Category Archives: Scotch

The December Bottles, #4: Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc Finish

The December Bottle series wraps up today with the most confusing and vexing bottle I’ve had in some time: the Bruichladdich Quarts de Chaume Chenin Blanc finish that was a K&L exclusive bottling for this year.

I’d intended this to kick off the series, having not had a Bruichladdich in some time and generally being a fan of the distillery despite the peaks and valleys. However, this one proved to be a little harder to pin down than I’d expected. As the days moved on, the notes became more confusing and contradictory – such that I ended up enlisting the palate of Sku (via a blind sample) to get his impression of it.

His impression was not great. Suffice it to say that he wasn’t a fan. His notes were wildly off where mine were and I was genuinely confused. I reopened my bottle (having been splitting my time between the now-empty Glenmorangie Signet and Glenlivet Archive 21 and the fast-draining Laphroaig 25) for another pour. My subsequent email to Sku led off with “This isn’t the whisky I opened…”

Clearly something was afoot. I took it upon myself to try and figure this out – was this changing quickly due to oxidation? Did I have a strange read on it? Did it just need to be reduced to a target ABV? This Bruichladdich took center stage as a nightly science experiment.

I’d muddled through the remainder of the bottle trying to figure it out, sending the occasional email to David Driscoll at K&L to get his take on it and taking notes the whole while. Then the other shoe dropped with an email from David last night, which I’m reprinting in its entirety to give this context:

Hello everyone,
We here at the K&L Spirits Department hope you have had a restful and relaxing Christmas and we also hope you have celebrated it with some fine booze in hand!  I’m writing, unfortunately, to address a problem we’ve had and to make sure any of you who are affected are taken care of.
If you’ve recently purchased a bottle of the Bruichladdich K&L Exclusive Chenin Blanc cask, you may have noticed that it has become quite different than the whisky I describe in the tasting notes.  There has been some tremendous bottle variation and some bottles taste nothing at all like the whisky we originally tasted.  While the bottles were perfectly tasty on arrival, they no longer resemble the malt we selected.  Some have deteriorated completely, however, into a sour and somewhat tart malt that seems completely volatile and spoiled.  It’s a problem I first noticed last week and have been monitoring ever since.  What’s clear to me now after popping a recent bottle is that some of the whiskies are simply bad.  I don’t want anyone to associate that whisky with us, K&L, or Bruichladdich.  Something happened to this malt that I can’t explain, but I don’t want any of you to think that we purposely chose a whisky that tasted like that!  I’d rather take the hit than damage our reputation for selecting world class whiskies.
So, if you have a recent bottle that has been affected please feel free to contact me and exchange it for something else.  My apologies for the situation, but I’m seriously shocked as to what exactly happened.  I’m currently communicating with the distillery to see if we can get some more information.  Thanks for your understanding.  Hopefully some of you got to enjoy this whisky while it was still beautiful and exciting!  Enjoy your holiday!
David Driscoll
K&L Spirits Buyer

And as of this afternoon, the whisky is currently not available (with a Waiting List option). A fair course of action – and I certainly don’t think the Davids would have picked what this has become. (I have tasted several other K&L exclusives that line up closely with their notes and have been generally quite good – the Madeira-casked Springbank, the Banff and the Ben Nevis are among my favorites)

So let’s trace this whisky’s utterly confusing evolution.

The first week of this whisky, my notes were shaping up as follows:
Nose: Lightly leathery – like a new Coach wallet but not overbearing. Abundantly but not overbearingly fruity – hint of bananas, a little peach and pineapple. Faintest pepper. Water opens it up greatly, revealing hay, the trademark Bruichladdich brine notes, a faint rubberiness and a bit more peach and passionfruit.
Palate: Full mouthfeel. Quite warm and gets warmer. Leather in abundance. Fruity again – the peach notes tempered by darker fruits. Light malt in the background. Some cherries providing depth; some raisins there as well. Faintest hint of bubblegum. Water again bings the brine up into clear focus; some faint peat notes lie in the background as well as some wet grass.
Finish: Warm finish. Fruits pull to the forefront with some wood, leather and apple. Some peach, some white pepper. Extremely long, very chewy. Slight mint – the finish continues to develop over a long time. There’s some famines and brine as well.
Comment: This is eye-wateringly powerful like many Bruichladdichs can be. It’s a very curious blend of fruit and leather. It’s hard to pin down at full strength. Water makes this one a little more familiar – and it will take a lot of water. It’s not like much else that I’ve had. Enigmatic, slightly overripe.
Rating: B

A few days later I note that “As the bottle ages the overripe notes start to dominate”.

Mid-month, Sku posts an unflattering review and set of tasting notes. I’m genuinely surprised – I found the palate so dense that I just didn’t quite know what to make of it. I decide to revisit it. It’s completely a different whisky at this point.

Around halfway full the bottle is changing for the worse. Here’s what it looked at half full around ten days ago:

Nose: Gaseous with a strong kick of shoe polish. Overly sweet, bordering on sickly sweet. Strange whiff of vanilla. Smells slightly chemical and artificial.
Palate: Pungent. Earthy. Warming. Overripe fruits. Raisins and a dab of chili oil. The chemical, artificial leather and shoe polish note from the nose is present.
Finish: Dry and bitter. Leathery. Chewy. White pepper – hot and slightly industrial.
Comment: The flavors are separating out but not for the better.
Rating: C-

At this point I was in full science-experiement mode. Dilution became my next avenue of attack and showed the most promise. A few days later I had the most successful dilution of this one at around 40% ABV, perhaps slightly higher.

Diluted to 40%
Nose:
Fruit cocktail that’s a bit overripe. It’s kind of like a less overtly sugary Balblair. Leather. Pears. Light pepper. Cinnamon. White wine.
Palate: Moderate wood presence, a white wine lightness to the flavor. Somewhat effervescent. Sugary with a hint of pastry like a beignet. Heavy mouthfeel, some apricot notes.
Finish: White pepper, a bit of heat. White wine, a faint hint of leather. A bit of woody maltiness at the end.
Comment: This is almost certainly the way to have this. At cask strength it’s too overbearing. At 40% it’s actually fairly pleasant.
Rating: (dilution only) B-

Diluted, it was interesting though unremarkable. It still remained a curiosity. Last night I had the remaining pour of the whisky, emptying the bottle. By then, the complexity had completely faded and where there was once an overwhelming rush of aromas and tastes, it was a simple, straightforward and unpleasant whisky. It got to the point where there was an involuntary wince after the first swallow.

Last Pour Notes
Nose: Overripe fruit. Pleather. Acetone. Decay and garbage.
Palate: Objectionably bitter. Weird tartness. Like licking a cheap purse. Plenty of heat and a nasty overripe fruit flavor.
Finish: Hot; fake and cheap leather, a bit chewy.
Comment: Whatever this had, it’s lost.
Rating: D

So we end up with an interesting case of “when whiskies go bad” with this one. The accepted wisdom is generally that whiskies are more or less stable, but can go flat with some oxidation. (Some bottles perk up a bit in a half-open bottle). Some bottles on rare occasion do seem to go horribly wrong – the Bowmore 21 from the mid 90s that I reviewed a while back and become an interesting case study. The head-scratcher here was how this one completely fell apart in a month’s time. It started with almost impenetrable complexity which was what caused my delay in getting notes. Everything was good but there was so much going on. In a few short weeks though… it winds up being one of the worst in recent memory.

I’m more than happy to take the Davids at their word – as I said, the other samples I’ve had have been great and shouldn’t stop you from buying or cause you to second-guess their judgement. Likewise, the distillate out of Bruichladdich under Jim McEwan has been good – Port Charlotte especially is a high point. Something in this experiment went horribly wrong. I’ll be listening for updates and posting them as they come in. It’s very curious. Since this bottle is seemingly unavailable and weirdly unstable at this point I’m not giving this one an official grade. It can be as high as a B or well into low D territory. Ultimately, it’s been an interesting ride and I haven’t had a whisky this challenging or interesting in a while.

With this curious close to the December Bottles series, I thought I’d call out some highlights. The Glenmorangie Signet was the first bottle I’ve finished. I still think it’s overpriced but it develops nicely with some rum raisin cake notes as the bottle drains. You should definitely seek out a pour.

Glenlivet Archive 21 did not change appreciably in its lifetime. It was a good bottle that I’ll buy again at some point.

Laphroaig 25 seems to have lost some of its complexity. It’s still enjoyable but there’s less here to draw me back. Nevertheless it is down to the last few pours.

Of the bunch I think I enjoyed Signet the most but I think Archive was the best bang for the buck.

Thanks for reading.. the new year will bring some more interesting Scotch whisky; a few bourbon odds and ends and some random spring-cleaning notes. Hopefully the third release of the Single Oak Project will show up soon as well.

The December Bottles, #3: Glenlivet Archive 21 (old style bottle) – 43%

The December bottle reviews are nearly half over. For those curious about the prior reviews – the Glenmorangie Signet has continued to be enjoyable if not entirely remarkable and the Laphroaig 25y is also still a good and enjoyable different side of Laphroaig.

Today it’s time to feature another bottle. Today’s bottle is an old bottling of the Glenlivet 21y Archive. This bottle is not the style used currently – I’m unsure if it’s been reformulated since it was refreshed into a taller bottle or with the recent polish that was done to the Glenlivet line in general.

Some people I’ve talked to have cautiously floated their Scotch experiences to me and invariably mention a brush with Glenlivet. There’s a slight pause and you can almost see the person flinch in advance of what they expect will be some sort of long-winded snob diatribe from me about how their tastes are hopelessly pedestrian and that Glenlivet is just for the proles. I have to admit that when it comes to Glenlivet, there is no snob diatribe forthcoming. I honestly think it’s an underappreciated whisky.

Glenlivet is one of the biggest sellers – they sell enough every year to fill the Black Sea six times over, or so. The automatic assumption is that because they sell this much, the quality can’t possibly be there. We’ve been trained to believe that the only high-quality experience can be delivered by some guy who sings to his barley every night and begins the process of fermenting it with his tears – his unique biochemistry is part of the recipe – and makes six bottles a decade.

Frankly, that’s untrue.

Glenlivet is underrated. And we’ll cover other expressions in the Glenlivet range over time to allow me to bolster my opinion. Today, we’re starting this defense of a top-seller with and old bottle of the 21 year old Archive.

This bottling, as best as I can tell, is at least five years old and maybe more. For a while now the 21 has been packaged in a more fancy special wooden box, which seems to be the way high quality must be signaled. (And yet the 2007 official release of Brora comes in a boring tin…) But not this one! It comes in a boring cardboard box and some wrapping paper! Excellent – no money wasted on extra junk.

Now, you can’t sell a whisky over 20 years without some elaborate origin story. Archive 21′s origin story involves some sort of secret chamber of amazing select whiskies. It’s probably like the disappearing room in the Harry Potter movies. I’d tell you more but I recently submitted my application to be a Guardian of the Glenlivet and I’ve been told the first rule is that you don’t talk about the Archive room. (Actually, the first rule is that you bring whisky to the meetings, but that said…)

Alright. Enough joking around – what’s the story with this whisky that’s legally old enough to drink itself?

The nose was surprising to me initially. There was a sherry influence that was heavier than I normally detect on Glenlivets. Interesting! There were dried fruits – orange and apple and also a touch of raisin. Malty aromas provided the foundation for everything, with a bit of vanilla. Unsurprisingly for an older whisky, there were hints of a waxy apple skin note. A bit of white pepper provided some spice to keep things interesting.

The whisky was slightly bitter at first, but this went away as the fruit notes from the nose quickly opened up. Sherry was right along behind it, bringing the waxy fruit notes with it in a big way. The apple notes from the nose continued on the palate. This comes up over and over for me on old whiskies and it’s usually pretty enjoyable. This time is no exception. Much as the nose hints at, this is a fairly malty body with pepper and a trace of cinnamon.

It’s warming initially with an unmistakable note of cinnamon immediately as the finish starts. Dried fruits continue; apple and malt dominate. There’s a slight cereal flavor to it all.

It’s a very well-executed Glenlivet with more balanced sherry than I normally would expect. It’s got a lot of heft and is rich and full. It’s enjoyable but unlike some whiskies in the over-20 set it’s not tired. My only complaint is that it doesn’t hold a lot of surprise beyond the initial sherry. I don’t think I’d hesitate to recommend this to someone looking to impress with a gift of an older whisky at a price that won’t break the bank.

There’s one more bottle in the December whiskies and it’s a puzzler to me still. Stay tuned – and until the next time, happy holidays!

At a glance:

Glenlivet Archive 21y (old bottle) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Strong sherry influence; nice dried fruits note, a touch of raisin. Malt and vanilla. Waxy with a hint of apple. A slight dusting of white pepper. 
Palate: 
Slightly bitter immediately upon entry; fruits open up quickly with a moderate sherry influence. The waxy fruit notes are pronounced; apple notes are present. Fairly malty; pepper and a trace of cinnamon. 
Finish: 
Warming – definite cinnamon immediately at the start; dried fruits. Apple. Malt. Slight cereal grains. 
Comment: 
A very well-executed Glenlivet with more balanced sherry notes than I would have expected. Good, weighty, full and enjoyable but not tired. 
Rating:
B

The December Bottles, #2: Laphroaig 25y Cask Strength – 2008 (51.2%)

The December bottlings continues with another fun entry: Laphroaig’s 25 year old cask strength bottling from 2008.

Laphroaig’s 25 year old expression is one that isn’t very common on shelves, and it’s currently rather pricey. As a fan of the 10 year old Laphroaig, when I found this at a reasonable price I couldn’t pass it up.

Let’s not talk about price now, though: it’s the holidays and we’re supposed to spend like drunken sailors. At 51%, this will do a lot to help get you into that drunken state (the nautical experience is your responsibility).

This bottle of Laphroaig has much less packaging flourishes than the Glenmorangie Signet did. It comes in a nice and understated wooden box that’s painted a nice dark shade. It’s got a small label on the front and the bottle is nestled inside, cushioned by some raffia. I suppose if you were bored while drinking the Laphroaig, you could weave the raffia into some sort of small demitasse cozy or something along those lines. The bottle itself is a basic Laphroaig bottle – nothing more, nothing less.

After the presentation of the Glenmorangie, I appreciate the relative simplicity of this one. Not that lavish productions aren’t nice, but an elegant and minimal presentation can be refreshing.

At first nosing of the Laphroaig, the trademark medicinal aromas of the 10 are nowhere near as forward. They’ve softened with age and are more of a background note than a dominant part of the character. In fact, the medicinal notes have almost separated into their own area on the palate and there’s a faintly separate earthy note like the peat you get off of many other Islay whiskies. As you’d expect on a whisky this old, there are some slightly waxy fruit notes; there’s also a hint of apple skin. To me, these two are markers of age. There’s some vanilla in the nose, a touch of sherry, and some dry fruits. A bit of brown sugar is balanced by some of the bacony, cured meat notes that you can pick up on the 10.

It’s nowhere near as aggressive as the 10, but it’s recognizable as a member of the family – perhaps one that has settled down a bit. It was a bit surprising to get the sweetness and waxiness so clearly on this whisky. Many older Port Ellens that I’ve had still have a very aggressive peat at 25 years and older, so I expected something similar on the nose of the Laphroaig.

The mouthfeel is full and rich and a hint oily – more so than the 10 year. There’s a bit of wood early on that reminds you this is an older whisky, but it’s not overbearing or unpleasantly bitter. Some of the familiar tastes come up – smoke, some briny notes and cured meat. There’s also some vanilla and a bit of fruitcake. More surprisingly to me were the notes of apples and pears, which I don’t necessarily expect in strength with Laphroaig. This is in familiar territory to other Laphroaigs, but is uniquely its own due to the more pronounced fruit notes.

The finish is as you’d expect: long and lasting, with a very full presence that is no doubt bolstered by the strength of the bottling. The pears from late in the palate come through; the finish is oily and rich and has some light smokiness to it. The medicinal notes are probably most pronounced on the finish and give some dimension to it.

Overall, this is a good, full-flavored, nuanced whisky. The younger Laphroaig’s aggression has been moderated with age and the whisky is carried more by waxy fruit notes and a hint of sherry. The surprise of apples and pears on the palate help keep this feeling somewhat young. It’s very nicely balanced.

All that said, it’s just a step short of the knees buckling, eyes rolling back into the head kind of experience you might want. The waxy notes are just a bit sluggish which makes me wonder if these casks were starting to get a little tired, or if this is just a note that is more common to aged Laphroaig. I guess I’ll find out in the years to come. As it is, this is a solid B+ malt that just needed something more to push it into A territory.

Stepping beyond that, I believe the asking price for the 25 these days is north of $400. I think that’s a bit rich given that you can find some superb Port Ellens and Broras (which have been closed for 30 years) at a lower price that are higher quality. I personally would like to see something that is much bolder overall at that price. I think this would be much more in line with its experience at about half that price. However, it’s worth reiterating that pricing is not part of the ratings here so the B+ rating doesn’t change (nor does it take the current price into account).

At a glance:

Laphroaig 25y (2008) 51.2% ABV
Nose:
The trademark Laphroaig medicinal aromas have faded into the background, revealing more direct peat – which is also restrained. Waxy fruits, a hint of apple, a whiff of cured meats. A bit of vanilla and some hint of sherry. Light notes of dry fruits. Brown sugar. 
Palate:
Full mouthfeel, nice and oily; some wood that shows age but isn’t bitter or heavy. Smoke, cured meat, light brine. A bit of vanilla. A bit of fruitcake. A hint of pears. A bit of apple as well. 
Finish: 
Long, lasting, full. The medicinal notes give some dimension; light smoke; oily and rich. A bit of pears. 
Comment:
Good, full flavor. The aggression of the younger Laphroaigs is moderated by age, as waxy fruit notes dominate. Despite the age, it’s still got notes of youth with the pears and apples. It’s a nicely nuanced and balanced malt. 
Rating:
B+

The December Bottles, #1: Glenmorangie Signet

This year I decided to begin what will (I hope) become an annual tradition: opening a few extravagant bottles after Thanksgiving to enjoy. Throughout the year, various bottlings are discontinued, put on sale, or stumbled upon unexpectedly. As with most aficionados I have accumulated a pile of bottles “for a special occasion”. Instead of hoarding them, I’d like to make sure I have at least one spot on my calendar where I will definitely make a dent in them.

This year I have four bottles that I’ve opened. One was found at a great price, one I’d wanted for a while, one unexpected dusty find and one very new bottling. I’ll be revealing these over the next couple weeks with my thoughts on them.

First up is Glenmorangie Signet. I’ve been curious about this bottle for ages. It’s an incredibly classy presentation – a nice bottle that doesn’t resemble a still; nice type and design; a rich-looking fade from black on the bottle, and an unusual and borderline over-the-top metal ring treatment at the neck and stopper of the bottle. The stopper is probably the heaviest I’ve ever felt. It actually weighs nearly a quarter of a pound. I guess that’ll keep any angels from stealing beyond their share.

Nearly a quarter of a pound. That's a hefty stopper!

The Signet comes in a very oversized box, which contains the bottle – obviously – and a small flip book. The flip book is a curious addition; I can honestly say I’ve never seen a whisky package that includes one. Opposite the flip animation is a bit of marketing copy that is completely over the top. If you took it at face value, you’d probably believe that Signet is somewhere between germ theory and the wheel in terms of importance to humanity. The box lid itself inverts and becomes a presentation-style base for the whisky bottle. If it’s as amazing as the book would indicate, this is the least that can be done for such an important whisky.

Upon reading the Signet booklet, Dr. Louis Pasteur realized his life's work was less important than he'd thought.

All this is great: a very nice presentation. But what about the contents of this handsome package?

Glenmorangie Signet, as the story goes, is made using a large proportion of older whisky, as well as some younger whisky made with chocolate malted barley. The beer drinkers know what this means: the barley is roasted until it is deep in color. No actual chocolate was used in the production of this whisky, unless a distillery employee happened to be eating a bar of chocolate. (Remember, single malt Scotch whisky is always water and barley. Any more than that and their trade group gets a bit persnickety)

Thumbs up to Glenmorangie for finding a new way to innovate within the fairly restrictive parameters for single malts. Most other innovations have been largely in the direction of finishing in unusual barrels – which seems to be part of a marketing arms race versus a substantial improvement in aroma, taste or mouthfeel. Some experiments are a success but the vast majority are a push – and some an outright disaster. I’d be very curious to see what else could come of experimenting with malts as there’s a lot of room to experiment here.

Pouring the Signet into the glass and nosing, there’s an initial surprise. Despite its 46% ABV stated on the label, it’s got a surprisingly lively nose. There’s definitely a little heat on it. There’s a sweetness with some cherry notes, as well as some definite notes of sherry in there as well. Plums and dry fruit come in quickly after, with a bit of leather and some fig. The leather also has an old study character to it. The malty aspects of the nose do slightly hint in the direction of a stout; clearly the result of the chocolate malt. There’s also something that tastes like a mix of dark chocolate and espresso. It’s a multilayered nose but it works together. It screams “December” to me.

The palate doesn’t disappoint: It’s warm and rich, with heat and sherry. There’s a slightly bitter presence of oak. The mouthfeel is thick and rich with dried fruit. The chocolate malt comes through again, giving it a sweet, slightly bready characteristic with dark chocolate and espresso as well. The palate doesn’t surprise after the nose. The finish is drying with dark dried fruit. The wood is pretty apparent in the finish but it’s not a bitter presence. At the very end, some malty sweetness peeks out.

This whisky is a big, rich, full and easygoing whiskey. If I were to draw a parallel to anything on the market, my first instinct would be Macallan 18. I’d probably be willing to drink this as a replacement for Macallan 18 at any given time. It’s got a lot of the same notes and a similar character. Unfortunately, Signet retails for about $50 more than Macallan 18, so why bother if that’s the sole characteristic?

Overall it’s enjoyable in a not-very-challenging way (high marks for a holiday whisky or potentially something to serve to people who aren’t hardcore spirits dorks. It’s tasty but not particularly nuanced. I’d be curious to see what happens if more chocolate malt was in the mix – it might not work. Overall, it’s good but it needs something to punch it up.

Reflecting on this one in terms of a value for the money standpoint – one I admit I don’t do often – I can’t help but think that this would be dramatically cheaper if the packaging was a more common sleeve or tin and the presentation base and flip book were done away with. If this were price-competitive with Macallan 18, as mentioned above, I would seriously consider it as a substitute. As it is, it seems a bit overpriced for what it is. it’s a unique experiment and I certainly hope Glenmorangie tries more. However, given the packaging of Signet (and the over-the-top presentation of Pride), it seems that Glenmorangie’s most interesting experiments will be unfortunately sequestered to the glass case with a high price tag. In all fairness to Glenmorangie, I have heard the Pride is great (from a friend who tried some at a tasting) – but at $2500+ a bottle, I’ll never know.

At a glance

Glenmorangie Signet 46% ABV
Nose: 
An initial surprise with some stronger-than-expected alcohol notes. A sweetness on the nose with some cherry notes, some sherry characteristics, plums, dried fruit, a light leather-and-old-study note and some fig. There’s a malty presence that is a bit like a stout, no doubt owing to the use of chocolate malt. There’s a slight espresso-meets-chocolate note. After a bit there’s a more direct barley note. 
Palate: 
Warm and rich on the palate, with a very slight bitter oak to it, sherry notes present, surprising heat again. Thick in the mouth, dried fruit again. Slight bread, slight sweet notes of malt. Dark chocolate, a bit of espresso.
Finish: 
Drying and with dark, dried fruit. Wood pretty apparent but not bitter. A bit of malt sweetness peeking out at the end. 
Comment:  This is a big, full, easygoing whiskey. This would be one that I’d use as a “worthy replacement for Macallan 18″ but it’s about $50 more, so what’s the point? Enjoyable but not challenging, tasty but not particularly nuanced. I’d be curious to see what happens if there was a bit more chocolate malt in the mix. It’s good but needs something to punch it up.
Rating:
B

All Blues: Two Johnnie Walker Blue Labels

At the top of the Johnnie Walker range lies the stored Johnnie Walker Blue Label. It’s become an easy shorthand for luxury – just watch an episode of Entourage and see the Chase brothers putting away a bottle of Johnnie Blue at a mega-wealthy family’s private party.

If you’ve started to jump into rarer or more costly single malts, the buy-in for Johnnie Walker is not unfathomable. However, for those who have more down-to-earth budgets, or for those who have not gotten deep into the hobby, the price tag alone makes it unattainable.

Unattainable?

Even bars charge ridiculous prices for pours of Johnnie Blue. All this mystique results in a premium-priced whisky being compartmentalized outside of most peoples’ acceptable buy-in.

Beyond Blue lies the King George V edition of Blue, made using whiskies that were available during the reign of King George V (1910-1936). Most notably, this means an inclusion of the storied whisky from Port Ellen, which has been closed for nearly 30 years now. King George is a relatively limited edition – by Johnnie Walker volume – of 60,000 bottles, 7,300 in the US.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try these two whiskies and thought this would be good to share, similar to the Macallan 30 review from the launch of this blog.

Johnnie Walker Blue is surprisingly light. It’s sweet and malty on the nose with just a whiff of peat – nothing powerful. There’s not really much more to the nose – very straightforward. It is reminiscent of Clynelish in a way, but a little less assertive. The palate is medium to light – it’s not thin but it’s not mouth-coating. It’s moderately sweet with faint peat. There’s a very gentle bit of heat to it, faintly taking the form of pepper. There’s malty sweetness on the palate as well as a faint saltiness – not at all unlike some of the Islay distilleries. The finish is as smooth as you’d expect it to be; very light and not particularly long lasting. It’s got some slight heat to it though with a little pepper. There’s plenty of malt and after a while, a faint woody mustiness. This is a note I haven’t found a better way to describe – dry and earthy; the closest I could describe it is like the exterior rind of a cantaloupe. I get it commonly on Old Pulteney and it’s not uncommon on the Japanese whiskies I’ve tasted.

All in all, Blue is a very easy-drinking and light whisky. There’s a little dimension to it, but not much. The main turnoff for this standard Blue is the value for the price. There are single malts that do similar things (Clynelish, Old Pulteney, Aberfeldy) at a much better value. The faint heat and smoke give it a little personality, but for such a luxury image, it’s actually a bit of a milquetoast whisky.

With the expectations lowered, it was time to move on to the King George V edition of Blue. I didn’t expect much after the standard Blue.

The nose showed more depth – it still had the gentle malt of Blue, but added in much more. The peat was more assertive with a faintly rubbery tang – hello, Port Ellen – as well as some more bold peppery heat. There’s also some slight butteriness, and some light floral and vanilla notes develop. A slight hint of pineapple provides a little juicy dimension to the nose. Already, the nose showed a much greater nuance.

The King shows a little more depth...

The palate was again quite light – white pepper and cinnamon with heat out of the gate – with a bit of faintly rubbery peat. The buttery note from the palate carried through, and the malt was evident as more of a grainy note.

The finish competes with the nose in terms of being the best part of this whisky – there’s nice pepper and chili oil, similar to Talisker. There’s malt and hay on the finish, and the whole thing lasts for a reasonable length.

King George V ends up being a reasonably nuanced Johnnie Walker, with a little more happening than standard Blue Label, offering a bit more than you might get from any one single malt. It’s still somewhat light on the palate though. Having a price well in excess of the Blue makes this a tough sell though.

That said, there are deals to be had on King George V. Don’t succumb to the $500-600 retail that many are selling for. Very cursory searching revealed these available at $350. That’s still more than I think this is worth, ultimately, but if you subtracted out the price of the decanter and box, this would be much closer to being a good value.

All said, I don’t think I’m going to be spending  lot of time in the future with the Blue Label editions. King George V is certainly nice, but its price is out of step with what it provides. Standard Blue Label is just disappointingly simple.

At a glance:

Johnnie Walker Blue Label – 40% ABV
Nose:  Gently malty; sweet. Faint peat but not too powerful.
Palate:  Medium-light mouthfeel. Somewhat sweet; faintly peaty. Gentle heat – just a touch of pepper. Malty – a bit of sweetness. Faint saltiness.
Finish:  Smooth, light finish. A slight bit of heat on the finish – a little pepper and plenty of malt. After a bit there’s some woody mustiness.
Comment:  It’s kind of plainly middle of the road. Not much happening – it is similar to an older malt that’s kind of aged past its prime and lost some fire. The faint heat and smoke gives it some personality but it’s kind of milquetoast. That said, at 40% and sweet and malty, it is pretty solidly drinkable. After all that: It’s a lot to pay for blandness.
Rating: B-

Johnnie Walker Blue Label – King George V Edition 43% ABV
Nose:  Malty and gentle, with some light-to-medium peat with a faintly rubbery tang. Pepper, light pineapple, and slight butteriness. Light floral notes develop. Vanilla.
Palate:  Light in the mouth. White pepper, faint cinnamon. A bit of rubber and malt. Slightly buttery. Slight grain.
Finish:  Nice pepper and faint chili oil. Malty and with a bit of grain – hay. Reasonably lasting finish.
Comment:  This is much better than the standard blue label with more nuance. It’s still somewhat light for my tastes, but the pepper and peat give it a lot of depth that are missing from the standard blue label. Good in spite of the price tag.
Rating: B

The New Kid: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Special Edition

There’s a semi-regular turnover of distilleries in Scotland, some closing temporarily and reopening later to start production again. Others are closed and sold and opened under new ownership. Occasionally you have high-profile new distilleries such as Kilchoman. One distillery that has flown somewhat under the radar is Abhainn Dearg, located in the Outer Hebrides. This fall, their spirit had aged three years in wood and met the minimum requirements to be called “whisky” according to Scottish law. For the moment, that makes it the newest single malt on the market. (Glenglassaugh, recently reopened, will lay claim to that title on the 16th of December).

Abhainn Dearg’s malt was being sold at the traditionally sky-high prices for young whiskey and I’d held off on it. However, when The Whiskey Barrel showed a 50mL sample in stock, I jumped on it immediately as I’d been wanting to try this new whiskey that seemed to carry no baggage with it.

At three years old, it’s still a very raw, unrefined whiskey. It’s very pale, but it’s clear that it’s not new make or the product of a twenty-fifth fill cask that’s completely tired and dead.

The nose of this whiskey does nothing to hide its youth. It’s got a big wood note to it, some pine, but it’s a very distinct and sharp wood note. It has some qualities to it like a wet popsicle stick or a damp unbleached napkin. It’s very saturated and raw. It’s also got some vaguely raw sugar notes that still are hanging on from its life as a young spirit – however, the sweetness is balanced by some saltiness you might expect from an Islay. It’s not extreme, but it’s noticeable. There’s also a faintly detectible note that’s almost burned or caramelized – it’s almost creme brûlée but not quite.

The whiskey is medium-light on its entry – it’s not thick and viscous but it’s not thin, hot and watery. Despite its 46%, it’s very well-balanced and not overly hot. Given how some whiskies can just run away this is very welcome. If anything I’d be interested to try this at cask strength. The wood note is unfortunately fairly forward, having all the notes that exist on the nose. There’s some raw sugar, some slightly piney notes and a vague hint of vanilla. It’s definitely malty and has a slightly vegetal hint – again, more towards the pine and resin side of things than the wet corn husks you’d expect with a bourbon. The longer this hangs around, the more the sweetness develops into being faintly fruity, like a tart apple or a pear.

The finish dries from the palate and the wood is present. It’s sugary and slightly vegetal. Again, as you progress, the sugar notes start to coalesce into the pears and apples that were on the palate.

This is a tricky whisky. It’s undeniably young and brash. It’s out of balance and raw, and has a lot of growing up to do. However, 3 years is very young for a scotch and this has at least another 6-7 years to grow up in. It’s certainly nowhere near as raw as a white whiskey. It’s got a lot pointing in the right direction and I’m very curious to see how this develops – will the pears and apples start taking form? Will the sweetness come up and give it more of a vanilla note? It’s very interesting. I could see this having a profile similar to Glenfiddich, or becoming more straightforward malty and vanilla like some of the ’70s Banffs out there. I’m not sure that this will be one that takes sherry as well as other spirits; it seems somewhat light despite its age. Whatever happens, I will watch this with great interest.

The bottom line is that if your traditional whiskey is a 12-15 year old sherry-casked or bourbon-casked whiskey, this is not ready for you. If you’re not a stranger to white whiskey or you’re looking to start experimenting, this could be a good one. Make sure you can tolerate wood and you like the slightly more estery and sweet profiles. This may not necessarily be the success that Kilchoman was (in my opinion, a very well executed 3 year old), but it’s a very interesting case study, and not an opportunity that comes around frequently. For the adventurous, try and split a bottle or lay your hands on a sample.

I will note, however, that the cork used to seal this bottle was quite saturated though not falling apart. It may be possible this contributed to the wood notes and threw them out of balance. If that’s the case, I can only hope Abhainn Dearg changes their stopper.

At a glance:

Nose:  Malty, woody and piney. It’s a very distinctly young wood note; it almost goes into kind of a saturated note reminiscent of a popsicle stick or a wet unbleached napkin. Slightly salty, but with a vague raw sugar note to it. It’s almost faintly creme-brulee, but not quite.
Palate: 
Medium-light on the palate. The wood note is again pretty forward. Slight raw sugar, light pine, a vague hint of vanilla. Also faintly vegetal. Malty. The longer it’s around, you get these pear and apple notes. 
Finish:   
Drying again. Wood present. Sugar and malt. Slightly vegetal. There’s some late fruit notes that are like tart apples or pears. 
Comment: 
This is a tricky one. This is fundamentally a young whisky so it’s got a lot of growing up to do – at least another six years. It’s easier drinking than a white whiskey. It’s also got a lot pointing in the right direction. I can’t recommend this as a general purchase to everyone, but it is a very interesting study in a new whiskey in development. 
Rating:
  C+ (though recommended for the adventurous).

Port Ellen Doubleheader & Indie Bottlings

Recently, I traded samples with my friend Timon as part of a mini Port Ellen head-to-head tasting. Both were reasonably old – 25 and 27 years old – and both were independent bottlings.

For a moment, the independent bottling part of that is an interesting topic worth exploring. If you’re more educated on whisky, you can skip ahead – but if you’re curious, let’s discuss the world of independent bottlings.

Independent Bottlings

What many don’t realize is that a fair amount of whisky on the shelf in a good liquor store is not bottled by the producer. That is to say, you can buy a Macallan (for instance) that was distilled by Macallan, but is not being released by Macallan. There’s a lot of wiggle room on the hows and whys of an independent bottling (was it matured at Macallan or was it matured in the bottler’s warehouse; how did the bottler come into possession, etc) but they are largely uninteresting and in a broad sense not terribly important. What is worth knowing is that independent bottlings offer some really unique offerings that you won’t be able to experience from the featured distillery.

The most obvious difference is in age statements: again using the example of Macallan, you will see the usual 12, 18, 25 and 30 (as well as 10, 15, 21 and 30 on the Fine Oak) on the shelves. However, independent bottlers offer a range of ages – younger 10 year old whiskies; unusual ages like 19 or 22 years, etc.

Another point where the independents can branch out is in the type of cask used. Again to continue with our example and focusing on the sherry matured Macallan line, every Macallan you buy that has been released as Macallan will have been matured in oloroso sherry casks. Independent bottlers may use the distillate for their own purpose and mature it in other casks – bourbon casks, fino sherry, PX sherry, and so on. This lets you taste the spirit in ways you likely haven’t before.

Some bottlers may perform additional finishing (or Additional Cask Enhancement as Murray McDavid prefers to call it) which may involve placing the aged whisky in an unusual cask for a few months to impart some additional character in taste, texture, etc. This is a topic that will be covered in the future. I’ve seen Laphroaigs matured in Bordeaux wine casks and Mortlachs in Sauternes casks (notably Chateau d’Yquem).

Independent bottlers also generally offer single-cask offerings. This makes things interesting – the market is constantly changing as a single cask may only yield 200-300 bottles for the entire world. Each cask is different and can impart a unique flavor to its contents. Even if you had two independent Highland Parks of the same age, if they come from different casks you will likely detect noticeable differences in their flavors and aromas. This is because the independent bottling market is not concerned with preserving a consistent, predictable experience – unlike the distillery. Sometimes this is great and exciting, sometimes it falls flat. The uncertainty makes it more interesting.

Finally and most interestingly, independent bottlers provide the most affordable way to try older whiskies, including whiskies from closed or demolished distilleries. Decades of stock may exist when a distillery is closed, and that stock is worth many thousands of dollars – it’s not going to be thrown out just because the distillery is closed. So at this point in time, you may be able to try a 30 year old, single cask offering from a distillery closed in the early 80s (when many were closed) for a price less than an 18 or 20 year old offering from a functioning distillery. In many cases these can be absolutely amazing whiskies as well.

And it’s not just scotch: There’s a healthy trade for American independent bottlers. This is a more touchy, opaque practice in the US than in Scotland, but suffice it to say there are substantially less distilleries than your local bourbon shelf would lead you to believe.

Port Ellen

Port Ellen is a name that has an almost mythical status in scotch nerd circles. It’s a distillery that was part of the broad range of distillery closures in the early 1980s. It also happens to be one of the better ones. Some distilleries leave no mystery as to why they were closed (I have yet to taste an interesting North Port). Others, such as Port Ellen or Brora (and I would personally argue, Banff) feel less clear.

While Port Ellen is highly sought after and almost revered, it’s also not rare – not as rare as Brora and certainly not on the order Kinclaith, Ladyburn, Ben Wyvis or Glen Flagler. However, it’s generally a really good whisky which is as good a reason as any for it to stay in the upper echelon of distilleries to this day, nearly 30 years after its closing.

Port Ellen still produces malt for the distilleries on Islay, but the distillery itself has not produced whiskey since 1983 (and is partially demolished, according to Wikipedia). This video from Youtube takes you on a tour of the Port Ellen Maltings:

Warning: Extensive Scottish ahead.

My friend Timon and I found that we had two recently opened bottles of Port Ellen so we decided to swap samples alongside a larger swap and pit the bottles head to head.

Port Ellen 25 year old Old Malt Cask Bottling (distilled 11-82, bottled 1-08)

This bottle is part of the Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask series. The Old Malt Cask series tends to issue bottles at 50% ABV from a single barrel. They also don’t color or chill-filter bottles in the OMC series. This series is very common and there are some good bottles to be had from it.

This Port Ellen had a nice nose – a bit of mustard initially, peat and grass, and a slightly dry malt note. It was lightly briny as well. A little drop of water made this open up to reveal a little more musty and farmy character and a nice bright shiso note.

The palate is classic Islay – thick and oily, and due to the strength it starts to warm up and expose the malty flavors as well as a bit more brine and some gentle peat. Water brings more of a distinct rubbery note, some lighter tar notes and white pepper.

The finish didn’t bring much new to the table – warm with peat and light earthiness and a touch of brine. Overall, it was a good, easy drinking, gentle Port Ellen. Good, but there are better Port Ellens to be had.

Port Ellen 27 year old McGibbons Provenance Bottling (distilled Spring ’83, bottled Spring 2010, cask 6101). 

McGibbons has less of a strong identity as a independent bottling line. It’s also owned by Douglas Laing. Douglas Laing’s site says this collection “highlights the particular distillation of the seasons through Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter”. This line is not exclusively single-cask bottlings.

The nose on this Port Ellen was a little tamer to me – moderately peaty, lightly waxy fruit notes (like apple skin but not quite specific enough to be apples). There was also some definite maltiness and very very light brine. It wasn’t a powerhouse nose.

The mouthfeel was fairly average and malty with some moderate peat. It had a little pepper and some mustard, and a bit of hay – it was a bit dry and grainy overall. The finish was probably the best part – gently warming, a little mustard and shiso notes, huge maltiness and some peat. It was still a little dry and had some wood influence.

The McGibbons Port Ellen was not particularly complex – mostly malty with some dry grain notes – but the finish just had something extra that really made this an enjoyable whisky. (This sentiment also seems to be shared by the LA Whiskey Society)

The Verdict?

I had to concede defeat in this one. My Port Ellen, the OMC offering, was classic Islay but little more. There was a certain lightness and almost effervescence to the McGibbons bottling that was just more enjoyable. It may not have been as complex, but it was just more enjoyable overall. So hats off to Timon, he wins this round. We’ll have a rematch in the future.

At a glance:

Port Ellen 25yo Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask. Distilled 11-82, Bottled 1-08.
50% ABV
Nose:
Green with a hint of mustard; peat, grass, a slightly dry note of malt. Light brine. With water it opens to reveal some slightly musty, farmy notes, a lighter, sharper green note vaguely like shiso.
Palate: Thick and oily, warming up with maltiness and brine, and some gentle peat. With water there’s more of a rubber note, some light tar as well as some white pepper.
Finish: Still warm on the finish, peat and light earthiness, brine.
Comment: It’s tasty, it’s gentle, it’s a nice mix of peat and malt. It’s good but there are better Port Ellens out there.
Rating: B

Port Ellen 27yo McGibbons Provenance Distilled Spring ’83, Bottled Spring 2010, Cask 6101 46% ABV
Nose: Moderate peat, lightly waxy fruity notes, some maltiness. Very very light brine.
Palate: Medium mouthfeel; malty; moderate peat – a little bit of pepper and some mustard; a touch of hay, slightly dry.
Finish: Warming, with a slight mustard-and-shiso note, big malt, gentle peat. A little bit of dryness and wood.
Comment: Not long on complexity but totally enjoyable.
Rating: B