Monday, November 7, 2016

Whisky Review: The First Editions Clynelish 14 Year 1997/2012

Lately it seems like most of the independently bottled Clynelish coming to market has been from sherry rather than bourbon casks. I'm not sure why that is (and I find it somewhat frustrating), but for fans of the style this is a pretty good time. With a little bit of legwork you can pick up something dark, rich, and 18-20 years old for around $100. This, however, is both younger and lighter than what's been coming to market more recently.

This whisky was distilled in 1997, then bottled in 2012 at 52.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

The First Editions Clynelish 14 Year 1997/2012 Cask ES 009/03

Nose: very malty, hints of sherry around the edges, vanilla, very mild oak, graham crackers, beeswax, a little vegetal. After adding a few drops of water it becomes more malty and less sherried.

Taste: moderate malt and sherry sweetness throughout, honey, vanilla, and something vegetal starting around the middle, the sherry trends towards red wine with oak and black pepper spice at the back. After dilution the malt and sherry integrate and become buttery/creamy, while the spiciness at the back is toned down.

Finish: spicy oak, lingering sherry, malt, drying

My guess is that this was a second-fill sherry cask, probably made from American oak. It isn't a bad whisky, just a little disappointing. Despite the sherry cask not being too active, there isn't as much of the trademark Clynelish character I was hoping for. The nose eventually opened up into something decent, but the palate was kind of flat in comparison. A lot of this perked up right at the end, but getting through the bottle was a bit of a struggle because it almost never gripped me.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: clean malt, light sherry, a whiff of alcohol, biscuit-y, creamy vanilla, slightly tired oak, a little vegetal, a hint of baking spices

Taste: fairly sharp - dry, slightly bitter malt and thick sherry throughout, briefly sweet up front, becoming tannic around the middle, fading through more rounded sherry plus a little waxiness, pepper, and orange peel at the back

Finish: sherry residue, oak tannins, bittersweet malt, pepper

For whatever reason this dilution really doesn't work for me. It takes some of the heat out, but the smells and flavors are even more muddled and without many redeeming qualities besides a certain thickness to the sherry on the palate. Good thing this wasn't bottled in the Old Malt Cask series.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: fairly light - balanced malt and sherry, juicy berries, floral notes in the background, waxy, digestive biscuits, a little green, vanilla

Taste: creamy balanced malt and sherry sweetness throughout, gets a little sour with a decent dose of vanilla and a little wax starting in the middle, gentle green peppery oak with a little tropical fruit coming in near the back

Finish: gentle peppery oak, malty, sherry residue

Unlike some other malts, this remained rather consistent throughout the different stages of dilution. My notes from the full strength whisky read very similarly to those at 45%, though dilution did transform it into a much easier drinking malt. In a lot of ways I think it would have been better or being bottled at 46%, since this creates a much more balanced experience than I found at either full strength or at 50%.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Whisky Review: Gordon & Macphail Ledaig 16 Year 1994/2011

I like Ledaig a lot. While the younger refill casks haven't always tickled my fancy, the OB 10 Year from first-fill casks and the younger sherry casks have really done it for me. So I was fairly excited when The Party Source offered an older Ledaig at what appeared to be a rather reasonable price.

This whisky was distilled in September 1994, filled into refill American oak hogsheads, then bottled at 43% probably with chill filtering in April 2011.

G&M Connoisseurs Choice Ledaig 16 Year 1994/2011

Nose: dank oak, a touch of malty chocolate, berries, gently floral, a touch of vanilla, a little bit of sulfurous Tobermory funk. After adding a few drops of water it becomes more rounded, the fruit notes are amplified, the funk retreats a bit and integrates with the oak,

Taste: bittersweet through out - balanced malt and oak with vague floral/fruitiness and vegetal funk peaking around the edges, becomes more overtly bitter at the back. After dilution the bitterness is tamed and it becomes rounder in a similar fashion to the nose, but falls a little flat after a while.

Finish: bittersweet malt and oak, cacao nibs, slightly peppery, a hint of vegetal peat and funk, orange peel, berries in the background

This was, to put it mildly, not what I thought I was buying. Despite the convention that the distillery and most independent bottlers use, I'm pretty sure this was Tobermory's unpeated spirit, rather than the heavily peated spirit that is normally designated as Ledaig. And ultimately there's just not a whole lot going on in this whisky, maybe even less than what can be found in the OB Tobermory 10 Year. It's possible that the spirit would have been more lively at higher strength, but by the same token it might have just been too hot. And while letting it stay in the casks might have created further development, the balance of spirit and oak makes me think this could have gone over the edge fairly quickly. Sadly, they can't all be winners. The best use I can see this whisky being put to is either as a gentle way to ease someone into Tobermory's spirit or, more favorably, as a base for further blending. I found that a little bit of something sherried or peated gave it more pop and created a reasonably engaging whisky. But for a $60 malt that feels like damning with faint praise.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Whisky Review: Classic of Islay Cask #530

Classic of Islay is a mystery malt. Bottled by Jack Weibers Whisky World in Germany, it has long been rumored that the source of the casks is the Lagavulin distillery. That would make them one of if not the only independently bottled Lagavulin on the market today. How this would be is a significant question as Lagavulin already sells very few casks to blenders, as the demand for the OB single malts already consumes the vast majority of their supply. Whatever the source, they have consistently delivered full strength heavily peated sherry cask whisky for prices that are a little hard to believe by the current standards of the industry. Let's see if it's too good to be true.

This whisky was bottled in 2014 at 56%, without coloring or chill filtration.

Classic of Islay Cask #530

Nose: seaweed, herbal/vegetal peat, dry smoke, moderate American oak, background sherry, cured meat/ham

Taste: a bittersweet balance of sherry and oak throughout, only slightly tannic, dry peat and more rounded emerge at the back, and the oak becomes more toasty

Finish: cold smoke, herbal peat, oak, sherry residue

While this malt has faded somewhat since I first opened the bottle, it's still a very solid experience. The flavors could do with some more complexity, but the aromas and finish elevate it above the price point. Even if this is Caol Ila rather than Lagavulin, it's still quite a deal in comparison to the sub-10 year old Caol Ila single casks that have been hitting the market at over $100 lately.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: a solid amount of American oak, dry peat smoke, ham, subtle sherry, plums, herbal, cold tea,

Taste: sherried sweetness up front and through the middle, not particularly tannic American oak takes over around the middle, very little peat until the very back, joined by a touch of herbal ham and some more rounded sherry

Finish: somewhat thin and indistinct, cold smoke, mild oak, herbal peat

This isn't precisely bad, but the flavors really seems lacking in peat. While not overly complex, the aromas have some nice touches that tend towards the dry side, which is a nice change of pace for a sherry cask malt.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: strong chlorine and vegetal peat, cold smoke, sour sherry, cheap beef jerky, green onions, soy sauce

Taste: rather thin, moderately sweet up front, then a muddle of oak and sherry around the middle, becoming more tannic with intruding peat smoke at the back

Finish: soft American oak, barrel char, cacao nibs, cold smoke, bittersweet

At this strength the nose is nearly unpleasant, with strong chemical notes and little sherry to balance the youthfulness. The flavors are thin and somewhat indistinct until the finish, but generally inoffensive. Overall it feels like there are very good reasons for this cask to have been bottled at full strength - while I can't quite say that it entirely falls apart, much of the appeal is lost by diluting it this far.

After trying a 9 year old first-fill sherry cask during the warehouse tasting at Lagavulin, I'm willing to say that this is at least in the same ballpark. There's a lot of overlap in my tasting notes, so even if that's not actually where it's from you're probably getting something that does a decent impression. With that said, it sounds like not every cask is a winner, but at least you won't be out a ton of money if you get one that isn't quite up to snuff.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Whisky Review: Glendronach Single Cask 19 Year 1995/2015 for WhiskyBase

Over the last few years Glendronach has been bottling a huge array of single casks, usually either oloroso or PX sherry. Many have helped to reinforce their status as one of the premier sherry-driven malts in Scotland. Quite a number have been private bottlings for various stores and organizations, which include this one for WhiskyBase.

This was distilled on September 20th 1995, possibly filled directly into a PX sherry puncheon, then bottled in August 2015 at 54.2% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 694.

I got a couple of samples as freebies in WhiskyBase orders (this may say something about how well the bottles have been selling).

Glendronach Single Cask 19 Year 1995/2015 PX Sherry Puncheon #3804 for WhiskyBase

Nose: rich but somewhat subdued sherry, brown butter, vanilla, salted roast peanuts, fresh waffle cones, dark chocolate, fresh sawdust, herbal, rhubarb, orange, apricot, strawberry. After adding a few drops of water the cookie/waffle cone notes are amplified and integrate with the sherry, while the chocolate gets darker.

Taste: big but moderately sweet sherry throughout, hints of malt underneath, kind of hot in the middle, shifts towards savory and bittersweet oak near the back. After dilution it becomes kind of flat but the alcohol heat is almost completely banished.

Finish: savory, yeast, sherry residue/raisins, malt in the background, cacao nibs

I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with this whisky - it's a solid representation of the style - but it just doesn't excite me right now. It especially doesn't excite me to the tune of $150. The nose is easily the best part and offers some nice savory notes, but the palate is just too flat to justify the price. Reading reviews on WhiskyBase it sounds like a lot of other people agree. The fact that this is still available when all of the oloroso single casks appear to have sold out says a lot. It's possible that there are better Glendronach single casks out there, but given their exponentially rising prices I doubt I'll ever try any of them.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory Caol Ila 20 Year 1995/2015 for K&L Wines

Much like older Laphroaig, older Caol Ila is becoming hard to find, despite the absolutely gargantuan output of the Islay distillery. This is unsurprising as Diageo has largely cut off independent bottlers due to their own expanding requirements for peated malt. But every so often casks still slip into the marketplace that aren't astronomically expensive, despite the eye-popping price tags on even sub-10 year old Caol Ila right now.

This whisky was distilled on January 24th 1995, filled into a hogshead, then bottled on September 30th 2015 at 54.4% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 237 bottles for K&L Wines.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection Caol Ila 20 Year 1995/2015 Cask #445 for K&L Wines

Nose: moderately strong oak, cedar, caramel, gentle sea air, soft Caol Ila peat, soft coal smoke, pine needles, creamy berries. After adding a few drops of water the aromas lose most of their oomph, leaving a washed-out nose that's mostly oak.

Taste: moderate cask strength sweetness up front, quickly joined by a thick layer of oak with berry undertones that persists to the back, not overly tannic, with classic Caol Ila peat and pine dancing through the wood. After dilution the sweetness and oak become brighter, but the peat and berries mostly disappear until the finish.

Finish: solid oak, pine resin, peat

Looking at both the color of the whisky and the flavors and aromas, this was a relatively active hogshead. While less oaky than the 2012 unpeated release I recently reviewed, it feels like a toned down version of that with the peat added back in. While I think it's a solid cask and doesn't have any overt flaws, it doesn't really have the complexity that would have made me want to shell out $150 when it was available. I need to re-try them to be sure, but this doesn't seem to be bringing a lot to the table that can't be found in any of the official Caol Ilas for less money.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Whisky Review: Caol Ila 14 Year Unpeated 2012 Release

For the last decade Diageo has been putting out annual releases of unpeated Caol Ila distilled between 1997 and 1999. Ages and casks have varied from 8 to 17 years old and from ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and European oak casks.

The 2012 release from from European oak casks and bottled at 59.3%, probably without chill filtration but maybe with coloring.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Caol Ila 14 Year Unpeated 2012 Release

Nose: heavy oak, caramel, ripe apples, sea air/salinity, dry malt, light creamy vanilla, berries in an almost sherried mode. After adding a few drops of water the oak and malt shift closer to balance, the salinity becomes savory yeast extract, more vanilla comes out, and the fruit notes mostly disappear.

Taste: cask strength sweetness up front, strong oak and tannins come in right behind, apple and salty undertones throughout, fade out through bittersweet caramel and a touch of barrel char at the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes stronger and spreads out while integrating with the oak to give a brighter but more flat profile, and berries are added to the apples in the background to give an almost refill sherry character.

Finish: caramel, heavy oak, a little hot, green apple

In all honesty this whisky feels pointless. The oak dominates the spirit so thoroughly that it could be from practically any distillery in Scotland producing unpeated malt whisky. And while I can kind of detect some European oak character, it feels much more like first-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks. The 2010 release that I reviewed a while back was also oak-heavy, but not so much that it felt out of balance. If you happen to see a bottle sitting on the shelf at your local liquor store, don't bother. There are any number of cask strength whiskies out there that would be better for the same money or less.

For a similar review, see Michael Kravitz's take on this malt.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Whisky Review: Gordon & Macphail Caol Ila 10 Year

While Caol Ila aged over ten years seems to be getting kind of thin on the ground, Gordon & Macphail still have fairly deep reserves and regularly release it at more respectable ages. While the majority of these are vintage releases, this one simply has an age statement, more like their Macphail's Collection lineup.

This whisky was aged in refill sherry hogsheads, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

G&M Connoisseur's Choice Caol Ila 10 Year

Nose: solid but not overwhelming Caol Ila peat, fresh tobacco, putty, lightly farm-y, wood ash, seashore, subtle oak, cedar bark, faint sherry in the background. After adding a few drops of water the the same elements are present but more muddled - the peat and oak integrate to become less well-defined - but peat becomes more vegetal than smokey, there is more sherry, and a touch of orange comes out.

Taste: malt sweetness up front, a touch of berries and sherry in the middle, slowly fading into rising peat, tar, and moderate oak tannins. After dilution elements integrate - the malt and sherry come together in the front and middle, while the peat and oak integrate and spread out at the back.

Finish: oak, light peat, wood ash, hints of sherry, malt sweetness in the background

It was a bit frustrating to have to use so many "you're going to have to dig for it" adjectives for the notes beyond the peat, but this was a very subtle whisky in other respects. Whatever casks were used for this release were clearly well-used, because the cask influence in general is quite unobtrusive and any sherry is difficult to detect.

With all that said, this isn't a bad whisky, it's just that you need to calibrate your expectations. While a little higher strength, this feels very similar to the OB 12 Year in terms of its punch. Also, don't expect much in the way of sherry, despite what it says on the bottle. And because of all that I would be disinclined to buy a bottle for more than the standard 12 Year as I don't think it has a lot more to offer.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Whisky Reivew: Double Barrel Highland Park/Bowmore

Douglas Laing is a long established independent bottler. Given their deep stocks from distilleries all over Scotland, they also produce their own blends and blended malts. The Double Barrel series combines malts from two different distilleries that presumably have complementary character.

This whisky was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Lydia for the sample.

Double Barrel Highland Park/Bowmore

Nose: fresh dry peat smoke, earthy, raw onion without the sulfur, green malt, lemon furniture polish. After adding a few drops of water the peat fades to reveal more fresh malt and a little pine comes out, but it remains rather simple.

Taste: malt sweetness throughout, very green but not overly new make-y, acidic peat smoke enters quickly with prickles of oak tannins, a little heather underneath. After dilution the malt dominates and the bitter/acidic notes of peat and oak smooth out, but the heather is lost until the finish.

Finish: distinctly bitter - sharp peat smoke and oak, background malt

Despite the conceit that this is a blended malt combining the character of two different distilleries, most of what I get from this is the Bowmore. It doesn't seem fundamentally different from Bowmore's own NAS releases such as Legend or Small Batch, but slightly amplified at 46%. I get a little Highland Park heather on the palate, but it would be easy to miss if you're not paying attention. Overall I would give this one a miss as it doesn't seem to be significantly better than other NAS malts that can be had for less money.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Bual is one of the handful of named grape varieties still commonly used for making wine on the island of Madeira. The version produced by Blandy's ferments the wine at 18-21º C for three days before fortifying it with brandy to halt fermentation. It is then aged for an average of five years in American oak casks in what amount to giant attics where the subtropical heat acts on the wine. The wine is fined and bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.43, residual sugar of 78 g/l, and a total acidity of 6.53 g/l tartaric acid equivalent.

Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Nose: expected rich raisin notes, gently sour, oak, a touch of vanilla, lime, citrus peel, floral, hints of yeast, fresh bread, and chocolate

Taste: a brief burst of sweetness up front that quickly changes hands with a bright acidity that becomes increasingly tart towards the back, fruit ester overtones, apples, and juicy grapes rather than raisins in the middle, and a pleasant thickness throughout

Finish: solid fade out with pleasant acidity, floral vanilla, a touch of oak

Much like the 5 year old malmsey I reviewed a while back, this is not an overly complex wine, but I still enjoy it quite a bit. It's noticeably less sweet than the malmsey, letting the acidity and cask notes play more prominent roles. While this style is still a bit sweeter than I usually prefer, it is a noticeable improvement on the malmsey, which is almost too sweet for me. But for someone coming from sweeter fortified wines like port I feel like this would be a perfectly decent entry point to madeira.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Whisky Review: Tomatin Vertical - 12, 15, and 18 Year

Tomatin is something of a paradox. During its height in the 1970s it churned out a staggering 12 million liters of alcohol per year from a total of twenty-three stills (this probably has something to do with why single casks from that era are so heralded - there were a lot to choose from and some of them were bound to be good), but fell into relatively obscurity until recently and is producing at a fraction of its former scale 2.5 million liters out of a theoretical maximum of 5 million liters after many of its stills were removed during the 1980s (which is admittedly still a lot of spirit).

Within the last few years they released a miniature tasting set called the Stillman's Choice that included the 12, 15, and 18 Year expressions. The 12 Year is made up of bourbon casks that were combined and finished in sherry casks, then bottled at 43%. The 15 Year is made up of all bourbon casks and bottled at 43%. The 18 Year is made up of bourbon casks that were combined and finished in sherry casks, then bottled at 46%.

Tomatin 12 Year

Nose: full of new make, dry malt, a touch of caramel and sour wine. After adding a few drops of water it remains nearly the same, but with slightly less new make and a little more wine influence.

Taste: sweet at the front trending towards bittersweet at the back, lots of new make, vanilla, and caramel in the middle, oak spice near the back. After dilution it becomes flatter and sweeter, but the oak is less spicy and new make notes are less pronounced.

Finish: slightly tired oak, cardboard, heat, new make residue, a touch of sherry

It's unclear to me whether this was a bad miniature or the whisky is meant to taste like this, but it was not good. It feels like they took casks that weren't deemed suitable for any of their older expressions and tossed them in some not particularly active sherry butts for a brief period. This is full of new make notes with barely any sherry to be found. While it improves ever so slightly with water, that still places it a long way from being anything I would want to drink again.

Tomatin 15 Year

Nose: bubblegum, orange creamsicle, dry malt, cardboard, floral/heather, light new make, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water there is more malt and less new make, while the bubblegum and vanilla become ice cream.

Taste: very sweet up front, slides through light new make, dry floral malt and vanilla in the middle, into bittersweet oak tannins with berry overtones at the back, citrus in the background throughout. After dilution the new make is toned down, there are more berries and grape throughout, and something savory comes out at the back.

Finish: dry oak, malt, floral residue, berries

This is better than the 12 Year, but not by enough to make me want a full bottle. The refill casks are clear, both in terms of the color and the lack of oak impact. Again, some of this may just be the usual problems with minis degrading more quickly than full bottles, it still isn't fulfilling its function of making me want to buy more.

Tomatin 18 Year

Nose: rich savory sherry, vanilla bean ice cream, dark chocolate, mint, gingerbread. After adding a few drops of water the vanilla, oak, and malt are amplified to balance the sherry, and an almost peat-y earthiness comes out.

Taste: moderate malt sweetness up front, savory sherry throughout with a touch of raisin, dry malt in the middle, light spicy oak at the back. After dilution the sweetness spreads out and covers up the savory elements, the oak is briefly stronger at the back, and it becomes earthy around the middle.

Finish: mint, dry sherry residue, savory oak, creamy malt

This is more like it. While I would have preferred some moderately active bourbon casks to give it a more varied fruity profile, the sherry finish has pushed it closer to Glendronach. This is quite a decent whisky and can be found for under $70 in a lot of markets, which makes it a really solid deal. This is the only one I would think about buying, though it's a little down the list unless I need to pad out an order.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Whisky Review: van Wees The Ultimate Tamdhu 9 Year 2006/2015

For some reason a lot of first-fill sherry casks from Tamdhu were sold to independent bottlers around the mid-2000s and are now coming to market as the fad for intensely sherried young malts has grown. Many of them have been bottled by van Wees for their Ultimate series at cask strength. While quite a number of them have been well-received, they're not universally loved.

This whisky was distilled on February 16th 2006, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled on March 20th 2015 at 64.5% without coloring or chill filtration.

van Wees The Ultimate Tamdhu 9 Year 2006/2015 Cask #914

Nose: big new make notes (which largely fade after the first sip), sweet raisins, massive sherry, gently floral, green malt, a little rubbery. After adding water it becomes much softer and the raisin notes become kind of dank, touches of salinity, vanilla, banana, and yogurt pop out, and it becomes somewhat savory with a bit of cold smoke.

Taste: extremely hot throughout, big new make notes wrapped around a bright sherry core, bittersweet all the way through, more raisin notes and some oak tannins at the back. After dilution the alcohol heat largely disappears, revealing soft sherry, liquid raisins, and very little new make, with a berry/wine sour edge, and something vegetal near the back.

Finish: big alcohol heat, fudgy raisins, sour malt

In all honesty, I don't think this should have been bottled at full strength. While there's a fetish within the whisky community for higher and higher proof whiskies (see: George T. Stagg), in this case it's really just too much. Contrary to my usual practice with samples, I added a fairly healthy slug of water when diluting this whisky because it felt like a few drops just weren't going to do the trick. That much dilution was necessary to put the new make notes into balance and transform it into a competent malt, rather than a underdone mess.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year 2005/2013

Since its revival by Ian Macleod, Tamdhu has focused largely on its sherry cask matured whisky, both in the watered down 10 Year and the full proof Cask Strength. I have generally felt like the prices on these whiskies were too dear for their contents, but a significant number of Tamdhu sherry butts have made their way into the hands of independent bottlers, offering us another way to experience it.

This whisky was distilled on January 27th 2005, filled into a fresh sherry butt, then bottled in an outturn of 615 on September 22nd 2013 at 60.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

I proofed this whisky down to a number of different strengths to see how it would change.

Signatory Cask Strength Tamdhu 8 Year 2005/2013 Cask #346

Diluted to 45%

Nose: balanced grain and sherry influence, a little thin, creamy, yeasty savoriness, corn, gentle floral notes in the background, a touch of chocolate and roasted malt

Taste: mild sherry and grain sweetness up front, sherry fades towards the back as a rising tide of corn plus oak, cacao, and grain bitterness overwhelms everything else

Finish: grainy bitterness, oak tannins, sherry in the background, yeast extract

The youth of this whisky really shows up when it's reduced to 45%. The complexity is almost completely lost, especially on the palate. Young grain and sherry are all that's left, while the yeasty notes remind me more of a bourbon, which mesh with the youthful grain character.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: sweet sherry, raisins, savory undercurrent, malt in the background, a little yogurt

Taste: concentrated sherry with diminishing sweetness all the way through, a hint of sulfur up front, underlying malt, slightly peppery around the middle, very little oak, sherry turns bittersweet at the back

Finish: thin and short, sherry and malt

This is, if anything, even more simple than at 45%, with the sherry overwhelming almost everything else. The intensity is noticeably amped up, though the alcohol is not particularly hot at this point. It does become a little bit more in balance with time, but the malt is never particularly assertive.

Diluted to 55%

Nose: sherry is still dominant but becomes more complex, aromatic, and nuanced, roasted malt, a bit of char, stronger yogurt notes, coastal, creamy vanilla, European oak in the background, lime, orange peel, banana

Taste: sherry throughout beginning sweetly then fading towards bittersweet, citrus and fruit esters in the middle, vanilla and malt near the back

Finish: malt, sherry residue, mild oak

While very similar in structure to the whisky at 50%, the sherry takes on a more complex character so the overall experience is less flat. The nose especially opens up with the unexpected yogurt and coastal character becoming more obvious. The finish also becomes much longer, though without much complexity. While the alcohol burn starts to become noticeable, it is much less than would be expected at 55%.

Full strength 60.6%

Nose: thick sherry, juicy raisins, cinnamon, fresh yogurt, light oak and floral notes, passion fruit, orange, pineapple, salt/coastal, a little savory. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes less sweet and more savory (roasted peanuts?), the tropical fruit notes are amplified, and berries come out.

Taste: heavy sherry up front, sweet initially but quickly balanced by oak tannins, threads of citrus peel weave through it all, a bump of vanilla in the middle, lightly herbal at the back. After dilution the heat settles down a lot, the sherry becomes more savory and integrates with the oak, while the citrus mostly disappears.

Finish: dry sherry residue, distant malt, moderate oak

While a lot of ink has been spilled bemoaning the growing presence of younger, immature malts coming onto the market, there are cases where the marketing hype about bottling whisky when it's done rather than when it hits an arbitrary number is exactly right. However, I'm more inclined to buy that line when it's a full strength single cask in front of me than a watered down, large batch expression.

I'm normally rather sensitive to new make character in malt whisky, so the almost complete lack of it here is really striking. It's possible that this cask would have gotten even better with time, but it's also possible that the sherry would have become too strong and wiped out any residual spirit character. I'm pretty OK with it being bottled when it was.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Whisky Review: Duncan Taylor Tamdhu 34 Year 1969/2004

Until fairly recently Tamdhu was an almost forgotten distillery, anonymously churning out millions of liters of spirt every year for blenders. Its briefly closure by Edrington in 2009 saw it nearly disappear entirely, until the independent bottler Ian MacLeod (which also owns Glengoyne) purchased and restarted the distillery.

With the exception of two 25 Year releases during the early-2000s, very little official bottlings have been very old, leaving that field almost entirely to independent bottlers. Duncan Taylor has released a number of 30-40-odd year old single casks from the late-60s and early-70s that were all at or just barely above 40% ABV, suggesting that they had lost quite a bit to evaporation over the years. This particular cask was distilled during a brief era during which the distillery was still producing its own malt, but through Saladin boxes rather than floor maltings, and right before a major expansion of the distillery in the early-70s.

With all that said, my hopes were not too high after reading a fairly middling review from the folks at LAWS and a number of other reviews of sister casks that rated them as decent but uninspiring.

This whisky was distilled in November 1969, filled into what was almost certainly a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, then bottled in January 2004 with an outturn of 193 at 40.2% without coloring or chill filtration.

Duncan Taylor Tamdhu 34 Year 1969/2004 Cask #7313

Nose: honied oak, cardboard, clean malt, a grassy edge, gentle floral perfume, heather/violet. After adding a few drops of water the malt moves forward and turns into oatmeal, while a lot of citrus peel comes out.

Taste: strong but somewhat hollow sweetness up front, old oak and grapefruit pith begin in the middle and grow towards the back, a vague muddle of vanilla, dried fruit, berry, mango, and floral notes in the middle, fading into more tannic oak and some sweeter lime peel. After dilution the sweetness becomes more expansive but also more hollow, the middle loses a lot of its character, but the oak has more punch and fizz at the back.

Finish: lingering old oak, bittersweet, lime, light tannic prickles, floral, dried fruit

This is a whisky that was clearly bottled to keep it from going understrength, not because it was genuinely at its peak. This hits a lot of the classic notes of long aged Speysiders from Nth-refill casks. I suspect this would have been a lot better if it hadn't lost so much strength, as it feels like there is good character that has simply fallen limp. In a lot of ways it feels like one of the current old blends made up of slightly tired casks that sell more on the strength of their statistics than inherent character. On the upside, a little bit of sherried whisky tipped in can really pep it up, so it's not unsalvageable.

While not the most thrilling or cheapest whisky among my birthday stash, I'm still glad that I purchased this one. It's both a gentle whisky that has been pleasant to drink and a solid reminder that age doesn't necessarily make for a good or valuable whisky.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Whisky Review: Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #5

Starting with Batch #3 Arran switched their 12 Year Cask Strength release from all sherry casks to a mix of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks. While they stopped giving information about the relative proportion of each cask type, they have settled into a steady pattern of first-fill ex-sherry butts, refill ex-sherry hogsheads, and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels for the components.

This whisky was bottled at 52.9% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to my mother for letting me snag a sample after I gifted her this bottle for Christmas.

Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #5

Nose: strong but not overwhelming bourbon cask influence (caramel, oak, vanilla), clean Arran malt, subtle sherry, light floral notes. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is amplified and integrates with the other notes, an earthy dankness, fresh apples, Middle Eastern-associated spice notes, and a touch of cured meat appear, the oak is a bit stronger, and it is drier overall,

Taste: malt and wood sweetness throughout, undergirding oak, wood spices, floral notes, and slightly dank sherry appear around the middle, creamy caramel and dark chocolate with a bit of pineapple near the back. After dilution the sherry comes in immediately and is much stronger, while retaining the creamy malt and bourbon cask character underneath, and the wood becomes spicier.

Finish: sherry residue, sweet malt, bittersweet oak, dark chocolate, floral/herbal

In comparison to Batch #2, the bourbon casks in this version are very noticeable. There's more vanilla and the malt is a more significant component as there is less sherry influence to cover it up. Overall this puts it more in line with their standard 10 Year and 14 Year expressions, which are also combinations of sherry and bourbon casks. While I think they've achieved an excellent balance and the sherry can be amplified by adding a touch of water, if you were a fan of the more sherry-driven earlier releases this might not hit the mark quite as well. On the other hand, I tried the two batches side by side when the bottle were first opened and Batch 5 was much more drinkable from the start, whereas Batch 2 needed a number of months to settle down from its initial furnace blast of alcohol heat. Part of me wishes that they would do separate all-sherry and all-bourbon cask strength expressions as a replacement for the young-ish sherry and bourbon single casks that they released about five years ago, but this is a totally decent compromise. In an industry that has been dropping age statements left and right, I commend Arran for putting out something that clearly competes with NAS cask strength expressions from other distilleries at a competitive price.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Whisky Review: Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #2

Arran's 12 Year Cask Strength line began in 2012, which was designed to compete with other distillery's sherry-driven cask strength whiskies. But unlike most of those, it has an age statement and they have also given information about the types and proportions of casks used to make each batch. Surprisingly, they have also managed to do this while releasing the 12 Year Cask Strength at a comparable or lower price than many of those other NAS whiskies.

Batch #2 was constructed very similarly to Batch #1. 17 first-fill sherry butts and 4 refill sherry hogsheads were combined, then bottled at 53.6% without coloring or chill filtration and released in September 2012 in an outturn of 13,200 bottles.

Arran 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #2

Nose: big sherry influence, rich raisin notes with a savory edge, spicy oak in the background, sweet berries and malt, creamy vanilla. After adding a few drops of water the sherry settles down a bit, some chocolate emerges, the malt and oak come through more clearly, and the raisins become more savory.

Taste: thick, similarly big sherry throughout with baked apples and peppery spiciness behind it, hints of barrel char, somewhat monolithic - not a lot of development. After dilution the sherry settles down a bit and gets sweeter/juicier, a bit of creamy malt shows through, the oak and pepper shift towards the back, and some savory character comes out.

Finish: sherry residue, malt, gentle oak, fresh apples, milk chocolate

While not particularly complex, this hits the important notes for sherry-driven whiskies. It's pretty hot at full strength, but a little water settles it down nicely. But as further dilutions will show, you want to be careful with how much you add.

Batch #2 at 50%

Nose: clean malt, fresh sherry, slightly savory, sulphur/egg/lard, herbal/vegetal

Taste: sweet sherry throughout, a rising tide to oak from the middle bolsters but doesn't overwhelm the sherry, a bump of clean malt near the back

Finish: sherry, bittersweet, oak tannins, cacao nibs

This is a fairly clear extension of the full strength malt, but simplified even further. Most of the heat has been taken out of it, but it hasn't completely collapsed. There's something sulfurous on the nose that could be off-putting, but I don't find it wholly objectionable in a Tobermory-ish fashion. Overall, neither here nor there.

Batch #2 at 45%

Nose: faint and sherry-driven, sour, mild oak, malt in the background but growing with time, slightly herbal/floral, musty

Taste: bittersweet opening trending towards bitter at the back, sherry in the beginning fading into dry grain, floral overtones beginning in the middle, somewhat unpleasant sourness near the end

Finish: slightly off, sour, bitter sherry residue, freeze dried coffee, young malt, dried flowers

It's been my observation that the casks picked for Arran's cask strength releases are selected not just because they work well at full proof but also because they do so poorly when diluted. While the nose retains some appeal at this strength, the palate and finish almost completely fall apart.

This was clearly built to go toe-to-toe with the big sherry monsters from other distilleries. I first tried the Cask Strength at the distillery and found it to be one of the best whiskies in their lineup, even in comparison to older single casks or their Devil's Punchbowl release. While I have mostly retained that impression, I do thing it has a few flaws. Most noticeable is the fact that it starts off really hot. I opened this bottle around Christmas 2015 and it took a number of months to settle down and become more easily drinkable. At this point it's a really solid whisky and something that I would have recommended if it hadn't sold out years ago. But the series has continued and I'll be reviewing Batch #5 soon to see how it has evolved.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Whisky Review: Arran 10 Year (2014)

I've reviewed the previous version of Arran 10 Year twice before and still have one more bottle hiding in the back of my cabinet, so it's safe to say that I really enjoy its profile.

I've seen some suggestions that the the cask mix has changed from all ex-sherry casks (though I'm pretty sure they were mostly refill casks) to a combination of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, but I've been unable to get confirmation.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

Arran 10 Year (2014)

Nose: very floral, pink, medium weight sherry, berry jam, green malt, vanilla, milk chocolate, citrus peel. After adding a few drops of water it becomes more grain focused and less complex, the sherry is a distant hint, but some woody spices do come out.

Taste: malt sweetness with an undercurrent of sherry throughout, strong floral overtones, creamy vanilla, a light citrus tang and berries in the middle, bittersweet oak and grapefruit peel at the back. After dilution it becomes less sweet, grainier/grassier, and more bitter.

Finish: creamy malt, floral, gentle oak, grassy, grapefruit peel

While the cask mix may have changed, the blenders at Arran have done a fantastic job of maintaining the quality and character of the expression. While I feel like I can get some more bourbon cask influence out of this, it doesn't stick out or overwhelm the spirit character. With that said, I'd hold the water as it seems to fall apart with even a little dilution.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Whisky Review: SMWS 29.130 "A Chimney Sweep Smoking a Cigar"

Between the loss of the distillery's 18 year old expression and the dearth of casks beyond their mid-teens from independent bottlers, older Laphroaig is becoming a rare commodity and costs the earth when you can find it. So I was quite lucky to be able to try this one.

This was distilled at Laphroaig on May 4th 1993, filled into a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, and bottled 19 years later at 52.1% without coloring or chill filtration.

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

SMWS 29.130 "A Chimney Sweep Smoking a Cigar"

Nose: initially rather closed, mossy peat smoke, cigarette/wood ash, stones/earth, seashore salinity, fresh malt, violets/lavender in the background, berries, cured meat. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes greener, seaweed, unripe apples and pears, lemon, pine/juniper, and strong nutmeg emerge, plus more cured meat.

Taste: cask strength sweetness up front, sliding through berries, honey, mossy peat smoke, dark chocolate/cacao, toasted/charred oak, and espresso. After dilution, it is sweeter overall, but more mellow, with less peat but more fresh vegetation, and subtle lemon acidity (but not peel).

Finish: cappuccino, oak, mossy peat

This is exactly what I want out of older Laphroaig. While the spirit has mellowed slightly, its inherent character has not been diminished by the cask, but rather accented. The nose is complex and engaging while the flavors evolve over the palate from brighter sweetness towards darker bittersweet flavors of peat and oak. Sadly this expression is long gone and teenage Laphroaigs have gotten wildly expensive, so it's hard to find anything comparable that doesn't cost crazy money. But it is good to see that older Laphroaigs, unlike the OB 18 Year, don't necessarily have to be soft.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Whisky Review: Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength Batch 006

Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength used to be praised to the heavens among enthusiasts as an unadulterated glimpse into the distillery's character. But starting with Batch 005 this trend came to something of a screeching halt, with many (myself included) finding it over-oaked to the point of washing out a lot of trademark peat. So when Batch 006 was released in 2014 it was an open question whether the malt could return to form or would continue in the direction of Quarter Cask and other oak-driven releases from Laphroaig.

This whisky was aged entirely in first-fill ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 58.0% without chill filtration but probably with coloring (does Laphroaig leave any of their releases untouched?).

Laphroaig CS 006 at 58%

Nose: thick mossy peat smoke, wood ashes, coal dust, warm caramel, undergirding oak, cured meat, sweet berries. After adding a few drops of water the peat becomes softer, a little floral perfume, nutmeg, and cinnamon come out, and the oak becomes fresher.

Taste: cask strength thickness that gives it an almost raisin-y character, moderately sweet up front, but quickly balanced by oak tannins, peat weaving a thin thread through everything, growing bitter and earthy with coal/tar at the back. After dilution the peat mostly fades into the background with only the coal/tar at the back remaining and the oak becomes somewhat more subdued and less bitter.

Finish: bitter oak, black earth, overcooked caramel

While more balanced than Batch 005, this is still leaning too heavily on the oak for character and sweetness. Admittedly these notes are coming from the bottom of the bottle, so it might have been a bit more lively when it was first opened, but I don't remember it being markedly different then.

As I always try to do with cask strength expressions, I also made dilutions and let them integrate for several weeks before sampling them.

Laphroaig CS 006 at 50%

Nose: evenly balanced between mossy/twiggy peat and oak, fresh timber, iodine, pencil lead, dry malt

Taste: very sweet up front - malt and wood sugars carry through nearly to the back with a gentle peat-y undercurrent, a twang of muddled berries in the middle, rising oak tannins and more peat at the very back

Finish: sharp oak tannins, earthy peat residue, malt in the background

There are things I like about the whisky at this strength, namely the peat being relatively in balance with the oak on the nose. But the flavors seem kind of washed out by sweetness that crowds out much of anything else going on. This feels closer to Batch 005, but without quite as much oak.

Laphroaig CS 006 at 45%

Nose: rather dry overall, lots of soft, mossy Laphroaig peat, cured meat, berries, solid oak, barrel char, creamy malt

Taste: sweet malt with a touch of oak up front, joined by mossy peat in the background and light berry/ginger overtones in the middle, plus a growing tide of oak near the back - though never becoming overly tannic

Finish: oak, malt, peat, barrel char

Comparing this side-by-side with the standard 10 Year at 43%, the watered down Cask Strength still has noticeably more punch, especially in terms of peat and oak. While the more common version is still a fire breather to the uninitiated, it seems downright soft and sweet compared to the Cask Strength, even at similar ABVs. With that said, the familial resemblance is pretty clear, suggesting that the casks being chosen for each expression are relatively similar, though it's to be expected that the standard 10 Year will have a greater amount of cask averaging than the small batch Cask Strength.

I don't think this is bad whisky, but it's also not what I was hoping for. While I've heard some positive reviews of subsequent batches and that they've gotten less oak-heavy, I've been burned twice and am somewhat disinclined to pony up for more.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Whisky Review: Laphroaig 10 Year

Laphroaig - love it or hate it. For some, the long-standing 10 Year release has been an old friend, a wild beast that they keep coming back to. For others, it is so loathed that shots are used as punishment. And I would have agreed with the latter sentiment even a handful of years ago.

While I had made an effort to try whiskies from all the distilleries I would visit during my trip to Scotland before leaving the States I didn't get in any Laphroaig, which meant that it first passed my lips at the distillery. Thankfully by then I was already well into my love affair with peat, so I didn't find the downright aggressive flavors off-putting. But it still took a while to really explore what the distillery has been doing.

When I first tried Laphroaig 10 Year on a cold February night, I was not impressed. It seemed somewhat thin and lacking in oomph. But that was literally the last pour from a bottle at a bar, so who knows how much it had oxidized before I took that first sip.

So I finally got back to basics after buying a couple of bottles when they were mysteriously discounted in Oregon one month a few years ago.

This whisky is aged entirely in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels from the Maker's Mark distillery, then bottled at 43% with coloring and chill filtration.

Laphroaig 10 Year

Nose: layers of smoke and peat - burning pine boughs, cigarette ash, coal, and tar - juniper, seaweed, raspberries, strawberries, and gentle floral notes underneath, creamy malt, dry hay. After adding a few drops of water the smoke and malt become more integrated, bringing forward the dry malt character, and some of the classic iodine notes finally come out.

Taste: sweet malt and oak up front, shifts into two layers - ashy and mossy peat on top with growing oak tannins plus continuing sweetness with gentle berry and citrus notes on the bottom, juniper/pine comes out around the back with fresh soil and mossier peat. After dilution the relative places of the components change while the overall character remains similar - the opening has cleaner malt followed by mellow oak, with the peat shifting into more of an undercurrent.

Finish: fresh soil, mossy peat, coal, moderate oak, dry malt

While I've come to enjoy Laphroaig a lot, the official releases from the distillery have so far left me a little underwhelmed. While it seems like the entire point of the distillery is its big, robust spirit, the OBs all feel like they're trying too hard to soften the spirit and cover it up with oak. The 10 Year is less problematic in that respect than Quarter Cask or even recent batches of the 10 Year Cask Strength, but it still feels a little too tame for my liking. Admittedly, that may just be me because even at a reduced strength this whisky has the ability to nearly clear a room with its smell, but I'd still rather have less cask influence. While we're at it I'd love if Laphroaig switched to craft presentation for all their whiskies, but that will likely take a major shock to sales to make them reformulate their admittedly very successful products.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Whisky Review: Oban 14 Year

Oban is known for its relative scarcity as much as it is for its quality. One of the very few distilleries sited within a town rather than in the countryside, it has no room to expand production. This means that its output is used entirely for single malts, with nothing going to either blends or independent bottlers.

I had planned to visit Oban during my trip to Scotland a few years ago, but revised my plans to visit London instead. Biking 50 plus miles in the rain from Kennecraig was not a particularly appealing idea, even if it meant missing out on Tobermory as well. So I'll just have to see what their whisky is like at home.

This whisky is bottled at 43%, almost certainly with coloring and chill filtration.

Oban 14 Year

Nose: gobs of caramel, dry malt, a touch of smoked herbs, dried fruit, a bit of sherry, oily nuts, sea air. After adding a few drops of water the sherry notes become stronger and push out most of the subtlety.

Taste: caramel and malt sweetness with a touch of sherry in the background throughout, dissolving into dry malt near the back. After dilution it becomes flatter and more malt-driven, with the sherry diminishing and the smoke becoming strong.

Finish: clean fresh malt, gentle oak, sherry residue, barrel char, earthy, a touch of peat, salt

Oban just makes me sad. As with many Diageo whiskies, I can get hints of good spirit hidden behind their engineered blandness, but unlike those others there is almost no way to try Oban without the varnish through IB single casks. Like Lagavulin, all of the distillery's output is already spoken for by Diageo's own needs. And Oban is one of the very few Scottish distillery's to be located inside a town, which means that it has no room for expansion.

None of this is to say that what we can get from Oban is bad - I wouldn't turn down a free pour at a bar - but it's not something that I would spend my own money on again. Even staying within the Diageo fold, I'm not sure Oban has a lot to offer that can't be found in Clynelish or Cragganmore for less money. C'est la vie.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Whisky Review: Kavalan Soloist S090122079

Kavalan is one of the few (only?) single malt distilleries in Taiwan. Established in 2005, it has been releasing an increasing range of whiskies including a wide array of single casks.

This whisky was distilled on January 22nd 2009, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled on April 9th 2015 at 57.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Kavalan Soloist Cask S090122079

Nose: 90% oloroso sherry with a burnt edge, sour wine, nutty oak, wood spices, pink bubblegum, vaguely floral in the background, fatty roast beef savoriness, creamy malt underneath, dark/bitter chocolate. After adding a healthy slug of water the chocolate notes begin to dominate, a little fresh mint pops out, the oak becomes more toasted, and it feels more youthful overall.

Taste: big sherry throughout, moderately sweet up front, which is slowly overwhelmed by a rising tide of black pepper, cacao nibs, and oak tannins - becoming distinctly spicy and bitter at the back. After dilution it becomes softer and the sweetness spreads out, but so does the bitterness - amplifying the dryness at the back, and some mint/herbal notes come out, while leaving the overall structure basically the same.

Finish: black/chili pepper, astringent oak tannins, cacao nibs, dry sherry residue, savory yeast

I just don't get the hype - this is good, but a long way from being unique. It feels like lots of other malt whiskies that are produced in warm countries - there is a lot of extractive character, but it's hard to say that it's 'mature'.

Kavalan consistently manages to sell their whiskies, especially the Soloist single casks, for a lot of money. But it's hard for me to find much here beyond the obvious - it's an extremely sherried young single malt. But those are practically a dime a dozen in Scotland now with more and more distilleries imitating Aberlour A'Bunadh, Glenfarclas 105, and the former Macallan Cask Strength with high proof, heavily sherried, no age statement (so presumably young) whiskies. If you go into the world of indepedent bottlers there are countless sherry single casks that will tick the same boxes. So why do people go nuts over Kavalan and open their wallets wide? I'm pretty content to have limited myself to a couple of samples. I might try one or two more if I can get them that way, but I can't imagine shelling out for a whole bottle when there are so many alternatives available at half the price or less.

For other takes on this whisky, see Michael Kravitz's and MAO's reviews.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Whisky Review: Old Pulteney 17 Year

I've reviewed this whisky before, but that was from a single small sample, so I was glad to get to explore it more in depth.

The 17 Year is put together from a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Old Pulteney 17 Year

Nose: rich mixture of bourbon and sherry casks - caramel, dried fruit, oak, vanilla, malt, earthy, seashore, gently herbal/floral. After adding a few drops of water it becomes creamier and more malt-driven and a little less mature.

Taste: bourbon cask sweetness throughout with a sherried edge throughout, quickly joined by a thick but not overwhelming layer of oak tannins, floral, vanilla, malt, citrus (orange), and fruit ester overtones in the middle, becoming fudge-y and more bitter near the back. After dilution the sherry and oak are significantly toned down, making more room for malt and the top notes in the middle.

Finish: fresh apples, oak tannins and spices, sherry residue, floral malt, distant salinity

This is a well-constructed single malt that is often available at a very reasonable price. With that said, I find myself preferring the 12 Year despite the fact that it's younger and doesn't have craft presentation. While I think the 17 Year is a good value and competes favorably with a lot of other similarly aged OB malts, it feels like too much of the distillery character has been sacrificed for broad appeal. If you're looking for an alternative to the standard older Glens I think this is a great pick to step a little bit out of that groove, but I'll be sticking with its cheaper younger sibling.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Whisky Review: Old Pulteney 12 Year

Old Pulteney is one of the few mainland distilleries on the coast of Scotland north of Dornoch Firth, along with Clynelish and Wolfburn. The most unique features of the distillery, besides its location, are the shapes of its stills. It has been suggested that both appear to have been modified to fit the space of the still room - the wash still appears to have been truncated and a thin descending lyne arm grafted on, while the swan neck of the spirit still makes three 90º turns. The large boiling bulbs on both stills are given a nod in the current shape of the distillery's bottles, which also bulge out.

The 12 Year expression is composed entirely of whisky aged in ex-bourbon casks and is proofed down to 43%, probably with chill filtration and possibly with color.

Old Pulteney 12 Year

Nose: rich bourbon cask influence (caramel, vanilla, oak), gently herbal, sea air salinity, light floral and berry notes, orange peel, green apples/pears. After adding a few drops of water it becomes less mature with some green malt coming out and less cask influence showing up,

Taste: clean, sweet, creamy malt throughout, joined by mild oak tannins and herbal/floral overtones around the middle, light salinity near the back. After dilution it gets a little bit thinner, but some brighter fruit esters pop out around the middle and the sweetness turns into grassy sugarcane.

Finish: sea salt, malt, gentle oak, vanilla, floral/berry notes

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their (relatively) close proximity on the northeast Scottish coast, I get a lot of overlap with bourbon cask Clynelish malts that I've tried before. Possibly due to the spirit itself or the lower bottling proof, this is softer than the standard Clynelish 14 Year, but it still slots into the same kind of niche.

Overall I think Pulteney has managed to produce something that has the approachability of the standard Glens while giving a more engaging set of flavors and aromas. Just hold the water - this spirit has already been diluted as much as it can be.

Given that this can still be found for under $40 in many American stores, it's quickly becoming one of my prime recommendations for both new and old single malt fans. It's good enough that I can see myself buying more, which I say very infrequently of any single malt given my current preference for variety.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Whisky Review: Kilkerran WIP #7 Bourbon Wood Cask Strength

Glengyle distillery, one of the three remaining distilleries in Campbeltown, has been releasing a series of single malts over the last handful of years under the Work in Progress moniker. This has given fans a way to experience the distillery's output as it grows older in preparation for an official 12 Year slated for August 2016. The seventh release last year was nominally the last in the series and the only one so far to release anything at full strength, rather than 46%. It sold out rather quickly in Europe and has become fairly hard to find in the US, despite previous releases languishing on shelves for years. Let's see if it lives up to the hype.

This whisky was presumably distilled in 2004, filled into ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 54.1% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Kilkerran WIP #7 Bourbon Wood Cask Strength

Nose: big, rich, and dirty - lots of earthy Glengyle character with a slightly funky lactic edge, gentle mossy peat and floral notes, American oak caramel/oak/vanilla, cinnamon, sautéed mushrooms, cured meat, orange peel, raspberry. After adding a few drops of water the malt takes center stage, the peat becomes more herbal, some chocolate comes out.

Taste: malt/wood sweetness throughout, gentle oak tannins, thick berry notes, and mossy peat come in around the middle, and black pepper near the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes more clearly malt-based, the peat tones down a bit, and some fizzy floral notes come out at the back.

Finish: mild peat, sweet malt, a tannic edge, classic Campbeltown character, gingerbread

Yup, that's what I was looking for. While this has far more cask influence than the WIP #3 I tried a while back, it retains a lot of that spirit-driven character that I love about Glengyle. While clearly a Campbeltown malt and related to Springbank, I've been impressed that the Kilkerran releases I've tried have managed to maintain their own unique character. This bodes well for the distillery's future and makes me hope that they'll continue to release younger full strength malts in addition to the upcoming 12 Year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Whisky Review: van Wees The Ultimate Clynelish 23 Year 1991/2014

Clynelish gets a lot of hype in the whisky community and old Clynelish gets even more. While a lot of this is for the peated releases from Brora, older Clynelish has gotten some of that shine. This makes is fairly rare to see many casks over 20 years old on store shelves anymore. But van Wees released these casks in their Ultimate series for a seriously low price.

This whisky was distilled October 29th 1991, filled into two hogsheads, then bottled on November 14th 2014 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

van Wees The Ultimate Clynelish 23 Year 1991/2014 Casks #13213+13214

Nose: very rich, solid bourbon cask influence (caramel, oak, vanilla, nuts), sweet citrus peel (lemon, grapefruit), sealing wax, chalk, seashells/salinity, floral, berries, cured meat. After adding a few drops of water the berries and fruit notes dominate the nose and take on an almost oily sherried character, while the cured meat notes become strong enough to makes me think of peated whiskies.

Taste: big malt/wood sweetness up front with berry esters in the background, green tea overtones and beeswax underneath starting in the middle, fairly clean fadeout through more waxy character into muted grapefruit bittersweetness at the back, with a mild oak character throughout. After dilution the berry notes become much stronger and grape-ier while the oak at the back becomes sharper and more tannic, again almost mimicking a refill sherry cask whisky.

Finish: long, lingering, and evolving - bittersweet floral notes, salinity, clean malt, mild oak, wax, chalk

This is a bit of an odd whisky. The nose and finish are magnificent and everything I could hope for from an older Clynelish. The palate, in comparison, seems kind of unidimensional and uninspiring. There isn't anything flawed about it other than a lack of complexity. Michael had a similar take, but got slightly different notes. Not too surprising when he had a whole bottle to work through.

Still, it's hard for me to quibble given that van Wees released this at a fair bit under the going rate for Clynelish of this vintage, so you more or less get what you pay for. Or, more precisely, everyone who managed to buy a bottle did. It's been sold out for a while, so I'll have to turn elsewhere to scratch that old Clynelish itch.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Whisky Review: Pearls of Scotland Invergordon 42 Year 1972/2015

Not much to say about Invergordon that wasn't covered in the review of the younger Maltbarn release.

This was distilled in December 1972, filled into what was probably an ex-bourbon cask, and bottled in April 2015 at 46.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

Pearls of Scotland Invergordon 42 Year 1972/2015

Nose: lots of polished oak, fresh sawdust, sweet baked corn, a touch of Invergordon coconut, caramel/toffee, milk chocolate. After adding a few drops of water the sawdust takes over and pushed out the more polished oak, the coconut tucks into the oak, and the caramel is tamped down, and some vanilla comes out.

Taste: gobs of sweet oak and corn, some juicier fruit/raisin notes around the middle, then drier oak/sawdust and corn near the back. After dilution the oak gets a bit brighter but also expands across the palate and mostly washes out the fruit.

Finish: dry corn and oak, light coconut,

This is a big old oak bomb that will likely appeal to bourbon fans more than most single malt drinkers. With that said, I've had ten year old bourbons that hit a lot of the same notes for a tiny fraction of the price. Despite decades in the cask, this spirit doesn't seem to have developed much in the way of complexity. I suspect that a teenage Invergordon in a fresh oak or first-fill ex-bourbon cask would come pretty close. But that all comes with the caveat that this was a rather small sample and it's possible that I could have gotten more out of this with time and water. The folks reviewing it on WhiskyBase have a much higher opinion of it than I do.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Whisky Review: Maltbarn Invergordon 27 Year 1988/2015

Invergordon is the only remaining grain whisky distillery in Scotland outside the Lowlands. Owned by Whyte & Mackay, it is the only remaining grain whisky distillery that exclusively uses maize. It churns out a vast 40 million liters of spirit every year. As with other grain distilleries, only a minuscule fraction of this output is bottled as single grain whisky, but a decent number of casks make their way into the hands of independent bottlers.

This was distilled in 1988, filled into an ex-bourbon cask, and bottled in 2015 at 51.3% without coloring or chill filtration.

Maltbarn Invergordon 27 Year 1988/2015

Nose: acetone, coconut, diacetyl, corn, marshmallow/pink bubblegum, dry grass, musty oak. After adding a few drops of water the corn and coconut notes integrate, some light perfume, a touch of raisin, and toasted oak come out.

Taste: very sweet, increasingly creamy/buttery, coconut overtones, big artificial fruit flavor around the middle, becoming more drying with bigger coconut towards the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes more clearly corn based, the coconut transforms into raisin, the buttery character is amplified and spreads out, and more oak comes out at the back giving it a more bitter character.

Finish: dry corn grain, slightly bitter grass/oak, coconut

The difference between the maize-based mashes used by Invergordon and the wheat-based mashes used by most other modern grain distillers couldn't be more clear. The coconut notes seem to be a hallmark of Invergordon, which can be off-putting for a lot of people, but water tames some of that character and makes it more approachable. This is something I could see myself drinking and using effectively in blends, but given that it ran around $130, the value isn't there. At half that price, maybe, but I have yet to try a grain whisky that was anywhere near as good as a comparably priced malt.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Whisky Review: Pearls of Scotland Cambus 26 Year 1988/2015

Cambus was a grain distillery opened in 1836 that operated for more than a century until it was closed by UDV in 1993 as part of the broader program of consolidation that was taking place. While much of the site is still in use for filling and as bonded warehouse space, there is no indication that distilling will ever take place there again.

This was distilled in September 1988, filled into an ex-bourbon hogshead (judging by the number of bottles), and bottled at 47.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Pearls of Scotland Cambus 26 Year 1988/2015 Cask #59232

Nose: bog standard grain whisky - wheat, caramel, a little vanilla, very light fruit/citrus. After adding a few drops of water the aromas become even more muted.

Taste: sweet grain up front, bubblegum, berry, and citrus peel overtones in the middle, creamy vanilla, becoming drier towards the back, where it takes on a slightly artificial (aspartame?) cast. After dilution the initial flavors are brighter and the fruit notes expand, the artificial notes come in around the middle, and grain becomes more prominent near the back.

Finish: slightly off/bitter grain notes, solvent/plastic, vanillin (rather than vanilla)

While I didn't find this as bad of an experience as my tasting notes would suggest, there's also nothing to recommend this whisky. I'm not getting anything out of it that you can't find in much younger and cheaper grain whiskies. While I think it could effectively fit into some homemade blends, the price is prohibitive for that purpose. Really, there's no reason to buy more than a sample for the sake of curiosity. The Whiskybroker Strathclyde that I sampled a while back had most of the good qualities and few of the defects of this Cambus, at the same or lower price.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory North British 16 Year 1997/2013 for Binny's

North British is a bit of an oddity for two reasons - first, ownership is shared between Diageo and Edrington. Second, it currently uses maize as its primary ingredient, unlike the bulk of other grain distilleries that use wheat. Additionally, it is the largest grain distillery in Scotland, churning out 65 million liters of spirit every year. While the bulk of that spirit goes to feed the blends of its respective owners, a few casks slip into the hands of independent bottlers that are chosen to be bottled unmixed with malt whisky.

This whisky was distilled on May 14th 1997, filled into an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled on September 9th 2013 at 57.2% without coloring or chill filtration. It was hand picked as an exclusive for Binny's Beverage in Chicago.

Signatory North British 16 Year 1997/2013 Cask #246280

Nose: fresh wheat, vanilla, bourbon barrel (caramel, oak), berries, a touch of fresh vegetation. After adding a few drops of water the wheat gets a bit stronger while the barrel notes fade a bit, and a touch of something floral comes out

Taste: sweet wheat, honey, and oak up front, slowly transitioning into bittersweet chocolate as the tannins increase towards the back, berries and vanilla beginning around the middle and growing towards the back. After dilution the wheat and oak integrate - shifting it more towards a bittersweet mode, it has a more buttery mouthfeel, the berry notes become bigger and sync up with the oak, and some floral overtones come out around the middle.

Finish: bittersweet oak, dry wheat

Honestly, there's nothing terribly complex about this whisky. It reads a lot like a sweet and very smooth wheated bourbon due to the combination of (I think) being made largely from wheat and aged in what I'm guessing was a refill ex-bourbon barrel. Given that even older grain whiskies can often be somewhat flat and insipid, the bolder flavors here are a nice change of pace, especially as few of the flaws that can be found in young grain whiskies are in evidence.

North British 16 Year at 50%

Nose: relatively closed - wheat, maple syrup, vanilla, corn, raspberry

Taste: syrupy sweetness, grain-focused, berries in the middle, bittersweet near the back

Finish: alcohol, oak, dry grain

While not radically different than the other strengths, this one didn't offer much of anything new and the relatively closed aromas were a minus.

North British 16 Year at 45%

Nose: rather light - cream of wheat, berries, musky fruit, gentle oak

Taste: wheat and corn sweetness throughout, solid berry and muddled fruit notes in the middle, vanilla, herbal, bittersweet at the back with mild sherried tannins

Finish: vegetal, wheat, berries, gentle oak

With the exception of the alcohol burn and the intensity of the smells and flavors, this whisky remains remarkably consistent through different stages of dilution. Proofing the whisky down to this level didn't diminish its positive qualities, but did turn it into an exceptionally easy-drinking spirit. While I'm glad that it was released at full strength, doing it at 46% wouldn't have hurt too much.

In theory this should have been a really smart pick for Binny's - it hits a lot of the notes that appeal to bourbon drinkers while bringing big numbers at a very reasonable price. Unfortunately it appears to have taken several years to sell through, likely due to the lack of knowledge and interest in grain whisky. But more picks like this could really help to raise its profile in whisky geek circles if word gets out about the quality.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Whisky Review: Provenance Auchentoshan 12 Year/1999

Not a lot to say about this one. Despite the label, there is very little information about its provenance. It was distilled at Auchentoshan sometime in 1999, aged for at least 12 years in an oak cask, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration for Douglas Laing's McGibbon's Provenance line.

Provenance Auchentoshan 12 Year/1999

Nose: thick bourbon cask influence, spicy oak, a little sour and funky (Jamaican rum-style), overripe fruit. After adding a few drops of water the funk is amplified and it is much drier overall.

Taste: rich, creamy malt and American oak sweetness throughout, fading towards bittersweet at the back, generically fruity with dunder funk around the middle, soft oak tannins around the back. After dilution the funk grows much stronger and suppresses much of the sweetness, while the oak tannins also become stronger and more bitter at the back.

Finish: malt, oak, vague fruit, lingering funk

In most respects this seems like a fairly basic bourbon cask malt. The funkier notes that remind me of Jamaican rums. It's not impossible that this is a rum cask matured or finished malt, but that seems a little unlikely given that Provenance is the more bare-bones line of single malt from Douglas Laing.

But whatever the source, that character keeps it from being generic or boring. With that said, water amplifies the funk a bit too much even for me and throws the malt out of balance. Unless you're really into those notes - and even then you might as well drink Jamaican rum instead - I'd hold off on the water. This was already reduced as far as it could reasonably go.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Whisky Review: Auchentoshan Hand Bottled 14 Year 1999/2013

Beyond it being a nice distillery with a well-done tour, one of the reasons to visit Auchentoshan is that they usually offer a number of single cask bottlings only available at the distillery shop. Conveniently these are available in either 200 mL or 700 mL bottles, which I appreciated since it was the first stop on my bike tour of Scotland and I knew I would be carrying whatever I bought for several weeks. When I was there they had a younger and an older single cask on offer. I went with the younger one, both because of the price and because I read reviews suggesting that it was the better pick.

This whisky was distilled on August 24th, 1999, filled into an ex-bourbon barrel (probably first-fill), then bottled on August 26th, 2013 at 52.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

Auchentoshan Hand Bottled 14 Year 1999/2013 Cask #2052

Nose: rich and spicy bourbon cask influence - honey, moderate oak, clove/cinnamon/nutmeg, vanilla frosting, creamy malt, savory, huge fruit/berry/peach/pineapple notes in an almost sherried mode. After adding a few drops of water the oak becomes drier, but the honey and berries are amplified, the vanilla turns into whipped cream, and everything is more integrated in general.

Taste: thick and sweet, undergirding oak, caramel, indeterminate fruitiness starting around the middle, citrus (lemon and grapefruit) and savory notes at the back. After dilution the sweetness integrates with the oak, the fruitiness spreads out, and the savoriness at the back gets bigger, and it all seems more bourbon-y.

Finish: big bittersweet oak, berries, citrus, and tropical fruit in the background, a little savory

Out of the distillery-only bottles I brought back from Scotland, this is the one I most wish I had more of. It hits almost all of the notes that I like about well-done bourbon without the overly aggressive caramel and oak, letting the fruit notes shine.

While they're not at full strength, van Wees has released a number of similar 1999 vintage Auchentoshan bourbon barrels that I'm going to have to try to see if they can capture some of what I liked about this cask.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Whisky Review: The Tasting Room Hazelburn 31/08/2013

One of the things I was most excited about in the Cadenhead's shop in Campbeltown was getting to try more full strength Hazelburn. With a few exceptions it's very rare in the US. But the living casks at the Cadenhead's shop will scratch that itch.

Surprisingly, since Hazelburn has only been distilled at Springbank since 1997, the proof of the Hazelburn living cask was quite low at 48.2% when I visited on August 31, 2013. Looking at the bottles reported at WhiskyBase, it appears this has held up, suggesting that most of the casks added to the mix have had abnormally low ABV for their (presumably low) age. So while these may not be the most representative casks, they should be something interesting.

Cadenhead's Hazelburn Living Cask

Nose: warm caramel, rich brine, solid oak, oily (motor/olive), dry malt, floral, hints of moss, green tea, and sherry. After adding a few drops of water the caramel and brine are amplified, the fruit becomes muskier, and the oil becomes more firmly olive.

Taste: moderate malt and wood sweetness up front, becomes bittersweet with oak and tea tannins around the middle, joined by a light bump of vague fruit and floral esters, finishes with mild brine near the back. After dilution it becomes much softer and more integrated, with the tannic and bitter components dissolving into the sweeter wood.

Finish: dry malt, rich oak, bitter tannins, background brine, floral

This one took some time and air to open up. When I first popped the cork it was tight and resembled the red stripe Hazelburn 8 Year Cask Strength, which was pretty unappealing. With time it became much more rich and had more in common with the Hazelburn 8 Year Bourbon Single Cask I liked so much.

Like the 1842 Campbeltown blended malt, this isn't a world-beater, but I really enjoyed it. This cements my feeling that I vastly prefer bourbon cask matured Hazelburn to anything from sherry casks, which seem to override the salted caramel character that I enjoy. I really need to try the new Hazelburn 10 Year, which should be in the same ballpark.