...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Blind Tastings! Five American whiskies? Five American whiskies.

Here's a quick spoiler. I guessed these five mystery samples were American whiskies. And I was right. BOOM. Thank you very much to Matt O for sending these samples, waiting for ten months and then having kept a list of the five whiskies the whole time.

I don't have much confidence in my ability to sort out contemporary American whiskies. At best I can sort out how much oak and rye are involved, and I can often spot a dusty. But that's it. So this tasting was quite the challenge.

Nose - Mild char, cocoa and cherries. Roasted almonds, orange zest and mustard. Hints of sherry-ish raisins and a meaty note.
Palate - This is a rich, almost winey bourbon with berry jams. Plenty of cherries and black pepper, along with a savory hint.
Finish - Savory and sweet with bits of curry and chiles. A slight nuttiness as well

My guess (per my email to Matt O) - "A rich bourbon, almost winey on the palate. I'm gonna go with Four Roses OESO. It's not hella tannic, so I'd guess it's less than 10 years old."

The reveal!!!

Belle Meade Sherry Cask (#3258), a Corkdorks pick, 55%abv, between 8 and 10 years old, and likely a high-rye MGP fluid.

My consumption of too much sherried scotch served me well here. Matt O also mentioned he found the whiskey to be sulfurous, and with its savory and aggressive peppery notes I can certainly detect some of that stuff. I'm not sure I've had a sherry cask bourbon before, but I did like the fruitiness the cask brought along.

Nose - At first there's lots of vanilla, caramel and butterscotch pudding, then it switches to barrel char and a pretty floral note.
Palate - Hotter than sample A. It's sweet and a little bit tart. Cherries, lime candy, hints of bananas and lots of oak.
Finish - Acidic and tart. Lots of tannins. It's mildly sweet at first, then becomes more candied with time.

My guess (per my email to Matt O) - "I'm reading more oak on this one. Going by my somewhat readable notes, I'm going to say Four Roses OBSQ 10+ years old. My second guess is a Heaven Hill bourbon with some serious age on it, but I don't know HH much beyond Elijah Craig."

The reveal!!!

William Heavenhill 14-year, 57.5%abv

Whoa, I'm already faring much better than I did with this week's scotch tastings. That secondary guess was just a gut feeling. Maybe I should expand my gut.

Nose - Dusty and briny. Nutty and earthy. Almond extract, dried apricot and vanilla bean.
Palate - A very good mouthfeel. Its fruitiness grows with time. Lemon, berries and mint in a musty basement.
Finish - Tangy and sweet blackberries and plenty of musty oak..

My guess (per my email to Matt O) - "This has got to be a dusty thingy, and if not then someone out there has mastered dustiness. So my guess is a '70s or '80s bourbon that is neither National Distillers nor S-W, and was bottled at 100 proof or less."

The reveal!!!

Wild Turkey 8 year old 101 proof, bottled in 1984.

Firstly, yum. Love this stuff. Secondly, I'm getting creeped out by how much better I'm doing with the Americans here.

Nose - Nuts and seeds, specifically cashews, sunflower seeds and roasted pumpkin seeds. Also a dab of raspberry jam.
Palate - Those toasted seed notes again. Roses and in-season raspberries.
Finish - Brief but still seedy and nutty. Honey and berries.

My guess (per my email to Matt O) - "This is fascinating. I have no idea what this is. It's all nuts and seeds. I'm going to guess this is some young stuff, craft distillery-ish but good. I'm even going to say there's an alternate grain involved. (Please don't say this is Hudson Four Grain Bourbon.)"

The reveal!!!

George Dickel 13-year BIB!?!?!?!? The Fedora's Love Child!!!

I um what. Yeah. The whisky is so unique that I'm considering buying a bottle of it. Dickel is much more interesting than some of its Kentucky cousins.

Nose - Buttery and papery, with golden raisins and caramel sauce. A slight dustiness too.
Palate - Quirky, jammy. Butter, caramel, raisins. It gets sweeter with time, but also rawer.
Finish - Fruity, sweet and buttery.

My guess (per my email to Matt O) - "This is also a young one, though a little closer to classic bourbon notes. But it's also a style I'm not entirely familiar with. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's a youthful Old Forester, a bourbon I'm not entirely familiar with."

The reveal!!!

MB Roland Single Barrel, a Cork N' Bottle pick, 52.9%abv, possibly 4-5 years old

I've never had MB Roland juice (in bold for the juice haterz), and I'd be interested in trying something else from their distillery. Though I could do with less butter, the fruits and sweets were nice. Matt O was very generous in his estimation of my guess. It's clear though I didn't know what I was starting to slump by the time I got to this one.


I'm here to announce that Diving for Pearls content will be 100% blind bourbon reviews going forward.

Just kidding. That was about as nerve-wracking as a blind tasting can get. I didn't know what I was doing (more so than usual), and though I was doing only 0.5oz at a time my palate was starting to abandon analysis mode and enter Drink mode.

Thanks again to my generous whisk(e)y friends! Regular biased reviews return on Monday.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Blind Tastings! Something old school

Well, I guessed Monday's mystery sample was from a Scottish island and I was right! I also spotted plenty of first-fill American oak, which was correct. Had everything else (distillery, age and strength) wrong though. I blame the aggressive cask because I'm never ever wrong about any of my blind tasting guesses ever. Soooooo, onto Monday's sparring partner, a mystery sample from Secret Agent Man.

I forgot to take a picture of the sample bottle, so here's a large question mark:


Nose - Tropical fruits + industrial funk + dunnage + spent synthetic oil = !!!!  Hints of band-aids and yellow nectarines in the background.
Palate - Tart stone fruits, tobacco, butterscotch and aged cheese. Steel wool, herbal bitterness and that hint of band-aids again.
Finish - Limes, butterscotch and steel wool. Picks up some more minerals and sugar with time.

Clynelish, 18-21yrs, hogshead, low 50s abv. Very old school, maybe one of my favorite Clynelishes ever.

Except it's not Clynelish.

It is....


You know what part I got right? That it was delicious. It's pretty and dingy at the same time, complex yet very easy to drink very fast. Something about it felt like it was from a previous era. Having tried two of the 45.8%abv versions of Talisker 25 and one of the 45.8% 30 year olds, I can confidently say this is a different version of Talisker, a different whisky. As much as I praise Diageo's treatment of Lagavulin's single malt, I cannot do so for Talisker. One wonders what has changed other than demand.

GRADE RANGE: A-  (90-92)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Blind Tastings! A mystery sweetie

It's about that time for me to embarrass myself (more than usual), with some blind tasting results. Some whisky friends provided me with mystery samples, and this seemed like a good time to catch up on 'em. So here's a week of blind tasting results. Take comfort in knowing I guessed none of these correctly.

First off, is a mystery sample from Dr. Springbank:

Nose - Big rich bourbon cask action. Vanilla bean and salted caramels. Limes and minerals. Toffee and moss. A hint of IPA.
Palate - Rich oak, but not new oak. Vanilla bean and caramel sauce, again. Ginger beer, limes, nectarines and grapefruit.
Finish - Vanilla, pepper, lemon and ginger. Sweet but not too sweet.

Arran, 18 to 21 years old, single first fill bourbon cask, low 50s abv.

Ready for this?

I found nothing sherry-cask-related when I tried this sweetie blindly, instead it reminded me of a couple Arrans I've tried that had sat in their single bourbon barrels maybe a year too long, but were still good drinkin'. Even after the whisky's identity was revealed, I had to strain to find something that sort of resembled a sherry cask. And I found nothing before or after that called out "HP". Blind or not, I can't find the damned vikings.

GRADE RANGE: B (84-86)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ardbeg 23 year old (Twenty Something series)

Some overactive casks prevented the 22yo from ascending to greatness, thankfully the super 21yo avoided that issue and provided old-fashioned thrills. The 22 was distilled in 1996 and the 21 in 1994-1995. This 23 was from 1993-1994. Unlike the 21 and 22, the 23 has some sherry casks in the mix. And I haven't seen an outturn number for it. No matter what, it's a joy to have the opportunity to drink 23 year old Ardbeg. I think I've had Ardbeg older than this only a handful of times, and only twice in my own home. Engage.

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks and oloroso sherry casks
Age: minimum 23 years
Bottling year: 2017
Alcohol by Volume: 46.3%
(from a bottle split)

It has the fruitiest nose of the trio, with nectarines and plums. Wet old books, elephant manure, steel wool and dust float in the midground. Toasted oak spice, almond extract and pound cake linger in the background. The palate's smoke and fruit arrive together: kiln, cherries, dried apricots, and fresh peaches. My favorite part — dunnage, black walnuts and Hampden-style smoky olives — appears after 30 minutes. A small dose of tannin and newspaper (paper more than print) shows up after 45 minutes. There's a mix of oceanic and leafy peat in the finish. Bits of dunnage, newspaper, anise and fresh ginger. Just a little bit of peppery tannin.

The loudest of the three Allied Ardbegs, and also the oldest-feeling (despite the age proximity), the 23 was bottled just before the oak broke. I love the nose and palate, but I do think a glass of this stuff needs to be consumed within 45 minutes. (That may sound silly to some folks, but consider the whisky's rarity and price.) The oloroso casks are present but reserved, a good thing in this instance. And as with all the Allied Ardbegs I've ever had, the peat is much subtler and nuanced than that of LVMH's Ardbeg, leaving space for every other element to arrive.

This tasting has left me much less motivated to ever review another LVMH Ardbeg. I may do a fun little comparison someday, but otherwise I'll review my remaining Allied samples in the next year or two, then that will be that for Ardbeg.

Availability - Can still be found in the primary market
Pricing - £430 w/VAT (original price), £450-£700 now
Rating - 90

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Ardbeg 22 year old 1996 (Twenty Something series)

Like the Twenty One, this 22 year old was aged solely in bourbon casks. But this one has a 1996 vintage which means it came from the very end of the Allied era, and it had a smaller outturn than the 21. I tasted these three whiskies together, and I am happy to report the 21 was wonderful. How about the 22?

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks
Age: minimum 22 years (1996-2018)
Outturn: 2400 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 46.4%
(from a bottle split)

The quiet nose takes a bit of cajoling to awaken. It has that almost peaceful balance of ocean and smoke that the great Ardmores possess (yes, Ardmore). Earth, ground mustard seed, cucumber skin, cut grass and newspaper print. Small notes of angel food cake and pear torte in the background. The palate begins like a lighter version of the 21. More basement than farm. More fruits, but also more tannins. Almonds, walnuts, lime juice, lychee and calvados. But the tannins move in after 30 minutes pushing almost everything else out. The finish holds notes of almond cookies, salted caramels, mild smoke, lychee and very old oak. More moldy staves with time.

I'll bet there were some gorgeous casks in here. But there were also at least a few that were already past their prime. Perhaps they were used to increase the outturn and/or this offered a better return than sinking 22 year casks in other Ardbeg products. The oak doesn't kill the whisky but prevents it from reaching the heights of the Twenty One. Also, the nose was also oddly quiet compared to the other two Ardbegs. This was the last of the short-lived "Twenty Something" series, so perhaps this was it for the 1996 casks? (Though there's a 25 year old on the way, it's going to be from 1995 or earlier.) Though this is very good whisky, it could have been a stunner.

Availability - Getting scarce
Pricing - £440 w/VAT (original price), £500-£700 now
Rating - 87

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ardbeg Twenty One

Thinking they were made with the oldest expressions of LVMH-era Ardbeg, I made sure to get in on a bottle split of the 21, 22 and 23 year old. It wasn't until after they were in my possession that I realized these whiskies were distilled by Allied! Yay!

Terrible Metaphor Time: Star Wars and Ardbeg. Allied Ardbeg is the original trilogy and LVMH is the sequel trilogy. Fans can say about the latter Ardbeg, "Hey that one part was good" and "Remember that time..." and "That was kind of funny", but when compared as a whole with the former Ardbeg, the newer stuff doesn't hold up well and has occasionally been embarrassing. The current generation of fans will experience LVMH Ardbeg first, most often, or completely without perspective. And that's where the comparison falls apart because I can always fire up Empire Strikes Back, but old Ardbeg not so much. Also the prequels never happened.

Twenty One was released in 2016. Though I don't think the label offers a vintage, the single malt was birthed from 1994 or 1995 (math!) when the distillery was squeaking out occasional batches. The 10 year old distilled during that time period was great. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with more age. On all of us.

Distillery: Ardbeg
Owners at time of distilling: Allied
Region: Southern Islay
Maturation: bourbon casks
Age: minimum 21 years
Bottling year: 2016
Outturn: 8268 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
(from a bottle split)

Steel wool, coal, bits of cinnamon and anise, and cold kiln ash register first in the nose, then never relent. Hot asphalt, hot engine and manure. Old book and ocean notes arise after 45 minutes. The palate's earth, fruit and farm arrive in unison. Cinnamon cake and a puff of pipe smoke, then hints of mothballs, old books and industrial oils. It finishes with cinnamon cake, earth, stones and lemons. Peaches, industrial oils and mothballs.

"Lovely. It's been a really long time since I've had peated whisky like this," say my written notes. So engaged by the whisky, I forgot to take notes for at least half the sips. To be honest, I didn't expect this level of quality. It's not that I had doubts about Ardbeg from this era, rather I've been conditioned to set my expectations low when seeing a contemporary Ardbeg label. Ardbeg Twenty One is so good (and the secondary market so bats) that I must say its original price was not unreasonable. Should not this be something to which Ardbeg aspires? As opposed to Blaaack?

Availability - A few bottles remain in the primary market, a lot more in the secondary market
Pricing - £310 w/VAT (original price), £400-£700 now
Rating - 92 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ardbeg Blaaack Committee Release

The annual clamor continues for Ardbeg's Special Releases and I am baffled. But then again a large quantity of humans rushed out to witness each Transformers sequel and spinoff. And the New Housewives series continues to exist. And the Flip or Flop franchise. And what's the deal with indoor plumbing?

Now, about the whisky. It's called Blaack and there's a picture of a sheep on the front. There are two official reasons for this. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee, the whiskymakers elected to finish their whisky in (of course) New Zealand pinot noir casks, and there are more sheep than people in that fine country. Secondly, Ardbeg claims its fanbase are the black sheep of whisky fandom.

The latter is absolute nonsense. To paraphrase Han Solo, "That's not how 'black sheep' works." The Ardbeg fanbase is a massive moneyed contingent, which is why these multimillion-dollar releases continue to exist. But making a majority feel like a very special minority is the hot shit these days, so cheers.

The former is a thing.

If you're keeping score:
Ardbeg Day - Almost as good as Oogy!
Ardbeg Galileo - Someone screwed up, right?
Ardbeg Ardbog - Not bad, but $110?
Ardbeg Auriverdes - Unmemorable
Ardbeg Perpetuum - No.
Ardbeg Dark Cove - Smells good, but it still loses to Oogy
Ardbeg Kelpie - Sour, bitter and hot. Oppressively poor.
Ardbeg Artein Alligator Grooves - Somewhat groovy.
Ardbeg Drum - Shucks I missed this one.
Ardbeg Blaaack - ...

Distillery: Ardbeg
Ownership: Glenmorangie Plc (owned by LVMH)
Region: Islay
Product: Blaaack
Age: NAS
Maturation: something something something New Zealand pinot noir casks
Limited bottling: of some sort
Bottling year: 2020
Alcohol by Volume: 50.7%
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No
(thank you to Dr. Springbank for the sample)

At first the nose shows an odd mix of Vegemite, burnt raisins, nuts and roots, but after 15 minutes it opens up, bringing in notes of lime candy, honey, maple syrup and kiln. The palate starts even more awkwardly, smushing together very sweet and very herbal characteristics. This was a very sweet pinot noir. There's bitter smoke, blackberry jam, halvah, pepper and simple syrup. It finishes peppery, bitter, ashy and sweet. Reads a lot like Pedro Ximénez.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 3mL of water per 30mL whisky
Raspberries, smoke, orange peel on the nose, backed by hints of mint and ginger. The palate has become bitterer, nuttier, along with ginger, white chocolate and Robotussin. It finishes with smoke, nuts, ginger and sour cherries.

Ardbeg released the jumbled mashup Perpetuum to celebrate the distillery's 200th birthday. They released this Murray McDavid-ism for the committee's 20th anniversary. They released Galileo, period. Aside from the absence of logic involved, these releases make one wonder if there has been any experiment Ardbeg has not sent to the market. I'm going to say no.

Now, about the whisky. Lumsden and Co. have created a really fun nose on this. It's unlike anything I've sniffed before. But the palate, as with Grooves (and most of the special releases to be honest), is a scattered clashing mess that somehow worsens with water. I've had friends' infinity bottles that presented better composed palates. Blaaack's nose is so enjoyable that one can be willing to forgive its other parts but only to a point. Whisky is for drinking.

Availability - It's still around as of the date this post was written
Pricing - $150-$400 (not a typo)
Rating - 80 (pulled up by its nose)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Mathilda Malt: Littlemill 22 year old 1990 Berry Brothers & Rudd (the final round)

I am a troll in a house full of luminous fairies. I am a walking I Don't Know What I'm Doing meme. I am very grateful and very confused. This world of parenting and beautiful girls remains mysterious, and Queen Enigma turns six years old today.

She feels seven things at once, releasing a stream of sentences each one contradicting the previous, refusing the things she loves only to beg for them back. Her artistic sensibility far exceeds mine already. She struggled with Disney's Alice in Wonderland because Alice is such a passive protagonist. Resolutely her own person, she would still fuse into her mother at every moment if she could. She wants to be thrice her age and half her age. She wants to travel the world and always stay home. She is always brave and nervous. Or at least braver than I am. I want her to grow up to be stronger than her father, to make better choices and never relinquish her passions. Sometimes I want Mathilda to be older right now so she can tell me everything will be alright and I would believe her and only her. But she's six. And watches Frozen 2 every week.

Today's Littlemill was opened on her third birthday. Since then I've only brought it out during this one week of the year, or when I'm hosting whisky friends. I could let this bottle stretch out to the next birthday, but I won't. It's time to enjoy it and move on.

And no, I won't be comparing the whisky to her. I no longer compare whisky to women, and if you still do you may want to consider your relationship to both. My daughters teach me stuff.

Former Owner: Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Ltd (proto-Loch Lomond Distillery Co.)
Independent Bottler: Berry Bros. & Rudd
Region: Lowlands (close to the Highlands border)
Age: 22 years (1990-2013)
Maturation: American oak?
Cask number17
Alcohol by Volume: 54.3%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(from the bottle half of my bottle)

Barley roars forward in the nose with citronella, apricots and Bartlett pears in the midground. Then there are freshly roasted nuts and hints of creamy confections. It's floral but never too pretty due to the weight of the barley spirit. There's plenty of heat in the palate, but it also holds onto the nose's fruits, also adding yellow cherries, tart blackberries and zippy yuzu. Salted caramels float to the surface after 45 minutes. It finishes as fiercely as the palate starts, but adds some sweetness. There's plum wine, salted caramels, almond extract and brisk tart citrus.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 1 tsp water per 30mL whisky
The nose feels fuller, more fragrant, more floral. Salty ocean air, white peaches and a lemon tart. The palate becomes puckeringly tart, lots of limes and grapefruits. Hints flowers and minerals, a pinch of sugar. Tart citrus and berries lead the finish. Not much sweetness. Jasmine and stones.

The birthday girl continues to build a remarkable palate. She scarfed down plain greek yogurt before she turned two, and now she insists on eating limes. "They're fruit." The tartness in this whisky's diluted finish almost stripped my tastebuds. It's a heck of a thing and she'd enjoy the sensory experience, except this is whisky. I'm sipping some of the whisky again, from a tumbler instead of a glencairn, but even this wide glass doesn't soften the bite.

Apparently this Littlemill mellowed out during its second and third rounds, but has since toughened up. It's not even a casual drinker at 46%abv. Still all its fruits could go well with this spring weather. I'll drop it to 43 or 40 percent just to find its best spot. And there's a lot of it left.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - $140 back in January 2015
Rating - 87

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Lagavulin 19 year old, Feis Ile 2019

Yes indeed, an age statement and a Feis Ile release to boot! Feis Ile bottlings generate more excitement on the secondary market than any other contemporary Islay single malts, even more than Bunnahabhain Toachmibum. Can't say that I've had many FIs. The only other Lagavulin Feis Ile I've tried was the 2016 edition, and it was EXCELLENT, my favorite non-21-year-old Lagavulin if that makes any sense. That one was 18 years of age and had previously resided in American oak and ex-bodega European oak casks. This one is 19 years old and was aged in sherry-treated American oak casks. I'm fairly excited here.

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: Diageo
Region: Islay
Maturation: sherry-treated American oak casks
Age: minimum 19 years
Release date: 2019
Outturn: 6,000 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 53.8%
Chill-filtration? Probably not
Caramel coloring? Maybe
(from a bottle split)

The nose is full of wood spice, almond extract, ocean air and seaweed. The peat reads almost toasty. There's molasses, dates and a mix of citrus fruits. With time in the glass it picks up some mango and just a kiss of manure. Lots of tangy fruits (citrus and tropical) in the palate along with salted almonds and walnuts. Serrano pepper oil mixes with a little bit of drying tannin. Mild honey sweetness meets baking spices (clove, nutmeg and fruity cinnamon). When the sweet and peat merge after 30 minutes, a hint of tar squeezes out. It finishes with tangy fruits, heavy smoke, pepper oil, honey, herbal bitterness and a little bit of tar.

Classy Lagavulin. Those "sherry-treated" casks have given youth the boot, and have thankfully not replaced it with liquid raisins. The fruit and nuts and bitterness work very well together, while the peat emerges in various guises throughout the experience. Feels like the staves are starting to show, perhaps due to a couple aggressive casks or *gasp* older whisky in the mix. If you picked up this bottle at its original price last year, you probably won't be disappointed. Still, I loved Monday's 12yo CS more.

Availability - Secondary market, and some random retailers selling at secondary prices
Pricing - original price: £150, now £250-£400
Rating - 89

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Lagavulin Jazz Festival 2017

Lagavulin is great, jazz is great. But there isn't any actual jazz in the bottle (unless you really want to get abstract). And frankly I'd rather be out in the world writing about jazz festivals than being cooped up inside, drinking whisky samples by myself. Aside from a flooded muddy adventure in New Orleans last year, I've never actually been to a jazz festival. Is whisky really the best drug for such an event? I picture a multitude of stumbles over to the porta potties.

Let's see what people think of the whisky. MAO and Angus give it a 90. The whiskybase community says 88.19 and Thjs scores it 87. That's promising!

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: Diageo
Region: Islay
Maturation: Refill American oak hogsheads + Refill European oak butts
Age: ?
Release date: 2017
Outturn: 6,000 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 57.6%
Chill-filtration? Probably not
Caramel coloring? Probably not
(from a bottle split)

The nose is very herbal and a little grungy, with raw peated spirit, baby-Talisker-style mezcal and raw cocoa. Nectarines, limes and brown sugar drift around the edges, and something fishy swims in the background. The palate is much hotter than the nose. It's also sweet with straightforward peat smoke. Lots of limes and canned fruit cocktail. Some bitter herbs and tart cherries are in the mix as well. It finishes tangy, tart and hot, with smoke, peppercorns and ocean notes.

DILUTED TO ~48%abv, or 1¼ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose softens up and gains more beach notes. Think seaweed, sand and grilled shellfish with lemon juice. The palate picks up smoked meat and a bright bitterness, along with lemons, sugar, peat and fresh herbs. It finishes with bitter herbs and lots of smoke. Sugar and cracked pepper.

This reads even younger than the official eight year old, placing it right around the style of all those infant anonymous "Islays". That doesn't make it bad, it's just surprisingly raw, and neither unique nor terribly fascinating when neat. Diluting it helps considerably, bringing out a fresh oceanside character. When lining it up with the rest of this week's Lagavulins, I found it to be the one in which I was least interested. The Lagavulin competition is tough.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - ???
Rating - 85 (when diluted)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Lagavulin Distillery Exclusive 2017

Lagavulin has issued two distillery exclusive bottlings, one in 2017 and one in 2018. They must have heard I had visited in 2016. The 2017 and 2018 had different maturation mixes and different ABVs and different outturns, but they both were missing an age statement. The 2017 has the better community rating on Whiskybase, as well as an 89-point ratings from MAO and Angus. But I don't know, those two fellas are so optimistic about the state of things...

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: Diageo
Region: Islay
Maturation: ???
Age: ?
Release date: 2017
Outturn: 7,500 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 54.1%
Chill-filtration? Probably not
Caramel coloring? Maybe
(from a bottle split)

Lots of fruit (apples, lemons and pineapples) on the nose, followed by eucalyptus and cinnamon. The peat moves from a mossy note over to bonfire embers over the course of 30 minutes. There are also some rosemary, maple fudge and minerally white wine notes. The palate is the sweetest of this week's four Lagavulins. Pineapple and brown sugar meets tart citrus. Moderate heat and peat smoke. After a while, the palate develops notes of dried thyme and a salty meatiness (or a meaty saltiness). It finishes sweet and salty, with a mix of cigar and wood smokes, and a blend of dried herbs.

DILUTED TO ~48%abv, or ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose becomes a little farmier, and the smoke style moves closer to the kiln. It's also gets brinier with time. And that's about it. It has lost all its other characteristics. Less sweetness on the palate now. Lemon juice and a pinch of salt, a tiny bit of berry jam and some more bitterness. Tangy berries and bitter smoke in the finish.

This is probably best at full strength, as dropping it down to 48%abv seems to neuter it. It's a good warm drink when neat, perhaps close to a dessert Lagavulin. Or at least it's more casual than the 12yo CS. Though I liked this whisky a lot, I'm not disappointed that I missed out on a full bottle because (the last time I checked) the standard 16 year old tops it.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - ???
Rating - 87 (neat only, loses several points once diluted)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Lagavulin 12 year old Cask Strength (2016 release)

Trigger warning: Some of the following sentences may be interpreted as being complimentary towards Diageo.

Of the three famous Kildalton distilleries, Diageo's Lagavulin seems to be the only one that's serious about maintaining product quality. The other two focus instead on quantity. Beam Suntory's Laphroaig has taken one of Earth's best distillates and buried it under countless cask types and combinations thereof, creating more and more and more products. LVMH's Ardbeg has fully embraced the strange burden of creating a new limited edition whisky every year with a dumb story and a dumber name while not actually matching the muscle and depth of their standard range.

Lagavulin does have a special release or three each year but they're always a simple combo of bourbon and/or sherry casks. Like Laphroaig, Lagavulin releases an annual full-powered bourbon cask age stated release. And though the Lagavulin CS is 40-50% pricier than the Laphroaig, I've found it to be much more consistent. And better. With all this in mind, I've chosen to review four Lagavulins this week, leading up to Mathilda's 6th birthday on Friday, starting with one of the 12-year-old cask strength editions.

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: Diageo
Region: Islay
Maturation: refill American oak casks
Age: minimum 12 years
Release date: 2016
Outturn: ??,???
Alcohol by Volume: 57.7%
Chill-filtration? Probably not
Caramel coloring? Probably not
(from a bottle split)

Kind of a baked peat in the nose, at first, but then it switches to a seaweed character that moves to the fore. Then raw cocoa, rosemary, parmesan and smoked paprika. After 30+ minutes the cigarettes show up, followed by soil, brown sugar and orange peel. Bunches of lemons and buckets of minerals in the palate. There's also yuzu, grapefruit, tart kiwi, salt and very heavy kiln smoke. That same kiln note leads the lengthy finish and is joined by a little bit of savoriness, grapefruits and pineapple.

DILUTED TO ~48%abv, or 1¼ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose becomes much fruitier. Apples, pineapples and green grapes. Some flower blossoms. The peat goes to the ocean. Like the nose, the palate gets cuddlier. It's sweeter with papaya and pineapple notes, which is in turn balanced by a moderate bitter smoke. The finish also keeps the sweetness, tartness, bitterness and smoke in tune.

Lagavulin is one of the rare distilleries whose official bottlings top anything offered by the indies. None of the "undisclosed Islays" I've tried have come anywhere near the quality of the Lagavulin 12yo CS batches. And yes, the 2016 batch is another winner. I was hesitant to move it into 90-point range, but its mix of fruit and salt and smoke is outstanding. Again. Lagavulin starts the week strong.

Availability - This edition is probably sold out
Pricing - more recent batches are $100-$170, depending on the country or state
Rating - 90

Friday, May 8, 2020

Benriach 34 year old 1968 Duncan Taylor, cask 2592

Firstly, many many thanks to Jordan who generously provided this sample, like a half decade ago (at least). Please see his review here.

One often has to go to the independent bottlers to find an unedited Benriach. The vast majority of official Benriach releases (no matter the batch size) are from a mix of casks. Today's 34 year old Duncan Taylor is from a single bourbon cask. And judging by its tint it was not re-racked into a zippier barrel.

Wednesday's Benriach on the left, today's on the right

That's one of the lightest colored 30+ year old whiskies I've seen a long time. That's a great sign! Probably.

Distillery: Benriach
Bottler: Duncan Taylor
Series: Rare Auld
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: 34 years (November 1968 - June 2003)
Maturation: bourbon cask (I think)
Cask number: 2592
Outturn: 125 bottles, and this was bottle #1!
Alcohol by Volume: 48%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Coloring? No
(sample from Mr. CocktailChem, see above)

The nose is full of limes, citrons, minerals and plenty of barley. To my surprise, charcoal smoke drifts beneath the fruits. There's a gentle dunnage note, followed by moments of pineapple and ginger beer. 45 minutes later some fennel and peppery smoke appear. Lots of fruit in the palate as well. Think kiwi, lychee and nectarines. A little bit of butterscotch, a little bit of bitterness. It's increasingly tangy, slightly perfume-y,  and never too sweet. Though it does sweeten up in the finish. At first it was like liquefied Kasugai candies, but then the tart limes roll in, followed by some mild tannins.

I think I prefer this Benriach slightly over the official 25. Though it has kept its youthful barley heart, I like the feel of the old cask, especially in the nose. Or is it because I knew the whisky was 34 years old when I sipped it? The nose holds the most complexity, balancing the fruits, smoke, grains and staves the best. I didn't add water because the whisky read nicely at this strength and (again possibly influenced by my knowledge of the age statement) it felt like it would crumble when diluted. The thing about this Rare Auld series is it reminds me of the days when......aw damn it, I'm feeling nostalgic. I'd better stop while I'm ahead. Good whisky.

Availability - Sold out long ago
Pricing - ???
Rating - 88

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Benriach 27 year old 1984, cask 1052

I can't believe I still have samples left from whiskysamples.eu. Man, I miss that site. Anyway, this single cask was released by the Billy Walker regime back when they were still partying through hundreds of long-aged casks leftover from the Seagram's era. Finishing an old whisky, especially a peated whisky, in a PX cask doesn't seem like a good idea but for some reason Billy Walker's crew knew how to do it better than anyone. So I have faith. This time.

Distillery: Benriach
Ownership: BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd
Age: 27 years old (1984 - July 2012)
Maturation: Primary - Bourbon cask (a guess). Secondary - Pedro Ximénez cask (listed). Length of time for each unknown.
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 50.7%
Cask #: 1052
Bottle count: 258
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Coloring? No
(Sample purchased from the old whiskysamples.eu 😢)

Wave after wave of seaweed and bonfire smoke roll up from the glass, then band-aids and sturdy shitkickers. The enormous nose continues with chocolate, mint, soil, peaches and almond extract. The palate begins similarly with dense herbal peat and bitter smoke. A little bit of grape jam and a lot of orange creamsicle. It has that, er, "hops" note so prevalent in the 21yo Authenticas. More savoriness, dried herbs and limes arrive with time. That herbal peat and smoke meet up sweet limes and oranges in the finish, followed by subtler notes of plums and nutty sherry.

Much gigundous fabulosity. More words? It seems like an old Laphroaig in the nose, then becomes pure well-aged peated Benriach in the palate with an excellent balance that continues on into the finish. After being fully engaged with the experience during the tasting and as the finish continued on and on, I pondered how exactly this was crafted, and why a result of this quality isn't seen more often. I hold no illusions that it is easy to create a whisky like this, but it is possible. There is a path. And finding gems like these make this whole whisky diversion worthwhile. More please.

Availability - Sold out long ago
Pricing - ???
Rating - 91

Monday, May 4, 2020

Benriach 25 year old, 46.8%abv edition

Yet another tale of a whisky I was going to buy blindly as a self-treat, then hesitated, only to watch the price rise and the ABV dip. Normally I wouldn't seek out a whisky with a sizable portion of virgin oak maturation, but I've been a big fan of Benriach's cask management and blending teams. Well, at least when they were under Billy Walker's management. The Brown-Forman era has yielded mixed results. The first round of cask strength releases were disappointing, but the 12 year old Sherry Wood was a very positive surprise. Yet those whiskies are babies compared to this 25-year-old. So I don't know what to expect. I'm not a complete pessimist, I do hope this is very good so I can issue forth with PG-rated self abuse.

Distillery: Benriach
Ownership: BenRiach Distillery Company (Brown-Forman)
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Age: at least 25 years
Maturation: sherry casks, bourbon casks and virgin oak casks
Alcohol by Volume: 46.8%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colored? No
(from a bottle split)

The nose begins with fresh peaches and nectarines, marasca syrup and amaretto. Then there's toffee pudding, vanilla fudge and musty old oak staves. A bit more heat to it than expected. Balancing out the palate's malty and fruity (lemons, limes and cherry lollipops) sweetness, are mild umami and salty waves. Smaller notes of ginger beer and musty casks in the background. Tart citrus and a zesty bitterness build with time. Tart citrus and toffee leadoff the finish. Later on there are notes of marshmallow fluff and roasted almonds.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv, or ½ tbl of water per 30mL whisky
No you don't want to do this. It's Tannin City.

Though this unpeated Benriach 25yo does not blast into the stratosphere like the peated 25yo, it's a very pleasant drinker with good balance and a little bit of complexity (when neat). And I'm not even going to complain about the price. "The hell you say," you say. Yes. It's on the lower pricing end of official 25 year old single malts and arrives with (possibly) the highest ABV of them all. If you do own a bottle, I recommend keeping its contents neat and enjoying it during the springtime.

Availability - Many European and American specialty retailers
Pricing - Europe: $175-$225; USA: $300-$400 (sad trombone)
Rating - 87 (neat)

Friday, May 1, 2020

Benrinnes 15 year old Flora & Fauna (bottled 2017)

And then there was Benrinnes. From 1974 until 2007, Benrinnes shared some similarities with its Diageo stablemate Mortlach. It had an unorthodox distillation process that resulted in more than two passes through the stills, resulting in a meaty and occasionally sulfurous malt that often found a popular home in sherry casks. As with Mortlach, Benrinnes can be quite lovely when aged in bourbon casks, where it ditches some of the darkness for a good dose of fruit. This Flora & Fauna, though, is 100% sherry cask. Which brings back to the first sentence. And then there was Benrinnes.

Distillery: Benrinnes
Region: Speyside (Moray)
Ownership: Diageo
Range: Flora and Fauna
Age: at least 15 years
Maturation: sherry casks
Bottling date: 2017
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfiltered? Yes
Caramel Colorant? Yes

The nose is earthy and leafy with a bit of dunnage, something toasty, some wildflowers, a wet dog, maybe some limes and a lot of French onion soup. The palate makes less sense than the nose. There's plastic, sugar, burnt veg, generic tanginess, something industrial, plenty of umami and a Vegemite sandwich. The finish is similar to the palate with more metallic sulphur, umami and smoke. And a Vegemite sandwich.

With a dirty-spirit-meets-dirty-casks style, this Benrinnes gets points for being its own ogre. It's plenty weird and none of the characteristics work together. It's less of a piece of industrial art and more like a watery puddle of robot vomit. It's also better than the Auchroisk. I don't understand it either. I think I'm done with the Flora & Fauna series forever.

Availability - Europe
Pricing - $50-$70, ex VAT
Rating - 72 (maybe, I don't know)