Friday, August 1, 2014

Whisky Review: Signatory Glenlivet 1995/15 Year

This one comes from Signatory's Un-Chill Filtered collection, which, as the name suggests, isn't chill filtered and is thus bottled at a respectable 46%. It comes from a single sherry butt, which I'm guessing was a refill rather than a first-fill cask.

Thanks to MAO for the sample.

Signatory Glenlivet 1995/15 Year Cask #144357

Nose: mild sherry (grows with time) layered over a solid malt core, raisins, 'Livet apple notes, floral/vegetal edge, bubblegum, caramel, cinnamon brown sugar, sweet chocolate, mild oak. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry takes over and becomes more dank, some honey rides on top of the oak, and oily notes emerge,

Taste: overlay of sherry on top of sweet malt that fades into bittersweet oak with a vegetal edge, apple skins, hints of lemon/lime, some vanilla and baking chocolate from the middle to back. After dilution, the palate becomes sweeter and more integrated, with the oak bolstering the other flavors, which actually makes it more pleasant as the flavors clash less,

Finish: creamy malt, then deeper and darker oak tannins with sherry/raisin residue

The best I can say for this one is that it's not bad. There are no obvious flaws, but it's not particularly exciting either. There is improvement after adding some water, but it's not quite enough to rescue it from the doldrums. With that said, it's definitely better than the other OB Glenlivets I've had, so there's that. So it's pleasant, but not something I would go out of my way to find. If you see a bottle for under, say, $60, it's worth grabbing as an easy-drinking malt.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Exclusive Malts Ardmore 2000/14 Year Cask #233

Next up in the series of single cask releases from the Exclusive Malts batch #5, an Ardmore that's almost as pale as the Ledaig, despite having spent nearly twice as long in oak.

Ardmore is a Speyside distillery known for primarily making peated whisky. They use moderately peated malt at ~12 PPM, which is similar to Springbank. Until 2001/2002 they were also the last distillery in Scotland to heat their stills with coal. So this whisky was some of the last distilled before they switched to steam coils.

The spirit was aged in what I'm assuming is a 2nd or 3rd-fill ex-bourbon cask for 14 years before being bottled at 54.3% without coloring (no surprise there) or chill filtration.

The Exclusive Malts Ardmore 2000/14 Year Cask #233

Nose: classic Speyside notes - honey, malt, fresh apples, rich but not overwhelming oak, undercurrent of faded peat, slightly coastal, meaty/fresh leather. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes much more youthful, with fresh grain, floral, and coastal/peat notes dominating, the apple notes become more like apple skins, and the oak mostly disappearing to become more cardboard-y.

Taste: rich malt sweetness that carried all the way through, augmented by fresh/baked apple notes, earthy peat, and mild oak tannins in the middle, fading out with floral/herbal notes at the back. After dilution, the flavors become more youthful - with sweet young grain dominating at the beginning, with a fade out of muddled peat, dark chocolate, new make, and floral notes.

Finish: alcohol heat, mild oak and malt, peat residue, floral

This is a very pleasant single malt and, while almost as pale as the 2005 Ledaig I tried, much more mature. If I was making an analogy, this seems like a mashup of younger bourbon cask Balblair with Springbank, though this doesn't have as much of the oiliness that characterizes Campbeltown malts.

While quite pleasant at full strength, even a little bit of water made it seem much younger and less mature. It might help if I had enough time to really let the water integrate, but if, like me, you only have a pour, I would leave it undiluted in the glass.

The only major flaw here is the price. With every retailer I can find online stocking it at well over $100, the quality to price ratio just isn't there for me. Under $70 and I could feel like it would be worth grabbing a bottle, but as is I would leave it alone. There are some Ardmores available from Signatory's Non-Chill Filtered line which, while not at cask strength, stand a better chance of being a good value.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Whisky Review: Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005/8 Year Cask #9

The Exclusive Malts are a line of single cask bottlings from The Creative Whisky Company. They have been starting to release some of their single malts on the American market over the last couple of years and this is part of their fifth batch.

This Ledaig was bottled at cask strength of 56.7% without coloring (quelle surprise!) or chill filtration.

Thanks to Helen at ImpEx Beverages for this sample.

Exclusive Malts Ledaig 2005/8 Year Cask #9

Nose: green malt/new make/pine/juniper, fudge-y vegetal peat, a touch of wood smoke, used coffee grounds, a slug of oak tannins, salty Playdough, seashells, more rounded grain notes with time. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes more prominent, the new make notes settle down a bit, but the peat fades significantly, some berry notes pop out,

Taste: sweet barley up front, quickly segueing into fresh peat, vegetation, solvent/new make, and fresh oak, nearly obscuring some fruity/floral esters near the back. After dilution, the sweetness expands and integrates with the new make notes - forming a more tolerable whole, the peat is more clearly defined and funky/vegetal, and the small amount of oak hides under everything else.

Finish: new make grain, funky vegetal peat, a hint of oak, residual alcohol

For having spent eight years in oak casks, this is pretty much as close to Ledaig's new make spirit as you're likely to be able to buy. While the oak makes itself fairly well known on the nose, it has done absolutely nothing to diminish the barley spirit character. The solvent flavors on the palate haven't even off-gassed, which makes it rough going. I cringed almost every time I took a sip. Other than as an academic exercise, I don't understand why Exclusive Malts decided to bottle this, rather than transferring it to a more active cask. It's not just the age, because the 6 YO Blackadder Ledaig I tried had none of the roughness I found in this. I just can't recommend it as something most people are going to want to drink on a regular basis. It would be interesting as part of a broader Ledaig tasting - comparing this to the barely older OB 10 Year is instructive in how first-fill ex-bourbon casks can shape the spirit. The Nth fill cask this came from just wasn't active enough to turn it into something drinkable.

A number of these 'barely aged' peated single malts have been hitting the market over the last couple of years, including K&L's Talisker Speakeasy 5 Year and Island Distillery 7 Year (also an Exclusive Malts Ledaig). Much like the trend of craft distilleries releasing 'white whiskeys', I wonder how much traction these can gain. As I suggested, they can be interesting as academic exercises, but the appeal as whiskies to drink for pleasure seems limited.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Whisky Review: BenRiach Importanticus Fumosus

One of the innovations since BenRiach was bought into private hands in the early 2000s has been making more creative use of their peated whisky. While originally created as fodder for Seagram's blends as they did not own any Islay distilleries, it has since become a significant asset for the company, as there are few Speyside distilleries making peated whisky that have significant aged stocks.

As with their unpeated whisky, BenRiach has explored cask finishes as a way to put new layers of flavor on top of the spirit. This particular one is made from ex-bourbon cask whisky that is then transferred to tawny port hogsheads (I don't know if they are rebuilt port pipes or new hogsheads seasoned with port). After at least 12 years in oak, the whisky is proofed down to 46% and bottled without chill filtration or coloring.

BenRiach Importanticus Fumosus

Nose: malty core, light port influence, juicy raisins, fresh apples, sweet bacon, mild mossy/vegetal peat with a Laphroaig edge, coal, bourbon cask notes of vanilla, caramel, and toasty oak, fishy overtones, and a hint of sour milk. After adding a few drops of water, the peat and oak take center stage, the peat becomes kind of musky, the malt integrates with the peat - makes the whisky seem more youthful, the port becomes more like sherry and some raspberry pops out.

Taste: very sweet (almost too sweet) malt, caramel, and port influence (wine/raisins) up front, before slamming into a wall of oak tannins, coal tar, and bitter vegetal notes, malt and port ride underneath creating a flavor like dark chocolate in the middle - feels thin despite the alcohol heat. After dilution, the port sweetness comes in big in the beginning, but the oak nearly takes over the subsequent palate, with the other flavors being relegated to the background.

Finish: sweet malt, port, oak, coal tar, and peat - tapers off quickly

I found this whisky fairly disappointing. The nose is reasonably pleasant - the port offers some counterpoint to the usual BenRiach malt and peat, but it lacks the clear structure of either Curiositas or Arumaticus Fumosus on the palate. The port seems kind of simple and not quite integrated, while the spirit has picked up too much oak and lost too much peat. There are times when it works better than others, but even then there's nothing I can find to recommend it over other whiskies. Ultimately, unless you're going for completeness (like I am) in exploring BenRiach's peated cask finishes, I would probably give this one a miss or, at the least, try before you buy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Whisky Review: Bowmore The Devil's Casks Batch #1

If one has been watching Bowmore over the last couple of years, it has become clear that the focus has shifted away from the core range and towards any number of limited and travel retail-only releases.

Following on the heels of Tempest, an ongoing series of 10 year old whiskies matured exclusively in first-fill bourbon casks, the distillery released another 'small batch' 10 year old whisky, this time matured exclusively in first-fill sherry casks. This was greeted with much fanfare and bottles in Europe nearly flew off the shelves as collectors snapped them up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowmore noted just how popular the first release was and has recently announced that there will be a second batch. My guess is that this will turn into a regular release, much like Tempest. But let's see how the first one did.

Batch #1 was bottled at a fairly hefty 56.9% ABV, without chill-filtration (though it doesn't appear to say anything about coloring).

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Bowmore The Devil's Casks Batch #1

Nose: at first there is cigarette ash/tarry peat (more Laphroaig/Kilchoman/Bunnahabhain than classic Bowmore), moderate sherry with a rubbery/meaty/sulfurous edge, wood char, lumber yard oak, a bit of low tide seashore, fresh malt/hay, vanilla, dark chocolate - with time the peat settles down, the sherry becomes fruitier and more assertive, the focus shifts towards savory/salty malt, and some cinnamon toast notes pop out. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much drier overall, the sherry, oak, and peat integrate nicely, with the seashore becoming seaweed/iodine, the oak becomes even fresher and more lumber-y, the cinnamon toast gains some brown sugar, and eventually the sherry becomes more savory than fruity and gives way to the malt, and the peat shifts into a more traditional Bowmore mode.

Taste: extremely sweet up front - a mix of pure sugar, malt, and sherry, a slightly sour edge, flipping into alcohol heat, ashy peat, wood char, dry oak tannins, rich sherry, and tarry Bowmore malt/peat notes - becomes drier and more malt-focused over time, with the sherry and peat tapering off a bit. After dilution, the opening gains some floral cherry syrup, the oak becomes more assertive and pervasive in a way that tempers the sweetness a bit - with that new lumber quality (it almost works in this context, but not quite) becoming clearer, the peat dims a bit, plus pine sap and black pepper emerge near the back.

Finish: more classically Bowmore peat, tar, malt, polished wood, oak tannins, sherry residue

Not quite sure how I feel about this one. It's definitely a wild ride and has lots going on to catch your attention, but I feel like it's given up some balance for the sake of fireworks. The opening is just a bit too sweet, though the flip to dry peat and oak is a nice touch.

While it would be nice to get the undiluted flavors with a bit less alcoholic heat, adding water seems to emphasize the youthfulness of the whisky, bringing out the lumber yard notes that I got in the rather unpleasant Exclusive Malts Bowmore I tried a while back. Given that they were distilled and casked at roughly the same time, I wonder if there was something about either the spirit Bowmore was making or, more likely, the casks they were filling at the time. Maybe recharred casks that let the spirit come in contact with fresh wood? In Devil's Casks, the sherry helps to paper over some of the oak, but I still find it hard to ignore.

More generally, the character of the peat makes me wonder if I would have pegged this as Bowmore tasting it blind, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Bowmore has too often been focused on being the kinder, gentler Islay distillery, so it's kind of fun to see them being more bombastic. But in trying to shout, it's slipped over the line into being vaguely annoying. A bit more restraint would have moved this from 'pretty good' to 'excellent'. However, that's just my taste - sweet + peat seems to be a crowd-pleaser these days (see, for instance, the most recent batches of Laphroaig Cask Strength), so it's not my taste that they're catering to. Still, if you prefer your whisky to be a bit more reserved, I would probably give this one a miss, especially considering the price tag at retail, let alone on the secondary market.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Springbank 15 Year

Last up in my series of Springbank reviews this week, the 15 Year. Like the 12 Year Cask Strength, this is fully matured in ex-sherry casks. Like the 10 Year, this is proofed down to 46% without chill filtration or coloring before bottling.

It's still available as a miniature from The Whisky Exchange, though from the picture it appears to be a more recent release than this one.

Springbank 15 Year

Nose: musty/musky oak, malt core, mild peat, dank sherry, prunes/figs, raspberry-glazed pork, seashore, WD-40, lots of vanilla, gentle floral notes (hand soap?), a touch of orange peel, India ink. After adding a few drops of water, the tannic oak, peat, and seashore/maritime notes become more prominent, the sherry and malt edge back a bit, and the floral notes disappear.

Taste: malty sweetness with a sour edge throughout, tannic oak and sherry come in around the middle, with a gentle fade of dark chocolate/cacao and peat at the back. After dilution, the wood sugars come out on top of the malt sweetness, making it much sweeter overall, berry esters come out, and the sourness, oak, and sherry integrate but fade a bit more into the background.

Finish: tannic oak, very mild sherry and malt, a touch of oily peat

While I enjoyed this whisky more than the first time I tried it, I still found roughly the same notes, though the sherry was more readily apparent. There seems to be some significant batch variation, with some people finding very little sherry influence, with a concomitant increase in peat. Ultimately, there still isn't anything about it that would make me pick it over the standard 10 Year, let alone the 12 Year Cask Strength. The oak feels a bit too strong in here - maybe a shift towards refill instead of first-fill casks would help - without adding much to the experience. I wouldn't say no if someone gifted me a bottle, but with prices in the US approaching $100 a bottle, it's not something that I'm going to spend my own money on. While lacking the same kind of coastal notes, I'd reach for Glendronach 15 Year instead as a mid-teen sherry matured whisky for significantly less money. For something a bit younger, Talisker Distiller's Edition is also a great substitute and should have some more peat to balance the sherry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Whisky Review: Springbank 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #1

Springbank has been releasing batches of 12 year old, cask strength whisky since 2010. The releases have been once or twice a year (they're up to #6 right now) with slightly different strengths. Beyond the age, the common thread is that every drop comes from a sherry cask, with a 60/40 split of first-fill and refill casks. In theory this should make them more aggressively sherried than the 10 Year I reviewed on Monday, but we'll see if that's actually the case.

This was the first batch, released in March 2010, which was bottled at 54.6%. I managed to pick up a bottle that had lingered on the shelves in Oregon until going on closeout a few months ago.

Springbank 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #1

Nose: very savory - peat/sherry/oak sync up, slightly meaty, red berries, a malty core, a touch of wine vinegar, salmon, burnt sugar, caramel/pine sap, fresh hay, olive oil, more sherried with plum notes emerging over time. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes much more assertive, while the oak and sherry retreat and integrate, the oiliness becomes more like canola, and the sherry has more refill cask character and largely turns into dark chocolate,

Taste: oak-driven, balanced between wood sugars and tannins, malt running through the middle, and sherry bolstering everything underneath, mild peat joining the oak at the back, citrus peel and baker's chocolate overtones. After dilution, the palate becomes much sweeter and smoother, while the flavors become a bit flatter with more refill sherry cask character, with oak and malt still dominating, while the peat and oak meld with a touch of pepper, and the alcohol seems if anything even hotter on the tongue,

Finish: mild oak and peat, lots of clean malt, baker's chocolate, sherry residue

Now this is more like it. Everything I liked about the 10 Year is turned up to 11, while actually having less aggressive sherry. The oily/meaty notes of the distillery's malt are a perfect complement to the sherry, while the oak keeps it from getting too sweet. In that respect, it makes me think of a lightly peated Arran Port Cask Finish. However, I wouldn't add any water, as that seemed to make it too sweet for my taste.

Everything I've read suggests that the 12 Year Cask Strength releases have been consistently good, so I wouldn't hesitate to grab one from a different batch. I have a bottle of Batch 3 that I'm looking forward to opening up and comparing to this one.