Whisky Showdown! Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona vs. Caol Ila 12

Time for another whisky showdown! This time, I have chosen two very interesting peated whiskies, the Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona and the Caol Ila 12. Both are great whiskies, but enjoying them back to back may reveal some strengths and weaknesses that are not easily perceived on their own. For those of you who missed my initial reviews of each, it may benefit you to read my related blog entries before continuing.

Let’s begin!

The colour of the Cruach Mhona is very pale and I had also considered the same to be true of the Caol Ila in my initial review. However, the Bunnahabhain is much more pale. It appears almost colourless when viewed next to the Caol Ila. Don’t get me wrong though, the Caol Ila is a pale gold that, when compared to almost any sherry cask aged whisky would appear nearly clear as well.

On the nose, the Cruach Mhona comes on strong with the peat and smoke, but the smoke is less prevalent than with the Caol Ila. The lakeside is strong and memories of seaweed prevail whereas the Caol Ila has little if any of these characteristics. On the other hand, the Caol Ila gives off more sweet odours in the form of lemon, some citrus, and hints orange peel. The Cruach Mhona is less sweet and whatever comes through is in the form of dried fruits and impressions of berries.

On the palate, the two really distinguish themselves from one another. The Cruach Mhona is more peaty, stong and bold. The sweet notes are less apparent than with the Caol Ila. The Caol Ila on the other hand, with its softer peat but stronger smoke, balances the experience with the lemony sweetness, less chewy texture, stronger honey and fruit tones, and fewer wood and nut elements.

The finish is quite distinct on each as well. The Cruach Mhona finishes longer, more woody and nutty. Pepper characterises the Cruach Mhona as opposed to the saltiness of the Caol Ila. Both are smoky, but only the Caol Ila can be described as mouth watering in the finish. The Caol Ila’s finish may not be as long, but what it does in the time it lasts is impressive. The sweet background and softer tones combine with just the right amount of smoke to delicately fade into something memorable.

On the whole, the two are great whiskies. Both offer something peaty and smokey in two very different ways. The casual whisky drinker would be better served with the Caol Ila 12. The avid fan of peat will want more of the Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona. I was quite surprised at the stark contrast between the two and took more to the Caol Ila 12 as the tasting went on. For an everyday dram and continuous drinking, I will recommend the Caol Ila. That’s not to say the Cruach Mhona does not have its time and place however.

So there you have it, two great whiskies but another tough decision in which is better. Please don’t take my word for it though, make sure you try each for yourself and let me know what you think!


Johnnie Walker Black Label

One of the oldest bottles in my collection, sitting and waiting for a good swig from time to time is also one of my favorites. I’m not sure why the bottle has lasted so long, but I’m glad to have had it available tonight for a tasting.

The Johnnie Walker label has been around since 1820. When you pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker, note the elements that make it distinct. The square bottle, simple layout, lots of transparent glass through which to see the product, the diagonal label, etc. All of these elements are instantly recognized, making their mark on the consumer and allowing instant brand recognition. Excellent presentation.

Johnnie Walker Black Label is a 12 year old blended Scotch sold at 40% alcohol by volume. The colour a beautiful dark copper, under the right light showing a red tinge.

On the nose, the first thing that strikes is orange and citrus. A second whiff brings in some hints of banana peel. Some smoke works its way in and balances the fruit.

On the palate, fruity and rich. Some honey and a hint of vanilla.

The finish is of short to medium length, fruity at first turning to some wood and smoke and then going off into a honey glaze that lasts for a short while.

Some water opens up more fruit and smoke on the nose. The palate becomes sweeter, the honey notes a bit stronger. Some caramel can be tasted, adding its undercurrent to the entire range of flavours. The water does a fine job extending the finish. I would say this whisky benefits most on the finish from the addition of water. The honey glaze turns into something more like sugar and lingers there for some time.

Overall, a fine whisky and something to consider for an everyday dram. It lacks some of the more complex elements that we’ve seen in my other tastings to date, but is an excellent choice nonetheless. You can’t go wrong with this purchase. All sizes are priced virtually the same in nith Quebec and Ontario, with Ontario charges a hair more. You’ll pay about 40% less in New Hampshire though, setting you back about $36 for the 750ml bottle in that wonderful state.


Highland Park 18

I have been waiting patiently nearly a full month to try this bottle of Highland Park 18 that I purchased in New Hampshire. My patience has finally waned as the bottle’s calling became too loud for my already weak will to resist.

The Highland Park 12 was reviewed previously and proved to be quite a good whisky. To further my discussion of this distillery’s background, Highland Park claims it was established in 1798 on the Orkney Islands town of Kirkwall. This is one of the few distilleries that actually uses a stone floor on which to malt its barley. The barley is hand-turned and smoked on local peat, aromatic in its own way and reputed to have a different character when scrutinized against the peat from Islay. The casks used in the aging are Spanish sherry oak casks. Once aged 18 years, the distiller claims that the best batches are chosen and left to “harmonize” for a short time.

The colour is a nice gold under the light, the legs running slow and thick after swirling it briefly. This 43% abv whisky is three points stronger than most products from Highland Park.

On the nose, sweet toffee and almonds. The bottle suggests marzipan. I won’t argue. Faint hints of cherry. Some spice and light smoke round it out. The expression from the pear is definitely more sweet than other peated whiskies I have tried.

On the palate, woody at first.  The nuts come through after a short while, suggesting almond at first but concentrate some and you’ll note that it is more cashew than anything. Explore further and the spices and fruity sweetness will come through, with a drop of honey to hold everything together. This whisky is surprisingly rich but not strong. The flavours shift constantly during the tasting, dancing from one impression to the next and held together by a fruity sweet undercurrent until the finish.

The finish is long and woody. Smoke builds into the wood, reminding me of starting a fire on a cold winter’s night using the wood freshly brought in from outside causing bits of snow to melt and steam off into the air.

A very small addition of water opens up the nose to more smoke, but still the sweetness of the peat dominates.

On the palate, the wood is even stronger and warmer. The flavours still compex, still mingling but generating more warmth, satisfying the senses.

The finish is bigger on wood, the kind of sensation not unlike a new house under construction or a big renovation project.

Overall, this is a fantastic, well rounded whisky for occasional drinking. The SAQ in Quebec charges an arm for this one, Ontario charges roughly $10 less…but New Hampshire is stocking it at 1/3 less than in Quebec at a full $50 less (do the math). You will not regret paying good money for this bottle wherever you get it, the only regret you may have will be that you did not try it sooner…and that you won’t be able to experience it again for the first time once you do. I’ll look for something in this range for an eventual whisky showdown.


Highland Park 18 Years

Whisky Showdown! Caol Ila 12 vs. Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Time for another whisky showdown! Two similar whiskies go head to head today in the form of Caol Ila 12 and Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Both are whiskies that are on the smoky, peaty side of things and are a natural fit for side by side comparison.

The two Islay whiskies are easily distinguished in the glass. The Caol Ila’s pale gold contrasts with Laphroaig’s deeper shade. Prior to tasting, I added a few drops of water to each.

On the nose, the Caol Ila is sweeter than the Quarter Cask. Both are rich and distinct and both provide an excellent preview as to what’s to come. The richer, peaty, and mostly dry aroma of the Quarter Cask draws me in more than the Caol Ila. It’s bigger and bolder. Yet, those who enjoy a smoother dram could find themselves more interested by the Caol Ila 12.

On the palate, the Caol Ila is the sweeter of the two. It mixes in the smoke and peat wonderfully and does not betray the nose’s initial appreciation of the content. The Quarter Cask comes on dry, woody, nutty, smoky, peaty, and less sweet. It’s again bigger and bolder. It lights a brief fire on the palate and continues to warm throughout the drinking experience. The Quarter Cask does mix sweet and fruity in there, but to a far lesser degree than the Caol Ila.

The finishes of both are long and satisfying, reflectling wonderfully everything that came before.

Overall, both are excellent whiskies. I believe each has its place in your collection and can be perfectly enjoyed depending on your mood and situation. I will give the edge to the Quarter Cask for its unabashed bold, woody approach. The Caol Ila is easier to down, a better “every day dram”, and is probably more enjoyable with company who may not appreciate a stronger whisky.

Try them both yourself and let me know what you think!


Compass Box The Spice Tree

My curiosity got the better of me. Despite resisting for about three weeks, I finally folded Spice Tree bottleand picked up a bottle of Compass Box’s The Spice Tree. What drew me to this whisky is its history as well as its unique production process. Compass Box was founded in 2000 and calls itself an artisan Scotch producer. They are involved in looking for new ways of creating flavours in their blends which sometimes gets them into trouble with the Scotch Whisky Association. For instance, The Spice Tree was first introduced in 2005 but was pulled after the Scotch Whisky Association deemed the practice of inserting French oak staves (flat oak barrel inserts) into bourbon casks for the second maturation was unacceptable.

In fall of 2009, Compass Box released a new version of the product. Having changed their approach, they were able to legally market the Spice Tree. Compass Box uses the highest quality wood from old growth French Sessile oak with an average age of 195 years. The wood is then air dried for two years, letting it develop its flavours and character. Most whisky wood is kiln dried. Instead of using French oak staves, Compass Box now incorporates the new French oak at the end of the barrel in the second maturation cycle. The oak is heavily toasted and apparently provides a similar flavour profile as the previous version.

The bottle states that the primary maturation is in a mix first fill and refill American oak and then the French oak from the Vosges forests for 2 years.

The whisky is sold at 46% alcohol by volume as a blended malt from the Highland area, specifically the village of Brora.

The colour is a rich amber and the bottle quite elegant.

The spices abound on the nose. Ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, some sugary sweetness, toasted apple, and hints of wood.

On the palate, much of the same. There is a sweet greeting to the taste, followed by the spices and soft fruit. Apple juice and cinnamon combine with soft wood, nut, and honey tones. Vanilla and almond round it out.

The finish is long and pleasant. The spice, apple, nut, wood, honey, and smoke slowly fade to a sweet fruity note before turning to vanilla that gently goes the distance in providing one of the most pleasant finishes I have yet to experience.

Adding a few drops of water, the nose opens some more honey and the body shows some more of the previous characteristics. It feels warmer on the tongue, but continues to satisfy on all levels.

This is an exceptional find and a great all around whisky. Perfect for a cool, rainy night, Compass Box recommends hard goat cheese and strong cheddar. Around these parts it appears to be quite rare. As of this writing, there were 16 bottles in all of the province of Quebec, 8 in Montreal’s downtown signature store and 8 in Ste-Foy’s signature store. Ontario only has a total of 11 available, 8 at the store in Etobicoke and 3 in London. I’ll note that Ontario sells the product for $9 less than Quebec. I am unsure of availability in the US, but none are to be found in New Hampshire.


Spice Tree box

Caol Ila 12

A comment left by a reader on Facebook lead me to discover Caol Ila 12. Not available in Quebec, unless you are willing to shell out handsomely for the Distiller’s Edition. I picked up this bottle of 12 year old Caol Ila in one of New Hampshire’s fine liquor outlets.

The box says that Caol Ila is pronounced ‘Cull EE-la’, which is good enough for me. Apparently, it is Gaelic for “sound of Islay’. The distillery has been operation for over 160 years, but the whole thing was demolished in 1972 to built a modern facility and produce in large quantities for blenders. Fortunately, the distillery also releases its own signature line of single malts. Hard to find and rare on the market, I was intrigued enough by the recommendation and apparent scarcity of supply to taste this product for my readers. How selfless of me indeed.

Caol Ila’s distillery appears to be in a remote location somewhere on the Eastern coast of Islay. The other East coast distillery happens to be the maker of one of my best reviewed whiskies, Bunnahabhain. The bottle indicates the distillery is situated in a remote cove near Port Askaig. Loch nam Bam provides the fresh water necessary for the mash. The bottle indicates that this is a well balanced whisky, peated but not as pungent as others from the island. We’re about to find out.

In appearance, this is a very light coloured whisky. One of the palest gold whiskies I have seen to date and quite transparent. Ex-bourbon casks are used in the aging process.

On the nose, it’s peaty. However, this 43% alcohol by volume whisky is quite understated in its peat, but unmistakeably peated. A delightfully sweet aroma mixes in with the peat, providing a most pleasant sensation. It reminds me of lemon drops and honey. This is one whisky that could be kept on the nose for quite some time before actually drinking.

On the palate, there’s a bit of the peat, some hints of smoke, and the sweetness that mixes in to balance the whole thing. The lemon drops fade into what I can only explain as the taste of red liquorice. Some fruitiness in there too, apple or pear. None of these flavours are overwhelming in and of themselves, but combine to give an expression that I cannot compare directly to anything else I have tasted so far. I’m thinking a comparison consisting of back to back tastings of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Bowmore 12, Highland Park 12, and the Bunnahabhain are in order. A smooth and light whisky, this could easily become an “every day dram”.

The finish is long and sweet. Hints of smoke help dry it out. Well balanced indeed.

Adding water brings out some more of the smoke, but only very little. The most significant impact is the additional sweetness and saltiness it brings out in the flavour and finish. I recommend only a few drops.

Overall, this is a fantastic whisky for anyone’s collection, bringing out the characteristics of Islay malts but toning down the peat for those who are not fans of heavily peated whiskies. Highly recommended, I will seek out others in the line for comparison to the base 12 year old.