...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Westport 24 year old 1996 Thompson Brothers, cask 2502

I don't take the whole teaspooned-whisky thing seriously. For instance, Westport is Glenmorangie. I don't care what other distillery's teaspoon of single was added to the cask, its influence (and quantity) is infinitesimal compared to the wine in the casks of Glenmorangie's official releases. The indie bottlers have my sympathies for this enforced goofy antiquated charade.

Since I've tried all the official Glenmos I would ever care to try, and have settled on the 18yo and 25yo as my favorites, it's time for me to review a few independently bottled single casks of the Northern Highlands distillery. So I have trio of IBs for this week, and I'll go in reverse — oldest to youngest — starting with today's bottling from the Thompson Bros of Dornoch.

Distillery: Glenmorangie
Ownership: LVMH
Region: Northern Highlands
Bottler: Thompson Brothers
Age: 24 years (1996 - 2020)
Maturation: refill hogshead
Cask #: 2502
Outturn: 193 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 50.9%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

Tree bark, metal, vanilla, grass and apricots appear first in the quirky nose. It gradually picks up notes of cheap plastic toys and burnt coconut. There's something very "grain whisky" about this. Maybe it's the coconut? Well, a lot more coconut shows up once the whisky is reduced to 43%abv, like Coconut City (a.k.a. Invergordon). A slight nectarine note appears as well, which is good news.

The palate is much different and, in my opinion, much better. The woody and grain whisky notes have been replaced by a strong maltiness and tangy citrus (oranges and lemons), along with fresh cilantro and serrano chiles. Plantains sit in the background. At 43%abv, it's still malty and a bit grassy, with floral and bitter citrus notes arriving later.

It finishes sweeter than the palate, with rooty bitterness and lemons around the edges. At 43%abv, it finishes with malt and bitter citrus.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

The Whiskybase community is over the moon about this whisky, but I am not. Though the nose was unusual, it wasn't on the positive side of unusual. As I'd mentioned, it was like some scrambled Invergordon of indeterminate age. But the palate was pretty darn good and moderately complex. The vast gulf between the styles and qualities of the nose and palate makes this a difficult whisky to sort out. But I'll err on the side of flavor because whisky is for drinkin'.

Availability - Probably sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 82

Friday, October 15, 2021

Three sherry cask Blair Athols over 20 years old

There's a Blair Athol scarcity on these pages as well, so I decided to pack THREE into one post. Sort of a Lighting Round, but Diving for Pearls style, which means TL;DR. Let's fire it up!

#1
Blair Athol 20 year old 1995 Old Malt Cask
Sherry butt HL12149, 50%abv

The nose beings with an almost phenolic intense burst of raw nuts, followed by orange peels and a dingy industrial note. Grapefruit and mango fill the background. It gets maltier once diluted to 46%abv, and picks up little bits of fudge and ocean. The orange peel and mango remains.

Sweet citrus and pink peppercorns start the palate. Raw almonds and black walnuts arrive next, followed by grapefruits and limes. The nose's industrial note shows up once the whisky is reduced to 46%abv. It also has a great mix of sweet and tart with grapefruits, dates and orange pixy stix.

Plums, grapefruit and Rainier cherries in the finish! At 46%, the finish matches the palate.

I enjoyed this Blair Athol so much more than I'd expected. The fruits and nuts were near perfect, and there was neither heavy oak nor generic dried fruit notes. It's a charmer with or without water. This is a bottle I wish I had bought five years ago.

Rating - 90

#2
Blair Athol 26 year old 1988 Signatory for K&L Wine Merchants
Refill sherry butt 6844, 54.3%abv

The nose has two sides that meet well. Rye seeds, eucalyptus, gooey toffee and very old wood. And guava juice, figs, grapefruit and fern leaves. Reduced to 46%abv, it moves towards antiques and fabrics. Then stones, minerals and grapefruit.

The palate matches the nose well. There are grapefruits, figs, black walnuts, oranges and black raisins. It gets sweeter with time, while also picking up an oaky zing. At 46%abv, golden raisins and black raisins take the foreground, with eucalyptus and toasted oak in the background.

Oranges, figs, carob and a hint of drying tannins make up the finish. At 46%abv, it's mostly raisins and pepper with a bit of tannin.

Though the oak is much more present here than on the 20yo, I like the whisky quite a bit. The nose is fantastic diluted or not. I prefer the palate and finish at full strength because the oak seems more in check. Beware, My Annoying Opinions and I both like this K&L single cask. And it's way too late for us to get in on the old price.

Rating - 89

#3
Blair Athol 25 year old 1988 Signatory
Wine-treated butt 6789, 59.0%abv

(Okay, it's not officially a sherry cask. It's possible that this cask was seasoned with a fortified wine, like sherry, rather than having that stuff mature in the cask before dumping. So it's more descriptive, yet more vague than "Sherry Butt".)

Once braving the nose's alcohol burn, one can find toasted walnuts, toasted pine nuts and LOTS of gunpowder. There's leather, dusty upholstery, fig and vanilla extract further back. Diluting to 46%abv pushes the sulphur even further forward. Beef stock, cherry soda, fig and vanilla fill out the rest.

The palate has less sulphur than the nose. It's more of a gunpowder and pepper seasoning. It has has some sweetness from dried cherries and dried cranberries; then some old bourbony oak, rubber and leather. It gets more metallic at 46%abv, while also developing tart citrus notes. Grains and paper linger in the background.

Cherry syrup, salt and rubber in the finish. It finishes sweet, peppery, tannic and tangy at 46%abv.

While this may have been a serviceable whisky on its own (for non-sulphurphobes), this Blair Athol got its ass handed to it firmly by the previous two. The aggressive "wine-treated" vessel kept everything from merging well. But I did enjoy the nose very much even with the gunpowder.

Rating - 81

Those results were the opposite of what I'd expected: 123 rather than 321. And I didn't anticipate handing out an 89 or 90. So the tasting was a win! And as exciting as the thought of Signatory keeping its 1988 Blair Athols aging for more than 30 years may be, I think 25 is already pushing things a bit. Of course that depends on the cask. More refills please!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Benrinnes 1979-1998 Scott's Selection

I split this bottle with The Coopered Tot back in the winter of 2014. Life was different for both of us then. But it was an awesome evening full of whisk(e)y nerdery and drinking in the Newer Jersey. I miss humans.

Two fluid ounces of this Benrinnes have awaited their freedom, trapped inside a sample bottle for seven years after being sequestered in a 750mL container for seventeen years after being cloistered in a cask for about nineteen years. And now the whisky will pass through my organs. What a life!

Distillery: Benrinnes
Ownership: Diageo
Region: Speyside (Moray)
Bottler: Scott's Selection
Age: ~19 years (1979 - 1998)
Maturation: "Oak casks" (can you believe it?!)
Outturn: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 58.0%
(from a bottle split)

NEAT

The nose begins with rocks + steel wool, and musty wood + dunnage. It shifts a bit by the 30 minute mark with notes of key lime pie filling, witbier, lemon cake, orange pixy stix and flower blossoms. There's some saline and something farmy in the background. 

The palate goes another direction. It's full of metal and charred beef. Vanilla and burnt dates. It gets VERY acidic with time.

It finishes sweet, ashy and acidic.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv

The nose is quite lovely. Chocolate, red bean paste and nutmeg up front. Saline in the middle. Key lime pie and Black & Milds in the back.

Sweeter and more approachable, the palate dishes out lemons and oranges, wort and bitter herbs. There's still a charred meat note in the background, along with a pinch of OBE.

It finishes with metallic lemons.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

I split up the diluted and neat notes again because the whisky changes so much, for the better, once water is added. As with Monday's Benrinnes, this one doesn't cater to any popular category of single malt style, I just liked this one's challenge better thanks to how well the dissimilar parts played together. And also the fruits! Josh, we picked a good one.

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 87

Monday, October 11, 2021

Benrinnes 21 year old 1992, Special Release 2014

Diving for Pearls is short on Benrinnes posts because I've rarely seen bottlings that interested me, stores (when they did ship) offer few Benrinnes samples, and my bottle splitting buddies rarely have Benrinnesses open. But I do have two reviews of this quirky Speyside malt planned for this week, with both whiskies resulting from the distillery's now retired idiosyncratic ~3x distillation process.

Diageo released today's sherry cask Benrinnes as part of their Special Releases set back in 2014. And despite positive reviews, it can still be easily found via online European retailers seven years later. I'm curious why a limited edition dark-hued sherried Speysider is still hanging around. Is it the price? Is it the lack of name recognition? Or am I about to find out?

Distillery: Benrinnes
Region: Speyside (Moray)
Ownership: Diageo
Range: Special Releases
Age: 21 years (1992 - 2014)
Maturation: sherry casks
Outturn: 2,892 bottles
Bottling date: 2014
Alcohol by Volume: 56.9%
(from a bottle split)

NEAT

The nose begins with dark chocolate, steel wool, cooper and burnt things (like hay and hair). There's a bit of a funky Loch Lomond-style garbage note in the background, along with toasted oak and toffee. (That was a party-in-a-glass right there.)

The palate is heavy, ashy and peppery, devoid of sweetness. Notes of bitter nuts, bay leaves, dried rosemary, leather and metal build with time.

The ash and metal continue into the finish, with quieter notes of rosemary, mint leaves and tangy chiles developing with time.

I think this needs to be diluted.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv

More approachable now, the nose shows mint, cherries, saline and fudge at the start. It gets beach-like with time, yet always holds onto that burnt note.

The palate gets bitterer and more tannic, but not terribly so. Sugar and minerals provide some angles.

Meanwhile, the finish gets milder, less ashy. It's gently sweet and mineral with a little bit of charred corn.

DILUTED TO ~43%abv

Don't do it. Just don't.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

Easy to admire but difficult to enjoy, this Benrinnes is far from what anyone would consider a generic sherried Speysider. It provides a challenging drinking experience, and requires concentration and struggle, perhaps like working through some quadrants of avant-garde jazz. Just don't add too much water (to the whisky, not the jazz) because the bitter oak takes over entirely. Fight it out at full volume first.

Availability - It's still around, mostly in Europe
Pricing - $350 to $500
Rating - 85 (ignore this score)

Friday, October 8, 2021

The fate of one bottle: Ardlair 6 year old 2011 Signatory, cask 900027

Despite all the grousing I've done about ultra young whiskies and massive ABVs, I went ahead and bought a bottle of 63.3%abv 6 year old Ardlair. Because Ardmore. Specifically unpeated Ardmore.

What does a grump like me do with a whisky I'd never buy were it not for its name? After trying a couple of glasses of Ardlair at full strength, I decided I'd proof it down to different levels to see where its prime drinking point lay.

My preferred ABV range for most whiskies is 45-50%, so I aimed for 46% and 50%. I also wanted to see what happened at 40% and 43%. Because matters weren't that simple and I wasn't confident in trying to play with liquid volumes smaller than 1mL, I wound up with these ABVs: 38%, 42.2%, 46.4% and 50.6%. Then I let them sit for about 72 hours.

At the end of those three days, I poured each 15mL amount into its own mini Glencairn, then brought a fifth half-ounce to the game, at full strength.


Distillery: Ardmore
Malt: Ardlair
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Region: Highlands (Eastern)
Independent Bottler: Signatory Vintage
Age: 6 years (27 Jan 2011 - 5 Sept 2017)
Maturation: Refill Butt
Cask#: 900027
Bottle: 260 of 646
Exclusive to: The Winebow Group
Alcohol by Volume: 63.3%

DILUTED TO 38%abv

The nose is plenty potent even at this level of dilution. Manischewitz (Concord Grape) with cracked black pepper and raw almonds show up first. Apple cider and cookie dough appear later.

The palate is quite sweet with all of its grape candy. A little bit of black pepper and salt linger in the background. It starts to get bitter after 30 minutes, and pencil shavings show up.

There are grape candies, pencil shavings and woody bitterness in the finish.

As per my notes, the whisky is ultra grapey here, but it's an almost artificial grapiness. It's all very curious until a much too familiar woodiness appears, leaving me unmotivated to ever lower it to this level again.

Rating range: C- (70-73)


DILUTED TO 42.2%abv

Though the nose does show grape juice and grape Jolly Rancher notes, they take a back seat to mixed nuts, wet sand and brine.

The palate is less sweet and less grapey than the 38%abv version. There are more grasses, lemons and salt now.

It finishes peppery and salty, almost smoky at times, with a much calmer sweetness.

I would happily drink the whisky at this strength. It reads ultra young, of course, but the wood and sherry are much more reserved. A pleasant surprise!

Rating range: B-/B (81-84)


DILUTED TO 46.4%abv

Malt enters the picture, trying valiantly (though ultimately failing) to stand up to the grapes in the nose. BBQ pulled pork, whole wheat toast and canned albacore (yes, really) develop later on.

The palate picks up some fight, but in the form of ethanol. It's very dry. Maybe a little bit of wort in there. It gains sugar and pepper with time.

It has a longer finish than the previous two, but it reads as neutral spirit flavored with grape juice and pepper.

This resulted in a different sort of surprise. The nose held promise, but the palate went an odd direction, one that was interesting in theory but not pleasing to consume.

Rating range: C/C+ (76-79) maybe?


DILUTED T0 50.6%abv

The nose mellows out at this strength. The meat and fish notes move to the background, while dry sherry and very dry red wine notes show up in the front. The grape candy returns at the 45 minute mark.

The palate is dry, nutty, tangy and grainy. But the neutral spirit note is still there.

Here it finishes like serrano pepper-infused neutral spirit.

This ethanol / neutral spirit thing is very strange. I've never tinkered with such a young whisky before. Does diluting baby spirits always reveal their poisonous hearts?

Rating range: C/C+ (76-79) maybe?


FULL STRENGTH - 63.3%abv

Ahh, NO GRAPE THINGS in the nose. Okay, perhaps some golden raisins. But the fruits mostly show up as dried currants, dried blueberries and apple cider. A little bit of salty pork sits in the background.

And no neutral spirit in the palate. If it reads like any unaged spirits, I'd go with eau de vie. But it's mildly sweet, a little grassy and lemony. Hints of toasted oak spices. Very drinkable considering the strength.

It finishes with lemons, chile oil and golden raisins. Some heat, some sweet.

Much closer to whisky now, and less of a jumbled weirdo. The sherry butt was more aggressive in the nose than the palate, which I greatly appreciate.


WORDS WORDS WORDS

This experience turned out stranger than I'd expected. Tuna, Manischewitz and neutral spirit...and at diluted levels? I wonder if similar oddities occur when playing with other barely legal rocket fuel single malts.

Drinking 63.3%abv spirits isn't a particularly pleasing experience for me, so I was hoping for some better results from the diluted pours, but was disappointed in 3/4 of the results. 82 is a damned good score for 6 year old whisky here on this blog, but I'm rarely motivated to sip a B- whisky, even if it is from Ardmore Distillery. Careful reductions to the 42-43%abv range may be the fate of this bottle's contents.

Availability - Chicago
Pricing - $55
Rating - 82

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Balblair 21 year old Gordon & MacPhail (bottled 2017)

Between 2015 and 2017, Gordon & MacPhail bottled batches of 21 year old Balblair from their prodigious warehouses. I'm thankful they didn't water the whisky down to 40%abv, but it would have been nice if G&M had offered it up in a 46%abv/nc/ncf version once the big indie brand rebooted. Instead they're offering a 12yo 43%abv Balblair.

I don't know what sort of casks are at play in this 21yo, though I'm assuming it was filtered and colored because G&M never stated otherwise. Today's batch was (I think) the 2017 version released in The States. I've always enjoyed the 8-year-old Highland Park from The MacPhail's Collection, so I hope this works as a solid straightforward malt as well.

Distillery: Balblair
Ownership: Inver House (via Thai Beverages plc via International Beverage Holdings Ltd.)
Region: Northern Highlands
Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Range: The MacPhail's Collection
Age: at least 21 year old
Maturation: ???
Outturn: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose begins with sour apple candy and cinnamon sticks, followed by Brazil nuts, white flour and roasted corn. There's a pear note in the background that moves from fresh Bartletts to the canned variety.

There's actual malt and wort in the palate! Raw almonds, grapefruit bitters and tapioca pudding fill the middle, while ginger candy rests in the background.

It finishes with barley, salt, peppery heat and just a little bit of caramel candy.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

I've seen reviewers refer to whiskies as "honest". I'm not quite sure what that means, nor do I comprehend the use of personification in whisky notes. But maybe this Balblair would be categorized as "honest". It's a simple, uncluttered whisky, not particularly exciting, full of grain, light on oak, and very drinkable. Had I tried this blindly, I would have guessed it was half its actual age, which isn't a bad thing if price is no barrier. Ultimately it doesn't top any of the vintage-era Balblairs (younger or older) that I've tried.

Availability - It's still around
Pricing - $150 and up
Rating - 81

Monday, October 4, 2021

Balblair 38 year old 1966

My brother and his wife just welcomed their second child, and first daughter, to this world. They're in a for a treat! Of course, my bias towards daughters began seven years and five months ago.

I tried to arrange the whisky schedule so that I could review this 38 year old sherry cask whisky as close as possible to my niece's birth. So here we are!

Balblair distillery's penchant for single malt vintages predates the recent squat bottles familiar to many of us. They released this 1966a 1970 and 1979 in 2004-2005, but also offered up about a half dozen 1970s vintages at the millenium's turn. This 1966 whisky was distilled during Robert "Bertie" Cumming's ownership. Mothballed in 1911, the distillery remained silent (aside from military usage during World War Two) for 37 years until Cumming bought and reopened it. Cumming sold Balblair to Hiram Walker in 1970, and corporate mergers and acquisitions have taken place ever since.

But more importantly, it's time to drink some old whisky.

Distillery: Balblair
Ownership: Inver House (via Thai Beverages plc via International Beverage Holdings Ltd.)
Region: Northern Highlands
Age: 38 years old (1966 - September 2004)
Maturation: 2nd Fill Oloroso Sherry Casks
Outturn: 2,400 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 44%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

Black walnuts start off in the nose's background, then slowly roll forward until they take top billing about 40 minutes in. Subtle coastal and dunnage notes frame marzipan, Luxardo cherries and fresh thyme. As the hour passes, toffee, grapefruits, and finally guavas appear.

Earth and herbs meet mango, dried cranberries and Cara Cara oranges in the early palate. It gets zestier with time, and a little sweeter. Two different leafy notes appear as well: first a chlorophyll/green character, then tobacco. The fruits recede to the edges.

Nectarines and dried apricots join the oranges in the finish. It evolves from fruity honey sweetness to a sharp tartness, then the wood starts to edge in.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

Over the past few years I've become a sucker for the black walnut note. But black walnut + dunnage + guava?! This whisky's nose is, as I wrote down, "an all-timer". The palate's fruits are very good, and not surprising to this old Balblair fan. But the earthiness was a bit of a shock, a welcome shock at first. Perhaps that character came from the oak, because the beams started showing in the finish. And the finish is truth. Had everything matched the nose, my goodness...

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - $,$$$
Rating - 90 (but the nose tho)