Stop me if you’ve heard this tune before. Independent bottler or importer with a few industry connections wants to get in on the current whisky craze, but doesn’t happen to own a distillery. Why let that stop you? Buy a few barrels of something on the independent market, optionally do something minor to distinguish your barrels against the official bottling from the same distillery, and then release a “small batch” vatting under a creative new label… perhaps named after an obscure Gaelic legend or just a handy Scottish town or geographical feature. Fill the label with depictions of the artisanship of handmade whisky and/or the meticulous “selection” – by hand, of course – of just the absolute most perfect barrels to bring you blah blah blah. If I sound jaded and angry, it’s frankly because I’m a little sick of “new” releases that are just the same whisky that has been on the shelf for decades, but a little younger, with a little less transparency on the label, and at a higher price. Oh, but excuse me, this is small batch. My bad.
To its credit, this first US release of Port Askaig (named, you guessed it, after a port town on the Scottish island of Islay) is bottled at cask-strength (55% ABV) and without chill-filtration or added coloring from a small batch of “2 to 40” barrels per batch, which means whatever you’d like it to mean. The barrels in question are from an “unnamed” Islay distillery and are all ex-bourbon casks. Different releases of Port Askaig in the future are likely to be (or at least could be) from different Islay distilleries. This one is almost certainly Caol Ila, based on exhaustive weeks of Internet research plus me putting my nose in a glass of the stuff.
Note that there are several age-stated versions of Port Askaig available in the UK and other markets, which we should expect to arrive on US shores at some point. No doubt they will be horrendously expensive, if they feel they can get away with charging $75 for NAS single malt at cask strength. “They” in this case is Elixir Distillers (not distillers, in fact), who also bottle the Elements of Islay series of bottlings. Thanks to ImpEx for the sample!
Nose: Ashy, meaty smoke reminds me of charred meat roasting over an open wood fire. Singed dry grasses (hay), like the scent of a distant wildfire. Dry malt, with a lot of nose tickle if you venture deeper into the glass. Some very faint vanilla.
Palate: Thin body. Robust tongue burn, in fact pretty fiery for a 55% which suggest the age might be on the shorter side (6 years is my wholly unsubstantiated guess). Dry on the tongue, with more charred meat and heavily toasted multigrain bread.
Finish: Concentrated smoke, like bottled “liquid smoke” – almost verging on hickory. Fades without bitterness, and also without much dimension.
With Water: Several drops of water adds little, instead roughening up the nose tickle. The finish is a little better balanced, with some sweet malty notes to counter the dry smoke. I’d only bother with the water if you find the ABV too high to enjoy neat.
Overall: If $75 for a bottle of NAS Caol Ila at Cask Strength sounds appealing to you, go ahead and buy in. If not, you’re not missing a heck of a lot. In a day and age where I can still buy Caol Ila 12 year for $60, Talisker 10 year for $50, and Laphroaig 10 for $33, I don’t see where this fits into the market. Cask strength is something, I suppose, but even then Ardbeg Uigeadail is around this same price, and Laphroaig 10 CS is around $10 less. Both are better.