Distiller: Ardbeg. ABV: 40%. No age statement. Region: Islay.
We’ve seen Ardbeg turn up the peat in their series of Supernova releases, but they did just the opposite with the Blasda–a minimally peated (8ppm) release of 18,000 bottles.
Some Ardbeg disciples would call it sacrilege, but I embraced the opportunity to taste what those stills on the southern coast of Islay could distill without ultra-peated barley.
There’s still light smoke on the nose, mixed with interesting sweet notes. The palate shows some youth, and has a citrus base with light sweet candied flavors and slight sea salt. Subtle smoke is on the finish.
It’s definitely not your typical Arbeg, but I support distillers breaking their own mold sometimes. Cheers! – JTR
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Distiller: Koval. ABV: 40%. No age statement. Grain bill: 100% millet. Price: $45
As a life-long Chicagoan and a whisk(e)y drinker of slightly younger vintage, I’ve long enjoyed the very fine spirits produced by the Ravenswood neighborhood distiller, Koval. I love that they’re not afraid to play, that they have a commitment to organic production, and that they continue to seek out new and interesting grains. So when I saw they had a millet whiskey, you better believe I was intrigued.
The Koval Millet is aged in new American oak from Minnesota, and according to the distillery, is the first whiskey to spring from millet. Millet is sometimes known as the “fourth grain” of whiskey manufacturing–a flavor component that can be added to the more common corn, rye, and barley–and it’s a kosher-friendly grain. (For comparison, see our Koval Four Grain Whiskey review.) Koval’s innovation is distilling from 100% millet.
It creates a very interesting whiskey. I got a smokey vanilla nose and a sweet palate of spice and rich caramel.There is a definite viscous element to the drink, which won’t appeal to all. I found the finish to be fairly quick, although not so much so that you don’t get the heat that rises throughout.
Overall, I’m quite glad I tried it and there was much to enjoy. I wouldn’t say it’s a must buy, it’s a very interesting and complex whiskey.
Cheers, friends! – TM
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Distiller: Ardbeg. ABV: 54.2%. No age statement. Price: $65-85.
“Uigeadail” is said to mean “dark and mysterious”– though I think it should mean “no-brainer.”
This core release from Ardbeg (pron. OO-ga-dal) is an unbeatable one-bottle argument that no-age-statement whiskies can be not just as good as their age-statement cousins, but flat-out brilliant. (If you wanted a two-bottle argument, I’d add the Aberlour A’Bunadh.)
Like the beloved Lagavulin 16, the Oogie wraps peat, sherry, and bourbon influences into a rich, velvety whole. But unlike the Lag, it’s cask strength. Perfectly drinkable without a drop of water. Bright and dense, intense and rounded, with citrus and baked goods and cocoa and more.
It’s also a great value at $65-85. There’ve been some fine annual special releases from Ardbeg, but I’m hard pressed to think of many I’ve liked more than the Oogie.
Hope all your drams are as good as this one, friends! Slàinte! – BO
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Distiller: Arran. ABV: 56.4%. No age statement. Region: Islands. Price: $100.
We may not be in a golden age of whisky, but we’re sure as hell in a golden age of whisky packaging.
Exhibit A: Arran Illicit Stills Volume 1, which I got to try courtesy of my man WhiskyGeekdom. The great shot above is his, and you can see he takes his packaging as seriously as Arran does.
The Illicit Stills was made as an attention-grabbing super-premium NAS–a genre with its hits and misses. This is right in between. Looks stunning, of course. It was sold at about $100, though it’s going for a good deal more on the secondary market, as it sold out quickly. The juice is a mix of peated and unpeated, bourbon-barrel-matured and port-finished.
So how is it?
The nose is, characteristically for an Arran, bright and fruity, with a strong cask strength punch. Caramel apple. Golden syrup. Baked goods with vanilla icing. The bourbon fruit leads the palate too, but with a heavy dose of oak tannins. Saddle leather. And a softer white smoke that recalls the Laphroaig 15 and carries through to the finish, with tobacco and some bitter oak.
With water, it’s more fiery and alive. There’s more citrus on nose–lemon-lime. And on the palate. Along with an overarching sourness that doesn’t quite spoil the proceedings, but isn’t ideal. The charred underside of an overdone lemon tart.
Give it 30-40 minutes in the glass, and it’ll continue to unfold. But it’s not the surpassing experience you’d hope for given the magnificent package. Between this and the K&L Wines Cask Strength Arran 15, say, I’d take the 15.
Thanks again to WhiskyGeekdom! Slàinte, friends! -BO
Mars Iwai Tradition Japanese Whisky – Distiller: Mars. ABV: 40%. No age statement. Blend: 75% malt whisky, 25% corn. Price: $50-60.
The Mars Iwai Tradition is the second offering on the U.S. market from the highly respected Mars distillery in Japan. The first, simply called Mars Iwai Whisky, is a $35 blend, by far the lowest-cost Japanese whisky on the U.S. market by quite a bit. It’s a blend of 75% corn whisk(e)y and 25% malt, and has surprising substance and flavor at 40% ABV. It’s closer to a mixer than a sipper, but what it lacks in delicacy, it makes up for in value.
The Iwai Tradition is a step up in every way: depth, clarity, flavor, and maturity. Price too, but it’s still quite reasonable at about $50-55. It flips the proportions of its predecessor, being a blend of 75% malt whisky and 25% corn.
It has a beautiful coppery color in the glass. The nose is meaty, with sweet barbecue and cinnamon. Deep syrupy bourbon notes without a bourbon’s heat. Some dark sherry fruits: prunes and raisins. Buttery malt biscuits and a little milk chocolate. A comforting nose, somehow.
The palate is a slight letdown after so promising a nose, but still has plenty to recommend it. Some Amrut-y tropical fruits, particularly ripe banana. Whoppers malt candy. The finish adds tannic sautéed mushroom flavors–maybe with a touch of char.
In sum, the Iwa Tradition is not quite my go-to recommendation for those new to Japanese whisky–that’d be the Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt–but the Tradition is head and shoulders above its predecessor from Mars, and is well worth the extra $15-20. Close to a daily drinker.
Kanpai, friends! – BO
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Mars Iwai Whisky – Distiller: Mars. ABV: 40%. No age statement. Blend: 75% corn whisk(e)y, 25% malt whisk(e)y. Price: $35-40.
Mars Whisky is a Japanese distiller little known in the U.S., but renowned for some very high-quality whiskies in Japan. The Iwai Whisky is a curiosity for several reasons. It’s “bourbon inspired,” as Mars says, made from a grain bill of three-quarters corn and a quarter malted barley, and it costs less not only than every other Japanese whisky on the U.S. market, but less than many quality bourbons: $35-40.
It’s only 40% ABV, but the high corn recipe and the fat pot still it’s made in give it substance and creaminess. The nose is a bit shy: some vanilla toasted oak notes, a touch of melon. Palate: vanilla pound cake and lychee. Short, understated finish.
It won’t change your life, but it’s a simple, pleasant whisky that mixes well at a price far below anything else from Japan. For a step up, try the Mars Iwai Tradition–significantly more satisfying for about $15 more.
Hopefully these two are harbingers of other well regarded Mars releases reaching the U.S. soon, especially the single malts that made the distillery’s reputation at home.
Kanpai, friends! -BO
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