Friday, April 29, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory Vintage Linkwood 16 Year 1995/2011

Linkwood has an exceptionally long and moderately complicated history that I will largely leave to Malt Madness if you're curious. The important bits of information are that the distillery is owned by Diageo, which means that its output is almost exclusively destined for blends, with the exception of the official Flora & Fauna bottling and the semi-offical Gordon & Macphail releases. But some of the casks find their way into the hands of independent bottlers.

This whisky was distilled on January 30, 1995, filled into a hogshead, then bottled on August 8, 2011 at 43% without coloring.

Signatory Linkwood 16 Year 1995/2001 Cask #648

Nose: strong floral (roses, lavender) and fruit (apple, orange, grape, banana) notes backed up by solid malt, a little grassy, a touch of fresh Ivory soap, mild oak, bubblegum, and vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer plus more grain-focused and floral.

Taste: sweet, thick malt through out, big bittersweet floral and fruit esters (banana, berries, apple/pear) come in quickly, fade out through drier floral and grassy notes with a touch of savory oak and citrus peel/pith near the back. After dilution it becomes grainier and less sweet, but creamier and more floral/grassy.

Finish: bittersweet, oak, thick malt, floral/grassy, barest hint of soap

This is instantly recognizable to anyone who has tried Johnnie Walker Green Label, which has Linkwood as one of its main components. This is a big, characterful malt that will shine in blends, augmenting other less flavorful malt and grain whiskies.

While Signatory's Vintage line doesn't get nearly as much praise or attention as their Unchillfiltered or Cask Strength lines, they do offer solid malts at often very respectable prices. While it's possible that this whisky would have been better at a higher strength, it was exceptionally drinkable and had more than enough heft diluted to 43%. There seem to be a number of these casks floating around and I intend to get my hands on at least one or two more. If this one sounds good to you it's still available from the Ultimate Wine Shop.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Whisky Review: Highland Park 15 Year

While Highland Park 12 Year is in almost every malt maniac's cabinet and the 18 Year gets regular plaudits, the 15 Year has been a little forlorn within the lineup. Given pressure on their stocks, it looks like the distillery (or more likely the corporate folks at Edrington) has pulled the expression, probably to reserve more casks for the 18 Year and replaced it with Dark Origins at the same price point.

This is bottled at 43% probably with chill filtration and possibly without coloring (I've heard conflicting accounts of whether they use it or not now).

Highland Park 15 Year

Nose: maple syrup, integrated sherry, American oak (caramel, vanilla), baking spices, twiggy malt, heather, herbal, light peat, peach, strawberry, raspberry. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and oak integrate, the baking spices resolve into woody cinnamon, and the peat fades away.

Taste: opens with sweet sherry, raisins, American oak with herbal/floral/heather-y peat overtones, mesquite honey, and darker sherry through the middle, fresh dry malt near the back as the sherry slips away to reveal a bit more peat and oak. After dilution the sweetness becomes stronger and brighter, with the oak and peat fading into the background.

Finish: sherry sweetness, gentle peat, malt, vanilla, a touch of oak and wine acidity

The defining feature of this Highland Park is the American oak. While, like its 12 and 18 year old counterparts, it is matured entirely in ex-sherry casks, the 15 Year is constructed with more American oak than European oak casks. This gives it character that you would expect from an ex-bourbon cask malt, but with plenty of sherry on top. The extra age has also softened the peat in comparison to its younger sibling, which gives it a much more approachable character. Instead of the whipsaw from sweetness to peat, the transition is more gentle. That's not to say that it's flat or insipid, though I do think that it, like the 12 Year, would have benefited from a bump to 46% and craft presentation. This goes double in Europe where it was bottled at 40% rather than 43% as it is in the States. Basically, if you enjoy sherry-driven malts and can find Highland Park 15 Year for under $80, which, after a cursory search appears to be possible in many places, it's a no-brainer. While the 18 Year gets most of the plaudits, in an era of rising prices the 15 Year can be a solid value.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Whisky Review: Archives Glen Grant 25 Year 1990/2015

I've only tried Glen Grant twice before - the standard 10 Year and a Berry Brothers & Rudd 1974 single cask. Neither has given me much of a basis for judging the distillery as a whole, so I came at this sample without many expectations. The WhiskyBase shop tossed a sample into one of my orders, so I gave it a try.

This whisky was distilled on July 5th 1990, filled into a hogshead, then bottled on September 23rd 2015 at 56.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

Archives Glen Grant 25 Year 1990/2015 Cask #15230

Nose: soft and subdued - lots of oak, something between floral and musky fruit notes (melon), glue paste, sweet malt, vanilla, roasted corn, grassy, citrus peel. After adding a few drops of water the oak becomes more expansive and wipes out some of the nuance.

Taste: big malt and cask sweetness up front, slightly tempered by soft oak tannins, becomes generically fruity around the middle, then fades into bittersweet hay and malt near the back. After dilution the generic fruitiness spreads out to encompass the entire palate, syncing up with the oak to give it an almost sherried quality.

Finish: carbonated fizzy water, oak, more generic fruitiness, generally bitter

On the face of it, this isn't a bad whisky. It reads somewhere between the grassier end of Speyside and the fruiter end of the Lowlands. There are no major flaws, it's generally enjoyable, and it's not terribly expensive for a 25 year old single malt in this day and age. Importantly, it's still available. At the same time, there are other single cask bottlings from the same distillery at roughly the same age that are 2/3-1/2 the price, which makes me pretty disinclined to recommend this one. It's not bad, but I feel like it should be better for the money.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Whisky Review: Cragganmore 12 Year

Cragganmore is one of Diageo's core Speyside malt distilleries. It forms the basis for a number of their critical blends, especially Green Label, but is also bottled as a single malt for their Classic Malts series.

The distillery is distinguished by a few characteristics: their malt is lightly peated (I've seen 3 PPM, but that is barely over the natural phenol content, so I would guess more like 5-8 PPM), their spirit stills are 'T-shaped', with a truncated top instead of the usual gentle swan neck curve, and the spirit is condensed in worm tubs rather than the now-standard shell condensers.

The 12 Year is bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Cragganmore 12 Year

Nose: very malty, savory caramel, moderate dry oak, fizzy bourbon cask fruit/berry esters, a hint of citrus peel, grassy/floral, vanilla, a touch of peat. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes bigger and musky, and some honey graham cracker notes come out.

Taste: malty sweetness up front, bourbon cask fruit esters, vanilla, bubblegum, floral and grassy notes ride above the middle, fade out through savory notes, bittersweet oak/tea, and dry malt/grass with just a touch of peat. After dilution the bittersweet oak becomes much stronger and spreads across the palate, giving it a drier character.

Finish: wintergreen Tums, lavender, malt, a touch of oak, barely detectable peat

I tried this once before at a bar and recorded very similar notes. This is one of those whiskies that feels like it could be so much more, but as so frequently happens Diageo has neutered it in an effort to broaden its appeal. While it's arguably got a bit more going on than the standard Glens, the equally priced and equally available Clynelish 14 Year trumps it in every category. I was glad to only have a 200 mL bottle of this whisky, which is exactly what I expected despite the higher unit cost. What this does do is convince me that I want to try some indie Cragganmore.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Whisky Review: The Whisky Agency Liquid Library Glen Scotia 19 Year 1992/2011

Glen Scotia is the frequently-neglected member of the current Campbeltown trio.

Until recently very few official bottlings of Glen Scotia were available. The line was relaunched first in 2013 then again within the last year after the first proved too ambitious. Before then the best way to try Glen Scotia was through independent bottlings.

The Gordon & Macphail I tried was a bit of an odd duck, but it was young, low proof, and from bourbon casks. This release from The Whisky Agency was fully matured in a sherry cask (and what a sherry cask, judging from the color) and bottled at a healthier 46%.

The Whisky Agency Liquid Library Glen Scotia 19 Year 1992/2011

Nose: very dry, huge sherry mixed with sulphur, almost meaty, malty top notes, caramel, nutty, cacao nibs, a touch of coffee, leather, dried fruit, a hint of something floral, baking spices. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes stronger and integrates with the sherry, there is more noticeable sweetness,

Taste: briefly sweet up front, which is quickly overwhelmed by dry sherry and black pepper/sulphur spiciness, fading into rising tannins and chocolate covered coffee beans near the back, with an undercurrent of creamy malt riding throughout. After dilution it becomes much sweeter, with more fruity sherry and integrated sulphur, the malt is more apparent, and some nuttiness comes out, the spiciness is turned down, but it feels flatter.

Finish: vinous, oak tannins, sherry, a touch of sulphur, relatively short

Well, this certainly was an active cask. And one that was sterilized with a hefty sulphur candle before it was filled. So if you like those big, sulfurous whiskies, this might tickle your fancy. While I found things to like, I was disappointing that the distillery character had been mostly overwhelmed, other than a certain dirtiness that might have been more about the cask than the spirit. But if this sounds like something that would tickle your fancy it's still available from some European retailers for a fairly reasonable price given its age.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition

Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition was some of the last entry level whisky released by Bruichladdich that was made entirely from stocks produced before Mark Reynier purchased the distillery and brought it back to life in 2001. The exact provenance is difficult to pin down because the distillery was shuttered between 1994 and 2000 except for a brief production run in 1998, when the team from Jura ran the place using 28 PPM malt. Given the late bottling date on this and the fairly obvious peat influence it's possible that it is composed largely of spirit from that 1998 run as that would have been old enough to use and the pre-1994 stocks would likely have been running thin by then.

This whisky was put together from first- and second-fill ex-bourbon casks and was bottled at 11:46 on May 11th, 2011 with bottling code 11/114 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition

Nose: big bourbon cask notes of vanilla, caramel, and gentle oak, berry esters and pink bubblegum, a touch of peat, salinity, barrel char, putty. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes drier and pushes the cask influence towards the back, the oak becomes more like cedar bark.

Taste: sweet malt up front, oak tannins move in quickly and turn the malt bittersweet, around the middle - vanilla, herbal/pine, and berry overtones with salinity in the background, fading out through gentle peat. After dilution the oak becomes softer while the berry notes are brighter and move towards the front.

Finish: balanced oak and malt, berries lingering peat

This is one of those whiskies that makes you think "they just don't make them like that anymore". It's not a flashy malt, but it's nearly flawless and deeply satisfying to drink. Unlike much of what has been distilled since it was restarted in 2001, there is none of the butyric funk that mars many current releases. Additionally, the oak is a significant presence that gives the spirit heft without overwhelming the distillery character, unlike many newer Bruichladdichs that seem like could stand to spend more time in first-fill casks. I can only hope that Bruichladdich can return to this style someday when demand has settled down and they're once again able to mature their whisky to a reasonable age, but the comparison between the two 10 year olds makes me wonder if that will really be possible. We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 10 Year Old vs. New

In many ways these two releases bracket the beginning and end of Bruichladdich's first phase after its purchase by Mark Reynier in 2000. The first 10 Year was one of the earliest releases in 2001 under the new ownership, utilizing spirit that was acquired from Whyte & Mackay along with the distillery itself. Even if it wasn't their own distillate, it was meant to establish the distillery's character in the new era.

In contrast, the Laddie Ten was released in 2011 as the first ten year old made entirely from spirit distilled under the new ownership. At that point the distillery was expected to move into a more standard mode with an established lineup composed of 10, 16, and 22 year old bottlings. However, that state of affairs quickly collapsed not long after the distillery was purchased by Remy Cointreau, with the age dated bottles no longer available outside of the distillery shop (and not even available there now) and the lineup reduced primarily to NAS or sub-10 year old vintage bottlings. So while the Laddie Ten did herald a new era, it was extremely short-lived.

Both were bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. The old label 10 Year is a 200 mL bottle that was purchased at the Islay Whisky Shop in 2013 and has a bottling code HW 02/0072, suggesting that it was bottled in 2002. The Laddie Ten was also purchased and opened in 2013, but the bottling code is unknown.

Bruichladdich 10 Year

Nose: pineapple, orange juice, berries, sherry, raisins, fresh malt, caramel, a touch of sea air, vegetal peat, mild oak. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry character expands, it becomes a little more raw and youthful overall, with the malt becoming grainier,

Taste: youthful - but not overly so, sweet malt beginning up front and carrying through to the back, a veneer of sherry and green notes beginning around the middle, very mild oak with a touch of vanilla and peat near the back. After dilution, the sherry character is enhanced and spreads out, there's a burst of slightly raw fruit esters around the middle, and the green notes around the back become a little sour, and the malt becomes grainier.

Finish: sherry residue, malt, light peat,

I can see how this would have been a good representation for the distillery as it tried to rebuild itself in the mid-2000s. Unlike the more wild experiments of Reynier/McEwan era, it's a simple recipe of ex-bourbon casks with a smaller number of ex-sherry casks to give it a bit more pep. It's relatively uncomplicated and youthful, but also without overt flaws. For a drinker not closely scrutinizing the experience, it's pleasant and enjoyable without demanding a lot of attention.

If you live in the US there may still a few retailers that have the original Bruichladdich 10 Year on their shelves and if you happen to stumble upon it, I think it's a worthwhile experience as part of a bygone era, both for Bruichladdich itself and the industry as a whole.

The Laddie Ten

Nose: very earthy, dank, peat without a lot of smoke, fresh herbs, bourbon cask berries, vanilla with a slightly artificial cast, solid level of oak, leathery, roasted cacao beans, a touch of cumin. After adding a few drops of water, the leathery character increases, some coastal influence comes out, and the earth becomes damp mud.

Taste: malt sweetness and wood sugars throughout, salty with bourbon cask berries starting around the middle, earthy/leathery oak tannins and peat near the back. After dilution, it remains similar, but the leathery character is amplified.

Finish: oak tannins and earthy peat, berries, creamy malt,

Hate it or love it, the Laddie Ten is simply an entirely different whisky. It's not peated in the way that its Islay brethren are, instead making me think of peat that's turning into fresh soil. While it is mature in a way that the original 10 Year was not, without the youthful greenness, it also lacks the clean character that made the previous version such an easy drinking whisky.

Thankfully sometime in the last two years that this sample has sat around the butyric character that I originally found has burned off, which makes it far more drinkable. If I had to pick between the two, I'd take the pre-Reynier distillate any day.