...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, March 23, 2018

MAO Mix: Tomatin Cuatro flavour

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I'm going to get so many clicks now! That's how SEO works, right?

Upon opening a parcel recently sent to me by Comrade My Annoying Opinions, I found this:

Oh, and also this:

For those who've drifted on to more pleasant non-whisky pastures (such as brandy, rum, politics, carving out your eyeballs with a teaspoon, etc.) since 2014, Tomatin distillery simultaneously released four (cuatro!) 12 year old single malts, with each having spent nine years in ex-bourbon casks and 3 years in a specific type of sherry cask. Fino, Manzanilla, Oloroso and Smuckers Pedro X each received its own release.

MAO took a hit for the team and bought all four. He reviewed them. Then he mixed them. And reviewed his mix (see Blend A). Now I will review his mix.

MAO Mix: Tomatin Cuarto flavour - 46% abv
1:1:1:1 (Fino : Manzanilla : Oloroso : Pedro Ximenez cask releases)

At first the sherry is quite reserved in the nose, letting the malt stand out. There's also hint of something smoky and industrial. The sherry element grows with time, showing up as both nutty and (berry) jammy. Fresh pears and white peaches. Those fruits pick up a funky fermenting note after the whisky sits in the glass for 30 minutes.

Some moderate fruity sherry in the palate, which is more sherried than the nose. Tart fruits and raisins. A hint of woody bitterness that gradually turns into an almost eucalyptus-like zing. There's a dark, almost tarry, note underneath.

On the finish it's raisins and star anise, then hints of bitterness and sweetness. A solid salty note. A good length.

I'd choose this 12 year old Tomatin mix over the official Macallan 12. Of course, that's not as hot of a take as it would have been five years ago. But let that not be a strike against this MAO Mix, which is a well-balanced combo with good fruit stuff that reins in the excitable oak. It's a good winter drink, someone should bottle it.

Rating - 元元元习 (3 yuan and 1 Xí)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mission: Mars concludes

Here are the Mission: Mars whiskies I reviewed:

--Shinshu 12 year old 1986, cask 452 - 43%abv - Rating: 90
--Shinshu 12 year old 1992, cask 1125  - 43%abv - Rating: 88
--Shinshu 20 year old 1989, cask 618 - 58%abv - Rating: 82
--Tsunuki New Pot Heavily Peated new make - 60%abv - Rating: 63


What Was versus What Is

At first glance, it appears as if the scores are saying, "The stuff from back in the day was better." But that's not necessarily true. The current era of Mars whiskies are barely legal, while the malts I tried from the previous era had much longer maturation periods (and were unpeated). Also, that 20 year old single cask was overoaked and uninspiring.

The last four whiskies were substantially peated, so the era was different, the maturation periods were different and the spirits themselves were different. That being said, I am not motivated to try any current Shinshu/Tsunuki whisky until it gets 8+ years on it. It's nearly impossible to produce an excellent 3 year old whisky, but Mars does get respect points for not oak-doping these whisky toddlers. But will any of us be able to afford 8 year old Shinshu, because...

These whiskies are crazy expensive

My conservative estimate for the price of the first seven bottles is $3000. Yes, some of that pricing is due to the secondary market. But if you think Mars is going to sell their upcoming single casks for less than what they know they can get, then I want to give you a smooch because you're adorbs.

Perhaps the "Nature of Shinshu" series provides a good estimate of Mars's current pricing plans. Those whiskies range from $150-$200 or so, and they're almost entirely 3-5 year old stuff. Though the company claims there's some 25+ year old malt in the mix, I doubt it's more than a sprinkle. Unless those old casks fell below 40%abv, they're tremendously valuable. Do you know what 25-30yo cask strength Japanese single malt is worth? If you don't, that's okay because it barely exists in the present market. Those would be multi-thousand-dollar bottles.

Speaking of cask strength

My favorite whiskies of the bunch were bottled at 43%abv. My least favorite whiskies were 60+%abv. Part of that probably has to do with my current palate. But, again, I'm comparing Satsuma plums to Satsuma oranges here.

By the way, Satsuma oranges aren't actually from Satsuma. They're from Zhejiang, China. They acquired their name because the fruits were originally exported to America through Satsuma. A Satsuma (or unshiu) variety is now grown in Gulf states, like Louisiana and Florida. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.


Is there hope?

Probably not.

Oh, you mean for the current era of Mars whiskies? Maybe. The "Nature of Shinshu" Kohiganzakura was decent, and the Komagatake Sherry & American White Oak was very good. By producing four kinds of malts at each of their distilleries, Hombo Spirits is bound to find at least one or two successful combos. I just hope they give their casks some time. And then underprice Chichibu. Please.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tsunuki New Pot Heavily Peated new make

The Mission: Mars whiskies:

So this is where the most recent reviews were trending: new make. And, as a wee surprise, this stuff is NOT from Shinshu distillery, but rather from Tsunuki distillery, Hombo Spirits's new Mars facility.

photo from Kagoshima's official tourism website

While Shinshu distillery perches up in the Japanese Alps in Nagano, Tsunuki was built in Satsuma (in Kagoshima prefecture) at the southern tip of Kyūshū. While it's not technically on the coast (about 10 miles away), it does sit in a basin near sea level. And it's at the same latitude (32ºN) as Algeria, Morocco, Texas, Sonora and Punjab. So yeah, it can be warm down there.

Tsunuki was built on the former site of Hombo's Kagoshima distillery, which closed in 1984. Production started at the new distillery in late 2016 with the intent of having a single malt ready in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Just like Shinshu, Tsunuki distills four new makes, from malted barley with peating levels of 0ppm, 3.5ppm, 20ppm and 50ppm.

In 2017, Mars released a four Tsunuki spirits: non-peated new make, heavily-peated new make, 47 days aged and 244 days aged. I'm ending this series with a review of the heavily-peated unaged spirit.

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Tsunuki
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Kagoshima Prefecture
Age: 0
Maturation: none
Distilled: May 2017
Peat level: 50ppm
Bottle size: 250mL
Bottles: 4000
Alcohol by Volume: 60%
(from a purchased sample)

Color? None. One rip at the nose and WOO! Peat eau de vie. Burnt earth smoke. Wet sheep. Gunpowder and the old charred bits stuck to the grill tray. New sneakers. Ocean-soaked stones. The palate is indeed peaty, but less punishing than the nose. It has the nose's sulphuric note, though it's more like struck matches. Salty and savory. A hint of sweetness. More fabric and rubber than earth. It finishes peaty and salty. Peppercorns and cigarettes.

Gonna water it way down,

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The nose loses none of its violence. Mostly the same notes as before. More focus on rubber, metal and saline. Intensely salty peat on the palate. A sharp bitterness. Clove cigarettes and struck matches. Maybe some sweetness. The finish is salty, bitter and smoky.

Well, it ain't whisky. Keep that in mind when you see the score. New make that rates over 60 is a success, since it's already preferable to cheap blends. New make that hits 80 is super duper because it's more complete/complex/delicious than most matured whiskies. Anyhoo...

I really enjoy new make, though I prefer the unpeated sort. This particular spirit shows why peated new make can be a bit difficult, even ugly at times. It's close to new Ledaig, but it's also close to Lost Spirits's whisky-ish things. Though its sulphuric edge is fascinating, it doesn't fatten things up like some sulphuric Scotch new make, rather it sorta makes things more......chancy? I can see this Tsunuki spirit turning into some socko crazy single malt some day. It certainly won't be a diplomatic beverage in 2020.

Availability - Japan, maybe
Pricing - the 250mL bottle was around $20
Rating - 63 (again, it's new make)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shinshu Mars 3 year old 2013 Tsunuki Aging, cask 5108

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:

Tsunuki distillery, opened by Hombo Spirits in 2016, was built at sea level on the Kagoshima coast, far from its sibling distillery, Shinshu, up in the Japanese Alps. Hombo established some warehouse space near Tsunuki before the distillery was complete, and has been maturing some casks there.

More on this in the next post. Right now lemme see how this 3 year old — distilled at Shinshu — fares after spending its life near the sea, as opposed to on the mountaintop.

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Distillation Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Maturation Region: Japan, Kagoshima Prefecture
Age: 3 years (September 2013 - February 2017)
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrel
Peat level: ???
Cask #: 5108
Bottles: 210
Bottled for: Yamakataya
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold, though it's darker than the previous 3yos I reviewed. The nose frames everything with light sugary peat. Apple-y calvados, lychee gummy candy, vanilla, soil and brine sit in the middle. The palate is HAWT. Jeez. It's fruity, though. Sweet white fruits and very tart berries. Puckeringly tart. Ocean water (don't drink ocean water, people) and cinnamon. More salt than peat, really. Lots of ethyl heat in the finish, as well. It's mostly salt, bitterness and char.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Ah, the nose is very pretty, all fruits and flowers. Bananas, plums and apples. The palate is much more approachable at this strength. Pepper, salt and sugar. Pears and vanilla. Donut glaze. Not much peat. Some of the pears remain in the warm, peppery, sweet finish.

I'm sensing a theme here. Three consecutive 3 year old peated whiskies that all smell and taste like 3 year old peated whiskies, no matter where they've matured. This is the hottest of the three, but once diluted down to 46%abv, it's the best of the trio. While the nose has its delights, the whisky's palate (like the previous two) is limited by its youth. As I've said before, I'd be interested in tasting this stuff when it hits eight years old. At that point, I wouldn't doubt if it gives Hakushu a run for its money. Speaking of money, this thing is priced all over the map (as it were).

Availability - Japan, Europe and USA
Pricing - Japan: around $80 if you can find it; Europe: $200ish; USA: $200-$250
Rating - 81 (with water only)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Shinshu Mars 3 year old 2013 Blackadder, cask 1647

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:

Like yesterday's whisky, this is a peated three year old Martian. I don't know which of Shinshu's three peated distillates were used here, but since it's supposed to be noticeably peaty, I'd say it's either the 20ppm or 50ppm spirit.

This time it's not an official bottling, but rather one from the independent company, Blackadder. Though, curiously, the official bottle shape was used.

The cask description makes me smile: "first refill bourbon barrel". So.....is it a second fill? On a side note, "first fill" is a misleading term because technically a "first fill" ex-bourbon barrel's real first fill is bourbon, not single malt. A true "first fill" would be a virgin oak cask, meanwhile a virgin oak cask is no longer "virginal" once it's been filled. And you have now wasted five seconds of your life reading this paragraph.


Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Independent bottler: Blackadder
Age: 3 years (May 2013 - September 2016)
Maturation: "first refill bourbon barrel"
Peat level: either 20ppm or 50ppm
Cask #: 1647
Bottles: 239
Alcohol by Volume: 61%

Oooh, there's fruit in the nose. I mean, it's subtle but there be peaches and pineapple here. There's also very polite peat and concrete. Sugar cookies and cinnamon candy. And the ocean/beach note found in many of these Martians. The palate has peppery peat, dried thyme, charred beef, berry syrup, brown sugar and little bit of heat. There's sweet peat, salt, pepper and heat in the finish.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Twix bars and cinnamon candy on the nose. Ocean. The peat has gotten quieter but ashier. Not much happening in the palate. Peppercorns and fresh ginger. Tart lemons and mild peat. Peat, ginger and pepper in the finish.

The nose is a lot of fun but the palate is a snooze. There are no outright flaws here, unless bottling a whisky before it's ready equates to a flaw. The heat is calmer than I expected from a 3yo 61% whisky, and, again, the sniffer's fruit is much appreciated. I'm leaning towards this being a second fill barrel holding the 20ppm spirit.

Next week, the tour takes another turn, thank goodness. No the whiskies don't get older, but they do get different. As for this whisky:

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 78 (neat)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shinshu Mars Komagatake 2012 "Super Heavy Peated", cask 1492

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu Komagatake Nature of Shinshu - Kohiganzakura (Wednesday)
--Shinshu Komagatake 2012 "Super Heavy Peated", cask 1492 (today)

Now we're entering Shinshu distillery's current whisky era. So that means things are going to get quite young and probably quite peaty. Komagatake Kohiganzakura delivered more than a hint of youthful stuff yesterday, but it wasn't slathered with peat pancake makeup, which masks a whisky's flaws with a stratum of phenolic cover.

But, enough flirting. As Greta Garbo said, "Gimme a whisky."


Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 3 years (2012-2015)
Maturation: probably American oak
Peat level: either the 20ppm or 50ppm spirit, though probably the latter
Cask #: 1492
Bottled for: Isetan
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

It has a very pale color. The nose leads with clean ocean-y peat, flower blossoms and cinnamon candy. Simple syrup. A whiff of hot asphalt. Green veg, think arugula and seaweed. Yes, the palate's peat is heavy (ashy and sooty), but it's also sweet. Mild tingly alcohol heat. Acidic citrus, and no oak to be found. The still tingly finish has the oceanic peat smoke with a small hit of bitterness and a bigger acidic note.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The nose is cleaner, politer. Lots of florals. Menthol, burnt marshmallows and chalk dust. A hint of balsamic vinegar. Tangy and smoky peat in the palate. The bitterness and sweetness have become gentler, though there is a new edgier metallic side. It finishes tangy and sweet. Smoke and metal.

This does a good job imitating peated Scotch, while also including its own pretty floral notes. It's a fine work in progress, and probably offers a good look at Shinshu's heavily peated new make. And I do appreciate the absence of woodwork. I can't wait to see what it would be like at around 8 years. But with this 3yo selling for $500 (yup), I doubt most of us will ever find out what its older brethren will taste like.

Availability - Secondary market and a few retailers in Europe and Asia
Pricing - over $500. Because.
Rating - 80

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shinshu Mars Komagatake Kohiganzakura

The Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu Mars Komagatake Nature of Shinshu - Kohiganzakura (today)

The tour of Mars continues...

The first three whiskies (1986, 1992 and 1989) from this set of reviews were distilled during Shinshu's first whisky distillation era which began in 1985 and ended in 1992. The pot stills then sat silent until 2011, and have been running ever since.

Today's whisky is from the recent "Nature of Shinshu" series, which combines casks from this new period with casks from the old era. Sort of a Mars Uigeadail thing.

Specifics and guesses

Additional specifics of the (so far) three "Nature of Shinshu" batches are a bit confusing since different retailer sites say different things, and sometimes even jumbling the batch names (Kohiganzakura, Rindo and Shinanotanpopo). At least one of the batches has a portion of wine cask whisky and at least one has some lightly peated stuff in the mix. Some might have sherry casks, all probably have American oak casks.

Details about the cask ages from these two periods are also scrambled. But at least some data are known. This batch, Kohiganzakura, was bottled in 2016. The first era ended in 1992. So the old casks aren't younger than 23-ish years unless they were put into steel or glass before 2016, nor are they older than 31 years. The current distillation period began in February 2011, so the newer whisky element is between 3 and 5 years old.

The young stuff likely makes up the vast majority of the mix. But this makes for a nice transition as I progress toward the brand's current single malts.

lovely Sakura label
by Yoko Nomura
photo source
Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: young stuff (maybe 3-5 yrs) + old stuff (maybe 23-31 yrs)
Maturation: ???
Bottles: 5275
Alcohol by Volume: 52%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold.

Its nose is the maltiest of the group thus far. There are also flower blossoms, lemon zest and pie crust. Canned peaches and pears. Also a nice ripple of seaweed underneath. With a few drops of water it gets maltier. Lemon cake, orange marmalade and cinnamon bread.

The palate has gentle aquatic peat. Malt, apples, pears, a hint of caramel candy. Ginger beer and root beer. It's mildly sweet. Spirity, but not rough. Kinda pretty. With a few drops of water it gets bitterer, rougher, reading very young. There are some quiet florals and green apples in there.

It finishes warm, lightly sweet and tangy. Salty. Flower blossoms and caramel. With a few drops of water it gets rawer, like the palate. Maybe some citrus and vanilla.

Well, that was curious. Mars may have found the money spot at 52%abv. The nose is very pleasant throughout, but the palate is MUCH better without water. Yet, even at "MUCH better" it shows no sign of the older casks. It's young whisky. That's not a crime, but this whisky does cost three figures, and it could really use some more balance or calming from the well-matured element.

Overall, I like it. Heck, I think I prefer it over yesterday's 20yo. This is something I'd buy, but at half (or a third) of its current price. (FWIW, I enjoyed another Komagatake much more when I tried it last June (thanks to Will at Buffalo Tap in Ikebukuro).)

Availability - Europe and American specialty retailers
Pricing - US: $150-$180, Europe: $130-$160
Rating - 83 (neat only)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Shinshu Mars 20 year old 1989 single cask 618

Here's the list of the Mission: Mars whiskies thus far:
--Shinshu 12 year old 1986, cask 452 (last Tuesday)
--Shinshu 12 year old 1992, cask 1125 (yesterday)
--Shinshu 20 year old 1989, cask 618 (today!)

The first two were sherry cask single malts reduced to 43%abv. Today's whisky was bottled at 58%abv. The internets say it was from an American white oak cask, and now that I have tasted the whisky I can confirm it is INDUBITABLY from an American white oak cask. But how big was that cask?

A weird cask

American oak casks tend to be bourbon barrels (approximately 180 to 200 litres) or hogsheads (250 litres). There are plenty of American oak sherry butts out there (~500 litres), but bottlers tend to brag about the "sherry" part as they puff up the price. But there's no reference of this being a sherry butt, and there ain't no sherry action in this whisky.

I note all this because 378 bottles multiplied by 720mL (bottle volume) equals more fluid than a hogshead can hold. Even if it were a random ~275L hogshead, that would mean no whisky evaporated over the 20 years of maturation.

That leaves three possibilities for this strange single cask:
1.) The cask was a bizarre size.
2.) The cask was a butt that was never seasoned with sherry.
3.) It was a hogshead, and a lot of water was added to a very high ABV whisky. Thus it's not cask strength.

So.......what is it?

If it were option 3, and there was ZERO evaporation, then the whisky was 63.1%abv at full strength. But because chemistry is real, evaporation did occur during those twenty years. If they somehow kept liquid evaporation as low as 1%/year, then the whisky was 77.2% at cask strength!

So maybe it's option 2? That seems difficult to believe because this whisky is outrageously oaky, as if it were from a tiny cask, not like it was from a huge vessel.

Then option 1? I have no idea.

Please share your theories in the comment section below.

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 20 years (April 1989 to April 2009)
Maturation: American white oak
Cask #: 618
Bottles: 378
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is the darkest of all my Mars samples.

The nose leads with dusty basement and eucalyptus. Cherry candy and cherry syrup. Honey. Cinnamon candies and mint candies. A whisper of wood smoke.

The palate holds lots of sticky sweetness. Cinnamon candy, cherry lollipops and bubblegum. Salty corn chips, sawdust and that hint of wood smoke.

The sweet finish is full of bubblegum and oaky vanilla. Plenty of heat and tongue-drying tannins.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv
The nose is a bowl full of hard candies. Also vanilla and toffee. Freshly split wood. Vanilla. A hint of salty ocean air. A little bit of new make. And vanilla.

The bubblegum and lollipop notes have receded in the palate. Now there's super-tart citrus and lots of pepper. Brown sugar and burnt anise. The bitter oak feels almost smoky. And then there's the vanilla.

The finish remains quite sweet and tannic. Vanilla, bubblegum, black pepper and tart citrus

It feels like an American single malt that was Kentuckified (matured in Kentucky; yes, Kentuckified Whisky) for 8-10 years, such is the hefty oak influence. While the previous two (diluted) sherry casks showed much maturity in a short time period, this mystery cask shows much oak, period.

It's not a bad whisky. In fact it should appeal to American whisky enthusiasts. But it's too oaky for me to recommend to those who desire whisky in their whisky. I mean, I'd happily consume it again, and further tinker with dilution. But this damn thing sold for $1050 last month. WTF? No, seriously. WTF.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - really friggin' high
Rating - 82

Monday, March 12, 2018

Shinshu Mars 12 year old 1992 single cask 1124

Okay, I'm back. I think.

Just to protect my innards, I'm consuming the 1992 (bottled at 43%abv) before the 1989 (a cask strength 58%abv). This works nicely because the 1992 has the same age, cask type and ABV as last Tuesday's 1986 single cask.

Though it was bottled exclusively for the Shinanoya shops, this release represents only half of the cask's contents. The other half was bottled for Espoa, at the same age and strength. (Curiously, the whiskybase grades for these two are quite different: see here and here.)

If you're in Tokyo, I recommend stopping by one of the Shinanoya stores. Their prices can be a bit high sometimes, but there's usually an impressive selection of whiskies from both Asian and European indie bottlers. As for Shinanoya's recent exclusive single casks, I've had only one but it was a whisky that wove tales that I'm not sure how to tell.

Because the 12yo Shinshu sherry cask from last Tuesday was so excellent, my expectations are up for this Martian.


Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 12 years (1992-2004)
Maturation: Spanish oak sherry butt
Cask #: 1124
Bottled for: Shinanoya
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is a deeper gold than the '86, but not nearly as dark as the above picture illustrates.

The nose is full of lovely almond things (cookies, extract, marzipan, etc.). There are also notes of orange oil, Carpano Antica and wet sand. My groovy Armagnac cherries (which I need to make again). Soft grape and raisin notes. A hint of milk chocolate.

The palate has a gorgeous herbal bitterness. Dates, figs and a lot of funky honey. Campari, lemon peel and a hint of dunnage. The whole thing has a cask strength intensity.

It finishes earthy and herbal, with not much sweetness. Dried fruit essences. Hints of dunnage and citrus peels.

While this whisky's charms are mostly due its cask, that was one heck of a cask. It's like Kavalan's sherry cask whiskies, but better, because Kavalan doesn't slug like this at 43%abv. In fact, it's tough to find any sherried whiskies at 12yo/43%abv with the richness of these first two Shinshus. How on Earth did they do this?

Availability - Secondary market, if you're lucky
Pricing - sold for £180 and £330 at auctions in the past twelve months, so who knows
Rating - 88

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Shinshu Mars 12 year old 1986 single cask 452

My daughter's preschool class is learning how to share, which is GREAT now that they've given me their stomach virus. Thanks, kids!

Mathilda's ability to pull off the boot-and-rally is truly admirable. I, on the other hand, have seemed to misplace the past 24 hours, and a considerable amount of bodily fluid along with it.

Luckily, all the tasting notes below were typed two days ago (or was it three?). And there's a possibility that the Mars sequence will now last three weeks rather than two. Yay!

Speaking of which, the first Shinshu Mars whisky from my Mission: Mars series is the earliest of the bunch, a single sherry cask from 1986. It was diluted to 43%abv. Will that be an issue?

photo source

Brand: Mars
Distillery: Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Japan, Nagano Prefecture
Age: 12 years (December 12, 1986 - ???)
Maturation: ex-sherry cask
Cask #: 452
Bottled for: Espoa
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a purchased sample)

Its color is light gold.

The nose opens gradually. It starts off with pipe tobacco and hot cocoa. Then there's plums, jelly rings and dried apricots. Then damp forest and lime zest. With 30+ minutes in the glass it gets more candied: grape gumdrops, orange slices and candied ginger. An ocean/briny note lingers throughout.

The palate starts off salty and savory, but not meaty. More like umeboshi. It's also a bit earthy. Some bitter chocolate and dried berries. Hints of oak spice, mint leaves and cabernet sauvignon. The mouthfeel is enormous for its ABV.

The finish has a good length to it. Tart and tangy citrus. Sea salt and mint leaves. Fresh tobacco. Blackberry syrup. Oolong tea.

I'm not sure what's more remarkable, the nose's depth or the palate's expanse. Would anyone would guess this was a 43%abv 12 year old if it were tasted blindly? My expectations were foolishly set low for this magical wee thing. The rest of these whiskies have their work cut out for 'em.

Availability - Secondary market, if you're lucky
Pricing - sold for £195 at auction last year, though whiskybase estimates a higher value
Rating - 90

Monday, March 5, 2018

Mission: Mars. Two weeks of Shinshu whisky!

Plenty of digital ink has been spilt over Suntory's and Nikka's whiskies on this blog and others. Chichibu's single malt has garnered raves from everyone who can afford a bottle of the magical baby whisky. And then there are the Japanese whiskies that are actually sorta kinda Scotch whiskies that have left plenty of people a grumpy shade of nonplussed.

All that noise covers up the fact that there are other functioning Japanese whisky distilleries. Some of which produce quality products. One of these active facilities is Shinshu distillery.
Photo by whiskymizuwari
Hombo Spirits, who also produce shochu and plum wine, have taken a few swings at whisky production:

  • Yamanashi Distillery: opened 1960, closed 1969
  • Kagoshima Distillery: opened 1978, closed 1984
  • Shinshu Distillery: opened 1985, closed 1992
  • Shinshu Distillery: opened 2011
  • Tsunuki Distillery: opened 2016
While you may not have heard these names before, the Hombo distilleries' whisky brand name might just be familiar — Mars.

Located in the Japanese Alps, Shinshu is the highest distillery in Japan, a full 400 feet up from its neighbor, Hakushu. Shinshu produces four distillates, with peat levels of 0ppm, 3.5ppm, 20ppm and 50ppm.
Photo by Spirits Business
Hombo opened Tsunuki distillery (Japan's southernmost whisky facility) in 2016 and intends to have a single malt ready for Tokyo's 2020 Summer Olympics. Though the Tsunuki produces the same four distillates as Shinshu, it (and its warehouses) are near sea level and experience warmer weather.

Thanks to a set of samples sold by Whiskybase Shop, I'll be taking a little tour of Mars. I'll start with a few sips from Shinshu's first era, then gradually proceed to more current offerings. My Martian experience is limited, so this is a great Opportunity to satisfy my Curiosity about whether there is life on Mars.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Killing Whisky History, Episode 10 - Paddy Irish Whisky from 1950s and 1960s

Join me for some early St. Patrick's Day action during this month's Killing Whisky History episode. I open up some Paddy Irish Whisky (no "e") and get a big surprise from one of the bottles!

Watch me drink in front of you! Or you can always drink along...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Longmorn 28 year old 1985 SMWS 7.100

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, known for giving their whiskies "funny" names, offering WTF Is Wrong With You? tasting notes and charging members a triple-digit fee just to buy whisky, bottled the Longmorn I'm reviewing today.

Like the 1985 Longmorn I reviewed on Monday, this whisky was matured in a former bourbon cask, but SMWS provides more specifics than First Editions, as Society says its a refill hoggie. Despite their similar maturation periods and vessels, and their identical vintage, they are two very different single malts.

Distillery: Longmorn
Ownership at time of distillation: Seagrams
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Independent Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Funny name: Hawaiian holidays
Age: 28 years (September 24, 1985 - 2014)
Maturation: refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Cask#: 7.100
Alcohol by Volume: 58.7%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

Its color is dark gold, almost like a sherry cask. The nose holds heaps of sugary milk chocolate, like Milk Duds and Twix bars. Toffee pudding. It gets oakier with time, but also picks up melon, lime and citronella notes. The palate is zesty and hot. Limes (lots of 'em), lemons and fresh ginger. Brine, toasted oak spices and a little bit of malt. It finishes malty, salty and peppery. Sweet citrus and a hint of milk chocolate.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Wow, the nose actually intensifies! It's a halloween bag full of chocolate bars. Vanilla bean and toasted coconut. There's also a rumble of dried herbs underneath. The palate doesn't change much. Mostly zesty citrus with toasted oak. Maybe a little sweeter. Peppercorns and mint leaves. Mild herbal bite. The finish is longer, zestier. A little bit of nutty fudge. Hint of bitterness.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The nose shifts gears. It's become muskier and earthy. Watermelon candy and papaya. The chocolate now shows up in the palate, as does some vanilla. The limes and ginger and herbs remain. Nuts, chocolate, vanilla and limes in the finish.

This was a refill cask? I can't imagine what the first fill whisky was like. Or was this Longmorn re-racked?

Like Monday's '85 Longmorn, this whisky's nose is its strong point, and the whole package improves greatly when diluted. While I often prefer leaner whiskies, this one's sniffer is so entertaining that I'd choose it over the First Editions bottling. Still, neither are in the same solar system as Longmorns from previous decades, so be careful with your monies.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 86 (with water)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Longmorn 27 year old 1985 First Editions

Longmorn single malt from the 1960s and 1970s may be some of the loveliest whisky ever made. But I've found 1980s Longmorn to be a little more, say, normal. I don't know why it changed. Their stills didn't switch over to steam firing until 1994. Could they have changed their barley or yeast? Or does it have something to do with Seagrams taking over in 1978?

In any case, 1980s Longmorn usually costs only a fraction of the price of the '60s and '70s stuff. Plus it can actually be found at retailers from time to time. I've reviewed two Longmorns from the Reagan (or Mondale) Decade, here and here. And now I'm going to review two more, a pair of 1985s I tried side-by-side this weekend.

The first Longmorn is from a bottle split I did with Chemistry of the Cocktail. Jordan reviewed the whisky last week. Let's see how this one fares...

Distillery: Longmorn
Ownership at time of distillation: Seagrams
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Independent Bottler: First Editions
Age: 27 year old (1985-2013)
Maturation: ex-bourbon cask
Bottle: 57 of 216
Alcohol by Volume: 52.5%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

The color is a light yellow gold. Perhaps a refill cask? The nose is very grain forward. Plenty of malt. Apples, mint leaf, dry cheese, lemons. A whiff of chlorine. Smells a little dusty sometimes. A hint of wood smoke. Butterscotch. The palate is hot and filled with tart, acidic citrus. Salt, malt and caramel. Not terribly expressive. It finishes hot and peppery, with tart citrus.

Will water help it out?

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Yes. A little bit of tropical fruit slips into the nose. Richer oak notes. Ocean air, a slight phenolic thing. Vanilla, herbs, malt. The palate is calmer, fuller. The citrus reads brighter, less acidic. Sweet lime things. Roasted salted nuts. A hint of milk chocolate. The finish is actually longer at this strength. Limes, salt, nuts and caramel.

Dare I......

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The nose changes quite a bit. Dunnage and fermenting fruits. Fresh green grapes and green apples. Almond extract. The palate grows sweeter. Citrus and malt, with a soft bitterness. Simple but balanced. The finish shortens up. Mostly sweet and tart citrus, with a hint of malt.

I struggled with the first few ounces of this whisky in the weeks before this review. The heat, acid and tartness were a bit rough on the mouth. After completing this tasting, I fully agree with Jordan; dilution opens this Longmorn right up. The palate and finish were best at the 46%abv level, though I really enjoyed the nose at 40%. So if this bottle has been open on your shelf for a long time due to a lack of enthusiasm, then pour a glass and add some water, a little at a time, until you find the right spot for your palate. It won't make you swoon, but it'll transform into an above average Speysider.

Availability - A few US retailers still have a bottle or two
Pricing - Usually north of $250, though Jordan found it for half that price because magic
Rating - 85 (but water is a MUST)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Rattray's Selection Batch No. 1, 19 year old Blended Malt

I was really excited when this whisky appeared on shelves in early 2012. Of course, back then I was enthusiastic about every new release. My cynicism was but a dewy glaze at the time, having not yet hardened into an opaque shell.

But I also liked all the Rattray single casks I'd had. The Bowmores were great. The Auchentoshans were.......fascinating. Plus this vatted malt was bottled at cask strength.

My interest waned when I saw the $90-$100 price tag. No other blended malt at the time was priced that high and there was no way to try the whisky before buying. Four years later, many of these bottles were still on retailers' shelves. By then, whisky prices had swollen. A 19 year old cask strength malt under $100 was now a bargain. And when batch two arrived — with mostly low-demand malts in its makeup — it was priced at $150. So, when I found a shop trying to rid itself of batch 1 for $79.99 I nabbed a bottle for an upcoming private whisky event.

Auchentoshan 1991 sherry butt #495
Balblair 1990 sherry butt #1142
Benriach 1989 sherry butt #50064
Bowmore 1991 sherry butt #2073

Upon opening, the whisky was difficult, tasting like steel wool in liquid form. Thus it wasn't terribly popular at the event. But it changed with time. This sample is from the second half of the bottle.

The nose is great! Molasses, toffee pudding, salty air and a moderate Highlands-like peat. Then apple pastry, baklava and banana pudding. There's something 'old whisky' about it. Yes, I know that's vague. The palate has a thick, oily texture. At times cigar smoke; other times it's sooty herbal smoke. Lots of salt and toasted oak spice (nutmeg?). Flowers and fried plantains. A hint of dish soap. It finishes warm, sweet and salty. A little acidic, a little bitter. The oak notes expand. Dish soap. Ashy peat lingers the longest.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
Beautiful old sherry notes on the nose. Damp tobacco, salty toffee. Rich honey, ocean air and delicate peat. The palate is much different than the nose. Bitter smoke, lots of pepper. Hints of soap and toasted oak spice. Lemons, shortbread and butterscotch. It finishes with oak spice, salt, soap, fruity sherry and tart citrus.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The sherry notes get even heavier in the nose, though so does an acetate note. Cherry candy and caramel popcorn. Thankfully the acetate fades out. The palate is woody and sweet. More vanilla, more pepper oil. Less soap, less peat. It finishes similar to the palate.

Firstly: How grand is that nose? Very grand. It shifts gears nicely when diluted just a little, too.

Secondly: The soap. I'm apparently hypersensitive to soap notes. No one else has found that characteristic in this whisky. So if you ignore the s-word, you may see some positive palate descriptors. Because I can't ignore the s-word, it took a lot of time to see/taste past it. So the palate can't compete with the nose, for me.

Two weeks ago, Jordan reviewed a sample pulled from around the same part of my bottle. He liked the whisky quite a bit. We found many similar characteristics to it, but he enjoyed it more because......no soap. Ralfy liked it too, and no soap for him. So, I'm a putz, I guess.

Because of its age and full strength, Batch 1's original $90-$100 pricing no longer looks as crappy as it once did. And, as Jordan mentions in his review, it would be great to see more moderately-peated, well-aged blended malts like this out here in The States.

Availability - US and European retailers once upon a time
Pricing - anywhere between $90 and $125, if you can find it
Rating - 83 (if not for the soap, this would've been in the high 80s)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Highland Park 11 year old 2003 Hart Brothers

On Monday I reviewed an eight year old independently bottled Highland Park. Today, it's an eleven year old indie HP. I've had a handful of Hart Brothers' bottlings and have enjoyed none of them. They even ruined a Littlemill. Such is my opinion of them that I passed up a number of otherwise gorgeous-looking Hart Bros bottlings (including this Ledaig) when I was in Japan last year.

But I like bourbon cask Highland Park and MAO sent me a sample of this one, so I'll go into this tasting as bias-free as possible.

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Isle of Orkney
Independent Bottler: Hart Brothers
Age: 11 years old (2003-2015)
Maturation: ex-bourbon cask
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? probably not
Caramel Colorant? probably not

It has a very pale color. A good sign! The nose says this is another youngin'. Apples and pears. Wort. Hints of moss and pine sap. Honeydew and canned peaches. Vanilla-scented soap. The palate starts of fruity and mossy, too. Pineapple, apple and a hint of mango. It's also a bit ashy. With time, it grows sweeter and tarter, then vanilla rushes in. It finishes tangy and tingly. Limes, ash, vanilla and caramel. Some odd bitterness shows up late.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
Mango, limes and sawdust in the nose. Limes, sugar and jalapeño oil on the palate. Sweet citrus and pepper in the finish.

I will cautiously say this is the best Hart Brothers whisky I've had so far. Though, as I mentioned in the intro, that's faint praise. The fruit notes are great. The ash, oak and finish are less than great. Despite the oak stuff, it feels even younger than Monday's 8yo G&M.

Overall, it's a fair example of naked seemingly-briefly-matured Highland Park. It does appear to still be lingering around the US, but it's priced higher than the official Highland Park 12yo. Go with the OB instead.

Availability - maybe a few US retailers
Pricing - around $60
Rating - 82

Monday, February 19, 2018

Highland Park 8 year old Gordon & MacPhail (43%abv version)

Highland Park produces some of the best single malt in Scotland, while Gordon & MacPhail is the most established (the grandpa, if you will) of independent bottlers. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the 40%abv version of G&M's 8yo Highland Park was flat watery crap, disappointment in a glass.

I had no idea G&M had given it a 43%abv reboot until Jordan, of Chemistry of the Cocktail, gave the whisky a positive review. Many thanks to Jordan for sending me a sample from his review bottle so that I could also give it a try!

Distillery: Highland Park
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Isle of Orkney
Independent Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Range: MacPhail's Collection
Age: minimum 8 years old
Maturation: ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, I think
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfiltered? Probably
Caramel Colorant? Probably

Its color is light bronze. The nose is bright and fresh with fruity notes, like apples and green grapes. There's a fascinating floral sake note that sits well with the whisky's subtle earthiness. The palate is sharper and hotter than the nose. Tart, sweet, smoke, pepper, mineral and vanilla notes stay in balance. A squirt of lemon juice lingers throughout. It finishes sugary and tart, with peppery smoke and some flower kiss candy.

DILUTED TO ~35%abv
Still plenty of fruit in the nose. Barley and caramel. A little bit dusty and papery. The palate becomes very thin. Barley and lemons. Lots of sugar. Tangy and peppery. It finishes sweet and peppery, a little bitter. Some burnt wood in there too.

This is a significant step (or two) up from the 40%abv version, especially if you leave it neat. While the whisky isn't going to break any hearts or records, it's good as an everyday drinker. In fact, I'd say it's slightly better than Glenfiddich 12 for that purpose. The palate has a little fight to it, but it otherwise delivers a pleasant drinking experience. The nose is very pretty, in a clean newmake sort of way.

It's tough for me to recommend this for $50 because I don't see why beginners' single malts should cost that much. But for $40 or less, it's not a bad choice, especially since options are limited at that price range. I will certainly seek out my own bottle soon.

Availability - Europe and US specialty retailers
Pricing - $35-$60
Rating - 83

Thursday, February 15, 2018

BenRiach Peated Cask Strength, batch 1

Top Five Thoughts about This Whisky Before the Review:
  1. This whisky was tasted side-by-side with the regular BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1.
  2. I did not like the regular BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1.
  3. BenRiach's peated whisky tends to be very good, especially with some age to it. See the 21yo Authenticus, 17yo Solstice, 12yo Arumaticus Fumosus, etc.
  4. But I found the NAS peated Glendronach — which, like today's whisky, was distilled by Billy Walker's staff — to be very underwhelming.
  5. Will the mix of casks + heavy peating help this whisky rise above the regular CS? Or will those factors make things uglier?
Distillery: BenRiach
Ownership: Brown Forman
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: youthful
Maturation: Oloroso Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 56%
Chillfiltration? No
Added Colorant? No
(from purchased sample)

Its color is pale, which may hint at mellow casks. The nose is full of earthy/mossy peat, sort of reminiscent of baby Ledaig. Then lemons, vanilla, white rice, ham and old sweat. The palate is all peat moss, cayenne pepper and gunpowder up front. Gradually, small notes of sour berries, bitter cocoa and ginger beer appear. The finish is lightly sweet and plenty hot, with peat, pepper and salt.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The nose is much prettier now. Candied peat and floral notes. Vanilla, mint and anise. Somehow, the palate feels even bigger. Heavy peat. Intense bitterness. Lots of pepper. Tangy berries and bitter chocolate. It finishes bitter, smoky and peppery.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
The nose's peat goes sugary and sooty, reminiscent of young Ardbeg. Also some lemons and churros. The palate finally calms down. Light sweetness and pleasant saltiness. Vanilla and mildly bitter smoke. The finish also chills out. Light sweets, smoke and pepper. An acidic zing.

A few things are certain. The sherry element is nearly silent. The American oak is vocal. Lots of peat, everywhere. And, yeah, it's young.

BUT. It's less abusive than the regular CS......which is not what I'd expected. While the palate is neither exciting or complex, it's better than the unpeated version. Again, the nose is the best part.

With that being said, this seems to be the weakest of Benriach's official peated stuff. Of course, all those other peated releases were distilled by Seagram, not Billy Walker & Co. I look forward to Walker's peated distillate getting some double-digit age to it. In the meantime, the 10yo Curiositas is a better choice.

Availability - European retailers
Pricing - $65-$90
Rating - 79

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

BenRiach Cask Strength, batch 1

After relying on whisky distilled by Allied and Seagram, Glendronach and Benriach added single malts distilled by Billy Walker's regime to the regular range......less than one year before Walker sold off the distilleries to Brown Forman. I was very impressed by GlenDronach 8 yo 'The Heilan'. I was not very impressed by GlenDronach NAS Peated.

Two separate Benriach cask strength releases — regular and peated — appeared mere weeks before the big sale. I'll be reviewing the regular CS, batch 1, today. Serge and Ruben liked this CS, yet both included the qualifying 'modern' descriptor. Meanwhile, the whiskybase community liked it less.

SPOILER ALERT: IMO, even whiskybase was being generous.

Distillery: BenRiach
Ownership: Brown Forman
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: yung
Maturation: unknown, though probably American oak
Alcohol by Volume: 57.2%
Chillfiltration? No
Added Colorant? No
(from purchased sample)

The color is medium gold, much darker than the peated CS. Lots and lots of green apples on the nose. Honey, hay, vanilla cookies. Hints of anise and cantaloupe. Not much burn. Sooooo much burn on the palate, though. Hot cinnamon, vanilla, barley, brown sugar, caramel and acidic citrus. But mostly heat......and more heat in the finish. Vanilla and brown sugar. Acidic and tart.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv
The fruit intensifies in the nose. There's more caramel and fudge. Slightly floral. The palate remains hot. More herbs. More vanilla. Peppery and bitter. It finishes sweet, acidic and bitter. Vanilla, again.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv
A cheerful nose. Mint and fruit candy. Lime lollipops. Vanilla and barley. Even at this abv, the palate remains hot. Hints of lemons and sugar. Vanilla and black pepper. The finish still sweet, acidic, bitter and full of vanilla.

The nose is good. The palate is not. Simple as that.

The heat rarely shows in the sniffer, but the mouth is much too hot even after I went Full Ralfy with the water. Beneath the heat there's little of note, and way too much vanilla throughout. If there was something to the finish, and if the palate had but a fraction of the nose's fruit...but alas, no.

The whisky is indeed 'modern', but 'modern' in an American craft whiskey sort of way. Young (which is not a dealbreaker), but oaky. Vanilla and ethyl. I take no joy in writing this.

Availability - European retailers
Pricing - $65-$90
Rating - 74

Friday, February 9, 2018

BLEND BASH! Mother's Toddy vs Dad's Dram vs Chivas Regal 12

While in Edinburgh two years ago, Kristen and I wandered through a Royal Mile shop full of tartans and kilts (there are a couple of those stores in Scotland). She exited without buying anything. Meanwhile, I bought these two random minis...

...because what the shit.

👆 Not a preferred reason to buy whisky.

I decided to do a blind Taste Off between Mother's Toddy and Dad's Dram, but needed some additional perspective so I added a more recognizable blend to the blind match up.

This is the same Chivas 12 that I'd included in episode 5 of Killing Whisky History (watch it now!). Trying to consume this whisky has proven to be a fugly slog, so this Taste Off offered an opportunity to knock down another ounce.

There was only one issue with the blind tasting. The Chivas was dark orange compared to the very lightly colored tourist drams. And there was one surprise: I thought Mother's Toddy was Dad's Dram, and vice versa. See why below...

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
blended whisky
The Scottish Collection
Lots of barley with some decent industrial stink. Brown sugar, fresh linen. Quite grassy, with a hint of lime.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Blended whisky
Pernod Ricard
Vodka. Nail polish. Grape candy and flower kiss candy. Sawdust, wet cardboard and little bit of maple syrup. Loads of vanilla.
Mother's Toddy
Blended whisky
The Scottish Collection
Leather shoes. Iodine and band-aids. Pine-scented car deodorizer and new plastic toys. Citrus and wet dog hair in the background. Some shoe polish to go with those leather shoes. 

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
Fudge and caramel meet herbal and grassy bitterness. Lemons and barley. Gets more herbal with time, picking up a milk chocolate note.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Thin, with plenty of ethyl heat. A vodka-like bite. A hint of coconut. Otherwise it's all flat vanilla and caramel.
Mother's Toddy
Iodine and wood smoke. Vanilla, salt, toffee and toasted oak. Small notes of grapefruit and pineapple appear after some time.

Whisky Notes
Dad's Dram
An herbal bite that grows a bit sharp at times. Tart lemons and a hint of vanilla.
Chivas Regal 12yo
Heat, grain, vanilla, coconut-flavored vodka, sour, icky.
Mother's Toddy
Lots of barley. Tangy and salty. A hint of smoked salmon.

Whisky Notes Rating
Dad's DramThe prettiest of the three, so I thought it was Mother's Toddy. Apparently Papa enjoys the lighter stuff. It's decent overall, though a bit thin on the palate, and its finish starts to reveal some premature whisky and limp casks. *cough* But it's better than Chivas.
Chivas Regal 12yoI was going to be nice about this, but... This is miserable whisky, descending to Dewars and Cutty levels. What the hell is going on over there? Where's the malt? Stay away from bottling code 2016/03/24 LPBK0521.
Mother's ToddyOh, Mama, I like your style. Plenty of Island malt going on. A very good nose. The low abv starts showing on the too brief finale. At around 46%abv this would be Mother's Papa's little helper.

Apparently Mother's and Dad's are part of a whole series. Unfortunately, I don't know where to get them, other than at some of Scotland's tourist shops. Dad's Dram would be a perfectly respectable $20 700mL bottle, while Mother's Toddy is preferable to the current version of Johnnie Walker Black Label. But these cost me $10+ per mini, so you may want to save your GBP for something else. Also, sayonara Chivas Regal.