...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Single Malt Report: Karuizawa Spirit of Asama 55%

Yesterday, I gave a brief recap of the Karuizawa distillery and its highly valued whiskies.  Perhaps the lowest priced of all the Karuizawa bottlings are the Spirit of Asamas.

These two were originally exclusives for The Whisky Exchange, though other European retailers also sold them.  The 48%abv and 55%abv bottlings are part of a seventy-seven sherry cask vatting -- or so the marketing materials say.  The birthyears of the distillate within those casks are 1999 and 2000, just before the distillery's closure.

Yesterday, I reviewed the 48% edition.  Today, I'll review the 55%er.

Distillery: Karuizawa
BottlerNumber One Drinks Company
Distilled: 1999 and 2000
Bottled: 2012
Maturation: former sherry casks, 77 of them
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 55%

The color is a gold similar to the 48% version.  Maybe it's seven-hundredths darker but that's likely my imagination.  The nose starts out with Cinnamon Toast Crunch and hot sneaker rubber.  Again, there's not much sherry here.  The pine element is quieter than it was in the 48%.  Definitely some moss now, followed by rye-whiskey-like herbs (think anise and fennel seed).  Again, the sherry hits louder in the palate.  Here it's quite sweet.  Fruits stewing in mulled wine.  Herbs show up, but now it's more like rosemary and thyme (nope, no parsley or sage).  There's a strong mineral note that meets up with lime zest and a hot pepper bite.  Rocky minerality meets silky sherry in the finish, with smoke lingering in the background.

WITH WATER (at approx. 48%abv)
Yep, here's the pine and the farmy stuff in the nose.  Sherry in the back.  Very close to the 48, but without the very young mezcal-like note.  Some maple, bread, and floral powder too.  Creamy sherry in the palate but with Talisker-like peppery heat giving it an edge.  Some herbal bitterness perks up.  The limes and minerals recede, replaced by flower blossoms.  In the finish it's Macallan sherried malt with cracked black peppercorns in the back.

This is better than the 48% version on a number of levels.  Firstly, the nose and palate aren't on two different planets.  The nose feels more fully baked, meanwhile the herbs and minerals give the palate a more muscular delivery.  Plus, by adding water I turned the 55 into a similar but better version of the 48.  That's my kind of two-whiskies-in-one.

While the 55 is better, I still wouldn't go as far as saying it's excellent whisky.  While it could probably knock over many current Macallans, it can't compete with similar strength GlenDronach, nor GD's 15yo Revival, nor Glenfarclas 105.  And, I shouldn't have to say this but, it doesn't hold a whisky candle to Yamazaki 18.

But as I mentioned in yesterday's comment section, it would be fun if Number One Drinks released a new batch of Asama in the US and kept the price below $100.  That would silence the hubbub surrounding the overhyped overpriced underaged Kavalans for a moment or two by delivering a decent sherried Asian malt for less than the price of two weeks of groceries.

Availability - Europe and Asia
Pricing - was $85ish pre-shipping when it came out, probably twice that price now
Rating - 86 (with or without water)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Single Malt Report: Karuizawa Spirit of Asama 48%

Karuizawa was a little distillery at the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano.  Built by The Mercian Wine Company (or Daikoku-budoshu, I've now seen both referenced) to get in on the growing Japanese whisky industry in 1956, it had a small production (around 150,000 liters/year) and used Scottish Golden Promise barley.  It was mothballed in 2001, then officially closed in 2011.

Its often massively sherried whiskies are now very expensive, with many of their cask strength releases selling for four figures.  For instance, when K&L Wines got their hands on a pair of the dead distillery's single casks, the non-pre-sale prices of $250 (for a 14yo) and $800 (for a 32yo) were on the very low side of Karuizawa pricing.  [Ed. note: The pre-sale prices were even better, but I am loath to shill out that sort of money on a blind purchase.  I'd also had an opportunity for a wee sip of a pair of imported Karuizawas two years ago and was not entirely impressed -- but then again that was back in my sherry-hating days.]

In 2012, the bottler and distributor of the remaining Karuizawa casks, Number One Drinks Company, released a pair of Karuizawa bottlings (via The Whisky Exchange) that were comparatively cheap.  They're called "Spirit of Asama", one was released at 48%abv, the other at 55%abv.  According to the marketing story (and there always has to be a story), the whisky comes from 77 sherry casks that were filled in 1999 and 2000.  But here's the quirk.  There are another two releases called "Asama", bottled at 46%abv and 50.5%abv, that are also said to be from the same 77 sherry casks (and were married for an additional 12 months).  77 sherry casks should result in a lot of bottles; if they're sherry butts that could be almost 50,000 bottles.  So there was/is actually a considerable amount of Karuizawa left to be had.  I wonder how many more times they're going to go to that 77 barrel well, or has it run dry?  If anyone knows more about this Asama situation (facts please!) let me know and I'll update this info.

Despite the fact that The Whisky Exchange said the 48% and 55% bottlings were theirs exclusively, other retailers have been selling them since the release.  Master of Malt was one of those retailers.  I bought a MoM sample of the 55% and my friend Daniel contributed his sample (thank you!) of the 48% for the sake of scientific research.

Today, it's the 48%abv edition, the one on the right.  Tomorrow, the 55%.

Distillery: Karuizawa
Bottler: Number One Drinks Company
Distilled: 1999 and 2000
Bottled: 2012
Maturation: former sherry casks, 77 of them
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 48%

The color is a medium gold.  The nose is surprisingly light on sherry at first.  Lots of pine sap & needles, then grape jam and a hint of tar.  There's also a noticeable new-make-like mezcal note that I've found in peated whiskies half its age.  That's then met with a combination of pharty sulphur and farmy hot dirty hay.  The harsher notes fade back with time and are replaced with lots of sugar.  Perky creamy sherry shows up in the palate.  Lots of sugary prunes, light toffee.  It's reminiscent of Macallan 18yo but with more oranges and limes, and a thicker texture.  Lots of sugar and sherry in the finish.  Both candied and sour citrus lingers longest.

WITH WATER (at approx. 40%abv)
On the nose there's more farm, less pine.  More sugar, maybe orange candy?  The mezcal note is still there, as is the sulphur.  Citrus notes build with time.  Sherry on the palate again.  But now there's some dry tobacco and a nice bitterness slipping in.  The lightly bitter, tangy, sherried finish runs briefly.

There are two whiskies in one here.  The nose seems like a baby whisky from a refill sherry cask, while the palate feels like it's a first fill cask and acts more its age.  I haven't seen much mention about whether Karuizawa peated its malt but there's something in the nose that says peat moss.  Serge gives it a 2 on his 0-9 P meter, I'd up it to a 4 in the sniffer.

In my notes from the "With Water" section, I wrote "palate could be mistaken for a good Macallan".  In fact, I'd say the whisky improves with water.  Gasp!  When neat, the nose feels oddly half-baked and the palate has the sherry overwhelming the malt.  Hydrating the whisky helps even those things out.  Overall, there's nothing groundbreaking in this stuff but I would recommend it to Macallan fans (to drink, not to collect, damn it.)

Availability - Europe and Asia
Pricing - was $75ish pre-shipping when it came out, probably twice that price now
Rating - 83 (with water, a couple of points less without)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Single Malt Report: Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel 2012

Today's post comes to you one day late and 50% shorter due to Exhausted Parent Syndrome.  There will probably be a half-dozen typos two.

When Suntory produces Yamazaki's regular range, they use a number of different new makes distilled from the different shaped stills in the distillery.  Those different new makes go into three types of casks: ex-bourbon barrels, ex-sherry casks, and toasted Japanese Mizunara oak casks.  The three casks are in all of their regular range, though the Mizunara whiskys are used sparingly since the number of those casks are very limited.

In 2010, Yamazaki began releasing annual no-age statement versions of each cask "Bourbon Barrel", "Sherry Cask", and "Mizunara".  They also added a larger sized cask "Puncheon" to the NAS series.  In 2013, they added a "Heavily Peated" one to the group.

Though its price keeps rising, Yamazaki 12 year old is a whisky I recommend often, especially if one can find it for $50 or less (and good luck with that).  Outrageously rich considering its low ABV, Yamazaki 18 is one of my top ten favorite single malts.  To me the 12yo feels like there's more ex-bourbon in the mix, while my bottle of the 18yo seemed to be mostly sherry casks.  The new individual cask-type releases give drinkers -- with considerable funds at hand -- a chance to try the parts that make up the whole.  I would do obscene things for a bottle of the Mizunara, but I have a purchased sample of 2012's Bourbon Barrel for review here and that will do for now.  We'll save the conversation about obscene things for another day.

OwnershipSuntory Whisky
Age: ???, my guess is that it's younger than 10 years
Maturation: 180-liter former bourbon barrels
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 48%

The color is light gold.  The nose is oaky and fruity.  To expand: Toasted almonds in caramel sauce, then fresh apricots and white nectarines.  After a bit of an ethyl nip there's whole grain bread crust, rose blossoms, and a hint of sour milk.  Coming back to the oak again, it smells very fresh rather than charred.  Vanilla shows up in the palate, but it's more towards the back than the front.  Sometimes it reads more like frosting.  Then some white cake (or shortbread?) to go with the frosting.  Black peppercorns, bitter tea, honey, and the apricots make up the much of the rest.  It has a medium-sized finish Aside from the vanilla frosting, tree bark, and some citrus around the edges, there's still quite some yeast and grain.

Even though the nose reveals that this is some young stuff, it's actually very pleasant.  Even the sour milk moment, which may be interpreted as butyric, is okay (to me) because it's slightly reminiscent of the current Tobermory 10.  The palate is graceful considering the youth and the oak isn't too forceful.  I wouldn't say it's that challenging of a malt, but it's sturdy (the ABV helps) and a nice all-around drink.  I'd buy it at half its current price. ← Legally required price complaint

For two other opinions:
MAO reviews his bottle here.  We have similar notes regarding the oak, though overall he found more salt and spice than I.  (88 pts)
Serge reviews the 2011 version here and he finds it to be "fully oak driven".  (82 pts)

Availability - Europe and Asia
Pricing - $110-$150 before shipping
Rating - 86

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Hibiki 12 year old meets The Bearded Lady

Once upon a time, four months ago, I bought a bottle of a now-defunct Japanese blended whisky, Suntory Royal SR, bottled in the early '80s.  At the liquor store I was excited by the $25.99 price tag, but once I got home I was less excited by the fact that the cork had been nearly vaporized and the seal was long gone.  It was a very strange whisky as a result, oxidized and possibly corked, and it -- dubbed The Bearded Lady -- joined a crew of other freaks in my cabinet.  It also seemed to be bottomless, despite losing plenty of liquid to the Bastard's Share.

Here's how I had to store the poor thing, champagne cork and all:

And now the bottle has found a better purpose in its next life:

Where was I going with this?

Oh, in the comments section of my review of The Bearded Lady, reader Eric asked how it compared with Hibiki 12 year old (the current big Suntory blended whisky).  I had a sample of Hibiki 12 in the cabinet but hadn't even considered matching the two blends up.  Thanks for the idea, Eric!  Here it goes.

Hibiki 12 year old
Brand: Hibiki
OwnershipSuntory Whisky
DistilleriesYamazaki and Hakushu for malt, Chita for grain
Age: minimum 12 years
Bottled: Early 2010s
Maturation: "a variety of cask types", including Mizunara casks (also see comments below)
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Suntory Royal SR (aka The Bearded Lady)
Brand: Suntory Royal
OwnershipSuntory Whisky
DistilleriesYamazaki, maybe Chita?
Age: ???
Bottled: Early 1980s
Maturation: maybe a blend of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and Mizunara casks?
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 43.4%

So, it's the current (conceived, brand-wise, in 2009) and very popular 12 year old blend from Suntory versus a discontinued NAS blend from Suntory.  The SR's label specifically names the Yamazaki distillery.  Hibiki has both Yamazaki and Hakushu malts in it.  The two ABVs are very similar.  The Hibiki has been in a Master of Malt sample bottle for a brief but unknown period of time.  The SR sat in its 750mL bottle for at least 30 years and had a noticeably low neck (or shoulder) fill before I opened it (and maybe some dissolved cork too); plus this sample comes from the bottom third of the bottle.


Hibiki 12 year old
Color -- Medium gold
Nose -- There are moments of toasted oak at the start, but then there's a blast of berry syrup and berry candy, maraschino cherries (the cheap kind), lychee, and raspberries. There's plum wine and lots of it, followed by paint fumes.
Palate -- Here's some toasty malt.  Then American oak but toasted rather than charred.  A nice tartness somewhere between an orange and a lemon, then a hint of nuttiness, and ground cayenne pepper.  There's slight bitterness after the whisky has been aired out. Overall it's somewhat drying, probably due to the tannins. 
Finish -- Sweetness grows here, think sugar and marshmallows. Then some acidic citrus. The toasty part remains and is joined by overripe bananas.

[Okay, I had to do some searching midway through because there was way too much berry action going on in the nose.  Normally I don't research cask types until after a tasting, but I had to know what was going on. Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange say that some of the blend's elements are matured in plum liqueur barrels, other sources say parts were only finished in these (umeshu) barrels.  The official website says nothing about it.  Anyway, once I read that, the subtle plum wine notes suddenly got much bigger.  Coincidence, of course.]

Suntory Royal SR (also see here for original review)
Color -- Medium gold, too, but rosier
Nose -- Watermelon candy, mothballs, and Purple.  Strawberry bubble gum and lime zest.  Tonic (the corn syrup kind) and caramel.  Less potent than at the top of the bottle but still not shy.  Something's rotting in the background, something once alive, and it's not necessarily fruit.
Palate -- Wet and muddy notebook paper, vanilla, caramel, Purple.  Lime-ish.  A synthetic note for which I still can't define after a full bottle.  Lots of body to it though.
Finish -- An odd rotten whipped cream thing.  Some herbal bitters and vanilla.

Hibiki 12
Positives -- The nose is a lot of fun.  This is an instance when an unusual maturation works in the whisky's favor.  Though the palate rides all the way through on its oak, it's not off-putting, and it finishes well.

Negatives -- But there's not a whole lot going on in the palate, especially after the bright and zippy nose.  For a whisky at half its price tag, that's not dealbreaker.  But at $60?  No matter how pretty the bottle looks, the stuff inside is for drinking.

Suntory Royal SR
Positives -- It's not shy.  The nose almost works, it has a good mouthfeel, and the bitterness in the finish is decent.  It leaves me wondering what a normal bottle of this was like in 1981.

Negatives -- I don't think I've ever finished a glass of it.  Whether it's the oxidation or Old Bottle Effect or cork or the whisky itself, there's something off-putting on every level.  Additional oxidation in a mostly empty bottle and in the glass can't kill it off.

Hibiki 12 wins, and not just because SR loses.  Hibiki 12 gets almost all of its character from the oak and the plum liqueur that once sat in some of its barrels, and while I'd rather have more whisky in my whisky, the blend often works.  But it works as a beginner's blend and not much more.  It's very possible you'll like it better than I, but I recommend trying it at a bar or via a sample before laying out $55-$75 for it.

Hibiki 12 year old
Availability - Most specialty retailers
Pricing - $55-$75 (US)
Rating - 82

Suntory Royal SR (oxidized and possibly corked)
Availability - Happy hunting
Pricing - I found mine for $25.99 but who knows what it sells for elsewhere?
Rating - 71 (down from 75 in its original review)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Nikka Taketsuru 12 year old Pure Malt

In 1918, Kihei Abe, the owner of a large Japanese spirits producer, sent a young Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn how whisky was properly made.  A trained chemist, Taketsuru took additional chemistry courses at the University of Glasgow before setting off to get an apprenticeship at a Scottish distillery.  A manager at the Longmorn distillery allowed him five days of an intensive free internship.  A couple months later, he spent three weeks at the now defunct Bo'ness distillery and learned how to use a Coffey still.  Then in 1920, with the help of one of his professors, he started a five month apprenticeship at the (now also closed) Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown.  When the apprenticeship ended, he returned to Japan, newly betrothed to his Scottish wife, Rita.  Soon after his return, the company he was working for went bankrupt.  His next job was at a massive beer company, Kotobukiya, which would later become Suntory.  In 1934, Taketsuru and his investors built the Yoichi Distillery in which he'd begin production of Scottish-style single malt.  His company didn't begin to turn a profit until the war years, but once it did it became one of the two largest whisky producers in the country.  In 1952, he named the company, Nikka.
(sources: nonjatta.com and nikka.com)

Today, Nikka has a number of Japanese whisky brands and owns a Scottish distillery, Ben Nevis.  There are at least six different blend brands, one of which is named Taketsuru, after the founder.  Taketsuru is a blended malt, or vatted malt, as it contains only single malt whiskys.  Nikka calls it a "pure malt", a term banned the Scotch Whisky Association.  But because Nikka isn't part of the SWA, they can happily ignore that rule.

There are a bunch of releases in the Taketsuru range in Japan.  In the US, we have the 12, 17, and 21 year olds.  The sample I have of the 12 year old came from Europe and has an ABV of 40%.  I was going to write a disclaimer about the differing ABV in the US, when I realized the US release also has a 40% ABV.  So, no need for a disclaimer!  It will be interesting to see how an all malt blend at 40% matches up to Tuesday's blended whisky at 51.4%.

Brand: Taketsuru
Type: Blended Malt
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Miyagikyo and Yoichi
Age: minimum 12 years old
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Batch: 16A46C

The color is a light copper.  There's definitely a reddish tint in it.  The nose has a peep of what seems to be a sweet sherry, though I'm unsure if they use sherry casks.  There are small notes of oranges, peach schnapps, vanilla, eucalyptus, and tropical fruit (something between mango and papaya).  But with air, it changes a bit: butter, rose blossoms, rum, powdered sugar donuts, and lots of caramel.  The palate is different than the nose.  Grass, cocoa, and a light sweetness.  There's also some band aids, tobacco, burnt white bread, and molasses.  It's all very subtle and sort of watery.  Sometimes an odd vodka-like ethyl note appears, trailing some sweet citrus.  The short finish holds soil, a rooty bitterness, caramel, dusty black pepper, and simple syrup.  There might be a hint of tropical fruit but I might be imagining it.

I didn't add water as the palate already feels watered down.  This is the spot in the post where I usually say that I'd love to see this at 46% ABV, but I'm not really sure what sort of character would get beefed up.  There's nothing in here a drinker can't get elsewhere.  That doesn't mean this is bad, it's entirely drinkable.  Only the wateriness and the weird ethyl note can be sources of complaint.

And, if you can't already tell, Taketsuru 12 is limp and lazy next to Nikka Whisky From the Barrel.  Yes, a blend with grain beats up on an all-malt blend.  The higher ABV probably doesn't hurt, but it's possible that the recipe/ingredients also work in the WFTB's favor.  When one takes into consideration the bottle size and international shipping, WFTB is similarly priced per mL but more worthy of the price.

On a final note, it appears as if Taketsuru 12 year old may be getting phased out, to be replaced by a 43%ABV no-age-statement version.  But the US is loaded with bottles of the 12 if you're looking for it.

Availability - Many specialty retailers
Pricing - $55-$75 in the US
Rating - 79

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Nikka Whisky From the Barrel

So, we go from a Japanese-owned American whiskey called "Straight From the Barrel" to a Japanese-owned Japanese whisky called "Whisky From the Barrel".

Nikka owns two malt distilleries, Miyagikyo and Yoichi, and release a number of single malts from each.  They also have a vatted malt, called Taketsuru which is blend of whiskys from both distilleries.  Recently they also added a single grain whisky from their Coffey stills to their line up.  In addition to these, they have a half dozen blends.  Here in the US, we've gotten one Yoichi (15yo), one Miyagikyo (12yo), three Taketsurus (12yo, 17yo, 21yo), and the Coffey still Single Grain, all of which sell for considerable prices.  I've tried the Yoichi 15 (which I loved) and the Single Grain (which was better than I'd expected, very bourbony).

What hasn't get crossed the Pacific is Nikka's high strength blend, Whisky From the Barrel (WFTB, for my purposes).  Going by whiskybase's list there have been at least 73 bottlings of this blend and all have been at 51.4% ABV.  Once upon a time, the grain component of WFTB came from the Nishinomiya distillery.  But since Nishinomiya's coffee stills were moved to Miyagikyo in 1999, I'm pretty sure that there's no Nishinomiya in this current NAS blend.  But the good news, other than the high ABV, is that the whiskys used in WTFB are blended then married together in first-fill bourbon casks for some time before bottling.  And the bottles are pretty much flair free:

Ownership: Nikka
Type: Blended Whisky
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Miyagikyo (malt & grain) and Yoichi (grain)
Age: NAS
Maturation: probably ex-bourbon casks to start, then later married in first-fill ex-bourbons
Alcohol by Volume: 51.4%

The color is medium gold.  The nose has lots of malt and even more oak.  Wouldn't know that there's a grain element in there.  Okay, after a few minutes there's a young grain note in the background but it works as an ingredient with the rest.  Then lemons and peaches, which are almost floral in their intensity.  Very sugary, simple candy, lots of overripe stone fruit.  It smells like it's going to be very sweet......And the palate does have a sweet element: orange pixy stix and caramel.  But there's also smoked toffee, rubber, and ham, which I'm going to guess are from the Yoichi.  Vanilla starts to develop late, as does citrus and pear.  The sweets rule the day in the moderate length finish.  An orange peel note builds with time.

Lots of sugary stuff again in the nose. Maybe some jasmine, but definitely wildflowers. Tangerines. The palate gets creamier in taste and texture.  Vanillas, sweet creams, and lemon candies.  A touch of wormwood bitterness, in the far back, counters some of the sweets.  In the finish it's lemons and lemon candy.  Caramel.  Hint of smoke?  A little of that nice bitterness.

I like this.  It isn't complex; it's simple and tasty, sweet but not too much.  There's enough American oak present (and corn in the grain whisky) to make it of interest to bourbon drinkers.  It may have a touch of smoke, but that could be my imagination.  With the good ABV, it could stand up straight in a mizuwari, and it does well with even a couple drops of water.  And look at the industrial leanness in that bottle design.  Squat bottle, tubby cab, monochrome label.  It takes some courage in the current whisky market to remove all visual flab.

Who wouldn't like this stuff?  Folks who find the oak too strong.  People looking for layers of complexity.  Buyers seeking crystal decanter whiskies they'll never open and only show off like dick pics on Facebook.  Terrorists.

Availability - Europe and Japan
Pricing - $30-$45 ex-VAT, before shipping (500mL bottle)
Rating - 88

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Big Ol' Bourbon: Blanton's Straight From the Barrel, barrel 68

Buffalo Trace has two regular (rye-included) bourbon mashbills, #1 and #2.  Mashbill #1 has approximately 8% rye content -- this is the recipe for the spirit that goes into the barrels that become Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Old Charter, and George T. Stagg.  Mashbill #2 (15% rye) is the DNA for Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee, Ancient Age, and Blanton's.  What's of interest, and what I didn't know until this year, is that those four bourbons from the preceding paragraph are all owned by a Japanese company called Age International.  So Buffalo Trace distills and produces those bourbons for Age Intl using one recipe, then uses a separate recipe just for their own (aka Sazerac's) brands.  For more information on Age Intl, I recommend Chuck Cowdery's post and its comment section.

As Age International controls the Blanton's brand, they control which bottlings are sold where.  Here in the US, we just get Blanton's Single Barrel.  But overseas, you may find Blanton's Gold Barrel, Single Barrel Gold Edition, Single Barrel Silver Edition, Paris by Day, Paris by Night, and a whole slew of "Straight From the Barrel"s.  Straight From the Barrel is what it sounds like, a single barrel release bottled at what is probably barrel strength.  The ABV numbers on these are always sizable, between 63 and 67%.

I'm a fan of the regular Blanton's Single Barrel (46.5% ABV) and I did two different reviews of one bottle, here (in 2012) and here (in 2013).  So I was very happy to get my whiskey mitts on this sample in my last purchase from Master of Malt.

Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Brand: Blanton's
Brand Owner: Age International
Region: Kentucky, USA
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Age: unknown
Mashbill: Buffalo Trace #2 (higher-rye; about 15%)
Bottled: 9/6/2012
Barrel: 68
Warehouse: H
Rick: 24
Alcohol by volume: 65.85%

The color is a dark orange gold.  The nose is full of buttery oak, salted caramels, and grilled meat.  That is followed by a citronella candle and a cherry lollipop held aloft in salty ocean air.  After some breathing time, notes of pine sap, maple candies, vanilla, and floral perfume emerge.  The palate takes that cherry lollipop, carries it along through the big ethyl heat, and transforms it into a cherry cordial.  More cherry candies, then oak pulp, salt water, and charred beef ashes.  More cherry cordials in the finish, along with cherry pushup ice pops.  Then more salt and a hint of caramel.

The palate is hot and thin which, while preferable in some non-whiskey instances, isn't great here.  The cherry notes are fun but that's the best I can say.  The nose is much more interesting and got better with air.  Since I found the regular Single Barrel much improved with oxidation, I'm airing this one out further and lowering the ABV...

WITH WATER (around 50% ABV)
The nose has calmed down, though is quietly busy with many subtle notes:  Maple, caramel, sawdust, lipstick [Ed. I ate lipstick once, there's nothing more to that story.], rubbing alcohol, root beer, and brownie batter.  The palate is smokier. [Ed. I ate lipstick twice.]  It's less sweet and there's more young rye spirit pushing through. So there's some pepper to go with the salt.  Light floral and caramel notes.  The finish [Ed. Okay, I'm wearing lipstick. Jeez. You happy now?].  The finish has some sugar, but isn't too sweet.  The candy edge has been pushed way back.  There's some basic barrel char, caramel, and the light floral note.

I rarely say this, but adding water improves the experience.  The nose is still the best part, but the rye kick in the mouth is much appreciated.  Still, I like the oxidized version of the lower ABV Single Barrel better.  But as this is a single barrel release, mileage may vary from cask to cask.  Here are some additional online links of interest:

The whiskybase entry for this barrel - the ratings are mixed.
Serge's review of this barrel - he finds different stuff than I, gives a higher score than I, but doesn't really heap praise on it either.
Whisky Obsessive reviews barrel 270 and finds it to be "a bit of a disappointment".
Sku reviews barrel 195 and loves it.
Red White & Bourbon reviews barrel 268 and gives it a B+.

Availability - (current barrels)  In Europe, Asia, and some travel retail locations
Pricing - (current barrels)  Around $90 before shipping, so it'll easily cost over $100 to get it to The States unless you're travelling overseas
Rating - (this barrel)  83 with water, a few points less without

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Big Ol' Bourbon: George T. Stagg (2013 release)

The annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection drop has turned into a complete circus within the last two years.  Once upon a time, I found a bottle of Thomas H. Handy Rye just sitting on a major liquor retailer's shelf......at its original price......in Los Angeles.  That ain't happening again.  But for all the running and the stealing and hurting and the pushing, the BTAC contains some genuinely excellent whiskies.  Though I haven't been too excited by Eagle Rare 17yo, the Sazerac 18yo rye is usually good, William L. Weller is probably better than the current versions of Pappy, and Handy is f***ing dandy.  Then there is George T. Stagg (Sr., not Jr.).

I think that most of Stagg's notoriety comes from its massive alcohol content, topping 70% in nine out of twelve years.  The 2007 version sits at the apex with a 72.4% ABV.  Staggy's ABV number was so important to some people that this year's 64.1% ABV sounded like a letdown.  Even though the damned release sold out instantly and has topped $450 in some secondary markets, I heard this same comment at three whisk(e)y events: "This year's Stagg sucks."  Each time I inquired, "Oh cool, you've had it?"  "Nah, I'm not opening mine," was the gist of each of the responses.  So these...people...were lucky enough to have an opportunity to buy a bottle, went ahead with it, then sh*t talked it without tasting it, and won't drink their own bottle.  Two things wrong with all of this.  Firstly, if you're hoping to flip your "sucks" bottle, you might not want to act like a snoot, instead you should be talking the stuff up.  Secondly, these people should probably just stop talking about whiskey altogether.

I have tried Stagg 2013.  I've also sampled 2012 and 2011.  They're all excellent.  Seriously, Stagg is my favorite non-dusty bourbon.  My sense memory says the 2013 does taste different than the previous two, but sadly I didn't have those previous versions on hand to compare and contrast.  You drink Stagg when you can.  And then you don't drive.

One month after first sampling Stagg 2013, I was given a Hanukkah surprise.  My own bottle of Stagg 2013.  It took a village to get this to me.

Here's how a person comes to have a bottle of George T. Stagg:

--My brother in-law's (in Colorado) father in-law (in Wisconsin) owns a large grocery store in the Badger State.  Despite his very good connections with distributors, he has to enter a lottery to get even a single bottle of BTAC.  So they generously entered the lottery to get a bottle of Stagg for my birthday.  In 2010.  In 2013 he won the Stagg lottery.
--He shipped it to my in-laws' home in Upstate New York so that I could open my Hanukkah present on Christmas morning.
--Open the box I did.  And there was much rejoicing.
--Because there was a lot of travel ahead of us, my in-laws said they would ship it to our place in California.  But in January their local UPS store said they could not ship alcohol to California.
--So, in early April they played booze mule and wedged the Stagg bottle into their luggage and checked it.  They, their luggage, and the bottle arrived in California safely.

At least eight people in four different states were involved in this.  That's what it took.

I held off opening it until the next time Andrew (my brother in-law) was in town.  Now that he and his wife, Leslie, are expecting a little son soon, it gave us an even better excuse to open it when they were here on July 4th.

Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Brand: George T. Stagg
Region: Kentucky, USA
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distilled: 1997
Release: Fall 2013
Age: approx. 15 years old
Mashbill: Buffalo Trace #1 (lower-rye; about 8%)
Alcohol by volume: 64.1%

Here were my notes from the original tasting with the SCWC on November 24, 2013.  It was a crowded room, my palate may have been questionable as I tried it last.  After the bourbon an hour of air:
Nose -- Big and fresh, totally noseable. A little cask-strength-scotch-y. Figs, prunes, toffee, a little baking spice, and banana bread.
Palate -- Huge-er, almost medicinal. Band aids.  Rich, cakey, big corn and rye, big oak.

Now, for my bottle, I'm doing a little experiment within my controlled setting.  I'm going to line up one glass neat, one with a few drops of water, and one watered down to the usual Buffalo Trace 45% ABV level.  I'm going to try (and list) these lightest to strongest because Stagg neat is a palate-ender.

Nose -- Still quite strong.  Rose blossoms, clay, caramel sauce, and sweet corn.  Cardamom mixed with nutmeg.  Hints of leather, fudge, and barbecue sauce.  Caramel rules the glass.
Palate -- Texture is a little thin, but there's lots of flavor.  Very tannic, but some corny sweetness comes to the rescue.  Then cracked peppercorns and fruits in sugar syrup, like black cherries and dates.
Finish -- Moderate length. Hot pepper sauce. Tree bark. Caramel arises again.

Nose -- Starts BIG, then tapers off.  Toasted whole wheat bread, carob, citron, corn syrup, sticky sugar, fresh banana.  Some beef notes.  Caramel sauce, again.
Palate -- Oh man, it's so rich at first blush.  Figs, dates, and currants (maybe) in a pool of liquid brown sugar.  A rye liqueur.  A spiced muffin (had one of those recently) with salty honey butter.
Finish -- Some pepper, some vanilla, lots of corn and sugar.  Lingers and lingers.  A brief note of the fruits.

Nose -- There it is again, the scotch thing.  This time it's that big fruity character that I've sniffed in old bourbon cask malts.  Something along the lines of citronella and tropical fruit, but then that's met with apples, bananas, and golden raisins in caramel sauce.  Then along comes some perky spice (is that from the oak or rye?).  Roasted corn.  Mushrooms.  Clay.  Roses.
Palate -- It's a little hot, and not just ethyl but spice. If I sampled it blind, I'd probably think it was rye. Oooh, big medicinal burst.  Flashbacks to old-school Robotussin.  Toffees and caramels, both slightly salted.  Remarkably sugary sweet through all of the heat.  A light smoke from the barrel char, or the inside of my mouth.
Finish -- Sweet, spice, sweet, spice, tannins, sweet, medicine, orange rind, sweet, spice, sweet.

This swims pretty well, holding its nose up above the water the best.  But if you have an opportunity to drink Stagg, you've got to try it neat.  The rye, considering its small quality, is very expressive.  The corn and sugars are thunderous.  If you haven't tried barrel strength American whiskey before, then the oak may be too much.  But for me, at this size, it is part of the beast.

Is this better or worse than its high-ABV brethren?  Well, I think it's a little different.  As it apparently sat in a lower, somewhat cooler, warehouse position, a bit of medicinal phenols built up in the barrels.  I love that sort of stuff and it creates another level of complexity (oh, that word), but someone just looking for a face full of hot caramel may be unpleasantly surprised.  Quality-wise it's very similar to the other Staggs I've had, maybe 1 or 2 points of difference in either direction.

While the current secondary market prices on this whiskey are nutty, I'm happy with its actual MSRP ($79.99 or $89.99).  It's legitimately limited, it's aged, it's in demand, and it's very good.  A lot of retailers ignored the MSRP and just doubled the price because they could.  And people bought it.  Such is the market.  I just hope people open it and drink it with friends because that's the best way to appreciate whiskey.

Availability - To quote Edna Krabappel, "Ha!"
Pricing - MSRP was $79.99 or $89.99, it has been sold for up to $450
Rating - 92 (downgraded to 88 in December 2013)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Single Malt Report: Glen Scotia 20 year old 1992 Archives

Distillery: Glen Scotia
Independent Bottler: Archives
Age: 20 years (Feb 1992 - May 2012)
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask number08/71
Limited bottling: 80
Region: Campbeltown
Alcohol by Volume: 50.4%

Let's keep the shpiel short today.  I've never met an indie Glen Scotia I didn't like (even a port finished version!).  Both previous Archives bottlings I've tried were excellent (see here and here).  Let's see if the streaks continue...

Thank you to MAO for a good-sized sample of this Glen Scotia 20 year old 1992 from Archives...

The color is light gold.  The nose has lots of fresh apple (skin and juice), the very beginnings of tropical fruit, and dried apricots.  But after some air, out comes the peat moss which then takes front stage.  Behind it a note of toasted grains develops, as do hints of pine and honey mustard.  The palate is oily in texture and taste.  Light brown sugar then peat moss then barley.  It's short at first, but after some air it expands... Plantains, honey, salt, cigar tobacco.  Then comes the industrial exhaust and what I can only imagine is the grit from Campbeltown roads.  It has a decent sized finish with a Springbank-like oily thing; then salt, pepper, lime zest, and a menthol glow.

Me likes.  Time to hydrate it down below 40%.

In the nose, the peat goes manure-y.  In fact, it smells like the all natural plant food (read: bat guano) I bought last year.  That's followed by mint, citrus sour candies, caramel, rubber bands, and dirt.  The palate gets simpler.  Barley, sugar, peat, vanilla, and soil, along with a light tartness.  The finish mellows out too, though still lasts longer than I expected -- some cream, sugar, and the tart note.

CJ and Menno picked well again.

This Glen Scotia is for Springbank fans.  It takes the hint of grit from the official bottlings and expands on it.  It also develops many layers in the nose and palate missing from the OBs.  My nose notes are creepily similar to the official ones, but I found much different stuff in the palate.  MAO's review finds similar notes and conclusions.  And this marks the rare moment wherein he and I have the most positive reviews on a whisky.  Ruben from whiskynotes didn't care for it much and Serge was limited in his praise, though their notes seem to be of a much more imbalanced whisky.  Before you blindly pull the trigger on it, check out their reviews and the whiskybase listing because this is the biggest rave you'll read about this single malt.

Availability - Here's the link, they're out of samples though :(
Pricing - around $95 w/o shipping, depending on exchange rate
Rating - 88

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Single Malt Report: Glen Scotia 16 year old and the surrounding weirdness

Yes, someone thought this design choice was a good idea.
Many someones, probably.  They all should probably end any further
involvement in decisions like this.  And they have!

In late 2012, the Loch Lomond Distillery Co. Ltd. announced a brand new range of Glen Scotia single malts.  These "Disco Cow" (thanks, Jordan!) design bottlings included 10, 12, 16, 18, and 21 year olds, were all 46% ABV, non-chillfiltered, and un-colored.  Thus some good technical decisions were made for the stuff inside the wacky bottles.

In March of this year, the Loch Lomond Distillery Co. Ltd. was taken over by the private equity firm, Exponent.  Exponent, which also owns Quorn (yes, that Quorn), is calling this Scotch whisky extremity, Loch Lomond Group.  Two of the leading officers in said Group are former Diageo executives.

I'll park my Diageo complaints at the door here.  Anything going forward would be an improvement over what preceded.  The former ownership of the Loch Lomond Distillery Co. Ltd. made a number of strange (a polite word) decisions with their assets.  Firstly, they demolished Littlemill Distillery, which would have likely been their best distillery had it been run well or at the very least could have produced a lot of light malt for blenders.  Then they made little to no effort to run the Glen Scotia distillery for the first seventeen years -- five years mothballed, one year run by Springbank, eleven years producing a trickle of spirit.  The one distillery they didn't handcuff was Loch Lomond, but they did very little to improve that distillery's low reputation.  When they did attempt to refresh their Glen Scotia and Inchmurrin (Loch Lomond) product lines, they presented them to the public in bottles designed for the blind.
Actual range. I'd love to see the designs that were rejected.
Anyway, as mentioned yesterday, Glen Scotia Distillery was mothballed from 1994 to May 1999.  From then until 2007, they were distilling about 13% of their actual capacity.  According to Malt Madness, the distillery then increased its output to all of 17% of its capacity through 2011.  So there's no whisky for a five year period, then not much for the next twelve.  (The Group's site says that production is up to 200,000 liters now, which is still less than 27% of capacity.)

How exactly are they going to fulfill a range of 10, 12, 16, 18, and 21 year old malts?  And what exactly is in those bottles right now?

--10 year old: Probably 10 year old whisky
--12 year old: Probably 12 year old whisky
--16 year old: There was no whisky being distilled 16 years before 2012 and there won't be 16 year old whisky until 2015.  So there was probably 18 year old whisky in the 16 at the start.  Right now, it's 20 year old stuff.
--18 year old: Similar to the 16, there's 20-ish year old whisky in its bottles, and there won't be 18 year old stuff until 2017.
--21 year old: There is likely some 21 year old whisky, but from 2015 to 2019 there won't be, again due to the distillery's closure.
--Glendronach has been handling their earlier closure well within their regular range, but they have a large supply of stock to do so.  Glen Scotia does not, thanks to the very low production levels from 1999 to 2011.

So, similar Ruben of whiskynotes's observation, I don't know how or what Glen Scotia is doing with such a broad product line.  If you know more information about what's going on over there or are finding errors in my math, please let me know!

I just hope the whisky is good.

Thank you to Daniel for donating his Master of Malt
sample for this scientific study!

Distillery: Glen Scotia (a very outdated site)
Ownership: Loch Lomond Group (via Exponent)
Region: Campbeltown
Type: Single Malt
Age: minimum 16 years, though it's likely 19+ at this point in time
Maturation: ex-Bourbon casks
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No

The color is light gold.  The nose is pretty reserved, as if it was from a lower ABV whisky. The stuff that shows up isn't half bad, though.  Vanilla, caramel, salt water, whole wheat toast, and pine sap.  A lot of sap, actually, as the whisky oxidizes. There may be some toffee and cotton candy in there, but it's very subtle.  The palate has some sharpness to it.  Burnt malt, burnt paper, and a load of peat smoke are up front.  Then lightly vanilla-ed malt and sea salt.  It finishes with a piney peat that reminds me of Jura's peated stuff for some reason.  That's followed by a peppery zing that carries on for a good length.

This feels kinda closed.  Let's try it...

The sap's still there in the nose, as is the vanilla and caramel.  Some nutty toffee slips in.  But something in there starts getting yeasty.  Meanwhile the peat goes farmy.  The palate doesn't open up much.  Lots of pepper, bitter herbs, and cinnamon.  It's lightly sweet and smoky.  In the finish, a methanol glow joins with the peat, which has gotten farmy as in the nose. A little sweetness carries over.

Well, there's nothing really wrong with the whisky.  But there's also nothing to cheer about.  The palate never really opens up, but doesn't tank either.  The farmy and sappy notes in the nose are interesting, but the same can be found in other single malts which do it better (e.g. Longrow and Tobermory).  There are times when it feels like the alcohol content is lower than advertised and the whisky is younger (rather than older) than what's labelled.  That's odd, but not bad.  I'd still take the old 12 over this new 16.

I would love to see Glen Scotia thrive.  But I have a feeling that its official bottlings are going to remain overlooked next to Springbank's brands, especially with Longrow and Kilkerran kicking all sorts of whisky ass right now.  I hope that the new Group has some good plans for this little Campbeltown distillery.  For now, I'll still say the independent bottlings are the way to go.  Let's see if tomorrow's IB proves me right or wrong.

Availability - Europe only
Pricing - $70 - $90 before shipping, so it will cost $100+ to get a bottle to The States
Rating - 80

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Whisky Resources page updated

I finally got around to updating the Whisky Resources page.  I am no longer listing any blogs run by retailers.  And it was just wrong wrong wrong to have Whisky Advocate's blog link and not MAO's.  That has been remedied.  Maybe someday I'll get around to updating the Dram Quest.

Single Malt Report: Glen Scotia 12 year old (old label)

Glen Scotia often sits in the shadow of its Campbeltown neighbor Springbank.  Springbank and its brands get the glory and plaudits (often for good reason), meanwhile Glen Scotia Distillery stands just three blocks north with the same maximum production capacity and doesn't even get much coverage in published whisky books.

This quieter reputation has resulted in less demand for Glen Scotia than for its neighbor.  Since less demand often results in lower prices for similarly aged products, that's a good thing for those who like to seek out independent Glen Scotia bottlings.  I like Glen Scotia, or at least I've enjoyed the four indies I'd tried in 2012/2013.

I've chosen to approach Glen Scotia from three angles this week.  And by "chosen to approach", I mean these were the three samples I have.  Luckily one is from an earlier edition of their range, the second is from their new range, and the third is an independent bottling.  Three Scotias from three sources and three different sized samples.

Today, I'll start with the previous edition of the Glen Scotia 12 year old.  I would like to thank Florin (a prince) for a substantial sample of it.  Since I have misplaced my photo of the sample bottle, here is a quality photo of my daughter and I.

There's a little bit of history and trivia connected to this edition of Glen Scotia's 12 year old single malt.  After Loch Lomond Distillery Co. Ltd bought Glen Scotia distillery in 1994, they mothballed it, ending production but not demolishing the place.  Production restarted five years later in 1999 (by Springbank staff, for the first year).  In 2005 the company put this 12 year old onto the market, replacing the old 14 year bottling.  That 12 year old continued to be bottled and sold until 2012, when it was replaced in a new refurbished range.

But.  If you do the math, you'll see the "but".  Between some point in 1994 and May 5th, 1999, no spirit was distilled at Glen Scotia.  Thus the "12 year old" bottled between 2007 and early 2011 contained older whisky -- around 13 to 17 years old.  I wouldn't be too surprised if the updated 2012 version of the 12 year old contained the spirit first distilled after the mothballing.  But most of the bottles of the old 12 had older stuff in it.  If you can find the bottling code on your older Glen Scotia 12, you might be able to see if you're getting the older whisky.

Does it really matter if the whisky was older?  Psychologically, probably.  It's fun to know that, for a change, you're getting more than what's advertised.  But more than that?  It only matters if it tastes good.

Distillery: Glen Scotia (a very outdated site)
Ownership: Loch Lomond Distillery Co. Ltd.
Region: Campbeltown
Type: Single Malt
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: unknown, perhaps a mix of refill casks?
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The color is a bright gold.  There may have been a little caramel colorant involved because the nose shows the whisky to be very naked.  Very crisp and fresh, it holds lots of mellow malt, a soft florality (floralness?), and some lemon zest.  There's apple cider and sugar, and maybe some minor hints of oak pulp.  Underscoring all of this is an ocean breeze and old fashioned bandages.  Lots of malt in the palate too.  It's slightly buttery with hints of herbal bitterness and tobacco.  A light sweetness, maybe confectioner's sugar.  It's pretty simple, but at the end there's a curly-Q of smoke that adds dimension.  The finish is surprisingly strong.  Spirit, smoke, salt, and sugar.  It sounds simple but it's seriously solid.

(Normally I'd apologize for the alliteration, but I'm not going to apologize for the alliteration.)

The nose becomes more citric and dusty.  There's some bruised apples, barley, cardamom, and cinnamon.  The palate becomes sweeter.  It's still holds some bitterness and smoke.  Now a faint rooty note floats up.  The finish is much quieter.  Some paper, smoke, and tartness.

This whisky is old school.  And by "old school", I don't mean the '70s.  I mean, 5 or 6 years ago.  I know this sounds overly simplistic, but it tastes like the sort of whisky that got me into whisky.  The oak is in the background and the barley is in the foreground.  I'm finding fewer and fewer whiskies like this every year.

Yeah, it's too thin and filtered to hold water, but when enjoyed neatly it works.  Spirit, smoke, salt, and sugar.  It's a pity this one never really caught on because it could have stood up well against many of the popular starter malts (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glen Grant, etc.).

Its price started out around $40 in Europe, but today (in the US) it goes for $60-$70.  At $40, I'd happily recommend it.  At $60+, it's a bit much in my opinion, no matter how nostalgic it makes me feel.  But I may take a look for the bottling code before I pass this up altogether.

(Also, here's a positive review of it from Chemistry of the Cocktail.)

Availability - Still available at a dozen or so US retailers
Pricing - $60 - $70
Rating - 84