...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Port Ellen 14 year old 1983 vs Caol Ila 7 year old 1989, a Signatory Taste Off

(Please note: the fill levels for all six of the following Signatory minis were in the neck.
Because I do tastings at night and prefer to photograph during the AM for daylight purposes,
what you often see in my photos is what remains of the samples/minis/etc. from the night before.)

Four years ago, blogger Oliver Klimek said "Who needs Brora and Port Ellen when we have Clynelish and Caol Ila!"  In less than a year after this post well-aged single cask Caol Ila prices doubled or tripled.  That of course had nothing to do with the fact that all long-matured whisky prices were exploding at that point time (and continue to).  Instead, I think we can all agree that it's Oliver's fault.  Gee whiz, thanks, Oliver.

In 1983, DCL (proto-Diageo) closed the old Port Ellen distillery, but kept the larger, more modern Caol Ila distillery open.  Thirty years later Port Ellen has become the Karuizawa or Stitzel-Weller of the Scotch whisky industry.  Or have Karuizawa and Stitzel-Weller become the Port Ellens of the Japanese and American whisky industries?  More to the point, Port Ellen bottlings were highly sought after and are super duper duper duper expensive.  Notice the change in verb tense there: were/are.  No one except for those with the bankroll to buy a three thousand dollar whisky bottle actually chase any of the Port Ellen bottlings at this point in time.  Meanwhile, Caol Ila keeps on beep-boop-beeping its software-run production along, often cranking out some very good stuff.  And though the independent bottlings of older Caol Ila are no longer affordable to the majority of whisky fans, those whiskies can be had for less than the price of one's mortgage.  What a bargain!

So I found myself with one Caol Ila, distilled back in the '80s and younger than its official Diageo bottlings, and one Port Ellen, also from the '80s and at half the age of anything Diageo or the indies can now bottle.  With their straw color they both appeared to have been aged in refill casks, thus possibly very spirit-forward.  Clearly the responsible thing to do was to drink them side by side.

CAOL ILA 7yo 1989 Signatory
Cask #4516
Nov. 29, 1989 - May 1997

The nose starts out with tar, roses, celery, and sheep(!), followed by a solid menthol medicinal note.  Then band-aids and a hint of mothballs.  And the PVC-loaded baseball card sheets of my youth.  The menthol shows up in the sharp and mineral palate as well.  A good note of bonfire-scorched marshmallows lightens things up.  A few Milk Duds too.  The peat grows darker with time, its smoke getting heavier as it goes.  Suddenly a BIG umami note appears and stays the course.  The hum of peat runs through the finish.  Sea salt, green bell peppers, and a tangy edge.  Some graham crackers -- we have the whole s'mores here!  A good length to it considering the age and abv.

It's in good shape at this strength, but I'll add a little bit of water.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
All it took was a few drops to transform the nose.  Grapefruits, cherries, roses, peat smoked molasses candy (Is that thing? Please be a thing.), and candy canes.  Umami takes front seat in the palate, reminding me of toasted sesame seeds and the great toasted seaweed I had in Japan.  Smaller notes of cane sugar and bitter cocoa add complexity.  The finish is loaded with umami as well, along with a hint of sweetness, and a nice spicy sparkle.

While this may not work for every palate, it REALLY worked for mine.  It was young without being harsh, had some fascinating complexity, and seemed nearly oak free.  More importantly, it smelled and tasted great.  I wish I could say that the current super young Caol Ilas I've tried recently were at least half as good as this.  But they weren't.  I would also like to point out that all of the quality here is delivered via a 43%abv.  Though I thought I could yell "First!" for a review on this cask, Serge reviewed it twice (here and here), liking it considerably less than I, and finding different notes to it.  Though his buddy Davin (Mr. Canada?) gave it an 87, so listen to Davin on this one.

Availability - ?
Pricing - ?
Rating - 88

PORT ELLEN 14yo 1983 Signatory
Cask #266
Feb. 9, 1983 - July 1997

The nose has a little of the menthol note as well.  Some fresh plums and peaches.  Plaster and something more than vaguely ureic.  The palate has a sweet malty start that quickly fades behind raw, hot, salty spirit.  It's a little woolly and maybe there's a hint of bacon.  It has a very bland peat character, but even that collapses behind a violent bitter note.  Ah, the roasted marshmallows make a cameo in the finish.  Otherwise it's peppery ocean water, ashy peat, and a lot of bitterness.

Perhaps it needs water?

WITH WATER (~35%abv)
Well, the nose is a little fruitier.  Maybe a bit of caramel and some peat.  But, nope.  Same quantity of pee.  Luckily it all fades out relatively quickly.   The palate is short on peat, which is a shame because the rest is mostly generic sweetness, bitterness, rough graininess, and a bit of cardboard.  The finish is similar to the neat finish, though plainer.

No, it didn't need water.  It needed to be sent to blenders.  Again, I thought I'd be the first to review this one, but nooooope, SV reviewed it too.  He thought it was an utter turd (my words, not his).  My sentiments are close to his, but I don't think it's a complete fail.  It's just kinda bleh.  Only once one gets over the shock of having a significantly subpar Port Ellen, can one see it's not a tragedy.  It's just a mediocre whisky.  Hey, I might be the blender it needed.

Availability - ?
Pricing - ?
Rating - 71

This was not a disappointment thanks to the happy surprise that was the Caol Ila.  My faith in that distillery's techno-spirit strengthens every year.  In this instance, though its whisky was half the age of the more famous Islay's, the Caol Ila was rounder and richer, and even swam better.

One can't assume that because the words Port Ellen appear on a bottle's label the whisky inside will be of considerable quality.  That's a little message to those of you scouring auctions for lesser known PE bottlings.  Perhaps some dusty Caol Ilas might bring the joy you're looking for, instead.  At least they'll be cheaper.

On Monday, the old Signatories continue...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Rest of the Birthday Booze

I am consuming these one by one.  Except when I drank the two Islays side by side.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's review...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Birthday Booze: Benromach 1978-1997 Scott's Selection (and the bottle's story)

Wandering the streets of Manhattan's ***er **st Side on a muggy, sporadically rainy August 2013 afternoon, I came upon a modest wee liquor store.  I had not considered dusty hunting while in the big city because I'd figured all the NY obsessives had cleaned out the shops years before.  I went into this little store to check on how gory their prices were and to sniff disapprovingly on my way out.  There were rows of wine bottles on one wall and stacks of the usual big seller liquors on another.  And then, in the corner...... I picture myself doing a cartoony triple take....... there were a half dozen different 1970s Scott's Selection bottles.  Just sitting there in plain site.  And at what may have been their original prices.  Amongst these was a Benrinnes 1979 ($99.99), Balmenach 1979 ($79.99), Benromach 1978 ($89.99), and Glenlivet 1971 ($149.99).  Had this been 2016, I would have bought the Glenlivet and floated right out of there knowing it's a $400-$600 bottle and my lone opportunity to ever buy an early '70s Glenlivet.  But it was 2013 and I was thriftier (and saner) then.  I'd rarely bought a bottle over $100 at that point and was unsure how much I could afford at that moment.  I liked Benromach enough and was curious to know what its DCL-era whisky tasted like.  Plus it was an opportunity to buy a 1978 whisky!  So I bought it, guilt-free.

(Side note: I went back to that shop sixteen months later and found, to my dismay, the Glenlivet 1971 gone. The owner even checked in the back to see if he had more. But I did wind up splitting a bottle of the Benrinnes 1979 with Josh Feldman.)

When I finished my previous 1978 spirit (a good Calvados) last year, I pondered which '78 I'd open next.  There really aren't many of them left in the cabinet thanks to the bloating prices of aged spirits.  I went with the Benromach because what the hell.  And as a change of pace, I opened it long before my birthday at an event marking my Southern California departure.  Did the cork shatter upon opening?  Not quite.  The plastic top simply separated from the cork with the least amount of pressure applied to it.  Luckily I performed successful surgery on the spot, extracting the cork without any crumbs falling into the whisky.

I wound up drinking less than a quarter of this whisky after sharing it around for a few months, thus there won't be any follow up posts on it or comparisons between bottle fill levels.  For the completists out there, I set aside my 2oz sample one week after opening it, after the event, when the level was just below the middle.  Thank you for sticking around for this fascinating story.  Here's the review.

Distillery: Benromach
Ownership then: DCL (proto-Diageo)
Ownership now: Gordon & MacPhail
Bottler: Scott's Selection (R.I.P.)

Age: 19-ish years (1984-2004)
Maturation: "in Oakwood casks" (gee, thanks)
Region: Speyside, on the western edge
Alcohol by Volume: 49.8%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

Its color is light yellow gold.  Its nose starts with lemons and limes, a hint of peach, and a soft maltiness.  Caramel, nougat, and milk chocolate appear after 20 minutes or so.  Then orange peel and Ceylon cinnamon.  There's more heat in the palate than in the nose, but it doesn't overwhelm. There's a nice mild sweetness up front, along with a very oily mouthfeel. Melon, honey, vanilla bean, and a hint of charcoal show up first. Then marzipan, cookie dough, and marshmallow. The finish returns to the fruitiness of the nose: lemons, apples, plums, tart citrus. Then cherry cough syrup and bitter chocolate. Maybe some bourbony vanilla.

Since the ABV is already sub-50, I'll add just a little bit of water:

WITH WATER (~43%abv)
The nose becomes very light.  Eucalyptus, watermelon rind, and black licorice.  Lemon, peach, and pear. Milky chocolate like Nestle or pre-Hershey Cadbury.  Meanwhile it's a dark chocolate in the palate, its lovely bitterness balancing with the dark cherries and almond candies underneath.  It feels darker with the water added, actually.  Some tobacco and dark salted caramel syrup in there too.  The finish gets sweeter and fruitier again.  Hints of melon, lemon, and metal (copper). Definitely some orange candy.

Though this whisky needs some time to air out before it comes to life, I would happily take this over Monday's 37yo Ladyburn.  There is a delicacy to the Benromach, much like a longer-aged whisky, which may or may not have to do with its modest ABV.  But its softness does not detract from the quality of the whole, nor does the wood overwhelm at any point.  It's good with or without water, though I imagine one should be cautious when testing its buoyancy.

One thing I noticed immediately in this Benromach was its total lack of peat.  While I don't know if that's representative of all '70s DCL Benromach, it does separate it from the current moderately peated G&M-produced version.  Rather than it feeling like a rumbling sturdy Highland malt, this '78 whisky registers more like a cuddly Speyside.  Overall it never wows or stuns.  Instead it's a very good reliable style bound to appeal to many single malt fans, if a bottle can still be found.

Availability - ???
Pricing - $??-$???
Rating - 88

Monday, August 22, 2016

Birthday Booze: Rare Ayrshire (Ladyburn) 37 year old 1975 Signatory, cask 3422

Get ready for TWO WEEKS of birthday booze reports here on Diving for Pearls.  95% of my bottle and sample collections are not currently in my possession, though they will be in ten days.  In the meantime, what I do have on hand is a bunch of fun old stuff.  So I'm going to open these samples and see what happens.

For my final whisky review at age 37, I'm reviewing a 37 year old single malt today.  It's my first (and probably last) whisky from Ladyburn, a distillery that sounds like an unfortunate shower shaving accident.  Ladyburn had a short life.  It was sort of a nine-year experiment (1966-1975) to produce single malt at the site connected to the large grain whisky distillery, Girvan, in Ayrshire.  William Grant & Sons set up two pairs of pot stills, tried some continuous mashing, then said f**k it after less than a decade.  The idea was to set up a one-stop whisky production shop for their successful Grant's blended whisky brand.  Three decades after Ladyburn's demolition, the company finally did build the facility of their dreams, Alisa Bay, right next to Girvan.  And they paid their respects to Ladyburn's single malt by releasing it in watered-down form, blended with grain whisky and Inverleven via their Ghosted Reserve products.

Luckily, Signatory has (or had) 20+ casks of Ladyburn in their warehouses and has been releasing them at cask strength over the past few years.  I previously had this particular cask at two different events (the LASC Dead Distilleries Night 2014 and the grandiose Calabasas event this past May) and enjoyed the whisky very much both times.  (This sample comes from the LASC event, thus I paid for it.)  Since both events took place outdoors, I was sure I'd have a better take on this single malt once I could focus on it under controlled conditions.  I had anticipated this would be a 90+ point whisky.

Distillery: Ladyburn
Ownership: William Grant & Sons
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 37 years (October 24, 1975 - September 6, 2013)
Maturation: former bourbon barrel
Cask#: 3422
Bottle count: 111 of 162
Alcohol by Volume: 48.5%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
Selected by: Stoller Wine & Spirits

Its color is light gold, which is nice to see on an oldie.  The pretty but sometimes faint nose leads with clementines and clover honey.  Lychee candy and apricot preserves.  A light farmy note shows up here and there.  After 20 minutes, a bubblegum note develops and takes over.  At 30 minutes, notes of orange oil, cinnamon rolls, and barrel char ease in.  The palate begins vaguely tangy and sweet, with tropical and citrus fruit notes.  Then vanilla bean and cinnamon.  Hessian, carpet, and cayenne pepper.  The sweetness grows and feels distinctly sugary and malty.  Around the 30 minute mark, a big woody bitterness rolls into the forefront.  It finishes with the hessian and cinnamon.  Vanilla and sweet maltiness.  A slight (malt) vinegar thing going on.  The woody bitterness soaks the left side of the tongue and black pepper hits the back of the throat.

With the very pleasant (but sometimes very quiet) nose, the whisky set me up to think I was going to be writing paragraphs about the wonderfulness of subtlety.  But while the palate was okay at first, it was also indistinct and generically Speyside-with-a-little-Lowlands.  The late arriving woody bitterness suggests a little too much time in the barrel.  And the finish leaned a little too heavily on the bung cloth and vinegar notes.

In the environment of an outdoors tasting wherein small pours of whisky hit the glass every ten to fifteen minutes, this whisky works.  It smells very nice and it tastes sweet and fruity for a little while.  But if one bought a bottle for oneself, I don't think the whisky holds up, especially if one wants to take one's time with an extinct $350 single malt.  Binny's may have a few of these bottles left, but there's a reason they still have them after more than two years on the shelf.

Availability - Binny's, maybe
Pricing - $350
Rating - 83

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Whisky Fail! Teaninich 10 year old 1998 Prime Malt

Yep, a Saturday post!

Teaninich (which I keep misspelling) is now one of Diageo's monstrous malt-for-blends-only distilleries.  When Diageo announced its 2012 dreams of completing a £1billion distillery expansion, one of the main projects was a new £50 million distillery at the Teaninich site.  Two years later Diageo shelved majority of their big plans, but (according to Malt Whisky Yearbook 2016) they did wind up adding six new stills to Teaninich, thus doubling its production capacity.  So now it distills nearly 10 million liters of alcohol per year.  Which is a lot.  Yet, other than the old 10yo Flora & Fauna bottling, there still isn't an official single malt.  There aren't even any Special Releases of the stuff.

So, once again, it's up to the indies to reveal a distillery's secrets.  Today's subject, a Prime Malt release from Gordon Bonding (which had a connection with Duncan Taylor once upon a time) is one such indie bottling, and one of the rare Teaninichs to be sold in the US.  I enjoyed the whisky when Florin shared his bottle with me three years ago.  I also poured a sample to take home and review.  Again, that was three years ago.  I had planned on making this the first review of this week's "The Other Ts", but something went wrong.

Distillery: Teaninich
Ownership: Diageo
Region: North Highlands
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Age: minimum 10 years
Distillation year: 1998
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfiltered? ???
Caramel Colored? Probably not

The color is light amber.  Though it's also slightly opaque thanks to some cloudiness.  It has a nice pilsner nose, free of oak.  In fact, it's very beer-y (minus any hops).  A little bit of lemon zest.  Dandelion flowers.  Some slight metal and dusty notes.  At first sip, the palate is full of hay, vanilla, and roasted coffee beans.  Second sip, whisky wash.  Third sip, chlorophyll (leaves and lettuces).  Fourth sip, capital 'A' Acrid.  Broccoli.  No fifth sip because I don't like where this is heading.  It finishes very vegetal.  Peas, green beans, kale, and broccoli.  And metal.

For three years this whisky sat half empty in a sample bottle, where it died.  Totally bummed about this.  The nose is probably pretty close to the original thing.  But I can tell you with confidence my sample's palate and finish were ruined.

Sometimes samples go wrong, and rather than just tossing aside this experience I thought I'd share it with you.  So if you have a sample collection, look through your bottles and make sure they're more than half full lest oxygen wreak havoc on your little lovelies.  This has been a public service announcement.

Availability - A few bottles remain on random shelves throughout the US
Pricing - Less than $40, usually
Rating - Sample fail!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Other Ts: Tamnavulin-Glenlivet 1967 square bottle (Italian import, mid '80s bottling?)

Tamnavulin distillery has risen from the dead like a zombie, or Jesus, or Lazarus, or Cthulhu.  A regular Zombie Cthulhu L. Christ it is.  It was built 50 years ago by the folks who also owned Invergordon distillery, right in a glen on the River Livet (much like its neighbor Glenlivet).  For a while, before companies raised a fuss, its single malts were labeled Tamnavulin-Glenlivet.  In 1993 it was purchased by Whyte & Mackay, who then closed it in 1995.  Thankfully, they did not go the Full Diageo by plowing the structure, salting the earth, and selling it all to a condo development concern.  Instead, W&M were nice enough to keep the parts in the building for some point in the future.  Optimists!  2007 was that future point.  That January they began refurbishing the place (including eventually replacing the wash stills), in May the company was bought by United Spirits, and in August they started distilling again.  They were at full production capacity by 2011.  A few years later the Whtye & Mackay branch of United Spirits was sold to Emperador Incorporated.

I haven't heard any word about them releasing an official Tamnavulin single malt.  (If you have read differently and have a good link to the news, let us know in the comment section below.)  In the meantime, most of the malt goes into the Whyte & Mackay blends.  The old owners did release a number of official bottlings during previous decades.  The one I'm reviewing today was distilled during Tamnavulin's second year.  There isn't much info online about this bottling aside from TWE's page of a sold out dusty bottle.  My sample comes from a LA Scotch Club event last year.  I actually missed the event and bought the samples instead.  Cool story bro.

Distillery: Tamnavulin
Ownership then: Invergordon Distillers Ltd.
Ownership now: Emperador Inc.
Region: Speyside (Livet)
Type: Single Malt
Distilled: 1967
Age: probably between 17 and 22 years old
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Its color is a medium gold.  Lovely bold old damp oak notes lead the way in the nose.  Then lemons.  No, lemon sorbetto!  My notes list "butterscotch" twice, so I guess there's butterscotch too.  Then honeydew and a tiny bit of tropical punch.  Lavender flowers, peat(?), and some OBE-like metallics.  The palate starts off earthy and chalky with a little bit of peat.  As it develops, it intensifies.  A sweet creaminess meets the smoky note, feeling like smoked almonds and cream puffs.  There's malt and also a little bit of IPA-like bitterness.  Musty barrel notes linger throughout.  A nice balance of soft sweet, tart, and bitter notes in the finish meets whispers of smoke and malt.  It's simple but of a decent length.

Ever since I started to find musty notes in old whiskies, I've wondered about the source of those smells and flavors.  Producers wouldn't actually use moldy casks, right?  Or was this part of old bottle effect?  Then, last month, while standing in one of Springbank's gorgeous old dunnage warehouses, with their cold earth floors and stone walls covered in splashes of white mold, I realized I may have been standing amidst the source of one of my favorite whisky characteristics.  Since dunnage storage was utilized by everyone before efficiency and technology took over, perhaps maturing whisky changed in a small way, losing one more element.  Or maybe it's all just in my imagination.

Also, this whisky was great.  Much more vibrant than I'd expected, it had fruit and flowers without being overly fruity or floral.  Nor did the smoke and earth overwhelm.  It was malty and balanced.  Man, I wish I had more.  Many thanks to whomever stored this bottle well for three decades.  I hope other bottles, somewhere out there, will be opened and enjoyed.

Availability - Happy Hunting!
Pricing - $???
Rating - 90

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Other Ts: Tamdhu 8 year old 2005 Signatory cask #346

Tamdhu isn't exactly one of the unknown T distilleries, in fact it has a pretty large production capacity of 4 million liters of alcohol, but the vast majority of its output has been dumped into White Horse, VAT 69, Famous Grouse, and Cutty Sark.  While it was under Highland Distillers Company / The Edrington Group it lived in the shadows of its stable mates Macallan and Highland Park.  That ownership even mothballed the distillery thrice.  It was during its third closure that Tamdhu was sold to Ian Macleod Distillers in 2011.  Since then, Macleod has been actively pushing the Tamdhu single malt, first in a 10 year old form with a fancy bottle (which looks like the offspring of a St. Germain bottle and a Coca Cola bottle), then as an NAS Batch Strength bottling.

This particular Tamdhu was released by independent bottler Signatory in the United States a couple years ago.  They, along with a few other indies, have been putting young sherry cask Tamdhus on the market recently.  I've been wondering why these companies are in such a hurry to bottle these babies.  Let's see what the story is with this one.

Distillery: Tamdhu
Ownership: Ian MacLeod Distillers
Region: Central Speyside
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 8 years (Jan 27, 2005 - August 22, 2013)
Maturation: first fill ex-sherry butt
Cask#: 346
Bottle count: 615
Alcohol by Volume: 60.6%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
This sample arrives courtesy of a sample swap with Chemistry of the Cocktail.  Thanks, Jordan!

Its color is dark gold.  The nose has one of the boldest fresh-brewed coffee notes I've ever sniffed in a whisky.  Then there's beef brisket, prunes, and dried currants.  It ends with bread pudding and cinnamon raisin bread.  Now that's a meal to fill the tummy.  The big ABV does sing out a bit in the palate numbing the tongue a little, but not too bad considering it's mostly poison. 💀  But tasty poison! 😸  Sorry, where was I? It starts with sea water, hazelnuts, and burlap.  Then salted caramel ice cream and baking spices.  It finishes sweetly and salty, with hazelnut liqueur and roasted almonds.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
In the nose, the coffee becomes toffee.  Newly split vanilla bean.  Salty beach air and a hint of fresh donuts.  The bread pudding note moves to the palate, topped with raisins.  There's also that sea water note, along with cayenne pepper.  A late note of gingerbread moves forward.  It finishes all gingery gingerbread and spicy cashews (whatever recipe my wife makes).

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
The nose gets more syrupy and oloroso-y.  There's a hint of the coffee, then vanilla bean and cherry pie.  Lots of ginger in the palate now.  Then vanilla, caramel, marzipan, cayenne pepper, and salt.  It finishes with fresh ginger, salt, and cookie dough.

This is anything but a shy whisky.  The nose, as you may gather from my notes, is a delight.  The palate is good too, but needs some water to push back the ethyl and youth.  While the flavors in the finish are nice, I wish they'd stuck around longer.  But for an 8 year old sherry butt, this is quite a whisky.  I can see why they'd bottle it now, firstly to please an audience looking for young yooge whiskies, but also because this sort of active cask can become too oaky/winey quickly.  I still liked it a lot, and would be happy to recommend it if you've had enough of subtlety already and can find the bottle for whatever price you deem reasonable.

(For a pair of differing opinions on this whisky see these two Reddit reviews here and here.)

Availability - it was US release in early 2014, but it may be difficult to find now
Pricing - $???
Rating - 87