Friday, May 30, 2014

Cognac Review: Hardy VS

The Hardy cognac house was founded by an Englishman, Antoine Hardy, in 1863. It has stayed in the family's hands over the last century and a half. The House of Hardy overlooks the Charantes River, within the town of Cognac.

The VS expression is the youngest that Hardy releases, aged for a minimum of five years in limousine oak casks. It is bottled at the standard 40% and is likely chill filtered, caramel colored, and treated with boise (shavings or powdered oak, to accelerate the extraction of color and tannins).

Hardy VS

Nose: jammy berries, liquid raisins, gentle oak, orange peel, dry-ish grapes, light brown sugar, dark cherries. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes rather floral, which integrates well with the grape notes.

Taste: sweet with grape character throughout, jammy fruit (raspberry/cherry) turning into polished wood with a touch of sawdust in the middle, gently bitter edge, bittersweet fade. After dilution, it becomes flatter and less sweet, the flavors become more indistinct, but some nice bittersweet chocolate overtones show up.

Finish: orange peel, bittersweet floral oak, slightly vegetal, grape residue, a touch of pepper

This is not a complicated cognac, but it is honestly quite enjoyable. Quality-wise, I think this is comparable to a respectable blended whisky - it's not going to make you think too hard, but it's nice to drink. While it's crept up in price here in Oregon, it's still available for about $25 in many places. At that price, it's hard to find a better deal for actual cognac. Additionally, that makes it cheap enough that you don't need to feel a single twinge of guilt about using it for cocktails.

In a Sidecar, it brings everything that you would expect from cognac: nice apple notes, French oak, vanilla, and something a little floral. Paired with Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, I did feel like I either needed to use a bit more cognac or to ease off on the orange liqueur to keep balance. If you're usually a less aggressively orange liqueur, then I wouldn't worry. While it'd be nice if Hardy upped the bottling proof, I've never felt like it wasn't able to assert itself in cocktails.

Japanese Cocktail Variant

2 oz brandy
1 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz orgeat
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass

The nose is redolent of cognac, accented by the bitters and nutty notes from the orgeat. The sip begins with cognac riding underneath subdued lemon, segueing into orgeat, then letting the cognac shine on its own. The bitters don't peek out too much, buttressing the other ingredients instead of pushing out in front. Overall a nice twist on a brandy sour.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Whisky Review: Talisker 25 Year - 2012 Release

Some of the most anticipated bottles from Talisker over the last decade have been the roughly annual releases of their 25 Year Old whisky. While most well-known for the fiery 10 Year, these older whiskies represent the distillery burnished with age. All of the casks used in the 25 Year are refill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, which should keep the spirit from being completely overwhelmed by oak. While traditionally bottled at cask strength (batch strength, really, but that's semantics), the 2011 and 2012 releases of Talisker 25 Year changed, opted instead for the distillery's standard 45.8% ABV. This particular is bottle #5883 of 6318 from the 2012 release. That represents less than half the outturn of the 2005 release; considering that it was reduced from cask strength and given demand for old whiskies these days, that says a lot about the distillery's thinning stocks. No wonder their latest releases have all been NAS.

Talisker 25 Year - 2012 Release

Nose: floral perfume over rich caramel, red wine and dank (reduced raisin syrup) sherry over a solid malt core, well-integrated (but slightly sour) peat and wood smoke, barrel char and vanilla, tired oak, used tea leaves, hints of cured meat, some seaweed/seashore. After adding a few drops of water, the malt comes to the fore, with a certain cardboard-y quality to the oak that reinforces my sense that the casks are tired, the sherry and cured meat hang in the background, but the peat has faded and integrated substantially, with some strange herbal/vegetal notes appearing, and maritime saltiness and barbecue sauces notes finally showing up.

Taste: sherry and malt sweetness up front, becoming drier but more malty further back, which is joined by Talisker pepper, mocha, and tired oak, with a suggestion of peat and more dark chocolate at the end. After dilution, it gets a bit watery, with malt and wood sweetness (drifting towards pure cane sugar) dominating, a thread of sherry dances through the palate (with growing intensity after some time in the glass), and there are more tannins at the back, with the peat becoming kind of muddy.

Finish: chipotle chili pepper, mild seashore peat and fresh herbs, cigarette ash, oak, malt, and sherry/sour wine

I think I would have appreciated this whisky better without the context of other Taliskers. I'm sad to say that I don't find this substantially better than the Talisker 10 Year I reviewed a couple of years ago. While much of the youthful vigor has been lost, it's hard to say what has been gained from the extra fifteen years in oak. The floral notes, while nice, weren't out of line with what I found in the 2000/2011 Talisker Distiller's Edition, so it doesn't necessarily take a lot of time to acquire those aromas. The cask selection doesn't seem to be top-notch, as the oak has that tired, somewhat cardboard-y character. In reducing the bottling proof since the 2011 release, it seems like the flavors have been flattened. It may also be that it's even been chill-filtered and colored (when a Diageo product doesn't say otherwise, I usually assume that it is). This may give it broader appeal, but also makes it a less than wholly satisfying experience for the amount of money Diageo wants for it these days.

While I was quite looking forward to trying an older Talisker, I am extremely thankful to have bought this on sale (~$150) and to have split it with a number of other people (you can find MAO's review here and hopefully Michael will post one soon) - I can handle disappointment when I only had to pay for a quarter of the bottle. Between the 25 Year and Talisker Dark Storm, the distillery does not seem to be putting out winners lately.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Why is Alcohol Toxic? - Part I: Cellular Damage

Every drinker has at some point had more than it was wise to have and suffered for it. Most of the time, that leads to a hangover that is unpleasant, but passes. But either consistent heavy drinking or indulging to the point of alcohol poisoning can have far more serious consequences.

While there appear to be benefits to moderate drinking, ethanol is at its root a toxin. This is due to three factors. First, its basic chemical properties, second, the ways in which it is metabolized, and third, the effects that it has on the brain.

Let's look at its chemistry first. Ethanol is similar to water in that it has a hydrogen bound to an oxygen. This allows it to interact with many hydrophilic compounds (those that dissolve well in water), because the hydrogen-oxygen bond is polarized in a similar fashion. However, instead of a second hydrogen, ethanol has a short hydrocarbon chain. This makes it more like a volatile solvent, e.g. gasoline, and allows it to interact with hydrophobic compounds as well. Having both of these features means that it can act a bit like a detergent. Detergents, like soap, also have both polar and non-polar features, which allow them to solubilize greasy molecules in water. While ethanol is not a strong detergent, at high concentrations it does have the ability to disrupt the structures of macromolecules like proteins and lipids in the cell - this is part of why ethanol is a good disinfectant.

Thankfully, for most of us, our bodies are equipped to handle limited amounts of alcohol. Even if you have never touched a drop, there will be trace amounts of ethanol in your blood from the metabolism of various compounds we consume, like ethyl esters. To keep it from accumulating to levels where it would significantly disrupt normal biological processes, most humans possess an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). This enzyme catalyzes the first step in the conversion of ethanol to acetic acid, which is then fed into the citric acid cycle, where it produces energy for the cell. All well and good, on the surface.

There are a number of wrinkles in this process. First, the method by which energy is extracted from the oxidation of ethanol, is primarily by the transfer of electrons to nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH), the main carrier of reducing equivalents in the cell. This changes the redox balance in the cell, which has both direct and indirect effects. Indirectly, this can decrease the oxidation of fatty acids, as they go through a very similar oxidation process, so high levels of NADH will suppress utilization of fat. Additionally, the acetic acid formed as an end product of ethanol oxidation can be converted into acetyl-CoA, which is the starting material for fatty acid synthesis. The dual push of decreased fat burning and increased fat synthesis are two of the main drivers of alcoholic steatosis, also known as fatty liver. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.

From Wikipedia
Second, during the conversion process of ethanol to acetic acid, there is an intermediate product called acetaldehyde. This is the source of much of ethanol's toxicity and carcinogenicity. Aldehydes are very reactive, especially with amines such as those found in the amino acids that make up proteins or the nucleic acids that form DNA. The reaction between acetaldehyde and amines, especially in the reducing environment (which, remember, is enhanced by the metabolism of alcohol) found inside cells, will form adducts, disrupting the structure and functions of proteins and nucleic acids. In the case of nucleic acids, these adducts can lead to mutations that may increase the risk of cancer. Alcohol consumption is a well-known risk factor for cancer, especially esophageal cancer, which is directly related to the exposure to acetaldehyde. In small quantities, cells can remove damaged proteins and repair DNA adducts, but if errors build up they can lead to mutations or cell death.

This is particularly dangerous for people who have variations in either ADH or acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ADLH), which catalyzes the second half of alcohol metabolism. These variations are more broadly known as 'alcohol flush syndrome', which is prevalent in people of Asian ancestry. This is caused either by a variation in ADH that results in extremely rapid conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde, potentially coupled with a less active version of ADLH. In either case, acetaldehyde builds up to dangerous levels very quickly and the conversion to acetic acid happens slowly or not at all. The high acetaldehyde levels, in the short term, produce the characteristic flush, but in the long term produce significantly higher risks for cancer, especially of the esophagus.

Similarly, the reason why other alcohols like methanol, rubbing alcohol (isopropanol), and anti-freeze (ethylene glycol) are even more toxic is that they are oxidized to the aldehyde or ketone stage, but cannot be oxidized further to acids. This is also why the treatment for methanol or anti-freeze poisoning is to drink ethanol - ethanol binds more effectively to ADH, which fully engages the enzyme in ethanol oxidation and gives the body time to flush out the other alcohols.

Even worse compounds are produced after alcohol tolerance has built up. This is because ADH and ADLH levels remain the same, even after high chronic levels of alcohol consumption, which necessitates the liver inducing new pathways (essentially calling in for backup) for detoxification. These pathways are primarily enzymes called cytochrome P450s (CYPs). There are a whole host of these enzymes, which perform many different types of oxidations on different kinds of compounds. The common thread is that they are all designed to metabolize foreign substances into compounds that can more easily be eliminated from the body.

The primary CYP induced by alcohol consumption is called CYP2E1. While the mechanism of alcohol oxidation used by ADH is comparatively benign, that of CYP2E1 is not, as it is both less specific and more powerful. CYP2E1 directly oxidizes alcohol via the activation of molecular oxygen. A byproduct of CYP2E1 oxidation is superoxide, which is a powerful oxidizer in its own right. That can be partially ameliorated by the enzyme superoxide dismutase, but the product of that reaction is hydrogen peroxide. Anyone who has poured a bit of hydrogen peroxide on their skin to disinfect a wound knows its effects and it does not take much imagination to figure out that it's not a good thing for your cells to be producing, especially in large quantities. All of these oxidizing byproducts can go on to damage cellular components such as proteins (including CYP2E1 itself) and lipids. Lipid peroxidation has been implicated in cell wall breakdown and DNA adduct formation, which increases the risk of cancer-causing mutations.

CYP2E1 oxidation cycle via NIAAA
Adding to the danger is the fact that CYP2E1 is also implicated in the oxidation of many other drugs. The most important of these is acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Normally the liver deals with acetaminophen by conjugating it with an acidic sugar, glucaronic acid, which targets it for excretion in the urine. However, when concentrations are high, the glucaronidating enzymes will become saturated, which increases the concentration of free drug. CYP2E1 can oxidize acetaminophen to a compound called n-acetyl para-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI). Much like acetaldehyde, NAPQI can react with many other cellular components, especially proteins and nucleic acids, leading to protein inactivation and DNA mutations. Normally NAPQI is mopped up by conjugating with a cellular compound called glutathione, producing a harmless byproduct. However, glutathione also reacts with acetaldehyde. So high alcohol consumption will reduce the levels of free glutathione, leaving less available for detoxifying other drugs. This is why giving acetaminophen to alcoholics, especially those in the very early stages of recovery, can potentially be fatal. CYP2E1 is induced by chronic alcohol use, thus increasing the production of NAPQI. Glutathione levels will be low, which decreases the ability to detoxify NAPQI. Put together, these significantly increase the toxicity of acetaminophen. While acetaminophen is the most well-studying case of alcohol-induced CYP2E1 toxicity, a large number of other compounds that are either broken down or activated to toxic byproducts are also metabolized by CYP2E1 and will have their metabolism changed by either acute or chronic alcohol use.

This covers most of the ways in which alcohol is directly toxic to your body, primarily your liver. In the next half, I'll cover alcohol's effects on the brain and another way in which chronic alcohol consumption can be particularly dangerous.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich Rocks, Waves, and Peat - or "What Was Jim McEwan Thinking?!?"

Some years ago, Bruichladdich put out a number of young (~7 years old) single malts that were designed to provide an introduction to the brand at a more reasonable cost. It was all distillate produced after the buyout by Mark Reynier, in contrast to the stocks that came with the distillery. I picked these up as a set of miniatures from The Whisky Exchange, but it appears that they are sold out now.

As with most Bruichladdich releases, all were bottled at 46% without chill filtration or coloring.

Bruichladdich Rocks

Nose: Laddie malt core, milk chocolate, overpowering sour red wine, sweaty sock funk, bad sherry casks, new make/vegetal peat edge, jammy raspberries - everything gets worse with time. After adding a few drops of water, there is more malt, some maritime notes and cinnamon peek out, it becomes creamier, but overall everything else is worse - grain notes become musty.

Taste: begins decently but blandly - some malt and barrel sweetness up front with a touch of cinnamon, there are notes of sour milk that start in the middle and hang around far too long, then it segues into off-notes of red wine and sherry. After dilution, much sweeter overall, the oak notes become musty, more sherry comes out but there's a horrible sourness to it all that ruins the palate, the taste won't go away - kill me now.

Finish: grows worse and worse with time - sour/bitter oak and wine dregs, plastic, nasty peat reek

Rarely do I try a whisky that tastes like it actively wishes me harm. This is absolutely everything wrong with new style Bruichladdich releases - bad red wine casks, terrible peat reek, and a complete lack of coherence. I know tastes vary, but this genuinely makes me question what's wrong with Jim McEwan. This was designed to be Bruichladdich's introduction to the brand - the first taste that many people would get of their whisky. Why they would go this route instead of playing it safe, I do not know. But I am becoming more and more convinced that I want to avoid anything from Bruichladdich that was distilled after 2001. It just doesn't work for me. Good riddance to this whisky.

Bruichladdich Waves

Nose: fresh, salty, gentle peat, something meaty, rubbery undercurrent, malty core, Playdough, some Laddie funk. After adding a few drops of water, it remains more or less unchanged.

Taste: malty sweetness and polished oak throughout, mild peat/seaweed and oak near the back, a bit of funk and salt. After dilution, it becomes flatter and more integrated but actually more pleasant, the bitterness become coffee-like, there is more oak, and there's an overall sense that the whisky is more mature.

Finish: mild peat/funk residue, salty malt, lightly bitter oak

While simple, this is at least not bad. I would consent to drink this whisky again, which was refreshing after the terribleness of Rocks. There is just enough peat to provide some spice to the underlying malt and the lack of wine casks kept it uncomplicated. While I think this could actually benefit from a few sherry casks, I'm not sure I quite trust the hands at Bruichladdich to pick them well.

However, Waves was discontinued some time ago, so it's a bit of a moot point.

Bruichladdich Peat

Nose: vague peat reek, new make, malty, almost no oak, Playdough, vegetal, more clearly peated with time but still surprisingly gentle. After adding a few drops of water, some salted caramel notes come out, there is more obvious oak influence, and the peat integrates with the malt.

Taste: intensely sweet up front (almost seems artificial), surprising lack of peat, very little oak, bourbon barrel fruitiness in the middle. After dilution, everything amps up - the start of the sip is pure sucrose, the peat is finally assertive, there is more bourbon barrel influence, but nothing really makes it great.

Finish: mild peat, lingering sweetness, alcohol edge

Despite what it says on the label, there wasn't a lot of peat influence. This is rather surprising, as Peat was supposedly a 50/50 mix of young Port Charlotte (50 PPM) and Ocotomore (100+ PPM). It may be that this is due to sampling this from a miniature (which are often flawed), but it may be that's just how this one worked. Either way, it didn't do much for me. Which is kind of irrelevant, as this one is also long gone.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Experimental Spirits: Willet Rye/Lemon Hart 151/Del Maguay Vida Blend

After trying some blends made with Russell's Reserve rye and Lemon Hart 151, I decided to see if I could improve them by using a more robust rye whiskey. And just for kicks, I decided to throw in a bit of mezcal to give it some smoke.

Willet Rye/Lemon Hart 151/Del Maguay Vida Blend

Nose: lots of dry pine-y rye notes, grain, slightly acrid smoke and burn sugar, green/vegetal notes, flambé bananas. After adding a few drops of water, the rye grain becomes more prominent, with the rum becoming an undercurrent,

Taste: rye grain, pine, and pickle juice (accented by the mezcal) throughout, slightly smoothed by the rum's molasses and banana notes in the middle, burnt sugar and toasted grain at the back. After dilution, the rum edges out the rye to make a much sweeter and smoother palate, with rye grain/pine and burnt sugar at the back.

Finish: burnt sugar, toasted rye grain, pine, a touch of vegetal agave

The switch that the nose and palate pull after adding water was quite interesting though. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot of water to push a spirit in one direction or another.

If I was going to do this again, I would up the amount of mezcal in the mix. It's such a strongly flavored spirit that I was worried about it overwhelming the other components, but with beefy stuff like Willet rye and Lemon Hart 151, I shouldn't have been. More smoke and vegetal agave notes would make for a great counterpoint to the other spirits.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fourth Anniversary - Two More Years of Booze Blogging

I realized recently that I had neglected to note the passing of the third anniversary of my blog, so consider this covering the last two years.

Some observations over the intervening time:

•The biggest and most obvious change over the last two years has been, as noted by Sku, the radical shift towards blogging primarily about whisky rather than cocktails, despite the name. While I still drink cocktails on a pretty regular basis, they tend to be simpler and thus something I'm less inclined to write about, while my attention has been thoroughly captured by the analytical nature of writing about whisky.
•My growing interest in whisky climaxed with a trip to Scotland last year, with the primary intention of visiting distilleries. Though I eventually got a bit burned out on distillery tours, I did learn a lot in the process and absolutely loved traveling through the countryside where most of the distilleries I visited are located. Getting to visit friends who I hadn't seen in a long time was an added bonus.
•The shift in gravity from cocktail blogging to whisk(e)y blogging that I noted in 2012 seems to have mirrored my own growing interest in the subject. While I'm sure some of this is confirmation bias, many if not most of the cocktail blogs I used to follow seem to have dried up, while there is enormous growth in blogging about grain-based spirits. I feel like some of this is that many of the pioneers of cocktail blogging have moved from being amateurs to professionals, which seems to leave less time or interest for writing. There are certainly exceptions to this trend (Cocktail Virgin posts on an almost alarmingly regular schedule), but it does make me wonder if whisk(e)y blogging will go through the same transition over the coming years.
•While my liquor cabinet has remained very full, I have done a good job of cutting down on the number of open bottles in it at any given time. This took a significant mount of time and intention, because I had something like a dozen open bottles of whiskey and scotch and the impulse to open new bottles is still strong. This has gotten it down to a handful, both by outright finishing bottles and by transferring them into smaller bottles, which should keep better. It has been good for my blogging in that it has forced me to make my way through most of a bottle before posting a review, which gives me a lot more time to evaluate a spirit and how it changes over time.
•I've finally started talking about actual science (which has generated a surprising amount of interest) and I have more on tap, which is really exciting.
•This blog was started not long after I began grad school and it's been a fairly constant outlet during that process. While grad school is heading towards the end, this blog is definitely not. I have a growing body of work that I want to write about and look forward to sharing it with you all over the coming years.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Whisky Review: The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year

Diageo has released a number of different single malts under the Singleton moniker. Originally it was Auchroisk, as the people at the top didn't believe the average buyer could pronounce the name of the distillery and would thus pass it by.

More recently, they have released the outputs of three different distilleries in three different markets under the Singleton name. North America gets Glendullan, Europe gets Dufftown, and Asia/Pacific gets Glen Ord. Of these three, only Glen Ord used to have a fairly standard release as a single malt, though Glendullan was available as a Flora & Fauna bottling.

There was actually something of a hew and cry when Glen Ord was reconfigured as a Singleton brand as the old 12 Year bottling had a number of fans. Lets see how the new version holds up.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for a sample of this whisky.

The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year

Nose: apples and pears, peaches, orange creamsicle, raisins, light citrus and caramel, solid malt core, a restrained undercurrent of oak. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes more prominent and grainy - almost like breakfast cereal, some graham cracker notes pop up, while the fruit almost disappears - there is a little bit of apple left.

Taste: lightly sweet caramel throughout, citrus, green fruit (apples and pears), and berries starting in the middle and continuing through, oak begins as an undercurrent near the front then gains ground near the back. After dilution, the flavors become very flat, with vague oak and malt sweetness throughout, graham crackers appear, the fruit all disappears, and it has an overall bittersweet profile

Finish: slightly grassy, sweet malt and caramel, very light oak, overtones of berries

While a very respectable whisky on the lighter end of the spectrum, it's also clearly been tampered with. The relatively flat flavors are a combination of the low bottling proof of 40% and what is almost surely chill filtration. The lack of sherry or oak suggests relatively inactive casks, which makes me pretty sure that it's been darkened with caramel color. The low bottling proof almost means that it can't really stand up to even a little bit of dilution. With that said, Michael likes it quite a bit more than I did, so your mileage may vary.

All of these things are a shame as the underlying spirit seems to have a lot going for it. I'd love to try some independent bottlings of Glen Ord.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Experimental Rumsky: Russell's Reserve Rye/Lemon Hart 151 Blends

These blends came out of an experiment I did several years ago with Russell's Reserve rye and El Dorado 12 Year rum. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but don't have any of the rum on hand anymore. So I decided to see how well my other Guyanese staple, Lemon Hart 151, would mix with the rye.

7:1 Russell's Reserve Rye/Lemon Hart 151

Nose: tons of sawdust and brown sugar, rye grain, corn, and vanilla underneath, rum detectable as a molasses undercurrent (gaining prominence with time) and more assertive alcohol (settling down with time), unripe fruit (bananas?),

Taste: the rum's molasses is a strong presence throughout, slowly giving ground to rye grain and pine, sawdust, and moderate oak tannins, unripe pineapple, cumin and other spices underneath

Finish: dusty rye grain with a touch of molasses sweetness, combining with a bitter/sour tang

I think this is the slightly better version, as it lets the rye do its thing while the rum smoothes over some of the whiskey's weak points.

3:1 Russell's Reserve Rye/Lemon Hart 151

Nose: more rum tops notes (molasses and overripe fruit), grain and sawdust are less readily apparent,

Taste: almost completely dominated by the heavily molasses and burnt sugar flavors of the rum until somewhere near the back, where rye grain and corn finally peek out, with the whiskey's oak combining with the burnt sugar notes to make a new sort of bitter finish

Finish: barrel char and burnt sugar, rye grain bitterness

Despite the preponderance of whiskey in this blend, it is almost completely dominated by the rum. In many respects, it resembles a heavy rum accented by rye rather than the other way around. While some of this is attributable to the rum's higher proof (151 vs. 90), it still demonstrates the depth of flavor contained in Lemon Hart 151. The 7:1 blend is definitely more balanced.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Whisky Review: Blue Hanger 7th Release

Blue Hanger is a series of blended malts put together by Berry Brothers & Rudd, each with a different recipe.

As far as I can gather, this particular release is composed of one ex-bourbon hogshead of 1992 Bruichladdich, one ex-sherry butt of 1990 Bunnahabhain, four ex-bourbon hogsheads of 1997 Miltonduff, and two ex-bourbon hogsheads of peated 2006 Bunnahabhain. So the mix is dominated by teenage Speyside whisky, which is accented by older unpeated Islay whisky and a healthy dose of rather young peated Islay whisky.

This was a 2013 US-only release, unlike every other Blue Hanger, which have been for the UK market. It was bottled at a respectable but not overwhelming 45.6%, without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Blue Hanger 7th Release

Nose: savory and oak-y, with accents of dry wood smoke, salty bacon, and caramel, minor sherry influence. After adding a few drops of water, the oak becomes less pronounced, with the focus shifting towards the malt and peat, with hints of new make poking out.

Taste: also savory, with an undercurrent of sweet grassy caramel and overtones of floral peat smoke, barrel notes throughout - wood spices and char, malt comes in near the back. After dilution, some of the grassiness becomes root vegetables and new make spirit, the sweetness becomes more pronounced, 

Finish: dry peat smoke over barrel char and malt

While I think this was a good concept, the execution left a little bit to be desired. While I like peated Bunnahabhain, most of what I've tried has come from the experimental 1997 batch. I feel like this blended malt would have been significantly improved if one of the casks of young peated Bunnahabhain had been swapped out for a hogshead of 1997 peated Bunnahabhain. This would have both given the peat smoke more complexity and reduced the new make notes that disrupted the experience for me. This goes double if the peated 1997 Bunnahabhain had been from an ex-sherry cask. I really enjoy the interplay of sherry and peat, so I would have enjoy more sherry influence in the mix.

So, overall, while I like this idea of this whisky, I don't enjoy the experience enough to drop $100 on a bottle. The price is justified by the old Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, but I'll give it a miss. You may enjoy it more than I did, but I would lean towards trying a sample before you buy it, unless you're very sure that you're OK with some new make notes in your whisky.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Benriach 34 Year 1968/2003

Benriach was closed from 1900 to 1965, which means that this whisky was distilled only a few years after its reopening by the owners of Glenlivet. They would have been using their own floor maltings, which had been operating through the closure to supply the nearby Longmorn distillery.

This one is from an ex-bourbon cask, and likely a relatively inactive one at that, which has allowed the spirit to retain a shocking amount of freshness after more than three decades in oak. It was bottled at its cask strength of 48.0% with an outturn of 125 bottles. Somehow I managed to get my hands on bottle #1.

I opened this bottle on my birthday last summer as the start of a tradition of drinking whiskies that are older than I am each year. I was lucky enough to obtain this bottle, and a startling number of others, from the Oregon state liquor system. It appears that they bought a very large clutch of Duncan Taylor whiskies over the last ten years, which then languished on shelves until they were systematically reduced to close-out prices over the last twelve months or so. It's been quite a bit of fun hunting them down (though there were a number that I missed and regret not picking up when they were available) and I look forward to drinking and sharing them over the next dozen years or so.

Notes have been taken at various times since it was opened, as the bottle oxidized and evolved.

Duncan Taylor Benriach 34 Year 1968/2003 Cask #2592

Initial impressions (7/23-31/2013)

Nose: green fruit (apples/pears), pineapple, intertwined malt and vanilla, floral, lightly jammy (berries), a hint of oak, grass/hay, a bit of salty bacon and caramel, fruit leather/sherry. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more grain-focused with some corn popping out, grape/floral notes, and the apples become more cooked.

Taste: surprisingly hot up front with sweet caramel and malt, rather green throughout, some muddled oak notes at the back. After dilution, there is more chocolate and oak, some vague fruitiness emerges, the sweetness becomes fructose, and there is noticeably less burn.

Finish: light but lingering sharp notes of green malt, chocolate, and slightly tired oak, pineapple and floral notes, with a lot of alcohol

Initially this whisky seemed downright immature, with a shocking amount of alcohol heat for its strength and almost new-make levels of vegetal notes. It was something of a let-down, as the reviews I had read gave me a lot of hope that this would be a rather good whisky.

Mid-Bottle (9/29/2013 & 2/7/2014)

Nose: lots of green and lightly toasted malted barley, pine, very light oak, floral notes, green and stone fruit (apples & pears especially), sweet vanilla tucked inside, musky/sweaty, caramel, brine, a touch of coal/wood smoke, grassy, bacon, berries

Taste: very sweet throughout, lots of vanilla, light malt and oak, vegetal

Finish: peaches, peaches, and more peaches, hints of oak, strange herbal/vegetal tinge, malty, graham crackers

Especially in the finish, this was the whisky at its fruitiest. The peach notes in the finish were nigh overwhelming, to the point of being almost unsettling. The palate still felt rather immature, which made me leave it alone for months at a time between nips at the bottle.

Most recent (4/22/2014)

Nose: caramel, vanilla marshmallows, graham crackers, dry malt, light and well-integrated oak, a touch of barrel char, musky perfume, a vegetal edge, overtones of apples and pears, peaches, berries. After adding a few drops of water, the oak becomes more prominent.

Taste: caramel and malt sweetness with peach overtones throughout with a slight citrus-sour edge, well-aged oak and dry black pepper in the middle, near the back there is a huge bump of floral violets and moderately aggressive/sharp grassy/vegetal notes. After dilution, the sucrose sweetness and oak become more assertive, while the floral notes start to integrate with the oak in the middle to produce a sense of tropical fruits, then take an odd swing into something vaguely peppery at the end in combination with the vegetal notes.

Finish: sweet malt with a floral/vegetal edge and almost sour peach notes

This whisky is definitely more drinkable now. The palate is finally starting to show a bit of complexity, though the nose has lost a bit. The vegetal character hasn't totally disappeared, but the initial heat has receded significantly. Goes to show that sometimes these old whiskies really do just need to sit open for a long time before they really hit their stride. I do think I'm interpreting the flavors differently than the reviews from LAWS and Malt Nuts - while we're all getting the esters, I read them primarily as floral and vegetal with a side of peaches, while others seem to get a lot more tropical fruits. Once again, people can interpret the same chemical compounds very differently.

Now I'm kind of sad that the bottle is almost finished, though I'll get to try it again in another couple of years as I also own bottle #21 (when the price dropped to $99 I couldn't resist grabbing a second one). It'll be interesting to see both how the whisky changes and my own tastes change in that time.