Category Archives: Whiskey

The 1983 Tasting Series #9: Glenugie

The 1983 tasting series has its penultimate entry in Glenugie.

Glenugie was an unknown for me coming into this tasting. It hasn’t seen a tidal wave of single cask releases a la Port Ellen, or garnered a strong reputation like Brora has on the basis of a few stunning whiskies. I knew Serge at Whiskyfun regards it quite highly; even with critical acclaim on that level, I hadn’t managed to try any. It, like many of the other 1983 closures, is just increasingly rare. There were a few Old Malt Cask bottles floating around, but they were few and far between. When I found a Signatory decanter, I jumped on it.

The Signatory release is somewhat uncommon for Signatory in my experience – instead of a standard single-cask release, this particular Glenugie (cask #2) had 100 months additional finishing in an oloroso cask. “Finishing” seems to be a stretch in this case; at 33 years old, it spent nearly a quarter of its time in wood being finished. However, I won’t launch into a research project (or garden variety rant) on the difference between “secondary maturation” and “finishing” (to say nothing of “finesse”) in this case.

The nose on this Glenugie showed overt sherry influences with light leatheriness, slightly mushroomy earthiness, some white pepper, rich dried fruit – orange and fig – and a surprising hint of madras curry.

The palate is very thick and mouth-coating, with the clear sherry notes again. A little pepper and some heat come in after a moment; but there’s a fair amount of wood and slight nuttiness balancing it, as well as dried fruit.

The finish is nutty and woody but generally sweet with dried fruit and other sherry notes. It dries a little woody and has some apple skin, but is generally big and lasting.

As expected, it’s a big, dense, and generally nicely nuanced sherry character. There’s not much I’d change about this whisky except pulling back the pepper quality a touch.

That being said, where this succeeds as a straight-up sherry bomb, it’s not clear in providing a sense of the distillery character. In that regard, while I enjoyed this on its own merits and as a big sherried whisky, I still don’t feel like I’ve really got a sense of what drives Glenugie. I guess I”ll have to find more to drink in the near future (if it’s available or affordable!)

Coming up next, the 1983 series begins near where it started, as well as some general reflections on the tasting.

At a glance: 

Glenugie 1977 Signatory 33y Cask #2 Oloroso Finish (100 months) – 57.2% ABV
Nose:
  Nice mix of light leather, slight mushroomy earthiness, a little white pepper, some rich dried fruit notes; a little orange, some fig, and believe it or not, a very faint hint of madras curry.
Palate:  Very thick and mouth-coating, clear sherry presence, a little pepper and gaining some heat. Slightly nutty; a reasonable wood presence. A touch of black pepper. Some dried fruit.
Finish:  Nutty and woody, sweet with dried fruit and sherry, dries towards wood with some apple skin. Quite big and lasting.
Comment:  Very dense, nicely nuanced. Very little I’d change except for maybe dialing the pepper back a touch.
Rating: A-

Coda: The Big Tent & Parkerization Begins

It’s been a week since I posted my reaction to Robert Parker’s entry into the bourbon world. I’ve seen that post take on a life of its own and garner stronger and more sustained reactions than I would have imagined. To some extent, this is a final reaction and a summation of a week’s worth of back and forth.

I’m happy to hear from David Driscoll that wine drinkers are tacking the occasional Noah’s Mill or Eagle Rare on their orders. Hopefully people who have overlooked whiskey in the past find something to like in it. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace – and who doesn’t need that from time to time?

If Parker’s influence simply spurred a greater appreciation for one of America’s unique products, I’d be thrilled. I’ve known so many people who admit they thought bourbon was the sloppy, toothless cousin to the refined professional brother it had in scotch whisky. When they have that bourbon that’s not a bottom-shelf option primarily meant for mixing or degreasing engine parts, the light goes off. We can only hope that’s the outcome – as if the market expands, we may see more high-quality whiskey make its way to the shelf in the next decade.

Most bourbon drinkers are happy to share their knowledge and their whiskey – even rare bottles. It’s a very giving culture, one that welcomes newcomers and is happy to dig up that odd bottle of something discontinued to share with a new and curious palate. If this culture continues, it’s a great thing and we all win. What I hope we don’t see is an increasingly disengaged culture of takers – people who capitalize on the generosity and don’t pay it forward at any point in time. Where’s the enjoyment in greedily consuming the stuff by yourself? I’m not saying we don’t have special bottles we’ve set aside for particularly momentous occasions, but even the Macallan 30 I opened to celebrate the birth of my son was shared with a few close friends (Thanks, little dude: I doubt I would spring for that bottle now given recent price increases).

However, if there was any doubt of the power of Parker’s imprimatur, I think the last few days might dispel that. Maybe Parker will always be the guy who spent a ton of time talking about the bottles versus the contents. However, the merchants have already taken notice. I’ve seen two local wine shops rearrange their bourbon selections to put Parker’s picks more or less at eye level. I’ve seen shelf talkers sprout up with his scores and notes. And one, ahem – enterprising – local store has decided on an alternate pricing strategy. The bottles of Thomas Handy rye that languished on their shelves, unloved and forgotten at $80, have now been priced to over $200. I should say “bottle” as two sold already. I doubt the third will last through the end of the month.

Others have sold whiskeys on the apparently unthinkable merit of outranking Pappy 20. Hey, it makes for fantastic copy. If you hook a few people, so much the better. I’m not going to re-litigate the “Stitzel-Weller in general and Pappy in particular are overrated” debate. I’d suggest if you’re sitting on some Stitzel-Weller, you ought to unload it on Facebook since apparently even old Cabin Still is going for inflated prices.

Bourbon is sure to see some more upward pressure on prices in the coming months, if it doesn’t become more allocation-based. It’s not much different from Scotch whisky, which I’ve laid out my frustrations with previously. Perhaps Scotland is playing a long game, packaging the bottles in wooden boats and metal stag heads, expecting that a new generation of higher-paying consumers will place a higher value on the packaging than the contents. While I think it’s a misguided effort, I can’t blame producers for trying to make hay while the sun shines.

I’m still in the same spot I was a month ago: I’m realizing that I am less interested in chasing the new, more expensive white whales of whiskey. I’m burned out on chasing new bottles strictly on the basis of novelty and not quality. I’m also realizing that I’m not a fan of the “darker side of capitalism”, as my friend Adam said when we chatted recently. I managed to get in while the getting was good, and I’ll enjoy my bounty for some time to come. Yes, I’ll buy new bottles here and there and gladly share them, but the days of seriously eyeing new Port Ellens or independent Ardbegs is probably over (even Serge says the same).

I hope that the newcomers to the whiskey fold take more time to learn about our generally mellow culture. I hope they take time to savor, share with friends, and find their own preferences instead of relying on critics (especially not an amateur blogging bonehead like myself). I hope the culture of giving continues, and doesn’t become one of taking. Despite the appearance of cellular-level hate I may have heaped upon Parker and wine drinkers, I generally think wine lovers are totally cool people. As with everything else, it’s the highly visible self-interested and arrogant subset that spoils the image for everyone.

And here’s the secret to remember as well: despite what Parker says, there probably isn’t a perfect whiskey to be found out there. Certainly favorites, but mood and circumstances change. I’ve had whiskeys I would have never dreamed of having even a decade ago, and I’ve never found anything quite up to perfection. But I’m not one of those who has tasted thousands upon thousands of malts. I’ll let a couple of those names speak for themselves:

My friend Adam of the LA Whisk(e)y Society:

“Whisky only gets so good. 

The rest is about the people, the experiences, the memories, which become more important the more whisky you try. You taste and taste and taste, and then you start checking off the Big Boys (legendary and/or ridiculously expensive or both), and you realize… it’s just a beverage. It only gets so good. And some days it tastes better than others.

The rest is just fluff, mythology, nonsense, arrogance, pretentiousness, and whatever else you find people blabbering about in the various online forums. Most folks out there [...] think there is some Godlike creation out there that they’re always just a hair away from being able to taste. But it actually doesn’t exist.”

Or, if you regard Americans (or just us Angelenos) with suspicion, take it from Johannes of Malt Maniacs:

“It took me a decade and more than 1,000 different whiskies to discover that such a ‘perfect malt whisky’ does not exist – but by that time I was ‘hooked by the hunt’ and I just kept sampling away. After yet another decade, my ‘malt mileage’ had grown to 3,500 different single malt whiskies and I finally felt that I should perhaps slow down a bit.”

In short: have fun, share, and try new things. These are the same lessons I’m teaching my toddler lately.

And seriously, don’t sweat not being able to find that bottle of Pappy.

With that, the long, dull month of introspective navel-gazing is over and the focus returns to actual whiskey, not talking about whiskey.

The 1983 Tasting Series #8: Glenlochy

If there was a bottle that was a complete pain to procure for the 1983 tasting series, it had to be Glenlochy. It’s inevitable that some of these old distilleries that produced whisky almost completely for blending purposes would disappear from the independent bottling scene sooner or later, and Glenlochy seems to be fading.

Signatory is the only bottler who seems to bring out bottles with any regularity – the bottle I am reviewing today is a Signatory Vintage decanter; K&L’s exclusive cask is a signatory, and the UK seems to get a slow trickle of Signatory Glenlochy releases. If you think Port Ellen or Brora are the top of the heap, Glenlochy prices will come as a surprise. If you can find one, you are going to pay north of $400 as a resident of the US. Even the route of picking an old Connoisseur’s Choice bottle won’t work: the ones I found were right around $400 with shipping.

This was the last bottle I acquired for the tasting (though not the last in the series) – they weren’t common and were always high in price. I kept waiting for a deal to show up, but in the over two years I watched prices, there wasn’t anything resembling a reasonably priced Glenlochy. My advice if you’ve considered buying a bottle is to just pull the trigger now, because there’s fairly a firm floor at $400 and they’re only going to increase.

This was the second Glenlochy I’ve tried – the first I had was actually the K&L cask, which David OG provided a small sample of at a tasting that included some of their other whiskies. I didn’t take notes on it at the time, but it’s remained a fairly distinct point of reference in the last few months, especially knowing that I’d have another in reasonably short order.

It seems that the history of the Glenlochy distillery is relatively unremarkable – no flaming rivers of whisky that were then consumed by livestock. I won’t even bore with details; in this case, if you’re interested in Glenlochy, you might be best advised to visit the site of one Glenlochy enthusiast.

This particular cask from Signatory, distilled in 1980, bottled at 31 years old at 53.1% from cask 3021, leads with a peppery kick, mixing white ad black peppers, more heavily on black. Vanilla and malt follow behind that, with gentle and slightly watery fruit notes – primarily white peach and a hint of apricot. It’s pinned down with a nicely subtle honey body.

The palate is slightly woody but with the maltiness and honey from the nose. It’s slightly thinner than a medium mouthfeel, but definitely not “thin”. Again, white pepper shows up as does a dab of cayenne. There’s some dryness and bitterness on the palate with a moment’s rest, and it gets a touch earthy.

It finishes with malt and pepper, honey, and then it all kind of falls into a buttermilk biscuit with honey vibe. Really nice…. until it dries more and it’s an earthy cantaloupe rind. Not so great.

For me, this particular Glenlochy is somewhat off balance – the peppery notes were prevalent to me and a little too assertive. If the malt and honey qualities weren’t overpowered by pepper, then they have a tendency to dry towards bitterness and mustiness. If you’re an addict for scratching closed distilleries off the list, it’s worth a try, but this particular bottle was definitely not one that by any means would be a must-hit. Save your “rare whisky” allowance for a nice Port Ellen or Brora, in my opinion, if this bottle was your sole option.

But, it’s not. The K&L bottle, to my recollection, was a little more forward with the stone fruit qualities and had the malty sweetness. However, I had it after a few other whiskies that were fairly strong in their character, so it’s not an impression I’d feel comfortable making a recommendation on. My impression though favored the K&L bottle, bearing that caveat in mind. (As I said, no notes were taken, just my general thoughts, and I didn’t score, nor would I publish a score in this case if I had). Is it worth the $450 they’re asking? I’m not sure. If you want a big, massive, bold whisky I would be considering something other then Glenlochy in general though.

It’s a fun whisky to have on the checklist and unlike many bottles released these days, but I don’t know that I see myself forking over the asking price these days based on what I’ve had.

At a glance:

Glenlochy 1980 – Signatory Vintage, 31y, #3021 – 53.1% ABV
Nose: 
A little peppery kick initially, a mix of black & white peppers (heavier on black). Behind it is vanilla and malt. Gentle and slightly watery fruit notes; white peach, a hint of apricot. Nice subtle honey.
Palate:  Slightly woody mixed with malt and light honey, a slightly thinner mouthfeel. Pepper again; this time white pepper with a faint dab of cayenne. Gets a little dry and slightly bitter. A bit earthy.
Finish:  Malty with slight pepper; honey, a little buttermilk biscuit with the honey for a second but it fades in favor of an earthy cantaloupe rind finish.
Comment:  This is a touch oddly-balanced; the pepper is a bit assertive and overpowers the fruit, as does the slightly bitter and musty side of things.
Rating: B-

Taking The Bait – Git Offa Our Property, Parker!

This morning, K&L’s David Driscoll posted noted wine reviewer/professional Napa douchebag Robert Parker’s authoritative stance on bourbon as he sees it. I’ll give Driscoll the link mojo that he doesn’t need, because I saw it on his site first.

I don’t drink wine, generally speaking. It doesn’t take long before it disagrees with me and I’m in a generally bad state. I have to resort to ultra-bland food for weeks afterwards. Who knows what causes it — I don’t particularly care, because it’s easily avoided by rarely drinking wine. As a result, Robert Parker hasn’t been on my radar for much, other than as an emblem of the whole wine scene that I think is ridiculous. In my wine-drinking life I was a fan of Sonoma and Italy; I always thought Napa was kind of the sell-out alternative.

Last fall I went to Napa and while I did have some truly outstanding wine, I was mainly struck by the sheer douchebag factor of guys in their 60s tooling around in Porsches with chinos and checked oxfords dangerously unbuttoned at the collar, made safe by the addition of a blazer. Perhaps a cable-knit pastel sweater was draped over their shoulders with an artfully-tied knot designed to look careless and casual, while saying all the while “I sweated the hell out of this knot”. On more than one occasion I heard a deferential and reverent mention to what Parker thought – as if his taste is more relevant than your own.

Parker has decided to put his loafer-clad foot in our turf and has deigned to tell the masses what bourbon everyone should be drinking. In an expected quiet condescension, Parker tries to connect with the everyman by explaining how he got interested in bourbon via a TV show. How great! It wasn’t the usual expected avenues of Bourdain/Chang, Treme or Parks & Rec, but Justified. In his words:

… the bourbon drinking antics of the many violent episodes of this sensational series that takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky are a prominent sideshow.

I’d discuss how his writing in that sentence alone offends my sensibilities, but who cares: Parker has made his living writing, I make my living doing other shit in spite of my degree in journalism. The Beat fan in me, however, cringes at the dissociated, cerebral and lifeless sound of what he’s written.

A little research had me on the chase for Pappy Van Winkle, the most difficult alcoholic beverage to find in the United States. If you think I’m joking, try and find a bottle, especially of the 20-year-old and the very rare 23-year-old bourbon. They are much more difficult to find than esoteric and limited production French wines such as Romanée-Conti, Montrachet or Petrus.

The little research that Parker mentions seems to have been typing into Google, “what is the best bourbon”. Result #2? Another Wall Street Journal hack-job telling us that we need to absolutely shit ourselves over Pappy Van Winkle, because, like, it’s hard to find. We see in that article name-checks of Buffalo Trace and its brands, highlighting Pappy prominently; Willett and Black Maple Hill also rate a mention.

Apparently the wine world regards scarcity as a measure of quality. I hope Parker very quickly clues into the rich-asshole-targeted Dalmore Constellation Collection; those are extremely limited and they must be fantastic since they’re so hard to find. (Have you ever seen one in the stores?) Also, Brechin isn’t common. You ought to stock up on that shit post-haste. It closed 30 years ago! BUY NOW.

Parker goes on to discuss how Bourbon, despite what all the Schwab branch office guys are predisposed to think, is actually perhaps worth giving some attention to. Apparently Johnny Reb’s firewater made from mostly corn is worth consideration, as long as it’s rare and priced highly.

Parker’s first set of reviews are a tedious exercise in identifying virtually every hyped whisky of the last half-decade or so, with a few “surprising” and “everyman” picks thrown in to make the list relatable. You can’t get in the good graces making aspirational lists of booze most people will never see unless you stooge for a few readily accessible whiskies, I’m sure.

I recognize that palates are unique and we all have our unique tastes. I’m not going to point fingers in general at his scores; we all have our preferences. However, there are themes that emerge – Parker seems to fall for the common trap that “older is better” and rates Pappy 23 a 100%, tacitly blessing all of the fanboy bullshit that surrounds Pappy, age in general, and the overrated mythos of Stitzel-Weller. Parker also tells us in his notes that “top bourbons” should never be “diluted or served on ice”. Oh, really?

Hey Bob, did you know that Van Winkle 23 is about 47% ABV which is considered “towards the low end of ABV” in our scale? Any clue that people regularly will drop a little ice or water in their blisteringly-high-proof single cask scotches or bourbons and find a massive explosion in flavor? It’s extremely common, and if you’d spent any time whatsoever learning the culture and truly tasting whisky and learning about the spirit, you’d know that it’s not at all taboo in those cases. Instead, you’ve taken what amounts to a five-minute noob-comment-driven crash-course on Reddit and are now spreading it to a bunch of uninterested assholes as gospel truth. Why don’t you hop on the “bourbon can only be made in Kentucky” bandwagon while you’re at it? It’s as tone-deaf and factually ignorant as what you professed. Maybe you saw Paterson saying he’d “kill you” for putting ice or water in your whisky, but that’s because Paterson’s whiskies are already pretty fucking watery unless you’re spending $2000.00 for a cask strength bottle.

Parker’s list includes a ton of random Buffalo Trace including experimental releases that have been off the shelf for two years. For a guy who seems to want to portray himself as Joe Average Guy who just happened to get into this stuff and hunted it down, he’s managed to find some bottles that a lot of bourbon lovers would beat each other up for. There’s an abundance of KBD and Buffalo Trace on his list. Worse still, in his discussion of KBD (or Bulleit), he seems to be utterly ignorant of the concept of independent bottling. He rates various KBDs confidently, giving Noah’s Mill an assertive 96 – a whisky I myself know to have incredible batch variation. Hey, it’s possible, but you need to note which batch that was because they vary so wildly.

Another tiresome thread is a seeming ignorance of what’s on the bottle at times, compared with a slavish devotion to the bottle itself. Frequently he mentions something about the bottle, as if the EH Taylor bottle conveys special taste to the contents, while completely missing big-picture stuff about the whisky contained inside. His Four Roses 2012 Limited Small Batch (highly regarded among those in the know) squeaks by with a borderline score of 92, and he states, “I assume this has been aged in oak a lot longer than the basic Four Roses, and that shows in its softness.” Oh, I don’t know, Bob, what do you think? The recipe is on the back of the bottle calling out years, this information could be Googled in about ten seconds — but fuck Google, that’s not Robert Parker’s style. The inimitable Parkerian palate has detected that it might be older, so we’ll state it as fact. Yeah, it’s older. Notice those tannins? That black tea quality? More than a little bit of wood? Pretty clear sign of age and cask influence. But palate aside, that bit on the bottle that mentions a 17 year old whiskey on the back should have tipped off your older-is-better palate (given your rating for Evan Williams 23).

There’s so much stuff that Parker mentions that could easily be answered with the most perfunctory of google searches, but instead, we’re left to accept his pronouncements as truth handed down from the heavens. Parker’s Heritage 2012 – “Apparently this is no longer being produced”. Yes, that’s right, Bob. Five minutes of searching even by an assistant would have turned this up. Woodford tips its hand to Labrot and Graham as the producer. It’s made by Brown-Forman, Bob, the people who make Jack Daniels. That’s probably far too declasse for the silver Boxster and salmon-sweater crowd, but it’s the truth.

Sure, I’ve taken the bait. The know-it-all wine critic has decided he is the arbiter of taste and quality on the American whisky scene while seemingly managing to not do even the most basic bit of research and self-education on the subject. We all suffer as a result: every halfway decent whiskey will be name-checked by him and the joyless farts who swan about at wine tastings will now be regurgitating Parker’s notes with no insight and nothing to contribute to the discussion.

It’ll be a great day for the distilleries, especially Buffalo Trace. Tons of dumb money coming in, flooding the market with cash, and buying up things we took for granted. Most of these guys will probably store these bottles horizontally, which is perhaps some small consolation – speculators, take note: store your whiskey UPRIGHT. It’s great for guys who run shops, it’s great for distillers who want to wow with a thousand labels sourced from a handful of mashbills or sourced whiskey. For the average consumer, it’s yet another crowding out at the hands of shameless trend-hoppers who saw this on TV, will make no attempt to understand the culture or the spirit, but instead will blindly make pronouncements in the absence of knowledge.

The end result of this for me is to call into question the worth of Parker’s wine ratings, given how spotty his foray into whisky has been. However, again, I don’t care much: I’ll continue to pull against my bunkered stock of whisky and private barrel buys that Parker will never have access to. I only hope he doesn’t wreck the market for American whiskey as well. Surely this will attract the “investment-grade-whisky” speculative douchebag market.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on Parker.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle 23y, Bottle C8752. 47.8% ABV
Nose: 
Strong presence of old wood, light aroma of dark fruits. Strong alcohol initially. Soft sweetness. Alcohol eases in a few minutes and reveals toffee scent with a hint of caramel.
Palate:  Initially dry mouthfeel, warming, strong wood, dark fruits, pleasing sweetness like cotton candy or bubblegum but also vanilla. An evolving trace of caramel and toffee that never become too huge. Wood stays somewhat bitter but does not overpower.
Finish:  Vaguely bubblegummy and toffee sweetness and again wood. Balanced, some traces of grain flavor. Medium finish.
Comment: This is not the equal of the 20y or even the ORVW 23y selection. It’s out of balance and overoaked.
Rating:  B-

The 1983 Tasting Series #7: Glen Albyn

Glen Albyn is one of the lesser-seen 1983 distilleries. According to Oliver Klimek’s interesting reference, Glen Albyn falls under the “Endangered” category, like many of the other 1983s. I can’t say I’ve seen more than two of these in the last several years.

This week’s survey of the closed 83′s is a Hart Brothers bottling of Glen Albyn; distilled in February of 1978 and bottled in February of 2004. It’s bottled at 46%, a touch lower than I’d normally like to see from an independent bottling, but not too watery. Certainly well within the realm of what we’d expect from a modern distillery bottling, so that’s a good thing.

The nose on the Glen Albyn was very fruity – kind of a mix of fruit cocktail syrup and some very light white wine on the sweeter side of things. There’s confectioner’s sugar, and it’s very floral. I also get some Jolly Rancher candy (watermelon and maybe a bit of the cherry ones too). There’s a trace of wood, but this is just an amazingly fruity nose.

The palate ends up being suprisingly substantial. There’s wood and white pepper with a little dash of smoked paprika. It’s hugely malty and has a little sweet barley behind that. I’d expected this to be either slightly syrupy or thin but floral, and it’s got plenty of weight.

The finish is dry with malt sugars and wood, and is generally sweet. It’s not a very remarkable finish.

It’s an interesting malt, and one that I enjoyed, because of the head fake between the nose and the rest of it. I was expecting a slightly lighter Balblair style whisky, but the palate was much more grounded and earthy with a faint smokiness. It was really unusual and generally speaking, I find it hard not to enjoy these fake-out whiskies on some level. It’s perhaps a novelty thing, but they can be quite fun.

At a glance:

Glen Albyn 1978 Hart Brothers – 26y 46% ABV
Nose:
  Very fruity, kind of a mix of fruit cocktail syrup and a light white wine. Some confectioner’s sugar, very floral. I get little flashes of Jolly Rancher candy (Watermelon, maybe cherry). Some light wood but this is all about fruit.
Palate:  A little more substantial on the palate than I expected, with some wood and a light dusting of white pepper. A little smoked paprika behind that. Tons of malt, a little sweet barley sugar.
Finish:  Somewhat dry; malt sugars, wood, generally sweet.
Comment:  Very interesting. The nose suggested something syrupy like a Balblair, but the palate came in much more grounded and earthy with kind of a faint smokiness. It’s a bit unusual but I enjoyed it.
Rating: B

Scotland Has Lost The Plot

It’s a downright awful time to be a consumer if you’re interested in Scotch whisky.

There’s a lot of underlying causes that have made Scotch an absolutely horrible buy lately, especially for Americans, and I won’t rehash exhaustive analysis by others or my thoughts on the latest whisky to be sold in an imitation boat or the constant and ever more garishly nouveau-riche eye that guides brand identity these days. The fact is that two things have just utterly decimated my interest in Scotch these days – and as an enthusiast with some disposable income I suspect I am late to the party on this one.

The first is selection. What’s that? Isn’t choice great? Of course it is. However, “selection” has become just a proxy word for a ceaseless stream of one-offs released in stunt casks with novelty finishes. You only need to have so many wine finishes before you realize that a great many of them add very little to the underlying spirit. So much attention is delivered to single-cask releases or one-off limited runs or something similar and there seems to be virtually no attention given to distillers’ core range, short of tarting up the packaging every couple years and maybe bumping ABV up a hair. If you were one of those who felt they had to catch every new experience, it wouldn’t take long before you were tearing your hair out in despair of ever trying to try everything.

Even more tiring is the ceaseless stream of bullshit that accompanies these releases. If it’s not some impenetrably bizarre “legacy of stone” pitch (I’m sorry, what in the actual fuck was that supposed to mean?), then it’s something that tries too hard, like a hashtagged whisky. Intrepid distillers, take note: the correct answer is not to next release a QR-coded whisky. Here’s a general bit of advice – if you need three paragraphs to explain why you named your whisky “Dawn” in Gaelic and how that relates to what’s in the bottle, you are too clever by half.

For me, the breaking point came – to my surprise – from Glenlivet, of all distilleries. “Alpha” was first. $150 for a black bottle of… who knows what? Legally speaking it’s probably whisky, so we can guess at 3 years and at least 40% ABV, but who knows beyond that? What a tempting pitch.

I can have blind tastings with friends for less out of pocket and a higher likelihood of a fantastic whisky. If you see Alpha and think, “AT LAST! I, TOO, CAN HAVE A BLIND TASTING!”, I urge you to log off your computer right now and go meet people. This is a product that acts as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist for most reasonably well-adjusted people.

The last straw though was only a couple weeks later with Glenlivet’s Quercus. A 17 year old single cask – breathlessly and reverentially noted for its maturation in an “American white oak cask”. You know, a bourbon cask. There’s at least a million of them made a year in America and Scotland buys them by the shipping container. There are distilleries that use them exclusively for all new spirit maturation. Almost every distillery uses bourbon casks, and they are a common sight on the independent bottler market. Hell, even Glenrothes did this as a groundbreaking concept in their Alba Reserve and had the decency to charge about 60 bucks for it. Glenlivet has decided somehow that a single cask of 17 year old whisky in an industry standard cask now somehow merits $300. Three hundred dollars. What cast-iron balls!

That’s a perfect segue into the other side: price. In the last three years or so, prices have increased by 40% or more on some really standard malts. I remember buying Laphroaig 10 for $29. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find it much under $45. Macallan 18 went from $130-140 to now over $200 in the last three years. These are serious, serious increases in price. Certainly some of the old, closed distilleries will only rise in price, but when the bread and butter malts continue to skyrocket or get replaced by NAS editions, it’s hard to swallow. Apparently this is being driven by the East Asian market – best of luck to the distilleries of Scotland; I hope for your sake they can maintain that demand level. “Emerging markets” are also cited as a cause for why prices skyrocket – I guess that’s a good thing, but when customers in the US are starting to get uneasy, I wonder how it’s easily justified in these markets.

The price to consumers is only one aspect of this problem. The other is the up-until-recent practice of ordering direct from the UK. Due to local changes in UK law, shipping through Royal Mail is no longer possible and you’re limited to other carriers – which has made the cost of single bottle orders nearly prohibitive and more at risk of being held by customs.

Perhaps if the US adopted the 700ml bottle standard we’d see a wider variety of bottles and perhaps at a lower price due to Scotland being able to streamline bottling operations and by keeping a single range of labels as well. I’m not holding my breath though.

So what’s an enthusiast to do?

For now, the answer seems to be to focus elsewhere. I’m not a brandy guy, so don’t expect me to follow that recent trend; as far as whisky goes, my attention increasingly will focus on the US, Japan, and Ireland, with other international options here and there. In the meantime I will enjoy the bottles I bought when they were far less expensive. Hopefully by the time I’m done, things will come back to earth a bit. (Edit: Now I’m seeing Yamazaki 12 in a couple places for $80 and Nikka 15 for over $100 – maybe it’s already too late for Japan?)

I certainly won’t be buying much Scotch whisky for a while. Maybe some here or there, but at today’s prices, my purchases will be far less. I hope you’re not feeling the squeeze, but if you are, hopefully things will correct sooner rather than later. If not, I hope you have a stockpile you can work through! I do, and I will.

 

The 1983 Tasting Series #6: Brora

At last, the mighty Brora.

If you’re a follower of Serge over at Whiskyfun, you know that Brora occupies a spot somewhere near “holy sacrament” in his whisky preferences. It’s certainly in the upper echelon. I’ve had a fair number of whiskies from Brora and found them to be hit or miss – when they’re on, they are nearly unmatched; when they aren’t, they’re good-to-OK. In comparison to Port Ellen which is usually wildly consistent, Brora can be a crazy grab-bag. That’s what makes this fun, right?

Brora is an interesting distillery. It’s almost impossible to mention it without mentioning Clynelish – a sister distillery, and in fact, the name that the distillery we call Brora bore at one time. So: older Clynelish (mid-60s and prior) is actually what you’d see now as Brora; Clynelish from after that point is a separate building. Brora these days usually — but not always — implies that there will be a moderate-to-heavy peating level included.

A while back, K&L scored a pretty surprising coup in their 2011 Single Cask program when they had a 30 year old Brora bottled by Chieftain’s, from a first-fill sherry cask. I and many others jumped on this bottle almost immediately. It sold out long before arrival. K&L split the cask with Binny’s and Binny’s may have a few bottles left, but this one is fast disappearing.

I’d held my bottle aside for a special occasion, not knowing what it might be. When this closed distillery tasting came along, I suspected this may be the perfect occasion. This 1983 tasting has been conducted with some people who are not extremely experienced with Scotch whisky and I thought this would be a fun one to share – it reminds me of Sku’s generosity.

A couple years ago, on a fairly hot summer night, I had a really fun evening at Sku’s house. I’d met him a few weeks prior, and was getting my feet wet in the LA whiskey scene. He generously invited me over to his house, and even more generously opened a trio of Diageo Broras. He then went on to open so many other amazing bottles, and this has been indelibly stamped on my mind as the model for generosity that we should all aspire to. I had a lot of fun that night, tasting some all time favorites (Brora 30y 2007) and some all-time least-favorites (Usuikyou 1983). All in short supply, all generously shared. I hoped perhaps this tasting would let me pay that generosity forward in some way.

So, back to the Brora in question. K&L/Binny’s; 1981 distillation, 30 years. As dark as you’d want to see a whisky; gorgeously deep brown.

The nose had rich, full woody notes, with a light hint of oranges, and slight dust – kind of that “old study” quality (I guess with some oranges on the table). It was lightly earthy with fig and a hint of balsamic vinegar with a touch of molasses. The nose was intoxicating. I could just nose this whisky all day.

The palate was perfectly mouth-coating, with a sherry nuttiness and earthiness with plenty of wood. There was a slight quality of Kiwi shoe polish, some leather, and light sichuan peppercorn mouth-numbing heat. Cayenne pepper, figs, and molasses rounded it out with some faint peat in the background.

The finish had tons of dried fruits, pepper, and wood. There was a really nice apple skin note on the background, almost tangibly from a fresh Fuji apple. There was the slightest hint of rubbery quality but it worked so well.

This was one of the most phenomenal Broras I’ve ever had, with a fabulous cask influence and a luxurious mouthfeel.

Now, to step back briefly. I had a sample of this one quite early on, and it had received quite a bit of air in the sample bottle. I wasn’t particularly impressed with it at the time, and I thought it had more than a bit of wood to it – to the point that I’d dismissed it as being somewhat overoaked. The fresh bottle experience is quite different and on a shortlist of favorites. In all honesty, given the data points, I’d expect this one to have the potential to oxidize to something unpleasant. I’d suggest if you have a bottle of this or come across it (like I said, Binny’s may have a few but the K&L ones are long gone), you might want to consume it quickly – better yet, share with many friends. If those are not options, you should definitely consider gassing it with Private Preserve.

As I finished my whisky, I thought, “boy, there’s part of me that wishes I hadn’t shared this and kept it to myself”. I’m still reminded of the generosity of Sku sharing his great whisky with me and that makes me feel better about spreading the love on this one. That said, you better believe I called to try and secure more of this.

Most surprisingly, and this is largely a story for another time, I had the privilege of scratching one of my “bucket list” of drams off this weekend – Brorageddon. Brorageddon is an absolutely fantastic and almost impossibly dense and nuanced whisky. And yet – I think I might prefer this barrel pick. Write me off as a dilettante or a no-palate feeb; but I really loved this. If you can find some, you should absolutely try it. As with all of the 1983′s, these are vanishing fast now.

At a glance:

Brora 1981 Chieftain’s 30y for K&L & Binny’s, 1981 #1523, 54.6%
Nose:  Rich wood, light hint of oranges, slightly dusty. Lightly earthy, a little hint of fig and a faint hint of balsamic vinegar. A touch of molasses.
Palate:  Mouth-coating, beautifully nutty and earthy with plenty of wood. A little hint of kiwi shoe polish, a touch of leather, some light sichuan peppercorn and cayenne pepper. Lightly figgy and a touch of molasses. Very faint peat in the background.
Finish:  Nice. Dried fruits, some pepper, plenty of wood. Some really nice apple skin on the finish too. Slightest rubbery hints in a good way.
Comment:  Really excellent. Perfect cask influence. Just beautiful. One of the best Broras I’ve ever had.
Rating: A-