Sunday, January 15, 2012

Whisky Review: Cask Strength Shootout

Over the course of the last couple of evenings, I've tried three different sherried cask strength single malts from Aberlour, Glenfarclas and Macallan. There were a fair number of similarities between each scotch, especially in terms of the method of aging, their lack of age statements, their bottling proofs, and the fact that each is a big step up from their 12-Year old, lower-proof siblings. At the same time, the fairly wide range of prices means that some seem more worthwhile than others. These reviews are slightly provisional as I tried all three at a bar and thus haven't taken my normal route of tasting a spirit several times on different days. However, they were all fairly healthy pours, so I did get to spend a fair bit of time nosing and tasting each whisky.

Aberlour A'Bunadh

Nose: maple syrup, rubber, tropical fruits, malt, oatmeal, a bit of raisins underneath, which becomes slightly less intense and gains hints of sherry and chocolate sauce after dilution

Taste: lightly sweet up front, followed closely by sherried sweetness that carries through the palate, developing malty chocolate near the end, which gains some oatmeal and maple syrup with dilution

Finish: long, chocolate malt and oatmeal

This is a non-chill filtered, cask strength Speyside single malt from Aberlour. Bottled right around 120 proof (there are small variations from batch to batch), it comes with no age statement, but is likely a blend of malts aged from 10-15 years exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry barrels (I've also had the 12 year and don't detect significantly more barrel influence in the A'Bunadh). My succinct description of this whisky is that it's breakfast in a glass. The intense maple syrup and oatmeal flavors, especially on the nose, make that an inescapable association. Though it commands a fairly significant premium over the aforementioned 12 Year expression, it's also a huge step up in terms of the intensity and variety of flavors.

Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength

Nose: slightly sour wine, malt, vanilla, sweeter sherry underneath and raisins, which shifts more towards PX-style sherry over time, with malt becoming more dominant alongside subdued raisins and sherry underneath with hints of chocolate, brown sugar and porridge after dilution

Taste: honey malt sweetness up front, big burst of pepper mid-palate, which transforms into a hit of bittersweet chocolate throughout the whole palate, while retaining the honey malt sweetness and pepper, as well as gaining a bit of tropical fruits after adding water

Finish: long, malt, pepper and bittersweet chocolate

It's a little bit difficult to find info on the exact details of how this whisky is produced. Glenfarclas is also located in Speyside and this whisky is clearly aged in ex-sherry barrels, but I haven't been able to figure out what type of sherry used to reside in the barrels. It is bottled at 105 British proof, which is the same as 120-proof or 60% ABV in the usual sense. As with all of these whiskies, there is no age statement, but what I've read suggests that all of the barrels that are blended to make the final spirit are at least 10 years old and I would say that it seems to be as mature as the A'Bunadh. The hefty dose of bittersweet chocolate found throughout the experience of consuming this whisky ticks it a few marks above the others, but it's hampered by costing at least $20 more than the next most expensive. As with the Aberlour, also I find this to be a significant step up from the lower-proof 12 Year bottling from Glenfarclas, both in terms of the range of flavors and their depth. Whether it's worth the extra coin is up to you.

Macallan Cask Strength

Nose: PX sherry, sweet raisins and malty vanilla, which gains some mocha and maple oatmeal after dilution

Taste: brief citrus sourness at the very begin, slipping into sherried sweetness, then black pepper and drier sherry finally leading into chocolate near the end, which becomes honey malt up front, with more subdued sherry, a malty middle, and chocolate and pepper near the end after dilution

Finish: glowing tropical punch, which becomes long with peppery coffee after adding water

In a slight divergence from the other two cask strength whiskies I tried, Macallan is part of the broader Highlands region rather than the Speyside sub-region. However, they claim that Speyside is their 'spiritual home' and its style is very similar to other Speysiders. Macallan has a tradition of aging all of their whiskies in ex-sherry casks. The Cask Strength expression is part of their Sherry oak line, which are all matured in casks made from Spanish oak. There is no age statement on this scotch (though it is now giving way to a 10-Year Cask Strength expression), but it seems as mature as the 12-Year, so my guess is that the average age of the whiskies blended to make this spirit is right around there. This was the simplest cask strength scotch I tried, being a fairly clear evolution from the basic Mac 12-Year, with the PX sherry-heavy nose. However, the smells and flavors are much richer and there is a certain appeal to the heavy dose of pepper that emerges mid-palate, helping to keep it from becoming insipidly sweet and unidimensional. Additionally, it can occasionally be found for as little as $55, which makes it no more expensive than the Mac 12 and an obvious choice over that expression. Up at $65+, I would say that the Aberlour edges it out, though the A'Bunadh is a little bit sweeter.

To line these three whiskies up, I liked the Glenfarclas a bit more than the Aberlour, which was an improvement over the Macallan. Additionally, the Aberlour is probably the best value out of the three, unless you can find the 'Farclas or Macallan on sale. However, if you're looking for a sherry bomb, it's hard to go too far wrong with any one of the three. You'll just have to try them and see which tickles your fancy.


  1. Awesome comparison of the 3 principle sherry bombs. I long to have the 3 lined up in front of me... Love it!

  2. Thanks, Josh. It was a fun comparison, though I was glad that the bar I was trying them at wasn't too far from home. 5 oz of 120-proof whisky in one night is more than enough.

  3. Jordan, very interesting and tantalizing reviews, thanks! I've only had the first of the three, and enjoyed it very much. I've read somewhere that the current batch of A'bunadh, #39, is the best of the last 4-5 releases. I only want to point out that the Macallan has its soul but also its body very much in the Speyside. The distillery is less than 1,000 ft from the Spey river, and right in between Aberlour and Glenfarclas, themselves only 5 miles away from each other.

    1. Thanks, Florin. I realized after posting this that the Macallan business is just some weird marketing speak from their website. Live and learn...

  4. Great review. I tried all of these expressions with the exception of the GF. The one that I tried was the taller/slender older CS bottling. I also prefer the GF over the other expressions. I heard that the new version of GF CS (short squatty bottle) contained older whiskies then the older (taller slender) bottling. Hopefully the WSLCB put this on sale.

    1. Thanks. If you happen to be in Seattle and want to try any of these whiskies, St. Andrew's Bar of Aurora has all three at very reason prices. And yeah, WA has some really great prices on whisky at the moment, if you're in the right place. Hopefully more will go on sale before privatization is complete.