...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Blind Tastings! A mystery sweetie

It's about that time for me to embarrass myself (more than usual), with some blind tasting results. Some whisky friends provided me with mystery samples, and this seemed like a good time to catch up on 'em. So here's a week of blind tasting results. Take comfort in knowing I guessed none of these correctly.

First off, is a mystery sample from Dr. Springbank:

Nose - Big rich bourbon cask action. Vanilla bean and salted caramels. Limes and minerals. Toffee and moss. A hint of IPA.
Palate - Rich oak, but not new oak. Vanilla bean and caramel sauce, again. Ginger beer, limes, nectarines and grapefruit.
Finish - Vanilla, pepper, lemon and ginger. Sweet but not too sweet.

Arran, 18 to 21 years old, single first fill bourbon cask, low 50s abv.

Ready for this?

I found nothing sherry-cask-related when I tried this sweetie blindly, instead it reminded me of a couple Arrans I've tried that had sat in their single bourbon barrels maybe a year too long, but were still good drinkin'. Even after the whisky's identity was revealed, I had to strain to find something that sort of resembled a sherry cask. And I found nothing before or after that called out "HP". Blind or not, I can't find the damned vikings.

GRADE RANGE: B (84-86)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ardbeg 23 year old (Twenty Something series)

Some overactive casks prevented the 22yo from ascending to greatness, thankfully the super 21yo avoided that issue and provided old-fashioned thrills. The 22 was distilled in 1996 and the 21 in 1994-1995. This 23 was from 1993-1994. Unlike the 21 and 22, the 23 has some sherry casks in the mix. And I haven't seen an outturn number for it. No matter what, it's a joy to have the opportunity to drink 23 year old Ardbeg. I think I've had Ardbeg older than this only a handful of times, and only twice in my own home. Engage.

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks and oloroso sherry casks
Age: minimum 23 years
Bottling year: 2017
Alcohol by Volume: 46.3%
(from a bottle split)

It has the fruitiest nose of the trio, with nectarines and plums. Wet old books, elephant manure, steel wool and dust float in the midground. Toasted oak spice, almond extract and pound cake linger in the background. The palate's smoke and fruit arrive together: kiln, cherries, dried apricots, and fresh peaches. My favorite part — dunnage, black walnuts and Hampden-style smoky olives — appears after 30 minutes. A small dose of tannin and newspaper (paper more than print) shows up after 45 minutes. There's a mix of oceanic and leafy peat in the finish. Bits of dunnage, newspaper, anise and fresh ginger. Just a little bit of peppery tannin.

The loudest of the three Allied Ardbegs, and also the oldest-feeling (despite the age proximity), the 23 was bottled just before the oak broke. I love the nose and palate, but I do think a glass of this stuff needs to be consumed within 45 minutes. (That may sound silly to some folks, but consider the whisky's rarity and price.) The oloroso casks are present but reserved, a good thing in this instance. And as with all the Allied Ardbegs I've ever had, the peat is much subtler and nuanced than that of LVMH's Ardbeg, leaving space for every other element to arrive.

This tasting has left me much less motivated to ever review another LVMH Ardbeg. I may do a fun little comparison someday, but otherwise I'll review my remaining Allied samples in the next year or two, then that will be that for Ardbeg.

Availability - Can still be found in the primary market
Pricing - £430 w/VAT (original price), £450-£700 now
Rating - 90

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Ardbeg 22 year old 1996 (Twenty Something series)

Like the Twenty One, this 22 year old was aged solely in bourbon casks. But this one has a 1996 vintage which means it came from the very end of the Allied era, and it had a smaller outturn than the 21. I tasted these three whiskies together, and I am happy to report the 21 was wonderful. How about the 22?

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks
Age: minimum 22 years (1996-2018)
Outturn: 2400 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 46.4%
(from a bottle split)

The quiet nose takes a bit of cajoling to awaken. It has that almost peaceful balance of ocean and smoke that the great Ardmores possess (yes, Ardmore). Earth, ground mustard seed, cucumber skin, cut grass and newspaper print. Small notes of angel food cake and pear torte in the background. The palate begins like a lighter version of the 21. More basement than farm. More fruits, but also more tannins. Almonds, walnuts, lime juice, lychee and calvados. But the tannins move in after 30 minutes pushing almost everything else out. The finish holds notes of almond cookies, salted caramels, mild smoke, lychee and very old oak. More moldy staves with time.

I'll bet there were some gorgeous casks in here. But there were also at least a few that were already past their prime. Perhaps they were used to increase the outturn and/or this offered a better return than sinking 22 year casks in other Ardbeg products. The oak doesn't kill the whisky but prevents it from reaching the heights of the Twenty One. Also, the nose was also oddly quiet compared to the other two Ardbegs. This was the last of the short-lived "Twenty Something" series, so perhaps this was it for the 1996 casks? (Though there's a 25 year old on the way, it's going to be from 1995 or earlier.) Though this is very good whisky, it could have been a stunner.

Availability - Getting scarce
Pricing - £440 w/VAT (original price), £500-£700 now
Rating - 87

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ardbeg Twenty One

Thinking they were made with the oldest expressions of LVMH-era Ardbeg, I made sure to get in on a bottle split of the 21, 22 and 23 year old. It wasn't until after they were in my possession that I realized these whiskies were distilled by Allied! Yay!

Terrible Metaphor Time: Star Wars and Ardbeg. Allied Ardbeg is the original trilogy and LVMH is the sequel trilogy. Fans can say about the latter Ardbeg, "Hey that one part was good" and "Remember that time..." and "That was kind of funny", but when compared as a whole with the former Ardbeg, the newer stuff doesn't hold up well and has occasionally been embarrassing. The current generation of fans will experience LVMH Ardbeg first, most often, or completely without perspective. And that's where the comparison falls apart because I can always fire up Empire Strikes Back, old Ardbeg not so much. Also the prequels never happened.

Twenty One was released in 2016. Though I don't think the label offers a vintage, the single malt was birthed from 1994 or 1995 (math!) when the distillery was squeaking out occasional batches. The 10 year old distilled during that time period was great. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with more age. On all of us.

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks
Age: minimum 21 years
Bottling year: 2016
Outturn: 8268 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
(from a bottle split)

Steel wool, coal, bits of cinnamon and anise, and cold kiln ash register first in the nose, then never relent. Hot asphalt, hot engine and manure. Old book and ocean notes arise after 45 minutes. The palate's earth, fruit and farm arrive in unison. Cinnamon cake and a puff of pipe smoke, then hints of mothballs, old books and industrial oils. It finishes with cinnamon cake, earth, stones and lemons. Peaches, industrial oils and mothballs.

"Lovely. It's been a really long time since I've had peated whisky like this," say my written notes. So engaged by the whisky, I forgot to take notes for at least half the sips. To be honest, I didn't expect this level of quality. It's not that I had doubts about Ardbeg from this era, rather I've been conditioned to set my expectations low when seeing a contemporary Ardbeg label. Ardbeg Twenty One is so good (and the secondary market so bats) that I must say its original price was not unreasonable. Should not this be something to which Ardbeg aspires? As opposed to Blaaack?

Availability - A few bottles remain in the primary market, a lot more in the secondary market
Pricing - £310 w/VAT (original price), £400-£700 now
Rating - 92 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ardbeg Blaaack Committee Release

The annual clamor continues for Ardbeg's Special Releases and I am baffled. But then again a large quantity of humans rushed out to witness each Transformers sequel and spinoff. And the New Housewives series continues to exist. And the Flip or Flop franchise. And what's the deal with indoor plumbing?

Now, about the whisky. It's called Blaack and there's a picture of a sheep on the front. There are two official reasons for this. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee, the whiskymakers elected to finish their whisky in (of course) New Zealand pinot noir casks, and there are more sheep than people in that fine country. Secondly, Ardbeg claims its fanbase are the black sheep of whisky fandom.

The latter is absolute nonsense. To paraphrase Han Solo, "That's not how 'black sheep' works." The Ardbeg fanbase is a massive moneyed contingent, which is why these multimillion-dollar releases continue to exist. But making a majority feel like a very special minority is the hot shit these days, so cheers.

The former is a thing.

If you're keeping score:
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 - Somewhat groovy.
Ardbeg Drum - Shucks I missed this one.
Ardbeg Blaaack - ...

Distillery: Ardbeg
Ownership: Glenmorangie Plc (owned by LVMH)
Region: Islay
Product: Blaaack
Age: NAS
Maturation: something something something New Zealand pinot noir casks
Limited bottling: of some sort
Bottling year: 2020
Alcohol by Volume: 50.7%
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No
(thank you to Dr. Springbank for the sample)

At first the nose shows an odd mix of Vegemite, burnt raisins, nuts and roots, but after 15 minutes it opens up, bringing in notes of lime candy, honey, maple syrup and kiln. The palate starts even more awkwardly, smushing together very sweet and very herbal characteristics. This was a very sweet pinot noir. There's bitter smoke, blackberry jam, halvah, pepper and simple syrup. It finishes peppery, bitter, ashy and sweet. Reads a lot like Pedro Ximénez.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 3mL of water per 30mL whisky
Raspberries, smoke, orange peel on the nose, backed by hints of mint and ginger. The palate has become bitterer, nuttier, along with ginger, white chocolate and Robotussin. It finishes with smoke, nuts, ginger and sour cherries.

Ardbeg released the jumbled mashup Perpetuum to celebrate the distillery's 200th birthday. They released this Murray McDavid-ism for the committee's 20th anniversary. They released Galileo, period. Aside from the absence of logic involved, these releases make one wonder if there has been any experiment Ardbeg has not sent to the market. I'm going to say no.

Now, about the whisky. Lumsden and Co. have created a really fun nose on this. It's unlike anything I've sniffed before. But the palate, as with Grooves (and most of the special releases, to honest), is a scattered clashing mess that somehow worsens with water. I've had friends' infinity bottles that presented better composed palates. Blaaack's nose is so enjoyable that one can be willing to forgive its other parts but only to a point. Whisky is for drinking.

Availability - It's still around as of the date this post was written
Pricing - $150-$400 (not a typo)
Rating - 80 (pulled up by its nose)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Mathilda Malt: Littlemill 22 year old 1990 Berry Brothers & Rudd (the final round)

I am a troll in a house full of luminous fairies. I am a walking I Don't Know What I'm Doing meme. I am very grateful and very confused. This world of parenting and beautiful girls remains mysterious, and Queen Enigma turns six years old today.

She feels seven things at once, releasing a stream of sentences each one contradicting the previous, refusing the things she loves only to beg for them back. Her artistic sensibility far exceeds mine already. She struggled with Disney's Alice in Wonderland because Alice is such a passive protagonist. Resolutely her own person, she would still fuse into her mother at every moment if she could. She wants to be thrice her age and half her age. She wants to travel the world and always stay home. She is always brave and nervous. Or at least braver than I am. I want her to grow up to be stronger than her father, to make better choices and never relinquish her passions. Sometimes I want Mathilda to be older right now so she can tell me everything will be alright and I would believe her and only her. But she's six. And watches Frozen 2 every week.

Today's Littlemill was opened on her third birthday. Since then I've only brought it out during this one week of the year, or when I'm hosting whisky friends. I could let this bottle stretch out to the next birthday, but I won't. It's time to enjoy it and move on.

And no, I won't be comparing the whisky to her. I no longer compare whisky to women, and if you still do you may want to consider your relationship to both. My daughters teach me stuff.

Former Owner: Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Ltd (proto-Loch Lomond Distillery Co.)
Independent Bottler: Berry Bros. & Rudd
Region: Lowlands (close to the Highlands border)
Age: 22 years (1990-2013)
Maturation: American oak?
Cask number17
Alcohol by Volume: 54.3%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(from the bottle half of my bottle)

Barley roars forward in the nose with citronella, apricots and Bartlett pears in the midground. Then there are freshly roasted nuts and hints of creamy confections. It's floral but never too pretty due to the weight of the barley spirit. There's plenty of heat in the palate, but it also holds onto the nose's fruits, also adding yellow cherries, tart blackberries and zippy yuzu. Salted caramels float to the surface after 45 minutes. It finishes as fiercely as the palate starts, but adds some sweetness. There's plum wine, salted caramels, almond extract and brisk tart citrus.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 1 tsp water per 30mL whisky
The nose feels fuller, more fragrant, more floral. Salty ocean air, white peaches and a lemon tart. The palate becomes puckeringly tart, lots of limes and grapefruits. Hints flowers and minerals, a pinch of sugar. Tart citrus and berries lead the finish. Not much sweetness. Jasmine and stones.

The birthday girl continues to build a remarkable palate. She scarfed down plain greek yogurt before she turned two, and now she insists on eating limes. "They're fruit." The tartness in this whisky's diluted finish almost stripped my tastebuds. It's a heck of a thing and she'd enjoy the sensory experience, except this is whisky. I'm sipping some of the whisky again, from a tumbler instead of a glencairn, but even this wide glass doesn't soften the bite.

Apparently this Littlemill mellowed out during its second and third rounds, but has since toughened up. It's not even a casual drinker at 46%abv. Still all its fruits could go well with this spring weather. I'll drop it to 43 or 40 percent just to find its best spot. And there's a lot of it left.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - $140 back in January 2015
Rating - 87