Welcome to the Whisky Deathmatch grand final! Can you smell the excitement? Smells like whisky, doesn’t it? That’s because it is! 12 Whiskys entered, and via a tortuous process of elimination, only two remain. Bladnoch 20, An Cnoc 16, Dalmore 15, and Aberlour 18 went down in our first round. No disrespect to them, the competition was fierce. Bruichladdich Infinity and Talisker 18 were two strong losers allowed into the second round on a wildcard, but there they fell along with Longmorn 16 and Auchentoshan Three Wood. A pair of titanic battles in the semi-finals left Glenfarclas 21 and Highland Park 18 in shattered pieces. But now, who shall prevail to take the greatest prize in Whisky given by a British Fantasy author who isn’t Mark Charan Newton? Will it be the Mad Sorcerer of Islay, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, or the Golden Assassin of Speyside, Balvenie Single Barrel…?
Ardbeg Corryvreckan: 57.1% abv, £61.95
Balvenie Single Barrel – 47.8% ABV, £50.75
The cask strength of the Corryvreckan has enabled it to crush less potent adversaries through sheer force of alcohol. It made even a volcanic old sea dog like Talisker 18 look less Captain Blackbeard and more Captain Birdseye. Its unholy power was too overwhelming even for a subtle mastermind like Highland Park 18. Once again it will field a considerable advantage in concentration, but at 47.8% the Balvenie is far from shabby, an uncompromising sipping strength that blew 40% Dalmore 15 away like chaff on the breeze. The Balvenie also weighs in at more than a tenner cheaper – that’s the price of an e-collection of Joe Abercrombie’s classic fantasy trilogy, The First Law, for heaven’s sakes! On paper these two look delightfully balanced. But how do they look … off paper?
LOOK – In many ways Ardbeg and Balvenie have gone for opposite approaches in their presentation and marketing. Balvenie’s tube and label are clean white with simple black lettering, Ardbeg’s are charcoal greenish-black with golden highlights. Balvenie’s choice of fonts, plus a few hand-written markings on the label, bring to mind the eighteenth century. Ardbeg’s celtic accoutrements aim at the legends of prehistory. Balvenie’s packaging says, ‘light, sweet, classic,’ with spiel that emphasises tradition and quality, while Ardbeg’s says, ‘heavy, smoky, challenging,’ with spiel that emphasises myth and mystery. I think they both hit pretty much what they aim at, and Ardbeg gets bonus points for exhibiting a little sense of humour and doing something different from the endless twaddle about the best casks, the best water and the special floor maltings, but I think the Balvenie is much the more attractive, and its wooden stopper and metal wrap scores a palpable hit over Ardbeg’s plastic ones. A points victory to Balvenie this round, but it’s in the glass that the knockout blow will be delivered…
SMELL – With the Corryvreckan, to quote an earlier me because I’m not sure I can say it any better – The rocks crack in the unknown deep and the sea boils with the fearsome heat of the fires below the world. The knotty pine is ripped asunder by a blinding stroke from the heavens, storm-fire sweeping the parched bracken. Then the magic words were chocolate-whispered in the pepper smoke of the coffee cauldron, and the words were, ‘disinfectant tablets.’ With the Balvenie – Gold! A crystalline sugar sweetness with a citrus sting in the tail. Upon a lost island swept by honey storms there is a labyrinth made of lemons, and in the centre of that labyrinth is a golden lion with a face made of barley sugar but the tail of a scorpion. What golden treasure does it guard? What priceless treasure? Only the opportunity to sip…
TASTE – I’ve drunk close to the whole bottle of Corryvreckan, now, with a little help from a well-meaning friend or two, but it still surprises me every time. To put it in your mouth is to step into the unknown. It’s as close as I think I’ve ever come to a mind-expanding whisky. Partly it’s the high strength, but I’ve drunk stronger whiskies that are much less strange and challenging in their range of flavour. It delivers an initial heat that’s almost painful, a chili zing across the tongue, then you get the strange cornucopia of unusual flavours, but instead of Willy Wonka’s gum that gave you a three-course meal, here you get visits to chemical works, sawmills, and the bottom of the sea. Plus chocolatey, coffee-ish flavours, unidentifiable fruits and an antiseptic tang that persists long after you’ve swallowed it. Baffling, gobsmacking, bizarre. Now some water will most definitely be needed to swab the persistent salty warmth from the inside of my mouth, then the Balvenie. Gentler, of course, and with a disarming initial softness, but a potent spicy tingle soon builds nonetheless. Honey sweetness, but so much citrus sharpness too, and perhaps a little smoke on that long, long finish. Reminiscent of a lot of Speyside whiskies, but after the workout montage in the middle of the film – cleaner, stronger, quicker, sharpened to a ruthless edge, maintaining that easy-drinking sweetness but with a sense of deadly purpose.
CONCLUSION – This is a really tough one to judge, and I’ve been going back and forth on it for a while. Without doubt, two great whiskies and two worthy finalists. A lot of it depends on what you like, what you’re in the mood for, because in many ways they’re exemplars of opposite styles. The Corryvreckan is like other Islays, only more so: Smoky, peaty, briny, uncompromisingly savoury, ruthlessly challenging, wild, mad, and ferocious as a stormy sea. You wouldn’t call it pleasant, but you’d certainly say it’s amazing. The Balvenie is unsherried Speyside par excellence: Clean, sharp, sweet, definitely pleasant but with plenty of depth and a deadly citrus edge, easy to drink but difficult to forget, fresh and zesty as a spring morning. Oh, crap, it’s a hard choice, but no one said this would be easy.
RESULT – The Balvenie is gorgeous, with everything you could ask for in a Speyside, and a delight to drink, but, but, but, smelling and tasting the two together, one simply cannot deny that the Corryvreckan is the more intense, the more original, the more powerful experience. It’s a really close run thing, but …
My Whisky Deathmatch Winner – Ardbeg Corryvreckan.
Coming next – I pick over the shattered glass and the whisky soaked sand of the arena in a Whisky Deathmatch post mortem. What have I learned from this exercise…?
22 comments so far
A friend of mine is moving away tomorrow, and is a huge whiskey fanboy, and usually picks up a Balvenie for special occasions. I’ll be picking up a bottle of the Ardbeg as a going away present for him.
Thanks for sharing all your Whiskey Deathmatches, Joe!
Surprised the Balvenie got this far to be honest. It’s nice, but very nondescript. I don’t think it being clean is a quality.
Thanks for the reviews. I’ve been drinking lots more Scotch since you started this.
Also: congrats on being the third google result for “Ardbeg Corryvreckan” on Google.
And sorry; was distracted while typing that last sentence and missed the redundancy. Alas: no edit function.
How about the Highland Park 18 versus the Balvenie Single Barrel? What would you guess the winner of that pairing would be?
That’s a really tough one. I think in a way I’d put the Balvenie, the Highland Park, and the Corryvreckan as my top three – a sweet, a middling, and a smoky – with the Glenfarclas just behind. Those top three are very difficult to separate for me. Out of Highland Park and Balvenie, my taste used to be more for the sweet and clean, it’s become more savoury smoky, which tends to the Highland Park, which is a lovely, subtle, complex dram, but I’m also starting to need more strength, ideally. I never thought I’d say this, but at 43% that bottling of the Highland Park is maybe just a little anaemic compared to the Balvenie. Factoring in the price, I think the Single Barrel just edges that one for me. Just.
Fifth result for me, but, yeah. Heh.
When this momentous journey began, twelve bottles ago, I did suggest that there be a prize of a mention in your next tome for the winner. Ardbeg Corryvrecken, no nonsense bastard son of Monza Murcatto….
Stumbleupon once guided me to a wonderful site wherein whisky becomes art. If any of you have five minutes then you should insert the following into your search engine of choice – ernie button vanishing spirits – quite magical!
Ardbeg Corryvreckan, bastard son of the King of Harvanland, who mastered the art of catching spears and throwing them back, who felled the giant of the Black Halls and hewed the heads from the six witches, who slept through a battle he was so cold-blooded, who died young and beautiful in the unmapped places of the utmost North. Oh, Ardbeg Corryvreckan! Who stood upon the headland with his black locks streaming in the sea wind and hurled his defiance at the storm. Shall these petty latter times see thy like again…?
Looks like my first stop after work is the offy.
Off topic, but liked this headline…
Shivers Not Guilty!
I had my money on the Balvenie, just because I thought it would be amusing for Joe to decide that the One True Whisky came from this single barrel. His life would devolve into a desperate quest to track down the other bottles decanted from this most heavenly cask.
The story ends with Joe in a tense standoff with the police. Joe is standing over the still twitching body of Betty Postlethwaite, the little old lady who unwittingly roused his wrath. Her late husband had bought the last ever bottle you see, and she had poured it down the sink because “it smelled a bit off”.
Thought the Balvenie would have taken it. Been looking forward to the final and now I have to track down some Ardbeg. Whats next?
It save his ravaged liver from further abuse our lord of Grimdark will be testing tea for us
Twinings everyday v’s Yorkshire hardwater
Hey Joe, ever given any thought to how environment might play a role in getting the best experience out of a whiskey?
I ask because being a mile high in the so very dry climate of Denver, Colorado alters taste in a big way. Its really nigh impossible to drink anything neat over here without feeling immediately parched (yup, I’m that guy always putting one too many rocks in with a glass of scotch).
I was actually shocked while visiting the UK this past year, that most brands could be sampled neat and I got a thrill from being hit with loads of subtle flavors that really came out in a chilly and humid setting. Anyway, that’s all I got, happy Friday everyone!
Oh, and as a side-note, I was sad not to see the single-barrel triumph over all in the deathmatch.
Believe me, when I say it taste just as absurdly fantastic at 11,235 feet in the air as it does at 2 feet above sea level. 🙂
I am most appreciative of your reply, Joe — and furthermore, thanks for this entire Deathmatch series, which has been as entertaining as a rousing battle set piece from one of your books. I hope not too many livers were sacrificed in the making of the series.
It has to be said that malts taste different depending on where you drink them. Facing the isle of Arran on a windy , frozen night just makes you glad that you had a malt to drink.Thats where your review should have taken place Joe. if you are ever up this way drop us a line and i will argue the benefits of a simple Oban nip. Being Scottish please feel free to bring your own bottle.
I see where you’re coming from. I guess the problem with Scotch becoming one of – if not the – main exports of Scotland, was it became almost inevitable it would be drunk in places that, one way or another, don’t face the Isle of Arran…
What? No Lagavulin??? Sounds like a rigged game to me.
As predicted.. Corryvreckan blows most malts away, but as also noted what tastes best depends on the occasion.