...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Taliskravaganza! Day 1: Talisker 10 year old

Now let's all take a deep breath and put aside our Diageo quibbles for as much of this post as possible.  Forget that Diageo came into being as a company only via massive levels of trading fraud.  Disremember their rigging of an independent beer competition.  Ignore the devastating satirical piece by Whisky Advocate entitled "Distillery of the Year 2013".  Brush away thoughts of Diageo forcing a new bloated luxury brand on the market, one named Mortlach, a distillery that sounds like it means Lake of Death.  You can disregard all of that, right?

Talisker is my favorite of Diageo's 7,348 distilleries.  And Talisker 10 year old was always my favorite of their "Classic Malts".  It always delivers.  It's not so peated that one can't drink it in the summer, and it works excellently in autumn.  The balanced seaside nose is one of the very few I may be able to pick out at a blind tasting.  And it was the single malt that I was going to miss most when I chose to commit to my Diageo boycott.

The bottle I'm reviewing here is the only Diageo whisky I've purchased in the last year and a half.  Because I'd heard/read a bunch of complaints about Talisker 10's quality slipping, I aimed to buy a bottle from before the late-2012 packaging change.  Since I was going for a whole bottle, I wanted something that was more like the Talisker I remembered.  It sat in the cabinet for six months before I opened it.  To my surprise, the bottle code said that it was in fact from 2012, probably one of the last using the earlier simpler label and packaging.  I thought it was older than that.  No worries, I'll just open it up.  Pour a glass.

I nosed it and -- to quote a household inside joke -- "The f**k is this nonsense?"  Really huge new oak notes, not dissimilar to that of the recent K&L Bowmore, poured out of my glass.  The classic Talisker character was submerged deeply underneath.

Half of me was worried that this was what my parting memory of Talisker 10 would be like.  Half of me was happy, because it would make Talisker easier to part with.  Half of me figured it just needed some time to open up.  I went with the third half.

This review comes from about a quarter of the way down the bottle.  Considerable Talisker was consumed for the sake of these notes.

Distillery: Talisker
Ownership: Diageo
Region: Isle of Skye
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: Probably mostly refill ex-bourbon casks, though perhaps some refill ex-sherries too
Age: minimum 10 years
Bottled: April 2012
Alcohol by Volume: 45.8%

The color is a very dark gold, GlenDronach single sherry cask dark gold.  Why the f*** do they insist on dumping in so much colorant?  Much more bold stinky oak on the nose than I remember there ever being.  As in, brand new heavy char mixed with sugary honey butter.  Maybe a hint of oloroso?  But then...in rolls the good part.  The beach: wet sand and seashells.  Earthy molasses, toasty peat, barley in brown sugar.  Then stray cats in the sun, wool, brown paper bag.  Finally, anise swoops in.  A casual, lazy, easy like Sunday morning peat drifts into the palate.  At first the flavor develops from buttery savory → peppery peat smoke → brown sugar.  Then there's some barley with a tart bite, along with some rye-whiskey-like spices, and the sweetness never gets too big.  A buzzy pepper hits first and last in the finish.  A little salt, mild tartness, grapefruit pulp, and a very distant smoke lingers in between.

WITH WATER (reduced to 40%ABV)
The nose becomes mild but candied.  Honey, anise, a hint of smoke, and a little farmy hay.  Then there's the barrel char, something corny, and lime peel.  The palate...Hello? Anyone home? After a few minutes it quietly appears. Goodbye peat.  Hello apricots, vanilla, and toasted grains.  It's sweeter, tarter, and lightly farmy.  The peat and pepper come back in the finish, along with orange peel and salt.

Pros:  Once the oak subsides, the nose is very good; Talisker 10 still lurks within Talisker 10.  On the palate, the mellow peat melds with the peppery zing with its usual flair.  And it's all very very drinkable.

Cons:  Aside from silly levels of colorant?  Though the new oak notes recede as the bottle is gradually relieved of its contents, they're still there and I don't think it complements the beachy, earthy, toasty characteristics well.  The finish is much briefer than I expected and very simplistic.  That's fine for a $40 whisky, but this isn't $40 anymore.

I realize I've been focusing on the negative a bit.  I hold Talisker 10 to high standards.  It's very good and nearly unmatched at its age.  It's still lovely to drink and even better to nose for a while.  I still recommend it, though see if you can find it for $50 or less.  And look for older bottles!

Before this review, I was probably more enthralled by the idea of Talisker 10 and my past experience with it rather than the current reality.  (Thus some of my recent goofy tweets about my romance with it.)  The whisky is very good, but it's no longer excellent.  Something has changed in its construction and I think it's the oak.  While I have no proof, this is another example of what makes me think that there's some aggressive cask manipulation going on at some distilleries.  An overuse of casks; recharring like crazy to bring forth vanillins from tired old barrels.  So, if you like simple oak, you're in luck.  But if you want more barley and complex spirit character......this is what I'm talking about when I say we're paying more for less.  Talisker 10 is now $65 at many retailers.  While I like this whisky a lot, I would not pay that price.

The romance is over.  Now it's just a whisky that I used to know.

Availability - Most specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - $50 (yay!) - $70 (boo)
Rating - 87 (I thought this was going to be 90+ before I opened the bottle)


  1. I'll have to hunt around and see if I can find some older bottles. The one I reviewed was from one of the tri-packs, which had probably been sitting on a shelf in Staten Island for years. That was definitely spirit-focused with just enough oak and sherry to balance it out. I wouldn't be surprised if they were still putting older whisky in it at that point as well.

    C'est la vie. There's still enough good whisky out there that no one should be in danger of getting stuck drinking nothing but bad stuff, but the ranks are definitely getting thinner.

    1. I'm glad someone else found the sherry notes too. Some of those tri-packs are from several years ago. If you have the one with the 57 North, then it's 2008 at the earliest. As Florin mentions below, in 2010 the 10yo was still very good.

      As per the SWA's reports, whisky exports had their real big boost in 2011 so perhaps that's a good starting point knowing demand increases and thus less usage of old stock in younger whiskies. Again, that increase doesn't take into account individual distilleries or brands. But I'm beginning to wonder if pre-2011 bottles are they key in general.

  2. My sentiments are very similar to yours about this whisky. Four years ago (May 2010) this used to be a favorite of mine, the kind of whisky that makes a grown man cry. The notes from my last bottle, opened May 2012, speak for themselves:

    "Dissappointing. Hot with some pepper and peat. Not at all what I remembered Talisker to be! The nose is alcoholic and faint; the palate is aggressive, alcoholic again, but with this one-dimensional black pepper. Turns out it is great in blends, with less than 1/6 proportion needed."

    Incidentally, my May 2012 opening date further suggests that the decline in quality must have happened sometime between late 2010 to early 2012.

    This is sad indeed. Talisker 10yo was the first bottle of whisky (of any kind) that I bought and tremendously enjoyed, my gateway to single malt - the year was 2001. I must stock up on Caol Ila 12, the one sacred monster still standing.

    1. Caol Ila uses almost exclusively refill casks, resulting in minimal wood impact, so there's not a lot of monkeying possible. What would they gain? So hopefully that'll stay about the same.

    2. I don't want to give them any ideas, but there's a lot that could happen, things that we have seen occurring in American and Scotch whisky over the last few years: price increase; selection of honey barrels for a new super-ultra-premium line, with the sub-par barrels left for the standard; a NAS addition to the line, followed by the gradual disappearance of the 12yo. I've had bad Caol Ilas, so I'm sure that it is possible to muck it up.

    3. @Florin - I'm wondering pre-2011 bottles are the way to go. As per the SWA reports, whisky export volumes went up 19% in 2011, so there's the demand jump. I know it's a big generalization, but I've been thinking that's the place to start.

      I wonder who's paying $65+ for this new Talisker 10? Old fans who paid much less for better stuff probably aren't. Must be new consumers.

    4. And as for what Diageo could gain by flubbing Caol Ila? I'll leave it to someone less bent over Diageo crap than I to answer that one. :)

    5. Wow, my last sentence reads much differently than I'd intended. How about: "I'll leave it to someone less pissed at Diageo than I to answer that one." That's better.

  3. Look out for some old Map Labels in Europe... maybe on Ebay.co.uk, maybe some other online plattforms. I recently bought some of them for around $100. I know, as I always tend to hear... who's paying 100 bucks for 10yo whisky? But then again... they are worth the money ans still affordable. I'm sure this will change very soon :(

    1. I've never actually seen one of the Map Label bottles in The States, though I've been told they exist. Do you know when they switched over to the non-map labels?