Monday, December 14, 2015

Whisky Review: Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof US Release

Springbank has released two different versions of Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof - one for the UK at 57% (100 British proof) and one at 50% (100 American proof). The American version first showed up in the US in 2008 but has since been discontinued (as with most of the age-dated Longrow lineup). Unlike the standard Longrow 10 Year at 46%, which is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof is entirely from ex-bourbon casks.

Longrow 10 Year 100 Proof

Nose: new make spirit and pine, damp peat smoke and wood ash, fresh oak, pickle juice, green malt, lightly floral, plastic, peaches, savory orange peel, mint, bubblegum. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes cleaner and sweeter, integrating with the floral and bubblegum notes, the cask influence ramps up with some vanilla coming out.

Taste: malt and cask sweetness up front with light floral/lavender notes, transitioning through vanilla and green vegetal/new make/pickle juice flavors starting in the middle, light fresh oak/caramel and more floral notes near the back, a touch of fresh peat rides through it all in the background. After dilution the sweetness expands and covers up the new make character until the very back, the oak expands to give it a little bit greater sense of maturity and a peppery quality, and unripe fruit (apples, pears, berries) comes out.

Finish: pineapple, a little sour, green malt, distant peat, floral, mint, black pepper, soapy

This whisky honestly feels kind of underdone and not what I would expect from a Longrow. I'm guessing all of the casks were refill because the wood impact is very minimal and has done little to diminish the new make character of the spirit. Some of that clears after fifteen minutes or so in the glass, but it's still not what I expected before opening the bottle. I had hoped for something akin to Ledaig 10 Year - a bold whisky with big peat flavor tenuously balanced by bourbon cask influence. Instead it feels like a bunch of weak casks that had lost their peat too quickly were tossed together - this seems even less peated than Springbank 10 Year. Especially given that the remaining bottles in the US are going for close to $100, I can't really recommend it other than for the sake of curiosity. If you're going to buy a discontinued Longrow, make it the CV.

For a different but no more complimentary review from the same bottle, check out Michael Kravitz's post.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Whisky Review: Dun Bheagan Islay 8 Year

Dun Bheagan is a line of single cask and regional batch single malts produced by the independent bottler Ian Macleod, which now also owns Glengoyne and Tamdhu. The regional malts are at the bottom of the range and compete with similar lines from Morrison Bowmore (McClelland's) and Cadenhead's. The breadth of the Dun Bheagan lineup, which includes Island, Lowland, Speyside, and Highland in addition to Islay, implies that they are sourcing most of the stock from other distillers. The sources have never been explicitly revealed, so customers have to guess the sources, while leaving Ian Macleod with the freedom to change the components as contracts and supply change over time. However, it is important to note that these are single malts rather than blended malts, meaning that each batch will only contain whisky from a single distillery.

All of the regional malts are 8 years old and bottled at 43% without chill filtration and possibly without coloring.

Dun Bheagan Islay 8 Year

Nose: heavy American oak, cedar, pine, cured meat, raisins, salinity, peat, malt in the background. After adding a few drops of water, the pine and peat come together and gain some prominence over the oak, the cured meat pops out more.

Taste: big malt and wood sweetness up front, thick berry notes beginning around the middle, smoothly giving way to tannins towards the back where the peat finally makes itself apparent, giving a character like used black tea leaves. After dilution, the alcohol becomes a bit more noticeable while smoothing the sweetness and oak together, while bringing out some vanilla and pushing back the peat even further.

Finish: polished oak, piney peat, caramel

My first guess is that this batch of Islay 8 Year was sourced from Laphroaig, because of the character of the peat and the oak, which reminds me strongly of their first-fill Makers Mark barrels. Given the relative lack of peat and strength of the oak influence, my guess is that this was a parcel of casks that were deemed to be outside the acceptable range for the standard Laphroaig 10 Year or any of their NAS expressions. With that said, the piney character makes me think that it could also be Caol Ila from first-fill ex-bourbon casks, though that would suggest that Ian Macleod was using their own casks, as Caol Ila is almost exclusively filled into refill hogsheads by Diageo.

So, it's a mystery. But a tasty mystery. Given that I paid under $40 for this, I would call it an excellent bargain. It's extremely hard to find Islay single malts for that kind of money anymore and this hits the spot of being easy drinking without being boring. Highly recommended if you happen to spot it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Whisky Review: Prime Malt Dailuaine 10 Year

Prime Malt is brand of the independent bottler Gordon Bonding Co, which may have some connection to Duncan Taylor. Whatever the provenance, they released a number of very reasonably priced single malts during the early-2000s that never seem to have grabbed much attention. The plain labels, relatively low bottling proof, and complete lack of name recognition might have something to do with that. But a few are still available and still cheap. I was able to pick up this bottle from Binny's during my last order before they stopped shipping.

Dailuaine is a distillery that I have not had too much experience with, which is unsurprising as very little of its output is bottled as single malt. It's another distillery in Diageo's vast stable that exists primarily to provide stock for its blends. However, I have been able to sample an old SMWS Dailuaine that was very, very good and I have nominally tried it as part of Compass Box's Oak Cross blended malt. But, as I said, very limited experience. This particular bottle gives very little information, stating only that it was aged in 'oak casks', which likely means a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, since that's usually the default in these cases. Either way, it's bottled at 43%, likely without coloring given the pale hue and possibly without chill filtration since I can see some sediment if I give the bottle a shake.

Prime Malt Dailuaine 10 Year

Nose: lots of clean fresh malt, light notes of apple and pear, orange peel, a touch of vanilla, some floral character, a little musky or oily. After adding a few drops of water, the malt character shifts into a grainier mode, but is otherwise largely unchanged.

Taste: clean malt up front with mild sweetness, gentle floral, apple/pear, grape, orange peel, and berry notes appear around the middle, light oak at the back. After dilution, the sweet malt becomes thicker, somewhat washing out the berry notes in the middle.

Finish: clean malt sweetness, very mild oak, fruit and berry esters, biscuit-y, light but lingering floral notes

This is an uncomplicated but enjoyable single malt. Nothing fancy, but nothing wrong. Surprising for its age, it does gain a bit more depth and complexity after sitting in the glass for a while, but even that has its limits. I'd also skip the water, since that seems to rob it of whatever complexity it has in favor of straight-forward malt.

Good, clean spirit appears to have been filled into casks with just enough extractives left to rub off any rough edges without imparting too much wood character. The bottling strength is just enough to give it a bit of weight without too much alcohol heat, making it for me better than many entry-level malts that are simply too tepid at 40%. The closest easily available whisky like this would be Glenmorangie Original, though that is more oak-heavy given Bill Lumsden's well-known focus on casks. And as with all Prime Malt releases in the US, the price is right, especially in the current climate - this is under $40 and would be my pick over any number of comparably priced single malts from Glenfiddich or Glenlivet. While there are only a few stores with this left, if you happen to run into it, I would highly recommend grabbing a bottle.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Whisky Review: Benriach Septendecim

Septendecim (a somewhat uncreative choice as it means 17 in Latin) was first released in 2012 and hit the American market last year. It rounds out their peated lineup, squarely in between the entry-level Curiositas 10 Year and the recently upgraded Authenticus from 21 to 25 years old.

Like the 10 and 25 year expression, Septendecim is aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Dave McEldowney of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

Benriach Septendecim

Nose: mossy/smokey peat, organic/farm-y, vanilla, bubblegum, berries, grape/purple, oak, malt, fresh hay, smoked ham/fish, salty, freshly tanned leather. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer, the peat becomes more mossy with the smoke holding on underneath, the oak and farm-y notes retreat and integrate, unripe apples and pears emerge, and there's a touch of anise.

Taste: sweet fresh malt up with fruit/berry overtones and hay in the background, slides towards building (but ultimately restrained) oak tannins, dirty vanilla, a hint of citrus on top, organic/farm notes, and mossy peat smoke at the back. After dilution, the peat becomes softer and spreads across the palate, showing up right after the initial sweet malt, the fruit and berry notes are pushed to the back, and the vanilla integrates with the malt.

Finish: sweet peat smoke, moderate oak, earthy, vanilla, whipped cream

One of the main things that holds me back from recommending Benriach's peated malts in a full-throated fashion is the fact that they almost universally seem to have very heavy oak influence. While the bitter tannins sometimes complement the sharp peat smoke, they can also throw the experience out of balance. Despite being 50% older than most of the peated Benriach I've tried before, Septendecim manages to achieve a far better balance, with the oak being a component, but not overwhelming the other elements. It also manages to be significantly better than the 19 year old single cask bottled for K&L that I recently tried.

While there are significant differences between the two, this reminds me a lot of Laphroaig 18 Year, with the same heavy vanilla component balanced with sweetness, oak, and peat. However, I like the Benriach better because the vanilla is less heavy-handed and it's not quite as sweet. Whatever the reason, Septendecim really hits the mark for me. As a bonus, it's quite reasonably priced, running under $90 in most parts of the States. Given steadily rising prices for older single malts, it's nice to see an independently owned company providing quality whisky at a solid price.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Whisky Review: Benriach 19 Year 1994/2014 for K&L

K&L is one of the few retailers in the US with a prolific single cask program. As part of that, they've been able to source casks directly from Benriach and its sister distillery Glendronach that were bottled by their respective distilleries rather than going through independent bottlers.

This particular cask is heavily peated spirit that was distilled in 1994, aged in an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled in 2014 at 53% without coloring or chill filtration.

After it was discounted, I ended up splitting a bottle several ways with Michael Kravitz, Florin, and MAO, who should have their own reviews up at the same time.

Benriach 19 Year 1994/2014 Cask #7187 for K&L

Nose: lots of aromatic oak, cedar, dry malt with a salty edge, peat smoke, tar, fresh hay, berries, caramel. After adding a few drops of water, the berries become bigger and sweeter, but the oak expands to push the peat out of the way.

Taste: barrel sweetness throughout, big berries and stone fruit beginning around the middle and carrying through, rising tide of oak near the back, a bump of malt joins the peat that begins just before the finish. After dilution, the wood becomes more dominant and sweeter - pushing out a lot of the other character, some caramel comes out around the middle, while the oak is more tannic at the back.

Finish: oak, salty malt, lingering peat, seashore, marsh, hints of berries

This is a cask that I suspect was sold on partially due to the fact that it's right on the edge of being over-oaked. While less tannic than many other peated Benriachs I've tried, the wood is very present and almost overwhelms the other elements, especially on the nose. If you've tried Curiositas before I think the structure of this whisky will be familiar, though age has amped up the oak while reducing the peat. It's also hotter at 53% than I would have expected. Dilution softens it a bit, but reduces its complexity even further. Surprisingly for all the wood, there don't seem to be a lot of the other extractives one would expect from this kind of cask - the lack of vanilla keeps the overall experience somewhat sharp.

Ultimately, this one doesn't quite click for me. I like the elements, but not their balance. I far prefer the OB Septendecim - which I'll review later this week - which has more peat character despite the lower strength and has far better balance, while running at roughly half the price of what this single cask was going for originally. At $150, I expect a lot more nuance and complexity than this cask has to offer. Slightly further afield, the Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 16 Year that was picked for K&L rested on a similar foundation of peat and oak, but pulled off a kind of bombast that this Benriach doesn't manage. Ultimately it's irrelevant as both the Benriach and Bunnahabhain single casks have sold out after being reduced in price, but this has made me more skeptical of the value proposition represented by Benriach's single casks.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Whisky Review: Faultline Blend

While it's become increasingly common for stores to offer exclusive cask picks, very few have gone so far as to construct their own blends. It's both more technically challenging, as flavors need to be balanced while being conscious of the price of the components, and riskier as it requires buying much more whisky than the several hundred bottles that a single cask usually produces. However the folks at K&L Wines decided to take the plunge and release a blend under their Faultline label.

This whisky is bottled at a solid 50%, without coloring and probably without chill filtration given the proof.

I got this as part of a split with Michael Kravitz and MAO, who should have their own reviews up at the same time.

Faultline Blended Whisky

Nose: mossy/vegetal peat, a little seaweed, ginger snaps, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, light grain and malt, bourbon cask berries and oak, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the peat becomes smokier and joins up with the oak to give an incense note.

Taste: basic malt and grain sweetness coupled with light berries and mild oak tannins throughout, peat pops out around the middle and rides on top while some sherry and chocolate plus more oak and berries emerge around the back. After dilution, the sherry spreads across the palate and gives it a thicker feel, while the peat retreats and integrates with the sherry and oak.

Finish: peat, oak, berry, chocolate, and malt/grain residue,

I have to hand it to the Davids, this is a rather well-constructed blended whisky at an eminently affordable price point. With that said, it only hit that point after I'd had the sample open for a number of months - when I first cracked the cap it was almost all young Ledaig assaulting my senses, which was rather overwhelming. With time the peat has settled down and integrated, providing a more pleasant experience overall. Now it's somewhere in the ballpark of Springbank, Highland Park, or Talisker. Speaking of which, adding a little bit of extra malt can really smooth it out - I particularly enjoyed adding a touch of Highland Park 15 Year, which amped up the sherry character and provided a bridge to the noisier Ledaig peat.

The closest comparable blend I can think of is Isle of Skye 8 Year, which packs a similar amount of peat at a similar price point, but at a reduced proof. All said and done, I think I would give a bit of an edge to the Faultline, simply because of the higher alcohol content letting it stretch further. I'll probably throw in a bottle the next time I order from K&L. For $25 it's hard to go far wrong as long as you enjoy some peat in your whisky.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Johnnie Walker Blue Label is, almost without a doubt, the greatest triumph of marketing within the scotch whisky world. Based purely on trust, as the bottle contains absolutely no age statements or firm expressions of provenance, Diageo has been able to build an almost impenetrable mystique around it and charge accordingly.

Nominally Blue Label is built from Diageo's 'rarest whiskies' of 'particular qualities' 'fine enough' for the expression. Which tells you exactly nothing. I've seen it suggested that Royal Lochnagar makes up a large percentage of the malt component, but what the other components are and how much of them are in the final mix is completely unknown. Diageo also drops hints that they include casks from closed distilleries, which would make them both old and rare at this point, but we have no way of knowing that and even if they are ingredients, they could very well be teaspooned in and contribute next to nothing to the flavor.

So, in essence, Blue Label is good because we have been told that it is good and many drinkers continue to believe that it is. With that said, it is constructed to appeal to people for whom that will be a self-reinforcing belief. Blue Label is the definition of smoothness, which, if you ask most spirits drinkers, is exactly what they are looking for. It tastes old, without having any well-defined characteristics that stand out from the experience as a whole. There is peat and sherry, but neither is a defining characteristic of the blend unless you're looking for them. It is almost an anti-geek whisky, but when Oregon put 200 mL bottles on sale for $30 I grabbed one because I was never going to have another opportunity to try it for a reasonable price.

So what is definite? The whisky is currently bottled at 40% ABV and is almost certainly colored and chill filtered.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bottled TA2 04000

Nose: balanced malt and grain, a hint of sherry, gentle old Caol Ila peat, mild toasted oak, slightly herbal, some floral notes tucked inside. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and oak perk up a bit, the peat and herbal notes come together, the malt fades a bit in favor of the grain, and a bit of burned cinnamon peeks out.

Taste: smooth, smooth, smooth - opens with mild grain and malt sweetness, sliding through an overlay of sherry with a puff of peat and oak near the back. After dilution, almost everything becomes more muddled and indistinct, except the grain becoming stronger at the back,

Finish: light sherry over grain and malt, a little peat and oak

The components of Blue Label are like river rocks polished by time. Everything flows cleanly from one element to the next without a bump. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about this whisky, other than the fact that you can probably get almost exactly the same experience for a fraction of the price. Heck, Johnnie Walker Green Label has a lot of the same characteristics, at higher proof and one third the price. But the appeal of Blue Label will continue to be not its price, but the perception of quality. So I have no doubt that people will continue to buy it. I just won't be included within their ranks - while I enjoyed this, I also see no reason to spend money on it again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Green Label

Johnnie Walker Green Label is an oddity within the brand: a blended whisky composed entirely of malt among a seas of blended whiskies that contain grain. It was almost entirely withdrawn from the market a few years back as the lineup was reformulated, much to the consternation of whisky geeks. However, this was a completely understandable move from the perspective of Diageo, which has always been focused on its blends. The teenage malt components of Green Label could much more profitably spread across their blended whiskies or held in reserve for higher margin single malts, especially those like Talisker where they were having trouble keeping up with demand.

In a sign that the whisky market may be turning a corner, Green Label was reintroduced (albeit officially only temporarily) to the American market within the last year, even more surprisingly with the age statement intact and at roughly the same price point. Reviews suggest that the latest releases are basically the same in terms of flavor as well.

This sample is the previous version, bottled in 2006. It's at 43%, almost certainly with coloring and chill filtration. Thanks for Michael for the sample.

Johnnie Walker Green Label

Nose: lovely blend of Talisker and Caol Ila peat, a touch of wood smoke, pine resin, citrus peel, significant but not overpowering oak, something savory (yeast extract?), lightly burnt wildflowers, fudge-y, honey, breakfast cereal, underlying malt. After adding a few drops of water, the oak comes to the fore and pulls out more malt and floral notes, with the peat slipping back a bit.

Taste: lots of wood and malt sweetness throughout, berries and floral notes in the background, oak, sherry, and peat rise briefly near the back, then fade into herbal caramel. After dilution, the sweetness become smoother, with the floral notes becoming stronger at the back, and the oak waits until later to emerge.

Finish: caramel, light oak, pineapple, berry, sherry, and floral residue

As Curt of All Things Whisky noted, this blended whisky is not so much the components coming together to form a harmonious whole, but closer to a display of each in turn. While that's not a knock on its quality, the seams are clearly visible. The main elements are Linkwood and Cragganmore, two unpeated Speysiders, and Talisker and Caol Ila, two peated island whiskies. Each brings its own character to the mix and there's good evolution in the aromas and flavors. Even if those elements aren't necessarily integrated, they are balanced. Kind of like Highland Park, this ticks the 'a little bit of everything' box that makes it an enjoyable drink that doesn't require a lot of attention. It's easily worth the upgrade from Black Label as the all-malt construction gives it a lot more depth. So while there are comparably priced single malts that I would pick over Green Label, it's well worth having in your cabinet for less meditative evenings.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Black Label - 1970s vs. Today

Johnnie Walker is one of the oldest and obviously most well-established brands of blended whisky in Scotland. The vast array of malt and grain distilleries owned by Diageo give it the scope to maintain almost unparalleled consistency through the magic of cask averaging. But with that said, changes must have occurred over the decades as production methods change, distilleries are opened and closed, and stock levels rise and fall.

I was lucky enough to get to try a bit of Johnnie Walker Black Label bottled in the 1970s care of Micahel Kravitz. You can read about the history of the bottle here and here. Suffice it to say that this is a piece of history.

There are both similarities and differences on the surface. Both are composed of grain and malt whiskies, but the proportions and distilleries those components were sourced from may have changed radically in the intervening years. Both are likely colored and chill-filtered. The bottle from the 70s is at a rather precise 43.4% while the new mini is at 43%. The old bottle didn't carry an explicit age statement while the new one does.

Johnnie Walker Black Label Duty Free - 1970s

Nose: odd sherry character with a metallic lavender edge, raisins, savory/yeasty, herbal, maple syrup, peanut brittle, grain (corn/wheat), a little sulfur, a whiff of peat and incense. After adding a few more drops of water, it gets drier and more savory, the sherry integrates a bit and shifts towards a more modern style, dry vanilla emerges, there's more American oak/bourbon character.

Taste: sherry hangs over the entire palate, opens with sweet malt that slowly transforms into grain with rising oak tannins, berry esters and gentle floral notes in the middle, bittersweet at the back. After dilution, the sherry becomes more integrated with the malt and grain, the savory character is ramped up, some vanilla comes out, and it gets more American oak/bourbon character.

Finish: metallic, savory, malt/grain, sherry residue, light but long lasting peat

It's hard for me to judge this, simply because it's so clearly constructed for a very different era in taste. It is far less immediately approachable than modern blends, which seek to round off all of the rough edges of the spirit. The flavors here are much more bold and less integrated, with the sherry speaking very loudly and with very different character than any modern sherry cask whisky I've tried.  One suspects that this might be due to the use of paxarete casks before the 1980s, as that would generate an entirely different profile from modern sherry casks that emulate more closely the transport casks of the 19th century.

Beyond the sherry, the cask influence was not readily apparent at full strength. But the use of refill casks could explain the lack of tannins or much vanilla. Instead this is a very spirit-driven whisky. Some of the differences might reflect the more widespread use of maize for making grain whisky during the middle of the 20th century, while there was generally a shift to wheat in the 1980s. But more likely this due to differences in the way malt whisky was produced. The intense savoriness of this whisky, especially on the nose, is really different than modern blends. The decreasing protein content of modern barley strains as well as increased copper contact as distilleries shifted from worm tub condensers could both account for these differences.

Ultimately, I would be pretty happy drinking a whole bottle of this blend. It's challenging, but ultimately an enjoyable experience. If you're in Europe, these do pop up at auction semi-regularly, so it's worth keeping an eye out. They don't seem to go for absurd amounts of money, so it's worth trying some history.

Johnnie Walker Black Label - Modern

Nose: grain-forward, malt behind, a touch of soft sherry, hints of Caol Ila peat, maple syrup, orange peel, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes even stronger, oak and savory notes finally emerge, the peat becomes more mossy, and the orange peel starts to resemble Starbursts.

Taste: caramel/grain/malt sweetness up front, shifting a bit towards bittersweet around the back, some sherry and soft oak come out around the middle. After dilution, it becomes sweeter, but grainier and more bland, with the sherry integrating and bolstering the caramel.

Finish: soft sherry, oak, grain, a touch of malt, a whiff of peat

Modern Black Label does exactly what it's supposed to do - provide an inoffensive but not completely boring experience. I've covered it a couple of times, in both 40% and 43% incarnations. In either guise, the most readily apparently difference with the 1970s version is the lack of sherry. What is there lacks the deep funkiness of the 70s bottling, again keeping the experience in a firmly unchallenging mode. Whether this is better or worse is going to depend on your taste, but it's clear that the scope of flavors allowed into the blend has narrowed and the malt content has dropped significantly. I still feel comfortable recommending modern Black Label, especially as a platform for further blending, but it's nothing like what it used to be.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Whisky Review: C&S Dram Collection Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

After the Càrn Mòr, I was mostly hoping for something more. As an additional upside, I had two samples, which meant more chances to get to know it.

This whisky was distilled in 1994, aged in ex-bourbon barrel #159158, then bottled at 54.4% in 2014 without coloring or chill filtration. Samples are sold out at the WhiskyBase shop, but you can still grab a full bottle if you feel so inclined.

C&S Dram Collection Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

Nose: dominated by the bourbon barrel - rather woody with a bit of char, caramel, creamy vanilla, savory/soy sauce, green malt, rolled oats, sweet cinnamon, orange peel, bubblegum, grape/brandy, peach/apricot, raspberry, and a little plastic. After adding a drop of water, the oak becomes more charred and polished, plus the malt becomes grainier and almost like corn, giving it a more overt bourbon character.

Taste: lots of honey and wood sweetness starting at the beginning, big berry, apple, and white fruit notes around the middle, then becoming more tannic and bittersweet with a bit of greenness near the back. After dilution, the oak integrates with the sweetness, the malt becomes more prominent and gains some corn character, raisins are added to the berries, and the fruit notes become stronger in general.

Finish: moderate oak and tannins, lingering malt and fruit, bittersweet, alcohol heat

This whisky is without a doubt heavily influenced by the barrel. The first go around it seemed like too much, but on the second more balance was achieved, letting the fruit flavors create a counterpoint to the oak. Being bottled at cask strength definitely helps, as the flavors are bold. In some respects I feel like this might be a good gateway malt for bourbon drinkers as the oak influence provides something of a bridge between the two styles, while the malt offers something different from a typical bourbon. It's not cheap, but given its age and the quality of the spirit, I'm fairly inclined to grab a full bottle.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Whisky Review: Càrn Mòr Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

For whatever reason, the Braes of Glenlivet, now known as Braeval, filled a lot of fresh bourbon barrels in 1994. Dozens of single cask bottlings have hit the market over the last couple of years. It seems probable this is because the casks are approaching or over two decades old and the small bourbon barrels will impart more oak to the spirit than slightly larger hogsheads would.

This whisky going into this expression was distilled in 1994, aged in two ex-bourbon barrels, then proofed down to 46% and bottled without coloring or chill filtration in 2014. I purchased a sample from WhiskyBase, which is unfortunately sold out now.

Càrn Mòr Braes of Glenlivet 19 Year 1994/2014

Nose: generically malty with somewhat tired bourbon barrel influence, hints of caramel, something a bit metallic, tropical fruit esters, musky melon, a touch of solvent in the background, cinnamon graham crackers. After adding a drop of water, it becomes more integrated, though the fruit becomes more grape-y and less tropical, and the wood becomes more evident.

Taste: solid malt and barrel sweetness up front, mixed bourbon barrel fruit (almost sherried) emerging with time, fading through slightly tired oak with a savory/yeasty edge and a touch of green malt. After dilution, it comes together better - the malt and oak integrate, the wood becomes a bit perkier, balanced by the fruit esters and some citrus top notes (lemon curd).

Finish: very pleasantly malty, lingering mixed fruit esters, mild oak, vanilla

This is one of those whiskies that really seems to suffer for having been bottled at 46%. There are hints of better things that might have been more readily apparent at full strength, but as is they're too indistinct. At the same time, it gets a bit perkier with water, so it may just be that 46% isn't the sweet spot. There's nothing wrong with it as it is per se, but neither is there anything that grabs me. I can see how this would be a solid base for a blend, but it needs something more to really come together. Perhaps unsurprisingly Càrn Mòr bottled another barrel of Braeval from the same vintage at full strength, which seems to have gotten much better reviews.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Whisky Review: Hepburn's Choice Craigellachie 18 Year 1995/2014 for K&L Wines

Craigellachie is another Speyside distillery that is known for producing 'meaty' spirit, much like Mortlach. This is usually attributed to being one of the few remaining distilleries to use worm tub condensers, rather than the now more common shell condensers. This reduces the amount of copper contact the spirit has, leaving more sulfur compounds in the resulting whisky. Craigellachie has been difficult to find as a single malt except through independent bottlers, until Bacardi recently decided to up the profile of their malt whiskies.

This whisky was distilled in 1995, aged in a sherry butt, then bottled at 54.3% without coloring or chill filtration in 2014 for K&L Wines.

Thanks to Dave McEldowney of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this.

Hepburn's Choice Craigellachie 18 Year 1995/2014 for K&L

Nose: thick, meaty sherry, raisin reduction, moderate oak, coffee beans, clean malt, vanilla, a bit of elemental sulfur, a whiff of something vegetal or peated, a little rubber, a touch of motor oil, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry gains a balsamic vinegar edge and becomes less sweet, letting the oak and dirtiness expand, and some corn/bourbon notes come out.

Taste: opens with bittersweet sherry, flows through malt sweetness, then rising oak tannins, a touch of fresh vegetation, sulfur, and peat, then it leaves with more dirty sherry and malt. After dilution, the malt sweetness is stronger and carries through the palate, pushing the sherry towards the middle, where some floral notes emerge followed by chocolate near the back,

Finish: raisins, malt, oak, a touch of sulfur, earthy/peated

Considering the current vogue for big, bold sherry cask whiskies, this one appears to have been a bit of a sleeper. While there are certainly blogs talking it up (and some who were less thrilled), K&L appears to have plenty left on the shelves. It's possible that people have been scared off by the mentions of sulfur, which as you'll see from my notes is definitely a component. However, I feel like it provides spice to what would otherwise be a fairly standard sherry-driven whisky, keeping it from being unidimensional. Additionally, this was a whisky where I felt like the palate managed to match the nose, which is often not the case. This is one of the few K&L picks I've tried that really hits it out of the park for me, so I'm pretty sure I'll end up buying a whole bottle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Whisky Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society 36.70 "Rosewater Flavoured Turkish Delight"

Benrinnes is one of Diageo's workhorse malt distilleries for blends in Speyside. Until recently it had the distinction of being one of the few distilleries to use partial triple distillation - the distillery has six stills, two wash stills and four spirit stills that were used in sets of threes. Feints from the wash still and weak feints from the spirit still were redistilled in the low wines still and the foreshots and hearts from those runs were added into the spirit still, increasing the number of times that the feints were redistilled. For a diagram of this process, check out Whisky Science. Additionally, Benrinnes is one of the few remaining distilleries to use worm tub condensers, which reduce copper contact and purported give 'meatier' spirit.

This whisky was distilled in 1991, aged in some kind of cask (if it doesn't say, I'm going to hazard a guess that it was a first- or second-fill hogshead), then bottled 21 years later by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society at 54.2% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Dave McEldowney of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

SMWS 36.70

Nose: oak, fresh sweet malt, rhubarb, orange peel, light vanilla, floral (violets), hints of berries, earthy. After adding a few drops of water, the malt and oak integrate while softening a bit and there's more fresh fruit (apples).

Taste: sweet malt and oak up front, floral/green/berry overtones throughout, becoming more tannic and bitter with vanilla and a touch of sulfur towards the back. After dilution, the malt and oak integrate, the berries notes significantly expand and are joined by fresh apples, oak spices come in around the middle, and the incense and savory vanilla come in earlier.

Finish: oak dissolves into sandalwood and cedar incense, coffee beans, floral, savory vanilla, and green notes

This is one of the few whiskies I've had where the finish beats out every other component. The cask seems to have been in just the right place to add weight, structure, and aromatic character to the sweet spirit without overwhelming it. This is an example of what bourbon cask Speysiders can be, but so rarely are. However, this was released a number of years ago and is long sold out, so I'll have to content myself with other versions of Benrinnes. After this intro, I'm looking forward to trying more.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Whisky Review: Whiskybroker Strathclyde 27 Year 1988/2015

Strathclyde is Pernod Ricard's grain distillery, located in Glasgow proper. While fairly unremarkable as far as grain distilleries go, it does have the distinction of once having a malt distillery within the property - Kinclaith was built inside the grounds and operated from 1957 until 1975.

This whisky was distilled in 1988, aged in an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled in 2015 at 54.8% without coloring or chill filtration by Whiskybroker. Given my current fascination with blended whiskies, I picked up a sample as part of my last order from the WhiskyBase Shop.

Whiskybroker Strathclyde 27 Year/1988

Nose: mellow wheat, well-integrated oak, fresh toast, caramel, vanilla, a touch of molasses. After adding a drop of water, it becomes more aromatic, like an old bourbon.

Taste: big grain and barrel sweetness up front, fades through floral/herbal esters, mild/tired oak, and opens up to fresher but less sweet grain at the back. After dilution, the sweetness and oak overlap/integrate and there a fudge-y note at the back.

Finish: wheat, lingering oak, bittersweet

Well, that was... something. Thoroughly middle of the road, it has all the characteristics I would expect from a wheat-based grain whisky, albeit without any of the flaws that they are sometimes prone to. The fact that it was aged in a barrel means that it picked up a lot of bourbon character over its almost three decades in oak, so I think this might appeal to fans of mellow wheated bourbons. It's also possible that I would have found more to appreciate given a larger sample - the improvement with water makes me suspect that more is possible. Given the age and current state of the whisky market, the price is extremely fair - the same shop has a slightly younger Cadenheads Strathclyde for 35% more - but it's not quite enough to make me want to bite.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Whisky Review: Ledaig 15 Year

Ledaig, or Tobermory as it is now known, has had a rocky history. Since its founding in 1798, making it one of the oldest distilleries to still be open, it has operated for maybe half that time. Multi-decade stretches of being mothballed were punctuated by operating for a handful of years or decades. The most recent closure came during the nadir of the industry in the 1980s, with the doors closed from 1982 until it was purchased by Burn Stewart in 1989.

This bottle was released in 2001, which means that the whisky in it must be at least 19 years old, since the distillery had no 15 year old whisky until 2004 or 2005. This expression was bottled at 43%, presumably with coloring and chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael for the sample. He's posted his own review alongside this one and one from MAO at the same time.

Ledaig 15 Year

Nose: very herbal peat, earthy, used coffee grounds, wood smoke, cured meat, Jamaican rum esters, mellow salinity/seashore, berry overtones, unripe bananas, oak in the background, rounded malt, graham cracker pie crust. After adding a couple of drops of water, the peat becomes stronger and more mossy, the berry notes become more grape-y, the rum esters turn into nutmeg, and some floral notes emerge.

Taste: moderate malt sweetness up front that builds towards the back, berry overtones throughout, a slightly rubbery note around the middle, light vanilla and bitter orange peel, mild grassy notes combined with herbal peat near the back. After dilution, the malt becomes less sweet and integrates with the berry notes, the peat becomes stronger and expands towards the middle, and some apple/pear notes join the berries, seaweed, grass, and nutmeg emerge.

Finish: biscuits, vegetal/herbal peat, wildflowers, earthy, cranberries, grapefruit peel

It's hard to make up my mind how I feel about this whisky. It clearly represents a very different era, when there was less focus on clear, bold flavors. In some ways this feels like a Campbeltown malt, somewhere between Glen Scotia and Springbank/Longrow. The coastal elements are there, but without the brashness of Islay or even Skye. Whatever charms it possesses are relatively subtle and take time to emerge. For better or worse, this is very difficult to find anymore, so I'll have to content myself with other versions of Ledaig that are more available.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Whisky Review: Archives Glen Keith 21 Year 1992/2014

Glen Keith is one of the newer distilleries in Scotland, having been established in 1959. Chivas Brothers built it to provide malt for blends, but it was also their experimental distillery. Peated whisky was produced at the distillery, but not by the usual method of kilning the malt with peat smoke. Instead, peat smoke was passed through water, then that was was used in the production process to produce whisky that was labeled as Glenisla or Craigduff. Additionally, as with Four Roses when it was owned by Seagram, yeast strains selected for their ability to produce different flavor profiles were cultured at the distillery.

This is more mundane whisky from the distillery that was bottled by the WhiskyBase shop's Archives label. The spirit was distilled in 1992, aged in an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled in 2014 at 51.5% without coloring or chill filtration. I got a sample for free with my first order from WhiskyBase, which was quite nice of them.

Archives Glen Keith 21 Year 1992/2014

Nose: sappy pine resin, strongly floral with a hint of soap, buttery oak, savory vanilla, clean malt, berry esters. After adding a drop of water, the new make notes intrude, while the oak and malt integrate more, with the floral and fruit notes diminishing, while the pine hooks up with the oak spices.

Taste: clean, fresh malt sweetness up front, starting with an undercurrent of oak that grows to fresh cedar and lumber with tropical fruits, raisins, and orange peel around the middle, then fades out with a bit of green malt plus butter and cream. After dilution, the oak and sundry fruit notes (gains some red apples) expand from the middle outward, though the new make character new the back becomes more obtrusive.

Finish: fresh untreated lumber, buttered popcorn, orange juice, grainy malt,

Since this came from an ex-bourbon barrel, there was a higher surface area:volume ratio than one finds with the standard rebuilt ex-bourbon hogsheads. The oak is the key player here, but doesn't completely overwhelm the spirit. However, in the case of the new make notes near the back, that's not necessarily a good thing.

While this one is just a bit too oak-heavy to tickle my fancy, it does make me want to try more from Glen Keith. For being, up until a couple of years ago, effectively a closed distillery, prices are still very good on 20+ year old Glen Keith and the spirit seems to be well-regarded when it has a bit of age on it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Single Cask #74 for K&L Wines

As part of their single cask program, K&L Wines brought in a clutch of casks from Kilchoman. While the sherried one sold out fairly quickly, four ex-bourbon casks - two made from Port Ellen malt and two made from the distillery's own floor malt - languished on shelves and in their warehouse.

Some months ago Michael Kravitz proposed splitting one of those casks, #74, as the best of the bunch. At $20 for a quarter of a bottle, it wasn't a major investment, but still gave me enough whisky to get a good sense of its character.

This is whisky made from Port Ellen malt distilled at Kilchoman on February 22, 2008, matured in an ex-bourbon cask, then bottled on December 16, 2013 at 58.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Reviews have been posted simultaneously at Diving for Pearls and My Annoying Opinions.

Kilchoman Single Cask #74

Nose: inky, coal dust, dense peat smoke, rich polished oak, dry malt with a roasted edge by the seashore, berry fruit leather, raisins, cooling tar in the background, fresh cut grass, heather. After adding a few drops of water, oak is significantly toned down and the peat is joined by smoldering cinnamon bark, giving it an incense-like quality, and some ham and sweet vanilla notes come out.

Taste:big cask strength sweetness on top of a thick layer of oak, cinnamon buried in the wood, berries, raisins, and fruit esters around the middle, inky peat becoming more mossy right at the back. After dilution, the basic elements are retained but softened a hair, the berries become much stronger in the middle, the malt becomes drier and dustier with some hay around the middle, but the alcohol heat becomes more significant at the back.

Finish: fresh mossy peat, a touch of ash, sweet malt, berries with a bit of dirt, polished oak tannins, mineral/stones

This is big in every sense of the word. The key elements - malt, oak, and peat - dominate the experience and push aside almost any nuance. The oak has that concentrated quality found in some recent Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength releases that makes is almost seem sherried. While I can see the appeal at this strength, the lack of nuance doesn't really do too much for me, especially considering the price. At the least, adding water is a necessity to get some complexity, though the extra alcohol heat makes that less palatable.

Continuing my tradition of experimenting with cask strength releases, I diluted this whisky to 50% and 46% to see how it developed.


Nose: malt dominates with a bit of a sharp edge, mossy peat is very shy (though it expands a bit with time) and integrates with the green herbal/grass notes/seashore notes, integrated vanilla, bright but not aggressive oak

Taste: malt sweetness up front that is quickly joined by moderate oak tannins underneath, strong herbal/floral/vanilla notes in the middle, cinnamon and nutmeg, mossy peat is in the background near the end, berry overtones ride throughout

Finish: light mossy peat, dry malt, dried flowers, fresh vegetation, sweet berry notes

This strength presents a very peculiar balance - the peat is almost difficult to find, which lets the barrel and malt talk more loudly. It's not as soft as the 46% dilution - the alcohol makes itself known without being a kick in the face. The amped up sweetness, spices, and berry notes in the palate give it a bit more character, though the peat is even harder to find here.


Nose: lots of dry malt with a touch of hay and polenta, light peat, a touch of smoke, dried mushrooms, green grass and herbs, vanilla frosting, very lightly floral, seashore/seaweed in the background, cinnamon, nutmeg, a touch of mint, fresh earth

Taste: very malty, lightly sweet, American oak with light floral and minty/herbal overtones picks up around the middle, joined by light peat wrapped around creamy vanilla malt at the back

Finish: hints of fruit esters (apples and berries?), malty, balanced oak tannins and peat, light vanilla

Considering its bombastic nature at full strength, the spirit gets downright tame when proofed down to 46%. While the peat certainly hasn't disappeared, it gets a lot softer, almost playing second fiddle to the malt. The palate isn't wildly complex, but the nose brings a lot more action, taking it in a fresh but not immature direction.

Looking over these three strengths makes me feel like we really need to step back from the veneration of cask and batch strength malts. While they do give consumers more options to drink their spirits at the strength of their choice, few will take the time to experiment and find the best dilution. For me the palate worked best at 50% while the nose shone at 46%. Proofing down single casks shouldn't be heresy.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Whisky Review: Whisky-Fässle Ledaig 8 Year 2005/2014

There have been a rash of these young, cask strength Ledaigs showing up on the market over the last handful of years. I've had rather mixed feelings, but there can be some pluses to them.

This was released by the German bottler Whisky-Fässle at 53.3% without coloring or chill filtration. The sample was purchased from the WhiskyBase Shop.

Whisky-Fässle Ledaig 8 Year 2005/2014

Nose: peat-driven, mossy, decaying vegetation and flowers, sharp oak, rather salty, low tide seashore, rotting seaweed, a touch of old coffee grounds, fresh green malt, hints of caramel. After adding a drop of water the oak comes forward, integrating with the peat, with a mellow rubbery/plastic note alongside sweet berries and a touch of ham emerging.

Taste: malt sweetness up front, sharp oak underneath, lots of mixed berries in the middle, with a big lump of mossy peat, fresh earth, and oak dumped on the back. After dilution it becomes more integrated, with the sweet malt, oak, and peat all arriving at once, mocha coming out around the middle, and the other elements making way for the berries to shine at the back.

Finish: oak tannins, bitter peat, earth, berries

I have very mixed feelings about this whisky. It is one of the few young bourbon cask Ledaigs I've tried that approached the point of being something I would want to drink again, but ultimately it is betrayed by the same flaw - it just feels underdone. Either more time to let the new make notes fade or more active wood seem like necessary ingredients to elevate the spirit to a drinkable level. Given that Ledaig is very powerful spirit, it can absorb very strong cask influence without being overwhelmed, so the used cooperage that typifies many of these releases just doesn't cut it. Since most of these young Ledaigs seem to be from 2005, I wonder if releases over the next couple of years will finally be old enough to start hitting the mark.

With that said, a lot of people who reviewed this on WhiskyBase liked it a lot, so there's clearly an audience for these kinds of malts. But it appears to not be available anymore, so the point is academic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What is Value? - Scarcity

The second major trend driving this change is the perception of scarcity, whether that's the artificial scarcity of designer vodkas or the very real scarcity of closed distilleries. The marketing departments of the spirits industry have stoked these perceptions, making increasingly grandiose claims for the exclusivity and rarity of their products. But it's difficult for consumers, especially those who are relatively new to the field, to judge how true those statements are, let alone how much they matter.

One of the main axes for scarcity is age. While many distillers and bottlers may be trying to convince the buying public that age is just a number, it's still a number with power. Well-aged spirits from top-tier distilleries command almost rabid desire. This is stoked by the fact that few distillers were running at full capacity 20-30 years ago and many were closed or nearly shuttered. Much of what was produced in decades past has already been bottled during the early-2000s when distillers' warehouses were overflowing with aged spirit that they wanted to move out the door. Ardbeg is probably the poster child for all of these forces, with even 20 year old malts commanding stratospheric prices ($400-1000) when they come to market. Many other distilleries and bottlers are also pushing ultra-aged malts that are many decades old with accompanying sky-high prices, even for distilleries with no broader following or where the spirit itself is an over-oaked mess.

Age statements are valued more than ever, exemplified by the increasing number of single malt whiskies over 50 years old that are coming to market and Diageo's Orphan Barrel line of hyper-aged bourbons. Single malts over 40 years old and American whiskeys over 20 years old were, until fairly recently, little more than curiosities. The bulging warehouses of Scotland and Kentucky disgorged them with increasing regularity during the early-2000s, often at rock bottom prices as demand existed only among a small coterie of connoisseurs. While many were good, that was largely because the distillers and independent bottlers had so many casks and barrels to choose from that they could be relatively picky about which ones were actually bottled and offered for sale. The quality of these whiskies helped to usher in the rising interest over the last handful of years as word began to trickle out. But as new drinkers began searching for good spirits, the stories were often incomplete - many assumed that age was the critical component in the quality of the whisky, rather than the artificially deep stocks. Thus prices for aged dated spirits have risen exponentially - whiskies now regularly come out with price tags over $10,000 and American distillers can often double or triple their prices by increasing the age statement on a bottle by a couple of years. While it is true that stocks of aged spirits have been significantly depleted in recent years, the price tags don't necessarily reflect the quality of the spirits. Single malts can often become thin or over-oaked in the cask, while bourbons are even more sensitive and can become overly woody in their teens.

Scarcity is even most real when it comes to 'lost' distilleries. Many were shuttered during the 1980s and 1990s as drinkers worldwide turned to beer and wine over spirits. While underappreciated at the points when they were closed, many of these distilleries have seen renewed interest over the last decade. In Scotland, Port Ellen and Brora have gone through the greatest change in perception - during the 1970s and 1980s they produced whisky primarily for blends, with little attention paid to them as single malts. In recent years bottlings from these distilleries have reached a floor of roughly $1000 per bottle, at least ten-fold more than what they would have gone for fifteen years ago. In America this is best represented by the Stizel-Weller distillery, which operated from 1935 until 1992. While its products were largely well-regarded during its history, the distillery was caught up in the same 1990s slump. Barrels from the distillery continued to be released annually under the Van Winkle label at a range of ages. During the last handful of years these have gone from being relatively unknown but appreciated by bourbon connoisseurs to being easily the most sought-after American whiskeys on the market. In both cases the prices are driven as much by the mystique of drinking spirits from distilleries that will never produce again as it is from the inherent quality.

Even if a distillery isn't closing, once standard releases can become scarce either if demand ramps up far too quickly for production to keep up or because of past gaps in production. This can be seen recently in the Japanese distiller Nikka pulling many of their age dated single malts from the market as their warehouses simply don't contain enough aged whisky to keep bottles on retailers' shelves. Another recent occurrence was the announcement by Glendronach that their popular 15 Year 'Revival' expression will be temporarily not be released due to a supply gap. In both cases I have witnessed any number of posts from people excitedly noting the bottles they've been able to stock up on, often at already inflated prices. Accompanying these posts are those who have not yet succumbed but are wondering if they should seek them out before it's too late. There is little discussion of whether the experiences of drinking these whiskies is great enough to justify paying over the odds or buying multiples - the fact that they are disappearing is sufficient justification.

The apogee may be 'limited edition' spirits, where buyers believe that there is only a small chance of being able to try a new expression and are thus willing to pay significantly over the odds for it. From vintage vodkas to the annual releases of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle, and Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel and Small Batch, to the vaunted Feis Ile special editions put out by Islay distillers (and some independent bottlers wanting to get in on the action), people are making vast expenditures of both money and time as they seek to get their hands on them. If it's not a 'limited edition', then it's a 'single cask' or a 'small batch' that represents a particular flavor profile that will purportedly never be seen again. Distillers are waking up to the fact that many buyers are becoming completionists who want to try everything from a numbered series and are increasingly adding this information to their bottles. Aberlour A'Bunadh, Booker's, Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Glenlivet Nadurra 16 Year, and even Ardbeg Uigeadail - which has bottling dates, but no official batch numbers - have all become intense foci for aficionados, who scrutinize releases for differences in character and quality.

Lost amidst much of the competition for limited editions are the questions of whether they are any good and whether they are actually rare. There is the underlying belief of limited editions that the distillers are bottling their best casks, whether as single casks or small batches, with the best flavor profiles, justifying the expense. And every time something new comes out, there are definitely lots of voices declaring it to be the best thing ever put out, or at least something superlative. For people who are new to the spirits world, it's hard to not get caught up in the hype. Single casks are in many respects the ultimate limited editions - once the cask is emptied, that's it. But the fact that a single cask has been bottled it no guarantee of quality - casks bottled by the distillery stand a somewhat better chance of being good as the distillers have a brand to maintain, but, especially from independent bottlers, some will be outright stinkers and a decent number will simply be unremarkable. With small batch releases, it's not so much that the quality will change radically from batch to batch, but that each one will be noticeably different character, being composed of a smaller number of barrels or casks than the more standard releases. But this is sorely complicated by the fact that the term 'small batch' has no defined meaning in either legal standard or even industry practice. One release may represent a small handful of casks blended together, while others may be tens or hundreds of barrels, small only in comparison to the swimming pool-sized batches put together for more standard releases. Even runs labeled as 'limited editions' have experienced a significant amount of bloat in recent years, with outruns reaching tens of thousands of bottles. This gives lie to the term 'limited', but is masked by the rabid demand, with bottles quickly flipped online for multiples of the already high retail prices that rise in tandem as the distillers seek to get a greater share of the prices bottles go for on the secondary market.

Underlying much of the increased demand seems to be the mounting fear of missing out. The money must be spent now because a particular expression will either be more expensive or completely unavailable tomorrow. But this gets to the heart of the question of value - what is the opportunity cost of buying the latest new release? Put another way, the question I ask myself whenever I buy something new is "What else could I buy with this money?" I have a limited amount of money and, perhaps even more importantly, liver capacity with which to consume spirits. There is simply no way to try everything, much as we might like to. One experience will always be a trade-off in missing another.

Accentuating the fear of missing out is the tendency for humans to convince themselves that they aren't suckers. The bottle that you just dropped hundreds or thousands of dollars on must be good, because there's no way that you'd throw away money on something mediocre. It's that much easier when a bottle sits on the shelf, awaiting some fabled day when you will finally open it and experience its glory. And part of the process of convincing yourself that you're not a sucker is egging others on, because if someone else is willing to pay that kind of money for a bottle, then it must be good. Right?

An important question that often goes unasked is discussions of scarcity in the market is how many of the bottles that are purchased are actually drunk? If the answer is 'most', then scarcity is real because the supply is literally disappearing. But with rising prices in the secondary market, many buyers are sitting on their purchases, waiting for them to appreciate in value. Lately I've been hearing more people make comments to the effect of "I can't afford to drink this bottle", not necessarily because they paid too much for it but because the resale value is so high that they feel like they can't justify drinking it. Those feelings put us in a position where many are relying on the chain of greater fools,  creating significant risk for a bubble. Even a slowdown in appreciation may lead many to sell before prices actually dip, creating exactly the situation that they fear.

Even when people aren't buying with the intention of selling, they're buying to stock up. The fear that expressions will disappear, as discussed above, or simply decrease in quality is real. I regularly see pictures posted of people purchasing multiple bottles or even cases of a single expression. If people genuinely prefer a particular expression and supplies are tight or it will actually be pulled from the market, this is not necessarily irrational behavior. But as with people pushing purchases for the sake of investment, this tends to create a positive feedback loop as panic buying creates more panic buying.

The only way to escape these traps is to let go of the fear. Accept that you won't get to try everything. Drink what you have instead of accumulating either for the sake of accumulation or because of the fear that something won't be available tomorrow. Accept that there will always be good things to drink, even if they aren't the same as what you've had before. Accept that drinking alcohol is in and of itself unlikely to be transcendent. Accept that spirits are just beverages to be enjoyed.

As with novelty, the solution to scarcity is to broaden your horizons. Yes, unless you are filthy rich, you're never going to get to drink 1970s Ardbeg (though you can probably sample a bit if you tour the distillery), Port Ellen, or Brora. Stizell-Weller bourbon and old ryes are basically gone. But that doesn't mean that there aren't still good things to try at reasonable prices. If you like scotch, try distilleries without the big brand names. Macallan may be out of reach, but sherry bombs from Glenfarclas, Bunnahabhain, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Glendronach are still excellent and affordable. Ardbeg and Laphroaig are becoming increasingly expensive, but peated Bunnahabhain and Ledaig offer just as much smoke at much more reasonable prices. Speyside is full of distilleries without the name recognition of Glenlivet or Glenfiddich that still produce excellent spirit and command a much smaller premium for well-aged expressions. And if you want to get really slippery, 'teaspooned' malts where a small amount of whisky from another distillery was added to a cask so that it can no longer be labeled as a single malt exist for big names like Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, and others that will also be at a much smaller premium than single malts carrying the bigger name.

If you're into older American whiskey, your options are, at first glance, much more limited. Aged stocks are genuinely tight at this point and command commensurate prices. But if you're willing to look across the Atlantic, a number of options present themselves. Old grain whiskies from Scotland, which are generally produced from corn or wheat, share a lot of characteristics with bourbon, especially if they are aged in first-fill barrels or hogsheads. Compared to the big names from Stizell-Weller or Heaven Hill, it's still possible to find grain whiskies that have spent two to three decades in the cask for not a lot of money. As I noted in the post about novelty, armagnac is another choice as many of these can be wood-driven spirits in a fashion similar to bourbon and, again, expressions that have spent two or more decades in oak can still be extremely affordable.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is Value? - Novelty

One of the main forces in the modern spirits industry has been the hunger for novelty. I've seen this phenomenon noted by David Driscoll, a man who would know about it, of occasions. And it's hard to miss if one pays attention at all to spirits news, with releases coming thick and fast every single week. But caution is necessary when trying to decide how to scratch that itch.

This is a major shift for the industry. For decades distillers relied primarily on dedicated customers who would keep purchasing the same expressions over and over again, which made them prize consistency. More recent converts to the world of spirits frequently seek new experiences rater than finding a favorite and sticking with it. This has led distillers to release a mind-boggling array of new expressions over the last 10-15 years in an attempt to appease those desires, even though their business is still largely based on their long-standing core expressions. Many of the new expressions have been introduced at higher price points than their traditional offerings as a way to get the distillers out of a bind - they want to reap the benefits of new customers who are willing to pay higher prices, but don't want to drive their long-standing customers away by raising price of their core expressions too much. So while drinkers may complain about rising prices on their favorite standbys, most of the inflation has been on the high end. This is even more true in the American whiskey world where many excellent bourbons and ryes have remained steadfastly in the $20-30 range despite rising demand. At the same time, American whiskey has seen the higher end become much more crowded, with new expressions entering the $40-100 bracket and an increasing number reaching the heights that used to be the nearly exclusive domain of scotch above $100.

Unsurprisingly, many of these new expressions have been lack-luster because the goal has been to get something out the door as quickly as possible, rather than crafting a product with an internal logic. The growing emphasis on casks within the whisky industry is a solid example - a wild array of new casks seasoned with fortified and unfortified wines plus a number of different spirits have been used to finish otherwise standard whiskies, while new types of wood have also expanded the field. These finishes are frequently carried out for relatively short periods of time - a few months to a few years - to quickly impart new layers of flavor. There are also obviously exceptions - for instance, Arran used their early cask finishes as experiments to test the waters, then pared down their offerings to the small number that they thought worked best. But the emphasis has mostly been on quick novelty. The travel retail sector has also been a large driver of novelty for the sake of novelty, where distillers simultaneously try to maintain shelf space by maintain frequent new releases while keeping production costs as low as possible because of the razor thin margins afforded by the retailers.

Many new independent bottlers have sprung up, capitalizing on the desire for novelty, by repackaging the work of large distillers. This is most apparent within the American whiskey market, where non-distiller producers (NDPs) were much more rare before the recent boom. This has gone hand in hand with the growth of microdistilleries, with many blurring the lines between the two. Unlike Scotland, there is not a tradition in America of NDPs being explicit about their sources, preferring to hide behind fanciful stories. This has allowed them to fulfill the growing desire for novelty despite the relatively small number of major distilleries within the country. Significant amounts of copy has been produced about recipes handed down from generations past, the exquisite quality of local water, and the care and attention paid to produce 'small batch' spirits. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of these new expressions come from a single source, Midwest Grain Products, formerly known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. While not selling any of its products under its own labels, the distillery has explicitly turned itself into a one-stop shop for NDPs, producing both on a contract distilling basis and selling bulk spirits. This means that many of the new expressions that have cropped up over the last five years or so are all from the same source and, despite efforts to pick barrels with unique character, has largely resulted in a bunch of whiskies that all taste very similar, in no small part due to their youth. So what appears to be an explosion of diversity masks a great amount of similarity - drinkers need to be careful about what they're buying and question the stories that NDPs are telling about their products.

At the same time a host of new distilleries have cropped up, all claiming to offer something new. While there has been much more willingness to experiment within the microdistilling world, the value of those experiments is often questionable and, even when they're good, the retail prices are often sky-high. The most recent brought to my attention is Chichibu The Peated 2015, a 3 year old whisky that is going for $250 a bottle at the two California retailers currently carrying it. Even less expensive craft whiskeys often sell for $50-100 per bottle, which is understandable given their higher production costs, but that also makes it difficult for them to be values in comparison to more established distilleries. If customers are usually paying more for younger spirits, what are they getting instead? Generally, novelty, both in terms of the product itself and the novelty of buying from a smaller producer. The microdistilling industry has co-evolved with the renewed interest in 'craft' production that places an emphasis on small producers. The tenets of this movement suggest that a smaller number of dedicated craftspeople will provide more care and attention to detail than large corporations, resulting in better products, albeit usually at higher prices. So much of what new distillers are selling is their story as much as the product itself. And it is undeniable that stories can be very powerful.

Taking a page from the craft brewing industry, many new distillers argued that the big, long established distillers were producing bland products whereas their own efforts were fresh and exciting. While the slights aimed at the big distillers were largely questionable, it is true that many new distillers were exploring infrequently trod territory. New grains, new mash bills, new types of fermentation, new infusions, new types of stills, new types of aging. During the early phase of the craft cocktail movement, new distillers were operating in tandem with the desire to create new types of drinks by bringing out a host of new gins that went beyond the traditional London dry style, opening up new flavor profiles. Innovation has also come in the form of reviving old spirits, such as real peach brandy. Even the distillers that are sticking to traditional processes have brought in elements such as local sourcing.

There have always been two major limitations. First, that there are very few ways for new distillers to gain experience without diving in head first. Only a small handful of countries allow hobby distilling, unlike hobby brewing, which has proved to be a major catalyst for that industry. Working for a major distiller will not always provide experiences that translate, as the the processes of each scale are very different. This means that many new distillers are forced to learn as they go. This leads to the second point, which is that very few new distillers have sufficient capital to let them wait until their products are good before coming to market, which leads to a significant pressure to move products out the door to create cash flow, whatever their quality. In the case of white spirits, this may simply be a matter of having enough time to fine-tune their recipes and processes. This problem is much more surmountable, but has still led to plenty of half-baked products hitting the market. In the case of aged spirits, the problem is compounded by having to wait until products are mature. This has led to any number of experiments in 'accelerated' aging, from smaller casks, wood chips, or movement by ship or sound that increase the rate of wood extraction to reactors that blast spirit with oxygen, heat, and other forces to increase the rate of chemical reactions. While the claims that spirits aged in small barrels are better than those aged in standard barrels seem to have faded since their heyday 3-5 years ago, the chemical reactors are getting significant amounts of new press. While it is certainly possible to find those praising the quality of spirits produced through 'accelerated' aging, I have seen few independent reviews that consider them to be anything but a hot mess with dubious science behind their claims. The more honest tack is that these spirits are a different category from those aged using traditional methods and are difficult to compare to each other.

Ultimately there are a number of ways to fulfill a desire for novelty without paying inflated prices, though much of that will depend on how expansive your palate is. If you're going to focus on one type of spirit, then life is going to be tough. Distillers and NDPs know that many drinkers have strong preferences for a single type of spirit and will capitalize on the desire for circumscribed novelty. But there are many more attractive options if you're willing to explore. Like old bourbon but can't afford the exponentially rising prices? Look into armagnac - you can still get spirits that are decades old for a song and many are wood-driven in ways that are similar to bourbon. Enjoy the complexity of single malt whisky? Try rhum agricole - made from sugar cane juice it has depth and complexity without the bombastic molasses of other rums. If you want smoke, but can't swallow the price of the latest Islay special release, why not explore the world of mezcal? If you don't want to buy more bottles, why not try making your own blends at home? Or maybe find some friends who you can split bottles or trade samples with. Get creative instead of automatically jumping on the newest release. Your bank account will thank you.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What is Value?

One of the nagging questions in the rapidly evolving world of spirits is what does value mean? How is it measured? How has it changed?

It is undeniable that good spirits are more expensive now than they ever have been before. The glut of the 1990s and 2000s has morphed into scarcity almost everywhere you look, with prices rising while quality frequently slips. This has led to an increasing number of people chasing a decreasing number of good values.

As a participant of a number of different corners of the internet devoted to the discussion of spirits, variations on the exclamation "I just got X for Y (units of currency)! What a deal!" have become increasingly common. And a good chunk of the time I think they're nuts, paying wildly inflated prices for what are often mediocre spirits. But these people genuinely believe that they have gotten good deals. While it's true that something is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it, that willingness is influenced by a number of different factors. So what is it that drives people to spend increasing amounts of money for spirits regardless of their underlying quality?

This series will explore what I believe to be the main drivers of hype and inflation - the search for novelty, the fear of scarcity, and the simultaneous growth of both information and disinformation. The three are often intertwined, playing off of each other to increase the prices of spirits with decreasing quality.But I would also like to argue that value has not entirely disappeared from the world of spirits if buyers are willing to educate themselves and look outside their niches, so each post will also offer ways to extract ourselves from the hype and inflation that are plaguing the industry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Highland Park/Macallan Blend

I've made two different blends based on the pairing of North British grain whisky and Highland Park single malt, both components of Edrington's blends. The first contained only those two elements, while the second added Bunnahabhain to the mix. I finally got ahold of some Macallan and decided to see how that would influence the blend.

•17 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL Macallan 12 Year
•3 mL water

North British/Highland Park/Macallan Blend

Nose: sweet grain, rich caramel, creamy vanilla, mossy peat with twigs, layers of sherry, fudge, thick malt, orange/lime peel, ham, incense, gently floral. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes more assertive, the sherry integrates with the peat and oak, and some seashore/shellfish notes emerge.

Taste: sweet grain with a layer of sherry on top up front, a solid undercurrent of well-integrated oak, becomes maltier in the middle with mossy peat and floral notes in the background, fades out with cotton candy and more grain. After dilution, it becomes sweeter up front and more integrated in the middle, with more peat, oak, incense, and baking spices at the back.

Finish: grain and malt, sherry residue, mossy peat, mild oak

It is perhaps unsurprising that this was more successful than the Bunnahabhain blend. Macallan and Highland Park are both owned by Edrington, which makes me suspect that they're sourcing their sherry casks from the same bodegas. Putting the two together amps up the sherry character without sidelining the peat as much as Bunnahabhain did. With that said, I don't think this is better than the blend made with Highland Park as the only malt component. This version may be more approachable, with the peat pushed somewhat into the background, but sometimes it's hard to beat the original.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Highland Park/Bunnahabhain Blend

After my first Highland Park/North British blend, I wondered what would happen if I added other components of Edrington's lineup to the mix. Bunnahabhain, while not currently under their ownership, has been a longstanding element of their blends.

•17 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL Bunnahabhain 12 Year
•3 mL water

North British/Highland Park/Bunnahabhain Blend

Nose: balanced grain and malt, thick sherry, polished oak, and mild peat come together, caramel, herbal/floral, berries. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes creamier, with more vanilla and berries, the malt and grain integrate, and the sherry fades.

Taste: initial subdued grain/malt sweetness up front, sherry and berries take over around the middle, with undertones of oak, wood smoke, and peat at the back, fading out through slightly salty malt. After dilution, the malt and grain integrate, the saltiness comes in more early, the sherry fades into the background and integrates with the peat.

Finish: vegetal, grain, moderate oak, sherry residue, hints of peat

As Florin noted on my post reviewing Bunnahabhain 12 Year, it almost has too much flavor and that quality is noticeable here. I don't think I've ever had an unpeated single malt dominate a blend as much as Bunnahabhain does. This might have worked better with an unsherried Bunnahabhain as that felt like the component that was overwhelming the Highland Park, so further experiments will be warranted.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Highland Park/North British Blend

An ongoing project is to explore blends that mimic the primary malts available to whisky conglomerates in Scotland. Edrington is the owner of two of the most iconic distilleries in Scotland, Macallan and Highland Park, as well as the less well-known Glenturret. They also own a stake in the North British grain distillery, which is shared with Diageo. Their primary blend, Famous Grouse, is one of the best selling in Scotland and is primarily based on their grain and malt distilleries.

While I didn't have any Macallan or Glenturret on hand, the different expressions of Highland Park provide a fairly broad palette of flavors. The 12 Year is smokier and has more European oak casks in its mix, while 15 Year is more refined and brings more American oak character.

•15 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL water

Highland Park/North British Blend

Nose: well-integrated grain, sherry, and heathery peat, plus vanilla, burning twigs, malt, and something green. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes brighter and the grain is more apparent.

Taste: sweet grain up front, quickly joined by solid sherry influence that carries through the palate, followed by dark chocolate, an undercurrent of earthy peat, and moderate oak tannins. After dilution, the sherry influence becomes brighter and stronger - spreading across the palate, with more grain and less peat showing up at the back.

Finish: solid oak, bittersweet grain, sherry residue, a touch of earthy peat

I was pleasantly surprised by just how good this was. The grain whisky reads almost like a bourbon cask malt, likely helped by the Highland Park 15 Year. The sherry character from the malts balances well and the smoke is more present than I would have expected. Admittedly, this would solidly qualify as a 'premium blend' if Edrington decided to put something similar out, but at the right price I would definitely buy it.