...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Birthday Booze! Inchgower 36 year old 1974 Master of Malt

Third review of the week!  You know what that means...  Super short introduction!

As I had for the previous two birthdays, this year I opened and consumed a sample of a whisky that was as old as I.  This time it was this Inchgower that Master of Malt bottled back in 2011.

I actually bought the sample in 2011 too, back when UK shipping was half of what it is now.  Oh, the days.

Before this sample, I'd tried a grand total of two Inchgowers; both 29 years old.  I liked them both, but now that I've downing a 36 year old Inchgower, I'm pretty sure I have no idea what their regular teenage or Flora & Fauna versions taste like.  This is a situation I normally don't find myself in since I'm unable to make a habit of drinking old whisky.

Distillery: Inchgower
Owner: Diageo
Independent Bottler: Master of Malt
Age: 36 years (September 16, 1974 - June 9, 2011)
Maturation: refill bourbon hogshead
Type: Single Malt
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 53.4%**
Limited Release: 177 bottles

** - One bit of weirdness.  The sample says it's 53.4% ABV.  The website says it's 53.4%.  But there was an identical cask distilled and bottled on the same exact days which produced same number of bottles and was labelled 41.5% ABV.  And the official photo on the website shows an ABV in the 40s, when zoomed in.  Whiskybase and whiskywhiskywhisky say it's 41.5, while Ruben from whiskynotes says his was 53.4 and Bonhams shows a bottle with the 53.4.  It could be that there were two very identical casks, but I doubt it.  Master of Malt split the cask with whiskybroker, and whiskybroker's bottles were 53.4% ABV.  So I'm going with 53.4% ABV.  Whew, that paragraph took longer to research and write than the rest of the entire post.

On to the stuff!

The color sits between light gold and amber.  The nose is a blast of fruits, candies, and creams.  Orange-mango juice, limes, fresh bananas, lemon peel meets peppercorns.  Cherry Blow Pops.  Vanilla and tapioca custard.  Hints of barrel char, but much less oaky than current "rejuvenated cask" whiskies.  Some anise and mothballs give it another boost.  On the palate, a big fruitiness at the start is reined in by a soft bitter close.  It's very zesty and spicy (yes, I know Ruben used those words in his review too, but he's a copycat with a time machine).  More creamy than buttery.  To be more specific about the fruit-to-bitter development: it goes from tropical fruit juice to lemon candies to tropical fruit Skittles to flower blossoms to dark chocolate to coffee.  A very effervescent finish, mint leaves and menthol.  Crème fraîche and mocha.  Fruity candies too.

A very pleasant nose leads to a zippy palate which leads to an enormous finish.  40+ minutes of that effervescent glow.  I like this a lot.  And now I'm 3 for 3 with old Inchgowers, with this being the best of the three.  And yes, this 36 year old single cask whisky was 75GBP (62GBP, ex-VAT) three years ago.  Seriously.  The 15 year old Balvenie is more expensive than that now.  It's unnecessary for me to say that this single cask sold out a long time ago, so my condolences if, like me, you wish you had a bottle.

Availability - Not
Pricing - £74.95 with VAT, sigh
Rating - 91

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Birthday Booze! Lemorton Domfrontais 35 year old 1978 Calvados

Calvados?  That's a funny name.  What the hell kind of whisky is that?

It's not whisky, actually.  It's a French brandy made from apples and pears which---


Where are you going?

Calvados is good!  Especially in the summer......

Well, it looks like I lost Blue Text on this one.  And probably a few readers who saw the post title and said, "F**k it."

For those of you still reading, I opened my one old bottle of Calvados for my birthday this year.  Balblair out, Lemorton in.  While Calvados isn't inexpensive, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than single malts of comparative ages.  I also did not buy this bottle blindly, since I had the pleasure of attending a brandy tasting led by Charles Neal about a year and a half ago.  The '78 Lemorton Domfrontais was my favorite of all the brandies that night.  Its price was exorbitant so I did not buy it at the time, but in a moment of craziness I bought a bottle in February of this year, for this upcoming birthday.

Some Calvados is distilled from apples, some from both apples and pears.  In the Domfrontais region of Calvados, pear trees thrive due to their affinity for the local soil.  In order for a Calvados to get the "Domfrontais" appellation, its distillate needs to be made from at least 30% pear.  And that distillate must come from a single pass through a column still.  It is then aged in enormous French oak casks.  Due to the size of the massive (sometimes reused) casks aging happens much more gradually than it does with whiskies.  The idea is to let very little oak character get into the mix, thus allowing the distillate itself mature and shine.

I like Calvados a lot, though I'm not an expert on which farms and families turn out the best stuff.  In Calvados, I like the aggression of the essence of the apples, while the palate remains not overly sweet.  It often makes for better summer drinking than most Scotches do.

All I know about Lemorton is what Neal has written about.  The family makes some young Calvados blends, but they also turn out a number of old vintages like this one.  Oh, and their distillate's pear content is 70%.

Type: Brandy
Country: France
Region: Calvados (in Lower Normandy)
Subregion/commune: Domfront, Orne
Family: Lemorton
Distillate: approximately 30% apple / 70% pear
Distillation: once through a column still
Year distilled: 1978
Year bottled: 2013
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

The color is of a dark maple syrup.  The nose has a dense apple center amongst a fluffy pear expanse (this was my third drink of the birthday evening).  The apple and pear come across as baked rather than fresh.  There's a lot of spiciness that I usually don't find in younger Calvados, so perhaps it's from the oak?  Smaller notes of roses, honey, and maple.  The palate has lots of fresh sweet apples at first taste, followed by some tannic dryness.  Ah, now it's applesauce.  Now it's sour apple gum.  Softer notes of grilled pear.  Lots of honey, though.  Hints of mint and cayenne pepper.  With time, the pear notes rise up.  The palate never gets sugary sweet.  More honey in the finish, then fresh pears, apple juice, menthol, and a sprinkle of black pepper.

For most of the experience, the apple content feels two to three times stronger (if that can be quantified) than the pears even though the pears outnumber the apples more than 2:1 in the distillate.  That speaks to the intensity of Calvados's little apples, or the subtlety of their pears.  Or both.

I'll be honest, there's not a hell of a lot of depth in this brandy.  It also feels a bit tight, and only seems to open up after a lot of air.  I'm going to chalk that up to the Top o' the Bottle Blues, since the first pour from a bottle almost always feels reserved and closed up to me.

All of that aside, this is still quite nice.  In the nose, the oak spice walks the starting-to-intrude line, but retreats in the palate in order to let all of the apples roll in.  It makes for great summer sipping, if one is looking for something lighter than Corryvreckan on a late August evening.  Quality-wise it could stand with most starter malts, though it's not going to topple many 35 year old whiskies.  I'm looking forward to finding out what it's like next year when I taste it again.

Availability - A dozen or two retailers in the US and Europe
Pricing - $140-$160
Rating - 85 (my 2015 review drops it to an 84)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Birthday Booze! Balblair 1978, the final chapter

Alas, the last of the Balblair '78.

Distillery: Balblair
Ownership: Inver House Distillers Limited
Age: 30 years (1978-2008)
Maturation: American oak ex-bourbon barrels
Region: The Highlands (North)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chill filtered? No.
Caramel Coloring? No.

I opened it on August 24, 2012 and then reported back.
I drank from it again on August 24, 2013 and wrote about it.
Then I finished it on August 24, 2014.

Okay, and I may have snuck sips here or there.  I'm not the sort of fella who knocks out a 1/3 of a bottle in a sitting, even on my birthday.

To reverse what I wrote in 2013, and confirm what I wrote in 2012, this whisky was bottled in 2008, not 2010.  How do I know this?  Forget any bottling code deciphering.  It's on the damned label:

In the long periods between opening, the whisky was preserved with Private Preserve and I'm pretty confident the stuff worked.  And by "worked" I mean that the whisky was still bursting with richness after a year of the bottle being much less than half full.  But I don't think its nose and palate were frozen in time...

As in 2013's post, I did not look at my previous notes before or during this tasting.

The color is light gold.  The nose has both ripe cantaloupe and under-ripe honeydew, as well as some cucumber.  There's some black licorice/anise and citronella candles.  Subtle notes of milk chocolate and lavender flowers (not soap!).  It's also much woodier than I remember it having been before.  Plenty of wood spices and caramel sauce.  The palate is also spicier than I recall it being before.  There's plenty of sweetness to be found, but it's well complimented by that spice, making it feel very rich.  Fruitwise, there's there a little bit of honeydew, some caramel-covered sour apple, and a lot of tart lemons.  Some notes of chocolate and taffy, too.  The finish gets sweeter and sweeter, and tarter and tarter at the same time, somehow. Subtle bitterness slips in here and there.  The melon and cucumber from the nose return again, along with the flowers.  And there's something smoky lurking in the distance, perhaps from the barrel.

Taking a look back at my notes from the two previous years...... Looks like I did get some oak upon opening it in 2012.  But not much oak in 2013.  In 2013, there was a TON of fruit action going on, which I remember well.  Much of that has now dissipated.  And I think the oak notes have partially replaced it.  In fact, there's something slightly bourbony about the whisky now with all the wood spice, caramel, and sweetness.

If I were to compare the three tastings, I'd say I liked the 2013 the best because the fruit barrage was awesome.  While the oak isn't too overwhelming now, it has started to shove other things out of the way.  I am going give this a lower rating by a few points (*gasp*!), but for the majority of the bottle I'd still give it the 93 point score.  It was a delightful whisky and a pleasure to treasure.

Availability - A few European retailers
Pricing - $250ish (w/shipping, w/o VAT) via UK retailers, otherwise $350ish
Rating - 89 (though the majority of the bottle was 93)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Notes from a tasting: Peatin' Meetin' Whiskies at Home, Part 2

To recap, while I did attend Peatin' Meetin' this year, I did not drink during the event.  Instead I picked up a baker's dozen samples, all of which I will be tasting in the controlled environment of my home.

Most of these samples are 0.5oz (unless otherwise noted), so I probably won't be providing numerical grades.  Instead, I'll be giving each one a letter grade range.

Last week I tasted four of the samples, this week I did three.  Here's the list:

-- Balvenie 17 year old Islay Cask (OB, 43% ABV) - Grade Range: B-/B
-- Loch Lomond Peated, green label (OB, 46% ABV) - Grade Range: D+/C-
-- Bowmore 16 year old 1990 Sherry Cask (OB, 53.8% ABV) - Grade Range: B-
-- Laphroaig 13 year old 1994 (Cadenhead, 54.7% ABV) - Grade Range: B-/B
-- Bladnoch Lightly Peated 11 year old 2002 K&L exclusive (OB, 51.5%)
-- Longrow 10 year old Sherrywood (OB, 46% ABV)
-- Laphroaig 15 year old 1998 K&L exclusive (Signatory, 61% ABV)
-- ???
-- ???
-- ???
-- ???
-- ???
-- ???

Bladnoch Lightly Peated 11 year old 2002 K&L exclusive (OB, 51.5%)
K&L picked up three single barrels of Bladnoch directly from the distillery: this one, a 4yo, and a 23yo
Nose -- Oakier than it looks, with some wood pulp and butter going on, though that part isn't too strong. The peat reads as a recently snuffed bonfire. There's a larger note of lemon peel and a hint of fresh peach.
Palate -- Lots of citrus.  A very nice bitterness, light sweetness.  A rye-ish spice meets a gentle mossiness and a peep of tropical fruit.
Finish -- Mild spice, mild bitterness.  Hot cereal and caramel.

Grade Range: B
Even though it probably would get lost at Peatin' Meetin' amongst the heavy hitters, this is actually a very solid mild peater.  For me, it's one of the rare whiskys whose palate trumps its nose.  I liked it even more than the Cadenhead Laphroaig.  If the Armstrongs had figured out how to nail this as a 46% ABVer, it would've been very nice in a regular Bladnoch range.

Longrow 10 year old Sherrywood (OB, 46% ABV)
original part of the regular range, it was discontinued sometime around 2008
Nose -- The sherry note itself is subtle as everything has merged together lushly. Tropical fruit, toffeed peat, milk chocolate, faint smoke, orange peel, maple, and a hint of oats.
Palate -- A quirky start: mint and basil and caramel sauce meet a very farmy peat.  Then there's black licorice, a little salt, and a lotta malt.  Fresh cherries in simple syrup develop over time.
Finish -- Long. Loads of malt. Peppery spice and peat residue. Cherry candy and fresh oranges.

Grade Range: B+/A-
Good god.  Springbank, please bring this back.

Laphroaig 15 year old 1998 K&L exclusive (Signatory, 61% ABV) 
I grabbed almost a full ounce of this stuff, which had been aged in a refill sherry butt
Nose -- A summer meadow, then that same meadow burned down.  Wheat bread toast and aged dry cheese.  There's some meaty sherry in the background, along with a little bit of floral stuff, farmy notes, and orange peel.  With water, it develops dog fur, pepper, bacon, and hay notes; and becomes less smoky in the process.
Palate -- Intense char, menthol, and hops. Sherry and prunes at the very edges. Some earthy notes in there too.  With water it gets hoppier and sweeter; the smoke fades and the peat moss builds.
Finish -- Charred peat and a soft floral note. Next-day cigar mouth.  With water, the smoke returns along with a spicy bite.

Grade Range: B/B+
The nose gets the B+.  Overall, pretty good, quality-wise comparable to the better official 10 year old CS batches.  I could understand paying $100 for this, but $170?  Not I.

That was a happy trio. I liked all three better than any of the four from last week.  Longrow 10 year old Sherrywood is in first place, with Loch Lomond Peated (green label) safely in last.  I won't be able to post next weekend, but I'll get the next round of Peatin' samples in as soon as I can.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Single Malt Report: Blair Athol 25 year old Van Wees cask 6918

Blair Athol!  Woo hoo!

Seriously, I'm excited to try this whisky.  It'll be my second Blair Athol in five days.  Before this weekend I had tried a grand total of zero Blair Athols.  I'm also a fan of the Dutch indie bottler, Van Wees.  They've released two casks of 1988 Blair Athol, both of which are beloved by the whiskybase community.  I think I just missed out on getting this one.  Luckily for me, My Annoying Opinions bought it and I was able to get a sample of it in return for an empty bottle of Duggan's Dew.  We'll be doing simultaneous reviews again today.  And here's the link to his review!

Distillery: Blair Athol
Independent Bottler: van Wees (The Ultimate)
Age: 25 years (October 21, 1988 - February 10, 2014)
Maturation: Refill sherry butt
Cask number6918
Limited bottling: 712
Region: Highlands (Central)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%

The color is a rosy dark gold.  The nose has some musty moldy sherry that reminds me of my '70s Johnnie Walker Black Label.  There's definitely something mossy in there too, though the distillery supposedly uses only unpeated Glen Ord malt.  There's some dry tobacco and hay.  Herbal notes range from rosemary to oregano to mint.  Something vegetal peeks up, something between green peppers and cucumber.  Maybe some smoked prunes and carob, too.  It's very intense considering the ABV.  The palate is toasty, earthy, and a little smoky.  Notes of toffee, black peppercorns, and apple juice arise as well.  Big sticky sherry and a wormwood-like bitterness grow with time.  The sweetness curls up at the end.  The long and vivid finish holds rich sherry, tobacco, black coffee, and milk chocolate.  The bitterness lessens slightly and some meyer lemon sweetness arises.

With just a few drops of water, the nose slips away, either tightening or closing or evaporating.  There's still some sherry in there.  Fresh basil and mint.  Maybe some floral notes.  The palate is still toasty and sherried.  Less sweet, more herbs.  Slightly soapy.  The finish is much shorter.  A slight sweetness meets a slighter bitterness.  Plenty of sherry.

This hit the spot.  I loved the busy nose and the bright & bitter palate is how I prefer sherried stuff.  Water did it no favors, so I recommend it neat.  I'm still convinced this was somehow lightly peated.  Maybe the refill cask spent its first Scottish life in Islay?  The quality of this whisky makes me wonder how many other good Blair Athol casks escaped Diageo's claws and are hiding inside independent warehouses?

Availability - Might be sold out
Pricing - was $90ish, ex-VAT, before shipping (not a bad price considering the age)
Rating - 89

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 12 year old 1999 Gordon & MacPhail

In contrast to yesterday's post, I don't have a dozen introductory paragraphs for this whisky.  There are too few Caol Ila reviews on this site and even fewer G&M reviews.  I must get to work on that.  This sample was obtained via a swap with My Annoying Opinions.  And guess what?  We're posting simultaneously on this same whisky bottle right now!  And......here's the link to his review.

MAO's bottle
Distillery: Caol Ila
Independent Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Series: Cask Strength Collection
Age: 12 years (August 17, 1999 - September 19, 2011)
Maturation: first fill sherry cask
Cask number305326
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 61.6%

The color is medium gold.  In the nose, yep, definitely some sulphur up this sherry butt.  While it's there, it's not a dealbreaker since it just provides one of many elements.  There's a Fritos note, but I'm thinking that's connected to the sulphur as well.  Then there's bacon, fresh plums, honey, and nutty sherry.  Sounds like a party.  That's followed by old sweat and urine.  Sounds like a party.  On the palate, the sulphur reads as struck matches, gunpowder, and rock salt.  Then there's soil, ham, sneaker peat, chlorine, and cotton shirt.  It goes sweet → salty.  The finish has the sulphur and peat moss, chlorine and a light sweetness.  After a while, a big sherry burst erupts.

WITH WATER (approx. 46% ABV)
The nose is actually very similar and keeps its vibrancy.  Some more sherry, anise, dirt, and hay have crept in.  The sulphur note is a lot like spent paper caps.  Still has the Fritos note, which has combined with wood smoke.  Also urine.  The palate has changed a bit.  Burnt grasses and herbs.  More moss.  Same gunpowder.  Goes tart → peppery → sweet.  Lots of hay and moss in the finish, followed by sugar and gunpowder.

With its sherry, sulphur, and peat moss this whisky reminded me of the infamous Blackadder baby Ledaig I'd opened up last August.  This Caol Ila is twice as old as that one and, while still pretty zany, feels more pulled together.  The sherry is much brighter, that's for sure.  The palate feels flat underneath the sulphur, though water helps a little; and the finish was so-so.  Overall, while the whisky's not exactly my poison, it's still very entertaining.

Availability - Might be sold out
Pricing - whiskybase says that it was 56GBP or 70euros
Rating - 82

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Single Malt Report: Bruichladdich 'The Organic' (2013 US release)

This is the first of three consecutive simul-posts with My Annoying Opinions this week!  We'll be reviewing the same whiskies (from the same bottles) at the same time.  We'll see whose opinions are really more annoying.

Here's the link to MAO's review.

For clarity purposes, this is the vintage-less US release of Laddie's organic single malt.  They had a number of smaller Europe-only organic releases previous to this, and there's a new Scottish barley version on the shelves.  This is not that.

Two years ago, I tried this whisky and LOVED it.  It was at a rep-led official tasting and The Organic was lined up with much swankier and more critically acclaimed Bruichladdich products.  But I liked The Organic best.  It had lots of cereal and grassy notes that really hit the spot and it started my fascination with nearly oakless malts.

When compared to Benromach's Organic, Bruichladdich's Organic sits at the opposite side of the oak-driven spectrum.  Benromach's version uses virgin oak from "environmentally managed forests" and results in a thick, dessert whisky full of vanilla, wood spices, and caramel sauce.  I had thought the use of new oak would be mandatory for an official organic designation, because previously used casks would still hold remnants of non-organic fluids (bourbon, sherry, etc.) -- or so Benromach seemed to infer.  But apparently Bruichladdich has been using a mix of new and used casks in their organic malts.  The lightness or near absence of oak in The Organic seemed to show an absence of new oak.

Let's zip forward to February of this year.  Florin (a prince) and I split a bottle of The Organic.  The whisky was bottled on February 8th, 2013 and in a bit of coincidence we opened it on February 8, 2014.  I noticed two things on the canister:

Thus, they did use former bourbon casks and it did pass both EU and USDA organic regulations.  Organic purists may say, "WTF?".  I just find this situation curious because the 2014 version of 'Laddie's organic whisky (not the one I'm reviewing) is specifically called "Organic Barley", it is no longer The Organic.  Purity aside, I adored the final result of the (likely) refill casks.

You may have noticed I used the past tense in that last sentence...

Distillery: Bruichladdich
Current ownership: Remy Cointreau
Age: older than 3 years, previous editions were around 6 years old
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks
Mash: Chalice barley (organic)
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 46%

The color is a light amber.  The nose begins with pilsner and yeast.  Lots of yeasty dough, actually.  Then toasted barley, apples, followed by orange and lime peels.  Some entertaining hints of honeyed ham and Barbasol shaving cream.  The fruits grow with time as does a dusty note.  The palate is very soft.  Not a lot of there there, at first.  Gradually oats, granulated sugar, and stale soda bread develop.  Then ground black pepper and pencil wood.  It is at turns buttery and tart.  The finish has the pepper, butter, and pencil wood notes, along with a tangy tingle and mild bitterness.

The nose is immediately more pungent.  Bigger fruits, including overripe peaches and nectarines.  Hints of dust, varnish, and manure.  It's also much more perfumy and sugary.  The palate feels bolder too.  More tartness, more sweetness.  Some drying tannins meet fresh stone fruits, then a soft herbal bitterness and a peppery heat.  The finish is longer and sweeter, as well.  Lots of barley and yeast, then bitter over-steeped tea.  It can be a bit acidic and buttery at times.

When I sipped this at home six months ago, I was a little disappointed by the lack of...well...everything on the palate.  While there was some cereal-ish stuff on the nose, I had trouble finding its flavors in general.  The Organic (which had the same label) I had tried two years back was aggressively bready and grassy.  But my bottle seemed to have had the volume turned down.

What it needed, of all things, was water.  Dropping the ABV down to 40-43% turned the volume back up.  While neat, the nose is good and the palate inoffensive.  But with those drops of water added, the whisky becomes enjoyable.  As a result, I've added water to my remaining bit of this whisky, dropping the ABV down to 43%.

As I hinted above, this version of The Organic has been discontinued for a Scottish Organic Barley bottling.  Until recently, I would have said this was a damned tragedy.  Now, I don't feel strongly about it.  You don't have to hate yourself if you miss out on this, but if you find it at its original price it's not the worst thing to split amongst friends.

Availability - A couple dozen US retailers
Pricing - $55-$75
Rating - 84 with water (high 70s without)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Notes from a tasting: Peatin' Meetin' Whiskies at Home, Part 1

I did not drink at Peatin' Meetin' last weekend.  Well, I drank water because it's Summer and I was on site for over seven hours.  But no whisky for me.  With the event in Pasadena and my home (and my wife and my 3 month old daughter) 32 miles south, I had no interest in driving home peated to the gills.  But the event was great and the food was excellent.

And I grabbed thirteen whisky samples to go.

I'm gradually(?) tasting these here in the comfort of home, in a controlled setting.  For the samples that are 0.5oz, I won't be providing a numerical rating.  Instead I'll give a general grade range.  I have a few that are 1.0oz or more, and those might get a rating.  We'll see.

Here's the list of samples, with names being added in each post:

1. Balvenie 17 year old Islay Cask (OB, 43% ABV)
2. Loch Lomond Peated, green label (OB, 46% ABV)
3. Bowmore 16 year old 1990 Sherry Cask (OB, 53.8% ABV)
4. Laphroaig 13 year old 1994 (Cadenhead, 54.7% ABV)

The first four, from the comfort of home!

1. Balvenie 17 year old Islay Cask (OB, 43% ABV)
not the 'Peated Cask' from four years back, but the original 'Islay Cask' from ten years ago.
Nose -- Starts in Speyside: Peaches, Oranges, and Vanilla.  Then gradually shifts.  Citronella candles, anise, plaster, ashes, and lots of soil.
Palate -- Lots of dirt, roots, and bark.  It gradually grows sweeter.  Then there are hints of flowers and lemon.  A bitterness builds that feels more woody and resinous than herbal.
Finish -- Both sweet and bitter.  Cigarette ashes.

Grade Range: B-/B
I love herbal bitterness in my whisky, but woody bitterness is often due to cask problems.  I learned that lesson harshly with my own whisky barrel.  Without all of that resin, this would have been a B+.

2. Loch Lomond Peated, green label (OB, 46% ABV)
why not, right?
Nose -- Quite Finlaggan-esque, very young and very skunky.  Garbage on a hot day, rotting lettuce, notebook paper.  Also some cotton candy, apple skins, toasty grains, and peat moss.
Palate -- Much softer than the nose. Wormwood bitterness and a peatin' that gets sweeter with time.  But the two biggest notes are wood smoke and burnt marshmallows.
Finish -- Wood smoke and a little bit of sugar.

Grade Range: D+/C-
The nose is a hot mess, but the palate is good enough that I would drink this again.  Or at least I'd drink this before I'd drink The Fin, again.

3. Bowmore 16 year old 1990 Sherry Cask (OB, 53.8% ABV)
the casks were ex-olorosos
Nose -- Smoked sherry, tar, moss, and baking chocolate.  Then cigarettes, rotting apples, and dried grass clippings.  With water, it gets grassier and mossier.
Palate -- Hot.  Now the sherry is burnt.  Ashes, burnt peanuts.  Some sweet orange stuff.  With water, it gets grassier and bitterer.  The smoke and sweets remain.
Finish -- Sherry, ashes, maybe lavender?  No change with water.

Grade Range: B-
The nose is a B+, easily.  But the palate is oddly bland, though water helps a little.

4. Laphroaig 13 year old 1994 (Cadenhead, 54.7% ABV)
from a single ex-bourbon hogshead; I'd hoped to get a bigger sample but this bottle went quickly
Nose -- A real softie. Saline nasal spray. Cigarettes in strawberry ice cream.  Leather, hay, armpits, and dusty book pages.
Palate -- Sugared-up peat moss.  Smoke and a good bitterness that develops with air.  Vanilla and a peppery zing.  Hints of sweet citrus.
Finish -- Lemon-lime fizzy, peat smoke, vanilla.

Grade Range: B-/B
Mild and light, it's the politest bourbon cask Laphroaig I've tried.  While nothing is technically wrong with it, there's not a whole lot to recommend.  It falls short of the official 10yo CS batches (including 005).

Okay, so far Laphroaig probably edges the Balvenie for first place and the Loch Lomond sits comfortably in dead last.  Let's see what happens in next weekend's Part 2...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Single Malt Report: Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, batch 93

Another sample from WhiskyJoe!
Yes 'm.  I'm the third blogger to review a Stranahan's batch in a week's time.

Bourbonguy reviewed batch 95
Smokypeat reviewed batch 116
Smokypeat liked his, Bourbonguy not so much.

There was a lot of great word of mouth (courtesy of Jim Murray and Whisky Advocate) about Stranahan's a few years ago, but the whiskey wasn't being sold in California.  In fact, back then my easiest method to buy it was via European retailers, which is silly.  Anyway, my brother-in-law lives near Boulder and I've been looking forward to visiting the distillery, and maybe even purchasing a bottle in the meantime.  But that would be a blind purchase, something I'm not crazy about doing, even to support a small business...

...but wait, it's no longer a just small business.  In 2010, Stranahan's was purchased by Proximo Spirits, the folks who also sling Cuervo, Three Olives, Ron Matusalem, Kraken, Boodles, 1800, Hanger 1, and more.  According to Wikuhpeediuh, Proximo increased Stranahan's production by 150% after their takeover.  The actual production quantity remains small because it's a small distillery.  So it's still micro, though its ownership is macro.

The batch I'm reviewing today was bottled in August 2010, four months before the takeover.  I'm limiting my intro here because of the plentitude of notes...

Distillery: Stranahan's
Ownership: Proximo Spirits
Region: Denver, CO, USA
Type: Single Malt
Batch: 93
Bottled: 8/15/10
Age: a range of 2 to 5 year old whiskies, thus two years old
Mashbill: four types of Colorado barley
Maturation: new American oak
Alcohol by volume: 47%

I opened my sample (obtained via a swap with WhiskyJoe) a couple days ago with quite some optimism.  But I was immediately struck by a number of issues in the whiskey that turned me off.  Some air helped things out...

Day 1 (sampled neatly) --

The color is a medium gold.  Acetate hits first in the nose, reminding me of budget-priced high-grain Irish blends.  Then comes high-VOC paint, banana peels, and toffee.  Had to give it ten minutes of air before I could continue.  Then came new oak char.  Then orange peels, vanilla, cotton candy, angel food cake, and walnuts.  The toffee returns, but with a floral note in tow.  Bananas show in the palate as well.  It's very sugary, but grows sourer and tangier with time.  Notes of vanilla merengue, Peeps, caramel, and Mallow Mars-type "marshmallow" filling.  The long finish brings with it barrel char, vanilla beans, and banana candy.

I was very thankful that some air opened up the nose.  The palate was still vague and plain.  And the banana notes were a big turnoff.  I have serious issues with banana candy.  But, my wife had a sip and she thought it was okay.  So I saved the second half of the sample for the next day:

Day 2 --

Ah, the acetate thing is softer in the nose, where it's more like glue.  It's quiet though.  Maltier notes are showing up now.  It's still very candied -- cotton candy and cinnamon candy.  There's some baking spices, caramel, toffee, and floral notes.  Lots of sweetness in the palate again, sometimes granulated sugar, sometimes Nutrasweet.  There's some pepper and tangy lemons; toasted coconut meets a light bitterness.  After some time, carpet and cardboard notes arise.  The finish is remarkably long, tangy and very peppery.  No banana candy!

The nose is still sugary.  Whipped cream, creamsicles, caramel, and cinnamon.  But be careful with the water because it nearly kills this one off.  The palate has a nice bitterness to it, met by walnuts, toasty oak, and citric acid.  The finish has been silenced.  Now it's mostly acid and tannins.

The extra air and oxygen space in the sample bottle improved things considerably.  I do not recommend water with this batch, especially because it kills off the best part: the finish.

In the comment section of Smokypeat's review, Rob Dietrich provided some info about the whiskey.  He mentions that there's a mix of 2, 3, 4, and 5 year old barrels within.  My skills are not so sharp as to discern the difference between 2 and 3 year old stuff.  But, two and five?  Maybe.  I'll try to create a humiliating blind taste test some day...

Anyway, there's a lot of very young spirit in this batch.  This is a familiar tune.  The recent growth of new small American distilleries has resulted in an lake of young bottled spirit.  It's born of necessity, investors require revenue so producers put what they have on the market.  The fault in that approach is a brand can be destroyed by premature products.  Young whisk(e)y isn't necessarily bad, but there's very little of it that's reliably good.  As I just wrote on Facebook, I'm looking forward to what the market will look like in ten years.  Who will be still around?  The key isn't for a company to sell someone one bottle.  That customer needs to return for a second and third.  Marketing will nab the first sale, quality will win every bottle after that.

Stranahan's has already been around for ten years.  So they're doing something right, aside from getting a major buyer.  They release their products in small batches, so there will be variation.  This particular batch doesn't inspire me to run out a buy a bottle.  But it didn't scare me off.  I'd love to see a five-year old whisky from them someday.

Availability - Colorado, New York, and (possibly) California
Pricing - $50-$60
Rating - 78 (up from 70 on day 1)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Balcones True Blue Cask Strength Corn Whisky, batch TB13-3

Okay, one last Balcones big fella before I move onto another American distillery.  This time I have an actual bottle:

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength Corn Whisky
When my friend Daniel gave me his bottle (Thank you, Tetris!), it was more than 90% full.  He had no further use for it.  Could that be be foreshadowing...?

One might ask why is True Blue not labelled "bourbon"?  Bourbon whiskey needs to have a mashbill that's over 51% corn.  Corn whiskey's mashbill needs to be over 80% corn.  So technically there's an overlap north of 80% (Buffalo Trace's low-rye bourbon mashbill floats around there).  From a marketing standpoint, bourbon is selling like crazy while "corn whiskey" tends to ring of moonshine.  People are buying oceans of Elijah Craig bourbon, but Georgia Moon corn whiskey, not so much.  So there's something else going on that's keeping Balcones from calling it True Blue Bourbon.  And that something is oak.  Bourbon must be aged in brand new American oak barrels.  Corn whiskey can be matured in used barrels.  According to Balcones's Brand Ambassador Winston Edwards, True Blue is indeed aged in "used charred casks".

(.......and please see the comment section below for the Federal Regulations subpart that renders much of the above paragraph pointless......Winston Edwards, if you ever read this please weigh in!)

Similar to bourbon, rye, and wheat whiskies, corn whiskey can have the Straight (2 years or older, one distillery) or Bottled in Bond (4+ years, 100 proof, and aged in a bonded warehouse) designations.  True Blue has neither of these designations, so I'm thinking this is a young spirit.

(The usual disclaimer regarding American whiskies: If I have my facts confused, someone please let me know.  Thanks!)

Distillery: Balcones
Region: Waco, TX, USA
Type: Corn Whisky
Batch: TB13-3
Age: ??? (bottled May 30, 2013)
Mashbill: 100% Hopi blue corn (Atole)
Maturation: used charred casks
Alcohol by volume: 57.2%

These notes are the result of three separate tastings:

Its color looks a lot like an oloroso sherry (unlike that glass full of sunshine in the pic up top).  The nose leads with corn syrup, maple syrup, mint, and vanilla ice cream.  Sometimes the mint reads more like basil candy.  There are also notes of creamed corn, Bowmore FWP lavender, caramel candy, and lemon-scented cleaning solvent.  It's very desserty and smells as if it's going to be an enormous bourbon.  But then the palate shifts gears.  Twigs and branches floating in caramel.  Barrel char and black pepper.  Toasted nuts and honey butter.  It's both very very tannic and muted in tone at the same time.  The finish grows sweeter.  It's slightly minty and corny and has some length to it.  But it's mostly oak: pulp and plain caramel.

WITH WATER (approx. 35-40% ABV)
The nose has changed.  Candy corn, licorice, peanut brittle, and mothballs.  And then the tree-related stuff: bark chips, pine needles, toasted staves.  The palate is salty and oaky with a green wood resinous bitterness.  Its sweetness is only momentary.  The bitterness grows in the finish.  Some corn and caramel show up.

The nose is very good, bursting with character.  The palate is flat, flat as the I-40 in north Texas.  It's fascinating that refill casks were used because the tannins in this whisky stomp down everything else.  Adding water shows off the nose from a different angle, but again the palate nearly vanishes.  Whatever you do, DO NOT try this as a highball; of which the best I can say is that it's reminiscent of cold bubbly burnt corn cob.

To clarify, this is not bad whisky.  I could nose this all day.  But its palate leaves a lot to be desired; part of that might be the nature of a whisky devoid of a flavoring grain like rye or wheat, but most of it has to do with an overabundance of muting tannins.  All (or most) of Balcones's products are known for their big wood, but this is the first one where the oak really doesn't work for me.

For what it's worth, here's how I rank the Balcones stuff I've tried:
1.  Texas Single Malt (batch 12-4)
2.  Rumble (batch R12-3)
3.  Rumble Cask Reserve (NYC Edition)
4.  Brimstone (dunno the batch)
5.  True Blue Cask Strength (batch TB13-3)

I'm in the middle of some blending experiments to see if I can turn this thing into that killer bourbon I found in the nose.  If I'm successful, I will report back.  If not, I'll only reveal the epic failures.

Okay, in the next review, I'll get the hell out of Texas.

Availability - All batches are scarce right now
Pricing - $60ish?
Rating - 76

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Not Technically Whisky Report: Balcones Rumble Cask Reserve, NYC Edition

On Tuesday I reviewed the Balcones Rumble, a spirit first distilled from Texas honey, figs, and turbinado sugar and then aged in "small" casks.  A pleasant surprise, Rumble not only makes for a pleasant drink, but throws some entertaining curveballs with its fig eau-de-vie moments.

In that post, I forgot to mention two elements that may factor into Rumble's quality.  Firstly, batch variation.  Balcones runs a relatively small operation so unlike big whisk(e)y factories they don't have the luxury of too much tinkering, blending, or disposing in order to adjust inconsistent batches.  Batch R12-3 may have been one of the very good ones.  I could have been lucky.  Secondly, alcohol content.  Rumble is bottled at 47%abv, which means that it's much less watered down than most rums and brandies, which are often bottled at 40%.  Those extra points may have helped influence the liquor's great texture and potent character.

So, what if there was a more limited batch released at a much higher ABV?

The Balcones Rumble Cask Reserve, NYC Edition, is just that thing.  Now, this isn't exactly the cask strength version of the Rumble.  As per Josh's interview with Chip Tate, on The Coopered Tot, the Reserve receives additional maturation time in barrels larger than the ones used for the original aging.

Thanks again to Whisky Joe for sending the Reserve to me in a sample swap!

Distillery: Balcones
Region: Waco, TX, USA
Type: Not Whisky
Batch: NYC Edition
Age: ???
Distilled from: Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and turbinado sugar
Maturation: "small oak barrels"  (possibly 20 liter barrels)
Alcohol by volume: 58.1%

The color is dark gold mingling with medium brown.  The nose is intensely woody (sap and bark).  Then there's furniture polish, caramel, corn syrup, and lots of vanilla.  In fact it's not too far from bourbon.  Then a burst of Bee Sting Honey 'n Habanero Pepper Sauce (I didn't know this stuff was still on the market. Oh, the memories...).  Towards the end there's a little bit of peanuts and a lot of hazelnuts.  On the palate, one could mistake this for bourbon.  Or maybe bourbon with a little rum added.  And by that I mean vanilla, caramel, corn syrup, oak pulp, and sugar.  When the big ethyl heat subsides there's a wallop of sugar.  Then dried figs and raisins.  The honey & pepper combo edges in, along with some salt.  There's also something oddly (young) armagnac-like floating around; a combo of wood spice, caramel, and dried fruit.  It finishes with lots of honey, vanilla, and caramel.  Rummy.  Sometimes almost smoky.

The nose has caramel, sawdust, subtle lemon, and a little bit of malt.  The palate is sweet but very drying and tannic.  I wrote "rum" down twice in my notes, including "vanilla rum".  A bitterness begins to show, though I'm not sure if it's from the wood or spirit.  It finishes with vanilla frosting, butter, and molasses.

This is schizophrenic stuff.  Sometimes it's a bourbon.  Sometimes a rum.  Then there's baby armagnac.  There was even something malty in the nose.  I'll bet it would be a fun stumper in a blind tasting.  And I do mean fun.  It's still entertaining and tasty.  It's just all over the place compared to its softer Rumble brother.  I tried to reduce it to 47%abv to see if I could find the regular Rumble in there, but the Reserve didn't hold water too well.  In fact, I recommend just taking it hot rather than hydrating it.

The Reserve can be very sweet.  Rum fans may not have an issue with that, but scotch fans might.  Personally, I would pick the regular Rumble over the Reserve, as the 47%abv version has less oak, less sugar, and more of the fig brandy.

(For a different take on this same Reserve batch, see The Coopered Tot's review.)

Availability - All batches are scarce right now
Pricing - $60-$80
Rating - 79

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Peatin' Meetin' 2014!

This Saturday (August 9th) at 5:30pm, Peatin' Meetin' VI fires up at the Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena (next to the Rose Bowl).  Yep, it's at a different location this year, a bigger one.  Brookside provides more room to spread out, and more room for whisky.  Plus there's free parking this time.

Here are some more of the highlights:

Three big LA bars will be mixing up whisky-based cocktails
Two Celtic folk rock groups providing live music
T-shirts and whisky glasses
Peated barebcue
A full cigar lounge on site
Peated beer
And also whisky

Yes, there will be whisky.  LOTS of whisky.  Some being poured by reps and sponsors.  And even more goodies being supplied by the LA Scotch Club.  The whiskies coming from LASC are great.  I've literally seen all of them.  Okay, not literally.  Figuratively.  I helped enter whisky info into the database for the event's whisky app (for iPhones and Androids).

Plus I'll be there, always a highlight.  I'll be at the LASC members info table and then pouring stuff at the tables.  They might even entrust me with a walkie talkie this year.

So that's where I'll be this Saturday.  I always recommend it, the whisky is great and the people are awesome.  (Plus, somehow the Huff Post got word of the event.)


This year for high rollers, whisky ballers, and people in search of wild adventure, there's the Peat Monster's Ball on Friday night (here's the link).  It's prime rib dinner and five whiskies:

Black Bowmore.
Lagavulin 21yo, 2007 release.
Port Ellen, 2nd official release.
Brora 30yo, 2007 release.
Ardbeg 1975.

Yes, those are whiskies.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Not Technically Whisky Report: Balcones Rumble, batch R12-3

All of the recent discussion about NDPs (non-distiller producers, companies that buy barrels from a distiller then sell the whiskey via their own brand) has spilled out from whiskey geek circles to The Daily Beast and NPR.  While I fully support all efforts to get the TTB to do its job better and help us see more disclosure and honesty on labels, I also want to make sure that the distillers who are actually distilling get some notice on my site.  I'm going to try to sprinkle a few reviews of these around.  Two this week, two next week, and two or four next month.  BUT, I cannot promise the results will be pretty.  Just because someone distills their own stuff, doesn't mean it's automatically awesome.

First up: Chip Tate's Balcones, run out of Waco, Texas.  For a whole bunch of info on Chip & Co, please see this post by The Coopered Tot.  Balcones has a number of products on the market.  There's a Texas Single Malt, which I like.  There's Brimstone, beloved by MAO.  They have the True Blue and Baby Blue corn whiskies.  And then there are the Rumbles.  Today I'll be reviewing Balcones Rumble, batch R12-3.

Sample courtesy of Whisky Joe, via a sample swap.  Thanks, Whisky Joe!
Rumble isn't actually a whisky.  It's a liquor (or liqueur?) distilled from Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and turbinado sugar, then aged in "small oak barrels".  It sounds quirky, let's see if it works for me.

Distillery: Balcones
Region: Waco, TX, USA
Type: Not Whisky
Batch: R12-3
Age: ???
Distilled from: Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and turbinado sugar
Maturation: "small oak barrels"
Alcohol by volume: 47%

The color is light gold.  The nose holds a lot of slivovitz (Eastern European damson plum brandy) and honey cake.  Then some roast pork, rose buds, and Milk Dud caramel.  With some air, the nose develops fruit cake and vanilla bean notes.  The palate is immediately more pleasant and less sugary than expected, and the texture is quite thick.  There are bold honey notes and lots of spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, and red peppercorns).  Subtler notes of honey butter and a cross between Sprite and tonic water.  With air, the palate shows some of the slivovitz and toasty oak.  Some molassy rum arrives in the finish, along with vanilla, honey, caramel, and some dry tannins.

The nose gets saltier and rummier.  Honey and orange peel.  Much less eau-de-vie.  The palate mellows out.  Soft bitterness and soft vanilla.  Slivovitz and fresh figs.  A little peppery.  The texture gets outrageously creamy.  The finish gets more of a bitter bite.  Then in comes the figs and plum brandy.

This was much better than I expected.  I'd anticipated a mess of aggressive sweetness matched with too much fresh oak.  But the fig brandy element pulls the Rumble away from getting too rummy.  The oak is present, and gives it sort of a whiskey feel, but the tannins and pulp are much less pushy than that of many rejuvenated-cask-matured single malts.

I don't think this will blow away a single malt-only fan, but I know I liked it A LOT more than the extra sweet cheap rums on liquor store shelves.  The Rumble might also be an alternative of interest for rum fans.  In any case, I strongly recommend you find a way to try this before buying it.  The price is on the steep side, considering that it's for a very young spirit.  The one positive spin I can put on the cost is that it supports a small business, a company that has probably 1/10000th the capital of Diageo.

Availability - Most specialty retailers
Pricing - $50-$60
Rating - 83

Friday, August 1, 2014

Recapping three weeks of Japanese whisky reviews

To new and future whisk(e)y bloggers if you get obsessed with pageviews (which you shouldn't), then post about bourbon.  If you want to drive folks away, post about Japanese whisky.  If you mention bourbon, it'll be as if you typed Scarlet Johanssen Nude.  Every time I've posted about bourbon, especially when I don't know what I'm taking about, those writeups find eyeballs.  Thank you Google SEO logarithms.  When I post about Japanese whisky, it's just you, me, spambots, and my wife (though probably not) reading the review.  Also, bourbon bourbon bourbon.

The results of the six Japanese reviews hold some surprises.  To recap in posting order:

Nikka Whisky From the Barrel - blended whisky - 51.4%abv -- score: 88
Nikka Taketsuru 12 year old - blended malt - 40%abv -- score: 79
Suntory Hibiki 12 year old - blended whisky - 43%abv -- score: 82
Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel - single malt - 48%abv -- score: 86
Karuizawa Spirit of Asama - single malt - 48%abv -- score: 83
Karuizawa Spirit of Asama - single malt - 55%abv -- score: 86

The highest scoring whiskies were without age statements.  Those with stated ages scored lowest.  But those with stated ages also had the lowest ABVs.  I'm thinking that the low ABVs had more to do with the lower scores.  In the Taketsuru and Hibiki whiskies one can feel that they've been watered down significantly.  Very little was going on in the palates.  That could suit a starter $30 blend, but these cost more than twice that.

Because of my very positive experience with Japanese whisky, I was worried about getting to these tastings, in fact I postponed them almost four months, because I thought their quality would result in my desire to buy bottles of all of them.  That's $500-$600, which I don't have.  And the whisky cabinet is already full.  So my own optimism caused dread.

But hey, good news.  I'm a schmuck for being optimistic!  While none of them were terrible, I'd only recommend one without reservations.  And it's the cheapest.  All hail, Whisky From the Barrel.  It's a blend, has no age statement, is in a smaller bottle, and is very tasty.

Most of us who grouse about the prevalence of NAS whisky are not industry-trolling Luddites.  We admit when something is good.  And we can be easily won over.  Keeping the price down, the flair content low, the ABV high, and the quality higher is the key to our hearts.  Congrats to Nikka.  Now if you could do something about Taketsuru...