarter Casks that previously held peated Islay whisky. Nose: fresh grain. Salted caramel. Almond croissant. Faint lime custard. Palate: sweeter than the nose. Nice spice. Lemon tart with graham cracker crust. A suggestion of toasty peat from the cask, which compliments the brashness of the young malt wonderfully. Finish: salty. White chocolate. Charred baked apple bottom. Very, very tasty.
Wolfburn Aurora is matured in ex-sherry casks. Nose: fresh malted barley. Blueberry and blackberry. Mocha dusted with nutmeg. Palate: juicy, alive. Raspberry jam, restrained sweetness. Shades toward orange marmalade closer late on. The finish has white chocolate, bananas foster, and a little lemon pepper.
What a start for Wolfburn! The Northland is my favorite of the two, but both show huge promise–and are ready to be enjoyed right now.
What’s next, apart from steadily more mature releases?
“We have a lightly peated whisky coming out in September of –just 10ppm,” Andrew said. The original Wolfburn distillery, which was founded in 1821 but had long since been a pile of rubble by the time the new team came along, would have used exclusively peated malt, “so it would be a shame not to have tried some.”
Beyond that, “the warehouse has mainly American Standard Barrels, quarter casks, and sherry butts in it, so lots and lots to come in the future. And the maturation is going very well indeed.”
I’d say. Here’s to taking chances. Cheers, whisky friends! – BO
Wolfburn graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.
Distiller: Macallan. Region: Highlands. ABV: 48.2%. No age statement. Price: $80-100.
I think I’ve got a new favorite Macallan. Got an overdue taste of the excellent Edition No. 2 with my friends at Jay’s Bar recently. I’d heard raves about this no-age-statement release from Mark good folks at Scotch ‘n’ Sniff and Malt Review. Now I know why.
The Edition No. 2 is a collaboration between Macallan Whisky Maker Bob Dalgamo and Catalonia’s legendary El Cellar de Can Roca restaurant. In terms of profile, it’s square in Macallan’s sweet spot: dense sherried goodness balanced by just the right amount of darker, drier tannic notes.
On the nose there’s blood orange, marzipan, marshmallow, sweet old oak, and a whisper of mint. The palate adds sponge cake, toasted coconut macaroons, candied ginger, and fig. Full body. The finish has clove-studded Christmas orange with musty grapevine and more sweet oak.
BIG success, this one. Looking forward to adding a bottle to my collection–and trying it alongside the Edition 1.