When I first started getting into whisky ten years ago, the consensus was that’s it’s easier to start by learning about Scotch.
Blends are easy to understand. With a few exceptions of brands like Longrow and Ledaig, the thinking was single malts were all bottled under their distillery name. Being able to easily know where the whisky came from made knowing more about whisky basic. If the single malt wasn’t bottled by the distillery, they’re easily classified as independent bottlers (IBs). Bourbon and Rye whiskey were considered more confusing to a beginner, since non-distiller producers (NDP) brands were still not too honest then. Asian whisk(e)y was just getting popular at the time, so they weren’t really considered.
Later on, single malts like Smokehead, Stronachie, and Port Askaig started becoming more popular. Most weren’t sure if these were IBs or distillery bottlings. So, some searched online for the distilleries, but none came up. There’s no Smokehead distillery. Stronachie Distillery has been closed for a long time. Port Askaig is a town in Islay that’s really close to Caol Ila.
Those were different times. The geeks then weren’t plentiful yet. They also couldn’t geek out as much, since information was also not as easily accessible. There was no official term for these mysterious single malt brands that came from unknown distilleries.
I forgot when and where I first read these single malts referred to as “bastard malts,” but I think it’s from a Whiskyfun review. It was my go-to review site then, when Ralfy was pretty much the only other popular whisky reviewer. To be clear, the term refers to a single malt from an unspecified distillery.
If you’re asking why the owners of these brands don’t reveal the distillery where the whisky comes from, the answer is: they contractually can’t. The majority of the Scottish distilleries are now owned by the big companies. They have to protect the name of their distillery and brand. Also, in case the brand owner’s contract runs out with the distillery, they have the option to switch distillery sources without changing the brand name they built up.
By saying this, I realized “bastard malt” is an appropriate yet crude term. Historically bastards have been mistreated. The legitimate families they came from usually didn’t want to be associated with them.
Port Askaig is a brand of single malt bottled for and by Elixir Distillers. Along with brands like Single Malts of Scotland and Black Tot, they are owned by Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh. The common comment online is that Port Askaig uses Caol Ila. But, there are a few comments that guess there could also be sourced Lagavulin and/or Bunnahabhain. In my opinion, all of these could be true. The brand has at least eight different expressions. I also haven’t seen any single cask Port Askaigs. So, I’m guessing these are blended by batch. Each expression, or each batch thereof, could use single malt from different distilleries.
Due to geography, I’m more likely to believe that Port Askaig uses Caol Ila. If this 8-year-old is Caol Ila, just think of this review as a Caol Ila vs Lagavulin review. It’s not often that you can get a comparison of single malts of the same age from these distilleries.
Yes, there are both 12-year-old Caol Ila and Lagavulin. But Caol Ila’s is bottled at 43%, while the Lagavulin is bottled at cask strength. There’s also no distillery bottling of a Caol Ila 8 year to match with the Lagavulin 8. There’s no Caol Ila 16-year-old. Lagavulin has no 18-year-old to match with the Caol Ila 18.
Port Askaig Aged 8 Years – Review
45.8% ABV. £44.95 from The Whiskey Exchange. USD $58 locally.
Color: White tea.
On the nose: A rare mix of nuts, fruits, floral, and peat. The first thing I get is a pronounced aroma of peat, smoke and Japanese seaweed crisps but heavier on almonds. After that are light to medium aromas of gooseberries, chamomile tea, Fuji apples, banana chips, Japanese pears, honey, toffee, and lemon and lime peels.
In the mouth: I get medium tastes of smoke and peat that don’t really linger. After that are light tastes of grilled limes and lemons, guava jelly, honeysuckle, ashes, grilled green bell peppers, honey, and cloves.
Whoever blends this is doing a great job. The peat and smoke in this aren’t blunt and harsh, which is unlike most of the contemporary peated Islay single malts I’ve recently tried. It almost tastes like the toned-down peat and nutty flavors I get from Laphroaig 18 and Talisker 18. This makes me think there’s a fair amount of well-aged peated Islay single malt in here.
The balance and complexity on the nose are great. I think this is the winning feature of this whisky. Getting pronounced fruits and floral aromas in a peated Islay single malt is a rarity to me. Even in the mouth, it’s not a standard contemporary peated Islay single malt. The guava, honeysuckle, and the lack of an ashy taste is something uncommon in the recent modern peated Islay single malts I’ve tried.
With how much personality this has, I’m guessing these are small batch blends. Not only that, but I also think these were gradually diluted, which is why I don’t get the usual heat I get from standard single malts from big brands.
I’m now a fan of Port Askaig. I hope to try more. This whisky has great value for the price, which is why I’m giving it the score below.
Lagavulin Aged 8 Years – Review
Color: Chrysanthemum tea.
On the nose: A bit similar to the Port Askaig 8. The amount of peat, smoke and nuts are nearly identical, but there’s an unpleasant ethanol bite and it lacks the fruity floral notes. I get a slightly long aroma of shaved almonds with peat and smoke. After that are light to medium bursts of kumquat, toffee, lemon shrub, salt, lime peel, and grapefruit peel. In between are more random bursts of ethanol heat.
In the mouth: A sharper and harsher peat, smoke and ethanol bite compared to the Port Askaig. There’s a persistent bitter taste that makes me think of burnt lime & lemon and their peels. After that are subtle tastes of cloves, cardamom, Japanese seaweed crisps, honey, toffee which give a reprieve of sweetness and ashes.
Bitter and harsh, and it’s not just due to the slightly higher ABV compared to the Port Askaig. The flavors are also incomprehensible due to the persistent heat and burnt bitter taste.
Persistent burnt and bitter tastes are common in modern peated Islay single malts. I wonder if this is due to the faster distillation to match the demand? The persistent heat, I think, is a result of the efficient instant dilution big brands like to utilize. The lack of character in this is, I think, due to the result of a big batch blend.
After trying this and the Port Askaig, if I were asked what distillery this single malt came from, I’d say it’s from Lagavulin. This is backed up by my thinking of Caol Ila having a more lemon-y character.
(at TWE and K&L prices; 4/10 at local prices)
Lagavulin image courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.