...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Rattray's Selection Batch No. 1, 19 year old Blended Malt

I was really excited when this whisky appeared on shelves in early 2012. Of course, back then I was enthusiastic about every new release. My cynicism was but a dewy glaze at the time, having not yet hardened into an opaque shell.

But I also liked all the Rattray single casks I'd had. The Bowmores were great. The Auchentoshans were.......fascinating. Plus this vatted malt was bottled at cask strength.

My interest waned when I saw the $90-$100 price tag. No other blended malt at the time was priced that high and there was no way to try the whisky before buying. Four years later, many of these bottles were still on retailers' shelves. By then, whisky prices had swollen. A 19 year old cask strength malt under $100 was now a bargain. And when batch two arrived — with mostly low-demand malts in its makeup — it was priced at $150. So, when I found a shop trying to rid itself of batch 1 for $79.99 I nabbed a bottle for an upcoming private whisky event.

Auchentoshan 1991 sherry butt #495
Balblair 1990 sherry butt #1142
Benriach 1989 sherry butt #50064
Bowmore 1991 sherry butt #2073

Upon opening, the whisky was difficult, tasting like steel wool in liquid form. Thus it wasn't terribly popular at the event. But it changed with time. This sample is from the second half of the bottle.

The nose is great! Molasses, toffee pudding, salty air and a moderate Highlands-like peat. Then apple pastry, baklava and banana pudding. There's something 'old whisky' about it. Yes, I know that's vague. The palate has a thick, oily texture. At times cigar smoke; other times it's sooty herbal smoke. Lots of salt and toasted oak spice (nutmeg?). Flowers and fried plantains. A hint of dish soap. It finishes warm, sweet and salty. A little acidic, a little bitter. The oak notes expand. Dish soap. Ashy peat lingers the longest.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Beautiful old sherry notes on the nose. Damp tobacco, salty toffee. Rich honey, ocean air and delicate peat. The palate is much different than the nose. Bitter smoke, lots of pepper. Hints of soap and toasted oak spice. Lemons, shortbread and butterscotch. It finishes with oak spice, salt, soap, fruity sherry and tart citrus.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The sherry notes get even heavier in the nose, though so does an acetate note. Cherry candy and caramel popcorn. Thankfully the acetate fades out. The palate is woody and sweet. More vanilla, more pepper oil. Less soap, less peat. It finishes similar to the palate.

Firstly: How grand is that nose? Very grand. It shifts gears nicely when diluted just a little, too.

Secondly: The soap. I'm apparently hypersensitive to soap notes. No one else has found that characteristic in this whisky. So if you ignore the s-word, you may see some positive palate descriptors. Because I can't ignore the s-word, it took a lot of time to see/taste past it. So the palate can't compete with the nose, for me.

Two weeks ago, Jordan reviewed a sample pulled from around the same part of my bottle. He liked the whisky quite a bit. We found many similar characteristics to it, but he enjoyed it more because......no soap. Ralfy liked it too, and no soap for him. So, I'm a putz, I guess.

Because of its age and full strength, Batch 1's original $90-$100 pricing no longer looks as crappy as it once did. And, as Jordan mentions in his review, it would be great to see more moderately-peated, well-aged blended malts like this out here in The States.

Availability - US and European retailers once upon a time
Pricing - anywhere between $90 and $125, if you can find it
Rating - 83 (if not for the soap, this would've been in the high 80s)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Highland Park 11 year old 2003 Hart Brothers

On Monday I reviewed an eight year old independently bottled Highland Park. Today, it's an eleven year old indie HP. I've had a handful of Hart Brothers' bottlings and have enjoyed none of them. They even ruined a Littlemill. Such is my opinion of them that I passed up a number of otherwise gorgeous-looking Hart Bros bottlings (including this Ledaig) when I was in Japan last year.

But I like bourbon cask Highland Park and MAO sent me a sample of this one, so I'll go into this tasting as bias-free as possible.

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Isle of Orkney
Independent Bottler: Hart Brothers
Age: 11 years old (2003-2015)
Maturation: ex-bourbon cask
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? probably not
Caramel Colorant? probably not

It has a very pale color. A good sign! The nose says this is another youngin'. Apples and pears. Wort. Hints of moss and pine sap. Honeydew and canned peaches. Vanilla-scented soap. The palate starts of fruity and mossy, too. Pineapple, apple and a hint of mango. It's also a bit ashy. With time, it grows sweeter and tarter, then vanilla rushes in. It finishes tangy and tingly. Limes, ash, vanilla and caramel. Some odd bitterness shows up late.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
Mango, limes and sawdust in the nose. Limes, sugar and jalapeño oil on the palate. Sweet citrus and pepper in the finish.

I will cautiously say this is the best Hart Brothers whisky I've had so far. Though, as I mentioned in the intro, that's faint praise. The fruit notes are great. The ash, oak and finish are less than great. Despite the oak stuff, it feels even younger than Monday's 8yo G&M.

Overall, it's a fair example of naked seemingly-briefly-matured Highland Park. It does appear to still be lingering around the US, but it's priced higher than the official Highland Park 12yo. Go with the OB instead.

Availability - maybe a few US retailers
Pricing - around $60
Rating - 82

Monday, February 19, 2018

Highland Park 8 year old Gordon & MacPhail (43%abv version)

Highland Park produces some of the best single malt in Scotland, while Gordon & MacPhail is the most established (the grandpa, if you will) of independent bottlers. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the 40%abv version of G&M's 8yo Highland Park was flat watery crap, disappointment in a glass.

I had no idea G&M had given it a 43%abv reboot until Jordan, of Chemistry of the Cocktail, gave the whisky a positive review. Many thanks to Jordan for sending me a sample from his review bottle so that I could also give it a try!

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Isle of Orkney
Independent Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Range: MacPhail's Collection
Age: minimum 8 years old
Maturation: ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, I think
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfiltered? Probably
Caramel Colorant? Probably

Its color is light bronze. The nose is bright and fresh with fruity notes, like apples and green grapes. There's a fascinating floral sake note that sits well with the whisky's subtle earthiness. The palate is sharper and hotter than the nose. Tart, sweet, smoke, pepper, mineral and vanilla notes stay in balance. A squirt of lemon juice lingers throughout. It finishes sugary and tart, with peppery smoke and some flower kiss candy.

DILUTED TO ~35%abv
Still plenty of fruit in the nose. Barley and caramel. A little bit dusty and papery. The palate becomes very thin. Barley and lemons. Lots of sugar. Tangy and peppery. It finishes sweet and peppery, a little bitter. Some burnt wood in there too.

This is a significant step (or two) up from the 40%abv version, especially if you leave it neat. While the whisky isn't going to break any hearts or records, it's good as an everyday drinker. In fact, I'd say it's slightly better than Glenfiddich 12 for that purpose. The palate has a little fight to it, but it otherwise delivers a pleasant drinking experience. The nose is very pretty, in a clean newmake sort of way.

It's tough for me to recommend this for $50 because I don't see why beginners' single malts should cost that much. But for $40 or less, it's not a bad choice, especially since options are limited at that price range. I will certainly seek out my own bottle soon.

Availability - Europe and US specialty retailers
Pricing - $35-$60
Rating - 83

Thursday, February 15, 2018

BenRiach Peated Cask Strength, batch 1

Top Five Thoughts about This Whisky Before the Review:
  1. This whisky was tasted side-by-side with the regular BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1.
  2. I did not like the regular BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1.
  3. BenRiach's peated whisky tends to be very good, especially with some age to it. See the 21yo Authenticus, 17yo Solstice, 12yo Arumaticus Fumosus, etc.
  4. But I found the NAS peated Glendronach — which, like today's whisky, was distilled by Billy Walker's staff — to be very underwhelming.
  5. Will the mix of casks + heavy peating help this whisky rise above the regular CS? Or will those factors make things uglier?
Distillery: BenRiach
Ownership: Brown Forman
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: youthful
Maturation: Oloroso Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 56%
Chillfiltration? No
Added Colorant? No
(from purchased sample)

Its color is pale, which may hint at mellow casks. The nose is full of earthy/mossy peat, sort of reminiscent of baby Ledaig. Then lemons, vanilla, white rice, ham and old sweat. The palate is all peat moss, cayenne pepper and gunpowder up front. Gradually, small notes of sour berries, bitter cocoa and ginger beer appear. The finish is lightly sweet and plenty hot, with peat, pepper and salt.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The nose is much prettier now. Candied peat and floral notes. Vanilla, mint and anise. Somehow, the palate feels even bigger. Heavy peat. Intense bitterness. Lots of pepper. Tangy berries and bitter chocolate. It finishes bitter, smoky and peppery.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The nose's peat goes sugary and sooty, reminiscent of young Ardbeg. Also some lemons and churros. The palate finally calms down. Light sweetness and pleasant saltiness. Vanilla and mildly bitter smoke. The finish also chills out. Light sweets, smoke and pepper. An acidic zing.

A few things are certain. The sherry element is nearly silent. The American oak is vocal. Lots of peat, everywhere. And, yeah, it's young.

BUT. It's less abusive than the regular CS......which is not what I'd expected. While the palate is neither exciting or complex, it's better than the unpeated version. Again, the nose is the best part.

With that being said, this seems to be the weakest of Benriach's official peated stuff. Of course, all those other peated releases were distilled by Seagram, not Billy Walker & Co. I look forward to Walker's peated distillate getting some double-digit age to it. In the meantime, the 10yo Curiositas is a better choice.

Availability - European retailers
Pricing - $65-$90
Rating - 79

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1

After relying on whisky distilled by Allied and Seagram, Glendronach and Benriach added single malts distilled by Billy Walker's regime to the regular range......less than one year before Walker sold off the distilleries to Brown Forman. I was very impressed by GlenDronach 8 yo 'The Heilan'. I was not very impressed by GlenDronach NAS Peated.

Two separate Benriach cask strength releases — regular and peated — appeared mere weeks before the big sale. I'll be reviewing the regular CS, batch 1, today. Serge and Ruben liked this CS, yet both included the qualifying 'modern' descriptor. Meanwhile, the whiskybase community liked it less.

SPOILER ALERT: IMO, even whiskybase was being generous.

Distillery: BenRiach
Ownership: Brown Forman
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: yung
Maturation: unknown, though probably American oak
Alcohol by Volume: 57.2%
Chillfiltration? No
Added Colorant? No
(from purchased sample)

The color is medium gold, much darker than the peated CS. Lots and lots of green apples on the nose. Honey, hay, vanilla cookies. Hints of anise and cantaloupe. Not much burn. Sooooo much burn on the palate, though. Hot cinnamon, vanilla, barley, brown sugar, caramel and acidic citrus. But mostly heat......and more heat in the finish. Vanilla and brown sugar. Acidic and tart.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The fruit intensifies in the nose. There's more caramel and fudge. Slightly floral. The palate remains hot. More herbs. More vanilla. Peppery and bitter. It finishes sweet, acidic and bitter. Vanilla, again.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
A cheerful nose. Mint and fruit candy. Lime lollipops. Vanilla and barley. Even at this abv, the palate remains hot. Hints of lemons and sugar. Vanilla and black pepper. The finish still sweet, acidic, bitter and full of vanilla.

The nose is good. The palate is not. Simple as that.

The heat rarely shows in the sniffer, but the mouth is much too hot even after I went Full Ralfy with the water. Beneath the heat there's little of note, and way too much vanilla throughout. If there was something to the finish, and if the palate had but a fraction of the nose's fruit...but alas, no.

The whisky is indeed 'modern', but 'modern' in an American craft whiskey sort of way. Young (which is not a dealbreaker), but oaky. Vanilla and ethyl. I take no joy in writing this.

Availability - European retailers
Pricing - $65-$90
Rating - 74

Friday, February 9, 2018

BLEND BASH! Mother's Toddy vs Dad's Dram vs Chivas Regal 12

While in Edinburgh two years ago, Kristen and I wandered through a Royal Mile shop full of tartans and kilts (there are a couple of those stores in Scotland). She exited without buying anything. Meanwhile, I bought these two random minis...

...because what the shit.

👆 Not a preferred reason to buy whisky.

I decided to do a blind Taste Off between Mother's Toddy and Dad's Dram, but needed some additional perspective so I added a more recognizable blend to the blind match up.

This is the same Chivas 12 that I'd included in episode 5 of Killing Whisky History (watch it now!). Trying to consume this whisky has proven to be a fugly slog, so this Taste Off offered an opportunity to knock down another ounce.

There was only one issue with the blind tasting. The Chivas was dark orange compared to the very lightly colored tourist drams. And there was one surprise: I thought Mother's Toddy was Dad's Dram, and vice versa. See why below...

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
blended whisky
The Scottish Collection
Lots of barley with some decent industrial stink. Brown sugar, fresh linen. Quite grassy, with a hint of lime.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Blended whisky
Pernod Ricard
Vodka. Nail polish. Grape candy and flower kiss candy. Sawdust, wet cardboard and little bit of maple syrup. Loads of vanilla.
Mother's Toddy
Blended whisky
The Scottish Collection
Leather shoes. Iodine and band-aids. Pine-scented car deodorizer and new plastic toys. Citrus and wet dog hair in the background. Some shoe polish to go with those leather shoes. 

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
Fudge and caramel meet herbal and grassy bitterness. Lemons and barley. Gets more herbal with time, picking up a milk chocolate note.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Thin, with plenty of ethyl heat. A vodka-like bite. A hint of coconut. Otherwise it's all flat vanilla and caramel.
Mother's Toddy
Iodine and wood smoke. Vanilla, salt, toffee and toasted oak. Small notes of grapefruit and pineapple appear after some time.

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
An herbal bite that grows a bit sharp at times. Tart lemons and a hint of vanilla.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Heat, grain, vanilla, coconut-flavored vodka, sour, icky.
Mother's Toddy
Lots of barley. Tangy and salty. A hint of smoked salmon.

Whisky Notes Rating
Dad's DramThe prettiest of the three, so I thought it was Mother's Toddy. Apparently Papa enjoys the lighter stuff. It's decent overall, though a bit thin on the palate, and its finish starts to reveal some premature whisky and limp casks. *cough* But it's better than Chivas.
Chivas Regal 12yoI was going to be nice about this, but... This is miserable whisky, descending to Dewars and Cutty levels. What the hell is going on over there? Where's the malt? Stay away from bottling code 2016/03/24 LPBK0521.
Mother's ToddyOh, Mama, I like your style. Plenty of Island malt going on. A very good nose. The low abv starts showing on the too brief finale. At around 46%abv this would be Mother's Papa's little helper.

Apparently Mother's and Dad's are part of a whole series. Unfortunately, I don't know where to get them, other than at some of Scotland's tourist shops. Dad's Dram would be a perfectly respectable $20 700mL bottle, while Mother's Toddy is preferable to the current version of Johnnie Walker Black Label. But these cost me $10+ per mini, so you may want to save your GBP for something else. Also, sayonara Chivas Regal.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Full Volume Highland Park Rant, also a Highland Park Full Volume Review

Highland Park distillery makes very good whisky, but they've undergone such an aggressive rebranding that I've lost interest in their official single malts. Over a period of ten years they went from giving the customer what he or she wants to telling the customer what he or she wants. Or to be more specific, they went from: perfecting their standard range while also turning out many single casks, to focusing just on their regular range, to something quite close to chaos.

In six years they have released at least 30 separate new bottlings. Some are named after "warriors" (real-ish), kings (real), Valhalla deities (totally real), ships, monsters, "keystones", voyages, valkyries (for you Wagner fans out there), distillery founders, dark things, light things, hot things, cold things and loud things.


Do some of them taste good? Probably. Do I care? It is difficult to do so.

I'm not sure why they went this direction. Perhaps the managers of their sibling distillery, Macallan, whispered to HP's upper management, "You won't believe what people will pay for this shit." But that doesn't explain some of the cheap releases. Nor the unfocused branding. Perhaps the marketing staff have been snorting new make. Which would explain a lot.

From this disarray comes "Full Volume". It has an double-digit age statement, a good ABV and has been aged completely in ex-bourbon barrels, all good things. It has bizarre packaging — apparently a requirement for the current regime — a fake amp complete with a Spinal Tap reference (hint: it goes to 11). But the "Full Volume" name makes no sense. Despite having a burlier alcohol content of 47.2%, that ain't cask strength, nor is it new make strength, nor barreling strength. I guess "A Smidgen Higher Volume" would have been a crappy whisky name. But so is Dragon Legend.

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels and hogsheads (481 of them)
Age: 17 years (1999-2017)
Alcohol by Volume: 47.2%
Chillfilltered? Yes, because Odin told them to
Colorant added? Unknown
(Thanks to My Annoying Opinions for the sample!)

The nose reveals soft earthy smoke, dried barley, green grapes, plum wine, green apple Jolly Ranchers, actual green apples and a hint of steel wool dust. The palate leads with brisket, charred vegetables, oregano and grapefruity IPA. Later, there are notes of lemon and black pepper. It finishes with dry smoke, ash, dried herbs and a nice bitterness.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv
The nose is somehow both dirtier and fruitier. More smoke and metal. More candy. A little bit o' barley. The palate is similar to the neat version. Maybe a little sweeter with more pepper and a menthol-like zing. The finish picks up some sweet citrus and mint. Cigarette ash.

Not a ton of complexity, but otherwise it's great stuff. Full Volume gave the distillery a chance to show off the great characteristics often found only in bourbon cask independent bottlings of their malt, and they succeeded. There's even a happy lack of vanilla!

So there's no reason why it needed to be drowned in marketing and packaging diarrhea. I mean, it's a 17 year old Highland Park with an actual vintage and good strength. Geeks geek about this geekery.

If you're a fan of indie bourbon cask HP, and you're willing to set aside your cynicism, and you're willing to pay three figures, this whisky might just be playing your tune.  👀

Availability - Europe and US retailers
Pricing - $90-$120
Rating - 87