Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cognac Review: Hennessy VS

If you've heard of cognac, you've probably heard of Hennessy. The biggest brand in terms of sales, they're part of the luxury powerhouse Louis Vuitton-Möet-Hennessy (LVMH). They sell somewhere around 50 million bottles a year, which is roughly as much as the next three big houses put together.

I will leave the history to Cognac Expert, since all that matters to me is that this is a very popular cognac. The question is why?

Hennessy VS

Nose: very fruity - fresh grapes, berries, apples, pears, artificial caramel, a hint of oak, slightly floral and minty. After adding a few drops of water the fruitiness is enhanced, but it remains largely the same.

Taste: caramel sweetness throughout, mixed fruit in the middle, becoming more bittersweet on the back end. After dilution the fruitiness expands through the palate, but the caramel color bitterness at the back increases.

Finish: fruity notes return, bittersweet caramel with an artificial edge

It feels like there's some decent eau de vie under all of that caramel, but it's not too easy to find. It's pretty OK neat, but nothing exciting. Maybe it will do better in a cocktail?

In a Sidecar the nose is dominated by the curaçao, with vague hints of fruit (pineapple?) and caramel from the cognac, plus something floral as the drink warms up. The sip begins fairly muted with what might be some caramel and vanilla, opening up into some orange in the middle, then getting lost in a muddle of caramel from the cognac. The finish is more of the same and can only be described as extremely disappointing.

Wow, that was just... bad. There may be other drinks in which this works better, but a sour is clearly the wrong choice. All of the worst parts of the cognac are on display with none of its virtues to make up for it. Unfortunately this is so bad that I'm not sure I want to explore its uses elsewhere.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Glen Keith 33 Year 1971/2005

Glen Keith was practically a new distillery in 1971. What had begun as a Lowland-style distillery practicing triple distillation with three stills in 1960 had been transformed into a more typical Speyside distillery practicing double distillation with five stills in 1970. Beginning what would be a long history of experiments at the distillery, those five stills were the first gas-fired stills in Scotland, as opposed to the then-traditional coal-fired stills. A few years after that they were converted to steam coils (that sounds like a lot of money down the drain, but someone at Seagrams thought it was a good idea). Up until 1976 Glen Keith produced its own malt using a Saladin box, which is interesting but may not have been wildly different than drum or other mechanical maltings compared to floor malt.

This whisky was distilled in December 1971, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in January 2005 at 50.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Duncan Taylor Glen Keith 33 Year 1971/2005 Cask #8066

Nose: maple syrup, dark oak, cedar, dank sherry, incense, strawberry jam, graphite, savory/umami, clean malt, dried flowers, orange liqueur, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it opens up a smidge and becomes softer, the oak starts to shift towards incense, plus the sherry and malt become more balanced.

Taste: syrupy sweet with a tart ethyl edge up front, dank sherry with rising oak tannins and orange liqueur starting in the middle, more floral/malty/bubblegum going into the finish. After dilution the sweetness is slightly toned down but also spreads out to bring the oak more into balance, with just a bump of sharper tannins and more savory notes at the back.

Finish: creamy, tart, and, sharp at the same time, - sherry residue, lots of polished oak tannins, cedar, fresh malt, citric sourness

Even more so than the slightly older Duncan Taylor Bruichladdich I reviewed, this is absolutely a first-fill cask judging from the almost opaque color, massive sherry influence, and overwhelming oak tannins. It's a massive whisky in almost every sense, taking well over half an hour in the glass before it unwinds enough to reveal some complexity. It's taken quite a while to very far through the bottle because I have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy what this has to offer.

Again, like the Bruichladdich I have to wonder if this cask would have been better of blended with a similarly aged inactive bourbon cask so that the sherry and oak could have been brought into balance and enhanced with some more ester-y character. While there's more going on if you're patient enough, I'm not sure the good things about this malt would have been diminished with some careful blending.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: rich cinnamon, honey and maple syrup, vanilla, restrained juicy sherry with an umami soy sauce edge, orange peel, clean malt, slightly grassy/fresh hay, new sawn oak, incense

Taste: opens with moderate honey sweetness joined by a slightly charred oak note underneath everything, juicy sherry with vanilla and citrus peel comes out around the middle, then it turns bittersweet towards the back with some oak tannins

Finish: lots of polished/charred oak tannins, cinnamon, dry creamy malt and sherry residue, a touch of citrus

While it still took a while in the glass for this malt to unfold, the aromas are the real star of the show here. Reducing the strength opens up the nose and provides a lush, evolving experience. In contrast, the flavors and finish start out relatively simple, only slowly gaining some of the complexity and subtlety of the nose.

For a different take on this malt, see Serge's review, though it took him two tastings to really warm up to it.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Bruichladdich 34 Year 1969/2003

1969 was an interesting year at Bruichladdich - they had been purchased by Invergordon Distillers the year before and would go on to continue the expansion that had begun in the early-60s with the cessation of on-site malting. That means this whisky was distilled on Bruichladdich's original two stills, but it was made with industrial malt.

A more personal factoid is that this is the most expensive whisky I have ever purchased. It seems like small potatoes in this day and age since it only ran me a little over $200 when I purchased it in 2013, but I was on a grad student budget so it felt like a lot of money.

This whisky was distilled in May 1969, filled into a cask (more guesses about exactly what kind later), and bottled in June 2003 at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 147 bottles.

Duncan Taylor Bruichladdich 34 Year 1969/2003 Cask #2331

Nose: thick, rich oxidized sherry, juicy raisins, strawberry jam, fresh apples, floral malt top notes, creamy vanilla, bubblegum, dunnage/herbal/mushroom funk, mild oak. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes more vibrant, the jam turns into fresh berries, the balance with the floral and malt notes is better, and some oak spices come out.

Taste: bittersweet sherry up front, background oak tannins around the middle, undercurrent of malt and vanilla throughout that emerges a little more around the finish alongside some trademark Bruichladdich character. After dilution the sherry becomes a little softer and more in balance with the malt, and some surprisingly youthful green character comes out.

Finish: balanced sherry, oak, and malt, with some lingering cardboard and heat

Judging from the relatively small number of bottles and the depth of the sherry influence on this whisky, my guess is that it was a first-fill American oak sherry hogshead. While this is likely to please fans of sherry-driven malts, I'm not sure that three decades in the cask did anything for this whisky that couldn't have been found if it was bottled in its teens. While not lacking in intensity, it doesn't have a lot of the added complexity need to balance out the reduced punch that it might have had above 50% ABV.

I suspect that this would have been better off going into a small batch release where it could have been blended with a more inactive ex-bourbon cask to get some of that ester-y complexity alongside the sherry character. But since I don't have any old bourbon cask Bruichladdich, that experiment will have to be done by someone else.

Diluted to 40%

Nose: raisin-y sherry, creamy malt and vanilla, dark chocolate, dry oak

Taste: rather bitter throughout - muddled sherry, malt, and oak

Finish: bitter tannins, dank sherry residue, vegetal malt, a touch of chocolate

Wow, that was not great. While the aromas remain pleasant if soft, the palate and finish completely fall apart into a bitter mess. I was curious if this would have worked in the old G&M style, I think it's clear that this wouldn't have worked at anything less than cask strength.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Whisky Review: Hepburn's Choice Craigellachie 18 Year 1995/2014 for K&L

I reviewed this whisky once before from a sample and promptly vowed to get my hands on more of it. While that was a bit tricky due to K&L's inability to ship to Oregon (or anywhere outside California, these days), I was able to split a bottle and get a decent amount to drink.

This whisky was distilled in 1995, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in 2014 at 54.3% for K&L Wines without coloring or chill filtration.

Hepburn's Choice Craigellachie 18 Year 1995/2014 for K&L

Nose: rich sherry, Starburst candies, vanilla, dry malt, leather, savory, mild sulphur, farm-y, American oak

Taste: sweet sherry with background malt and vanilla through the front and middle, floral top notes beginning in the middle, fading into a tangle of orange peel, gunpowder, mild oak tannins

Finish: lingering sulphur, nutty oak, sherry residue, dry malt

If I wasn't able to get ahold of a whole bottle, half will do. While my interest in sherry-driven whiskies has waxed and waned over time, this one really hits the mark for me. The dirty style isn't sexy in the same way as a cleaner Macallan or (modern) Glendronach, but it gives a counterpoint to the sherry that prevents it from becoming unidimensional. Even the sulfur has its place, though it reads as more earthy/manure than the meaty sulfur of Mortlach. If the Inchgower from K&L has some overlap with Tobermory, this leans more towards Ledaig, albeit without the peat. I will be very sad to see the end of this as I don't expect I'll be able to find anything comparable in the near future.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: dark, dank sherry, mild sulfurous funk, moderate oak, dried herbs, milk chocolate, caramel, citrus and tropical fruit, and a thread of wood smoke

Taste: sweet sherry up front that slips underneath the other flavors from the middle, a malty thickness throughout, muddled fruit and citrus starting in the middle, American oak and a bit of creamy vanilla near the back

Finish: thick, dark sherry, creamy malt, American oak, herbal

While missing a bit of complexity compared to the malt at full strength, this works really well. It has less heat, but still has good depth of flavor. It makes for a very nice middle ground between the two other strengths I tried. While I'm glad we got it at cask strength, this wouldn't have been bad as an Old Malt Cask bottling.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: pleasantly soft sulfurous sherry, ripe berries, herbal, nice oak, dark chocolate

Taste: bittersweet sherry up front, malty undertones, thicker around the middle with floral notes, fading into gentle oak tannins with some background sulfur

Finish: sherry residue, pleasant oak tannins, herbal/floral malt, gentle suflur

While it doesn't have the punch of the whisky at full strength, this is still very nice. I'd say this is comparable to something like G&M's Mortlach 15 Year. Just like with that, it becomes something of an easy-going malt, albeit with the controversial sulfurous notes. As I said above, I'm glad we got this at full strength, but it's a testament to the quality of the malt that it takes water so well.

It's become increasingly rare for me to find malts where I wish I had bought multiple bottles, but this is one of the few where I would love to have two or three more. While it's become common to bemoan the lack of complexity in 'modern' malt whiskies, this Craigellachie shows that good spirit is still being distilled and filled into quality sherry casks. As a bonus, this was far cheaper than a Mortlach of comparable provenance, highlighting the way that some distilleries manage to fly under the radar while others get all the attention. I'm hoping I'll be able to find something like it again, but we will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Whisky Review: Hepburn's Choice Inchgower 20 Year 1995/2015 for K&L

Inchgower is one more of Diageo's almost countless distilleries that primarily produces for blends. While there have been a few official bottlings in the Flora & Fauna and Rare Malts lines, if you want to try Inchgower as a single malt you have to turn to independent bottlers.

This whisky was distilled in 1995, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in 2015 for K&L Wines at 57.5% without coloring or chill filtration.

Hepburn's Choice Inchgower 20 Year 1995/2015 for K&L

Nose: richly sherried, sweet raisins, underlying malt, molasses, gentle coastal/herbal notes, cacao, dark but not strong oak, a touch of orange peel, buttery, peanuts, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the buttery and herbal notes are amplified, the sherry is drier, and some wood spices and a little bit of balsamic vinegar come out.

Taste: a fair amount of alcohol heat throughout, moderate sweetness up front, thick layer of sherry on top of dry malt throughout, moderate oak and raspberries beginning in the middle, fresh/bitter herbs near the back. After dilution it becomes more bittersweet overall, with the sherry and oak integrating, but otherwise remaining largely unchanged in structure.

Finish: sherry residue, herbal, alcohol heat, dry malt

While there were a lot of things I enjoyed about this whisky, it's not a crowd-pleaser. This goes a way towards explaining why a 20 year old sherry cask whisky that was on sale for $100, an absolute steal on paper in this day and age, didn't sell out very quickly. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Tobermory, with its slightly bitter herbal quality and coastal notes, which also goes a way towards explaining why this one had comparatively limited appeal.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: dry sherry and malt, raspberry/strawberry overtones, gently herbal and pine-y, pink bubblegum, vanilla

Taste: sherried sweetness with some vanilla up front, quickly joined by a significant amount of oak tannins, followed by herbal flourishes near the back

Finish: sherry residue, thick oak tannins, pleasantly herbal

While not unpleasant, there was nothing about this strength that improved it over the undiluted whisky. With that said, it also didn't fall apart, which all too often happens with cask strength whiskies.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: thin and vague - indistinct sherry, malt, floral vanilla, and oak

Taste: extremely oaky and tannic throughout, sherry rides in the background but can't rescue it from the bitterness

Finish: very bitter - waves of oak tannins with sherry in the background and herbal hints

This is so far from the full strength malt that I have a feeling the sample may have gone bad. With time it got a bit more balanced and showed some of what I had found in the full strength malt, but it still felt very off. While it's possible that this was an artifact, I would be careful about how much water you add if you have a bottle of this whisky.

For some slightly different perspectives, be sure to check out MAO and Michael K's reviews.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Old Sherry vs. New

One of the long running debates within the whisky community is whether there was something about older sherry casks (roughly before 1980) that made them significantly better than what's available these days. Theories range from the use of transport casks, older oak being used to construct casks, higher quality sherry being used to season the wood, ex-bodega casks being used, or paxarette.

The debate has come to a higher pitch as more and more malts have entered the market with an increasing emphasis on their sherry character, often after less time in the casks. What kicked off with the rise of Aberlour A'Bunadh has crested in Kavalan's stratospherically expensive sherry cask malts and shows no sign of abating.

While my sample size will not be large enough for a real data set, over the next couple of weeks I'm going to compare and contrast two new school sherry cask malts from Craigellachie and Inchgower to a couple of sherry cask malts from Bruichladdich and Glen Keith from the supposed 'good old days' of the 60s and 70s. From that phrasing you can already glean that I already have some feelings on the subject, but I'm hoping that I can get some other perspectives since my own experiences have been limited.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Whisky Review: The First Editions Bunnahabhain 22 Year 1989/2012

One of the enduring mysteries when it comes to IB Bunnahabhains is why there are so many casks from 1989 and why all of them seem to have such a low proof. Reddit user Rudd1983 ran an analysis of data from WhiskyBase and found that 1989 is a serious statistical anomaly with almost 5% lower average bottling strength than surrounding years, despite similar average ages. They also pinged the distillery and determined that the filling strength that year was still the common 63.5%, eliminating one possible explanation.

This whisky was distilled in 1989, filled into what I assume was a refill hogshead, then bottled in 2012 at 45.9% without coloring or chill filtration.

The First Editions Bunnahabhain 22 Year 1989/2012 Cask ES010/10

Nose: classic bourbon cask Bunnahabhain - balanced clean malt, caramel oak, fresh vanilla, coastal influence, vague fruitiness, gently floral, lightly herbal. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer and sweeter, but it loses some intensity.

Taste: fairly sweet up front with a good mix of malt and cask, slightly sour and gently oak-y with a bit of vague fruit from the middle back, creamy vanilla in the background throughout. After dilution it retains roughly the same structure, but the oak is a little softer and there is a pop of fruit around the middle.

Finish: a little cask and malt, gently bitter, then a long savory herbal/coastal fade out with a touch of cacao. After dilution the oak shifts up and the herbal notes fade.

While there's nothing about this cask that jumps out and makes it exciting, it's also a solid example of what time and wood can do for good spirit.  When I first opened the bottle it had some of the cardboard character that I've often found with First Editions releases, but over time it has settled down into something more clearly Bunnahabhain. While it's never going to reach the heights of their sherry cask releases, it's totally respectable and didn't cost me an arm and a leg.

With that said, the palate is something of a let-down after the moderate complexity of the nose and finish, but that can be improved with a little water or easily tweaked with a bit of blending  - sherried Craigellachie or Mortlach would work great or alternatively a bit of Linkwood could boost the floral notes. There are definite similarities to the MoM Bunnahabhain of the same vintage I tried a number of years ago, though that one had a bit more going on. Unfortunately I didn't grab a bottle of that one since I wasn't as much of a fan of this style at the time.