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. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Whisky Review: First Editions Longmorn 27 Year 1985/2013

This is one of my only experiences with Longmorn aside from trying the old OB 15 Year at a tasting with Ralfy when I was in Glasgow. I didn't find that one particularly compelling, but given the strong reputation that the distillery has, I've been wanting to try more ever since then. So when an old single cask went on sale in Oregon last September, I jumped on it. Not every day you can get single malt over the quarter century mark for a little over $100. Well, not unless you're patient and live here.

This whisky was distilled in 1985, filled into a (probably refill) ex-bourbon cask, then bottled in 2013 at 52.5% without coloring or chill filtration.

First Editions Longmorn 27 Year 1985/2013

Nose: rather closed - malt, oak, and honey with hints of orange peel. After adding a few drops of water it remains nearly the same, but the oak becomes stronger and some berries emerge.

Taste: strong malt sweetness up front, thick berries and fresh apples in the middle, fading into slightly tannic oak at the back with a bit of savory incense. After dilution it remains largely the same but with more sweetness up front and stronger alcohol near the back.

Finish: savory oak, incense, clean malt, graham crackers, some alcohol heat

This is... kind of boring. The alcohol has too strong of a grip on the other components, so it reads as a pretty generic single malt, albeit without out any rough edges after nearly three decades in the cask. Let's see what happens when we add even more water.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: a little closed - balanced malt and dusty oak, pine, fresh apples, citrus peel, raisins

Taste: thick, syrupy sweetness from the front to middle, citrus/raisin overtones throughout, berries in the middle, balanced with mild oak tannins towards the back with a hint of something savory

Finish: lingering malt and polished oak, savory, incense/smoke/burned citrus peel

This seems to be about ideal as a drinking strength because the sweetness of the palate makes it more engaging, even if the nose and finish are somewhat less complex than when it is diluted down even further. The raisin notes I kept finding also might have tricked me into thinking that this was a refill sherry cask if I was tasting it blind, but I think that's just something that happens when American oak breaks down in the right way.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: dusty incense and oak, citrus peel (orange/lemon/lime), sweet malt, a hint of floral pink bubblegum, background raisins

Taste: sweet malt and oak up front, berry overtones with orange creamsicle in the middle, slightly tannic towards the back with a savory twist at the end, rather simple overall

Finish: long and basically like the nose - citrus peel, dusty incense, polished/savory oak, raisins, slightly tannic

This is pretty weird in that the nose and finish are both significantly better than they were at higher strengths, but there still isn't much in the middle besides a sort of generic bourbon cask malt. Overall I would say that 50% is probably best for the palate, but I'd happy buy this at 46% because it's so much more complex and engaging overall.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Whisky Review: Glenglassaugh 26 Year (2010 Release)

Glenglassaugh is a Highland distillery northeast of Speyside built right on the coast. I will leave most of the detailed history to the capable hands of Malt Madness, but the important part is that Glenglassaugh was mothballed between 1986 and 2008. That twenty-two year gap meant that even more so than other revived distilleries like Ardbeg or Bruichladdich, Glenglassaugh became more or less a new distillery because much of the equipment had to be replaced and the little remaining stock that the new owners were able to purchase was very old. This created an extremely bifurcated product line split between NAS releases that were a few years old at most and very expensive bottles in the 25-40 year old range.

This whisky was matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Glenglassaugh 26 Year (2010 Release)

Nose: spicy oak interwoven with dank sherry, caramel, musty/dunnage warehouse, fresh hay, clean malt, a touch of vanilla and something savory, orange peel, pink bubblegum. After adding a few drops of water it becomes sweeter and more malt driven, with the oak becoming softer and integrating with the sherry, and the savory note becoming stronger.

Taste: bittersweet sherry throughout, oak tannins start near the front and rise and fall across the palate, orange and vanilla around the middle, a burst of sweet malt and more vanilla near the back. After dilution it becomes sweeter through out, balancing the oak, with sweeter sherry in the middle, and a slightly drying fade into the finish with more savory character.

Finish: oak tannins and spices, sherry residue, bittersweet, a Ben Nevis-y savory note, fresh herbs. After dilution there is sweet malt residue, soft oak tannins, flourishes of sherry

That was what I wanted it to be - an experience. Pre-closure Glenglassaugh is becoming extremely rare and when it does surface commands an extremely high price, so this is likely to be my only chance to try it. In a sense the quality is almost irrelevant, since it's primarily about being a piece of whisky history.

But since I paid my own money for this bottle ($169), value still matters to me. My first impression was that when these casks were married and bottled, they were approaching the point of no return. Despite only being a quarter century old, well into middle age but far from elderly for malt whisky, the oak is starting to get the better of the spirit. Given the target audience for this release - folks who will be impressed by the fancy decanter and expect an oak-heavy spirit from expensive whiskies - I think that it largely hit the mark. I would have preferred something with more refill casks in the mix to give it a lighter touch, but I'm not sure how many the blender had to choose from at that point. Time in the glass and water help to loosen some of the oaky grip, but it remains in roughly the same mold. So while I did enjoy the whisky, it would not be my first choice absent the history, especially at the price.

The best thing I can say about this whisky is that it reminds me a lot of Ben Nevis. The savory character gives more complexity than it would have if it was a more straight-forward/cleaner spirit. So if you're sad that you've never gotten to try an old Glenglassaugh, hunt down an older sherried Ben Nevis and you might be close to the mark. With that said older Ben Nevis is also becoming somewhat dear, but at least it's not as bad as old Glenglassaugh.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Whisky Review: Gordon & MacPhail Millburn 27 Year/2003 Cask 1598

This was the first time I was able to try a whisky from a closed distillery and at the time one of the oldest that had passed my lips. It was also one of the first dusties I purchased from the Oregon liquor system, which later turned into a merry process of hunting down the gems of yesteryear.

The Millburn distillery, originally known as the Inverness Distillery, was created in 1807, more than a dozen years before distilling was legalized in 1823 by the Excise Act. It passed though quite a number of different hands (occasionally after being closed) before landing in the proto-Diageo Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1937. It continued in that form until 1985, when the whisky crisis of the 1980s led DCL to close it. Stocks may remain, but are getting very, very thin on the ground and you can generally expect to pay for the rarity. I was extremely lucky to pick up this G&M Reserve bottle for an extremely reasonable price, as it had been sitting on the shelf in a local liquor store for a decade.

This whisky was distilled in 1976, filled into what was likely an American oak refill sherry butt (judging from the number of bottles), then bottled in 2003 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

G&M Millburn 27 Year/2003 Cask #1598

Nose: tons of buttery vanilla, sweet malt, sugar cookie dough, bubblegum/cotton candy, light brown sugar, vegetal/floral undertones, subtle sherry, cinnamon/allspice, salted caramels, mature oak, berries and charcoal around the edges. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes much stronger and the floral notes are amplified, the cookie dough becomes gingerbread, and the vanilla turns into orange creamsicle.

Taste: almost piercing sweetness up front, very malty with a lot of vanilla, light sherry mid-palate, balanced oak, moderately tannic at the back, berries, ginger, and black pepper throughout, a touch more sweetness and some charcoal at the back. After dilution the sherry and berries become much stronger up front and some citrus peel comes out around the middle, dried apple notes going into the finish, but the oak is more sharply tannic at the back.

Finish: light sherry, vanilla, malt, berry residue, oak tannins, black pepper, ginger, a hint of peat

I feel extremely privileged to get to drink this whisky. It's not too often that you get to literally taste history.

Looking over the Malt Maniacs scores, it seems like I got very lucky in finding this whisky as it's one of the highest rated bottles from the distillery. With that said, if the regular output of the distillery was even half this good, then it's a crying shame that it was demolished. It has weight, but doesn't sink into the oak that can overwhelming older whiskies, retaining an almost spritely freshness. While there's tons of sweetness to go around, the tannins and smoky notes keep it reeled in, with delicious counterpoint. Unlike a lot of their whiskies, I'm glad G&M chose not to water this one down too much. While cask strength would have been lovely it still shines at 46%. Unless you're put off by sweeter whiskies, I would say this one is nearly flawless. That's not to say that it's the best whisky ever, simply that nothing seems to be out of place. I've saved a handful of samples from this bottle and passed a good chunk of it on to Tim Read, formerly of Scotch & Ice Cream, so I'll be very curious to see how others feel about this one.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Whisky Review: Springbank 10 Year 100 Proof US Release

Springbank's 100º Proof expression has gone through a number of iterations over the years that were all slightly different from each other, leading to a certain amount of confusion. To begin with, 100º proof means different things in the UK (50% weight/volume, usually rounded down to 57% ABV) and the US (50% ABV), so there have always been dueling versions across the Atlantic. Second, the composition of the expression changed from something closer to the standard 10 Year with a mix of bourbon and sherry to an all-bourbon setup right before they introduced their all-sherry (until recently) 12 Year Cask Strength. So, what we have here is one of the last iterations of the theme, an American version at 50% made from all ex-bourbon casks, as always without coloring or chill filtration.

Springbank 10 Year 100 Proof

Nose: big and dirty - oil cloth, leather, engine oil, dry mossy/herbal peat, fresh hay, dried malt, mild background American oak. After adding a few drops of water the dirty notes are toned down, but are joined by a bit of nutty caramel. After even more water it gets more dry and herbal, with cinnamon, fresh malt, and a little floral seashore.

Taste: sweet throughout with a fair amount of heat, vague but syrupy fruit with a citric tang in the middle, a bittersweet twist near the back with light oak and peat, plus even more alcohol heat and something raisin-y going into the finish. After dilution it becomes drier and less overtly sweet, more oak and peat come out at the back and the alcohol is significantly calmed down. After adding even more water it becomes sort of generically malty/oak sweet with just a bump of Springbank character at the back.

Finish: balanced malt and oak, cinnamon/wood spices, a little raisin-y (more oak than sherry), a touch of dirty peat

For all that this is at a significantly lower proof than the UK version, it took the bottle sitting open for the better part of a year for it to settle down enough to be drinkable. Even now it has far more burn than many cask strength whiskies that I've enjoy. Some of that is probably its youth and the fact that the ex-bourbon casks used to mature the whisky appear to have been filled several times before, because the final results are still pretty raw. Thankfully not as raw as I found Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof, but not so distant either.

In all honesty I've gotten through most of this bottle by making little blends with something sherried to round it out a bit. Proofing it down to somewhere around 45% helps the nose, but also takes out all of the oomph in the palate. While in theory I like bourbon cask Springbank a lot, I think this could have used some more first fill casks to give it a bit of caramel and vanilla roundness, à la Tobermory/Ledaig 10 Year. So while I don't mind having another bottle, I don't think it's going to get opened anytime soon.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Whisky Review: Rattray's Selection No. 1 19 Year Blended Malt

A.D. Rattray, an independent bottler whose owner is part of the family that used to own Bowmore, released a number of blended malts in the early-2010s that more or less slipped under the radar. Most of this has to do with the fact that anything with the word 'blend' in front tends to get a lot less traction with whisky geeks unless it comes from Compass Box, which in this case means that they really missed out. Getting a full strength whisky at almost two decades old composed entirely from sherry butts for under $100 would be almost unthinkable right now and was still a steal when it was released in 2010.

This whisky was constructed from four sherry butts - Auchentoshan 1991 (Cask 495), Balblair 1990 (Cask #1142), Benriach 1989 (Cask #50064), and Bowmore 1991 (Cask #2073) - that were married together and bottled at 55.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for this sample.

Rattray's Selection No. 1 19 Year Blended Malt

Nose: balanced sherry and mossy/ashy peat with solid intensity, savory malt, fresh baked bread, caramel, mild oak, and floral perfume. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is toned down, allowing the malt to becoming roughly equal, vanilla comes out, and it is much more savory overall.

Taste: a fair amount of alcohol heat through, sweet sherry up front, syrupy/salty with green fruit (apples, pears) and floral overtones in the middle, slowly transitioning into bittersweet with a prickle of peat and savory oak at the back. After dilution it becomes bittersweet throughout with more savory sherry and peat up front plus some ashes and stronger near the back.

Finish: lingering sherry residue, balanced malt and oak, wood ash

I really wish I had more time with this one. Even when I have a hard time teasing out the details, it's a really enjoyable whisky that neatly balances its constituent parts. It would be great if we could get more of these kinds of blended malts where peat is an element, but not as strongly as a full Islay single malt. With so few distilleries currently producing medium peated malts, this is one of the few avenues we have for enjoying those kinds of whiskies.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Whisky Review: A.D. Rattray Cooley 16 Year 1995/2012

For many years Cooley was the LDI/MGP of Ireland, semi-anonymously cranking out spirit for brands without distilleries as well as its own. That changed in 2012 when it was bought by Jim Beam, who massively scaled back contract sales to keep more of the production for their in-house brands. Some casks did find their way into the hands of independent bottlers, though they are becoming increasingly uncommon.

This whisky was distilled on November 24th 1995, filled into a bourbon cask (size not specified), then bottled on March 19th 2012 in an outturn of 193 bottles at 56.7% without coloring or chill filtration.

A.D. Rattray Cooley 16 Year 1995/2012 Cask #555

Nose: rich malt and bourbon cask notes, herbal/floral notes around the edges. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer and more malty, but otherwise unchanged.

Taste: thick malt and cask strength sweetness throughout, orange and lemon peel with hints of berries in the middle, mild oak into the finish. After dilution the sweetness becomes much stronger with less assertive oak until the back, and it becomes simpler overall.

Finish: cask-driven, moderate oak with a little bitterness, sweet malt, grapefruit peel

While there are things to enjoy about this whisky at full strength, I find it too hot and cask-driven to find much subtly. The thick mouthfeel is a big plus, but there isn't a lot of evolution and the finish more or less recapitulates the flavors. Might hit the spot if you're a Glenlivet Nadurra fan, but that one never hit the mark for me either.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: balanced malt and oak, dusty vanilla, fresh apple, background floral notes

Taste: thick cask and malt sweetness with background vanilla throughout, tangy oak tannins with some fresh apple and pear notes near the back

Finish: a little heat, spicy oak, background apple/pear, citrus peel, clean malt, a little dry hay

This is a simple, straightforward set of aromas and flavors. While enjoyable, it doesn't have a lot of complexity and I wouldn't have found the whisky very compelling if it had been bottled at this strength. Not bad, just nothing that I couldn't find from any number of bourbon cask Speysiders.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: fairly light - pleasantly malty, floral honey, dusty vanilla, a little green - but not new make-y, background oak, unripe apples/pears, lime peel, a touch of solvent

Taste: malt sweetness up front, green apples and pears with lemon and lime peel in the middle, fadeout through drier grain and light floral notes with minimal oak at the back

Finish: unrolls through sweet malt, faded violets/lavender, fresh herbs, citrus peel, vanilla, cardboard oak in the background

Dang, that was a lot more than I was expecting. Unlike at full strength this is a fairly subtle whisky at this dilution with most of the action happening in the finish. Also surprising is the comparative lack of oak, considering that its heavy presence at full strength. Almost makes me wish this had been bottled at 46% because I think I would have enjoyed it more that way.

Friday, January 19, 2018

When Do We Have Enough?

One of the questions I see asked very infrequently in the spirits community is "Do I already have enough?" The almost unquestioned assumption is that more is always better. When individuals are receiving literal pallets of whisky, it's time to serious ask ourselves where the line should be drawn.

There seem to be a number of factors driving this unrestrained acquisitiveness, but social media is a major piece. Before ubiquitous internet connectivity someone who accumulated a significant collection might be able to impress friends or family after a fashion, but beyond a certain point they would have seemed, at best, eccentric. With the advent of spirits blogs, forums, Twitter, and Facebook groups, the bragging not only reaches a wider audience, but makes it possible to show off for a selective audience who will appreciate and validate increasingly large collections. During my time participating in online spirits groups, I have almost never seen anyone asking how people with vast collections will manage to drink everything they have bought, even when they reach a level where it becomes infeasible for the owner to consume everything during their lifetime. We're talking about collections that go beyond the hundreds of bottles and into the thousands. Many of those bottles owned by serious enthusiasts will be cask strength, representing upwards of 50-60% more alcohol than the standard 80-proof spirit and thus far more units of alcohol.

These online groups seem to create a cycle of validation where people convince themselves that their own acquisitiveness is justified by praising others who are doing the same thing. I have witnessed this go to astounding and genuinely harmful lengths, as some folks purchase spirits in volumes that negatively impact the rest of the life, all the while being praised by their peers. And much like the social pressure to omit negative opinions, there is pressure against questioning the volume of those purchases, even when they are clearly pathological. While some of it is the general caution of calling people out, it is also difficult when so many of us are following the same path to one degree or another.

Another major driver is the fear of scarcity. People hunt down 'limited' releases or buy cases of expressions they believe will change or become unavailable over time. But for many it's not enough to buy one bottle and enjoy it, they have to get as many as possible. For some that's to resell to the highest bidder, either to make money in general or to fund their habit. For others it's creating a 'bunker' to ward off the possibility that they will never again be able to buy good spirits at reasonable prices again. For others it's simply the ability to gloat at the 'suckers' who weren't bright enough or lucky enough to stock up.

The question we all need to be asking ourselves is how much we're really going to be drinking. Can we consume what we're buying in a reasonable timeframe without putting an undue burden on our livers? Do we host enough events to share our purchases with likeminded friends? There will always be more that you want to drink than you have time, money, or liver for.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Whisky Review: Sovereign Cambus 26 Year 1988/2015 for K&L

While Cambus has acquired a gloss of renown due to being a 'lost' distillery, the mystique seems peculiar given that it was what every other grain distillery has always been: a factory for churning out alcohol. While it is more reasonable to bemoan the loss of malt distilleries with unique characters, the range in grain distilleries seems to be far more limited, as they used very similar production techniques and equipment.

With that said, this whisky was distilled in September 1988, filled into a refill hogshead, then bottled in July 2015 at 48.0% without coloring or chill filtration.

Sovereign Cambus 26 Year 1988/2015 C# HL11664 for K&L Wines

Nose: light grain, unripe apples and pears, tired oak, a touch of hay, lime peel, cinnamon, and vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the lime peel is amplified and joined by lemon, a touch of malt comes through,

Taste: lightly sweet grain throughout, berry overtones beginning early and carrying through, creamy mouthfeel, very little oak at the back. After dilution the grain component becomes stronger and the berries are less pronounced, it's sweeter overall and a bump of baking spices show up near the back.

Finish: classic grainy finish, wisps of berry esters, tired oak, a touch of lemon

While without that sample's flaws, this fits into roughly the same mold as the Pearls of Scotland Cambus I tried of the same vintage. There's nothing about this that stands out from any other grain whisky I've sampled, so I'm not sure there's a lot of reason to recommend it. The best character of this is the berry notes on the palate, which might mesh well with a floral malt, but I need to futz around and see.

For all that certain corners of the whisky world are trying to hype grain whisky as the next big thing, very few of them have genuinely impressed me. I buy them largely to further my efforts at making my own blended whiskies, where their lack of strong character can be an asset rather than a flaw. If I get more Cambus it will be one of the sherry casks that should provide some more interest on top of the usual grain character.

Friday, January 12, 2018

State of the Booze Union

It's a tricky time to be a spirits enthusiast in America.

While spirits are more popular now than they've been since the 1970s, the last handful of years have created a lot of new wrinkles.

First, the good. In some respects, there are more options than ever. Distillers are releasing new expressions on an almost daily basis and (some are) paying far more care and attention to their products than they did when they were effectively producing commodities. Entire categories of spirits that would have required huge amounts of legwork to source fifteen years ago can now be found on back bars and liquor store shelves across the country. Many retailers have expanded their exclusive release programs, offering options that can't be found elsewhere and increasing diversity. The internet is full of people talking about spirits, which makes finding information easier than ever. Clubs and tasting groups have sprung up in every state. And for those who care about such things, spirits are cool, giving the drinkers a caché that hasn't existed since the Mad Men era.

But not all is well. Popularity is a fickle beast. For those who had knowledge and connections during the 1990s and early 2000s, options may seem extremely closed off as stocks of old spirits have become severely depleted. What once went for a song is now many times more expensive as competition increases. But these are the effects of the market - large, primarily impersonal forces outside of individual control.

More complex are changes made at the level of state and national governments shaping the American market. While many more American liquor stores now sell their stocks online, shipping them across state lines has become an increasingly fraught task. Many states flatly refuse imports into or exports out of their borders. In some cases this is due to state monopolies on liquor sales that do not want to give up control. In others it is about protecting the interests of local distributors, who wish to ensure that they get their cut from liquor sales. In 2010 efforts were made at the national level to tighten these regulations further and make it easier for states to restrict cross-border sales, but thankfully the bill did not pass. In the meantime, some states, such as Kentucky, have taken it upon themselves to restrict internet sales, closing off once-popular stores such as The Party Source that previously shipped across the country. Binny's Beverage Depot, a major Chicago area chain that has a vast exclusive single cask program, announced that once again it was no longer able to ship spirits outside of its home state. While a previous clampdown on interstate shipping was resolved, it's currently unclear if or when this will be reversed. From this vantage it is not clear whether the issue is state regulations or the national logistics companies, but either can be a problem. Even the much-vaunted K&L Wines in California, which has a significant local market to sell to, is fairly restricted in which states it can ship liquor to (for better or worse, Oregon is not on that list).

The lack of a legal secondary market for spirits has also complicated the situation. While there are compelling arguments that secondary markets only serve to encourage speculators, the demand for limited releases, especially of bourbon and rye in the States, is practically insatiable. While any number of attempts have been made to localize and regularize these sales in some fashion, whether through Facebook groups or auction sites, many have foundered on the fundamental fact that liquor sales through any channel other than an authorized retailer are flatly illegal throughout the country. So far many the more visible efforts have either shut down or folded on their own. This is in stark contrast to Europe where numerous auction houses and websites host sales on a regular basis. There are hints that this may be changing, with Kentucky now allowing licensed retailers to buy and sell 'vintage' spirits, though it is unclear how that market will evolve. While this makes life more difficult for flippers and drastically reduces the liquidity (heh) of the market, it also means that getting ahold of limited releases is often more about legwork and relationships than money, because even the biggest bank account may not let you find someone willing to part with a particular expression for cash.

On an international level, January 2013 saw the temporary cessation of spirits shipping from the United Kingdom to the United States, due to a change in Royal Mail's policies. While workarounds were eventually discovered, shipping prices rose dramatically as a result and have remained high ever since. To cite one example, shipping spirits from a well known store like Master of Malt to Fiji costs the same as shipping to the United States. While this does not entirely foreclose that source of spirits (I have heard suggestions that this has become a more popular source for American enthusiasts), it does make them much more expensive and difficult to justify as values, even after the post-Brexit tumble in the pound.

The fractured nature of the liquor market in the United States and frequent lack of alternative channels can make it difficult to sustain enthusiasm. Especially for folks living in control states with limited selections, the itch to try new spirits can be extremely difficult to scratch without creative legwork. Even for those in broader markets like California, it can feel increasingly difficult to find bargains as prices rise and once-prized expressions disappear from circulation. On the flip side, there are some, especially bourbon fans, who find that the chase (even when it slips into quasi-legal territory) is now a big part of the fun. The thrill of slipping one past the powers that be is not insignificant, but trying to evade regulations comes with a host of risks ranging from packages impounded by customs, to buying fakes from unlicensed sellers, to criminal prosecution in the most egregious cases. Knowing where to draw the line, especially when official standards are hazy, is difficult.

Unfortunately it appears unlikely that this situation will change anytime soon. While there are some efforts to legalize direct sales across state borders, there are a large number of interested parties vested in the status quo, ranging from distributors to state monopolies. It will take pressure from below to budge lawmakers into loosening the grip of distributors and other intermediaries in the three-tier system, let alone making legal alcohol shipments from other countries easier and cheaper.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Whisky Review: Shieldaig Speyside 18 Year

Shieldaig (in the States) is a line of mystery malts and blends bottled for the Total Wine chain by Ian Macleod (an independent bottler and owner of Glengoyne and Tamdhu). While you will find plenty of speculation where this single malt is sourced from, it's probably fruitless as sources may change and the profile is unlikely to match up with official named malts.

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

Shieldaig Speyside 18 Year

Nose: initially very muted and blend-y - eventually sherry, oak, baking spices, herbal/green, vanilla, floral, cardboard malt, bubblegum. After adding a few drops of water a lot of honey and oatmeal come out, the oak becomes buttery, but it reads as more youthful and with less sherry.

Taste: sherry sweetness throughout, apple/pear in the background around the middle, fading into bittersweet malt near the back. After dilution it becomes sweeter up front, with honey and malt overtaking the sherry, which comes back around the middle and joins more identifiable oak near the back.

Finish: sherry, oak residue, clean malt

While not the most exciting malt, I think it accomplishes its intended task fairly well. Most buyers are going to pick it because of the age on the label and want something relatively easy drinking and unchallenging. I feel like it does a decent job competing with basic 18 year old malts from the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, but without the heavy oak component found in those that give them a sense of age. Given that it costs significantly less than the direct competition, these trade-offs seem perfectly acceptable. It loses some points for having some cardboard notes that I associate with tired casks, but that's kind of what you get at the price. While it doesn't have any caché like a malt from an identifiable distillery, once it's in the glass it does a very competent job.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Whisky Review: The First Editions Tobermory 16 Year 1995/2012

While there may not be very many OB Tobermorys, independent bottlers have created far more options. This particular one comes from one of the Laings' many different labels. For whatever reason, The First Editions happens to be particularly expensive in the States compared to Europe, which means that many of them have sat on shelves for years. This particular one was around for roughly five in Oregon until it and a large number of other releases from The First Editions were put on closeout. As a fan of Tobermory, I decided to give it a try.

This whisky was distilled in 1995, filled into what was likely a refill hogshead, then bottled in 2012 at 54.1% without coloring or chill filtration.

The First Editions Tobermory 16 Year 1995/2012 Cask ES014/01

Nose: vanilla with a plastic edge, malty, herbal/vegetal, cedar-y oak, cold smoke/wet concrete in the background, cardboard funk and cabbage that blow off with time in the glass. After adding a few drops of water it becomes fairly simple and strongly malty with an herbal edge and some overripe fruit.

Taste: cask strength malty sweetness beginning up front then fading towards the back, a touch of baking spices, gentle berries and herbal funk from the middle back, moderately tannic oak near the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes stronger, but the middle turns into a malty muddle with more tannic oak and berries.

Finish: creamy malt, funk, crisp oak tannins, berry residue

This is why people don't like Tobermory. Especially when I opened the bottle the funk was somewhat overpowering and made it a less than totally pleasurable experience. Since it has been open for a while and probably evaporated a bit the funk has come more in balance, but it takes time to become an engaging whisky. The OB 10 Year, which can also be difficult going for a while, is ultimately far more approachable because the first-fill casks help to grind off some of the more rough edges.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: fairly closed - balanced malt and dry oak with a little funk

Taste: malt sweetness throughout, balanced creamy berries and funk in the middle, gentle bittersweet oak fade out

Finish: clean malt, a little background funk, mint, light oak

While not especially exciting, this strength is extremely drinkable. The Tobermory funk keeps it from being too boring without being overly assertive. This would have done just fine as an Old Malt Cask bottling.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: a fair amount of new make character, plastic funk, wet flour, must, oak in the background, overripe fruit, herbal,

Taste: malt sweetness throughout, musty-y/plastic-y funk behind it, gentle oak from the middle back, muddled berry overtones

Finish: creamy malt, gently funky oak

This is... not good. While some of this character was detectable at full strength, dilution overwhelms whatever merits the malt had before. The finish is the only half-way acceptable part and that is absolutely damning with faint praise. I do not recommend adding too much water.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Whisky Review: Tobermory 15 Year

Until fairly recently, Tobermory tended to fly under the radar. Even now, Ledaig captures more of the attention as malt fans seek peated whisky that isn't wildly expensive (yet). It wasn't helped by the fact that their lineup was rather limited, with only a 10 Year and a 15 Year expression. Further complicating the situation, while the entry-level 10 Year was priced in line with other basic single malts around $50, the 15 Year was wildly out of line with the market at $120 and up. While some of this is justified by the fact that the sherry cask finishing for the 15 Year is carried out at the distillery, which has extremely limited warehouse facilities since they were sold off in the 1970s and turned into apartments, that still makes it difficult to justify a price point nearly double that of most other distillery's 15 year old releases. Yes, it also comes in a very fancy box, but as with many other whisky fans, I would gladly forgo the packaging if it cost me less. I can't drink a box.

This whisky was aged in ex-bourbon casks primarily at Deanston for at least 14 years, then finished in Gonzalaz Byass oloroso sherry butts at Tobermory for at least an additional year, then bottled at 46.3% without coloring or chill filtration.

Tobermory 15 Year

Nose: rich, dry sherry, juicy raisins, leather, dark chocolate, floral berries, grapefruit peel, gentle herbal malt in the background, toasty oak, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water it stays about the same, but the malt becomes a little more prominent to give it more balance.

Taste: bittersweet sherry and undergirding oak throughout, muddled fruit-y overtones in the middle, and an herbal malty fade at the back. After dilution the malt becomes stronger at the back.

Finish: balanced malt and sherry, pleasantly herbal

While I enjoyed this, I felt like the sherry cask finish was too strong for my taste. I might enjoy this expression more if it was constructed like Bunnahabhain with a small percentage of first-fill sherry casks mixed with a larger number of ex-bourbon and refill sherry casks to give better balance between the sherry and spirit. As is, I'm not sure this is worth what I paid for it at closeout prices, let alone at MSRP. While I'll be looking for other sherried Tobermory bottles in the future, I've had enough of this one.