...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Single Malt Report: Longrow 21 year old (Open Day 2016)

Yes, you read that correctly.  Longrow 21 year old.  It's a single refill bourbon cask sold only during Open Day 2016.

When I saw one bottle of Longrow 21 at Cadenhead in Campbeltown, I was like &$&^%@#$!@! HOW MUCH MONEY COST THIS????  I was told the bottle was just for display.  :(  Three hours later I discovered that Ardshiel Hotel had an open bottle at their bar.  :)  I carefully deposited my paid pour into a sample bottle and brought it back home in my luggage.

On a related note, now that I've tried a half dozen Open Day bottlings from over the years, I'd rather attend the Campbeltown Malts Festival than join the hoards for Feis Ile on Islay (the two of which basically dovetail in May).

Distillery: Springbank
Brand: Longrow
Region: Campbeltown
Age: 21 years (November 1994 - May 2015)
Maturation: refill ex-bourbon cask
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Limited Bottling: 230

It has my favorite whisky color, five beer piss, very light for a 21 year old whisky.  The lovely nose starts off with grapefruits, lemons, peaches, and dried apricots.  The mango-lime smoothie (Mango Cardamom Blast, to be specific) my wife makes once a week.  There are hints of pine needless, toffee pudding, seaweed, and hay.  It gets more phenolic with time, picking up some farmy notes along the way.  Meanwhile the palate is much farmier and earthier than the nose.  It's very minerally with subtler lemon notes underneath.  A hint of metal.  A sharp metallic bite.  With time it gets spicier and slightly fruity.  A slight Laphroaig-ish salt/medicinal/iodine note appears as well.  Its texture and mouthfeel is oddly thin throughout, though.  The finish has light smoke and ash, lemon and lime. Salty beach air, delicate sweetness, and slight barn note.

The nose feels younger now, peatier.  The fruit retreats, though maybe there's some blueberry pie.  More cow barn.  The palate picks up a big peppery bite and becomes more astringent, harder to crack.  Dirtier, sharper peat.  A quiet mango note, but mostly tart acidic citrus.  Like the nose, the finish comes across younger.  It's ashy, dirty, with lots of black pepper.  Hints of mango and lime.

Three Pros about this whisky:
1.) This is the perfect example of a whisky that's light on oak yet well matured.
2.) The nose is stunning. No water please.
3.) When a regular Longrow 21 comes out, it should be excellent as a small batch.

I mentioned the small batch part because the palate is not this whisky's strong point.  As referenced in the notes, its mouthfeel is watery and becomes a slight distraction.  The finish is a bit shorter and plainer than I expected.  I'm probably picking nits here because the whisky tastes good, but it comes nowhere near the fabulous nose.  If Springbank were to put together a small batch of 10 casks or so (an 1800-2000 bottle release), they could be able to blend up the palate's quality.  Perhaps a couple slightly oakier casks might help too.

Overall, this a very good, almost great, whisky.  I don't know what it had cost at the festival, but if you're reading this post and you did scoop up a bottle, congrats!  Otherwise, we'll just have to wait to see if there'll be another 21 for the rest of us.

Availability - 
Secondary market

Pricing - ???
Rating - 88

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Single Malt Report: Wolfburn Single Malt Whisky

Wolfburn distillery is now the most northern mainland Scotch distillery, up and to the west of Old Pulteney.  Almost two hundred years ago, a different Wolfburn distillery opened in the same town (Thurso) and functioned for anywhere between sixteen and forty years before its permanent closure.  That distillery, like this new one, was named after the water source, The Wolf Burn.  The current distillery has a production capacity almost the same size as Kilchoman's, and they're currently keeping all of their production for single malt, not trading any casks out to blending companies.  For more distillery data, click over here.

The release of Wolfburn's single malt heralds the first hint of what will result from the recent boom of new Scottish distilleries (Annandale, Ardnamurchan, Ballindalloch, etc.).  Wolfburn's construction did have a slight jump on some of the other newbies, but they have also decided to bottle their stuff just as it hits the legal age of three years (distilling began in January 2013, the whisky was released in February 2016).  This may be due to the production team thinking their whisky is ready OR the distillery investors were demanding to see some revenue OR everyone involved wants to strike while the scotch iron is hot, er, hasn't cooled entirely.  (With the opposite approach, the Cuthbert family's small Daftmill farm distillery has been tucking away casks for eleven years without a single public release.)  Though cautiously hopeful about this new whisky era, I realize Wolfburn's product is only three years old, and thus won't reveal much about the bigger picture, unless all the other new distilleries also start dumping at age three.

(One random observation: Who at Wolfburn okayed the use of "Handcrafted" on the front of the label?  I can see a Diageo marketing unit utilizing that word for a Caol Ila release, but Wolfburn?  Thanks to constant marketing abuse, "Handcrafted" has become a meaningless term in the whisk(e)y industry, or even worse, a joke.  Sort of like McDonald's Artisan Chicken Sandwiches.  And what part of the whisky is handcrafted?  Even at Springbank, the most old school of scotch distilleries, not a single hand touches the product from the sweeping of the malted barley into the milling chute until the cask valinch many years later.  Machines, chemistry, and time craft whisky, and there's nothing wrong with that.  So, boo to the use of "Handcrafted" on the label, especially since it's printed larger than "Natural Color", "Non-Chill Filtered", and "Product of Scotland". )

Distillery: Wolfburn
Owner: Aurora Brewing
Region: Northern Highlands
Age: minimum 3 years
Bottling Date: 2016
Limited bottling: 16,000 or 62,000 depending on what site one reads
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltration? No
Colorant? No
This sample was poured at a Scottish bar, deposited into a sample bottle, and then spirited back to the United States.

Its color is very pale, with a slight green tint.  Bushels of roasted barley in the nose, followed by soil, burnt butter, yeast, and circus peanuts.  With 20 minutes in the glass some new notes take over: fresh thyme, eau de vie, and toddler pee.  The palate leads with burnt plastic, charred tobacco leaves, and sweet barley syrup.  Lots of ethyl heat throughout.  After 20 minutes, there's baseball card bubblegum powder and a hint of lemon.  There's a bitter burnt note in the finish as well as a metallic note.  Then yeast, sorghum beer, and heat.  But mostly it's whisky wash.

Some of the palate's burnt notes come up into the nose, especially something like burnt yeast.  The circus peanut note expands.  Some new notes of caramel, cucumber-melon hand soap, and mint extract appear.  There's a decent bitter thing in the palate along with horseradish and dried herbs.  It's less sweet too.  But there are also lead and burnt bread notes in foreground.  The finish is yeasty and bitter, but not sugary.

I've met a few whisky geeks in the LA area who distill and age their own malt whisky.  Their 6-12 month old stuff is of about the same quality as Wolfburn's three year old.  But their whisky is not on the market.  Wolfburn's is.  Because Wolfburn's whisky is three years old, it's neither complex or complete, nor should anyone expect it to be.  Instead its spirit's edge hangs right out front, flapping in the wind.  That's a confident way to go, but that doesn't necessarily mean the stuff is great.  There's plenty of promise to it, so I look forward to trying their whisky again when it's seven years older.

Availability - A dozen retailers in the US, several dozen in Europe
Pricing - US $55-$70, Europe $45-$65
Rating - 74

Monday, July 25, 2016

Laphroaig Distillery's Water to Whisky Experience

When scheduling my Scotland posts, I didn't realize that the first week's worth were going to be so negative.  Kristen and I had such a lovely time there that I feel as if I've poorly communicated the experience.  So to remedy that, I'd like to share a bit about my favorite whisk(e)y distillery tour of all time.

Laphroaig's Water to Whisky Experience, or as I've been calling it "The Baller Tour", does cost £90.  Yes, I agree, that's a lot of money.  You know how many bottles of long-matured single cask Laphroaig you can purchase for £90?  Okay, none.  A different comparison:  £90 is a lot of money and one can still get a bottle or two of good whisky for that price.  But the thing is, most of us will never get another chance to go to Islay.  Most of us will never get another chance to go to Laphroaig.  Most of us will never get another chance to get an insider's tour to the distillery, hike across more than a mile of open Islay farmland, eat big spread of local Islay nosh by Laphroaig's water source, cut wet peat, taste single casks from Laphroaig's warehouses, pour my own bottle, all the while drinking single malt whisky on the island on which its made, for four and a half hours.  Considering all this, the tour was worth the price.

I mean, damn.  This is me.

I just cut Laphroaig peat.  Look at the expressions of awe on the two gents in the background.  And I am rocking those wellies.

Okay, I'll let you recover from the awesomeness of that photo for a moment.




I'll start at the beginning.

In my last post, I mentioned I departed Lagavulin because "I had somewhere (better) to be".  That somewhere was Laphroaig Distillery.  It was 11:30am and I had to get to there before noon for the tour.  Luckily the Port Ellen township had recently built a walking path between distilleries, so I hoofed it.

The weather and the scenery was beautiful, making for an excellent 20 minute walk.

When I got to the distillery in time, Sherillyn was there to hand me some swag and a glass of Triple Wood.  She knew I was a whisky blogger, which was impressive since I'm the 748th most popular whisky blogger in my area code.  Sherillyn (Bruichladdich fan and daughter of local farmer who sells barley to 'Laddie) was joined by Jennie (a new mom, just coming back to work after months of baby girl time), and they two led the Water to Whisky tour group of Germans, Quebecois, and the 748th most popular whisky blogger in his area code.

We started out with a good extended distillery tour, met a number of real human employees who actually dirtied their hands in the creation of Laphroaig whisky, and got to see malting floors in action.

I took this photo as I dove head first into the barley. They let you do that on the tour. (No, they don't.)
Pictures are worth a certain amount of words and I'm all about value.  So, some photos:

Barley peat sauna
Shazaam! Burning peat turds.
The four copper wizard hats
Once the indoor tour was complete, then it was time for the drive, hike, and lunch.  We walked across this...

...to get to this...

Where we ate a lunch of locally made soup, smoked fish, beef, lamb, cheeses, and tablet.  There's a lot of this along the hike...

...so one feels like one has earned one's lunch.  And when I hoovered up every last crumb, it wasn't just to be polite.  The food was excellent, possibly the best lunch I had while in Scotland.  And we got a bottle of Quarter Cask from which we poured freely.  Then we hiked back.

Then we were driven to the peat lands just north of Port Ellen.

Where this happened...

...after which I was given a pour of Laphroaig Lore for my efforts.  And then a pour of the Cairdeas 2016.  (Quick hot take: the new Cairdeas is okay, but it ain't a patch on the 2015.  When drinking it amidst sudden 30mph Islay winds, I found the wine cask element barely registering.  Taking all of that helpful information into consideration, I like the Lore better.)

We came back to the distillery and turned in our rubber boots.  I picked up my rent (a Laphroaig 10 mini) for my square foot of Islay, and then grabbed a pour of the 10yo Cask Strength Batch 008. (Quick hot take: 008 has a similar bitter peppery punch that Batch 007 had and the sweetness was very reserved. A good sign.)

To the warehouse!

Just for show (sadly), this cask was signed by #1 fan, Prince Charles.
We tasted samples pulled from three single casks.  I don't have photos of these because I was too busy drinking whisky.

Cask 1 - 11 year old 2005, spent 8 years in ex-bourbon and 3 years in a quarter cask, ~56%abv: Very good quality Laphroaig and my second favorite of the three.  The quarter cask had much less influence on the whisky than I'd expected.  Utilizing refill ex-bourbons to make quarter casks seems to result in less of the oak-syrup quality that virgin oak and "rejuvenated" casks impart. Anyway, this one was a little reminiscent of the official 10yo CSes.

Cask 2 - 12 year old 2004, 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel, ~51%abv:
More heat than the higher ABV younger cask and less peaty.  It's not bad whisky, but...

Cask 3 - 18 year old 1998, ex-sherry butt, ~59.3%abv:
This one made drinkers emit noises.  Bringing the whisky glass up to the nose, one finds oneself snorting molasses, toffee, and tablet while knee deep in a burning bog.  Also, it tastes wonderful.  Thus it was my selection.

After this, the show was over.  My wife arrived just in time to rescue Sherillyn and Jennie from the 748th most popular whisky blogger in his area code.  Kristen had spent the day actually exploring the island while I had been nerding out, and now it was about time for us get a drink.  Being the sober one, she drove us back to our B&B, not at all making our rented Audi A3 catch air when Dukes of Hazarding it over a bump on the A846.  That never happened, nope.

Tour recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A morning at Lagavulin distillery, plus a 34 year old Lagavulin single cask!

A clickable table of contents!
Part 1: Lagavulin Distillery Tour
Part 2: Quick Facts!
Part 3: Warehouse Demonstration
Part 4: Warehouse Whiskies
Part 5: Lagavulin 34 year old 1982 single ex-Dewars cask
Part 6: Parting Thoughts

Lagavulin Distillery Tour

July 12th was a very whisky day.  It began at 9:30am when Kristen dropped me off at Lagavulin distillery.  I had booked both the regular distillery tour and the "Warehouse Demonstration".  The first thing I noticed was that the distillery shop was the most mediocre one I'd ever seen, and that includes all of the tiny US craft distillery shops I'd been to.  There were no distillery exclusives nor anything that couldn't be purchased at any random retail shop.  In fact, I'm not entirely sure what purpose the tiny shop served.  There were many people attending the tours while I was there and no one purchased anything.

The tour itself was the most impersonal one I experienced while in Scotland.  I don't remember the guide's name and I'm not certain he even told us.  We weren't allowed to take any photos during the tour, which was weird because there's nothing abnormal going on at the distillery and there's no way anyone could recreate the Lagavulin spirit at home by utilizing distillery photos.  So the only distillery photo I can share with you is the one above.  Yes, it's "Agavulin" distillery because that little house blocks the "L" from almost every angle.

As per the distillery website: "This tour of the process at Lagavulin Distillery includes a dram of one of our core range and a complimentary glass and a voucher for £5 off the purchase of a 70cl single malt."  I received none of those things.  Then again, they forgot to charge me for the tour.

Quick Facts!

Lagavulin gets their malted barley from the Port Ellen maltings a few miles down the road.  Though they "try to use Scottish barley", they do tend to get the majority of it from Britain, Sweden, and Italy.  It arrives three times a week, peated to 34ppm from 16 hours of peated drying.

Like many of Scotland's distilleries, Lagavulin utilizes a Porteus mill, a large red steel box that hasn't broken down since it arrived in 1963.  The perfect milled grist ratio for their wort is 70% grit, 20% husk, 10% flour.  Too much flour and things start to get sticky and gummy.

They apply at least two rounds of hot water to make the wort.  The first water is 64ºC, the next ones range from 71ºC to 82ºC.  The resulting wort is usually around 70ºC, then they cool it to 18ºC-20ºC before they apply the yeast in the washbacks.  They do four rounds of this wort process each day.

They have ten washbacks made of larch wood.  They (not sure if it's a person or an automated process) fill each washback 3/4s of the way up with wort, then add 80 liters of liquid yeast.  The fermentation lasts 55 hours, resulting in a 8-9%abv wash.

Their bizarro stills are quite a sight to see. I wish I could have taken photos.  (Here's another site's image.)  Because there are no reflux bulbs, the stills look like lumpy upside-down ice cream cones.  In fact, I'm sure they all have slightly different shapes. Meanwhile the lyne arms abruptly drop downwards.  Taking these structures into consideration, and the fact that they fill the stills to 90%, the result is a dense heavy spirit.  Probably the exact opposite of Glenmorangie.

The first distillation results in low wines of 25-26%abv.  The heart of the cut they're looking for in the second long distillation is 68-69%abv.

All cask filling is done in Fife on the mainland.  So, no, there's no magical Islay sea salt air massaging all of Lagavulin's barrels.  They have 7000 casks in modern warehouses on site, 6000 in warehouses at Port Ellen Maltings, 3000 in Caol Ila's warehouses, and 234000 on the mainland.

And, yes, it's all very 21st (or late 20th) century automated.  More tech, fewer hands, seems to be the goal.

Warehouse Demonstration

Ah, the real reason I went to Lagavulin.  If you read other older reviews of the warehouse demonstration, it sounds absolutely dreamy with five to seven 30+mL pours of single casks and a chance to taste Lagavulin's new make, courtesy of Iain "Pinky" McArthur (48 years working at the distillery).  But, to quote Robert Zimmerman, things have changed.

Iain told us, before the event started, that "Health & Safety" now forces him to have an assistant accompany him to do controlled pours.  And by controlled pours, I mean <15mL pours.  And, no new make.  In place of the new make, one gets a <15mL pour of the 8yo, something one can get at every decent bar in the country.  I don't know if "Health & Safety" is a government branch or a Diageo unit, but no other cask tasting I went to in Scotland had the same restriction.  Though I appreciated hearing Iain openly mocking these changes, it still was a letdown.  Because one cannot buy a bottle of any of the casks one tastes at the demonstration (again, the only cask tasting I went to with this restriction), the demonstration serves only as an educational experience.  Yet it's debatable how educational a 10-15mL pour can be.

Iain was a great host, always irreverent, always blunt.  He said he would have preferred the 8yo to have been released at cask strength.  And he told us that every Lagavulin whisky was chillfiltered, including the cask strength 12 year old.  His energy and humor partly made up for the changes to demonstration and distracted this drinker from the fact that since Iain's audience filled every last space, Diageo grossed around £700 during that hour.  To put that in perspective, in 2013 your £15 ticket bought you 10-15 UK (or 6-8 US) units of alcohol, while, in 2016, your £23 now gets you 3-4 UK (or less than 2 US) units of alcohol.  I am not insensitive to the need for safe drinking, but this represents a 475%-600% devaluing of the visitors' money.

All the whiskies were very good, as I'll detail below, but I had somewhere (better) to be towards the end so I bottled up my final pour and split before I found out whether or not I'd get the £5 voucher towards the lamest distillery gift shop on the planet.  I bottled up the final pour.  Who would have known that whisky would have been the highlight of all things Lagavulin...

Warehouse Whiskies

Lagavulin 8 year old - Allow me to point you towards my review of this very whisky.  My opinion of it remains the same.

Lagavulin 12 year old 2004, 1st fill ex-sherry cask, 52.5%abv
Nose - Mint and milk chocolate, subtler peat and smoke notes than expected
Palate - Nice, lightly bitter, fruity and loaded with almonds.  A long finish.

Lagavulin 14 year old 2002, refill cask, 54.6%abv
Nose - Anise, green herbs, black berries
Palate - Big and nutty, with toffee pudding and toasty peat.

Lagavulin 18 year old 1998, 2nd fill ex-sherry cask, 57.5%abv
Nose - Really young and (what I imagine would be) new-makey. Apples, mint, chocolate, and a hint of anise.
Palate - Lots of pepper and sugar.  Cinnamon candy and slivovitz.
There was barely any color to this 18yo.  That must be one dead cask.

Lagavulin 23 year old 1993, 1st fill ex-sherry cask, 56.4%abv
Nose - Fruit cake, toffee, and vibrant peat.
Palate - Yum. Fruity, herbal, bitter chocolate, dried fruit, and rich peat.
This one was a significant improvement over the other three casks.

And now....

Lagavulin 34 year old 1982, ex-Dewars cask, 55.2%abv

Its color is a pale amber, a good sign so far.  The nose is... ... ... gorgeous. Dark chocolate, barbecue pulled pork, deep dark earthy peat, rosewater, honey, roasted nuts, roasted seaweed, almond butter, maté, Ceylon cinnamon, and rich caramel sauce.  The palate is a cinnamon and brown sugar syrup infused with intense peat char, old cognac, and something I can only describe as antique shop.  One may find oneself getting lost......as it finishes in the ocean.  Seaweed, salt.  Dry peat smoke, earth, and horseradish.  Very long.

Stunning, regal whisky. This could easily stand up to all of Laphroaig's famous long-aged releases with all its grace and power.  Despite its color, this is not naked spirit.  The oak, while present, works in harmony with the spirit, framing and highlighting its best characteristics. It's a whisky that needs to be savored and appreciated slowly, so I'm happy I took this sample back with me. The 5 minute window during the demonstration wouldn't have been enough time for me to appreciate this excellent cask.  Giving this liquid a numerical score feels even sillier than usual, so here's a Grade Range: A.

(For another review of (I think) this cask, see Jordan's post here.)

Parting Thoughts

I didn't leave Lagavulin totally disappointed.  I recognized it to be a once in a lifetime experience (not just because I won't go there a second time) and fairly educational.  It was once I started comparing it to the rest of the tours and demonstrations I went to during my trip that the near complete lack of effort on the part of the distillery (and its parent company) became clear.  Iain McArthur was the only person putting any effort into the experience.  The rest of the humans, from top to bottom of the latter, seem to know they needn't be bothered to do much for the visitors' money, because we keep arriving at the front door.  And I guess I could just chalk up my £23 to paying for the 10-15mL of the divine 34 year old cask, but I can't write off everything that came before it.  Aside from Iain McArthur, the experience felt, like everything else in Diageo's single malt production, automated.

If you keep your expectations in check, and if you just want an opportunity to be at Lagavulin, and if they are still pouring from the 34yo cask, then I can tepidly recommend a visit.  But if you're looking for an amazing, fulfilling, or even welcoming experience, you may want to look elsewhere on the island.  As for me, I don't regret doing the tour, but I sort of wish I'd have gone to Kilchoman instead.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Springbank 13 year old Green and the mystery of Loch Fyne Whiskies

I had a weird experience during my last full day in Scotland and I wasn't going to share it with you, but here I am typing about it at 7am.  (If you want to skip the tale and get right to the review, click here.)

During our drive from Campbeltown to Edinburgh, we made a lunch stop in Inveraray, something I highly recommend even if it's just to gape at the awesome expanse of the Loch Lomond National Park.  There's a lovely castle nearby, but they charge to park as well as to enter and we were short on time, so we stayed in town to gape, eat, and briefly shop.  Also in town is Loch Fyne Whiskies, a shop of which I'd been reading rave reviews from anoraks around the globe for the past five years.  Thus the stop was strategic on my part.

I walked into Loch Fyne Whiskies (Fyne Malts down the street is a cute shop of curios, BTW) prepping myself with the trip's mantra "Don't buy more than one. We can't fit it in the car or the luggage or the budget."  But I knew instantly that overbuying wouldn't be an issue.  One third of the shop was the tasting table, behind which were dusty famous bottles they were not selling (according to the gentleman working there).  An entire other third of the tiny shop was devoted to Loch Fyne's Own Liqueur and Blend.  That left one short wall of stock.

I respect retailers who curate their selection rather than selling everything.  K&L Wine Merchants (in the US) does a very good job of this with their single malt selection.  But what was sitting on Loch Fyne's shelves was not the result of careful curation.  It was two dozen random official bottlings and another two to three dozen bottles of Hunter Laing labels.  That was it.  (One may think their website has whisky, but they list their out of stock items with the in stock items, along with dozens of empty links.)  With a selection smaller than many Scottish off-licenses and every random bar I ducked into during the trip, Loch Fyne had nothing of interest except for the Springbank 13 year old Green I'm reviewing today.  They also, according to the cashier, do not participate in the VAT Refund scheme, which is odd because everyone from Royal Mile Whiskies to the local mom & pop shops do.  I (over)paid for the Springbank bottle and left.

I don't recommend going to the shop, nor do I recommend their website which has the most outrageous shipping prices I've seen (and I've seen many) and due to the aforementioned stock/link problems.  58GBP to ship one bottle plus a potential VAT problem?  What?  If anyone reading this post knows what befell Loch Fyne Whiskies, then please share in the comments below.  It appears now to be merely a shiller for Hunter Laing whiskies (which are available via all major Scottish whisky retailers, and many off-licenses, anyway) and their own label.  Was it always thus?  Or did something happen to them?

(Update! Mystery solved. See the comments section below.)


I did get a one ounce sample of Springbank 13 year old Green (organic barley!) with my purchase because they apparently had a lot of tasting samples of it left behind the counter.  That didn't make up for the $10-$17 (or whatever those hungry refund processing companies allow) VAT I had to eat, but it allowed for this immediate review!

Distillery: Springbank
Brand: Springbank
Region: Campbeltown
Age: minimum 13 years
Maturation: 100% ex-sherry casks
Barley: type unknown, but it's 100% organic
Bottling Date: 2015
Limited bottling: 9,000
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltration? No
Colorant? No

Its color is a light gold, which set my expectation for nth-fill sherry casks.  But the nose immediately shows off the excellent intersection of peat and sherry that's becoming harder to find.  Big lovely stone fruit from the spirit, moderate mossy peat, and dried cherries and dried apricots come together as a unified note.  And with some air it picks up a bit of raisin bread too.  The palate starts with nutty toffeed sherry, citrus peels, mild peat, and red peppercorns.  Then walnuts and almonds, and a subtle Islay-like medicinal note wrapped in salty toffee.  In the finish a nice chili pepper heat merges with a berry-like sweetness, then settles into toasted barley and dry peat smoke.

The nose leads with charred tri-tip, peach skin, prunes, and an Ardbeg-like soot.  Nice soft sherry and malt in the palate.  Tangerines, peppery peat, and hard toffee.  The finish is similar to the palate, with the citrus sounding out the loudest.

This was the first whisky I tried during my trip and the last bottle I bought.  That first tasting was at an excellent bar, The Devil's Advocate (I intend to do a post about them someday).  Ever the Springbank Greens were released in The States I'd been unhappy about how they were priced, so I wanted to hate the whisky.  But my first reaction was, this stuff works.  And now that I've given in a second try in a controlled environment my reaction is...this stuff really works.  I like it better than the 10yo and 15yo (both 46% too), and some of the 12yo CS batches.  I can't tell you the quality is due the result of organic barley or just some good cask management.

Please keep in mind I am crazy about almost everything coming out under the Springbank brand right now -- to the point I almost need to put a disclaimer next to their scores like I used to do for Irish single pot still whiskies -- so I'll try to moderate.  If you like Springbank + sherry and are looking for something different than the 15 year old or something subtler than the Cask Strength, then the 13 year old Green is for you.  I recommend this whisky mostly for my European readers since the average price of it is 62% higher in the US than in the UK, thanks to Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits.  The pricing here is still a problem, but this is a very good whisky.

Availability - A few dozen specialty retailers in Europe and US
Pricing - Europe $65-$105, US $105-$125
Rating - 89

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Travel Retail Experience and The Glenfiddich Cask Collection

Every time I wander the Duty Free shop's whisky aisle -- where age statements go to die and sensible pricing has long since hopped the first flight to nowhere -- the brightly packaged single malts come across exceedingly silly to me, but I'm not the intended demographic.  As MAO mentioned at some point, Travel Retail whisky is aimed at flight-weary well-moneyed travelers.  I may be the first of those hyphenates, but not the second.  Plus I'm immune to lazy product naming and half-assed storytelling.

For those who are interested, Edinburgh airport has a sizable travel retail whisky selection comparable to that of the Heathrow and Dublin airports.  You may find the shelves a colorful distraction during an extended layover.  There was actually a Port Charlotte whisky I would have liked to bring home had I any room in my luggage for another bottle.

Since I could not spare a square inch, I instead overpaid for this sampler of Glenfiddich's "Cask Collection", primarily because it contained a peated Glenfiddich ("Vintage"), secondarily because there was also an all sherry-matured Glenfiddich ("Reserve"), and not at all because of the Select Cask.  As usual, Glenfiddich took its cue from the Canadian whisky industry by reducing its products to as low as they can legally go, 40%abv.

From the creative writing on the back of the box: "At The Glenfiddich Distillery we have an unrivalled cask collection of rare and aged single malts maturing in our warehouses," and, "Glenfiddich Cask Collection celebrates our unrivalled selection of rare and aged single malts at The Glenfiddich Distillery."  (Cutting and pasting now, are we?)  With all those aged single malts Glenfiddich advertises on the back of the box, one wonders if those casks remain at the distillery since not a single age statement appears on the three whiskies contained inside the box.

Glenfiddich Select Cask, 40%abv, from the box: "An elegant single malt, matured in specially hand-selected aged bourbon, European oak and red wine casks and married in our Select Cask Solera vat."

Nose - Apples, yeast, saltines, cassia cinnamon, and butterscotch candies sit up front, while a brighter mango-like note rides in the trunk.  With some air, it's all butterscotch and tablet, then vanilla and sawdust.
Palate - Sugar and vanilla. Sour off-season blackberries overwhelm hints of chili oil and caramel sauce. With air it moves towards even more sugar and vanilla, until a slight eggy sulphur note rumbles up from the rear. The watery texture adds to the off-kilter experience.
Finish - Sour berries again, along with tons of vanilla.  Then comes the artificial burnt raisin note, which I often find in whiskies heavy on e150a. Some barrel char and an ethyl sting.  Eventually it loses the berries, so it's just sour and acidic.
Comments: Not much separates the Select Cask from a medium-malt blend and I would be surprised if any of the ingredients ever reached eight years old.  Perhaps Glenfiddich had hoped Select Cask would be just a slight step down from the 12 year old, but their foot slipped and they fell down the stairs.
Grade: 71

Glenfiddich Reserve Cask, 40%abv, from the box: "A rich single malt matured in specially reserved sherry casks and married in our Reserve Cask Solera vat."

Nose -
 Slightly more pungent and sherried than the Select. More nuts and toffee than dried fruit. Barley, brown sugar, and vanilla.  Tart apricots.  After some air it's all toffee, white chocolate, and vanilla fudge.
Palate - Lots of vanilla.  Then some more vanilla.  Cherry candy, caramel, and a very quiet fresh stone fruit note.  With air, it gets slightly yeasty and bready. Grape candy and a bottom shelf Pinot Noir note.  Again, a very thin texture.
Finish - Mild heat, sugar, grape candy, and a weird buttery caramel note.  Also, vanilla.
Comments: Likely inspired by the regular 15 year old Solera Reserve release, Glenfiddich went for the full sherry approach here.  Yet instead, the Reserve Cask is the step down from the 12 year old that was probably intended for the Select Cask.  There is so much vanilla in the whisky that I couldn't help but notice the word "European", present in the marketing script for the other two whiskies, but missing for this one.  These sherry casks are more American than Newt Gingrich, and thus similarly limited and loud in the result.
Grade: 79

Glenfiddich Vintage Cask, 40%abv, from the box: "A peaty single malt matured in hand-selected European and bourbon vintage casks and married in our Vintage Cask Solera vat."

Nose - At first there's rubbery peat and peppery breakfast sausage, along with in-season red apples.  There's lemon peel, plaster, malt, and hints of raisins.  With air, the peat grows mossier and more mature-feeling.  Some oregano shows up along with small notes of milk chocolate and vanilla.
Palate - Caol Ila-lite, in a good way.  Bacon and salt, some seaweed and a spicy zing.  Vanilla simple syrup.  After some air, it gets a peach note, along with black peppercorns and milk chocolate.
Finish - The best and longest of the three finishes. Warm, with peat char, salt, farm, and tart citrus notes.
Comments: This has what the other two whiskies are missing: something else, something different from Glenfiddich.  A good drink and a bit of a thinker at that, the Vintage Cask has the potential to be great.  Whomever came up with the idea for the 51%abv Distillery Edition (and was then summarily fired) could have been utilized for the Vintage Cask, bumping its abv up to 46% and thus respecting the product.  But while it sits at 40%abv it never does what other single malts already do, so I can't recommend it at its $100+ price point.  At forty bucks, I'd buy it.
Grade: 83

Even if one's a Glenfiddich enthusiast, as I usually am, there isn't much to recommend amongst the Cask Collection, especially at their $50+, $70+, $100+ prices.  If one gets bitten by the Must Buy It Bug, then the set of 50mLs shouldn't hurt worse than $36.  The three-pack provides an expedited path to confirming that Glenfiddich's blenders valued nose more than palate, and "meeting a product deadline" over "thoughtfully expanding the range".  The Vintage Cask comes close to breaking free, but all that added water weighs it down.  All the buyer is left with is another triple-figure NAS what-if, in an aisle already full of them.

Monday, July 18, 2016

It's Always Sunny in Port Ellen

On our first morning back in America, I woke before the sun.  All night I'd dreamt lightly about moving my family out of a well-weathered stone Scottish house, refusing to hand over prized shrubberies to neighbors, instead doing guerrilla plantings in broad daylight in strangers' backyards.  Once awake I wondered how on earth I was going to organize my travel experiences into blog posts.

Aside from 48 hours of drizzle in the Highlands, the sun never set in Scotland.  Almost literally.  Sunrise was 4:30ish, Sunset 10:30ish.  In the Highlands, the dying daylight glow drifted past midnight.  The temperature floated between the the low 60s and the low 70s the entire time.  Such was the gorgeous sunlight that I received a blistering sunburn......while we were on Islay.

Edinburgh remains, aesthetically, my favorite city in the world, though the Royal Mile has now become Tourist Trap Mile.  Also, The Queen was staying in the Palate of Holyroodhouse and she wouldn't let anyone in.  Dammit Liz, go home.  Drumnadrochit continues to be quiet and peaceful despite the all its new construction.  But Islay's beauty took me by surprise.  I expected a slightly dingy fishing island, but instead its geography, which shifts every few miles, glows in its wild freedom.  And Campbeltown, which I expected to be a very dingy shipping town, was full of lovely architecture (whether sturdily intact or romantically crumbled) that revealed its great prosperity from a previous century.

Then there was our questionable car, excellent seafood at every stop, Finlaystone House, Loch Lomond National Park, two Loch Ness Monsters, and 56 whiskies sampled in 7 days.  Even Kristen tried a few single malts, with positive results.  As I write this, early in the AM, I still don't know what I'll be sharing here or how I'll do so.  But here are some photos in the meantime...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

To The North Sea Go We!

All things being equal, I'd rather be in Drumnadrochit.  So we're going.  Today.

I had planned two other trips to Scotland over the past decade but they never came to be.  Those were different times for the Scotch whisky industry and my opinion of it.  But I go now during a time of stagnation (or worse) in volume sales, all the while the high-end of the market is flooded with decadence.  I've come to the realization of what a terrible value Scotch has become compared to the rest of the world's whisky markets (save for Taiwan).  I'm enjoying $10-$25 bourbons much more than $50+ scotches.

Though I still have a great love -- or maybe "an unending deep interest" is a better phase because it's a commodity not a person -- for Scotch whisky and many of its distilleries, it is a feeling that's no longer innocent and pure, having been corrupted by the actions of the industry itself.  Watching the output from my old favorite distilleries, like Talisker and Laphroaig, getting thoroughly abused in the name of, what, product line expansion or veiling problematic spirit has inspired me to buy less or none of their products.  Experiencing the industry at large pushing more active American oak into their whiskies in failed attempts to either mimic bourbon or artificially speed up aging, I've found that they're transforming scotch into a new product as a whole, and I don't like the way it tastes.  Tasting whisky is sort of the point, right?

As I mentioned in posts from years ago, I took an interest in Scotland itself, its land, its history, its people, at least a decade before I started regularly drinking scotch whisky.  The month I spent in Scotland and Ireland in 2002 was one of the most uplifting and cleansing experiences in my life.  But I drank no Scotch that month, aside from a glass or two of Black & White on the rocks.  Yes, I probably missed out on some of the greatest whisky in history, but if I were to do it again I wouldn't change a thing (except maybe magically having more money).

So now, in 2016, I travel back there with my wife (Clan MacMillan in my house!), a woman whom I may not have met or wooed successfully if not for my original Scotland experience.  (It's a long, boring, personal story.  Just trust me, it's true.)  No, I am not going to 75 distilleries and 300 pubs in 9 days.  We just moved across the United States and we're tired.  Rain or shine or rain, we're going to do some historical stuff, lots of walking, eating, and resting.

I realize this post strikes of being short on enthusiasm.  Sorry, I'm worn out from a difficult three months (or five years?).  Inside I'm f***ing stoked!  We're going to Scotland and doing some really sweet s**t!  We will be going to distilleries.  We will be going bars and restaurants and touristy things.  I'll have my fancy DSLR, which has taken very few non-Mathilda photos, and (nope, need room for bottles) my cell phone and my laptop, so I will try to post photos here as often as time allows.  I will be bringing whisky and toddler toys back with me, I may write about one or the other upon my return.  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

NOT Single Malt Report: Evan Williams Green Label Straight Bourbon Whiskey (2013)

Heaven Hill distillery produces some small miracles.  There's the Elijah Craig 12yo Small Batch (if you can find it) and McKenna 10yo BIB, low-priced high-quality well-aged bourbons at excellent prices.  Then there's the Evan Williams brand which is basically good quality bourbon priced SUPER cheaply.  Having spent most of my time and energy dealing with Scotch whisky, I can't even begin to understand how Heaven Hill can sell a very drinkable whiskey (Evan Williams Black Label) for $10.

Unseen in most states, Evan Williams Green Label is even cheaper than their Black Label.  I've been trying to get my hands on a bottle for review purposes for a few years now.  Luckily, I just happened to drive through 12 states last week and quickly found a 375mL bottle of Green for $4.99.  The liquor store also had a 750mL bottle for $8.  Yes, eight dollars.  I went with the smaller bottle because I am that cheap.  I couldn't wait until the end of my trip to open it...
So in honor of July 4th, I'm reviewing an American whiskey on July 5th.  USA! USA! USA!

Distiller: Heaven Hill
Brand: Evan Williams
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Louisville, Kentucky
Maturation: New American oak
Age: ???
Mashbill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley (I think)
Bottle Code: L3102
Bottling Year: 2013
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Nose - In a Glencairn it's loaded with vanilla, caramel, and orange peel, followed by moderate notes of cherry bubblegum and corn syrup.  In a tumbler there's a little bit of vanilla and caramel.  Slightly salty with some lumber notes.

Palate - In a Glencairn there's mild barrel char, mild heat, and mild rye notes.  There's a good Heath bar note, though it's not too sweet.  A hint of pencil shavings around the edges.  In a tumbler there's peppery heat and prickly wood spices followed by sharp tart limes and caramel corn.

Finish - In a Glencairn it's mostly baking spice and barrel char.  No sugary sweetness.  In a tumbler it has a nice simple peppery/chili kick that lingers long.

Cocktails - Green Label shows best as a highball or an Old Fashioned.  Very crisp and refreshing for warm summer evenings.

I'll repeat what I said in my tweet above, this is better than most or all blended scotch in the $25 range.  It smells gorgeous in a glencairn glass though it seems to taste and finish better in a tumbler.  It works in cocktails and hotel plastic cups.  I'm not going to tell you this is a sophisticated whiskey, nor an excellent whiskey, but it delivers in full and that's more than a person can reasonably expect from a $8 whiskey.

Availability - Some states but not others :-/
Pricing - $8-$11 (750mL)
Rating - 80

Monday, July 4, 2016

Eighteen Old and Older Blends with The Malt Nuts

On June 16th, I attended my second, and possibly final, Malt Nuts event.  I had enjoyed the Mannochmore-themed May event, so as soon as I'd heard about the June event I made sure I could attend despite the onset of packing and moving exhaustion.  This tasting's theme was old and older blends, as in blended scotch bottled in the 1980s or earlier AND current blended scotch aged 20 years or older.  Since I spent many hours scouring Long Beach for good dusties and winding up with mostly bizarro semi-dusty scotch blends, this event was totally my bag.

We tasted eighteen blends.  That's a hell of a thing, so structure was required.  The eighteen whiskies were divided up into six categories, all noted below.  As before, these were all tasted blindly within their groups.  For more info, more photos, and a different take on the whiskies, see The Whisky Jug's recent post on this event.

Panorama shot!
PART 1: 1970s and 1980s blends

1A - Harvey's Blended Scotch, bottled late '70s, 40%abv
Review: The nose is quiet.  Vanilla, toasted oak, cherry candy.  Lightly soapy and buttery.  The palate is rough and dirty, burnt, hot, with some black pepper.
Comments: Off to a rough start with this one.  Struggled to find the nose, then wished I hadn't found the palate. It quickly proves that not all dusty cheap blends were better than current cheap blends.
Grade Range: D/D+

1B - King George IV, bottled '70s, 43%abv
Review: The nose is grainy, mild, lightly honeyed.  Hard to find, again.  On the other hand, the palate doesn't hide.  Lots of stone fruits, mint leaves, and musty Old Bottle Effect.
Comments: A decent palate helped offset another quiet nose.  This would be a welcome option in the $15-$20 range today.  Might be able to compete and top the current J&B and Chivas 12.
Grade Range: C

1C - Pinch 12 years old, bottled early '80s, 43%abv (my bottle!)
Review: Rubbery sherry, prunes, and musty old oak in the nose. The palate is fresh, malty, slightly tangy with some drying tannins.
Comments: With much more sherry and malt than most of the the dusties from this tasting, the Pinch was my favorite of the first group and such a happy surprise that it was my bottle!  I'm glad I have another bottle in the stash.
Grade Range: B-

1D - Catto's Gold Label, bottled '70s, 43%abv
Review: The nose is nothing but floral perfume.  The palate was Glenfiddich 12yo-like with pears, malt, and caramel.  It's also spicy with a bitter bite in the end.
Comments:  So three out of four of the whiskies in this group had much better palates than noses.  And I recommend leaving three out of the four of this group's whiskies on the dusty shelves if you find them.
Grade Range: C-/C

PART 2: Cluny vs. Cluny

2A - Cluny Blended Scotch, bottled mid '80s, 40%abv (my bottle!)
Review: Big pretty florals (flowers, not perfume) on the nose.  Peach skins and almonds.  The palate is all sugar, vanilla, and coconut.
Comments: I had tried this one with Florin (a prince) the weekend before this event.  It's essentially a grain whisky and may counter my theory that all older blends had higher malt contents than today's crop.  I look forward to reviewing this whisky more thoroughly later this year.
Grade Range: C/C+

2B - Cluny 12 year old, bottled '80s, 43%abv
Review: Mango, limes, and sugar on the nose.  Meanwhile, the palate is impressively malty with bursts of orange oil and chili oil.
Comments: A very respectable whisky.  Not only would I drink this again, but if I found this collecting dust on a shelf, I'd get a bottle.
Grade Range: B-/B

PART 3: Current 20+ year old blends

3A - Grangestone 30 year old, current, 40%abv
Review: Sneaker rubber, yeast, and urine in the nose.  The palate is a little brighter with vanilla extract and white fruits.
Comments: Lord, what a crap nose.  The palate ain't bad, but I can't believe this is 30 year old stuff.
Grade Range: D+/C-

3B - Grangestone 25 year old, current, 40%abv
Review: The nose has notes of rubber bands and halvah.  It's plenty nutty and grows fruitier with time.  The palate is malty and nutty with a good texture to it.
Comments: A leap better than the 30yo (though Whisky Jug felt the opposite), I'd get this Grangestone over the older one any day.
Grade Range: C+/B-

3C - Annasach Reserve 25 years old, current, 40%abv
Review: Peated manure, orange oil, and limes in the nose.  Sugar, vanilla, marijuana, cream soda, lots of fresh herbs, and a good bitterness in the palate.
Comments: Fun! This one was so much more lively, complex, and interesting than everything that came before it.  Allegedly there's some old Laphroaig in the mix too.  Wish they'd have bottled it at 43 or 46 percent, though, especially since it's three hundred freaking dollars.
Grade Range: B

PART 4: Two Cuttys and Two vatted malts

4A - Cutty Sark, bottled early '80s, 43%abv
Review: Burnt bread and butter and caramel in the nose.  Bitter herbs, milk chocolate, and caramel in the palate.
Comments: In my humble opinion, Cutty continues to be the worst current major blend in existence, all turpentine and disappointment.  Unsurprisingly, Southern California corner liquor stores are lousy with older bottlings of this delight.  The good news is that this '80s version is better than today's, a huge accomplishment.
Grade Range: C-

4B - Cutty 12 year old, bottled '70s, 43%abv
Review: The nose is very herbal, think cardamom and Ceylon cinnamon.  Quite aromatic.  Lots of rich caramel.  The palate is spicy, bright, and mildly sweet.  A light Old Bottle Effect note thoughout.
Comments: Then there's the Cutty 12.  I've actually polished off two bottles of this oldie myself.  This first was so-so.  The second was quite good.  The bottle from this tasting leaned much closer to my second one.  There's even a "yum" written in my notes.
Grade Range: B-/B

4C - Cadenhead Creations Rich Fruity Sherry Blended Malt, current, 46%abv
Review: The nose is all wet matzah and vanilla.  The palate has much more going on with some dirty peat, earth, and a light bitterness.
Comments: Um, I found neither sherry or fruit.  I wasn't the only one with this discovery during the tasting.  In any case I liked the palate but the nose just wasn't happening for me.
Grade Range: C

4D - Glen Turner 12 year old Pure Malt, bottled 1980s, 43%abv
Review: Not much going on in the nose.  Some malt and soap.  Weird milky papery note in the palate.  Cinnamon and bleh.
Comments: I wouldn't call this a mess, just kind of strange.  Some folks at the event liked it.
Grade Range: C-

PART 5: The Creative Whisky Company Blends

5A - Exclusive Blend 21 year old 1991, current, 46%abv
Review: Mothballs, plums, and oranges in the nose.  A dense, spicy, malty, "yummy" palate.
Comments: Much bigger than everything else that preceded it.  It's not complex, but it's a very good drink.  Recommended if you can find it.
Grade Range: B

5B - Exclusive Blended Malt 20 year old 1994, current, 46%abv
Review: Sherry and dark chocolate dominate the nose, followed by subtler savory and peaty notes.  A big loud gooey palate.  Loaded with sherry and dark fruits.
Comments: Winner.  Period.  Recommended.
Grade Range: B+

5C - Exclusive Blend 35 year old 1980, current, 46%abv
Review: A clean, grain dominant nose with moderate notes of flower blossoms, white fruits, and berries.  The palate has a nice combination of perky fruitiness and a sharper earthy note.
Comments: These Exclusive blends really won the day here.  I do prefer the 20yo blended malt, and it's a toss up between the 35yo and 21yo.  The 35yo is subtler, less immediate, but has a good balance to it.
Grade Range: B

PART 6: Ballantine's versus Ballantine's

6A - Ballantine's 12 year old, bottled '80s (that's my guess from what I noted on the bottle, though the folks there said it was from the '70s), 43%abv
Review: The nose is raw, rough, not noticeably whisky.  The palate is awful, all plastic and chemicals.
Comments: I'm going to guess/hope there was a storage problem with the bottle because this was just gross.
Grade Range: F

6B - Ballantine's 17 year old, bottled '50s (yup), 43%abv
Review: The nose is minty with pears and fermented apples.  The palate is very herbal and minerally, with a weird chemical bitterness sneaking in at the end.
Comments: I love the label much more than the stuff in the bottle.  The nose was fine, but the mouth was a bit wacky.  Most very old blends need 30+ minutes to wake up, I gave this one as long as I could (10-15 mins) but it didn't do much.  I like the current 17yo much better.
Grade Range: C

1. Exclusive Blended Malt 20 year old 1994
2. Exclusive Blend 35 year old 1980
3. Exclusive Blend 21 year old 1991
4. Annasach Reserve 25 year old
5. Cutty 12 year old (1970s)

I've long been biased in favor of old blends, so much to my great surprise, the current blends dominated the dusties at this event.  It did help that most of the current ones had some age on them and that the Exclusives were all bottled at 46%abv.  But other than the Cutty 12 and Pinch 12, I wouldn't recommend any of the dusty blends tried here.  It's about time I stop buying dusty blends, no?