...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Diageo's Game of Thrones single malts, Part 1

Thanks to two Columbus Scotch Night events, I have samples of all eight of Diageo's Game of Thrones-branded single malts. Rather that going through all eight whiskies in one sitting, I split the collection into two tastings:

Sexy distilleries 

Not-sexy distilleries
Royal Lochnagar

The not-sexy distilleries are first.

Singleton of Glendullan Select (House Tully), NAS, 40%abv

It noses like a blend. A cheap blend. Apples, VOC paint fumes, rice, oats, barley and cinnamon. After a while it smells like a park bathroom in summer, all urinal and soap. Like the nose, the palate is cheap blendy. Apples, vanilla, alcohol and American cheese. It trends towards vinegar the longer it sits in the glass. The finish matches the palate, with some extra bitterness.

This is has to be one of the weakest Diageo releases ever. It's as if they had a stash of (extra) limp Glendullan casks that they didn't throw into Johnnie Walker Red Label, because they knew they could make more money off of them this way. I think we're all learning to stay away from NAS single malts with "Select" in their name. This one is a mere one step above JW Red.

Rating - 68

Cardhu Gold Reserve (House Targaryen), NAS, 40%abv

Again with the VOC paint fumes on the nose, but at least there are pineapples, pears, cinnamon and anise. Then a layer of vanilla, cotton and cardamom. A cardboard note comes and goes. The thin palate starts with vanilla, grass and something very buttery. Then lemons, grain whisky and a slight phenolic note. It get sourer and sourer with time. The shortest finish of the four. It's buttery, grassy and sour.

While nose provides some hope, the palate and finish dash it asunder. There was a previous, short lived Cardhu Gold Reserve unleashed during the NAS-heavy days of 2014. Why they chose to resurrect that flop here, I don't know. If you're forced to drink either the Cardhu or Glendullan for free, I'd say take the Cardhu. Give it some club soda to turn it into vanilla thing. Don't waste your liver with it neat. Diageo has a host of better blends.

Rating - 72

Dalwhinnie Winter's Frost (House Targaryen), NAS, 43%abv

The nose starts off all cardboard, flowers and orange peel. It gets more sugary and vanilla-y with time, also picking up a horseradish note. The palate is grassy and sweet with hints of lime. There's also ginger, pepper, vanilla and a slight bitter edge. Its mildly sweet finish has tart limes, vanilla, grass and cloves.

Once again, whisky name seems to be recycled. Winter's Gold was (is?) Dalwhinnie's NAS release this decade, a whisky that was intended to be kept in the freezer like a vodka but at thrice the price. Brilliant. Anyway, the GoT version is called Winter's Frost. While the nose and palate are barely there, it tastes fine. The finish isn't ugly. Those extra three points of alcohol probably help in some way, but there's no need to pick this over the regular 15 year old.

Rating - 76

Royal Lochnagar 12 year old (House Baratheon), 40%abv

A proper nose: apples, lemons, toasted oak (cloves), good cinnamon, vanilla bean and white grape juice. It gets fruitier as time passes. The palate has a simple balance of barley and oak. The vanilla stays in the background. It's lightly grassy. Lots of tangy citrus, especially limes. Mild sweetness and bitterness. The longest finish of the four. Ginger, limes, grass and toasted nuts.

The oldest(!) of the GoT malts, this Lochnagar is the best of these four by some distance. That's not to say it's better than decent. Had it been bottled at 46%abv, we might actually have something here, but you've heard this song before. And I guess it's nice to see a Royal Lochnagar in The States. If you do buy and *gasp* elect to drink it, I recommend letting it sit for a bit in the glass. It takes time for the fruits to appear.

Rating - 81

While I didn't expect much from these four, this was an especially crappy tasting. The winner, Royal Lochnagar, may have gotten a generous score because I was excited that it didn't suck. And it doesn't. But it's also not a great whisky. A lot of effort was put into the graphic design on the tubes and labels. It doesn't seem like a fraction of that care was put into the liquid inside the bottles. In fact, this group does seem like a dumping ground. Hopefully the sexy distilleries' malts are better.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Mathilda Malt: Tobermory 32 year old 1972, red label

And now back to selfish reviews of impossible-to-find scotch.

Part of what makes this 32yo Tobermory impossible-to-find is its actual scarcity. The other thing that labels it impossible-to-find is (SPOILER ALERT) its quality. It's a dark rich old whisky that hasn't lost all of the original spirit's character nor grown tannic. It's also sulphur-free, for those concerned about that.

A little bit of history:

Tobermory/Ledaig distillery has a habit of closing. It was open from 1798-1837, then closed until 1878. It ran until 1930, when it closed. It reopened in 1972, then closed in 1975. It reopened in 1979, then stopped production three years later. It started up again in 1989, running until 2017 when the doors shut for two years of repairs. It reopened this year.

The 1972 reboot marked a year or two of whisky that is beloved by older generations of single malt geeks. I have no real opinion about the 1972 Tobermory (known then as Ledaig) malts. I had one previous to today's '72. It was very good, but I've found Tobermory/Ledaig's output to be very good during more recent years as well, and cheaper and available. Still, when Cobo sent me a treasure box of samples a while back, I was very very excited to see this whisky.

Thank you, Cobo!
Distillery name now: Tobermory
Distillery name then: Ledaig
Ownership now: Distell International
Ownership then: Ledaig Distillery Ltd.
Region: Isle of Mull
Age: 32 years (1972 - 2005)
Maturation: "finished in oloroso sherry casks"
Outturn: 1,710 bottles
Bottle number: 443
Alcohol by Volume: 49.5%
There are a few official 1972 Tobermories. This is the one with the red label.

The nose is calm, almost patient, revealing aspects gradually. Pipe tobacco, moss, coal smoke and dunnage. Cocoa powder, dried cherries, Carpano Antica. A hint of dried cheese. Mild medicinal notes drift through the background. The palate moves more boldly. Tar, cigars and coal smoke. Dried cherries and golden raisins floating in Underberg. In-season plums and blackberries. The walls of a moldy dunnage (You mean you haven't licked them? He asks.). The finish holds that balance of cigars / coal smoke / dunnage + dried berries / fresh berries / fresh plums. And "no tannin tongue?!?"

Yeah, I don't know how long this was "finished" in sherry casks, but there ain't no other sherry "finish" like this. Mercy. This is beautiful whisky. The 1990 Littlemill, though very good, did not stand a chance against it. I think the Tobermory goes for $800-$1000 on the secondary market and, though I won't comment on that price, I do agree it is luxurious. It made me close my MacBook, lean back in my chair, watch the rain fall softly against the window and think of absolutely nothing. Upstairs, Mathilda was having her quiet time. Downstairs, Papa was having his.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - $800-$1000
Rating - 93

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Invitation to a Bourbon Taste Off!

Damn, y'all are fast.

Mathilda is like her father in many ways. Like, too many ways. Moody? Check. Hypochondriac? Check. Obsessed with the potty? Check. One of the less terrifying similarities is the habit of collecting random things, and then forgetting about them. All her coat pockets are full of wood chips, twigs and smooth rocks.

Speaking of wood chips: Bourbon!

I have five versions of Elijah Craig Small Batch. Who knows why. Okay, there's a reason for the fifth bottle. This very occasion. And what occasion is this?


And YOU are invited. Really.

Okay, up to 16 of yous.

Here are the ECs:

From left to right:
--12 year old, bottled ca. 2001, distilled at the old distillery, before the fire.
--12 year old Small Batch with the red 12 on the front label.
--12 year old Small Batch with the age statement moved to the back label.
--Small Batch, no age statement, previous bottle/label style
--Small Batch, no age statement, current bottle/label style

They're from all over the place: Shibuya, Tokyo; Buena Park; Long Beach; Newcastle, Indiana; and Westerville, Ohio.

Rather than blab about some showy bottle in honor of Mathilda's 5th birthday, I'd rather do something slightly more interactive this year. And I have these five bottles. I mean, I like Elijah Craig, but.

So, The Taste Off.

Email me at divingforpearlsblog at gmail dot com if you would like to partake. (For you, my friend, it's free.) Here are the important things:

--We're doing this blindly, including me.
--I will post the results in late June, with an engaging narrative that either springs forth organically from everyone's experience, or is awkwardly shoehorned in.
--Your name will not be used in the post, so no one has to enter a witness relocation program after he enjoys the current small batch more than the pre-fire 12yo. Except for me. (recycled joke!)

If you're among the first 16 confirmed for the experience, I'll email you additional information. So......are you in?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Mathilda Malt: Littlemill 22 year old 1990 Berry Brothers & Rudd (round 3)

In honor of Mathilda's 5th birthday I hauled out ye olde Littlemill 22yo 1990 BBR. I've only opened up this bottle during her birthday week for each of the past three years. As a result it'll still be two-thirds full when it goes back into its hiding place this week.

When I first opened it, for Mathilda's third birthday, the whisky was okay (and oaky) and not much more than that, which was a letdown because I really like Littlemill with some age on it. When I reopened the bottle a year later, for Mathilda's fourth birthday, it was much better. The aggressive oak notes had faded away, leaving behind a much better balanced whisky. Plus it drank very well, which might be a relevant thing. One year has passed. My eldest is 25% older. As am I.

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

Mmmmmmangoes on the nose. Then tapioca pudding, vanilla bean, lemon custard, cardamom, orange blossoms and honeydew. It's gentle for the ABV, without being weak. Apricots, loquats (I heart loquats), cantaloupe, lime juice and a fragrant vanilla bean note on the palate. It's a bit minty too, and its sweetness is balanced by tart and spicy notes. It finishes with apricots, lemon bars and mint leaves. It concludes with a spicy zing and moderate sweetness.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 1 tsp water per 30mL whisky
The nose is mustier, maltier, and has picked up a metallic note. There's less vanilla, more almond butter. Orange peel and black licorice (Sambuca, anise, etc.). The palate gets sweeter, while also picking up a good herbal bitter note. There's brown sugar, apricots and grapefruit, as well as quiet notes of dried flowers and leaves. The finish has a bright tanginess and bitterness, along with brown sugar, tapioca pudding, limes and roses.

I was about to write that this Littlemill is trending close to well-aged Irish whiskey, thinking I was saying something new, but then I saw I'd referenced a similar thing last year. The whisky has changed less between year 2 and 3 than it had between year 1 and 2. It's still quite cuddly for its ABV, and remains very cohesive. And there's some overlap with last year's notes. It takes to water well now, adding some needed complexity to all that ripe fruit.

While this continues to be a very good whisky, nothing lifts it to the next level. I'd thought this was chasing a 90 score, but when I tried it head-to-head with this Friday's whisky its quality was put into perspective. Unless it shows some real change, next year might mark its last review. After that I'm going to drink it for fun. Imagine that!

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

Friday, May 10, 2019

Killing Whisky History, Episode 24: Ballantine's 12 year old, bottled in the 1970s (w/guest whiskies!)

It's here (albeit a week late)! Episode 24!

(What is this look on my face? Is it pleasure? Is it pain? Is it gas? It's probably gas.)

In this episode, I pop/peel/screw open my bottle of Ballantine's 12 year old from the 1970s and try it alongside two guest whiskies. The starring Speyside-heavy blend, from its Hiram Walker-era, is given a nice boost from some sherry casks and high (possibly older than 12yo) malt content. It's good stuff, especially compared to the guest whiskies.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Constellation Brands blows up High West Rendezvous Rye, so let's try the original stuff: 2012 versus 2016

High West Rendezvous Rye was a long time favorite in this house. If we couldn't get MGP Willett or MGP Smooth Ambler rye then I would buy a bottle of Rendezvous.

Note the past tense in that paragraph. The Rendezvous recipe has changed. What was once 16 year old 80/10/10 (Barton) + 6 year old 95/5 (MGP) rye, is (as of 2018) "A blend of older Straight Rye whiskeys ranging in age from 4 to 7 years", 95/5 from MGP and 80/20 rye/malted rye from High West itself. Now MGP is the older sibling. It is much much younger than the Barton rye was, and, yes, the oldest whiskies in the current batches are almost the same age as the youngest whiskies in the original batches. And per Winesearcher, Rendezvous 20% more expensive than it was in 2015.

Let's all chillfilter the bitterness out of our feelings about those facts for a moment. Inflation has gone up 7-8% since 2015, so the price was going to rise at least a little bit over the past four years. Though the ingredients changed, it was infeasible for High West to use 16 year old rye indefinitely. And at some point actual High West rye was going to have make an appearance in a bottle somewhere in the range.

Okay, now bring the bitter back. It takes some serious chutzpah to blow up a recipe so drastically while keeping the same name on the bottle. What do they think this is, Johnnie Walker Black? Why no "Son of Rendezvous"? Why no limited release "Last Rendezvous in Park City" to fluff the secondary marketeers? David Perkins was a stellar blender who created a successful brand via quality products. But I'm not motivated to drop $65 on 4 year old rye, especially when it's produced by the $40B market cap Constellation Brands rather than a family business.

In honor of the OG Rendezvous Rye, I'm going to compare my first saved Rendezvous sample with my last. 2012 versus 2016. One may imagine the recipe was already shifting far away from the Barton by 2016. None the less, I commence.

Product: Rendezvous Rye
Distillery: Barton and MGP distilleries
Producer: High West
Type: Blended Straight Rye Whiskeys
Region: Kentucky and Indiana
Age / Mashbill: 16 years, 80% rye 10% corn 10% malted barley (Barton) + 6 years, 95% rye 5% malted barley (MGP)
Maturation: charred white oak barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Batches: 12E03 (from 2012) and 16K29 (from 2016)

Batch 12E03 - Pickles! Dried cherries, lemon peel and brown sugar. Not much vanilla. More of a toasted oak feel than charred oak. Cloves and dried grass. Okay, I'll say it: pickles in toffee pudding.
Batch 16K29 - Slightly flatter at first. Less fruit. The pickles have been replaced with mint leaves and earth. More toasted grains and toasted nuts. Cinnamon bread and halvah. Hints of rye bread, cherries and salty pork.

Batch 12E03 - I'm happy to report one well-sealed sample bottle because this stuff is still brisk as hell after more than six years. Heat, mint and tart citrus at the start. Then apricots and cayenne pepper. Bit O' Pickle. Mild sweetness and vanilla. It gets increasingly spicy and fruity, then picks up a brothy salt note.
Batch 16K29 - Calmer and sweeter than the 2012, with a slight medicinal note. Luxardo cherries, mint and milk chocolate. Dustings of clove and cayenne. A mix of tart lemons and orange candy arise after a while.

Batch 12E03 - A straightforward mix of stone fruits, rye seeds, salt and pepper. Very long. It gets sweeter with time.
Batch 16K29 - Cherries, cloves, rye seeds and mint. Good 'n simple 'n sweet. Also has some length to it.

Do I have to choose which one I like better? Even worse, do I have to assign them grades? This is my fault.

There's a definite through line from Willett to Smooth Ambler to the 2012 Rendezvous. Pickles, spices and fruits; that LDI spirit distilled in the mid-aughts. Great rye, all around. This old sample reminds me how much I enjoyed that bottle.

The 2016 batch held up better than I'd expected. It's sweeter and more immediate than the 2012, and finishes very well, which makes it a pleasure to drink. It's short on fruit which keeps it from meeting its elder head-to-head. It does make a great manhattan, when required, though.

I've had to bury Willett's and Smooth Ambler's single barrel MGP ryes on this blog. Now I bury the original batches of Rendezvous Rye.

Good night, sweet pickles. May flights of cowboy angels sing thee to thy sleep.

Batch 12E03
Rating - 88

Batch 16K29
Rating - 86

Monday, May 6, 2019

1792 Full Proof bourbon (2016 bottling)

Rarely do I get a thrill from obtaining a bottle of bourbon, but I'll admit there was some excitement when I got today's whiskey. It had gotten boisterous reviews from industry and independent reviewers, and as a result was difficult to find. It took some hijinks on my part to get this 1792 Full Proof bourbon, which (I think) is from its rookie year of 2016.

I opened the bottled exactly two months ago. And HATED it. Yes, hate is a strong word. Even stronger when it's in ALL CAPS. But all I could taste was burning bitter ash. I fought with the stuff and brought it to two events to see if anyone else liked it, yet two months later it was still two-thirds full and had caused no one to say "Wow!", or even "Mmmmm".

Before this tasting, I hadn't touched this bottle in a month. But I knew the bourbon was going to require a multistep tasting procedure.

Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery
Ownership: Sazerac Company
Region: Bardstown, Kentucky
Type: Straight Bourbon
Age: minimum 2 years (no matter what the company says, there's no age statement on the bottle)
Mashbill: I've seen 75/10/15 and 75/15/10 Corn/Rye/Barley. Could be either, could be neither.
Maturation: charred white oak barrels
Bottle code: K16 123
Alcohol by Volume: 62.5%

BIG NOTE HERE. I let this whiskey sit in the glass 30 minutes before approaching. I also let the dilution mingle for over an hour.

Nose - Burning. Then Barbasol shaving cream, dried apricots, lemons, generic vanilla, cinnamon and Bit o' Honey candy. Yet it's all very quiet. After 45 minutes some louder orange candy and citronella notes appear.
Palate - Yes, burning, though not as violent as it was at the top of the bottle. Black pepper, barrel char, Red Hot candies, sweetened hot sauce and simple syrup. After 45 minutes that orange candy note shows up here too.
Finish - Heat, sugar, bitter oak and orange peel.

DILUTED to 46.8%abv (1792 Small Batch strength)
Nose - Louder and more expressive than the neat nose. There's sawdust, ash, raisins, dried cranberries, cherry jam, clementines and a richer vanilla note.
Palate - Hot barrel char, even at this strength. Very sweet. Cherry syrup, dried cherries, brown roasted corn and cracked black peppercorns. Even though there's a subtle orange juice note, the tanginess reads more like vinegar than citrus.
Finish - Hot sweet tangy barrel char. Ash-infused cherry syrup.

Almost like mulled wine, loaded with baking spices and fruit.

While it's better at full strength than I'd remembered, it had a long time to open up, longer than any casual drinker would give it. And it's still not far from mediocre even then. Improvements materialize once the whiskey is diluted to Small Batch strength. It's not great bourbon, but it has texture, character and the occasional pleasant fruit note. The relentless generic barrel char note is reminiscent of present-day Ancient Age. Which is bad. Once the whisky mingles with Angostura bitters, a slice of cara cara orange and a Luxardo cherry, everything looks brighter.

I can tell you from experience, this stuff will get you tipsy, but so will plastic bottle vodka (also from experience). This is better than plastic bottle vodka, and its kissing cousin, Ancient Age. But 1792 Full Proof was not worth the hunt.

Availability - well, NOW it's everywhere
Pricing - $40-$80
Rating - 76 (and it takes a lot to get there)