The 1983 Tasting Series #1: St. Magdalene

The year: 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, the 1983 series moves to the Highlands.

At a glance:

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

Son Of The Port Ellen Doubleheader

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

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

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

Would I mind? Hell no, I’d love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample “B” went into a clean glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are they?

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

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

Compass Box Week, Er, Fortnight – The Peat Monster

Many apologies for the delay in closing out the slightly-longer-than-a-week Compass Box Week. February seems to be my month for home IT failures and this February was no exception. I tend to have a limit to how much I’m willing to deal with and this pushed me into full-bore disgust. Any energy I would have devoted to typing up even a quickie review ended up going towards race prep and everything involved with that.

As a brief review, the last few notes I’ve posted have been reviewing the core range of Compass Box – Hedonism (Blended Grain), Asyla (Blended), Oak Cross and Spice Tree (both Blended Malt). The final entry in this range is The Peat Monster, an ambitiously named whisky, but in a world of Octomores and Supernovas, is it really a “Peat Monster”? We’ll see.

The Peat Monster has a lightly lemony and slightly malty nose with a pretty well-balanced level of peat. It’s not some sort of untamable beast of peat; it’s just fairly well-peated. It’s got a bit of the rubbery note I associate most strongly with Caol Ila, and a surprising bit of young whisky vegetal tones in there. Not overpowering but definitely noticeable to me.

The palate is big and full with some oiliness; a little black pepper and chili oil, some rubbery notes, dry campfire smoke and a slightly diesel/tarry industrial quality to it. There’s some barley in the background too.

The finish starts warm and has some dry campfire smoke and chili oil. It stays smoky, but then gets sweeter with some maltiness. It’s also got a nice mouth-and-tongue Sichuan peppercorn tingle to it.

The Peat Monster isn’t a “monster” in the sense of a double-barrelled blast of peat that knocks you down at 40 yards. It’s just a full, slightly wild ride with some heat and a little bit of youth and a ton of different peated characteristics. Its a nice mix, but based on the asking price I see these days I don’t know that I’d consider it superior to the single malts available from Islay these days. However, variety is the spice of life…

Overall, Compass Box has an interesting range. In general I’ve been more pleased with their limited releases; Spice Tree is also a fantastic whiskey that I think manages to take a good thing (Clynelish) and make it better in an affordable way.

If you’re hungry for a change, I think it’s worth testing the waters.

At a glance:

Compass Box The Peat Monster 46% ABV
  A lightly lemony, slightly malty nose with a pretty well-matched level of peat. Not as beastly as the name suggests; a little rubbery note; maybe just the slightest hint of young whisky with a slightly vegetal note.
Palate:  Big and full mouthfeel, somewhat oily, a little pepper and chili oil, some rubbery notes, dry campfire smoke and a hint of a diesel and tar type industrial note. A little barley in the background.
Finish:  Warm at first; dry campfire smoke, a little more chili oil, stays slightly smoky and then gets a little sweeter with some malt after a moment. A pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle too.
Comment:  Nice mix of peat from Islay. It’s good but at the asking price these days I think I’d still rather buy a single malt of almost any distillery and pocket the change.
Rating: B

Compass Box Week, Days 3 & 4: Oak Cross & Spice Tree

In continuing the blitz through the Compass Box range, today our attention is turned to two of their blended malts: Oak Cross and Spice Tree. Both of these use special wood treatments to achieve a unique profile – Oak Cross has secondary maturation in casks with new French oak heads; Spice Tree has French Oak heads on their casks as well, but the heads are heavily toasted.

Being blended malts, without a grain component, the basic expectation is to have a slightly more robust whisky. Let’s see if that holds up.

Compass Box Oak Cross 43% ABV
Malt and a trace of white wine, some vanilla, light fruit cocktail notes.
Palate:  Slightly woody upfront, a little light black pepper and spice, a touch of green wood, light tobacco, a little orange liqueur, some faint fruitcake notes (sitting on a table in a different room).
Finish:  Spicy with a little more tobacco upfront, a little warmth, and that orange liqueur note follows through.
Comment:  I don’t think the nose really indicates what lies within. The tobacco notes on this one are really nice. The bitterness on the early palate keeps this from being a clean B though.
Rating: B-

There’s a little more to Oak Cross than the nose suggests. While the nose seems like a million forgettable inactive cask whiskies, there’s a really nice tobacco presence. Unfortunately, there’s some bitter wood that runs this one off track for me. What about Spice Tree?

Compass Box Spice Tree 46% ABV
Floral and fruity with pears, but also a notable light waxiness. Light vanilla and a touch of orange.
Palate:  Waxy, lightly spiced – a light mix of white pepper and Sichuan peppercorn, a very faintly smoky wisp. Moderate fruit, more dried than young and aromatic.
Finish:  Wood initially, nice bold oakiness and some pepper, with light apple skins.
Comment:  This just screams Clynelish, but with more dimension. A really nice one. Great body.
Rating: B+

Spice Tree is really great. I’m a sucker for Clynelish; the waxiness I get off of it is a really nice, rich note that conveys age (and also helps promote a weightier mouthfeel) without being over-oaked or tired. This takes the tried and true Clynelish profile and adds a little more spicy zip to it with some nice heat on the mouth and tongue. Honestly, this is one of the first blends in a while where my reaction was “I need to buy a couple bottles of this!”

Spice Tree is a heck of a great blend and one that will definitely have a spot on my bar in the future.

Compass Box Week, Day 2: Asyla

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why such a basic article?

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

The very basics: What is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Blended Scotch Whisky
How’s that again?

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

So that’s all there is to it, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

Imprisoned By Expectation; Tasting a Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

Don't be a'feared of the brown spirit!