...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Whisky #501: Highland Park 18 year old

After a review of a whisky that probably can't be had here's a whisky that probably can be had! Yes, there are a dozen of the classics that I need to review or re-review someday.  But I have this one right on hand.  And it's good.

Highland Park 18 aka The Good All 'Rounder aka F. Paul Pacult's Honeybaby aka Damn, Remember When This Cost Only $XX!  Well, I indeed found a bottle at its three-years-ago price and brought it to the tasting I led for the OC Scotch Club last week.

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: rumored to be 45% first fill sherry and 55% refill sherry casks, mostly European oak
Age: minimum 18 years
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfilltered? Probably.
Colored? Possibly not, according to the man in the fedora
Bottle code: see below, may be a 2010 bottling

Tasting Notes:


Color -- Rosy gold

Nose -- It starts out with orange sherbet, roses, and hints of peach candy.  While there's definitely sherry the mix, it isn't grapey sugary, rather it's something drier and mellow.  Then toasted walnuts and a peppery peat.  After some time, notes of smoky prunes and salted caramel ice cream come out.

Palate -- Lightly sweet and malty.  Much more European oak / Oloroso sherry showing through.  Dried berries and grape juice.  Lots of milk chocolate and toffee.  Dried apricots and a gentle herbal bitterness.  Peat is in the waaaaaaay back.  Yeah it's "heathery" if heather was smothered in toffee.

Finish -- Hints of smoke and malt mixed with larger notes of dried berries and milk chocolate.  A little bit of a peppery zing.  A burst of sherry arrives retronasally.

WITH WATER (~40%abv):

Nose -- All of the neat notes merge together and get a little blurry, though the sherry feels louder.  More tobacco, less fruit.

Palate -- A little more herbal and bitter, in a good way.  Less sweetness.  Dried cherries and a hint of sherry.  The texture goes watery, though.

Finish -- Very dry sherry now, along with a hint of wasabi.  Some salt and dried grass.

Verdict:  Much better when neat.


Somehow I keep forgetting how very reliable HP's age-stated whiskies always are.  The 12, 15, and 18 are unerringly solid, each with their character.  The 18yo is the most graceful of the trio and the most luxurious feeling in nature.  The sherry element is good, but much more restrained and a better team player than in Macallan (HP's Edrington mate).  There's peat, but it's a quiet thing.  Meanwhile, the whisky is loaded with well-matured malt notes.

Would I like this at 46%abv and unfiltered?  Of course.  It seems to hit a wall at 43%abv, and begins to crumble at 40%.  But since HP bottles many of their products at 40%abv in Europe, I guess we should be glad they didn't do so with this one.

Once upon a time, this whisky was a no-doubter.  But then economics had to come along and spoil the fun.  In 2007, the average US price was $75.  As of today, it's around $135.  That's an 80% increase (versus 15% inflation) in eight years and that's a chasm many of its fans (including this one) hesitate to leap.  Still, considering that Macallan 18 is now $235, HP18 almost looks like a bargain.  But it's not.  I'd still buy it over Mac 18 if they were the same price, and I happily recommend it over Mac 18 any day to anyone who has that kind of walkaround money.  And if you can find it for under $100, that's even better.

Availability - Most liquor specialists and even the occasional corner liquor
Pricing - $100-$150
Availability - 89

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Whisky #500: Abraham Bowman Virginia Rye (exclusive to The Party Source, barrel #2)

And some of you are going, "Huh?"

Okay, maybe some backstory?  I'll try to keep it brief.

Abraham Bowman is a whiskey brand owned by A. Smith Bowman, which is in turn owned by Sazerac.  A. Smith Bowman does have its own distillery in Virginia and (according to Sku) rather than distilling grain mash, they distill spirit that has already been distilled by Buffalo Trace.  In 2011, they released three single barrel ryes exclusively through The Party Source in Kentucky.  For these whiskies, Bowman took Thomas H. Handy rye spirit (sources here and here) and re-distilled it.  They were all left to matured longer than Buffalo Trace's Handy releases -- somewhere around 10 years -- and all have very high ABVs.

In 2012, Florin (a prince) poured a glass of barrel #2 for me.  It was the best American whiskey I'd ever had.  Over the years it has kept that title.  But I wondered recently, had I begun to inflate this memory?  I've had a lot of American whiskey since then.  And other people (see the links above and also LAWS) raved about barrel #1, but no one to my knowledge had reviewed barrel #2.  Thankfully, I had a sample of this very rye, which I opened on Mathilda's 18-month birthday.

The important thing to remember is:
Change is goo.
Brand: Abraham Bowman
Company:  A. Smith Bowman
Owner: Sazerac
Type: Straight Rye Whiskey
Final Distillation: March 14, 2001
Bottled: May 12, 2011
Age10 years
MaturationNew American Oak
RegionFredricksburg, Virginia (though originally distilled in Frankfort, Kentucky)
Barrel: 2
Retailer: The Party Source
Alcohol by Volume67.3%
(Sample acquired via a swap with Florin three years ago. Thanks!)

Tasting Notes:

Color -- A red brown, like cherrywood.

Nose -- Enormous wood notes.  Vanilla beans, butter toffee ice cream, pencil shavings, and Hershey's syrup.  Weaving within the oak desserts are mint leaves, cherry candy, Macintosh apple skins, and (maybe) slivovitz.  It also picks up some orange oil notes after a half hour.

Palate -- Not only does it have most of the nose's notes, but it's also loaded with thick gooey rye, salt, limes, and chili oil.  So much toffee.  Almond cookies, vanilla mingling with toasted nuts.  It's also a little malty at times too.  The peppery spice box notes lift off at the 30 minute mark.

Finish -- All night long.  Chili oil and brown sugar.  Oak smoke and toffee.  Then the rye hammer lands and spice fills the face.

More words:

As wonderful as I'd remembered.  You may ask, "Did you try it with water?"  And I may answer, "Nope."  This should be experienced in its full thunderous form.  Very bold but very composed and, well, delicious.  Multiple times during this tasting I discovered I'd gotten lost in reverie.  I can't think of an American whiskey I've tried that can match this rye.

I'm of many minds about this, partially because I am Sybil, and partially because of the utter shitshow that the premium American whiskey marketplace has become.  It would be wonderful if Bowman would produce more of this rye at full strength because people need to try it.  But it would royally suck if they only released it exclusively through a retailer that doesn't ship.  What would suck even more royally is that if they did release more single barrels today then most retailers and all flippers would sell it for 5x its MSRP and no one would actually open a bottle.  So maybe it was best that it was sold four years ago.  Some people actually drank it.  Change is goo?

Availability - None
Pricing - ???
Rating - 94

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thank You!

Tomorrow I will publish my 500th officially graded whisky.  Yes, there have been an additional two dozen whiskies (or so) that I've given only letter grades to.  And yes, there have been fewer than five hundred single malt reports.  But still, 500.  That's a very round number.

This is still my best drawing ever.
These whisky reviews would not exist without you.  My content exists thanks to my friends with whom I do sample swaps.  My content exists thanks to those friends who randomly send me goodies from their collections.  My content exists thanks to local whisky groups and the good people I meet at events.  But most of all, my content exists because I have readers.  Stories do not exist without an audience, so the simple fact that you voluntarily come to my site to read about my ongoing whisky journey means that it exists on a more significant plane than just notes in my eleven whisky notebooks stacked in the corner of my desk.

While I would love to write more deeply considered meditations on the whisky industry (and/or anything other than whisky), being a stay-at-home father has made that more challenging than before.  I don't drink during the day, I don't blog during the day, and I rarely tweet or facebook during the day.  My recreation in the evening is to plop down in my whisky chair -- it's not made of whisky, yet -- with an ounce (or two?) of whisky, put on some jazz, avant-garde, or classical music that hopefully matches the drink and then attempt to document my discoveries on paper.  On the weekends I type up my scribbles, add in the terrible humor, a few photos, and use a random number generator for the final rating.

Next year will bring some changes, all good, some of which I hope to share here.  I have most of my reviews already scheduled for the next four months, though I'm still sorting out the extent to which I'll review non-whisky spirits.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, a full sequel to What Was the Scotch Boom is on the docket for the new year, unless the SWA chickens out and doesn't release their full report.

In the meantime, welcome to the new divingforpearlsblog.com!  Look for Whisky 500 to be published tomorrow, and Whisky 1000 by 2019...

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 31 year old 1984 Cadenhead 20th Anniversary London Special Edition

On the same night that my friend asked me to grade a blind sample of Craigellachie 13, I was given a second blind pour.  That one was awesome.  I was asked to name the distillery.  It was definitely an old whisky, super duper fruity.  I declared it a Speysider, and guessed that it was an old fruity ex-bourbon Longmorn (because I do love them so).  My friend asked, "Do you find any peat in there?"  "Nnnnnnnnnnno," I replied cautiously.  "Yeah, neither do I.  It's a Caol Ila."

I've had long matured peated whiskies whose phenolics go light and floral over time.  But this was the first time I'd had one whose peat totally melted away like this.  A few months later I had the pleasure of sampling it again at Peatin' Meetin' (the whisky gets a brief mention in this week's boozedancing post), and I walked away with my own sample before the bottle was emptied.

Keep in mind this whisky is only sold at Cadenhead's London shop (whose twentieth anniversary this bottling celebrates) and they don't ship outside the UK.  So I guess if you're in Cadenhead's London whisky shop and are googling for a review of this whisky, then here is a review of this whisky.

pic from the official site

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Independent Bottler: Cadenhead's
Range: 20th Anniversary London Special Edition
Age: 31 years old (1984 - May 2015)
Maturation: first fill ex-bourbon barrel (source)
Limited bottling: 168
Alcohol by Volume: 54.3%

Its color is amber, lighter than Tuesday's "Unpeated" 12yo.  The nose starts with fruit, lots of fruit.  Peaches, nectarines, loquats.  Later on there's honeydew.  Strawberry candy and orange blossoms.  Turkish delights.  There's a little bit of butter, honey, toffee, and musty oak.  On the palate it's malt and toffee first.  Then tart oranges and lemons.  The texture is so silky it's almost erotic.  Almost.  A soft mouth-filling oak spice lingers and lingers and lingers right into the finish [note: this description is getting saucy], where it's reminiscent of old armagnac.  Then malt, salt, and lemon oils.  It's not loud but it's long.

Oh man.  I'd violate my $200 rule and several moral standards for one bottle of this stuff.  If you're in the shop and looking for peat, then find a younger CI (or one of the usual suspects).  But if you're searching for something of the old gorgeous Speyside style and don't want to spend $500+, this is a viable option.

Anyone going to London soon?  I'm kidding.  Sort of.

Availability - At the shop itself
Pricing - £176
Rating - 93

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 12 year old 1997 "Unpeated Style" (2010 Edition)

Every October, Diageo announces their annual special releases.  This announcement used to be anticipated with great excitement.  Then, two years ago the prices ballooned so abruptly that the releases were met with considerable consternation by many whisky geeks, and detailed defense from the usual industry apologists.  The next year the prices swelled further.  The uproar wasn't as loud, largely due to (disgusted or defeated?) acceptance.  This year the prices continued their steep rise.

I used to bitch about the "special release" prices, but now I view them with curiosity.  There are plenty of the 2014 releases still sitting on retailer shelves, right next to the 2013s.  Are these same retailers going to front the money for the 2015s now too?  Why?  Do they really want the $1100 single grain to sit next to the $400 21yo Oban and the $800 Convalmore and the $500 Strathmill?  The impressionable very wealthy are chasing after Pappy Van Winkle.  The somewhat-less-impressionable very wealthy are sweeping up the Port Ellens and Karuizawas.  Who exactly is going to hand over $500/bottle for a 30-hogshead outturn of Dalwhinnie?  If there was a market for this then I'd understand an attempt to corral some saps.  But......wuh?

Anyway, amongst the annual uber-expensive thingies, there are always a pair of whiskies for (cough) the rest of us: Lagavulin 12 CS and an "unpeated" Caol Ia.  Two teenage-or-younger non-single-cask whiskies running between $110-$150.  A super deal, right?  At least the Lag 12 is usually very good.  The "Unpeated Style" Caol Ila isn't as reliable and is usually not unpeated.

In November 2013, I reviewed the 2012 special edition of the Caol Ila "Unpeated Style".  While the whisky wasn't terribly special it did seem mostly unpeated.  That review was part of a small series of posts on Caol Ilas.  Today's review is of an even smaller series of (2) tangentially related Caol Ila reviews.  No this is not the 2015 release -- though at least that one will be a 17yo -- instead I'm reviewing the 2010 version which has gotten many (Florin, MAO, Serge, etc.) recommendations......and I actually have a sample of it.  Thanks Florin!

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 12 years
Distillation Year: 1997
Release Year: 2010
Maturation: 1st-fill bourbon casks
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 57.6%
PPM: ???
Chilfiltered? Probably not
Colored? Probably
Limited bottling: "fewer than 6000 bottles worldwide" per the official site

The color is a dark amber.  On the nose the peat is at a whisper.  But there are some big pretty floral notes and some fruits.  Melons, fresh lemons, a tiny bit of grapefruit.  Then rosewater syrup and honey.  Some mellow aromatic woody bourbon barrel notes.  Not much heat on the palate, considering the ABV.  It's very malty and the big floral esters show up here too.  There's a pip of pepper and a peep of peat.  Orange oil.  Limoncello, but the homemade kind, not the sugar bombs sold at Ralph's.  Some caramel sauce and toasty oak spices.  The finish has roses, malt, pepper, and wood smoke.  Hints of bitter chocolate and toasted almonds.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose gets thicker, if that makes sense.  More salt, some chocolate, a hint of sharp cheddar (really).  The floral element now bigger than the fruit.  Lots of malt in the palate.  Very creamy.  There's a slight green herbal note, but otherwise it's a solid malt hit.  No real change in the finish.  Malty, floral, a little citrus tang.

Good whisky this.  The oak notes are nice and the maltiness remains strong throughout.  There's some peat in there, but mostly as a seasoning.  Not super complex, but good fruit and good texture.  This all works best without added water.  And it's just pretty, the second prettiest Caol Ila I've had, and easily my favorite of the "Unpeateds" I've tried.

Next, on Thursday, the prettiest Caol Ila ever...

Availability - this edition is now pretty scarce
Pricing - this edition was $60-$70 when it came out, now it'll be over $100
Rating - 88

Friday, November 13, 2015

Single Malt Report: BenRiach Aloysius Snuffleupagus

Billy Walker fell victim to sentimentality.  As the co-owner of and director of whisky operations at Benriach Distillery Company Limited, about to release the first of his cask-finished 12 year old peated whiskies, he struggled to find a name for his product.  Late at night in his lonely palace on a gated hill in Cape Town, memories of his joyful innocent childhood filled his thoughts and a name escaped from his lips.  Snuffleupagus.

Big Bird's imaginary friend perfectly represented his new whisky.  The sherry-finished single malt was pleasant and enigmatic, furry and a little lumpy, but had a great nose.  The actual Aloysius Snuffleupagus, from the groundbreaking reality series "The Street", was seemingly not of this world, but instead from the very edge of The Unconscious.  He was not shiny and giggly; something dark weighed on those long eyelashes.  Visually, he was a child's version of Dickens' nighttime "undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato".  Yet he was never the brown acid night terror of H.R. Pufnstuf.

But as Billy Walker, a child of the early '70s, got older he left "The Street" behind for matters of commerce.  How would Mr. BenRiach have felt, as his wealth grew, to turn the channel back to the show he'd once loved so much, to witness how the producers had committed to Marxist manipulation, utilizing songs, happy faces, and bright graphics trick children into seeing everyone as equals in the global economy?  In 1985, he would have seen how the show had dared to reveal that Aloysius Snuffleupagus was not a figment of the imagination.  This hairy overweight sexually-ambiguous ethnically-complex being was real and needed to be treated with equal dignity and respect.  As usual, Oscar the Grouch provided the lone voice of dissent.

But Mr. Walker was too busy watching the green stock ticker on his IBM personal computer that day.  It was twenty-two years later, in February 2007, just before the bottle labels were to be printed, when one of his unpaid interns asked how many cases of this single malt needed to be sent to Snuffy's residence, that the plans began to unravel.  Soon Walker and his lawyers were on their way to where the air is sweet in order to head off any legal action.  Though Aloysius had no attorney, he was represented by his domineering mother Hortense Snuffleupagus (née Jones) who proved to be immovable, even after given promises of international notoriety.  Mrs. Snuffleupagus saw fame as nothing but another tool of control and oppression wielded by the ruling class in their commanding heights.  Plus she asked for way too much money.

Grief stricken, but unwilling to display his moment of weakness, Billy Walker immediately elected to go with his second choice, naming his peated scotch whisky after the Ancient Greek Father of History and a Latin word that means stinky.  Because that makes sense.

Behold BenRiach Heredotus Fumosus.

Meanwhile, Herodotus be all...
"What the Halicarnassus?!"

Ownership: The BenRiach Distillery Company
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks for most of its life, then finished in Pedro Ximenez casks
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colored? No
Sample obtained via swap. Thanks to Jordan D.!

Its fur color is reddish brown.  The peat element of the nose is quite sizable considering the ABV.  There are also lots of rose petals, dried cherries, and baked plums.  There's also a note of sugary olives, reminiscent of Smith & Cross rum (a massive spirit and a steal at $30).  Smaller notes of toffee and black raisins/currants.  A nice chocolate, plummy palate.  The peat is milder (in the mid-palate) and there is a bright fruity note from the finishing casks.  Cassis, baked apples, and concrete(!).  Good oily mouthfeel.  It finishes with a minty menthol glow, mesquite smoke, maraschino cherries, and those baked apples.  A small spicy zing and a dried herb note in the aftertaste.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Though the volume has been turned down the peat, sherry, and oak all get a little grimier in the nose.  More cough syrup and band-aids.  Maybe a hint of sulphur.  Eucalyptus and dried grass.  Medicinal in the palate as well.  Darker fruit (berries, dried stuff, etc.) and a little bit of good bitterness.  Some of that eucalyptus/menthol.  It keeps the oily mouthfeel and never gets too sweet.  Menthol, mellow wood smoke, light bitterness, and salt in the finish.

The whisky was much better than I'd expected.  I'm usually not the biggest fan of PX casks and am ambivalent about most finishes, but this whisky is well composed and never sticky sweet.  It's too bad I found it too late in its history.  If it were still around, I'd recommend it as a decent alternative to Uigeadail, definitely over Laphroaig's PX Cask.  But, alas, it's gone.  May its friendly namesake live on in all his fuzzy huggable glory.  And Snuffleupagus too.

Availability - Happy hunting
Pricing - $55-$75
Rating - 88

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Single Malt Report: BenRiach Importanticus Fumosus

In May 2007, BenRiach released three 12 year old peated whiskies, each finished in a different type of cask, each with its own portmanteau faux Latin name: Arumaticas Fumosus (Jamaican Rum), Heredotus Fumosus (Pedro Ximenez sherry), and Importanticus Fumosus (Port).  In July 2008, a fourth product was added to this range Maderensis Fumosus (Madeira).  Their website is especially cute when it says that these names "literally" translate over, like Importanticus Fumosus "literally" means smoky port.  It doesn't, but it's totes hilarious from top to bottom because Latin, LOL.

The thing is, Latin-ish names aside, peated BenRiach is usually pretty good.  And I really like the Arumaticus Fumosus.  Jordan from Chemistry of the Cocktail hooked me up samples of another two of the finished peaties via a sample swap earlier this year.  Sadly it appears as if the Fumosi have mostly vanished from the shelves.  Their production was limited from the start, as was the outturn of their 18 year old replacements.  So, in order to stay consistent in my approach, I will now review a whisky that is on its way out.

Ownership: The BenRiach Distillery Company
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks for most of its life, then finished in "Aged Tawny Port Hogsheads"
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colored? No
Sample obtained via swap. Thanks to Jordan D.!

Its color is that of a dessert wine gold.  The nose starts off with a tarry rubberband peat with big whiffs of prune.  There's a funky rummy note, along with rotting apples and overripe nectarines.  "Curiously port-y" was my note before I realized that this one was the port finished whisky, for some reason I thought this was the sherried one.  After some time there's a minor barn note and a berry trifle of sorts.  The palate has an ashy peat that shows up at the beginning and end, though disappears in the middle.  That space is filled with cherry candy.  It's sweet right up to the point of too much without toppling over.  There's citrus custard, black pepper, and tart berries.  An small bitter bite that feels more woody than herbal.  Peat and mixed berry jam in the sweet finish.  Orange and lime peels.  That woody bitterness.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Less peat in the nose, but more berries.  Tarter apples.  Definitely desserty.  Like the nose, the mild palate is short on peat, but tall on berries.  There's oak, wine, bitterness.  The finish is also winier than when neat.  Sugary berries, tart limes, very little peat.

While this an okay whisky -- a league above Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, though that's not saying much -- it never registers as particularly impressive.  The cask finish doesn't work as well as the rum does in Arumaticas Fumosus.  Sometimes it's just sweet and winey, sometimes that bitter oak element sneaks in.  It's better to sniff than to sip, but the palate isn't really a disaster.  I think BenRiach is starting with some good stuff pre-finish, which helps prevent a whisky slurry in the end.

As mentioned earlier, this one has become difficult to find.  If you're determined to locate it, I suggest trying European retailers.  There are more bottles of it on that continent and they tend to be $10-20 cheaper than here.  But if you're looking for a great port-matured peated whisky (which is also nearly impossible to find), I recommend Ballechin Batch 3.

Availability - Happy hunting
Pricing - $70-$80
Rating - 81