Tag Archives: official bottling

Thor And The Trap Of First Impressions

Highland Park’s new release, Thor, is a whisky that has utterly confounded me. In trying to review it I’ve rewritten this post entirely four times over. What is it about this whisky above others that has stumped me? Well, for starters, its packaging is almost cartoonishly ridiculous, playing up the Viking angle in the extreme.

Yes. This is the ACTUAL PACKAGING.

The marketing for this release has been pretty strong, as it seems to be the start of another series of releases for Highland Park. A tongue-in-cheek twitter account undercut what could have been a stodgy and way too serious campaign (which is a good thing).

I look at this package and I think, “What on earth would I ever do with the boat-shaped bottle case? Use it as an oven mitt holder?” In my more minimalist world, the packaging probably would have been straightforward.

I like to tell myself that I’m not swayed by packaging and the focus is always in the box. I think Thor has proven me wrong – just in an unexpected way. I have found myself a huge fan of independent releases and things that buck the trend of traditional packaging. The Whisky Agency has done some amazing not-very-whisky-like design in the past that I loved (even if I thought the contents of the bottle were ho-hum).

Even frequently-covered Bruichladdich tickles my fancy. The very modern, minimalist, bold packaging strikes a chord with my designer’s eye. I know a lot of people aren’t fans of the wrapped bottles (they can be annoying), but their use of type, especially as the brand has developed, is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, it’s not traditionally designed where it looks like it’s supposed to be mounted in a trophy case and only consumed when you’re wearing a tweed jacket, but I think that’s a good thing. Scotch whisky is a great drink and would benefit immensely from a reduction in the overall starchiness of its image.

So this brings me back to Thor. I could not stop focusing on that damned boat! It drove me nuts almost as much as the Woodford Master’s still bottles. Even as I write this I think it’s just completely idiotic. The bottle itself is completely fine. It’s just the box this thing comes in.

But what is it that drives me nuts about this? It’s only whisky. If I’m a tenth of the aficionado I let myself believe I am, I should really not care. I should be able to take a disconnected and detached view that these things will be special to the right people. The fabric-lined box of Macallan 25 is perfect for the white-collar worker marking a special moment in their career. Signatory’s elegant decanters for the cask strength collection always appeals to my eye. And yet I couldn’t reconcile the boat. However, I know there are people out there who saw it and thought it was the coolest thing ever and they had to have it. And they’ll probably enjoy the whisky even more – the whole thing will be a special experience.

At the end of this self-examination I realize I’m not as far along on this path to enlightened malt-drinking. I’m still a slave to packaging, just in a very High Fidelity, more-indie-than-thou way. Something to keep an eye on I guess.

So the only thing left to do is to strip the whisky of all adornments, pour it in the same glass as a zillion whiskies before it and see how it fares.

The nose surprised me – it’s very light and firmly on the estery side of things. There’s white wine, white grape juice, light pears, green grapes and green apples. It’s got very light and faint peat and it’s faintly oily. Honey and maltiness developed over time in the glass,s but it’s very faint. This whole thing is dominated by the esters. For some reason this reminded me of a freshly painted room, but more as a subliminal suggestion than an overt aroma.

The palate was lightly oily, reasonably malty with a touch of cinnamon. Melons were noticeable among the light fruitiness. Cantaloupe was probably the biggest note on the body early on, balanced by honeydew. Pears and white pepper round out the nose and add a little spice.

The finish led with white pepper and it dried out. Peat hung out faintly in the background but more as a top note than a base element. There was some pleasant heat on the finish.

Overall, Thor is a nice whisky. Surprisingly though, it’s light and fruity – I’d expect this more from Balblair than Highland Park. (It’s drier than your average Balblair though). I think this one is a little ungrounded for me to become a personal favorite, but it’s totally drinkable. Until I get over the boat though, I may have to pour this in an old Signatory decanter.

And seriously, a profile like this called Thor? I dunno. Strikes me more like a Freya.

At a glance:

Highland Park Thor 16y 52.1% ABV
Nose: 
Very light and firmly in the estery side of things. Light white wine, some white grape juice. Light pears, green grapes, green apples. Very light and faint peat that has a very faint oily quality to it. Develops and a little more honey and maltiness show up but they’re very faint – it’s dominated by the esters. I’m reminded of a faint fresh-painted-room smell as well, but it’s almost more subliminal and suggestive. 
Palate:
Medium mouthfeel – lightly oily, some reasonable maltiness and some light cinnamon tingle. Light fruits – melons for sure. Cantaloupe provides early body and is balanced by a touch of honeydew. Some of the pears from the nose are there and a little white pepper gives some spice. 
Finish: 
White pepper early, drying out. Very faint peat hangs out in the background acting as a top note. Nice little bit of heat on the finish.
Comment: 
It’s light and fruity, but the peat is gently insistent. I think this one is just a little too un-grounded for me but it’s nice enough. 
Rating:
B

If You Love It, Set It Free: Bruichladdich Legacy V

When we brought our newborn son home from the hospital in August, I knew my life would change quite dramatically, but even at that point in time I couldn’t quite imagine how it might unfold. Eight months later, I continue to learn so much about myself and my tendencies. The little guy is a mirror and has taught me to be much more present in my life. It’s absolutely the most amazing experience ever.

One of the things that I’ve come to view with a much more negative eye in the last few months is the hoarding and deep collecting mentality. It’s no doubt because of my inclination in that direction at times. However, having this little guy (and his stay in the NICU) have really given me a deeper appreciation for our mortality and how fragile life can be.

Yeah, I know, what a downer for another whisky post. How does it relate, you ask?

Well, if you follow the whisky blogs, you will have no doubt seen the endless(ly tiring) discussion of collectors, hoarders, speculators and so on. I tried to steer clear of this one because I didn’t really have much to offer on it at the time, and it’s not really my intention to become another voice in the echo chamber with nothing new to say. However, this week brought a new perspective on it it for me as a bunch of things in my life all led me to a shared conclusion.

If you know me in person you likely know that I’ve amassed a fairly decent collection of musical instruments. Over time the cost to store them has gone up and it finally reached a breaking point. I was no longer willing to pay what was being asked to store them. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinning the herd through auctions and have found the forced decision-making to be really refreshing. I’ve tried to plow through my stuff semi-regularly and toss things I haven’t used in a year or more, but my instruments were sacrosanct. Now I’m reducing the collection to the things I use regularly and love, or have plausible near-term need for. Sure, things may break and wear out, but it’s through use and not neglect.

Second, I am reminded of my tasting last summer with Sku who graciously opened a trio of incredible Broras. I didn’t have much to offer – a decent Glencraig. Turns out those three Broras were incredible, and one is high on my list of favorite Scotch whiskies of all time. He could have sat on them indefinitely, waiting for…. who knows what… but he demonstrated that whisky is best enjoyed (ideally with friends, acceptably with random people you’ve met online ;) ), not jealously guarded in sealed bottles hidden from light.

Finally, I was faced headlong with the use vs disuse issue recently when I reopened my Bruichladdich Legacy V whisky. This was the first whisky I’d had that was older than me (an achievement all whisky dorks inevitably feel the need to unlock – go ahead and do it sooner rather than later because it only gets more expensive every year). Fortunately, at the time I opened it, it was absolutely amazing – huge apple notes and floral hints. It really just smelled like an orchard in early fall, with cider presses running full tilt – great grain and fruit notes but never seeming old and tired. Opinions varied widely (Serge liked it; Sku was less taken) but that was beside the point for me – this was one I really, really liked. And I decided this would be the “special occasion” whisky. I would pour it on those most special occasions and savor its endless fruit and goodness and be transported back to my youth in the midwest, making apple butter, apple cider, visiting local orchards and so on.

The problem, as you’ve likely experienced at some point, is that at a certain point, a whisky may go flat. And inevitably there are never enough special occasions to really enjoy and merit pouring of the thing which you found so amazing and special.

Recently I decided I’d waited long enough as there wasn’t anything special to open this whisky which just blew me away. I decided to pour a glass and…. it was a pale imitation of its former self. Oh, it was good. It’s still a B whisky which means I’d rate it good and maybe worth a purchase, but it was previously in the A- to A range for me personally. I’d opened this whisky and in the time since I’d opened it, it had completely lost its magic. What a shame. What a waste. This to me was yet another affirmation of my current state of mind – enjoy the things that are special to you because life moves fast, and it’s better to have great experiences and special memories versus a chronicle of lost potential.

So here’s my advice. That bottle of Pappy sitting on your shelf? That rare Port Ellen? You should open it. You should enjoy it. Life is short. Are you looking for that special occasion? Make some random weekday in April that special occasion where you opened the bottle that you’d been sitting on and enjoyed it. John Hansell agrees. And those open bottles? Just enjoy them. Share them with friends, swap samples, or host a tasting. Or just enjoy it yourself. This deterioration is yet another reminder that nothing is permanent and that life is short. Sku wrote a great blog post on deterioration with age (it does) and Ryan over at Value Whisky  began a series himself (we’ll see if it continues there or at his new blog, Value Bourbon – [looks like he's decided to close up shop totally...])

So in the interest of what was great and what it’s become, I’ll post the tasting notes. I’m sensitive to note that this is the second post I’ve done about the changes in a Bruichladdich in the last few months. Please don’t interpret this as a hidden agenda to say all Bruichladdichs fall apart. I’ve noticed tendencies on this end among other whiskies I’ve owned, but to see a favorite go from “life changing” to to “good” drove me to write this call to open the bottles.

At A Glance

Bruichladdich Legacy V (33y) 40.9% ABV – initial opening
Nose: 
Satisfying deep wood, a character very similar to an old bourbon. Wood paneling. Light fruits – a hint of pineapple. Lightly floral as well, but wood dominates. Some gentle saltiness, red apples, far-off hints of raisins. A bit of gentle waxiness.
Palate: 
Medium bodies. Initially grain-based, warming more than ABV would suggest. Fruits here – very strong apples, light pear. A honeyed quality, with some barley reappearing later and some gentle sherry notes.
Finish: 
Smooth. Apples again. Quick initial disappearance, reemerges momentarily, some gentle wood and light waxiness.
Comment: 
If this is early ’70s Bruichladdich I’m going to go broke securing more bottles.
Rating:
A-

Bruichladdich Legacy V (33y) 40.9% ABV – a year after opening
Nose: 
Slightly dusty with some old wood, but some significant bourbon influence on the nose. Well-developed vanilla, a bit of caramel. Some brighter fruit notes; pears evident against some white pepper and cinnamon. 
Palate:  
Pears initially on the palate with some white pepper and cinnamon, old wood that’s slightly bitter. A bit of apple, some light barley. 
Finish: 
Old wood, pepper, a bit of cinnamon, pears. Waxy apple notes as well.
Comment: 
This isn’t quite as amazing as I remember it being. It’s a good but undeniably old whisky. It’s gotten quite a bit simpler in the time it’s been open. The clarity of the fruit notes have been subdued and now it’s more of a (good) fruit compote or canned fruit than fresh fruit. 
Rating:
B

Glenfiddich Age of Discovery

At long last, it’s finally time to get a little Scotch whisky coverage again.

Glenfiddich’s Age of Discovery is a new expression – 19 years old and finished in Madeira casks – that was previously a travel retail exclusive. My bottle was, in fact, picked up by a friend coming home from London at my request. This was before the expression went to a broader release. If you find the broadly available version differs substantially, then I’ll just play dumb and say “I had it before it went sold out and went mainstream.”

Age of Discovery is the third whisky from Glenfiddich in recent memory that is marketed under a name (Snow Phoenix, Cask of Dreams) versus a more traditional age statement. This is a broader industry trend designed to allow selling whisky without an age statement. For the uninitiated, all Scotch whisky must be aged a minimum of three years to be called “Scotch whisky”. So if it’s sold as whisky and it’s from Scotland, it’s a minimum of three years old. Any age statement – 10 years, 12 years, 15 years, etc – must refer to the youngest whisky in the bottle. If a distillery releases a bottle that’s a mix of 7, 9, 13 and 4 year whiskies, they could either sell it as a four year old whisky or give it a clever name with a tortured backstory and skirt the age altogether. For obvious reasons, the story is preferable to the young age statement.

Some people predictably find this practice to be one of the most unimaginable horrors that could ever happen. Others are blissfully ignorant of this nuance of whisky legalese. (I apologize if I’ve exposed you to far more than you’ve cared to know at this point). I personally find myself in the middle ground: Interested in the ones that genuinely work, if tired of searching for my Gaelic pronunciation guide or pondering the likelihood that I will ever utter to a store clerk, “Yes – I would like to buy the Rundlets & Kilderkins.”

That’s all marginally relevant – Age of Discovery is stated at 19 years, so it’s merely using the lofty name as a sales tool. What’s the Age of Discovery refer to? According to Glenfiddich, “Inspired by the explorers of old, whose discoveries revolutionised our understanding of the world, Glenfiddich Age of Discovery is a rich and delicious 19 year old single malt matured in oak casks previously used to age fine Madeira wine.” Apparently discovering new landmasses is roughly on par with realizing you can finish a whiskey in a wine barrel. Vasco da Gama really went to a lot of unnecessary trouble then. I wonder if the Age of Discovery refers to present day whisky marketing where producers have discovered that a silly name with a thin thread of logical connection to the whisky contained inside, marketed as a limited edition, will sell like crazy.

Alright, enough cynicism. Despite my endless enthusiasm for making fun of the marketing, I actually do enjoy whisky. My track record with Glenfiddich is not the best, but a madeira finish was different enough to catch my attention.

The nose is inviting, with a good malty note upfront and a bit of the madeira richness hinted at. It’s sweet and has light honey. The usual Glenfiddich pear and apple notes are there but aren’t as prevalent as in other expressions.

As expected, the palate is initially sweet – malty initially and the fortified wine madeira presence is obvious shortly thereafter. The madeira settles down despite a strong initial showing. There are pears again; some white pepper and a little butterscotch.

The finish is malty but with some light wood notes. The heat is more like the tongue-focused heat of a Sichuan peppercorn, and the madeira adds some texture and makes the finish slightly chewy.

Age of Discovery isn’t bad. It’s not challenging in any particular way. It’s just nice, sweet and malty with a bit of added dimension in the form of the madeira finish and with a little less of the signature apple and pear notes. Sometimes that simplicity is all you want after a hard day’s work (or a month of reviewing mediocre whiskies).

At a glance:

Glenfiddich Age Of Discovery – 19y 40% ABV
Nose: 
Inviting malt, a bit of the madeira influence present on the nose. Sweet and lightly honeyed. Minimal traces of the usual Glenfiddich pear and apple notes, but they’re faintly present. 
Palate: 
Sweet initially on the palate; first with malty sweetness and then followed by the fortified wine notes. The madeira settles back down relatively quickly. Traces of pears; a little white pepper and a bit of butterscotch. 
Finish: 
Malt comes out on top here with some light wood notes, a small bit of sichuan peppercorn-like mouth heat, and the madeira notes adding a slight bit of texture and near-chewiness to it. 
Comment: 
A nice sweet, malty Glenfiddich with a bit of dimension to it.
Rating:
B

 

Octomore 02.2 Orpheus

I recently posted a fairly unflattering account of the Chenin Blanc finished Bruichladdich, which will go down in memory as one of the more peculiar bottles of whiskey I’ve had in my life. Well before having that adventure, I’d planned on opening a bottle of Octomore early in the new year. I’ve had the bottle open for a while now and let it develop as I’ve gotten to know it, and I think it’s safe to confirm that the Chenin Blanc just had something weird going on. Bruichladdich (and Jim McEwan) can make a great whiskey, no doubt about it.

Octomore, for those who aren’t following the intricacies of whiskey nerd-dom, is a whisky produced by Bruichladdich. Unlike Bruichladdich, though, Octomore is heavily peated. If you’re thinking Ardbeg peatiness, think again. Ardbeg measures 24ppm (ppm is a measure of the phenols from peat smoke). Octomore Orpheus? Oh, not much – just 140ppm. Yes, it’s a little crazy and extreme – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Beer drinkers have their IBU wars with hops; why can’t whiskey go extreme with ppm?

Orpheus actually is my first encounter with a super-peated whiskey. Though it had gotten good reviews, I half-expected it to have the nose and palate of a raging inferno at a tannery. Unlike the mainline Octomore releases, Orpheus is finished in Chateau Petrus casks. Sometimes wine finishes can be a little gimmicky or overpower the underlying spirit. In this case, the spirit is so intense that I wondered if the wine finish would have much influence.

As expected, the nose initially had a strong kick of intense peat – an earthy richness with a faint rubber note. Underneath the peat were some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn (of all things). Not unexpectedly for a Bruichladdich, it was lightly briny and had just a slight bit of perfume. After this initial show, the nose started to reveal the fruit – hints of cara cara oranges, lemons, and after some time, a touch of grilled pineapple and apricot. There’s also the faintest hint of buttercream vanilla as well. Despite the high ABV it wasn’t initially strong on the nose (though subsequent pours have occasionally been a bit sharp).

The palate is rich and coating, and low heat despite the proof. Obviously there’s plenty of peat influence – tar, rubber, and some smoke. Underneath the peat on the palate, citrus fruit notes come through again – orange and lemon. There’s some slight brine and faint fennel; hay and gentle malt provide a foundation for it all.

The finish is as long as you’d expect – eternally long. It’s more reminiscent of a cookout than a campfire. Again, on the finish, the fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange, but they fade relatively quickly. There’s a rubbery note again, and the grilled pineapple from the nose makes an appearance again, as does a bit of banana.

At 61%, I thought I’d check to see what happens when a little water is added. It simplifies things in a fairly pleasing way, but it does cost some of the more unusual fruit notes. The nose focuses on barley and lemon, with the peat providing a foundation for everything. The palate is similarly changed – barley comes through in a big way and subdues the fruit influence overall. A bit of white pepper creeps in too. Finally, the finish becomes more generally sweet, but has a more pronounced kick of fennel.

Overall, Orpheus is a richly nuanced whisky. Despite the massive peat, it’s still fruity and light. In fact, I’ve had pours where the peat recedes quite dramatically and you’re mainly left with the fruit notes. I tend to think of Orpheus as a December cookout just off the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite the high ABV and intense peat, it can have a light character.

It’s a pretty interesting whisky – I’ll be interested in trying more Octomores in the future. It’s possible that without the wine finish they’re much more one-dimensional. However, this is a great one to start with.

At a glance:

Octomore 02.2 Orpheus 5y (61% ABV) – 140ppm
Nose: 
An initial strong kick of intense peat – earthy and rich, with a faintly rubbery tone. Underneath, some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn. Slightly briny tone, lightly perfumey. There’s a lot of fruitiness – slight hint of cars cars oranges, a little lemon, and a touch of grilled pineapple with some apricots. There’s the faintest, faintest buttercream vanilla as well. Water focuses the nose more on barley and lemon with the peat. 
Palate: 
Rich and coating, low heat despite the high proof. Plenty of peat – tar, rubber, smoke. Some orange underpins it and lemon too. Slight brine, faint fennel, some hay and gentle malt flavors. Water brings up more barley notes, subdues the fruit influence and adds a bit of white pepper. 
Finish: 
Eternally long smoke and peat. Cookout versus campfire. The fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange fade. Hints of rubber, some grilled pineapple, and a touch of banana. Water makes the finish sweet but with a pronounced fennel kick.
Comment: 
Richly nuanced. Fruity and light around all the massive peat – it’s like a December cookout with fruits and veggies off of PCH. Despite the intense ABV it still has a light nature.
Rating:  
B+

The December Bottles, #4: Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankly, that’s untrue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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