The Halo Effect I Support: BenRiach & Glendronach Single Casks

Normally I try to avoid commenting here on whatever is going around in the whisky/spirits echo chamber on Twitter and other blogs. I feel like it’s too easy to get caught up in the passions of the moment. However, the recent release of a $150,000 1957 Bowmore helped make my thoughts a lot more concrete on this long-running discussion on ultra-premium whisky.

I virtually guarantee I will never get to try this, and there will be no review on Scotch & Ice Cream.

No one reading this blog (well, almost no one – perhaps John or Dominic will get a crack at this) is going to ever taste this; nor will I. Really, I don’t care in the truest sense of the phrase – it just doesn’t matter to me. It’d be a fun experience, but there are so many other rare-expensive whiskies that now have a legendary reputation that I’d much rather try (Black Bowmore, you’re top of that list).

I’ve rarely held back from taking shots at Dalmore and their string of special releases which tend to be marketed/priced the same way. The occasional old Macallan releases are similarly amusing to me. These are, generally speaking, as has been observed by several in the commenting class of the whisky universe, “whisky for oligarchs”. While I’d like to imagine that these could have had a release as a $1200 edition (after all, Glenfarclas does a $500 40 year old), these are as much a marketing strategy as anything, and they happen to have the advantage of a marketing strategy which can directly pay for itself.

These whiskies tend to annoy the hardcore whisky fans and connoisseurs. We’re generally thrill-seekers and would love to try them (who wouldn’t?), but these price points  generally put them out of our budget. They tend to fall in the hands of the anonymously wealthy (and Mahesh Patel, slightly less anonymous but probably equally wealthy), who we imagine can’t possibly have the palate to appreciate these things. Hell if I know anything about the palate of these wealthy businessmen who apparently don’t mind dropping tens of thousands of dollars in the duty free shop in Singapore. Since I’ll probably never try these, I don’t really see much point in getting worked up by it.

However, they seem to make the category ridiculously aspirational for the benefit of the casually interested. I’d love to know what kind of sales bump Johnnie Walker saw on Black Label after their $150,000 Diamond Jubilee blend hit the press-release circuit. I felt like coverage of that was inescapable and it showed up everywhere from Fark to Reddit to marginally-interested-in-whisky Twitter streams on a seemingly constant basis earlier this year.

Maybe they sold them all; I don’t know. The exposure they’ve got probably didn’t hurt.

There’s a concern among some that this will become an all-encompassing trend in the category and that the category will eventually price itself up and out of the common man’s pockets – however, I think single malts are generally pushing themselves out of the casual drinker’s pockets as it is. While certainly there’s some aspirational pricing and upmarket branding happening on some of these reinventions, stock shortages due to increased demand (such as what likely was the driver behind Macallan’s decision to make the core of their line drop the age statement) will also have an upward push on price.

I tend to have a pragmatic view of markets, and there’s always someone willing to sacrifice per-unit margin if they think they’ll come out ahead on volume. If Macallan, Dalmore, Ardbeg, and Bowmore price themelves out of the reach of the everyday drinker, that still leaves dozens of distilleries who might see an opportunity to create a name for themselves and replace the hole left in the market.

Aside from the aforementioned Glenfarclas 40y for $500, there have been some high-30s and low-40y whiskies released by the distilleries themselves that have been very exciting and of exceptional quality. I really can think of no one doing this better currently than the BenRiach Distillery Company, who owns both BenRiach (imagine that) and Glendronach. In the last few years, they’ve released some absolutely stunning single-cask whiskies which have done well in various whisky competitions (whatever worth that may have to you) and rated highly among those of us prone to rate whiskies and blog about it.

For the common man as well as the connoisseur, these whiskies are the ones that should be very exciting. The message BenRiach has for the average person with these whiskies is essentially that luxury is within your reach — and make no mistake, a Glendronach from the early ’70s is about as great as it gets. This sort of thing makes me far more interested in buying the standard expressions of both distilleries both to support them as well as to see if they measure up to the lofty quality of the single-cask releases.

While $500 to $700 is a lot to spend on a bottle of whisky, I urge you to never forget my advice and split purchases with friends. $80-$120 may be a lot to spend on a dram or two, but sometimes the experience is worth it. These are rare whiskies which, unlike the $150,000 whiskies, you actually stand a chance of trying in your life.

I find myself in a strange position: a very left-leaning person generally having the view that “the market will sort itself out” (I think I need a drink). However, in this case, I truly do believe that there’s money left on the table and as soon as producers see that, someone can, will (and has already) step in to take it with a price that undercuts normal premiums.

I most recently had an opportunity to sample a 1976 BenRiach (which I’d been curious about due to WhiskyNotes’ excellent coverage of a massive BenRiach tasting earlier this year) courtesy of my friend Chris. He supplied me with a 35y 1976 BenRiach from cask 3032 (a bottling for the Japanese market).

The nose was unlike anything I can recall in recent memory. It led immediately with fruit and hay (apples, green grapes and pears) as well as a liberal dose of white pepper, but almost immediately gave way to woody notes that seemed more like fresh-sawn lumber. There was a malty note underneath and some pineapple at the margin. That fresh-sawn lumber was a real eye-opener and kind of fun.

The palate led with wood and the fresh-sawn lumber; there was kind of a grape juice or dry white wine taste dominating the palate. Malty sweetness was behind that, in the form of a more aggressive malt (think diastatic malt powder instead of the more gentle maltiness of other whiskies – if you’ve had Malts of Scotland bottlings, this maltiness may be familiar). There was a hint of pineapple as well as grapefruit and a touch of orange.

The finish led with wood; grape juice and wine was behind that with maltiness on its heels. There was a gentle heat and some sweetness; it dried over time and there was some grapefruit and passionfruit.

As I said – this was a profile I haven’t encountered much of if at all. It’s very punchy and woody, but it’s not overoaked at all to my palate. There’s a lot of unusual fruit notes happening, but it’s got a sweetness to underpin it that doesn’t cause it to become a syrupy mess. While this was my first ’76 BenRiach, I sincerely hope it’s not my last. Thanks, Chris!

The other great whisky that I had the privilege of having a good amount at a recent LAWS meeting was a 1972 Glendronach for the Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. This particular ’72 Glendronach was distilled on 2-3-72 (where were you?), bottled 9-2011, in cask 711, an oloroso sherry butt. If it’s not overoaked, the pieces are in place for this to be a ridiculously good whisky.

The nose on this was exactly what you want from a sherry bomb: deep sherry notes, rich leather and a nuttiness. It’s dense, dark, but fruity in a way that you would be content to nose until the end of time.

The palate was rich, thick and full, wearing its sherry influence on its sleeve. Again, the nutty oloroso character was on full display, and really marked this as (in my opinion) a phenomenally great cask. There was a pleasant heat and some leathery notes; late on the palate there was a slight struck match note. (LAWS commented heavily on its sulphur content, but this has an average grade of A at LAWS, so it wasn’t a major problem for them).

The finish was warm with lots of leather; the nutty oloroso again showing through as well as a slight medicinality and a late struck match note.

This Glendronach was really, really great. It was half empty when I got my first pour – easily the whisky getting the most generous pours all night – and I grabbed a second pour. Nothing else was even in the same league on that particular night.

While I wish I could justify another Glendronach purchase on my own, for the time being the price is above my personal ceiling. However, these are absolutely incredible whiskies for the money, and you should definitely try to have one. If there was ever a whisky to split with friends to reduce the individual cost, this is the one.

For every whisky that is produced in a bespoke, ultra-limited, hand-crafted (and frankly, beautiful) decanter, I am willing to bet there are two of these casks sitting in the warehouses waiting to be enjoyed by collectors. Yes, the price is dear, but the quality is great. Brands such as BenRiach and Glendronach which release these for the enjoyment of the common man (with disposable income) are ones that I expect will see lasting brand loyalty – the best kind you can hope to get. And my experiences with these high-end whiskies have me ever-more curious in their standard expressions (which we’ll see reviewed in the future) – the exact kind of halo effect you would hope to have.

At a Glance:

BenRiach 35y Cask #3032 (Distilled 1976, Bottled 2011) 44.2% ABV
Nose:
  Fruity initially, with a little bit of hay. Some apples and pears, a touch of green grapes and liberal white pepper. Moderate wood which almost smells like fresh-sawn lumber. Malt underneath. Some pineapple hiding out as well.
Palate:  Wood upfront, again with the fresh-sawn lumber note; going in the direction of grape juice or a drier white wine. Malty sweetness, but more of an upfront maltiness (diastatic malt powder) than a gentle sweetness. A little hint of pineapple and maybe a touch of orange alongside; a bit of grapefruit as well.
Finish:  Wood leads; the grape juice/wine is right behind it with maltiness on their heels. Gentle heat and some sweetness; drying slightly over time. Grapefruit as it ends and a little passionfruit too.
Comment:  This is a profile unlike many I’ve encountered – very punchy with some wood but not overly woody; lots of unusual fruit notes, but a good sweetness to underpin it. The ’76 series seems to be worth investigating.
Rating: B+

Glendronach 1972 Kensington Wine Market 39y 49.80% ABV
Distilled 2-3-72, Bottled 9-11
Nose: 
Deep shery, rich leather and nutty notes. 
Palate: 
Rich, thick, full, with big sherry. Nice heat and a bit of leather. Late on I get a slight struck match thing.
Finish: 
Warm, leather. Nutty and almost slightly medicinal for a second, with that struck match note again late.
Comment: 
Really great. The bottle was half empty by the time it made its way to me – nothing else got even close to that.
Rating:
A-

Summer Celebration #2: Macallan 25 Sherry Oak

One year ago today, I launched Scotch & Ice Cream. At the time, it was an even mix of feeling like I launched it before it was ready, tempered with the excitement of finally having my personal outlet to share my reviews and recommendations as well as the life-in-progress with a lot of my friends I used to work with.

It’s been an amazing journey since then and I’m glad to have shared a large portion of it with everyone – either via twitter or here on Scotch & Ice Cream. It’s been a time of a lot of personal growth, and I honestly credit launching this blog last year as one of the major turning points along the way. You see, in the last year, S&I has been wildly successful beyond my imagination. I figured this would just be my private spot to publish stuff that had been accumulating in my Evernote file of tasting notes, hopefully letting some of my friends keep up.

But it’s been so much more than that. I’ve seen tens of thousands of hits, light-years beyond what I’d ever expected. In my old world, we’d call that a vanity metric and want to dig deeper – and so we shall. I’ve made tons of friends who I’m in regular correspondence with. I’ve met interesting people and have enjoyed some really fun sample swaps over time, getting to try all kinds of amazing whisky. Unfortunately for what I review here, that’s certainly had a tendency to make those “A” grades so much harder to achieve – so when they happen, it’s worth taking note.

That as a group, while fun, doesn’t really do much for me. I’d be happy to keep doing this in total obscurity even if I had a hundred hits one year later and was still working through the same stuff as always. For me this has been a major exercise in learning the value of “good enough” – because S&I launched before it was perfect (and it’s still far short), and succeeded on its own. That really got me thinking about not overthinking and overdoing. That’s been a major change for the better in my life. So remember: whisky blogging is good for the mind and soul.

One year ago, the first whisky I reviewed to mark the start of the blog as well as my son’s birth was Macallan’s 30 year sherry oak. This stands at the top of their range and was the virtually unobtainable high-water mark of likely perfection. I decided I needed to obtain some and had it and was fairly disappointed with the whisky. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t the legendary whisky that must be unbeatable (given distillery and age and my inexperience with whiskies in the 30y+ range).

The obvious whisky to try at the one year mark was the Macallan 25 – also a highly priced, long-aged whisky. I theorized that the extra 5 years in wood really did nothing for the 30 year old, and my operating theory was that the 25 might actually be the pinnacle of the range.

After a long week in northern California with a son who, it turns out, isn’t particularly fond of travel, I was ready to mark my return with a glass of the 25.

The nose was an immediate treat: Rich oak in abundance with some nutty sherry; molasses and treacle sponge pudding giving some dense, dark sweetness. Some of the youthful Macallan character was evident on the nose, a great sign. Orange and dried plum, a touch of apple and a light bit of spice gave some more body to the nose, and even a touch of shoe polish rounded it out.

The mouthfeel was full, rich and coating. The whisky immediately showed evidence of age – heavy but not overbearing oak; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon. The dried fruit came through, as well as a little plum. The sherry influence on the palate was rich and full, but it’s not a lopsided over-sherried whisky. The youthful Macallan character is still there (tempered by the signs of age), and complemented by a faintly earthy tone.

The finish was again, unsurprisingly, led by woody notes which started to dry. A little apple skin was evidence of age, and surprisingly a momentary kick of fresh celery brightened it up and added dimension, but didn’t make it bitter or rooty. There was a little orange and faint pear, as well as a much later kick of cherries and chocolate.

Macallan 25 is all about the wood, prominently featured on the nose and the palate. There’s a strong dried fruit component, which reminds me a lot of the Balvenie 1401 releases I love so much, but with the more zesty and bright Macallan spirit at the core, versus the more straightforward fruity, rounded Balvenie spirit. This is, for my money and with my now-complete experience of Macallan’s standard range, the grand dame of Macallan’s now-disappearing standard range. It’s a fantastically well-balanced whisky.

If you’re faced with the first-world problem of deciding between the 25 and the 30, buy the 25. It’s miles better and at a lower price. Can’t beat that.

At a Glance:

Macallan 25y (Sherry Oak) 43% ABV
Nose:  Rich oak upfront with some nutty sherry notes; a bit of molasses and treacle sponge pudding. Some of the youth of Macallan still comes  through. Orange and dried plum; a touch of apple and a light bit of spice. A little touch of shoe polish and leather.
Palate:  Full mouthfeel, rich and coating. Immediately leads with a heavy but not overbearing oak influence. Nice white pepper with a dash of cinnamon at the edges. Dried fruit again; a little plum note. The sherry is again rich and full on this but it’s not a lopsided sherried whisky in the least. Plenty of youthful Macallan character; a faint bit of earthiness.
Finish:  Wood which dries slightly. A little bit of apple skin and a momentary flash of fresh celery brightens it up but doesn’t detract. A little orange and a faint touch of pear. A little late kick of cherries and chocolate.
Comment:  This is all about the wood, with a prominent display on the nose and the palate. There’s a strong secondary dried fruit component – reminds me a lot of Balvenie 1401 but with the more zesty and bright Macallan spirit versus the more straightforward and fruity (but rounded) Balvenie spirit. This is unquestionably the grand dame of Macallan’s standard sherry oak range; a fantastic balance.
Rating: A-

The Newest Kid On The Block – Glenglassaugh Old & New

Last year I reviewed Abhainn Dearg’s new whiskey and wasn’t quite taken with it. It seemed very young and needing a lot more time, though it did show some promise. I’ve revisited it and while it’s fine, it never has really been something I’d want much more of at its current age.

Shortly after Abhainn Dearg became the newest legal whisky, it was usurped by Glenglassaugh, whose new spirit under the new production reached three years. I’d been curious to try the new Glenglassaugh (and really, any Glenglassaugh, as it was one I’d never had the opportunity to try) for a long time and I finally got around to it this week.

The business model of young whisky subsidizing a new distillery is by now a tried and true one. It’s a little easier for the Americans to get away with; you can call it whiskey here if the distiller thought about his wooden patio chairs while signing an invoice for the grain that will go into his mash. Scotland’s strictness means you have three long years to weather before you can sell it as “whisky” (though Glenglassaugh sold various young spirits along the way). Hitting the market with a young whisky is increasingly common. Abhainn Dearg did it; Kilchoman continues to do it with great results – if you haven’t had any Kilchoman you should – and many more will continue to do so to allow their business to have income in the early years.

Some distilleries, most recently Bruichladdich, were fortunate to have old stocks to help ease the transition to their new whisky. Glenglassaugh, to an extent, also is able to take advantage of this. Glenglassaugh was a victim of the early to mid 1980s distillery closures, however, and has no stock to cover the period of 1986-2008, which means there’s a huge gap in their production. However, some older Glenglassaughs have been released as official bottlings.

One interesting question to be asked beyond “how is the new spirit” is, “do the new and old spirits show any similarity beyond name?” I hoped to find out in this dual tasting – the Glenglassaugh First Cask release (3 years old exactly) and a Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask bottling – 25 years at time of bottling, from a 1984 distillation.

The First Cask has an extensive cask pedigree despite its age – initially a refill butt, then two smaller casks after 2 years (first fill Pedro Ximenez sherry; first fill Palo Cortado sherry); then returned into the original cask after about 9 months of separate maturation, where they married for three months. That intense work for a three-year-old clearly means it’s engineered to have a strong taste immediately versus one that shows a need to rest in wood for many years to come.

The nose was unsurprisingly initially young with overt sweetness and newmake hints initially. However, it showed a great deal more complexity than an unaged whisky already. There was a trace of leather and even hints of wood already evident. Some ripe fruit in the background with peaches; it almost has a chenin blanc character to it. There’s a slightly and vaguely pickled characteristic late in the nose, but it’s pretty faint and non-specific.

The palate had a lot more character than expected. There was a leathery quality again as well as a chenin blanc character again; unsuprisingly for a young whisky there was a bit of heat. There was a gentle maltiness underneath everything and some wood. Again, some ripe peach notes led the fruitiness on the palate.

The finish was a bit drier than the nose and palate suggested; malty but not aggressive, with gentle wood and some hay, as well as apple skin on the end.

It’s an interesting three year old. It’s not for everyone – Scottish whiskies this young rarely are – but it feels older than its years. It’s got the undeniable zip of youth, but it doesn’t feel like a very young whisky. I kept flashing back to the ill-fated Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc – the dense flavors and strong texture kept taking me back to that one – at least before it fell apart. It’s an intensely flavorful whisky with a lot to pick apart.

I’ll be very interested to watch what the new owners do with Glenglassaugh in the coming years.

The question then – while this is an all-new Glenglassaugh, does it bear any resemblance to anything distilled under that name previously?

The Old Malt Cask bottle had an interesting nose. Light leather, slight earthiness, but with a little white pepper. Despite its age it still had fruit – peach, pineapples and apple. After a while in the glass it also opened up to have a more straightforward and recognizable (but not overbearing) sherry character.

The palate was immediately nice and chewy – there was a little leather, some spiciness – white pepper and black pepper as well. A little heat, but then some abundant fruitiness – apples, pears, a bit of orange and some light grape notes.

On the finish, it dried a bit and the sherry influence was more overt – slightly nutty, some oak, a little apple skin, and a touch of pair. Briefly, there was a light minty flash as well.

The Old Malt Cask bottle is a really enjoyable mix of fruit and spice with some moderate sherry influence. I thought it was honestly one of the more memorable OMC bottles I’ve had recently, which has been dominated by mid-quality Port Ellens.

I definitely saw a lineage – the leathery quality was strong in both, but it didn’t foul up the whiskies in any way. It was just a very noticeable texture. There was also a pronounced and vivid fruitiness to the older whisky that the younger one had. I have a feeling as the new Glenglassaughs age out we might see more of those notes emerge as the youthful sweetness develops into more distinct flavors.

This is one of those most enjoyable tastings: coming in with no expectations and leaving with a distillery to keep an eye on and a bottle to hunt down immediately. Keep your eye on Glenglassaugh – I definitely will be.

At a glance:

Glenlassaugh “The First Cask” 3y 59.1% ABV
Nose: 
Young on the nose with plenty of newmake hints – overt sweetness. And yet it’s more complex than a white dog. A little trace of leather and some wood already starting to show. A little bit of ripe fruit in the background; a touch of peach; almost a hint of a chenin blanc character to it. There’s also a slightly pickled quality late on the nose but it’s faint and non-specific.
Palate:  A good deal of character to this. The leathery notes are there; it has that slightly chenin blanc character. There’s some heat along with it, as you would expect from a young whiskey. A gentle maltiness underpins everything, as does a touch of wood. Fruity – again, a little ripe peach.
Finish:  A little drier than what came before; malty but not aggressive; gentle wood notes, a light bit of hay. A little apple skin on the tail end.
Comment:  Very interesting, quite bold and nuanced for a young whisky. It’s got some youthful zip to it, but it doesn’t feel too young or too old. I think this one could be quite good in a few years. It reminds me of the Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc release before it went crazy: a very intensely flavored whisky with a lot to pick apart.  I’ll be watching the next few years with great interest.
Rating: B-

Glenglassaugh 25y Douglas Laing OMC (1984). 50% ABV
Nose: 
An intriguing mix – lightly leathery; slightly earthy, but with a dusting of white pepper. Fruit is there – a little light green grape, some peach, a little pineapple and apples too. Opens up to have a slightly more open sherry character. 
Palate:   
Nice and chewy. A slight hint of leather; nice bit of spiciness to the cask – white pepper, maybe a touch of black pepper too. A little gentle heat. Abundantly fruity – apples, pears, a touch of orange, some light grapes again. 
Finish: 
Drying slightly with a good sherry-forward profile; a touch nutty, some oak influence, a little dried apple skin and a touch of pear. A touch of mint for a second on the finish.
Comment: 
A really solid mix of fruitiness, spice, and moderate sherry influence. Very good. 
Rating:
B+ 

 

The Best Tastings Tell A Story

One way to be certain we’re in the midst of a whiskey boom: tastings are springing up everywhere and marketed to the ever-more-casually interested. The other day during the KCRW pledge drive, I heard a whiskey-related premium up for grabs, which went almost immediately. Whisky is undeniably mainstream.

However, as we all know, whisky can be insanely expensive, and unless you’ve openly declared war on your liver, a bottle can be a long-lasting commitment. Sure, you can swap samples with friends or do group buys, but that can be slow going until your whiskey-mania sets in, or until you’ve found many more people to trade with.

One of the best options to survey if you have some similarly whiskey-curious friends is to run a tasting, or to all submit to one. However, a good tasting is more than just grabbing five bottles at random and splitting the costs with several friends. The best whiskey tastings have some sort of narrative to them. It’s not necessarily a deep structure, but having an aim in mind before you start will help you get the most out of the tasting.

First things first: Is this a class or a group adventure?
Some tastings are instructional. One person has a depth of knowledge on a particular subject and presents the key things you should take away on the topic – which can be both gleaned from the experience of drinking, as well as facts imparted during the tasting. If you’re leading a tasting, make sure you’re familiar with what you’re pouring! You don’t want to be discovering a whiskey as everyone else is and trying to weave it into the narrative.

Others can be a group adventure: someone may have an idea about something they’d like to learn more about, and the group at large learns. The “leader” in this case may discuss some bottles they’ve sourced or what gave the idea, but in all likelihood, everyone is on equal footing. There’s an element of risk here, but like attending a Pearl Jam, Phish or Dead show, part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next.

What Story Do You Want to Tell?
There are several easily-told stories that you can go to and will teach you a wealth about a given subject.

The Effect Of Age
Taking one distillery’s standard range, assuming age is the only variant (Macallan Fine Oak and Macallan Sherry Cask ranges are good examples), this can show you the effect of age on a particular distillery’s character. You can stick strictly to official bottlings, or you can make it interesting and go with independent bottlings as well – a chance to find “in between” ages or especially old/young bottles from a given distillery.
Sample: Macallan Fine Oak 10, Macallan Fine Oak 15, Macallan Fine Oak 17, Macallan Fine Oak 21

Distillery Deep Dive
Taking a broad array of official and independent bottlings, you can sample a range of casks and ages by augmenting official offerings with independent offerings of unusual age, cask provenance, or especially notable vintages. For certain distilleries, this can almost be a whole series of tastings unto itself. You can have the opportunity to find “off-profile” casks which is a great point for discussion. This can teach you a great deal about what the distillery does outside of official bottlings – how it can be altered by casks, age, how it’s changed over time, odd casks, and so forth.
Example: Glen Elgin 1976 “Green Elgin”; Glen Elgin 1975 “Perfect Dram”, Glen Elgin 1971 Cadenhead’s 19y; Glen Elgin Centenary (1981) 19y; Glen Elgin 1991 Signatory 19y; Glen Elgin 16 (OB); Glen Elgin The Manager’s Dram 16y; Glen Elgin 1985 The Bottlers; Glen Elgin Manager’s Choice 2009 (OB). Note: This was a LAWS tasting.

Distillery Style Evolution
Sometimes there’s an interesting question in tracking the evolution of a distillery’s profile over a long period of time and (ideally) holding age statements constant. That’s not always easy to do, but you can ballpark it. Some distilleries showed rapid changes over a short period of time and you may not need to survey multiple decades – others are interesting to track over a long period of time.
Example: Macallan 15y 1952 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1956 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1959 Campbell Hope & King. I covered this very tasting a while back.

Mashbill Variation (primarily American)
The more free regulations regarding mashbill in American whiskeys allow for some interesting experiments in understanding how variance in the grain content affects taste. Ideally try and keep it to a single distillery in an attempt to control the yeast variable. Do this one and spend time with it and you’ll start being able to pick out things that you see in wheaters but not rye, rye but not wheaters, and so on.
Example: Old Weller Antique (wheat – no rye); Buffalo Trace (low rye); Blanton’s (high rye); Sazerac (straight rye)

Yeast Variation
This is one that I was initially made aware of during a High West tasting in which we tasted an array of whiskies differing by yeast only. There was a distinct difference in each of them. Since then I’ve tasted several (but not all) of Four Roses’ yeast recipes and it’s been similarly interesting. You’d be surprised what yeast can do to a whiskey.
Example: Four Roses Single Barrel OBSK; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSQ; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF

Deconstructing A Blend
This is not necessarily an easy one – with very few exceptions, blend recipes are fairly closely-guarded secrets. However, various blends have had aspects of their makeup hinted at strongly if not outright divulged. Tasting the original blend and the component whiskies, then returning to the original, can show you how sometimes multiple whiskies come together to make an entirely new thing.
Example: Johnnie Walker Green; Talisker 10 (or better yet, 18); Caol Ila 12; Linkwood 15 (Gordon & MacPhail); recap with Johnnie Walker Green

These are just a handful of options. If you think in terms of themes or bigger ideas, you can really take yourself to interesting heights or in unexpected directions. You’ll learn a lot more about where your whiskey comes from, its place in the whisky landscape, and so forth. You might even be able to find interesting and unexpected opportunities if you keep your eyes open – sister casks from a closed distillery, for instance.

Other good options would include a look at similarly-aged sherry-matured whiskeys; a brief survey of the peated whiskeys on Islay (pay attention to how it changes from one location to the next); the effect of cask finishes on peated whisky; North American single malt whiskeys; closed distilleries; etc., etc. The list is endless.

Of course, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes it’s fun to just have a potluck with basic guidelines on the bottles brought (“independently bottled whiskies from the Highlands region, max $200″) if you’ve had a series of themed tastings. You can also up the ante by doing the tasting blind.

The bottom line is push yourself and your knowledge. There’s a lot you can learn, and all you need to do is step beyond shelf-talkers and alphabetical displays or categorization at your store.

Postscript

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted a review. I’m in the middle of fighting a bug that has me taking plenty of meds and sweating like a malaria patient in Southeast Asia. I’m hoping to have something new up this time next week. Until then, enjoy what you’re having and drop a comment about it so I can live vicariously through your enjoyment.