Tonight, we have the Port Askaig Islay 17 year single malt scotch, bottled at 45.8% ABV, non-chill filtered, and no added coloring. Port Askaig is a new range of single malts from Specialty Drinks Ltd (SDL), a sister company of The Whisky Exchange (TWE). Along with the 17 year, they offer a No Age Statement (NAS) cask strength, and a 25 year. Apparently, they’re also going to introduce a limited release 30 year expression later this year. This range was just introduced in late April, 2009, but is already getting a lot of buzz around the online whisky community. I think I have more links in my “Other Opinions” section on this post than for any other scotch I’ve blogged about.
One of the things that’s interesting about this range is that they haven’t disclosed which distillery the whisky actually comes from. Current consensus on the internet seems to be Caol Ila. More about this later in my post. Port Askaig 17 is available from TWE for 50 GBP (current equivalent: $75). I believe it’s also available through select importers in other European countries, but it’s not currently exported to the United States.
On the nose, the Port Askaig 17 immediately reminds of Caol Ila. That honey-sweet citrus right up front, with peat that isn’t quite as tarry as Ardbeg or Laphroaig, or as medicinal as Lagavulin. However, as I spent some more time taking in the aroma, I noticed that the citrus seemed different than the Caol Ila 12 or 18 original bottlings (OBs). With CI, I get a very strong citrus zest. The PA seems to take a little of that zesty edge off, like you’re just getting the inner fruit. With even a little more time and imagination, the citrus started to turn to apple, like I get with Ardbeg. Perhaps, also, that honey sweetness is a little deeper than CI, again more along the lines of Ardbeg. The last bit of “Ardbeg” that I’m picking up is a hint of “art store”…the aisle where they have the ink and pencils. Very interesting. I like this nose a little better than the CI 12 or 18.
On the palate, I’m again immediately reminded of Caol Ila. The citrus and sweet peat are still there from the nose. It’s a tiny bit “hot” on the tongue, but in a good way, not a rough/cheap way. As it works its way towards the back of my tongue, some pepper starts to come on, building into the finish and slowly dying down. Also coming on with the finish is the Caol Ila coal smoke, and the earthy peat continues to linger. There are no bad after-tastes, and it goes down with a pleasant warming. My glass is emptying rather quickly.
Conclusion: This is a very enjoyable dram. I think it’s a step up from the Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10 and Laphroaig 10 standard bottlings. Then again, so is the price. Port Askaig 17 strikes me very much as a bridge between Caol Ila and Ardbeg, which I think is a positive thing. It makes me want to try experimenting with my own vatting of CI 12 and Ardbeg 10. I’m going to put this close to (but after a head-to-head comparison, a little below) the Laphroaig 15 as one of my favorite whiskies so far, with Talisker 18 and Lagavulin 16/DE above that. If you’re an Islay scotch lover, you really should try to get your hands on this. If you’re a big Ardbeg fan, but Caol Ila not so much, I think you should still try this out. You might be surprised. If you’re in the U.S., the shipping cost makes it a little less cut-and-dry, as the Caol Ila 12 (Edit: or the Signatory 14 I’ve now tried) gets you pretty close to PA 17 for a lot less money.
Update (head-to-head): The above notes were done without directly comparing the PA 17 with Caol Ila and Ardbeg. It’s a couple of nights later, and I decided to pour small drams of Caol Ila 12, Port Askaig 17, Ardbeg 10, and Ardbeg Uigeadail. So, any change of heart from what I stated above? A little bit. I said that I felt the citrus “zest” from Caol Ila was rounded off a little on the PA, but I’m not so sure about that. I’m getting that lemon zest this time. I also felt that the PA was much more clearly in the Caol Ila camp with this hands-on comparison. My bottom line here is that Port Askaig 17 is what I think Caol Ila 18 should be. I would gladly pay the additional $7.50 at TWE for this over the CI 18.
Update 2 [6/4/09]: I’ve got samples of the PA 25 and Cask Strength on the way, so I’ll be able to compare the whole range. Woo hoo!
A Caol Ila by any other name…
Nobody from Specialty Drinks Ltd and/or The Whisky Exchange has come right out and stated that Port Askaig whisky is distilled by Caol Ila, and industry insiders that have probably been clued in seem to be playing along, just offering clues. Not convinced that Port Askaig is really Caol Ila? Let’s take a look at the evidence:
- The name: Port Askaig is located on the East side of Islay, a short ferry ride from Jura. If you look at a distillery map of Islay, you’ll see that Caol Ila is located right in Port Askaig, with Bunnahabhain just a little bit north of the Caol Ila location. The rest of the distilleries are much further to the South or West.
- The ages of the expressions: The NAS Cask Strength, 17 year, and 25 year expressions sure line up nicely against other common bottlings of Caol Ila, both by the original distiller (OB) and independent bottlers (IB). I mean really, how easy would it be for Specialty Drinks to come up with a bunch of 17 and 25 year (and don’t forget the 30 year later on) casks of Ardbeg? Ardbeg can’t even seem to get 17 and 25 year casks of Ardbeg.
- Geographic Coordinates on Bottle: Printed on the seal of the bottle is the following coordinates: N. 55:50:41 W. 06:06:10, which converts to Lat. 55.8447, Lon. -6.1028 in decimal. I saw this and thought perhaps this would be a clue. If it’s from another distillery, would they potentially provide a Latitude/Longitude that doesn’t match the actual Port Askaig location? However, punching in the numbers in Google Maps puts you right in Port Askaig, just a bit south of the Caol Ila distillery.
- Taste profile: While I could potentially be fooled in a blind test into believing PA 17 is an Ardbeg, the overall profile is certainly in line with the OB Caol Ilas I’ve tasted. Don’t take my word for it, though. The many tasting notes in the “Other Opinions” section below (by people with much more tasting experience than me) show a strong similarity to the Caol Ila profile.
- Clues from industry insiders: Check out the Malt Advocate blog post and comments, linked in the “Other Opinions…” section below.
- I know somebody who knows somebody…: I got a tweet (Twitter post) from @whiskyfan who says that “according to @hansemalt the German importer verified that Port Askaig is Caol Ila.” So there you go…I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody with inside information.
- The Whisky Exchange Blog - Tim F. writes about the new Port Askaig releases, and provides his own tasting notes for the 17 year.
- Malt Advocate Blog (What does John know?) – John Hansell provides notes and ratings for both the 17 and 25 year expressions. He really likes the 17 year.
- Edinburgh Whisky Blog – Notes and ratings personifications by Lucas of both the 17 and 25 year expressions. More extremely positive feedback.
- Caskstrength.net – More notes and discussion about the 17 and 25 year expressions, and more of a “statement” than a guess that this is from the Caol Ila distillery.
- Spirit of Islay (once it’s archived, this will be the link) – In the May “A Whiff of Peat Smoke…” newsletter, Gordon shares his notes on the 17 and 25 year expressions. There is also a discussion in Gordon’s Warehouse No. 4 forums.
- Whisky, Whisky, Whisky – Tasting notes on the Port Askaig 17 year. Making me feel much better about myself, Mark also noted a similarity to the Ardbeg profile. There’s also some additional discussion in the WhiskyWhiskyWhisky forums, kicked off by none other than Tim F. from TWE.
- YouTube – Ralfy (from ralfy.com) has now reviewed the PA 17 on his video blog. Quite entertaining…check it out: [Added July 10, '09]