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-

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
  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)
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.

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
  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-

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