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Themed tastings

Whiskies of the Year 2018: Richard’s picks

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Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen Edition, Ardbeg Grooves and Tomatin 30

Contributing editor Richard Woodard chooses two contrasting single malts and a high-end blend as his favourite whiskies of 2018 – but the connections between these apparently disparate whiskies are there beneath the surface.

We begin on Islay, and this year’s Ardbeg Fèis Ìle bottling, Ardbeg Grooves. It offers the distillery’s trademark smoke, but allied to a sweet, perfumed element and a ‘feral’ note that conjures an image of mice running amok in a shed. For all its animalic qualities, it’s beautifully balanced.

That poise links it to our second whisky, along with an Islay connection. Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition is, on the surface, self-contradictory, as it is a blend that celebrates a single malt. Thankfully, it’s a whisky that showcases the blender’s skill first and foremost – a hedonistic glass, but never overdone.

We close with the new 30-year-old single malt from Highland distillery Tomatin. Like the Walker blend, it is utterly seamless in its delicate mix of creaminess and soft tropical fruit. A subtle and ethereal whisky that builds slowly and never feels the need to shout.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Ardbeg Grooves

    Ardbeg Grooves
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    46%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    You expect (and get) the sweet smoke, but there’s an underlying perfumed element that calls to mind a gently smouldering bonfire of aromatic woods scattered with rose petals. This slowly drifts into scented dried coriander and a plummy element reminiscent of a very posh mulled wine. Savoury notes of smoked ham, leather writing case and roasted hazelnuts dipped in dark chocolate – accentuated by adding water.

    Palate

    Mouth-coating, sweet and unctuous, with that perfumed element sitting alongside increasingly juicy black fruits. All the while, the smoke gathers and billows in the background, gradually blotting out the sun and adding a feral, animalic note of mouse-infested garden shed. Big, explosive and increasingly edgy. Water brings the fruit back.

    Finish

    A last wisp of smoke from that bonfire of aromatic woods.

    Conclusion

    Ardbeg at its tantalising best, combining raw power with sweet charm and no little finesse. A belter.

    Right place, right time

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    Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition

    Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost & Rare Port Ellen Edition
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    43%
    Production type
    Blended Scotch whisky
    Region
    n/a
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Immediately decadent, with vanilla cream and light honey leading into caramel-filled chocolate (Golden Cup?). Behind this there’s a persistent undertone of soft tropical fruit, which slowly deepens into darker, dried territory. The smoke, when it finally hoves into view, is a subtle accompaniment. Beautifully soft and rounded.

    Palate

    A seamless continuation of the nose, with some more mature elements of rich loam and maritime smoke, although again the latter remains shy and understated. Beautifully textured… flavours and mouthfeel unite to suggest honey and a delightful waxy quality. Manages to remain voluptuous and hedonistic without ever becoming flabby or overdone.

    Finish

    That loam/smoke character lingers, along with the tropical fruit.

    Conclusion

    In conceptual terms, this whisky is self-contradictory: a blend that celebrates a single malt. Thankfully, it never sacrifices the former in favour of the latter.

    Right place, right time

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    Tomatin 30 Years Old

    Tomatin 30 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    46%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Highland
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Gentle maturity from the outset, from the deep flavours of tropical fruit to the perfumed, cream-and-custard scents of a fine pâtisserie. Delicate and ephemeral – you barely dare to breathe for fear that the aromas will fly away from the glass, never to return. Just a hint of the bigger, darker flavours that come with age.

    Palate

    That creaminess – verging on waxy at times – is now front-and-centre, connecting the soft perfume of apricot purée with a light coating of honey. There’s also some white pepper and fragrant spice to add a little backbone as the cask flexes a little muscle. A slow build that never feels the need to shout.

    Finish

    Lingering scents of tropical fruit pudding smothered with cream.

    Conclusion

    While the nose is ethereally beautiful, this is a whisky that fully comes to life on the palate. A gentle giant.

    Right place, right time

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