Did I Drink Your Springbank Private Cask?

A while back I was shopping at Wally’s in Westwood, and saw an odd bottle out of the corner of my eye – a bottle labeled as a Springbank that looked like no Springbank I’d seen recently. I actually thought it was a new Kilkerran bottling at first.

Nope, this bottle is an old Springbank – the label is the same as many other bottlings for owners of private casks. Where this one differs, however, is in the utter lack of information provided. Normally, these have some sort of name on them – the cask owner, a firm who bought a cask, or some other unique identifier. There’s also some indication of the distillation and bottling date, and perhaps a cask number.

Fill in the blanks..

In this case, the label leaves everything to the imagination. “Cask Owner’s Private Bottling.”  No indication of who Cask Owner might be, how old their whisky is, or any sort of cask provenance. Beyond knowing it’s a Springbank, this is basically a blind malt.

Even the back label didn’t have much – a generic government warning and a Preiss Imports label. Neither Preiss, nor Wally’s, nor Springbank themselves had much to say about this bottle.

I’ve pretty much figured I’ll never know more about this than it was a fairly lucky find, but if you happen to know anything about the provenance of this bottle – who the owner might have been, how old the whisky is, etc, I’d love to hear it. If you’re the owner, well, I’d love to hear more.

But this one remains a mystery. The moral of the tale? Keep your eyes open because you never know what you’ll see.

At a glance:

Springbank Cask Owner’s Private Bottling 50% ABV (NAS)
Nose:  An interesting mix of fruitiness and light peat initially. Some maltiness, a little white pepper and slight mustiness. A little canned pear, some light tarriness, and some vanilla.
Palate:  Thick mouthfeel, faintly musty; earthy, with a little bit of peat. Nice heat; malty; some white pepper. A little faint hint of vanilla.
Finish:  Warm initially, receding, leaving malt and plenty of pepper with a bit of vanilla. Light hints of waxy apples.
Comment: Seems like a bourbon cask that’s youngish, but there’s not a lot to go on. Enjoyable enough and a fun oddity.
Rating:  B

Col. E.H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash

Today I’m turning my sights to a release from last year – E.H. Taylor’s Old Fashioned Sour Mash. The Taylor name – you might remember it as Old Taylor – was bought from Beam a few years back. For a while it looked like this might be a less-experimental series of releases than the Experimental Collection. There have been a few releases to day:

  • Old Fashioned Sour Mash
  • Single Barrel
  • Tornado Surviving (aka Kentucky Phoenix)
  • Barrel Proof
  • COLA nerds know a Straight Rye label exists. (there’s also a label for Small Batch, so who knows what the Taylor line holds)

Today we’re talking about the first release: Old Fashioned Sour Mash. Now, I know 99.999% of the readers here understand the sour mash process. It’s not a unique thing in American whisky – it’s extremely common, if not the overall norm. Without getting too deep into distillation minutia: some of the spent grain used from a prior distillation batch is retained for the next batch. This has the effect of lowering the pH for the next batch, which allows the fermentation to be yeast-driven versus bacterial. (For the real nerds, Scotch whiskies allow for a second bacterial fermentation as they’ve frequently got open-top washbacks – honestly, the best explanation I’ve ever read of the whisky making process is in Charles MacLean’s Malt Whisky which is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve encountered)

So, the difference between the sour mash process as it exists today and the “Old Fashioned” process is one of time. Buffalo Trace allowed the mash to sit for a while before entering the fermenters and the pH slowly dropped into the range that would be expected to be seen in the modern version of the sour mash process. This natural process that resulted in a lower pH is what they’re calling Old Fashioned, versus the modern spent-grain method.

OK, enough nerdosity. Let’s talk about the whisky. This stuff was mocked almost immediately upon release because of its $75 price tag. The scotch guys will pay this without blinking an eye, but $75 puts you within a stone’s throw of Buffalo Trace’s Anniversary Collection or Parker’s Heritage, so the final result better be great.

Unfortunately, if you subtract out the economics of a small run, I’m not sure that it lives up to the $75 price tag, and that seems to be the general consensus on this release.

The nose is warm and spicy, with evidence of rye almost immediately. It’s got strong but not overbearing wood influence; vanilla, corn and general grainy notes. There’s a slight hint of brown sugar and maple syrup.

The palate is lightly sour on first entry – think of a more refined version of the sourness you get off of an Evan Williams sometimes. It warms gently; has a nice woody sweetness and is mildly astringent. There’s rye, toffee, and it’s lightly vegetal. It’s nowhere near as young and green as, say, a Beam.

The finish dries quickly and leaves behind vanilla, some slightly sour new-make notes, more wood and is lightly warming with a moderate length finish.

It’s not the most amazing whisky I’ve had and I think the $75 price tag would be out of line if this were a regular production item. It’s nice with its heat and has some nuance, and the slight presence of sourness isn’t overbearingly “green” nor does it make the whole thing a mess. It serves as a nice balance to the sweetness evident elsewhere.

Honestly, I think this is a good whisky. It’s not going to be common on the shelves at this point; if you find a bottle it’s worth picking up. It’s definitely worth trying in a bar. I’d love to see something like this become a regular offering.

At a glance:

Col. E.H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash (50% ABV)
  Warm and spicy, with rye evident immediately. Strong but not overbearing wood, vanilla. Corn and grainy notes, and a slight hint of brown sugar. Some maple syrup as well.
Palate:  Lightly sour on first entry, warming gently. Woody sweetness with mild astringency. Rye, light toffee, slightly vegetal notes.
Finish:  Drying quickly, leaving behind vanilla, slightly sour new-make notes like the Buffalo Trace White Dog, more wood, lightly warming. Moderate finish.
Comment:  This isn’t a world-beater, but it’s different than most people are making today and a nice change. It’s not overbearingly hot, has some good complexity and is overall enjoyable. This has a slight sourness throughout that works nicely to provide some balance to to the sweetness.
Rating: B

Back To Basics: A Small Batch Worth the Price

Yesterday I reviewed Noah’s Mill and was pretty disappointed in it.

It seems like everything these days is “small batch” or “artisan distilled” or some other label-friendly term that indicates that people put a lot of thought into it. Unfortunately, there’s a problem in a lot of cases: if you’re a micro-distillery, a “small batch” may simply be a nicer face put on “our entire production run for three months”. I’m not sure that’s actually a small batch. Or, it could just be ten barrels randomly thrown together, as the Noah’s Mill bottle seemed to be.

Artisan is also woefully misapplied. As it’s been pointed out before, this term is being overused to the point of meaninglessness. After all, Domino’s has artisan pizzas – with the box signed by a store employee. Somehow I doubt the next Poilâne will come from a Domino’s. So, too, this descriptor is applied to more and more whiskey releases. Unfortunately, as I’ve tasted them, very few seem to really merit them – it’s just crap on a different scale. Maybe you can imagine the “artisan” whiskeys are made by someone sweating over every aspect of production, but in the case of a lot of American releases, that unfortunately seems to be a flop sweat of uncertainty – not the perspiration of a confident master.

This isn’t a shot across the bow of small distillers. Far from it. As I’ve said before, if I seem less than charitable towards these guys, it’s because I don’t think it’s good for people to assume “small distillery” is a stamp of quality and then get burned on a $40 of over-oaked, questionably-finished gasoline. I know I’ve been conciliatory towards larger producers, but it just seems that this stuff works best in large barrels aged in a controlled environment for a long time. The people who have the budget to pull that off happen to be, well… larger producers.

When a large producer rolls out a “small batch” product, it’s very hard to get enthusiastic. Usually this is a more intensely-flavored variety of the usual mediocrity, and certainly is more intensely priced. Some are interesting in their deviation, but rarely do they get to a point of being special.

I think the release that I’ve regarded with the most intense skepticism in a long time is Balvenie’s Tun 1401 Batch 3 release. It’s Balvenie for crying out loud – it’s the safest, most accessible, generically scotchy scotch. It’s good, sure. I’ve had many Balvenies and while they can be enjoyable, they’re usually short of the mark of greatness. After all, it’s really hard to be a crowd-pleaser to the uninitiated but also be able to wow the die-hards.

When Tun 1401 came out with the usual marketing muscle, fanfare and glowing reviews from some familiar faces, I continued to be underwhelmed. It’s Balvenie. It’s a “small batch” that’s $250. From Balvenie – which could make 500 of these batches a year if they wanted. It felt like yet another exercise in testing the market’s tolerance for expensive whisky that’s cloaked so that we might think it’s worth the price. How many whiskies really are worth $250? Not a lot.

My friends in LAWS started to rave about this one. I couldn’t believe it… the most die-hard group of malt-lovers this side of the Atlantic (aside from the underground and extremely secretive PLOWED, which for all I know holds annual get-togethers in former James Bond super-villain lairs and uses their time machine to corner the market on old whiskies in some sort of time-travelling pre-emptive FOAFing activity) were falling under the spell of the hype on this bottle. Since this was now in the LAWS sphere, I needed to try a sample

I was floored. And I didn’t really want to be.

The price was only part of the problem.

In my mind, I’ve seen Balvenie as a faux-craft distillery that was used to lend a kind of traditional legitimacy to the William Grant whisky brands (the other most notably being Glenfiddich). They still crank out a bunch of spirit, and it’s not bad, but I’d always figured it was just a market segmentation activity.

I also saw this video about the making of Tun 1401 while looking into it more.

It’s certainly a beautifully shot, rustic vision of whisky creation. But I had to admit while I drank from my glass, I couldn’t square my cynicism and prejudices against the reality of this whisky. It turns out that this is just a really good whisky.

The nose is almost the best part (but you’d be crazy to stop there). It’s an absolutely beautiful balance of wood and dried fruits. There’s dried oranges, waxy apples, figs, and some molasses. A momentary flash of marmite (very briefly) but it’s not there long. Amazing sherry influence that doesn’t overpower things. It’s just.. pleasant. I could nose this all day.

The palate enters gently, with some light sweetness and dried fruit. Waxy apples show up first, with jammy notes and plum. Faint molasses and a good dose of figs. There’s a faint dusting of white pepper. This all balances wonderfully against the oak which lends depth but not a trace of bitterness. The palate is rich and mouth-coating, without ever becoming syrupy (which I tend to feel is an unfortunately common note among Balvenies I’ve had).

The finish is gently warming, lasts delightfully with dried fruit notes in abundance. A brighter  mint note that flashes by for a second, but it’s just rich, woody and waxy.

This is one of those rare whiskies that I can’t see how I’d change or improve. It’s got a nose I could enjoy all day; it’s fruited but has some spice and oak. It’s phenomenally well balanced; sherry gives it depth but doesn’t overrun the spirit; it’s substantial but not out of balance. Honestly, there’s nothing not to like here aside from the price tag.

This, I think, is one of those rare products that really merits an artisan name. This just has experience, good judgement, and a master’s skill written all over it. Everything is perfectly balanced but it doesn’t feel calculated; it’s not ostentatiously sherried or smoked within an inch of it’s life. It just has a quiet, steady balance that can only be found by someone who really, absolutely knows what they’re doing.

Some may be put off by the marketing push, the Balvenie name, or the price. I certainly understand the latter; the price could be a bit dear to some. If it’s in your budget, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. This is not a stunt whisky, it’s a masterclass in back-to-the-basics whisky making. It’s phenomenal. Try to find a pour soon, it’s vanishing fast.

As for me, this is an object lesson in setting aside preconceptions about a distillery for a while.

At a glance:

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3, 50.3% ABV
Nose: Beautiful balance of wood and dried fruits. Some light dried oranges, some waxy apple skin. Slightly figgy and some molasses. A little whiff of marmite but not much. Great sherry influence but not overpowering at all.
Palate:  Gentle entry into the palate, lightly sweet with dried fruit again. Waxy apples present themselves first, nice jammy notes with some plum as well. A little more faint molasses with a good dose of figs. Faint dusting of white pepper. A good balance with some nice oak that lends depth but not bitterness. The palate is rich and mouth-coating without going in the direction of syrupy.
Finish:  Gently warming, lasting, with the dried fruit notes still in abundant. A slightly brighter note – maybe a little flash of mint for a second. Nice and rich, woody and waxy.
Comment:  This is an absolutely wonderful Balvenie with a nose I could enjoy all day. I can’t think of much I’d really change on this because it’s phenomenally balanced. Sherry is there but not overwhelming, it’s substantial but not out of balance, it’s just a masterpiece. If it weren’t for the pricetag and the fact that this stuff is getting harder to find already, I’d be buying it by the case.
Rating: A

Collabo-Review #3: Noah’s Mill

A while back, Sku, Jason and I did our second collaborative review. When we picked Wild Turkey Rye, we did so not knowing what was going to happen to it in the marketplace. It was a bit of dumb luck that made it a timely review. Unfortunately, by the time the review ran, stocks of the rye were quite low and it was hard to find. Even at this point, the new lower proof rye has not shown up with any regularity on the west coast.

Fortunately, today’s group-reviewed whiskey is much more easily available: Noah’s Mill. Virtually any store with a halfway decent selection will have a bottle of Noah’s Mill on hand. If you’ve been wondering about this one, wonder no more. (Or keep wondering, as I am…)

Noah’s Mill is a Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottling, meaning that it’s sourced from an unknown distillery and bottled by KBD. There’s no indication that it’s distilled elsewhere than Kentucky, but beyond that, the origin distillery is unknown.

This is not actually my first brush with Noah’s Mill, and I held a previous encounter as a pivotal moment for me. In all honesty, I was not a big fan of bourbon prior to an encounter with Noah’s Mill; I tended to view it as a bottom shelf offering and saw Scotch whisky as the real, genuine deal. Noah’s Mill turned all that on its head. It had a ton of oak and a very strong note of black cherry and a certain candied sweetness. It was unlike anything I’d ever had, and it opened the door to American whiskeys for me. Since then it’s been an obsession, but you never forget the one that changed you.

However, Noah’s Mill has been a batched release, so those batches are subject to some variance. I was hoping this had a very consistent profile batch to batch, even in spite of the fact that Noah’s Mill lost its 15 year old age statement a while back. It’s always hard to tell, but I was optimistic that perhaps this batch would live up to the past memory.

The bottle we’re reviewing today is from batch 11-121, and weighs in at a respectable 57.15% ABV.

The nose is woody up front, in a very strong and prominent way. There’s light toffee and a strong black cherry presence. Some earthy clay and vanilla are there, and there’s also a light hint of a more raw sugar sweetness.

The whisky is mouth-coating and almost immediately brings considerable heat. Cinnamon and a dash of cayenne drive the heat. There’s some maple syrup as a base note and lots and lots of wood. Honestly, I think it moves in the direction of being over-oaked. Black cherry and vanilla give some dimension and there’s a raw sugar note that starts to develop and seems somewhat out of place against the oak.

The finish is very hot initially, but quickly cools and leaves tons of oak and goes slightly bitter. There’s a bit of orange zest but the finish is mostly heat, pepper and wood.

Even adding water didn’t do a lot for this – the nose became more musty; the palate’s heat was tamed but it felt over-oaked still, and the finish was not measurably changed.

I have to say I was really disappointed by my return to the bourbon that lit my fire for the stuff. It’s either a change in my palate or this batch, but in either case, I don’t know that I’ll be coming back for more. It’s a shame – I used to love the stuff.

I hope the other guys liked this one more than I did.

Read the review of Noah’s Mill at Sour Mash Manifesto.

Read the review of Noah’s Mill at Sku’s Recent Eats.

At a glance: 

Noah’s Mill (Batch 11-121) 57.15% ABV
Nose: Woody up front, quite prominently so. Light notes of toffee lie under stronger notes of black cherry. A little bit of earthy clay and some vanilla. Water doesn’t do this much favor and it’s sort of malty and musty. There’s a light hint of sugary sweetness in the back. 
Quite mouth-coating, it’s almost immediately off to the races and starts heating up. Cinnamon, cayenne pepper in a small dose. Behind that there’s some maple syrup and plenty of wood and it’s pushing into over-oaked. A little black cherry, a little vanilla. Light sugary note on the palate as well. Water tames the heat considerably but it’s still all about the wood. 
Very hot initially on the finish, recedes leaving tons of oak and leaning slightly bitter. A little whisper of orange zest but it’s mostly heat, pepper and wood. Again, water does this no favors. 
This is either a measure of the change in my palate or this batch (I have no concept of how consistent Noah’s Mill may be or the overall batching approach – go for something unique or maintain a profile). I remember Noah’s Mill being much sweeter, with and verging on being almost candied. This one feels overoaked to me and off kilter.

Bonus notes: Last tasting of Noah’s Mill, circa late 2010

Noah’s Mill, Batch 10-57, 57.15% ABV
Vanilla, caramel, cherries, wood and a bit of cotton candy. Diluted to 40% the vanilla, wood and cherry merge a little more cleanly.
Moderate spice, sweet, dark fruit – plum and black cherry, wood on the back of the palate, heating continously. Diluted subdues the heat, the wood takes on kind of a varnished quality and the cherry intensifies but stays dark.
Warming, remains with the dark fruit notes and some sweetness but not cloying. Some light toffee.

Bunnahabhain Jubilee Malt II (“Extra Regal”)

Bunnahabhain Jubilee Malt “Extra Regal” (Second Edition) For The Whisky Barrel 54.5% ABV
Light, slightly musty and malty, earthy and woody. A little white wine presence. Some slight vanilla. Hints of cantaloupe, a bit of pineapple and pear. 
Nice and mouth-coating, a gentle white pepper heat. Woody, malty, a little musty again. Some pears, a little bit of cantaloupe. Late heat in the form of cinnamon. Light vanilla. Very light sherry. 
Warm initially on the finish. Pears, lightly estery, vanilla, malt and wood. 
Jubilee Malt 1 was the one to do. This one isn’t bad (and I might even throw in “for the price”), but it’s kind of anonymously malty. There are zillions of malts like this on the shelf. If you can’t find a cask strength 21y Bunnahabhain for less, go for this.

This one is still available at The Whisky Barrel. It’s not as fun as the first edition, but it’s still available. Compare it against similarly aged Bunnahabhains – it might be a deal.

The Diamond Jubilee and Sherry Bombs

This weekend was the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Judging by my twitter feed, this is a fairly big deal and also the coverage was bad to terrible. I don’t really know much about the whole goings-on, nor did I make a point to watch: anything I’d see would be with a serious cultural distance and the magnitude (or lack thereof) of what happened would be lost on me.

No, I can’t even suppose what this is like. Perhaps it’s like celebrating the Ryan Seacrest hosting the 10,000th consecutive season of American Idol? It’s hard to understand quite what it translates to. I guess if Nixon had just always stayed Vice President when he was elected alongside Eisenhower in ’52 and was still plugging away doing the duties of the office, that’d be somewhat similar? Hard to say. America doesn’t really seem to have cultural landmarks that go back more than about 10 years (see also, American Idol or Surivor).

For most people, this isn’t even an event on the radar. I really only had awareness of it for two reasons:

1) Commercials during Top Gear advertising live coverage this weekend.

2) I am a huge whisky nerd and there’s no shortage of bottlings for this occasion.

Now, most bottles that bear the name “Diamond Jubilee” are comically overpriced. Take for instance this Glen Grant, packaged beautifully.

I can't lie: I always think of CLIX vodka when I see this.

Yes, this 60 year old Glen Grant will set you back a mere $10,000 plus shipping.

If you’re a blends drinker, you could also check out the Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee whisky. You’ve likely seen mention of this one: $200,000 a bottle, in a Baccarat crystal decanter. It’s a nice presentation (I won’t lie), but also a bit out of my range. To be fair, this one has been targeted as a charity bottle.

Enjoyed best with Coca-Cola & the crisp taste of currency

On the more attainable side of things, you could always get the Diamond Jubilee Bell’s Decanter. This will run you just shy of $100. Bell’s decanters are another one of those lost-in-translation whisky culture things. Some people seem to go crazy trying to find them, but they also seem to be regarded roughly as the Hummel figures of the whisky world. I have no idea.

For all those precious moments?

For the nerdy whisky enthusiast, this did not seem like a particularly interesting set of bottles. Overpriced or boring blends. There were also bottles of Royal Lochnagar and Macallan released, but all of those will likely be long-gone and questionably priced as well. I have to admit, for an industry that seems to thrive on any occasion whatsoever to trot out a limited-edition bottle (“It’s the fifth Tuesday this month! COMMEMORATIVE BOTTLE!”), the Diamond Jubilee seemed like a bust.

Enter The Whisky Barrel.

The Whisky Barrel is one of my favorite UK retailers and I’ve certainly ordered a bunch from them over the years. At some point earlier this summer they announced their “Jubilee Malt” – a 21 year old Bunnahabhain from a first-fill sherry butt, limited to 90 bottles. The asking price was even reasonable!

Really nice, except for the label...

So reasonable, in fact, that I immediately threw down the plastic for a bottle. At 90 bottles from a sherry butt, this was something interesting.

The nose on this is a classic sherry bomb: nutty sherry, leather, and some sherry notes on the margins. There’s deep and abundant dried fruits, figs, a little bit of prunes, and even a momentary flash of Kiwi shoe polish. It’s lightly waxy and has a touch of molasses.

The palate is thick and has some considerable heat. Sherry rules the day here again with leather, which is immediately dancing with abundant white pepper to find a balance. There’s cinnamon as well, and it’s quite lively. There’s wall-to-wall figs and a slight nuttiness; even the elusive rancio note.

The finish starts cooler than expected, but heats up and has a profound sherry influence – nutty, chewy and leathery tastes remain with figs and molasses. Fuji apples and slight citrus provide some brightness, but the whisky gets waxier with time.

All in all it’s a fun, super-sherried malt. It’s not necessarily identifiable as Bunnahabhain but it’s a worthwhile sherry bomb.

While this bottle is LONG gone, you can get the Jubilee Malt II (Wrath of Khan, Electric Boogaloo, Malt Harder, etc) at The Whisky Barrel still. I have a bottle sitting in reserve which I’ll definitely comment on when the time comes. I would have done it sooner but – oh, there you go. American Idol on the DVR. Back soon.

At a glance:

Bunnahabhain 21y Jubilee Malt for The Whisky Barrel
Nutty sherry notes with leather, slightly sulphury notes on the margins. Deep dried fruit notes, figs, a bit pruney, almost a moment of Kiwi shoe polish, lightly waxy, a touch of molasses.
Very thick with some heat. Strong sherry influence with some leather, dances around with white pepper in abundance and a bit of cinnamon. Quite lively. Wall-to-wall figs, slight nuttiness, earthy rancio notes. 
Nice and cool initially, but the heat picks up again. A very profound but nice sherry influence; some nutty, chewy and leathery tastes remain with some figs and a little molasses, as well as some Fuji apples and slight citrus. Goes waxier with time. 
Quite a nice super-sherried malt. It is a little anonymous, but it’s still fun.
Rating: B+