Monday, December 30, 2019

Whisky Review: Provenance Dailuaine 10 Year 2004/2014

Dailuaine is a distillery that I've appreciated ever since trying it as part of Compass Box's Oak Cross blended malt. Since it's a work horse distillery for Diageo, we don't see too much of it in official single malt form. That makes the IBs we do see a little more exciting.

This whisky was distilled in 2004, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in 2014 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime, who no longer have it as a sample but do have full bottles.

Provenance Dailuaine 10 Year 2004/2014 Cask #10551

Nose: classic sherry cask notes of stewed fruit, a little dank, a pleasant level of oak, sweet malt and floral notes, raspberries. After adding a few drops of water it becomes maltier, more floral, and more balanced,

Taste: fairly hot throughout, malt and sherry sweet up front, solid sherry influence continuing, some mixed fruit around the middle, then a clean fade into the finish with very little oak. After dilution most of the heat diminishes, it becomes much sweeter up front, some of the sherry turns into dark chocolate, and some nice oak emerges at the back.

Finish: sherry residue, sweet malt

Much like the Prime Malt Dailuaine I tried, this isn't a world-beater but it is a solid whisky at a reasonable price. I'm not getting as much complexity out of it, which is a shame since I think the basic Dailuaine profile with a little sherry could be great. With that said, if I wasn't already drowning in whisky I would seriously think about getting a bottle. It's a nice malt and I think it could be even better blended with other whiskies.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. II - the Economics of Blending

On top of the limitations of consumer knowledge, basic economics and the structure of liquor distribution also make it difficult for the Compass Box model to be applied to other spirits. On a very basic level, the bigger the blend the more risk a producer is taking. As noted by David Driscoll in the K&L Spirits Journal, moving a single cask of 100-500 bottles entails a fairly small amount of risk because there is a small amount of capital invested and the bottles can probably be moved sooner or later. In comparison a multi-cask blend of thousands of bottles involves both a larger capital investment and a greater risk that the product won't sell.

This goes double if you are targeting the enthusiast market, where novelty is often prized above everything else. A single cask generates excitement and FOMO to help move it out the door. A blend, especially in higher price brackets, stands primarily on its quality and repeat buyers. In the other direction, a product aimed at bartenders faces different constraints. First, it needs to be priced competitively so that their pour costs are acceptable. Second, supply needs to be sufficiently stable that they aren't taking a risk of having to reformulate their menu if it runs out. This creates a relatively difficult balance between more flavorful, rare, and expensive components to give the final product a unique profile and the more pedestrian components needed to keep the price point down. Some producers still succeed, such as Denizen or Cutty Sark (specifically their Prohibition release), but it takes skill and good relationships.

As I've noted before, Compass Box was created in no small part because John Glaser came from the brand side of Johnnie Walker, which gave him the relationships to source whiskies and lock in long term contracts. More recently the stake Bacardi has taken in the business creates another set of relationships allowing them to access whiskies that might otherwise be difficult to obtain. Without those long-term filling contracts, it is difficult to maintain the kind of stable core lineup that has become another hallmark of Compass Box in comparison to other outfits.

A new entrant today would be unlikely to have the same ability to get those kinds of filling contracts, even if supply is beginning to loosen up in comparison to a decade ago. Approaching the majors would more likely than not get someone laughed out of the room. Independent bottlers might be willing to let go of casks, especially those from second and third tier distilleries, but supply would likely be inconsistent.

This task is frequently even more challenging for other spirits. While bourbon distillers have traditionally sold bulk spirits and casks, supply has dried up for those without contracts locked in before the boom picked up. MGP potentially remains a source, but even their supplies are thinner than they once were. The world of cognac and armagnac is extremely complex, with an array of small producers, negociants in the middle, and the big houses pulling in the bulk of what is made. Some, such as PM Spirits have managed to accomplish this by building up relationships with those smaller producers, allowing them to release armagnacs aimed at the cocktail market.

On the flip side, rum is in the almost unique position of possessing international bulk buyers who are willing to sell smaller parcels. E&A Scheer (and their subsidiary the Main Rum Co) is the most prominent example, albeit one that is still largely unknown outside of rum geek circles. They have some features in common with larger Scottish independent bottlers or American non-distiller producers, though they are notably different in that they don't produce any products for themselves, preferring to supply other brands. This is the source for the aforementioned Denizen rums, which have been pretty open about how they're put together. This opens a real avenue for the kind of provenance-oriented blending done by Compass Box, but the limitations laid out in the first post are still going to be an impediment.

This brings in the last factor, distribution and sales. With hundreds of spirits currently competing for shelf space in liquor stores, you need to convince multiple layers of distributors and retailers that your product will sell. Some of this is short-circuited for in-house blends such as those produced by Total Wine or K&L, but that means that all of the risk is on a single sales outlet. When a producer wants to get their product onto the shelves of a wider range of retailers, scale creates a number of double binds. A small-scale or one-off release needs to justify its occupation of space that could otherwise be occupied by products that might have more consistent sales, while a larger scale product needs fairly rapid, concentrated sales in a small number of outlets or a large number of outlets with a smaller number of sales to be successful. This is especially tricky in the United States, where interstate shipping is becoming increasingly difficult, constraining the reach of each retailer.

To conclude, while we're starting to see some glimmers in other spirits such as rum and armagnac, there remain series problems both on the consumer and the producer side of the equation that make it difficult for new producers to make spirits in the mold of Compass Box. My hope is that changes on the consumer side will eventually drive changes on the producer side, but we will have to wait and see how that goes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Vermouth Review: Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro

While Cocchi's Vermouth di Torino has gained ground as a go-to vermouth for many cocktail aficionados, their Dopo Teatro release has been a little more under the radar. Some of this is simply down to price - while the standard di Torino runs ~$20 for a 750 mL bottle, Dopo Teatro is roughly the same price for a 500 mL bottle. While a far cry from the much more expensive Barolo Chinato, Carpano Antica is the only vermouth I can think of at that price point that is regularly mixed.

Dopo Teatro begins on the same base as Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, but additional botanicals including chirètta flowers and more cinchona bark are added to increase the bitterness. The result is bottled at 16.5% ABV.

Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro

Nose: balanced between sweet, lush wine notes and drier, woodier notes, wine gums, pink bubblegum, strawberry, rhubarb, fresh grass and veggies, vanilla

Taste: rather sweet up front with a tart, citrus-y edge keeping it in check, more bitter citrus and a complex fruitiness around the middle, fading into increased acidity and cinchona bitterness with a touch of vanilla to round it off near the back

Finish: balanced sweetness, acidity, and cinchona bitterness

To me this reads somewhere between the standard di Torino and Punt e Mes, which makes sense given its construction. Its overlap with its less bitter sibling is clear, but at the same time it has the punchier bitterness of Punt e Mes from the extra cinchona. I feel like it handily accomplishes its goal of being closer to an amaro than a traditional vermouth, but that also makes it more dependent on context for me. The standard di Torino is much more approachable with dessert wine character that makes it immediately appealing. Dopo Teatro is somewhat leaner and more focused, much like Punt e Mes, which means that I either need to be in the right mood for it or to use it in a cocktail where its character can be balanced with other ingredients.

In a Negroni the nose is relatively subdued, with fruity notes from the Campari and vermouth, vanilla and lemon, plus hints of something herbal/bitter. The sip opens fairly sweetly with Campari and vermouth sweetness, some creamy vanilla around the middle, a burst of Campari orange extract, then transitioning to unfolding waves of bitterness and black pepper at the back.

While this is undeniably a good Negroni, I don't think the vermouth brings quite enough to the table to justify its price point here. The less expensive Cocchi di Torino puts much more of a unique spin on the drink, whereas the Dopo Teatro tends to hang back. While the extra bitterness is nice, I can get that and more from Punt e Mes, which is also less expensive. Overall I think Dopo Teatro shines most on its own.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Vermouth Review: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

Cocchi claims that this is original Italian, e.g. sweet vermouth, from the classic cocktail era. I'll leave the detailed history to Haus Alpenz, but it's a claim that gives them fairly big boots to fill.

It uses their own Moscato wine as a base, which is aromatized and colored with a range of botanicals such as cocoa, bitter orange peel, ginger and rhubarb plus cinchona as a primary bittering agent. They also add a small amount of caramelized brown sugar both for sweetness and to add some vanilla notes without using actual vanilla beans. The wine is then bottled at 16% ABV.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

Nose: *big* aromas of dry wormwood, rhubarb, fresh mint, dried grasses and herbs, dried ginger, citrus peel, bubblegum, and vanilla in the background

Taste: opens with wine sweetness inflected with rhubarb and a bit of wormwood, gently herbal/grassy in the middle, gains some gentle wood-y bitterness with a touch of vanilla towards the back

Finish: unfolding layers of wormwood, dark chocolate, citrus pith, mint, herbs, and more wine sweetness

I don't feel like it's an exaggeration to say that this is one of the best drinks you can get for the money right now. The aromas and flavors are bold without being unbalanced or feeling artificial in any way. While it's definitely sweet and firmly in a dessert wine mold, there's just enough bitterness to leave you wanting more after the finish.

In a Negroni the aromas remain fairly closed while it's cold, but some richer notes from the vermouth manage to peek out and expand into some wormwood as it warms up. The sip begins with moderate sweetness from the vermouth and Campari, then the middle is dominated by the rich chocolate-y and citrus notes of the vermouth before tumbling into a pool of different types of bitterness at the back. The finish is long and dominated by the juniper notes from the gin.

That is a great drink. This is one of the few vermouths I've had where it really manages to hold its own against the other components. I won't say that it's the best Negroni ever since that's a matter of style, but it's certainly one of my favorites. With that said, I think you want to pair it with a fairly full-bodied gin since something on the lighter, more floral side could end up getting lost.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Whiskey Review: Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Until pretty recently Henry McKenna Single Barrel went largely under the radar. While other single barrel bourbons flew off the shelves and rose in price, it was almost always available with no markup. All of that changed after it won an award, which seems to be red meat for a certain kind of bourbon customer. Whiskey nerds and flippers fanned out across the country, buying up every bottle they could lay hands on. I now regularly see posts with people crowing about their finds.

I bought this one long before the madness set in, so let's find out if it's worth the hype.

This whiskey was barreled on February 7th, 2005, then bottled at 50%.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Nose: a little on the hot side with a fair bit of alcohol, rich caramel/toffee and American oak, milk chocolate, corn, mint and berries in the background. After adding a few drops of water the heat significantly diminishes, but the overall structure remains much the same.

Taste: sweet and fruity with berries up front, a sweet corn and vanilla undercurrent throughout, fading into moderate oak with mint in the background. After dilution the heat mostly fades up front to reveal more pronounced sweetness and less bitter oak at the back, but some of the complexity drops out to give a simpler profile.

Finish: balanced corn sweetness, oak, and mint with some berries in the background

While not life-changing, this is a really good bourbon that didn't cost me an arm and a leg. I first tried it at an OMSI After Dark event and managed to find a bottle locally, on sale, for $30. Since then I've been slowly drinking it down, enjoying it without finding it spectacular. With the more recent hype I've found myself wryly amused, unclear what everyone is falling over themselves to buy. While I think it's always been a quality bourbon, I'm not sure that it's really head and shoulders above more readily available releases from the likes of Four Roses. Back at MSRP I would have reached for it ahead of Four Roses Single Barrel, but now the choice would be much easier. I hope everyone is enjoying the bourbon they paid stupendous markups for, but until the market calms down I think I'll let this one be.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Whisky Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla was one of Compass Box's first blends, holding down the bottom end of their range. When it was introduced in 2001, a budget blend with a relatively high proportion of malt whisky was still a novelty.

From what I can find, this whisky was composed from 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky, 5% Glen Elgin malt, 23% Teaninich malt, and 22% Linkwood malt (though this may have changed later in its life), then bottled at 40% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Compass Box Asyla

Nose: very aromatic, even from a distance - strong dusty floral notes, graham crackers, vague under- and over-ripe fruit, balanced grain and malt, gentle American oak, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water it shifts towards the grain, tamping down some of the other elements.

Taste: fairly strong grain sweetness up front, creamy vanilla and floral/vegetal notes in the middle, then a gentle malty slide into the finish. After dilution it becomes rounder and creamier throughout, though a touch of grainy bitterness emerges at the back.

Finish: alcohol heat, dry grain and malt, pretty vague in general

Overall I think this does what it set out to do - provide an affordable blend that isn't wholly lacking in character. There aren't lots of new facets to be found by concentrating on it, this is a whisky meant to be drunk without bringing a lot of attention to itself.

While Asyla has been discontinued, nominally because of a lack of aged stock necessary for its construction, it's also a little hard for me to see that as a great loss. While they're not identical, Great King Street Artist's Blend accomplishes more or less the same task at a comparable price. They each emphasize slightly different aspects of the general profile, but if you like one it seems unlikely that you'll dislike the other. Additionally, Oak Cross is also still available for only a little bit more, taking the profile and amplifying it by removing the grain whisky component. Either way, I'm not going to mourn the disappearance of Asyla. It served its purpose.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Vermouth Review: Lustau Vermut Rojo

Lustau is primarily known as a sherry bodega. Odds are if you see sherries at your local grocery store that are higher quality than the bargain basement varieties, they're probably going to be from Lustau. Starting in 2015 they began releasing vermouths in the Spanish style, but with a sherry base rather than the more common fortified wines.

This vermouth is constructed from a combination of ten year old Pedro Ximénez and Amontillado sherries, which are macerated with botanicals including cinnamon, cinchona, gentian, sage, coriander, and orange peel, then blended to form the final product.

Lustau Vermut Rojo

Nose: bright grape sweetness, fresh berries, herbal notes (bay leaf? sage?), orange peel, and drier sherry savoriness

Taste: rather sweet with some balancing acidity through most of the palate until it shifts into a drier sherry mode at the back

Finish: savory sherry, background PX sweetness, gentle cacao bitterness

This takes what I think of as the standard Spanish vermouth formula of fairly strong sweetness only slightly balanced by a bit of wormwood and gentian bitterness and twists it with sherry. While it's never going to become a go-to for me, it's unquestionably pleasant to drink, especially if you want something in more of a dessert wine mode. The savory notes from the amontillado component keep it from being insipid, but it doesn't have enough bitterness to give it the kind of backbone I'm looking for. It is, however, enough to make me want to try their other varieties, as I can imagine the even drier fino sherry component helping to both add complex and tame some of the sweetness.

In a Negroni, the nose is dominated by the lemon peel and the brighter grape notes from the vermouth. The sip begins balanced between Campari and grape sweetness, there's a burst of citrus in the middle, then layers of drier, more bitter notes unfold from there back through the juniper and pepper of the gin, the darker bitterness of the Campari, and a touch of sherry nuttiness at the very back from the vermouth.

I find myself pleasantly surprised by how well this works in a Negroni. While less assertive than some other vermouths, it plays its supporting role quite well, adding sweetness without going over the top and a nice flourish of sherry to bring in some complexity. So while it's not something that I need to have all the time, it might still be worth picking up for mixing rather than straight if you don't already love that really sweet profile.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Vermouth Review: Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes has a (potentially fanciful) history going back to 1870. More important to us today, it was one of the vermouths whose reintroduction alongside stablemate Carpano Antica to the States in during the 2000s was a sign of the cocktail revival.

Personally it was the first vermouth that made me stand up and take notice of it. Before that I had tried sweet vermouths like Vya and Dolin, but none of them really clicked for me. Punt e Mes was what made me go down the rabbit hole and has been the vermouth that I keep coming back to.

Punt e Mes

Nose: dark grape and raisin aromas, herbal and woody notes hiding in the background

Taste: big creamy grape sweetness up front, a crisp citrus twinge around the middle, fading into clean quinine bitterness

Finish: lingering quinine bitterness with a touch of grape

While it doesn't have a lot in the way of complexity, Punt e Mes makes up for it in clear, bold flavors. It has the heft to hold its own against other strong ingredients like Campari, giving a solid bass note to drinks. So while I wouldn't say that it's the best or more complex vermouth available right now, I continue to buy it because it provides such a good foundation for cocktails. The bitterness is clear without being overwhelming, though I can imagine that folks less used to bitter drinks might not agree with me on that last point.

Punt e Mes makes for a big, beefy Negroni. The nose is dominated by the lemon peel and gin, with the other components suppressed as long as the drink stays cold. The sip opens sweetly, but is quickly joined by the gin's bitterness in the middle, which unfolds into more layers of bitterness from the Campari and vermouth. The finish is long and lingers, primarily with quinine from the Punt e Mes.

Honestly, this is a great vermouth. If you've ever wanted more punch to your vermouth-driven drinks, I highly recommend getting a bottle. It also has the advantage of being semi-ubiquitous if you live in a larger metro area. While I can't find it at Safeway yet (though they do have Lillet), most of the higher end grocery stores carry it.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Long Time, No See

Folks who follow me on Twitter may have caught me discussing the concussion I suffered in early July. While I initially thought that it was going to be a minor thing that I would bounce back from in a few days or a week, I was out of work for five weeks straight and worked part time for most of another month. Even after that, I had some lingering symptoms and reactivated a number of them about a month ago.

Through all of that, one common thread has been that alcohol was a bad idea. Even a sip was enough to provoke pressure in my head if not a full-blown headache. Given the long period of recovery and regular setbacks, I've been extremely wary about getting back into drinking regularly. Though I am still experiencing some post-concussion symptoms, alcohol no longer seems to be the immediate trigger that it was, so I have been cautiously dipping my toe back into the water.

Given the rather central place that drinking has had in my life, whether that's sipping a scotch for a review, mixing up a daiquiri on the weekend, or having an Americano while I cook, being forced to completely forego all of that for months has been a real experience. Especially at home where I have shelves and closets stuffed with bottles, knowing that even a little bit would cause me pain was a real emotional struggle. To be clear, I don't have any worries about alcoholism or physical dependence, it was the simple fact that I had to give up something that brings me a lot of joy on top of feeling lousy and not knowing when it might get better.

I'm not sure that constitutes a major epiphany, but I do feel like it spotlights the upsides of alcohol that go beyond its effects. In our current health-conscious world, much of the discussion around alcohol focuses on its downsides, whether physical or mental. But the enjoyment of a good drink can be one of the real pleasures in life that is practically impossible to replicate in any other way. Here's to many years of enjoyment, in moderation.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Vermouth Review: Miró Rojo

While vermouth has primarily been associated with Italy and France, Spain has an almost equally deep history of both production and consumption. Over the last handful of years it's become much easier to find these vermouths in the States.

This particular example from the Catalonian town of Reus, southwest of Barcelona. I will leave the details of their history to Haus Alpenz, their American importer. My interest was primarily because it happened to be available in 187 mL bottles at one of my local shops and for $4 I was willing to take a chance on it.

Miró Rojo Vermut de Reus

Nose: bright and vegetal - sweet wine backed up by fresh herbs (oregano?), a tomato-y note, and some gently bitter wormwood

Taste: opens sweet and tart, with medium weight, some fresh herbs, and light wormwood bitterness in the background throughout

Finish: more tart (almost verjus) start, with lingering wormwood

This reminds me a lot of what I remember of Dolin Rouge. They both have a sort of savory character that makes me think of marinara sauce. Given that there are plenty of folks in this world who like Dolin, I suspect that this would do just as well for them, but it's not my cup of tea.

In a Negroni this vermouth is pretty shy - it's basically nowhere to be found in the nose, which is dominated by the gin and Campari. It is equally difficult to find in the opening sip, possibly providing some background character to sweeten and round out the Campari. The drink turns into a one-two punch of Campari up front, with a segue into the gin around the middle, which is rejoined by the Campari at the back.

If that's the kind of Negroni that suits you this may be a decent choice, but I'm used to them made with Punt e Mes, which tends to be on the assertive side. I can envision that it might work better with brown spirits, especially rye where the spiciness and vegetal character could be complementary. But overall it just doesn't have the depth to be something that I would want in my arsenal for making cocktails.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Gin Review: Townshend's

Townshend's began its life in Portland as a tea company, with several locations scattered around the city. From there they expanded into other tea-based drinks such as kombucha. In an odd twist, the kombucha is what led to the distillery - after a scare in the early-2010s that unpasturized kombucha was over over the 0.5% ABV limit, Townshend's made the rather expensive decision to remove the alcohol by vacuum distillation so that the natural cultures survived. This had the side effect of preserving the volatile flavors, both that emerged from the kombucha and those that were added later to the redistilled spirit. Another interesting wrinkle is that because of the significant amount of acetic acid that comes off the kombucha they have to wash the spirit with baking soda to eliminate most of it.

All of this results in very intensely flavored spirits that have none of the notes that are associated with high temperature distilling. Their gin is made from their green tea kombucha spirit that is infused with more botanicals, redistilled, then bottled at 40%.

Townshend's Gin

Nose: big floral notes (lavender, violet, rose), green tea, juniper almost shoved into the background, some round citrus (lemon, lime, a little orange), a little bubble gum.

Taste: cleanly sweet up front, transition into green tea in the middle that becomes increasingly tannic towards the back where the juniper finally kicks in

Finish: balanced tea, juniper, and floral notes that linger lightly

This is, to put it mildly, not a traditional gin profile. The floral notes dominate, with the tea a little behind, and the juniper coming in third. If you're coming from London dry gins, this is likely to seem very odd, but it's more of an evolution of the New West style pioneered in the early-2000s that toned down the juniper in favor of more approachable botanicals. At the same time, the floral notes are so strong that I would say that it's less initially approachable than some other Portland gins like Aviation. Overall I really like it, but it does require a different approach than what you might be used to.

While I originally bought this thinking that it could fill a role similar to Hendrick's, I've since found that it really has a narrow niche. While latter is gently floral, adding some roundness to the standard gin botanicals, this is a whole flower shop. When I tried to make Negronis with this gin, the result can only be described as tasting purple. And definitely not in a good way. What that means is that it needs some fairly stout companions, preferably with some citrus, to really work in a cocktail. And what stouter companions are there in a gin cocktail than those in a Last Word?

Last Word

0.75 oz gin
0.75 oz lime juice
0.75 oz green Chartreuse
0.75 oz maraschino liqueur

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice for six seconds, then double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is dominated by the floral and tea of the gin combined with the herbal notes of the Chartreuse, with some lime and maraschino peeking around the edges. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, quickly balanced by the lime near the middle with some maraschino roundess, fading into a complex array of herbal and floral bitterness that stretches out into the finish.

This is a Last Word for people who really want to lean into the Charteuse. While many favor recipes that amp up the gin, that simply won't work with Townshend's, which becomes unbearably floral in anything greater than equal proportions. It works, but it's the balance of great forces shoving each other into submission. If that's your jam, I highly recommend picking up a bottle. If you're not into floral spirits, this is one that you can safely give a miss.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. I - Distillery Profiles

As most of the revival of scotch whisky focused on the abundant single malts available in the 1990s and early-2000s, blends continued to be seen by many as bland and uninspired. John Glaser made it his mission to change that perception. Founded in 2000, Compass Box emerged from the roles he had played in the wine trade and at Diageo as the marketing director for Johnnie Walker. This gave him exposure the process of blending, a background in wood management, and the relationships needed to access casks. The company's first release, Hedonism, was an unheard of before luxury blended grain whisky. Subsequent blends and blended malts (whatever term they were known by) continued to expand the approach by creating new flavor profiles from distilleries that, if not named directly, were strongly hinted at.

I asked myself why this model hasn't been replicated in many other spirits, especially rum, from a question posed by Josh Miller on Twitter. While many other spirits have long traditions of producing multi-distillery blends - think of British navy rum or the large cognac houses - few have managed to make the process and results of blending exciting in the way Compass Box has done for scotch whisky blends.

Much of this comes out of the particular history of malt whisky production in Scotland - while it was blend-centric for much of its existence, independent bottlers and eventually the distilleries themselves made the profiles of individual distilleries popular in their own right. These created known quantities that John Glaser was able to riff on, twisting expectations in ways that made the results thrilling. Clynelish is at the core of many of their blends, ranging from the standard GKS Artist's Blend, Oak Cross, and Spice Tree releases, to one-offs like Eleuthera and the Lost Blend. Similarly Laphroaig and Caol Ila have been at the heart of many of their peated blends such as Peat Monster, Flaming Heart, and GKS Glasgow. These more well-known profiles are inflected with less well-known malts and grain whiskies from the likes of Teaninich, Dailuaine, Invergordon, Cameronbridge, Ledaig, or Ardmore.

For most of the spirits world these individual distillery profiles simply haven't penetrated the consumer consciousness in the same way. There are exceptions, such as the profiles of American bourbon and rye distillers, though their origins are often obscured. There is also growing awareness of Jamaican, Guyanese (well, really the sub-marques of DDL), and Martiniquaise r(h)um distilleries or, in a far more limited fashion, Armagnac farm distilleries.

The bottler who has most closely approached the Compass Box model is High West. Founded in 2006, it has taken a similar approach to blending, primarily bourbon or rye, to create new profiles. While this began in no small part as a way to produce cash flow while starting up a distillery from scratch, they have become famous for their blending skills as much as for their own production. A major difference is that High West, at least at the beginning, was significantly constrained in how much information they could divulge. The American whiskey market had no history of independent bottlers revealing their sources, preferring instead to cloak them in veils of fake history. This led to customers attempting to suss out sources from the reported mash bills and other clues. In a sense, High West performed almost the opposite function by making profiles such as those of LDI/MGP or Barton rye famous that had otherwise been completely unknown.

In the rum world what we have seen more of so far are blends from multiple named countries, rather than multiple named distilleries, such as Banks or Plantation. These approach the spirit of Compass Box, but also serve to flatten the diversity within individual countries. While the distilleries of Jamaica or Barbados may share similarities, much as the classic Scottish regions may once have, this doesn't have the same kind of granularity. As Linkwood is not Craigellachie or Glenfarclas, Hampden is not Longpond or Worthy Park. Clément is not Depaz or Neisson.

One release closer to the mark comes from the armagnac bottler L'Encantada. They have done a significant amount of work bringing attention to armagnac farm distilleries, creating excitement about their individual profiles, albeit through single casks. Their XO bottling was a blend of a handful of different single casks from distillers that they had previously bottled casks from. This closely approaches the Compass Box model of riffing on known quantities to create new and exciting profiles.

In many ways this is a chicken and egg problem - without widespread knowledge and appreciation of individual distillery profiles there is less drive for blenders to highlight them, but without engaged customers seeking to discover those individual profiles there is little incentive to put them front and center. We can see glimmers within other spirits categories that this may come about with time and increasingly curious customers, but it may be that relative ignorance will prevent blenders from operating in quite the same mold as Compass Box.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

While much of Douglas Laing's regional blended malts series is NAS, there have been a number of limited edition releases with bigger numbers on them. While many sell out quickly, this one has hung around.

This is composed of Highland malts that have been, as the name suggests, aged in sherry casks for at least 21 years then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from

Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

Nose: rich, moderately sweet sherry, juicy raisins, thick malt, green herbs, a little vanilla and American oak, cinnamon, sulfur. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes creamier, but it remains mostly the same.

Taste: a little hot up front, sweet sherry, fading into bittersweet with some vanilla and a little bit of oak near the back, with a light sulfurous overlay throughout. After dilution the flavors become a little brighter and the alcohol heat retreats, but it's otherwise much the same.

Finish: lingering alcohol heat, sherry residue, light American oak, following by a fairly long sulfurous note

While this is a big step up from the 10 Year, there's nothing here that makes me want a whole bottle. It's a reasonably competent, older sherry-driven malt, but it lacks the complexity I would want at this price point. While there's nothing explicitly wrong with it, with the possible exception of the sulfur (which tastes to me more like it's coming from the casks than from the spirit), there's also nothing pulling me in. Douglas Laing has also put out an 18 Year Sherry Edition out that is still available right now, but given what I've gotten from the two samples this week I'm in no rush to try it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Douglas Laing has been releasing a range of regional blended malts with fanciful names over the last handful of years, joining their more established Big Peat. These cover the Highlands (Timorous Beastie), the Lowlands (Epicurian), Speyside (Scallywag), the Islands (Rock Oyster), and Campbeltown (Gauldrons). While most have started out as NAS malts, they have expanded the range to include core and limited edition age dated expressions.

This whisky was aged in what I would guess were exclusively refill ex-bourbon hogsheads, then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Nose: honey, vanilla, clean malt, fairly green, almost no oak, a little floral bubblegum, a smidge of orange creamsicle. After adding a few drops of water the floral character is amplified, the green notes shift a bit towards apple, and the vanilla integrates with the malt.

Taste: sweet up front with a lot of green malt carrying through, vague fruity/floral notes around the middle, bittersweet fade out. After dilution it becomes a little washed out and grainy, but with more cask-influenced roundness at the back.

Finish: bittersweet grain and oak, green malt, vague floral notes

Part of me wonders if this sample was mislabeled and it's actually the NAS version, but it's been suggested that it's not likely to be the case. If everything in here is 10 years old, they're using pretty mediocre casks. The malt itself doesn't seem to be of poor quality, but it needs more time to properly mature. Water helped to round it out a bit, so this might have been better off bottled at 43%, but even then it was nothing spectacular. Overall I would give this a miss.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Whisky Review: Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Somehow, this is the first Port Charlotte I've ever tried. While I have had the earlier Bruichladdich Peat (and thought it was disgusting), PC has always garnered much more praise. Whether it's the high prices or lack of availability in the States, I've just never gotten around to it before.

So we start at the beginning. This is currently the entry level release in the lineup, produced entirely from Scottish barley, then aged in a mix of American oak ex-bourbon and European oak ex-red wine casks. The whisky is bottled at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from

Port Charlotte Scottish Barley

Nose: dominated by dry peat smoke, fresh herbal notes, a little roasted vegetable savoriness, Bruichladdich malt, pleasant dry oak behind, a touch of caramel, nutmeg and cinnamon, red wine in the background. After adding a few drops of water it remains relatively unchanged, but the peat shifts into more of an herbal mode, meshing with the nutmeg, and something floral starts creeping out.

Taste: everything lands at once and carries through to the back - pleasant malty sweetness, dry peat smoke, an appropriate amount of oak, citrus, and red wine in the background. After dilution the structure remains similar, but it becomes sweeter and the alcohol paradoxically has more heat.

Finish: carries through from the palate with a little more red wine and oak

I want to like this more than I do. The spirit seems good - there's no unpleasant funk, just solid peat smoke and Bruichladdich malt. But given what these NAS bottles go for, there isn't enough complexity to make me choose it over something like Ledaig 10 Year. With that said, I am curious to try the latest Port Charlotte 10 Year or some of the more well-received cask finishes, because I can absolutely believe that it has more potential than this.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

Bruichladdich has been putting out NAS/multi-vintage releases in their trademark blue bottles under the Laddie Classic/Classic Laddie name holding down the lower end of the lineup since 2009. The name was inverted in 2013 when it became part of their Scottish Barley project alongside a more heavily peated Port Charlotte version.

All of these have striven to showcase what the distillery considers to be its core profile - clean malt flavors with some coastal influence. These have all been from American oak casks, though they have been a mix of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry (at least in the early iterations), an ex-red wine. The Scottish Barley releases have all been bottled at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from

Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

Nose: pleasantly mild earthy peat funk, round fresh malt - less youthful than expected, a little bit of red wine and oak in the background. After adding a few drops of water it turns into something like WIPs Kilkerrans with the peat integrating and turning into something like ginger cookies.

Taste: pleasant malt sweetness up front with a little heat and oak underneath, continues in the same vein towards the back where it picks up some light red wine, a bit of gentle peat, and a little more oak. After dilution it becomes more rounded with the red wine tucking into the background while the peat spreads out and integrates, resulting in a much more enjoyable profile.

Finish: balanced clean malt, earthy peat, oak, and a bit of red wine

This continues to gives me hope that Bruichladdich finally has their spirit under control. There's a little bit of their funk at full strength, but it reads closer to the very mild peat of the 12 Year Second Edition than the over the top weirdness of Laddie Ten. Speaking of which, while this is nominally part of their 'unpeated' lineup, this absolutely tastes lightly peated. I have no clue whether that is how they choose to malt the barley for this release or if it is picking up the remnants of their Port Charlotte and Octomore runs from the washbacks and stills, but either way it has similarities to Hazelburns that come off as peated.

I might consider buying more if I could find it around the $40 mark. Especially with water it hits a lot of the notes I look for from Bruichladdich, though it is missing the salinity that would take it up a notch. As it stands this is a competent malt that reminds me of early Kilkerran WIP releases, well-suited for times when you don't want to think too hard about what you're drinking. By the same token there is nothing here to dazzle, but sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Whisky Review: Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Cask

Macallan 12 Year has been a staple for decades, the go-to bottle when looking for a whisky gift that seems classy without going over the top. However it disappeared for a number of years from many markets as the distillery rolled out their NAS 1824 series. Those became exemplars of the era when distillers claimed with straight faces that 'age wasn't everything' while charging customers equal or greater prices.

But it seems like we're finally coming back around, with age dates returning or even increasing for some releases. The Sherry Oak Cask line has returned to its roots with an age statement and 100% sherry seasoned European oak casks, bottled at 43% with chill filtration but probably no coloring.

Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak Cask

Nose: bright, rich sherry, dried fruit, nutty, vanilla, clean malt, moderate oak. After adding a few drops of water the sherry is less bright and the aromas are generally dampened down, with the exception of the malt becoming stronger.

Taste: sweet, thick sherry starting up front, turning more bittersweet with a little malt-y backing around the middle, slightly sharp oak tannins at the back. After dilution the sherry is more expansive and gains a pleasantly tart edge, and the oak is a little more rounded.

Finish: dry sherry, a little balsamic vinegar, dark oak tannins

Between this and the Double Cask, I think I prefer the latter. While this is more intensely sherried, the European oak gives it a sharpness that I find a little unpleasant. Overall, it just doesn't feel like a complete package, rather an attempt to make a fairly generic sherried whisky. I would personally prefer more refill sherry casks in the mix to let the spirit shine through, since that might help give it more of a malty roundness to balance the European oak tannins. As is, I would go for its American oak sibling or stick with other distillers making whiskies in this vein such as Glendronach or Glenfarclas.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Whisky Review: Macallan 12 Year Double Cask

The last 10-15 years at Macallan has seen more change than almost any in its existence. Product lines have been released, then disappeared with barely a whisper. A prime example would be their Fine Oak line, which blended European and American oak sherry casks with American oak bourbon casks to give a less aggressively sherried profile. However this was always seen as the 'lesser' Macallan in comparison to their classic Sherry Oak lineup.

Since Fine Oak was taken out of circulation, it has been partially replaced with their (small) Double Cask, which takes a page out of Edrington's other big name distillery Highland Park. While there are no bourbon casks here, they instead use sherry seasoned American oak casks to impart a different profile than the pure European oak sherry casks of their Sherry Oak line.

The final result is bottled at 43% with chill filtration, but probably no coloring.

Macallan 12 Year Double Cask

Nose: classic Macallan malt and sherry, fruit leather, strong vanilla and caramel, grassy/floral overtones. After adding a few drops of water is becomes richer, with deeper bourbon cask notes,

Taste: mildly sweet malt up with sherry overtones, some cardboard in the background throughout, becomes a little more rich with American oak butterscotch and light floral notes beginning in the middle, then a touch of bittersweet oak at the back. After dilution the American oak notes become stronger and the bitterness at the back is amplified, though not unpleasantly.

Finish: weak and thin - vague malt, sherry, oak, vanilla, mild nutty savoriness, and a little heat

While not a world-beater, this is a very competent malt. It feels like an interesting twist on the Fine Oak line it replaced, with the American oak still dominating over the sherry. Hazarding a guess the seasoning period for the American oak casks may have been comparatively short, so the wood speaks louder than the sherry. The American oak casks were still well chosen and give it a sweeter, more dessert-y character without going overboard on the tannins.

It feels comparable to something like Aberlour 12 Year, which makes sense given that their composition is similar. Back when Aberlour 12 Year was bottled at 43% I would say there wasn't much contest between the two, but if their prices are similar, I might have to give the nod to Macallan for still being bottled at the higher strength. I also might take it over something like Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year, which has always felt poorly integrated from the short finish compared to blending bourbon and sherry casks together.

Overall this feels somewhat representative of how the market seems to be coming back around after years of mediocre NAS releases. This has an age date, displays casks that are, if not wildly exciting, very respectable, and it doesn't cost the earth (by today's standards). I'm not sure if I need a lot more, but if 200 mL bottles were available for, say, $20, I would happily grab one for the occasional drink.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Whisky Review: Glendronach 21 Year Parliament

Glendronach Parliament has capped their standard lineup since it was refreshed. I initially intended to add it to my earlier review, but neglected it for long enough that the miniature had gone bad by the time I got to it. So I was glad to be able to get a fresher sample from to finally give it some proper attention.

Unlike the younger Revival and Allardice expressions (until the 15 Year's refresh), this included PX casks alongside the more standard oloroso sherry casks. Was that the result of weaker casks being reracked to give them more punch? Or just to sweeten whisky that was getting tannic? The final result was also given a lift by being bottled at 48% instead of 46%, giving it a little more heft, as always without coloring or chill filtration.

Glendronach 21 Year Parliament

Nose: a heavy overlay of rather dry sherry, savory tannic oak, sweet malt and vanilla underneath, cinnamon, lime, lightly floral. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes creamier, nuttier, and a little sweeter (more PX influence?), while the malt and vanilla become more prominent.

Taste: opens with sweet and sour sherry, nutty cherry notes in the middle, bittersweet at the back with sweeter sherry and dry oak tannins. After dilution the flavors come into focus with brighter sherry and darker oak, some fizzy/peppery notes come out from the middle back, and there are some tropical fruit overtones throughout.

Finish: sweet sherry, oak tannins, nutty malt, umami/savory notes

While this is clearly older than Allardice, the oak has become a bit too tannic. There is some compensation in complexity, especially on the nose and the flavors with a little dilution (which makes me wonder what this would have been like bottled at 46% to begin with), but the overall results don't grab me, especially given the 50% bump in price. As always, both my wallet and I are perfectly happy to prefer the cheaper whisky.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Whisky Review: Glendronach 18 Year Revisited

Glendronach has gone through a number of changes since the last time I reviewed their core lineup. The 15 Year disappeared for three years due to supply constraints, returning after their warehouses filled up sufficiently. Maybe more importantly, the group that they were a part of with Benriach and Glenglassaugh was sold to Brown-Forman in 2016, removing them as some of the few remaining (major) independent distilleries in Scotland.

But ultimately it's about the whisky. This is aged exclusively in oloroso sherry casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. According to the math, this whisky is far older than it says on the bottle and will be until new stocks become available next year.

I purchased this sample from

Glendronach 18 Year

Nose: rich, dry oloroso sherry, cocoa powder, vanilla, citrus (lemon), sour unripe fruit, baked apples, clean malt underneath. After adding a few drops of water the chocolate notes are amplified over everything else, the sherry becomes sweeter and fudgier, more sour malt emerges, and a little oak comes out.

Taste: thick, bittersweet sherry up front with citrus peel in the background, a slightly sour overlay throughout, fades into sweeter sherry with moderately tannic oak at the back. After dilution it becomes softer and sweeter overall, with less oak and more floral malt at the back, and slightly washed out flavors

Finish: nutty sherry, dry dark chocolate, mild oak tannins with a smoky edge, citrus peel, sweet malt

In all honesty, I feel like Glendronach's spirit is getting a little long in the tooth. This is still almost as good as I remember it, but the oak is starting to get the upper hand in a way that detracts from the spirit. But some of that might just be the effects of packaging this as a sample, so I'm still seriously thinking about grabbing a few bottles before the reset next year. The reviews of the rebooted Glendronach Revival make me suspicious that the new spirit won't measure up to what was made with old stocks, especially if they decide to throw PX sherry casks into the mix to give the product extra 'depth'.

Friday, April 26, 2019

New Cocktails: Avenue & Davenport

My main complaint about the Toronto was that its simplicity meant that it didn't taste like much beyond the Fernet. So the Avenue & Davenport that I first spotted on Imbibe's Twitter feed seemed to solve that problem. While it retains the basic structure of the Toronto, the simple syrup is replaced by a mixture of bittersweet Cynar and funky maraschino liqueur. Hopefully those elements will help to lift it out of the morass of Fernet.

Avenue & Davenport

1.5 oz rye whiskey
0.5 oz bourbon
0.5 oz Cynar
0.25 oz maraschino
0.25 oz Fernet

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chill cocktail glass.

The nose is a bit of a jumble, with the rye and Fernet fighting for prominence. The sip opens with complex bittersweetness from the Cynar and Fernet, the maraschino peeks out around the middle, then sliding towards a more citrus-y bitterness at the back joined by a little oak from the whiskey. The finish is long and oaky with Fernet overtones.

This is a good drink showcasing how different amaros can be mixed to layer bitter and herbal flavors on a solid whiskey base. In contrast to the Toronto it's based on, the Fernet is much less aggressive here, despite occupying roughly the same fraction of the drink. It's equally interesting that the maraschino is a little hard to detect as I usually find it to be a very assertive ingredient. Overall I find it interesting, but not something I feel compelled to return to at a later date.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Classic Cocktails: the Toronto

I've been scared to Fernet for years. While it slowly took the cocktail world by storm, I skipped basically any drink with it as an ingredient. But I knew I'd have to try it some day, as evidenced by the two miniature bottles that have been tucked away in my liquor cabinet for years. So I recently broke down and gave it a try, with what is acknowledged as the standard method for getting into this rather intensely flavored spirit.

The Toronto Cocktail

2 oz whiskey (Canadian or rye)
0.25 oz Fernet Branca
0.25 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of orange peel.

The nose is a bit of a jumble with the Fernet, rye, and orange peel vying for prominence. The sip opens sweetly with a healthy dose of mint that carries into the back where it is joined by the rye and bitters. The finish is cleanly minty with a little whiskey and the bitters' spices.

As an introduction to Fernet, I think this works. While it dominates the drink, it's never abrasive or overwhelming. At the same time, I don't think this is a recipe I will reach for again. It needs something more going on to give it complexity or at least counterbalance the Fernet.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Whisky Review: Old Particular Auchentoshan 18 Year 1997/2016

Auchentoshan doesn't get a lot of love, even when it's older. Some exceptions can be made when it's matured in sherry casks, but the bourbon casks usually retain too much of the polarizing distillery character.

This particular whisky was distilled in December 1997, filled into a virgin oak hogshead, then bottled in June 2016 at 48.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from

Old Particular Auchentoshan 18 Year 1997/2016 Cask #DL11203

Nose: creamy Auchentoshan malt with some maize character, sweet bourbon cask notes of caramel and vanilla, berries. After adding a few drops of water it is similar, but some grassy/floral character comes out.

Taste: sweet with berry notes up front, fades slowly into creamy malt and a touch of oak at the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes thicker and more syrupy, but the oak tannins spread out and become stronger to maintain balance.

Finish: balanced sweet malt, savory character, mild oak tannins, berries in the background

While there are parallels between this cask and the Scott's Selection I reviewed earlier, this is much more clearly a modern whisky. Much of the funkier medicinal notes and grassiness in the 1983 have disappeared leaving a much more straightforwardly pleasant product. I might even go so far as to say that if you actively dislike Auchentoshan, you'll probably still like this. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about it and I would have a bit of a tough time pegging it as a Lowland spirit rather than a generic Speysider. Some of this may be attributable to the virgin oak hogshead it was aged in, though I find it surprising that such an active cask left left a relatively light mark on the spirit.

At the time of writing this appears to still be available, though I find the price rather steep for what you're getting. While I'm glad to have sampled it, I don't find myself needing more. It's a pleasant drink and I wouldn't turn down more if offered, but I suspect there are more engaging choices out there.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Whisky Review: Scott's Selection Auchentoshan 21 Year 1983/2004

Scott's Selection occupies an interesting niche in the American malt enthusiast's psyche. Given relatively short shrift when they were originally released, they have since gained a stronger reputation as overlooked gems, especially since many survived on liquor store shelves into the whisky blogging era. However, some were real shelf turds, such as this Auchentoshan that was finally put on deep discount at Binny's after a decade or more. In this case it may have as much to do with the distillery's lackluster reputation among enthusiasts, especially when it comes from a bourbon cask rather than sherry. Luckily for me, older bourbon cask Auchentoshan is my jam, so let's see how this one did.

This whisky was distilled in 1983, filled into what was probably a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, then bottled in 2004 at 52.4% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for organizing this bottle split.

Scott's Selection Auchentoshan 21 Year 1983/2004

Nose: classic Auchentoshan style - fairly light, good malt/wood balance, wood shavings vanilla, hints of overripe fruit, light floral/grassy notes, faintly medicinal. After adding a few drops of water the malt becomes stronger, while the other notes retreat.

Taste: sweet malt throughout, grassy notes growing stronger and more vegetal towards the back, an acidic edge, floral and bubblegum top notes, citrus peel in the background (lemon, orange, grapefruit), bittersweet malt and oak at the back. After dilution the up front sweetness and the savoriness at the back are amplified, while the structure remains largely the same.

Finish: a little fizzy, long lightly sweet malt, vaguely medicinal, savory/grassy fade-out

This isn't a complex malt, just a solid example of a good ex-bourbon cask that's been left to sit for a decent amount of time. While not as aggressively grassy as the similarly aged Archives sample I tried a while back, it has everything I would expect from an unpeated Lowland whisky. Surprisingly the strength never makes itself apparent - if you had given this to me blind I might have guessed it was at 46%.

For a different perspective on this whisky, check out MAO's review from the same bottle.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

New Cocktails: the Fogerty Cocktail

This drink caught my eye when it was posted by Imbibe. It was originally made by Ryan Fitzgerald of ABV in San Francisco. The set of ingredients and proportions reminded me of the La Bicyclette I posted about earlier this week, albeit it taking them in a rather different direction.

The drink called for a high proof rye and lots of it, but I was curious how the balance of the drink could shift depending on how it was constructed.

Fogerty Cocktail

1.5-2 oz high proof rye whiskey
0.5 oz Campari
0.25 oz crême de cacao
2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and garnish with a strip of orange peel.

The 2 oz whiskey version has a slightly unbalanced nose with the whiskey and Campari notes clashing, with cacao and a little funk behind them. The sip opens with moderate sweetness, then unfolds rye whiskey and cacao bitterness, backed up by the Campari. The finish is pleasantly bitter balanced between the cacao and Campari.

The 1.5 oz whiskey version has a nose dominated by chocolate, with the whiskey and Campari in the background. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, with dark chocolate throughout undergirded by rye and Campari. The finish is bittersweet, again dominated by the chocolate.

This really demonstrates what a potent ingredient crême de cacao can be. Even a half ounce shift in the amount of whiskey is enough to completely alter the balance of the drink. My personal preference is probably somewhere between the two because I find the 2 oz version to be too far towards the rye while the 1.5 oz version lets the cacao dominate. I'd also be curious to try this with another amaro like Bruto Americano with its herbal quality, though a lighter product like Aperol would just get lost in the more strongly flavored ingredients.

Monday, March 25, 2019

New Cocktails: La Bicyclette

One of the most important things you can learn about cocktails is that they have an internal consistency. Ingredients balance each other in fairly predictable proportions, even if they have to be tweaked for the particular character of individual expressions and personal tastes.

That's how, when asked to make a cocktail using St. Germain, I was able to cobble together almost this exact recipe despite the fact that I had never seen it before, with the exception that I used orange instead of peach bitters.

This cocktail comes from a time when St. Germain was the new kid on the block and bartenders were figuring out how to use it. Jaime Boudreau of Canon in Seattle posted a couple of drinks with it, including this one.

La Bicyclette

1.5 oz gin (1:1 Tanqueray/Beefeater)
0.75 oz sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes)
0.25 oz elderflower liqueur (St. Germain)
2 dashes peach bitters (Bitter Truth)

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

The nose is balanced between the gin and vermouth, brightened by the lemon peel. The sip opens with liqueur and vermouth sweetness, passes through elderflower and citrus notes, then fades into complex bitterness from the vermouth, gin, and bitters.

This kind of drink is how St. Germain acquired the term 'bartender's catsup'. It does exactly what it is supposed to do, providing a subtle twist on an otherwise classic profile and adding a bit of extra body from the sugar. While it's since slipped out of favor from overuse, it's still a great ingredient to slip into your lineup from time to time.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Whisky Review: Game of Thrones House Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve

I do not have a good history with Talisker's NAS releases. While some of them such as 57º North or their 175th Anniversary Edition have been fêted within the community, their more recent attempts such as Dark Storm were practically undrinkable. So it was with some trepidation that I bought this whisky, saved only by the fact that it wasn't wildly expensive, so it seemed worth the risk on the off chance that I would get another drinkable Talisker.

This whisky is aged in indeterminate casks (though I'd put some money on recharred hogsheads being in the mix), then bottled at 45.8% probably with coloring and possibly with chill filtration.

Game of Thrones House Greyjoy Talisker Select Reserve

Nose: strong but not unpleasant rounded oak, mossy/herbal peat smoke, incense, gently floral, caramel/butterscotch, a little chocolate. After adding a few drops of water the oak expands, the peat becomes more herbal, and the floral character mostly disappears.

Taste: barrel and malt sweetness beginning up front and continuing all the way through, vague berry fruitiness with floral overtones in the middle. After dilution the oak becomes more tannic and the profile is bittersweet overall.

Finish: bittersweet oak, a touch of peat, sweet berries

While this is a more modern Talisker than I would prefer, it's honestly pretty good. The oak is the defining feature, but it doesn't have the unpleasant character of Dark Storm. I liked that some of the floral character that Talisker can have came out and it had a decent amount of peat without being too sharp.

I won't tell you that this is a must-buy bottle, but if you're a Talisker fan and happen to find it at MSRP, I do think it's worth the price. Just don't pay collector's prices unless you're dead set on having a full set.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Whisky Review: Old Malt Cask Talisker 6 Year 2009/2016

Talisker is one of those distilleries that is not exactly easy to find from indie bottlers. Not as impossible as Oban, but not exactly easy. The exception to the rule has been sub 10 year old single casks, which have been trickling out over the last handful of years. Does Diageo require any bottlers who get ahold of their casks to put it on the market it before it becomes competition for their own 10 Year? Or is it just an attempt to cater to the market for youthful, fiery peated malts?

This whisky was distilled in November 2009, filled into a sherry hogshead, then bottled in November 2016 at 50% without coloring or chill filtration for K&L Wines.

Thanks to Florin for splitting this bottle with me.

Old Malt Cask Talisker 6 Year 2009/2016 Cask HL 12934 for K&L

Nose: thick savory sherry, dry peat smoke, herbal, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, pineapple, clean malt in the background. After adding a few drops of water it takes on a more youthful cast with the herbal/grassy elements amplified, the sherry pushed into the background, and the peat taking on a fresher/less smoky mode.

Taste: youthful sharpness up front, unfolding into moderately sweet sherry, some heat around the middle, then fading into malt and savory peat with oak in the background at the back. After dilution the sherry becomes more balanced between sweetness and savoriness, the oak spreads out and gives it a bittersweet profile overall,

Finish: savory, dry peat smoke, sherry residue, clean malt, moderate oak - rounded but not particularly sweet

While I've been confused by all these young Taliskers hitting the market over the last few years, but I have to admit that this one works. The cask is active enough to round off some of the edges, without completely demolishing the spirit and turning it into just another sherry bomb. Reducing this cask to 50% was a good choice as it gives enough intensity to be interesting without the heat being overwhelming.

At the same time, I can imagine putting this together with a bourbon cask or two after another couple of years and coming out with something even better when they've had some more time to develop. Will we see any of those in future? I suspect not given the current trends, but we can hope.

For a very different take on this whisky, see MAO's less than positive review.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Whisky Review: Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year

Right off the bat, I know essentially nothing about Game of Thrones. I tried to read the books, but quickly gave up and have never seen anything from the show beyond GIFs. So my only interest here is in the whisky itself.

This particular Lagavulin is an interesting choice in a number of ways. First, like the 8 Year released for the distillery's 200th anniversary, it has an age statement under ten years old. Lagavulin has traditionally put out a line about their spirit needing a significant amount of time to mature, which makes sense given their squat stills and wide cuts. The wild popularity of their annual 12 Year batch strength release has given something of a lie to that assertion, but it's still somewhat surprising that they have chosen to represent themselves with even younger releases over the last few years.

This whisky is bottled at 46%, possibly without chill filtration but probably with coloring.

Game of Thrones House Lannister Lagavulin 9 Year

Nose: rich but not overwhelming peat smoke, incense, caramel, moderate oak, barbecue sauce, bubblegum, vanilla frosting, fruity ester top notes, curing plastic and generic soap (in a good way?). After adding a few drops of water the malt moves forward, the peat becomes more mossy, and a lot of the sweeter overtones move into the background.

Taste: malt and cask sweetness up front, balanced with a moderate amount of oak tannins and some vaguely fruity overtones, fading into bittersweet oak with rising dry peat smoke beginning in the middle and flowing into the back end. After dilution the malty sweetness is amplified and pushes the oak tannins towards the back without becoming cloying, while the peat smoke becomes more incense-like at the back.

Finish: thick dry peat smoke, moderate oak tannins, background malt sweetness, vague fruitiness

It's hard to understate how much this whisky has been a pleasant surprise. My mixed experience with the 8 Year made me a little bit wary, but how often do we get new Lagavulins? So I took the plunge and have been richly rewarded. Unlike its more rough hewn younger sibling, this straddles the line between it and the more refined 16 Year, albeit without the alcoholic strength of the 12 Year. But whatever, because this is half the price of the bruiser and less than the 16 Year in most markets.

While the nose is the star of this show, the flavors and finish are nothing to sniff at either. I've been skeptical about Diageo's ability to not screw up their own whiskies and this goes some way towards restoring my faith. Heck, I might even buy a second bottles, which almost never happens these days.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Whisky Review: Lagavulin 8 Year 200th Anniversary Edition

Lagavulin's 200th anniversary was celebrated in 2016. Referencing a quote from Alfred Barnard, who visited the distillery in 1886 and remarked that he had tasted a particularly fine 8 year old whisky, they decided to try to create an homage to that style.

Since that first release the 8 Year has been added to the regular lineup, alongside the standard 16 Year and Distiller's Edition plus the semi-regular 12 Year annual release.

This whisky was aged in what I'm guessing were all refill ex-bourbon hogsheads, then bottled at 48% possibly with added color.

Thanks to Florin for this bottle split.

Lagavulin 8 Year

Nose: lots of raw, unburnt peat, fresh green malt, a rounder grainy note, hints of oak in the background, plastic. After adding a few drops of water the malt and peat integrate, but the profile remains similar overall.

Taste: strong malt sweetness with some heat up front, peat starts in the background around the middle and shifts into the foreground near the back, vague fruity overtones throughout. After dilution the flavors get a bit brighter and the peat notes are stronger, but the overall structure remains the same.

Finish: raw peat, bittersweet, slightly tannic

Whether or not this is your jam, I think they accomplished their goal of creating an "older" style of whisky. For all that we complain about how raw the whiskies coming out of new distilleries are, that's what most people would have been drinking before the 20th century. In a sense, it's an unfair advantage for the older distilleries that were established when no one expected their spirit to be aged for at least a decade.

At the same time, this isn't the same raw distillate that would have been coming off Lagavulin's stills when it was established. Their processes are built towards their core 16 Year release and I suspect that an 8 year old whisky back then would have potentially offered something more interesting than this. My expectations may have been too high after trying younger bourbon cask Lagavulin at the distillery, but this was an absolute let down. At least I didn't have to slog through more than half a bottle?

Friday, February 22, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015 Release

Loch Gorm is the third member of Kilchoman's standard lineup. It was brought in to rotation in 2013, replacing the more generically named Sherry Cask Release. As that suggests, this is the version aged entirely in ex-sherry casks, both butts and hogsheads.

As with all Kilchoman's standard releases, this is bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration. The whisky was distilled in 2010 and bottled in 2015.

I purchased this sample from

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2015 Release

Nose: rich but not overwhelming sherry, clean malt, gingerbread, dry mossy peat smoke, fresh ground coffee, vanilla, American oak, seashells/minerals, a little salinity. After adding a few drops of water it loses most of its intensity, leaving mostly soft sherry and peat, though some of it reemerges alongside savory and lemon notes with time.

Taste: fairly sweet up front with some heat that carries through, fades through oxidized bittersweet sherry into light American oak and peat at the back. After dilution it gains some intensity but with less heat - the sherry expands towards the front and becomes brighter, the peat at the back is stronger and lingers longer.

Finish: a little hot, oak, fresh peat, coffee, Robitussin overtones, doesn't linger very long

This is a bit more like it. Despite being aged exclusively in sherry casks, I find that element better integrated here than in Sanaig. Importantly the peat smoke is also more present, which helps to give the whisky a better balance.

With that said, the aromas are clearly the star of the show at full strength. They have great intensity and a respectable amount of complexity. The flavors and finish are more than a bit of a letdown in comparison. I couldn't find much complexity and the finish just gave up. I was also surprised by the heat, despite the not especially high bottling proof. That may be down to the young-ish spirit going into this compared to Machir Bay, but without any definite explanation of how they're composed, that's just conjecture.

Water largely flips that relationship, though it doesn't bring much more complexity to the flavors.

Overall this reinforce my sense that Machir Bay is the only Kilchoman that can be described as a good value. Others might be better, but given how much more you'll pay for them I can't in good faith recommend spending your money when there's so much quality to be had from their entry-level whisky. Hopefully someday they'll be able to have range where everything justifies its price point, but we're not there right now. I wouldn't say no if someone gave me a bottle... but I won't be spending my own money on it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Sanaig

While Kilchoman's Machir Bay has been holding down their standard lineup for some years now, it has gained some company more recently. Sanaig is roughly the mirror image of Machir Bay - while the latter is built from a 80/20 bourbon:sherry mix, Sanaig is built from a 30/70 bourbon: sherry mix. This lets the sherry shine without completely leaving out the bourbon cask component.

As with all of Kilchoman's entry level malts, this is made from Port Ellen malt and bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

From Kilchoman Distillery
Kilchoman Sanaig

Nose: somewhat closed initially - light dry peat smoke, smoked fish, oxidized sherry, Hawaiian Punch, muddled malt and floral notes, baking spices. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes brighter and a little nutty, some more oak comes out, and the peat becomes stronger.

Taste: heavily sherried but not particularly sweet up front, relatively flat with floral overtones until a small bump of peat at the back. After dilution it remains very flat and moderately sherried while the peat disappears until the finish

Finish: savory sherry residue, floral overtones, oak tannins, a little peat

Meh. I can see what they were trying to accomplish here, but it feels like too much has been taken away from the spirit without the casks adding much in the way of extra complexity for me to get excited about it. If anything it the mix of floral notes, sherry, and light peat reads like an appeal to Bowmore fans. The nose is the best part and is engaging if soft, but the flavors are just too flat without any of the fire I expect from Kilchoman. If they were primarily using refill rather than first fill sherry casks I can imagine this working, both in terms of the sherry having a lighter touch and potentially less oak impact. I'll happily drink Machir Bay instead, which is cheaper to boot.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Machir Bay Revisited

Kilchoman remains Islay's youngest active distillery, despite the numerous proposed new distilleries being built on the island. While they began their releases with a series of seasonal releases that charted the development of their spirit, that changed when Machir Bay became their first regular release. It was initially composed entirely from ex-bourbon cask whisky that was five years old or less, with a small proportion finished in ex-sherry casks. More recently they have stopped stating the age of the components and the exact treatments they get, but it is made from 80% ex-bourbon casks and 20% ex-sherry casks. While they have whisky that is over ten years old now, it is likely that what goes into this release remains largely or entirely younger than that.

As with all of Kilchoman's entry level malts, this is of indeterminate age and was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this miniature locally

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Nose: dry peat smoke, cigarette ash, incense, young/fresh malt, brown sugar, a touch of sherry, floral heather and violets, light American oak, seashore in the background. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer with less ashy peat, the sherry largely retreats, and the floral notes mostly disappear.

Taste: mildly sweet malt with a touch of sherry up front, becomes bittersweet with oak tannins and rising peat smoke in the middle, some alcohol heat at the back. After dilution the peat gets stronger and moves forward on the palate, the sherry sweetness is stronger and extends further back, some seashore notes comes out around the middle, and the oak tannins mostly disappear going into the finish.

Finish: oak tannins, dry peat, sweet malt, sherry residue

Hey, that's pretty good. There was less cured meat on the nose and the peat was better integrated on the palate in this version compared to the first edition I tried, but otherwise it felt pretty consistent. I suspect that some of this is that Kilchoman now has older stock to blend into this release, so it comes off as less fiery than the version that was composed from 95% whiskies that were four years old or less.

Overall, I think this remains the standard by which all other Kilchoman releases are measured, much like Ardbeg's 10 Year is for that distillery. And as with them, the question Machir Bay always raises is whether the more expensive releases are enough better to justify their price tags.