...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Laphroaig Càirdeas 2017 Quarter Casks

My opinion of Laphroaig's Quarter Cask whisky has shifted over the years, and not in a positive direction. I was happy to champion the NAS Laphroaig Quarter Cask bottlings 6-7 years ago. The whisky was 8-12 years old and the oak was less intrusive than expected, and the whole thing was very good. The current version is......different. I wouldn't doubt the whisky is half the aforementioned age, and the oak is now in fact intrusive. It has become Laphroaig's "craft" whisky, with all the bad connotations that come with the C word. If I were to review the current version it would be only in comparison to an older edition. But I'd have to source both.

In the meantime...

Laphroaig's 2017 edition of their annual Càirdeas release turned out to be a cask strength version of Quarter Cask. Pretty cool, right? Cask strength 'phroaig is a plus. The chance to experience one of their regular range undiluted is also a positive thing. And, to their credit, Laphroaig was open to revealing the actual age of the whisky...

...which is 5.5 years. Which only went to bolster my assumption about the current age of the regular Quarter Cask and its shift in quality. But, I'm always willing to give it a go since the Càirdeases (Càirdi?) tend to be well made.

Distillery: Laphroaig
Owner: Beam Suntory
Product: Càirdeas
Release Year: 2014
Region: Islay
Age / Maturation: 5 years in first-fill Maker's Mark casks, then 6 months in American oak quarter (125-liter) casks
Limited Release: yes?
Alcohol by Volume: 57.2%
Chill-filtration? No
Caramel colored? Maybe

Good news everyone, the color is very pale. No extra glow from loaded oak or e150a. The nose is nutty and sugary (like white frosting). The peat reads more toasty than medicinal. Hints of lemon peel, rubber and dried herbs. A vanilla bean note appears, then grows with time. It's young, peppery and herbal stuff on the palate, though the mouthfeel is thicker than Monday's Ardbeg. A brisk herbal bitter bite. Not much heat. Limes, almond butter and charred meat. Gets saltier and sweeter with time. Pepper, sugar, lemon juice and beachy peat in the finish.

DILUTED TO ~48%abv, or >1 tsp water per 30mL whisky
Salted caramels, wood smoke, metallic dust and mint gum on the nose. A wee puff of farminess. On the palate it's vanilla, sugar and dried herbs. Luckily the herbs are the loudest. Also lots of mint and chili powder.....which then becomes smoked paprika in the finish. Then tart citrus and peppery smoke. Slightly less sweet than the palate.

The whisky is fine. I prefer it neat, slightly. It's rare for me to enjoy a whisky's palate much more than its nose, as with this one, though I felt the same about Laphroaig Lore. The vanilla-ness was to be expected, but I wish there were less of it. The finish kinda whimpers out. But, thankfully, it's slightly less sweet than Ardbeg Hooves.

It never feels like 57.2%abv, which is good. But it never really feels like Laphroaig either. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the 2015 Càirdeas, and impressed by the rebound of recent 10yo Cask Strength batches.

Normally I praise Laphroaig for the accessible pricing of the Càirdeas releases, but I'm in no rush to spend $80 on a five year old whisky. I no longer do that for Kilchoman, a small family-run distillery, so I'm less inspired to do so for a large corporate distillery.

My Annoying Opinions, who generously provided this sample (thank you generous MAO!), holds this whisky in slightly higher esteem than I, while the Whiskybase community, as usual, regards it with greater enthusiasm than either of us do.

Availability - Available-ish in the US
Pricing - $80+
Rating - 82

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ardbeg Grooves Committee Release

I've received suggestions to stop reviewing LVMH's special releases because even the most negative review only keeps Lummy's latest bauble bouncing around the atmosphere. And yes, you've read the same line from me every time: Ardbeg ______ Special Release is not as good as any of the core releases. But some people are very nice to me and share pours from their bottles. And, like it or not, these unimaginative annual releases really are something that a good portion of the monied English-speaking single malt world knows of, and may like to read an independent review about before buying a bottle. If I push off this responsibility to someone else, I could be fairly accused of a feckless punt.

how do i know when the Ardblotter kicks in?
Let's dust off and update the old list:
Ardbeg Alligator - Rowrr!
Ardbeg Day - Almost as good as Oogy!
Ardbeg Galileo - Someone screwed up, right?
Ardbeg Ardbog - Not bad, but $110?
Ardbeg Auriverdes - Unmemorable
Ardbeg Perpetuum - No.
Ardbeg Dark Cove - Smells good, but it still loses to Oogy
Ardbeg Kelpie - Sour, bitter and hot. Oppressively poor.
Ardbeg Artein Alligator Grooves - ...

Distillery: Ardbeg
Ownership: Glenmorangie Plc (owned by LVMH)
Region: Islay
Product: Grooves
Age: NAS
Maturation: a mix of heavily-charred ex-wine casks and ex-bourbon casks
Limited bottling: yes?
Bottling year: 2018
Alcohol by Volume: 51.6%
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No
(thank you to Jonathan M for the sample!)

Its groovy color is dark gold. The nose starts off with rubber, chlorine, fresh basil, orange oil and grape candy. Lots of rubber. Tennis ball can. Minor notes of smoked meats. With time, there's some cranberry juice and berry compote. The palate is much sootier and smokier. Small red berry notes scattered about. Dark chocolate, almond cookies, black peppercorns and a hint of tangy citrus candy. It gets sweeter and sweeter with time in the glass. Smoke, lime and sugar in the finish, sort of a smoky mojito? Slight cayenne pepper zip. Moderate length.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 3/4 tsp water per 30mL whisky
A peach, apricot and pear juice cocktail on the nose. Also cinnamon and cardamom. Less rubber and smoke. Salty air, dirty hay. Cat piss (for you oenophiles out there). Aside from some tart berry notes, the palate is reminiscent of the current Ardbeg Ten. A little bitter and oaky, with lots of soot. Grassy and sweet. Much different than the nose. It finishes with the grass and sugar. Bitter smoke and tart fruit. Much shorter.

One thing I noticed in the official descriptions of the product is that only some of whisky is from heavily charred red wine casks. The rest is from ex-bourbon casks. Tempering the big oak+wine with standard Ardbeg was a very good idea. This leads it away from getting too fugly, like the Galileo, and brings it closer to the regular Ardbeg style. Still, one can just get multiple bottles of the (better) Ten for the price of Grooves. And thus the annual release problem continues.

But, it isn't a bad product. The nose and palate seem to be from two different whiskies and they're both decent, though it's a bit too sugary for my palate. I prefer it diluted because water pushes the rubbery stuff away and awakens some better fruit notes. BUT I have no idea if the regular 46%abv Grooves will have the same characteristics.

On Wednesday, I'll review Grooves's sparring partner, a thing that's almost current...

Availability - Still around on the primary market? I don't know. Plenty to be found on the secondary market already.
Pricing - $120-$320 (I'm not kidding)
Rating - 84

Friday, June 15, 2018

Arran 8 year old 1998 G&M Connoisseur's Choice

I bought this bottle three years ago. And I'm at a loss to find any more to that story.

Even though I split this bottle's contents with some whisky friends, it's still taking me FOREVER to finish the stuff. I don't remember why. How about let's find out?

Oh, one more thing...  For those who think G&M didn't start bottling some of the Connoisseur's Choice series at 46%abv until a few years ago, may I point to this Arran 8yo and this 36yo Caperdonich from 1968 (yes, the two are easily confused) as examples of G&M going bonkers and leaving an extra three points of alcohol in the whisky.

Distillery: Isle of Arran Distillery
Ownership: Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd.
Region: Isle of Arran, Scotland
Independent Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Range: Connoisseurs Choice
Age: 8 years old (1998-2007)
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
(review sample taken from the bottom third of my bottle)

The nose is very spirity with a funky edge. Like moldy cardboard box. Wort, yeast. Sugary bits. Fresh lemons and green apples. Pecans. Slightly farmy. The palate is very malty with a light hum of oak underneath. An odd bitterness down there too. Lemony soap. Peppery, but also very sweet. It finishes bitter, warm, peppery and sweet. Decent length to it.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv, or < 1tbl water per 30mL whisky
Quite a shift in the nose. Apples, flowers, orange candy and eucalyptus. It's become a better drinker too. The palate ditches the bitterness, and mellows the sweetness. Grain-forward. Pilsner? Hints of coffee and aromatic fruits. The finish is pleasant but plain. Shorter, lightly tart.

I've gone through three separate tastings of this whisky for this review, and the notes have been pretty consistent. The first tasting was done without dilution, and I was left wondering why G&M bottled it. Then I remembered the limp Ledaig I reviewed two weeks ago, and wondered why they bottled that one too. Then I wondered, what does G&M do with their lesser casks? Do they swap them with blenders? Or is the Connoisseur's Choice label their final destination?

But then I tinkered with dilution in the next two tastings. Water really made a difference. It's a better drink at 40%abv. It's not awesome, it still feels very young, and it's not on the same planet as the official 10 year old, but it's a decent casual sipper. In fact I'm finishing the bottle's final pour right now, sub-40abv, and it works.

Availability - ???
Pricing - I bought it for $39.99, which is probably why I bought it
Rating - 80 (diluted only)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Arran 10 year old 2004 Orkney Bere Barley

When it first started up, The Isle of Arran distillery experimented with wine cask whisky releases. As the spirit (and the distillery) matured, the people in charge mostly discontinued the quirky cask approach. In 2004, Arran experimented with running an unknown number of batches of malted Bere barley spirit through their stills. That run has produced two releases so far, a 46%abv 8 year old and today's cask strength 10 year old.

Yes, Bruichladdich and Springbank have both put out Bere barley releases recently, but don't start thinking Arran's a copycat. 'Laddie's first Bere release was distilled in 2006, as was Springbank's Local Barley 11yo, both two years after Arran's run. While Arran may not exactly be a pioneer with this stuff, kudos to them for giving Bere a go. It is difficult to grow and delivers a low alcohol yield. So one might say, that when compared to the mass-produced strains used by contemporary distillers, this old Viking barley can be a bit of a Bere.

Hey, where are you going?

Distillery: Isle of Arran Distillery
Type: Single Malt
Ownership: Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd.
Region: Isle of Arran, Scotland
Age: minimum 10 years (2004-2014)
Barley Strain: Bere
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels
Outturn: 4,800
Alcohol by Volume: 56.2%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No

The nose leads with almond butter, soda bread and cracked peppercorns. It has both a gentle floral side and a wasabi edge. Hints of Italian sausage(!) and peach. The nutty note expands with time. Less alcohol heat than expected. But that flips in the hot palate. It's very grassy and earthy. Rocky. Peppercorns and a rugged bitterness. Some generic sweetness. Earth and herbs in the finish. The bitterness gets difficult, as if it's a long over-steeped cheap green tea.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 4tsp water per 30mL whisky
The nose is less edgy. But also just less. Nuts, grains and fruits are quieter. Some dried apricots in there. Very little change in the tough palate. It remains hot, herbal and earthy. Pencil graphite and peppercorns. Tangy and tart, like out of season berries. In the finish, there's earth, peppercorns, graphite and tingles.

On the plus side, this is not an easy whisky, which offers a change of pace from Arran's often drinker-friendly products. Was that a plus? I don't know. It's very earthy and rocky and herbal. Those are plusses. When neat, the nose is very entertaining, zigging and zagging and burping up all sorts of quirky things.

But there's is no complexity in the palate. And the finish is borderline unpleasant at times. Note, this is coming from a guy who likes austere (oh that word) whisky. I liked Bruchladdich's and Springbank's gambles with Bere better than this. And the 8yo Arran Bere Barley sounds MUCH better than this thingy too. So I'd be happy to try that one, but I don't need to drink this one again.

Availability - Europe here and there
Pricing - $80-$100 ex-VAT
Rating - 76

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Arran 10 year old 2007 James MacTaggart

In 2017, the Arran distillery celebrated 10 years since James MacTaggart became their master distiller. The very day he took the job, in 2007, the owners boinked him on the head, fermented and distilled him, finally pouring his spirit into about 60 first-fill bourbon barrels (he was a large man). After ten years, the barrels started to smell funny so James was poured into 12,000 bottles and distributed to retailers. I chose not to buy a bottle of James because that's disgusting. Spending money, I mean.

Okay, so I did splurge on a 2oz sample
Distillery: Isle of Arran Distillery
Type: Single Malt
Ownership: Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd.
Region: Isle of Arran, Scotland
Age: minimum 10 years (2007-2017)
Maturation: first-fill ex-bourbon barrels
Outturn: 12,000 (limited!)
Alcohol by Volume: 54.2%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No

The nose leads with a load of fruits, specifically cantaloupe, lemon and white nectarines. A sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. A dusting of cocoa. Give it 15 minutes... Menthol, cucumber water, canned Mandarin oranges and circus peanuts. The palate holds the citrus, while picking up vanilla bean. Both a mild burn and a chile pepper zing. Malty, while a bit of salt. A lemon note drifts to grapefruit, and back. Maybe a little bit of toasted coconut. The medium warm finish has malt, vanilla, Rolos and circus peanuts.

DILUTED TO ~46%ABV, or 1tbl water per 30mL whisky
The nose is dumbed down. Less fruit, a more generic vanilla. Lemon, cinnamon, caramel. Hints of mint and malt. The palate has a good texture. It's malty and lemony, sweeter. Very tangy. Moments of vanilla and bitterness. Still some heat in the finish. It's tangy and sweet. A little bit of grain and tannins.

Don't dilute James. He's best at full strength. The complexity in his nose is impressive after only 10 years. And I'm a fool for all that fruit. The palate is decent, while the finish is unremarkable. So he does the Nose > Palate > Finish slide. While the first-fill barrels are present, they don't budge their way forward until water is added.

James did well. He turned out to be a €700,000+ release for Arran. Well done, sir. Who's next?

Availability - UK and Continental Europe, and a tiny bit in the US
Pricing - $65-$85 (ex-VAT) in Europe, more expensive in the UK. About $100 in The States.
Rating - 85

Monday, June 11, 2018


(Photo via Facebook/@PartsUnknownCNN)

I have never felt so devastated by the death of a public figure. Though I didn't know him personally, I experienced heavier bouts of emotion over Friday morning's news of Anthony Bourdain's suicide than I have over the loss of a number of people in my life. It takes me a long time to emotionally respond to a loss, sometimes years. But this time it was different. Some reasons behind my feelings are linked to my own issues, while others are bigger than me.

Though my choices of evening viewing differ vastly from Kristen's preferences, she and I loved Bourdain's productions. It got the point where we just called all his shows "Tony", as in "Wanna watch Tony tonight?" His book, Kitchen Confidential, is still striking, not necessarily for the salacious details, but for the hyperkinetic stream-of-consciousness blast of its final chapter. It's even better when you can hear his gorgeous voice in your head as the words speed by.

Throughout his work, Food was always a front for People. At first it was barely apparent, starting with the sarcastic generalizations in Confidential. But by the time Parts Unknown came out, culinary concerns were an afterthought. Yes, "street food" or "peasant food" is great, but who were these people behind it? Episode after episode, he sat down at kitchen tables with families, ate grandmas' dishes, drank papas' booze, easing everyone into questions about their lives. He made this enormous difficult world feel closer and more human.

It was this progression that was so moving. Though he long preferred to keep his personal life out of the public eye, his development was burningly public.

Before our eyes, a man grew up. The punk became an elder. He showed us something we never really see from public figures, that a man can be stridently, classically masculine and thoughtful and loving and drawn to those who struggle and hurt (see the Massachusetts episode of Parts Unknown and his balls-out support of the #MeToo movement). It was an awakening sadly unique to our time.

I am so thankful Anthony Bourdain invited us to join him on his journey. He was the greatest of guides, and one of my last heroes. May you be in peace, Tony.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Hazelburn 8 year old Cask Strength (bottled 2010)

There was some Hazelburn 10yo left over from earlier in the week, so I was able to compare it to today's whisky in order to get some perspective on these whiskies. They're both spent their time solely in ex-bourbon casks, an approach that worked better for me than the sherry cask flop of the old 12yo.

This 8yo cask strength release seems to have been from a single cask, and may have been bottled exclusively for the American market. It was released back in 2010, but winesearcher says there was at least one retailer still selling it as of last month. Hazelburn is not the sexy sibling of the Springbank family.

Distillery: Springbank
Brand: Hazelburn
Region: Campbeltown
Age: minimum 8 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon cask
Bottle code: 10/426
Outturn: 228 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 56.5%
Chillfiltered? No
Colorant Added? No
(from a sample swap with Jordan of Chemistry of the Cocktail. Thank you, Jordan!)

Its color is light straw. So far so good. The nose starts off with anise, orange peel, strawberry jam and cocoa powder. Some roses and cinnamon. The orange peel note shifts to orange blossoms. Not too much burn overall. More marzipan than vanilla on the palate. Very mineral, along with tart citrus and a hint of florals. The sweetness grows with time, while a sriracha zap also develops. The citrus gets sweeter in the warm, salty and peppery finish.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 4tsp water per 30mL whisky
The nose's fruit gets more tropical. Musky melons. Lemons bars, roses and butterscotch. The palate is TART, but good. It has an almost syrupy thickness to its mouthfeel. Still has the minerals and hot pepper sauce. The herbal note grows. A slight burnt note around the edges. Lemons, minerals, herbal bitterness and salt it the finish, which also has that subtle burnt thing.

Well, it's my second favorite Hazelburn this week. My take on this bottling sits somewhere between Jordan's and MAO's. It's far from perfect whisky, but the nose is very good with its fruit and botanicals. The palate is a bit narrow. Either water doesn't open it up, or I needed to add more water. I'd definitely drink this whisky again, but another eight years in what was clearly not an overactive cask might have resulted in something very fun. If you missed out on this release, like I did, don't worry. Just go for the regular 10yo.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 82