Not The Usual Highland Suspects – Levant Highlands Pure Malt

Somewhiskybloke received a bottle of Levant Highlands Pure Malt Whisky to complete this review. This in no way altered the opinions of the author on the whisky.

It’s a weird thing sitting down to write a whisky review after so long. Moving country, moving house, starting work, continuing with work, in and out of lockdowns and the reviews fell by the wayside. I told myself that I wouldn’t let that happen but occasionally these things just… happen. And plus, I’ve not been feeling it. I spend most of the day staring at a computer having meetings, writing reports, doing tastings, at the end of the day when I would normally do a review it’s nicer to sit back and simply enjoy a night off. And that’s an important thing, because as much as I love this little blog it’s not work, and it never should be. This is about trying new and exciting whiskies, sharing them with the world and broadening the horizons of peoples drinking. 

So, what are we broadening to this World Whisky Wednesday? If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may have read a touch on this distillery as it’s one I’m quite a fan of. Tonight, we’re looking at the Levant Highlands Pure Malt Whisky from Lebanon, courtesy of Riachi Distillery.

So, I’ve covered the distillery previously in a few reviews, so we won’t spend so much time on that today, instead we’re going to focus on the whisky itself. This is the first in a rolling series of whiskies under the Levant Highland name but certainly not the last (the Levant Highlands Single Pot Still has since been released). The label brings in some beautiful imagery and is of course named in the honour of Mount Hermon, hence the highlands. Mount Hermon holds a dear place in the hearts of many people, religions, stories and more, and has also featured in a few conflicts throughout history (we’ll leave it at that). 

What makes the label and whisky itself more curious are two lines of text down the bottom, specifically Porter Brew and Pure Malt. The Porter Brew is referring to the malt used, here Riachi have double distilled dark malt initially designed for a porter beer (sans hops) before maturation in virgin Lebanese oak casks. 

The other thing I want to draw attention to is the use of the term ‘Pure Malt’. That term has a funny and interesting history but let’s first clarify the existing whisky categories and what they mean with regards to Scottish whisky (the regulations that most readers will be familiar with).

  • Single Malt, produced only from water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills.
  • Single Grain, whisky which in addition to water and malted barley has been produced from whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals and distilled at a single distillery.
  • Blended Malt, a blend of two or more single malt whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Grain, a blend of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Whisky, a combination of one or more single malt whiskies with one or more single grain whiskies, i.e. a blend of malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries.

That is what these terms mean, it is simply information telling you about the whisky. It DOES NOT mean that any style is better or worse than any other, they are simply varying methods of producing a whisky.

The term Pure Malt is different. It is a historical term that was widely used for many years but has a certain issue surrounding it, what does the term ‘Pure’ mean? It certainly has the term malt in it so we know it must be a malt whisky, but it does not give a clear indication of origin, ie whether it is coming from one distillery or several, that word pure has no defined meaning in whisky terminology. Through the years we’ve had multiple bottles bearing the proud term pure malt, but most famously it came to be a problem when Diageo decided to halt production of Cardhu Single Malt and replace the existing bottle with a near identical bottle named Cardhu Pure Malt, essentially misleading the consumer. I won’t get into the entire controversy as multiple much better writers have covered it, but it’s important to know how the controversy ended. The use of the terms ‘Pure Malt’ and ‘Vatted Malt’ were, in Scotland, banned by the SWA and the recognised terms we discussed above enter the whisky vocabulary. 

So, what does this mean regarding the Levant Highlands Pure Malt Whisky? All they’re saying is they’ve used 100% dark malt designed for porter, as they are not in Scotland they are not bound by the terms used there or by any other governing whisky body. Let’s get one thing clear, this is just a Single Malt by another name, and this is about a fledgling industry doing things their own way. 

Now let’s dig into a glass and see if it’s any good or not.

Straight away this is a deep, dark, beast of a nose, a roiling storm of heavy flavours. Chestnuts and hazelnuts roasted over an open fire built of strip bark with some butter, sticking a touch to the pan and giving a slightly bitter nose before a dumping of marshmallow and rich dark fudge. It all boils in that pan and turns to treacle with a heavy roasted sweetness before it turns to ground coffee beans and a lashing of toffee. Is there spice in there? The barest hint of nutmeg and pepper, quickly engulfed by the more ferocious flavours. And while all these flavours pour off the nose it’s just so…. dry. Like stepping out of an air conditioned room into the desert sun, the moisture stripped away in an instant. It’s so different to what you associate with whisky but it works, and it begs us to have a sip.

This is the whole medley coming through at once and it does not want to let up, battering the palate with flavour. Dark cocoa, not chocolate but cocoa, thick and heavy, melted fudge, roasted coffee beans freshly ground and then a smattering of ristretto, molasses and brandy snaps straight from the oven. The sweetness in the whisky is undeniably cooked and still hot, expanding with layers of brown sugar into a whole other realm (and curiously some Space Food Sticks for those who remember them). The finish is not subtle, the sugar and coffee layer onto the palate and stick there firmly, the hot sugar cooling off and firming hard around the tongue. Would I go back for another sip? Of course.

This was a wholly different experience and I will definitely pick up another bottle of this and the rest of the series when I can. When I have previously tried any whisky from Riachi my general opinion is that the distinct flavours in here are coming from both the still and the virgin Lebanese oak, and after trying this I am more convinced than ever. The flavours, the consistency, this is unlike any other whisky I’ve tried, especially when we bring in whisky from the major countries. Is this whisky a touch one note? Yes, but that is not a bad thing. This whisky showcases a completely different side of flavour that you rarely find, and as an exercise in how to make whisky new and exciting, Riachi have certainly achieved something important here.

This is important because of how the whisky world works. For the most part whisky consumers are familiar with the whisky flavours, definitions and criteria laid down in the major whisky producing countries. In many parts of the world where a country does not have a history of whisky production typically they fall back to the method a country such as Scotland would use. Here in Lebanon, we do not see that happening. They are carving their own road in what whisky is to them, and defining its sense and taste on how they do things, not how others do, and that is deserving of commendation. 

Well done Riachi, this is a truly remarkable whisky. Go your own way.

As you may know Beirut was devastated a year ago with a tragic accident and some people still need your help. To donate, head here to help Lebanese children, here for the Lebanon emergency appeal, and here to donate to the Red Cross Beirut Explosion Appeal. Every bit helps.

Somewhiskybloke received a bottle of Levant Highlands Pure Malt to complete this review. This has in no way altered his opinion of the whiskey.

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

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.

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