Semi-final time on whisky death-match, people, and we begin with the salty side of the draw, pitting subtle island genius Highland Park 18 against brilliant Islay madman Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and this is going to be a very tough one to call. Highland Park overcame tough talking sea-tar Talisker 18 and brushed aside style over substance Longmorn 16 in order to get here. Ardbeg Corryvreckan overpowered the courageous Bruichladdich Infinity then blew Talisker 18 (back in on a wildcard) out of the water.
I think it’s fair to say that the four whiskies in our semi-finals (Glenfarclas 21 and Balvenie Single Barrel being the other two) are all very different in character and each an excellent example of its type. So a lot of this is going to depend on individual preference and indeed mood on the day. But this ain’t whisky let’s-be-nice-to-everyone-and-sing-kumbaya-together. This is WHISKY DEATHMATCH. There can be only one etc. etc. To the arena! The arena that is my face.
Highland Park 18: 43% abv, £57.95
Ardbeg Corryvreckan: 57.1% abv, £61.95
The first thing to note, of course, is that while we have a rough parity in price, the strengths of these two are anything but equal. The Highland park weighs in at 43%, which is an appreciated notch above your bog-standard 40 and a nice enough sipping strength, but pales next to the Corryvreckan, which is a full-on cask strength at 57.1%. If this were a scientific taste comparison, it might be fairer to water that big Ardbeg beast down a little, but the fact is you can do that if you want to, whereas you can never undilute the Highland Park. So fearsome concentration is really an advantage of the Ardbeg you have to take into account. I shall therefore be sampling it in its potent raw state. To the comparison…
LOOK -Highland Park’s presentation is perhaps a tad busy, with its textured bottle, multicoloured label, and onslaught of different fonts emphasising the traditional credentials of their ingredients and process (as is extremely common in the whisky blurb business), but the whole package looks classy, and strikes a nice balance between classic and contemporary. Both have a touch of the celts in their design, but Ardbeg have dialled up the brooding pre-history vibe with their black and gold stylings and menacing dark green glass, with much more abstract bumph that proclaims Corryvreckan, “Powerful and dangerous. A terrifying spectacle … A wild, untamed spirit …’ Untamed it may be, but it loses significant points for having a plastic wrapper and, worse yet, plastic cap. On a £60 bottle of whisky, especially one masquerading as a celtic historical artefact? Disappointing. I generally prefer clear glass as well, so I can see the colour of what I’m drinking. So Highland Park the winner on the packaging, I feel. When it comes to the fluids themselves, The Highland Park is a pleasant light amber-gold with plenty of body. The Corryvreckan, by contrast, is surprisingly light straw yellow and runny for something this strong.
But it’s not really about what they look like, is it? Let’s see what happens when you put them inside your head…
SMELL – With the Highland Park – ah, the salt wind whips the grasses on the cliffs above the foaming brine, though doesn’t it? Hair streams and the spume flies from the painted prow while the bees buzz busy among the pink heather flowers. A curl of sweet peat-smoke from the stacks on the high hill tickles at the nose, and reminds us of a time that never was when we were all without cares together… With the Corryvreckan – 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.’
TASTE – The Highland Park really is very pleasant indeed to drink. Firm in the mouth with lots of presence. A welcoming tingle, then a savoury, leafy, herby, nutty grassiness. Light salt. Lots of different notes seem to come through but I’m not clever enough to really tell you what they are. Some fruit in there, some spice, some sticky ginger, maybe? So many elements in beautiful balance, always developing. A long smoky ending, but all subtle, nothing overpowering, something for everyone and every occasion. Easy company but deep insights. Love it. And now batten down your hatches, hear comes Corryvreckan. Time and familiarity have bled some of the gobsmacking strangeness from the experience of putting this in my mouth, but it still raises the eyebrows every time. Nothing is subtle here, all is extreme, a cauldron of furious passions. First comes the heat, the peppery zing on the tongue, a baffling mix of peaty, soily, wet earth savour, liquorice disinfectant with sappy pine freshness, fearsome dryness and mind-warping strength wrapped up in raging fires and heavy smokes. My mouth, my beautiful mouth, send for those strapping gentlemen of her majesty’s fire brigade…
CONCLUSION – I really like both of these – two challenging, complex whiskies with an awful lot going on, that often strike you very differently on different days. Indeed to fully plumb the subtleties of the Highland Park 18 it’s been necessarily for me to drink nearly all of it. The Highland Park is wonderfully subtle, savoury and deep, sweet notes really coming through in comparison with the rugged dryness of the Corryvreckan, which remains uncompromisingly wild, extreme, and shocking. It truly is the mastermind against the evil genius, Holmes against Moriarty, Professor X against Magneto, Gandalf against Sauron. I’d love to try the Highland Park at cask strength (no shit, Sherlock), and I think with that additional punch it could easily emerge the winner. But as things are you just can’t escape the explosive audacity of the Corryvreckan. All shall love it and despair…
RESULT – Well, Gandalf’s a good guy (unless you’re an Orc), and a great guest at a tea party, but the smart money was always on the big bad. The schemes were hatched, the plans were laid, every stratagem was employed, but in the end Frodo just weren’t making it to Mount Doom this time around.
The Winner – Ardbeg Corryvreckan.
Coming next – Swab down your taste buds for our sweet semi-final, a clash of Speyside styles in which sherried Lord of the Gentleman’s Club Glenfarclas 21 takes on the Golden Assassin, Balvenie Single Barrel…
38 comments so far
Joe: how drunk can you be before you notice a fall in writing quality? Is there a “sweet spot” where the words flow sweetly, before a decline to fanfic levels of illiterate cliché?
(I’m a demigod when playing pool after 2 pints, at three pints I’m back to normal. After that it’s not pretty)
Just loving these Joe, thanks!
Off to buy a bottle of “HP sauce” after that review, reckon I need to work up to the Ardbeg.
The quality of my writing never falters. Only your understanding of it is fallible.
Very entertaining to read these Joe, you should definately moonlight as a Whisky reviewer!
The many Ardbeg varieties have long been favourites of mine, but have sadly not tried the Corrywreckan. Have Alligator at home as well as a truly fantastic 1976 Gordon & McPhail one (bottled 2004). Also have the 16yo Highland Park which I very much enjoy. Going for the 18yo next methinks.
Have you tried any Swedish whisky? Mackmyra is a relatively new distillery that’s gotten some terrific reviews during the last couple of years. Their standard bottling is quite nice, but their “Moment” series are truly great. Will set you back a ways but very well done, with all of them blending traditional Scottish qualities with Scandinavian tones and some extremely good-looking minimalist packaging!
Ooof. Shame to see the Highland Park lose out, but it is a deathmatch.
I have found the other Ardbergs to be all far too peaty for me, and I do like a little bit of it in my whiskeys, so I am not favourably disposed to the Corrywreckan. Do probably need to try it though!
That Highland Park 18, or maybe it was some even more refined HP, was a 100 euros at the duty free shop in Milan airport. So I went for the double pack of Famous Grouse for a more manageable price, haha. Maybe next year…
“My mouth, my beautiful mouth, send for those strapping gentlemen of her majesty’s fire brigade… ”
So you’re saying that we should choose the Highland for a Bondwine inspired trip to Elfland, and grab the Ardbeg for a night of Grimmy-Grimmy-Dark-Dark? Too easy.
Ardbeg Corryvreckan is to complicated to pronounce, especially at 57.1%(!)
Highland Park should therefore win by default
Joe, you just went up a notch in my book. I would agree with you on the alcohol content alone. I’ll have to see if i can find and afford such fine bottles. Love the books.
I’ve finished your books and was missing you telling us stories… Reading your blog, and these whisky deathmatch in particular, feels so good, like a medecine.
I think I am in love.
So how are those AA meetings coming alone, Joe?
Did you always appreciate good whisky or is it it something you developed with age? At this my point in my life I just can’t fathom it. From the $30 (23€) range up I can’t really discern much of a difference in quality (for single malt or blended), so I tend to just grab some Crown Royal. Not to mention, if I drink any whisky straight every sip feels like a slap in the face. Seeing you connoisseurs discuss the finer points of whisky makes me feel like I’m missing out on something big
Am I a lost cause?
My grandad got me a bottle of Talisker for my 18th birthday, and I’d never tasted anything so revolting in all my days. Then I got horribly drunk on half a bottle of Bushmills and it put me off for years. Maybe ten years on someone gave me a bottle of Bruichladdich and I thought, oh great, and stuck it on a shelf where it gathered dust, then when a friend came round he wanted to drink it, so I had a try with some water in it and suddenly, woah, this is nice. So I started drinking it diluted, at maybe 20-30%. Pretty soon I was drinking it straight. These days I drink cask strength straight (though you’ve got to sip) which would have been utterly inconceivable at one time. So I guess you learn to appreciate it, as with many things in life. Whether it’s worth the effort if you find you just don’t like it, it’s hard to say…
Dm bladder, I’d agree with Joe, Whisky is a drink that you need to learn to appreciate. I had a siliar experience to Joe where too many (cheap) whisky shots resulted in a trip to hospital and it put me offfor 10 years.
However my father in law is a bit of a whisky buff and constantly tried to get me to drink it with him. We therefore had an agrement where he would give me whisky whenwe went round, even though he was wasting ‘good stuff’ on a heathen like me. Over a period of 6 months I went from hating the taste, to finding it tolerable, to actually starting to like it. Then come the fun bit where you start being able to tell the which region a whisky comes from just by the character, and you can go on to develop your own list of favourites.
Joe I’d have to sat I would have gone for the highland park. A stunning whisky that is so complex that each glass seems to reveal a new flavour. But the Ardbeg is good too. Have you tried scapa? It’s from Orkney like highland park and is very similar
Glad to see whisky deathmatch has returned. Very enjoyable read.
I always get a mental image of Joe being left crumpled, unconscious, lying in a pool of his own piss and spit on the floor for days after each of these death matches.
I’m a new reader of your work (really enjoying “Best Served Cold,” which I just checked out from my local library), and now I find out you’re a whisky fan too–you’ve got yourself a new fan! How do you think Ardbeg Uigeadail compares to Corryvreckan? I’m a big fan of the Uigeadail, but I have only had Corryvreckan once.
Joe, you have to be realistic. You never gave an American brand a chance. What about Evan Williams or Wild Turkey?
CJ, read the trilogy first. There’s subtle hints to everything, but it all ties together very, very nicely. I consider myself lucky I found this guy relatively young in his career, and I will follow him until the day he stops writing.
You know what, I haven’t tried Uigeadail yet. It’s on the list for the next round of Deathmatches, though…
This is WHISKY Deathmatch, not WHISKEY Deathmatch….
I also prefer the Highland Park over the Ardbeg, but both are awesome drams…
And regarding Whisky in general is definitelly an acquired taste…I never liked it much(I was into rhums) until I bought a bottle of Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition (1988)at the Riga airport duty free, at a ridicously cheap price, and only because a friend of mine insisted…and man that was something else!! Never looked back since then
Your books were recommended by George RR Martin, so I thought I’d check them and you out. Talisker lost? Are you sure? I’ll take some convincing now to purchase your works.
If it means an extra sale, then Talisker won. No problem.
I have a bottle of Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition in my cupboard RIGHT NOW.
Joe, I’m kind of curious what your favorite foods are. If this round was any indicator, you strike me as someone who likes bold and dramatic flavors.
It sounds to me like the Highland is something that needs to hit your entire tongue and palate, whereas the Corryvreckan just needs the very tip of your tongue to be fully appreciated. If that’s the case, it sounds like the Highland may be more my speed.
Any further recommends here? I know I said I’d buy the winner for myself, but your description of the Corryvreckan sounds more like it distingusihes itself by being a kick in the teeth; something you actually need to work up the courage to.
Joe, harrumph. But I read the comment on Amazon from the weight challenged female and that’s persuaded me, so I’ll be buying the lot for my Kindle. Slainge.
Joe – there has to be a plot line for a book set in the World, based around liquor? A mythical dram, for which princes and prelates will set whole armies and realms into motion…
PS Aberlour A’bunadh cask strength on the go currently. Yum.
“The Bladnoch itself”?
or “The Last Auchentoshan of Kings”?
Just a little note to say that I tried the Highland Park in my local last night off the back of your recommendation.
It may not have been the 18 (can’t say for sure as I was already quite well refreshed), but goodness me was it nice!
Try masterofmalt.com, you can get drams of expensive whisky which should expand your death match portfolio!
Hey joe, huge fan of the books and the death match, here. Just wondering when the next installment will be hitting the blog?
I’d love to see your take on the Glenfarclas 15 years old. It’s my favorite, close to perfection in my mind, but that’s a very subjective thing hehe
I agree with you about the colour of the Ardbeg bottles , Joe , I am also reluctant to try a whisky I can’t see the colour of. That said , I’ll be at a trade show next week where I’ll be meeting the Austrian reps for Ardbeg and I’ll have your notes in mind when I encounter the Corryvreckan again…
Was at the duty free at Fiumicino today when I picked the Ardbeg Corryvreckan up. Googled it and found your little piece here. I must thank you for a highly entertaining read to say the least. I’ve also got a good recommendation for my next whisky buy in the Highland Park 18. Can’t wait to taste the corryvreckan now though 🙂
“My mouth, my beautiful mouth”… Legendary!
Read this whole article without realizing who wrote it…seems safe to me to assume that Logen would drink Ardbeg. Thanks for this, really entertaining.
I’ve been a fan since The Blade Itself came out but i’m not an educated whisky drinker. I just love the Islays and was considering which to get next. Haven’t had an Ardbeg in some time.
Thanks for the words of warning and the Result. I’m off to order some Ardbeg Corryvreckan!
You need to go and write another book as I’m getting through them faster than you can write them.
I loved whisky from the get go, I started with Bulliet Bourbon, moved to Wild Turkey, had Glenmorangie 18 at a pub and after that I had Laprhoaig 10 on the rocks in a bar and dear god was I in heaven. However for all my love of Islay I feel that unless I do Laphroaig 10 on the rocks I can’t enjoy it. Now I go for Ardbeg and Lagavulin, with Bruichladdie 10 and Bunnahabhain 12 (another outstanding malt) to balance out my Islay experience. Looking forward to Laphroaig 18 or Talisker 18.
Wow! Loved my 10 YO Ardbeg … also loved my 12 and 15 YO Highland Parks … reading your review makes me want to go buy the HP-18.
Springbank (any) and the Lagavulin-16 are 2 of my most favorite scotches, so I totally get the “dilemma” with these 2! … The best “magic words” from the Ardbeg tasting were “Liquid Asphalt” MMMmmmm!!! More Liquid Asphalt, please!
[[Oh the other hand, the 10YO Laphroaig tastes like diesel fuel, and I’m not a fan of drinking diesel fuel .. tho the 15YO and the 1/4 cask expressions are nice!]]