It started innocently. A number of 1988 Balmenach single casks by Signatory started showing up on European retailer websites. The prices weren't terrible. And I thought, Balmenach? Balmenach. So, I started snooping around for reviews and discovered that people really liked these single casks. Had we all been missing out on a nearly unheard of distillery all these years? I'm all for unsexy brands, so I kept an eye on the progress. More of these '88 Signatory single casks kept appearing, and soon a few made their way to The States. I was intrigued, but I wanted to try a few of them in order to challenge my skepticism. So I added it to my new Dram Quest, and sure enough I lined up samples from three of these casks: One cask sold in Europe, one cask sold exclusively through K&L Wine Merchants, and one sold exclusively through Binny's. I lined them up and tasted them blindly, so as to not let any biases slip in.
First up, cask #2819, sold in Europe. I purchased this sample from Whiskybase Shop in The Netherlands.
Ownership: Thai Beverages plc (via Inver House Distillers)
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Age: 25 years (October 18, 1988 - August 12, 2014)
Bottle count: 245
Alcohol by Volume: 54.3%
Caramel Colorant? No
The nose is full of citrus and candy. Lemon bars, lemon creme filling, creamsicles, orange juice, and orange hard candies. Vanilla, Cool Whip, and sugar cookies. After 40+ minutes, some moderate notes of leaves and softly toasted oak appear. The palate is more peppery than the nose and less fruity. It's mildly sweet with limes and tart raspberries. Slight musty basement note mingles with peppercorns and the growing tartness. It finishes peppery, tart, tangy, and musty. Small sugar and lime notes show occasionally. A good length to it.
WITH WATER (~45%abv)
There's a little more vanilla and a lot more caramel in the nose now. More flower blossoms, too. The fruit reads as apricots rather than lemons. The palate becomes much quieter, though also sweeter. There's a slight creak of oak, but a better bitter note develops simultaneously. No more mustiness. A little bit of tart citrus. The finish keeps its good length, getting sweeter and more tannic.
Of the three Balmenachs this week, this one had the best nose. It's a sheer delight to sniff, both with and without water (though, without is preferred). Meanwhile the palate, while perfectly okay, is very different than the nose. It's neither a fruit basket nor a bag of candy. I'm glad it wasn't tooth rottingly sweet, but it's a bit tight and water doesn't open it up at all, though it may require more hydration than I gave it. But, goodness, that nose is awesome and that's what keeps the score up. Perhaps the palate plays better at the midpoint of a 700mL bottle. If you're working on a bottle of this, please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Availability - It might still be found at some specialty retailers in Europe
Pricing - $120-$130 (w/o VAT, w/o shipping)
Rating - 87