Category Archives: Scotch

So Long, Port Ellen

I knew the day would come that the closed distilleries started pricing themselves beyond what I was willing to pay. Sure, Ben Wyvis and Kinclaith had long been outside that, but those were easy enough to disregard – I’ve never heard anyone raving about that one legendary Kinclaith that they wish they had just one more pour of.

Port Ellen, on the other hand, has been the go-to example of a closed distillery that is almost always good to great and generally in a fairly predictable profile. If you like it, the odds are that you’re going to find plenty of Port Ellens that really work for you. And, for the longest time, given the realities of the situation, the price has been fairly reasonable. After all, the distillery has been closed 29 years; most whisky being released under the name has seen three decades or more in oak, and the stocks dwindle while awareness continues to rise. It’s a perfect storm for price increases.

Fortunately for producers, we happen to be in a period of increased demand for the stuff, and it seems like no price is too much to ask. Last year, Diageo’s official release of Port Ellen was hovering around $500 – definitely high, but it didn’t require an inordinate amount of back-bending to plausibly justify.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

After a year of seemingly endless one-offs, exclusives, and special editions (which still seemed to find audiences and sell through), we’re truly in Cabbage Patch Kid season: the end of year seasonal releases. Diageo, the Van Winkles, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Parker’s, Jefferson’s One-Horse Open Sleigh Aged, etc. While these are normally tricky to come by, this year the insanity is already boiling over and we still have a solid two months left in the year. The best example? Thomas H. Handy, the criminally underrated member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sold out in under five minutes at The Party Source’s sale. I’m sure Jim Murray’s stamp of approval didn’t hurt, but even last year you could casually walk into your favorite liquor store even into January and grab a bottle. The party’s over, it seems.

This time around, the producers seem to be charging a premium on what the market can bear. I remember the critiques last year – Port Ellen was instantly snapped up and sold on the secondary market for $800 – that said that Diageo should jack prices up to stop the speculators. They did – oh, how they did.

If you were fortunate enough to find a Port Ellen release this year in the UK, you would have been paying over a thousand dollars once all was said and done. I don’t know about you, and perhaps it sounds a bit rich coming from the guy who’s bought a couple expensive Macallans (never again), but I was definitely out of the market at $1000.

A couple days ago, K&L announced their last cask of the year – a Port Ellen! I was excited and ready to spend – I figured it’d be $400 absolute maximum. The announcement did the usual bit of story-weaving, but there was clearly an undercurrent on the economics both in the announcement and in David’s writing over the last couple weeks. Their $300 (retail) Ladyburn from last year, as Driscoll noted, would have cost $900 wholesale per bottle. The punchline of the announcement was that the K&L exclusive Port Ellen, a coup for any shop trying to cement itself in the upper echelon of whisky retailers, was going to cost $600 a bottle.

I was out of the market immediately.

It’s nothing to fault K&L or Diageo for that matter – people are as mental for Port Ellen as they are for Pappy – but this does seem to mark a point where Port Ellen is moving out of “splurge bottle” and into the price category dominated by the very wealthy. No doubt the next five years (perhaps next year, being the 30th anniversary of the closing), will bring us an oligarch-focused release that cracks into the vaunted five-figure barrier. Obviously it’ll need a special decanter and a wooden box, but the supply chain is clearly firing up in the “deluxe whisky decanter” and “deluxe whisky decanter velvet-lined box” cottage industries.

This was a point of reflection for me, and it seems that the Port Ellen I own at this point is the last Port Ellen I’ll buy. Maybe there will be some sample swaps, and maybe something will catch my eye at some point, still at a more reasonable price, but for all intents and purposes, the new release purchasing is over for me. Funny; I’d have thought it would have been Brora first.

Instead of being bothered by it or by running out and laying my hands on every Port Ellen I could find, I decided to recall the absolute best Port Ellen I’ve ever had. I fortunately had a small amount of it remaining, and this sort of “farewell” seemed like a good opportunity to revisit it.

This particular Port Ellen was an older bottle from James Macarthur – you’ve seen them, they’re usually sitting in the semi-anonymous lower shelves and are all too easily confused with the various mystery malts. This particular Port Ellen was bottled at 12 years old, at 62.7% ABV.

The nose on this one is a great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little light leather, lemon and young malt. It has a faint minerality to it, as well as a little faint pepper prickly quality. It opens up and evolves while it breathes, revealing fresh Red Delicious apples, white pepper, hints of tangy barbecue sauce. Eventually you even get into lighter fruits – peach and apricot with a touch of a briny quality. All of this still happens with that great Port Ellen peat happening.

The whisky has a nice, full, and rich mouthfeel. There’s a moderate heat to it even though at 62.7% it could be off to the races and super hot. There’s moments of wood here and there, but it’s not out of balance. White pepper and chili oil form the basis of the heat; light lemony notes run around the heat. There’s a malty sweetness and tarry smoke as expected, and some organic earthiness, with a gently insistent ashiness. There’s a really enjoyable mix of sweetness, heat, and a little ash to keep the palate interesting.

The whisky finishes on tarry smoke, a pronounced lemon note which seems to have a quick Earl Grey tea chaser. It’s got a touch of malt and dry wood, and it dries further to barley with a little lemon at the tail end.

My words feel like they don’t do this one justice. Honestly, if I could have no other whisky for the rest of my life, I’d be OK if I only had this one. It’s got such a great balance of tastes.

Apparently there’s another version that was released before this one which was more heavily sherried which got a ridiculous rating like 98 from Serge. I’d love to try it but the fact is, these Macarthur bottles are exceedingly uncommon and seem to only show up as minis on the secondary market in Europe. If you want one, you’re going to have to be prepared to hunt and pay.

Who knows where things will go from here. I’m still pretty convinced prices are going up for some time yet; I wish I could keep pace and enjoy things like these new Port Ellen releases, but they’ve now gone out of my range. So, the day has come to say goodbye. Any future Port Ellen reviews you see here are likely from bottles I have on hand, unless I specifically call out “a great deal on Port Ellen that I recently found…”. Given the current climate, I don’t expect to be writing those words anytime soon.

At a Glance:

Port Ellen 12y James Macarthur 62.7% ABV
Nose:  A great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little leather, lemon, young malt. Ever so faintly mineral. A little prickle with faint pepper. A faint touch of fresh Red Delicious apples in the background. White pepper and a little light, tangy barbecue sauce. Over time, lighter fruits evolve – hints of peach, apricot. Faint brine.
Palate:  Nice, rich, full palate. Moderate heat despite the high ABV. A little wood on the body; white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some light lemony notes. Malty sweetness and some tarry smoke. A slightly organic earthiness, but there’s still a gently insistent ashiness.
Finish:  Nice tarry smoke, a definite lemon chaser, and perhaps a bit of Earl Grey tea right behind that. Lightly tarry, a touch of malt, a touch of dry wood and barley. Lemons pop up again after a bit.
Comment:  Honestly, this would be the one whisky I’d have if I could have no other. A great balance of all the tastes.
Rating: A

That Was Not The Whisky Bubble Popping

Recently I discussed the pre-Sputnik Bowmore 1957, limited to a handful of bottles. With a positively ancient whisky inside a stunning bottle likely fashioned from narwhal tears and pixie dust, this was expected to fetch £100,000 (or slightly north of $162,000 for those who don’t convert currencies). Yesterday was the auction date for bottle one in Edinburgh, and the bottle… did not sell.

Early reaction on twitter was a mix of surprise and schadenfreude. Some even hoped this was a bellwether event that signaled the end of the whisky bubble and extremely high pricing. It could be, but I’d be willing to bet it’s not. And with that, I find myself with strange bedfellows on my position – the people who are speculating and driving up the value of these things.

I wasn’t in Edinburgh when the auction happened, but I can only surmise that the reason it only made it to £85,000 (USD: $Too Much) was for a relatively benign reason – Mahesh Patel had to run to the bathroom or his paddle fell under the chair in front of him at the critical moment and he couldn’t reach it to make the victorious £100,000 bid… or possibly the anonymous wealthy businessmen who apparently fly through Singapore Changi were still busy working their way through their Dalmores.

Bonhams suggested that “The skill and patience that has gone into the production of this product has not been appreciated by the market” – which is possible. Bowmore themselves noted that the auction remains open for another week, so it’s possible this may sell at the asking price.

We’ll see come October 28th when bottle #2 goes on auction in New York. Perhaps this was a one-time glitch, or perhaps more likely, Bowmore is not a name that has spent a lot of time burnishing its plutocrat-friendly image. Sure, you can go into a fancy liquor store and see that bottle of Black sitting on a shelf, mocking you with its $5000 price tag, but that’s still miles off the $160,000 mark.

And what of this claim of $150,000 being “the most expensive whisky” that was bandied about? Don’t forget that in 2010, a 64 year old Macallan sold for $460,000. Yes, nearly HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. To be fair, that was a 1.5L container, so I guess the adjusted price would be $230,000 – still nearly 50% in excess of the Bowmore mark – and this sum was actually realized.

In a world where a $90 bourbon sells for over $1000 in a single auction, one data point like this doesn’t signal the market giving up. There’s still the chance that the New York auction is the one that realizes the auction reserve price or more. Or, perhaps, this is just a sign that Bowmore cannot command prices that high – yet.

The leaders in high-priced whisky, Macallan and Dalmore, have had occasional hits in the six figures, but the bulk of that market lies below the six-figure range for now (even the most expensive Constellation was only $32,000). Time will tell if this came up short due to pricing ahead of the market, name recognition, or a burst bubble. However, I suspect that a bubble pop will be concurrent with a migration away from whisky as a “cool” thing – either due to changing tastes or fatigue from too many exclusives/rising prices/etc.

While I could be wrong, I think we’ve got a long ways to go still before we see a bubble pop and the inevitable market collapse that would follow.

Enough about whiskies we’ll never drink. Here’s a Bowmore you’ve probably passed up and should take the opportunity to enjoy. Several months back in a LAWS reserves cleanout, I managed to get a little more than half a bottle of Bowmore 15 Darkest. This is part of the standard Bowmore lineup and one I’d never had before. Honestly, it’s the whisky that opened my eyes to the possibility of Bowmore.

At $70, Bowmore Darkest isn’t the cheapest, but it’s not outrageous for a 15 year old whisky, and it’s a sherry casked, fairly lightly peated whisky. That combination of sherry and peat is one of the most sublime tastes to be had in the world of Scotch whisky, and it’s usually something that commands a much higher price.

The nose is a treat. There’s a well-balanced sherry character that has a lot of the expected qualities – dried fruit, a little nutmeg and cinnamon, balanced against iodine and a bit of tar. Plum and cherry, with a little claylike earthiness provides some great depth; it’s all rounded out by a light sweetness and faint maltiness.

The palate has a light to moderate peatiness and a little heat, which is balanced nicely by a cinnamon-spiced apple compote. There’s a little fig and a nice, rich, oily mouthfeel. It all has the hallmark of a strong sherry influence – really enjoyable. I really feel like there’s a shortage of whiskies that have a nice sherry influence like this at a young age.

The finish is momentarily warmer, and the peat comes into center stage initially. It has some nice tongue-numbing spice from cinnamon and pepper; it settles down and the dried fruit notes again come to the front.

All in all, it’s a really enjoyable and highly accessible Bowmore. Maybe if enough people buy the reasonable ones there will be less need for the high-end stunt whiskies.

Probably not.

At a Glance:

Bowmore 15y Darkest – 43% ABV
Nose:  Balanced sherry gives some dried fruit, nutmeg and a touch of cinnamon to iodine, earth and a bit of tar. There’s a touch of plum and cherry; a little bit of clay. Light sweetness and faint malt.
Palate:  Moderate peat and a little heat which is balanced well by a nice cinnamon-spiced apple compote. A touch of fig; nice, rich, oily mouthfeel.
Finish:  Gains heat momentarily and the peat comes to the forefront; a nice gentle tongue numbing spice in the form of some cinnamon and pepper. Settles down and leaves some more dried fruits.
Comment:   A really enjoyable, super-accessible Bowmore.
Rating: B

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+ 

 

Summer Celebration #1: Glenfarclas 21

This last weekend, amidst the unrelenting heat that smothered the Los Angeles region, our family marked a major milestone. Our son celebrated his first birthday.

It’s been said the first birthday is more for the parents. It’s true: there’s a huge element of “THANK GOD WE KEPT HIM ALIVE FOR A WHOLE YEAR!” at play. It’s also a natural time to reflect and be amazed at how this little guy went from being a tiny 5-pound guy to knocking on the door of 30 lbs, with an infectious laugh and smile and on the verge of walking.

The whole first year has been a moment of personal growth and one of seeing time in a very different way. I think I used to imagine that days would be long and rough, with endless crying and crankiness. There have been those days (oh man, there have been those days), but for the most part the days are over before they’ve started. And all of the other personal interests – music, drumming, cleaning house, whisky, writing and community with friends – necessarily take a backseat. For those who have been through it, you understand. For those who have not yet, I’ll just let you know in advance that it won’t really matter, because suddenly you’ve got the most interesting person in the world living with you. Well, behind the Dos Equis guy.

I’ve talked in the past about enjoying those moments and marking special occasions, and not living in a mindset where you feel something is “too good” or “too special” – I felt that sting with the Bruichladdich Legacy 5 and had an interesting conversation with Mark Reynier, recently of Bruichladdich (prior to their sale) on the subject. That, along with many other things, led me to embrace enjoying bottles to the fullest when open. I may space them out consciously, but once a top-flight bottle is open, its lifespan is very limited. (Heck, both of my Balvenie 1401s are now undergoing whatever metamorphosis my other bottles go through when they’re empty, and I regret nothing).

That’s not to say I don’t earmark certain bottles for certain occasions – I have one of my December bottles picked already for this year, I have a special bottle picked for next month, and on a broader horizon, I have a pretty special bottle picked for my 10th wedding anniversary in a few more years.

One such earmarked bottle was one gifted to me by my friend Adam. Adam was one of my coworkers and an early, hardcore, true brother from the early days of the music startup I worked for from 2007-2011. (He was part of the crazy, minimal-process, wild-west days of our informal and awesome warehouse days). Adam had his daughter a few months before my wife and I had our son, and he sent me a bottle of Glenfarclas 21. I wanted to open it almost immediately, but I was so exhausted and delirious that I figured augmenting it with whisky at the time was not the best idea.

So I set that bottle aside as the one-year birthday bottle. (I’m accepting submissions for future birthdays. ;) ) At the time I was enjoying some Bourye and Macallan 30 – itself a long-awaited treat. But here we are, one year later, and it’s time to open the Glenfarclas 21.

When I first started drinking whisky, the age statements of some Scotch whiskies blew my mind. 21 years? That’s an eternity! Now, I see how those things fade into the background a little more easily, especially when there are other things along. I’ve had a few recently north of 40 years; those still give some pause, being older than me. However, I have to respect that 21 years is still a substantial fraction of my time on this planet.

Lest I seem jaded at times on Twitter by the various ridiculous samples that generous friends offer to me, I still love a good whisky and Glenfarclas easily occupies that territory. I’m a huge fan of the 17, but had never tried the 21. I’ve had plenty of older samples as well, so I was excited to try this one. Beyond that though, it was an opportunity to reflect and savor the experiences of the last year.

The 21′s nose is gently malty, with tons of oak influence and a little white pepper. There’s some dried fruit that comes through after a while, and a touch of orange as well. It’s a very easygoing and very enjoyable one to nose.

The palate stars woody at first, and has a moment of being almost bitter. The sweetness of the malt comes through shortly thereafter and saves it, and also brings some white pepper along. Wood and light dried fruit round out the palate nicely. It’s got a nice, weighty mouthfeel, like you’d hope for in a Glenfarclas.

Finally, the finish is white pepper and wood, with some dried fruit and a touch of waxy apple skin. Malt also has a distinct presence.

The Glenfarclas 21 is a very enjoyable older whisky. The 21, in most cases, is still less expensive than the highly-regarded Macallan 18, and provides a slightly different style – a little more malt and roundness, with a little more softness on the fruit – than you see on the sharper Macallan. If you haven’t had a Glenfarclas, this is a great one to try. I will say the extra-extra old stuff gets a little more intense, but for the moment, this is a similar whisky to Macallan 18 for me: a really nice balance of age and intensity, with good flavor but a profile that can only be achieved through significant time in the oak.

At the end of the day, this is one of those whiskies for me that is not about technical details and scores and ranking – this will forever be the whisky that I associate with this major milestone in my son’s life. It will not be the last bottle of it that I have.

At a glance:

Glenfarclas 21 43% ABV
Nose: 
Gently malty, tons of oak influence and a little white pepper. Some light notes of dried fruit and a touch of orange.
Palate:  Woody at first and almost bitter. Maltiness begins to come through, and a bit of white pepper. Some light dried fruit.
Finish:  White pepper and wood, some more dried fruit, a touch of apple skin. Malt.
Comment:  A really enjoyable whisky. This one is right on the cusp of B+. 
Rating:  B

 

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+