Editor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a review sample by Iron Fish Distillery. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
In the midst of a 60th birthday party in 2013, Richard Anderson’s wife handed him his gift – A small book, “Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Single Malt Whiskies of Scotland.” Tucked inside was a plane ticket for him to spend eight days exploring the fabled Scotch-making distilleries of Islay in the Inner Hebrides islands.
It turned out to be an auspicious trip. Sarah Anderson thought it might help her husband get over an obsession with Islay Scotches, so he and two of his brothers in law set out to explore the area. One day, they ended up hand-cutting peat out of local bogs and taking a private tour at Laphroaig, where a writer for the London-based magazine Whiskeria found them.
“These distilleries are like monasteries,” Anderson told the magazine while he sipped 2002 Laphroaig straight from the barrel in one of the distillery’s warehouses. “They have not changed much in hundreds of years. Still full of people practicing the same spiritual practice.”
The following day, Anderson and his brothers in law visited Kilchoman, another of the island’s famous monasteries of whisky. Kilchoman is Islay’s only independent farm distillery, growing all its own barley on-site. Standing with a glass of single malt in hand and looking out over the barley fields, Anderson said he “was really quite stricken” by the majesty of the place, and turned to brother-in-law David Wallace and said, “This is what we should do with our retirement.”
David Wallace and his wife Heidi Bolger had recently bought a farm in northern Michigan and hadn’t decided yet what they wanted to do with it. The Scotland trip sealed it, and the family came up with a plan to develop estate-grown spirits in an effort to plant the Islay spirit in new ground 3,400 miles away in Thompsonville, Michigan.
The first two releases hatched from that plan started selling recently, a two-grain and a four-grain whiskey distilled entirely from local grains. Two Peninsulas Whiskey is the two-grain and Mad Angler Whiskey is the four.
Vital stats: Iron Fish calls it a two-grain whiskey, but the mash bill actually includes three – 51% wheat grown on the farm at the distillery, 44% Michigan Upper Peninsula rye and 5% malted barley from Great Lakes Malting Co.; 90 proof/45% alcohol by volume; MSRP of $60.
Appearance: Dark amber, tending toward reddish brown.
Nose: For a wheat whiskey, it smells surprisingly bourbon-like. It made me think of Blanton’s, with hints of caramel, butterscotch, brown sugar, and fondant.
Palate: Far spicier than you’d expect, either from the fact that it’s a wheat whiskey or based on the nose. It’s a little boozy, though it burns off quickly as it heads for a gentler finish. Think cinnamon candy and cough drops initially, before it fades into a more earthy mid-palate, with hay, grass, and wheat flavors. The rye certainly comes through prominently, in any case.
The State of Michigan is formed by a pair of peninsulas surrounded primarily by the Great Lakes. The Upper Peninsula is bordered on the southwest by Wisconsin and the Lower Peninsula is bordered on the south by Indiana and Ohio, and otherwise surrounded by water. This whiskey is named, obviously, in honor of its home state. It may not be a label that lasts long, however. Anderson says Mad Angler Bourbon, Mad Angler Rye, and Mad Angler Four-Grain Whiskey will become annual flagship releases in the estate series – but Iron Fish is still trying to decide what to do with this blend.
Regardless, as a first shot out of the barrel for a young distillery looking to implement a grain-to-glass ethos, this whiskey shows promise. Despite not having the history of Islay on its side, the team at Iron Fish is working hard to do things the right way.
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Scott Bernard Nelson
Scott Bernard Nelson is a writer, actor and whiskey reviewer in Portland, Ore. When he's not working, you can often find him fly fishing or rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest.