A Repeat Performance? Balvenie Tun 1401 – Batch 5

Just a few weeks ago, I raved about Balvenie’s Tun 1401, Batch 3 release. Then, as now, I believed it’s one of the very best releases of the last year. I can’t stress enough: if you find a bottle of this stuff on the shelves, YOU NEED TO BUY IT. Even if you don’t think Balvenie does it right normally, you’d really be making a mistake to write Tun 1401 off sight unseen.

For the time being, it seems that Tun 1401 is going to remain a premium, small-batch, old whisky expression released on an occasional basis for different world markets. When The Whisky Exchange announced that they had Batch 5 in stock, I jumped on it. And, as it turned out, so did Josh over at The Coopered Tot. Naturally, as I am wont to do, I proposed to Josh that we do a simulpost on this one. In case you didn’t notice, I dig that sort of thing.

So, Batch 5: how does it differ? It’s drawn from one less bourbon cask and one more sherry cask than Batch 3. Apparently the casks in Batch 3 ranged from 1967 to 1989, whereas #5′s casks are from 1966 to 1991. Technically that’d make Batch 5 two years younger, but I really think that’s getting wrapped around the axle on a completely unimportant detail. (And seriously, when you’re over 20 years, an individual year isn’t as massive a difference).

No, I believe that Tun 1401 is both a showcase of Balvenie at its best and a series of masterworks from David Stewart, the blender at Balvenie. You could spend time analyzing cask selection and age, but that would really miss the point. This is designed to be an (attainable) premium whisky that represents the very best of Balvenie.

The nose on the 1401 leads with a little familiar earthiness at first. There’s a little wet clay leading things. Shortly thereafter, dried fruit emerges, as you’d expect with sherry casks. Tobacco hints and orange top notes show up and provide some accents to this lush, well-aged but not tired whisky. There’s a leathery quality that comes along for the ride with the earthiness, but the nose remains slightly dry – white pepper can be detected. Let this sit in the glass for a while and you’ll catch a familiar nutty sherry note as well.

As with batch 3, batch 5 is mouth-coating and full, without being syrupy or oily. It’s got a nice set of choices from the spice rack – nutmeg and cinnamon – which gives some interest but do not overpower. Oranges give a little vibrancy on the top end, and it’s almost an orange liqueur note versus an orange zest. Still, it works beautifully. The earthy and leathery qualities come through on the palate, and dark fruit gives a little body to things. The bourbon influence on the palate of batch 5 is clear (as it was with batch 3), but at no time is it overbearing or cloying. It’s got a slight sharpness to it, but it’s not an off note at all. There’s some white pepper dusted over this and some gentle heat. It’s a great whisky to drink.

The finish is nice, leading with cinnamon, and there’s a wood presence that reinforces that this is an old whisky. The earthiness from the palate continues and mixes really nicely with some more fruity notes. There’s a very fleeting impression of star anise, and then oranges, which take the lead and bring some nutmeg along with them. It settles into a gently spiced wood note – cinnamon again – and the tobacco makes itself known again. It all works beautifully with the old wood notes.

So a head-to-head asks the question immediately: which is better? I have to go with Batch 3. Batch 5 is a very good whisky, no doubt. However, there’s something about the nose and palate on Batch 3 that is just on a different level than Batch 5. This is overall a bit more spicy and sharp than #3, and as a result doesn’t have quite the lushness of #3. However, it’s really enjoyable. All of these comments should really just reinforce how freakishly good batch 3 is, and further underscore why you must buy a bottle if you see it.

As a brief closing thought, I thought I’d comment on Batch 3, which is well into the bottom half of its bottle here at Casa de Scotch y Ice Cream. I still think this is one of the best whiskies of the year and wouldn’t change my vote. I’ve noticed a slight softening of its characteristics that pushed it into my topmost tier. I’d really suggest on either of these that if you open them, you enjoy them and not reserve them for very rare special occasions.

I understand and certainly agree that it’s quite a lot to spend on a single bottle, but if you spend that type of bottle, don’t make the mistake I did and deem yourself unworthy to enjoy it. These are phenomenal whiskies that should not be confined to bottles for a long time. Enjoy them as a celebration of a personal success – however great or small – or share them with friends to mark a special (or arbitrary) occasion.

While I would say there are A-level whiskies constantly being released, independent of that evaluation the Balvenie 1401 releases are a wonderful show of what Balvenie can do at its very best.

Read Josh’s review of Tun 1401 Batch 5 at The Coopered Tot

At a glance:

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #5 50.1% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly earthy initially – slight hints of wet clay. Dried fruit emerges shortly thereafter. Light hint of tobacco; orange top notes. Lush but showing some agreeable age. A slightly dry nose with some white pepper. Over time, a slightly nutty sherry note opens up.
Palate:   Mouth coating and full without being oily or syrupy. Nice notes of light cinnamon, a touch of nutmeg; oranges providing some gentle vibrancy on the top end. A nice, lightly leathery earthiness provides body where some dark fruit provides a little contrast. Bourbon influence is evident as well – a slight sharpness (which should not be interpreted at all negatively). White pepper and some gentle heat. Gently nutty.
Finish:  Nice – cinnamon leads initially, gently woody. Nice earthy fruitiness again. A faint flash of star anise, the orange note then takes the lead with some nutmeg and settles onto a spicy wood note – cinnamon again. Overall there’s a light tobacco profile to the palate that mixes beautifully with some old wood.
Comment:  This benefits greatly from some time in the glass. It’s really nice; the bourbon profile is stronger than batch 3 and it lacks the lushness of that batch. This has a little more spice and sharpness but as I noted, it’s not a negative. It’s a really enjoyable whisky to be sure. This should just highlight how freakishly great batch 3 is by comparison.
Rating: B+

Macallan 1963 Rinaldi Special Selection

Macallan 1963 Rinaldi Special Selection – 43% ABV (dist. 1963, bott. 1980)
Nose: 
Nice, wonderful fruit notes lead – deep and powerful sherry with a good apple presence on top. Light touch of cinnamon and a slight whisper of nutmeg. Plenty of wood and a lightly mineral presence. A faint wisp of smokines. Light hint of grapes and maybe some white wine. A little figgy presence too.
Palate:  Mouth-coating and leading with a nice mix of light white pepper, woodiness and mint; a faint wisp of smoke on the roof of the mouth. A little light molasses note, some figs again, a touch of oranges adding brightness. Slight lemony note as well, but this is not overly citric. A little jammy.
Finish:  Nice. Old wood, a little zip of raspberries for a second, slightly minty top note, some figs and a bit of apple skin.
Comment:  Old Macallan, you’re so fun. A great mix of older and modern Macallan.
Rating:  A-

At the risk of this seeming like all-Macallan, all the time, I just wanted to feature one last fun old sample that didn’t have a broader set of samples around it. Back to other stuff next week!

 

Depression-Era Macallan

Last week I discussed some post-war Macallan bottlings from the 1950s. They were a pretty interesting trio of tastes, showing an evolution of style from a more flinty and minty profile to a much more traditional, recognizably Macallan (to today’s palates, at least) profile. I thought they were all really interesting. Unfortunately, the travel-exclusive replica came up short.

Today, courtesy of the same batch of samples, I have the opportunity to go even farther back and look at some Macallans distilled in the 1930s. These two 1930s Macallans are also in excess of 30 years old, so there must naturally be some comparison to Scotch & Ice Cream’s debut post which covered Macallan 30.

The 1930s samples under consideration are both Gordon & MacPhail bottlings from the latter 1960s for the Italian market. There’s no point in dragging this out with a lengthy preamble, let’s taste:

The first whisky is a 32 year old distilled in 1937 and bottled in ’69. The nose is a nice mix of lightly floral and slightly farmy notes – hay comes forward most noticeably. There’s a little green apple early on, which gives way to white pepper and the familiar mineral quality encountered in the 1950s distillations. In this whisky it’s very reminiscent of rain on gravel, with a weighty earthiness but a slightly metallic quality shows as well. There’s some gentle smoke underpinning it, which reminds of the aftermath of 4th of July fireworks, but not sulfury. There’s a light sherry presence as well as some oranges. A slightly minty quality is present and balanced by a more prickly evergreen (fir?) quality.

The palate is oily and full, but still lighter than most modern Macallans. It comes in with a nice but not too strong sherry quality that is still fairly dominant. There’s a nice taste of clementines, which are balanced by a smoky note which reminds me of pu-erh tea. There’s a light young (not waxy) apple fruitiness, some gentle and reasonable wood, and a light dab of honey.

The oranges lead the finish with some mint, and as a pair they balance against one treacle and sticky toffee pudding. There’s a quick emergence of sherry, which are a little more dry overall and don’t show a big nutty presence. It’s slightly waxy and faintly dusty and goes more woody after a bit.

This was a really enjoyable and nuanced Macallan. It doesn’t show its age at all; it’s got a lot going on but it never seems confused or fragmented. This old bottling really shows Macallan near its absolute height.

The other whisky from this era is a 32 year old distilled in 1936 – also a Gordon & MacPhail bottle. This one has a little more smoke on the nose than most Macallans I’ve had. While some have had light, wispy suggestions of smoke, this one is definitely moving into the territory that I’d comfortably call (lightly) peated. It’s rich smoke but not overpowering, and it mixes wonderfully smoothly with a gentle sherry presence. It has a lightly perfumey character that reminds me of older laundry soaps, but I wouldn’t call it “soapy” in the traditionally perforative sense of the term. It’s almost slightly floral, and has subtle hints of evergreen fir and mint.

The peat is obvious on the palate initially; it’s not overpowering but it can’t be missed. It almost leans to a slightly rubbery note (like a bicycle inner tube) but it’s not objectionable or off. It’s got a light dash of white pepper, and some faint orange. There’s a bit of dried fruit from the sherry, a touch of cranberry, a hint of nutmeg and some slight cinnamon.

The finish warms nicely with some spice – a gentle, light cinnamon presence. There’s some pleasing sherry sweetness, which sits nicely with the smokiness. There’s also some faint hints of black licorice.

This 32 year old is so much better than the current standard issue 30 that it’s not funny. It’s got an incredible nose – the smoke is rich and full but it’s not an aggressive blast like a lot of peated whiskeys can be. This, like the modern 30, again conjures up images of sitting by a fire at Christmas time and just nosing and enjoying it for a while. Unfortunately, it’s a bit unfocused on the palate and seems to have lost some depth (like the modern 30). It’s a heck of a lot of fun though.

Both of these whiskies from the 30s are really great and enjoyable. I’d gladly have more of either; the nose on the 1936 is just great. Again, I have the opportunity to compare the 1930s whiskies against a modern replica – this time the Macallan “Thirties” travel exclusive.

The nose on the “Thirties” is an oddly spicy and alcohol-heavy one, with a curiously integrated peat character. There’s some light vanilla and oak; the whole thing is sharp and going off in a dozen different directions. It’s got a lightly antiseptic character, and a hint of sherry, but everything is loud and drowns it (and a slight citrus character) out.

The palate is very thin. It’s got a light mix of peat and white pepper. It’s got some sherry undertones, and a bit of cinnamon that’s a bit sharp, and black pepper comes up later on. There’s also a very faint show of oranges later on.

The finish has dry wood, white pepper, moderate sherry and a faintly rubbery peat influence. Unfortunately, the same as the “Fifites” replica, this is just an uninteresting whisky. It’s got a slight peat influence, but it doesn’t have the effortlessly great integration like the 1936. It’s definitely trying to go in the direction of the 1936 whisky, but it’s clearly a much younger whisky that needs a lot of time in the wood to settle down and develop. The peat lacks any sort of richness and is just young and aggressive still. It’s not really worth hunting down unless you can try a sample.

This has been a fun run through some old and special Macallans, and once again, thanks to my friend Chris for providing the samples. It’s been a really interesting education in older style Macallans. If you have an opportunity to try them out at some point, I highly recommend it.

At a glance:

Macallan 32y (Gordon & MacPhail). Distilled 1937, bottled 1969. 40% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of lightly floral and slightly farmy (hay) notes. A little green apple early, which gives way to a white pepper and mineral quality again – very much the rain on gravel kind of earthy yet metallic quality as well. A light bit of gentle smoke underpins it, kind of like the aftermath of a fourth of july blast, but without a heavy sulfur kick. Light sherry underneath with some oranges. A slightly minty quality is also balanced by a more prickly evergreen (fir?) quality.
Palate:  Oily and full but not as full as modern-day Macallans. Comes in with a nice, not too strong sherry quality that still dominates. Nice tastes of clementines which have a slightly smoky balance and almost reminds of pu-erh tea. Some light fruitiness – apples that are still young but ripe (not waxy), gentle and very well-behaved wood, and a light dab of honey.
Finish:  Nice lead of oranges with a mint top-note that also simultaneously dances with a rich treacle and sticky toffee pudding undertone. A very quick shift to sherry notes which lead the way, a little more dry and nutty than on the palate. Slightly waxy, faintly dusty. Goes to wood after a moment.
Comment:  Tons of nuance. Doesn’t show its age at all; just a lot going on in abundance, but not confused or all over the place. Really great.
Rating: A-

Macallan 32y (Gordon & MacPhail). Distilled 1936, bottled 1968. 40% ABV
Nose: 
A little more smoke on the nose than most Macallans and it’s definitely pushing well into peated territory. Rich but not overpowering smoke mixes nicely with a gentle sherry presence. It’s lightly perfumed and reminds of older soaps but I wouldn’t call it “soapy” in the usual perjorative sense. Almost slightly floral. Light hints of evergreen fir, slight mint. 
Palate: 
The peat presence is obvious initially – not overpowering but unmistakable nonetheless. Slightly leaning towards rubber inner tube, but not to the point of being objectionable. The lightest dash of white pepper, some faint orange influence. A bit of dried fruit, a touch of cranberry, a hint of nutmeg. Slight cinnamon. 
Finish: 
Warming gently with nice spice – a gentle, light dash of cinnamon. A pleasing sweetness from the sherry which balances agreeably with the slight trace of smokiness. Faint hints of black licorice. 
Comment: 
This is so much better than the standard-issue 30 it’s not even funny. It’s probably best on the nose and the finish has a nice tingle which, like the modern 30, would be great around a Christmas fire. Unfortunately it’s a bit unfocused on the palate and seems to have lost a little depth. A heck of a lot of fun though. 
Rating:
B+

Macallan “Thirties” 40% ABV
Nose:
  An oddly spicy and alcohol heavy nose with a kind of curiously integrated peat to it. There’s some light vanilla and oak there; the whole thing is sharp and going off in a dozen different directions. Lightly antiseptic. A slight suggestion of sherry but everything is quite loud over it. Slight citrus.
Palate:  Very thin on the palate. Light mix of peatiness and white pepper. Some sherry undertones to it, a bit of cinnamon that’s somewhat sharp; black pepper later on. Very faint show of oranges.
Finish:  Slightly dry wood, white pepper, moderate sherry and a faintly rubbery peat influence.
Comment: Same as the Fifties, this is just uninteresting. It’s got a slight peat influence but it’s not sitting in beautifully like the ’36. It’s definitely in the same direction as the 1936, just a lot younger and needing many, many more years in wood to settle down and develop. The richness of the peat in the 1936 is utterly absent. I’d pass unless you get a sample.
Rating: C+

 

 

Replicas Examined: 1950s Macallan vs. Macallan Fifties

Find something rare or desirable enough that’s cost-prohibitive to own, and the odds are there’s a less-expensive replica of it available for ownership. I don’t know why it surprised me so much when it happened with whiskey, but I guess it’s an amusing notion to me: using a drink as a replica of another drink

“There’s nothing weird about replica drinks, Number One.”

The most heralded replica in recent memory was of course Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, aka “Shackleton’s Whisky”. This one was a replica of a whisky that had been in Antarctica for the better part of the 20th century. Doubtless this inspiration (and the need for a marketing gimmick to sell more bottles) will lead Beam to do a replica of the Old Crow bottles found in some guy’s attic. Hell, if I owned the Old Crow I’d be working on distressed labels right now. (“Missouri Attic-Surviving Bourbon”, aka the Show-Me Phoenix)

You might even be aware of some of the Macallan “replicas” of whiskies from the 19th century. If you’ve wanted to drink whisky that possibly tastes like whisky that predates the widespread acceptance of germ theory, that’s probably your ticket. However, there’s a slightly less heralded set of Macallan replicas – a travel exclusive set of whiskies that were supposed to be “in the style of” Macallans from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Normally I’d laugh and click onto the next page of results from whatever merchant I was purchasing from.

However, in a recent trade with my friend Chris, I’d managed to come up with a few samples of Macallans distilled in the 1950s. These whiskies were bottled by Campbell, Hope & King for the Italian market in the early to mid 1970s. While these bore the 15 year age statement on them, it was apparently not uncommon for these whiskies to have a good portion of their contents be significantly older than the stated age — but why reprint the label when it’s cheaper just to reuse it?

This gave me a clear opportunity to see if the replicas were playing the same game as the originals. Clearly, a set of three samples would be an utterly comprehensive and complete survey of all Macallan produced in the 1950s, so I felt confident comparing those samples to the Macallan “Fifties” replica and making a quasi-authoritative proclamation on the quality of the replicas.

What my methodology lacks in actual scientific or statistical rigor, it makes up for in cost-effectiveness and a desire to avoid spending money I don’t need to spend.

The three Campbell, Hope & King bottlings dated from three separate years – 1959, 1956, and 1952 – a good spread across the decade. They were all bottled at the old British 80 proof, which puts it at about 46% ABV. The Macallan Fifties didn’t have an age statement, and was bottled at 40%.

Again, the scientifically minded will note a difference in proofs and question the validity of this tasting. I counter with the reasonable explanation that these likely represent the sum total of midcentury Macallan that I’ll have in my life, and thus I’m not going to dilute them for something ridiculous like science. (What’s science ever done for anyone anyway!?)

I figured the best way to approach the original 1950s Macallans was to go backwards through time – start with the closest to a modern Macallan and then move toward the early postwar years.

The first one then was the 1959 Macallan. The nose was trademark Macallan: sherry all over the nose, a light dash of raisins, and roasted nuts were there. A subdued orange zest character and slight vanilla creaminess gave it a little more dimension, and for a moment I got a very quick flash of Marmite.

The palate had a beautiful, rich, full mouthfeel with a hint of molasses and I again got a very brief hint of marmite. (Vanishingly quick though). There’s a hint of sticky toffee pudding, and then big, rich sherry notes come through again. There’s tons of dried fruit, and some nice cinnamon spice which gives a gentle heat. Rich fruit and honey sweetness fills it out. There’s a slight vanilla creaminess to the palate, but the focus is all sherry (and that aforementioned hint of marmite).

The finish starts warmer than I’d expect for a Macallan, with dried fruits and a citrus top note that balances with some light wood and dark chocolate. There’s not a lot but what it does, it does well.

This to me is almost an ideal example of a classic Macallan profile – it’s got a rich body and all the sherry notes you’d hope for. The richness of the spirit balances perfectly with the spirit at the age of this one. What a great start! If Macallan was doing them like this on a regular basis, they’d be crushing the competition. I will admit I tend to have a soft spot for their stuff, but they aren’t doing anything quite as amazing as this bottle was. Unfortunately, that’s probably the last of it I’ll ever have.

We now step back in time to 1956, a time when the US momentarily considered if it would elect Adlai Stevenson, but then decided that things were pretty keen for them and went back to drinking whisky. Unfortunately, they probably weren’t drinking this stuff. Again, the 1956 is another (over) 15 year old whiskey bottled by Campbell, Hope & King.

The nose on this one surprised me immediately. There was a definite hint of smoke on the nose – something I couldn’t recall having encountered in any Macallans before. There was a slight mineral quality to it, and I kept thinking of rain on gravel. It had gentle wood presence, light sherry influence and some medium-dark chocolate (say 60% or so).

The whisky was bold on the palate – dried fruit with oranges and plum, with a wisp of smoke. There was a gently insistent note of mint at the top which kept it seeming fresh and bright but it wasn’t overdone. A light leathery quality was balanced out by kumquats and persimmon (and that’s a note I can’t say I’ve ever had). The light minerality from the nose carried through to the palate.

The finish was light initially; the mint top-note from the palate took the lead and brought the dried fruit along for the ride. It was a light, bright and dry finish that was really nice and didn’t go bitter or resolve to anything strange.

This was a real curveball for me and if I hadn’t read the label (or pored over Serge’s notes on older Macallans at Whiskyfun) I would have never in a million years guessed Macallan. Smoke plus sherry is one thing, but the minerality and mint were completely unexpected but really, really enjoyable. It’s extremely hard to compare it to anything they do today, but it would not at all be an unwelcome profile to have in the range as a special expression. This, in my opinion, would be the one to do that with.

And finally, the vintage bottlings concludes with a look at another (over) 15 Years Old Campbell, Hope & King bottling, distilled in 1952. We now predate the discovery of the double-helix DNA structure, but probably a more pressing touchstone for whisky aficionados is that this would predate Playboy magazine by a year. Who knows what people read just for the articles prior to 1953.

The nose on the 1952 led with white pepper, but then the mineral and mint notes from the mid-50s came in. After a while, some oranges made themselves known as the nose opened up, as well as some gentle sherry undertones and a little fresh tobacco. This nose seemed somewhat closed off despite any amount of time in the bottle.

The palate was as rich as you’d expect from a Macallan, leading with the mineral/mint combo. The oranges came through as well as a bit of cranberry, some gentle sherry as an understated foundation, and some baked bread. The relatively low intensity of the sherry was an eye-opener compared to modern Macallan. Some pepper and slightly more direct citrus notes popped up (fresh squeezed lemon?) after a while. There were also old whisky notes of wax, wood, and apple skin, but the apple skin was almost more textural than the kind of lightly floral Fuji apple note you get on some whiskies. A little white pepper rounded it out.

The finish was mouth-coating and lasting. Mint notes were present, and the mineral quality continued with a nice sherry base. Walnuts and apple skin fleshed it out, as it dried to oak and then later, tobacco.

If the 1956 was different, the 1952 I would haven’t ever pegged as Macallan – it’s a lot more mineral, a lot lighter and with a much less overt sherry influence. I can’t think of anything out there today that is like it.

Clearly, three samples is a sufficient size to inform a comprehensive, accurate and total view of Macallan’s output during the decade. If we are to use these as a guide, it seems clear that Macallan was in a transitional period, using more and more sherry influence as the decade went on, and toning down any sort of smoky characteristics. Likewise, whatever provided the mineral and mint notes also went away over time, and by the end of the decade, it was recognizable as modern-day Macallan, just turned up to 11.

The question I had was, which profile would the Macallan Fifties replica aim for? There’s only one fun way to find out.

The nose was pleasant – oranges and sherry with a touch of shoe leather. It was lightly nutty and slightly earthy, with figs and an overall slightly molasses-touched sweetness. It seemed like perhaps the target was somewhere between 1956 and 1959, but leaning closer to 1959 without going all-out in that direction.

The palate was initially thin with some bitter wood. There was a lightly vegetal tone to the body, as well as some hay and an overall farmy character. A little apple skin emerged. This wasn’t really like anything from the above and to me indicated a moderately young whisky used as the base for this.

The finish was light and sweet, gently fruity with apple skin notes, some plums and a touch of lighter sherry. Some white pepper showed up on the tail end of the finish.

It was, to say the least, underwhelming.

It didn’t really remind me of the actual whiskies from the 1950s – mineral and minty or the older one which was a deeply flavored, rich bomb of fruit and flavor. The nose on the replica was pleasant enough, but the palate and finish were almost blend-like, with a lack of depth or nuance. They weren’t bad, they were just bland and relatively light.

It’s hard to say what Macallan was aiming for, but I think this was a novelty project with mostly young whiskies, a dash of some old ones, and banking on the relatively safe assumption that no one was going to be able to do a side-by-side comparison. Unfortunately, when compared, they don’t really hold up.

Fortunately for Macallan, their standard range as it presently exists (the 12 and 18 year) compare quite favorably. So in this case, skip the replica.

Perhaps that’s my general feeling on “replica whisky”. Maybe it’s possible that there are more accurate replicas out there, but without having a point of reference, you’re really at the mercy of the producer who had access to a small sample set which they’re probably not sharing. Unfortunately, as we all know, palates and noses are a very subjective thing and what may seem accurate to one person could be way off to another.

When there are regular releases of absolutely stellar whisky that easily rate into the A-range, why chase the ghosts of the past? I can’t think of a replica that’s been widely heralded as a can’t-miss, must-drink bottle unless an allowance for the novelty factor has been made.

So for me, it’ll continue to be the real deal… especially if I can ever lay my hands on a vintage Macallan at a reasonable price.

Special thanks to Chris H for the rare treat of these amazing samples!

At a glance:

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1959 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
Nose: 
Trademark Macallan. Sherry all over the nose with a light dash of raisins, light aromas of roasted nuts, subdued orange zest and even a touch of vanilla creaminess. Light marmite influence as well.
Palate: 
Rich, full mouthfeel with a hint of molasses and a bit of marmite; a hint of sticky toffee pudding; big rich sherry notes again; lots of dried fruit with a bit of light cinnamon spice. Nice gentle heat, rich fruit with a bit of honey sweetness. Again, a slight vanilla creamy quality to the palate, but this is all about the sherry and a hint of marmite. 
Finish: 
Warm initially, dried fruits and a bit of citrus at the end which balances with a light wood influence and a bit of dark chocolate.
Comment:  
Macallan doesn’t make ‘em quite like this anymore. For me, this is textbook classic Macallan in character and style. The richness of the Macallan spirit balances perfectly with cask influence around this age. 
Rating: 
 A-

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1956 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
Nose: 
Well, there’s a surprise: there’s a bit of smoke on this one. Not quite as sulfury as a struck match, but there’s some light smoke. Peppery – a little black pepper, white pepper. Some sherry, but it mainly presents as dried fruit. Faintly figgy; oranges. Softens up around the edges and becomes more inviting. Lightly floral, a touch of buttercream vanilla.
Palate: 
Nice and bold in the mouth. Dried fruit – oranges present; a wisp of smoke; a faint touch of plum. Some mint on the top end, it’s very clean and bright in the mouth but not at all overdone. Light leather. I may be losing my mind but I think I get kumquats and persimmon for a second. Lightly mineral. 
Finish: 
Warm initially, mint top-note leads and takes the dried fruit along for the ride. Light mineral note. Delightfully bright. Dry but not bitter or resolving on an odd note. 
Comment: 
This is unlike any Macallan I’ve ever had. Very interesting, very good. I’d never in a million years peg it as a Macallan, but surprises are fun.
Rating:
A-

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1952 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
Nose: 
A little white pepper upfront. Mineral with a touch of mint. Opens up to reveal some orange notes, some gentle sherry undertones clearly there but not leading the way. Fresh tobacco. 
Palate: 
Thick and rich mouthfeel, again leading slightly mineral with a mint aspect; some oranges. Baked bread, a touch of cranberry, nice gentle sherry presence acting as a quiet foundation in this – quite a contrast to modern Macallan. Gentle pepper, even a slightly more direct citrus note – fresh squeezed lemon. Apple skin is here but it almost acts as a texture instead of a taste. Lightly waxy, some wood in the mix. White pepper. 
Finish: 
Mouth-coating, lasting. Mint notes present, that mineral quality continues and it’s got a nice sherry basis. Hints of walnuts, plenty of apple skin, drying to oak and later tobacco.
Comment: 
The change from 1952 to 1958 is pretty amazing. Clearly the ’50s were a transitional decade for Macallan. This is a great malt unlike anything today – such minerality! – and while I enjoyed it this wasn’t the knee-buckler some other old Macallans have been for me. 
Rating:
B+

Macallan “Fifties” 40% ABV
Nose: 
Pleasant – orange and sherry up front with a light note of shoe leather. Lightly nutty, slightly earthy. Figs and an overall, slightly molasses-touched sweetness. 
Palate: 
Slightly thin initially; white pepper and some bitter wood. Lightly vegetal tone to the body; some hay and slight farminess. Some apple skin after a while.
Finish: 
Light and sweet, gently fruity with some apple skin, some plums and a touch of lighter sherry notes. Some white pepper on the tail end of the finish. 
Comment: 
This really doesn’t remind me of the earlier 50s Macallans I tasted – mineral and minty – or the ’59 which was a deeply flavored, rich bomb of fruit and flavor. It has a great nose but the palate seems almost like a blend, lacking depth and nuance; the finish is fine but again, relatively light.
Rating:  B-

 

Four Roses OBSV Part Two: Extra-Aged Bourbon

Earlier this week, I wrote about the standard off the shelf 50 proof Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV). I said it was a great value for the price and one of the best bourbons in its class. It’s time to take this opportunity to see what happens to that recipe when you age it up a bit.

Four Roses’ big push is on their ten recipes, highlighting the role of mashbill and yeast which do definitely play a big role in determining the flavor of a bourbon. However, most whisky aficionados know, the time in oak changes the spirit dramatically. The vegetal notes of new spirit fade away in favor of the tannins and spicy body that wood imparts; the turbinado sugar flavors mixes with the wood influence and becomes more like maple syrup, toffee and caramel. Too little time in the wood and you might as well be riding shotgun with Popcorn Sutton. Too much time and you’d be better off brewing a tea with pencil shavings. Bad wood will take you in the direction of popsicle sticks and napkins. There’s a lot of room to go wrong.

Due to the climate in the midwestern US, which was far too extreme for me (hot summers and cold winters drove me from southern Illinois to southern California), bourbon is ready for prime time in anywhere from four to eight years. Twelve years can be pushing it but some bourbons wear the age well. For the most part, the old-age crown is worn most readily by the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, effortlessly holding up to 15 and 20 years of age. Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig also manages 12 and 18 20 years (but at $150 I don’t expect to have a judgement on the 20 soon). What then of the other distilleries? There’s a lot that can go wrong in over a decade.

I was excited when I heard about the Four Roses Gift Shop exclusive, a 17 year old OBSV recipe. While I’m a big fan of OBSK, OBSV is a reliable favorite. Getting the chance to try an extra-aged version was a rare treat. Unfortunately, one problem: my wife wasn’t about to sign off on me jetting to Kentucky to pick up a bottle of bourbon.

Fortunately, a good friend offered to pick up a bottle for me and ship it back. I took him up on his offer, sending him a couple bottles of Southern Californian microbrew in exchange. Soon, the whiskey was in my hands. I could hardly wait to see what would happen with this one. Would it show too much oak? Would it be the greatest thing ever? Perhaps worst of all, might it be a very middle of the road and safe barrel pick?

The nose on this one is great – warm and woody, with dark fruits prominent up front. Plums and black cherries compete against very creamy vanilla; deep wood notes provide a bed for everything. Rye spiciness is evident and even slightly aggressive, but not to the extent that it’s disagreeable or too harsh.

The palate starts dry with plenty of wood. Cinnamon, black cherries and vanilla take over, moving the palate away from dry astringency. Toffee and maple syrup pick up, and then rye comes storming in again, providing a nice kick and a slightly floral quality. With a little more time the wood comes into focus but it’s not so dry, and it’s nicely balanced by light orange zest.

The finish, much like on the standard OBSV, is drier than the palate. Black pepper and oak lead; cinnamon and black cherries come side by side behind it. Finally, rye spice and a hint of nutmeg are the last flavors standing.

I was really surprised by the 17 year old version of this whisky. I certainly expected an uptick in dryness, black pepper, cinnamon, and wood, but the creaminess on the 17 is much more pronounced to me than it is on the younger standard version. There’s a strong wood influence to be sure, but it’s not in the least bit tired. It’s full of life and flavor, but with a weight and deliberation that you’d hope for in a bourbon of this age.

Quality-wise, I have to say that this particular barrel (78-30, Warehouse QS), honestly stands shoulder to shoulder with other highly regarded bourbons like those found in the Buffalo Trace Anniversary Collection; Pappy Van Winkle, or the Parker’s Heritage collection. Honestly, I think if Four Roses could find the right push for this one, they could release these in limited quantities to a broader market and have a serious contender for the Van Winkles of the world, which are becoming a chore to find anymore.

Four Roses Single Barrel (Private Selection – Four Roses Gift Shop) OBSV 17y 53.3%  ABV
Nose: 
Warm and woody, with dark fruits – plums, black cherries – jostling for attention against creamy vanilla aroma while deep wood notes provide a bed. Rye spiciness is evident and slightly aggressive but not disagreeably so.
Palate:  Dry on the palate initially with plenty of wood; giving way to cinnamon and black cherries with a light bit of vanilla, slight toffee and faint maple syrup. Rye picks up right behind this, giving a nice kick and slightly floral note. Light orange balances the wood which starts to come to the forefront again.
Finish:  Finishes dry with black pepper and oak, a little cinnamon and black cherries; rye spiciness and a hint of nutmeg.
Comment:  Interestingly, I think the creaminess is better developed in the 17y version of OBSV than the 10y. The barrel notes give a strong influence to this and it’s quite powerful, but not at all tired. Full of life and flavor, but moving deliberately according to its age. If Four Roses released this wide they might have a contender to the Pappy throne.
Rating: A-

Fourth Of July: Four Roses Single Barrel

A while back in my extensive discussion of Woodford Reserve, I mentioned that I thought a similarly priced bottle which was a far better value in terms of quality and taste was the Four Roses Single Barrel bottling. I’ve come back to it time and time again and find it’s one of my all time favorites.

If you’re not familiar with Four Roses, it’s an interesting operation. Their Four Roses (“Yellow Label”) bourbon is a mix of their ten recipes that they produce. Yes, ten recipes. Four Roses essentially makes ten separate bourbons which vary by mashbill and by yeast strain.

Mashbill is not a surprising way to vary character – it can have a huge effect. Their two mashbills are “B” and “E”. E is a 75% corn, 20% rye mashbill; B is a 60% corn, 35% mashbill. There are also five yeast strains used with both of the mashbills – these combinations produce the ten bourbons.

If you’ve never managed to have a tasting where yeast was the variable, I highly recommend it. Retailers like Binnys and The Party Source both have all ten recipes available, and it exposes huge differences in the bourbons. I had my first education on the role of yeast strains on mashbills with High West’s David Perkins during a marathon tasting. We had four extremely different whiskeys at one point – the only difference between them was the yeast used. No one in the room guessed that as the variable.

The recipe used by Four Roses in the standard widely-available single barrel bottling is the OBSV recipe. This means the “B” mashbill (35% rye) and the V yeast, which Four Roses describes as having a “delicate fruit, spicy and creamy” character. This combination happens to be one of my very favorite – everything is in exquisite balance.

This is a great bourbon for the fourth of July. I think it does everything with a touch of class. It’s phenomenal when drunk neat; it takes ice and mixers well (if you’re a mixer guy). I’ve used it for phenomenal mint juleps and this afternoon it’s going to be a part of my bourbon and vanilla ice cream milkshake. The spice adds so much character but it doesn’t live exclusively in the domain of aggressively spicy and hot whiskeys. It’s accessible and refined – a perfect model American.

The nose has nice, well-developed notes of rye which have deep nuance. It’s almost reminiscent of a super-fresh deli rye bread (a favorite!). There’s wood which gives depth and almost has a light cedar quality to it. There’s some floral hints as well as some light black pepper on the nose. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange round out the nose with some nice top notes.

The palate is great and continues where the nose left off: It’s nice and sweet initially but the darker fruit tartness moves in. Rye spice and creamy vanilla are in balance; light cinnamon and white pepper add a gentle but not overwhelming heat. It’s a perfectly balanced set of textures and flavors.

The finish is a little interesting but works nicely in my opinion. It starts dry with wood, but then cherry and vanilla pick up. Cinnamon heat is present, but then it dries and goes bitter but in a more vegetal direction than wood – endive and romaine hearts are present. After a while some corn sweetness comes out and you can almost imagine the character of the new make underneath all of this.

This Four Roses is one of the best bottles sitting on your liquor store’s shelf that doesn’t require you to have the determination of a bounty hunter or a close relationship with your spirits buyer to find. It’s got a much more complex set of flavors and aromas that it draws from when compared to most bourbons out there. It’s really enjoyable, a permanent fixture in my bar and in my opinion, a can’t-fail classic. If you’re looking for a great bourbon to celebrate the Fourth – look no further.

At a glance:

Four Roses Single Barrel – 50% ABV
Nose:  Nice, well developed notes of rye which have a great, deep nuance. Almost reminiscent of super-fresh deli rye bread. Nice wood with it, giving depth. Almost a light cedar quality to it. Lightly floral; a hint of black pepper. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange.
Palate:  Nice and sweet initially with a bit of darker fruit tartness. Creamy vanilla, nice gentle rye spiciness, light cinnamon and again a very faint touch of white pepper. Wood adds some depth again to the palate but it’s not bitter. A little gentle heat but it’s very even-tempered.
Finish:  Slightly dry at first and opening on wood, picking up the cherry notes and a bit of the vanilla. Cinnamon adds a bit of heat for a moment as it dries and goes a touch bitter with a light hint of endive or romaine heart. Settles more on the vegetal notes and a bit of corn sweetness comes out.
Comment:  Four Roses has a better than average track record for me. This standard OBSV recipe single barrel bottling is just a time-honored classic in my opinion. I love it, it’s got sweetness and creaminess but it’s nicely balanced with some spice and heat with tartness as well. It doesn’t get cloying and while the finish is a bit dry, it works very well in my opinion. For the price it’s one of the most consistently solid bourbons you can find regularly.
Rating: B+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: The Unceremonious End

Over the last year, I’ve been reviewing the rounds of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. While many have been skeptical of this project, I have defended it as I didn’t see it as any more or less crassly commercial than the rest of the industry’s various projects and exclusives. I still think it’s a long way from collections that are as vulgar as the Dalmore Constellation collection, for that matter.

However, over the last few months, my tasting group has had participants drop out. I didn’t think this was a problem at the time – I know tons and ton of whiskey aficionados, surely replacing the drop-outs wouldn’t be a huge effort. And yet it was. For every replacement seat secured, another participant dropped out. While most of it was covered, it ended up being one short on a rolling basis.

Unfortunately, that’s where I have to know when to fold my hand.

Even if I did secure every seat, that’s for one round. The most die-hard whiskey fans I know couldn’t sustain interest past four releases. The prospect of chasing down willing participants seemingly endlessly for three years on a quarterly basis doesn’t sound like a fun time to me.

So, I am forced to revisit the question of the Single Oak Project. Yes, it’s interesting. Yes, it’s audacious. But if it’s not possible to drum up sustained interest among the nerdiest and most passionate of bourbon lovers, how will the project sustain interest for the next three years? As a casual consumer, you’re picking blind. The only guy who seems to be continuing to have coverage is Christopher Null over at Drinkhacker - and that’s just one opinion out there. I know I will not be buying individual bottles blind; it misses the point of the project.

So the project adds one more unaccounted-for variable: inconsistency among palates. Maybe Buffalo Trace thought this through and there will be separate cohorts analyzed, but I doubt it. Maybe Buffalo Trace is happy to roll the dice based on near-random consumer input with very little control data, but a one in 192 shot is utterly awful odds at finding “The Perfect Bourbon”. It’s better than the lottery by a fair shot, but it’s about 6 times worse odds than roulette tables.

For me, this seems to be the end of the project. I would have been interested to follow it through, but the economics are prohibitive – $600 a case every four months? I’m not going to pay close to $2500 a year for bourbon I only need about 60mL of to understand in the context of SIngle Oak, and I don’t have the space to store such a huge amount of whiskey for such an ongoing time. 54 liters of bourbon remaining in 3 years is too tall an order – to say nothing of the $7500 buy-in it would require.

So, unfortunately, this is the end for the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project coverage here, as far as I can see it. Managing a group buy and filling minis, photographing bottles and so on – I’m not going to miss that one bit. I will miss the bit-by-bit experimentation, but $100 a quarter was as high as I would go on it.

Your best bet for future coverage is at Drinkhacker as linked above, and it seems like a few liquor store owners are quietly making their way through the flights.

Good luck, Buffalo Trace. If a release for the aficionados can’t generate and sustain aficionado interest, those three years of remaining inventory have to be looking slightly larger.