Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Whisky Review: First Editions Longmorn 27 Year 1985/2013

This is one of my only experiences with Longmorn aside from trying the old OB 15 Year at a tasting with Ralfy when I was in Glasgow. I didn't find that one particularly compelling, but given the strong reputation that the distillery has, I've been wanting to try more ever since then. So when an old single cask went on sale in Oregon last September, I jumped on it. Not every day you can get single malt over the quarter century mark for a little over $100. Well, not unless you're patient and live here.

This whisky was distilled in 1985, filled into a (probably refill) ex-bourbon cask, then bottled in 2013 at 52.5% without coloring or chill filtration.

First Editions Longmorn 27 Year 1985/2013

Nose: rather closed - malt, oak, and honey with hints of orange peel. After adding a few drops of water it remains nearly the same, but the oak becomes stronger and some berries emerge.

Taste: strong malt sweetness up front, thick berries and fresh apples in the middle, fading into slightly tannic oak at the back with a bit of savory incense. After dilution it remains largely the same but with more sweetness up front and stronger alcohol near the back.

Finish: savory oak, incense, clean malt, graham crackers, some alcohol heat

This is... kind of boring. The alcohol has too strong of a grip on the other components, so it reads as a pretty generic single malt, albeit without out any rough edges after nearly three decades in the cask. Let's see what happens when we add even more water.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: a little closed - balanced malt and dusty oak, pine, fresh apples, citrus peel, raisins

Taste: thick, syrupy sweetness from the front to middle, citrus/raisin overtones throughout, berries in the middle, balanced with mild oak tannins towards the back with a hint of something savory

Finish: lingering malt and polished oak, savory, incense/smoke/burned citrus peel

This seems to be about ideal as a drinking strength because the sweetness of the palate makes it more engaging, even if the nose and finish are somewhat less complex than when it is diluted down even further. The raisin notes I kept finding also might have tricked me into thinking that this was a refill sherry cask if I was tasting it blind, but I think that's just something that happens when American oak breaks down in the right way.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: dusty incense and oak, citrus peel (orange/lemon/lime), sweet malt, a hint of floral pink bubblegum, background raisins

Taste: sweet malt and oak up front, berry overtones with orange creamsicle in the middle, slightly tannic towards the back with a savory twist at the end, rather simple overall

Finish: long and basically like the nose - citrus peel, dusty incense, polished/savory oak, raisins, slightly tannic

This is pretty weird in that the nose and finish are both significantly better than they were at higher strengths, but there still isn't much in the middle besides a sort of generic bourbon cask malt. Overall I would say that 50% is probably best for the palate, but I'd happy buy this at 46% because it's so much more complex and engaging overall.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Whisky Review: Glenglassaugh 26 Year (2010 Release)

Glenglassaugh is a Highland distillery northeast of Speyside built right on the coast. I will leave most of the detailed history to the capable hands of Malt Madness, but the important part is that Glenglassaugh was mothballed between 1986 and 2008. That twenty-two year gap meant that even more so than other revived distilleries like Ardbeg or Bruichladdich, Glenglassaugh became more or less a new distillery because much of the equipment had to be replaced and the little remaining stock that the new owners were able to purchase was very old. This created an extremely bifurcated product line split between NAS releases that were a few years old at most and very expensive bottles in the 25-40 year old range.

This whisky was matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Glenglassaugh 26 Year (2010 Release)

Nose: spicy oak interwoven with dank sherry, caramel, musty/dunnage warehouse, fresh hay, clean malt, a touch of vanilla and something savory, orange peel, pink bubblegum. After adding a few drops of water it becomes sweeter and more malt driven, with the oak becoming softer and integrating with the sherry, and the savory note becoming stronger.

Taste: bittersweet sherry throughout, oak tannins start near the front and rise and fall across the palate, orange and vanilla around the middle, a burst of sweet malt and more vanilla near the back. After dilution it becomes sweeter through out, balancing the oak, with sweeter sherry in the middle, and a slightly drying fade into the finish with more savory character.

Finish: oak tannins and spices, sherry residue, bittersweet, a Ben Nevis-y savory note, fresh herbs. After dilution there is sweet malt residue, soft oak tannins, flourishes of sherry

That was what I wanted it to be - an experience. Pre-closure Glenglassaugh is becoming extremely rare and when it does surface commands an extremely high price, so this is likely to be my only chance to try it. In a sense the quality is almost irrelevant, since it's primarily about being a piece of whisky history.

But since I paid my own money for this bottle ($169), value still matters to me. My first impression was that when these casks were married and bottled, they were approaching the point of no return. Despite only being a quarter century old, well into middle age but far from elderly for malt whisky, the oak is starting to get the better of the spirit. Given the target audience for this release - folks who will be impressed by the fancy decanter and expect an oak-heavy spirit from expensive whiskies - I think that it largely hit the mark. I would have preferred something with more refill casks in the mix to give it a lighter touch, but I'm not sure how many the blender had to choose from at that point. Time in the glass and water help to loosen some of the oaky grip, but it remains in roughly the same mold. So while I did enjoy the whisky, it would not be my first choice absent the history, especially at the price.

The best thing I can say about this whisky is that it reminds me a lot of Ben Nevis. The savory character gives more complexity than it would have if it was a more straight-forward/cleaner spirit. So if you're sad that you've never gotten to try an old Glenglassaugh, hunt down an older sherried Ben Nevis and you might be close to the mark. With that said older Ben Nevis is also becoming somewhat dear, but at least it's not as bad as old Glenglassaugh.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Whisky Review: Gordon & MacPhail Millburn 27 Year/2003 Cask 1598

This was the first time I was able to try a whisky from a closed distillery and at the time one of the oldest that had passed my lips. It was also one of the first dusties I purchased from the Oregon liquor system, which later turned into a merry process of hunting down the gems of yesteryear.

The Millburn distillery, originally known as the Inverness Distillery, was created in 1807, more than a dozen years before distilling was legalized in 1823 by the Excise Act. It passed though quite a number of different hands (occasionally after being closed) before landing in the proto-Diageo Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1937. It continued in that form until 1985, when the whisky crisis of the 1980s led DCL to close it. Stocks may remain, but are getting very, very thin on the ground and you can generally expect to pay for the rarity. I was extremely lucky to pick up this G&M Reserve bottle for an extremely reasonable price, as it had been sitting on the shelf in a local liquor store for a decade.

This whisky was distilled in 1976, filled into what was likely an American oak refill sherry butt (judging from the number of bottles), then bottled in 2003 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

G&M Millburn 27 Year/2003 Cask #1598

Nose: tons of buttery vanilla, sweet malt, sugar cookie dough, bubblegum/cotton candy, light brown sugar, vegetal/floral undertones, subtle sherry, cinnamon/allspice, salted caramels, mature oak, berries and charcoal around the edges. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes much stronger and the floral notes are amplified, the cookie dough becomes gingerbread, and the vanilla turns into orange creamsicle.

Taste: almost piercing sweetness up front, very malty with a lot of vanilla, light sherry mid-palate, balanced oak, moderately tannic at the back, berries, ginger, and black pepper throughout, a touch more sweetness and some charcoal at the back. After dilution the sherry and berries become much stronger up front and some citrus peel comes out around the middle, dried apple notes going into the finish, but the oak is more sharply tannic at the back.

Finish: light sherry, vanilla, malt, berry residue, oak tannins, black pepper, ginger, a hint of peat

I feel extremely privileged to get to drink this whisky. It's not too often that you get to literally taste history.

Looking over the Malt Maniacs scores, it seems like I got very lucky in finding this whisky as it's one of the highest rated bottles from the distillery. With that said, if the regular output of the distillery was even half this good, then it's a crying shame that it was demolished. It has weight, but doesn't sink into the oak that can overwhelming older whiskies, retaining an almost spritely freshness. While there's tons of sweetness to go around, the tannins and smoky notes keep it reeled in, with delicious counterpoint. Unlike a lot of their whiskies, I'm glad G&M chose not to water this one down too much. While cask strength would have been lovely it still shines at 46%. Unless you're put off by sweeter whiskies, I would say this one is nearly flawless. That's not to say that it's the best whisky ever, simply that nothing seems to be out of place. I've saved a handful of samples from this bottle and passed a good chunk of it on to Tim Read, formerly of Scotch & Ice Cream, so I'll be very curious to see how others feel about this one.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Whisky Review: Springbank 10 Year 100 Proof US Release

Springbank's 100º Proof expression has gone through a number of iterations over the years that were all slightly different from each other, leading to a certain amount of confusion. To begin with, 100º proof means different things in the UK (50% weight/volume, usually rounded down to 57% ABV) and the US (50% ABV), so there have always been dueling versions across the Atlantic. Second, the composition of the expression changed from something closer to the standard 10 Year with a mix of bourbon and sherry to an all-bourbon setup right before they introduced their all-sherry (until recently) 12 Year Cask Strength. So, what we have here is one of the last iterations of the theme, an American version at 50% made from all ex-bourbon casks, as always without coloring or chill filtration.

Springbank 10 Year 100 Proof

Nose: big and dirty - oil cloth, leather, engine oil, dry mossy/herbal peat, fresh hay, dried malt, mild background American oak. After adding a few drops of water the dirty notes are toned down, but are joined by a bit of nutty caramel. After even more water it gets more dry and herbal, with cinnamon, fresh malt, and a little floral seashore.

Taste: sweet throughout with a fair amount of heat, vague but syrupy fruit with a citric tang in the middle, a bittersweet twist near the back with light oak and peat, plus even more alcohol heat and something raisin-y going into the finish. After dilution it becomes drier and less overtly sweet, more oak and peat come out at the back and the alcohol is significantly calmed down. After adding even more water it becomes sort of generically malty/oak sweet with just a bump of Springbank character at the back.

Finish: balanced malt and oak, cinnamon/wood spices, a little raisin-y (more oak than sherry), a touch of dirty peat

For all that this is at a significantly lower proof than the UK version, it took the bottle sitting open for the better part of a year for it to settle down enough to be drinkable. Even now it has far more burn than many cask strength whiskies that I've enjoy. Some of that is probably its youth and the fact that the ex-bourbon casks used to mature the whisky appear to have been filled several times before, because the final results are still pretty raw. Thankfully not as raw as I found Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof, but not so distant either.

In all honesty I've gotten through most of this bottle by making little blends with something sherried to round it out a bit. Proofing it down to somewhere around 45% helps the nose, but also takes out all of the oomph in the palate. While in theory I like bourbon cask Springbank a lot, I think this could have used some more first fill casks to give it a bit of caramel and vanilla roundness, à la Tobermory/Ledaig 10 Year. So while I don't mind having another bottle, I don't think it's going to get opened anytime soon.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Whisky Review: Rattray's Selection No. 1 19 Year Blended Malt

A.D. Rattray, an independent bottler whose owner is part of the family that used to own Bowmore, released a number of blended malts in the early-2010s that more or less slipped under the radar. Most of this has to do with the fact that anything with the word 'blend' in front tends to get a lot less traction with whisky geeks unless it comes from Compass Box, which in this case means that they really missed out. Getting a full strength whisky at almost two decades old composed entirely from sherry butts for under $100 would be almost unthinkable right now and was still a steal when it was released in 2010.

This whisky was constructed from four sherry butts - Auchentoshan 1991 (Cask 495), Balblair 1990 (Cask #1142), Benriach 1989 (Cask #50064), and Bowmore 1991 (Cask #2073) - that were married together and bottled at 55.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for this sample.

Rattray's Selection No. 1 19 Year Blended Malt

Nose: balanced sherry and mossy/ashy peat with solid intensity, savory malt, fresh baked bread, caramel, mild oak, and floral perfume. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is toned down, allowing the malt to becoming roughly equal, vanilla comes out, and it is much more savory overall.

Taste: a fair amount of alcohol heat through, sweet sherry up front, syrupy/salty with green fruit (apples, pears) and floral overtones in the middle, slowly transitioning into bittersweet with a prickle of peat and savory oak at the back. After dilution it becomes bittersweet throughout with more savory sherry and peat up front plus some ashes and stronger near the back.

Finish: lingering sherry residue, balanced malt and oak, wood ash

I really wish I had more time with this one. Even when I have a hard time teasing out the details, it's a really enjoyable whisky that neatly balances its constituent parts. It would be great if we could get more of these kinds of blended malts where peat is an element, but not as strongly as a full Islay single malt. With so few distilleries currently producing medium peated malts, this is one of the few avenues we have for enjoying those kinds of whiskies.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Whisky Review: A.D. Rattray Cooley 16 Year 1995/2012

For many years Cooley was the LDI/MGP of Ireland, semi-anonymously cranking out spirit for brands without distilleries as well as its own. That changed in 2012 when it was bought by Jim Beam, who massively scaled back contract sales to keep more of the production for their in-house brands. Some casks did find their way into the hands of independent bottlers, though they are becoming increasingly uncommon.

This whisky was distilled on November 24th 1995, filled into a bourbon cask (size not specified), then bottled on March 19th 2012 in an outturn of 193 bottles at 56.7% without coloring or chill filtration.

A.D. Rattray Cooley 16 Year 1995/2012 Cask #555

Nose: rich malt and bourbon cask notes, herbal/floral notes around the edges. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer and more malty, but otherwise unchanged.

Taste: thick malt and cask strength sweetness throughout, orange and lemon peel with hints of berries in the middle, mild oak into the finish. After dilution the sweetness becomes much stronger with less assertive oak until the back, and it becomes simpler overall.

Finish: cask-driven, moderate oak with a little bitterness, sweet malt, grapefruit peel

While there are things to enjoy about this whisky at full strength, I find it too hot and cask-driven to find much subtly. The thick mouthfeel is a big plus, but there isn't a lot of evolution and the finish more or less recapitulates the flavors. Might hit the spot if you're a Glenlivet Nadurra fan, but that one never hit the mark for me either.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: balanced malt and oak, dusty vanilla, fresh apple, background floral notes

Taste: thick cask and malt sweetness with background vanilla throughout, tangy oak tannins with some fresh apple and pear notes near the back

Finish: a little heat, spicy oak, background apple/pear, citrus peel, clean malt, a little dry hay

This is a simple, straightforward set of aromas and flavors. While enjoyable, it doesn't have a lot of complexity and I wouldn't have found the whisky very compelling if it had been bottled at this strength. Not bad, just nothing that I couldn't find from any number of bourbon cask Speysiders.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: fairly light - pleasantly malty, floral honey, dusty vanilla, a little green - but not new make-y, background oak, unripe apples/pears, lime peel, a touch of solvent

Taste: malt sweetness up front, green apples and pears with lemon and lime peel in the middle, fadeout through drier grain and light floral notes with minimal oak at the back

Finish: unrolls through sweet malt, faded violets/lavender, fresh herbs, citrus peel, vanilla, cardboard oak in the background

Dang, that was a lot more than I was expecting. Unlike at full strength this is a fairly subtle whisky at this dilution with most of the action happening in the finish. Also surprising is the comparative lack of oak, considering that its heavy presence at full strength. Almost makes me wish this had been bottled at 46% because I think I would have enjoyed it more that way.

Friday, January 19, 2018

When Do We Have Enough?

One of the questions I see asked very infrequently in the spirits community is "Do I already have enough?" The almost unquestioned assumption is that more is always better. When individuals are receiving literal pallets of whisky, it's time to serious ask ourselves where the line should be drawn.

There seem to be a number of factors driving this unrestrained acquisitiveness, but social media is a major piece. Before ubiquitous internet connectivity someone who accumulated a significant collection might be able to impress friends or family after a fashion, but beyond a certain point they would have seemed, at best, eccentric. With the advent of spirits blogs, forums, Twitter, and Facebook groups, the bragging not only reaches a wider audience, but makes it possible to show off for a selective audience who will appreciate and validate increasingly large collections. During my time participating in online spirits groups, I have almost never seen anyone asking how people with vast collections will manage to drink everything they have bought, even when they reach a level where it becomes infeasible for the owner to consume everything during their lifetime. We're talking about collections that go beyond the hundreds of bottles and into the thousands. Many of those bottles owned by serious enthusiasts will be cask strength, representing upwards of 50-60% more alcohol than the standard 80-proof spirit and thus far more units of alcohol.

These online groups seem to create a cycle of validation where people convince themselves that their own acquisitiveness is justified by praising others who are doing the same thing. I have witnessed this go to astounding and genuinely harmful lengths, as some folks purchase spirits in volumes that negatively impact the rest of the life, all the while being praised by their peers. And much like the social pressure to omit negative opinions, there is pressure against questioning the volume of those purchases, even when they are clearly pathological. While some of it is the general caution of calling people out, it is also difficult when so many of us are following the same path to one degree or another.

Another major driver is the fear of scarcity. People hunt down 'limited' releases or buy cases of expressions they believe will change or become unavailable over time. But for many it's not enough to buy one bottle and enjoy it, they have to get as many as possible. For some that's to resell to the highest bidder, either to make money in general or to fund their habit. For others it's creating a 'bunker' to ward off the possibility that they will never again be able to buy good spirits at reasonable prices again. For others it's simply the ability to gloat at the 'suckers' who weren't bright enough or lucky enough to stock up.

The question we all need to be asking ourselves is how much we're really going to be drinking. Can we consume what we're buying in a reasonable timeframe without putting an undue burden on our livers? Do we host enough events to share our purchases with likeminded friends? There will always be more that you want to drink than you have time, money, or liver for.