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.