...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Single Malt Report: Aultmore 5 year old 2007 Master of Malt

This bottling interested me ever since I first saw it online two years ago.  At 66.8% it would have been my most alcoholled (not a word) Scotch whisky.  I'm sure I'm not the only degenerate for whom that is a lure.  But not a whole damned bottle, mind you, I'm not an arsonist.

Alexander Edward had Aultmore built in 1896.  He already owned Benrinnes and Craigellachie, and two years later his company would take over Oban, so it sounds like he was having a good time during the Pattison years.  He rode through the bust that followed, but when the next drop came along, in 1923, he sold Aultmore, Benrinnes, and Oban to John Dewar & Sons. (My god, you just typed Dohn Jewer, you bastard.)  Dewar, Walker, and Buchanan merged together with Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in order to sweat out the dark times.  More than seventy years later, DCL (now called Diageo) sold the Dewar's properties to Bacardi Inc.  And that is who milks Aultmore for its Dewars blends to this day.  Somewhere on this planet there's an old official 12 year old, though Bacardi is releasing a couple new officials next month.  That could be a good thing since it can be a little difficult to find indie Aultmores.

And that brings me to this independent bottling, a single super-young cask from Master of Malt.  Let's see if this hot stuff tops yesterday's Aultmore.

The one on the right this time.  I reviewed the one on the left yesterday.

Distillery: Aultmore
Owner: Bacardi Inc.
Independent Bottler: Master of Malt
Age: 5 years (March 2007 - May 2012)
Maturation: first fill sherry puncheon (probably made of American oak)
Type: Single Malt
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 66.8%
Limited Release: 628 bottles
(Sample purchased by yours truly.)

Though the whisky is only 5 years old, the first-fill cask has given it some color, a medium gold.  The nose isn't as spirity as I'd anticipated.  In fact there's less ethyl than yesterday's TBWC bottling.  An intense caramel note arrives first, then stays for the whole trip.  There are some very defined cereal notes, along with cotton candy and confectioner's sugar.  Both flower and flour notes.  Butter, Milk Duds, taffy, and a hint of prunes.  Its palate is raw and hot.  Just grains and herbs at first: oats, barley, hops, and juniper.  Then comes cinnamon, caramel, sour lemon candy, and graphite.  Grains and herbs again in the finish.  Also some tart citrus and a moment of pine.

How about we wet this fire?

WITH WATER (approx. 47%abv)
Oh man, at first the nose is all sea salt caramel gelato.  Then gradually out come notes of peaches and oranges, flower blossoms and pastry dough.  Very desserty, especially with the dusting of confectioner's sugar.  But the palate spins a different tale.  Wood plank, graphite, and burnt paper.  Caramel meets Tanqueray-like herbals.  Cinnamony rye-like new make.  It finishes with barley, caramel, stale cookies, and graphite.

The smell and taste exist in two completely different realms.  The nose is vibrant.  Hell, it's fantastic.  But the palate is nothing but very rough new make.  I'm not saying that MoM only nosed this cask before they bought it, but this would be a good example of the dangers of only nosing something before buying and bottling it.

For a different point of view, see Serge's review.  He found his to be all oak.  All those palate references to bourbon, coconut, vanilla, and sweetness were very foreign to what I tried.  Yeah, I found some caramel and wood plank, but everything else was grains and herbs and graphite.  Though, I think we'd agree that there's no integration between the wood and spirit in the palate.

To me the nose is so good that I would definitely drink this again, if offered.  But the palate is less than half baked so I'm not disappointed that I only bought a sample**.

Availability - Master of Malt (though it's sold out)
Pricing - Was $55ish w/o VAT, before shipping; around $80 w/shipping
Rating - 80

**Looking at the difference between my notes and those of Serge and a few whiskybasers, there is an undeniable gap in our palate notes.  Others get lots of buttery oak, and I found rough spirit.  IF this is difference is due to another dud sample, then it would bring up an interesting issue.  If the IF is true, then 40% of the samples I've bought of Master of Malt's own indie bottling ranges may have been corrupted or gone bad.  On the other hand, my problem rate with the non-MoM-bottling samples I've purchased from Master of Malt?  4% (2 out of 50).  I find it odd that the samples of their own releases have had a possible fail rate ten times that of their samples of everyone else's whiskies.  Is it the whiskies themselves or is it a problem in their sample bottling approach?  My friends who bottle their samples while standing over their kitchen sink have had a 0% problem rate.  As I mentioned in a comment section last week, as of last year I am no longer buying samples from MoM.  Aside from the high shipping costs and exchange rate being issues, I've noticed that at least 1 in 4 samples have a noticeably lower fill level than the rest.  And now there's this new possible problem.  Because I do have faith in their non-MoM-bottling samples, I will review my remaining samples until they are gone.  If I start noticing issues with those samples, then I'll have to make a difficult reviewing decision about one of my favorite sources.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Single Malt Report: Aultmore Batch 2 That Boutique-y Whisky Company

Alt-what?  Didn't you already do the Alt-something from that indie bottler with the colorful labels?  Didn't you leave the experience never wanting to try more of either ever again?

Sort of and sort of.  There's another Alt-something distillery and my misgivings about Allt-à-Bhainne were misguided since I enjoyed the subsequent Berry Bros sample.

But what about that self-proclaimed boutique (I'm not writing that name out) bottler?

I'm trying to keep an open mind.  Blue text, you're getting as jaded as I.

I've been trying to fight it.

Good luck with that.

And good luck with that whole open mind thing.


Yes, we're moving on to a pair of Aultmores this week.  I'd never tried an Aultmore before these reviews so I had no idea what to expect.  All I knew is that it was (like Aberfeldy) a main ingredient in Dewar's and that (like with Aberfeldy) Bacardi Inc plays Silas Stingy with its barrels, rarely letting any escape to the independent bottlers.  That Dewar's element doesn't work in its favor for me, but I was hoping that, perhaps, Bacardi put aside the barrels that didn't fit their brand and sent them upriver.  Here's to hoping!

In the next review, I'll get into a little more of Aultmore's history, but for now I'm going to get right to the tasting notes.  I'd entered this tasting hoping this experience would be better than my TBWC whisky from last week.  Here's to hoping!

I tried these side by side. I'm reviewing the one on the left today.
Distillery: Aultmore
Owner: Bacardi Inc.
Independent Bottler: That Boutique-y Whisky Company
Age: damfino
Maturation: yarp
Type: Single Malt
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 56.0%
Limited Release: 226 bottles
(Thank you to Tetris for donating this sample to Diving for Pearls Laboratory!)

The color is light gold.  The nose starts with a wallop of pine sap, similar to the TWBC Allt-à-Bhainne.  That's followed by caramel, bitter orange, and lots of ethyl.  After some time, smaller notes of rosemary, savory herbs, brown sugar, and chlorine emerge.  The palate is piney too, at first.  Then comes vanilla, caramel, and tangy lemon.  There's a little bit of spice and malt, much more cinnamon syrup.  Lots of heat in the finish.  There are the tangy lemons, cinnamon, and vanilla, along with some black pepper.

Feels like this could use some water.

WITH WATER (approx. 48%abv)
Somehow, the nose is hotter.  Less pine, though.  The caramel and chlorine are still around.  In the background are some fresh oranges and a little bit of simple perfume.  The palate starts floral (more flowers than perfume now) and very spirity.  There's a slight sweetness along with vanilla and pepper.  The finish is bitterer.  Lots of heat, still.  Then pepper, sugar, and pine.

Water didn't do much to open it up, unless more was required.  It seemed very very young, even younger than the five year old Aultmore I'll review next.  The palate was more enjoyable than the nose as its combo of vanilla/caramel/lemon/cinnamon made for acceptable drinking.  And there was no fatal flaw as there was in the TBWC Allt-à-Bhainne.  Though, while there are similarities between my notes and the official ones, I'm having a difficult time saying anything complimentary about this Aultmore.  It's not terrible, but it seems like it was pulled from the oven before it was done baking.  And if it isn't in fact very young whisky, then maybe it could have used a better cask.  But I have no idea since TBWC discloses no information about their whiskies.

Once again, there aren't many (or any?) reviews of this whisky online.  For what it's worth, the whiskybase folks have rated it the lowest of the Aultmore TBWC batches.  If one bought a bottle and is struggling to get through it, perhaps blending it with a decent sherried malt may help it out.  And perhaps could it inspire one not to buy a whisky based on its label next time?

Availability - Master of Malt (though it's sold out)
Pricing - (500mL) Was $60ish w/o VAT, before shipping; close to $85 w/shipping
Rating - 74

Monday, October 27, 2014

Single Malt Report: Ardmore Traditional Cask (re-reviewed)

Within walking distance of our home there's a pub that once had a number of interesting whiskies.  It was from my visits to this establishment that I produced my first review of Ardmore Traditional Cask.  That bottle has since been emptied, as has all of their interesting Scotch.  *hiccup!*  Now that I have my own bottle of the Ardmore Traditional Cask, I've decided to study the whisky further in a controlled environment and give it a proper re-review.

I like Ardmore, a lot.  A lot alot ALot.  You haven't seen much in the way of Ardmore reviews here because there are times when a reviewer's enthusiasm for a brand or distillery can get the better of him resulting in bloated scores which is something I'm trying to avoid.  Also, I'm hoarding.

Anyway, there's a sad lack of official Ardmore single malts.  They released high strength 25 and 30 year olds but the prices on those can be a bit steep.  There are no other bottlings with age statements.  There was only this NAS Traditional Cask.  It's a real bummer because most of the indie Ardmores (with some age behind them) that I've tried have been delightful.  In the past I've encouraged the Beam reps I've met to propose to the powers-that-be to put out one or two simple age-statement releases.  Even one Ardmore 10 would be swell.  They were already doing a good job with Trad Cask's 46%abv and lack of chillfiltration.  But it seems as if Beam and their reps were focused 100% on Laphroaig, which isn't hard to understand.  Meanwhile the rest of Ardmore gets dumped into the Teacher's blends.  (More on Teacher's another time.)  So, again, we were left with the Trad Cask and the expensive stuff.  Note the "were".  This thought will be continued after the review below.
As you can see, Mathilda finished her breakfast faster than I finished mine.
Bottling: Traditional Cask
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Age: 6 to 13 years (including one year in quarter casks)
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels then quarter casks (the "traditional" casks)
Region: Highlands (Eastern)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Bottle Code: L8 107 08 3ML
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Coloring? Probably

The color is dark gold, almost DiageoGold™.  There's a whole lotta buttery oak on the nose right at the start.  Next up, an anise-like herbal peat note.  That's followed by a sugary barbecue sauce, chicken stock, yeast, salt, and smoked apricot.  There's a hint of lemon and considerable caramel.  The palate notes progress from ash → brown sugar → tannic dryness → iodine.  There's also a sweet note, like peat syrup in Cool Whip.  Lots of cinnamon candies too, along with mint jelly.  The finish is medicinal, like a Laphroaig-lite.  There's some wood smoke and vanilla.  The mint jelly becomes mint gum.  There's a nice length and it (thankfully) sheds the dryness.

WITH WATER (approx. 40%abv)
The anise note remains in the nose, as does the caramel and big oak.  Some honey edges in, along with apples, a little toasty peat, and something orangey.  The palate gets a little oaty and slightly butyric -- almost a relative of Tobermory.  It gets somewhat drier and now there's wood smoke and burnt paper, anise and wormwood.  A little more mossiness enters the drier finish.  Some newspaper without the ink.  More oak/caramel.

So, yes, thanks to the quarter casks utilized in the whisky's finish, there's plenty of oak swimming around.  But, when neat, it's not bad.  But if you don't like the oak on Laphroaig's Quarter Cask, you're not going to like it here either.  Trad Cask a little weirder than Laphroaig Quarter Cask, with quirkier character and less peat.

My bet is that there's A LOT of the younger stuff and just a little bit of the older stuff.  I really enjoyed this bottle, but I'm going to be lowering rating from its original 88.  The whisky seems to rely too much on the oak and not enough on the spirit.  And because it's missing well aged malt, it's also missing the great interplay of fresh fruit and bonfire smoke present in my favorite Ardmore indies.

It's still one of the few lower-priced peated single malts and it is most definitely not an Islay.  But it's not the All Star I once thought it was.  If you can find it for $30-$35 that's a good deal, but once it hits $50 it becomes difficult for me to recommend.

Availability - Most specialty retailers
Pricing - $30 (yay!) to $60 (boo!)
Rating - 83


Oh, one final thing.

Under Suntory's ownership, a new official Ardmore has been released.  And it is replacing the Traditional Cask.  It's called Ardmore Legacy.

No, it doesn't have an age statement, which isn't necessarily a tragedy.  But the most important thing you need to know about Ardmore Legacy is that the whiskymakers have chosen to revolt against the craft presentation movement and go the opposite direction.  Yes, they are replacing a 46%abv non-chillfiltered whisky with...

...wait for it...

...a 40%abv chillfiltered whisky.

Finally, an Ardmore I'll never buy.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Single Malt Report: Allt-à-Bhainne 16 year old 1995 Berry Bros & Rudd

Allt-à-Bhainne gets no love.  Hell, it barely gets any notice.  Whiskysponge dished it a pretty sweet burn in one of my favorite bits of whisky (actual) satire last year.  Serge Valentin ranked the distillery in his second lowest tier (1/2 star, Non classé B).  Johannes at Malt Madness gave it his lowest ranking level (1 star).  And when was the last time you heard this distillery brought up in geek conversation?  And does anyone outside of Banffshire know how to pronounce it?  I've seen and heard more variations for Allt-à-Bhainne than Ledaig or Cairdeas, and that from relatively reliable sources.

It's a big distillery, cranking out 4 million liters of alcohol for Pernod Ricard.  99.99(9999999?) percent of it winds up in blends (especially 100 Pipers).  According to the Whisky Yearbook, because Pernod's distilleries are almost entirely peat-less, the company changed Allt-à-Bhainne's production so that half of its output would be peated (10ppm at malting).  It's a newer facility, built in 1975 by Seagrams.  Pernod took over in 2001 and then mothballed the place until 2005.

There have been no official bottlings ever according to whiskybase.  And because The Blend Machine needs liquid, there haven't been too many Allt-à-Bhainne indies either.  The 12 year old Deerstalker is one (46%abv, UCF).  I panned another on Tuesday.  And then, there is this Berry Brothers & Rudd release from 2011.  Florin (a prince) bought a bottle of it, shared a dram with me back in August, and provided a sample for this review as well.  Thank you, sir.

Distillery: Allt-à-Bhainne
Independent Bottler: Berry Bros. & Rudd
Age: 16 years (1995 - 2011)
Maturation: likely in American oak
Cask number125284
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 53.4%

It has a light amber color with maybe a little bit of golden glow.  The nose is very soft and clean.  Peach candy, ocean air, pool air, and a tiny bit of caramel candy at first.  Then black licorice, lemongrass, rose blossoms, cotton shirts, and papaya.  Barley always lingers in the background.  The palate is actually louder than the nose.  Ripe peaches, watermelon, lemon, and mint.  There's some citric tartness, subtle bitterness, and sugary sweetness (but not too much).  There's also some dry grass and wheat.  Sea salt flakes too.  The moderate length finish has peach schnapps, cayenne pepper (just a peep), orange peel, malt, and caramel.

WITH WATER (approx. 46%abv)
The nose nearly vanishes at first.  Then the lemongrass and roses show up, followed by caramel, orange peel, yeast, and dried barleycorns.  The palate gets drier and grassier.  The fruits and sweetness have vanished.  That bready wheat note remains.  Orange peel, vanilla, and caramel show up.  The finish grows drier as well.  The pepper and malt remain.  Maybe some lime and vanilla too.

This bottling demonstrates how this malt is perfect for blends.  Nothing challenging nor fantastic about it.  It's just perfectly good.  (Water does it no favors, in fact it brings out unwelcome oak notes that are sparse when the whisky is enjoyed neatly.)  It would be an excellent malt for those who get turned off by challenging drinks.  Due to the comfy fruit and denser texture, it's a half step up from Glenfiddich 12.  And it actually has me interested in trying another Allt-à-Bhainne someday.

Serge reviewed it two years ago and found it uninspiring though okay, and seemed to detect much more vanilla than I did.  Meanwhile, whiskybase members give it very high scores but provide no reviews.  Considering that it's a single cask, its original price wasn't half bad.  There doesn't seem to be any more bottles of this around, though BB&R has a new 1995 single cask out at almost twice the price.  So it goes.

Availability - Not?
Pricing - was originally around 65EUR
Rating - 84

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Single Malt Report: Allt-à-Bhainne Batch 1 That Boutique-y Whisky Company

Let's see...
No age statement. Check.
No indication of maturation or casks used. Check.
500mL bottle. Check.
Priced higher than whiskies bottled by more established companies who offer their products with age statements and maturation information and 700mL bottles. Check.
Oh, but the ultra-relevant cheeky labels! Check.

Allt-à-Bhainne Batch 1, bottled by That Boutique-y Whisky Company (TBWC), is priced the same as a 1996 Allt-à-Bhainne refill sherry hogshead bottled by Gordon & MacPhail.  TBWC hasn't given me one reason to buy theirs over G&M's.  Yes, the Connoisseur's Choice labels are fugly while TBWC's are very colorful but is that the best reasoning they've got?  It's essentially Mystery Meat in bright packaging, and such small portions.

I'm quite serious.  Look at this product's site; the ratio of words describing the label to those describing the whisky is 4 to 1.  Throw me a friggin' bone here, people (since they're so keen on '90s pop culture references).  Quirky illustrations on a sticker on the outside of a bottle say nothing about the content inside the bottle.  There are several distilleries that I adore irrationally (for instance, Glen Smooches), but if I saw a Glen Smooches Batch 3 I'd ignore it even if it had a witty drawing of Bob Dylan and Paddy Chayefsky playing Twilight Zone Pinball on the front.

So how's the whisky?

Thank you to Tetris for donating this sample to Diving for Pearls Laboratory!
Distillery: Allt-à-Bhainne (pronounced oalt-uh-vain)
Owner: Pernod Ricard
Independent Bottler: That Boutique-y Whisky Company
Age: damfino
Maturation: yes
Type: Single Malt
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 49.2%
Limited Release: 304 bottles

One note before the notes.  This whisky was originally one half of a Taste Off, but that pairing ended prematurely as I'll note below.  Its partial partner will be reviewed later this week.

The color is a pale light amber.  The bold nose is mostly a burst of pine needles floating in orange juice.  Gradually other citrus-like notes emerge: grapefruit yogurt, lemon zest, and citronella/lemongrass.  Like the nose, the palate isn't shy.  Peaches, apricots, and cocoa powder arrive first.  Tart limes in caramel sauce.  With time, the cocoa develops into more of a mocha note.  After the second sip, something aggressively drying starts to develop on my tongue and in the back of my throat.  The finish has the peaches and limes from the palate and the grapefruit from the nose.  Some pleasant bitterness as well.  Then that harsh drying thing arrives.

At this point I stopped the Taste Off.  The drying sensation was growing into an actual physical, not just sensory, sensation in my mouth and throat.  I've had this experience with a warm possibly-corked red wine, but never with a single malt.  It was altering how I perceived the other whisky.  I set aside the other whisky for another time.  Then I added water to this whisky, waited fifteen minutes then continued, concerned.

In the nose the pine grows (cute!) and the orange juice vanishes.  Lemon zest remains and it's followed by a little bit of jasmine flowers.  The pine now appears in the palate along with the lemons.  A soft note of vanilla creme filling appears.  It all gets hotter, both peppery and ethyl-y.  The finish is tart, citric, and very drying.

I believe I lived to see another day.  There's a dearth of reliable online tasting notes about this whisky, so I don't know if anyone else found that ugly drying problem.  Without that quirk, this is good whisky.  The nose is very good and the palate starts off well.  And I'd like to recommend it to those who like a lot of citrus in their whisky.  But I can't.  That harsh drying note felt borderline toxic, pushing this from a B whisky to a D+ whisky.

Perhaps there was a TCA-like problem with the bottle?  If so, then they bottled 16-ish bad samples from a not bad whisky.  Or perhaps this was, in fact, representative of the whisky's quality.  If anyone (especially bottle owners who have found this post via a search) has confirming or contrasting experiences, please let me know in the comments below.  Thank you.  In the meantime, I can only rate what I've tried.

Availability - Master of Malt
Pricing - Around $60-$65 w/o VAT, before shipping; close to $90 w/shipping
Rating - 69 (without that awful drying issue this would have scored in the 80s)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Single Malt Report: Glencadam 21 year old

Yes, I'm back to the single malt reports.  And I'm going to stay with them for a looooooong time.

Glencadam gets no love.  And that's fine for those of us who know that they're often underrated and priced well (internationally, at least).  Like Ben Nevis, Glencadam is a Highland malt.  But unlike Ben Nevis, it does not have a quirky reputation, plus it sits on the exact opposite side of Scotland in the East.  I'm not sure if previous ownership released groady Glencadam bottles at some point (Jim Murray has referenced some dark Allied years), but even its Angus Dundee stablemate Tomintoul is more familiar to most geeks.  Again, that's cool.  A big run on Glencadam would only cause its range's prices to skyrocket and then I'd complain about that.

Three and a half years ago, I fell down the Signatory rabbit hole when I bought a '94 Bowmore and a '89 Glencadam at Royal Mile Whiskies in London.  Both were very good to excellent, and I've had an unwise crush on the Signatory brand ever since.  I was able to stretch the Glencadam out over eleven months and then made it my one-hundredth single malt report.  Yes, three-and-a-half years ago we could buy a very good single cask of 20 year old Highland single malt for £45.  F**k.

Where was I?  Glencadam.  I've had my eye on their official 21 year old for a while.  So I was happy to buy this sample from Master of Malt...

Distillery: Glencadam
Owner: Angus Dundee Plc
Age: minimum 21 years
Maturation: "Bourbon and Sherry casks" according to whiskybase
Type: Single Malt
Region: Eastern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chill filtration? No
Caramel coloring? Probably not

Its color is amber, light for its age.  The nose begins with pine sap and peach nectar.  With time the pine recedes and peach ascends.  Spearmint leaves and coffee beans arrive next, followed by newly clean laundry, cherry lollipop residue, and dried leaves.  After a while, a big note of flower kiss candy appears.  The palate is creamy in texture and flavor.  There's some caramel and nougat, lots of oranges and limes, and roasted almonds.  Then toffee pudding with coffee grounds.  With air, a big floral note opens up, joined by fresh apricots.  It finishes with some sort of creamy caramelly almond pudding.  Lots of citrus and flower blossoms hang around for awhile.  Then smaller notes of menthol, coffee, and dark chocolate.  After some time in the glass, the whisky's finish actually gets longer and more tingly.

Damn.  This is good, even better than I had expected.  There isn't a hell of a lot of oak involved, nor does it seem too young or hot from crap casks.  It's also not a profoundly complex navel-gazing whisky.  It's just really solid on all levels.  It drinks exceptionally well but isn't sugary sweet.  The floral notes I referenced may make some people nervous, but perfumy or soapy it ain't.  Nor is it full of violets and lavender.  But if you're 100% anthophobic, then you won't like this as much as I.  But to me the florals are just the first flute in an orchestra.  Coffee and chocolate, the big horns and percussion.  Citrus, the smaller brass.  Apricots and peaches, the woodwinds.  Okay, the metaphor is now crumbling.  I liked this whisky a lot.

I wish this was sold in the US of A.  Angus Dundee employee, if you're reading this, please bring Glencadam 21 to The States.  And keep the price comparable to the European one.  That'd be sweet, thanks.

For other takes/notes:
--Serge liked it a lot, though found different angles to it.
--Though Master of Malt has a good price on it, their notes seem to be for a different whisky. Royal Mile's notes make more sense to me.
--A lot of variety in the public's positive notes on whiskybase.

Availability - European specialty retailers
Pricing - Around $90-$105 (w/o VAT, before shipping)
Rating - 90

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Life of a Whisky Bottle: Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998 Exclusive Casks

This is my third "life of a whisky bottle" post, and like the previous two it's a bit of an oddball, not what I'd consider a crowd pleaser.  But there's a better end to this "life of" story this time.

I bought this bottle as the result of February's big sample tasting (posted on Monday!).  My favorite of the eight Exclusive Cask samples was this 14 year old Ben Nevis.  But something seemed strange about it.  Here are those notes again:

4. Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998. 258 bottles, 53.2% ABV
Color - Light gold
Nose - Leather. Very dry sherry, but a funky moldy old school sherry.  Or, is it finally time for this blog to use the ultimate snoot word......rancio?  Then bacon, hay, burnt grains, cardamom.  Then floral soap (but good!), industrial grease, and grapefruit peel.  Yes, that bizarre.
Palate - Strange and herbal.  Cannabis meets orange peel, and it gets more candied with time.  And there has to be peat in here -- at least Bowmore levels.  Very silky texture.
Finish - More peatiness. Light toffee sweetness. Hazelnuts and walnuts. Intensely herbal.

There were a number of quirks present.  The whisky was clearly peated.  It also seemed to have been aged in an old sherry cask......but another online review said there were bourbon notes present.  The situation was fascinating enough that I started searching for a bottle.  In July I finally got my hands on it and I opened it immediately.

As a bit of background, I had enjoyed every Ben Nevis I've tried -- all of four of 'em.  Some older and newer Ben Nevis(es) have gotten the reputation of being odd.  And I doubt if you'll see many anoraks name the distillery as one of their top ten.  Well, it would be in my Top Ten if I ever actually formed one.  And not all Ben Nevises are weird.  But this one registered as odd, my kind of odd, during the sample tasting and now I'm glad to bring you this blog's first Ben Nevis review.

Distillery: Ben Nevis
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co.
Exclusive to: Total Wine & More
Age: 14 years old (Dec. 1, 1998 - ???)
Maturation: ???, probably some sort of hogshead
Limited bottling: 258
Region: Highlands (Western)
Alcohol by Volume: 53.2%

This bottle's usage:
32% - Swaps and shares
0% - Whisky experiments
24% - Graded tastings
45% - Casual drinking


Color - Medium gold, apple juice
Nose - Mango, papaya, and oranges, all in caramel. Something dusty and dank remains throughout. It's somehow plasticy, oily, and old school musty all at once.  Some subtle mossiness lingers as well.
Palate - Plenty of barley and a big green herbal kick. Irish brown bread with smoked caramel and smoked almonds. Yeasty and toasty.  Some bitterness creeps in.
Finish - Long and sticky. Salt, bread, savory herbs, and a light bitterness.

Nose - More citrus rind. Cumin, caramel, anise, ocean air, and vanilla. A little meaty too.
Palate - More vanilla and caramel (Cow Tales) from the oak. Bell peppers and peppercorns. Bitterer and drier. Still intense.
Finish - Herbs, bell pepper, dry, and bitter.


Nose - Moldy, mossy, rooty, and rosy.  Then molasses, perhaps a tropical fruit rum cocktail.  Hay, carob bark, Ceylon cinnamon, a hint of caramel.  Something between plastic and leather (pleather?).
Palate - Starts with an intense herbal hoppy bitter bite. Not quite cannabis (hops's cousin). Moldy, salty, and farmy. Dark green veggies and beef.  Then with some time orange candies and lime juice show up.  Then a hint of yeast and cereal grains. Still pretty youthful despite the moldy notes.
Finish - Meat & greens again. Limes with granulated sugar. A little smoky and then the herbal hoppy funk.  Long and sticky.

Nose - More perfumy and floral.  Citrus (fresh limes and oranges) begins to open up.  A gooey sugariness, maybe gumdrops? Still some moldy mossy stink to give it depth. A hint of bar soap or baby powder?
Palate - The bracing herbal bitterness (which I like) remains. Horseradish, bitter greens, soil, and roots. Traces of sugar and caramel.
Finish - More sugar now, though still very herbal and bitter, along with a little bit of smoke.


Nose - At first there's carob bark with roasted grains and nuts. Then lots of wheat products: Wheat Thins, Triscuits, and Kix cereal.  A lot of caramel.  Slightly gin-like in its herbals.  A hint of moldy basement and mint toothpaste.  With lots of air, notes of yeast, white bread, and rock candy arrive.
Palate - Sweet and herbal (mint and juniper). Cow Tales (vanilla + caramel) and Heath Bar (milk chocolate + toffee). Some cayenne pepper maybe? In the far back are the fruits (mango, cherries, and plums).  With air there's more bread, florals, and lemon rind.
Finish - Chocolate and carmel with a fresh mint tingle. A slightly tarter version of the palate's fruits.  But it's mostly roasty and toasty.

Nose - More sugar and mold. Sugary baked fruit, or maybe brandied fruit. Smaller notes of whipped cream, caramel, blossoms, milk chocolate, and ham.
Palate - Really strong on the herbs (green peppercorns, cilantro, and fennel seeds).  Sugar in the back, lots of malt up front. Some caramel and hops. A little of the neat palate's fruit. Mild bitterness.
Finish - Hops and yeast. Bitterer now. Herbs and caramel.

Time to answer my earlier questions.  Having a bottle which is a sample fifty times the size of that one from the tasting, has given me somewhat of a different view.  At the top of the bottle there were definite peat moss notes which faded somewhat by mid-bottle and nearly disappeared by the end.  So I was right about the peat.  But I have doubts that the whisky came from a sherry cask.  Due to the bottle count, I'm guessing this came from an American oak hogshead.  And while there aren't any full-on bourbon notes, there's a prevalence of caramel in the nose, and a lack of familiar sherry notes.  That dank moldy element seems to be coming from the spirit itself......which is cool if you like that sort of thing.  I do.  But that characteristic, combined with the peat, would have worked better in colder weather as opposed to the late hot summer we just had.

While the whisky's notes shifted around throughout the life of the bottle, the big herbalness (herbality?) remained constant.  While neat the palate was never too sweet and always brought some good bitterness.  Water never ruined it, and sometimes opened it up in different directions.  But when drinking it casually, I always had it neat.

There's something old school about this Ben Nevis, which I can't put my finger on.  Maybe it's that moldy thing.  Or perhaps it feels more old fashioned because it is so very much not sculpted.  All the seams and rough corners remain.  Because I like the roots and moss and mold and bitter herbs, this whisky appealed to me.  You probably have to like those elements too if you endeavor to chase down a bottle.

Availability - Total Wine & More, though in very few stores
Pricing - $79.99
Rating - 89

Monday, October 13, 2014

Notes from a Tasting: Exclusive Casks from Total Wine & More

In February, David Stirk's Creative Whisky Company (CWC) released a series of single casks exclusively through Total Wine & More, via CWC's Exclusive Casks label.  On February 16th, Southern California Whiskey Club held an event that allowed folks to taste eight of the dozen or so Exclusive Casks.  I was unable to attend the event but was able to arrange getting samples of the eight single malts.  (Ethics note: I paid the event fee in order to receive these samples.)

Many of these bottlings are still available at Total Wine & More's California stores.  Unlike single casks sold exclusively at other California retailers, this set received nearly no hype online.  As you'll see below, I don't think my notes count as hype, but I don't think it would hurt to get some digital ink running in case you've been eyeing these chaps.  Due to the size of the samples I'll be using a grade range (as I did for the last tasting) rather than a number rating.

I sampled these 1/2 ouncers here at my dining room table, a pair at a time, over a two hour period.  During this tasting, two mysteries arose, one I can solve and one I cannot.

1. Invergordon Single Grain Whisky, 25 year old 1988.  378 bottles, 53.9% ABV
Color - Light amber
Nose - Light, bright vanilla. A little grassy. Chicken stock, anise, and orange juice.
Palate - All coconut and caramel.  Coconut flavored rum.  Very pungent though somewhat thinly textured.
Finish - More coconut! Then crème brûlée with a little sea salt. Lengthy.

Thoughts: The nose is the best part, substantial enough to almost fool one into thinking that it was a Lowland malt. How one feels about this whisky depends how one feels about coconut, both the real and artificial flavoring versions.  It was a bit too Malibu Rum for me.
Grade range: C+

2. Auchentoshan 13 year old 2000. 488 bottles, 53.6% ABV
Color - Pale amber
Nose -  Twizzlers, cheddar cheese, and hospital disinfectant.  Yep.  Kinda fleshy, new carpet, paint, cinnamon.  After a lot of air.....candy and puss.
Palate - Goes from sweet to grainy. Candy canes without mint.  Barley and notebook paper.  Coconuts again.
Finish - Supermarket cake frosting, cherry lollipops, very sweet. Gets weirder as it goes.

Thoughts: Here was the first mystery.  I've found many indie Auchentoshans to be weird -- there's an AD Rattray one that was all roots and clay, which I adored -- but this one is not my type of weird.  Here's the catch, the LAWS guys loved it.  But I don't recognize most of their notes.  Did something weird happen to my sample?
Grade range: C-

3. Glen Spey 11 year old 2002. 186 bottles, 56.7% ABV
Color - Light amber
Nose - All kinds of American oak and (relatedly) lots of butter.  Then butterscotch, black licorice, cardamom, and flower blossoms.
Palate - Pleasant, lightly sweet, lightly creamy.  Here's the oak again: vanilla, butter, and caramel.  A little meaty savoriness and sweet spices.
Finish - Geraniums. Salty and savory. Some tartness.

Thoughts: Could have been of interest if not for all of that aggressive oak.  This is a CWC song I've sung twice before (here and here).
Grade range: C+/B-

4. Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998. 258 bottles, 53.2% ABV
Color - Light gold
Nose - Leather. Very dry sherry, but a funky moldy old school sherry.  Or, is it finally time for this blog to use the ultimate snoot word......rancio?  Then bacon, hay, burnt grains, cardamom.  Then floral soap (but good!), industrial grease, and grapefruit peel.  Yes, that bizarre.
Palate - Strange and herbal.  Cannabis meets orange peel, and it gets more candied with time.  And there has to be peat in here -- at least Bowmore levels.  Very silky texture.
Finish - More peatiness. Light toffee sweetness. Hazelnuts and walnuts. Intensely herbal.

Thoughts: Wut?  Very very strange.  There's the moldy sherry, tons of herbs, the Springbank industrial character, and peat.  There's another review of this whisky online and it lists bourbony characteristics and no peat.  So, seriously, what the f**k?  How could this be a sample issue?  Thus this is mystery #2.  I know that some Ben Nevises have noticeable peating and I've smelled the industrial and bacon thing in the other Ben Nevis I've tried.  Also, this bottling is the most difficult to find of all of these eight as it has sold out at almost every Total Wine location.  Ben Nevis selling out quickly?  I can't be the only one who found this to his liking.  So I bought a bottle.
Grade range: B+/A-

5. Arran 16 year old 1997. 595 bottles, 51.2% ABV
Color - Rosy gold
Nose - Cleaner sherry than in the Ben Nevis, sticky toffee and chocolate. Toasted barley and almonds. Pine sap and beef jerky.
Palate - Perky malt shows through the sherry. Toffee and taffy. Peach and menthol. Medium sweetness. Creamy in texture and taste.
Finish - Sherry is subtle. Sugar and pepper. Marshmallow and peach.

Thoughts: I was happy that the sherry didn't choke out the malt, but nothing really superb occurs otherwise.  I prefer the younger official sherry cask I tried this year.
Grade range: B-/B

6. Bruichladdich 22 year old 1991. 222 bottles, 50.6% ABV
Color - Medium gold
Nose - Orange glaze, dried apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, golden raisins, pears......it keeps going......vanilla ice cream, pencils, and honey.  It's purdy.
Palate - Lightly floral, lightly citric, lightly vanilla-ed, lightly tropical fruit-ed, lightly buttery. Some shisha, too.
Finish - Apricots, vanilla, mild sugars, lychee, and bubblegum.

Thoughts: Prettiest of the bunch. Probably no real flaws, but after the lovely nose, the palate was sort of vague.  Also, please see my notes in the final paragraph about a potential issue.
Grade range: B/B+

7. Glen Garioch 23 year old 1989. 198 bottles, 54.1% ABV
Color - Amber
Nose - Pencils, dried grass and grains, light caramel. White fruits emerge after some time. Sugar cookies, subtle rubber and herbs.
Palate - Tons of barley, toasty and bready. A suggestion of peat smoke. Tart, salty, gets grassier and sweeter with time.
Finish - Smoke increases here, though more like wood or cigar smoke.  Mango and sugar.

Thoughts: Everything is very delicate. The finish is the best part.  The barley forwardness makes it feel more old school than most of these other malts.
Grade range: B

8. Bowmore 11 year old 2002. 596 bottles, 56.8% ABV
Color - Five beer piss
Nose - Stinky skunky peat encased in a load of American oak (weird vanilla and slightly-off butter, almost chemically so).  Mossy, baseball card ink, cinnamon candy.
Palate - Very sugary peat. Vanilla, hay, hot cinnamon spiciness.
Finish - All peat and sugar.  Of significant length.

Thoughts: Sigh. It has the potential of being a half step better than the K&L Exclusive Malts Bowmore due to its brutish peat, but that oak again...
Grade range: C+/B-

A final ranking:
Ben Nevis 14yo**
Bruichladdich 22yo**
Glen Garioch 23yo
Arran 16yo
Bowmore 11yo
Glen Spey 11yo
Invergordon 25yo
Auchentoshan 13yo**

** -- So, mysteries sit at the top and the bottom of the rankings.  With a lot of hindsight, I'm noticing that my Bruichladdich notes are very similar to LAWS's Auchentoshan notes.  Perhaps the wrong whisky was poured into two of my sample bottles.  If that was the case, then what the heck was in my Auchentoshan?  Was that the Bruichladdich?  Meanwhile, there's the strange instance of Ben Nevis.  That was a mystery I was willing to pay to solve.  And now that my full bottle has been emptied, I'll report my findings in Wednesday's post...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Clubbin' Canadian: The Taste Off (current edition vs 1982 vs 1986)

I laid out the introduction for this Taste Off on Tuesday.  Because I foresee this being a large enough post, I'm going to just say "click here for the intro" and move on to the tasting!

During the week preceding this tasting, I'd opened and sampled each one of these in order to make sure I would not be drinking from the top of each bottle.  In my personal experience, the first rip from a bottle never shows a whisk(e)y in its best form.  Much like wine, it can be its tightest and most austere at first blush.  Then on Taste Off Day 1, I sampled each of them neatly starting from the 2013 and working backward, then moved between them comparing and contrasting.  On Day 2, I fashioned highballs (1:2, whisky:club soda) from each, comparing and contrasting.  As you can probably gauge, I drank a lot of Canadian Club over a short period of time for the sake of this post.  You're welcome?

[Please note: The excise stamp actually represents the date of the whisky's youngest distillation. Thus some changes have been made to this post to update this information.]

Canadian Club, bottled in 2013
Code L3282
Its predecessors (even the bottles from just a couple years earlier) listed a 6-year-old age statement on their front labels.  But this most recent version removed the age statement, its official website stating that it is "aged longer than the 3 years required by law".  So......three years and one day?  Anyway, it has also picked up the name "1858" representing the distillery's first year.  And yeah, it is in a dark brown plastic bottle.

Color - Reddish bronze
Nose - Vanilla first, then a little bit of rye spice. That's followed by black cherry syrup, orange candy, plaster, and scalp (yes, you read that correctly).  All of these notes are very distant.
Palate - Vanilla vodka, mostly.  Then some caramel, sugar, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, and ginger. Not much else going on.
Finish - Grain and heat.  Something herbal meets paint fumes.  Bland, then off-putting.

Caramel, corn syrup, and sugar.  Aside from a strange bitter note in the finish it's inoffensive.

The other two CCs, as you'll note below, are very pale while this one was strangely dark, as if Club had taken a note from Johnnie Walker and dumped in the e150a colorant.  The nose was better than I had expected.  The palate was not terrible, though it was barely whisky.  Then everything went to hell in the finish.  Nonetheless, this was a full step better than the hideous 2004 bottling I reviewed two years ago.  Best served as a highball.

Canadian Club, DISTILLED in 1986
Like the 2013, it's a 200mL bottle but that is where the similarities end with the vessel and the liquid.  The bottle is made of sturdy brown glass with "Canadian Club" etched along each side (see pic at the top of the post).  The orange Canadian excise seal (which denotes the year the whisky's youngest ingredient) was intact before I opened the bottle.  And at the bottom of the impressively spartan front label is the statement, "This Whisky is Six Years Old".  Note: this whisky was distilled before Hiram Walker & Sons was bought by Allied.

Color - Amber
Nose - Very dusty and spicy at first.  Herbal and floral too.  Then some armagnac, lychee, pencil shavings, and tropical fruit flavored candy.  Strawberry bubblegum notes emerge after some air.
Palate - Lots of sea salt and caramel. Lemon-lime soda. Hint of chocolate. Slightly bitter, slightly papery. Very good mouthfeel, but watered down flavor.
Finish - Some big cereal grains, followed by chocolate and caramel. Gets a little burnt at the end.

A little grainy, a little woody (tee-hee). Much of the neat palate stays intact. Mild and refreshing.

The palate and finish are decent, and it makes for a good highball.  But it's its nose that's a joy and it can take a little air.  This pour was actually from just above mid bottle.  At the top of the bottle, I thought the whisky was basically Canadian Club, but 10% better (because that's a thing).  But after directly comparing it to the current CC, I've discovered that this is a much different whisky...

Canadian Club, DISTILLED in 1982
This bottle is a full liter.  I have to say, I'm big fan of these old fashioned labels.  Aside from the Windsor crest, it's all a bunch of plain but informative script.  And, like the 1986, it's six years old, in a glass bottle, and had an intact orange excise seal before I got to it.

Color - Light gold
Nose - At first it's orange lollipops and cherry lollipops and rock candy.  Then there are fresh peaches and lychee.  It's fruity, floral, and spicy -- like a little bit of rye mixed into a Highland malt.
Palate - If I'd tasted this blind, I would have thought this was Powers Gold Label.  Thick caramel sauce in front with vanilla trailing.  Then peppery rye, mint, and lemons.  With some air it does get slightly sour and some sawdust slips in.
Finish - Big and round.  Caramel, mint, lemon-lime soda, with a slight bitterness.

A massive vanilla bomb, as if it's carbonated vanilla extract.  Some of the rye shines through the club soda.  Nice and refreshing.

While the '86's nose was more complex, this one may have been more focused.  But the palate was its strongest point, and was the most flavorful of the three.  As a highball it's kind of outrageous, so I must test it out further.  See more of my conclusions below.

While the 1982 and 1986 are very much related, they must be a very different recipe than the 2013.  There's just nothing connecting the current version to its elders other than the name.  And even though these may have changed a tiny bit after sitting in the bottle for 20-25 years, they wouldn't have transformed in such an extreme manner.  There's a little something extra in the '82's palate and it was slightly darker in color than the '86.  Since Whisk(e)y Glutsville was hitting every nation in the 1980s, I wonder if the "1982" has a little bit of older stock in the mix.  Otherwise they were including richer barrels in the blend.

I'm going to attempt to get another bottle of the '82.  While I wouldn't go as far as saying that it's an A or B+ whisky, its quality-price-ratio appeals to me during these 90+ degree Octobers and Novembers.  The '86 is good enough for me to wish that the current version kept its recipe/makeup, but I will probably have had my fill once the 200mL is emptied.  The 2013 is better than the truly awful 2004 (whose 59 point rating seems generous in hindsight), but I don't have a whole lotta interest in finishing the bottle.  Perhaps I shall blend it.


2013 bottling:
Availability - The new version will be more available as the previous one sells out
Pricing - 200mL: $4-$7; 750mL: $12-$18
Rating - 70

1986 bottling:
Availability - Happy hunting! Look for the orange paper seal.
Pricing - This 200mL was $4.99
Rating - 79

1982 bottling:
Availability - Happy hunting! Look for the orange paper seal.
Pricing - This 1L was $23ish
Rating - 84

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Clubbin' Canadian: An Intro

No, not him.

Nor him. Sorry.


Inspired by posts from bloggers Arok (bourbonguy) and Joshie (sipology), I've decided to end this run of blend reviews with a Canadian Club Taste Off.  For much of my drinking life Canadian Club was synonymous with "Canadian Whisky".  To me it stood in for the entire category, like Jameson's does for Irish Whiskey for quite a lot of folks.  Over the last three years, I've tried a number of Canadian whiskies (all blends, I'll admit) and I can't say that any have inspired me to buy a full bottle.  But after reading the blog posts by Arok and Joshie, then happening upon a pair of interesting finds, I decided to give Canadian Club another try.

A quick history lesson:  After distilling vinegar for his grocery stores for a number of years, Hiram Walker began distilling whisky in 1854 in Detroit, not Canada.  But since Canada provided cheaper real estate and materials, he invested in building an official distillery across the river, near Windsor, Ontario, a few years later.  A number of years later, his whisky gained the "Club" moniker, since it was being slung in gentleman's clubs.  The word "Canada" made its way onto the front label in 1890, setting the product apart from the Scotches, Irishes, and bourbons on the market.  Once national prohibition hit, Walker merged with Gooderham & Worts to become Hiram Walker - Gooderham & Worts (what a name).  After that, the company became part of the acquisitions game: In 1987 HW-G&W was bought by Allied Lyons (which, itself, was the result of a merger), which later became Allied Domecq after another merger several years later.  After buying out Allied in 2005, Pernod Ricard sold off the Allied brands that conflicted with their own.  Canadian Club would have bumped heads with Seagram's, so CC was sold to Fortune Brands.  Six years later Fortune Brands was split up and Canadian Club went to Beam, Inc.

Over the past decade Canadian Club has wiggled its way back into the public sphere, thanks to the very fictional Don Draper and the occasional cheeky advertising campaign (see pic on the right).  Sadly, drinking Club will not make you look like Jon Hamm.  Hell, it won't even make you look like Harry Crane.  But for this Luddite, seeing the old bottle labels on Mad Men made me wonder what the whisky actually tasted like during (non-fiction) previous decades.

I tried a 2004 bottling two years back and found it to be an awful chemical slurry.  But why stop there, you know?  During recent dusty scouting trips, I found bottles from 1986 (200mL) and 1982 (1L) with fully intact tax seals. (In my travels I've also seen two other labels from the late-'80s-early-'90s, but I decided that a line needed to be drawn for now.) What was actually more difficult was finding a current 200mL. There are plenty of bottles from the Aughts, but rarely something from the teens around here. Luckily(?), I found one from 2013.

That 2004 I'd tried was a plastic bottle and after drinking the whisky inside, I was concerned that something from the brown plastic had leached into the drink.  So I was very happy to find that the '82 and '86 bottles were made of glass and had excellent fill levels.  The current bottle is plastic again.  So it goes.

Since this post is a long enough read as is, I will be posting the full Taste Off results tomorrow.  Tune in, click over, drink up, and enjoy!

Friday, October 3, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Usquaebach Old-Rare blended whisky

First off I'd like to thank JLR for this sample.  We did a sample swap in May of 2013 when we were both experiencing very difficult personal circumstances.  But since then, between our two families, we've had three tremendous little blessings.  As I write this Mathilda rolls around in her crib, trying to swallow her feet.

Until today, I had no idea that this Usquaebach Old-Rare was a $130+ whisky.  Yeah, it has a curious flagon and all that, but what the crap?

The scarce amount of online information about this whisky and its company is odd in the current whisky climate.  Partially it's a good thing because most whisky producers are larding up the whisky internets with marketing, marketing, and marketing.  But it's also not a great thing because this is a $130+ blend with no official description or explanation.  Only large well established brands can sell mystery malarkey for three figures.  So why would someone want to buy this whisky?  For its flagon?  You can get a handmade flagon for less at Etsy or Flagonland (not a thing).

Go ahead, google "Cobalt brands" and/or "Usquaebach Old Rare". Cobalt Brands is a New Jersey importer who may (or may not) be getting help from Douglas Laing with the blending part of things.  The whisky had somewhat of cult-ish following back in the '70s and '80s but that was when it was owned by a different now-defunct company.  Cobalt, who bought the brand not too long ago, sent John Hansell a press release in 2009 full of weird errors which they appear to have never addressed.  Overall, the company and whisky information is all kind of jumbled and I'm still not sure why the whisky is so expensive.  Because it's "Old-Rare" and 225yearsoldohmygod!  Sorry, I'm reaching.

Brand: Usquaebach
Ownership: Cobalt Brands
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: not stated (no, it isn't 225 years old)
Blend: malt and grain whiskies (there might be 41 Highland malts involved)
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chill-filtered? ???
Caramel Coloring? ???

HIGHBALL ...... nah, I'm not going to make a highball out of a triple digit (price, not age, dude) whisky.

The color is yellow gold.  The nose starts with anise and mothballs, then limes and lemons.  The oak seems more toasted than charred, likely American by birth.  There's an herbal twist, maybe coriander/cilantro and mint.  Cassia "cinnamon" sticks.  After some time in the glass, the whisky develops floral perfume notes and hints of papaya.  Overall it's maltier than any of the non-Green Johnnie Walkers and the caramel note is mostly under control.  But there's also a substantial chlorine note that then carries over into the palate, where it expands further.  There's some alcohol bite that follows.  A brief stone fruit sweetness gradually becomes orange candy, then there's a bit of bitterness and some spearmint.  Vanilla ice cream from the big clear plastic buckets.  But the biggest note I keep finding is a dusty moldy mothball waft reminiscent of an old lady's closet.  The medium length finish stays in the old lady's closet -- a peeping tom of a whisky?  The chlorine returns.  Vanilla and caramel emerges.

Hmm.  Again, the nose wins.  It shows off the possibility of the presence of mature Highland malt, though not that old unless the casks were eighth-fill.  But at the same time, there's a lot of super young stuff floating around (thus the lack of age statement), especially the chlorine and cinnamon.  So, while there may be old whisky in the blend there's also a definite quantity of young whisky which tosses the blend out of balance.

So why the high price?  The vessel must be the excuse.  The whisky inside is as completely unknown as the company who put it in there.  The drink isn't a complete mess; as already mentioned, the nose is good, almost great.  And there definitely seems to be a high malt content.  If they could sort out the chlorine and naphthaline issues this could be a successful mid-level blend.  But at a luxury price, I don't see it flying off the shelf.  And after someone purchases one novelty flagon, is he or she ever really going to go back for a second?  Unless Usqueabach starts releasing flagons of different colors......

Availability - Some specialty retailers
Pricing - $100-$140
Rating - 76

Thursday, October 2, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: William Lawson's Finest Blend

Yesterday, I reviewed Grand Old Parr 12 year old, a pleasant tasty alternative to Chivas, though at a higher price.  Today, I venture down down down down to a lower shelf.

William Lawson's Finest Blend is one that is not sold in The States.  Florin (a prince) brought a bottle back from his recent voyage behind the Iron Curtain to Poland.  Adjusting for exchange rates, a 700mL bottle often sells for $10-$15 in much of Europe.  So keep in mind the price territory here.

The William Lawson's brand has an XTREME-styled website, seemingly designed for adults who still crush Mountain Dews.  Their commercials are of the loud sort as well.  Aside from the (NAS) Finest Blend, there's a 13 year old which used to be a 12 year old (upwards!) and a Super Spiced flavored product sold in (and designed for?) the US market.

Master of Malt says that William Lawson's is a high-malt whisky.  Meanwhile, William Lawson's official site makes it pretty clear that Macduff is a main ingredient.  That would make sense since Macduff (known as Glen Deveron in its single malt form) distillery and Lawson's are both owned by Bacardi.

What makes this blend of greater interest to me is the gap between the opinions of Ralfy Mitchell and Serge Valentin.  Ralfy likes Lawson's a lot, giving it an 85.  Serge thinks it is poor, giving it a 56.  That's not a casual difference of opinion, even considering that Ralfy grades blends versus blends within their own category while Serge grades everything together.  Let's see whose side I'm on.

Ownership: Bacardi
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: not stated
Blend: malt and grain whiskies (Macduff is a main ingredient)
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

HIGHBALL (1:2 whisky to club soda ratio)
Lots of cereal grains, yeast, and lightly ripened bananas.  No real finish but very refreshing.

The color is light gold, much lighter than the Old Parr.  The nose is intense, rosy, full of flowers and stewed apples.  Lots of exotic overripe fruit odors, some sort of combination of citron, mango, and cantaloupe.  BUT these notes fade out after ten minutes or so, replaced by caramel and burnt raisins.  The palate has one of the thickest textures I've ever felt in a 40% ABV whisky.  The bananas from the highball have now been flambeed.  There's a hint of smoke, possibly from the barrel.  In fact it's like smoked caramel.  Some saltiness, along with cracked pepper and lime.  The weird grain notes often found in young blends are kept to a minimum here.  The finish is sorta short.  There's salt, spice, and savory stuff.  More caramel.  It can get a little cloying, but that much.

Firstly, Ralfy vs. Serge:  Ralfy, as he always does, reviews his own bottle.  In this case don't know if Serge is grading from a sample or a bottle, but I don't recognize any of his notes.  Perhaps he had a corrupted sample?  I do recognize many of Ralfy's notes, though he found even more positives than I did.

For a $10-$15 blend, this is at the head of the pack.  The nose is good if you don't allow it to oxidize.  The texture is impressive.  No turpentine, acetate, or weird crap in the nose or mouth.  If Bacardi sold this in The States, in that price range, I would keep a bottle on hand.  I'm not saying this is excellent whisky, but it's much better than its popular stablemate Dewar's White Label and at half the price.

Availability - Continental Europe and Latin America
Pricing - $10-$15
Rating - 78

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Grand Old Parr 12 year old blended whisky

Every whisky we drink -- unless it's a single never-been-recasked cask bottled at its actual cask strength -- is a blend of some sort.  Like blended malts and blended whiskies, single malts are the result of multiple casks being combined and mixed together.  But it seems as if "blended whiskies", which still make up almost 90% of whisky volume, are treated by whisky geeks as an embarrassing cousin to or not even a relative of the single malts we obsess over.

For this snob, when it comes down to it, I'm not a big fan of the single grain whiskies I've tried.  Haven't hated any of them, but haven't discovered one that I'd buy.  And though there are many great blenders out there, quite often the grain whiskies in a blend mute the vivacity and depth of the malt whiskies.  Of course, that's no accident.  The major blends are designed to drink easily and not offend a large audience.

But otherwise, there are a number of blended whiskies (Nikka's From the Barrel, Ballantine's 17yo, JW Black Label, earlier versions of JW Gold Label, and Compass Box's goodies) which I like better than many single malts.  Many blends are very good.  Most are drinkable.  And they usually make for decent highballs.  My issues with lower shelf blends are actually similar to my problems with lower shelf single malts.  Most (if not all of them) have been watered down, filtered, and dyed.  It's only in the blends I really dislike (Cutty and Dewars White) that I start finding young cruddy grain whisky overwhelming the package.

But I'll always give a blend a try, whether it's a $10 bottle or a $100, though I'll go with the $10 bottle first every time.  That's not just because I am (trying to be) fiscally responsible.  A $10 bottle may prove to be a fantastic find or stomach churningly craptacular.

This week I'll be reporting on three Scotch blended whiskies, though only one of them drifts into the $10 range.  Since the Long Beach summer lasts through November now, I've been in the search for a good highball whisky.  So I'll start each one off as a highball before proceeding neatly.

Today, I'll start with Grand Old Parr 12 year old. There are three blends in the Old Parr regular range: a 12yo, 15yo, and 18yo. These blends are sold mostly outside of the US and UK, often in South America and Asia. While I've read positive reviews for the fifteen and eighteen, none of them match Jim Murray's declaration that the eighteen was the World Whisky of the Year in 2007. As usual, I haven't found a single person who agrees with his hyperbolic outburst. That doesn't stop me from wanting to hunt down a sample of it since old blends have, yes, old whisky in them.

The Old Parrs are named after Tom Parr who, legend has it, lived until the age of 152. He even got married at 122; and if they say he was still fulfilling his marital requirements at age 122, then I'd call bulls**t on that long before the claim of his final lifespan.

But if he was doing so, then it's about time we dig him up from under Westminster Abbey and beat the secret out of his corpse.


Brand: Old Parr (though it sells 1 million cases annually, it hasn't earned itself a website)
Ownership: Diageo (boo)
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: at least 12 years
Blend: malt and grain whiskies (Cragganmore might be a main ingredient, per Wikipedia)
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes
(Thanks to Florin for the sample!)

HIGHBALL (1:2 whisky to club soda ratio)
A sweeter, more vanilla-ed alternative to Johnnie Walker Black.  A little bit of orange, a little bit of peat perhaps?  Has an extended finish of malt and citrus.

It's color is Diageo Gold™.  The nose leads with caramel and toasted oak.  There are also prettier elements like citrus peels and flowers sitting alongside some tougher young grain notes.  But with time, it grows richer with a big vanilla note, plum, sandalwood, and lime juice.  The palate has a good thick mouthfeel.  It's oily and sweet at first.  Then the vanilla and mild grains follow, and it grows more peppery as it progresses.  Some mint and toffee sneak in.  Brief moments of bitterness compliment the sweetness.  It might be maltier than the most recent version of Black Label.  There are cracked peppercorns and orange peels in the finish, then caramel and toffee.

Grand Old Parr 12 year old is an easygoing, well balanced blend which makes it a good option for a hot late summer.  It makes for a sugary highball and, when neat, the nose is the best part if you give it some time.  If you're a Chivas drinker and are looking for something similar but different, this is a good option.  In fact, it's arguably a more enjoyable drink.  Geeks looking for complexity and depth should look elsewhere.  And while it's not hyperbole worthy, there's probably nothing technically wrong with the blend.

Availability - Most specialty retailers and the occasional corner liquor store
Pricing - $30-$35
Rating - 81