Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain 12 Year Revisited

Since the first time I tried it, Bunnahabhain 12 Year has been one of my favorite entry-level whiskies. It manages to neatly balance strong sherry influence with the coastal character of the distillery.

80-90% of Bunnahabhain's current output is from unpeated malt and this expression is entirely unpeated. The 12 Year is made up of 20% first-fill ex-bourbon casks, 60% refill casks (mostly likely ex-bourbon), and 20% oloroso sherry casks (mostly likely first-fill). A significant amount of the whisky destined for Bunnahabhain's single malts is matured on Islay, with the rest being trucked off to Deanston on the mainland.

As with most of the whiskies released by Bunnahabhain since Burn Stewart's takeover in 2003, this is bottled at 46.3% without coloring or chill filtration.

Bunnahabhain 12 Year

Nose: bright sherry influence, dark chocolate, malty core, American oak, salty bourbon caramel, lightly vegetal/herbal/floral, heather. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry retreats significantly - integrating with the oak and becomes more raisin-y and dank, giving way to the bourbon cask influence and floral character, something yeast-y/savory pops out, there are some raspberry and strawberry notes on top,

Taste: sherried sweetness up front, sliding through dark chocolate with a touch of oak and seashore salinity in the middle, then becoming increasingly malty with bourbon cask influence (vanilla, caramel) near the back. After dilution, it becomes much softer with more integrated sherry, creamy malt pushes forward to produce more balanced flavors throughout, with some raisins joining the oak near the back.

Finish: cacao nibs, sherry residue, malt, something vegetal, oak tannins around the edges, black pepper

One of the reoccurring complaints I've heard about the reformulated Bunnahabhain 12 Year is that it is over-oaked, which I found to a certain extent in my first bottle. This time I either got a better batch or the distillery is finally zeroing in on the right balance of casks, because the oak felt much more restrained and in balance. In other respects my impressions were fairly similar, which suggests to me that quality can be maintained over time.

All said and done, I have absolutely no hesitation recommending Bunnahabhain 12 Year right now, especially if you already enjoy sherry-driven whiskies from the likes of Macallan, Glenfarclas, or Aberlour. Right now I think it represents a better value than most of the classic Speysiders, selling for a comparable price, but at a higher proof and with craft presentation. When a lot of people are bemoaning the loss of once reliable standbys, I will content myself in the knowledge that there are almost always alternatives around if you look for them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Whisky Review: Benriach Heredotus Fumosus

This is the forth peated Benriach I've tried and the third in their series of peated cask finishes.

This is the most classic in the lineup, using Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry casks to finish the whisky. PX tends to be intensely sweet and concentrated to the point of being almost syrupy, so it gives a thick wallop of sherry flavor. While PX can sometimes overwhelm the spirit, Benriach tends to have a deft hand with their cask finishes, so this one seems more restrained than it could have been.

As per usual, this was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Benriach Herodotus Fumosus

Nose: thick peat and wood smoke snaking around balsamic vinegar, a solid layer of savory sherry, oily fish, dry malt, herbal, fresh pine needles, leaf mold, seasoned oak, coffee grounds, lemon peel, a touch of vanilla, diesel/gasoline, yeasty - it becomes a bit sweeter and more earthy plus cured meat, floral, and mint notes emerge with time. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more malt-focused, with the sherry and peat integrating and fading a bit, plus more vegetal and yeasty notes.

Taste: begins with malt and sherry sweetness with berry overtones that is quickly trumped by heavy oak tannins and inky peat, with vinegar and mocha in the background, and the savory elements of the sherry coming in behind, then slipping into something more malty near the back, with lemon and orange peel overtones throughout. After dilution, it becomes sweeter and more balanced, with the malt and sherry gaining ground against the oak and peat, floral notes appearing near the beginning, and some coffee grounds show up near the back.

Finish: heavy oak tannins, vegetal peat, lingering malt and sherry

To me the nose is the standout here. While I've found that most of Benriach's peated whiskies have quite a bit of oak, it's just in balance here, lending weight to the peat without being overwhelming. While Benriach doesn't have the coastal elements that are often associated with peated whiskies, its own spin works well in concert with the sherry, giving a somewhat dark and brooding feel neat, then switching to a brighter mode with a bit of water. The palate is a little simple in comparison, but doesn't fall flat either.

Ultimately, I think this is well worth searching out if you like peat/sherry combos. The character is very distinct from traditional Islay whiskies, but I don't think fans of Ardbeg or Laphroaig will be disappointed. It is, unfortunately, rather difficult to find in the US at this point, but retailers in the UK and EU should still have it if you're willing to go for international shipping.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Whisky Review: Wemyss Clynelish 14 Year 'A Day at the Coast'

Wemyss is an independent bottler that takes a similar tack to the Single Malt Whisky Society in giving their bottlings fanciful names, to deemphasize distillery character. Wemyss bottles both single casks as well as an ongoing line of blended malts.

This cask is from Clynelish, which was distilled in 1997, aged for 14 years in a hogshead (probably refill, possibly sherry), then bottled in August 2011 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

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

Wemyss Clynelish 14 Year 'A Day at the Coast'

Nose: fields of wildflowers, a thick layer of vanilla, clean Clynelish malt, very light oak underneath, underripe berries and pears, orange peel with a touch of clove, nutty/oily (walnuts?) distant salinity. After adding a few drops of water, the floral notes subside a bit in favor of the fresh malt character, making it seem even more youthful, and revealing a bit of sherry.

Taste: clean malt sweetness with vegetal undertones throughout, floral, citrus (lemon and orange peel), and sherry notes build from the middle back, seawater in the background, a burst of berry esters and unsweetened apples underneath, mild oak tannins with a touch of chocolate near the back. After dilution, the malt becomes sweeter and richer, giving the palate a more rounded character, the floral notes are deemphasized by don't completely disappear, the sherry and oak integrate, giving the back end some solidity, giving way to a lighter malty fade out.

Finish: grainy malt, moderate - almost sherried - oak, floral residue,

This seems to have been a relatively inactive cask, letting the spirit shine without imposing much oak during its 14 years. This makes for a very pleasant, somewhat refreshing whisky, albeit one that could be read as younger than it is. The experience is also rather consistent, with the nose, palate, and finish all displaying roughly the same notes. So if you like those things, this could be your jam. If you're looking for something with more complexity, it might not fly.

The obvious comparison here was to the OB 14 Year, which I happened to have. Diageo's offering is significantly darker, though I'm not sure whether that's because they're adding caramel coloring (entirely possible) or because there are more active casks in the mix (also entirely possible). Similar floral character is present, but less assertive, in favor of more oak and vanilla. There's also a touch of smoke in the OB that when combined with the oak give it a dark and more brooding character in comparison to the brightness of the Wemyss. The coastal character is also much more present in the OB, which is a nice counterpoint to the oak.

In the end, my only complaint about this Wemyss single cask is the price. It was solidly over $100 when it was released, roughly double the price of the OB 14 Year. While it shows a different side of Clyenlish, I just can't see it being worth that much more than the OB.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Aberlour 12 Year/Bowmore 12 Year Blend

While, as David D has pointed out, blending single cask releases is closer to how blends are actually made, I like to blend batch releases as well. This is both because they're often what I have open at the time and because it's a lot easier for other people to try making the same blends for themselves, as they are much more likely to be able to get their hands on them than single casks.

This was put together from the ends of my bottles of Aberlour 12 Year and Bowmore 12 Year with an eye towards mellowing the Bowmore peat while emphasizing the sherry cask element of both whiskies.

In all its caramel colored glory
Aberlour 12 Year/Bowmore 12 Year Blend

Nose: softer Bowmore peat, smoldering ashes, charred pine needles, herbal (marjoram, savory), gingerbread, sea air, salty, a touch of ham, overlapping styles of sherry influence, fresh raspberries, maple syrup. After adding a few drops of water, the smoke overtakes the sherry, giving it a drier character, with some incense emerging, and more cured meat.

Taste: slightly thin malt and sherry sweetness up front, darker sherry character and dusty grain around the middle, turning bittersweet near the back with sherry residue, red wine oak tannins, fresh ginger, and mild peat. After dilution, the sherry becomes less bright - but more dominant, with the other elements integrating, the ginger expanding across the palate, and the grain waiting until the end to show up.

Finish: mossy peat, vegetal, fresh malt, moderate oak, lingering sherry and red wine

This is one of those blends that is genuinely greater than the sum of its parts. This rounds off some of the things that I don't like about Aberlour 12 Year and Bowmore 12 Year as single malts, while bringing together their best elements. At 40% it's drinkable, but doesn't lose too much in terms of flavor density. If you have both of these at home, I highly recommend pouring a bit of each together to see what comes out.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Whisky Review: Ardbeg Supernova 'Stellar' Release (2009)

This was the return salvo from Ardbeg in the peat wars that had been touched off by Bruichladdich's Octomore. The malt for this release contained roughly twice as much phenol (100 ppm vs. 50 ppm) as their normal spec, though it never reached the stratospheric heights that Octomore has explored.

This release was bottled at a hefty 58.9%, presumably without coloring or chill filtration as is now standard at Ardbeg.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for letting me kill his bottle.

Ardbeg Supernova (2009)

Nose: classic Ardbeg peat with clean malt and a touch of salt underneath, fresh grass and wildflowers, damp wool, seed/nut/olive oils, very gentle oak, bourbon cask berry/fruit notes, hints of cured meat, charred wood. After adding a few drops of water, the peat settles down a bit and integrates with the malt, though it seems a bit younger overall,

Taste: big malt and wood sweetness explodes up front and fades slowly across the palate, a thick layer of oily/dirty peat is not far behind, though the alcohol heat muddles things around the middle, becoming earthier/muddier further back where it is joined by a moderate dose of oak tannins. After dilution, the peat and malt are more in balance and are joined by more aggressive wood, stronger bourbon cask fruit, and some anise top notes, with used coffee grounds showing up at the back, giving a rather different evolution,

Finish: earthy peat, clean malt, lingering alcohol, gentle bourbon cask influence,

As would be expected, the peat is front and center here, even more so than in Ardbeg's other, admittedly rather peaty, releases. At the same time, it doesn't completely overwhelm the malt or cask influence, which keeps it from being unidimensional. Overall I'd say this works better than the Octomore 01.1 I tried, due to the greater cask influence and more enjoyable peat character.

With that said, I don't like this enough to pay the crazy money that even the more recent release of Supernova is going for. It's worth a try, but not at $200, which seems to be the low end by now. I'll probably stick to something more affordable like Corryvrecken, which is plenty peaty.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Whisky Review: Ardbeg 10 Year L7

One of the biggest debates among Ardbeg fans in recent years is whether the whisky has fundamentally changed since Glenmorangie purchased and refurbished the distillery in the late-90s.

Their reputation was rebuilt largely on whiskies that were much older than the numbers on the labels because of gaps in production that I've discussed before. The switchover came in 2008, when they released Renaissance, which was purportedly the first ten year old spirit distilled after Glenmorangie bought the distillery. This corresponds with L8 releases of the standard 10 Year, which began to utilize the same spirit, rather than the "Old Ten" L0-L7 releases which were exclusively spirit distilled before 1997.

This whisky was bottled on November 19th, 2007 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample of this now long-gone whisky.

Ardbeg 10 Year L7 323 21:19 4ml

Nose: rather green, light herbal peat, graphite, seaweed/seashore, a touch of decaying vegetation, clean malt, solid bourbon cask influence, fresh oak, overripe berries, rubber cement, burnt orange peel, gingerbread/baking spices, a touch of ham. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more Highland-ish with increasing floral character and slightly diminished peat, which becomes more smokey and charcoal-like, losing some of the vegetal character.

Taste: sweet malt and barrel notes up front, bourbon cask fruit esters and heather on top, balanced by oak tannins, ink, graphite, and leafy peat smoke in the middle, which fades a bit at the back for another bump of malt sweetness. After dilution, the peat integrates and subsides a bit, letting the sweetness and bourbon cask character shine plus revealing some citrus peel (mostly orange with a bit of lemon), and there's a fruit-y thickness around the middle that makes it seem almost sherried.

Finish: sweet malt, browned apples, herbal/leafy peat, gentle oak,

I don't know that this version of the 10 Year is better than more recent releases, but it is noticeably different. I tried the last of the bottle of 10 Year I purchased in late 2012, which was likely an L11 or L12, side by side and found it to be more aggressive, both in terms of sweetness and smoke, with a lot of barrel char plus some iodine and oily character. In terms of similarities, I found strong gingerbread notes in both, which was a nice touch and reminded me of younger bourbon cask Kilkerran. So there is definitely overlap between the pre- and post-Glenmorangie spirit, and they appear to be the same color even without caramel, but they are also distinctly different from each other. In many ways this reminds me of Bruichladdich (whose former owner, Mark Reynier, coincidentally considered buying Ardbeg), which has also dealt with the changing nature of the spirit distilled before and after the distillery was rebuilt.

L12 on the left - L7 on the right
For me the biggest lesson from this tasting was getting a better sense of how older Ardbeg can evolve out of the younger stock. While most of the spirit is probably from the mid-90s, I suspect that this release still has some older casks in the mix, so it has more of the lighter aged character that comes from well-aged refill casks; the L7 had some overlap with the 1994 and 1974 single casks I tried during the Deconstructing the Dram tasting I did at Ardbeg. So if Ardbeg ever releases older age dated whisky I think it could be very good, in contrast to the much younger and more raw style we primarily get these days.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Whisky Review: SMWS 53.173 "Glowing Embers on the Tongue"

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which was recently sold by Glenmorangie to a private equity firm, is famous (or infamous) for the fanciful names of their single cask releases. With deep connections to the whisky industry, they always have significant breadth and depth in their cask selection.

This particular single cask is a Caol Ila distilled on August 29th, 1995 that was aged for 16 years in a refill sherry butt, then bottled at cask strength of 59.8% with an outturn of 540 bottles for the Canadian branch of the Society.

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

SMWS 53.173

Nose: billowing classic Caol Ila mossy peat smoke, damp ashes, wet concrete, herbal/pine, clean fresh malt, lemon hand soap, salty playdough, cooked root vegetables, earthy, seashore/seaweed, plastic, fresh American oak in the background. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes perceptible - but just barely, and the malt comes more into focus, the root vegetables are enhanced, the oak shifts forward and absorbs some of the smoke, creamy mint and floral notes pop out, and it gives a very dry profile overall.

Taste: big cask strength alcohol sweetness up front, counterbalanced by Caol Ila peat, American oak influence (berries/fruit, caramel), root vegetables, and a bit of new make greenness around the middle, and increasing tannins towards the back, with just a hint of sherry influence under everything if you look for it. After dilution, the sherry wakes up and provides a fruity gloss over the opening sweetness, but the back half is somewhat blown out by the even more aggressive alcohol heat, though some nougat notes emerge beneath it and ash is pulled out near the back.

Finish: strong alcohol heat, bright oak tannins, earthy peat, green malt, salty

This is a classic Caol Ila. The peat was always in focus and it has the herbal/pine quality that I associate with the more refined character of Caol Ila in comparison to its other Islay brethren. With that said, it didn't quite measure up to my expectations. First, the sherry cask was very shy - when I first tried this I had forgotten that it was from an ex-sherry cask and thought it was an ex-bourbon cask. That suggests to me both that it was American rather than European oak and that the first fill of this cask pulled a lot out of the wood, not leaving much behind for this fill. Secondly, the alcohol was very, very hot for a whisky solidly in its teenage years. It's possible that there is a dilution point that would have suited it better, but with only a sample to work with I was unable to experiment.

Admittedly, all of this is irrelevant as this whisky was released several years ago and is likely sold out everywhere. So I will keep my eye out for other teenage Caol Ilas as I would like to try more, but this one doesn't hit the right price:quality ratio for me.