Monday, April 27, 2015

Whisky Review: Bowmore 12 Year Revisited

My first couple of exposures to Bowmore were generally positive, but noted the limitations of their standard bottling proof. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up a new bottle for a tasting I held last year. But Bowmore did seem like the least aggressive way to represent Islay peat, so I took the plunge. Since then I've been working my way through the bottle.

As always, this is bottled at 40%, almost certainly with chill filtration and coloring.

Bowmore 12 Year

Nose: dominated by dry mossy peat with a layer of wood smoke, plastic and cigarette ash notes around the edges, pine needles, fresh lumber, tropical fruits mixed with clean malt, shortbread cookies, herbal chocolate, a veneer of sherry, warm caramel with a hint of cured meat - everything becoming cleaner and more sherried with time. After adding a few drops of water, the oak becomes more assertive and the peat becomes earthier, the malt is more submerged, and the sherry nearly disappears, with some dark chocolate coming out.

Taste: moderate sherry sweetness up front that is rapidly balanced by oak tannins, with an undercurrent of cigarette ash emerging around the middle, then fading into clean malt, polished oak, and a rising tide of mossy/slightly decayed peat. After dilution, the flavors are more integrated, presenting a united front rather than unfolding in turn, the initial sweetness is more malty than sherried, some dark chocolate emerges around the middle, and the peat at the back is sharper (possibly because of the oak).

Finish: mossy peat over clean malt accented by sherry residue and polished oak

Once again, I am disappointed that Suntory has consistently let Bowmore's core range stagnate at low bottling proofs. This whisky could be so much more with craft presentation, but as is the spirit doesn't shine the way it should.

Bowmore should be rated highly by whisky geeks (despite the FWP era) given that they still produce a significant amount of their own floor malt and retain tight control over the rest of the mechanically produced malt they use, rather than buying Port Ellen malt like most of the distilleries on Islay. They have a highly regarded Master Blender in Rachel Barrie, who has also done solid work for Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch after a successful stint for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. Since 2004 Bowmore hasn't sold any of its malt to blenders, which puts it in a fairly small clutch of distilleries such as Bruichladdich and Benriach who are similarly focused on single malts.

But that success is exactly why the core range is what it is - as long as they maintain good sales, there is no incentive to change. We can grumble, but a lot of people enjoy Bowmore just the way it is. The Islay distilleries that closed or were sold on to new owners during the 1990s (Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain) are the ones that now put out their whisky with craft presentation as they needed a boost to stand out from their peers. The ones that chugged along during the lean years (Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila) have left their core releases largely unreformed as there has been no incentive to mess with successful formulas. This is also visible within the Suntory/Morrison-Bowmore stable - Bowmore and Auchentoshan maintained relatively steady sales during the slump and have basically stayed the same while the lesser known Glen Garioch has gotten a significant reformulation and bump in bottling proof. So I suspect that it would take another major shock to shake them out of their complacency. In the meantime I'll be sticking to indie releases of Bowmore.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Whisky Review: Aberlour 12 Year - 40%

I reviewed Aberlour 12 Year once before, but that was when it was still being bottled at 43%. Since then it has been reformulated downwards to 40%, though I believe everything else has remained the same - the 'double cask matured' statement on the front indicates that it is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry cask whisky, rather than ex-bourbon cask whisky finished in ex-sherry casks.

Let's see how it holds up.

Aberlour 12 Year

Nose: classic sherry character, green malt with a touch of honey and cotton candy underneath, vanilla, caramel/maple syrup, baking spices, hints of curry powder, and a thin thread of smoke or tar. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes more savory and gives the malt a nutty/roasted/mushroom character, the bourbon cask character becomes more obvious, and some powdered ginger emerges.

Taste: malt sweetness with a thick slab of sherry on top, becoming grainier with raisins, vanilla, oak, and some odd metallic bitterness emerging near the back. After dilution, the sherry becomes more savory and integrates with the malt, giving a less sweet profile overall, with more assertive oak/bourbon cask influence near the back.

Finish: green vanilla malt, sherry residue, moderate oak tannins, continuing metallic bitterness

While there is still a lot to like about Aberlour, the decreased bottling strength has sapped some of its vigor. While the softness at 40% maybe help to bring some new people into the brand, regulars may find that it doesn't have as much density as it once did. Additionally, it has the odd bitterness that I associate with spirits that are reduced to 40% with chill filtration and coloring. While it may have more to do with the strength than the adjustments, it's a little off-putting either way. Given that I haven't heard of any difficulties in maintaining stock on retail shelves, it's hard to see where the pressure to dilute the whisky is coming from other than the eternal desire for better margins.

It's a shame that Pernod Ricard have gone in this direction, as Aberlour 12 Year would have been fairly high on my list of recommended single malts for sherried whisky fans, but at this point I would have a difficult time pointing someone towards it rather than another sherried Speysider like Glenfarclas.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Tamdhu 8 CS/Hazelburn 8 CS/Arran Bourbon Single Cask/North British 16 Year

After writing my post about blending whisky, I decided to try making a blend with a bit more precision.

This is a roughly even (a milliliter or so off in some cases) split between an Arran Bourbon Single Cask, Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year, Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength, and Signatory North British 16 Year for Binny's. All said and done should clock in around 58% and all of the component whiskies were uncolored and un-chill filtered.

Blended Whisky #1

Nose: a thick layer of sherry on top, sweet raisins, fresh malt core, a touch of grain, light vanilla, caramel/brown sugar, something a meaty/savory, a bit of Campbeltown brine, sawdust. After adding a splash of water, the sherry is toned down significantly, letting the dusty grain, brine, and meaty notes shine.

Taste: fruity/dank sherry rides on top of everything, green/lightly peaty/earthy/dirty with dried orange peel and a heavy seasoning of black pepper around the middle, slides into malt/grain, mild oak, and extra pepper. After dilution, the sherry becomes a lighter bottom note rather than a top note, with malt and grain dominating, while the oak almost disappears and the earthy peat becomes stronger at the back.

Finish: grainy bitterness, moderate oak, sherry dregs, hints of dirty peat

This fudges Alfred Barnard's classic recipe, but it's close. One Speysider, an Island distillery that hews fairly close to Speyside/Highland, a Campbeltown, and a well-aged grain. Something peated from Islay definitely would have given this more punch, though I was pleasantly surprised by how much of that the Hazelburn brought to the mix. Also surprising was how strongly the sherry from the Tamdhu came through over the other three bourbon cask whiskies. Trying the Tamdhu by itself I found it to not be very intensely sherried, but mixing it with the other three seems to bring that element to the fore. Goes to show that how a malt whisky behaves on its own is not necessarily indicative of how it will behave as part of a blend.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Glendronach 33 Year - Three Generations

This was a bottling put together to commemorate the three generations of the Shand family to work at Glendronach: Albert Shand was the distillery manager in 1975 when the spirit was distilled, Euan Shand (who now owns Duncan Taylor) was a trainee at the time and coopered the cask that the spirit was aged in, and his son Andrew Shand bottled the cask in 2008.

This whisky comes from a single ex-bourbon cask that was bottled at 51.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Duncan Taylor Glendronach 33 Year 1975/2008 

Nose: beeswax/honeycomb, lots of clean malt, lightly floral (violets and roses), green fruits (apples, pears), jammy berries, mango, a sake/rice edge, caramel, dusty oak, whole milk dairy creaminess, musky vanilla bean, very mild peat in the background, green tea. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes darker - more jammy fruit, the oak becomes more pronounced and polished, some baking chocolate pops out, and the malts retreats,

Taste: honied barley and wood sugars up front, becoming floral, peppery, and tannic with berry and apple overtones around the middle, with a touch of peat and grainy bitterness plus increasing oak near the back. After dilution, the berry/fruit notes ride on top of everything, while the floral notes fade significantly and the oak becomes much more tannic.

Finish: mild oak, floral malt, beeswax, very mild peat, a touch of sandalwood incense

For having spent over three decades in oak, this whisky is surprisingly fresh. Yes, there is a fairly heavy dose of oak tannins to give it backbone, but the malt is very present and almost green, though that may have to do with the moderate level of peat (14 PPM) used in Glendronach's floor maltings. Overall I find this to be a really classic example of an older bourbon cask malt, with the combination of floral and fruit flavors one gets from alcohol and acids getting plenty of time to turn into esters. I'm glad that Duncan Taylor didn't leave it in the cask any longer as I suspect it might have become overly tannic after too many more years in oak - this is creeping up towards the edge but doesn't slip over. It's also an interesting contrast to the more common ex-sherry cask style that Glendronach is known for. I've tried most of their core range and enjoyed all of them, but all three are very sherry-driven, so this was a way to get to know the distillery's spirit in a more 'naked' form.

I was lucky enough to not only find this whisky on sale, but also split it with friends. I might not have taken a risk on it by myself and it's always interesting to get different angles on the same whisky. Both MAO and Michael enjoyed it quite a lot, with similar but not quite the same notes.

If you'd like to try this one, it's theoretically still available from Binny's for $200, which is a pretty significant chunk of change, but not absurd for a whisky of this age and vintage nowadays. I paid $170 and felt like I got a reasonable deal for a special occasion bottle, especially since I was able to split the cost.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Whisky Review: Arran 10 Year Revisited

Arran has long been one of my favorite distilleries (it was a lot of fun to visit back in 2013) and the quality of their entry-level 10 Year (well, I think they have an NAS release now, but it's not available in the US) has been a significant part of that. I opened a new bottle for a whisky tasting I held a few months ago as an example of an island whisky that doesn't fit the usual mold of Talisker, Highland Park, or Ledaig.

The 10 Year is made from whisky aged in ex-sherry casks, though I'm guessing that they're all or almost all refill casks as the sherry influence is very mild. It has always been bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. This bottle appears to have been bottled on 10/05/11, so the flavor profile may have shifted slightly in more recent releases as they have a deeper stock to work with.

Arran 10 Year

Nose: gentle floral-inflected sherry notes over creamy fresh (slightly green) malt, mild oak, raspberries, apples, a bit musky with a touch of Ivory soap, lemon/lime peel, vanilla, cotton candy, and mint. After adding a few drops of water, it become more malt- and oak-focused, reading more like a bourbon cask malt.

Taste: malt sweetness with a thin layer of musky sherry and floral overtones up top, berries and fresh raisins near the front, becoming more malty with a touch of oak around the middle. After dilution it becomes sweeter up front but less sweet at the back, with the sherry fading a bit until the end, with the oak waxing and the malt gets some roasted flavor, making it darker overall.

Finish: malt, sherry residue, grain/oak bitterness, vanilla

While this whisky can occasionally come off as a bit youthful, I think that the somewhat spare nature is fitting with the distillery's philosophy of letting their spirit shine through any cask influence. Arran has almost always put out malt-forward whiskies, which is somewhat rare in the current paradigm of wood-driven releases. I think this would be a good choice for people who enjoy whiskies like Balvenie Doublewood as they both have a similar level of sherry influence.

In comparison to my first go with Arran 10 Year, I didn't find any peat this time and I think that's both because I'm much more tolerate of peat flavors now so my threshold is higher and because I may have been mistaking some of the fresh barley character for peat. I also didn't get any brine, but who knows why. Otherwise my notes from three and a half years ago are pretty consistent, which suggests that Arran 10 Year is a whisky I'll keep coming back to and enjoying, even as I try more new things.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Cocktails: the Romanza

This drink comes from Jacques Bezuidenhout at Pesce restaurant in San Francisco, which appears to have first been recorded by Gaz Regan a decade ago.

More recently I had a number of them at the Liberty Glass bar in Portland, which made for a very pleasant evening. Because I enjoyed it so much, I knew this was a drink I had to figure out how to make at home. While the recipes I've seen online have precise measurements, the ones I had at Liberty Bar were free poured and seemed to work out rather well, so that's how I made them myself.

1 part Campari
1 part orange liqueur
1 part grapefruit juice
1 part soda water

Build over ice in a chilled rocks glass, then stir briefly to combine ingredients.

It's hard to get much of a nose with all the ice, but it's mostly the grapefruit talking. The sip begins bittersweetly, with the orange liqueur and grapefruit balancing each other, while the Campari brings the bitter bass near the back.

This is a case where you really want an orange liqueur with a characterful base. Most of the recipes I've seen suggest Grand Marnier, which has a brandy base. I quite like it with the rhum agricole-based Clément Creole Shrubb. Even better, make your own. But an orange liqueur with a neutral base like Cointreau or even Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao isn't going to cut it here.

But no matter how you make it, this is an almost perfect warm weather cooler. The Campari and grapefruit give it some snap while the orange liqueur smooths out the more assertive elements. This is right up there with the Americano and other classic session drinks for me.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Basics of Whisky Blending

Since the advent of the patent still in the mid-19th century, blends have reigned supreme in Scotland. While these days they may not always garner the critical acclaim of single malts, they were considered the best of what Scotland had to offer. To quote Alfred Barnard, who toured every distillery in the United Kingdom in the late-19th century:

"It is a fact well known that the old-established Scotch houses, above all others, are enabled to give a higher class of whisky, by reason of their careful study of the science of blending, which they have now reduced to a fine art....The idea is, to produce a blend so perfect that it strikes the consumer as being one liquid, not many – i.e., having absolute unity, tasting as one whole."

This theory of blends is coincidentally the same for one of my other great loves - tiki drinks - that combining spirits in multiple styles will produce sets of flavors that are impossible to create by any one distillery on its own.

To a lesser degree, this principle is at work in every bottle of single malt that doesn't come from a single cask. Most single malts are combinations of many different casks, which are put together to create a consistent flavor profile from batch to batch. More variety can be created by aging malt whisky in different varieties of casks, but there will always be a delineated range of flavors that evolve from the same spirit being put into oak casks. Even distillers that produce multiple styles of spirit in-house, such as Springbank, Benriach, Benromach, Bunnahabhain, and Bladnoch (that's a lot of Bs, isn't it?) are ultimately still producing those spirits with the same equipment, which will create noticeable similarities between the different varieties.

The next level would be blend malts, which are mixtures of malt whiskies from two or more distilleries. This vastly increases the range of possible flavors as there are dozens of different malt distilleries in Scotland. Compass Box is one of the most lauded producers of blended malts in Scotland, producing expressions like Spice Tree and Peat Monster. Other producers include independent bottlers like Douglas Laing, Wemyss, and Duncan Taylor.

Finally, there are blended whiskies, which are mixtures of malt whisky and grain whisky, either from multiple distilleries or a single distillery (Ben Nevis and Lochside briefly produced both malt and grain whisky). The components of a single blend will often include malt whisky from a dozen or more different distilleries with grain whisky from several different distilleries (there are only a handful of grain distilleries in Scotland). This means that the blenders putting together each expression have an enormous range of whiskies to work with, which, as I noted above, makes it possible to create flavor profiles that would be impossible to produce with the products from a single distillery.

While the grain whisky component is usually thought of as a way to dilute and stretch more flavorful and expensive malt whisky, it does bring its own set of flavors. Unfortunately it's very difficult to get a sense of what grain whisky has to offer as there are so few expressions available (even fewer that are cask strength) in the US for reasonable prices (Haig Club doesn't count).  Corn and wheat (the two most common grains used in grain whisky) have their own flavor profiles that are distinct both from each other and from malt whisky.

John Walker & Sons - from Alfred Barnard
So where does one begin if they don't have access to warehouses full of maturing casks (and the accompanying headaches that come with such a big job)? Probably the best place is by blending different expressions of malt whisky. Most whisky enthusiasts will have a number of bottles open at a given time and at least one of them is going to be more neutral than the others. Basic expressions from Glenfiddich/livet/morangie tend to be relatively easy going whiskies that can absorb more flavorful whiskies, such as heavily peated of heavily sherried malts. I have found that whiskies that are already at a fairly low proof come together more easily than cask or batch strength whiskies, so this is a great place for something in the 40-46% range. As demonstrated by Ralfy, a good way to do this is to line up several glasses of a more neutral malt and add increasing numbers of drops of a more flavorful malt down the line. This is a great demonstration of why those heavily flavored whiskies are so critical to blends, as small amounts can radically alter the flavor profile of less flavorful whiskies.

Another place to start is with a blended whisky like Johnnie Walker Black Label or Compass Box Artist's Blend. These already contain a number of different malt and grain whiskies, but their flavor profiles can be shifted dramatically by the addition of a bit more malt whisky, especially if it's heavily flavored. Wish your Johnnie Black was a bit more peated? Pour in a touch of Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Wish Artist's Blend was more aggressively sherried? Add a bit of Glenfarclas or Macallan. Even a tiny splash of malt can pull the blend in a new direction. This is, coincidentally, a great way to stretch your expensive single malts. While the home blends won't be quite as robustly flavored as the single malts, you may be pleasantly surprised to find how flavorful the blends can be with a little doctoring.

From there you can move on to more complex blended malts. Again, it's good to start with something a little more neutral as your base - Clynelish is fantastic for this purpose, Arran is also a solid pick, and the multitude of Speyside distilleries exist largely because they form such a good base for blends. Bourbon cask malts are probably the best, as the vanilla and oak will help to give balance and backbone to the other components. Refill sherry would be next best, especially if it's on the lighter side. The two simplest axes to work with are cask type and peat - both can nicely inflect the base malt without overwhelming it as long as you are careful about how much you add. You can try layering multiple styles of the same influence, e.g. the more coastal notes of sherried Bunnahabhain with the cleaner character of a sherried Speysider or multiple styles of peat from different parts of the country. Alternatively, you can stack influences, putting sherry together with peat for an elegant but smokey profile. At this point you will start to notice how different whiskies fit with each other, either meshing to form a coherent whole or remaining distinct elements within the blend. There aren't hard and fast rules - much of this has to be learned through trial and error, though caution and a light hand can help to reduce the number of drams that have to be poured down the sink.

Finally, if you can get your hands on some grain whisky that you don't mind tinkering with, you can go all the way to making true blended whisky from scratch. One tricky element is that the grain whiskies that are bottled are sometimes less neutral than what gets used in commercial blends. Experiment carefully as they can strongly influence the flavor of the blends you make with them. With that said, I highly recommend the Signatory North British 16 Year bottled for Binny's as one of the few reasonably priced cask strength single grain whiskies available in the States right now. If you can, experiment with different types of grain whisky - most grain distilleries currently use wheat as their primary grain, but Invergordon still uses maize as its primary grain and older ones made before the 1980s are also more likely to be made from maize (a switch occurred at that point as locally grown wheat became more economically attractive than American maize). A typical commercial blend is likely to be 50-80% grain whisky, but you can also aim for something more like Compass Box's Great King Street New York Blend, which was only 20% grain whisky. As I've already noted, experimentation is going to be critical to finding out what kind of blends work best for you. Though one great place to start is the recipe offered by Alfred Barnard in his piece "The Art of Blending Scotch Whisky", which utilizes malt and grain whiskies from every region of the country.

Glenlivets would today be called Speyside whiskies - many distilleries in the area used to append -Glenlivet to their name before cease-and-desist orders were sent out by the owners of The Glenlivet. Between the Speyside, Lowland, and grain whiskies, this should give a fairly mellow and balanced whisky aided by the more characterful Islay and Campbeltown malts (though somewhat less if you stick with unpeated whiskies from Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, and Hazelburn). As noted in Barnard's text, using some sherried whiskies in the mix will also help to give the final product character and body.

While it's perfectly acceptable to simply pour different whiskies into a glass, give it a swirl, and taste the results, if you really want to understand what's going on measuring each component and letting the result marry for days or weeks will be critical. For making single drams, a 50 mL glass graduated cylinder is perfect along with 30, 50, and 60 mL sample bottles for storing the blends. Additionally, this will let you more precisely proof down blends that are made with cask or batch strength whiskies, as they may be more harmonious (or just taste different) in the 40-50% ABV range.

I'll leave you with some general things I've learned. They're limited by the particular bottles that I've had open while carrying out these experiments and I'm sure I'll find out more in time, but here they are:

•Some peated whiskies are more forgiving than others. Highland Park and Bowmore give you a bigger margin for error and are less likely to dominate a blend, whereas Laphroaig requires a very light touch as it can all too easily dominate a blend. Others like Ardbeg, Benriach, and Springbank will run somewhere more in the middle.
•Sherried whiskies will initially dominate a blend right after mixing, but integrate more thoroughly with time.
•Adding more of a bourbon cask malt can help to smooth over the cracks between disparate malts - slip more in if things don't seem to be coming together.
•Don't be afraid to try malts that seem at first blush like they would clash - sometimes things like Auchentoshan and Bowmore can go together surprisingly well.
•Be extra careful with batch and cask strength malts when adding them to lower proof malts or blends. The extra alcohol also means extra flavor, so a little bit will go a long way.

For further advice, you can turn to the K&L Wines Spirits Journal and the Master of Malt blog, both of which have talked about the process of making blends at home.