Unwashed Sirens and Poppy Tears: Cadenhead’s Small Batch Ledaig Aged 16 Years

IMG_20140310_123428_528Savoring this whisky is like smoking opium at 3am in a slat hut hidden deep in the humid Cambodian jungle while watching, transfixed, the mythical Sirens’ sultry and alluring dance. There is a warm steam rising through the floorboards, mixing with the protean opium ghosts that waft like smoke to the ceiling, and the pungent, earthy aromas of the perspiring dancers permeate the air. My heart is beating slowly and I feel a deep, penetrating calm, but thrill and excitement are cascading through me like a Beijing fireworks display…

Yes, this malt is that good. Which is, evidently, a singular opinion. The only other reviews I’ve found (two) rate this independently bottled single malt as lacking complexity and interest, scoring it in the mid-80s at best. I could hardly disagree more. I swear, this must be the whisky they serve the highest ranking libertines in the penthouse suites of hell. It is liquid heaven for the epicurean damned, a lost elixir of Sybaris, brimstone for the brimstone connoisseur.

Appearance

In the glass, it isn’t very promising. The color of pale straw or diluted apple juice, it appears to have taken very little from its cask – which I reckon was a refill bourbon hogshead. Swirl it about and you’ll see it coats the glass (not surprising at 56% ABV), leaving a very well-defined “high water” mark. Once the legs form, they are thin but languid and slow to descend. (7/10)

Nose

Rising vapors begin seducing the nostrils as soon as the dram is poured – not quite as explosively as with the Lagavulin 12 CS, but you’ll know there’s an open glass of peated whisky nearby. This is pungent with a hint of decay, as if late autumn’s dying vegetation has been dried over a raging peat fire. The odor is a bit narcotic. The smoke on the nose is Laphroaig-like, but not entirely. A mingling, say, of 65% Laphroaig peat smoke with maybe 35% Longrow peat smoke. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both Laphroaig and Ledaig purchase their malted barley from the same maltings house (very likely Port Ellen) and have them peated to more or less the same levels. There is none of that Laphroaigy maritime iodine in the nose of this Ledaig, just a similarity in the character of the smoke.

Fortunately, there is a lot more than peaty smoke going on here. Just beneath the smoke and necrotic vegetation, there is the scent of a rubber inner tube. There is tobacco and the aromas of both real lemon and Lemon Pledge – and a hint of wintergreen, as from a pink Necco Wafer. I also pick up burned toast that has been buttered and white fish grilled with a bundle of sage. There is both a mineral flintiness and an autumnal earthiness integrated into the nose here – sort of a full helping of natures flora before anything has bloomed.

You know there was a fire here in the recent past, but this is nature in a state of recovery.

And finally, a suggestion of sourdough bread. Sounds like a stretch, I know, but I had a loaf of sourdough bread in the kitchen so I went there and cut myself a slice. Sure thing, that was an element in the nose of this hefty Ledaig.

I found all these aromatic constituents in the nose over two long nights, savoring my drams both neat and with water. How a whisky can integrate all of these aromas and reeks into a coherent, savory redolence without losing its solid sense of care and freshness is beyond me, but the people responsible for this whisky have done it. (19/20)

Palate

The first thing that strikes one is the gorgeous mouth feel, both oily and coating, and that is followed by a wonderfully peaty, mineralesque and malty burn. The palate here is significantly better than that of the distillery bottling at 10 years old, which I find similar but simpler and a little off. Here, a pool of liquefied malt sugar delights the center of the tongue while fiery ginger spice excites along the sides and a saltiness bites softly at the tip – lachrymosa, the gentle saltiness of tears! I also get a suggestion of a dense apple variety – Macoun, perhaps. The oily viscosity brings on an impression of butter. There is also a nutty taste, but I can’t narrow it down – not walnuts, not almonds and certainly not peanuts. Pine nuts, perhaps. And, finally, there it is again – I’m tasting the crust from my slice of sourdough bread buried deep in the heart of this whisky!

So this whisky brings you your malt and peat, your fruit and your ginger, your nuts and salt and sourdough bread, all delivered with a silky, coating mouth feel. This is very, very good whisky, but not quite as complex and compelling on the palate as it is in the nose. (18/20)

Finish

This elixir doesn’t just surround the heart; it embraces it and wraps it in a blanket of soft, warm sensation. A sweet, savory malt is followed by a bit of citrus, a little salt, a zest of ginger and – appearing for the first time – a whisper of prunes. As it goes it dries, exposing soft tannins, and you feel it, delighted, all the way down. (20/20)

Balance

The integration of so many elements in this single malt – from peat smoke and earthy pungency to lemon and a whisper of wintergreen to grilled fish and sage, tobacco and bread, barley malt, ginger, butter, malt sugar, mild salt and nuts – is wondrous to behold. I spent a lot of time with this whisky and it kept me interested and sufficiently curious to stay devoted to my task through it all. It’s only flaw – and I hesitate to use that word – blemish, perhaps? foible, even? – emerges in the slight imbalance between the endless interest of the nose and a palate that was a smidgen less compelling. For that, it loses one point. (19/20)

Quality of the Buzz

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, stands before a mural depicting tragic battles of the Trojan War, and he says: Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
 sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent (“Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards; 
there are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”). That came to mind as I sat down to write this final section. It is very late, the wee hours, when “mortal things touch the mind”. And there is that breath-catching, mind-focusing, melancholy phrase: Lacrimae rerum, the tears of things. The most profound, moving experiences in life are often accompanied by that feeling for “the tears of things” – that sense of the melancholy core at the ontological center of all human things, all human history, all family history, of every individual human life.

This whisky, in my opinion, is made for those nights when our perspective on our own lives and on the cosmos broadens and we sense the diminutive part we play, our infinitesimal duration, and how much sweeter and more precious that renders life, time, and all we hold dear.

This whisky – and only one other in my experience, the Longrow 7 Gaja Barolo, which remains the benchmark for this experience – will help you get to that place of honesty, and to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Is that a ridiculous thing to write about a whisky? Am I claiming this malt has metaphysical qualities? Well, no, not quite, but it may help get you to a place where your thoughts attain such qualities; a place that, ultimately, will render you more deeply human than you might be now. It is – and I am only half joking here – an Elixir of Transcendence. You can’t seriously believe mankind has pursued inebriants such as this for so many centuries just to find a means of letting off steam and of having a laugh with the old gang, can you? No, this is confirmation: Drinking great whisky is an act of alchemy, of turning dross to gold, of daring to go deeper into one’s own mind. Sit alone with this whisky some lonely night and follow where it leads. (10/10).

Total points for this whisky: 93

http://www.wmcadenhead.com/about-us

2 thoughts on “Unwashed Sirens and Poppy Tears: Cadenhead’s Small Batch Ledaig Aged 16 Years

  1. Thanks as always for another great review. Reading this makes me want to crack my bottle open. I’ve only sampled this once, but I knew immediately that I needed to have at least one bottle and maybe even two.

  2. Pingback: Fire Water from the Planet Tar: Blackadders’s Raw Cask 15 Year Old Ledaig 1998 | maltfreak

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