...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Birthday Booze: Bladnoch 16 year old Signatory, cask 89/591/20

Ah, the oldest of the Signatory mini set's six whiskies: Bladnoch.  Almost 17 years old!  I've had split luck with my Bladnoch experiences.  Either they're pretty good or pretty mediocre.  Its United Distillers era seems to have produced the good ones.  But this particular cask was pre-UD, back when Inver House owned the place.  So I have no idea what to expect from it.

Distillery: Bladnoch
Ownership at time of distillation: Inver House
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 16 years (June 30, 1980 - June 1997)
Maturation: probably a refill ex-bourbon cask
Cask#: 89/591/20
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The darkest of this set's six whiskies, this Bladnoch's color is almost gold!  At first the nose sniffs like a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and dried apricots.  But then there's carob bark and carpet.  Then dried pineapples and cherry sauce.  Meanwhile it also has a meaty/savoury thing going on: soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and mushrooms.  Once it's aired out for more than 20 minutes it sheds everything but fruit and spice.  Think cardamom and mango.  The palate starts off decently.  Whipped cream, strawberries, cream of wheat, milk chocolate, and caramel.  Then whoooosh, those notes vanish by the third sip.  A bright bitter note remains, followed by carpet fibers, and an edgy off note similar to yesterday's Glenallachie.  It's admirably un-sweet, but it's also un-good.  The finish has that decent start for the first two sips.  Milk chocolate, caramel, and lots of salt.  But subsequent sips leave behind only cardboard and over-steeped black tea.

Um, okay.  Some water perhaps?

WITH WATER (~35%abv)
The nose has become quite faint.  There's some of the cardamom and mango.  Maybe some lychee, honey, and cilantro.  Roses?  The palate is cardboard dipped in sweet cream and over-steeped tea.  Kinda barley-ish at times.  There's nothing but mleh in the finish.  Endless mleh.

The nose is strange, but grows enjoyable when it settles down.  Though as the nose gains focus, the palate goes to seed.  Completely.  It's fair to call the resulting finish terrible.  Even though the whisky has its positives, I'm going to be extra tough on it because it's never balanced and I'm still having sense memories of the finish's crapulence.  And if I can't drink the damned whisky, then what good is it?

Availability - ?
Pricing - ?
Rating - 69 (the nose keeps the score from heading to sub-Cutty levels)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Birthday Booze: Glenallachie 11 year old 1985 Signatory, cask 4063

My first Glenallachie review, Woo-hoo!  I guess I should say something about the distillery to celebrate the occasion.

The distillery's name means "Glen of the Rocky Place", which if you've been to Scotland you may know there are almost as many Glen-of-the-Rocky-Places as there are sheep. With such an imaginative name, it was unsurprisingly built in the latter half of the 20th century.  In fact, next year will be its 50th anniversary.  But don't be surprised if the owners won't release anything to mark the occasion since The Chivas Bros would rather no one know about Glenallachie, judging by the effort they put into its non-existent official range.  But Chivas/Pernod didn't build the distillery, rather it was Scottish & Newcastle Breweries.  Yep, the makers of the ubiquitous brown ale.  And, in one more piece of random trivia, Glenallachie distillery received two of Caperdonich's washbacks after that Speyside distillery closed.

On to the whisky.  This is the fourth little number from that fun mini set I busted open for this double birthday booze week. Two out of three have been very good.  How about this one?
Spot the mold spores!!!
Distillery: Glenallachie
Ownership: Chivas Bros / Pernod Ricard
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 11 years (October 11, 1985 - June 1997)
Maturation: probably a 352nd-refill ex-bourbon cask
Cask#: 4063
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Its color is the lightest of the bunch, almost clear.  The nose is all new make, ultra sugary, almost white rum.  Then some orange oil sneaks out, honey, whole wheat bread, and corn flakes.  Finally honey mustard and Belgian witbier.  The palate is hot, bready, yeasty.  A sizable melting plastic note floats above sugar, salt, and chewed grass.  It's a little minerally, metallic, and bitter.  A combo of notebook paper and sour beer.  It finishes slightly buttery and metallic.  Hay and sour beer.

Maybe this needs water or something.

WITH WATER (~35%abv)
The nose holds onto the honey mustard note.  It's more herbal now, more barley focused too.  Lemon juice.  Breakfast cereal box.  The palate remains mineral, metallic, and bitter.  There's a moderate sweetness to it, and it stays grassy.  Maybe a hint of earth and synthetic oil.  Still, it's an improvement.  Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the finish is neutered.  Just lightly bitter and earthy at first, growing spicier with time.

There was a marked improvement once water was added, as in a markup from a D- to a C-.  But if you don't like a mineral and grass filled whisky then this would probably be a big F in your book.  While at times seeming near clearac, this whisky isn't totally free of oak influence.  I think a really crappy barrel was responsible for the palate problems.  A barrel can only be used so many times before the felled tree gets its revenge by pinching an afterlife loaf right into the whisky.  That's a scientific fact right there.

Availability - ?
Pricing - ?
Rating - 73 (with water only, when neat it's around 10 points lower)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Birthday Booze: Clynelish 12 year old 1984 Signatory, cask 3089

Continuing with the birthday booze set:

While in Scotland I had a bland ethyl bomb of a 1982 Clynelish, so I moderated my expectations for this 1984 Clynelish.  Still I was hopeful.  My days of trying '80s Clynelish are probably over now, so it would be great if this whisky didn't suck.

Distillery: Clynelish
Ownership: Diageo
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 12 years (June 13, 1984 - June 1997)
Maturation: probably a refill ex-bourbon cask
Cask#: 3089
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Its color is a light yellow amber.  The nose is loaded with barley and butterscotch, then musty dunnage and mellow stone fruit (I'm thinking apricot) note.  With some air, it develops notes of motor oil, concrete, and agave syrup.  Sorta reminiscent of refill bourbon barrel Springbank.  There's a fascinating duality in the palate that doesn't sound like it should work, but does, wonderfully. Think petrol and brown sugar.  A combination of gooey thick malty pudding, ginger beer, and a little bit of acidic citrus (maybe limes) meets a dry super mineral white white, rocks, and soil.  It has a spicy, tingly finish with forest floor (wet roots and leaves) notes.  It has a hint of honeyed sweetness, but is otherwise dry.  A little bit of fresh ginger in the mix too.  Its length lengthens with subsequent sips.

This has everything I've been trying to find in a contemporary whisky, without much luck (aside from Springbank and perhaps Benromach).  It's earthy and mineral as hell, yet lightly sweet, fruity, and spicy where it needs to be.  The fact that this much character rings out at 43%abv makes it all the more impressive.  It's nearly oakless which may give some the impression that it's nearly new make, but I find it to be subtly matured and toned without tannin and vanillin creeping in.  To my palate, it's terrific whisky.

Availability - ?
Pricing - ?
Rating - 90

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

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