Peat Outside Of Islay: One Tasty Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

At a glance:

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

The Japanese Whisky That Needs To Come To The US

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

I guess not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

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

2013 World Tour: South Africa Via Florida

Like many whiskey lovers, I’m always looking for something new and interesting on the shelf. I always am looking for an unusual bottle shape or a label I don’t recognize so that I can find something new and different.

Last fall, I was in in one of my local stores in the early holiday shopping season, and was scanning past a lot of noise – “festive” crap mostly targeted at wine drinkers but cross-marketed to festoon your whisky bottle with some sort of dopey flair. Who doesn’t need a mistletoe charm to slip around the neck of their bottle of Jack Daniel’s, anyway?

As I was scanning, something caught my eye – a plastic pouch. I moved in to look, and was revolted and enchanted at the same time. I had in my hand a “Porta Shots” pack of Kings Crown Whiskey, with the absolute most generic artwork ever. For a moment, I’ll retract my criticism of silly bottles like Thor that are a little too art-directed. Let’s just agree categorically that your packaging artwork should not be done in CorelDraw.

The treasure, in all its glory.

The treasure, in all its glory.

What the hell is King’s Crown? I figured, since this was precariously occupying the tense border between bourbon and, uh.. artistan… moonshine… that it was probably some sort of low-rent, ultra-reject whisky from Indiana, or maybe a head-heavy cut of something unremarkable out of Heaven Hill that they figured they could make a few bucks off of.

ps_2

More detail photos than anything else on this site.

I flipped the pouch over to divine the provenance of this and was immediately taken aback. This “Straight Whiskey” hails from South Africa, specifically the North West province. Apparently the climate is such that you can grow “some of the worlds’ best corn (Maize)”. I’m sure it’s nice, but as a midwestern boy, I’m going to say that you’ll be hard pressed to beat midwestern sweet corn in the summer. That is another debate entirely.

Seems legit.

Seems legit.

Since Bain’s and Three Ships aren’t commonly stocked where I shop, this would be my first African whiskey. This isn’t necessarily the ambassador the local industry might like, I’m sure, but it’s the one I found. For what it’s worth, we have a Tampa-based importer (and PortaShots themselves in Ocala, FL) to thank for bringing us this bounty.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.

The Porta Shots package is pretty bizarre and sets expectations appropriately. It’s a large resealable plastic outer pouch with 25 individually sealed pouches of whiskey. The layout on the pouch itself is a little more, shall we say, traditional, but still declasse enough to make most generic mystery-blend bottom-shelfers look like luxurious and grand whiskies. Also of note was a faint hint of corn whiskey when the package was opened. Hmmm.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

Each packet contains 30mL and is roughly about twice as big as a regular Heinz Ketchup packet. It’s plastic instead of some sort of foil like those Heinz packets though. I anticipated this would be a tough one to open, despite a helpful “tear here” label, and this was confirmed. No easy tear was available, so I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped the corner and poured it into a glencairn to give it a fair shot. It poured surprisingly dark.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

I held the glass up to my nose and sniffed. I was immediately overcome by a reflexive central nervous system response that was somewhere between involuntary twitching and a panic response to get away from toxic chemicals. Despite the color, this was all clearly very, very young whiskey – bearing an incredibly aggressive punch upfront of raw alcohol notes, acetone, low-quality corn whiskey, raw sugar and a general newmake sweetness. Except that it’s not like your average newmake, this is bad. From the nose, I’d guess the color to be completely artificial because this bears virtually no cask influence on the nose.

The palate is similarly young – completely dominated by sugary notes and an undeniable white dog character. It doesn’t have the heat of any of the uncut white dogs you might have tried (owing no doubt to its strength), but it has that rawness. It lacks the sweet corn notes you’ll taste in Buffalo Trace’s white dog, and rests almost entirely on a bland sweetness.

The finish, which I expected to be vanishingly quick and unpleasant was actually the most nuanced part of this whiskey. The corn presence seemed most pronounced here, and even had a slight bubblegum sweetness for a second before returning to corn and newmake notes.

The bag says “Straight Whiskey”, and I don’t buy it in terms of adherence to the US definition (4 years minimum to avoid age statement). As an imported product this likely avoids that regulation, but this was either the most mysterious cask ever – imparting color but zero flavor, or it was aged briefly and colored. My bet is heavily on the latter.

It’s unfortunate to see whiskey of this quality on the shelf; obviously this is not one geared for the connoisseur. Even casual drinkers would not have a lot to love in this one. This unfortunately helps push forward an alternate image of whiskey as low-quality rotgut.

Clearly, the Porta Shots packaging says “party”, and this is a whiskey that demands to be mixed if only to cover up the taste. There’s a part of me that looks at this with the eyes of my college-age self and thinks, “this is a genius way to sneak alcohol into places that I couldn’t have carried it” – but then I am reminded I would have had to take up the unenviable task of actually drinking the stuff that I’d gone to all the trouble to sneak in.

The Porta Shots range consists of several products – three rums, two vodkas and this whiskey. A little sleuthing revealed these to be products of South Africa as well – my guess is this comes out of a contract distillery that produces pretty much anything. I didn’t see any smoking guns in my search. This being from the North West province, according to my limited understanding of South African geography, safely exempts the James Sedgwick distillery as a potential guilty party.

This is an interesting curiosity or a good way to prank your friends. I can’t recommend trying this in any serious context, unless you’re wanting to plumb the depths.

At a glance:

King’s Crown Whiskey 40% (Porta Shots packaging)
Nose:  Oh god. A really aggressive punch of low-grade corn whiskey, acetone, raw alcohol, raw sugar, and a very strong new make character – vegetal undertones. It’s so young and newmakey that I have to wonder if the color isn’t completely artificial.
Palate:  Thin, completely sugary – totally white dog. Not hot, but just raw.
Finish:  Corn, a little bubblegum sweetness for a second. Back to corn and raw new make.
Comment:  Tastes completely unaged. Atrocious.
Rating: D-

Trader Joe’s Speyside & Highland – Any Winners?

Last year on St. Pat’s, I obligatorily took a look at some Irish whiskey. My favorite at the time was Trader Joe’s brand – and in subsequent encounters I’ve still found a lot to like.

If you’ve been browsing the various discussion forums or are a redditor, you’ll have doubtless seen mention of the new Trader Joe’s offerings, a 10 year Highland and an 18 year Speyside. Could Trader Joe’s repeat their Irish coup? Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats and I decided to split the pair of bottles to see. We’ve got a joint review going!

These bottles, it’s worth mentioning, are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. 10 year old Highlander for $20? Yes, please. 18 year old Speyside for 26 bucks!?  Since these were Speyside & Highland, we ran a pretty solid chance of not encountering remnant stock of the old FWP-infested Bowmore.

It’s kind of amazing how these can be offered at this price when all we read about from producers and bloggers (myself included) is the ever-increasing price train thanks to those hobgoblins of increased demand, tightening stocks and rising price of materials. However, if that distillery name is off the label, suddenly the price is screamingly reasonable… curious. I won’t call bullshit on anyone yet, but I definitely am more curious about the emperor’s clothes now…

Age before beauty: Let’s shake thing up and start with what might be the deal of the (young) decade – the 18y Speyside.

The nose is fruity and rich, with a light waxy quality. It’s got apples, light pears, a slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper. It’s really vibrant and rich. The palate starts out unexpectedly woody; there’s a light earthiness and some fruity sweetness opening up. It’s slightly dry on balance with a light apple skin, but it’s dominated in large part by the lightly bitter wood.

The finish is malt-forward, followed by some dry wood, but with plenty of fruit – it’s long on apples and pears. It’s an enjoyable enough malt – a gorgeous nose to be sure – but the bitterness really mars it. It’s got a very rich flavor and is surprisingly robust for 40%, but the dry bitterness just doesn’t work for me.

OK, not bad for a whiskey that costs about 70 cents per year it was aged. What about the 10y Highland?

The 10y Highland starts with a bit of doughiness upfront, and is slightly thin and sweet. Some acetone notes flutter in and out on the nose; light maltiness fills it out. It’s slightly young, but not offensively so. The palate is watery, but sweet with some gently insistent malt. There’s a slight pleasing spicy tingle on the tip of the tongue and a light touch of wood.

The Highlander finishes malty, with cookie dough and heavy brown sugar. Apple skin and faint earthiness with a touch of pear round it out. It’s not bad for a 20 buck single malt, but it doesn’t do it for me – it lacks a certain focus on the palate and the nose is a bit young.

This may not seem like a ringing endorsement, but let’s step back and have a brief sanity check. These are both less than 30 bucks. They’re totally drinkable. No distillery is going to let its best product get out super cheaply under a store brand, so we should temper our expectations. I like the richness and clarity of the 18 and if I personally was restricted to a $30-and-less bottle, I personally would choose the 18y Speyside. I can see a very good argument for the 10y Highlander, but it reminds me a little too much of some underdeveloped, underaged whiskies I haven’t enjoyed. I’d imagine it’s a product of a third-fill or so cask; it’s got no clear off notes but it’s just a not my personal style.

However, if you’re in the TJ’s whisky selection, I think the clear winner is the Irish to this day. But after you’ve picked it up, go to the freezer section and buy some of their mini-pot-pies… enjoyable!

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

 

At a glance:

Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch 10y 40% ABV
Nose:  A little doughy upfront, slightly thin and sweet. A bit of nail polish remover, a hint of acetone. Lightly malty.
Palate:  Watery but sweet, with gently insistent malt and a slight pleasing tingle of spiciness on the tip of the tongue. Slight wood touch.
Finish:  Malty to finish with a bit of cookie dough and brown sugar. Some apple skin and a faint touch of earthiness; some pear.
Comment:  Given a 10y single malt for $20, it’s not bad. In absolute terms though it doesn’t do much for me.
Rating: C+

Trader Joe’s Speyside Single Malt Scotch 18y 40% ABV
Nose:  Fruity and rich; a little light waxy quality; apples, light pears, slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper.
Palate:  Woody upfront initially, slightly earthy, with some fruit-based sweetness opening up after a minute. Leaning towards a slight dryness. Slight apple skin.
Finish:  Malt comes forward a bit more on the finish, still some slightly dry wood, and plenty of fruit – long again on apples and pears.
Comment:  The nose is enjoyable enough but the bitterness mars this. I think the flavor is richer than the 10y and it’s robust, but that dry bitterness doesn’t work.
Rating: B-

Stitzel-Weller Rides Again: A Boon For… Rye?

This weekend, the diehard bourbon enthusiast/nerd community had a collective freakout when John Hansell broke the news that the Stitzel-Weller distillery was going to begin producing again. For those who don’t track this stuff in depth, Stitzel-Weller is the distillery that was run for a time by none other than Pappy Van Winkle himself. Stitzel-Weller was notably the producer of some really great whisky under the Very Old Fitzgerald and Very Very Old Fitzgerald labels. I’ve had the privilege of trying both; they’re quite good. As with all things, they perhaps don’t live up to the hype, high prices and general hysteria that accompany them these days, but they’re quite good.

Stitzel-Weller stopped distilling in the early ’90s. Much of what remains has made it to market in the form of the white-hot and truly overhyped Pappy Van Winkle line – though it’s been said lately that the contents of Van Winkle aren’t 100% Stitzel-Weller. More Stitzel-Weller whiskey has been bottled at times under the Jefferson’s Presidential Select label; the rumor mill says this may not be entirely Stitzel-Weller anymore either.

This is not another puff piece inflating the legacy of Stitzel-Weller. I’ve said before like others that I think it’s a bit overrated – and let’s not forget that Stitzel was perfectly capable of producing mediocre whiskey.

There were several reactions to be seen in response to this news. It was most fun to see the unbridled optimism of those who were convinced that this meant it was only a handful of years until we lived in a land of milk and honey, where the high-quality wheated bourbon was plentiful and we’d all be drinking Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon (the “real” Van Winkle) at low cost. Perhaps the ghost of Pappy would smile down on Kentucky and a permanent beam of sunlight would shine on the distillery and there’d always be a hint of cigar smoke lingering in the air.

Unfortunately, it’s misplaced optimism. Stitzel-Weller is owned by Diageo, the massive multinational who owns something like fourteen thousand whisky distilleries in Scotland.

This is not a “hate on Diageo” piece, for that matter.

Diageo, through the merger-and-acquisition route, had a toehold in the American market in the form of George Dickel, the lesser known (but arguably better) competitor to Jack Daniel’s. American whiskey enthusiasts have long lamented Diageo’s seeming indifference to the Dickel brand, and it certainly has not shown a lot of imagination or attention in dealing with the brand. Interestingly, there are some ultra-aged Dickel barrels out there. I recently had the privilege of trying a 25 year old sample provided by a friend – certainly too old to be bottled on its own, but potentially a foundation for something special. The biggest news to come out of Dickel territory was the addition of a rye to the lineup late last year – though that was merely another sourced whiskey from Indiana.

Diageo’s attention and distribution has seemed to focus on getting more traction for the Bulleit label. Bulleit was another acquisition, though one that has been the beneficiary of more attention – I’ve certainly seen Bulleit in most bars whose bourbon selection go beyond the usual Jim & Jack options. Bulleit is distilled in large part (if not in totality) by Four Roses under contract. The usual industry mystery wraps the details of Bulleit – sometimes a “proprietary yeast strain” is mentioned, the mash bill has been claimed to be 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley (which would put it at about 50% “B” high-rye and 50% “E” low-rye Four Roses variants). Recently, Bulleit saw expansion with a 95% MGP (LDI) rye marketed as Bulleit Rye, and more recently, a 10 Year variant of Bulleit. Clearly Diageo has seen profitability and interest in the brand.

It’s my belief that the Bulleit Bourbon will eventually become 100% Stitzel-Weller distillate from the new era. Perhaps Diageo has old Stitzel stocks – if so, they may move to release them in some sort of special “Augustus Bulleit” edition while they’re still good (and to start using the Stitzel name on labels). With The Bulleit Experience also located at Stitzel-Weller, clearly the ties are being drawn ever tighter to associate “Stitzel-Weller” and “Bulleit” in the minds of the average consumer.

Realistically, Diageo has to move at a measured pace – in four years they can’t just switch over to the new whiskey cold turkey and expect customers to come along for the ride. However, Diageo does know a thing or two about blending whisky. It seems like the most rational path forward would be a ten-year plan – four years of relative silence from the new distillery as stocks age out, with the first new era whisky coming online somewhere around late 2017 (assuming a mid-2013 start).  I’d expect the S-W portion to be small initially, to both introduce change gradually as well as to support aging stocks to 10 years (2023) to support the 10 Year label in-house. Assuming batched releases they could could gradually work up to 100% Diageo-produced whiskey within a few years – maybe two or three on an aggressive timescale, or 5-6 on a more gradual shift. I’ve noticed drastic shifts in single malts in the course of a decade – a six year plan could be very achievable and beneath the radar for most. A 6 year schedule for cutover would put 2023-2024 as the time where you would expect 100% SW Bulleit and 100% SW Bulleit 10 Year, ostensibly with excess capacity to support both and some limited annual releases (a la the Distiller’s Editions and year-end exclusives from their Scottish holdings).

The smart money is on using some near match of the existing mashbill, which means a high-rye bourbon.

At no point has wheated bourbon even entered the discussion – the style that Stitzel has been synonymous with in the past. I suspect examining Diageo’s large-scale industrial approach holds some clues to what may be in store for US operations as a whole. As noted upthread, Diageo is the force behind Bulleit and Dickel. These two brands both have a rye whiskey released under their respective names, which means that Diageo is a firm believer in the potential for rye whiskey going forward. There’s a clear economy to be had here if operations at Stitzel are to grow or, indeed, expand.

If the new Stitzel has a large capacity, they may dedicate some of it towards producing rye. Rye is in low supply in the US – Rittenhouse comes and goes, Sazerac is even more transient, and Wild Turkey has had to cut proof to keep up with demand. MGP (LDI) seems to be the only reliable producer, and it’s conceivable in the medium term that Diageo may start producing rye in-house if all goes well. They could simply produce for both Bulleit and Dickel, do the extra filtering for Dickel and then label and bottle it appropriately. This would allow Diageo to control their own destiny and keep costs down in a segment they clearly value which still has tight stocks. Conceivably Diageo could also do contract distilling and compete with MGP on a limited basis. Is this pointing to a huge capacity? Quite possibly. However, Diageo has no problem thinking and executing on a huge scale. The Roseisle distillery is massive – 10 million liters a year – and they’re considering building another one. Not to mention, Diageo has been expanding capacity in a big way in many of their existing distilleries. Whisky is in a growth business for Diageo.

One might reason that Diageo would clearly see the value of a longer-term investment in wheated bourbon and start production. It seems that Diageo is patient to play a long game. Conceivably if they massively expanded Stitzel-Weller they could lay down stocks. If you think strategically though, Diageo waited quite a while to start producing its star product itself – it may yet wait to see how well the transition works before it tries to broaden and diversify. As a betting man, I’d expect that you’d be more likely to see an unaged Bulleit (call it “Bullet Raw”) before a wheated bourbon. Thinking in a production sense, if they did occasional rye runs they may also occasionally do a corn run and make that hypothetical “Bulleit Raw” as a corn whiskey. Balcones has shown that corn whiskey can be done right, and the unaged whiskey market continues to be inexplicably hot.

Finally, there is one potential upside to this in any case – more jobs for the local markets. Diageo’s focus is on their bottom line (– photo from K&L Spirits Journal) and automation whenever possible, though you can’t (yet) run a distillery without people. That is perhaps one of the best pieces of news. Any real judgement on this can’t be complete for several more years until the first whiskey comes out.

In the spirit of “This could be good news for rye whiskey” (and since I’ve already reviewed Bulleit Bourbon), here’s  look at their other bottle currently available on California shelves – Bulleit Rye.

As said before, Bulleit Rye is a product of the LDI distillery owned by MGP in Indiana. LDI rye drives a lot of designer labels (including Templeton), so it’s not an unknown experience. However, for the sake of completeness, it’s worth tasting.

At a glance:

Bulleit “95″ Rye 45% ABV
Nose:
  Gently minty with a pine body upfront, a lightly bready body underneath. Gentle, lightly caramel sweetness through the middle, but it’s primarily dominated by the thinner notes (without being thin per se). Settles down a bit with air.
Palate:  Moderate mouthfeel, noticeable wood and a thin, piney, faintly sticky taste. A light bit of young wood and some faint sweetness, but this is fairly dry. A little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper.
Finish:  Warm at first – cinnamon and some breadiness. A little more pine that’s slightly sticky and a little greener; lightly floral and aromatic.
Comment:  A youngish but agreeable rye. Worth checking out.
Rating: B-

New Year, Old Distilleries

With the holiday season behind us and my apartment building’s entry way with a thick layer of the debris of abandoned Christmas trees, it’s time to turn our eyes to a new year. For some, this is a time of reflection, a time of anticipation, vows for self-improvement and so forth. I don’t have any blog resolutions, per se, other than a promise to continue my low-grade jackassery and witless, incurious observations that firmly mark me as a member of whisky blogging’s chattering class. In other words, expect very little to change.

This year is going to be one of exploration, in part. Isn’t it always? Yes, but we’re enjoying some new opportunities here in the US. New Japanese whiskies are landing on our shores – the new Nikkas most notably – and I’ve managed to secure some other samples for this year, not to mention the flight of limited edition Yamazakis. From my discussions with David Driscoll and David Girard, it’s clear what a mess getting Japanese whiskies are into the US. Apparently the trade agreements aren’t in place with Japan as they are with other nations, which require a ton of lab analysis to approve a new whisky for import. This is a real shame: Japan has some absolutely top-notch whiskies that would be sure to please the palate of almost any aficionado of Scotch whisky. With the rising prices of Scotch whisky, it’s certainly worth a re-examination of the options available to see if there are substitutes available elsewhere. Beyond that, a little palate globetrotting is always a fun experience.

Anyone who has talked with me in person knows that closed distilleries are a passing passion for me. There’s something exciting about the opportunity to try something that may never be available again. My last year of extensive introspection, exhaustively woven into many blog posts, has only reaffirmed my interest in that experience. So what better to kick of 2013 than a closed Japanese distillery?

We’re talking, of course, about the Karuizawa distillery. I make no attempt to sound like an expert about Japanese whisky; aside from what’s crossed my palate, it’s much more of an unknown quantity to me than, say, Scotland or the United States. From what’s available out there, it’s apparent that Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and closed ten years later. Now, Karuizawas are reasonably easy to find (for Japanese whiskies, meaning you have to import them from Scotland*), but they frequently command £200 and more, meaning you’re looking at $350 for some of those single cask offerings after shipment. Certainly nothing outlandish, but just as certainly part of the price tier where some way to mitigate the risk is appreciate. I’ve had a couple Karuizawas in the past and while I liked them, I wasn’t necessary blown away by them, and not enough to risk $300 on them.  

Fast forward to late 2012: The Whisky Exchange tweets about the availability of the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama bottles. I check the link out, expecting no doubt to find another bottle above my personal threshold in this case, and am stunned. £45 and £50 after VAT is subtracted. I can’t believe it: an affordable Karuizawa. Spirit of Asama is a vatting of 77 casks, at about 12-13 years old (the casks were filled in ’99 and ’00). Though I’ve already got a checkmark by Karuizawa on my “closed distilleries to taste” list (cue the sound of David Driscoll harrumphing at my closed distillery scorekeeping. Sorry, David, I’m gonna do it), a reasonably priced expression is always worth checking out.

Several weeks ago, Serge reviewed these and gave them an 87 (48% ABV bottling) and 85 (55% ABV bottling). Expectations set: these are good but not legendary bottles. After wrestling with the corks – seriously, the corks on these are awful – I finally get the bottles open. My 48% bottle had a fragmenting cork – fortunately, I was splitting this bottle with a friend, so it was going to be decanted anyway.

I finally sat down to taste these recently after the holidays, curious to see what they had in common and what might be different.

The 55% was my baseline, being closer to a natural cask strength for the many casks involved. The nose on it immediately revealed thick sherry with an accompanying slight sherry funk to it. There was some underlying wood but it didn’t overpower – though it did show some age and seemed fairly tame. The top end had orange zest; it was slightly figgy with some red fruit and leather.

The palate was very leathery with tons of sherry. It had a fairly good dose of white pepper, some moderate heat as well. A little fig and plum gave some depth to the body and some thick molasses stickiness filled out the bottom end. A nice, rich palate (though I confess of late I find that heavy leathery note a little less alluring than the incredible nutty flavors you get from some sherry-matured whisky).

The 55% Asama finished warm, and had a bourbony, slightly citric top note that leaned towards orange zest. It gave way to a big sherry and fig combo, with a familiar musty, woody finish I’ve seen on previous Karuizawas (at times, I’ve thought this to be not too dissimilar from what a slightly dusty melon rind would taste like). Not bitter at all, but just a bit old.

The 55% Asama bears a massive sherry influence, and is certainly one of the least expensive Karuizawas I’ve seen, while still having something in common with the pricier versions.

The reduced bottling appears to have come from the same batch of casks. How does it compare?

The nose is slightly musty sherry, with an unfortunate straight alcohol/solvent note. It’s got light wood, a touch of oranges, and some dried fruit.

The palate is leathery again, with sherry, a very mild dose of white pepper (this has almost none of the heat of the 55%), and gentle heat. It’s slightly figgy with a far off molasses quality to add some depth, as well as a little light wood.

The finish is led by wood, and starts slightly warm like its higher proof brother, with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Unlike the 55% which goes a bit more musty and dusty on the finish, the 48% settles on dried fruit.

The 48% is a little gentler, but to my palate by comparison it almost seems timid and somewhat flat. It’s not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems to need a little more life to it.

Of the two, I prefer the 55%. You can reduce it to 48% if you’re so inclined (Serge was successful in this experiment), or you can have it at full strength and enjoy a little more zip. The 48% is unquestionably more restrained and easy-drinking, but I just prefer the 55%.

Fortunately, both of these whiskies are still available at The Whisky Exchange for the reasonable prices mentioned above – the 48% is £45 ex VAT and the 55% is £51 ex VAT (I don’t get any affiliate money for those links, so click and enjoy and don’t worry about putting any of your hard earned money in my pockets – your hard earned money solely goes to TWE on these).

* From above: A note popped into my mailbox this past week from Royal Mile Whiskies noting that they will be unable to ship to the US. Apparently the UK’s CAA has reclassified alcohol and as of today, RMW will be unable to ship to the US. This is a shame as Royal Mile has had some superlative single cask releases, most notably a stellar ’87 Glengoyne. Here’s hoping this is a misinterpretation and things will proceed as normal. Tim and Billy of TWE seem cautiously optimistic in this thread at the WWW forums - we in the US can only hope their interpretation is correct and we will soon see a return to normalcy. Otherwise, a major source of excellent whisky will be closed off to the US in short order.

Once again, here’s wishing you a happy new year. I have enjoyed the comments and interactions that Scotch & Ice Cream brought in 2012, and I hope to continue to entertain and interest in my own peculiar way again through 2013. Won’t you join me?

At a glance:

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 55% ABV
Nose: 
Thick sherry presence upfront that’s ever so slightly funky. Wood beneath it but it’s not overpowering, just a bit old and tame. A light orange zest hint on the top end. Slightly figgy with some traces of red fruit, a touch of leather.
Palate: 
Leathery upfront, tons of sherry. A fairly good dose of white pepper, moderate heat. A little fig, a touch of plum. Just a slight hint of thick molasses. 
Finish: 
Warm at first, with a little bourbony, slightly citric top note reminiscent of orange zest again. A big sherry/fig combo, giving way to a fairly familiar musty, woody finish I’ve gotten off previous Karuizawas. 
Comment:   
Very heavily sherry-influenced. It’s one of the less expensive Karuizawas you’ll find and still has something in common with more expensive versions. 
Rating:
B

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 48% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly musty sherry, a touch of a straight alcohol/solvent note. Light wood, a touch of oranges, some dried fruit. 
Palate: 
Leathery with sherry, very mild dose of white pepper, light heat. Slightly figgy and with a far-off hint of molasses. Light wood creeping in. 
Finish: 
Wood leads, slightly warm at first with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Settles in on dried fruit.
Comment: 
A little gentler, seems a little timid and flat. A good whisky; just needs a little more life. 
Rating:
B-

Technology. Huh.

Apparently something went sideways with S&I in the last 24 hours. My apologies to anyone who tried to reach it and had no luck. As penance, quick tasting notes on one of the 2012 exclusives….

Parker’s Heritage 2012 – Blend of Mashbills (65.8% ABV)
Nose:  Nice wood on the nose with some gentle peppery spice, caramel. Has a stronger dark fruit character that grows and presents some rye spice. A little bit of coffee beans. Toffee after a bit.
Palate:
Thick mouthfeel, quite warm. Cinnamon briefly, an odd mix of toffee, black cherries, a liberal dose of black pepper, some red wine.
Finish: 
Wood and black fruit, with a slight note of juicy fruit gum. A little pepper as it dries, faintly hinting at bitter roots. A touch of peanuts. 
Comment: 
Hot as hell on the finish, warm on the palate. A muddy mess of indistinct flavors. I didn’t like it when Woodford did it, I don’t like it much more when Parker’s does it.  
Rating:
B-

Once again, we learn that the Four Roses Small Batch 2012 is the preferred special release of the year. A rare disappointment from Parker’s.

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