Monday, December 29, 2014

Rum Review: Renegade Monymusk 5 Year Tempranillo Cask Finish

Renegade was the rum arm of Murray McDavid, Mark Reynier's independent bottling company that was run out of Bruichladdich distillery for many years. As with many of MMD's bottlings, most of the rums were finished in various sorts of wine casks.

This rum comes from the Monymusk distillery of Jamaica, which is one of the oldest distilleries on the island, having been built in the 18th century. The name appears to come from the Monymusk estate in Aberdeenshire (where there used to be a Monymusk malt distillery in the mid-19th century), which is somewhat unsurprising as many of the distilleries on Jamaica are named after Scottish sites, having been settled by Scots and English after driving away the Spanish in the 17th century.

The distillery is now known primarily as the main source of Myers's rum. However, a few casks do make their way into the hands of independent bottlers. This particular one was bottled at 46% without chill filtration or coloring. I was able to get a sample through Master of Malt's Drinks by the Dram, as bottles of this rum sold out long ago.

Renegade Monymusk 5 Year Tempranillo Finish

Nose: huge wave of Jamaican dusty/earthy/smoky esters with a burnt sugar edge - almost industrial, seashore, wine cask/berries hang in the background, vanilla and fresh wood underneath, creamy honey, green apples, floral perfume. After adding a few drops of water, the wood becomes more prominent, shoving the esters aside and integrating with them, plum/raspberry notes become more clear, and it gets sweeter overall

Taste: mild sugarcane and berry sweetness up front, quickly subsumed by a bump of oak tannins and esters, which do a slow fade out to reveal the sugarcane and toffee sweetness, with the wine cask notes finally making an appearance at the back - over time the esters settle down to reveal more wine cask influence throughout. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter throughout, with the sugarcane notes gaining a lot of ground, the wine cask influence really comes out to play, with the rum's esters being relegated to the back, while wood and wine dominate the rest of the palate, with somewhat sour vinous notes become much more prominent and there is an earthy quality throughout.

Finish: sugarcane, mingled oak tannins and dunder esters, wine cask overtones, burnt sugar

In many ways, I find this rum analogous to the peated Bunnahabhain from Murray McDavid that I had last year. Both are red wine finishes of very flavorful spirits where the wine cask plays a supporting rather than a leading role in the undiluted spirit, then becomes more dominant after adding some water. Given that MMD finishes were often derided for overwhelming the spirit, it is probably for the best that this rum was bottled when it was. I also think that this would appeal to fans of peated single malts, because the Jamaican esters give it an earthy quality similar to that of peat.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Whisky Review: Master of Malt Bunnahabhain 23 Year/1989

This is a sample from the UK retailer Master of Malt, who have been doing their own bottlings for a number of years.

The whisky was distilled in 1989, then filled into an ex-bourbon cask and aged for 23 years, before being proofed down to 46% and bottled without chill filtration or coloring.

Master of Malt Bunnahabhain 23 Year/1989

Nose: very rich - gobs of honied malt, seashore/seaweed, a hint of bacon, herbal/grassy/hay, light floral perfume, soft green fruits (apple, pear, grape), light berries, light vanilla, orange creamsicle, nutty charred oak. After dilution, it becomes more integrated, but loses a lot of punch, with the creamy floral element dominating, bubblegum pops out, with salty seashore notes remaining in the background,

Taste: rather sweet with an almost sherried thickness up front, with clean malt slowly giving way to moderate oak, seaweed, fresh cut grass, floral perfume. After dilution, the sweetness up front becomes pure sugarcane, rounded out by a solid backbone of caramelized oak, which slips into fruit and bubblegum esters in the middle, then a big burst of creamy bittersweet herbal/floral flavors near the back

Finish: very herbal/grassy, floral perfume, fresh malt, a whisper of oak

This is an interesting example of a bourbon cask Bunnahabhain, getting significantly better with time in the glass. It reminds me a lot of the grassy/herbal Arran Bourbon Single Cask I had a while back, but inflected with the island character Bunnahabhain is known for.

If nothing else, I feel like this would have benefited from bottling at a slightly higher proof. While the nose had plenty of power, the palate felt weak and watery in comparison. Something in the 48-50% range probably would have given it a helpful boost.

Given its age, I'm guessing this was a rather inactive cask as the malt still tastes very fresh and the oak impact is quite minimal. If you like your whisky 'naked', this is probably a nice one, though I do wonder if it would have been better with a slightly more active cask as it feels a tad immature, with some edges left to round off. If I was tasting this blind, I would probably peg it at somewhere around ten to twelve years old, which makes the price that MoM wanted for it a bit hard to swallow. I'd stick to younger indies Bunnahabhains if you want a similar experience at a more tolerable price.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Aldephi Liddesdale 21 Year

This is the second sherry cask whisky this week from Bunnahabhain, though this one is significantly older. The name refers to a hill near Adelphi's recently opened Ardnamurchan distillery and is used for their small batch releases of Bunnahabhain. I believe this was from Batch 6, which was assembled from 4 European oak ex-sherry casks, proofed down to 46%, then bottled without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

Adelphi Liddesdale 21 Year

Nose: toasted malt, dry sherry, seashore/seashells, vanilla, pineapple, a thread of wood smoke, fresh grapes, baked apples, a hint of vegetal peat, herbal, caramel/toffee, burnt sugar, unsweetened chocolate, something savory. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes softer and more integrated without losing too much intensity, the sherry becomes more savory and the malt comes out more strongly, with some nuttiness emerging.

Taste: a sour top note (almost vinegary) runs throughout, big malty/vanilla/berry sweetness up front segues into oak tannins, unsweetened chocolate in the middle, which then turns into seashore/uncooked shellfish notes with a touch of peat and somewhat plastic-y sweetness near the back. After dilution, it becomes more balanced and less sour, the sweetness is cleaner, and the seashore notes become earthy and almost peated.

Finish: plastic-y sweetness, earthy sour peat, slightly creamy sherry, malt, burnt sugar, oak tannins, vanilla,

While there are good qualities to this whisky, especially the nose, it never quite reaches a point where I feel like it justifies its price tag. Most of what it has to offer can be had from Glenfarclas without some of the off notes that I found in this one. So I think I'll pass on a full bottle.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Whisky Review: Prime Malt Bunnahabhain 10 Year/1999

Prime Malt is a series of single cask releases from Gordon Bonding, which I can find basically no info about. They were usually reduced to a relatively low strength (40-43%), but also tended to be at bargain-basement prices.

The bottle states that particular whisky comes from a refill sherry cask that held heavily peated Bunnahabhain spirit. However, to my knowledge, Bunnahabhain was not distilling peated malt between its earlier 1997 experimental run and the sale of the distillery to Burn Stewart in 2003. This makes me wonder if this was actually unpeated spirit that was aged in a cask that used to hold peated whisky. Either way, the spirit was proofed down to 43% before bottling - I suspect that it was chill filtered, but the color makes me think that no caramel was added.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Prime Malt Bunnahabhain 10 Year/1999

Nose: clean malt, fresh hay, herbal/floral, sherry with a sour tang, berry sweetness, ink, graphite, cigarette ash, light earthy peat, bubblegum, vanilla, honey, pencil shavings. After adding a few drops of water, there isn't any drop in intensity, but it becomes more malt-focused, with the sherry (top note) and grassy/herbal peat (bottom note) sliding into the background a bit, with the vanilla and perfume notes growing stronger.

Taste: opens with malt and wood sugars overlaid with a thin veneer of sherry sweetness, segues through malty vanilla into mild oak tannins with a faint peat back, with the earthy/ashy peat coming into focus at the back, while there are orange peels overtones throughout. After dilution it becomes a little watery up front, with the malt fading a bit while the sherry becomes a stronger top note, while the oak tannins and peat becomes more pronounced at the back.

Finish: vanilla malt, light oak, earthy peat, whispers of sherry

This is, in my opinion, a very good whisky at a very good price. It pulls off a similar trick to Highland Park 12, opening sweetly, then switching to a more bittersweet peaty mode.

The only place I've ever seen it for sale is The Party Source and I'm still kicking myself for not grabbing a bottle when they still shipped spirits. At least I got to enjoy this little bit of it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Whiskey Review: Four Roses OESO Private Single Barrel for Rose City Liquor

This bourbon was bottled as part of Four Roses' Private Barrel Program, which allows retailers to select barrels from any of the ten recipes the distillery produces, which are then bottled at full strength without chill filtration. Barrel 89-1I was made from the 20% rye mashbill with the E strain yeast (red berries, medium richness), aged for 10 years and 9 months in warehouse SN, then bottled for Rose City Liquor in Portland around 2012.

Four Roses OESO Private Single Barrel for Rose City Liquor 55.3%

Nose: lots of berries (raspberries and blackberries, especially), solid but not aggressive oak, underlying corn sweetness, vanilla cake frosting, dry rye grain, light caramel, Cinnamon Toast Crunch

Taste: lots of corn and caramel sweetness throughout, tempered by oak tannins, berry and ripe fruit ride on top, rye grain spice in the background, something lightly floral starting in the middle

Finish: rye grain, residual corn, mild oak, berry compote

At full strength this is a big, bold bourbon. Everything comes in spades - berries, oak, corn sweetness. It usually needs some time in the glass to breath and let a bit of alcohol burn off, but eventually transforms into a magnificent experience. Unsurprisingly for an older bourbon, this is right on the edge of being over-oaked, but that helps to counterbalance the sweeter flavors from the corn and yeast. The only thing that is relatively subdued is the rye, which, while this is the 'low rye' recipe for Four Roses, is still higher than most other rye recipe bourbons out there (Jim Beam's OGD recipe and a handful from MGP are the only other recipes from from major distillers with a higher rye content that I can think of).

As I usually do with barrel proof whiskeys, I proofed down a couple of samples to see how the whiskey changed.

Four Roses SB OESO at 50%

Nose: more oak-dominated, with berry compote notes integrating with the wood, giving it a polished quality, with creamy grain (barley and corn) and sawdust in the not-too-distant background, while some apple peaks around the edges

Taste: instead of an evolving experience, corn sweetness, oak tannins, berries, and mint all hit at once, intertwining and carrying through the palate, which gives it a great richness

Finish: minty grain, mild oak, berry compote residue

This is the strength at which the age of the bourbon is most readily apparent, with the barrel casting a strong shadow over the spirit. It's not bad, but as I tend to prefer my bourbons on the less oak-y side, it is less appealing to me. On the upside, the alcohol is quite subdued for being at 50% and only a bit less than the full strength.

Four Roses SB OESO at 45%

Nose: jammy berry and dry grain notes become softer, but are highlighted by the slightly reduced oak, which becomes younger and sawdust-y, rye comes out as mint/juniper, with caramel acting as a bass note

Taste: brief corn sweetness up front, which is quickly swallowed by the oak tannins, which dominate the back 2/3 and produce a bitter to bittersweet effect overall, with strong mint and berry overtones throughout

Finish: berries take center stage, with softer oak tannins

While less brash and bold than the whiskey at full strength, this is still very drinkable and doesn't lack  much in intensity. I like a whiskey that can take a lot of water without drowning. I also enjoyed how much more apparent the rye was at this strength, where the mint provided a certain coolness in counterpoint to the warmed berry and oak elements. I can see how this would fit well into the Small Batch recipe (which is bottled at 45%), providing the red berries that are touted in the official tasting notes.

At just about any strength, this is a fabulous bourbon. Rose City hit one out of the park with this pick. It's a perfect example of what Four Roses can do at a respectable price in this day and age (I want to say that it was under $50 when I bought it). Prices for Private Single Barrels have gone up and ages are down (Four Roses doesn't usually let go of anything above nine years old now), but I will definitely be exploring more of what's available now as they still seem like excellent values.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Whiskey Review: Four Roses Single Barrel

Four Roses has been one of the bourbon geek darlings over the last dozen years or so. There's the heartwarming story about how the distillery was a powerhouse for most of its life, was then neglected for decades while the name was used to sell terrible blended whiskey in the United States, then returned to glory when it was purchased by a Japanese company (which is the country where most of the good stuff had been going in the meantime).

One of Four Roses' claims to fame is that they produce whiskey from ten different recipes, which are the intersection of two different mashbills (20% rye and 35% rye, with the balance made up with corn and malted barley) and five different yeast strains. Only one of these recipes, OBSV (35% rye, delicately fruity yeast) is used for their Single Barrel. Each barrel is picked, then proofed down to 50% ABV, and bottled without coloring or chill filtration.

Four Roses Single Barrel

Nose: fairly closed at first, opens to nutty caramel, simple syrup, vanilla beans, solid slab of oak, milk chocolate/cocoa powder, pears, musky fruit, vinous notes, and berry overtones. After adding a few drops of water, the nutty caramel dominates the nose, the oak is more sawdust-y, the fruit/berry/vinous notes are tighter and less bright, while the corn fades to reveal more rye.

Taste: corn and caramel sweetness sweetness throughout, tempered by rich polished oak with a vinegar edge in the middle, with berries, floral notes, and rye spice in the background throughout. After dilution, the sweetness is significantly diminished as the oak tannins gain ground, though there is a big burst of berries at the beginning, and some apple and vanilla notes around the middle, fading into more pronounced tannic bitterness at the back.

Finish: moderate oak and grain, fresh apples and berries, rye spice

The standard release single barrel has clearly been chosen for mass appeal. This is a very classic bourbon, with strong elements of corn sweetness and oak, adorned with rye spice and berries. Everything you would expect is here, but the flip side of that coin is that it doesn't offer any flashes of brilliance either. It's very enjoyable and very solid, but it doesn't quite hit the high notes that some of their other recipes hit. I would put it in a similar category to Blanton's, another single barrel bourbon that has very classic notes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Whisky Review: Sia Blended Whisky

Sia is the only whisky I know of that got its start through Kickstarter. You can find most of the history there, but Carin's goal in creating the blend was to make something that would be palatable to new scotch drinkers without turning off more seasoned drinkers.

This whisky is bottled at 43% and is mostly likely chill filtered and colored.

Thanks to Carin for the sample.

Sia Blended Whisky

Nose: the grain whisky component is rather strong with green musky overtones, citrus (orange, lime, and lemon), digging deeper the malt can be found, with light peat, cured meat, and dank sherry embedded in the structure. After adding a few drops of water, it shifts towards the grain whisky and underripe fruit elements, with more ethereal sherry underneath, and some rhubarb pops out.

Taste: the grain whisky is once again the strongest element - especially at the beginning, with not entirely pleasant sweetness and young oak flavors, which fade through something metallic, underripe fruit, and floral esters, but eventually turns into more agreeable malt notes of sherry, cinnamon porridge, and peat near the back. After dilution, there is significantly more sweetness up front, some new make/green malt and mixed bourbon cask fruit right behind, the floral notes gain strength in the middle, then slide into almost fudge-y oak, and with time the flavors spread out and integrate more.

Finish: dank sherry, an edge of vegetal peat, grain and malt

All in all, this is a well thought out blend that suffers only because some of the grain whisky needs a bit more maturity. The components largely balance and complement each other, forming a reasonably coherent whole. It's light and eminently drinkable without being insipid - the above-minimum bottling proof gives it enough flavor density while producing almost no alcohol burn. The inclusion of small amounts of both sherry cask and peated malt go a long way to give malt drinkers something to engage with, though they're not the center of the show by any means. If you enjoy blends like Compass Box Artist's Blend, this will probably appeal.

Ultimately the stumbling block for me would be price. It retails around $45-50 in the US, which is firmly in single malt territory. While I can see this being a good whisky for bars to keep around, both because of the classy packaging and the approachability of the spirit, it's not something I can see myself buying. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Whisky Review: Black Bull 30 Year

While the 12 Year expression that I recently reviewed is a fairly standard, albeit well-done, blend, the 30 Year was a one-off with fairly interesting history.

Most blends are made from individual casks of malt and grain whisky. However, there are occasionally casks that were 'blended at birth'. This means that new make grain whisky and new make malt whisky were combined, then filled into a cask together. Theoretically this gives the two components much more time to integrate and harmonize with each other.

The components of this blend (50/50 grain and malt) were distilled in the 1970s, blended together, aged in sherry casks for at least thirty years, then bottled at 50% ABV without coloring or chill filtration. I can't find any information about which distilleries the components of this blend came from, so unfortunately that will have to remain a mystery.

Black Bull 30 Year

Nose: both dank and bright sherry cask influence inflected by grain whisky, stewed fruit, prunes, raisin reduction - almost like wood smoke, lemon and lime peel, cinnamon brown sugar, burnt sugar over oak with a touch of barrel char, porridge, vanilla, malt, rich caramel, mint and floral overtones. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and grain integrate to give a creamier kind of wine influence, with the floral notes tucked inside,

Taste: surprising amount of alcohol heat, clear balance between malt and grain whisky flavors, sherry and grain (corn and wheat) throughout, with a shift from dank to bright across the palate, almost syrupy sweetness, citrus peel in the middle, sliding into polished oak at the back, mint overtones throughout. After dilution, the sherry mostly pushes aside the grain until the back, with the flavors becoming a bit flatter and less bright, but with the alcohol burn mostly tamed, and the mint becoming more vegetal.

Finish: slightly vegetal malt spirit notes, sherry residue, grain, very mild oak

What I find most interesting about this whisky is that, despite being blended at birth and spending three decades in oak, the malt and grain whisky remain distinct elements rather than having integrated into a whole. As I noted, the grain and malt components are unknown, but I feel like the sherry dominates the experience so much that it's almost irrelevant. The one thing I am fairly confident about is that all of the malt was unpeated, as I don't get even a whiff of it.

If you like heavily sherried single malts, I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy this. When it was released about five years ago, the price was downright cheap at around $100 a bottle (this is also the price I got it at, as it was on closeout in Oregon), though it pushed up above $150 some years later as old whisky became more popular and people warmed up to blends. However, as it was a one-off, it's also nearly impossible to find anymore. There have been multiple releases of a 40 Year, which is obviously more expensive, but actually pretty reasonably priced around $250 when you consider that the 25 Year releases from many distilleries are now that expensive. I'll be keeping my eye on other versions of Black Bull, because Duncan Taylor seems to be putting quality whisky into the line.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Whisky Review: Black Bull 12 Year Blended Whisky

Black Bull is one of Duncan Taylor's lines of blended whisky. Its claim to fame is that all (almost all?) of its blends contain at least 50% malt, which is very high for modern blended whisky. Additionally, most are bottled at 50% ABV, which is also higher than most. So, as the name suggests, they are touted as being very robust.

This particular blend follows the 50/50/50 formula (50% grain, 50% malt, 50% ABV) and contains Speyside and Highland malts (almost sure that they're all unpeated) aged in refill ex-sherry European oak butts and refill ex-bourbon American oak hogsheads plus Lowland grain whisky aged in ex-bourbon American oak barrels. So overall it is slanted towards ex-bourbon American oak casks, but the ex-sherry European oak casks are there to provide more complexity. The final product is not chill filtered.

Black Bull 12 Year Blended Whisky

Nose: maple syrup, caramel, and molasses, primarily American oak and a touch of French oak, tropical fruit, cherries, raisins, peaches, and berries, grain (wheat), vanilla, nicely sherried, light baking spices. After adding a few drops of water, the grain, sherry, and oak integrate nicely, though there is something of a decrease in complexity.

Taste: sweet grain and malt, quickly tempered by moderate oak tannins, light floral notes and a slightly metallic bitter edge (probably from the grain) starting in the middle, then some sherry, raisins, vanilla, and drier grain appear near the back. After dilution, the various elements integrate to give a continuous rather than evolving experience.

Finish: bittersweet grain, dark chocolate fudge, resinous, a touch of sherry, very mild oak, bitter metallic residue

For a blend without any peat, this is really pretty good. The higher ABV and malt content, plus the decent amount of age of all the component, mean that it has fairly strong presence without many of the rough edges found in blends with younger grain whisky. With that said, the grain component, especially the that bitter metallic note, is still noticeable, so it's not going to be mistaken for a malt. Additionally, it took a while for the whisky to open up - for the first third or so of the bottle the maple syrup notes really dominated and washed out the other elements.

It is definitely priced as a 'premium' blend, usually somewhere in the mid-$40 range. Given the components, proof, and taste, I would say that it's a good buy around there. If you can find this for under $40, then it is definitely worth picking up.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Whisky Review: G&M Glenturret 14 Year 2000/2014

See my previous post for the history of Glenturret.

This is another sherried Glenturret from Gordon & Machpail, this time part of their Exclusive Collection, which is sold only at their shop in Elgin. It was distilled in 2000, aged in a refill sherry cask, and bottled in 2014 at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

G&M Glenturret 14 Year 2000/2014

Nose: sherry, sherry, and... more sherry - the deep, dark, dank kind that's more like a reduced sherry syrup, a touch of raisins and balsamic vinegar, oak and barrel char in the background, dark chocolate, malt and vanilla underneath, citrus pith,  something vegetal (very light peat?), buttery caramel. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry softens a bit, but doesn't lose its grip on the malt - it becomes more raisin-y and sweeter, the vegetal notes become more evergreen/pine, and the vanilla becomes more pronounced.

Taste: big sherry with a solid lump of berries right up front in a bittersweet mode, which becomes rather hot around the middle, then slowly fades into sweet malt with very mild oak near the back. After dilution, the sherry also becomes softer and sweeter here, letting a glimpse of the malt show earlier, with more wood hanging around the edges and giving it more structure.

Finish: dry sherry residue, balsamic vinegar, oak tannins, alcohol heat

This is one of the most sherried whiskies I have ever tried, right up there with the usual list of sherry bomb suspects like Macallan CS, Aberlour A'Bunadh, and Glenfarclas 105. This is rather surprising, as it's listed as coming from a refill cask, but whatever was in it the first go round wasn't there long enough to pull out much of the sherry from the wood. While not quite as aggressive as those cask strength heavyweights, this still manages to bring a fair amount of heat, though that diminished somewhat as it aired out in the glass.

Overall, it's not quite my jam, as the malt character has been almost completely overwhelmed. I like a bit more subtlety in my sherried whiskies, though I can see some of the appeal in this one's monomaniacal focus. Best I can tell (the info for individual bottles has disappeared from G&M's website and only shows up as part of gift baskets), it ran around £50, which is actually in the same ballpark as the 11 Year I reviewed earlier. Between the two, it's no competition - the older one beats it handily. But getting your hands on any would require a trip to Scotland, which is no small cost in itself for most of us, so this sample will have to do me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whisky Review: G&M Macphail's Collection Glenturret 11 Year

Glenturret is a very small Highland distillery west of Perth. While there are claims that it is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, those claims are somewhat dubious. The current iteration of the distillery was put together in 1957 and ownership bounced around until it landed in the hands of a partnership between Edrington (owners of Macallan and Highland Park) and William Grant & Sons (owners of Glenfiddich, Balvenie, etc). In the early 2000s, they decided to turn it into a sort of whisky theme park with the construction of the Famous Grouse Experience, which is now one of the most popular whisky destinations in Scotland, with over 100,000 visitors every year.

The distillery itself has only two stills and puts out around 150,000 liters of spirit a year, making it one of the smallest in both physical size and output. Single malts from the distillery have not been particularly well regarded, but independent bottlers often get their own stock.

This particular expression is from Gordon & Macphail and was aged for 11 years in a first-fill sherry cask, then bottled at 46%.

This was another tasting from the Highland Stillhouse's vast array of whiskies.

G&M Macphail's Collection Glenturret 11 Year

Nose: subdued by pleasant sherry influence, new make barley that reads like light peat, shellfish? After adding a few drops of water, there is more clear savory seafood, the sherry overtakes the grain, and something musky comes out.

Taste: very similar to the G&M Tamdhu 8 - moderate malt, sherry, and wood sweetness up front, some more muddled sherry in the middle, then grain and light oak at the back, with new make notes floating over everything. After dilution, it becomes more balanced, bittersweet, and integrated, more aggressively sherried, and the new make notes become shellfish.

Finish: bittersweet malt, oak, and sherry

If it weren't for the peculiar seafood/shellfish notes in this whisky, it would have been a pretty unremarkable young, sherried single malt. Even that interesting feature isn't enough to push it into territory where I would want a bottle, especially as the price is usually far too high in the US ($67-90) for its age.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Cognac - by Nicholas Faith

This book is part of the Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library, an encyclopedic series.

Published in 2004, it presents both the history of cognac and its then present state, as the spirit slowly began to struggle out of one of its nadirs. The author is a British financial journalist who frequently writes about wine as well and has published a number of other books on the subject.

The first section of the book provides a fairly comprehensive and detailed description of the elements that go into making cognac - the land, the grapes, the fermentation, the distillation, and the aging process (with an extended discussion of the sources of wood for casks). It was interesting to compare and contrast these processes with the spirits I know better - scotch and bourbon.

The bulk of the book is taken up with a history of cognac - the people and events who have shaped its creation over the centuries. There is a significant focus on the shifting relationships between the different levels of production - the growers, small producers, middlemen, and large houses that have more recently come to dominate the market. A lot comes down to the tension between what is good for individuals - growers or the heads of cognac houses - and what is good for the industry as a whole. The last portion - what was recent history at the time of writing - is interesting as it was a low point for cognac. The government was encouraging growers to pull up their vines and plant different crops, as the ebbing demand for cognac in the 1980s and 1990s had produced a major glut of wine, only a small portion of which was actually necessary to fulfill projected demand for cognac. Contrasting that with the present situation where demand has gone in the opposite direction, far outstripping supply, goes to show how difficult trends are to predict.

There is a period of unintentional levity when the British author attempts to speak about African American culture, specifically hip-hop, and its growing ties with cognac. He clearly does not quite understand his subject and reveals it with awkward phrasing such as 'rapsters'.

Finally, there is a section about how to enjoy cognac. While covering some well-worn territory, this also speaks to both the author's own biases and the trends of the time when he devotes a significant number of words to promoting cognac in long drinks as the solution to producers' woes. This is slightly funny from the perspective of a decade on, when the appreciation of neat spirits is enjoying a renewed appreciation. Again, trends are difficult to predict.

Overall, if you would like to gain a better understanding of cognac, both its production and history, this is a book I would recommend. The writing is generally engaging, providing enough depth without getting completely lost in the weeds. The simple black & white printing also ensure that it is a relatively cheap book, unlike many of the glossy coffee table books that are currently being published about spirits.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Whisky Review: Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend

I really enjoyed the other offering America has gotten from Compass Box's Great King Street blend line, the New York Blend. However, there are some critical differences between the two.

Most notably, the New York Blend was primarily malt whisky, with a smaller proportion of grain (80% malt/20% grain). Artist's Blend has a high malt content for a blend (48.6% malt/51.4% grain), but still has a significant amount of grain whisky. Secondly, the NY Blend was 25% heavily peated malt whisky, mostly from Islay, whereas the malt in Artist's Blend is unpeated, primarily from the Highlands with a smaller amount of Speyside whisky (as that component is described as being 'meaty', I'll hazard a guess that it might be Mortlach). In both cases, the casks are primarily first-fill ex-bourbon casks. NY Blend also used refill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, while Artist's Blend has new French oak casks and a smaller number of first-fill ex-sherry casks. Lastly, NY Blend was bottled at 46% while Artist's Blend is bottled at 43%, but neither was colored or chill filtered.

Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend

Nose: lots of vanilla and jammy fruit (raspberry, plum), some citrus (orange, mostly), solid but not overwhelming amount of oak (some of it clearly the spicier French oak), sweet grain and malt, floral esters. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes more prominent and it seems less complex and younger overall, though the vanilla stays strong, with some of the floral elements underneath.

Taste: sweet grain, a solid undercurrent of oak throughout, overtones of berry and fruit esters, fading out with more grain. After dilution, the grain component becomes more prominent, with the oak retreating to reveal younger whisky flavors.

Finish: sweet grain, hints of berries, bittersweet oak, floral esters

The most noticeable difference between Artist's Blend and other mid-range blends is the influence of the first-fill ex-bourbon casks. The whisky for most blends seems to come from refill casks, some of them used many times before, which limits the influence of the wood on the spirit. In this whisky the wood is rather prominent, especially on the palate. While that gives it some amount of structure, the other components aren't enough to generate real interest. In trying to make it broadly appealing, I feel like it has slipped into being simply boring.

In many respects, I find Artist's Blend most useful as a canvas for further blending. A small amount of a more flavorful malt, whether it be sherried or peated, can bring out a lot more depth and nuance of flavor, transforming a fairly insipid whisky into something far more interesting. And as blenders learned back in the 19th century, it really doesn't take much - a few drops of an Islay or Campbeltown single malt are enough to radically transform the character of the whisky.

So while I can't recommend Artist's Blend (even JW Black Label has more going on), it has inspired me to do more of my own blending.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Black Label Revisited

This is actually a re-review, as I've looked at JW Black Label before and found it rather multifaceted. After reading a few other reviews, I wanted to come back and give it a more in-depth look. Thankfully Oregon sells half bottles for half the price of a full bottle, it seemed worth the investment.

Black Label is composed of malt whisky from all of Diageo's clutch of distilleries, though it's been suggested that Cardhu is the main component along with smaller measures of Caol Ila and Talisker, plus grain whisky from Cameronbridge, North British, and possibly Port Dundas (now closed). All of the whisky in the blend is at least 12 years old. After it is put together, the whisky is proofed down to 40%, chill-filtered, and colored.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Nose: creamy grain whisky, marshmallow, maple syrup, toffee, cardboard oak, floral, fruit esters (apple and orange), savory cured meat, sherry, and peat in the background. After dilution, the sherry and peat gain some strength, pushing the more estery notes aside to give a more clearly grain base.

Taste: thin, grain whisky and molasses sweetness up front, sliding into bourbon cask fruit esters and mild sherry, with moderate oak, mild peat, and bittersweet caramel at the back. After dilution, the oak is more prominent and integrates with the sherry, revealing more grain sweetness throughout.

Finish: light oak, malt and grain sweetness, lingering sherry and light pepper, somewhat artificial bitter cast to it all

Johnnie Walker Black is ubiquitous for a reason - it's pleasant and inoffensive without being completely boring or insipid. It's a whisky that you can drink for a while without having to think about it, especially because the alcohol is almost invisible. It seems to be able to handle water with reasonable aplomb, even considering the low bottling strength. The grain whisky is definitely present and smooths out the palate quite a bit, but isn't offensive present. The contributions of Diageo's many distilleries is also clear, with the hints of peat (I will agree with Michael that it seems more like Caol Ila than Talisker). The sherry is also helps to keep the grain in check.

To be honest, I wish Diageo would offer a pseudo-special edition JWBL at higher proof, à la Cutty Sark Prohibition. With greater strength and without chill filtration, I think this would shine. Admittedly even a bump up to 43% would work wonders, but that doesn't fit with Diageo's MO. But for now, I can say that this is a perfectly decent blended whisky. You won't get excitement, but you also won't get disappointment.

Monday, November 3, 2014

OLCC Follies

Edit: looks like I was wrong and the mistake was at the level of the supplier

Oregon is a control state, with a twist.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) buys, distributes, and owns the liquor before it is sold. The retail stores are, however, private businesses. The OLCC sets prices and each part of the system takes a predefined cut.

As part of this system, price changes are posted online roughly a week or two before they are reset at the beginning of each month. For those in the know, it gives a heads up for spirits that will be rising or falling in price, so that it's possible to know whether it's better to buy now or wait until later.

On last month's price change list, Laphroaig 10 Year was listed as going down in price by $29.70, which would make its retail price come November an unreasonably low $20.25. I literally burst out laughing when I saw that line, because I assumed that it must have been a mistake and that it would be corrected before the end of the month.

Much to my surprise on November 1st, the online system indicated that, yes, a $20 bill and some change would buy you an entire bottle of Islay single malt whisky. I let my friends know and figured that everyone who wanted some would be able to snag a few.

But that was not to be. I was far from the only person clued into the radical price change. Nearly every store I or anyone else I know went to had any left on their shelves. After calling around to half a dozen stores on Sunday, only one in Portland had even a single bottle on hand. One store employee told me that someone had been waiting at their door before they opened Saturday morning and then proceeded to clear them out. So some people were clearly being more systematic about it than I was and reaped the rewards.

Scuttlebutt from another store employee is that the OLCC really did just make a mistake, but felt bound to honor the price they had posted. This has resulted in a classic economics outcome: a commodity is briefly under-priced by government fiat, which clears out stock on hand, but it can't be restocked because the retail price is below the wholesale price. Two days into November, the Portland area is basically denuded, and it won't be restocked until December when the price can be reset to a more reasonable point. I have a feeling that in a week or two there will be some confused and angry people who can't buy their usual bottle of whisky and will be told that there won't be any more for a while. That might get some of them to try alternatives like Laphroaig Quarter Cask or Ardbeg 10 Year, but not everyone is likely to be placated by substitutes.

I managed to get my hands on two bottles and think that's more than enough for my own consumption, but it also signals the end of FOAFing opportunities for most. The knowledge has spread far enough that you have to be awfully quick on the draw to take advantages of big price changes occasionally offered by the OLCC.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: The Drunken Botanist

Cocktails, science, and inspiration from Aviation gin? How can I resist?

This book by Amy Stewart looks at the wide variety of plants that play one role or another in the creation of alcoholic beverages, whether fermented, infused, or distilled.

The first section of the book looks at the plants that form the base of beverages, from agave in tequila and mezcal, to grapes in wine, to sugarcane in rum, cachaça, and arrack. There is a smaller chapter on less frequently used plants, such as bananas or parsnips. Each entry includes information about the plant itself, how it is processed and used to make various beverages, and at least one cocktail recipe that utilizes that particular plant.

The bulk of the book is taken up by sections recounting the herbs, fruits, seeds, barks, nuts, and so forth that are infused into liquors to give them flavor. Again, there is background on the plants, descriptions of their uses, and cocktail recipes.

The last major section covers plants that can be used as garnishes or accents, used to add flavor at the last stage of cocktail preparation.

I really enjoyed the writing style of this book, as the author is so clearly excited about her subject. There's a good balance of science, history, and practical information for the reader trying to understand the contents of their bottle.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Whisky Review: Ardbeg Ardbog

The march of Ardbeg special releases continued in 2013 with Ardbog - named obviously for the numerous peat bogs on Islay. It was composed of a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-manzanilla sherry cask whisky, with no age statement (guesses place it around 10 years and I would tend to agree). It was bottled at a batch strength of 52.1% (kind of low for 10 year old whisky, so there may have been some older casks that were rapidly losing strength).

Thanks to MAO for a sample of this whisky.

Ardbeg Ardbog

Nose: moderate Ardbeg peat, rather woody, moderate sherry influence/raisins and brine, savory caramel, maple syrup, apple blossom, bourbon cask fruit esters. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more savory but noticeably thinner, with cured meat popping out, while the peat becomes drier and less assertive, the sherry tucks into the general savoriness except for a few fruity overtones, and everything integrates into the wood.

Taste: begins somewhat muddled, then resolves into woody sweetness, which becomes more peppery/tannic with hints of sherry smoothness further back, slipping into a small puddle of peat at the end. After dilution, it becomes more robustly sweet up front with the sherry adding some of its own sweetness to the mix, though the wood also becomes more assertive, with an odd interlude of more savory sherry overtones near the back, before sliding into very mild dry mossy peat

Finish: young wood oak tannins, dry mossy peat around the edges, black pepper, bittersweet overall,

The manzanilla sherry influence is much more noticeable on the nose than the palate. It makes for something of an interesting twist on the normal Ardbeg profile, but I felt like some of the distillery character (especially the peat) had faded too much. The palate felt flat, with the wood overtaking most of the experience. Overall, I felt like the casks were a bit too active, like the whisky had been pulled out because it was about to go over the edge into oak juice.

When it comes right down to it, I have yet to try one of the recent Ardbeg special releases that seemed like they even matched up to current batches of Uigeadail or Corryvrecken. I'm all for experimentation, but charging at least 50% more for worse whisky doesn't do it for me. While this is better than Galileo, that's not saying much. I'm not sad that I gave it a miss when bottles were still available in Oregon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whisky Review: Octomore 01.1

In the far mists of 2008, Bruichladdich ignited the brief but brutal Peat Wars.

For most of the history of whisky, 'heavily peated' meant that the whisky had been made from barley peated to somewhere around 50 ppm phenols. And the resulting spirit is going to be very, very peaty. But Bruichladdich under the ownership of Mark Reynier was all about experimentation and they wonder what would happen if you packed even more phenols into the malt.

The experiments became Octomore. This first batch was made from barley that was peated to 131 PPM, aged for 5 years in fresh ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at a hefty 63.5%.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for letting me try a sample.

Octomore 01.1

Nose: clay, play dough, tortilla chips, pervasive but not particularly aggressive peat, salted green vegetables (spinach?), fresh malt, wood polish, young oak, very light fruit/floral esters, and something a bit jammy. After adding a few drops of water, there's some Laddie funk in the foreground, the clay becomes putty and overtakes the peat, which slips into the background, the wood and brine integrate, and the malt fades.

Taste: waves of sweet malt and wood sugars with rounded stone fruit esters and an underlying brininess, fading into oak tannins, moderate peat, and clay. After dilution, the sweetness is slightly smoothed out and resolves into sugarcane syrup, the peat comes in earlier, but fades more quickly in favor of strong wood tannins/barrel char.

Finish: clay, moderate peat and wood

I will presage all of this by saying that this sample came from a bottle that has been open for years, so it's hard to know how much the spirit has lost in that time. But honestly? This is kind of boring. There is literally nothing going on that would make me think this was peated to a particularly high degree (this may have to do with Bruichladdich's stills) and at 5 years old there's not enough development to add much from the barrel to give it more character. In fact, part of me wonders if this was bottled when it was because the spirit had already extracted so much tannin from the casks that it risked becoming over-oaked. Oddly, the high proof isn't even particularly evident - I've had whiskies that were below 60% that singed my nose more.

I can envision some of the cask experiments like Comus and Orpheus giving it a little something more, but every release of Octomore has become a collectors item and is basically impossible to find at this point. Beyond that, they cost more than I would care to pay even at retail. So, one more whisky that I'm perfectly happy giving a miss - my bank balance will surely thank me.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Drinking in NYC: Dutch Kills

Last fall I had the luck to go back to New York. As always, finding good drinks was high on my list. Far and away the best ones I had while I was there were at Dutch Kills, the semi-remote (by NYC standards) bar in Queens.

The only visible indication that you have found the right place is the simple neon BAR sign outside. It was extremely quiet on the Tuesday evening when I visited, which meant that the bartenders were largely hanging out and shooting the shit. However, service was still extremely prompt.

Over the course of the evening, I had three different drinks, all constructed from vague desires - "something dry-ish with rhum agricole",  "a Negroni variant", and "another Negroni variant". Much to my amazement, every single one was fabulous.

#1 - blanc rhum agricole, Lillet Blanc, orange liqueur, bitters, and lemon peel
#2 - rye whiskey, Gran Classico, Cardamaro, sweet vermouth, Campari
#3 - Bowmore 12 Year, sweet vermouth, Campari, and chocolate bitters

As someone who mostly makes cocktails at home and tends to be picky about how other people make them, Dutch Kills is easily one of the best experiences I have ever had going out for mixed drinks. If you live in New York or have occasion to visit, you owe it to yourself to take the 7 train and visit Dutch Kills. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Whisky Review: AD Rattray Glen Ord 12 Year/1998

Glen Ord is a somewhat nondescript Highland distillery located west of Inverness. It produces a vast quantity of malt whisky, roughly 5 million liters, every year and also contains a major maltings plant that supplies not only the distillery itself by also other distilleries.

This particular whisky was bottled from a single ex-bourbon cask at a very hefty 60.1% without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

AD Rattray Glen Ord 12 Year/1998 Cask #24

Nose: *very* grain-driven, kind of sour, berry esters, honey, oatmeal, light new make notes, green apples, lemon/pineapple/melon rind, woody vanilla, slightly floral and musky/bacon-y. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes softer, fatter, and more honied, the musky notes gain strength, and raisins and cherries pop out, giving it more refill sherry character.

Taste: berry/malt/honey sweetness throughout, sour green fruits/pineapple up front, fading into berry/fruit esters, toasted oak tannins, and vegetal/floral green malt notes. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter overall, the fruit (cherry, especially) and wood take on an exceptional balance and the alcohol is toned down but still leaves a lingering burn at the back alongside some grassy notes.

Finish: new make malt, lots of heat, sour pineapple, ethereal berries, and bittersweet wood

This is everything hinted at by the Singleton of Glen Ord bottling turned up to 11. The alcohol can often be overwhelming and it helps to air out the whisky before drinking it.

I really, really like the nose - it's just about everything you could want out of a younger bourbon cask malt. Lots of ester formation gives it all sorts of aromatic notes without getting muddled. The palate doesn't quite live up to the promise of the nose, but delivers pretty well. I didn't think it improved with water, despite the alcohol getting turned down a bit. Overall I can definitely see why Florin wishes he could by more.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Whisky Review: Bladnoch Lightly Peated 11 Year/2002 for K&L

This was one of three casks of Bladnoch that were bottled directly by the distillery for K&L Wines - the first OB Bladnochs available in the US. Sadly it was not long after they arrived that Bladnoch announced that it was going into receivership (bankruptcy) and that it will be sold off.

This whisky comes from malt that was peated to about 15 PPM (a touch above Springbank, but a bit below Talisker or Highland Park) that was distilled in 2002, aged in a single bourbon cask (#303) for 11 years, then bottled at 51.5% ABV without chill filtration or coloring.

For a different take on this whisky, see Sku's Recent Eats.

Thanks to MAO for a sample of this whisky.

Bladnoch Lightly Peated 11 Year/2002 for K&L

Nose: solid bourbon cask malt notes of fresh grain, rich caramel, light fruit/berry esters, raisins, grass/hay, light vanilla and woody spices, and something a bit floral, which are offset by new make with very light earthy/rubbery peat. After adding a few drops of water, the caramel, wood, and fruit/raisin notes integrate into a wonderful whole and the new make and peat retreating significantly.

Taste: soft and rounded malt sweetness throughout, fruit/berry/floral overtones that shift along the palate, sliding into green new make notes, dank peat, and mild bittersweet oak. After dilution, the palate becomes more barrel-influenced and balanced, with the fruit (raisin especially) and oak notes expanding as counterpoint to the malt sweetness, while the wood and peat integrate more harmoniously at the back (though this does lose something in terms of nuance), and a touch of barbecue pops out, though the new make notes do become stronger at the back.

Finish: bitter oak tannins and dirty peat, with a little bit of green malt sweetness

While still a bit immature, this shows a lot of promise. It combines a lot of the traits of a solid bourbon cask Lowland whisky with a touch of peat, which builds towards the back, leaving in a much dirtier fashion. Water pushes it more towards its Lowland roots, with the peat acting more as a spice than a distinguishable element. I feel like it would have been more enjoyable after enough time in the cask to burn off the new make character, but it's hard to know how much peat would be left after another handful of years in oak. At cask strength it has some heat, but is surprisingly tame most of the way through, likely due to having already lost a rather significant amount of alcohol in its 11 years (most whiskies of this age are >55% ABV).

For better or worse, this bottle is sold out, so you'll have to look for Europe if you want to find other lightly peated Bladnochs.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Sherry Bodegas and Whisky Distillers Want Very Different Casks

During conversations on Twitter, I have seen confusion about what constitutes a 'good sherry cask'. There was some discussion in the spring 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, but it seemed worthwhile to elaborate on the subject.

Demonstration casks at Springbank distillery
There are a number of different ways in which 'aging' occurs when an alcoholic liquid is placed in a cask.

The first, and most obvious, is that compounds are extracted from the wood by the alcohol. This is influenced by a number of factors:

•The range of compounds that can be extracted from the wood - which is influenced by the type of wood, where it was grown, how long it was seasoned (left out to dry before being shaped into a cask), how the cask was toasted or charred (more heat breaks bigger compounds into smaller ones, producing new compounds), and how many times and for how long the cask has held other liquids before (hence the new wood/first fill/refill/etc terminology one finds in whisky info).

•The ABV, as some compounds will be more soluble in ethanol while others will be more soluble in water, so the strength will shift the sets of compounds that are extracted, everything else being equal.

•The size of the barrel, as the interaction between spirit and cask is limited by the surface area. So generally a smaller barrel will increase the rate of extraction as there is a higher surface area:volume ratio (hence why some distillers use smaller casks to 'speed up' maturation), while the opposite is true for bigger casks.

•Temperature fluctuations will cause the spirit to expand and contract, pushing and pulling it out of the wood. So a climate with broad temperature extremes will increase the rate of extraction, while a climate with narrow temperature extremes will slow down the rate of extraction. This is why some rum distillers in the Caribbean will actually heat their warehouses, to prevent the barrels from cooling down at night and increasing the rate of extraction. On the flip side, this is one reason why cool, maritime Scotland tends to have lower rates of wood extraction.

This can generally be thought of as 'additive' aging, whereby new compounds are added to the array present in the liquid when it is first placed in the cask.

Second, compounds are extracted out of the spirit by the wood, more so in casks that are heavily charred, by the layer of charcoal on the inside of the barrel. Some compounds will be absorbed into that layer of charcoal in the same fashion as household water purifiers. This is one form of 'subtractive' aging, whereby compounds that are present in the liquid when it is added to the cask are removed.

Third, compounds evaporate from the cask as it interacts with air. This is one reason why Diageo's notorious 'cling-film' experiment never went very far - there needs to be a certain amount of interaction with air to allow high boiling compounds that made it past the foreshots cut to evaporate. Otherwise the whisky would be left with more 'immature' and off-putting odors and flavors. Additionally, water and alcohol also evaporate, depending on environmental conditions, changing the volume and ABV of the liquid inside, which will influence its extractive potential as noted in point 1.

Fourth, compounds react, both with the wood, with other compounds within the liquid, and with the oxygen in the air.

•One of the main ways in which compounds within the liquid react with each other is via the formation of esters. Put simply, an ester is a combination of an acid and an alcohol that gives off water in the condensation process. Some esters are created during fermentation or the distillation process, but they can also be created from free volatile acids and alcohols that react as the spirit matures. Additionally, recombination will happen, especially as ethanol displaces other alcohols in esters via mass action. Additionally, as ethanol is oxidized to acetic acid, acetate esters will also become more common. Putting the two together, ethyl acetate tends to be the dominant ester in all spirits. This will be influenced both by the concentration of alcohol (primarily ethanol), temperature, and the rate of oxidation.

•Oxidation will transform molecules within the spirit. Alcohols will become aldehydes and ketones, then aldehydes will become acids. Unsaturated compounds will be cleaved into aldehydes and ketones. This is influenced by the oxygen tension in the cask, the rate of gas exchange, and the ambient temperature (a general rule of thumb for chemical reactions is that they will go 2x faster for every 10º C that the temperature is raised). But as these reactions are generally uncatalyzed and molecular oxygen is not a particularly effective oxidizer of organic molecules on its own, they will be rather slow.

•Alcohol will help to break down the macromolecules that make up the wood, increasing the range of substances that can be extracted into the spirit. This is influenced largely by the concentration of alcohol in the spirit.

Sherry butts at Bruichladdich
Now back to the question posed at the beginning. What it comes down to is that sherry bodegas and whisky distillers want to focus on different axes of the aging process.

Sherry begins as a white wine, produced largely from palomino grapes, which is then fermented to dryness at ~15% ABV. Most sherries are then fortified to between 15.5% and 20% ABV with neutral grape spirit.

Aging sherry focuses primarily on the recombination of compounds already within the liquid and, for some varieties, on oxidation. This means that the casks are basically inactive, acting as contains rather than as direct participants in the process. If you've tried sherry before, you will have noticed that it doesn't have the tannic notes of, say, a California cabernet. This is because the casks used by sherry bodegas are first seasoned with lower quality wines that are later used for making sherry vinegar and the like, to extract the bitter tannins before they are used for higher quality sherry. That is not to say that the casks play no role - storing sherry in truly inactive containers of glass or stainless steel would not produce the same product.

The casks are host to microbial flora that interact with the wine and are critical in the formation of flor - a waxy layer of yeast that forms on top of sherry when the concentration of alcohol is around 15-16% ABV. It acts to exclude gas exchange, protecting the sherry from oxidation. This is critical for fino and manzanilla sherry to retain their freshness, even after prolonged time in the cask. On the flip side, amontillado and oloroso sherries rely on the gas exchange afforded by casks, aging oxidatively. These sherries are fortified to 17-20% ABV, which kills the flor, allowing oxidation to occur. This develops color and new flavors in the sherry that are not found in fino and manzanilla sherries.

In addition to primary cask aging, sherries are blended in a process called a solera. This is formed from layers of casks - wine for bottling is withdrawn from the bottom level, which contains the oldest wine. The casks on the bottom are then refilled from the level above, continuing upwards until the top layer is filled with new wine. This is a process of fractional blending, where some of the old wine always remains in the solera, adding complexity to the finished product. Solera casks also tend to be extremely inactive - if they contained significant amounts of extractable compounds, the final product would become intolerably bitter as more tannins were leached into the wine.

Duty paid sample sherry casks at Lagavulin
Now let's contrast that with whisky. In many ways, aging whisky is a more complex process as it is operating on every one of the aforementioned axes - extraction, subtraction, and reaction. While subtraction and some reaction can occur in inactive casks, extraction necessitates very different casks than those used by sherry bodegas.

In fact, as noted by Whisky Advocate in their article about sherry, there was a period in the 1980s and 1990s when distillers were buying solera casks from the bodegas. The wood was, as noted above, rather inactive, so these casks would have added a layer of sherry flavor on top of the whisky, but would not have contained the other extractable compounds that distillers seek. In addition, they likely would have been leaky, necessitating extra work by the coopers.

So what constitutes a good sherry cask for a distiller? For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, these were casks left over from transporting sherry from Spain to England, where it was bottled by British firms for British consumption. These could range from local grocers buying a cask or two, to large firms like Harveys, who would bottle cases upon cases. After the sherry was dumped, there were a lot of casks left over. It didn't take long for Scottish distillers to realize that not only were these cheap containers for storing their spirit, but they also made it tastes a whole lot better. The critical element for distillers, beyond price and availability, was that the transport casks often would have been new wood, rather than the inactive casks preferred by the bodegas. So the fresh wood would be impregnated with sherry for a relatively short amount of time before being turned over to the distillers. Transport casks eventually ceased to be an option, due to sherry producers beginning to bottle their own products in the late 19th and early 20th century and the eventual ban of transporting bulk wine over 15.5% ABV within Europe in 1981 (I've seen it stated as 1986 elsewhere).

In the early 20th century, DCL figured out that they could 'improve' the process by adding a thick, syrupy form of sherry called paxarete to a cask, then subjecting it to high pressures and temperatures, to artificially 'inject' sherry into the wood. Especially after Prohibition was lifted in America and ex-bourbon barrels became extremely cheap due to regulatory requirements, this became a way to create a new 'sherry cask'. This was helpful, both because it was even cheaper than transport casks (by that time it would have been clear that they still had value) and consistency, both in terms of the output and in ensuring a steady supply, due to the decreasing availability of transport casks. The practice of using pax was fairly common from roughly the 1920s until the 1980s, when the Scotch Whisky Association banned it. Again, this would often be carried out on relatively new wood, either a freshly made cask or an ex-bourbon barrel that still contained a lot of extractable compounds.

Used sherry casks at Springbank
Currently, most sherry casks used by distillers are custom made. These are either built to order by contractors such as Toneleria del Sur or, like some distillers are now doing with their bourbon casks, specifically coopered by the distillers, then 'loaned' to the bodegas for aging sherry destined for vinegar or distillation. The switch to custom casks has also involved a switch to European oak (it contains flavor compounds that distillers want), whereas the bodegas tend to favor American oak as it is both cheaper and easier to work with (the bodegas want neutral casks, so the differences in flavoring compounds in the wood is largely moot). A point to note is that these custom casks are, in many respects, very similar to the transport casks that distillers were so fond of a century ago. In both cases, the wood will be new when sherry is added - you can see how new the wood is when the casks arrive at the distillery in this picture from Springbank. The sherry that comes out of the custom casks, often having spent years seasoning the wood, will likely not be fit for drinking (this is part of why custom casks tend to be so expensive), as it will have pulled a significant amount of tannins and other bitter compounds out of the wood. However, that is good for the distiller, as those compounds will not be present when the cask is filled with whisky.

One of the most important aspects of making good whisky is achieving the proper balance of extractable compounds in the wood. New wood (sometimes known as virgin oak) is, with rare exceptions, considered to be too active for scotch, being used only as a finish for whisky that spent most of its maturation in casks that had previously held some other liquid. Distillers usually seek a balance of extractable compounds - enough to impart flavors of vanilla and coconut (these tend to be the dominant elements of American oak) or spices (these tend to be dominant in European oak) to the spirit without completely overwhelming it. The sweet spot is an ex-bourbon or ex-wine cask that is being filled with whisky for the first time (a slightly misnomered 'first-fill' cask) or second time (also slightly confusing 'refill' or 'second-fill' cask). First-fill casks are perfect for whiskies that will be aged a relatively short time, say 8-15 years. The more active first-fill casks will impart their flavors more quickly, adding a significant amount of richness to the spirit, but there is also the risk of going too far and making the spirit overly oaky. Refill or second-fill casks are more suited for longer periods of time, where the wood will impart flavors, but then hit a point where the wood has given up all it can, allowing the other axes of maturation to proceed without overwhelming the spirit with extracted flavors. There are always exceptions to these rules of thumb - first-fill casks will not always stamp a heavy mark on the spirit or may be well-suited to a particular distillery with intrinscially weighty or flavorful spirit (Mortlach or Ledaig, for instance), while refill casks will on occasion provide more richness than a first-fill cask. Additionally, distillers will often continue to use a cask for 3-5 fills, especially for lower quality or grain whiskies that are destined for less refined blends, though these also sometimes end up in the warehouses of independent bottlers. But increasing attention is being paid to getting the right amount of extraction out of wood, providing the right amount of flavor from the wood to balance the character of their spirit. For instance, Laphroaig will discard their casks after a single fill because the heavy character of their spirit requires active casks to balance it out (though there are also cases where they may have overshot the mark).

The take-away from all of this is that aging alcohol in oak casks requires an understanding of what the wood will or will not impart to the liquid, given its state and the amount of time it will be spending in the cask. Aging is a complex process and focusing on one element or another will require different sorts of wood. A good distiller or venenciar will know how to use the casks to achieve the final product they desire.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Whisky Review: Glenfarclas 17 Year

I've slowly been working my way through Glenfarclas' line, beginning with the 12 Year and moving up to the stellar 15 Year (which unfortunately isn't available in the US). Now thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky, I get to try the older 17 Year.

Glenfarclas' whiskies are aged exclusively in ex-sherry casks and most (with the exception of the 15 Yeaer and vintage releases) are bottled at 43%. They are in all likelihood chill-filtered and possibly colored.

Glenfarclas 17 Year

Nose: rich sherry influence (edging towards rancio) over a malt core, moderate and well-integrated toasted oak, solid vanilla, juicy raisins, cherries, oranges, slightly musty/vegetal, lightly floral. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry became more aromatic and punchier - somewhat overwhelming the malt and oak, with a drier character overall, the vegetal/floral notes tuck inside everything else - giving it a fresher character.

Taste: clear but not overwhelming sherry influence throughout, opens with a brief burst of sourness that resolves into tart berries, flowing into moderately sweet vanilla malt, then segueing into very mild oak with a touch of black pepper near the back. After dilution, the initial malt sweetness ramps up, while the oak tannins do the same, while the sherry integrates with the berry notes to give it more pop, and some floral notes wend through everything, giving a less flat experience.

Finish: clean malt, mild oak, ethereal sherry, cocoa powder, something vegetal (seaweed?)

Compared to the 12 and 15 Year expressions, I found this one simpler and more sherry-focused, though also more mature. However, everything was a bit on the thin side, likely let down by the relatively low bottling proof (Glenfarclas is really missing the mark by now upgrading their whole line to 46% like the 15 Year). Water helped to pep it up, but that also made it seem a bit more youthful, which shifts it more towards the character of the 12 Year. Ultimately, while I find this to be an enjoyable whisky, I would take the 15 Year and maybe even the 12 Year first, as both of the younger whiskies have significantly better QPR for me. Beyond Glenfarclas, I think Glendronach (especially the 15 Year) is a better pick for heavily sherried whiskies right now.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Whisky Review: Sovereign Caperdonich 18 Year/1994 for K&L Wines

Caperdonich was the twin to the Glen Grant distillery in Speyside, built in 1898 during the height of the late 19th-century whisky boom. As the collapse came soon after, Caperdonich was closed four years later in 1902. It was only restarted in 1965, and operated for almost forty years, when it was closed for good in 2002.

This particular cask comes to us care of K&L Wines, who had it bottled under the Douglas Laing Sovereign label, which was a first for the States. It was bottled at a fairly hefty 58.4% from a single ex-bourbon cask without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Michael for the sample.

Sovereign Caperdonich 18 Year/1994

Nose: stone fruits, apples, berries, a sherried edge, herbal/vegetal, malt, vanilla, grass/hay, ripe cheese, cardboard, very light floral and oak notes. After adding a few drops of water, the oak starts to come out more, the malt becomes honied, while the fruit and herbal notes integrate with the oak, and some clove/incense notes along with bacon-y peat notes emerge.

Taste: a fair amount of alcohol heat, honied malt sweetness up front, slowly fading into bittersweet berries/stone fruit/apple esters, herbal/vegetal notes, wood smoke, and light oak. After dilution, the oak gains more presence and integrates with the barley sweetness giving it an almost raisiny quality, with the fruit esters and herbs riding on top, plus incense and peat notes right at the back, with salt/umami riding through the background.

Finish: barley grist, mild fruit (apple especially), mildly bitter herbs

This appears to have come from a fairly inactive cask as the wood has had rather minimal influence, despite the spirit resting in it for almost two decades. In this case, I think that's an asset rather than a problem. The lack of oak makes it read as a younger whisky, but without the new make character that can mar those spirits. There isn't a lot of sweetness or vanilla, which is where so many whiskies are now trending as extraction is pushed over time and oxidation. It's austere but still enjoyable. Adding water shifts it into a very different mode, with the oak overriding many of the more delicate smells and flavors, giving it more a more traditionally mature character.

This is, however, all a moot point as the whisky has long since sold out, but I will be keeping my eye out for other well-aged Caperdonichs and Glen Grants.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Whisky Review: Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005

For a number of years now, Laphroaig has been releasing their ten year old cask strength whisky in batches, roughly one a year, since 2009. While nominally forced to do so by the SWA, it has had the added benefit of making them even more popular, as whisky geeks try to hunt down every batch in an effort to see how they are different from each other. We're now up to the sixth release in America, but I'm a little behind the times. Thankfully, unlike Europe, batches don't tend to sell out immediately over here.

Nominally, this is roughly the same whisky that goes into the standard 10 Year, but undiluted and un-chill filtered. Batch 005 was bottled at at pretty hefty 57.2% and was released in February 2013.

Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005

Nose: classic Laphroaig malt character, fresh grain and the earth it was grown in, leafy/mossy peat, vanilla, thick slab of oak, putty, dusty pepper. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes fresher and more prominent, the peat becomes more mossy, some sandalwood incense smoke pops out, and it gains an almost buttery quality.

Taste: thick cask strength caramel sweetness throughout, sharp, heavy oak quickly descends on the palate, almost obscuring the peat. After dilution, the palate becomes almost aggressively sweet, the sugars integrate with the oak, the peat almost disappears until the very end, and some bourbon cask berry/fruit notes emerge in the middle.

Finish: moderately bitter oak tannins, day-old ashes, malt and peat peek around the edges

More than anything else, this feels like an even more amped-up version of Quarter Cask. You have the same basic elements - lots of sweetness, lots of wood, and less peat than you might expect. Laphroaig seems to be shifting towards managing their casks for maximum extraction, which, to me, results in minimal complexity. I will give some points to the nose, but the taste seems like a huge let-down in comparison. After trying the dilutions I made, I also notice that this takes a lot more time to open up at full strength.

Laphroaig Cask Strength at 50%

Nose: noticeably more fruit/berry notes than the other strengths, strong undercurrent of toasted oak, backed up by creamy fresh vanilla malt, peat is very mossy and subdued, dusty soil, honey,

Taste:very oak-driven, with wood and malt sweetness up front flowing into polished wood, fruit/berry esters, black pepper, and oak tannins integrated with peat, to give a somewhat astringent character, with a final puff of mossy peat right at the back

Finish: polished oak, phenolic tannins, a mix of fresh and decaying vegetation, ink

This may be my favorite strength. While the wood is starting to dominate, it hasn't obliterated the Laphroaig character like it does undiluted. Additionally, while the flavors and aromas are at a solid level of intensity, the alcohol doesn't make itself too apparent and it opens up more quickly than at full strength. This makes me wish for an NAS Laphroaig at 50% without any fancy casks. Just give it to me raw.

Laphroaig Cask Strength at 45%

Nose: mossy Laphroaig peat with a touch of ash is much more evident and rides on top of the other aromas, fresh ground malt and bread dough just underneath, with a touch of seashore air and berries, oak is minimal and well-integrated

Taste: clean sweetness dominates up front, with a brief burst of bourbon barrel berry/fruit esters, becoming someone flat in the middle before fading out with fresh malt and mild mossy peat, while the oak and vanilla sit under everything else - adding a layer of richness

Finish: gentle peat and malt

This brings the spirit more in line with its reduce 10 Year brethren, though I find it interesting that the taste has less intensity than the standard 10Year at 43%. Though this integrated for several weeks, it still seems a bit watery, though not offensively so. Just goes to show that casks that work well at full strength are not necessarily the same ones that work well when they are reduced.

As a side-note, one thing I noticed after making these dilutions was that the one at 45% was obviously cloudy - there's a good reason the cut-off for non-chill filtered whiskies is usually 46%.

Overall, I have to say that this whisky wasn't what I was hoping for. After reading reviews of earlier batches, it sounded like Cask Strength had minimal cask impact, opting instead to let the unique character of Laphroaig's spirit shine. So this more oak-driven release was something of a disappointment. It's not bad whisky, it's just that it feels like they're trying to cover something up, instead of letting the peat shine. Thankfully it sounds like Batch 006 may have returned to their original formula, so I have hopes that this was an aberration rather than the direction in which Laphroaig is taking all of their whiskies.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Exclusive Malts 'Island Distillery' 7 Year/2005 for K&L Wines

As I noted when reviewing a previous Exclusive Malts Ledaig, it seems like more and more young single malts from the distillery are being bottled.

This particular cask, while of the same vintage (it seems like a lot of the recent Ledaigs have been from 2005) and type (ex-bourbon), is slightly younger and was selected by the Davids at K&L Wines. It was bottled at 57.2% without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Florin for a sample of this whisky.

Exclusive Malts 'Island Distillery' 7 Year

Nose: lots of fresh vegetal peat with fairly well-integrated new make notes, warm rubber, toasted and fresh wood notes, restrained malt underneath, salty playdough, seaweed, struck matches, an undercurrent of lavender fields, ethereal berry notes. After adding a few drops of water, the peat becomes cleaner, more vegetal, and less earthy, while the malt and oak are emphasized, and some maritime notes come out.

Taste: restrained malt and wood sweetness up front, fading into earthy cacao, grainy malt, vegetal peat, and bittersweet oak, with light berry esters riding on top over everything. After dilution, the berry esters and malt/wood sweet become more prominent, while the peat becomes more mild, all making it seem less youthful and toning down the alcohol.

Finish: malt sweetened vegetal peat, mild oak tannins, earthy loam, and lots of alcohol heat

This seems significantly better than the Exclusive Malts Ledaig 8 Year/2005 I reviewed a little while ago. There's just enough oak and oxidation to temper the youthfulness without losing too much of the unique qualities of the spirit. With that said, it still doesn't have anything on the Blackadder Ledaig 6 Year I tried - sherry casks seem to be necessary to transform young Ledaig spirit from a curiosity into something magnificent. As is, I feel like this remains no more than a curiosity - if I want a younger Ledaig, I would still turn to the OB 10 Year first as it is much more enjoyable. On the upside, this EM bottling isn't a whole lot more money ($60), which is one of the requirements for picking up something as an education rather than enjoyment (though I'd still try to split it with a few friends or put it in a tasting). As of this post, there are still a number of bottles left, so if this or any other reviews (see Michael, who liked it a lot more, and MAO, who seemed closer to my feelings) make you want to grab some, it's still available.