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.