Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Whisky Review: Auchentoshan Vertical Tasting

Auchentoshan is one of the few remaining Lowland distilleries and the only one to still exclusively use triple distillation. Its location just outside the Glasgow city limits also makes it one of the easiest whisky distilleries to visit.

The distillery was founded in 1800 (or 1825 - accounts differ). The early history is sketchy because most of the records were destroyed during WWII when the distillery was hit by Luftwaffe airstrikes (one bomb crater is now used as a pond to hold cooling water for the condensers). What is known is that the distillery passed through about half a dozen different owners before being purchased by Morrison-Bowmore in 1984. The Lowlander distillery was a good compliment to the company's two other distilleries - Glen Garioch in the Highlands and the eponymous Bowmore on Islay. Morrison-Bowmore was in turn acquired by the Japanese drinks conglomerate Suntory, who have continued to invest in their trio of Scottish whisky distilleries. The distillery was not open to visitors until fairly recently, but now hosts a well-regarded visitors center that I will hopefully get to see this summer.

All of the miniature bottles for this tasting came from The Whisky Exchange (which has a pretty broad selection of other minis as well). However, this does mean that my sample of the 12 Year is bottled at 40% rather than the US-spec 43%. Because of the lower bottling proofs, I'm guessing that all of these whiskies are chill filtered. Additionally, I can be sure that they've all had caramel colored added - it says so in German on the back.

Auchentoshan 12 Year

Nose: sour/unripe fruit esters (apple, pear, pineapple?), toasted malt, corn, a little grassy, lots of vanilla, caramel, light wine notes, berries in cream, peaches, nutty, roasted marshmallows, undertones of cacao, espresso, barrel char, and lemon. After adding a few drops of water, the malt notes become creamier, with more vanilla and stronger bourbon barrel notes, fruit notes retreat, lighter sour tinge, salted caramels emerge.

Taste: malty sweetness up front, undercurrent of creamy fruit and berries, sour notes along with bourbon grain (corn or wheat) mid-palate, very light oak at the back. After dilution, the sweetness at the front becomes more like sucrose with cane sugar grassiness, the sour and bitter notes from mid-palate back merge in a pleasant fashion, and there are more salted caramel notes in the middle.

Finish: malty bubblegum, still a bit sour, tannins build over multiple sips, somewhat astringent. After dilution it becomes more oak-tannin focused, but lighter and more pleasant.

I feel like this whisky would make a great entry point for a bourbon drinker into the world of single malts. The bourbon barrel character, along with, I understand, the influence of a smaller percentage of ex-sherry casks, is laid pleasantly over malt whisky to produce something that's on the lighter end of the single malt spectrum, but doesn't skimp on flavor. I enjoyed the toasty notes in the nose, though the palate wasn't quite as exciting. Solid, but not particularly inspiring. Craft presentation might help this whisky, both by increasing the mouthfeel and giving it a bit more oomph from higher bottling proof. However, it does form a good introduction to the core whiskies of the brand.

Auchentoshan 18 Year

Nose: green tea, ripe mangos, peaches, wood sugars, bourbon vanilla extract, cake frosting, dark chocolate, creamy toasted oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much sweeter/maltier and more integrated - salted caramel and oak notes overlap, mango slips inside the wood, other fruit notes emerge - apples, pears, wine/grape, orange peel, and rose notes really pop out.

Taste: slightly caramelized sugar up front, well-integrated oak emerges mid-palate - offers a nice counterpoint with the continuing caramel - along with some tropical fruits, slightly grassy near the back. After dilution, there's a brief burst of cognac fruitiness just before the wood sugars up front, followed by a bit of orange peel, then overlapping corn/malt sweetness and oak mid-palate, leaving with cacao and chocolate.

Finish: very mild bitter oak, coffee beans, orange peel, wine, and a hint of malt.

This was easily my favorite of the three. It was nice to see a distillery putting together an older whisky from nothing but bourbon barrels, letting the malt shine on its own without any kind of cask finish. It's a clear case of good spirit going into good wood for a good amount of time. The mango notes throughout the whisky were particularly nice and played a great counterpoint to the bourbon-barrel caramel, vanilla, and oak. It's definitely a lighter, sweeter whisky, but there are just enough oak tannins to keep everything in balance. A superb example of what a distillery can do when they have faith in their malt - my hat goes off to Rachel Barrie, the master blender for Morrison-Bowmore. My only quibble is that I wish they would switch to craft presentation - drop the chill filtration and caramel coloring and bump up the bottling proof a few points. 43% is better than 40%, but that extra bit of care would take this from being a really, really good whisky to a stunner.

Auchentoshan Three Wood

Nose: creamy oloroso/PX sherry (especially captures the savory notes of oloroso sherry), raspberries, raisin fruit leather, strawberry bubblegum, peppery oak, salted caramels, roses, a hint of malt, tropical fruits. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes more robust and less sherry-driven, with the malt and bourbon barrel notes becoming more prominent - woody salted caramels, which integrates well with the savory sherry notes, floral/raspberry notes merge, and chocolate and barbecue sauce peek out.

Taste: grape/sherry notes begin sweetly, then slowly move into a more bitter mode, savory sherry and caramel notes emerge mid-palate with a dash of salt & pepper, then raspberry compote and oak tannins at the back. After dilution, the flavors become more bourbon barrel-driven, with wood sugar and savory sherry up front, with oak and malt layered on top further back, along with chocolate-covered raisins.

Finish: bittersweet sherry/raisin notes, slightly savory, peppery oak.

After the brilliance of the 18 Year, I approached this whisky with a bit of trepidation. It begins life as standard bourbon cask whisky, which is first transferred to ex-oloroso sherry casks for about a year, then finally to ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry casks for about a year. And my first sniffs and sips kind of bore that out - where was the malt? It seemed like everything had been smothered under a heavy blanket of sherry. However, a few drops of water radically transformed the whisky, letting the malt shine on its own and emphasizing the savory aspects of oloroso sherry, which played very well with the bourbon barrel notes. While I usually prefer higher proof bottlings, this one might actually be better at 41-42%. That extra bit of water made it, at least to me, a significantly better dram. On the other hand, I do wonder what kind of a whisky this could be if it was made from a blend of bourbon barrel and sherry cask whiskies, rather than from bourbon barrel whisky finished in ex-sherry casks. That might let the lovely bourbon barrel character shine while playing nicer with the burley oloroso and PX sherry casks at a higher proof. The sherries can add some really wonderful layers to the whisky, but it seems like a shame to use too heavy a hand in putting them on.

It was really interesting to compare and contrast these whiskies with the other triple-distilled single malts I've had from Hazelburn. Salted caramels seem to be a common thread, which makes me curious to find out if it's a feature of triple distillation or just a coincidence. I have a bottle of BenRiach's experimental triple-distilled whisky, so I'll have to see if it has the same notes. Overall I really enjoyed these whiskies and I'm rather interested in trying some of their other expressions, especially higher proof bottlings like Valinch or the Bordeaux Cask.

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