Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2010) – 45%

Nose:  Vanilla, wood, light caramel, a definite solvent edge to the alcohol, a little light apple and faint apricot. Some molasses and dust.
Palate:  Wood intially, mildly bitter and astringent, medium-heavy mouthfeel, virtually no burn, a vaguely salty sweetness, some later vanilla and fruit. Light rye spice.
Finish:  Light, somewhat spirity, medium finish, bringing the fruit up. A little rye.
Comment:  It doesn’t stack up nor really rate against the rest of 2010′s BTAC. It’s a fine whiskey, doesn’t really merit the price . Unfocused and lacking real complexity. Thin and a bit of a mess.
Rating: C+

Rather than integrating this into the 2011 post, I wanted to provide these notes for reference on the 2010 whiskey which was markedly inferior.

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) – The Rebuttal

In previous posts on this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, I haven’t hesitated to poke fun at Eagle Rare as not deserving to be part of the collection. After last year’s collection I felt rather confident in my assertion that the Antique Collection consisted of four great whiskies and Eagle Rare 17.

When the opportunity presented itself to try this year’s Eagle Rare, I figured it was only fair to give it a taste. If it was underwhelming again, I’d feel confident in all future write-offs of Eagle Rare.

I poured the Eagle Rare into my glass this evening ready to be underwhelmed – what’s to like? – and prepared to nose it in all of its 45% ABV glory. After a summer of high-proof bourbons, a bourbon under 100 proof seemed like a painfully unfunny punchline.

Immediately I was surprised by this year’s nose. There are sweet notes of corn in abundance and a slightly floral rye note. That is a promising start for me. Wood was certainly present as you’d expect with a 17 year old whiskey, but not out of balance or overoaked. A slight hint of white pepper provided a faint prickle. Black cherries gave some depth and darkness to the flavor, and there was a faint marshmallow hint. This was starting to hit all of my buttons. A little maple syrup could be detected at the edges, as well as some fresh cedar and pine on the nose.

To my personal taste, this had a nose that was dangerously close to being in line with my preferred profile. `Maybe not turned up to eleven and rocking out, but balanced nicely.

The palate entry was very light. Extremely light – my first impression was that it was almost watery. I thought this was where it would all fall apart. Much to my surprise the white pepper notes were the underpinning for some faint and agreeable warming. The corn sweetness was at the center, balanced by a moderate note of oak. For a fleeting second, a faint vegetal corn note could be perceived, reminding me of the youth and fire this once had. The floral bloom of rye was again evident as well.

It wasn’t the most impressive palate, but far from the worst. Drinkable in the extreme. My personal preferences run towards a weightier and bolder palate, but it was hard to deny the overall balance and well-constructed nature of this whiskey. My only quibble really was the mouthfeel which struck me as thin.

Unsurprisingly, this carried into the finish. Being a lighter whiskey, it didn’t have a long-lasting finish, nor was it particularly bold. The sweetness was again the center of attention. Wood was present as was the pepper note. After a moment or two, there were some black tea-like tannins. For the most part, this finish was OK.

As I continued to sip I was forced to really examine this whiskey. Was my negative impression of Eagle Rare a sign of my own biases? Was I perhaps more strongly prejudiced towards bruising, 65%+ cask-strength whiskies despite my protestations to the contrary? Honestly, I concluded, I was (and I am).

The fact is that I would pour this Eagle Rare for virtually any bourbon aficionado and it would do well. It’s not going to knock over the most die-hard, extreme taste adventurer (which I’m forced to admit includes my personal preference). However, it is utterly agreeable and easy-drinking.

What would I change? Well, I think it would benefit somewhat from a slightly thicker mouthfeel. The sweetness feels somewhat detached – for some reason, sweetness works better for me when it’s a full, mouth-coating bourbon. I also think a slight tweak of the ABV – perhaps to 100 proof – would help bring things into clearer focus.

All this is a long way of saying that I’m forced to admit that I’ve been unfair to Eagle Rare and that it doesn’t necessarily deserve to be a whipping boy. I do think it has a tenuous claim to being part of the BTAC – it’s less dynamic than powerhouses like the Weller or the Handy. But perhaps it’s there because it’s a very well executed, easy-drinking bourbon for the average joe. I can’t really see what would be objectionable to the average palate on this one, unless you simply didn’t like whiskey.

At a glance:

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) 45% ABV
A rather pleasant nose – sweet notes of corn and a slightly floral note of rye. Reasonable wood balance, certainly not overoaked. Slight hint of white pepper; slight hint of black cherries and the faintest whisper of marshmallow. Maple syrup is lightly present. A bit of cedar and pine.
Palate: Light on the palate. Gradually warming. Nice corn sweetness. A moderate oak note; the faintest hint of a vegetal corn note. A bit of floral rye. Faint dusting of white pepper.
Finish: Short-ish. Not very bold, not very lasting. The sweetness takes the forefront. Wood present; the pepper is there. A little bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: The nose is great. The palate and finish are a little lightweight for me with this profile. I honestly wonder if this might sing at 100 proof. This is better than last year’s for sure.
Rating:  B

The New Kid: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Special Edition

There’s a semi-regular turnover of distilleries in Scotland, some closing temporarily and reopening later to start production again. Others are closed and sold and opened under new ownership. Occasionally you have high-profile new distilleries such as Kilchoman. One distillery that has flown somewhat under the radar is Abhainn Dearg, located in the Outer Hebrides. This fall, their spirit had aged three years in wood and met the minimum requirements to be called “whisky” according to Scottish law. For the moment, that makes it the newest single malt on the market. (Glenglassaugh, recently reopened, will lay claim to that title on the 16th of December).

Abhainn Dearg’s malt was being sold at the traditionally sky-high prices for young whiskey and I’d held off on it. However, when The Whiskey Barrel showed a 50mL sample in stock, I jumped on it immediately as I’d been wanting to try this new whiskey that seemed to carry no baggage with it.

At three years old, it’s still a very raw, unrefined whiskey. It’s very pale, but it’s clear that it’s not new make or the product of a twenty-fifth fill cask that’s completely tired and dead.

The nose of this whiskey does nothing to hide its youth. It’s got a big wood note to it, some pine, but it’s a very distinct and sharp wood note. It has some qualities to it like a wet popsicle stick or a damp unbleached napkin. It’s very saturated and raw. It’s also got some vaguely raw sugar notes that still are hanging on from its life as a young spirit – however, the sweetness is balanced by some saltiness you might expect from an Islay. It’s not extreme, but it’s noticeable. There’s also a faintly detectible note that’s almost burned or caramelized – it’s almost creme brûlée but not quite.

The whiskey is medium-light on its entry – it’s not thick and viscous but it’s not thin, hot and watery. Despite its 46%, it’s very well-balanced and not overly hot. Given how some whiskies can just run away this is very welcome. If anything I’d be interested to try this at cask strength. The wood note is unfortunately fairly forward, having all the notes that exist on the nose. There’s some raw sugar, some slightly piney notes and a vague hint of vanilla. It’s definitely malty and has a slightly vegetal hint – again, more towards the pine and resin side of things than the wet corn husks you’d expect with a bourbon. The longer this hangs around, the more the sweetness develops into being faintly fruity, like a tart apple or a pear.

The finish dries from the palate and the wood is present. It’s sugary and slightly vegetal. Again, as you progress, the sugar notes start to coalesce into the pears and apples that were on the palate.

This is a tricky whisky. It’s undeniably young and brash. It’s out of balance and raw, and has a lot of growing up to do. However, 3 years is very young for a scotch and this has at least another 6-7 years to grow up in. It’s certainly nowhere near as raw as a white whiskey. It’s got a lot pointing in the right direction and I’m very curious to see how this develops – will the pears and apples start taking form? Will the sweetness come up and give it more of a vanilla note? It’s very interesting. I could see this having a profile similar to Glenfiddich, or becoming more straightforward malty and vanilla like some of the ’70s Banffs out there. I’m not sure that this will be one that takes sherry as well as other spirits; it seems somewhat light despite its age. Whatever happens, I will watch this with great interest.

The bottom line is that if your traditional whiskey is a 12-15 year old sherry-casked or bourbon-casked whiskey, this is not ready for you. If you’re not a stranger to white whiskey or you’re looking to start experimenting, this could be a good one. Make sure you can tolerate wood and you like the slightly more estery and sweet profiles. This may not necessarily be the success that Kilchoman was (in my opinion, a very well executed 3 year old), but it’s a very interesting case study, and not an opportunity that comes around frequently. For the adventurous, try and split a bottle or lay your hands on a sample.

I will note, however, that the cork used to seal this bottle was quite saturated though not falling apart. It may be possible this contributed to the wood notes and threw them out of balance. If that’s the case, I can only hope Abhainn Dearg changes their stopper.

At a glance:

Nose:  Malty, woody and piney. It’s a very distinctly young wood note; it almost goes into kind of a saturated note reminiscent of a popsicle stick or a wet unbleached napkin. Slightly salty, but with a vague raw sugar note to it. It’s almost faintly creme-brulee, but not quite.
Medium-light on the palate. The wood note is again pretty forward. Slight raw sugar, light pine, a vague hint of vanilla. Also faintly vegetal. Malty. The longer it’s around, you get these pear and apple notes. 
Drying again. Wood present. Sugar and malt. Slightly vegetal. There’s some late fruit notes that are like tart apples or pears. 
This is a tricky one. This is fundamentally a young whisky so it’s got a lot of growing up to do – at least another six years. It’s easier drinking than a white whiskey. It’s also got a lot pointing in the right direction. I can’t recommend this as a general purchase to everyone, but it is a very interesting study in a new whiskey in development. 
  C+ (though recommended for the adventurous).