Tag Archives: official bottling

Single Oak Project – Quick Notes

As some people have found, I’ve added a condensed scorecard page with the ratings of all Single Oak bottlings I’ve had to date. If you are trying to figure out if the bottle on the shelf is any good (at least, according to me), I hope it’s useful.

Also a note for my LA based friends – The Wine House has a large selection of the Single Oaks on their shelves right now. I’ve seen a mix of release one and release two. If you’ve wanted to try one – or better still to split one among friends (they can be odd) – this is an easy time to pick one up. If you’re not in LA, unfortunately Wine House doesn’t ship spirits.

Single Oak Project release 3 will be reviewed shortly after I receive it. Stay tuned, as always.

The December Bottles, #1: Glenmorangie Signet

This year I decided to begin what will (I hope) become an annual tradition: opening a few extravagant bottles after Thanksgiving to enjoy. Throughout the year, various bottlings are discontinued, put on sale, or stumbled upon unexpectedly. As with most aficionados I have accumulated a pile of bottles “for a special occasion”. Instead of hoarding them, I’d like to make sure I have at least one spot on my calendar where I will definitely make a dent in them.

This year I have four bottles that I’ve opened. One was found at a great price, one I’d wanted for a while, one unexpected dusty find and one very new bottling. I’ll be revealing these over the next couple weeks with my thoughts on them.

First up is Glenmorangie Signet. I’ve been curious about this bottle for ages. It’s an incredibly classy presentation – a nice bottle that doesn’t resemble a still; nice type and design; a rich-looking fade from black on the bottle, and an unusual and borderline over-the-top metal ring treatment at the neck and stopper of the bottle. The stopper is probably the heaviest I’ve ever felt. It actually weighs nearly a quarter of a pound. I guess that’ll keep any angels from stealing beyond their share.

Nearly a quarter of a pound. That's a hefty stopper!

The Signet comes in a very oversized box, which contains the bottle – obviously – and a small flip book. The flip book is a curious addition; I can honestly say I’ve never seen a whisky package that includes one. Opposite the flip animation is a bit of marketing copy that is completely over the top. If you took it at face value, you’d probably believe that Signet is somewhere between germ theory and the wheel in terms of importance to humanity. The box lid itself inverts and becomes a presentation-style base for the whisky bottle. If it’s as amazing as the book would indicate, this is the least that can be done for such an important whisky.

Upon reading the Signet booklet, Dr. Louis Pasteur realized his life's work was less important than he'd thought.

All this is great: a very nice presentation. But what about the contents of this handsome package?

Glenmorangie Signet, as the story goes, is made using a large proportion of older whisky, as well as some younger whisky made with chocolate malted barley. The beer drinkers know what this means: the barley is roasted until it is deep in color. No actual chocolate was used in the production of this whisky, unless a distillery employee happened to be eating a bar of chocolate. (Remember, single malt Scotch whisky is always water and barley. Any more than that and their trade group gets a bit persnickety)

Thumbs up to Glenmorangie for finding a new way to innovate within the fairly restrictive parameters for single malts. Most other innovations have been largely in the direction of finishing in unusual barrels – which seems to be part of a marketing arms race versus a substantial improvement in aroma, taste or mouthfeel. Some experiments are a success but the vast majority are a push – and some an outright disaster. I’d be very curious to see what else could come of experimenting with malts as there’s a lot of room to experiment here.

Pouring the Signet into the glass and nosing, there’s an initial surprise. Despite its 46% ABV stated on the label, it’s got a surprisingly lively nose. There’s definitely a little heat on it. There’s a sweetness with some cherry notes, as well as some definite notes of sherry in there as well. Plums and dry fruit come in quickly after, with a bit of leather and some fig. The leather also has an old study character to it. The malty aspects of the nose do slightly hint in the direction of a stout; clearly the result of the chocolate malt. There’s also something that tastes like a mix of dark chocolate and espresso. It’s a multilayered nose but it works together. It screams “December” to me.

The palate doesn’t disappoint: It’s warm and rich, with heat and sherry. There’s a slightly bitter presence of oak. The mouthfeel is thick and rich with dried fruit. The chocolate malt comes through again, giving it a sweet, slightly bready characteristic with dark chocolate and espresso as well. The palate doesn’t surprise after the nose. The finish is drying with dark dried fruit. The wood is pretty apparent in the finish but it’s not a bitter presence. At the very end, some malty sweetness peeks out.

This whisky is a big, rich, full and easygoing whiskey. If I were to draw a parallel to anything on the market, my first instinct would be Macallan 18. I’d probably be willing to drink this as a replacement for Macallan 18 at any given time. It’s got a lot of the same notes and a similar character. Unfortunately, Signet retails for about $50 more than Macallan 18, so why bother if that’s the sole characteristic?

Overall it’s enjoyable in a not-very-challenging way (high marks for a holiday whisky or potentially something to serve to people who aren’t hardcore spirits dorks. It’s tasty but not particularly nuanced. I’d be curious to see what happens if more chocolate malt was in the mix – it might not work. Overall, it’s good but it needs something to punch it up.

Reflecting on this one in terms of a value for the money standpoint – one I admit I don’t do often – I can’t help but think that this would be dramatically cheaper if the packaging was a more common sleeve or tin and the presentation base and flip book were done away with. If this were price-competitive with Macallan 18, as mentioned above, I would seriously consider it as a substitute. As it is, it seems a bit overpriced for what it is. it’s a unique experiment and I certainly hope Glenmorangie tries more. However, given the packaging of Signet (and the over-the-top presentation of Pride), it seems that Glenmorangie’s most interesting experiments will be unfortunately sequestered to the glass case with a high price tag. In all fairness to Glenmorangie, I have heard the Pride is great (from a friend who tried some at a tasting) – but at $2500+ a bottle, I’ll never know.

At a glance

Glenmorangie Signet 46% ABV
Nose: 
An initial surprise with some stronger-than-expected alcohol notes. A sweetness on the nose with some cherry notes, some sherry characteristics, plums, dried fruit, a light leather-and-old-study note and some fig. There’s a malty presence that is a bit like a stout, no doubt owing to the use of chocolate malt. There’s a slight espresso-meets-chocolate note. After a bit there’s a more direct barley note. 
Palate: 
Warm and rich on the palate, with a very slight bitter oak to it, sherry notes present, surprising heat again. Thick in the mouth, dried fruit again. Slight bread, slight sweet notes of malt. Dark chocolate, a bit of espresso.
Finish: 
Drying and with dark, dried fruit. Wood pretty apparent but not bitter. A bit of malt sweetness peeking out at the end. 
Comment:  This is a big, full, easygoing whiskey. This would be one that I’d use as a “worthy replacement for Macallan 18″ but it’s about $50 more, so what’s the point? Enjoyable but not challenging, tasty but not particularly nuanced. I’d be curious to see what happens if there was a bit more chocolate malt in the mix. It’s good but needs something to punch it up.
Rating:
B

The New Kid: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Special Edition

There’s a semi-regular turnover of distilleries in Scotland, some closing temporarily and reopening later to start production again. Others are closed and sold and opened under new ownership. Occasionally you have high-profile new distilleries such as Kilchoman. One distillery that has flown somewhat under the radar is Abhainn Dearg, located in the Outer Hebrides. This fall, their spirit had aged three years in wood and met the minimum requirements to be called “whisky” according to Scottish law. For the moment, that makes it the newest single malt on the market. (Glenglassaugh, recently reopened, will lay claim to that title on the 16th of December).

Abhainn Dearg’s malt was being sold at the traditionally sky-high prices for young whiskey and I’d held off on it. However, when The Whiskey Barrel showed a 50mL sample in stock, I jumped on it immediately as I’d been wanting to try this new whiskey that seemed to carry no baggage with it.

At three years old, it’s still a very raw, unrefined whiskey. It’s very pale, but it’s clear that it’s not new make or the product of a twenty-fifth fill cask that’s completely tired and dead.

The nose of this whiskey does nothing to hide its youth. It’s got a big wood note to it, some pine, but it’s a very distinct and sharp wood note. It has some qualities to it like a wet popsicle stick or a damp unbleached napkin. It’s very saturated and raw. It’s also got some vaguely raw sugar notes that still are hanging on from its life as a young spirit – however, the sweetness is balanced by some saltiness you might expect from an Islay. It’s not extreme, but it’s noticeable. There’s also a faintly detectible note that’s almost burned or caramelized – it’s almost creme brûlée but not quite.

The whiskey is medium-light on its entry – it’s not thick and viscous but it’s not thin, hot and watery. Despite its 46%, it’s very well-balanced and not overly hot. Given how some whiskies can just run away this is very welcome. If anything I’d be interested to try this at cask strength. The wood note is unfortunately fairly forward, having all the notes that exist on the nose. There’s some raw sugar, some slightly piney notes and a vague hint of vanilla. It’s definitely malty and has a slightly vegetal hint – again, more towards the pine and resin side of things than the wet corn husks you’d expect with a bourbon. The longer this hangs around, the more the sweetness develops into being faintly fruity, like a tart apple or a pear.

The finish dries from the palate and the wood is present. It’s sugary and slightly vegetal. Again, as you progress, the sugar notes start to coalesce into the pears and apples that were on the palate.

This is a tricky whisky. It’s undeniably young and brash. It’s out of balance and raw, and has a lot of growing up to do. However, 3 years is very young for a scotch and this has at least another 6-7 years to grow up in. It’s certainly nowhere near as raw as a white whiskey. It’s got a lot pointing in the right direction and I’m very curious to see how this develops – will the pears and apples start taking form? Will the sweetness come up and give it more of a vanilla note? It’s very interesting. I could see this having a profile similar to Glenfiddich, or becoming more straightforward malty and vanilla like some of the ’70s Banffs out there. I’m not sure that this will be one that takes sherry as well as other spirits; it seems somewhat light despite its age. Whatever happens, I will watch this with great interest.

The bottom line is that if your traditional whiskey is a 12-15 year old sherry-casked or bourbon-casked whiskey, this is not ready for you. If you’re not a stranger to white whiskey or you’re looking to start experimenting, this could be a good one. Make sure you can tolerate wood and you like the slightly more estery and sweet profiles. This may not necessarily be the success that Kilchoman was (in my opinion, a very well executed 3 year old), but it’s a very interesting case study, and not an opportunity that comes around frequently. For the adventurous, try and split a bottle or lay your hands on a sample.

I will note, however, that the cork used to seal this bottle was quite saturated though not falling apart. It may be possible this contributed to the wood notes and threw them out of balance. If that’s the case, I can only hope Abhainn Dearg changes their stopper.

At a glance:

Nose:  Malty, woody and piney. It’s a very distinctly young wood note; it almost goes into kind of a saturated note reminiscent of a popsicle stick or a wet unbleached napkin. Slightly salty, but with a vague raw sugar note to it. It’s almost faintly creme-brulee, but not quite.
Palate: 
Medium-light on the palate. The wood note is again pretty forward. Slight raw sugar, light pine, a vague hint of vanilla. Also faintly vegetal. Malty. The longer it’s around, you get these pear and apple notes. 
Finish:   
Drying again. Wood present. Sugar and malt. Slightly vegetal. There’s some late fruit notes that are like tart apples or pears. 
Comment: 
This is a tricky one. This is fundamentally a young whisky so it’s got a lot of growing up to do – at least another six years. It’s easier drinking than a white whiskey. It’s also got a lot pointing in the right direction. I can’t recommend this as a general purchase to everyone, but it is a very interesting study in a new whiskey in development. 
Rating:
  C+ (though recommended for the adventurous).

Aberlour A’bunadh – Batch 32 (60.4%)

Nose:    Sherry, oak, some pepper, light orange and fruitcake type note, a vague hint of brown sugar. Diluted to approximately 40% the dried fruit becomes a little more pronounced, the sherry is drier, some oak and vanilla.
Palate:  Warm on the palate, sherry and raisin notes, building heat, a little orange, oak. Medium bodied. After dilution much easier on the palate, raisins continue to be dominant, a little hint of grass after the rain and a slight brine. Not very warming.
Finish: Continually warming, medium, more wood and diminishing sherry. Moderate finish. After dilution it’s much creamier, a little shorter on the finish, with more wood evident with some shades of plum and cherry.
Rating: C+

 
The notes on this one don’t sound unpleasant – very straightforward sherried whisky. However, to me it was overwhelmingly one-dimensionally wearing its sherry influence and had virtually nothing to balance it out. It’s a different type of strong sherry than a Dalmore or Macallan – the former tends towards raisiny and the latter just smells like.. sherry… and whisky. Add to this a bunch of heat due to being bottled at cask strength (and no doubt, its youth as a NAS whisky) and this is not a bottle I’d go back to. Perhaps current batches (I’ve seen #36 on the shelf) have moved toward a more  balanced profile. Only time will tell.

Bunnahabhain 12 year old 40% (old style)

Nose:   Moderatly briny, malty, with notes of hay and grain and a little peat, faintly floral.
Palate: Rich, syrupy, oily mouthfeel; gentle warming and malt flavors, green grass, lightly dusty, and a hint of white pepper.
Finish: Slow, gentle, lingering with the peat and malt coming back; some grain.
Comment:  This is not a big whiskey – it’s a mild, gentle, malty, relaxing drink that would seem like an older Banff or Glencraig with a little more pep. It’s totally enjoyable for what it is but it’s not something that will stick in taste memory for a long time.
Rating: B

Of note, this bottling has been discontinued for a stronger (46%) version. Word is that it’s improved and more intense, if that’s your thing. At 40% this older version is a supremely easy drinker and it’s very possible that you might be able to find it for a great price. Keep your eyes open.

Sharing is Caring: Group Buys and Samples

One of the best things about a healthy enjoyment of drink is finding like-minded people to share it with. After all, imbibing by yourself exclusively is a good sign that you either have a problem or that you’re about as well-socialized as a Morlock.

There are more special releases in any given quarter than most peoples’ budgets or cabinets could reasonably support. Distiller’s editions, Manager’s Editions, Cooper’s Cousin’s Sister’s Brother’s Choice…. Certainly it’s far in excess of my means and space — not to mention that it’d be more than I’m willing to put my liver through. Yet, if you read online, you see people raving about some of these editions. What’s the solution when your desires exceed your dollars?

There are two great ways to solve this dilemma. If, like myself and five other guys, you find yourself saying, “Boy, I really would like to try 192 slight variations on a bourbon to see what’s really great, but I don’t want to get stuck with 19 gallons of (wildly variable) whiskey that I might not like”, the group buy can be a great option. The first task is to identify something that you and some friends want to have. This is usually the easiest task because virtually everyone has the same problem as you. The trick actually becomes finding a reasonable breakdown between price and quantity.

A bottle for our Buffalo Trace buy is split six ways. Since it’s 375mL that means each person gets 62.5 mL, or slightly over 2 ounces. How to get that home? Easy. Go to Specialty Bottle, order a small box of 2 ounce bottles and caps. You can also get heat-shrink to go along with it to seal the bottle caps up tightly. Get some labels (so you can identify the contents), and a small flask funnel, and you can quickly portion it out. I use a Mini Measure glass from Crate & Barrel to avoid free-pouring from a bottle since the flask funnel can get overfilled quickly.

Another great source for bottles is saving the 50mL sample bottles you can get from mini-bars, airlines, and from a lot of liquor stores (especially around Christmas). Wash them thoroughly and you have an easy supply of bottles. Plus, you can also use the contents to try some drinks you’ve never had before. Besides, when have you ever needed more than 50mL of Jaegermeister in your possession?

In addition to the 2 oz and 50mL sizes, I like to hold on to some 1 oz sample bottles, which is also easily obtained from Specialty. You should make sure to buy glass Boston rounds. Glass will not impart flavor like plastic.

If you can’t find people who want to split the same bottle, the other option would be to buy it and trade samples. The sample swap is a great way to broaden your palate and get the opportunity to try things you haven’t before. If you have a friend who travels, they might be able to find bottles not available in the US or exclusive to Duty Free shops. They may be willing to part with a sample if you are willing to reciprocate.

I try to sample one-for-one, or at least give pours of similar value. I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up on accounting for the value, but I think it’s polite to try and offer items of value if you’re going to ask for items of value. Don’t ask for the 50 year old Glenury Royal if all you’re going to offer in trade is Glenfiddich 12 or something easily available at any store. On the other hand, if I’m pouring for someone, especially someone who doesn’t have a big cabinet or much experience, I like to try and throw in a surprise now and again, unannounced. The bottom line as always is be fair, be nice, and try not to be greedy.

I think the most important etiquette of the sample swap is to not be offended if someone doesn’t like your samples. I traded with someone whose samples I was not particularly fond of and tried to answer the “what did you think?” question reasonably diplomatically. However, it was received as if I’d made a personal attack. That’s unfortunate – not everything is going to be to everyone’s tastes, and if you don’t like what I’ve poured, it just means we have different palates.

In the spirit of the swap, I’ve got four notes from a recent sample swap.

I encourage you to find someone who might be interested and go in on a bottle with them or do some trading. You’ll have a lot of fun. (If you’re in the US, though, don’t send samples through the mail! It’s illegal…)

Springbank Cream Sherry Cask dist. 6-96, bot. 4-09, Cask 96/271, 56.1% ABV
Nose: Sweet and malty. Nice, light but dominant sherry notes. Gentle, restrained wood. Faint grain notes. Slightly earthy and damp, with the faintest trace of grease. Slight caramel.
Palate: Delightfully weighty on the palate, slightly oily in texture and taste. Malty and with light sherry notes, gently warming on the palate. Sweet and slightly farmy – both earthy and damp (damp hay) as well as oily, worn work clothes.
Finish: Warming, sweet, a bit smoky. The sherry comes in a little later as do slight ripe apple notes, and the slight diesel character is there too.
Comment: Springbank has another good one here. This is a nice balanced sherry – the typical faint diesel, oily notes of Springbank are great with the less strong sherry notes.
Rating: B


Balblair 1989 (2nd Ed, bottled 2010) – 43% ABV

Nose:
Sweet fruits, perhaps slightly overripe and becoming sugary. A bit of white wine. Pineapple, applesauce, slightly malty. Peaches in syrup. Pears.
Palate: Light and malty, warm on the palate. White wine, slight tropical fruits, powdered sugar. Very sweet and sugary – right up to the edge of what’s reasonable.
Finish: Dominated by malt, with a bit of very ripe fruits – peach, pear, apple. A bit of white wine.
Comment: This is one that I can see not liking because of the sweetness and wine notes; it’s a light and fruity drink like the ’97 which can be polarizing. This is a little more overtly fruity than the ’97 but I still like it. A great desserty whisky.
Rating: B

Talisker 57 Degrees North 57% ABV
Nose:
Slightly buttery in a way that is reminiscent of some Broras I’ve had; gentle peat. Reasonably strong on the nose. Light hay, mildly sooty. Malty and slightly musty. Some slight fruitiness in the far off distance, maybe a bit of pineapple? Water brings the fruit somewhat closer to the forefront.
Palate:
Quite warm on the palate, good, rich peaty smoke, slightly buttery, lightly malty underneath; slightly fruity in the background. Spicy – almost a chili oil quality to it. With water, it’s more malty, less overtly peaty, but faintly rubbery.
Finish:
Hot! Peat and smoke, malt. Spicy with the chili oil again. Faintly ashy, ever so slightly rubbery.
Comment:
This one is quite big and bold. A little water helps tame it; it’s almost too big otherwise. One to warm you up on a cold night! The high heat on the palate is a bit much for me and keeps this slightly off a B+ but it’s close.
Rating:
B

Kilchoman Cask Strength (Binny’s) Dist 7-4-07, Bottled 8-26-10, Cask 182/2007 61.1% ABV
Nose:
Light white wine, moderate peat, some lemon, slightly mineral, some banana and pineapple fruitiness. Mildly briny.
Palate: Very light. Good peat on the palate. Warming gently. Some brine, some malt. Warming with time. Pepper, maybe a touch of chili oil.
Finish: Warm initially, some peat and pronounced barley notes, grainy and slightly rubbery. Some white wine after a moment, relaxing mostly into barley and some peat.
Comment: I want the palate to live up to the nose. It doesn’t quite. Good but not there. Hell of a nose though.
Rating: B

Laphroaig 10 Year (43%)

Nose:   Strongly medicinal, a baked and almost biscuity undertone, bacon, hint of wood.
Palate:  Briny, smoky, peat, smooth, gentle on the palate, more medicinal and some bacony flavors.
Finish:   Slow, languid, delightfully medicinal becoming more smoky and peaty, a recurrence of brine.
Comment:  It’s a can’t-miss Islay. You’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.
Don’t be in a rush with this one in the bottle – it develops nicely over a couple months, with the bacon note increasing after a while, and then even later it becomes incredibly creamy and rich.
Rating: B