Friday, September 23, 2016

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Bual is one of the handful of named grape varieties still commonly used for making wine on the island of Madeira. The version produced by Blandy's ferments the wine at 18-21º C for three days before fortifying it with brandy to halt fermentation. It is then aged for an average of five years in American oak casks in what amount to giant attics where the subtropical heat acts on the wine. The wine is fined and bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.43, residual sugar of 78 g/l, and a total acidity of 6.53 g/l tartaric acid equivalent.

Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Nose: expected rich raisin notes, gently sour, oak, a touch of vanilla, lime, citrus peel, floral, hints of yeast, fresh bread, and chocolate

Taste: a brief burst of sweetness up front that quickly changes hands with a bright acidity that becomes increasingly tart towards the back, fruit ester overtones, apples, and juicy grapes rather than raisins in the middle, and a pleasant thickness throughout

Finish: solid fade out with pleasant acidity, floral vanilla, a touch of oak

Much like the 5 year old malmsey I reviewed a while back, this is not an overly complex wine, but I still enjoy it quite a bit. It's noticeably less sweet than the malmsey, letting the acidity and cask notes play more prominent roles. While this style is still a bit sweeter than I usually prefer, it is a noticeable improvement on the malmsey, which is almost too sweet for me. But for someone coming from sweeter fortified wines like port I feel like this would be a perfectly decent entry point to madeira.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Whisky Review: Tomatin Vertical - 12, 15, and 18 Year

Tomatin is something of a paradox. During its height in the 1970s it churned out a staggering 12 million liters of alcohol per year from a total of twenty-three stills (this probably has something to do with why single casks from that era are so heralded - there were a lot to choose from and some of them were bound to be good), but fell into relatively obscurity until recently and is producing at a fraction of its former scale 2.5 million liters out of a theoretical maximum of 5 million liters after many of its stills were removed during the 1980s (which is admittedly still a lot of spirit).



Within the last few years they released a miniature tasting set called the Stillman's Choice that included the 12, 15, and 18 Year expressions. The 12 Year is made up of bourbon casks that were combined and finished in sherry casks, then bottled at 43%. The 15 Year is made up of all bourbon casks and bottled at 43%. The 18 Year is made up of bourbon casks that were combined and finished in sherry casks, then bottled at 46%.

Tomatin 12 Year

Nose: full of new make, dry malt, a touch of caramel and sour wine. After adding a few drops of water it remains nearly the same, but with slightly less new make and a little more wine influence.

Taste: sweet at the front trending towards bittersweet at the back, lots of new make, vanilla, and caramel in the middle, oak spice near the back. After dilution it becomes flatter and sweeter, but the oak is less spicy and new make notes are less pronounced.

Finish: slightly tired oak, cardboard, heat, new make residue, a touch of sherry

It's unclear to me whether this was a bad miniature or the whisky is meant to taste like this, but it was not good. It feels like they took casks that weren't deemed suitable for any of their older expressions and tossed them in some not particularly active sherry butts for a brief period. This is full of new make notes with barely any sherry to be found. While it improves ever so slightly with water, that still places it a long way from being anything I would want to drink again.

Tomatin 15 Year

Nose: bubblegum, orange creamsicle, dry malt, cardboard, floral/heather, light new make, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water there is more malt and less new make, while the bubblegum and vanilla become ice cream.

Taste: very sweet up front, slides through light new make, dry floral malt and vanilla in the middle, into bittersweet oak tannins with berry overtones at the back, citrus in the background throughout. After dilution the new make is toned down, there are more berries and grape throughout, and something savory comes out at the back.

Finish: dry oak, malt, floral residue, berries

This is better than the 12 Year, but not by enough to make me want a full bottle. The refill casks are clear, both in terms of the color and the lack of oak impact. Again, some of this may just be the usual problems with minis degrading more quickly than full bottles, it still isn't fulfilling its function of making me want to buy more.

Tomatin 18 Year

Nose: rich savory sherry, vanilla bean ice cream, dark chocolate, mint, gingerbread. After adding a few drops of water the vanilla, oak, and malt are amplified to balance the sherry, and an almost peat-y earthiness comes out.

Taste: moderate malt sweetness up front, savory sherry throughout with a touch of raisin, dry malt in the middle, light spicy oak at the back. After dilution the sweetness spreads out and covers up the savory elements, the oak is briefly stronger at the back, and it becomes earthy around the middle.

Finish: mint, dry sherry residue, savory oak, creamy malt

This is more like it. While I would have preferred some moderately active bourbon casks to give it a more varied fruity profile, the sherry finish has pushed it closer to Glendronach. This is quite a decent whisky and can be found for under $70 in a lot of markets, which makes it a really solid deal. This is the only one I would think about buying, though it's a little down the list unless I need to pad out an order.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Whisky Review: van Wees The Ultimate Tamdhu 9 Year 2006/2015

For some reason a lot of first-fill sherry casks from Tamdhu were sold to independent bottlers around the mid-2000s and are now coming to market as the fad for intensely sherried young malts has grown. Many of them have been bottled by van Wees for their Ultimate series at cask strength. While quite a number of them have been well-received, they're not universally loved.

This whisky was distilled on February 16th 2006, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled on March 20th 2015 at 64.5% without coloring or chill filtration.

van Wees The Ultimate Tamdhu 9 Year 2006/2015 Cask #914

Nose: big new make notes (which largely fade after the first sip), sweet raisins, massive sherry, gently floral, green malt, a little rubbery. After adding water it becomes much softer and the raisin notes become kind of dank, touches of salinity, vanilla, banana, and yogurt pop out, and it becomes somewhat savory with a bit of cold smoke.

Taste: extremely hot throughout, big new make notes wrapped around a bright sherry core, bittersweet all the way through, more raisin notes and some oak tannins at the back. After dilution the alcohol heat largely disappears, revealing soft sherry, liquid raisins, and very little new make, with a berry/wine sour edge, and something vegetal near the back.

Finish: big alcohol heat, fudgy raisins, sour malt

In all honesty, I don't think this should have been bottled at full strength. While there's a fetish within the whisky community for higher and higher proof whiskies (see: George T. Stagg), in this case it's really just too much. Contrary to my usual practice with samples, I added a fairly healthy slug of water when diluting this whisky because it felt like a few drops just weren't going to do the trick. That much dilution was necessary to put the new make notes into balance and transform it into a competent malt, rather than a underdone mess.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year 2005/2013

Since its revival by Ian Macleod, Tamdhu has focused largely on its sherry cask matured whisky, both in the watered down 10 Year and the full proof Cask Strength. I have generally felt like the prices on these whiskies were too dear for their contents, but a significant number of Tamdhu sherry butts have made their way into the hands of independent bottlers, offering us another way to experience it.

This whisky was distilled on January 27th 2005, filled into a fresh sherry butt, then bottled in an outturn of 615 on September 22nd 2013 at 60.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

I proofed this whisky down to a number of different strengths to see how it would change.

Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year 2005/2013 Cask #346

Diluted to 45%

Nose: balanced grain and sherry influence, a little thin, creamy, yeasty savoriness, corn, gentle floral notes in the background, a touch of chocolate and roasted malt

Taste: mild sherry and grain sweetness up front, sherry fades towards the back as a rising tide of corn plus oak, cacao, and grain bitterness overwhelms everything else

Finish: grainy bitterness, oak tannins, sherry in the background, yeast extract

The youth of this whisky really shows up when it's reduced to 45%. The complexity is almost completely lost, especially on the palate. Young grain and sherry are all that's left, while the yeasty notes remind me more of a bourbon, which mesh with the youthful grain character.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: sweet sherry, raisins, savory undercurrent, malt in the background, a little yogurt

Taste: concentrated sherry with diminishing sweetness all the way through, a hint of sulfur up front, underlying malt, slightly peppery around the middle, very little oak, sherry turns bittersweet at the back

Finish: thin and short, sherry and malt

This is, if anything, even more simple than at 45%, with the sherry overwhelming almost everything else. The intensity is noticeably amped up, though the alcohol is not particularly hot at this point. It does become a little bit more in balance with time, but the malt is never particularly assertive.

Diluted to 55%

Nose: sherry is still dominant but becomes more complex, aromatic, and nuanced, roasted malt, a bit of char, stronger yogurt notes, coastal, creamy vanilla, European oak in the background, lime, orange peel, banana

Taste: sherry throughout beginning sweetly then fading towards bittersweet, citrus and fruit esters in the middle, vanilla and malt near the back

Finish: malt, sherry residue, mild oak

While very similar in structure to the whisky at 50%, the sherry takes on a more complex character so the overall experience is less flat. The nose especially opens up with the unexpected yogurt and coastal character becoming more obvious. The finish also becomes much longer, though without much complexity. While the alcohol burn starts to become noticeable, it is much less than would be expected at 55%.

Full strength 60.6%

Nose: thick sherry, juicy raisins, cinnamon, fresh yogurt, light oak and floral notes, passion fruit, orange, pineapple, salt/coastal, a little savory. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes less sweet and more savory (roasted peanuts?), the tropical fruit notes are amplified, and berries come out.

Taste: heavy sherry up front, sweet initially but quickly balanced by oak tannins, threads of citrus peel weave through it all, a bump of vanilla in the middle, lightly herbal at the back. After dilution the heat settles down a lot, the sherry becomes more savory and integrates with the oak, while the citrus mostly disappears.

Finish: dry sherry residue, distant malt, moderate oak

While a lot of ink has been spilled bemoaning the growing presence of younger, immature malts coming onto the market, there are cases where the marketing hype about bottling whisky when it's done rather than when it hits an arbitrary number is exactly right. However, I'm more inclined to buy that line when it's a full strength single cask in front of me than a watered down, large batch expression.

I'm normally rather sensitive to new make character in malt whisky, so the almost complete lack of it here is really striking. It's possible that this cask would have gotten even better with time, but it's also possible that the sherry would have become too strong and wiped out any residual spirit character. I'm pretty OK with it being bottled when it was.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Tamdhu 34 Year 1969/2004

Until fairly recently Tamdhu was an almost forgotten distillery, anonymously churning out millions of liters of spirt every year for blenders. Its briefly closure by Edrington in 2009 saw it nearly disappear entirely, until the independent bottler Ian MacLeod (which also owns Glengoyne) purchased and restarted the distillery.

With the exception of two 25 Year releases during the early-2000s, very little official bottlings have been very old, leaving that field almost entirely to independent bottlers. Duncan Taylor has released a number of 30-40-odd year old single casks from the late-60s and early-70s that were all at or just barely above 40% ABV, suggesting that they had lost quite a bit to evaporation over the years. This particular cask was distilled during a brief era during which the distillery was still producing its own malt, but through Saladin boxes rather than floor maltings, and right before a major expansion of the distillery in the early-70s.

With all that said, my hopes were not too high after reading a fairly middling review from the folks at LAWS and a number of other reviews of sister casks that rated them as decent but uninspiring.

This whisky was distilled in November 1969, filled into what was almost certainly a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, then bottled in January 2004 with an outturn of 193 at 40.2% without coloring or chill filtration.

Duncan Taylor Tamdhu 34 Year 1969/2004 Cask #7313

Nose: honied oak, cardboard, clean malt, a grassy edge, gentle floral perfume, heather/violet. After adding a few drops of water the malt moves forward and turns into oatmeal, while a lot of citrus peel comes out.

Taste: strong but somewhat hollow sweetness up front, old oak and grapefruit pith begin in the middle and grow towards the back, a vague muddle of vanilla, dried fruit, berry, mango, and floral notes in the middle, fading into more tannic oak and some sweeter lime peel. After dilution the sweetness becomes more expansive but also more hollow, the middle loses a lot of its character, but the oak has more punch and fizz at the back.

Finish: lingering old oak, bittersweet, lime, light tannic prickles, floral, dried fruit

This is a whisky that was clearly bottled to keep it from going understrength, not because it was genuinely at its peak. This hits a lot of the classic notes of long aged Speysiders from Nth-refill casks. I suspect this would have been a lot better if it hadn't lost so much strength, as it feels like there is good character that has simply fallen limp. In a lot of ways it feels like one of the current old blends made up of slightly tired casks that sell more on the strength of their statistics than inherent character. On the upside, a little bit of sherried whisky tipped in can really pep it up, so it's not unsalvageable.

While not the most thrilling or cheapest whisky among my birthday stash, I'm still glad that I purchased this one. It's both a gentle whisky that has been pleasant to drink and a solid reminder that age doesn't necessarily make for a good or valuable whisky.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Whisky Review: Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #5

Starting with Batch #3 Arran switched their 12 Year Cask Strength release from all sherry casks to a mix of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks. While they stopped giving information about the relative proportion of each cask type, they have settled into a steady pattern of first-fill ex-sherry butts, refill ex-sherry hogsheads, and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels for the components.

This whisky was bottled at 52.9% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to my mother for letting me snag a sample after I gifted her this bottle for Christmas.

Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #5

Nose: strong but not overwhelming bourbon cask influence (caramel, oak, vanilla), clean Arran malt, subtle sherry, light floral notes. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is amplified and integrates with the other notes, an earthy dankness, fresh apples, Middle Eastern-associated spice notes, and a touch of cured meat appear, the oak is a bit stronger, and it is drier overall,

Taste: malt and wood sweetness throughout, undergirding oak, wood spices, floral notes, and slightly dank sherry appear around the middle, creamy caramel and dark chocolate with a bit of pineapple near the back. After dilution the sherry comes in immediately and is much stronger, while retaining the creamy malt and bourbon cask character underneath, and the wood becomes spicier.

Finish: sherry residue, sweet malt, bittersweet oak, dark chocolate, floral/herbal

In comparison to Batch #2, the bourbon casks in this version are very noticeable. There's more vanilla and the malt is a more significant component as there is less sherry influence to cover it up. Overall this puts it more in line with their standard 10 Year and 14 Year expressions, which are also combinations of sherry and bourbon casks. While I think they've achieved an excellent balance and the sherry can be amplified by adding a touch of water, if you were a fan of the more sherry-driven earlier releases this might not hit the mark quite as well. On the other hand, I tried the two batches side by side when the bottle were first opened and Batch 5 was much more drinkable from the start, whereas Batch 2 needed a number of months to settle down from its initial furnace blast of alcohol heat. Part of me wishes that they would do separate all-sherry and all-bourbon cask strength expressions as a replacement for the young-ish sherry and bourbon single casks that they released about five years ago, but this is a totally decent compromise. In an industry that has been dropping age statements left and right, I commend Arran for putting out something that clearly competes with NAS cask strength expressions from other distilleries at a competitive price.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Whisky Review: Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #2

Arran's 12 Year Cask Strength line began in 2012, which was designed to compete with other distillery's sherry-driven cask strength whiskies. But unlike most of those, it has an age statement and they have also given information about the types and proportions of casks used to make each batch. Surprisingly, they have also managed to do this while releasing the 12 Year Cask Strength at a comparable or lower price than many of those other NAS whiskies.

Batch #2 was constructed very similarly to Batch #1. 17 first-fill sherry butts and 4 refill sherry hogsheads were combined, then bottled at 53.6% without coloring or chill filtration and released in September 2012 in an outturn of 13,200 bottles.

Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #2

Nose: big sherry influence, rich raisin notes with a savory edge, spicy oak in the background, sweet berries and malt, creamy vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the sherry settles down a bit, some chocolate emerges, the malt and oak come through more clearly, and the raisins become more savory.

Taste: thick, similarly big sherry throughout with baked apples and peppery spiciness behind it, hints of barrel char, somewhat monolithic - not a lot of development. After dilution the sherry settles down a bit and gets sweeter/juicier, a bit of creamy malt shows through, the oak and pepper shift towards the back, and some savory character comes out.

Finish: sherry residue, malt, gentle oak, fresh apples, milk chocolate

While not particularly complex, this hits the important notes for sherry-driven whiskies. It's pretty hot at full strength, but a little water settles it down nicely. But as further dilutions will show, you want to be careful with how much you add.

Batch #2 at 50%

Nose: clean malt, fresh sherry, slightly savory, sulphur/egg/lard, herbal/vegetal

Taste: sweet sherry throughout, a rising tide to oak from the middle bolsters but doesn't overwhelm the sherry, a bump of clean malt near the back

Finish: sherry, bittersweet, oak tannins, cacao nibs

This is a fairly clear extension of the full strength malt, but simplified even further. Most of the heat has been taken out of it, but it hasn't completely collapsed. There's something sulfurous on the nose that could be off-putting, but I don't find it wholly objectionable in a Tobermory-ish fashion. Overall, neither here nor there.

Batch #2 at 45%

Nose: faint and sherry-driven, sour, mild oak, malt in the background but growing with time, slightly herbal/floral, musty

Taste: bittersweet opening trending towards bitter at the back, sherry in the beginning fading into dry grain, floral overtones beginning in the middle, somewhat unpleasant sourness near the end

Finish: slightly off, sour, bitter sherry residue, freeze dried coffee, young malt, dried flowers

It's been my observation that the casks picked for Arran's cask strength releases are selected not just because they work well at full proof but also because they do so poorly when diluted. While the nose retains some appeal at this strength, the palate and finish almost completely fall apart.

This was clearly built to go toe-to-toe with the big sherry monsters from other distilleries. I first tried the Cask Strength at the distillery and found it to be one of the best whiskies in their lineup, even in comparison to older single casks or their Devil's Punchbowl release. While I have mostly retained that impression, I do thing it has a few flaws. Most noticeable is the fact that it starts off really hot. I opened this bottle around Christmas 2015 and it took a number of months to settle down and become more easily drinkable. At this point it's a really solid whisky and something that I would have recommended if it hadn't sold out years ago. But the series has continued and I'll be reviewing Batch #5 soon to see how it has evolved.