Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Benriach 34 Year/Glendronach 33 Year Blend

My birthday whiskies from the last couple of years are just about finished, but I couldn't resist blending a bit of them together, especially because the two are now owned by Billy Walker (this could only be better if I had a bit of old Glenglassaugh to add to the mix).

How do these two old whiskies play with each other?

Benriach 34 Year/Glendronach 33 Year Blend

Nose: peaches/apricots, mango, grape/cognac, oily/creamy malt, hints of something green/herbal, gently floral heather,  solid but not overwhelming oak, light caramel. After adding a few drops of water, the fruit is toned down and the herbal/grassy notes become stronger, the malt becomes grainier, with some oak-y raisin notes coming out, making for a more austere effect overall.

Taste: big stone fruit notes throughout, a wash of honey and fresh malt with raisin undertones in the middle, that fades into green/herbal notes through more bittersweet oak at the very back. After dilution, the stone fruit notes and oak integrate with the malt, giving a more direct experience, but with sharper oak near the back.

Finish: raisins, oak tannins, malt, stone fruit, herbal, floral, and just a touch of soap

This is a great display of the power of blending - the best parts of each single malt have been pulled forward, while the flaws have been reduced significantly, leaving the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This reminds me off a Caperdonich I sampled a while back, with the combination of fruit esters and herbal notes over fairly mild oak, though this is, despite being a similar strength, much less aggressively alcoholic.

Friday, May 22, 2015

New Cocktails: Tres Jolie

One of my favorite cocktail trends in recent years is the growth of low alcohol drinks that use aromatized or fortified wines as their base. With a growing number of options (thanks in no small part to Eric Seed's obsession), there's is now a broad palate to work with, a far cry from the basic sweet or dry vermouth that were just about it at the turn of the millennium.

This drink comes from The Modern in NYC, which produced a number of low alcohol drinks for their menu.

Tres Jolie

2 oz dry vermouth
1 oz quina (Punt e Mes)
0.5 oz orange liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with lemon or orange peel.

The nose is a nice balance of the two wines, orange notes from the liqueur and bitters, plus citrus oils from the garnish. The sip begins with grape sweetness, picking up orange notes around the middle, then sliding into citrus and savory bitterness near the back.

This is a really good choice if you want a drink with solid flavor density but not too much of an alcoholic punch. The liqueur and quina perfectly balance the dry vermouth so that the resulting drink is neither too sweet nor too bitter.

I also think this could be constructed as a long drink over ice with soda water to give it a bit more snap and push it even further towards being a session drink. Either way, it's perfect for a warm spring or summer afternoon.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Whisky Review: Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 10 Year 2001/2012 Cask #466

Chieftain's is a line of single cask whiskies from Ian Macleod, an independent bottler located on Skye that also owns Glengoyne and Tamdhu.

This particular whisky was distilled at Bunnahabhain in September 2001, aged in what I presume was a fresh sherry cask #466, then proofed down to 46% for bottling without coloring (not that it needs any) or chill filtration in August 2012 with an outturn of 778 bottles (I did the math and that's not unreasonable for a 500 liter butt).

This was one I sampled at the Highland Stillhouse and many thanks to the staff who hunted around for a good fifteen minutes trying to find this bottle for me.

Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 10 Year 2001/2012

Nose: sherry dominates, malt peeks around, a little coastal character, savory undertones, creamy, cured meat, a touch of chocolate, gunpowder, a bit of orange peel. After adding a few drops of water, it is still overwhelmingly sherried but somewhat more mellow, the malt is more noticeable, and it's closer to the OB 12 Year.

Taste: thickly sherried, malt is almost invisible, nutty, baking spices in the middle, peppery oak grows at the back, and it becomes sweeter overall with time. After dilution, it becomes sweeter with more mellow sherry, the malt becomes a bit more clear, and the nutty character is increased.

Finish: sherried/oaky chocolate, very little malt, light coastal character

Unlike the Maltman Bunnahabhain, this one does not have any overt flaws. Instead it's just completely overwhelmed by the cask, with only hints of distillery character visible underneath the heavy blanket of sherry. Admittedly, that is a popular style these days, but this doesn't have the power of cask or batch strength releases like Aberlour A'Bunadh or the finesse of something like Glendronach Revival. So I feel like this would have been better either bottled at full proof or left to age long, so that they sherry could integrate more with the spirit. Admittedly, when they were able to sell these bottles for $70-90, I can't blame them for moving stock out the door, but I won't be grabbing a bottle for myself, no matter how much I usually like sherried Bunnahabhain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Whisky Review: The Maltman Bunnahabhain 10 Year 2001/2012

Given my affinity for Bunnahabhain, especially when it is aged in a sherry cask, I was really interested to try this whisky at a local tasting. The Maltman is a line of single cask whiskies put out by Meadowside Blending of Glasgow. This bottle was spirit distilled in December 2001, aged in an ex-sherry cask, then proofed down to 46% and bottled in August 2012.

Thanks to Dave McEldowney of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

The Maltman Bunnahabhain 10 Year

Nose: very grassy, moderate oak, thin bubblegum sherry/fruit esters with a touch of vinegar, stewed apples, creamy floral notes (violet/lavender), malty Bunnahabhain core, toast, celery, sweet/savory underneath - after some time it improves with better sherry character and a biscuit-y note emerging. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much maltier, with less prominent and more integrated sherry, the off-notes are somewhat reduced, plus some vanilla, whole wheat flour, a little salinity, and barbecue/wood char notes come out.

Taste: thin sherry with a vinegar edge over a thick slab of oak tannins giving it a bitter/sour character, solid layer of malt/grain underneath, floral/vegetal notes ride on top of everything, vegetal/celery notes at the back. After dilution, the malt becomes more prominent with some grain husk notes, the sherry and oak are toned down and integrate, with the wine becoming more vinous and reading like a red wine finish, but the vegetal/floral off-notes remain at the back, and it just seems a bit muddled.

Finish: bitterly oaky and vegetal/herbal, sherry/vinegar residue, green malt, unpleasant floral notes,

This is just didn't work for me. While I can tell that the spirit that went into the cask was quality stuff, something happened in those ten years that sent it careening off in the the wrong direction. The off-notes ruin what otherwise could have been an excellent whisky. Maybe it was a duff sherry cask? Maybe just bad luck? Either way it seems like the bottler decided to send this cask out into the world in the belief that it wasn't going to get any better. Unfortunately that means that a number of people have spent upwards of $100 on dud whisky. I also know that it's not just my palate, as there was nearly universal opprobrium at the tasting where I got this sample. It's enough to make me distrust Maltman in general, because the people choosing the casks either have a terrible sense of taste or are willing to try to flog bad whisky on unsuspecting customers for a lot of money.

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.