The December Bottles, #4: Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc Finish

The December Bottle series wraps up today with the most confusing and vexing bottle I’ve had in some time: the Bruichladdich Quarts de Chaume Chenin Blanc finish that was a K&L exclusive bottling for this year.

I’d intended this to kick off the series, having not had a Bruichladdich in some time and generally being a fan of the distillery despite the peaks and valleys. However, this one proved to be a little harder to pin down than I’d expected. As the days moved on, the notes became more confusing and contradictory – such that I ended up enlisting the palate of Sku (via a blind sample) to get his impression of it.

His impression was not great. Suffice it to say that he wasn’t a fan. His notes were wildly off where mine were and I was genuinely confused. I reopened my bottle (having been splitting my time between the now-empty Glenmorangie Signet and Glenlivet Archive 21 and the fast-draining Laphroaig 25) for another pour. My subsequent email to Sku led off with “This isn’t the whisky I opened…”

Clearly something was afoot. I took it upon myself to try and figure this out – was this changing quickly due to oxidation? Did I have a strange read on it? Did it just need to be reduced to a target ABV? This Bruichladdich took center stage as a nightly science experiment.

I’d muddled through the remainder of the bottle trying to figure it out, sending the occasional email to David Driscoll at K&L to get his take on it and taking notes the whole while. Then the other shoe dropped with an email from David last night, which I’m reprinting in its entirety to give this context:

Hello everyone,
We here at the K&L Spirits Department hope you have had a restful and relaxing Christmas and we also hope you have celebrated it with some fine booze in hand!  I’m writing, unfortunately, to address a problem we’ve had and to make sure any of you who are affected are taken care of.
If you’ve recently purchased a bottle of the Bruichladdich K&L Exclusive Chenin Blanc cask, you may have noticed that it has become quite different than the whisky I describe in the tasting notes.  There has been some tremendous bottle variation and some bottles taste nothing at all like the whisky we originally tasted.  While the bottles were perfectly tasty on arrival, they no longer resemble the malt we selected.  Some have deteriorated completely, however, into a sour and somewhat tart malt that seems completely volatile and spoiled.  It’s a problem I first noticed last week and have been monitoring ever since.  What’s clear to me now after popping a recent bottle is that some of the whiskies are simply bad.  I don’t want anyone to associate that whisky with us, K&L, or Bruichladdich.  Something happened to this malt that I can’t explain, but I don’t want any of you to think that we purposely chose a whisky that tasted like that!  I’d rather take the hit than damage our reputation for selecting world class whiskies.
So, if you have a recent bottle that has been affected please feel free to contact me and exchange it for something else.  My apologies for the situation, but I’m seriously shocked as to what exactly happened.  I’m currently communicating with the distillery to see if we can get some more information.  Thanks for your understanding.  Hopefully some of you got to enjoy this whisky while it was still beautiful and exciting!  Enjoy your holiday!
David Driscoll
K&L Spirits Buyer

And as of this afternoon, the whisky is currently not available (with a Waiting List option). A fair course of action – and I certainly don’t think the Davids would have picked what this has become. (I have tasted several other K&L exclusives that line up closely with their notes and have been generally quite good – the Madeira-casked Springbank, the Banff and the Ben Nevis are among my favorites)

So let’s trace this whisky’s utterly confusing evolution.

The first week of this whisky, my notes were shaping up as follows:
Nose: Lightly leathery – like a new Coach wallet but not overbearing. Abundantly but not overbearingly fruity – hint of bananas, a little peach and pineapple. Faintest pepper. Water opens it up greatly, revealing hay, the trademark Bruichladdich brine notes, a faint rubberiness and a bit more peach and passionfruit.
Palate: Full mouthfeel. Quite warm and gets warmer. Leather in abundance. Fruity again – the peach notes tempered by darker fruits. Light malt in the background. Some cherries providing depth; some raisins there as well. Faintest hint of bubblegum. Water again bings the brine up into clear focus; some faint peat notes lie in the background as well as some wet grass.
Finish: Warm finish. Fruits pull to the forefront with some wood, leather and apple. Some peach, some white pepper. Extremely long, very chewy. Slight mint – the finish continues to develop over a long time. There’s some famines and brine as well.
Comment: This is eye-wateringly powerful like many Bruichladdichs can be. It’s a very curious blend of fruit and leather. It’s hard to pin down at full strength. Water makes this one a little more familiar – and it will take a lot of water. It’s not like much else that I’ve had. Enigmatic, slightly overripe.
Rating: B

A few days later I note that “As the bottle ages the overripe notes start to dominate”.

Mid-month, Sku posts an unflattering review and set of tasting notes. I’m genuinely surprised – I found the palate so dense that I just didn’t quite know what to make of it. I decide to revisit it. It’s completely a different whisky at this point.

Around halfway full the bottle is changing for the worse. Here’s what it looked at half full around ten days ago:

Nose: Gaseous with a strong kick of shoe polish. Overly sweet, bordering on sickly sweet. Strange whiff of vanilla. Smells slightly chemical and artificial.
Palate: Pungent. Earthy. Warming. Overripe fruits. Raisins and a dab of chili oil. The chemical, artificial leather and shoe polish note from the nose is present.
Finish: Dry and bitter. Leathery. Chewy. White pepper – hot and slightly industrial.
Comment: The flavors are separating out but not for the better.
Rating: C-

At this point I was in full science-experiement mode. Dilution became my next avenue of attack and showed the most promise. A few days later I had the most successful dilution of this one at around 40% ABV, perhaps slightly higher.

Diluted to 40%
Nose:
Fruit cocktail that’s a bit overripe. It’s kind of like a less overtly sugary Balblair. Leather. Pears. Light pepper. Cinnamon. White wine.
Palate: Moderate wood presence, a white wine lightness to the flavor. Somewhat effervescent. Sugary with a hint of pastry like a beignet. Heavy mouthfeel, some apricot notes.
Finish: White pepper, a bit of heat. White wine, a faint hint of leather. A bit of woody maltiness at the end.
Comment: This is almost certainly the way to have this. At cask strength it’s too overbearing. At 40% it’s actually fairly pleasant.
Rating: (dilution only) B-

Diluted, it was interesting though unremarkable. It still remained a curiosity. Last night I had the remaining pour of the whisky, emptying the bottle. By then, the complexity had completely faded and where there was once an overwhelming rush of aromas and tastes, it was a simple, straightforward and unpleasant whisky. It got to the point where there was an involuntary wince after the first swallow.

Last Pour Notes
Nose: Overripe fruit. Pleather. Acetone. Decay and garbage.
Palate: Objectionably bitter. Weird tartness. Like licking a cheap purse. Plenty of heat and a nasty overripe fruit flavor.
Finish: Hot; fake and cheap leather, a bit chewy.
Comment: Whatever this had, it’s lost.
Rating: D

So we end up with an interesting case of “when whiskies go bad” with this one. The accepted wisdom is generally that whiskies are more or less stable, but can go flat with some oxidation. (Some bottles perk up a bit in a half-open bottle). Some bottles on rare occasion do seem to go horribly wrong – the Bowmore 21 from the mid 90s that I reviewed a while back and become an interesting case study. The head-scratcher here was how this one completely fell apart in a month’s time. It started with almost impenetrable complexity which was what caused my delay in getting notes. Everything was good but there was so much going on. In a few short weeks though… it winds up being one of the worst in recent memory.

I’m more than happy to take the Davids at their word – as I said, the other samples I’ve had have been great and shouldn’t stop you from buying or cause you to second-guess their judgement. Likewise, the distillate out of Bruichladdich under Jim McEwan has been good – Port Charlotte especially is a high point. Something in this experiment went horribly wrong. I’ll be listening for updates and posting them as they come in. It’s very curious. Since this bottle is seemingly unavailable and weirdly unstable at this point I’m not giving this one an official grade. It can be as high as a B or well into low D territory. Ultimately, it’s been an interesting ride and I haven’t had a whisky this challenging or interesting in a while.

With this curious close to the December Bottles series, I thought I’d call out some highlights. The Glenmorangie Signet was the first bottle I’ve finished. I still think it’s overpriced but it develops nicely with some rum raisin cake notes as the bottle drains. You should definitely seek out a pour.

Glenlivet Archive 21 did not change appreciably in its lifetime. It was a good bottle that I’ll buy again at some point.

Laphroaig 25 seems to have lost some of its complexity. It’s still enjoyable but there’s less here to draw me back. Nevertheless it is down to the last few pours.

Of the bunch I think I enjoyed Signet the most but I think Archive was the best bang for the buck.

Thanks for reading.. the new year will bring some more interesting Scotch whisky; a few bourbon odds and ends and some random spring-cleaning notes. Hopefully the third release of the Single Oak Project will show up soon as well.

9 thoughts on “The December Bottles, #4: Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc Finish”

    1. It was a strange one. K&L posted an update today - http://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/klwinescom-spirits-blog/2011/12/29/bruichladdich-kl-cask-update.html – the notable pieces there were…

      ” I’ve never seen a whisky fall apart like this in my life, and Jim McEwan is more than curious to figure out what went wrong.  Was it the wine?  The cask?  Some form of oxidation?  Bacteriological?  We’re not sure.”

      [...]

      “I’m hoping to turn this around very quickly however and make some sort of “Snow Phoenix” out of this.  McEwan said he had the exact same idea.”

      It’s a pretty weird one. Will be interested to see what the verdict is. 

        1. Oh, it’s no big deal. I’ve got blurry spots in my vision, my left arm has been numb for a week and I can no longer pronounce the letter “b” but I don’t know that I really have noticed the difference… :) 

  1. While Bruichladdich hasn’t released a final “disaster” report on the Chenin Blanc, I do find it amusing that K&L opted for a simple peated Bruichladdich this year.

      1. This year’s Bruichladdich is still available at $72.99 (which is not cheap for a nine year old whisky but it’s a single barrel and cask-strength). I’ve decided to hold off for now (considering I just bought the 20 year old Longmorn K&L is selling for less than the official 16 year old bottling). According to David Driscoll’s notes, the whisky started in ex-bourbon casks and was finished in refill sherry butt. Basically it’s not as exciting as the Chenin Blanc Finish but it’s probably not going to fall apart after a month open. Sometimes a reliable whisky is just what we need (and looking over the cask selections this year, K&L largely went for reliable whisky- no weird finishes).

        1. Yep. That said, that Longmorn blows away a lot of stuff on the shelves right now. Had a few pours of it with friends on Wednesday night and was really impressed. 20 year, high quality whisky at $99? Done deal.

          1. By the way, did you get the chance to try their Faultline 10 year old North Highland Single Malt? I’m pretty sure it’s Glenmorangie based on two hints. David Driscoll mentioned in the newsletter that independent bottlings from the distillery are rare to non-existent and the label states the distillery is located on the shores of the North Sea. The only odd thing is this whisky was aged entirely in a refill sherry butt which isn’t something the distillery uses (while Glenmorangie does use ex-sherry casks, those are typically used for finishing whisky, a la The Lasanta). I’ll need to pick up a bottle soon to test my theory (or ask David real nicely).

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