Ruby Cigar in a Glass – Athyr Cedarwood Finish

Before we get to the review, let’s take a moment to talk about what’s happening in Lebanon.

The blast that occurred in Beirut in August 2020 was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever to occur, leaving some 300,000 people homeless. Combined with the current pandemic, Lebanon is also facing a horrific winter and over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country are struggling. While hopefully the weather might break, Somewhiskybloke is asking for your help to support Lebanon and the Syrian refugees there.

Head here to donate to the Human Appeal during this winter emergency. Every bit you give helps someone get back on their feet.

The Ethereal seer, Athyr,
Maturing the malt frontier,
Splendid and premiere,
To appreciate and revere.

In December 2019, I found myself at the fantastic Milroy’s of London. At the time, their world whiskies were kept in a small right corner nook behind the bar and has always been the most exciting part to me, but a square bottle right at the top was unfamiliar. It was brought down and we discovered it was a Lebanese whisky, how could I saw say no to that?

That was my first brush with Athyr from Riachi, a whisky that fulfilled all my criteria for something special. It was new, tasty, had a great story, an unexpected origin and unique flavour and history. That whisky review quickly became my most read review of all time – so clearly I’m not the only person excited by it.

Recently, I reached out to the good folk at Riachi asking if they were able to ship to the UK and, while their first release was sold out, I managed to purchase myself a bottle of their new Cedarwood Finish. Truth be told it arrived here on Burn’s Night, but my partner remarked that drinking anything other than Scotch whisky might cause the ghost of Rabbie Burns to awaken and steal all my whisky. It didn’t sound feasible but she’s normally right so I thought I’d save it until the following day to drink and ponder over.

So, this week’s World Whisky Wednesday is: the Athyr Cedarwood Finish.

While I covered the history of Riachi distillery in my previous Athyr review it’s always great to have a small recap.

Riachi began in 1839, one of the oldest wineries and distilleries in Lebanon. Making arak, grappa and brandy through the years it was in 2013 that they joined the whisky game, distilling their and the countries first single malt whisky while becoming the countries only licenced whisky distillery. In September 2019, their first release had a limited run of 150 bottles, cask strength, unchill filtered with no added colouring – but, more importantly, this was the country’s first single malt whisky.

An issue that commonly plagues twitter feeds, whisky arguments and articles is the idea of provenance, how authentic to a country a whisky might be. It’s always struck me as an odd argument as I feel this restricts whisky more than anything else. Due to the type of conformity that is often spouted, you get the feeling that people care more about what is allowed to be labelled as a whisky from one country to another rather than how the whisky tastes or about the freedom of expression for the distillery and distiller.

The idea that to clarify as a whisk(e)y from Scotland, Ireland, America, Australia, Lebanon… (you get the gist), you must use a certain amount of local grain is stringent and appeals more to a nationalistic view than to being part of the whisky community. I admire some companies’ responses to this. Copper Rivet Distilleries Whisky Charter explicitly state that they are doing it for themselves as that is how they want to make whisky and is their promise to the consumer – a very nice touch.

So, having said that, it’s exciting to see Athyr embracing its raison d’être. Everything they use is Lebanese, from the barley to the wood (with the exception of the stills). I doubt you’ll find anyone outside of the United States that can claim such provenance.

Of course, should Lebanese whisky ever grow beyond Athyr and Riachi with another dozen or more distilleries dotted through the country, it might change things. It is a product of Lebanon and, when I tried their first release, I couldn’t think of any other country it could have come from, it was so unique that the taste is now the ultimate taste of Lebanese whisky.

But what goes into the Cedarwood Finish?

Firstly, Lebanese Bekaa Valley barley. Lebanon has no maltsters so Athyr personally malt the barley before sun-drying it. This might sound odd but sun has been used by maltsters for years to dry barley. While in the northern countries there is not enough sun to dry the barley and some distilleries use such a large amount of barley that sun-drying it is just not feasible. Distilleries wishing for a caramelised sugar would find this unsuitable as well but it has its advantages. The gentle process from the sun, rather than the kiln, helps preserve nutrients in the malt, along with resulting in a lighter quite fruity wash at least in the case of Athyr.

This is a technique that has been around much longer than kiln drying barley so it’s nice to have the historical link. Athyr learnt this technique from the Bulgur industry who would sun dry their wheat after the boil.

Distillation flows through their gooseneck copper pot still, purchased in Europe by the late grandfather of the family some 50 years ago (though dating the exact age of the still is quite difficult). Nowadays, Riachi steam heat their stills, though, up to 15 years ago, they were fired with a direct flame. The spirit runs through the still twice, functioning as both a wash and a spirit still.

Finally, we reach the maturation. The spirit is aged in Lebanese oak for six years before moving to cedarwood for one year. The choice for cedarwood was quite simple, the cedar tree is Lebanon’s national symbol. Master Distiller, Roy Riachi also said ‘…the raw cedarwood smells absolutely amazing, so I felt that it would make quite an intense whisky.’

Looking at the whisky, I can’t help but agree with Roy. Even a brief glance at it draws the eye, a thick ruby and mahogany. I don’t normally talk about colour, but it’s just so intense and even pressing my face to the bottle I can hardly see through the liquid.

As much as I love Athyr, no whisky is complete until it has been nosed and tasted. Only then can we make a decision on whether or not we’d buy another bottle. I’ve got bottle 75 of 200 – time to crack it open and give it a taste.

That is a damn fine colour

Even pouring the whisky into the glass, it overflows with flavour. Hot fresh coffee with a dash of almond milk and dusted with hazelnut, next to some mocha ice cream with chunks of liquorice dotted through it. The vanilla begins to build as it becomes caramel fudge, vanilla Galliano, and alcohol soaked vanilla pods split down the middle. A light bit of honey is poured over the top and things start to get spicy with nutmeg, ginger and the tiniest hint of clove that serves as a good backing to reel in all the other flavours. A sudden spread of Nutella brings us onto a light dry backing, some hot iron flakes moving in the distance landing on some wood. It’s all cocktails and mixology to be honest, espresso martinis at a whooping 56.5% served alongside Brandy Alexanders. And it’s crying out for a sip.

A sip gives us strong, spicy and dusty flavour, I was expecting oil but it turns quite dry and throws cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, pepper and heavy handfuls of cacao powder into a wind that continuously blows against the palate. Liquorice comes in at first, devolving to aniseed and star anise, with a leathery, minty backing. In the midst of everything is a flaky pastry with tart raspberry jam. The dram is just so… big, but fills every space with flavour. Thick ropy molasses, sweet ash wood, sassafras, a return of the coffee from the nose but this time its been tampered a touch too much and is a bit astringent. Sweet mountain water drawn through old iron pipes, and it all culminates with good tobacco, chocolate and cigars.

The finish is long, dry and dusty, nutmeg and ginger against an ashy, slightly wooded backing with aniseed and burnt peach cheeks. That dry wind finally blows over a covering of leather before cacao powder covers everything and the whisky heads to sleep.

It was unlike any other whisky I’ve had before. My instinct is to say the most similar whisky would be the Athyr First Batch, but that comes as a reflex action when attempting to find something similar. Honestly, it reminds me more of an old Cognac than a whisky, but not in a poor way. This is not last week’s Lord Randolph, a spirit masquerading as a whisky. The Athyr Cedarwood is a whisky through and through but brings in so many different flavours that it boggles the mind and the palate.

Is it the best whisky I’ve ever had? No, I wouldn’t say that, but it’s up there. I would place it high on a list of whiskies that everyone should try, however, to get out of their comfort zone. I would say it’s one of the top five most exciting whiskies I’ve ever had, and I’m certain it’s the only Cedarwood finished whisky I’ve ever tried.

Riachi’s Athyr Cedarwood Finish is a major accomplishment. In the span of four whisky releases, half of which I’ve managed to try, the distillery has shown itself to be drawing more flavour and excitement in a glass than most other whiskies. Distilleries who pay for broad marketing campaigns regarding their provenance, origin, and uniqueness of their whisky while delivering an average product would do well to take note of Athyr, as would all whisky drinkers.

And, would I buy the whisky again?

Yes. And I think everyone reading this should try and pick it up too.

Understated, brilliant, and deserving of your attention.

Before the links, let’s talk once more about what’s happening in Lebanon.

The blast that occurred in Beirut in August 2020 was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever to occur, leaving some 300,000 people homeless. Combined with the current pandemic, Lebanon is also facing a horrific winter and over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country are struggling. While hopefully the weather might break, Somewhiskybloke is asking for your help to support Lebanon and the Syrian refugees there.

Head here to donate to the Human Appeal during this winter emergency. Every bit you give helps someone get back on their feet.

If you would like to learn more about Riachi and Athyr, click here to discover their story and see their products.

This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any distillery or whisky, Riachi, Athyr or otherwise, and is entirely the words of the author Somewhiskybloke.

If you enjoyed reading this, why not give me a follow on Twitter at @Somewhiskybloke? There you can stay up to date with what I’m drinking and what news I’m ignoring while trapped in the wonderful whisky bubble.

2 thoughts on “Ruby Cigar in a Glass – Athyr Cedarwood Finish

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