Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition

Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition was some of the last entry level whisky released by Bruichladdich that was made entirely from stocks produced before Mark Reynier purchased the distillery and brought it back to life in 2001. The exact provenance is difficult to pin down because the distillery was shuttered between 1994 and 2000 except for a brief production run in 1998, when the team from Jura ran the place using 28 PPM malt. Given the late bottling date on this and the fairly obvious peat influence it's possible that it is composed largely of spirit from that 1998 run as that would have been old enough to use and the pre-1994 stocks would likely have been running thin by then.

This whisky was put together from first- and second-fill ex-bourbon casks and was bottled at 11:46 on May 11th, 2011 with bottling code 11/114 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition

Nose: big bourbon cask notes of vanilla, caramel, and gentle oak, berry esters and pink bubblegum, a touch of peat, salinity, barrel char, putty. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes drier and pushes the cask influence towards the back, the oak becomes more like cedar bark.

Taste: sweet malt up front, oak tannins move in quickly and turn the malt bittersweet, around the middle - vanilla, herbal/pine, and berry overtones with salinity in the background, fading out through gentle peat. After dilution the oak becomes softer while the berry notes are brighter and move towards the front.

Finish: balanced oak and malt, berries lingering peat

This is one of those whiskies that makes you think "they just don't make them like that anymore". It's not a flashy malt, but it's nearly flawless and deeply satisfying to drink. Unlike much of what has been distilled since it was restarted in 2001, there is none of the butyric funk that mars many current releases. Additionally, the oak is a significant presence that gives the spirit heft without overwhelming the distillery character, unlike many newer Bruichladdichs that seem like could stand to spend more time in first-fill casks. I can only hope that Bruichladdich can return to this style someday when demand has settled down and they're once again able to mature their whisky to a reasonable age, but the comparison between the two 10 year olds makes me wonder if that will really be possible. We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 10 Year Old vs. New

In many ways these two releases bracket the beginning and end of Bruichladdich's first phase after its purchase by Mark Reynier in 2000. The first 10 Year was one of the earliest releases in 2001 under the new ownership, utilizing spirit that was acquired from Whyte & Mackay along with the distillery itself. Even if it wasn't their own distillate, it was meant to establish the distillery's character in the new era.

In contrast, the Laddie Ten was released in 2011 as the first ten year old made entirely from spirit distilled under the new ownership. At that point the distillery was expected to move into a more standard mode with an established lineup composed of 10, 16, and 22 year old bottlings. However, that state of affairs quickly collapsed not long after the distillery was purchased by Remy Cointreau, with the age dated bottles no longer available outside of the distillery shop (and not even available there now) and the lineup reduced primarily to NAS or sub-10 year old vintage bottlings. So while the Laddie Ten did herald a new era, it was extremely short-lived.

Both were bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. The old label 10 Year is a 200 mL bottle that was purchased at the Islay Whisky Shop in 2013 and has a bottling code HW 02/0072, suggesting that it was bottled in 2002. The Laddie Ten was also purchased and opened in 2013, but the bottling code is unknown.

Bruichladdich 10 Year

Nose: pineapple, orange juice, berries, sherry, raisins, fresh malt, caramel, a touch of sea air, vegetal peat, mild oak. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry character expands, it becomes a little more raw and youthful overall, with the malt becoming grainier.

Taste: youthful - but not overly so, sweet malt beginning up front and carrying through to the back, a veneer of sherry and green notes beginning around the middle, very mild oak with a touch of vanilla and peat near the back. After dilution, the sherry character is enhanced and spreads out, there's a burst of slightly raw fruit esters around the middle, and the green notes around the back become a little sour, and the malt becomes grainier.

Finish: sherry residue, malt, light peat

I can see how this would have been a good representation for the distillery as it tried to rebuild itself in the mid-2000s. Unlike the more wild experiments of Reynier/McEwan era, it's a simple recipe of ex-bourbon casks with a smaller number of ex-sherry casks to give it a bit more pep. It's relatively uncomplicated and youthful, but also without overt flaws. For a drinker not closely scrutinizing the experience, it's pleasant and enjoyable without demanding a lot of attention.

If you live in the US there may still a few retailers that have the original Bruichladdich 10 Year on their shelves and if you happen to stumble upon it, I think it's a worthwhile experience as part of a bygone era, both for Bruichladdich itself and the industry as a whole.

The Laddie Ten

Nose: very earthy, dank, peat without a lot of smoke, fresh herbs, bourbon cask berries, vanilla with a slightly artificial cast, solid level of oak, leathery, roasted cacao beans, a touch of cumin. After adding a few drops of water, the leathery character increases, some coastal influence comes out, and the earth becomes damp mud.

Taste: malt sweetness and wood sugars throughout, salty with bourbon cask berries starting around the middle, earthy/leathery oak tannins and peat near the back. After dilution, it remains similar, but the leathery character is amplified.

Finish: oak tannins and earthy peat, berries, creamy malt,

Hate it or love it, the Laddie Ten is simply an entirely different whisky. It's not peated in the way that its Islay brethren are, instead making me think of peat that's turning into fresh soil. While it is mature in a way that the original 10 Year was not, without the youthful greenness, it also lacks the clean character that made the previous version such an easy drinking whisky.

Thankfully sometime in the last two years that this sample has sat around the butyric character that I originally found has burned off, which makes it far more drinkable. If I had to pick between the two, I'd take the pre-Reynier distillate any day.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Whisky Review: Hart Brothers Littlemill 20 Year 1984/2005

Hart Brothers released a second 1984 Littlemill, this time for the American market. This gave me a solid opportunity to compare and contrast.

This whisky was distilled in April 1984, aged in what I'm guessing was a refill hogshead, then bottled in January 2005 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to MAO for a sample. You can find his review as well as Michael's, which all came from the same bottle.

Whisky Review: Hart Brothers Littlemill 20 Year 1984/2005

Nose: gently floral, sour green malt underneath, a little chlorine/bromine, bubblegum, generic bourbon cask fruit, cake batter, frosting mixed with putty, tempura paint, Aquafresh toothpaste, slightly rancid butter, freshly treated lumber. After adding a few drops of water the fruit becomes stronger and more grape-like, pushing back some of the unpleasant chemical notes and leaving a less offensive mustiness, and some honey notes come out.

Taste: opens with crisp sweetness mixed with a peculiar grassiness, cooked string beans, and generic fruit esters that fade into bittersweet oak and vegetation near the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes somewhat cleaner and pushes back the vegetal/metallic bitterness a bit until the end, bigger fruit notes come out around the middle, but the constituent elements remain largely unchanged.

Finish: bittersweet grassiness/seaweed, bitter metallic/decaying oak, raisins?

Despite what my tasting notes would suggest, this was initially somehow less bad than the previous release. It's still nothing I would drink for pleasure, but I found it less difficult to struggle through the sample. On the other hand, it also didn't improve noticeably during the second tasting. This may be because it's a sample from a full bottle, so it had already aired out as much as it was going to, in comparison to a miniature that had been opened for the first time. So not the worst thing I've drunk, but still nothing that anyone should pay money for.

And yet! People still do, because of the current obsession with closed distilleries people have paid well over $200 for a bottle of this pond water. Just goes to show the importance of independent reviews. Between the three of us who have written about this bottle, I would like to think that no one will ever be so foolish as to buy it at auction again. But I know the market and that will probably happen anyway. Their loss.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Whisky Review: Hart Brothers Littlemill 20 Year 1984/2004

It says a lot about the esteem that Littlemill was held in until very recently that I was able to pick up this miniature for all of about £10 when I bought it at The Good Spirits Co in Glasgow in 2013. I figured "How often will I get to try a 20 year old whisky for that kind of money?" Little did I know what I was getting into.

This was distilled in April 1984, aged in what I'm guessing was some kind of refill ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in September 2004 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Hart Brothers Littlemill 20 Year 1984/2004

Nose: chemical disinfectant, chlorine, green malt, dusty pine, vanilla frosting, berry esters, citrus (orange, lemon, lime), incense, and growing cask influence. After adding a few drops of water, the unpleasant chemical notes become even stronger, partially balanced by increased cask influence, while some floral notes are added.

Taste: opens with saccharine sweetness that carries through all the way to the back, quickly joined by grass clippings and some kind of unpleasant solvent/chemical note with a touch of citrus oil, with some bourbon cask notes hiding in the background. After dilution the cask influence moves towards the front along with an earthy quality, somewhat helping to obscure the off-notes but not entirely succeeding.

Finish: bitter grass clippings, citrus pith, green malt

On my first tasting this made me wonder that the place wasn't shut down earlier (though the same question might be asked of North Port/Brechin). While there were occasional hints of something better hiding behind the chemical stink, this is a strong contender for one of the worst single malts I've ever tried, in its own way almost as off-putting as the Glen Elgin that smelled like burning hair.

On the second tasting some of the worse elements had dimmed, leaving the better parts amplified, especially on the nose. The palate was still kind of a mess, but at least slightly less offensive. Still, not really something I'd want to drink other than as a curiosity, but at least a glimpse of what the distillery could potentially be.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Whisky Review: Littlemill 12 Year

While the latest official Littlemill release may be on sale for ten times what most 25 year olds are now priced, this positive evaluation of its status is a very recent phenomenon.

With a few exceptions, only a few years ago the highest praise you were likely to find for Littlemill was "Well, it's not bad." And more frequently some variation of 'awful' was found in tasting notes. To put it mildly, there weren't that many people who were all that sad it had been shut down.

The official bottlings played a major role in developing that reputation. I tried the green bottle 8 Year a while back and found it underdeveloped but interesting. As with the rest of the beige label 12 Year lineup put out by Loch Lomond for their various active and inactive distilleries during the early-2000s, the general consensus was not overwhelmingly positive.

This was bottled at 43%, almost certainly with coloring and chill filtration.

Littlemill 12 Year

Nose: sweet malt, metallic, cardboard, vague fruitiness (mixed Starburst candy), dried flowers, a touch of fish oil. After adding a few drops of water all of the strangeness coalesces into something that makes me think of burning berries, rubber, and roots/vegetation with a little vanilla.

Taste: malt sweetness throughout with a slightly metallic edge, cardboard-y oak, big but slightly artificial fruit flavors (berries, banana, melon) around the middle, fading out through dry malt and growing cardboard and metallic/rubbery character. After dilution the sweetness becomes more straightforwardly sugary, edging out some of the other flavors but making everything seem brighter overall.

Finish: vague fruit esters, dry malt, metallic oak

My initial impressions of this whisky were, to put it mildly, not good.

While you can tell from my tasting notes that it eventually settled down, it never lost that sense of being aggressively weird.

Given what Littlemill is now going for (the same bottle I just reviewed now goes for upwards of $150 in Europe), this is likely to the be last one I ever try. For the $30-odd I paid for it, this was totally acceptable as a curiosity. While the initial awfulness burned off, it never blossomed into anything spectacular, just acceptable. If you're burning to try a Littlemill, it wouldn't hurt to sample some at a bar, but I wouldn't spend any effort hunting this down. Despite all the current Littlemill hype, it's just not that good.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Whisky Review: Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1997/2014 for K&L Wines

Since the distillery switched to using almost exclusively unpeated malt in 1963, Bunnahabhain has been known for being the lighter side of Islay.

That changed in 1997 when the distillery produced an experimental run with heavily peated (38 PPM) malt. As with Caol Ila's opposite experiments with unpeated malt, it was carried out during the depths of the whisky rut, so it seemed like a one-off until the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart in 2003. The new owners directed the distillery to start producing whisky from peated malt more regularly and it now constitutes about 1/12th of their annual output.

Many of the casks from the 1997 run found their way into the hands of blenders and independent bottlers, who have been sporadically releasing it over the last decade or so.

This whisky was distilled in August 1997, aged in an ex-bourbon hogshead #3181, then bottled in May 2014 at 56.1% without coloring or chill filtration for K&L Wines.

While initially priced at $130, few seemed to be biting at that point. So it was finally discounted to below $100, which seems to have been enough to get it to sell out. Thankfully I was able to split a bottle with Michael Kravitz, whose review you can read here.

Chieftain's Peated Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1997/2014

Nose: sweet Iberico ham rides over thick oak, an undercurrent of berries, seashore, and dry malt, pine resin and cedar, mossy peat smoke, motor oil

Taste: sweet oak up front, shifting towards bittersweet oak and chocolate across the palate, malt underneath, fennel and dried herbs around the middle, mossy peat shows up around the back augmented by barrel char, fruit and berry overtones throughout shading towards raisins and sherry near the back,

Finish: sweet malt, fresh mossy peat, barrel char, polished oak tannins, raisins, chocolate, sherry

This is one of the whiskies that proves Bunnahabhain can make peated whisky with the best on Islay. Despite their tall stills designed for light, delicate spirit, this is still a full-bore peat blast after a decade and a half in the cask. This is, however, one where you really need to enjoy some serious oak impact. While it's not stated, I'm guessing this was a first-fill hogshead, since there is plenty of tannins and other wood goodies to go around. In some respects this reminds me of recent releases of Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, which were also dominated by oak. But for some reason, the Bunnahabhain works better.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: relatively closed, muted oak, lumber, and cedar, dry peat and wood smoke, a little industrial, hints of berries, fresh greens, a little salty, a touch of incense

Taste: fairly big malt sweetness up front, with an overlay of fruit and berry esters that carries through, fading into fresh oak with light but well-integrated peat, then leaving with a touch of bitterness and incense smoke

Finish: oak dominated, dry soil, a touch of peat and incense

It's hard to say what I feel about this strength. It seems a little too tightly wound, without the intensity of the whisky at full strength but also not revealing much of anything new. With that said, if this had been bottled Old Malt Cask style, I don't think that would have significantly detracted from the experience, though it might have missed the intensity of the peat found at full strength.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: fresh cedar, inky peat smoke, malt, dried herbs (fennel), hollow vanilla, fresh vegetation

Taste: some initial sweetness flowing into muddy oak and malt, becoming more tannic towards the back with hints of fruit and berry esters plus moderate peat and fresh soil, hints of low tide riding over everything

Finish: earthy, oak tannins, integrated peat, decaying vegetation

While there's nothing precisely off at this strength and it's relatively easy drinking, there's also nothing particularly compelling about it. The smells and flavors are too muddy and ill-defined, with nothing really standing out. It's possible the fact that it louched at room temperature may have something to do with it, with flavorful esters dropping out of solution.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Whisky Review: Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength

Hazelburn is Springbank's unpeated, triple-distilled single malt. While official releases have been fairly rare, a few of these red stripe Cask Strength bottlings have hit the market. A 54% version was available in Europe and this 56.5% version was released in the United States. Unfortunately the bottle is almost completely lacking in information but I was hoping that it would be something like the Hazelburn Bourbon Single Cask I tried.

As with most cask strength whiskies I review, I made dilutions at various strengths to see how the spirit changed.

Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength 45%

Nose: lots of young, fresh malt, corn, vegetation, peat in the background, plastic, light oak, vanilla

Taste: malt sweetness up front that fades towards the back, herbal/spice kick around the middle, oak tannins and peat at the back

Finish: caramel, oak tannins, peat, malt residue

Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength 50%

Nose: basically the same as at 45%, but with slightly greater intensity, more refined malt and oak, plus citrus peel and vanilla cake frosting

Taste: amplified sweetness, roughly the same overall, maybe a little citrus and salinity around the middle

Finish: same as 45%

Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength 56.5%

Nose: malt with a toasted edge, corn, green/new make, pine, floral/herbal, light farm-y peat, vanilla, Jolly Rancher candy/pineapple, baking spices, cardamom, plastic

Taste: malt sweetness throughout, thick bourbon cask fruit/berry esters, barrel influence (caramel, light oak tannins, char), light peat at the back

Finish: hot, malt, grainy, green, light peat, gentle oak, floral

Much like Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof, I am genuinely baffled why Springbank decided to bottle this. It feel raw and underdone, without much complexity. While it opened up a bit at the very end of the bottle, the slog to get there was less pleasant. Additionally, the peat influence that seems to pervade this release is extremely unrepresentative of the rest of the Hazelburn line, which means that many who purchased this whisky will have bought something quite different from what they were expecting. I've seen some arguments about the phenols from Springbanks other peated malts creeping into Hazelburn, all of the other Hazelburn single malts I've tried have been peat-free, so this seems like an aberration rather than an inherent flaw in their process.

While I know few people who enjoyed it, I for one am not sad to be done with this whisky that I paid entirely too much money for. A teenage bourbon cask Speysider would have been better and almost certainly cheaper. There are a few bottles of this Hazelburn left in the States, but the only ones I can find available online are over $120, which is pure fantasy territory.