Tuesday 20 June 2023

House of Hazelwood - Whisky from the Gordon Family private collection [Tasted #639 - 642]

As I think I've mentioned a few times on this blog, Glenfiddich is the whisky that got me into whisky (an abnormally large percentage of my posts from 2012 were about the distillery), and a whisky for which I've always had a soft spot. Over time that extended to sister distilleries Balvenie & Kininvie, so it's fair to say I'm a fan of what parent (and still family-owned) company William Grant & Sons produce. 

It shouldn't be a surprise then that when I was asked if I wanted to try some well-aged releases from House of Hazelwood, the latest venture from the Gordon Family (owners of WG&S), a very emphatic yes quickly followed.

Depending on when you began your whisky journey, "Hazelwood" could mean a few different things - a limited series of releases dating back to 2001 (with the first released only to WG&S employees, and the second being the first official bottling of Kininvie single malt), or a 2016 series of blended releases found largely in duty free, bottled in 500mL format as an 18, 21 and 25 year old.

It's the Hazelwood brand's most recent incarnation we're here to discuss though, and arguably its most exciting. To learn more, I sat down with Director Jonathan Gibson for a virtual tasting recently.

Jonathan explained that Charles Gordon (great-grandson of William Grant, father of the current WG&S Chairman & influential character in the company's history) began collecting casks not for commercial release, but for the family's personal stocks decades ago, and built the collection to the point that it simply became "too large". No doubt buoyed by whisky's immense rising popularity, the family decided it was time to bottle and sell these, and hence the House of Hazelwood collection was born, with a plan to release 8 new whiskies every 6-9 months.
(A point I found interesting is that the casks that go into the House of Hazelwood collection don't contain old Glenfiddich, Balvenie or Kininvie. The distilleries are diverse and varied, and the majority of the whiskies are blended, blended malt or blended grain whiskies.)

I asked Jonathan (who himself came from Compass Box) about the cask management - he explained some are actively managed, and others are left alone. Some are blended at birth (like the aptly titled "Blended at Birth"!) and others blended later in life.

The company (under the WG&S umbrella, but run as a separate company to the distilleries) launched in June 2022, and has recently officially launched in Australia, largely following a model of selling direct to consumers. With some luck Hong Kong distribution won't be too far behind.

Having covered the background, it was time to dive into a tasting of the 4 releases House of Hazelwood had kindly sent me:

House of Hazelwood 1965 "Blended at Birth" Blended Scotch Whisky (47% ABV, Blended Scotch, 56yo, 1 of 192 bottles, Scotland, £4,500)
A blend containing Girvan grain whisky, blended into the cask at birth and bottled a whopping 56 years later.

Colour: Deep amber

Nose: Dunnage warehouse, menthol, orange and almond.

Palate: Quite nutty initially - almonds, almondmeal and almond cake. Orange and grapefruit notes show up soon after, followed by herbal jelly. With some time in the glass, a brandy fruitiness emerges.

Finish: Long and lingering, with a slight fruit spice towards teh end.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 92/100 (Martin). A very solid start, and a whisky that evokes those "old whisky" notes (as opposed to "old bottle") the way very few can.

House of Hazelwood "The Tops" Blended Malt Whisky (51.6% ABV, 33yo, 1 of 523 bottles, Blended Malt, Scotland, £1,450)
Containing a blend of Speyside malts, matured in ex-Sherry casks.

Colour: Dark copper-brown.

Nose: Cherry, berry fruits at first. Rich, but beautifully clean sherry notes follow with juicy oak and some coffee grounds.

Palate: Spiced oak, caramel, hunidor, followed by more cherry, some sherry-soaked raisins, and rum & raisin ice cream.

Finish: Lasts incredibly long, with a fruity, rum & raisin finish with a hint of residual oak.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 92/100 (Martin). Exactly what you want in a sherried Speyside - clean but noticeable sherry, with the oak in-check.

House of Hazelwood "The Unknown" Blended Scotch Whisky (43.3% ABV, 44yo, 1 of 143 bottles, Blended Scotch, Scotland, £3,000)
Distilled in 1978 and blended in 1989, "The Unknown" underwent an extensive secondary maturation for a further 33 years in a single refill butt

Colour: Bright yellow-gold.

Nose: Fresh vanilla pods in a fruit salad - pear, peach, apple predominantly.

Palate: More vanilla - creamy, with the same fruit salad notes from the nose, adding in nectarine and some citrus. There's a light, delicate mouthfeel and an underlying sweetness you find with some old grain whiskies.

Finish: Medium to long in length, with vanilla-laced smooth oak notes.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 91/100 (Martin).

House of Hazelwood "A Breath of Fresh Air" Blended Grain Whisky (46.4% ABV, 37yo, 1 of 417 bottles, Blended Grain, Scotland, £3,000)

Colour: Morning sunrise golden

Nose: Strawberries, Butter Menthol lollies, creamed honey and an underlying butteriness.

Palate: Light, with the buttery notes continuing alongside some rum-like esthers, heather & honey.

Finish: Medium in length, with a sweet buttery shortbread note that gains some dryness towards the end.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100 (Martin). A delightful example of the unique characteristics old Grain whisky can produce.

House of Hazelwood whiskies are available now in UK and Australia, purchased directly from the official website, with further distribution to follow. The collection is expected to grow every 6-9 months (with another 8 bottles added), and we can't wait to see how the future releases shape up.


Thanks to House of Hazelwood for the samples, and to Jonathan for his time.

Thursday 1 June 2023

Planet Ardbeg Day 2023 - Heavy Vapours [Tasted #638]

If there's one consistent annual article on this blog, it's Ardbeg Day. Almost every year since 2012, Hendy or I have managed to at least taste the annual limited release, if not attend Sydney and/or Hong Kong events. From last year's "Ardcore" to 2013's "Ardbog", and pretty much everything in between (2014's "Auriverdes" event was a highlight, as was 2016's "Dark Cove" Committee Release) there's been a lot of weird and wonderful releases.

2023 is no different, with the distillery celebrating "Planet" Ardbeg Day this year with the launch of "Heavy Vapours", which saw Ardbeg spirit distilled without a purifier (the apparatus on the still responsible for maintaining Ardbeg's "unrivalled balance between extreme peat and floral fruitiness").
An experiment by Dr Bill Lumsden (who else?!), the change supposedly allows the "heaviest and untamed vapours to rise up the still during the distillation process". 

Because this release is for Ardbeg Day (which always means equal parts experimentation and fun), Ardbeg have teamed up with different artists to create a series of "Planet Ardbeg" comics, with the Heavy Vapours comic following Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Visitor Centre Manager & Committee Chair (aka "Agent 46"), portrayed as an interplanetary detective on a quest to locate the elusive purifier ad restore Ardbeg's signature balance.

So we've established it's experimental and fun (as to be expected), but how does it taste...?

Ardbeg "Heavy Vapours" Ardbeg Day 2023 Release (46% ABV, NAS, Islay, Scotland $1,930HKD (with Wee Beastie 5yo) £120 / $250AUD)

Colour: Pale straw.

Nose: Spiced, briny smoke. Paprika at first, but then after time perfumed, settling into an ashy campfire.

Palate: Initially light, youthful and vibrant. There's a slight oak bitterness, some milk choc notes, some pepper and after time some mocha notes.

Finish: Relatively short, with hints of bitter oak and dark chocolate.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 86/100 (Martin). A perfectly drinkable Ardbeg, but (as with last year's Ardcore), I find myself preferring the core 10yo - which sells for less than 1/3 the price here in HK.

Ardbeg have clearly put a huge amount of effort into the marketing and event side of Ardbeg Day, and must be applauded for it, but I can't help but feel the whiskies each year are getting sub-par when compared to the excellent core range (in particular the 10yo & Uigeadail). That's not to say these are bad whiskies - not at all. They're fine, but in comparison to the core range, personally I don't find this one as good - especially not when it's almost quadruple the price of the 10yo, and more than double the price of the Oogie. "Fun" has to have a price cap. For the first time since 2013, I'll admit I didn't buy the release this year - either regular to committee version.

If you're keen to try it for youself, there are Heavy Vapours Masterclasses being held in HK (as well as Heavy Vapours cocktails being served) at the following venues - contact them for details:
  • Tiffany's New York Bar (including the main event on Sat 3rd June, 4-6pm)
  • Whisky & Words (10th June)
  • CNY Bar (17th June)
  • Bar Butler (29th June)

Ardbeg "Heavy Vapours" is available now from Ardbeg Embassies, whisky retailers and online. Thanks to MHDHK & Flare Communications for the sample.