Category Archive for ‘whisky deathmatch’

Whisky Deathmatch: Islay Blood Feud

Posted on May 13th, 2013 in whisky deathmatch

Well, I’m not totally sure Whisky Deathmatch has been particularly useful to my career, but I certainly enjoyed the tastings and, ignorant though I remain, I feel I’ve learned a great deal from the experience of comparing whiskies against each other.  Plus I’m a massive fan of colons in titles, so coming your way over the next few months shall be the thrilling sequel to Whisky Deathmatch…

Whisky Deathmatch: Islay Blood Feud


Dangerous sounding, huh?  I started last time thinking I like the cleaner, fresher whiskies more, and hence had two lowlands and five speysides in my dozen, but I ended up being more excited by the smoky and savoury options, and my winner was the Mad Sorcerer of Islay, Ardbeg Corryvreckan.  I felt there’s a degree to which sweet and clean whiskies are all somewhat alike, whereas the peaty seem somehow more varied.  So I thought this time around, you know what, let’s concentrate on Islay, and try and get at least one option from each of the significant distilleries on this home of the peaty.  It’s a small island, but it looms large in the whisky world, that’s for sure.  Stepping into the arena we’ve got:

Ardbeg Uigeadail – another cask strength beastie from Ardbeg, a little lower down their range from Corryvreckan, and with some sherry-wood in the mix, so probably a little sweeter and less crazy than last time’s champion.

Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition – a distillery known for smoke, their standard 16 yo is a favourite of mine already, but some sherry sweetness in this special edition.

Laphroaig Triple Wood – Prince Charles’ favourite distillery, but I’m not holding that against them.  This is a new expression from masters of the medicinal Laphroaig, again with some sherry wood in there to calm the mighty smokes, and a chunky 48% bottling.

Bruichladdich Laddie 16 – Bruichladdich has one of the biggest and most experimental ranges of any distillery.  Their classic expression is light on the peat, heavy on the character, and comes in 10, 16, and 22 year old ages.  This is the 16.

Bunnahabhain 18 – A lesser known Islay distillery whose core eighteen year old is again light on the peat smoke.

Octomore 5.1 – Little bit special this, the fifth batch of Bruichladdich’s ultra-peated, 5 year aged, 59.5% experiment, supposedly the peatiest whisky known to man.

Then we’ve got two boxed sets of three 20cl bottles from smoke-meisters Caol Ila and Bowmore, that I’ll compare against each other before we get started. The Bowmore has a 12yo, 15yo Darkest (with some sherry wood in there) and 18yo.  The Caol Ila has a 12yo, a 12yo Cask Strength, and an 18yo.

Finally, leaving Islay for a couple of further flung curiosities that I’d heard good things about:

Amrut Fusion - coming all the way from India, a much-praised mixture of Himalayan and peated Scottish barley.

Yellow Spot - and whiskEy from Ireland, triple distilled in a traditional Pot Still then matured for 12 years in three different barrels.

I’ve already had a little taste (in some cases a bit more than that) of all these and I can tell you we’ve got some mouth-watering matches in prospect.  First off I’ll decide which is my favourite of the Caol Ila and Bowmore bottles, then we’ll have 5 first round matches.  Five winners and one wildcard will compete in 3 second round matches, and 3 winners and one wildcard will make our semi-final four.  I may simplify my approach a little bit, as well, we shall see how we do…

Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs Balvenie Single Barrel

Posted on May 2nd, 2013 in whisky deathmatch

Welcome to the Whisky Deathmatch grand final! Can you smell the excitement? Smells like whisky, doesn’t it? That’s because it is! 12 Whiskys entered, and via a tortuous process of elimination, only two remain.  Bladnoch 20, An Cnoc 16, Dalmore 15, and Aberlour 18 went down in our first round.  No disrespect to them, the competition was fierce.  Bruichladdich Infinity and Talisker 18 were two strong losers allowed into the second round on a wildcard, but there they fell along with Longmorn 16 and Auchentoshan Three Wood.  A pair of titanic battles in the semi-finals left Glenfarclas 21 and Highland Park 18 in shattered pieces.  But now, who shall prevail to take the greatest prize in Whisky given by a British Fantasy author who isn’t Mark Charan Newton?  Will it be the Mad Sorcerer of Islay, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, or the Golden Assassin of Speyside, Balvenie Single Barrel…?


Ardbeg Corryvreckan: 57.1% abv, £61.95

Balvenie Single Barrel – 47.8% ABV, £50.75

The cask strength of the Corryvreckan has enabled it to crush less potent adversaries through sheer force of alcohol.  It made even a volcanic old sea dog like Talisker 18 look less Captain Blackbeard and more Captain Birdseye.  Its unholy power was too overwhelming even for a subtle mastermind like Highland Park 18.  Once again it will field a considerable advantage in concentration, but at 47.8% the Balvenie is far from shabby, an uncompromising sipping strength that blew 40% Dalmore 15 away like chaff on the breeze.  The Balvenie also weighs in at more than a tenner cheaper – that’s the price of an e-collection of Joe Abercrombie’s classic fantasy trilogy, The First Law, for heaven’s sakes!  On paper these two look delightfully balanced.  But how do they look … off paper?

LOOK – In many ways Ardbeg and Balvenie have gone for opposite approaches in their presentation and marketing.  Balvenie’s tube and label are clean white with simple black lettering, Ardbeg’s are charcoal greenish-black with golden highlights.  Balvenie’s choice of fonts, plus a few hand-written markings on the label, bring to mind the eighteenth century.  Ardbeg’s celtic accoutrements aim at the legends of prehistory.  Balvenie’s packaging says, ‘light, sweet, classic,’ with spiel that emphasises tradition and quality, while Ardbeg’s says, ‘heavy, smoky, challenging,’ with spiel that emphasises myth and mystery.  I think they both hit pretty much what they aim at, and Ardbeg gets bonus points for exhibiting a little sense of humour and doing something different from the endless twaddle about the best casks, the best water and the special floor maltings, but I think the Balvenie is much the more attractive, and its wooden stopper and metal wrap scores a palpable hit over Ardbeg’s plastic ones.  A points victory to Balvenie this round, but it’s in the glass that the knockout blow will be delivered…

SMELL – With the Corryvreckan, to quote an earlier me because I’m not sure I can say it any better – The rocks crack in the unknown deep and the sea boils with the fearsome heat of the fires below the world.  The knotty pine is ripped asunder by a blinding stroke from the heavens, storm-fire sweeping the parched bracken.  Then the magic words were chocolate-whispered in the pepper smoke of the coffee cauldron, and the words were, ‘disinfectant tablets.’ With the Balvenie – Gold! A crystalline sugar sweetness with a citrus sting in the tail.  Upon a lost island swept by honey storms there is a labyrinth made of lemons, and in the centre of that labyrinth is a golden lion with a face made of barley sugar but the tail of a scorpion. What golden treasure does it guard? What priceless treasure?  Only the opportunity to sip…

TASTE – I’ve drunk close to the whole bottle of Corryvreckan, now, with a little help from a well-meaning friend or two, but it still surprises me every time.  To put it in your mouth is to step into the unknown.  It’s as close as I think I’ve ever come to a mind-expanding whisky.  Partly it’s the high strength, but I’ve drunk stronger whiskies that are much less strange and challenging in their range of flavour.  It delivers an initial heat that’s almost painful, a chili zing across the tongue, then you get the strange cornucopia of unusual flavours, but instead of Willy Wonka’s gum that gave you a three-course meal, here you get visits to chemical works, sawmills, and the bottom of the sea.  Plus chocolatey, coffee-ish flavours, unidentifiable fruits and an antiseptic tang that persists long after you’ve swallowed it.  Baffling, gobsmacking, bizarre.  Now some water will most definitely be needed to swab the persistent salty warmth from the inside of my mouth, then the Balvenie.  Gentler, of course, and with a disarming initial softness, but a potent spicy tingle soon builds nonetheless.  Honey sweetness, but so much citrus sharpness too, and perhaps a little smoke on that long, long finish.  Reminiscent of a lot of Speyside whiskies, but after the workout montage in the middle of the film – cleaner, stronger, quicker, sharpened to a ruthless edge, maintaining that easy-drinking sweetness but with a sense of deadly purpose.

CONCLUSION – This is a really tough one to judge, and I’ve been going back and forth on it for a while. Without doubt, two great whiskies and two worthy finalists. A lot of it depends on what you like, what you’re in the mood for, because in many ways they’re exemplars of opposite styles.  The Corryvreckan is like other Islays, only more so: Smoky, peaty, briny, uncompromisingly savoury, ruthlessly challenging, wild, mad, and ferocious as a stormy sea.  You wouldn’t call it pleasant, but you’d certainly say it’s amazing.  The Balvenie is unsherried Speyside par excellence: Clean, sharp, sweet, definitely pleasant but with plenty of depth and a deadly citrus edge, easy to drink but difficult to forget, fresh and zesty as a spring morning. Oh, crap, it’s a hard choice, but no one said this would be easy.

RESULT – The Balvenie is gorgeous, with everything you could ask for in a Speyside, and a delight to drink, but, but, but, smelling and tasting the two together, one simply cannot deny that the Corryvreckan is the more intense, the more original, the more powerful experience.  It’s a really close run thing, but …

My Whisky Deathmatch Winner – Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

Coming next – I pick over the shattered glass and the whisky soaked sand of the arena in a Whisky Deathmatch post mortem.  What have I learned from this exercise…?

Glenfarclas 21 vs Balvenie Single Barrel

Posted on April 1st, 2013 in whisky deathmatch

Our second semi-final pits two exemplars of contrasting Speyside styles against each other, and it’s going to be no easy contest.  Bourbon barrel matured sweet yet sour connoisseur’s option Balvenie Single Barrel annihilated a pleasantly marmaladey but slightly limp-wristed Dalmore 15, then laid waste to much-loved plucky wildcard Bruichladdich Infinity, which had only just dusted itself off after a pummelling from the unholy powers of our savoury finalist Ardbeg Corryvreckan.  Well-aged sherry matured classic Glenfarclas 21 outmanoeuvred a closely matched opponent in a gentleman’s club standoff against Aberlour 18, then outclassed Lowland contender Auchentoshan Three Wood to make the final four.


Glenfarclas 21: 43% abv, £59.95

Balvenie Single Barrel: 47.8% abv, £50.75

The Glenfarclas is one of the most expensive whiskies in the competition, but full sherry-barrel matured, and also the oldest, it starts to look like a bit of a bargain. A Macallan of this age would weigh in at three or four times the price.  So age and experience definitely on its side.  The Balvenie, on the other hand, is a connoisseur-style single barrel, which is to say it’s been drawn straight from a unique and never to be repeated individual cask, selected by a Malt Master for it’s particular character.  It has the considerable advantage in price and strength, with a meaty 47.8% bottling.

LOOK – Glenfarclas? Got to say I’m not into that tube AT ALL. Red and green should never be seen. A real christmas in the 80s vibe. And a red metal end? I shudder. The bottle’s pleasant enough, although I’m not a fan of coloured glass, myself. What have they got to hide? Classy looking, and a good pourer, although that font does look a bit dated. Like something John Thaw might be coshed over the head with in an early episode of The Sweeney.  The bumph hits familiar touchstones of family, tradition, oldness, stills, oldness, tumbling water, oldness, and family. Little bit meh, all in all, could do better. Balvenie? They too bumph it up with tradition, dedication, tradition, craftsmanship, tradition and maltings, but with a side order of unique conoisseur-y single-barrelness.  I think they actually hit exactly the feel that Glenfarclas slightly miss here. CLASSIC. All black and white and unpretentiously functional with a little bit of a swirl, and a well-shaped bottle with nothing to distract you from the spectacular golden colour of the spirit within. A palpable hit for Balvenie.

But it’s not really about what they look like, is it?  Let’s see what happens when you put them inside your head

SMELL – With the Glenfarclas – Sweetness and age, good-fellowship and experience, silky skills and far reaching networks.  Friends everywhere.  The wood-panelling, paintings of racehorses and patinated leather of the gentlemen’s club.  ‘You’re one of us, now, and that’s a good thing to be. One day the club may come to you and ask a favour. Until then, you need anything, and I mean anything, you can always come to the club…’ With the Balvenie – Gold! A crystalline sugar sweetness with a citrus sting in the tail.  Upon a lost island swept by honey storms there is a labyrinth made of lemons, and in the centre of that labyrinth is a golden lion with a face made of barley sugar but the tail of a scorpion. What golden treasure does it guard? What priceless treasure? A good deal more edge than the Glenfarclas, all fresh and zesty like sprinklers on a spring morning (a proper spring, not this late winter shit we’ve been having).

TASTE – The Glenfarclas really does make you feel like a million bucks, and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d hope for from a sherried Speysider.  A rich and robust mouthfeel.  Then it turns smooth, fruity, luxurious, with a long, long finish and, even though it’s bottled at a reasonably average 43% it doesn’t lack authority at all.  It ain’t just sweet cough medicine, it’s got character, a little wood and a smoky sternness beneath all that glad-handed good-fellowship.  The Balvenie – ah, it just seems to explode upon the tongue in a sherbet cornucopia of sweet honey and sour lemon, tailing off into gingery spice and leaving you with a long waft of sugary perfume.  Zing. It’s lemonade and lime with a hot spice edge, its fresh bitter lemon with a frisson of tough wood and heady scent, it’s beauty AND the beast…

CONCLUSION – Again, I really like both of these – two generally sweet whiskies but with plenty going on below the surface.  The Glenfarclas has that plummy sherry sweetness but with the silky smoothness and a puff of smoke on the end.  The Balvenie has a crystalline honey barley sugar vibe but with that tart citrus edge and an explosion of spice.  A lot of it is going to be a matter of taste, but for me the Balvenie is a shade more interesting, a shade more dangerous, and with the extra strength and nigh a tenner cheaper, it’s really not such a difficult call to make.

RESULT – Glenfarclas is without doubt a well-heeled sherried Speysider with bags of class, clout and influence, and a proper bargain at this price.  But the Balvenie is too strong, too sharp, too deadly.  This time it’s youth over experience, and the added pleasure of being able to throw out that green tube…

The Winner – Balvenie Single Barrel.

Coming next – There can only be one.  Can the gilded charms of Balvenie overcome the diabolical arts of Corryvreckan?  It is the Whisky Deathmatch Grand Final…

Highland Park 18 vs Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Posted on March 8th, 2013 in whisky deathmatch

Semi-final time on whisky death-match, people, and we begin with the salty side of the draw, pitting subtle island genius Highland Park 18 against brilliant Islay madman Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and this is going to be a very tough one to call.  Highland Park overcame tough talking sea-tar Talisker 18 and brushed aside style over substance Longmorn 16 in order to get here.  Ardbeg Corryvreckan overpowered the courageous Bruichladdich Infinity then blew Talisker 18 (back in on a wildcard) out of the water.

I think it’s fair to say that the four whiskies in our semi-finals (Glenfarclas 21 and Balvenie Single Barrel being the other two) are all very different in character and each an excellent example of its type.  So a lot of this is going to depend on individual preference and indeed mood on the day.  But this ain’t whisky let’s-be-nice-to-everyone-and-sing-kumbaya-together.  This is WHISKY DEATHMATCH.  There can be only one etc. etc.  To the arena!  The arena that is my face. 

Highland Park 18: 43% abv, £57.95

Ardbeg Corryvreckan: 57.1% abv, £61.95

The first thing to note, of course, is that while we have a rough parity in price, the strengths of these two are anything but equal.  The Highland park weighs in at 43%, which is an appreciated notch above your bog-standard 40 and a nice enough sipping strength, but pales next to the Corryvreckan, which is a full-on cask strength at 57.1%.  If this were a scientific taste comparison, it might be fairer to water that big Ardbeg beast down a little, but the fact is you can do that if you want to, whereas you can never undilute the Highland Park.  So fearsome concentration is really an advantage of the Ardbeg you have to take into account. I shall therefore be sampling it in its potent raw state.  To the comparison…

LOOK -Highland Park’s presentation is perhaps a tad busy, with its textured bottle, multicoloured label, and onslaught of different fonts emphasising the traditional credentials of their ingredients and process (as is extremely common in the whisky blurb business), but the whole package looks classy, and strikes a nice balance between classic and contemporary.  Both have a touch of the celts in their design, but Ardbeg have dialled up the brooding pre-history vibe with their black and gold stylings and menacing dark green glass, with much more abstract bumph that proclaims Corryvreckan, “Powerful and dangerous.  A terrifying spectacle … A wild, untamed spirit …’  Untamed it may be, but it loses significant points for having a plastic wrapper and, worse yet, plastic cap.  On a £60 bottle of whisky, especially one masquerading as a celtic historical artefact?  Disappointing.  I generally prefer clear glass as well, so I can see the colour of what I’m drinking.  So Highland Park the winner on the packaging, I feel.  When it comes to the fluids themselves, The Highland Park is a pleasant light amber-gold with plenty of body.  The Corryvreckan, by contrast, is surprisingly light straw yellow and runny for something this strong.

But it’s not really about what they look like, is it?  Let’s see what happens when you put them inside your head

SMELL – With the Highland Park – ah, the salt wind whips the grasses on the cliffs above the foaming brine, though doesn’t it?  Hair streams and the spume flies from the painted prow while the bees buzz busy among the pink heather flowers.  A curl of sweet peat-smoke from the stacks on the high hill tickles at the nose, and reminds us of a time that never was when we were all without cares together…  With the Corryvreckan – The rocks crack in the unknown deep and the sea boils with the fearsome heat of the fires below the world.  The knotty pine is ripped asunder by a blinding stroke from the heavens, storm-fire sweeping  the parched bracken.  Then the magic words were chocolate-whispered in the pepper smoke of the coffee cauldron, and the words were, ‘disinfectant tablets.’

TASTE – The Highland Park really is very pleasant indeed to drink.  Firm in the mouth with lots of presence.  A welcoming tingle, then a savoury, leafy, herby, nutty grassiness.  Light salt.  Lots of different notes seem to come through but I’m not clever enough to really tell you what they are.  Some fruit in there, some spice, some sticky ginger, maybe?  So many elements in beautiful balance, always developing.  A long smoky ending, but all subtle, nothing overpowering, something for everyone and every occasion.  Easy company but deep insights.  Love it.  And now batten down your hatches, hear comes Corryvreckan.  Time and familiarity have bled some of the gobsmacking strangeness from the experience of putting this in my mouth, but it still raises the eyebrows every time.  Nothing is subtle here, all is extreme, a cauldron of furious passions.  First comes the heat, the peppery zing on the tongue, a baffling mix of peaty, soily, wet earth savour, liquorice disinfectant with sappy pine freshness, fearsome dryness and mind-warping strength wrapped up in raging fires and heavy smokes.  My mouth, my beautiful mouth, send for those strapping gentlemen of her majesty’s fire brigade…

CONCLUSION – I really like both of these – two challenging, complex whiskies with an awful lot going on, that often strike you very differently on different days.  Indeed to fully plumb the subtleties of the Highland Park 18 it’s been necessarily for me to drink nearly all of it.  The Highland Park is wonderfully subtle, savoury and deep, sweet notes really coming through in comparison with the rugged dryness of the Corryvreckan, which remains uncompromisingly wild, extreme, and shocking.  It truly is the mastermind against the evil genius, Holmes against Moriarty, Professor X against Magneto, Gandalf against Sauron.  I’d love to try the Highland Park at cask strength (no shit, Sherlock), and I think with that additional punch it could easily emerge the winner.  But as things are you just can’t escape the explosive audacity of the Corryvreckan.  All shall love it and despair…

RESULT – Well, Gandalf’s a good guy (unless you’re an Orc), and a great guest at a tea party, but the smart money was always on the big bad.  The schemes were hatched, the plans were laid, every stratagem was employed, but in the end Frodo just weren’t making it to Mount Doom this time around.

The Winner – Ardbeg Corryvreckan.

Coming next – Swab down your taste buds for our sweet semi-final, a clash of Speyside styles in which sherried Lord of the Gentleman’s Club Glenfarclas 21 takes on the Golden Assassin, Balvenie Single Barrel…

Whisky Deathmatch Semi-Finals

Posted on February 1st, 2013 in whisky deathmatch

Ooooh, we’re getting to the sharp end now.  Twelve whiskies entered, and after two rounds and ten fights to the doom, crushed boxes and shattered bottles, corks ripped from necks and whisky gouting, spritzing, spraying and sprinkling the sands of the arena, only four are still standing – Savoury and sophisticated mastermind Highland Park 18, dangerously unhinged supervillain Ardbeg Corryvreckan, ultra-suave powerbroker Glenfarclas 21, and beautiful yet ruthless Balvenie Single Barrel.

Any one no doubt a worthy champion, but which pair shall face each other for the ultimate prize in . . . er . . . whisky tastings by English Fantasy Authors?  No!  Curses, that would be Mark Charan Newton’s whisky blog.  The greatest prize in the whisky deathmatch section of this blog.  Yes!  Ahem.

Our semi-finals, to be conducted over the next couple of weeks (maybe), shall be, on the salty side of the draw:


And on the sweet:


Mouth watering deathmatches in prospect!  I can’t wait to get started!  Is 8.45am considered too early for a dram?  Probably I should wait ’til 9.  But then I am on a break, right…?

Balvenie Single Barrel vs Bruichladdich Infinity

Posted on December 12th, 2012 in whisky deathmatch

The last of our Quarter Finals is a highly appealing contest between two very different whiskies…

Balvenie Single Barrel – 47.8% ABV, £50.75

Bruichladdich Infinity – 50% ABV, £44.95

Balvenie Single Barrel destroyed Dalmore 15 in our first round.  I thought it smelled “Sweet and sour, crisp and sharp, sweetness with zingy lemon, a sherbet-ish tingle.  Oh, man, I could smell this all day.  Really, I may have to walk around with a glass of it gaffer taped under my nose.”  And tasted, “Even better than you’d expect from the smell.  Sweet and strong, clean and clear, with lots of citrusy fruit.  Graceful, elegant, beautifully balanced, but with a razor edge, and a finish that runs, and runs, then delivers a final spicy sting.  Awesome.”  And concluded it was, “Sublime honey sweetness with a deadly citrus sting in the tail.”

Bruichladdich Infinity was unlucky to cross swords with the diabolical powers of Ardbeg Corryvreckan in the first round, and went through as one of our best losers.  I found it to be an excellent all-rounder – “Firm in the mouth, sweet and fruity but tough and smoky at the same time.  A hint of metallic saltiness.  Simultaneously very drinkable and very interesting.  Strong but not overpowering.  Don’t push it around because it’ll push back, bottled at 50% and meaning business.  A tough friend to make, but a good friend to have.  A reassuring presence in a tight corner … A tough and loyal balance of the sweet and the smoky.” 

Ooh, a mouthwatering clash in prospect here between two excellent whiskies closely matched in strength and price but with two very different styles.  Bruichladdich from rugged Islay where things are traditionally smokey and peaty (though Bruichladdich not always, I’ll admit), Balvenie a classic Speyside where things tend toward the smooth, sweet, and mellow.  The Balvenie is (obviously) a single barrel, which is to say it’s the output of one individual cask selected for its class and character, no more no less, in the classic connoisseur manner.  The Bruichladdich is a multi-vintage vatting, which is to say it’s been blended together from many casks of various types and ages to create a given effect, ‘a sophisticated flavour profile elevated to a stellar level,’ as the marketing bumph has it, although since they’re all Bruichladdich it’s still a single malt.  I also happen to think these are two of the best presented whiskies in the dozen, with diametrically opposite approaches.  The Bruichladdich has gone for an ultra-modern smoked glass techno look, emphasising their credentials as a progressive, experimental outfit.  Balvenie is all classic shape, wooden stopper and handwritten white label with clear glass allowing the sublime honey yellow colour of the spirit to do the talking, emphasising their credentials as an authentic, traditional outfit.  But what about the contents?

On a second tasting, I’d say my opinion of these two pretty much holds.  The Bruichladdich really is an excellent all rounder.  It’s strong but not too strong, it’s good value, it’s beautifully presented, it has sweetness, it has smoke, it has body, it has drinkability, it has personality.  I’ve become greatly partial to it, and can imagine reaching for it happily on pretty much any occasion.  An easygoing charmer.  A jack of all trades.

But that Balvenie Single Barrel is something else.  Presentation, scent, taste, it all reeks of class.  There were three unsherried Speysides in my dozen and this absolutely blows the other two (Longmorn 16 and AnCnoc 16) out of the water.  So sweet yet so sharp, so silky yet so edgy, so beautiful and yet so deadly, and all capped off with that wonderful zingy sherbet spice.  Awesome.

So the Bruichladdich has definitely made its way into my affections, and I look forward to tasting more from the ever-expanding range of this exciting distillery.  But, for this week at least, my heart belongs to Balvenie.


Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs Talisker 18

Posted on December 3rd, 2012 in whisky deathmatch

Due to various touring responsibilities it’s been a fair while since I was able to turn my hand to what really matters – whisky deathmatch, but finally I have time to give the third of our second round face-offs the attention it deserves, and ARRRRRR but it’s a mouth-pummeling heavyweight clash between two tough and hairy, smoky, savoury, salty sea-dogs in Ardbeg Corryvreckan and Talisker 18.  Shiver me timbers.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – 57.1% ABV, £61.95

Talisker 18 – 45.8% ABV, £58.49

Ardbeg Corryvreckan employed demonic arts to overcome Bruichladdich Infinity in a tightly fought Islay grudge match.  That Bruichladdich surely was a great all-rounder, but the Corryvreckan was something else.  It smelled, “like paint stripper meets wet earth at a barbecue and they have beautiful salty babies together” and upon tasting, “the magic portals are flung wide and the mysteries of the cosmos revealed.  An utterly strange array of tastes.  You know that sweet Willy Wonker does that’s a whole meal in one go?  Like that.  Ruggedly savoury and fearsomely dry.  There’s pine in there, liquorice, maybe?  A hint of those disinfectant capsules you used to get in urinals.  Not that I ever ate one, but, you know … then there’s spicy pepperiness, coffee and bitter chocolate, smoke throughout and lingering long after.  Odd, odd, odd, but in a good way.  A very good way.  The very opposite of easy drinking – challenging, difficult, baffling, endlessly surprising.  An evil genius.  A dark lord.  The most eccentric of Bond villains.  A mighty sorcerer driven insane by experiments with forces from beyond our dimension.”  It is the strongest, most expensive, and most uncompromisingly challenging whisky among our twelve contestants.

Talisker 18 was in fact the loser in a no-holds-barred seaside duel with fellow Island giant Highland Park 18, but came through as a wildcard.  I said of the Talisker, “Very rich, almost gloopy, very fruity, very — KERPOW!  It explodes in your face with a ripping broadside.  Huge spiciness, almost hot chilli-like fires of Mount Doom.  Muscular, merciless, a hairy-chested, tattoo-forearmed pirate captain.  Avast ye, me hearties.  Big smoke.  Big beach bonfires.  Everything about it is big.  Ships aflame, down to Davy Jones’s Locker, full fathom five thy father lies.  Almighty, tongue tingling finish with a lingering memory of smokey salt.  Zounds.”  Truly it is a warming bear hug of a whisky and there’s a lot to like – the very thing for an arctic expedition, but for me the Highland Park had the edge in cleverness, subtlety and versatility.

Ouch.  Two powerful and uncompromising rivals here.  Those with mouth ulcers need not apply, and I suspect a good deal of palate cleansing will be required between tastings.  But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do…

The Corryvreckan has perhaps lost some of its crazy edge with further sampling.  At least you go in knowing something of what to expect, but there’s something new every time.  That strange heat, that fearsome atacama dryness, that earthy seaweed raw alcohol tang, that baffling mixture of tastes with the dark chocolate bitter coffee finish.  Some of its unholy power is in the high strength, but even with a dash of water it takes no prisoners and makes no apologies and dares the witchfinder general to hunt it down and burn it at the stake if he thinks he’s hard enough.

In this intimidating, if not to say insane company, the Talisker seems almost easygoing.  A friendly, jovial, welly-booted old merchant seaman.  More Captain Birdseye than Captain Blackbeard.  More peppery than super spicy.  It’s amazingly heavy and gloopy, given its lower strength, though 46% is certainly nothing to complain about.  It remains a very nice, classy whisky, the perfect thing for a chilly winter evening before the fire with a tartan blanket pulled up to your neckbeard.  It’s been unlucky in its opponents, without a doubt.  It’s certainly more drinkable than the Ardbeg but in the end the gobsmacking strangeness of Corryvreckan cannot be caged, cannot be controlled, understand this as you die, ever pathetic, ever fools!

Bonus points to anyone who can identify the source of that classic quote…


Longmorn 16 vs Highland Park 18

Posted on September 21st, 2012 in whisky deathmatch

The second of our quarter finals matches the well-heeled Speyside charms of Longmorn 16 against the highly rated Island character of Highland Park 18.

Longmorn 16 – 48% ABV, £48.75

Highland Park 18 – 43% ABV, £57.95

Longmorn 16 very narrowly defeated AnCnoc 16 in a slightly uninspiring match between two unsherried Speysides that I found to be very similar. I described Longmorn as ‘a drinkable summery malt with a good bit of spice … tingly, peppery, oaky … a soft, malty, cereally, shreddies-y kind of a sense .’  But found that perhaps the most interesting thing about it was its over-the-top presentation, with magnetised box, leather foot on the bottle and metal tab proclaiming it ‘SINGLE MALT SCOTCH WHISKY’ in case you were in any doubt.

Highland Park 18 won one of our most toughly contested first round matches against fellow Island giant Talisker 18.   On first tasting I considered describing it as half seawater, half dishwater, but found it grew on me fast.  I ended up describing it as “Savoury, almost herbal.  Leafy, grassy.  Deeply complicated.  Beautifully poised.  Lots going on.  A long and smoky ending, but heather camp-fire rather than roaring furnace.  A respected academic, suede patches on the elbows, lounging cross-legged in his leather wing chair, considering the arguments of his hapless students and then, steeple-fingered, demolishing them with an off-hand line  … Pour me another you suede-patched mastermind.”

Comparing these two is interesting.  Being up against something so similar in the AnCnoc didn’t necessarily give the Longmorn the chance to shine.  Now that soft, cereal maltiness really comes through, barley sugar sweetness, followed by the big spice, firm in the mouth.  Lots of authority in that 48% bottling.  It’s a real nice whisky, actually.  A cereal killer.  A ho ho.  By contrast, comparison with volcanic, bruising Talisker really brought out the subtleties in the Highland Park.  Against Longmorn it’s the salty, smoky island character that you first notice, but then those savoury, grassy, herbal stylings make their way through.  So balanced, so much going on.  A real mastermind of a whisky.  Longmorn looks a lot better this time around.  But even with the stronger bottling and the cheaper price, not quite good enough…

The Winner – HIGHLAND PARK 18

Glenfarclas 21 vs Auchentoshan Three Wood

Posted on September 7th, 2012 in whisky deathmatch

A little delayed, but the second round of Whisky Deathmatch is finally upon us.  A slight change of format here, I think, since we already discussed each contestant in detail the first time around, so I’ll just link back to that, summarise, consider whether my feelings have changed on continued sampling, and then get straight into the comparison.  Due to a slightly sore throat I’m going to leave the mouth-battering matchup of Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs Talisker 18 to another day, methinks, and begin with a slightly less bruising confrontation…

Auchentoshan Three Wood – 43% ABV, £37.95

Glenfarclas 21 – 43% ABV, £59.95

Auchentoshan Three Wood came out on top in a lowland battle against plucky independent Bladnoch 20.  I described it as, “Companionable Werthers Originals with a three-woody backbone … soft and creamy, sweeties, marmalade, then a woody backbone comes through at the end.  Easygoing.  Such pleasant, easy manners, like Mr. Bingley from Pride and Prejudice.  Makes a good impression, don’t he, Bingley, but it’s Darcy they remember …  a good breakfast whisky, perhaps.  Something to get you over the hump before elevenses.”

Glenfarclas 21 narrowly defeated fellow sherried Speyside Aberlour 18.  I was somewhat repulsed by the packaging but described the contents as, “immensely drinkable, rich and full-bodied, developing a gingery, almost a peppery spiciness then some smoke on the end and takes a long time getting there.  Big and long lasting, very classic feeling.  One thinks of panelled rooms, throaty laughter, pipe smoke and soft power.”

This is something of a mismatch in many ways, as the Auchentoshan is possibly the youngest and definitely the least expensive whisky among our dozen original contenders.  The Glenfarclas is the oldest and among the most expensive.  But this is Whisky Deathmatch, it isn’t about fair.  Compare we must.

Sampling these again and comparing the two I don’t feel there’s been much change in my feelings.  I’d say the Auchentoshan makes a very pleasant everyday drink – inexpensive, inoffensive, sweet but that woodiness does add a certain character.  It’s not bland.  In fact there may be a little too much wood.  Compared to the Glenfarclas it does seem rather rough around the edges.  The Glenfarclas is just so poised, so balanced, so sophisticated, so urbane and experienced, so classic and quintessentially smooooooth.  I’m finding it very hard to imagine the circumstances under which I’d reach for the Auchentoshan instead.  Perhaps to pour a drink for someone else…

The Winner – GLENFARCLAS 21

Whisky Deathmatch: Winners and Losers

Posted on July 27th, 2012 in whisky deathmatch

Twelve whiskies entered, six left.  Our proud winners: Auchentoshan 3 Wood, Highland Park 18, Longmorn 16, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Glenfarclas 21, Balvenie Single Barrel.

Our losers, stripped of their packaging and placed upon the table of shame: Bladnoch 20, Talisker 18, AnCnoc 16, Bruichladdich Infinity, Aberlour 18, Dalmore 15.

Some general observations.  Firstly, glencairn glasses, or proper tasting glasses of some kind, make a massive difference.  Truly revelatory compared to a tumbler.  Secondly, the effort of comparison itself is useful.  I actually notice a lot more about something when contrasting it with something else.  Thirdly, I started off thinking that my taste generally ran towards the gentler, more easygoing end of the whisky spectrum, as a result of which the dozen bottles I bought were tilted towards Speyside and the Lowlands.  I haven’t actively disliked anything but, in the end, with the exception of the Balvenie, I found the Speyside and Lowland whiskies very drinkable but a bit unexciting, perhaps a bit similar to each other, and it was the smokier, more powerful whiskies that tended to float my boat more.  Perhaps it’s the case that they fair well in a comparison test but you wouldn’t necessarily drink them every day, but even so.

Some of the bouts, like Talisker vs. Highland Park, have been titanic affairs.  Others, like Longmorn vs AnCnoc, have been a little lackluster.  Some of the competitors may have gone before their time, others have had easy rides.  So in order to give us a field of eight, I’m going to put through my two favourite losers as wildcards.  The Bladnoch wasn’t my cup of tea, too much soft banana.  The AnCnoc was perfectly pleasant but a little forgettable.  The Aberlour was very nice but ultimately a bit similar to, but not quite as good as, its vanquisher Glenfarclas.  I shall greatly enjoy finishing the Dalmore, and I’d definitely try other efforts from the distillery, but this 15 was just a tad underpowered.  Which gives us fruity, smoky, balanced Bruichladdich Infinity and bruising sea-dog Talisker 18 as our two Wildcards.

To prolong the overpowering excitement I’m also going to seed my four favourite winners, that they should not meet too soon.  My choices there, in no particular order: The mind-expanding sorcery of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, the classic sherry smoothness of Glenfarclas 21, the complex genius of Highland Park 18, the beautiful yet deadly Balvenie Single Barrel.  With the help of a little randomisation, our quarter finals look like this:

Ardbeg Corryvreckan vs Talisker 18 (my mouth hurts already)

Glenfarclas 21 vs Auchentoshan 3 Wood

Highland Park 18 vs Longmorn 16

Balvenie Single Barrel vs Bruichladdich Infinity

Ooooh, can you taste the excitement?  Some mouth-watering battles in the offing…