Monday, April 27, 2015

Whisky Review: Bowmore 12 Year Revisited

My first couple of exposures to Bowmore were generally positive, but noted the limitations of their standard bottling proof. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up a new bottle for a tasting I held last year. But Bowmore did seem like the least aggressive way to represent Islay peat, so I took the plunge. Since then I've been working my way through the bottle.

As always, this is bottled at 40%, almost certainly with chill filtration and coloring.

Bowmore 12 Year

Nose: dominated by dry mossy peat with a layer of wood smoke, plastic and cigarette ash notes around the edges, pine needles, fresh lumber, tropical fruits mixed with clean malt, shortbread cookies, herbal chocolate, a veneer of sherry, warm caramel with a hint of cured meat - everything becoming cleaner and more sherried with time. After adding a few drops of water, the oak becomes more assertive and the peat becomes earthier, the malt is more submerged, and the sherry nearly disappears, with some dark chocolate coming out.

Taste: moderate sherry sweetness up front that is rapidly balanced by oak tannins, with an undercurrent of cigarette ash emerging around the middle, then fading into clean malt, polished oak, and a rising tide of mossy/slightly decayed peat. After dilution, the flavors are more integrated, presenting a united front rather than unfolding in turn, the initial sweetness is more malty than sherried, some dark chocolate emerges around the middle, and the peat at the back is sharper (possibly because of the oak).

Finish: mossy peat over clean malt accented by sherry residue and polished oak

Once again, I am disappointed that Suntory has consistently let Bowmore's core range stagnate at low bottling proofs. This whisky could be so much more with craft presentation, but as is the spirit doesn't shine the way it should.

Bowmore should be rated highly by whisky geeks (despite the FWP era) given that they still produce a significant amount of their own floor malt and retain tight control over the rest of the mechanically produced malt they use, rather than buying Port Ellen malt like most of the distilleries on Islay. They have a highly regarded Master Blender in Rachel Barrie, who has also done solid work for Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch after a successful stint for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. Since 2004 Bowmore hasn't sold any of its malt to blenders, which puts it in a fairly small clutch of distilleries such as Bruichladdich and Benriach who are similarly focused on single malts.

But that success is exactly why the core range is what it is - as long as they maintain good sales, there is no incentive to change. We can grumble, but a lot of people enjoy Bowmore just the way it is. The Islay distilleries that closed or were sold on to new owners during the 1990s (Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain) are the ones that now put out their whisky with craft presentation as they needed a boost to stand out from their peers. The ones that chugged along during the lean years (Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila) have left their core releases largely unreformed as there has been no incentive to mess with successful formulas. This is also visible within the Suntory/Morrison-Bowmore stable - Bowmore and Auchentoshan maintained relatively steady sales during the slump and have basically stayed the same while the lesser known Glen Garioch has gotten a significant reformulation and bump in bottling proof. So I suspect that it would take another major shock to shake them out of their complacency. In the meantime I'll be sticking to indie releases of Bowmore.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Whisky Review: Aberlour 12 Year - 40%

I reviewed Aberlour 12 Year once before, but that was when it was still being bottled at 43%. Since then it has been reformulated downwards to 40%, though I believe everything else has remained the same - the 'double cask matured' statement on the front indicates that it is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry cask whisky, rather than ex-bourbon cask whisky finished in ex-sherry casks.

Let's see how it holds up.

Aberlour 12 Year

Nose: classic sherry character, green malt with a touch of honey and cotton candy underneath, vanilla, caramel/maple syrup, baking spices, hints of curry powder, and a thin thread of smoke or tar. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes more savory and gives the malt a nutty/roasted/mushroom character, the bourbon cask character becomes more obvious, and some powdered ginger emerges.

Taste: malt sweetness with a thick slab of sherry on top, becoming grainier with raisins, vanilla, oak, and some odd metallic bitterness emerging near the back. After dilution, the sherry becomes more savory and integrates with the malt, giving a less sweet profile overall, with more assertive oak/bourbon cask influence near the back.

Finish: green vanilla malt, sherry residue, moderate oak tannins, continuing metallic bitterness

While there is still a lot to like about Aberlour, the decreased bottling strength has sapped some of its vigor. While the softness at 40% maybe help to bring some new people into the brand, regulars may find that it doesn't have as much density as it once did. Additionally, it has the odd bitterness that I associate with spirits that are reduced to 40% with chill filtration and coloring. While it may have more to do with the strength than the adjustments, it's a little off-putting either way. Given that I haven't heard of any difficulties in maintaining stock on retail shelves, it's hard to see where the pressure to dilute the whisky is coming from other than the eternal desire for better margins.

It's a shame that Pernod Ricard have gone in this direction, as Aberlour 12 Year would have been fairly high on my list of recommended single malts for sherried whisky fans, but at this point I would have a difficult time pointing someone towards it rather than another sherried Speysider like Glenfarclas.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Tamdhu 8 CS/Hazelburn 8 CS/Arran Bourbon Single Cask/North British 16 Year

After writing my post about blending whisky, I decided to try making a blend with a bit more precision.

This is a roughly even (a milliliter or so off in some cases) split between an Arran Bourbon Single Cask, Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year, Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength, and Signatory North British 16 Year for Binny's. All said and done should clock in around 58% and all of the component whiskies were uncolored and un-chill filtered.

Blended Whisky #1

Nose: a thick layer of sherry on top, sweet raisins, fresh malt core, a touch of grain, light vanilla, caramel/brown sugar, something a meaty/savory, a bit of Campbeltown brine, sawdust. After adding a splash of water, the sherry is toned down significantly, letting the dusty grain, brine, and meaty notes shine.

Taste: fruity/dank sherry rides on top of everything, green/lightly peaty/earthy/dirty with dried orange peel and a heavy seasoning of black pepper around the middle, slides into malt/grain, mild oak, and extra pepper. After dilution, the sherry becomes a lighter bottom note rather than a top note, with malt and grain dominating, while the oak almost disappears and the earthy peat becomes stronger at the back.

Finish: grainy bitterness, moderate oak, sherry dregs, hints of dirty peat

This fudges Alfred Barnard's classic recipe, but it's close. One Speysider, an Island distillery that hews fairly close to Speyside/Highland, a Campbeltown, and a well-aged grain. Something peated from Islay definitely would have given this more punch, though I was pleasantly surprised by how much of that the Hazelburn brought to the mix. Also surprising was how strongly the sherry from the Tamdhu came through over the other three bourbon cask whiskies. Trying the Tamdhu by itself I found it to not be very intensely sherried, but mixing it with the other three seems to bring that element to the fore. Goes to show that how a malt whisky behaves on its own is not necessarily indicative of how it will behave as part of a blend.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Glendronach 33 Year - Three Generations

This was a bottling put together to commemorate the three generations of the Shand family to work at Glendronach: Albert Shand was the distillery manager in 1975 when the spirit was distilled, Euan Shand (who now owns Duncan Taylor) was a trainee at the time and coopered the cask that the spirit was aged in, and his son Andrew Shand bottled the cask in 2008.

This whisky comes from a single ex-bourbon cask that was bottled at 51.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Duncan Taylor Glendronach 33 Year 1975/2008 

Nose: beeswax/honeycomb, lots of clean malt, lightly floral (violets and roses), green fruits (apples, pears), jammy berries, mango, a sake/rice edge, caramel, dusty oak, whole milk dairy creaminess, musky vanilla bean, very mild peat in the background, green tea. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes darker - more jammy fruit, the oak becomes more pronounced and polished, some baking chocolate pops out, and the malts retreats,

Taste: honied barley and wood sugars up front, becoming floral, peppery, and tannic with berry and apple overtones around the middle, with a touch of peat and grainy bitterness plus increasing oak near the back. After dilution, the berry/fruit notes ride on top of everything, while the floral notes fade significantly and the oak becomes much more tannic.

Finish: mild oak, floral malt, beeswax, very mild peat, a touch of sandalwood incense

For having spent over three decades in oak, this whisky is surprisingly fresh. Yes, there is a fairly heavy dose of oak tannins to give it backbone, but the malt is very present and almost green, though that may have to do with the moderate level of peat (14 PPM) used in Glendronach's floor maltings. Overall I find this to be a really classic example of an older bourbon cask malt, with the combination of floral and fruit flavors one gets from alcohol and acids getting plenty of time to turn into esters. I'm glad that Duncan Taylor didn't leave it in the cask any longer as I suspect it might have become overly tannic after too many more years in oak - this is creeping up towards the edge but doesn't slip over. It's also an interesting contrast to the more common ex-sherry cask style that Glendronach is known for. I've tried most of their core range and enjoyed all of them, but all three are very sherry-driven, so this was a way to get to know the distillery's spirit in a more 'naked' form.

I was lucky enough to not only find this whisky on sale, but also split it with friends. I might not have taken a risk on it by myself and it's always interesting to get different angles on the same whisky. Both MAO and Michael enjoyed it quite a lot, with similar but not quite the same notes.

If you'd like to try this one, it's theoretically still available from Binny's for $200, which is a pretty significant chunk of change, but not absurd for a whisky of this age and vintage nowadays. I paid $170 and felt like I got a reasonable deal for a special occasion bottle, especially since I was able to split the cost.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Whisky Review: Arran 10 Year Revisited

Arran has long been one of my favorite distilleries (it was a lot of fun to visit back in 2013) and the quality of their entry-level 10 Year (well, I think they have an NAS release now, but it's not available in the US) has been a significant part of that. I opened a new bottle for a whisky tasting I held a few months ago as an example of an island whisky that doesn't fit the usual mold of Talisker, Highland Park, or Ledaig.

The 10 Year is made from whisky aged in ex-sherry casks, though I'm guessing that they're all or almost all refill casks as the sherry influence is very mild. It has always been bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. This bottle appears to have been bottled on 10/05/11, so the flavor profile may have shifted slightly in more recent releases as they have a deeper stock to work with.

Arran 10 Year

Nose: gentle floral-inflected sherry notes over creamy fresh (slightly green) malt, mild oak, raspberries, apples, a bit musky with a touch of Ivory soap, lemon/lime peel, vanilla, cotton candy, and mint. After adding a few drops of water, it become more malt- and oak-focused, reading more like a bourbon cask malt.

Taste: malt sweetness with a thin layer of musky sherry and floral overtones up top, berries and fresh raisins near the front, becoming more malty with a touch of oak around the middle. After dilution it becomes sweeter up front but less sweet at the back, with the sherry fading a bit until the end, with the oak waxing and the malt gets some roasted flavor, making it darker overall.

Finish: malt, sherry residue, grain/oak bitterness, vanilla

While this whisky can occasionally come off as a bit youthful, I think that the somewhat spare nature is fitting with the distillery's philosophy of letting their spirit shine through any cask influence. Arran has almost always put out malt-forward whiskies, which is somewhat rare in the current paradigm of wood-driven releases. I think this would be a good choice for people who enjoy whiskies like Balvenie Doublewood as they both have a similar level of sherry influence.

In comparison to my first go with Arran 10 Year, I didn't find any peat this time and I think that's both because I'm much more tolerate of peat flavors now so my threshold is higher and because I may have been mistaking some of the fresh barley character for peat. I also didn't get any brine, but who knows why. Otherwise my notes from three and a half years ago are pretty consistent, which suggests that Arran 10 Year is a whisky I'll keep coming back to and enjoying, even as I try more new things.