...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Caol Ila 29 year old 1990 Gordon & MacPhail, cask 19/139

While Whisky Nerds, the bottler of Monday's Caol Ila, has been in the game for about five years, today's Caol Ila comes from a company that's been releasing single malts for over a century. Like so many early whisky companies, Gordon & MacPhail, got their start in the wine and grocery business in the 19th century. John Urquhart and his family later brought the company into the whisky business and have since kept G&M at the top. The last I'd checked, they were the only, or one of the only, independent bottlers that still had filling contracts with distilleries. Thus G&M's single malts are in their possession, their warehouses, from the start.

Though I have more respect for G&M than nearly all other indie bottlers, nary a single one of their contemporary releases has WOWed me. I'm not talking about their '70s and '80s bottlings, because whisky production before 1980 was so different than today's that the results were almost a different fluid. Instead I'm referring to G&M releases from the past two decades. The pre-2018 Connoisseur's Choice range was always so-so to decent, while their single casks had few duds, yet no titans. That changed this weekend.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Region: Islay
Independent Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Age: 29 years old (1990 to 9 Sept 2019)
Maturation: refill American hogshead
Cask #: 13/139
Outturn: 148 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 48.8%
(from a bottle split)

The nose starts with a heavy, almost-Laphraoig, peat that gradually recedes into the rest of notes. Lots of fruits, think peach skins, lemon zest and plum juice. Iodine and shellfish. Dark chocolate and a crisp sauvignon blanc. I got lost in the palate for a bit, and I'm pretty sure I wrote some of these notes with my eyes closed. Roasted cashews and pumpkin seeds. Savory smoke, black walnuts, blue cheese and sea salt. Bonfire smoke, stones, lime juice, salty shellfish and hint of fresh stone fruit sweetness. The finish mirrors the palate, focusing on the savory notes, adding in some charred beef. A mix of minerals and peaches. And that morning-after-a-beach-bonfire note I've found in my favorite '90s Ardmores.

The devil on my shoulder told me not to post this review until I secured a bottle, but it's $400 and there are only 147 bottles other than the one which I'd already split with folks. So screw him. This is a brilliant whisky from a stellar, well-managed cask. It pulls the best elements of Allied Lyons-era distillery mates Laphroaig and Ardmore, into a savory, coastal, grown-up Caol Ila affair that is difficult to surpass in 2020 or any other year. This is a big win for the indie grandpa.

Availability - It's out there
Pricing - €350-€400
Rating - 92

Monday, July 6, 2020

Caol Ila 28 year old 1990 Whisky Nerds, cask 13129

The Whisky Nerds bottling outfit seems to be well loved in European anorak circles. Maybe it's because the company is run by former geeks, maybe it's the romanticism of "Nerd" status, or maybe they pick good casks. I'm not sure if any that really explains why this release is $500-$600 per bottle. That's halfway to Port Ellen territory. Folks really took all those "Forget Port Ellen, we have Caol Ila!" blog articles to heart. Unlike the rest of the Nerds bottlings, this bottle has not sold out, in fact I've seen it on sale, so perhaps a (temporary) price ceiling has been found?

Normally I save my pricing complaints for a review's conclusion, but I couldn't come up with a different introduction in time.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Region: Islay
Independent Bottler: Whisky Nerds
Age: 28 years old (30 Nov 1990 - 11 Feb 2019)
Maturation: refill Oloroso sherry hogshead
Cask #: 13129
Outturn: 192 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 48%
(from a bottle split)

It's not a subtle cask, but the spirit's will is strong. The nose leads with roasted nuts, cinnamon syrup, manure and smoked salmon. A mix of candy canes and coal smoke in the background. Meanwhile, the palate registers more complexity than the nose. Milk chocolate, lemons and tangy oranges. Jalapeños, wood smoke, aged Parmesan and black walnuts. It gets sweeter with time but also holds onto those peppery and savory notes. It finishes sweet and peppery with some savory dried herbs, then almond extract, wood smoke and pickles.

This Caol Ila was bottled right in my preferred ABV range (46-50) so I didn't add water, sorry. I enjoyed the savory notes, but also wished the nose's smoked salmon and manure notes showed up as well. The cask refused to hush up with all the nuts, chocolate and sweetness though luckily it never took over. I'm nitpicking here, really. This is a very good, fully satisfying whisky which would not disappoint anyone who didn't see the price tag, but it got knocked on its ass by the Caol Ila I'm reviewing on Wednesday...

Availability - A flock of specialty retailers in continental Europe
Pricing - €450-€550
Rating - 88

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Killing Whisky History, Episode 32: Jameson Irish Whiskey, 1980s versus 2020

John Jameson was not an Irishman, he was a Scot who married into whisk(e)y money but then wound up creating the most powerful Irish whiskey brand on the planet. In Episode 32, I compare a 1980s bottling with a 2020 bottling of Jameson blended whiskey.

But first, shots.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ben Nevis 23 year old 1996 Single Malts of Scotland, cask 1783

Monday's 23 year old Ben Nevis, distilled in 1996, matured in American oak and bottled by Elixir Distillers, was fabulous. Today's 23 year old Ben Nevis was also distilled in 1996, matured in American oak and bottled by Elixir Distillers. I normally don't the opportunity to compare such similar whiskies, but Ben Nevis, man.

On a related note, I'm glad to see bourbon cask Ben Nevii finally getting some reviewer love. Nevis sherry casks had been getting most of the attention over the past few years, as sherry casks often do. Of course, this will mean these single bourbon casks will also go up in price now. Yay.

Distillery: Ben Nevis
Region: Highlands (Western)
Independent Bottler: Elixir Distillers
Range: Single Malts of Scotland
Age: exactly 23 years old (5 Nov 1996 to 5 Nov 2019)
Maturation: hogshead
Cask #: 1783
Outturn: 214 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 52.3%
(from a bottle split)

The nose reads heavier on this '96, when compared to Monday's '96. Less fruit, more dried leaves and brine. Some fresh eucalyptus and mint leaves as well. Some sharp cheddar, bung cloth, a few limes and lemons. Though it has a thick mouthfeel, the palate actually comes across lighter and very fruity, especially on tart berries. There's also some cocoa and salt. It intensifies with time, picking up some burnt plastic and coal smoke notes. But those are wiped away by a booming sweetness. The intensity continues on into the finish. Very tart, very sweet and just a whiff of smoke.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or > ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Ah here are some fruits from the nose, specifically white peaches. Some flower blossoms, soil and brine too. Not much change in the palate. Perhaps more on white peaches than berries now. A bit more bitterness. Otherwise it remains the same. The finish softens up, less intense, less tart. Still very sweet, though. Maybe some hints of earth and lemons.

A Ben Nevis for the sweet tooth. It's almost too sweet for me, as the sugar starts shouting down most of the other elements. Excellent mouthfeel though, and a good nose, before or after dilution. Maybe a little water does it some good overall.

Aaaaaaaand prices have already gone up, with this bottle weighing in at €220. Yeesh. It's still around if you're willing to fork over that much Euro. I'll opt out.

Availability - The usual specialty retailers in continental Europe
Pricing - €200-€230
Rating - 87

Monday, June 29, 2020

Ben Nevis 23 year old 1996 Whisky Trail Birds Series

Did you survive that week of American whiskey reviews? No? Dreadfully sorry to hear that. Well, had you lived through it you would have been rewarded with a pair of Ben Nevis reviews this week! Both from Elixir Distillers. Both from the newly famed 1996 vintage. And if you still believe in distinct differences between individual whisky vintages, despite knowing the intricacies and chemistry of single malt production, then tell The Easter Bunny I said hello. You'll have an easier time instead convincing me that the world's fate is controlled by some long bearded dude who lives above the clouds. His name is MAO. But if you want to send me some Caperdonich 1972 and Longrow 1973 samples, I won't stop you.

Distillery: Ben Nevis
Region: Highlands (Western)
Independent Bottler: Elixir Distillers
Range: The Whisky Trail
Age: 23 years old (1996-2019)
Maturation: hogshead
Cask #: 892
Outturn: 258 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 51.8%
(from a bottle split)

Oh my. The nose is positively soaked with fresh lemons, grapefruits and loquats, with some mouldering stone fruits in the back. Then there's tapioca pudding, digestive biscuits, spent synthetic oil, stones and bung cloth. And the palate. There's a swirl of intensely tart fruits and bitter liqueurs and some industrial funk. It gets earthier and greasier with time, somehow also gaining a mintiness in the background. It has one of the earthiest finishes I've experienced, piles of soil and stones and diesel exhaust. Then a mix of Angostura bitters and yellow nectarines.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Yeah, it's good and stuff. But seriously, see those neat notes? It doesn't top those.

This has the WOW factor. Not a lot of distilleries can get there anymore, but......Ben Nevis, man. After twenty-three long years in a great hoggie this whisky delivers a long, gorgeous, complex and delicious experience, which has led to a rare instance of Diving for Pearls being more enthusiastic than the whiskybase crowd. I look at the unopened Ben Nevii on my shelf, knowing one has the goods, but can any of the rest reach this level?

Now, about this 1996 vintage...

Availability - Maybe a few retailers in Europe
Pricing - around €180
Rating - 91

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye (current green label)

This was the first new whisky I tried when I moved to Ohio almost four years ago. And by "new" I mean this green label version of Russell's rye is on a different plane than the old version. My first reaction was (per my notes), "dessert rye, but without going the full gooey like Angel's Envy". I'd been looking for a regular fancy-ish rye to replace Rendezvous Rye (since High West changed the recipe), which had replaced Willett (since Willett had capital "A" Arrived). This is a quality nominee.

Brand: Wild Turkey
Owner: Gruppo Campari
Range: Russell's Reserve
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distillery
Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Mash Bill: 65% rye, 23% corn, 12% barley (maybe)
Age: ???
Bottle code: LL/FC151802 B1702D0159
Alcohol by Volume: 52%
(from bottom third of my bottle)

The nose begins with a mix of spices, from baking spices to dried chiles. Then there's brown sugar, dried pineapple, sour apple candy, mint extract and anise. Some hints of salt water taffy, brine and bacon in the background as well. The palate's sweet, minty element stays balanced by tart citrus and wood smoke. Some salt, maple syrup and brown sugar in there. Just a little bit of canned pears too. The finish keeps the palate's equilibrium. Sweet (brown sugar and honey) and tart (lemons and limes) with bits of dusty ground pepper and wood smoke.

This rye manages to be both surprisingly complex and very very easy to drink. I'd given up trying to find both those qualities in an contemporary American whiskey, but maybe I shouldn't have. It also works well in a Manhattan, if you're in the habit of applying $65 whiskey to a cocktail. Whenever we empty our current open rye bottles, I'm going to pick up another bottle of this stuff. Hopefully the quality continues!

Availability - Most specialty retailers in the US
Pricing - $55-$75
Rating - 88