I'm finally back, this time with a Ledaig review of three independent single malt bottlings. Signatory Vintage 2011 Very Cloudy 6yo| Artist Collective 2007-Burgundy Finish 11yo LMDW Exclusive| Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection 2005-Oloroso Finish 12yo.
There was an interesting discussion on Aqvavitae's (Roy) Vpub episode on whisky regions and terroir. I will steer clear of the T word for now but on regionality he says that even though the lines are blurry it does provide a point of reference to a 'general' style that one can expect from a particular region. I would tend to agree with him. Now I'm mindful of the fact that there are unpeated Islays and peated Speysiders and the fact that the genesis of the regions have more to do with taxation, legislation, logistics and then with flavour. But I feel it is a great on-boarding tool for those who are just dipping their toes. A good history lesson if nothing else. I began my journey that way and I'm sure many, if not most would have done the same. Few other drinks (hard spirits) have regionality built into the 'general' character of the spirit perhaps with the exception of rum and mezcal. But this debate can go on much like the T word. Which brings me to Ledaig (Led-chig), an Island malt.
Island malts, not officially classified as a region by the SWA is a cluster of islands (Isle) comprising of Orkney, Lewis & Harris, Skye, Mull, Jura and Arran. Ledaig is situated on the Isle of Mull just north of Islay. That and its un-peated parent Tobermory fly a bit under the radar, outside of the enthusiast circle. When tasting these three expressions blind, nobody from our whisky group could place them as non-Islay drams let alone guess them as Ledaig. When it comes to peated whiskies our mental spotlight still shines firmly on Islay. Which brings me to the following questions. Is Ledaig's proximity to Islay a disadvantage? Is the low recall a function of less marketing dollars? Or is the whisky too challenging? I sometimes feel perceptions and associations are based on conformity and regionality in that sense can be a trap. As a whisky enthusiast I'm perfectly happy with the above as I continue to get great outliers without having to break my bank. Peated Glenturret being one such non Islay example. But then I'm being selfish. Let's face it, nobody fires their stills only for a handful of enthusiasts. Every whisky out there deserves as large an audience as possible.
Ledaig in my mind (and perhaps in my mind only) is unique; of seemingly discordant notes on paper which somehow work eccentrically well in spirit. It tends to be plasticine, dirty, tarry, meaty and vegetal with intense minerality and sweetness. Many a times, a departure from the typical iodine laden medicinal Islay malts it can be challenging but nevertheless characterful. Older distillate certainly had issues with being excessively feinty. So if you are looking at buying older Ledaig, be aware. I would strongly recommend you try before you buy. I reached out to to Tobermory to gain some insights into their production process. Below is my Q&A with Emma Bawden and Alasdair McCrone and is edited for clarity.
Nik: I think Ledaig is unique in its flavour profile and differs from Islay even though it's not too far from there. I wanted to know if it's the peat that gives it that uniqueness or a combination of peat as well as the other steps in the production?
Emma & Alasdair: I'd say the unique qualities of Ledaig come from a number of aspects in its production. Certainly the amount and style of peat makes a difference, but other factors come into play: the quality of the water from our own private loch in the hills above Tobermory (Lochan Gearr Adhainn), how we break down the grains into our grist, the temperature and length of our mashes, the lengths of both our short and long fermentations, our four excellent Oregon Pine Washbacks, the style and height of our stills (which support reflux and make the lighter alcohols work hard to ascend and so promote a lighter spirit) and, not least, our approach top casking and maturation. The resulting spirit is both peaty and sweet, peppery and smoky, spicy and floral, with a salty finish testifying to its origins by the seaside.
Nik: The peat used is Islay peat or does it come from some other region? Emma & Alasdair: As far as I am aware the peat used at Port Ellen Maltings is harvested from the Castlehill peat bog on Islay.
Nik: Which barley variety do you use?
Emma & Alasdair: We use both Optic and Concerto barley.
Malt: Could you share some more information on the fermentation regime? Do you use wooden washbacks or stainless steel?
Emma & Alasdair: Fermentation takes place in our four brand new Oregon Pine (Douglas Fir) washbacks, constructed and installed by Forsyth's of Elgin which have a capacity of 31000 litres each. Our previous washbacks (also Oregon Pine) were installed in 1971 when the distillery re-opened after a 41 year hiatus. They were 48 years old and in need of replacement. We fill each washback with 27000 litres of sugary wort. A short fermentation takes about 48 hours, whereas a long fermentation takes up to 109 hours resulting in an 8% or 9% primitive alcohol (similar to beer).
Nik: You mentioned short and long fermentation. Could you dwell a little further on the rationale behind this?
Emma & Alasdair: So, the short ones still give time for the yeast to covert all the sugars to alcohol and the resulting wash will be bright, active and have something of a cereal quality. After that 48 hours, the temperature will have risen and the yeast will die. However, when we leave the wash in there, the other bacteria present in the wood gives us a secondary fermentation and this allows a lot of the fruity esters to develop and thus improves the depth of flavour and the complexity of the wash. We do treat the longs and shorts differently when it comes to distilling (short fermentations can be very active and foamy in the wash still) but we don't keep the resulting spirit separate - all the output will be combined in the spirit receivers prior to casking. So, yes, the final bottled whisky will be a mix of mostly longs and some shorts.
Nik: What would the PPM on the malt and on the final spirit?
Emma & Alasdair: The PPM (between 35-40) is the figure indicated at the point of smoke-drying the barley during the malting process. The PPM figure always refers to the malted barley arriving at the distillery. It doesn’t refer to the phenols in the final spirit. Phenols are lost throughout the whisky-making process. Some will be left behind in the draff at the end of mashing, a few may be lost, changed or masked during fermentation, or disappear during the second distillation. Phenols are big molecules with a high boiling-point which are only released as vapour towards the end of the distillation cycle. Their capture will therefore depend on the cut points set by the distiller. Coming off spirit at an earlier cut point will only capture lighter smokiness, while a later cut will pick up more of the heavier phenols. In addition, many phenols will be always be left behind in the feints and are never retained in new make spirit. In other words, depending on cut points and process, the phenolic content of a new make whisky will always be considerably lower than in the malted barley which arrived at the distillery. Phenols are also lost during maturation. This is why we describe our Ledaig whisky not by specific PPM but as medium-heavily-peated and light bodied.
Nik: What are the cut points for Ledaig?
Emma & Alasdair: The cut points in our spirit run are as follows: Foreshots run for about 20 minutes down to about 73% ABV; we then switch to the heart of the spirit which runs for about six hours and goes down to about 56% ABV, after which we switch back to feints for a further 5-6 hours.
Nik: Could you tell us a little bit more on your wood management?
Emma & Alasdair: The majority of our core whiskies (Tobermory 12 year old and Ledaig 10 year old) are matured in American Oak ex-bourbon casks. The Tobermory 12 also has a percentage of its spirit aged in virgin oak casks. Our limited edition, special release and single-cask whiskies are matured and a wide range of casks. Some stay in the same cask for their entire duration of their maturation while others are transferred to be "finished" in casks of different origins.
Many thanks to Emma & Alasdair for sharing these insights. Not only is it great learning but it also helps us appreciate the whisky better. The official Ledaig 10yo is very good value for money. Bottled at 46.3% and natural presentation it is available for under £40 which I think is a steal. Let's see what the indies have in store for us.
Disclosure - Unfortunately I could not attend this blind tasting session. Samples were kindly provided by the host, Keshav Prakash for this review. I did not taste them blind.
Ledaig 6yo-Signatory Vintage 2011 Very Cloudy @ 40% ABV
Wood- Hogshead. Cask Nos. 700122,700123,700124
Distilled Sept'11|Bottled Mar'18
Non-chill filtered|Natural colour
Colour: Apple juice
Nose: Dull peat with a hint of iodine. Spent campfire smoke from a distance. Slightly sweet notes of dried dates linger in the background. Rest does not change much. It continues to be unremarkable. Frankly I'm struggling to get anything out of this on the nose. Don't even bother with water.
Palate: More of that dull campfire smoke. Very thin and watered down despite being un-chill filtered. Some honey, raisins and ashy barley water. A little bit of chalky minerality is followed by citrus notes of lemon curd and sweet lime. This is as much a struggle on the palate as it was while nosing. Water and rest both prove to be unbeneficial.
Finish: Ashy bitter barley water.
Impressions: Typically young peated whiskies are noted for their exuberance but this one is far from it. I think the biggest culprit here is the low abv which has drowned the very life of the distillate and what remains is an uneventful Ledaig which lacks any definition whatsoever. I can't help but spot the irony in the name 'very cloudy'. One would be far better off with the official Ledaig 10yo which is vastly superior in every aspect.
Ledaig 11yo-Artist Collective 2007 #2.2-LMDW Exclusive @ 57.1% ABV
Wood- 3 Casks + Burgundy Finish
Distilled 2007|Bottled Mar'18
Non-chill filtered|Natural colour
Nose: Prickly alcohol at first which gives way to a freshly charged cold smoker. This is followed by dusty ashy peat, burnt soy sauce and charred rice powder. It has a burnt or charred quality about its peat delivery which is in keeping with the Ledaig character. Water adds a thin layer of sweetness in the form of smoked golden syrup and dark caramel. Rest brings out carbolic soap and burnt sawdust.
Palate: Initially prickly followed by a sledgehammer of peat. Intense just like the nose-cold sooty ashy peat. It's brash, uncouth and in your face. Burnt coconut shells and spent charcoal in a tandoor are followed by citrus notes of fire roasted lemons and coriander. Water adds faint medicinal touches of betadine and becosules as well as bringing out clove oil and cinnamon. There is a tannic edge that runs thinly in the background. Overall it still remains brashly peat forward.
Finish: A thick envelope of sooty smoke.
Impressions: Peat and wine cask marriages are mostly not made in heaven. Part instinct, part luck, it is very tricky to make them work even with the best of intentions. With finishing, the usual culprit is the over dominance of the finishing cask. But in this case it's all about the peat which is the aggressor. There is a coldness to it which I have not experienced earlier. Peat heads will love the creosote overdrive so if that's your jive then you are in for a treat. I'm not sure the burgundy finish has had a palpable influence on the overall delivery. Three cask + burgundy finish is all that the label states. Even the LMDW website where it is still available at a pricey €145 only mentions small batch bourbon barrels + burgundy finish. If I were to taste this blind I would have never guessed that a finishing was applied. Though I'm quite certain I would have picked this up as a Ledaig.
Ledaig 12yo Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection @ 57% ABV
Wood- Oloroso Finish Cask #800073-74
Distilled 2005|Bottled 2018
Non-chill filtered|Natural colour
Colour- Light Amber
Nose: Damp forest mulch is joined by freshly sawn log wood and wet sawdust. It turns very floral - elderflower, lilies and specifically Sontakka aka Indian white ginger lily. This is a first for me in a whisky and I'm liking it already. The peat here is well rounded - sweet, smoky and less phenolic. Honey baked ham and dark molten jaggery mingle with roasted almonds and coffee beans. Water brings out smoked feta, white pepper, sage and leather. It also highlights salt and a bit of tar.
Palate: Robust fiery arrival with dry, ashy, tarry peat in full throttle. Heat from the spirit and mouth puckering oak tannins have numbed the sides of my mouth. The high ABV is letting very little else to come through and this is certainly not as talkative as it was on the nose. Let's add water and give it some rest. Wow, it has remarkably transformed almost to the point of being a completely different whisky. There is a beautiful Mediterranean twist now. Turkish bayleaf, sage and rosemary tossed in a griddle of a sizzling steak is followed by pickled olive brine and smoked feta. Sweetness in the form of prune preserve is joined by toasted walnuts and Assam tea, while balsamic vinegar and roasted beetroots add earthiness. The peat smoke is in sympathetic resonance - burnt twigs, soot and smoked paprika perfectly complementing the oloroso flourish. Dilution has also added weight, making it oily and unctuous. This is utterly delicious and complex with many layers unfolding the slower you go. How I wish I had a larger sample!
Finish: Extremely long with tarry mentholated smoke and dried herbs.
Impressions: What began on the palate as a straight jacketed peat delivery was completely transformed by the addition of water and some rest. While I have always believed in merits of dilution especially when dealing with cask strength whiskies I've never encountered such a metamorphic effect on display. This would be a perfect example to the oh-I-never-add-water-to-my-single-malt brigade. The back label states final 55 month maturation in 'fresh' (I'm assuming first-fill) oloroso sherry casks which would make this more of a secondary/double maturation than a finishing. I'm also assuming ex-bourbon for the primary maturation though the label doesn't give any details. Here the cask selection and the double maturation were both very well judged. Dilution and patience are well rewarded. What you get is a robust but harmonious delivery with beguiling complexity. Absolutely stunning. Unfortunately it is no longer available but worth checking out at an auction near you. Oh and before I forget this was a Malt Maniac 2018 Gold award (Daily dram) winner if such things should matter to you. I had penciled my notes being blissfully oblivious of the award which I only stumbled upon while visiting the W&M website.