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…?