Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Whisky Review: Aberfeldy 12 Year

Aberfeldy was founded by the eponymous John Dewar during the first serious whisky boom at the end of the 19th-century. It remained a member of the DLC - proto-Diageo - conglomerate until it was divested in 1998 and sold back to Dewars, now a part of the Bacardi conglomerate. Since then it has been the home of the "Dewar's World of Whisky".

This whisky was aged primarily in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 40% with coloring and chill-filtration.

Aberfeldy 12 Year

Nose: good balance - caramel, fresh malt, vanilla, a touch of sherry, ripe berries, apples/pears, gently floral, peat/wood smoke/cinnamon in the background. After adding a few drops of water it becomes comparatively flat, but reveals some citrus peel and pineapple.

Taste: sweet malt and caramel up front with a thread of bitterness that weaves across the palate, apple/pear in the background around the middle, becomes thicker near the back with mild oak. After dilution it becomes less sweet and reveals some sherry around the middle plus more oak with a more tannic character, giving it a touch of charred wood or wood smoke, near the back.

Finish: bittersweet - caramel, burnt sugar, fresh malt, a touch of oak and sherry

I was pleasantly surprised by this whisky. For being bottled at 40% the aromas have more density that you would expect and present a nicely balanced character. The palate is comparatively a bit of a letdown as it lacks complexity, but it is also without significant flaws. With that said, it doesn't handle water well and loses much of what made it pleasant at full strength. While this is nothing that will wow a seasoned malt drinker, it seems like a solid step up from basic blends and would probably be my preference when faced with only the standards Glens as an alternative. With that said, there are other entry-level malts from Old Pulteney, AnCnoc, Glenmorangie, and Glenfarclas that I would recommend over this for the money.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Whisky Review: The Exclusive Blend 1991 21 Year

While primarily known for their single casks, the Creative Whisky Company has been releasing a series of vintage blended whiskies. There have been roughly a half-dozen different expressions ranging from 6 to 40 years old.

This version was constructed from malt and grain whiskies distilled in 1991 aged in refill sherry casks and bottled in 2013 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

The Exclusive Blend 1991 21 Year

Nose: good balance between sherry and malt, pleasant grain, fresh grass and herbal notes, gently floral, a touch of wood spices. After adding a drops of water more vanilla comes out, the sherry largely fades, and the grain and floral components are more prominent.

Taste: sweet grain with a slightly sour edge up front, green apples/pears around the middle, sliding into sherry, dark chocolate, floral notes, and bittersweet oak near the back. After dilution it becomes grainier with most of the sherry fading into the background.

Finish: balanced grain and oak, slightly sour savory note, dried orange peel, floral, fresh grass and herbs, light apple/pear

I have mixed feelings about this blend. There's no question that it's well-constructed and the quality matches or exceeds plenty of other blends and single malts at the same price point. But it also feels like it didn't entirely reach its potential - for being 80% malt, I found that the grain component was still fairly clear, but this may be a stylistic choice. I'm also a little disappointed that it lost so much of the sherry with even a little dilution, which makes me wonder if this would have been better at 50%. If you enjoy older sherry influenced blends I think this is a solid example of the style and can still be purchased from some retailers, but this sample isn't enough to make me want more.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Rum Review: Denizen Merchant's Reserve

One of the great debates over the past decade or so has been which rums make the best Mai Tai. This comes out of research by Jeff "Beachbum" Berry that when the supply of Jamaican 17 year old Dagger rum that had been the original choice for Trader Vic's Mai Tai, first turned to a 15 year old Jamaican, then when that ran out he reformulate the drink with a blend of aged Jamaican and Martinique rums to create a profile that was more sustainable. For many years it was supposed that the Martinique rum meant a rhum agricole, the grassy cane juice based rums of that island.

There is a competing theory from Martin Cate of Smuggler's Cove that the Martinique component was a Grand Arôme rather than an agricole. Rhum grand arôme is a high-ester molasses-based rum - much like Jamaican rums that use dunder, grand arôme rums are made from 'vinasse', the leftovers in the pot after a distillation, and molasses that is allowed to ferment for a very long time before it is distilled. This creates a very high ester rum that has primarily been used for baking or as a flavoring agent in other rums.

By sourcing Jamaican and grand arôme rums through E.A. Scheer in the Netherlands, Denizen Merchant's Reserve sought to create an all-in-one blend built specifically for Mai Tais.

60% of the rums in this blend are aged for at least 8 years, 20% are aged for four years in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, and 20% is unaged rum. After blending it is bottled at 43% ABV, probably with chill filtration and possibly with coloring.

Denizen Merchant's Reserve

Nose: strong but not overwhelming dry esters, black pepper, overripe fruit (pineapple), plastic, matchsticks, slightly sharp oak and softer cedar in the background. After adding a few drops of water it becomes a bit more mellow with a less dry/assertive character and the earthy notes become stronger, but the overall structure remains the same.

Taste: sugar cane/molasses sweetness throughout, a little hollow/thin up front, vague/ethereal fruitiness in the background, sliding into dry esters with an oak backbone. After dilution the body becomes a bit thicker and the sweetness dominates throughout, with the esters and oak pushed a bit into the background.

Finish: layered sweetness, dry esters, and oak

While not a world-beater, this is an extremely competent rum. It doesn't have the brash intensity of something like Smith & Cross, but it has far more hogo than Appleton V/X. For me its major deficiency is that the spirit doesn't have the body I want, though there's only so much one can hope for at this price point. So while it gets the job done, I'm not sure it's what I would reach for again.

As this is a rum designed for Mai Tais, I feel obligated to give it a go in that form.

Mai Tai (1944)

2 oz rum
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.75 oz lime juice
0.25 oz orgeat
0.25 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with mint.

There's a decent amount of hogo on the nose, even going so far as something I would liken to smoked salmon. The sip opens with a perfect balance between the rum's hogo with just a touch of bitterness, the lime, orange, and almond. However it all seems to quickly fade, leaving an almost clean palate after the swallow.

While this is a perfectly competent Mai Tai, I feel like it's lacking a solid core. Admittedly, my ideal Mai Tai is made with a mix of Smith & Cross and St. James Ambre, which are both very deeply flavored, funky rums, so something at 43% isn't likely to hold my attention. At the same time, I feel like even an Appleton V/X and Clément split would give me a drink with more body than this. I think it would make for a solid choice at a bar that doesn't traditionally do tiki drinks and wants to ease their customers into the field as this is a very approachable version that ticks all the boxes. But at more established spots, I'm just not sure it has everything that the dedicated tiki drinker expects.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Physics of Double Retort Pot Stills and Thumpers

Pot stills are the oldest form of distillation and continue to be used across the world, but one of their main limitations is that the maximum ABV that can be attained in a single distillation is ~45% from standard 8-10% ABV wash. The small amount of high proof spirit from the first distillation will also be highly contaminated with low boiling compounds that range from unpleasant to unsafe, so it has traditionally required at least two pot still distillations to produce flavorful, drinkable spirit.

But double distillation is slow and expensive. Each run requires charging the still, consuming lots of fuel to heat it up, and cleaning out the remains in the pot after a run is complete. It also requires complex logistics to balance the flow of raw material through mashing, fermentation, and distillation so that equipment is being efficiently utilized. Distilling has always been a volume-driven business, so the more time it took to produce marketable spirit the less money a distiller was making on the vast amount of capital they had sunk into their plant, inputs, and labor. Somewhere in the 17th or 18th century distillers had the clever idea of hooking multiple pot stills together to perform multiple distillations simultaneously in series.

These types of stills are now uncommon, but can still be found in a number of rum distilleries across the Caribbean such as the double retort systems at DDL in Guyana (both the Port Mourant wooden 'double' pot still and John Dore high ester still), Appleton, Hampden, and Worthy Park in Jamaica, and Foursquare and Mount Gay on Barbados. They can also be found in many bourbon distilleries coupled to column stills under the title of 'doubler' or 'thumper'. All perform a secondary or tertiary distillation to boost the ABV of the output without having to manually perform a second or third distillation.

I've written before about the physics of pot stills and that background will be important for understanding what happens when they are connected to a retort. In essence all of this comes down to a bit of plumbing - while the lyne arm of a traditional pot still is connected directly with a condenser, a retort pot still passes the lyne arm into a additional pot still. This can either direct the hot vapor into liquid where it bubbles through and heats the contents through residual heat or the vapor can first be condensed then passed into the next pot where it is heated again and undergoes another distillation. In either case some portion of the liquid has to be passed back to the previous pot to maintain the liquid level as water and feints are left behind from the increasingly enriched vapor. Importantly, when this is a batch process being fed by a pot still all that is being changed is how many times the vapor is being redistilled. The distiller still makes heads, hearts, and tails cuts just like with a simple pot still.

Double retort pot still with rectifying column at the Worthy Park distillery from The Floating Rum Shack
One of the most important parts of this process is what goes into the retort. If you put pure water in the retort the ABV of the output will not be significantly boosted, but some of the more water-soluble compounds may be scrubbed out, kind of like a hookah or bong. At many distilleries that use these systems, the retorts are loaded with what are called 'low wines' and 'high wines' (see labels on retorts in photo of Hampden Estate below), which are respectively the tails and heads from previous distillations diluted to differing degrees depending on the desired output. Others, such as DDL, combine the heads and tails together before loading them into the retort. This replicates the practice in many distilleries with simple pot stills of recycling feints back into the wash still for redistillation. A visual description of that process can be found here. For more flavorful spirits, stillage or dunder (what remains in the pot after a previous run) can also be charged into the retorts to boost the ester content in the Cousin's process (this is a sufficiently complex topic that it will get its own post at a later date).

To cite one example of how a retort pot still operates, this report claims that Appleton's double retort pot still starts with 8% ABV wash that is converted into roughly 30% ABV output, which goes through the first retort charged with 30% ABV low wines and is converted into roughly 60% ABV output, which goes through the second retort charged with 75% ABV high wines to give a final product at 80-90% ABV.

Double retort pot still at Hampden Estate from Leonardo Pinto
While the dynamics of retorts fed with the condensed output from the previous still (doublers in bourbon parlance) are basically the same as any other pot still, a vapor feed creates far more complex dynamics. What happens to the vapor bubbling through the liquid in the retort is dependent on a large number of influences that will shape the output. Thanks go out to user The Black Tot from the Rum Project forums, who did a pretty thorough job of thinking through what's happening in a retort.

Vapor from the pot still emerges into the liquid in the retort, initially at a much higher temperature than the liquid. The height of the liquid in the retort creates pressure that compresses the bubble. These forces will make the bubble partially or completely collapse as the temperature drops and the pressure rises, driving the vapor within the bubble below its condensation point. The heat from the vapor, both from its initial temperature and the gas to liquid phase change, will be added to the liquid. That process will be more or less complete depending on the temperature of the liquid, the pressure in the liquid where the bubbles emerge, and the size of those bubbles. Low temperature liquid with a lot of depth and small bubbles will encourage complete collapse, while higher temperature liquid without much depth and larger bubbles will be more likely to reach the surface of the liquid and burst. The first case will give better separation as the liquid is gently heated, while the second case will give less separation as the liquid is quickly heated and boils turbulently, mixing up heavier and lower boiling components.

The interplay between the size of the retort and the volume of the charge in it play an important role in determining how much heat will be lost from the system through radiant cooling and influence how much reflux is generated in the retort. A larger retort with a smaller charge will result in more cooling and more reflux, while a smaller retort with a larger charge will result in less cooling and less reflux. The charge will be influenced by how the stills are set up to handle the mass balance of the system - vapor enters the retort, gives up its heat, and the alcohol is preferentially vaporized again. The enriched vapor stream leaves water behind, which will tend to increase the amount of liquid in the retort. This is usually dealt with by passing some of the liquid back to the previous pot, but that can be plumbed in different ways. An outlet with a vapor lock part way up the wall of the retort can help to maintain a constant liquid level, while one leaving at the bottom will have a flow dependent on relative pressures in each vessel, though this can also be controlled with a valve if the distiller wants to vary the conditions over the course of a run. In some ways this is also analogous to a purifier pipe in the lyne arm of a pot still, passing material back to be redistilled and giving a greater amount of total reflux through the system.

All of these parameters give a distiller multiple ways to control the process and output, resulting in full-bodied 'pot still' spirits in a single run that would take a standard pot still two to three distillations to match. In my next article in this series I will describe how this concept was transformed into the batch column stills that have become so common in the craft distilling industry.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

New Cocktails: Turkey Shoot

While rye and Ramazzotti go together in any number of drinks ranging from the Brooklyn to the Black Manhattan, I've never seen them together in the mold of a Boulevardier, with the close exception of the Canon Cocktail by Jamie Boudreau, which still fancies up that basic combination. But sometimes simplicity is just as good as complexity.

Turkey Shoot

1.25 oz Wild Turkey 101 Rye
0.5 oz Ramazzotti
0.5 oz sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chill cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of orange peel.

The nose is balanced between rye grain, orange peel, and herbs/mint. The sip opens with sweet grape notes, then it counterbalanced by bitter notes from the rye and amaro/vermouth, with a grain and herbal fade at the back, and a rounded orange note throughout.

The herbal character of Ramazzotti goes really well with the spiciness of rye, giving a different emphasis than with Campari in the classic Boulevardier. With that said, it does take a fair amount of rye to hold up against the very strong flavors of the amaro, so if you're making this with a lower proof rye you might need to up it to 1.5 oz to keep everything in balance. Overall I'm really happy with how this turned out.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Whisky Review: A.D. Rattray Macallan 15 Year 1995/2011

Independently bottled Macallan has grown even thinner on the ground lately as the blending casks the distillery was willing to sell before the 2000s were bottled. This particular cask was a double rarity - teenage Macallan from an ex-bourbon cask, very different from the sherry-driven style they're known for.

This whisky was distilled on October 23rd 1995, filled into an ex-bourbon cask, then bottled on April 27th 2011 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 334 bottles.

Thanks to MAO for this sample.

A.D. Rattray Macallan 15 Year 1995/2011 Cask #11251

Nose: rich bourbon cask influence - caramel, vanilla, graham crackers, and mild oak - apple/pear/apricot notes, powdered lemonade, gently floral, some ethyl acetate, a little dusty/musty (but in a good way). After adding a few drops of water the vanilla and floral notes expand, the orchard fruit are joined by berries, the oak becomes honied, and the ethyl acetate is better integrated.

Taste: sweet up front balanced by some alcohol heat, bourbon cask influence of caramel and mildly tannic oak around the middle, with a vague orchard fruitiness and citric tang throughout. After dilution the alcohol heat largely disappears, leaving big sweetness up front and less tannic oak in the middle, but the slide into the finish falls a little flat.

Finish: a little savory/tannic oak, clean malt, vanillin, a little fruit residue

While far more drinkable than the Whisky Galore Macallan, the clear ethyl acetate note throughout establishes a clear lineage. I think this one is rescued from disaster by more time and a more active cask, but the flaws keep it from being an unqualified winner. I can also see how this spirit works better when augmented with sherry casks. While it doesn't quite click for me, dilution helped in a way that makes me wonder if it would have been better off at 43% to begin with.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Whisky Review: Whisky Galore Macallan 10 Year 1992/2003

If Macallan is known for one thing it is its sherry cask matured spirit. While the "Oh crap, we can't keep up with demand" Fine Oak series blended bourbon casks (probably originally intended for blends) with a smaller proportion of sherry casks, the only way to get pure bourbon cask matured Macallan has been independent bottlers. This one is from one of Duncan Taylor's lines that was eventually dropped in favor of their NC^2 line. Both offered largely younger whisky at 46% without coloring or chill filtration at fairly reasonable prices.

This whisky was distilled in 1992, filled into (probably Nth refill) ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in 2003 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Whisky Galore Macallan 10 Year 1992/2003

Nose: so much ethyl acetate, clean malt, a little green/grassy, unripe apples/pears/peaches, some vanilla in the background, very little oak, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water the ethyl acetate settles down a bit and it gets maltier, the vanilla is amplified but the fruit notes fade a bit into the background.

Taste: malt sweetness with an undercurrent of ethyl acetate throughout, a pleasant thickness around the middle, and a bit of savory oak/malt going into the finish. After dilution it becomes much sweeter, the fruitiness around the middle is amplified, and the savory notes at the back are joined by some orange peel, but there's also more grassy bitterness in the middle.

Finish: surprisingly long recapitulation of the aromas - bittersweet malt, grassy, unripe apples and pears, a little vanilla, distant oak, then straight ethyl acetate lingers for minutes afterwards

This was a somewhat disappointing whisky. While there's clearly some good, fruity spirit in there, it's the strong ethyl acetate notes throughout make it hard to enjoy what it has to offer. With slightly more active cask with more porous wood I can envision this being much better, but as is I feel like it would need many more years of evaporation to settle into something good. It also seems rather similar to the Whisky Galore Glenlossie I tried a while back, which also had some prominent ethyl acetate notes. I'm more than a little surprised that these casks were chosen for bottling, even with such a famous name attached, but I've questioned the bottling decisions made at Duncan Taylor during the 2000s and this seems of a piece with them.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Whisky Review: Balblair 1978 First Release

The 1978 vintage is one of the few from Balblair that has only received a single release. It was eventually replaced in 2012 by a second release from the 1975 vintage. This at least suggests that Balblair really is going through their warehouses to find the casks that they think work best rather than simply marching forward through whatever they happen to have on hand.

This whisky was distilled in 1978, filled into second-fill ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in 2009 in an outturn of 3000 bottles at 46% without coloring or chill filtration

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for this sample.

Balblair 1978 First Release

Nose: fairly typical Balblair, but more refined and a little tired until it sits in the glass for a good while - clean honied malt, orange peel, strongly herbal, vanilla, light oak, a little tropical fruit and berry/grape/sherry. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer and more malty with a slightly savory edge, but the structure remains largely the same.

Taste: fairly light - honied sweet malt up front, becoming herbal with vanilla and grape-y fruit around the middle, plus an undercurrent of gentle oak throughout that grows stronger around the back. After dilution it gets sweeter up front and feels more green/herbal around the middle, but stays largely the same.

Finish: very long - polished oak, clean malt, savory, herbal vanilla, orange peel

This feels like a logical extension of the 1989, but with more complexity in the aromas and finish. While it is also composed from refill ex-bourbon casks, the impact is dialed up just enough to keep it from feeling too spirit-y. I was a little disappointed by the flavors in comparison, but the way it was bracketed by the aromas and finish makes up for a lot of that. Overall it's very solid spirit aged in not overly-aggressive casks, which is the kind of thing that is getting increasingly difficult to find without spending an arm and a leg.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Whisky Review: Balblair 1989 Third Release

Balblair has done a number of releases from this vintage, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2012, signaling the end of their (almost?) exclusively ex-bourbon lineup and shifting into a lineup that featured blends of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.

This release was distilled in 1989, filled into refill ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in 2012 without coloring or chill filtration.

I bought this sample as part of a set at The Good Spirits Co in Glasgow in 2013.

Balblair 1989 Third Release

Nose: kind of Balvenie-ish - honied malt, rich vanilla, orange peel, pineapple, beeswax, a little floral. After adding a few drops of water the wax and floral notes expand, the malt becomes drier, and some grape notes come out.

Taste: opens with sweet malt and floral honey undertones, which carry all the way through, some vanilla and vague fruit/berries around the middle, and a light oak overlay near the back. After dilution it retains more or less the same structure but in a softer mode and with some greener notes at the back plus a little pleasant mustiness.

Finish: savory malt and gentle oak tannins, waxy, vanilla, grape

While not particularly complex, this is a good, solid bourbon cask whisky. I appreciate that Balblair was willing to showcase their spirit without the crutch of sherry casks for so long and wish that they were still doing it, because I think it offered something similar to older bourbon cask Balvenie and Clynelish that can be rather difficult to find these days. I would probably buy a bottle if I could find it for under $120, but that seems pretty unlikely at this point. Definitely not at the local price of $500 a bottle.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Whisky Review: Balblair 1997 Second Release

Balblair's vintage release strategy offers a rare chance to experience spirit distilled during the same year at different ages. This was the second release of the 1997 vintage, with another five years in the casks compared to the first release.

This miniature was part of a set I purchased at the Good Spirits Co in Glasgow in 2013.

Balblair 1997 Second Release

Nose: pretty standard ex-bourbon barrel whisky - good balance of caramel, oak, vanilla, milk chocolate, and malt, greener young Balblair notes are becoming herbal, berries, orange peel, and vague fruitiness in the background. After adding a few drops of water the balance shifts towards the spirit and away from the cask - more green malt, less caramel and oak, plus a little bit of pineapple, pear, and mocha.

Taste: sweet caramel and roasted malt up front, vanilla in the middle, joined by well-integrated oak and some light green notes going into the finish. After dilution it feels more youthful, with more green malt and less oak/caramel, plus extra vague fruit around the middle.

Finish: a huge wave of espresso chocolate mousse, cinnamon, plus well-integrated oak and cedar in the fade out

This is one of those rare whiskies where the finish is the best part of the experience. The aromas and flavors are totally decent but somewhat unremarkable in comparison to the confectionary experience after the swallow. Much of that is lost with the addition of water, so I'd hold off unless you have a whole bottle and want to experiment.

There is a clear evolution from the younger 1997 vintage that I tried a while ago, with a switch from a more spirit-driven release to a more cask-driven release. In many ways this takes some of the best parts of bourbon and repackages them in a malt whisky context, amplifying the good parts (caramel, vanilla, chocolate/coffee) and smoothing out the rougher edges (overly aggressive oak) into a very tight package. It's not particularly complex, but what it does well it does very well. I wish I could have picked up a whole bottle when it was available, but such is the way of the whisky world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Whisky Review: Balblair 2002 First Release

For the last decade or so Balblair has been releasing younger (10-12 years old) vintage single malts. I tried a couple of them (1997 and 2001) a while back and found that their character varied quite significantly despite their nominally similar composition. This whisky is part of the same lineup and was released in 2012 from what Balblair claims were first-fill ex-bourbon casks bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

This miniature is from a set I purchased at the Good Spirits Co in Glasgow in 2013.

Balblair 2002 First Release

Nose: fairly typical of younger Balblair - fresh/green malt dominates, vague fruitiness (pineapple/mango/grapefruit?), very little cask impact, a little creamy vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the green/new make notes become much stronger and more unpleasant.

Taste: sweet malt beginning up front, joined by green youthfulness all the way through, some vague fruitiness (tropical/berries) starting around the middle, more malt with a sour edge going into the finish. After dilution it becomes sweeter and the mouthfeel is thicker, but the green notes become stronger in the middle.

Finish: green malt with a touch of grainy rather than oak-y bitterness, a little sour

If you've had younger Balblair before then you probably know about what you're in for here. As with many of them if feels like this is composed entirely of whisky from second- or third-fill casks that have barely been able to round off the rougher edges of the new make spirit. The choice to bottle at 46% appears to have been necessity more than just style, since the aromas absolutely fall apart with even a little bit of water. Compared to the 2001 this was more straightforward, but also more boring. Overall, it was fine but not something that I would search out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Whisky Review: Glen Garioch Vintage 1997

Glen Garioch is one of the oldest still active distilleries in Scotland, but it has gone through a number of rough patches over the centuries when it was closed or mothballed. This happened most recently between 1995 and 1997, when the floor maltings were eliminated and the distillery switched to using unpeated commercial malt.

This whisky was distilled in 1997, filled into first- and second-fill ex-bourbon casks, then bottled in 2012 at 56.7% without coloring or chill filtration.

Glen Garioch Vintage 1997

Nose: the high proof is very clear from the initial strong alcohol heat, which eventually clears to reveal fresh malt, some vague fruit notes (melon? berries?), pleasant vanilla, pencil shavings, light dusty oak, soy sauce, and a slightly industrial savory note that reminds me a bit of Ben Nevis. After adding a few drops of water the industrial/savory notes become creamier and integrate with the vanilla, the malt becomes toasted grain, the oak turns into cinnamon and cedar, and some green/pine notes poke out around the edges.

Taste: lots of alcohol heat up front, sweet, very creamy malt throughout, light oak near the back. After dilution the alcohol heat diminishes significantly and some vague fruitiness comes out around the middle, but the overall structure remains the same.

Finish: clean malt, industrial lubricants, savory, mild oak, vague fruitiness (berries, raisins). After dilution the character of the finish largely fades and becomes hot, vague, and bitter.

At full strength this is a slightly odd whisky. While I can see why it's been described as 'modern' Glen Garioch, it's also pretty clearly spirit-driven with very minimal amounts of oak influence. The industrial/savory notes are probably the most appealing part, giving more character to what would otherwise be a fairly bog standard Highland whisky.

Though I found the initial heat somewhat off-putting, it settled down nicely in a way that makes me think a whole bottle would be rather drinkable. My biggest disappointment was how the finish just disappeared after adding even a little way, removing one of the best parts of the experience. It would be interesting to experiment and see if there's a degree of dilution that retains the finish, if you don't have much to work with I'd leave it be.

I can also see why people bemoan the loss of the older floor malt Glen Garioch as a bit of peat could really take this spirit to the next level. While I'm glad to have tried a pure bourbon cask release first, I can also see how this would take well to sherry casks, hopefully edging further in the savory direction.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Whisky Review: Bowmore 17 Year

Bowmore 17 Year preceded the now standard 18 Year, then was relegated to the travel retail section. While the 18 Year has a preponderance of sherry casks over bourbon casks, the 17 Year inverts the percentages and has a higher proportion of bourbon casks than sherry casks.

This whisky was bottled at 43% with coloring and chill filtration.

I purchased this sample as part of a gift set at the Bowmore distillery in 2013.

Bowmore 17 Year

Nose: fairly subtle - balanced sherry, malt, mossy peat, and American oak, a little savory and salty, coffee. After adding a few drops of water the oak and peat are slightly amplified, making it richer but simpler.

Taste: bourbon-y caramel up front, subtle peat and oak from the middle back, a touch of sherry with some more European oak going into the finish. After dilution the oak and peat are amplified, while the sherry spreads out underneath the other flavors alongside some floral notes.

Finish: sherry residue, oak, malt, earthy peat

While this has gotten a little tepid at full strength, it has the basic structure of the 17 Year that I tried during the distillery tasting and enjoyed quite a bit. Whether your prefer the 17 or 18 Year is mostly dependent on how much sherry you want in your Bowmore. I prefer the bourbon cask end of the spectrum, so this works for me, especially as I find the oak to be less aggressive. Sadly it is also long gone, so I'll have to make due with the cask strength 17 year old Bowmores I have waiting for me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Whisky Review: Bowmore 15 Year Mariner (New Label)

Bowmore Mariner was another whisky that was aimed at the travel retail market during the 2000s and (I think) was discontinued around 2013.

This whisky was aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled in 2009 at 43% with coloring and chill filtration.

I purchased this miniature as part of a set at the Bowmore distillery in 2013.

Bowmore 15 Year Mariner (New Label)

Nose: classic Bowmore notes - balanced fresh malt and light herbal peat, red wine and berries in the background, seashore, a bit savory with a touch of something floral. After adding a few drops of water the wine notes mostly fade, leaving a soft bed of malt with more peat and a touch of ex-bourbon oak and caramel.

Taste: sweet wine opening, clear red wine and raspberry right behind, fading out through mild oak and a little bit of herbal peat, all on top of a base of clean malt with light violet/lavender top notes. After dilution it becomes more integrated, with less peat and a slight waxing and waning of the wine notes across the palate.

Finish: red wine residue, raspberry, a bit sour, a little oak, fresh malt, a touch of salinity

While the construction of this whisky and the Enigma are nominally very similar, the results are very different. The wine notes are far more present right off the bat, but they end up reading more like a red wine than a fortified wine finish to me. If it had hit like I expect a sherry finish to, sort of a more subtle Darkest, I could see myself drinking a lot more of this. It's nuanced but not flat, with excellent balance. I wouldn't pay over the odds for this, but if you like peat and wine finishes, this would be a good one to grab if you happen to stumble upon a bottle (WhiskyBase currently has a few at not wildly inflated prices if you're so inclined).

Monday, May 28, 2018

Whisky Review: Bowmore 12 Year Enigma

Bowmore Enigma was part of their travel retail lineup from the early-2010s. It was constructed similarly to the standard 12 Year, but with a higher proportion of sherry casks in the mix, much like the standard 18 Year.

This whisky was aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled in 2009 at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

I purchased this miniature as part of a set at the Bowmore distillery in 2013.

Bowmore 12 Year Enigma

Nose: classic Bowmore mossy/ashy peat with a healthy dose of wood smoke, leather, cured meat, sweet sherry underneath, clean/fresh malt, vanilla, some jammy fruit. After adding a few drops of water the malt, peat, and barrel char become more clear, a little floral perfume emerges, while the oak and sherry retreat/turn into maple syrup.

Taste: opens with sweet malt and a layer of sherry, quickly overlaid with oak tannins, barrel char, and a rising wave of mossy peat smoke that crests and resolves into more oak tannins and some fruity malt going into the finish, plus a light citrus note riding over everything. After dilution the oak backs off a bit to reveal more sherry but less peat and it is generally more mellow throughout.

Finish: polished oak, tannins, dry peat smoke, a little sherry residue, background malt, tropical fruit

This is a solid Bowmore, especially considering that it's not at its best at their bottling strength and with their usual manipulations. I'd need to try them side by side, but this seems pretty close to the standard Bowmore 12 Year, albeit with a little bit more going on. The aromas and the tropical fruit notes in the finish are probably the best pieces, while the flavors are OK but unspectacular. Water helps in the sense that the oak is less assertive, but both the aromas and flavors become more simple. If you happen to stumble upon a liter bottle for, say, $50 or less it wouldn't be a bad deal if you already enjoy the 12 Year, but it's not something that I would go out of my way for.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Armagnac Review: Delord 25 Year

If you go looking for older armagnac in the States, odds are that you will end up finding something from Delord. They're one of the few nearly ubiquitous armagnacs in the U.S. and offer a large number of age-dated and vintage releases at seemingly attractive price points.

Delord was founded by one of the mobile distillers of the region in 1893. His sons turned it into a permanent operation in 1932 with an estate in the Bas Armagnac region. They distill from a mixture of ugni blanc, colombard, baco, and folle-blanche grapes that are vinified separately and then distilled using both continuous and batch stills. The continuous still distillate is primarily used for spirits destined to age for a significant amount of time while the double distilled spirit is primarily used for younger expressions.

Thanks to Florin for this sample.

Delord 25 Year

Nose: balanced between raisin and sharp oak, some creamy vanilla, herbal, musty chalk/cardboard, floral pink bubblegum, and caramel. After adding a few drops of water the oak becomes a bit softer and lets the raisins shine more, but the overall structure is largely unchanged.

Taste: bittersweet throughout, grape notes underneath up front, slowly transitioning into almost pure syrup-y oak tannins with a little bit of caramel at the back. After dilution the bitterness retreats significantly and the grape notes are more clear up front, but the overall structure is largely unchanged.

Finish: dominated by tannic oak with generic brandy notes in the background and an artificial edge that I associate with spirits that have been tinkered with

I am not a fan of this armagnac. While it is an excellent value on its face - a quarter century old from an old house - it feels like too much has been done to the spirit to make up for inadequate or over-active casks. Like too many spirits these days, it feels engineered for a price point rather than to display what Delord is capable of. Alternatively, it could be created to capture drinkers who believe that older spirits are inherently oak-driven. I'm very thankful to have seen just enough skeptical reviews to keep myself from buying a whole bottle, as it was very tempting when I saw it available locally.

With all that said, if you're a bigger fan of bourbon this might click for you. The overall flavor structure is somewhat similar, albeit with grapes instead of grain, and the density of the aromas is very strong for the strength of the spirit. Just maybe try to find it at a bar before you spring for an entire bottle.

For two slightly different takes on samples from the same bottle, check out MAO and SKU.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Eighth Anniversary - Four More Years of Booze Blogging

I've been out of habit of marking the anniversary of this blog's creation, but it seems like a good time for another retrospective.

Things have been quieter over the last few years, not necessarily because I don't have anything to write about, but because I just haven't been drinking as much. Sometime after I finished my PhD in 2016 I more or less stopped entirely. Given that it was something of a rough time mental health-wise, that was probably for the best considering the alternatives, but it's taken quite a while to get back up to speed.

Lately that's been making me ask why I still write this. I'm not getting paid. The heyday of cocktail blogs that I was in the thick of when I started has mostly faded as people either turned pro or simply found that there was too much competition for their time. While I found a second wind in the rise of whisky blogging, even that seems to be losing steam for many of the same reasons.

What it really comes down to is that I feel like I have gotten a lot out of reading other folk's blogs and I still want to contribute. While not perfect, independent voices are still deeply needed right now. Sure, that gives me mixed feelings when I review spirits that haven't been available for years or are now wildly expensive when they can be found, but there is still value in chronicling where we were to understand where we are now.

Part of this is also wanting to get back to writing about the science of spirits. If you follow me on Twitter you can probably guess what my next post will be about. It's one of the ways that I feel like I can really add to the community by translating complex concepts into something more understandable. So there will definitely be more of that in future.

You can also expect to see more non-whisky posts. I have managed to whittle down my open bottles of malt whisky to three right now and I'm hoping to get it down to zero just for a change of pace. There should be more cognac, armagnac, rhum agricole, and other spirits on the horizon as I try to expand my palate. With that said, I also ordered a giant pile of whisky samples recently, so there should still be plenty of those sprinkled throughout as well.

Overall my goal is to keep from feeling like I'm in a rut. Grinding out whisky reviews has been useful in a lot of ways, but I was starting to feel like I was drinking too many for academic purposes instead of because they were enjoyable in and of themselves.

Here's to enjoying what we drink.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Drinking in Barcelona: Dux Cocktail & Gin Borne

I was recently in Barcelona for a project meeting, but I made sure to give myself a few days to
explore the city before and after. Unsurprisingly, one of my first plans after checking into my hotel and getting some food in my stomach was finding somewhere for a drink.

After a slightly confusing walk through the Gothic Quarter to find that the places I had been looking for were closed, I stumbled upon Dux while trying to get back to a main street. While very quiet on a Tuesday night, it looked inviting.

Dux is set up in the now-classic craft cocktail bar mold, with a vague speakeasy style. The decor harkens back to the early-20th century and there is live jazz on more happening evenings. While the bartenders have more of a Portland hipster vibe in checked shirts and aprons instead of the previously regulation arm garters and handlebar mustaches, they know their trade and make extremely good drinks, many from an array of infused gins.

In keeping with the craft cocktail vibe, many of the signature drinks from their menu have a somewhat over-the top presentation (I saw at least one being served in a tiny bathtub), but their construction is always impeccable. Despite the crowded weekend night conditions, I got an absolutely stellar Last Word that was perfectly balanced between bitter, sour, and sweet.

Overall, I would highly recommend dropping by if you're in Barcelona and looking for a fancy but not overly pretentious drink. They will treat you well, whether it's a quiet Tuesday or a slammed Saturday.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Whisky Review: Longrow Red 12 Year Pinot Noir Cask Finish

Continuing the Longrow Red series, this was released in 2015 and returned to the red wine finishes after the atypical port cask release of 2014.

This whisky was aged in bourbon barrels for 11 years then finished in fresh Pinot Noir casks for an additional year, then bottled at 52.9% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 9000 bottles.

Longrow Red 12 Year Pinot Noir Cask Finish

Nose: balanced savory peat smoke and wine, floral, bubblegum, vanilla, banana? After adding a few drops of water it becomes more savory with a hint of cured meat, the peat and wine are softer and more integrated, and the malt is creamier.

Taste: wine and malt sweetness up front, gentle oak and off-dry wine in the middle, a little heat and a bump of dry malt with background peat smoke before the finish, plus more wine at the back. After dilution it becomes softer and sweeter up front, the wine is more integrated, and the peat folds into the stronger oak at the back with creamy malt undertones.

Finish: wine residue, light oak, and a touch of peat smoke

The wine in this release reads more like a fortified wine than a red wine. While some of it may be because the bottle has been open for quite a while, it comes off as simpler and far softer than the Cabernet Sauvignon with some compensation in stronger and more savory peat at full strength. Overall I liked this, especially as I think I would have gone through the bottle more easily than the Cab. With that said I don't think I'd be willing to pay the $110+ that the remaining bottles in the States appear to be going for.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Whisky Review: Longrow Red 11 Year Cabernet Sauvignon Cask

Longrow Red is a series of heavily peated, full strength, wine cask finished whiskies that has been coming out since 2012. While most have been red wines, there have been exceptions such as a port cask finish. Importantly, unlike many finished whiskies, these are closer to double maturations in that the finishing periods range from 1-5 years.

This whisky was aged in refill ex-bourbon hogsheads for 7 years, transferred to fresh Cabernet Sauvignon hogsheads for 4 years, then blended to give an outturn of 9000 bottles at 52.1% ABV without coloring or chill filtration.

Longrow Red 11 Year Cabernet Sauvignon Cask

Nose: gobs of fresh malt, slightly sour wine, dry peat smoke, fresh vegetation, dried lavender, cinnamon bark, mild oak, savory/yeast undertones. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer with more savory malt, the wine fades significantly behind dry oak and peat, and the lavender remains a solid thread behind everything.

Taste: fairly hot up front with sour & sour wine on top, creamy malt underneath, fade out through oak/wine tannins and dry peat, gently floral at the back. After dilution the heat fades significantly, but the structure remains overall the same except for a bump of extra sourness at the back.

Finish: oak tannins, red wine, a thread of peat smoke and dried lavender

While a little on the hot side, this is a very solid whisky. I wish the wine influence was more integrated, but the finishing period seems to have been long enough to keep it from feeling like something slapped on top of the spirit. The nose is by far the best part, with a good balance between intensity and complexity, especially after it's had some time to breathe in the glass. In contrast the flavors are a little less exciting, without any particular complexity.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: light dry peat with a sour edge like hard apple cider, lots of berries, red wine, oak with a little wood smoke

Taste: sweet malt and red wine up front, a citric tang right behind transitioning into moderate oak tannins, vanilla, and hard apple cider in the middle, with a bump of peat near the back

Finish: peat, oak tannins, red wine residue, berries

While there's nothing wrong with this strength, it's a sort of unsatisfying middle. It doesn't have the intensity of full strength, but also doesn't have the extra peat that emerges with even more dilution. Additionally, the sourness in the aromas somehow seems even more assertive than at full strength, which makes it less pleasant than it would otherwise be. With that said, the hard apple cider character that emerged after the whisky had been in the glass for a while was really interesting.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: lots of classic Longrow peat, woodsy/pine, rather dry - more savory than sweet, red wine underneath with some ripe tomato notes, clean malt and oak in the background, a little bit of vanilla

Taste: balanced malt and red wine sweetness up front, becomes more savory with tomato notes in the middle, peat and syrupy oak at the back, and vanilla and berries on top throughout

Finish: dry peat, mild oak, a little red wine residue

While dilution takes away most of the heat, it doesn't diminish the intensity of this whisky. It was a pleasant surprise to find out how much stronger the peat is at this strength, even if it loses a little bit of complexity. I think I prefer it at full strength, but it would be quite welcome at 46% when I'm looking for something more easy-going.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

New Tiki Cocktails: the Mai Tai Vallet

While the Mai Tai has always been one of the classic tiki drinks for highlighting what rum can do, more recent years have seen the development of cocktails that take its basic mold and twist it in a bitter direction. Most well-known include the Campari-based Bitter Mai Tai and the Angostura bitters-based Stormy Mai Tai.

I based this on the structure of the Bitter Mai Tai and was inspired by the Angostura bitters of the Stormy Mai Tai to remake it with Amargo Vallet, a Mexican bitter liqueur that, unlike Angostura bitters, actually includes angostura bark in its ingredients. It has a very strong and somewhat peculiar flavor that is unlike any other amaro I've tried before, so I wasn't sure how well it would play with the more tropical flavors of the Mai Tai, but I'm pleased with how this turned out.

The Mai Tai Vallet
1.25 oz Amargo Vallet
0.75 oz Jamaican rum
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz orgeat

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

The nose is dominated by the rum's esters, with the amaro peeking around the edges. The sip begins with sweet rum esters, turns bittersweet with a balance between the rum, orange liqueur, and orgeat, there's a bump of cherry cough syrup in the middle, with the more bitter/herbal notes of the Amargo building towards the back, and a cola/orange note going into the long, bittersweet finish. All through the lime keeps it from getting too sweet and adds a little extra bitterness from the oils in the peel.

Despite the strong old time-y cough syrup vibe, this actually works. While less approachable than the Bitter or Stormy Mai Tais, Amargo Vallet isn't totally out of place amidst the tropical ingredients. The critical part is that the segues happen in an appropriate sequence, shifting the balance of the cocktail from front to back in a relatively smooth fashion as opposed to the jarring transitions that happen when ingredients don't mesh with each other. Speaking of ingredients, Denizen 8 was a good pick here because it gives a solid layer of ester funk without overwhelming the flavors like Smith & Cross would.

While I can't see this ever catching on, it is something that I would happily make again.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie 15 Year

If you asked whisky drinkers what their primary association is with Glenmorangie these days, my guess is that they would say 'cask finishes'. They have become far more prolific in recent years, but Bill Lumsden has been churning them out for decades now.

This whisky used to be a part of the distiller's core lineup in the early-2000s, but was later replaced with the 18 Year. It's made from ex-bourbon cask whisky that was finished in new oak for an indeterminate amount of time, then bottled at 43% with chill filtration and possibly coloring.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for splitting this bottle with me.

Glenmorangie 15 Year

Nose: mostly oak - but not too sharp, gentle floral malt, caramel, honey, lots of vanilla, a little chipotle pepper, cacao, fresh vegetation in the background. After adding a few drops of water more caramel comes out but it is flatter overall.

Taste: rather sweet, balanced malt/oak, caramel, not very tannic, vaguely fruity throughout. After dilution it is similar but flatter.

Finish: sweet, oak, malt, grapefruit

I'll admit to being a bit disappointed by this whisky. I was hoping for something like the Original, but with more refinement and complexity from the extra age. While I wouldn't say that the virgin oak finish ruined the whisky, it did overwrite a lot of the more subtle character that I like in a Glenmorangie. So all in all, I can't say that I'm sad to see the end of this (small) bottle.

Check out Michael's review from the same bottle for a slightly more positive take.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Irish Whiskey Review: Redbreast 12 Year

While Ireland produces single malts and blends much like Scotland, its unique whiskey is pure pot still. It is made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley that, as the name suggests, is distilled in a pot still, usually three times like most Irish whiskeys. With one exception, all of these are currently being produced by the Middleton distillery in Cork. It is claimed that the unmalted barley gives the final product a spicier and more full-bodied character, but I never found out until I decided to take the plunge right before the price of this whiskey went up locally.

This whiskey was aged in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 40%, with coloring and chill filtration.

Redbreast 12 Year

Nose: toasted grain, caramel, muddled fruit/sherry overtones, vanilla, light oak, a touch of something floral. After adding a few drops of water a lot of the complexity disappears, replaced by smooth grain with a savory edge.

Taste: grain and oak sweetness up front, light tannins with vague fruit/sherry/orange peel in the background come in around the middle, with a slight bump of oak, creamy vanilla malt, and baking spices near the back. After dilution it becomes a bit softer and the fruit is largely pushed towards the back.

Finish: caramel, light oak tannins, sherry residue, creamy malt

This is... fine. The grainier notes from the unmalted barley in the mix take a little while to get used to, but after that it's just OK. I kept waiting for some epiphany, since so many people, including many with palates that I know and respect, rave about this whiskey. But it never clicked with me. There are any number of scotch blends that would be as good or better for far less money, so I can't imagine this finding space in my liquor cabinet again.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Whisky Review: Bowmore Small Batch

Bowmore is one of the distilleries that has, for quite a bit longer than many other distilleries, had an NAS release holding down the bottom end of their core lineup. Before this was filled by Legend, but five or six years ago this was reformulated with the trendier Small Batch label. The new version was put together entirely from bourbon casks, without any sherry to temper the spirit.

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

Bowmore Small Batch

Nose: light but balanced - malt, herbal, smoke, dry Bowmore peat, berries, apple, floral vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the peat becomes drier and is joined by dusty oak, the sweetness mostly retreats except for a bit of vanilla, and the fruit/floral notes mostly disappear.

Taste: thin throughout - light malt sweetness, mint, vanilla, and vague smoke, oak in the background until the finish, with a little bit of plastic at the end. After dilution the sweetness is amplified up front, but the peat becomes stronger and dries out the finish.

Finish: vegetal peat, clean malt, light oak, background plastic

I will give Bowmore this - they've managed to make a completely inoffensive peated single malt. Unless you are opposed to peat in general, there is little to be bothered by here. Also, for an NAS malt, there are almost no rough edges. It can't hold a candle to their age dated single malts, let alone a bruiser like Tempest, but that's not its goal.

Where it really shines is in cocktails. I first had this drink at Dutch Kills in NYC and it's been one of my favorite Negroni variations ever since.

Smoked Negroni
1.25 oz Bowmore single malt
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 dash chocolate bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with an orange twist.

The nose dominated by the malt and peat of the whisky, with bitter notes from the Campari and vermouth in the background. The sip begins with moderate sweetness with hints of peat in the background, spice notes from the Campari and vermouth dominate the middle, with a fade out through oak and stronger peat, with grape from the vermouth in the background throughout. The finish is balanced between bitterness and peat, with the chocolate bitters finally showing up giving it a lingering burnt chocolate/coffee flavor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Classic Cocktails: the Tuxedo

This is one of those drinks that has a number of competing recipes that all get the same name, though the general structure stays the same. The big split is between the versions that use dry sherry and those that use dry vermouth. Either way, they tend to be refined and elegant like their namesake.

The Tuxedo

2 oz Plymouth gin
1.5 oz dry vermouth
0.25 oz maraschino liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled, absinthe-rinsed cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon.

The aromas are balanced between the gin, lemon, and maraschino, with the last just pushing above the others. The sip begins with a moderate amount of sweetness, which turns into a sort of thickness around the middle as the gin and vermouth dry out the flavors, with a gently bitter finish dominated by the vermouth with anise in the background.

This is the first Martini variation that has really clicked for me. Admittedly, it's extremely wet by modern standards even before the addition of the maraschino liqueur, but it's still nicely palate-cleansing in the finish. I do wonder if the balance is a bit different than it's supposed to be since I used Plymouth navy strength and scaled down the amount to account for the extra alcohol, but my guess is that it's pretty close. I can also imagine this being rather good with a more floral gin like Hendricks or you could push it in a more savory direction with something like Sounds Spirits Ebb+Flow. Whatever gin you pick, the results should be tasty.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Madeira Review: Justino's Colheita 1995

When people talk about madeira, it's usually in one of two ways: either the noble white grape varieties (Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial) or the cheap store brands that are made primarily from the red Tinta Negra grapes. The noble varieties make up a small fraction of what is planted on the island now, since the more robust Tinta Negra took over in response to lower demand and the need to produce wines to a price point.

Over the last few decades there has been a slow but steady shift towards producing quality madeiras from the more humble grapes. This particular wine was produced from several different grape varieties, primarily Tinta Negra, which is why it doesn't have a single varietal label.

The grapes for this wine were harvested in September 1995, fermented on the skins for two to three days, then arrested with neutral spirit and aged in American and French oak casks. At bottling in 2006 the wine had an ABV of 19% with at total acidity (as tartaric acid) of 7.48 g/l and a total sugar of 120 g/l.

Justino's Colheita 1995

Nose: classic oxidized grape notes, rich vanilla, molasses, berries, toasty oak, pink bubblegum, gently floral, balanced American and French oak

Taste: sweet arrival, quickly balanced by gently evolving layers of acidity, smoother going into the finish, grape/berry/citrus undertones throughout

Finish: pleasantly tart, sweet/dry balance, citrus/pineapple

Given that Tinta Negra is considered the more mundane grape variety on the island, it's a nice surprise to see how well a madeira can be without being made exclusively from one of the noble varieties. This is as good as any comparably priced Malmsey I've tried (admittedly not many), with fabulous intensity from the aromas. The palate is less complex, but somehow engaging in its relative simplicity. I appreciate that for as much residual sugar as there is in this wine, the total acidity is also rather high, giving it balance through tension.

No wonder this bottle was almost entirely consumed at a friend's wine and cheese party, despite the fact that it was the only fortified wine there and almost no one present had tried a madeira before. Hopefully I didn't set the bar too high.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Whisky Review: Scott's Selection Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1988/2004

Scott's Selection is a now-defunct independent bottler that was owned by the former master distiller for the Speyside Distillery. They have the dubious honor of having bottled quite a number of well-regarded whiskies, but also of being frequently noted as shelf turds during the early-2010s as bottles released in the early-2000s remained firmly on shelves, often at their original prices.

This particular whisky was among them, as it was still available at Binny's until a few years ago when the discounts finally became deep enough for some of us to go in on a split. You can find Michael Kravitz's and MAO's reviews from the same bottle.

This whisky was distilled in 1988, filled into an unknown cask(s?) (maybe refill sherry and ex-bourbon?), then bottled in 2004 at 53.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Scott's Selection Bunnahabhain 16 Year 1988/2004

Nose: fairly cask-driven, mild fruity (sherry?) overtones, fresh berries, a solid but not overwhelming layer of American oak, orange and lemon peel, malt and vanilla in the background. After adding a few drops of water the fruit/sherry notes become much stronger, dominating the aromas.

Taste: balanced berries/fruit and malt sweetness up front, a bump of American oak with apple and orange overtones in the middle, a slightly hollowness near the back, then more aggressive oak tannins going into the finish. After dilution the berries become stronger up front, with a mild sourness starting in the middle and reduced oak tannins at the back.

Finish: a sort of fizziness, solid American oak tannins, dry malt, sherry residue, honey

While this is a little bit raw, it's still pleasantly engaging. I think it was a wise choice to bottle this cask at a relatively young age, because the wood was starting to get the upper hand and it could have gone over the edge after a few more years. Another possibility is that, since this is technically not labeled as a single cask, a more restrained refill ex-sherry cask was combined with a more active first-fill ex-bourbon so that this came out somewhere in the middle. Overall it's a nice but uncomplicated whisky that I wish I had a whole bottle to myself. It drinks easy for something of this strength.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Cognac Review: Pierre Ferrand Ambre

Unlike many cognac houses, Maison Ferrand doesn't use the standard VS/VSOP/XO designations for their expressions. Ambre sits around the same price point as most VSOPs from other cognac houses, so that seems like the best way to evaluate it.

This cognac is bottled at 40% with coloring (and other 'enhancements') and probably chill filtration.

Pierre Ferrand Ambre

Nose: classic cognac notes of fresh grapes, apples/pears, and raisins, floral overtones, gentle oak in the background, vanilla/caramel, clean laundry, molasses, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water the grape and molasses notes become stronger and more rounded and the orange peel turns into lemon.

Taste: sweet grapes and caramel throughout, light floral overtones in the middle, becomes slightly bittersweet near the back with oak tannins. After dilution it becomes thicker, sweeter, and flatter, but the flaws at the back mostly disappear

Finish: a little bit off - slightly sour and musty/dusty grapes and caramel

After quite enjoying their older Réserve, I had fairly high hopes for this cognac. But as a sipping spirit it never really came together for me because the palate never lived up to the aromas. Much like mass market blends, it feels like the spirit has been smothered in an effort to create something with broad appeal. It's a perfectly fine choice for making cocktails, but their 1840 release is going to be an even better choice if you're looking to mix. Still, let's see how it does.

Vieux Carré

1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz cognac
1 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 tsp Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is driven by grape notes from the cognac and vermouth, with vanilla from the vermouth and rye, plus herbal notes from the Bénédictine. The sip begins with grape sweetness balanced by oak tannins, runs through creamy vanilla in the middle, and fades out through increasing bitterness at the back.

This is easily one of my favorite Manhattan variations because the small tweaks create a much more complex drink. The fairly wet recipe with a touch of liqueur is brought back into balance with an extra doses of bitters. Unless you use a high proof cognac like Louis Royer Force 53, the end result is going to be softer than a traditional Manhattan. Pierre Ferrand Ambre does a respectable job here, which is helped by the fact that the bitters cover up its deficiencies in the finish.

Monday, March 19, 2018

New Cocktails: Sir Lancelot

Turning once again to the Cocktail Database, I found what looked like an interesting drink, the Sir Knight. Composed entirely of spirits and bitters, I was wary about the preponderance of liqueurs, but hoped that the herbal notes of the Chartreuse and the bitters would keep it in balance. From the first sip it was clear that the drink was simply too sweet, so I added some lemon juice to give it some acidic balance, which finally brought it into line. The combination of its alcoholic punch with the acidic bite of lemon made me think that it deserved the name of the most fraught knight of them all, Sir Lancelot.

Sir Lancelot

1 oz cognac
3/4 oz yellow Chartreuse
3/4 oz orange liqueur
1/2 oz lemon juice
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

The nose is delicately balanced between the cognac, Chartreuse, and orange liqueur, with the herbs keeping the fruitier notes from becoming cloying. The sip begins balanced between sweet grape from the cognac and orange liqueur and the tartness of the lemon, herbal notes and orange dominate the middle, then it becomes more overtly lemon-y and acidic towards the back. The herbal notes return in the finish which lingers with a certain amount of heat.

Unlike many cocktails with a more delicate balance, this one contains a rowdy bunch that have fought each other to a standstill. I suspect it could become more mellow as a long drink and might work well built over ice with a healthy dose of soda to lengthen it and give it a bit more snap.

Either way it's worth noting that I made this with Louis Royer Force 53 cognac, so you might need an extra 1/4 oz if you're using the standard 40% ABV kind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Classic Cocktails: the Ceylon Cocktail (Modified)

As with many drinks that I have gleaned from the Cocktail Database, it's a little unclear where this comes from since I can't find any other references to it on the internet. From a little more sleuthing it appears to be based on the Sherry Twist from Harry Craddock's Savory Cocktail book. Because the original result wasn't coming together, I added a touch of orgeat to bring things together and a dash of orange bitters to keep it from becoming too sweet.

Ceylon Cocktail (Modified)

1 oz brandy
1 oz dry sherry
3/4 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 orange liqueur
1 barspoon orgeat
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, then garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

The nose balances the cinnamon garnish with the grape notes from the brandy and sherry. The sip begins veers between sweet and sour, rolling through more rounded grape notes from the brandy, then fading out through the dry vermouth with nutty sherry in the background.

This drink is a very odd duck. It only barely coheres and could probably use further tweaking to really shine. It should be fairly stiff given that the only non-alcoholic ingredients are a bit of syrup and some citrus juice, but the fact that so much of it is wine based seems to keep it from having too much snap. With all that said, I'm not unhappy with it and could see it becoming a more pleasant drink. Using a kina wine like Lillet or Cocchi Americano instead of dry vermouth might do the trick, but that could require an extra dose of bitters to keep it from becoming too sweet.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Canadian Whisky Review: Tap Rye 8 Year Sherry Finished

Tap Rye is a series of sourced rye whiskies (possible from Alberta Distillers?), which are 'finished' with the addition of maple syrup or fortified wines, as is allowed by Canadian law. The sherry 'finish' has Amontillado sherry added after the whisky spent at least 8 years in oak casks.

This whisky is bottled at 41.5%, probably with chill filtration and possibly with coloring.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

Tap Rye 8 Year Sherry Finished Batch #14TL-898

Nose: solvent, weak grain notes, odd oak, muted rye, raw sherry, raisins. After adding a few drops of water the sherry turns into molasses and it becomes more generically grain-y.

Taste: grain, barrel, and a little sherry sweetness up front, oak tannins and rye in the middle with a raw sherry overlay, bittersweet grain going into the finish. After dilution it becomes generically sweet and grainy throughout with sherry in the background.

Finish: uncooked grain, oak residue, raw sherry

Someone clearly thought this was good enough to put a marketing push behind it, but I just don't see the point. It's unclear whether these were particularly good cask picks to begin with, but the lipstick of sherry hasn't made this pig any prettier. I can imagine that it might be a bit better if this was actually aged in sherry casks to let the components integrate with each other, but the sherry was clearly added rather than coming from a cask so it just feels like an underdone muddle. Can't recommend spending money on this whisky.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Whisky Review: Speyburn Arranta Casks

One of the newer trends in the scotch whisky world is the development of single malts targeted at bourbon drinkers. Often this means malt whisky aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks to make it sweet and oak-y. Speyburn has joined that crowd with their Arranta Casks expression, which is NAS but boosted to 46% to give it a little more heft than their standard 10 Year.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

Speyburn Arranta Casks (2015)

Nose: bourbon cask caramel, orange peel, mild oak, vanilla, milk chocolate, gently herbal malt. After adding a few drops of water there is more vanilla and some berries come out.

Taste: big malt and cask sweetness up front, then a slow fade out without much obvious character beyond malt, vanilla, and mild oak. After dilution there is more oak, giving it a bittersweet balance throughout.

Finish: slightly musky, berries, vanilla, malt, and mild oak

This is a rather peculiar whisky. I think it largely succeeds at its task of appealing to bourbon drinkers by giving them a relatively simple set of flavors that focus on sweetness and oak. There's nothing offensive, but there also just isn't much going on. At $30-40 it's cheap for a single malt, but relatively expensive compared to a lot of very good bourbons. So while I wouldn't turn down a glass if offered, I can't imagine paying for more with my own money. Time will tell whether it was the right marketing move.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Whisky Review: Glengoyne 17 Year

Unlike the last two samples of Glengoyne I tried, this is from the previous lineup. After Ian Macleod purchased the distillery from Edrington in 2003, they maintained a relatively nondescript set of expressions, with the 17 Year being the most popular among whisky geeks.

The spirit was aged in a mix of 65% ex-bourbon casks and 35% ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 43% with chill filtration and probably a bit of coloring.

I tried this whisky at the Highland Stillhouse.

Glengoyne 17 Year

Nose: fairly light overall - sherry, floral, dusty malt, apple cider, wine. After adding a few drops of water it becomes more floral, even lighter overall, and the sherry, oak, and malt integrate underneath everything.

Taste: light and a little thin at first, sweet malt, light sherry, floral, mild oak, a hint of something vegetal, very creamy, berries, savory vanilla, and a little pepper. After dilution a pleasant sour apple tinge is added throughout, there is more malt focus, the oak integrates nicely, and it becomes a little grassy.

Finish: sour berries, malty, mild oak bitterness, a little pepper

I went into this whisky with fairly high expectations. It has been fairly common to bemoan its disappearance from liquor store shelves, as it was an older sherry driven whisky at a very affordable price. As things stood, admittedly from a bottle that had been open for an indeterminate amount of time, I found it a little disappointing. While it was relatively mature and sherry driven as expected, it didn't have enough weight and body to make it something I was sad to see go.