Category Archives: Drinks

The 1983 Tasting Series #1: St. Magdalene

The year: 1983.

Then, as now, it was a tumultuous time. The globe had been in the grip of recession, the middle east was unstable, and if you wanted to take a Tylenol to just deal with the headaches day-to-day life brought, you still were a little wary of the recent potassium cyanide poisoning.

And the whisky industry was in the height of the whisky glut. The whisky industry faced its own set of austerity measures: A severe cutback in production, with many distilleries closed. We’ve seen some come back since then, but ten distilleries were shut and are unlikely ever to return, especially with a trend towards consolidating production at mega-distilleries.

Over the next several weeks, I will be looking at a sample of each whisky. I’d planned this tasting a couple years ago (and fortunately at that time many of these were cheaper to acquire). As the time drew near to do this tasting, it seemed wasteful and gluttonous to hoard this whisky strictly to myself. Several friends have gotten in on this tasting and you may hear other impressions from them as this tasting progresses.

The ten distilleries that were lost in 1983 that we’ll likely never see a new whisky from are Banff, Brechin (North Port), Brora, Dallas Dhu, Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor, Glenlochy, Glenugie, Port Ellen, St. Magdalene (Linlithgow). Some of these are relatively common (though increasingly pricey); some of these have all but vanished. I’ve had some of these before and some will be new.

This is not an exercise in flash, superiority, or any sort of whisky elitism. It’s a theme tasting I’ve wanted to execute for a while, and the time has come. My goals for this will be twofold: To have, if nothing else, a “last word” on some of these for myself (accepting that I may already be priced out of future editions), as well as to try and compare these to modern malts as a base of reference. As we know, distillery character can be very distinctive and some distilleries are just one of a kind.

Distillery #1: St. Magdalene – Lowland
Ultimate fate:
Converted to apartment buildings

Also known as Linlithgow (for the town it is located in), St. Magdalene is unique in this tasting as the only Lowland distillery. The bottle representing St. Magdalene is the 2009 Dun Bheagan bottling, distilled in October 1982. It’s 26 years old, and comes from cask 2219. Many reviews of this bottle exist online and, yes, you can still find this bottle for sale.

The nose on this is light and somewhat floral, with a touch of confectioner’s sugar. It’s got a certain white wine sourness to it which dissipates after some time in the glass. It has light wood influence, peppery spice, and some lemony notes emerge. With even more time in the glass, vanilla starts to come out a bit, as does a very faint touch of leather. All in all, a relatively light nose for a 26 year old whisky.

The palate enters a touch bitter from the wood; it gives way quite quickly to a general maltiness and some white pepper. There’s a faintly floral top note and then the heat picks up. Subsequent sips reveal some lemon curd and ginger – actually probably the most distinctly gingery taste I think I’ve ever gotten from any whisky.

The finish is dry initially with a touch of wood, some white pepper and plenty of malt. A little vanilla is there; there’s a hay quality to it and some straight-up barley. It goes to a slightly root-vegetable note at the end, in a long and lasting finish.

This whisky isn’t one I’m particularly crazy about; the sourness on the nose and the questionable cask influence didn’t work for me particularly well. Other bloggers have noted this whisky is one that can be hit or miss from session to session. I can certainly believe it – I wasn’t enjoying the bitter and winey notes, but the lemon and ginger (and overall quality with substantial time in the glass) were nice.. just not nice enough to overcome all the negative qualities I perceived.

What’s like this? Hard to say, because I haven’t ever had anything with quite a pronounced (to my palate) ginger note. I’ll keep looking; unfortunately this one seems fairly unique to me. I’d love to hear what anyone thinks about this one.

St. Magdalene is regarded as one of the better closed distilleries, and I must confess after my first contact with it that I’m not entirely sure I get it. I have at least one other bottle in reserve for the future, so that may be the eye-opener.

Next week, the 1983 series moves to the Highlands.

At a glance:

St. Magdalene – Dun Bheagan 10-82 – 2009 (26y) #2219 50% ABV
Light, somewhat floral with a touch of confectioner’s sugar. Also a bit white wine-like. A little wood, some light peppery spice; lemony notes emerge. Over time more vanilla emerges; a faint touch of leather too.
Palate:  Enters a touch bitter from the wood; gives way rather quickly to maltiness and some white pepper. A faintly floral top note and the heat picks up. A little lemon curd and a touch of ginger.
Finish:  Dry initially, a touch of wood, some white pepper and plenty of malt; a touch of vanilla, a little hay and some straight-up barley. Has a slightly root vegetable note at the end. Quite lasting.
Comment:  This benefits greatly from some time open in the glass. To me it starts a bit sour and weird but the air really brings it into focus. While it does develop nicely, it also doesn’t quite develop enough.
Rating: B-

Son Of The Port Ellen Doubleheader

In 2011, I did a head-to-head of two Port Ellens – both really nice but not world-beaters. The McGibbons Provenance 27y from that taste-off was certainly the winner. Late last year, I said a likely goodbye to new Port Ellen purchases due to market inflation, and recalled my favorite Port Ellen (and possibly favorite whisky), a 12 year old MacArthur bottling from the early to mid 1980s.

A few weeks ago, a fun opportunity presented itself to try the very bottles I’d written off as my breaking point for individual purchases – K&L’s single cask pick,bottled by Sovereign, and the official 12th release Port Ellen from Diageo. There was a debate in LAWS to see which might be desired for an upcoming event, so the decision was made to simply have a taste-off. Through a comedy of errors, I wasn’t able to make it to that event, but had quite large pours reserved.

In the days that passed, it became clear that this was a hotly debated topic among LAWS; it was basically deemed too close to call. Would Sku and I mind terribly if our samples were blinded?

Would I mind? Hell no, I’d love it!

These two are both old whiskies – 30 year for the Sovereign K&L and 32 for the Diageo bottling. The K&L is vastly more limited, being from a single cask, with a bottling run just slightly more than 5% of the total Diageo run this year.

Now, I’d had a very small taste of the Sovereign from K&L, and my impression had been that it was rather middle-of-the-road at the time. This was however based on quite a small sip and it was nothing I’d ever feel comfortable assigning a score to or standing very firm on my assessment of. As a result I never really mentioned it. It was certainly nothing that I could place in my taste memory in a tight lineup of Port Ellens.

I started with Sample “A”. It was lighter than expected and to my nose, surprisingly fruity for a Port Ellen. It had a little waxiness that was not exactly, but not far off what I associate with older Clynelishes. There was a little lemon and a touch of pear. Some sweet maltiness floated around, and there was a lot of well-developed, seasoned oak. It didn’t seem astonishingly peaty and leaned a little more sweet – not unexpected; peat can have a pronounced fall off after 20 years in the barrel.

The palate was oily and spicy, with a touch of white pepper, a fair amount of oak, some waxy wood polish character to it, dried apple skin, and some faint, roof-of-the-mouth smoke in the background.

The finish had some of the tarry/diesel notes I commonly associate with Port Ellen, and then surprised with a brief zing of mint. There was a fair bit of wood and a waxy apple note.

Good, not the best I’ve ever had, but good. Saving some for later given the split decision nature floating around.

Sample “B” went into a clean glass.

The nose on B was lemony-sweet with some nice malt and a little hint of leather, with a touch of diesel.

The palate opened with a really great creamy mouthfeel, and a fair bit of wood. There was malt underneath and some white pepper, with a late hint of pears again. There was light peat, and it was more of a shading on everything else than a main note – in a way reminding me of older malts from the mainland in the 50s and 60s. After a while it gave way to more malty sweetness.

The finish had some light smoke and a faintly industrial quality. There was a bit more of the pear taste; it was a surprisingly clean finish.

Again, a good whisky; not the best I’ve had but definitely in the ballpark. These two were different beasts and played on different aspects of Port Ellen. I gave my palate a rest and revisited later with dueling pours again. The differences stood out much more at this point and I had a better sense of the two.

Whisky “A” had quite a bit of waxiness to it and I just kept thinking “old Clynelish”. It’s not the same thing, but it had a similarity I couldn’t deny. There was tons going on and it was really dense. It was also pushing the limits of its age; having perhaps a fading vitality, but the spiciness kept it interesting and it gained momentum as it went on.

Whisky “B” was a more straightforward affair, showing some of the underlying spirit characteristics that can be masked by peat even in 25 year old whiskies. It was not an overly-complex whisky, but a stunningly easy drinker. It reminded me in ways of the better whiskies from decades ago, with smoke integrated nicely without overwhelming things.

I could see the difficulty in deciding and why this was a split decision. In all honesty in my opinion, I think I could go either way on these, but to me the complexity of whisky “A” was ever so slightly my favorite. “B” was fantastically drinkable but a variation on a theme I’d had before. “A” was good and dense, if slightly tired in its old age.

The bottom line, I think, is that if you have this kind of cash available and you have your heart set on either one of these bottles, you won’t be disappointed. They’re a little better than average for a Port Ellen.

This morning, I got an email from Sku with his preference. It seemed, unsurprisingly, that we split evenly on the blind tasting, with his preference being Whisky B. This just goes to show how evenly matched these whiskies are: some die-hard whisky lovers in LAWS who have sampled far and wide are pretty much evenly split on these two. As for me, given the choice, I think I’d pour a little of Whisky A.

So what are they?

Whisky A: Port Ellen 12th Release (Diageo Official) – 52.5% ABV 32y
  Light and surprisingly fruity for a Port Ellen. A little waxiness that’s not far off Clynelish. A little lemon, maybe even a touch of pear. Some sweet malt, a fair amount of well-developed, seasoned oak. Not a lot of peat. Sweet in general.
Palate:  Oily and spicy, a touch of white pepper, a fair amount of wood, some waxy wood polish kind of notes, dried apple skin, and a little faint background smoke.
Finish:  A little smoke with a hint of tarriness and diesel, a little quick hint of mint for a second, a fair bit of wood and the waxy apple note.
Comment:  This, for all the waxy notes initially, makes me think Clynelish. It’s definitely on the far edge of what’s vital, but a little spice keeps it interesting. Picks up nicely as it goes on.
Rating: A-

Whisky B: Port Ellen 30y, Sovereign, K&L Exclusive. 51.90%
Lemony-sweet with some nice malt, a little hint of leather. A touch of diesel.
Palate:  Creamy mouthfeel, a fair bit of wood. Some malt underneath, a little white pepper. Some pears start to come through late. Light peat, almost more of a shade than a main note. After a while a little more malty sweetness.
Finish:  Some light smoke and a faintly industrial touch. A bit more of the pear-type note; quite clean.
Comment:  Quite a gentle Port Ellen; a really great mouthfeel.
Rating: B+

Compass Box Week, Day 2: Asyla

Since I’ve mentioned Compass Box so frequently and copiously referenced them in the blends article, I’ve decided to take a couple days to look at the various offerings from Compass Box. Last time I looked at Hedonism, a blend of grain-only whiskies. Today it’s Asyla (from the older, less art-deco-inspired box), which is a “Blended Scotch Whisky”: a blend of malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries. Compass Box says it’s made with 50% malt and from first fill American oak barrels, which push us toward a lighter whisky.

And bottled at 40%, it’s definitely light.

Compass Box Asyla, 40% ABV
Nose:  Light, with a nice mix of floral fragrance and gentle vanilla. Faintest tickle of white pepper. Light honey, but fairly thin and a touch watery. Becomes a little more overtly fruity in a Balblair direction with some air.
Palate:  Woody and slightly bitter initially, with a touch of young wood; develops into a little maltiness with some faint chili oil, still that green wood note. A bit of a straight alcohol note too.
Finish:  Vanilla and some pepper, a little bit of wood.
Comment:  It’s not bad at all. But it’s so vanishingly light and balanced with an odd heat that it’s kind of… well.. ho-hum.
Rating: C+

I’ve had Compass Box whiskies I’ve liked; Asyla, generally speaking, isn’t really one of them. It’s just a little too light. Maybe it’s great as a mixer or for the served-cold set, but I think we’ve long established that isn’t really the territory covered here. As a summer whisky and an aperitif it could work though, but it’s going to be quite light.

Understanding Scotch Whisky: Blends, Batches, and Barley + Compass Box Week Day 1

To counterbalance my last post about an expensive, sold-out, overseas-only single cask 40 year old whisky, I’m going to go way back into Scotch Whisky 101 for the benefit of the, shall we say, less intensely passionate portion of my readers. Hardcore whisky geeks, you’ll want to skip down quite a bit.

Why such a basic article?

Scotch is not necessarily a simple thing, with several designations that are less intuitive to American drinkers especially. There are certain mistakes and misconceptions that are made time and time again (even up to and including by a writer for Just Drinks last week. Sorry for pointing that one out poorly to those guys).

The very basics: What is it?

Before we get into all the types of Scotch, let’s understand perhaps the most basic rule first: To be sold as “whisky”, it must be over 40% alcohol by volume and MUST age for 3 years in oak casks in Scotland. Consider this the basis for understanding. America plays very fast and loose with aging, especially with the microdistillery boom, and the American marketplace is not generally one of lots of age statements in a mass-market sense. Compare this to Scotch where age statements are the norm (for now). However, the one ironclad rule to always bear in mind: if it’s sold as whisky in scotland, everything in the bottle is at least 3 years old.

Second, the age rule, which is better known. For an age statement to be declared, all whisky in the bottle must be at least as old as the age statement. That means that your bottle of Macallan 12 year is 100% composed of whisky that is at least 12 years old. This is a key point we’ll revisit later on. Age statements are not mandatory so you could, if you so desired, sell a 40 year old whisky without an age statement. 

With that ground level foundation, let’s move onto what it is. There are two major types of whisky made in Scotland from which all whisky sold as Scotch is derived from in some proportion. Malt Whisky is whisky made with malted barley, water and yeast. That’s it. All the flavors you see people mentioning in their whisky are a product of the fermentation, distillation, and aging in oak. Scotland is very strict about this rule. This is commonly made on pot stills, but has also at times been made in specialty stills such as the Lomond still (which has been used at distilleries other than Loch Lomond).

Grain whisky is whisky that is made with other grains and water – corn, wheat and rye (with corn being the leader these days). These are made in a column still, which is a more complicated design that allows for continuous distillation. What’s that mean? Well, there are north of 100 malt distilleries in Scotland and less than 10 grain distilleries. These grain distilleries produce an ocean of grain whisky each year – Cameronbridge produces ten times the amount of whisky in a year that Roseisle (Diageo’s “mega-distillery”) does.

From these two types of whisky, all other whisky flows. Let’s start easy and get more complicated.

Single Malt Whisky
Single malt whisky is by definition malt whisky (as above) that has been produced at one (and only one) distillery – such as Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Balvenie or Laphroaig. The bottle of Glenfiddich 12 on nearly any bar in America is a single malt, as is a bottle of Balvenie Tun 1401.

Single Grain Whisky
Single grain whisky is a whisky produced at one (and only one) grain distillery. These are relatively uncommon to find in the wild as they’re almost entirely used in blended whiskies. Diageo released one as part of their 2011 winter collection – Port Dundas. These are generally whiskies that require searching and are almost always independently bottled.

By combining these two types of whisky, the remainder (and majority of) the Scotch universe is created.

Blended Malt Whisky
Blended malt whisky is a whisky from any two or more distilleries, comprised solely of malt whisky. There are a few examples of this – the recently discontinued Johnnie Walker Green was a blended malt; Compass Box’s Oak Cross is another one, as is Monkey Shoulder. It’s not an exceedingly common whisky category. This category used to be called “vatted malt whisky”.

Blended Grain Whisky
Blended grain whisky is another relatively uncommon category, in this case a blend of grain whisky from any two or more distilleries. The two best known examples of this are Compass Box’s Hedonism as well as Snow Grouse. This category used to be known as “vatted grain whisky”.

Blended Scotch Whisky
This is the daddy of them all. This is where the industry lives, this is where the industry sees its profits made, and these are the names people know. Blended Scotch Whisky is composed of malt whisky from one or more distilleries and grain whisky from one or more distilleries. In practice, they can draw from dozens of distilleries, and some releases have tried to use as many as is humanly possible. These are the ones you’ll find in an airport bar in the saddest, most out-of-the-way place assuming they can serve liquor. Examples are Johnnie Walker Red, Black, Gold and Blue; Dewar’s White, Chivas Regal, Grant’s, Cutty Sark, J&B, on and on.

.. but that’s not it. There’s one other curiosity. This one is so uncommon as to hardly merit a mention, but in the interest of completeness:

Single Blended Scotch Whisky
How’s that again?

This is stupidly uncommon. This is a whisky that is made from grain whisky and malt whisky distilled at the same distillery. Almost every distillery is simply not equipped to produce this. Loch Lomond produces a Single Blended Whisky (red label); Ben Nevis did one a long time ago, as did Lochside.

So that’s all there is to it, right?

Well, not quite. There’s one other thing that trips up a lot of people, which is really easily understood by American audiences if you discuss it in terms of batch size.

“Large Batch”: Mainline, High Volume Releases
Before proceeding any further, it’s important to understand that batch size has absolutely no definition or guideline. In fact, the term isn’t really used in the Scotch whisky industry, but I’m applying it here to aid understanding. That bottle of Glenlivet 12 you see everywhere? It’s not drawn from an endless river of twelve year old whisky flowing through the Glenlivet distillery like some sort of boozy version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It’s a batch of many, many barrels that have been mixed together. Consistency is the aim of these batches, and the large pool of barrels allows the rough edges or off-profile notes of a given barrel to be smoothed out by characteristics of another barrel. Given that a pot still only produces so much whisky at one time, a release of Glenlivet 12 may be the product of multiple distillation runs and barrels. Some diehard fans track these batches by bottle codes and have even noted differences between them.

“Small Batch”: Specialty Releases
Sometimes a distillery will release a bottle to commemorate something in particular – Royal Family milestones, local charities, key points in history for the distillery, or perhaps just a smaller run that will go to better shops and not every supermarket in the land. Balvenie Tun 1401 is a great example of this: about 10 barrels are mingled in a larger cask for several months and sold. Because it’s the product of 10 barrels, only so many bottles will be made before the batch may change markedly. Balvenie Tun 1401 #3 and #6 are examples of this – 3 is fruit-forward; 6 is spicier with tobacco notes. To aid understanding, you might even consider bigger releases like Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix in this category. They’re certainly reasonably large releases, but they may differ from the production run at large.

“Single Barrel”: Single Cask Releases
Balvenie is one of the leaders of this movement. They have single cask editions available at 12 and 15 years of age. These are literally one barrel of whisky pumped into as many bottles as it will fill, and when multiple barrels of the same vintage are compared, you can see the effect wood may have on the whisky. Single cask releases are a mainstay of the independent bottling market.

I add this batch size dimension to help a stumbling point I see a lot. Many times in the press releases for new whiskies or special releases, they will trot out a quote from their “master blender”, a guy who works for the company and helps either set the standard for what an expression is supposed to taste like, or helps create a special expression like Tun 1401 or Talisker Storm. The involvement of a “master blender” does not mean that the whisky he or she produces is a blend. Balvenie Tun 1401 is heavily linked with master blender David Stewart. It’s a gathering of several casks of Balvenie from different decades and sold without an age statement, so some people mistakenly call it a “blend”. Let’s run through this systematically:
- All malt whisky
- Produced at one distillery
- Product of multiple different distillation years
- No age statement

When determining if a whisky is a malt or a grain or some variety of a blend, the time spent in oak or the vintages used do not factor into the classification of the whisky. Let’s repeat that: age does not affect classification.

A few more examples: Talisker recently released Storm, a new whisky with no age stated (NAS). This means exactly one thing only: Talisker has elected not to inform the consumer about the youngest whisky in the bottle. This does not mean it the whisky is a blend. It does not necessarily mean it’s a bad whisky, even though NAS is commonly used as a way to monetize younger whisky. All it means is one piece of data is missing to the consumer.

Another example: Glenmorangie’s Signet is released without an age statement. The book that accompanies it alludes to older whiskies being used and mixed with younger whiskies. This is a trick that can help punch up the intensity of a whisky – sometimes older whiskies have some desirable quality (sweetness, richness, a certain mellowness) but are kind of dull on their own. By blending it (again, in the mechanical sense of the word, not in a designation sense) with younger whisky, Signet has a little more vitality than it might. Who knows how old the younger stuff is? We don’t as consumers. But again – multiple ages, one distillery, all malt whisky: it’s a single malt. Probably just from a smaller batch size than Glenmorangie Original.

Finally, the other key point about age statements: just because an age statement is listed does not mean that the whisky is all that age. At times during the whisky glut of the 70s/80s, bottles may have contained whisky much older than a stated 12 or 15 years. One famous example is the 1990s Springbank 12 100 proof. Allegedly there were casks over 30 years old in the warehouse that were below the proof to be bottled as whisky (40% ABV). Those casks were apparently used to dilute the younger 12 year whisky, which would likely be in the upper 50% range, down to a bottling strength of 50% ABV. Springbank sold it as a 12 year old whisky.

That’s a very long-winded look at the basics, but I hope it’s been helpful. In the spirit of these odd categories, I’m going to review one – Compass Box Hedonism, a Blended Grain whisky. What’s that tell us? It’s grain whisky with no malt whisky component, and it’s from more than one grain distillery. No age has been stated, so there’s nothing to go on as far as how old the whisky in the bottle is, but that doesn’t affect the classification.

The nose on Hedonism is exceedingly light – a thin, slightly straight alcohol note (but very faint), some light vanilla notes, a little wood, and a faintly peppery touch. The palate is light and delicate. There’s some gentle wood notes, a little bit of vanilla sweetness and a slightly cereal grain character to it. The finish is light and quick – some vanilla, a little bit of pepper heating the mouth, and a faint pear note.

Overall, Hedonism is a light whisky. It’s not unpleasant and could be good in the summer or chilled, but in its own it’s somewhat one-dimensional. It does show what grain whisky brings to a blended whisky, however.

Over the next few days I will be posting reviews of more Compass Box whiskies, so stay tuned.

At a glance:

Compass Box Hedonism – 43% ABV
Nose:  Thin, slightly straight alcohol note (very faint), light vanilla, a little wood, and faint pepper.
Light and delicate. Gentle wood, a bit of vanilla sweetness and a cereal grain character.
Finish:  Light and quick – some vanilla, a bit of pepper heating the mouth, a faint pear note. A little bit of bitter wood.
Comment:  Very light. Not unpleasant and could be a good summer whisky (or good chilled), but on it’s own it’s a little one-dimensional. Tasting it really shows what grain whisky adds to a blend, however.
Rating: B-

Imprisoned By Expectation; Tasting a Great

Two weeks ago or so, Reddit had a long series of people posting about Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3, which I pretty openly regard as one of the best whiskies to come out in the last few years and especially at the price that was requested. The general Reddit take? “It’s OK. No big deal.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading – 1401/3 was clearly superior and to find a whisky like that readily on the shelf at scarcely over $200? Absolute heresy.

Another quick story: Last fall, I had my first brush with the highly regarded early 70s Glendronach – Cask #714. I thought it was great, but perhaps not the life-and-mind-altering substance it was reputed to be. “Especially not for the price”, I found myself thinking at the time. However, LAWS grades do not consider price and that was a personal observation.

However, #714 stuck with me and grew in my mind, slowly having its image burnished and perhaps joining the pantheon of truly great whiskies I’ve had. I don’t know that it’d be an eye-rolling, heart-stopping easy A, but it was certainly damn good.

In both cases, high expectations marred the reviewer’s impression.

I’m trying to distance myself from a lot of the whisky community groupthink these days; not that I don’t think there’s a lot of very sharp people out there with really great insight onto things; I just find my impression of these various bottles of whisky is so much clearer when I don’t come to them with any baggage. Hakushu Heavily Peated was one like that: the only expectation I had was on the name. Absolutely fantastic (but not “heavily peated” in the Supernova sense of the word). The recent K&L 20y Longmorn was another: $100 for a 20y? Looks like someone sold the Davids a sketchy cask at that price. Except, holy crap, it’s fantastic.

When the latest release of Glendronach cask strength releases came out, I jumped at the opportunity. #714 just became this gotta-have-it experience I was committed to reliving, knowing of course that cask variation is huge and sister casks don’t mean a lot. I picked up a bottle of the 1972 40y Oloroso cask #710, expecting another rich, earthy and nutty whisky like 714.

Already, you know where this is going. 710 arrived and was gorgeous – the milk chocolate colored Glendronach label over a Coca-Cola colored whisky inside. I poured it into my glass and took the first smell – it was as expected, almost unimaginably dense. A huge, thick wall of scent flooded my brain; leather and some light nuttiness lead the way but there was tons of wood behind it. In between, red fruits and dried fruit; super rich scents and a definite fig character.

The whisky was extremely thick and syrupy at first. Figs and a touch of molasses were upfront, with plenty of wood (bordering on astringency) behind it. Tons of sherry but not overdone; lot of dried fruits – orange in particular – with a hint of nutmeg and a trace of cinnamon. There was also some white pepper heat. At the far edges, some nutty and earthy notes.

The finish was warm and bold, with a super-dense fruit and wood character that was almost bubblegummy sweet. As it dried, it became all about Fuji apple skins in late fall.

Was this cask on par with 714? Probably not. I was definitely a little disappointed at first. As it sat in my glass, predictably, it developed a bit more. The nose became a little more fruity (in that sherry-bomb way, it didn’t suddenly become an 80s Balblair with bright Del Monte canned peaches soaked in booze) and the leathery stuff faded a bit. The palate became a little more oily and nutty with some additional white pepper, but this was definitely more dried fruits than that overtly decadent nutty, rich flavor that was reminiscent of a Valdespino Solera 1842 which I got on Cask 714.

I came into this one expecting another syrupy, nutty, decadent and fabulous sherried whisky like #714. I am appreciating that those sticky-sweet (but not cloying) sherry bombs are the rare gems of the whisky world, and when that doesn’t happen it’s kind of unfair to be underwhelmed… it’s like finding out that not every show by Phish, the Dead or Pearl Jam are on par with the legendary ones (Bo Diddley + Dead is a once in a lifetime thing after all).

What Cask 710 presents is a great, though not legendary, execution of a 40 year old sherried whisky. There’s maybe a bit too much wood on this which takes it in the direction of the drier fruit notes versus the rich and thick syrupy tastes. To me it’s reminiscent of (though distinctly different from) K&L’s 1972 Glenfarclas: Very red-fruit heavy, very woody, taking more pages out of the bourbon playbook than is common for 99.99% of Scotch whisky. Cask 710 is a beauty of spice and dried fruit where the sherry is more like Ron Carter than its Charles Mingus presence on Cask 714.

At the end of the day, this is an elitist/enthusiast whisky that’s already gone from overseas retailers. If you had the money and the timing to pick this up you probably won’t be disappointed; at the same time this won’t be hitting the all-time-great notes of some of the other fabulous whiskies you’ve had. It’s technically great; it just isn’t divinely inspired. Yes, that may be my criteria to exceed A-.

At a glance:

Glendronach 1972 40y – Oloroso Sherry Butt; Cask 710; 49% ABV
  Dense! A thick wall of aromas; leather and a light nuttiness with ample wood behind it. Red fruits; dried fruit and all kinds of richness with a figgy side as well. Over time this reveals more of the fruit aspects and the leathery stuff tones down a little.
Palate:  Extremely thick, very syrupy. Figs and molasses, with some wood bordering on astringency right behind it. Tons of sherry. Dried fruits – orange especially; a hint of nutmeg and perhaps a trace of cinnamon. Nice gentle heat, a little bit of white pepper. A little nutty character; slightly earthy. Subsequently becomes a little oily and the nutty character grows. Over time a little more fruit influence and white pepper.
Finish:  Warm initially, with that super-dense fruit and wood character, an almost bubblegummy hint behind it. Eventually fades and has an apple skin quality.
Comment:  This is good but perhaps a little too long in the wood. Really enjoyable but not the stunner that, say, #714 was. This is more about a little heat and fruit with sherry, whereas 710 was sherry first with other supporting stuff.
Rating: A-

Peat Outside Of Islay: One Tasty Choice

I’ve said before that Scotch whisky regions are kind of a silly thing to get hung up on. Virtually every region has its exceptions if not an outright identity crisis. I think it’s far more useful to use a concept like Dave Broom’s flavor map or David Wishart’s clustering-based approach. I’m even more in favor of those as grouping categories after spending some time this last week reading about machine learning and statistical analysis of datasets.

With all that stuff floating around in my brain, and quite frankly it being vastly more interesting than some blogger shop-talk about whisky regions or an attempt to graft some sort of homily onto a whisky review, I’m just going to cut to the chase since my choice for a pour lately has been more about a fun unwind and mental free-association than an attempt to derive meaning in and for my life. You know, like 99.99% of the rest of the world.

BenRiach has been impressing lately with their single cask releases, similar to the highly regarded and higher-profile Glendronach single cask releases. This isn’t at all surprising given that both distilleries are owned by the BenRiach Distillery Company. While it’s fun to pick and choose among the rare and expensive whiskies out there (and I highly recommend trying an older single cask BenRiach as they’re quite good), it’s also quite satisfying to find one on the shelf at an affordable price that gets the job done.

I’ve had a bottle of BenRiach’s 10 year old Curiositas on my bar for a while and never really spent much time with it. With Southern California’s bitter cold snap recently – getting all the way down to the mid-40s – I was in a peaty mood.

The nose on Curiositas is very forward with peat, verging ever so slighty on having a rubbery quality, but has an otherwise dry, Caol-Ila like smokiness. There’s a little white wine on the nose, but it’s a pretty simple and straightforward nose.

The palate is nice and full with plenty of heat – tons of white pepper, a really solid malty sugar profile and then a big kick of peat. The peat again is slightly rubbery; it’s a full mouthfeel and the malty sweetness is really balanced. There’s also a little clean barley to it.

The finish is white pepper, slightly rubbery peat, and some faint maltiness with a touch of hay; it’s big and bold with nice heat. Overall, it’s a big and hefty malt, but a touch uncontrolled and wild. Honestly, I’d love to see what this one is like at around 15-18 years.

And the beauty of this whisky? It’s available at any decently-stocked shop that carries BenRiach, and it’s $60 here in CA. That’s a pretty screaming deal these days.

Don’t overthink it: it’s a good whisky. It won’t change your life, your dog will not suddenly speak English, and you won’t have any sort of life revelations just by contemplating this whisky. But maybe if you were already on a productive train of thought, this will give you the proper mental looseness to go somewhere interesting.

Or not.

At a glance:

BenRiach Curiositas 10y Peated Malt 46% ABV
  Very forward peat; verging ever so slightly on having a rubbery quality, but otherwise kind of a dry, Caol-Ila like smokiness. Some light white wine aromas as well.
Palate:  Nice, full mouthfeel with plenty of heat – a big blast of white pepper, followed by some solid malty sugars and then right behind it a full kick of peat. The peat again leans slightly towards being rubbery. Very full, a little malty sweetness and some clean barley as well.
Finish:  White pepper in spades, a little peat (again slightly rubbery), and some faint maltiness with a touch of hay. Big, bold finish with nice heat.
Comment:  Nice and hefty, but a little uncontrolled. Would love to see what this is like around 15-18 years.
Rating: B

The Japanese Whisky That Needs To Come To The US

While the northeast is apparently getting hit with a good winter storm, as my various feeds would indicate, we in southern California are suffering ourselves. It was only 47 when I went for my morning run. Weather that cold demands a light windbreaker. I almost questioned my choice to wear shorts! Fortunately, after a few minutes I warmed up and it was a non-issue. That’s pretty much the same thing, right?

I guess not.

Despite that, for my long-acclimated self, it’s been a bit cold. No, not northeast cold or northern Europe cold, but the kind that makes me wonder if I should swap the hoodie for a heavier coat. That’s the kind of weather that makes me think it’s peated whiskey time.

I thought of some of the Islays on my shelf, but nothing quite grabbed me. After looking around, I found what I’d been waiting to try for some time: Haukushu Heavily Peated. Hakushu is owned by Suntory (who are more familiar in the US as the owners of the Yamazaki distillery) and is located west-northwest of Tokyo, or a little southeast of Nagoya. We got Hakushu relatively recently in the US, but it seems to not have caught much of a reputation locally. It’s a shame; Japanese whiskies are some of the very best in the world and really stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the world has to offer. They’re a little bit different but generally I find them to be highly enjoyable.

Suntory has periodically released special editions of their whiskies which are released in Japan and sometimes Europe, but never see the light of day here. You may have seen photos of the Yamazaki Sherry Cask edition in the past; there’s also a Bourbon, Puncheon and Mizunara edition of Yamazaki every year. All four of those are going to be reviewed in the coming weeks. Hakushu has seen some as well – there’s a Hakushu Bourbon barrel release, and the whisky-sphere had occasional photos of Hakushu Sherry Cask floating around, but that sold out almost instantly last week.

Today though, we’re looking at release of Hakushu that isn’t as impossible to get if you’re not bashful about ordering from the UK. This is, of course, Hakushu Heavily Peated, and it’s the perfect thing for cooler days.

The name evokes something that has a full-on, aggressive punch to it; sort of a Japanese Octomore or a really punchy Lagavulin Cask Strength. I admit, I’d set it aside as the ultra-peated whiskies tend to be a special mood for me even though I enjoy them.

The nose on Hakushu is immediately full of nice, dense, but clean peat. It’s really easygoing in an uncommon way despite its density. Whereas I find some Islays can have a rubbery quality when heavily peated, this reminds me of the peating on some of the older Macallans I’ve reviewed – it has an almost pine forest quality to it: rich, lush and green, but not acrid or sharp at all. That said, it is definitely at the forefront of the nose. There’s a light sweetness that underpins the peat and some maltiness, with a real sense of very fresh barley. Way in the background is some light grassiness just to provide some balance.

The palate comes in a little surprisingly thin, and leads with a flash of wood and some barley, as well as malt sweetness. I was expecting a peat bomb, but it’s much more balanced. There’s a real sense of malt sugars on the palate, and it provides a fantastic balance to the lush, rich peat. Nothing is even slightly off to my palate. There’s some slight white pepper and gentle spiciness that builds late in the palate, and it’s a great dimension.

The finish dries a bit from the sweetness, and the maltiness is still there. A faint hint of caramel and white pepper dance around the peat. It’s a really satisfying, lasting finish that hangs around and resolves to malty sweetness.

From the name, I’d expected something that was brutally big and overpowering. Instead, it’s an incredibly well balanced whiskey that brings a phenomenal mix of sweetness and peat. I struggle to think of a reasonably priced peated whiskey that has such a fantastic balance of elements.

Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard from the K&L Davids in the past, importing whisky from Japan is a nightmare. This is a shame – I know it prevented Nikka from dipping its toes in the American market for a long time, and they also have some great whisky. However, not having Hakushu Heavily Peated in the United States is a real shame. If any buyers or local importers or brand representatives for Suntory happen to see this, please, consider this a request to bring this to the American market. It’s a fantastic, world-class whisky and unique among the Japanese malts that would be available to us.

Until then, we’ll have to order from abroad. But let’s hope that’s not a long time.

At a glance:

Hakushu Heavily Peated (48% ABV)
Nice, dense but clean peat – has a very easygoing way about it. Not too edgy and raw. Light sweetness underneath it, some good maltiness – a real sense of fresh barley. A touch grassy.
Palate:  A little thin on the palate, leading initially with wood and some barley; a little malt sweetness. The peat that was so abundant on the nose plays a more balanced role with malt sugars; it’s firmly present but doesn’t blast everything out of proportion. A little white pepper and gentle spice builds slowly.
Finish:  Dries up and is a little less sweet, but still has a reasonable malty presence, a faintly caramel touch, some white pepper, and some light peat. Very nicely lasting, satisfying and goes a bit malty-sweet towards the end.
Comment:  Despite the name, this isn’t a huge peat bomb that floods your palate. Yes, the peat is present but it’s not by any means overwhelming.
Rating: B+

More reviews of this excellent whisky can be found at the LAWS database.