Thursday, 5 May 2016

No Age Statement Scotch: Ardmore Legacy & Bowmore Small Batch Reserve

"Ladies."
 Apologies for posting a bit late this week. I’ve actually been applying for jobs, so wasting time sorting out the blog has been a bit low on the agenda. Anyway, I’m here now, so just read what follows and enjoy your weekend. Alright, cool.

We’re looking at two products today that are comparable across a number of areas, meaning we might learn something and may even be able to say something about the state of the modern scotch industry afterwards.

So yes, both are examples of peated single malt scotch, both are bottled at 40%, and both are low cost, fairly recent, no age statement expressions from renowned distilleries. Allow me to introduce, representing the Highland region (according to the producer, though I’ve seen it described as Speyside elsewhere), Ardmore Legacy. Pause for applause. Ardmore Legacy is made from 80% peated malt and 20% unpeated.

Then, representing Islay and the oldest of the eight distilleries on that magical island, it’s Bowmore Small Batch Reserve, which is entirely peated, as far as I’m aware.

Together then, these illustrate a growing trend within the industry towards production of no age statement bottlings – said generally to be due to an increase in demand and a decrease in older stocks. I like age statements, but I don’t see why a no age statement expression can’t be a winner with careful blending.

These were selected from a number of price reductions in Tesco and purchased at £20 (£10 off) for the Ardmore and £25 for the Bowmore (£8 off). Those are excellent prices for some potentially good single malt, though they aren’t the kind of thing I’d normally get excited about these days. They probably aren’t special, but they could be good. I mean, £20 though. That’s ridiculous value. You shouldn’t even need to think twice about spending £20 on 70cl of single malt – unless it was one you’ve bought before, and it was shit.

Previous Experience & Consensus

I suppose that, if I’m really going to say something about no age statement releases, and where these expressions sit in relation to their distillery’s other output, I’d need some previous experience to draw on. Sadly I don’t really have too much of that. I just happen to have these two bottles. I’ve tried a sample of the Ardmore before (I think) – during my time as a member of the Manchester Whisky Club – and I remember enjoying it, but that’s little use to us now. As for Bowmore, again, I’ve only had a glass of one or two expressions. If I remember rightly, I wasn’t too impressed with the standard 12 year old, and I don’t remember what I thought of the 15 year old Darkest.

In fact, the reason I was attracted towards buying these two bottles rather than any of the others that were on offer at that time, was that I wanted to be able to give these distilleries a proper appraisal – or at least make a solid start to setting out on the journey of giving them one.

What I can do though, is a bit of research around the internets and give you some idea of what other people are saying – saving you from having to take the time out from your own busy lives, and giving me something to do.

In general, opinion is quite positive. Both bottles seem to get mostly good user and “expert” reviews, though with regard to the Ardmore in particular, there is some grumbling about supposed dumbing down. That’s understandable, in all honesty, since the Legacy, is apparently conceived as a replacement for the very reasonably priced Traditional Cask expression that was many peoples’ favourite. That one was bottled at a generous 46% and, while it is supposed to be returning during 2015, it will be only for the international travel market - though it was already a no age statement expression.

I like my extra 6% alcohol  and my non-chill filtration as much as anybody, and I don’t really see why so many distilleries are choosing not to give the people what they want. I suppose it can only be economical considerations but… surely you could just increase the price a little - and surely it would be cheaper not to filter something. The cost of scotch is interminably rising anyway, so it’s not like anyone’s going to notice, and if your product’s good enough, people will be happy to buy it.

As far as the Bowmore is concerned then, what’s the deal about being a small batch reserve? What exactly is “small batch” about it isn’t clear, and at a normal price of £30-35 you’ve got to be wondering how this is supposed to appeal to the discerning whisky drinker its press releases profess it is aimed at. Then you’ve got to ask why it hasn’t been bottle non-chill filtered at cask strength – or at least at 46%. No information has been given as to how small the batch is and, as one other blogger I read put it, what constitutes a small batch is all relative to the size of a distillery’s output.

In general, it is thought that no age statement is given because of the way you can only call it as old as the youngest malt in the mix, so even if you’ve gone to the effort of putting some 15 year old in there, you might end up having to put “aged 3 years” on the bottle. That makes using older spirit rather pointless. Though I guess you could just be specific about the ages of spirit you used in your press releases…

A quick look at previous no age statement experience might be enlightening. Let’s just take you over it:

Aberlour A’bunadhBatch 47renowned and classy, but not to my personal taste. Great value but by no means a low aspiration release.

Bruichladdich Rocks good value and a good quality introduction to the distillery. Supposedly conceived for enjoying over ice, but I just don’t get why they would even bother doing that. Bottled at 46%.

Caol Ila NaturalCask Strength you need to shell out a bit extra for this one. Great stuff.

Glen GariochFounders Reserve bottled at a welcoming 48%, this one is trying to make a good impression, but it figures as the first disappointment on this list.

Glen Moray Classic don’t worry, Glen Garioch, you aren’t the worst on the list. This is. Cheap and nasty stuff.

Highland Park Einar the 1st of two HP Duty Free releases. Not as good as the better value 12 year old.

Highland Park LeifEriksson a more expensive HP Duty Free release. Correspondingly better than the Einar, but still nowhere near the quality of the 12.

Jura Superstition – another disappointment. This one put me off trying anything else from Jura.

Macallan Gold – I only got to try a miniature of this, but I thought it was quite nice.

So does that tell us anything? Well frankly, it tells us that, as ever, there’s a great deal of variety and variation in quality. The Bruichladdich Rocks and Caol Ila Cask Strength are personal favourites (and as such represent both the high and low ends of the pricing spectrum). Elsewhere you have ones that would be a matter of personal taste (like the Aberlour), some that are acceptable (HP) and others that are spectacularly bad (Glen Moray).

Out of those examples, only the Bruichladdich Rocks, Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve and Glen Moray Classic are comparable to these new arrivals in terms of being low cost, entry level relations to the distilleries’ core expressions. And curiously, they fit neatly into the categories of good (Bruichladdich), mediocre (Glen Garioch) and bad (Glen Moray). Let’s find out where mores Ard and Bow fit in.

The Test

one on one
I decided to open both at the same time, and had Mrs Cake pour two doubles for me – one into a Laphroaig glass and one into a Lagavulin glass – the idea being that I’d decide which was best on a blind basis, and use what little knowledge I had or had gleaned from reading about the products to determine which was which.

Presentation

Both give a decent impression of “standard” by being presented in a manner typical of £30+ single malts. Ardmore has its own cardboard tube, Bowmore a rectangular box – both of which display a little bit of light reading. Bottles are of a more or less standard whisky bottle shape (Bowmore with the trademark, slightly angular shoulders, tapered body and wider base), label design is reserved and contains representations of each spirit’s place of origin, and both have a little bit of gold trim – Ardmore’s in the shape of an eagle.

Colour

There isn’t a whole world of difference, but The Ardmore is more yellow/uriney, while the Bowmore is golden.

Enjoyment

Time for the blind tasting.

I tried writing up my results in terms of what I thought was in each glass, but I soon realised this was confusing, and that you wouldn’t be left with any clear impression of how each product did. I’ve re-written it then, thusly:

Nose: the Ardmore was peaty and sweet – very promsing – while the Bowmore was far more restrained. Before the contents of each glass were revealed, I had assumed them to be the other way around.

Palate: In contract to the Ardmore’s flamboyant nose, I noted that it was disappointing on entry and a little rough. The peat gave good fumes, but in comparison to the lighter bodied Bowmore, it failed to impress. The Bowmore developed very well in the mouth.

There hadn’t been a lot to pick between them, and nothing between the nosing and the drinking made me change my mistaken mind about which was which. I made sure to finish both glasses before revealing what they were, so that I could be sure I’d absorbed all there was before making any rash decisions. Nevertheless, I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised to find out I had been wrong. That turn of events actually made things more interesting. The Ardmore, which is presented as only partially peated offers far more peat (on the nose, at least) than the Bowmore  – which is the one I’d been expecting to be overtly peaty.

At that stage I tried to decide which was best, but it wasn’t really possible – swings and roundabouts. To be fair, at these prices, these are both great value. You might be a bit put out if you had to pay £40, but they are both good examples of no age statement single malts. I probably wouldn’t be bringing them out to impress guests though.

Second tastes

The next night it was time to evaluate each separately on its own merits. The Ardmore was first. The first hit on the nose from the bottle is great, but on the palate the spirit is a little sour and lacking in sweetness, though that does settle into a pleasant woodiness.

The Bowmore though, has a better balance of flavours and no bitterness, which overall means I’m tempted to pick that as my favourite.

And the rest of the experience

It’s been nice having these two, fairly similar products on hand at the same time. I’ve been tending to alternate them on different nights and, while I’d probably still say that the Bowmore is my favourite overall, it has turned out that there’s a lot to enjoy in the Ardmore. There have even been occasions where the sourness was absent, leaving a fully rounded taste that matched up to the aroma emerging from the bottle.

Overall then, both of these are excellent for the price I paid for them, but at their normal prices, perhaps not quite so much.


There’s a whole world of no age statement whisky out there, and if we were to stack these two up against the ones I mentioned earlier, I’ll admit, these would be in the top half. As ever, I’ll keep trying more and eventually we might have a definitive list. In fact, I’m approaching the end of another no age statement release right now that I think might just be a bit of a game changer. You’ll have to look out for that in (at least) a few weeks though.

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