Friday, November 24, 2017

Whisky Review: Chivas Regal 18 Year

Chivas 18 Year is the next rung up the ladder from their Extra expression, positioned to compete with the likes of Johnnie Walker Gold. It is claimed that the core component of the blend, much like the 12 Year, is Strathisla, there's really no way to know exactly what is going into it beyond the age.

This whisky was bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Chivas Regal 18 Year

Nose: malt/grain, floral, gentle peat smoke and oak, light sherry influence with savory notes and wood spices. After adding a few drops of water it becomes flatter, with less peat smoke.

Taste: a little flat - grain/malt, gentle oak, light sherry, vanilla, citrus/berry overtones, and a touch of peat with oak tannins at the back. After dilution it becomes even flatter - mostly grain with a little vanilla and a touch of sherry at the back.

Finish: oak tannins, a touch of sherry

While a perfectly competent blend, there is little here that makes me want more. The touch of peat sets it above the 12 Year, but the lack of complexity in the flavors keeps it from being a good value. For something with similar structure but more robust flavors, Johnnie Walker Green Label is probably the better choice. With that said, I think this comes close to Johnnie Walker Blue Label at a fraction of the price, though the latter is more flavorful.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Whisky Review: Chivas Regal Extra

One of the consistent themes in the scotch whisky world these days is that if you need to pep up a release, throw more sherry at the problem. This is the conceit of Chivas Regal Extra - it exists at roughly the same price point as the standard 12 Year, but puts more sherry casks into the mix at the expense of an age statement.

This whisky is bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Chivas Regal Extra

Nose: initially almost nonexistent - vague malt/grain and caramel, opening up into richer sherry with a nutty/savory edge and orange peel. After adding a few drops of water the sherry recedes slightly to reveal the malt and grain as well as some vanilla.

Taste: thin and watery up front, opens into caramel, malt/grain, and a strong overlay of sherry with a touch of something floral in the middle, with a bittersweet fadeout through greener notes and moderate oak tannins. After dilution it becomes flatter/grainier and the sherry recedes significantly.

Finish: bittersweet caramel and grain, sherry residue

When I first cracked the mini I thought it might be defective because the nose was so weak and the flavors were so watery. It was somewhat better on the second pass, suggesting that it needed some air to open up. But even at that point I found little to recommend it over the standard 12 Year - while the sherry gave it a little more interest, it was nothing spectacular or complex. For the same price I could get a well-aged, sherry matured single malt from Glenfarclas that will have far more richness and depth. Bottled at a more respectable 43% I think it could offer something more compelling, but as is I can't see the point.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Whisky Review: Dewar's 12 Year

Dewar's is the flagship blend for Bacardi's clutch of scotch whisky distilleries, which include Royal Brackla, Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, and Macduff. While there have been efforts over the last few years to raise the profile of its malts, the core of their business is still in their blends.

This whisky is bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Dewar's 12 Year the Ancestor

Nose: a lot of grain whisky, wheat bread, creamy malt, distant sherry notes, dirty lemons, a little bit of funk, pine, and herbal character, a touch of floral vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it becomes even more dominated by the grain component, but more vanilla comes out.

Taste: rounded grain and malt sweetness with a sherry overlay up front, something floral around the middle, becomes grainier with continued flashes of sherry and sulfurous funk towards the back, very little oak. After dilution the grain becomes dominant but more sherry comes out.

Finish: lingering grain and earthy notes with creamy floral overtones

Wow, that's a lot of grain whisky. While there are bits and pieces of something interesting in this whisky, much of which I'm inclined to ascribe to Craigellachie, the grain whisky muscles almost everything else aside. It's not bad, but there's very little to make me recommend this, even as a cheap blend. It's pretty much a toss-up if you're choosing between this and Chivas Regal 12 Year, but I might give a slight nod to the latter. Something like Cutty Sark Prohibition is about the same price and offers significantly more robust flavors, if you need a cheaper blended whisky.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whisky Review: Chivas Regal 12 Year

Chivas Regal is one of the most well-known blends in the world, owned by Pernod Ricard. This is the second biggest conglomerate in scotch whisky, with fifteen distilleries, including some of the biggest such as Glenlivet and the new Dalmunach. It is claimed that Strathisla is the 'home' of Chivas Regal and presumably this forms the biggest malt component in the blend, though it is likely that grain whisky from Strathclyde forms a much larger share.

This blend is bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Chivas Regal 12 Year

Nose: very light - basic grain notes with a bit of malt, caramel, vanilla, a little solvent, herbal notes underneath, a faint hint of peat. After adding a few drops of water it goes even flatter.

Taste: simple malt/grain sweetness throughout, a little sherry roundness in the middle, and a surprisingly lack of oak tannins at the back. After dilution the grain whisky sticks out more and gives a bit of a bitter finish, but some fruit notes emerge (apples, pears), the sherry becomes bigger in the middle, and the oak becomes more noticeable.

Finish: grain, light oak, a bit of sherry residue

Well, it's a blend. As these things go, it manages to hit what I think was its mark: more or less inoffensive. Unlike Johnnie Walker Black Label, its most obvious competitor, there is little in the way of peat. This seems unsurprising since Pernod Ricard does not own any distilleries that regularly produce peated malt. Given the high demand over the last decade, that would not have left them in a position to trade for it in a regular fashion. So we're left with a much lighter whisky, without the dirtier backbone of JWB. With that said, it's not a bad blend by any stretch. It's just that you can get more interesting blends, like Isle of Skye 8 Year or Cutty Sark Prohibition, or basic single malts from Glenmorangie or Tomatin for only a few dollars more, so I don't think this is one I would buy again.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Whisky Review: G&C Pearls of Scotland Auchentoshan 16 Year 1998/2015

While most of Auchentoshan's lineup is not particularly well-regarded, the Three Wood gets far more love in the whisky community. This is likely because almost any malt with a big whollop of sherry will have significant appeal these days. While I wasn't quite so fond of it, I figured I would give this one a try anyway.

This whisky was distilled in September 1998, filled into sherry butt, then bottled in May 2015 at 55.3% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 590 bottles.

G&C Pearls of Scotland Auchentoshan 16 Year 1998/2015 Cask #2197

Nose: fresh, not a ton of sherry, clean malt, a little sour, grilled pineapple, savory, cured meat, creamy herbs, gentle oak. After adding a few drops of water the freshness turns into new make character briefly, then the savory character and oak become stronger.

Taste: rich but not overwhelming sherry, subdued sweetness, savory undertones, mild oak, barrel char, chocolate, and raisins start around the middle and grow slightly towards the back, herbal/grassy notes in the background throughout. After dilution some nice savory character is layered on top up front, with the oak becoming chocolate-y near the back.

Finish: dry sherry, raisins, oak tannins, leather

Unlike the bourbon matured Auchentoshans I've reviewed, this one is mostly about the sherry cask rather than the distillery. While there's nothing particularly wrong with this whisky, there's nothing very gripping either. The savory character is probably the best part, but isn't enough to make this a winner. I appreciate that it's drier than a lot of sherry casks without being overly tannic, but I think this one could have been left for another 5-10 years to develop more fully. It's OK, but that's not enough to make me shell out $100. $70, maybe, but I don't think it's going to go on sale like that.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Whisky Review: Old Malt Cask Auchentoshan 15 Year 1997/2013

Auchentoshan tends to be a hate it or love it malt, with relatively few in the latter category. While some dislike it because they find it boring, others find it a strange and inconsistent malt. I tend to be a fan, especially when aged in pure bourbon casks, but there are still exceptions.

This whisky was distilled in December 1997, filled into an ex-bourbon cask (probably Nth-refill), and bottled in May 2013 at 50% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 211 bottles.

Thanks to Florin for this sample.

Old Malt Cask Auchentoshan 15 Year 1997/2013 Cask #9807

Nose: a fair bit of residual new make character - green malt and solvent, popcorn without butter, floral perfume, pink bubblegum, horse manure with partially digested hay/grass that turns somewhat peat-y with time, brine, berry jam. After adding a few drops of water the farm-y notes resolve more clearly into peat.

Taste: fairly sweet up front with a layer of caramel throughout, dirty lemon peel, vanilla, and a thick layer of dusty floral notes begin around the middle fading slightly towards the back, earthy and sour oak going into the finish. After dilution the palate becomes flatter but loses some of the more unpleasant notes in a cheap blend-y kind of way, generic sweetness and minimal oak but less grungy.

Finish: muddy floral notes, vague sweetness, cardboard, lemon furniture polish

The first time I tasted this I couldn't really understand why it was bottled. There wasn't anything that made me think it was ready for primetime. The second tasting was more positive as the younger elements had largely blown off, leaving a more pleasant but not particularly remarkable malt. Blind I might have picked it as a youngish and reasonably competent blend with a little bit of something peated. This makes me wonder if this was a cask that didn't fit any of the profiles for Auchentoshan's lineup and was sold on. It certainly doesn't seem like any other Auchentoshan I've tried before. It's still available from some shops in the EU and while I wouldn't actively dissuade anyone from buying a bottle, it wouldn't be at the top of my list. For younger Auchentoshans the 1999 bourbon barrels seem to be a better bet.

For a different perspective, check out Michael's notes from the same bottle.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Does Anyone Actually Want Complexity?

When people bemoan how much whisky has changed over the last few decades, one of the points that often comes up is that modern spirits aren't as complex as they used to be. This raises two important questions - how much have they actually changed and how much is driven by changing tastes?

The mostly commonly cited factor for why spirits used to be more complex than they are today is
A decidedly uncontrolled washback at Springbank
production methods. What most of them come down to is less control - more fallible humans operating maltings, washbacks, and stills, strains of barley less optimized for yield, more floor maltings, longer fermentation times in wooden washbacks, direct fired stills (especially if they were heated with coal) instead of steam coils, stillmen making cuts by feel, more dunnage than racked warehouses, etc. Compared to modern methods that have relentlessly focused on increasing yield and consistency, older methods were more prone to mistakes - floor maltings could operate at the wrong temperature or turn the germinating barley at the wrong time, insufficiently clean washbacks could introduce bacterial infections into the wash, direct fired stills could burn the wash and create off flavors, and improperly timed cuts could let heads or tails into the hearts.

To quote Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg and Ed Dodson of Glen Moray:

"The ‘good old days’: ‘A large proportion of the whisky made 30, 40 and more years ago was horribly inconsistent… Ed Dodson, the former distillery manager at Glen Moray, laughs and says: “Bill, you know, the reason we closed the floor maltings down was because the malt we made was [crap], because we couldn’t do it properly, we just didn’t have the facilities to do it.” The whisky was all over the place.’"

At the same time that variability could occasionally come together to produce accidental brilliance - uncontrollable factors that made a uniquely good cask or batch that would be less likely to happen in today's far more controlled environment. This creates a trade-off - we're less likely to drink overtly flawed whisky now because there are fewer dud casks, but there are fewer of the soaring accidents of yesteryear.

With all that said, there is nothing stopping modern distilleries from reverting back to previously used production methods. Many distilleries retain these kinds of features - floor maltings, worm tub condensers, direct-fired stills, and the like. There were rumbles a few years ago that Ardbeg might rebuild its floor maltings, which have been silent since the early 1980s, but it appears that the powers that be decided not to greenlight the project. All of this suggests that distillers do not believe that the costs of less efficient production will be offset by increased sales of higher quality products.

If anything, the malts that have become popular over the last decade suggest that less rather more complexity is what many drinkers want. In 2008 Bruichladdich kicked off the Peat Wars with Octomore, which featured higher phenolic PPMs in the malted barley used to make the whisky than anything that had come before. Ardbeg responded with Supernova in 2009, which, while somewhat more modestly peated than Octomore, more than held its own. Since then an increasing number of distilleries have released heavily peated whiskies, often following in the footsteps of Octomore and Supernova by being NAS and likely young, thus retaining more of the peatiness that drinkers are looking for. While these whiskies can be good in their own terms, I have joked that the only way for them to push the envelope would be for the next release to be a ticket to Islay where someone would shove your face into a peat bog.

We have seen similar trends when it comes to sherry maturation. While it is unquestionable that many of the whiskies that led this trend, including Aberlour A'Bunadh, Glenfarclas 105, and Macallan Cask Strength, were and often are quite good, the singular focus seems to have led to increasingly unidimensional whiskies. They are bombastic and often enjoyable, but the combination of more and more first-fill sherry casks coupled with increasing youthfulness as stocks are strained means that they often end up being little more than high-proof sherry, with much of what we think of as malt whisky character subsumed by the wine. I think this can also be seen in the rapturous praise that is heaped on extremely dark whiskies that have not been colored with spirit caramel, as many believe this suggests a particularly active sherry cask. In my own experience these are often too sherried, with little else to recommend them.

My personal feeling is that the decreases in complexity are driven by both of these factors. Tighter stocks and more consistent production methods have decreased the scope for complexity, leading to few complex whiskies available on the market. At the same time, the influx of new drinkers has brought in many people who are looking for bold, comparatively simple flavor profiles, which has encouraged producers to cater to those tastes. While this is good for distillers, who can now move younger whisky more easily and a happy coincidence for the drinkers who enjoy those spirits, it leaves the people who are looking more more complex, subtle spirits in a bind without clear solutions.