Friday, June 28, 2019

Vermouth Review: Miró Rojo

While vermouth has primarily been associated with Italy and France, Spain has an almost equally deep history of both production and consumption. Over the last handful of years it's become much easier to find these vermouths in the States.

This particular example from the Catalonian town of Reus, southwest of Barcelona. I will leave the details of their history to Haus Alpenz, their American importer. My interest was primarily because it happened to be available in 187 mL bottles at one of my local shops and for $4 I was willing to take a chance on it.

Miró Rojo Vermut de Reus

Nose: bright and vegetal - sweet wine backed up by fresh herbs (oregano?), a tomato-y note, and some gently bitter wormwood

Taste: opens sweet and tart, with medium weight, some fresh herbs, and light wormwood bitterness in the background throughout

Finish: more tart (almost verjus) start, with lingering wormwood

This reminds me a lot of what I remember of Dolin Rouge. They both have a sort of savory character that makes me think of marinara sauce. Given that there are plenty of folks in this world who like Dolin, I suspect that this would do just as well for them, but it's not my cup of tea.

In a Negroni this vermouth is pretty shy - it's basically nowhere to be found in the nose, which is dominated by the gin and Campari. It is equally difficult to find in the opening sip, possibly providing some background character to sweeten and round out the Campari. The drink turns into a one-two punch of Campari up front, with a segue into the gin around the middle, which is rejoined by the Campari at the back.

If that's the kind of Negroni that suits you this may be a decent choice, but I'm used to them made with Punt e Mes, which tends to be on the assertive side. I can envision that it might work better with brown spirits, especially rye where the spiciness and vegetal character could be complementary. But overall it just doesn't have the depth to be something that I would want in my arsenal for making cocktails.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Gin Review: Townshend's

Townshend's began its life in Portland as a tea company, with several locations scattered around the city. From there they expanded into other tea-based drinks such as kombucha. In an odd twist, the kombucha is what led to the distillery - after a scare in the early-2010s that unpasturized kombucha was over over the 0.5% ABV limit, Townshend's made the rather expensive decision to remove the alcohol by vacuum distillation so that the natural cultures survived. This had the side effect of preserving the volatile flavors, both that emerged from the kombucha and those that were added later to the redistilled spirit. Another interesting wrinkle is that because of the significant amount of acetic acid that comes off the kombucha they have to wash the spirit with baking soda to eliminate most of it.

All of this results in very intensely flavored spirits that have none of the notes that are associated with high temperature distilling. Their gin is made from their green tea kombucha spirit that is infused with more botanicals, redistilled, then bottled at 40%.

Townshend's Gin

Nose: big floral notes (lavender, violet, rose), green tea, juniper almost shoved into the background, some round citrus (lemon, lime, a little orange), a little bubble gum.

Taste: cleanly sweet up front, transition into green tea in the middle that becomes increasingly tannic towards the back where the juniper finally kicks in

Finish: balanced tea, juniper, and floral notes that linger lightly

This is, to put it mildly, not a traditional gin profile. The floral notes dominate, with the tea a little behind, and the juniper coming in third. If you're coming from London dry gins, this is likely to seem very odd, but it's more of an evolution of the New West style pioneered in the early-2000s that toned down the juniper in favor of more approachable botanicals. At the same time, the floral notes are so strong that I would say that it's less initially approachable than some other Portland gins like Aviation. Overall I really like it, but it does require a different approach than what you might be used to.

While I originally bought this thinking that it could fill a role similar to Hendrick's, I've since found that it really has a narrow niche. While latter is gently floral, adding some roundness to the standard gin botanicals, this is a whole flower shop. When I tried to make Negronis with this gin, the result can only be described as tasting purple. And definitely not in a good way. What that means is that it needs some fairly stout companions, preferably with some citrus, to really work in a cocktail. And what stouter companions are there in a gin cocktail than those in a Last Word?

Last Word

0.75 oz gin
0.75 oz lime juice
0.75 oz green Chartreuse
0.75 oz maraschino liqueur

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice for six seconds, then double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is dominated by the floral and tea of the gin combined with the herbal notes of the Chartreuse, with some lime and maraschino peeking around the edges. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, quickly balanced by the lime near the middle with some maraschino roundess, fading into a complex array of herbal and floral bitterness that stretches out into the finish.

This is a Last Word for people who really want to lean into the Charteuse. While many favor recipes that amp up the gin, that simply won't work with Townshend's, which becomes unbearably floral in anything greater than equal proportions. It works, but it's the balance of great forces shoving each other into submission. If that's your jam, I highly recommend picking up a bottle. If you're not into floral spirits, this is one that you can safely give a miss.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. I - Distillery Profiles

As most of the revival of scotch whisky focused on the abundant single malts available in the 1990s and early-2000s, blends continued to be seen by many as bland and uninspired. John Glaser made it his mission to change that perception. Founded in 2000, Compass Box emerged from the roles he had played in the wine trade and at Diageo as the marketing director for Johnnie Walker. This gave him exposure the process of blending, a background in wood management, and the relationships needed to access casks. The company's first release, Hedonism, was an unheard of before luxury blended grain whisky. Subsequent blends and blended malts (whatever term they were known by) continued to expand the approach by creating new flavor profiles from distilleries that, if not named directly, were strongly hinted at.

I asked myself why this model hasn't been replicated in many other spirits, especially rum, from a question posed by Josh Miller on Twitter. While many other spirits have long traditions of producing multi-distillery blends - think of British navy rum or the large cognac houses - few have managed to make the process and results of blending exciting in the way Compass Box has done for scotch whisky blends.

Much of this comes out of the particular history of malt whisky production in Scotland - while it was blend-centric for much of its existence, independent bottlers and eventually the distilleries themselves made the profiles of individual distilleries popular in their own right. These created known quantities that John Glaser was able to riff on, twisting expectations in ways that made the results thrilling. Clynelish is at the core of many of their blends, ranging from the standard GKS Artist's Blend, Oak Cross, and Spice Tree releases, to one-offs like Eleuthera and the Lost Blend. Similarly Laphroaig and Caol Ila have been at the heart of many of their peated blends such as Peat Monster, Flaming Heart, and GKS Glasgow. These more well-known profiles are inflected with less well-known malts and grain whiskies from the likes of Teaninich, Dailuaine, Invergordon, Cameronbridge, Ledaig, or Ardmore.

For most of the spirits world these individual distillery profiles simply haven't penetrated the consumer consciousness in the same way. There are exceptions, such as the profiles of American bourbon and rye distillers, though their origins are often obscured. There is also growing awareness of Jamaican, Guyanese (well, really the sub-marques of DDL), and Martiniquaise r(h)um distilleries or, in a far more limited fashion, Armagnac farm distilleries.

The bottler who has most closely approached the Compass Box model is High West. Founded in 2006, it has taken a similar approach to blending, primarily bourbon or rye, to create new profiles. While this began in no small part as a way to produce cash flow while starting up a distillery from scratch, they have become famous for their blending skills as much as for their own production. A major difference is that High West, at least at the beginning, was significantly constrained in how much information they could divulge. The American whiskey market had no history of independent bottlers revealing their sources, preferring instead to cloak them in veils of fake history. This led to customers attempting to suss out sources from the reported mash bills and other clues. In a sense, High West performed almost the opposite function by making profiles such as those of LDI/MGP or Barton rye famous that had otherwise been completely unknown.

In the rum world what we have seen more of so far are blends from multiple named countries, rather than multiple named distilleries, such as Banks or Plantation. These approach the spirit of Compass Box, but also serve to flatten the diversity within individual countries. While the distilleries of Jamaica or Barbados may share similarities, much as the classic Scottish regions may once have, this doesn't have the same kind of granularity. As Linkwood is not Craigellachie or Glenfarclas, Hampden is not Longpond or Worthy Park. Clément is not Depaz or Neisson.

One release closer to the mark comes from the armagnac bottler L'Encantada. They have done a significant amount of work bringing attention to armagnac farm distilleries, creating excitement about their individual profiles, albeit through single casks. Their XO bottling was a blend of a handful of different single casks from distillers that they had previously bottled casks from. This closely approaches the Compass Box model of riffing on known quantities to create new and exciting profiles.

In many ways this is a chicken and egg problem - without widespread knowledge and appreciation of individual distillery profiles there is less drive for blenders to highlight them, but without engaged customers seeking to discover those individual profiles there is little incentive to put them front and center. We can see glimmers within other spirits categories that this may come about with time and increasingly curious customers, but it may be that relative ignorance will prevent blenders from operating in quite the same mold as Compass Box.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

While much of Douglas Laing's regional blended malts series is NAS, there have been a number of limited edition releases with bigger numbers on them. While many sell out quickly, this one has hung around.

This is composed of Highland malts that have been, as the name suggests, aged in sherry casks for at least 21 years then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.nl

Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

Nose: rich, moderately sweet sherry, juicy raisins, thick malt, green herbs, a little vanilla and American oak, cinnamon, sulfur. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes creamier, but it remains mostly the same.

Taste: a little hot up front, sweet sherry, fading into bittersweet with some vanilla and a little bit of oak near the back, with a light sulfurous overlay throughout. After dilution the flavors become a little brighter and the alcohol heat retreats, but it's otherwise much the same.

Finish: lingering alcohol heat, sherry residue, light American oak, following by a fairly long sulfurous note

While this is a big step up from the 10 Year, there's nothing here that makes me want a whole bottle. It's a reasonably competent, older sherry-driven malt, but it lacks the complexity I would want at this price point. While there's nothing explicitly wrong with it, with the possible exception of the sulfur (which tastes to me more like it's coming from the casks than from the spirit), there's also nothing pulling me in. Douglas Laing has also put out an 18 Year Sherry Edition out that is still available right now, but given what I've gotten from the two samples this week I'm in no rush to try it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Douglas Laing has been releasing a range of regional blended malts with fanciful names over the last handful of years, joining their more established Big Peat. These cover the Highlands (Timorous Beastie), the Lowlands (Epicurian), Speyside (Scallywag), the Islands (Rock Oyster), and Campbeltown (Gauldrons). While most have started out as NAS malts, they have expanded the range to include core and limited edition age dated expressions.

This whisky was aged in what I would guess were exclusively refill ex-bourbon hogsheads, then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Nose: honey, vanilla, clean malt, fairly green, almost no oak, a little floral bubblegum, a smidge of orange creamsicle. After adding a few drops of water the floral character is amplified, the green notes shift a bit towards apple, and the vanilla integrates with the malt.

Taste: sweet up front with a lot of green malt carrying through, vague fruity/floral notes around the middle, bittersweet fade out. After dilution it becomes a little washed out and grainy, but with more cask-influenced roundness at the back.

Finish: bittersweet grain and oak, green malt, vague floral notes

Part of me wonders if this sample was mislabeled and it's actually the NAS version, but it's been suggested that it's not likely to be the case. If everything in here is 10 years old, they're using pretty mediocre casks. The malt itself doesn't seem to be of poor quality, but it needs more time to properly mature. Water helped to round it out a bit, so this might have been better off bottled at 43%, but even then it was nothing spectacular. Overall I would give this a miss.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Whisky Review: Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Somehow, this is the first Port Charlotte I've ever tried. While I have had the earlier Bruichladdich Peat (and thought it was disgusting), PC has always garnered much more praise. Whether it's the high prices or lack of availability in the States, I've just never gotten around to it before.

So we start at the beginning. This is currently the entry level release in the lineup, produced entirely from Scottish barley, then aged in a mix of American oak ex-bourbon and European oak ex-red wine casks. The whisky is bottled at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Whiskysite.nl

Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Nose: dominated by dry peat smoke, fresh herbal notes, a little roasted vegetable savoriness, Bruichladdich malt, pleasant dry oak behind, a touch of caramel, nutmeg and cinnamon, red wine in the background. After adding a few drops of water it remains relatively unchanged, but the peat shifts into more of an herbal mode, meshing with the nutmeg, and something floral starts creeping out.

Taste: everything lands at once and carries through to the back - pleasant malty sweetness, dry peat smoke, an appropriate amount of oak, citrus, and red wine in the background. After dilution the structure remains similar, but it becomes sweeter and the alcohol paradoxically has more heat.

Finish: carries through from the palate with a little more red wine and oak

I want to like this more than I do. The spirit seems good - there's no unpleasant funk, just solid peat smoke and Bruichladdich malt. But given what these NAS bottles go for, there isn't enough complexity to make me choose it over something like Ledaig 10 Year. With that said, I am curious to try the latest Port Charlotte 10 Year or some of the more well-received cask finishes, because I can absolutely believe that it has more potential than this.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

Bruichladdich has been putting out NAS/multi-vintage releases in their trademark blue bottles under the Laddie Classic/Classic Laddie name holding down the lower end of the lineup since 2009. The name was inverted in 2013 when it became part of their Scottish Barley project alongside a more heavily peated Port Charlotte version.

All of these have striven to showcase what the distillery considers to be its core profile - clean malt flavors with some coastal influence. These have all been from American oak casks, though they have been a mix of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry (at least in the early iterations), an ex-red wine. The Scottish Barley releases have all been bottled at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.nl

Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

Nose: pleasantly mild earthy peat funk, round fresh malt - less youthful than expected, a little bit of red wine and oak in the background. After adding a few drops of water it turns into something like WIPs Kilkerrans with the peat integrating and turning into something like ginger cookies.

Taste: pleasant malt sweetness up front with a little heat and oak underneath, continues in the same vein towards the back where it picks up some light red wine, a bit of gentle peat, and a little more oak. After dilution it becomes more rounded with the red wine tucking into the background while the peat spreads out and integrates, resulting in a much more enjoyable profile.

Finish: balanced clean malt, earthy peat, oak, and a bit of red wine

This continues to gives me hope that Bruichladdich finally has their spirit under control. There's a little bit of their funk at full strength, but it reads closer to the very mild peat of the 12 Year Second Edition than the over the top weirdness of Laddie Ten. Speaking of which, while this is nominally part of their 'unpeated' lineup, this absolutely tastes lightly peated. I have no clue whether that is how they choose to malt the barley for this release or if it is picking up the remnants of their Port Charlotte and Octomore runs from the washbacks and stills, but either way it has similarities to Hazelburns that come off as peated.

I might consider buying more if I could find it around the $40 mark. Especially with water it hits a lot of the notes I look for from Bruichladdich, though it is missing the salinity that would take it up a notch. As it stands this is a competent malt that reminds me of early Kilkerran WIP releases, well-suited for times when you don't want to think too hard about what you're drinking. By the same token there is nothing here to dazzle, but sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Whisky Review: Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Cask

Macallan 12 Year has been a staple for decades, the go-to bottle when looking for a whisky gift that seems classy without going over the top. However it disappeared for a number of years from many markets as the distillery rolled out their NAS 1824 series. Those became exemplars of the era when distillers claimed with straight faces that 'age wasn't everything' while charging customers equal or greater prices.

But it seems like we're finally coming back around, with age dates returning or even increasing for some releases. The Sherry Oak Cask line has returned to its roots with an age statement and 100% sherry seasoned European oak casks, bottled at 43% with chill filtration but probably no coloring.

Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Cask

Nose: bright, rich sherry, dried fruit, nutty, vanilla, clean malt, moderate oak. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is less bright and the aromas are generally dampened down, with the exception of the malt becoming stronger.

Taste: sweet, thick sherry starting up front, turning more bittersweet with a little malt-y backing around the middle, slightly sharp oak tannins at the back. After dilution the sherry is more expansive and gains a pleasantly tart edge, and the oak is a little more rounded.

Finish: dry sherry, a little balsamic vinegar, dark oak tannins

Between this and the Double Cask, I think I prefer the latter. While this is more intensely sherried, the European oak gives it a sharpness that I find a little unpleasant. Overall, it just doesn't feel like a complete package, rather an attempt to make a fairly generic sherried whisky. I would personally prefer more refill sherry casks in the mix to let the spirit shine through, since that might help give it more of a malty roundness to balance the European oak tannins. As is, I would go for its American oak sibling or stick with other distillers making whiskies in this vein such as Glendronach or Glenfarclas.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Whisky Review: Macallan 12 Year Double Cask

The last 10-15 years at Macallan has seen more change than almost any in its existence. Product lines have been released, then disappeared with barely a whisper. A prime example would be their Fine Oak line, which blended European and American oak sherry casks with American oak bourbon casks to give a less aggressively sherried profile. However this was always seen as the 'lesser' Macallan in comparison to their classic Sherry Oak lineup.

Since Fine Oak was taken out of circulation, it has been partially replaced with their (small) Double Cask, which takes a page out of Edrington's other big name distillery Highland Park. While there are no bourbon casks here, they instead use sherry seasoned American oak casks to impart a different profile than the pure European oak sherry casks of their Sherry Oak line.

The final result is bottled at 43% with chill filtration, but probably no coloring.

Macallan 12 Year Double Cask

Nose: classic Macallan malt and sherry, fruit leather, strong vanilla and caramel, grassy/floral overtones. After adding a few drops of water is becomes richer, with deeper bourbon cask notes,

Taste: mildly sweet malt up with sherry overtones, some cardboard in the background throughout, becomes a little more rich with American oak butterscotch and light floral notes beginning in the middle, then a touch of bittersweet oak at the back. After dilution the American oak notes become stronger and the bitterness at the back is amplified, though not unpleasantly.

Finish: weak and thin - vague malt, sherry, oak, vanilla, mild nutty savoriness, and a little heat

While not a world-beater, this is a very competent malt. It feels like an interesting twist on the Fine Oak line it replaced, with the American oak still dominating over the sherry. Hazarding a guess the seasoning period for the American oak casks may have been comparatively short, so the wood speaks louder than the sherry. The American oak casks were still well chosen and give it a sweeter, more dessert-y character without going overboard on the tannins.

It feels comparable to something like Aberlour 12 Year, which makes sense given that their composition is similar. Back when Aberlour 12 Year was bottled at 43% I would say there wasn't much contest between the two, but if their prices are similar, I might have to give the nod to Macallan for still being bottled at the higher strength. I also might take it over something like Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year, which has always felt poorly integrated from the short finish compared to blending bourbon and sherry casks together.

Overall this feels somewhat representative of how the market seems to be coming back around after years of mediocre NAS releases. This has an age date, displays casks that are, if not wildly exciting, very respectable, and it doesn't cost the earth (by today's standards). I'm not sure if I need a lot more, but if 200 mL bottles were available for, say, $20, I would happily grab one for the occasional drink.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Whisky Review: Glendronach 21 Year Parliament

Glendronach Parliament has capped their standard lineup since it was refreshed. I initially intended to add it to my earlier review, but neglected it for long enough that the miniature had gone bad by the time I got to it. So I was glad to be able to get a fresher sample from Whiskysite.nl to finally give it some proper attention.

Unlike the younger Revival and Allardice expressions (until the 15 Year's refresh), this included PX casks alongside the more standard oloroso sherry casks. Was that the result of weaker casks being reracked to give them more punch? Or just to sweeten whisky that was getting tannic? The final result was also given a lift by being bottled at 48% instead of 46%, giving it a little more heft, as always without coloring or chill filtration.

Glendronach 21 Year Parliament

Nose: a heavy overlay of rather dry sherry, savory tannic oak, sweet malt and vanilla underneath, cinnamon, lime, lightly floral. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes creamier, nuttier, and a little sweeter (more PX influence?), while the malt and vanilla become more prominent.

Taste: opens with sweet and sour sherry, nutty cherry notes in the middle, bittersweet at the back with sweeter sherry and dry oak tannins. After dilution the flavors come into focus with brighter sherry and darker oak, some fizzy/peppery notes come out from the middle back, and there are some tropical fruit overtones throughout.

Finish: sweet sherry, oak tannins, nutty malt, umami/savory notes

While this is clearly older than Allardice, the oak has become a bit too tannic. There is some compensation in complexity, especially on the nose and the flavors with a little dilution (which makes me wonder what this would have been like bottled at 46% to begin with), but the overall results don't grab me, especially given the 50% bump in price. As always, both my wallet and I are perfectly happy to prefer the cheaper whisky.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Whisky Review: Glendronach 18 Year Revisited

Glendronach has gone through a number of changes since the last time I reviewed their core lineup. The 15 Year disappeared for three years due to supply constraints, returning after their warehouses filled up sufficiently. Maybe more importantly, the group that they were a part of with Benriach and Glenglassaugh was sold to Brown-Forman in 2016, removing them as some of the few remaining (major) independent distilleries in Scotland.

But ultimately it's about the whisky. This is aged exclusively in oloroso sherry casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. According to the math, this whisky is far older than it says on the bottle and will be until new stocks become available next year.

I purchased this sample from Whiskysite.nl

Glendronach 18 Year

Nose: rich, dry oloroso sherry, cocoa powder, vanilla, citrus (lemon), sour unripe fruit, baked apples, clean malt underneath. After adding a few drops of water the chocolate notes are amplified over everything else, the sherry becomes sweeter and fudgier, more sour malt emerges, and a little oak comes out.

Taste: thick, bittersweet sherry up front with citrus peel in the background, a slightly sour overlay throughout, fades into sweeter sherry with moderately tannic oak at the back. After dilution it becomes softer and sweeter overall, with less oak and more floral malt at the back, and slightly washed out flavors

Finish: nutty sherry, dry dark chocolate, mild oak tannins with a smoky edge, citrus peel, sweet malt

In all honesty, I feel like Glendronach's spirit is getting a little long in the tooth. This is still almost as good as I remember it, but the oak is starting to get the upper hand in a way that detracts from the spirit. But some of that might just be the effects of packaging this as a sample, so I'm still seriously thinking about grabbing a few bottles before the reset next year. The reviews of the rebooted Glendronach Revival make me suspicious that the new spirit won't measure up to what was made with old stocks, especially if they decide to throw PX sherry casks into the mix to give the product extra 'depth'.

Friday, April 26, 2019

New Cocktails: Avenue & Davenport

My main complaint about the Toronto was that its simplicity meant that it didn't taste like much beyond the Fernet. So the Avenue & Davenport that I first spotted on Imbibe's Twitter feed seemed to solve that problem. While it retains the basic structure of the Toronto, the simple syrup is replaced by a mixture of bittersweet Cynar and funky maraschino liqueur. Hopefully those elements will help to lift it out of the morass of Fernet.

Avenue & Davenport

1.5 oz rye whiskey
0.5 oz bourbon
0.5 oz Cynar
0.25 oz maraschino
0.25 oz Fernet

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

The nose is a bit of a jumble, with the rye and Fernet fighting for prominence. The sip opens with complex bittersweetness from the Cynar and Fernet, the maraschino peeks out around the middle, then sliding towards a more citrus-y bitterness at the back joined by a little oak from the whiskey. The finish is long and oaky with Fernet overtones.

This is a good drink showcasing how different amaros can be mixed to layer bitter and herbal flavors on a solid whiskey base. In contrast to the Toronto it's based on, the Fernet is much less aggressive here, despite occupying roughly the same fraction of the drink. It's equally interesting that the maraschino is a little hard to detect as I usually find it to be a very assertive ingredient. Overall I find it interesting, but not something I feel compelled to return to at a later date.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Classic Cocktails: the Toronto

I've been scared to Fernet for years. While it slowly took the cocktail world by storm, I skipped basically any drink with it as an ingredient. But I knew I'd have to try it some day, as evidenced by the two miniature bottles that have been tucked away in my liquor cabinet for years. So I recently broke down and gave it a try, with what is acknowledged as the standard method for getting into this rather intensely flavored spirit.

The Toronto Cocktail

2 oz whiskey (Canadian or rye)
0.25 oz Fernet Branca
0.25 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

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

The nose is a bit of a jumble with the Fernet, rye, and orange peel vying for prominence. The sip opens sweetly with a healthy dose of mint that carries into the back where it is joined by the rye and bitters. The finish is cleanly minty with a little whiskey and the bitters' spices.

As an introduction to Fernet, I think this works. While it dominates the drink, it's never abrasive or overwhelming. At the same time, I don't think this is a recipe I will reach for again. It needs something more going on to give it complexity or at least counterbalance the Fernet.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Whisky Review: Old Particular Auchentoshan 18 Year 1997/2016

Auchentoshan doesn't get a lot of love, even when it's older. Some exceptions can be made when it's matured in sherry casks, but the bourbon casks usually retain too much of the polarizing distillery character.

This particular whisky was distilled in December 1997, filled into a virgin oak hogshead, then bottled in June 2016 at 48.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.nl

Old Particular Auchentoshan 18 Year 1997/2016 Cask #DL11203

Nose: creamy Auchentoshan malt with some maize character, sweet bourbon cask notes of caramel and vanilla, berries. After adding a few drops of water it is similar, but some grassy/floral character comes out.

Taste: sweet with berry notes up front, fades slowly into creamy malt and a touch of oak at the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes thicker and more syrupy, but the oak tannins spread out and become stronger to maintain balance.

Finish: balanced sweet malt, savory character, mild oak tannins, berries in the background

While there are parallels between this cask and the Scott's Selection I reviewed earlier, this is much more clearly a modern whisky. Much of the funkier medicinal notes and grassiness in the 1983 have disappeared leaving a much more straightforwardly pleasant product. I might even go so far as to say that if you actively dislike Auchentoshan, you'll probably still like this. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about it and I would have a bit of a tough time pegging it as a Lowland spirit rather than a generic Speysider. Some of this may be attributable to the virgin oak hogshead it was aged in, though I find it surprising that such an active cask left left a relatively light mark on the spirit.

At the time of writing this appears to still be available, though I find the price rather steep for what you're getting. While I'm glad to have sampled it, I don't find myself needing more. It's a pleasant drink and I wouldn't turn down more if offered, but I suspect there are more engaging choices out there.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Whisky Review: Scott's Selection Auchentoshan 21 Year 1983/2004

Scott's Selection occupies an interesting niche in the American malt enthusiast's psyche. Given relatively short shrift when they were originally released, they have since gained a stronger reputation as overlooked gems, especially since many survived on liquor store shelves into the whisky blogging era. However, some were real shelf turds, such as this Auchentoshan that was finally put on deep discount at Binny's after a decade or more. In this case it may have as much to do with the distillery's lackluster reputation among enthusiasts, especially when it comes from a bourbon cask rather than sherry. Luckily for me, older bourbon cask Auchentoshan is my jam, so let's see how this one did.

This whisky was distilled in 1983, filled into what was probably a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, then bottled in 2004 at 52.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for organizing this bottle split.

Scott's Selection Auchentoshan 21 Year 1983/2004

Nose: classic Auchentoshan style - fairly light, good malt/wood balance, wood shavings vanilla, hints of overripe fruit, light floral/grassy notes, faintly medicinal. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes stronger, while the other notes retreat.

Taste: sweet malt throughout, grassy notes growing stronger and more vegetal towards the back, an acidic edge, floral and bubblegum top notes, citrus peel in the background (lemon, orange, grapefruit), bittersweet malt and oak at the back. After dilution the up front sweetness and the savoriness at the back are amplified, while the structure remains largely the same.

Finish: a little fizzy, long lightly sweet malt, vaguely medicinal, savory/grassy fade-out

This isn't a complex malt, just a solid example of a good ex-bourbon cask that's been left to sit for a decent amount of time. While not as aggressively grassy as the similarly aged Archives sample I tried a while back, it has everything I would expect from an unpeated Lowland whisky. Surprisingly the strength never makes itself apparent - if you had given this to me blind I might have guessed it was at 46%.

For a different perspective on this whisky, check out MAO's review from the same bottle.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

New Cocktails: the Fogerty Cocktail

This drink caught my eye when it was posted by Imbibe. It was originally made by Ryan Fitzgerald of ABV in San Francisco. The set of ingredients and proportions reminded me of the La Bicyclette I posted about earlier this week, albeit it taking them in a rather different direction.

The drink called for a high proof rye and lots of it, but I was curious how the balance of the drink could shift depending on how it was constructed.

Fogerty Cocktail

1.5-2 oz high proof rye whiskey
0.5 oz Campari
0.25 oz crême de cacao
2 dashes orange bitters

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

The 2 oz whiskey version has a slightly unbalanced nose with the whiskey and Campari notes clashing, with cacao and a little funk behind them. The sip opens with moderate sweetness, then unfolds rye whiskey and cacao bitterness, backed up by the Campari. The finish is pleasantly bitter balanced between the cacao and Campari.

The 1.5 oz whiskey version has a nose dominated by chocolate, with the whiskey and Campari in the background. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, with dark chocolate throughout undergirded by rye and Campari. The finish is bittersweet, again dominated by the chocolate.

This really demonstrates what a potent ingredient crême de cacao can be. Even a half ounce shift in the amount of whiskey is enough to completely alter the balance of the drink. My personal preference is probably somewhere between the two because I find the 2 oz version to be too far towards the rye while the 1.5 oz version lets the cacao dominate. I'd also be curious to try this with another amaro like Bruto Americano with its herbal quality, though a lighter product like Aperol would just get lost in the more strongly flavored ingredients.

Monday, March 25, 2019

New Cocktails: La Bicyclette

One of the most important things you can learn about cocktails is that they have an internal consistency. Ingredients balance each other in fairly predictable proportions, even if they have to be tweaked for the particular character of individual expressions and personal tastes.

That's how, when asked to make a cocktail using St. Germain, I was able to cobble together almost this exact recipe despite the fact that I had never seen it before, with the exception that I used orange instead of peach bitters.

This cocktail comes from a time when St. Germain was the new kid on the block and bartenders were figuring out how to use it. Jaime Boudreau of Canon in Seattle posted a couple of drinks with it, including this one.

La Bicyclette

1.5 oz gin (1:1 Tanqueray/Beefeater)
0.75 oz sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes)
0.25 oz elderflower liqueur (St. Germain)
2 dashes peach bitters (Bitter Truth)

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

The nose is balanced between the gin and vermouth, brightened by the lemon peel. The sip opens with liqueur and vermouth sweetness, passes through elderflower and citrus notes, then fades into complex bitterness from the vermouth, gin, and bitters.

This kind of drink is how St. Germain acquired the term 'bartender's catsup'. It does exactly what it is supposed to do, providing a subtle twist on an otherwise classic profile and adding a bit of extra body from the sugar. While it's since slipped out of favor from overuse, it's still a great ingredient to slip into your lineup from time to time.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Whisky Review: Game of Thrones House Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve

I do not have a good history with Talisker's NAS releases. While some of them such as 57º North or their 175th Anniversary Edition have been fêted within the community, their more recent attempts such as Dark Storm were practically undrinkable. So it was with some trepidation that I bought this whisky, saved only by the fact that it wasn't wildly expensive, so it seemed worth the risk on the off chance that I would get another drinkable Talisker.

This whisky is aged in indeterminate casks (though I'd put some money on recharred hogsheads being in the mix), then bottled at 45.8% probably with coloring and possibly with chill filtration.

Game of Thrones House Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve

Nose: strong but not unpleasant rounded oak, mossy/herbal peat smoke, incense, gently floral, caramel/butterscotch, a little chocolate. After adding a few drops of water the oak expands, the peat becomes more herbal, and the floral character mostly disappears.

Taste: barrel and malt sweetness beginning up front and continuing all the way through, vague berry fruitiness with floral overtones in the middle. After dilution the oak becomes more tannic and the profile is bittersweet overall.

Finish: bittersweet oak, a touch of peat, sweet berries

While this is a more modern Talisker than I would prefer, it's honestly pretty good. The oak is the defining feature, but it doesn't have the unpleasant character of Dark Storm. I liked that some of the floral character that Talisker can have came out and it had a decent amount of peat without being too sharp.

I won't tell you that this is a must-buy bottle, but if you're a Talisker fan and happen to find it at MSRP, I do think it's worth the price. Just don't pay collector's prices unless you're dead set on having a full set.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Whisky Review: Old Malt Cask Talisker 6 Year 2009/2016

Talisker is one of those distilleries that is not exactly easy to find from indie bottlers. Not as impossible as Oban, but not exactly easy. The exception to the rule has been sub 10 year old single casks, which have been trickling out over the last handful of years. Does Diageo require any bottlers who get ahold of their casks to put it on the market it before it becomes competition for their own 10 Year? Or is it just an attempt to cater to the market for youthful, fiery peated malts?

This whisky was distilled in November 2009, filled into a sherry hogshead, then bottled in November 2016 at 50% without coloring or chill filtration for K&L Wines.

Thanks to Florin for splitting this bottle with me.

Old Malt Cask Talisker 6 Year 2009/2016 Cask HL 12934 for K&L

Nose: thick savory sherry, dry peat smoke, herbal, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, pineapple, clean malt in the background. After adding a few drops of water it takes on a more youthful cast with the herbal/grassy elements amplified, the sherry pushed into the background, and the peat taking on a fresher/less smoky mode.

Taste: youthful sharpness up front, unfolding into moderately sweet sherry, some heat around the middle, then fading into malt and savory peat with oak in the background at the back. After dilution the sherry becomes more balanced between sweetness and savoriness, the oak spreads out and gives it a bittersweet profile overall,

Finish: savory, dry peat smoke, sherry residue, clean malt, moderate oak - rounded but not particularly sweet

While I've been confused by all these young Taliskers hitting the market over the last few years, but I have to admit that this one works. The cask is active enough to round off some of the edges, without completely demolishing the spirit and turning it into just another sherry bomb. Reducing this cask to 50% was a good choice as it gives enough intensity to be interesting without the heat being overwhelming.

At the same time, I can imagine putting this together with a bourbon cask or two after another couple of years and coming out with something even better when they've had some more time to develop. Will we see any of those in future? I suspect not given the current trends, but we can hope.

For a very different take on this whisky, see MAO's less than positive review.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Whisky Review: Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year

Right off the bat, I know essentially nothing about Game of Thrones. I tried to read the books, but quickly gave up and have never seen anything from the show beyond GIFs. So my only interest here is in the whisky itself.

This particular Lagavulin is an interesting choice in a number of ways. First, like the 8 Year released for the distillery's 200th anniversary, it has an age statement under ten years old. Lagavulin has traditionally put out a line about their spirit needing a significant amount of time to mature, which makes sense given their squat stills and wide cuts. The wild popularity of their annual 12 Year batch strength release has given something of a lie to that assertion, but it's still somewhat surprising that they have chosen to represent themselves with even younger releases over the last few years.

This whisky is bottled at 46%, possibly without chill filtration but probably with coloring.

Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year

Nose: rich but not overwhelming peat smoke, incense, caramel, moderate oak, barbecue sauce, bubblegum, vanilla frosting, fruity ester top notes, curing plastic and generic soap (in a good way?). After adding a few drops of water the malt moves forward, the peat becomes more mossy, and a lot of the sweeter overtones move into the background.

Taste: malt and cask sweetness up front, balanced with a moderate amount of oak tannins and some vaguely fruity overtones, fading into bittersweet oak with rising dry peat smoke beginning in the middle and flowing into the back end. After dilution the malty sweetness is amplified and pushes the oak tannins towards the back without becoming cloying, while the peat smoke becomes more incense-like at the back.

Finish: thick dry peat smoke, moderate oak tannins, background malt sweetness, vague fruitiness

It's hard to understate how much this whisky has been a pleasant surprise. My mixed experience with the 8 Year made me a little bit wary, but how often do we get new Lagavulins? So I took the plunge and have been richly rewarded. Unlike its more rough hewn younger sibling, this straddles the line between it and the more refined 16 Year, albeit without the alcoholic strength of the 12 Year. But whatever, because this is half the price of the bruiser and less than the 16 Year in most markets.

While the nose is the star of this show, the flavors and finish are nothing to sniff at either. I've been skeptical about Diageo's ability to not screw up their own whiskies and this goes some way towards restoring my faith. Heck, I might even buy a second bottles, which almost never happens these days.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Whisky Review: Lagavulin 8 Year 200th Anniversary Edition

Lagavulin's 200th anniversary was celebrated in 2016. Referencing a quote from Alfred Barnard, who visited the distillery in 1886 and remarked that he had tasted a particularly fine 8 year old whisky, they decided to try to create an homage to that style.

Since that first release the 8 Year has been added to the regular lineup, alongside the standard 16 Year and Distiller's Edition plus the semi-regular 12 Year annual release.

This whisky was aged in what I'm guessing were all refill ex-bourbon hogsheads, then bottled at 48% possibly with added color.

Thanks to Florin for this bottle split.

Lagavulin 8 Year

Nose: lots of raw, unburnt peat, fresh green malt, a rounder grainy note, hints of oak in the background, plastic. After adding a few drops of water the malt and peat integrate, but the profile remains similar overall.

Taste: strong malt sweetness with some heat up front, peat starts in the background around the middle and shifts into the foreground near the back, vague fruity overtones throughout. After dilution the flavors get a bit brighter and the peat notes are stronger, but the overall structure remains the same.

Finish: raw peat, bittersweet, slightly tannic

Whether or not this is your jam, I think they accomplished their goal of creating an "older" style of whisky. For all that we complain about how raw the whiskies coming out of new distilleries are, that's what most people would have been drinking before the 20th century. In a sense, it's an unfair advantage for the older distilleries that were established when no one expected their spirit to be aged for at least a decade.

At the same time, this isn't the same raw distillate that would have been coming off Lagavulin's stills when it was established. Their processes are built towards their core 16 Year release and I suspect that an 8 year old whisky back then would have potentially offered something more interesting than this. My expectations may have been too high after trying younger bourbon cask Lagavulin at the distillery, but this was an absolute let down. At least I didn't have to slog through more than half a bottle?

Friday, February 22, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015 Release

Loch Gorm is the third member of Kilchoman's standard lineup. It was brought in to rotation in 2013, replacing the more generically named Sherry Cask Release. As that suggests, this is the version aged entirely in ex-sherry casks, both butts and hogsheads.

As with all Kilchoman's standard releases, this is bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. The whisky was distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2015.

I purchased this sample from WhiskySite.nl

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015 Release

Nose: rich but not overwhelming sherry, clean malt, gingerbread, dry mossy peat smoke, fresh ground coffee, vanilla, American oak, seashells/minerals, a little salinity. After adding a few drops of water it loses most of its intensity, leaving mostly soft sherry and peat, though some of it reemerges alongside savory and lemon notes with time.

Taste: fairly sweet up front with some heat that carries through, fades through oxidized bittersweet sherry into light American oak and peat at the back. After dilution it gains some intensity but with less heat - the sherry expands towards the front and becomes brighter, the peat at the back is stronger and lingers longer.

Finish: a little hot, oak, fresh peat, coffee, Robitussin overtones, doesn't linger very long

This is a bit more like it. Despite being aged exclusively in sherry casks, I find that element better integrated here than in Sanaig. Importantly the peat smoke is also more present, which helps to give the whisky a better balance.

With that said, the aromas are clearly the star of the show at full strength. They have great intensity and a respectable amount of complexity. The flavors and finish are more than a bit of a letdown in comparison. I couldn't find much complexity and the finish just gave up. I was also surprised by the heat, despite the not especially high bottling proof. That may be down to the young-ish spirit going into this compared to Machir Bay, but without any definite explanation of how they're composed, that's just conjecture.

Water largely flips that relationship, though it doesn't bring much more complexity to the flavors.

Overall this reinforce my sense that Machir Bay is the only Kilchoman that can be described as a good value. Others might be better, but given how much more you'll pay for them I can't in good faith recommend spending your money when there's so much quality to be had from their entry-level whisky. Hopefully someday they'll be able to have range where everything justifies its price point, but we're not there right now. I wouldn't say no if someone gave me a bottle... but I won't be spending my own money on it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Sanaig

While Kilchoman's Machir Bay has been holding down their standard lineup for some years now, it has gained some company more recently. Sanaig is roughly the mirror image of Machir Bay - while the latter is built from a 80/20 bourbon:sherry mix, Sanaig is built from a 30/70 bourbon: sherry mix. This lets the sherry shine without completely leaving out the bourbon cask component.

As with all of Kilchoman's entry level malts, this is made from Port Ellen malt and bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

From Kilchoman Distillery
Kilchoman Sanaig

Nose: somewhat closed initially - light dry peat smoke, smoked fish, oxidized sherry, Hawaiian Punch, muddled malt and floral notes, baking spices. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes brighter and a little nutty, some more oak comes out, and the peat becomes stronger.

Taste: heavily sherried but not particularly sweet up front, relatively flat with floral overtones until a small bump of peat at the back. After dilution it remains very flat and moderately sherried while the peat disappears until the finish

Finish: savory sherry residue, floral overtones, oak tannins, a little peat

Meh. I can see what they were trying to accomplish here, but it feels like too much has been taken away from the spirit without the casks adding much in the way of extra complexity for me to get excited about it. If anything it the mix of floral notes, sherry, and light peat reads like an appeal to Bowmore fans. The nose is the best part and is engaging if soft, but the flavors are just too flat without any of the fire I expect from Kilchoman. If they were primarily using refill rather than first fill sherry casks I can imagine this working, both in terms of the sherry having a lighter touch and potentially less oak impact. I'll happily drink Machir Bay instead, which is cheaper to boot.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Machir Bay Revisited

Kilchoman remains Islay's youngest active distillery, despite the numerous proposed new distilleries being built on the island. While they began their releases with a series of seasonal releases that charted the development of their spirit, that changed when Machir Bay became their first regular release. It was initially composed entirely from ex-bourbon cask whisky that was five years old or less, with a small proportion finished in ex-sherry casks. More recently they have stopped stating the age of the components and the exact treatments they get, but it is made from 80% ex-bourbon casks and 20% ex-sherry casks. While they have whisky that is over ten years old now, it is likely that what goes into this release remains largely or entirely younger than that.

As with all of Kilchoman's entry level malts, this is of indeterminate age and was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this miniature locally

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Nose: dry peat smoke, cigarette ash, incense, young/fresh malt, brown sugar, a touch of sherry, floral heather and violets, light American oak, seashore in the background. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer with less ashy peat, the sherry largely retreats, and the floral notes mostly disappear.

Taste: mildly sweet malt with a touch of sherry up front, becomes bittersweet with oak tannins and rising peat smoke in the middle, some alcohol heat at the back. After dilution the peat gets stronger and moves forward on the palate, the sherry sweetness is stronger and extends further back, some seashore notes comes out around the middle, and the oak tannins mostly disappear going into the finish.

Finish: oak tannins, dry peat, sweet malt, sherry residue

Hey, that's pretty good. There was less cured meat on the nose and the peat was better integrated on the palate in this version compared to the first edition I tried, but otherwise it felt pretty consistent. I suspect that some of this is that Kilchoman now has older stock to blend into this release, so it comes off as less fiery than the version that was composed from 95% whiskies that were four years old or less.

Overall, I think this remains the standard by which all other Kilchoman releases are measured, much like Ardbeg's 10 Year is for that distillery. And as with them, the question Machir Bay always raises is whether the more expensive releases are enough better to justify their price tags.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Balvenie Wrap Up

So, after all of those Balvenies, where do we stand?

Honestly, almost exactly where I was before. While I often find that whiskies I tried near the beginning of my experiences hit me quite differently now, Balvenie has remained pretty much where it was when I started. They make good whisky, but not for me. And definitely not for my wallet.

All in all, I can't say that I blame them. I find the results disappointing in much the same way that I find Bowmore disappointing - there's no question that the distillery produces top-notch spirit, but because of their customer base is just fine with the status quo, most of what we get is watered down. I mean, even the higher strength releases are still proofed down well below 50%, so we're not getting to see what their spirit can be like with some real heft.

In my ideal world we'd get something like their sister distillery Glenfiddich's 15 Year Distillery Edition - a blend of bourbon and sherry casks at higher proof and a respectable price. I'm perfectly happy being tossed a bone, even if the rest of the lineup isn't for me. But with most of Balvenie's similarly aged and lower proof releases coming out over $100, I'm not about to hold my breath.

Ultimately, I will just have to keep looking elsewhere for my gentle Speyside fix. Thankfully there are any number of other distilleries in the region that can tickle that fancy without costing me an arm and a leg.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 21 Year Portwood

Balvenie is one of a small clutch of Scottish distilleries that are able to command genuinely impressive prices for their products. While everything has come up pretty significantly over the last decade, you really have to hand it to them, Macallan, and Highland Park for consistently getting people to pay 50-100% more than others are charging for comparably aged malts. Sure, there's also Springbank, but they aren't backed by corporate money and demand really outstrips supply.

So while others often have a fairly big jump between their 17-18 year old releases and their 21 year old releases, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find Balvenie's for much under $200 these days. That is a lot of money, however you cut it.

This whisky is aged in ex-bourbon casks for most of its life, then finished in port casks for a relatively short period of time and bottled at 43% with chill filtration and maybe a little coloring.

Balvenie 21 Year Portwood

Nose: a pleasant overlay of port, honey, gentle grassy malt, pink floral notes, orange peel, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the port notes become stronger, the honey turns into molasses, and the floral notes are toned down.

Taste: moderately sweet throughout, floral overtones in the middle, vanilla, herbal malt, and creamy port near the back. After dilution it becomes thicker and the port notes are stronger, but most of the sweetness and complexity is lost, leaving somewhat cardboard-y malt and oak.

Finish: floral, dry malt, background port

I don't think this sample has held up too well, especially since I noticed that the fill level had gone down appreciably, losing a few milliliters in the process. With that said, the experience was consistent with the couple of times I've tried it before - a pleasant but less than particularly engaging malt.

Perhaps ironically this is one of the few port finished whiskies that I've enjoyed, since I usually find those casks end up being too sweet and overbearing. Here it provides a lot overlay on Balvenie's spirit, accenting it without overwhelming it.

With all that said, there's absolutely no way I would ever by a full bottle of this whisky. There is a legion of single malts that I would rather be drinking and I could buy several of them for the price this tends to go for. If you are particularly enamored with Balvenie's style this is a classic example, but they really make you have to want it.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 17 Year Doublewood

Balvenie 17 Year Doublewood was introduced in 2012 as the distillery was radically shifting its lineup. For the first decade of the 2000s the 17 year old malts had primarily been a way to show off creative cask finishes and other production techniques. The Doublewood variant was clearly meant to be a permanent part of the range, building on the success of their entry-level 12 Year Doublewood. Like its younger sibling, it is composed of whisky matured in ex-bourbon casks that are then dumped into sherry casks for a relatively short period of time.

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

Thanks to PDXWhisky for letting me sample it.

Balvenie 17 Year Doublewood

Nose: balanced malt and dark sherry, green fruit (apples and pears), honey, mildly tannic oak, light wood spices and floral notes. After adding a few drops of water it becomes less sherried, highlighting the malt and wood spices.

Taste: honey throughout, sweet malt up front, growing sherry overtones from the middle back, syrupy vanilla in the middle with green fruits and orange peel, light oak and wood spices near the back with only a few prickles of tannins. After dilution it becomes sweeter throughout, more honied and malty than sherried, revealing orange liqueur in the middle and a dank oak-y nutmeg note at the back.

Finish: balanced malt and sherry, vanilla, very light oak

Compared to the younger 12 Year Doublewood, this is obviously richer and far more overtly sherried, clearly marking it out as the superior whisky. It can also be contrasted with the 16 Year Triple Cask, which sits in a similar position within its range, the latter having far more aggressive American oak notes and less sherry. I would choose the 17 Year Doublewood over either, but in the scheme of the entire whisky world it's just not a good enough value. Under $100 I think it would clearly beat many of the standard Glens at their game, but at $120+ there are too many other whiskies playing the same game better (Glendronach 18/21, Glenfarclas 17/21, etc).

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 17 Year Sherry Oak

Back in the early-2000s Balvenie helped to establish its whisky geek bonafides by releasing a large number of experiments, ranging from cask finishes to different production methods. Sherry Oak was one of the simpler experiments, which is pretty clear from its name.

This whisky was aged in first-fill oloroso sherry casks, then bottled at 43% with chill filtration and maybe a little coloring (though I suspect that it didn't need much, if any).

Thanks to PDXWhisky for this sample.

Balvenie 17 Year Sherry Oak

Nose: dark, condensed sherry, juicy raisins, a charred edge, somewhat cardboard-y oak, a little nutmeg, vanilla, slightly floral. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes more clear and has a nice lightly musty character, the sherry is lighter and less dank, a healthy dose of caramel comes out, and the oak is more clearly American.

Taste: sherry and malt sweetness up front, quickly turning bittersweet as the sherry becomes dominant, apple and pear overtones with a bit of orange peel around the middle, surprising lack of oak until the very back. After dilution it resolves more clearly, it becomes maltier and less overtly sherried, the citrus in the middle is more clear and the fruit notes expand.

Finish: mild oak tannins, sherry residue, apple/pear/peach notes, citrus pith

I think this sample is starting to give up the ghost. Given that I got the last pour from the end of a bottle that had already been open for goodness knows how long, I can't say I'm surprised. I can see how it might have been better before air and time brought in their wrecking crew, but I have a feeling that the newer 15 Year Single Barrel sherry casks are probably on roughly the same level, with the added benefit of being bottled at a higher strength and still being available.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 16 Year Triple Cask

Balvenie's Triple Cask range was created specifically for the travel retail market. Unlike most of their regular lineup malts, it's composed from three different cask types - first-fill ex-bourbon, refill ex-bourbon, and refill sherry - that are blended together rather than the cask finishing of Doublewood or Portwood.

After adding this whisky is proofed down to 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Thanks to PDXWhisky for letting me sample this.

Balvenie 16 Year Triple Cask

Nose: a balanced mix of American oak bourbon casks and oloroso sherry, raisins, graham crackers, rich vanilla, light floral notes, honey. After adding a few drops of water the American oak becomes stronger but smoother, some citrus (orange) and nutmeg notes come out, and the sherry is less clear.

Taste: malt sweetness backed by mild American oak up front, light sherry influence with dried flowers and berries beginning in the middle, becoming gently tannic at the back, honey undertones throughout. After dilution it becomes sweeter up front, but kind of limp overall, with some corn notes at the back.

Finish: dank sherry residue, slightly bitter oak, clean herbal malt, dried flowers

While on paper this should be my kind of whisky - a respectable age with fully matured casks blended together rather than finishes - the low strength saps some of what makes it good and the fact that it is targeted at the travel retail market tends to suggest that it's meant to have mass appeal, rather than providing any kind of challenge. The most notable difference between this and most other Balvenies is the clear presence of first-fill ex-bourbon casks, which make it more tannic. I suspect that would be even more noticeable if this was at a higher strength, which may be part of why it was bottled at 40%. At the same time what happens after adding water is interesting - the aromas are a little more complex, but less rich, which the flavors more or less fall flat. Overall I think was an interesting idea, but the execution leaves me uninspired. A 16 year old that was primarily refill rather than first-fill casks at 46% would probably be far more appealing to me.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 14 Year Peat Week 2003 Vintage

While Balvenie has historically been known for their delicate, unpeated malts, they ran experiments in the 2000s with aging their spirit in casks that had previously held heavily peated malts. The Islay Cask and Peated Cask releases were well-received and became highly collectable whiskies. Starting in 2002 the distillery began to produce batches of their own heavily peated malt at 30 PPM for one week out of the year. Over the last few years they have put out annual releases made from those early vintages. While the 2002 got mixed reviews, the comments about the latest release were more positive.

This whisky was aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels, then bottled at 48.3% without chill filtration but possibly with coloring.

I purchased this sample from WhiskySite.

Balvenie 14 Year Peat Week 2003 Vintage

Nose: dry, mossy peat smoke, herbal - simple but surprisingly pleasant. After adding a few drops of water it turns into wood smoke with a little cigarette ash (almost Kilchoman-y) plus something a little savory and malty underneath.

Taste: rather sweet up front, then flipping to dry peat and wood smoke, moderate amounts of oak, and darker fruits and berries near the back. After dilution it becomes much sweeter up front, the oak is amplified, and some mocha emerges at the back.

Finish: balanced peat smoke, wet earth, oak, and background malt

This reminds me more than anything else of Benriach's similar experiments. Under the circumstances this may not be a coincidence if their peat is coming from the same place. This whisky is more refined than something like Benriach Curiositas, but I'm not sure it's unique enough to make me want more. For the money Benriach Septendecim would be my pick of heavily peated Speysiders.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask

As with many of Balvenie's cask experiments, the original version was an older release at 17 years old. Subsequently it was reformulated at a younger age and became part of the distillery's regular lineup.

This whisky begins its life in ex-bourbon casks, is transferred to ex-rum casks for an indeterminate amount of time, then proofed down to 43% for bottling with coloring and chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Whiskysite.

Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask

Nose: fresh malt, nougat, vanilla, mild dusty funk, raspberries with powdered sugar, light oak, dried flowers, cinnamon and nutmeg. After adding a few drops of water the spices are amplified and it gets rum-ier overall.

Taste: a fairly standard Balvenie profile with a solid but not overwhelming overlay of funkier rum - opens with moderate creamy sweetness with honey, hints of berries on top in the middle, then shifts more towards bittersweet at the back as the oak tannins and spices arrive. After dilution it becomes smoother and more rum-driven with a more bittersweet profile overall.

Finish: light - malt, rum, a little bit of oak

Somewhat surprisingly, this isn't an overly sweet whisky. While there's no indication exactly what kinds of rum casks were used for this finish, I wouldn't be shocked if the distillery is sourcing some from Jamaica or another area known for high ester rums as I get some of that funk in the aromas. The flavors are less complex, but still pull off a respectable balance. If anything this reminds me of a less sweet Glenmorangie Lasanta, as I get the same kind of nougat notes throughout it. I'd be curious to try the higher strength Golden Cask version, which might have had more heft.

Overall, while this is decent the sample doesn't make me want more. I wouldn't turn down a glass if it was offered, but it's not enough to get me to buy a whole bottle.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel Revisited

Balvenie's 15 Year Single Barrel was hands down one of its most popular releases among whisky geeks during its heyday. It offered a complex and nuanced single malt with enough variation to keep people interested, all at an extremely respectable price. However, its swan song played some years ago when the distillery decided to swap it out for a much more expensive sherry single cask release that lost some of the delicacy found in the bourbon casks. While the 12 Year Single Barrel stepped in to fill the breach in their lineup, it was clear that they didn't have the depth of stocks that they once had.

This whisky was aged in a single ex-bourbon cask, then bottled at 47.8% without coloring or chill filtration. This miniature does not have the details of the full bottles, but it was purchased as part of a set in 2011.

Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel

Nose: balanced malt and toasty/dank American oak, corn, a little savory. After adding a few drops of water the oak becomes simpler but more dominant, some musty floral notes emerge alongside a bit of red wine/sherry.

Taste: malt and oak sweetness up front with a vinous edge, fading into more American oak with a peppery kick to it and a bit of alcohol heat near the back, thick berry overtones from the middle back. After dilution the opening sweetness is even thicker, the berry notes become stronger and spread out, the pepper and heat mostly fade, and the oak is more tannic at the back.

Finish: moderately tannic oak, sweet malt, dry black pepper, dusty/musty

I think this miniature has suffered a bit from a weak seal in its cap, which led to a noticeably reduced fill volume over the years that I've had it. This was most evident in the aromas, which were more muted than I remember them being when I first tried one of these miniatures five years ago.

With that said, I can still see why this particular cask was chosen for the miniature range. The simplicity, while not overly engaging, is enjoyable without being challenging. It's clearly older than the Doublewood miniature that accompanied it, which would help to guide people up the range towards the 21 Year Portwood. And the hints of something more might be enough to get people to go buy fully bottles of the Single Barrel that could offer a more nuanced experience. While I never got to try any of those, I can see why so many were sad when this left the market. It's a good whisky that used to come at a fairly reasonable price. Its passing was a sign of the changing nature of the whisky world.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Whisky Review: Balvenie 12 Year Single Barrel #12712

Balvenie's 15 Year Single Barrel was a staple of the distillery's lineup for many years, offering a reasonably priced way to taste their lineup subtle variations from cask to cask. This came to an end when it switched from being bourbon single casks to sherry single casks, with roughly a 50% increase in price. To substitute, a new 12 Year Single Barrel expression was introduced, which retained the bourbon cask picks, but explicitly coming from first-fill rather than refill casks, which in theory helped to balance the loss of age with more active casks.

This whisky was aged in a first-fill ex-bourbon cask, then bottled at 47.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to PDXWhisky for the sample.

Balvenie 12 Year Single Barrel Cask #12712

Nose: clean malt, berries, citrus, tropical fruit, earthy, caramel, American oak, creamy vanilla. After dilution it becomes simpler, with more assertive toasty oak.

Taste: clean malt sweetness up front, joined by a slowly rising tide of lightly tannic oak towards the back that crests pleasantly in bittersweetness, creamy vanilla in the middle with light floral/berry overtones. After dilution it gains a thicker mouthfeel, but the oak tannins are more prominent.

Finish: balanced malt and oak, floral, berries

While this is not my favorite Balvenie that I've ever had (that title remains firmly held by the Founder's Reserve), it is a perfect example of what Balvenie's malt whisky is at its core: clean, sweet, and balanced. I applaud them for picking casks that are not especially old, but have burned off all of the youthfulness that can afflict whisky of this age. At the same time, apart from the aromas, it remained fairly simple. With more complexity I think this would have gone from a perfectly decent and enjoyable whisky to something more memorable. As is, I'm not particularly inclined to rush out and buy more for myself. There are any number of bourbon cask Speysiders to be had at better prices that will match many of Balvenie's pluses with the addition of a little bit more going on.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Physics of Batch Column Stills and Bubble Plates

Until recently the graceful pot stills of Scotland were the most familiar images people had when you talk about distilling. Now batch column stills, also known as hybrid, reflux, or Lomond stills, common in the eau de vie and craft distilling industries, are far more recognizable than they used to be. These occupy an important middle ground between simple pot and more complex continuous stills, representing an evolution of the double retort pot still. In the simplest way of thinking about them, batch column stills are a way to create more refined spirits while using a smaller footprint by increasing the number of times that vapor is condensed back into liquid between the pot and the condenser.

New Deal Distillery's hybrid still
I've previous written about the physics of pot stills, which gives important background explaining concepts such as separation/resolution and reflux. Pot stills come in a bewildering array of shapes that are designed to influence reflux, but columns put all of that complexity inside far more plain-looking tubes. All of them operate by putting some kind of material in the path that the vapor travels from the pot to the condenser to create more opportunities for the vapor to condense and flow back towards the pot. The simplest method involves packing the column with small, high surface area items made of copper or a non-reactive material. In the same way that vapor condenses on the walls and flows back into the pot in a pot still, packing a column with material creates even more surface area for that process. Because the surface area is so high in a packed column, the vapor stream will also exchange material with the wetted surfaces in the column, further enriching the vapor stream with lower boiling constituents and depositing higher boiling constituents in the liquid. One of the significant challenges in setting up a packed column is ensuring that there is still enough void space for vapor and liquid to pass through the material without creating an unsafe amount of pressure. Another downside is that packed columns often have to be disassembled and emptied to clean the packing material thoroughly, which can be a significant challenge with larger columns. While these materials give a very high amount of reflux, care must be taken with the amount and type of packing material. A highly packed column may only be suitable for the production of neutral spirits because the product coming off the still will be almost flavorless. Using copper mesh also creates more opportunities for the metal to catalyze chemical reactions, which may be good for reducing sulfur compounds in the vapor, but can also lead to higher levels of acetaldehyde in general or the carcinogen urethane from fruit mashes with high amounts of cyanide in them.

The art of constructing hybrid stills is figuring out how to create a greater amount of reflux than a simple pot still while still producing flavorful spirits. This generally requires some kind of plate design, which has the advantages of letting distillers more precisely control their reflux ratio.

The simplest setup in this category is the sieve plate, which is just what it sounds like - a perforated plate, usually made from copper. The size of the plate and the ratio of holes to surface determine the amount of reflux each plate generates. Basic sieve plates have two significant advantages - first, they are simple to manufacture and thus cheap and second, they can be installed in the column on pivots that allow them to be turned 90º so that they create a minimal amount of reflux. This allows a distiller to tune the amount of reflux in the column for the type of spirit that they want to create, which is analogous to being able to change the shape and height of a pot still. This flexibility is especially important for craft distillers who want to produce multiple types of spirit on the same equipment. A larger multi-plate column can be fully engaged for making vodka, while most of the plates can be disengaged for more flavorful spirits like whiskey or brandy. Alternatively, creative plumbing can allow multiple columns to be used in series and selectively bypassed, so both a short and a taller column can be used for lighter spirits while the shorter column alone can be used for more flavorful spirits.

Sieve plates with sufficiently small holes operate with a layer of condensed liquid on top of them that is kept from falling back through the holes by vapor pressure. If the vapor pressure is not maintained at an adequate level liquid can 'weep' through the holes, reducing the efficiency of the plate. Some plate column stills have sufficiently high reflux ratios that liquid will collect on the plates passively, others require the plates to be preloaded with wash or water before the run, and many will use a dephlegmator, which is a partial condenser at the top of the column, to build up liquid on the plates. The plates will also need something called a downcomer (see diagram at right), which is a tube that allows liquid to drain from one plate to the plate below it. This pipe is built with a fixed or variable amount of height above the plate to ensure that the liquid level doesn't drop to zero. Similarly the lower end of each downcomer pipe is surrounded by a weir, which prevents vapor from traveling up the downcomer and bypassing the plates. The arrangement of the downcomers forces the liquid to flow across the plate from one side to the other, ensuring good contact between the vapor and the liquid as it proceeds back down to the pot. This setup means that vapor passing through each plate will exchange its heat with the liquid, depositing lower boiling compounds in the liquid phase and vaporizing higher boiling compounds to proceed upwards in the enriched vapor. In essence each plate becomes a small pot still, with the vaporization and condensation processes happening multiple times in miniature. This can be seen as an evolution of single- or double-retort pot stills (primarily found in rum distilleries) and thumpers (primarily used in bourbon distilleries) where the output of one pot still is passed through liquid in a subsequent pot still, then some of the liquid content of the pot is passed back to the previous still.


Bubble cap and valve plates are the next step up, meant to more effectively maintain the liquid level on the plate. While there is significant variation in design, all consist of small pipes with caps or valves on top of them. The liquid on the plate is prevented from passing through the pipe by the pressure on the cap or valve, while vapor can flow up and around to pass through into the liquid. This design allows the still to operate at a lower vapor flow rate than a simple sieve plate because the design reduces or eliminates the chance of weeping.

With all of this careful engineering, what's the point? There are any number of factors that can be pointed at, ranging from smaller footprints (no need for a huge pot still to produce light spirits when you can do the same thing with a more compact column), to efficiency (high reflux columns can be run harder than a pot still without loss of separation), to control and flexibility (pot stills only have two axes of control - heat input and condenser cooling water input). A classic example comes from the world of unaged fruit brandies or eau de vie, which were some of the first major users of batch column stills. This is because they found that the products from single pass distillation in batch columns were significantly different than double distillation in simple pots for certain types of fruit. For instance, one study found that while total ester levels were higher in pot distilled cider brandies, the levels of higher alcohols were elevated in the reflux column distillates.

The utility of batch column stills is even more clear for the craft distilling industry. They are faced by an array of challenges stemming from the huge amounts of capital that are needed to start a commercially viable distillery. Batch column stills present solutions to many of those problems. While they are more expensive than simple pot stills, they are far less expensive than continuous stills or multiple pot stills. They can be configured to produce an array of different spirits from the same system, allowing a new distillery to make lighter unaged spirits that can be sold immediately as well as heavier spirits that are designed for aging in casks. The increased efficiency and smaller footprint both help to save money and maximize the utilization of valuable space, especially for distilleries located in urban areas with higher real estate prices. Last, but not least, they allow the dynamics of distillation runs to be radically altered in comparison to pot stills.

Diagram of New Deal Distillery's hybrid still
The combination of a dephlegmator and a plate column allows for almost unprecedented control over how a distillation run proceeds. With a simple pot still, the only choices available are how to input heat into the pot, the rate that cooling water flows into the condenser, and where the cuts are made. While these tools are obviously sufficient to create some of the best spirits on earth, they require a lot of trial and error to perfect. With a batch column still equipped with a multi-plate column and a dephlegmator, a skilled operator can do something completely impossible with a simple pot still - establish, albeit temporarily, equilibrium. With 100% reflux the pot and column effectively become a closed system. The components of the heads will be compressed into the vapor phase near the top of the column, while the tails are all firmly in the pot. By reducing the flow of the dephlegmator a bit, the heads will leave the column in a comparatively small volume with very little alcohol. With further reduction in dephlemator flow the hearts will then come in behind at a constant ABV, unlike the steadily declining ABV of the hearts fraction from a pot still. Further tweaks will also compress the tails fraction so that very little of the fusel oils contaminate the hearts. This allows the creation of a very clean hearts fraction that can be bottled directly or that needs very little aging to round off its remaining rough edges.

An example of this flexibility is Westland Distillery in Seattle. Though they run a standard double distillation process for the majority of their spirit, their wash still is a batch column still. It is primarily used as a pot still with the dephlegmator turned off and open drains (see below) that empty the plates back into the pot, giving a greater amount of copper contact but with essentially pot still characteristics. Its full capacity is used to redistill the combined heads and tails from previous runs on the spirit still, with the dephlegmator fully engaged and the drains closed to keep the plates flooded to compresses the heads, then slowly reducing the cold water feed into the dephlegmator to extract a cleaner set of hearts, albeit with different character from their standard double distilled spirit.

Westland's wash still - see plate drains on the left side of column
There has been a long-running debate within the spirits community about whether batch column stills count as pot stills. On the one hand, they both operate in batch mode, which influences how the spirit is shaped through cuts. On the other hand, a fully equipped hybrid still with a column and dephlegmator can manipulate the process of distillation in ways that are simply impossible with pot stills, producing very different sorts of spirits. Being able to produce clean, high-proof spirit in a single pass is fundamentally different than simple pot stills, which is demonstrated by their use in the fruit brandy industry. At the same time, the line between the two is blurred by double retort pot stills, which are widely acknowledged to be pot stills, but share characteristics with batch column stills utilizing only a few cross-flow plates. While there is a hard break between batch columns and continuous stills, what the debate really comes down to is mystique - are people willing to pay more for pot still spirits because they expect a certain level of quality and character? I would argue that batch columns can produce spirits of equal quality, as long as the distiller is skilled enough to use their equipment to its maximum potential. If the reputation of batch columns has become tarnished, that is because of the people using them, not because of the technology itself.