Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Ten Year (2005)

Glenmoranige Ten Year (now Original) has been a staple of the distillery's lineup longer than any other on offer right now. And in contrast to the sometimes complex and esoteric cask manipulations they have become known for, the it is a un-fussy construction of ex-bourbon casks and nothing else. There have been some changes as the experiments with bourbon casks that led to the original Astar have been incorporated into makeup, but the basic formula has remained the same.

This whisky is bottled at 43%, probably with chill filtration and maybe with coloring.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

Glenmorangie Ten Year (2005)

Nose: classic Glenmo malt, moderate but not obtrusive oak, light woody caramel, gently floral, a little orange creamsicle. After adding a few drops of water it becomes more aromatic/herbal/floral with bolder malt.

Taste: malt and oak sweetness up front, fairly constant oak with a tannic edge from the middle back, floral/citrus/apple/pear overtones in the middle, bittersweet near the end, citrus/berry undertones throughout. After dilution it is similar but more oily and with stronger malt character.

Finish: berries, oak, malt, caramel, floral, vanilla ice cream

Much as with the Glenfiddich 12 Year I reviewed recently, the most remarkable thing about this whisky is how consistent it is with the current releases. Glenmorangie's stocks were presumably deeper a dozen years ago, but my impressions have remained fairly consistent over the years. While I'm not always a fan of Bill Lumsden's work, he has managed to make a solid whisky at a solid price that doesn't change in quality. My personal guess is that this is easier for whiskies that are more spirit-driven than ones requiring more cask influence, but it's still an accomplishment.

Friday, June 23, 2017

How Economic Inequality is Contributing to the Spirits Boom

Astute observers will have noticed that the rising interest in spirits has coincided roughly with the radical increase in economic inequality in developed nations over the last few decades. But the question is whether this is cause or coincidence - I would argue that they are at least partially related.

Spirits largely languished during the 1980s and 1990s, possibly as a reaction to the liquor-soaked decades that had preceded them. Distilleries closed and a glut of stock was established in the aged spirits world as producers were unable to find many willing buyers. The resulting low prices made quality spirits accessible even to folks of relatively modest means.

This began to shift in the 2000s, as interest in spirits grew in tandem with the cocktail revival and both broke into the mainstream around the housing collapse. While much of this is simply the cyclic nature of interest in drinks, the exponential rise in prices and concomitant decrease in availability of single malts and American whiskey are likely to have been driven by broader economic trends.

The obvious element is that the increasing concentration of wealth at the top has created a class of people for whom money is literally no object. For those with hundreds of millions or billions in the bank, spending thousands or tens of thousands on a single bottle of spirits won't even make a noticeable dent in their net worth. This effectively unlimited wealth makes it possible to bid up the prices of exceptionally rare spirits to stratospheric levels. With the rapid appreciation of many expressions they can even convince themselves that these mega-expensive bottles are investments like their other assets. The rising prices have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the market as distillers and retailers raise prices to capture profits that had been going to secondary market sellers and convince everyone else that they must be worth the now-inflated prices that were once within reach escape the grasp of less affluent buyers.

The other end of the market is a more complicated situation. While simple supply and demand factors explain much of the changes in prices, the question is what drives that demand since there are only so many rich people in the world and they can only drink so much. My personal belief is that the rise of high-end spirits owes much to the reduced circumstances that many people find themselves after the financial collapse of the late-2000s. Put simply, while traditional status markers such as homes and cars have moved out of reach for many, budgets can still stretch to encompass other luxury markers. So maybe you're stuck renting and taking Uber, but you can cover a $20 pour at the bar or a $100 bottle to show off to your friends. Brands have capitalized on these desires with increasingly grandiose claims of rarity for their new expressions, touting everything from 'lost' casks (from large corporations with legal obligations to keep track of their stock) to rococo production techniques that make the bottles seem difficult to obtain (often from distillers with little experience but good marketing chops), while keeping the prices just within reach of the average person with a bit of disposable income.

The real question is whether this is all sustainable. There are already indications that scotch whisky distillers are pricing themselves out of the low end market, with blend sales - making up the bulk of their profits - slipping. While sales of higher priced single malts are helping to keep profits from tumbling too far, it is unclear whether a $50+ floor is realistic over the long term when it is generally accepted that most spirits buyers consider a $25 bottle to be expensive and much more to be a splurge. American whiskey seems far healthier at the moment, with prices and sales continuing to rise with not apparent limit. While many of the once-staple bourbons in the $20-30 range have moved up-market, there are still good things to be had that that magic price point, albeit of often decreasing quality and selection. The increased production coupled with a shorter amount of time necessary to bring aged whisky to market (3-5 years for bourbon vs. 8-12 for single malts) may help to keep supply and demand more evenly matched, though the fetish for elevated age statements will likely continue to pump up that end of the spectrum. More broadly, it's unclear whether interest will be sustained if the steadily improving economy makes home ownership available to a broader section of the populace again and redirects their spending habits. As they say, time will tell.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Whisky Review: Whisky-Doris Bunnahabhain 33 Year 1980/2013

Until fairly recently Bunnahabhain didn't command a lot of attention for an Islay distillery. Its revival is due to two things: the reformulation of its core malt, especially the 12 Year, and a tidal wave of independently bottled single casks at extremely reasonable prices for their age and quality. This upsurge has finally pushed them into the kinds of stratospheric prices that are seen from other more famous distilleries (see: the OB 25 Year and older releases), but there are still a fair number of deals out there simply because the distillery produces so much whisky and sells so much to blenders and IBs that some of them end up being priced competitively. I purchased this one as a thesis bribe after reading a glowing review from Michael Kravitz to get myself to finish my PhD and celebrate when the dissertation was turned in.

This whisky was distilled in May 1980, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in November 2013 at 45.6% without coloring or chill filtration.

Whisky-Doris Bunnahabhain 33 Year 1980/2013 Cask # 92

Nose: Strong floral sherry notes over a malty core, raisins, malmsey madeira, green herbs, yeast/savory notes, a nice level of American oak in the background, vanilla, butterscotch/cream frosting, a touch of smokey incense. After adding a few drops of water it falls a little flat, with the malt moving forward and the sherry and oak retreating significantly, plus a kind of dusty overlay on it all.

Taste: bittersweet sherry up front with a solid backing of oak tannins/American oak, mint, vanilla, and orange peel in the middle, not a lot of development until the finish. After dilution the sherry gets brighter, clean malt comes out, and the oak is pushed back significantly, but the alcohol becomes more apparent.

Finish: Ben Nevis-y savory herbal notes, fresh mint, citrus, light tobacco/cigar, flowing through American oak, a little molasses, sherry residue, and fading out through clean Bunnahabhain malt and more mint. After dilution the savory herbal notes become dominant and spread out over the experience, pushing a lot of the development aside, and leaving a hotter/ethyl note rather than the pleasant minty fade.

This is a peculiar whisky in many respects. I think Whisky-Doris chose to bottle it at the right time, both because the spirit was on the edge of being overwhelmed by the cask and had hit a significantly reduced but not weak strength. The flavors are unlike anything else I've ever experienced, with not too much happening on the tongue, but an array of complex notes that unfold after the whisky is swallowed. While I didn't like it too much with extra water, this may be because I'm writing the review from the last few pours of a bottle that has been open for roughly a year. With that said, undiluted it still had plenty of power and this has held up better than a sherried whisky has any right to. I'd say it's been diluted by time to an almost perfect strength and any more water breaks its perfect poise.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Whisky Review: Kilkerran 12 Year

Kilkerran, otherwise known as Glengyle, has been leading up to this moment since the distillery was first opened in 2004. The Work in Progress series chronicled the development of the spirit, all with an eye towards a 12 Year set for 2016 that would establish a regular, standard release. Given the quality of the WIPs, this were rather high expectations for this.

This is bottled at the standard 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample.

Kilkerran 12 Year

Nose: earthy/pine-y peat, coastal, fresh herbs/pine, old motor oil, leather, dry malt, sherry, soy sauce, and cured meat around the edges, vanilla and bourbon cask. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer, with the malt balancing the peat, some treated lumber notes come out, and the sherry is mostly pushed into the background.

Taste: opens with moderate malt sweetness backed by leather, which slowly transforms into dry peat from the middle back, sherry, vanilla, and black pepper in the background. After dilution it remains largely the same, with some acidity coming out and maybe a little less punch and definition.

Finish: a little sharp, malt, peat, a touch of sherry and oak

The good: this is an extremely competent Campbeltown malt at a respectable price that isn't a special/limited edition. I think it's a worthy match for Springbank 10 Year and might get the nod from me over the other entry-level malts from its sister distillery next door. The bad: it feels less unique than previous releases in the WIP series, which had character that clearly set them apart from Springbank. In other words, it's good, but it's sort of generically Campbeltown good. Blind I might have pegged it as either Springbank or Glen Scotia. Water does it no favors, stripping down a lot of the complexity and leaving it even more generic.

So while this is a perfectly good whisky that I would have no compunction about drinking, it's also not one that I particularly want a whole bottle of. Thankfully there is also an 8 year old, cask strength Kilkerran hitting the market which I have somewhat higher hopes for.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Whisky Review: Hepburn's Choice Bowmore 14 Year/2001 for K&L

I have a very mixed history with Bowmore. When they come out right, they can be a nearly transcendent balance of malt, peat, and fruit. When they fall flat, they're downright awful. That track record is even more mixed when it comes to cask picks from K&L Wines - the 11 Year Exclusive Malts cask they picked up a few years ago was a horrific mess. But when this cask went on sale the price was finally low enough for me to go in on a bottle split.

This whisky was distilled in 2001, filled into a refill sherry cask, then bottled in 2016 at 54.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Hepburn's Choice Bowmore 14 Year/2001 for K&L

Nose: rich Bowmore malt with a solid but not overwhelming layer of dry peat, sherried fruits sit underneath alongside freshly treated lumber and sawdust, gentle floral overtones, coastal notes, vanilla, and almonds in the background. After adding a few drops of water the oak gains ground and becomes roughly equal in intensity with the malt, the peat becomes ashier, and a little bacon comes out, but it retains distinctly Bowmore character overall.

Taste: big sherry sweetness up front, quickly overtaken by a wall of oak tannins with a bit more of an edge from the dirty/earthy peat and a touch of black pepper, overtones of tropical fruit and berries in the middle, fading out with prickly tannins over sherried richness. After dilution the oak and sherry become more balanced and spread out across the palate, giving it a distinctly bitter cast, the peat becomes a bit ashier

Finish: bitter, almost astringent, oak tannins, sherry residue, dirt, earthy peat

From the specs, this sounds almost exactly what I like - an independently bottled full proof Bowmore from a sherry cask. The younger sherry cask from Exclusive Malts of the same vintage blew me away, but was too expensive ($100) for me to justify. The Hepburn's Choice cask was older and more attractively priced, but ultimately turned out to be over-oaked, which goes a way towards explaining why it was so cheap compared to other sherried full-strength Bowmores of comparable age.

I feel like this might appeal to fans of Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005 - a group of which I was not a member. The strong oak and sherry seem similar to what that was bringing to the table, albeit in a somewhat softer mode despite the almost equally high alcohol content. Speaking of which, this reads far lighter than its actual ABV, making me think of something in the 46-50% range than the bruiser it claims to be.

With all of this said, I think this whisky will appeal more to fan's of Bowmore's Devil's Casks releases - a review over at The Whisky Jug bears this out. But I was also curious if dilution would tame this cask into something more enjoyable for me.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: kind of closed - balanced sherry, peat, and oak, savory but indistinct overall, growing a bit stronger with time in the glass

Taste: big rounded - but not overly intense - sherried savory/sweetness up front, berries, sliding through prickly oak tannins to a more rounded and aromatic woodiness near the back, hints of peat going into the finish

Finish: juicy oak, sherry residue, very little peat, but kind of dirty

This strength is a kind of reverse-Goldilocks - there is little it offers that can't be found more effectively at full strength or 45%. The palate is superior to the nose, but never completely comes together. The difficulty is finding the remaining peat means that there isn't enough counterpoint for all the oak.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: lots of oak, barrel char, dirty peat smoke underneath, vanilla, a little green and floral, hints of sherried malt underneath

Taste: mild sherried sweetness up front, quickly picks up significant oak - becoming more aromatic and savory around the back, a little floral starting around the middle, green/vegetal peat and dry sherry shading into vinegar fading into the finish

Finish: long-lasting, savory oak, juicier sherry, slightly sweet malt, a little peat around the edges

This whisky becomes fairly peculiar at this strength. The oak is even more dominant on the nose, edging out almost everything else. At the same time the big aromatic twist going into the finish on the palate shows what the oak can be and reminds me a bit of Ben Nevis. Overall this is the least Bowmore-like strength since the peat is so hard to find, but it's appealing in its own way.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Importance of Negative Reviews

"If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything" is a maxim most of us heard repeatedly while growing up. And while it might be a useful way to make children think before they speak, it becomes more complicated as we get older.

All good? Some? None? Well, probably not the North Port
Unless you're lucky enough to be fantastically wealthy, most adults have limited resources and are
regularly forced to make all sorts of decisions about how to allocate them. These decisions ultimately all come down to value - what am I getting for what this costs?

The problem in the spirits community is that we have more cheerleaders than genuine critics. With rare exceptions, on blogs and social media there is nearly always someone willing to chime up and speak favorably when someone asks "Is this any good?" It's reached the point where certain expressions are nearly unimpeachable, whether that's Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, Aberlour A'Bunadh, or in certain parts of the rum community nearly anything distilled from sugarcane. While that's perfectly fine if people are primarily looking for validation, it's less useful if the question is earnestly asked to decide whether to spend money on something they may or may not like.

I think there are a number of factors at play. One is that people are often looking for and want to give validation. You spent your hard-earned money and want to believe that it was worth parting with those precious dollars/euros/pounds/yen/etc. With rare exceptions, no one likes to feel that they bought a stinker. And humans are nothing if not good at rationalization. Telling other people that they bought something good reinforces our own sense that we have made good decisions.

This tendency can become self-reinforcing as anyone with a contrary negative opinion feels disinclined to pipe up either because they implicitly feels bad about yucking everyone else's yum or explicitly as dissenters are shouted down. Further reinforcing this tendency is the fact that there is no accountability - few are going to keep track of everyone who chimed in and if they come back to report that something wasn't good (which, given how heavily many of us stock up, may be months or years after the initial purchase), it can always be claimed that tastes simply haven't aligned or that an expression has changed since they last tasted it.

Negative reviews are an important way to push back against these tendencies. Even when you can't sway anyone's opinion, negative reviews are still worthwhile simply to normalize dissent. No one reviewer can say that a particular expression is definitively bad or a poor value, but being willing to say "This wasn't worth the money I spent on it" or "This doesn't fit with my tastes" are both critical pieces of information when drinkers are trying to decide how to spend their own money. I can't condone telling someone else that they're wrong in enjoying what's in their glass, but when someone is asking whether they should buy a whisky that I didn't like or thought was a poor value, you can bet that I'll speak up. And I wish more people would do the same.