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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Auchentoshan/Bowmore Blend

One of the goals I've had in exploring blends is to see if I can replicate some of the blends that are already out there. While I don't have nearly as much whisky to work with, I can at least approach some of the flavor profiles.

Morrison-Bowmore, for a long time (before Suntory snapped up Beam), was composed of three different malt distilleries - the eponymous Bowmore on Islay, Auchentoshan in the Lowlands, and Glen Garioch in the Highlands. Unsurprisingly, these three malts were combined into a proprietary blend called Rob Roy.

While I currently don't own anything from Glen Garioch, I do have the standard 12 Year expressions from Auchentoshan and Bowmore and have previously found that they work well together.

•14 mL Sig. North British 16 Year CS
•6 mL water
•7 mL Auchentoshan 12 Year
•3 mL Bowmore 12 Year

North British/Auchentoshan/Bowmore Blend

Nose: fresh wheat bread, clean malt, grassy, cotton candy, grapes, wood smoke, a touch of mossy peat, dusty oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes brighter and more malty, the sherry is more apparent, and the peat really stands out - becoming much more smoky and coastal.

Taste: moderately sweet malt and grain up front, gaining sherry overtones and an undercurrent of oak with a bit of peat and smoke further back. After dilution, the malt becomes sweeter and more prominent, the peat and oak integrate while spreading out across the palate, giving it a more bittersweet profile overall.

Finish: grain, malt, mild peat and oak, a bit of sherry residue

For a grain-heavy blend proofed down to 40%, this was surprisingly tasty. Interestingly, the malt actually came to the fore after adding some more water, which is a property I've noticed from a handful of other blends before. This leads me to wonder if there is a rational for bottling most blends at a lower proof, beyond simple economics. Maybe some of them really do just work better that way? At the very least, I'm starting to believe that lower bottling proofs make the flavors of grain whisky less readily apparent, which would be a strong incentive for blends that are composed primarily from grain whisky.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Whisky Review: Archives Auchentoshan 23 Year 1990/2014

One of the discoveries that I've made is that I really prefer triple-distilled whisky from ex-bourbon rather than ex-sherry casks. Something about it just fits with the caramel and vanilla flavors that come from American oak without the overlay of sherry. This has been most noticeable from Auchentoshan and Hazelburn.

This sample comes from the WhiskyBase Shop, who not only do their own bottlings under the Archives label, but also put out samples from a lot of the bottles that pass through their shop. At 20 mL, they're clearly aimed at getting people to try whiskies that they otherwise wouldn't in the hope that people will then buy a full bottle. With that in mind I slipped one of these into my latest order.

The whisky was distilled in November 1990, aged for 23 years in a hogshead (probably refill?), then bottled in Septemeber 2014 at 47.7% without coloring or chill filtration.

Archives Auchentoshan 23 Year 1990/2014

Nose: very light - sugar cookies over fresh oak, hay, fruity bubblegum, vanilla, raspberries/strawberries, undercurrent of floral perfume. After adding a few drops of water, the hay becomes a little burnt around the edges, strong notes of lime and eucalyptus emerge, the floral notes integrate with the malt and overtake the sugar cookies, and a bit of chocolate with roasted malt pops out.

Taste: lots of malt and sugarcane sweetness throughout, fades through fresh hay, berry and fruit esters, chocolate-covered oak, and roasted malt, then back to hay. After dilution, the palate gains a lot of thickness, with malt gaining over the sugarcane and the chocolate oak spreading out underneath the other elements, while the hay at the back becomes drier (as opposed to fresh) and sweeter.

Finish: lots of fresh hay, rather sweet, an undercurrent of oak, lingering fruit esters, dark chocolate

This whisky seems to be a very odd mix of youth and maturity. There are elements, like the bourbon cask fruit and chocolate-y oak finish, that I associate with well-aged malts, but at the same time the plastic-y off notes (which admittedly burn off with time) and fresh hay remind me of young spirit. Given the rather reduced proof for something that's not terribly old, I have to wonder if this was bottled more in an effort to keep it from losing any more strength than because it was really at its prime.

With all that said, this nearly convinced me to buy a whole bottle. The whisky takes a while to open up, but it's a really interesting experience. Considering the age, the price is fair, though I would highly encourage you to take advantage of the WhiskyBase Shop's samples to try a bit for yourself first.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Arran/Tamdhu/Hazelburn/Bunnahabhain Blend

One of the main goals of in making blends is creating balance - carefully adding more flavorful malts to grain whisky. When that comes to peat and sherry, a little goes a long way. So this was my attempt to add a bit of everything, hopefully keeping any one element from dominating the others, at a respectable but not overwhelming strength of 46%.

•15 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Arran Bourbon Single Cask
•2 mL Signatory Tamdhu 8 Year CS
•1 mL Hazelburn 8 Year CS
•1 mL Chieftain’s peated Bunnahabhain 16 Year CS for K&L
•5 mL H2O

North British/Arran/Tamdhu/Hazelburn/Bunnahabhain Blend

Nose: grain with a mossy peat edge, a whiff of sherry and fresh soil, a little green, cured meat, gentle oak, seashore, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, there is more grain and peat, plus something nutty emerges.

Taste: sweet grain and malt with bourbon cask influence up front, vanilla/floral/vegetal in the middle, sliding through mild sherry influence at the back. After dilution, it becomes more integrated - the sherry shifts forward and the peat arrives earlier.

Finish: grain, peat, oak

This blend hews most closely to the recipe set out by Alfred Barnard than any other I've made, though it is even more grain-heavy, making it more akin to modern commercial blends. The balance of grain whisky, bourbon cask malt, sherried malt, and peated malt is just right. Every element is present, but none dominates, providing a pleasant but relatively unchallenging experience. The flavor density is solid given the final proof, but it reads as fairly smooth. This is what I want blends like Johnnie Walker to be, but they never quite seem to get there. Nice to know that I can do for self.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Hazelburn/Tamdhu/Laphroaig Blended Malt

This blended whisky came about as I was tossing things together. Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength and Signatory Tamdhu 8 Year Cask Strength have both been staples of my blending projects, so I wanted to try them together. I eventually decided that the mix needed a bit more peat, so I added a drop of Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength. That really seemed to pull it together, especially after adding a bit of water, so I decided to make a more formal blend at roughly 50% ABV.

•12 mL Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength
•12 mL Signatory Tamdhu 8 Year Cask Strength
•1.5 mL Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength
•4.5 mL water

Hazelburn/Tamdhu/Laphroaig Blend

Nose: very green, mossy peat, seaweed, salty sea air, sweet malt, porridge, sherry, raisins, polished wood. After adding a few drops of water, some nice cured ham notes come out, the sherry takes on more berry character, the oak gets spicier, and the new make character is somewhat suppressed, coming out as pine instead,

Taste: fresh malt with mild sherry sweetness up front, quickly picking up mossy peat, fresh green vegetables, with polished oak and a Campbeltown twist near the back. After dilution, the oak becomes more prominent, integrating with the sherry and spreading across the palate, with the Campbeltown and Islay peat just riding above it.

Finish: Campbeltown and Islay character - both peat and malt, sea air, well-integrated oak

This feels like almost, but not quite, like a success. The Campbeltown character of the Hazelburn and the Islay character of the Laphroaig are a good balance for the cleaner Speyside character of the sherried Tamdhu. However I think the Hazelburn is just a bit too underdone to fit with the other two components, so it didn't come together quite like I would have hoped. I think what I'd like to do is remake this after I open up a bottle of Springbank 10 Year/100-proof, which should be similar but fit the profile better. This is a learning process.