As part of their single cask program, K&L Wines brought in a clutch of casks from Kilchoman. While the sherried one sold out fairly quickly, four ex-bourbon casks - two made from Port Ellen malt and two made from the distillery's own floor malt - languished on shelves and in their warehouse.
Some months ago Michael Kravitz proposed splitting one of those casks, #74, as the best of the bunch. At $20 for a quarter of a bottle, it wasn't a major investment, but still gave me enough whisky to get a good sense of its character.
This is whisky made from Port Ellen malt distilled at Kilchoman on February 22, 2008, matured in an ex-bourbon cask, then bottled on December 16, 2013 at 58.4% without coloring or chill filtration.
Reviews have been posted simultaneously at Diving for Pearls and My Annoying Opinions.
Kilchoman Single Cask #74
Nose: inky, coal dust, dense peat smoke, rich polished oak, dry malt with a roasted edge by the seashore, berry fruit leather, raisins, cooling tar in the background, fresh cut grass, heather. After adding a few drops of water, oak is significantly toned down and the peat is joined by smoldering cinnamon bark, giving it an incense-like quality, and some ham and sweet vanilla notes come out.
Taste:big cask strength sweetness on top of a thick layer of oak, cinnamon buried in the wood, berries, raisins, and fruit esters around the middle, inky peat becoming more mossy right at the back. After dilution, the basic elements are retained but softened a hair, the berries become much stronger in the middle, the malt becomes drier and dustier with some hay around the middle, but the alcohol heat becomes more significant at the back.
Finish: fresh mossy peat, a touch of ash, sweet malt, berries with a bit of dirt, polished oak tannins, mineral/stones
This is big in every sense of the word. The key elements - malt, oak, and peat - dominate the experience and push aside almost any nuance. The oak has that concentrated quality found in some recent Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength releases that makes is almost seem sherried. While I can see the appeal at this strength, the lack of nuance doesn't really do too much for me, especially considering the price. At the least, adding water is a necessity to get some complexity, though the extra alcohol heat makes that less palatable.
Continuing my tradition of experimenting with cask strength releases, I diluted this whisky to 50% and 46% to see how it developed.
Nose: malt dominates with a bit of a sharp edge, mossy peat is very shy (though it expands a bit with time) and integrates with the green herbal/grass notes/seashore notes, integrated vanilla, bright but not aggressive oak
Taste: malt sweetness up front that is quickly joined by moderate oak tannins underneath, strong herbal/floral/vanilla notes in the middle, cinnamon and nutmeg, mossy peat is in the background near the end, berry overtones ride throughout
Finish: light mossy peat, dry malt, dried flowers, fresh vegetation, sweet berry notes
This strength presents a very peculiar balance - the peat is almost difficult to find, which lets the barrel and malt talk more loudly. It's not as soft as the 46% dilution - the alcohol makes itself known without being a kick in the face. The amped up sweetness, spices, and berry notes in the palate give it a bit more character, though the peat is even harder to find here.
Nose: lots of dry malt with a touch of hay and polenta, light peat, a touch of smoke, dried mushrooms, green grass and herbs, vanilla frosting, very lightly floral, seashore/seaweed in the background, cinnamon, nutmeg, a touch of mint, fresh earth
Taste: very malty, lightly sweet, American oak with light floral and minty/herbal overtones picks up around the middle, joined by light peat wrapped around creamy vanilla malt at the back
Finish: hints of fruit esters (apples and berries?), malty, balanced oak tannins and peat, light vanilla
Considering its bombastic nature at full strength, the spirit gets downright tame when proofed down to 46%. While the peat certainly hasn't disappeared, it gets a lot softer, almost playing second fiddle to the malt. The palate isn't wildly complex, but the nose brings a lot more action, taking it in a fresh but not immature direction.
Looking over these three strengths makes me feel like we really need to step back from the veneration of cask and batch strength malts. While they do give consumers more options to drink their spirits at the strength of their choice, few will take the time to experiment and find the best dilution. For me the palate worked best at 50% while the nose shone at 46%. Proofing down single casks shouldn't be heresy.