...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Single Malt Report: Macallan 17 year Fine Oak vs. Macallan 17 year Fine Oak

The 2010 bottling of Macallan 17 year Fine Oak has sat at the top of my whisky rankings since the day I posted its report.  It's been a favorite of mine -- my first Tier 1! -- ever since I bought my first bottle in 2008.  It was my 30th birthday present to me.  I'd never spent more than $60 on a bottle of booze, and then here I was buying a whisky that was over $100!  And it was good, thankfully.  It lasted me all the way up until my bachelor's party a year and a half later.  I came up with an excuse to buy it again a few months after the first bottle was emptied.  That bottle lasted me up through that single malt report, about 14 months in total.

I always knew Macallan 17 Fine Oak would be the bottle I wanted to open to celebrate our first pregnancy.  So bottle number three was opened and shared in early April.  And it was emptied the night before our lives were upended with the knowledge of the fate of our child's life.

I keep a sample of every good bottle I open in my Archives.  I had one sample of that celebratory bottle.  Also, there just happened to be one extra sample of the previous bottle.  One bottled in 2012 and one bottled in 2010.  This allowed me to retire the recent bottle in style.

Distillery: Macallan
Brand: Fine Oak
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Age: minimum 17 years
Maturation: American oak bourbon casks, American oak sherry casks, Spanish oak sherry casks
Region: Speyside
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

When I'd opened the newer bottle in April, I was struck by how sherried it was.  Was my sherry sensitivity getting completely out of whack again?  My memory of the previous bottles was of very little sherry, and all the parts playing together in tune.  Was this new one really different?  Would Macallan up the European sherry oak quotient in the Fine Oak (a combination of maturations: ex-bourbon American oak, ex-sherry American oak, ex-sherry European oak) right before they were to phase out the Fine Oak series?  Or had my whisky compass gone crap?

Macallan 17 year Fine Oak (bottled 2010)

Nose -- Lots of malt cuddled by American oak.  Sherry (level 3, on a 1-10 scale).  Sea salt caramels along with a little bit of the Atlantic Ocean.  Fresh apricots and peaches.  A momentary Band-Aid note that evaporated and never returned.  With some time, more fruits show up: tangerine and lemon zest, apple juice.

Palate -- Sherry (level 2, on a 1-10 scale), sugar cookies, tobacco, and light bitterness.  Fudge, citrus, honey, and a salty savory note that comes and goes.  Vanilla custard with a sherry float.

Finish -- A sharp finale with a sherry tail.  Hoppy bitterness, Cointreau, a whisper of gin-like juniper.  A hint of the tobacco note.  Vanilla still carries the sherry.

Macallan 17 year Fine Oak (bottled 2012)

Nose -- Sherry (level 6), similar to the 12 year Sherry Oak, malt taking a backseat.  Less of the sea salt caramels, much more floral perfume.  Orange candies and molasses.  Time brings out butterscotch and fresh cherries.

Palate -- Fudgy sherry reminiscent of Glenfarclas at a similar age.  Caramels, toffee, and brown sugar swimming around.  Lots of old sugary grapes (see: sherry).  Hint of fresh mint and basil leaves, and a little honey.

Finish -- Toffee joins the sherry.  A little salt, cherry cordials, orange zest in honey, brown sugar.

The 2012 has a much softer, briefer finish.  Without the sherry, the finale would seem like a light 40% ABV malt.  There's just so much sherry in it, blanketing the American oak and malt.  Feels like it's just another Macallan Sherry Oak, appropriately falling between the 12 and 18.  As a result, Glengoyne and Old Pulteney at the same age outdo it in complexity and, well, taste.  All their parts come together to create single malts that are unique balanced whiskys.

So, for a change, my memory was right, the 2010 bottling really is much different.  The sherry and European oak are present, but uses an inside voice rather than a megaphone.  Thus the conversation has equal participants.  Since it lacks The Thrill Factor, it will get nudged down from the top (Yay Subjectivity!).  But it is still my favorite non-peated Scotch whisky that I've reviewed here......so far.

But it is time to retire this whisky as well and not just because Macallan has phased it out of most markets.  I'm not as excited by its current recipe.  And it carries the memories of a part of my life that is now over.  I hope someday Macallan gets bold and releases an ALL ex-bourbon American oak bottling to show off its great malt, but for now it looks like they're only interested in selling sherry and its amber, sienna, and ruby shades.

Macallan 17 year Fine Oak (bottled 2010)

Availability - Might be a few out there, you'll have to check the bottle code
Pricing - see below
Rating - 94

Macallan 17 year Fine Oak (bottled 2012)

Availability - Many US liquor specialists
Pricing - $120-$160 (yeesh, *facepalm*, the price has gone up)
Rating - 87

Monday, June 24, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: The Big-Ass (and Last) Johnnie Walker Black post

So, here was my first Black Label post.

Then, my second post, comparing it to Chivas Regal 12 year.

Then, my third post, comparing it to Isle of Skye 8 year.

But that first post says it all really.  I've always been biased towards Johnnie Walker Black.  I've been drinking it for a while, have always found it versatile, can get it EVERYWHERE, and thus it comes with a sense of familiarity.

But today, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Okay, maybe I'll praise Black Caesar a little bit.  But it will be the last time.

In this final JWBL Taste Off, I have an old one (which means I'm old, I guess), a current version, and its new stepbrother.

The costars, in their original shapes:

Now in the shape of Glencairn glasses:

What we've got here is, from left to right:
1.  Johnnie Walker Black Label, bottled in the late 1970s, sold Duty Free in a 1.2 liter bottle at 43.4% ABV
2.  Johnnie Walker Black Label, bottled in 2011, from a 50mL mini, at 40% ABV
3.  Johnnie Walker Double Black, likely bottled in 2012, from a Master of Malt sample, 40% ABV


Johnnie Walker Black Label (bottled late 1970s) - 43.4% ABV

This bottle (with a great neck-fill line) has some history to it, so it received its own post three months ago.  I recommend giving the post a look, especially since it's mostly pictures.  To recap briefly:

As of last Christmas this whisky was the property of Robert and Wilma Perry, my wife's grandparents. It had previously belonged to one of Grandpa Bob's cousins. But for many years it sat in a cold Ohio basement. This past December, Grandpa Bob, who is currently kicking cancer's ass, gave the bottle of whisky to me.

Upon the bottle's opening, the contents inside made a sssssssss-thkkk sound.  Strong notes of library book dust and metal floated up to my nose.  I drank it aniwayyyy and iM stil alivvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Through trial and error I discovered the whisky needs ten to fifteen minutes of breathing time in the glass before it is to be approached.  I am direly serious about that 10-15 minutes.  Because, dude, some funk resides within.

Color -- Maple syrup with maroon and mahogany highlights (or to be less flowery: dark brown with some dark red in it)

Nose -- Old sherry stank.  Think: old moldy casks of sherry sitting in a warm dunnage for over 100 years.  There's moss and mushrooms and soil.  Enormous fermented prunes.  Damp tobacco.  Lime rind, maple syrup, and molasses.  Digging beneath the sherry, one may find a butterscotch sundae with vanilla ice cream, plums, red & black licorice, and paint fumes.

Palate -- Earthy, salty, tangy, mildly bitter, hot, maybe even a little bit of industrial chemicals in there.  Beyond that: The Big Sherry that's almost metallic.  Prunes, milk chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, chocolate mints, overripe plums, and the mothballs in my grandma's Brooklyn basement.  A vegetal peat holds court in the background.  The texture is very thick and buttery.

Finish -- That sherry funk sticks to the innards and doesn't leave for some time.  It has those plums and prunes, along with the chocolate mints, some fudge and a pinch of salt.  It gets sweeter and maltier than the palate.

Water doesn't make a damned dent in it.

I'll have some more comments below, but this is a big malty beast.  And, honestly, it's a bit challenging in its intensity.  More on this later...

Johnnie Walker Black Label (bottled in 2011) - 40%

This has been my go-to Scotch at bars since...well, since bars.  I've purchased its minis to take with me on trips or to include in Taste Offs.  I've had two bottles given to me as gifts.  But for all the praise I've lavished on Black Label, I have never purchased a 750mL bottle of it.  And now I never will.  This is the first of the Diageo brands I am discarding.

Color -- Johnnie Walker (seriously, it's probably patented)

Nose -- Honey, apples, a mild cheese, vanilla, and black cherry soda.  Less smoke here than on the palate.  It's a little bready.  Maybe some clay.  After some time the mild sherry shows up with all of its dried fruits in tow.

Palate -- More peated than the last time I drank it.  There's a little sharpness and sourness to the grains. It's mildly sweet, think simple syrup and molasses.  Between the black pepper, peat, and smoke it's almost savory.

Finish -- Black pepper, whipped cream, more peat than smoke.  The bread note returns.  Some drying tannins kick in.

Nose -- Leather notes arise, along with a lot of caramel sauce.  The sherry quiets down.

Palate -- More savory and herbal.  Softer, very morish.  The sharpness and sourness are gone, leaving a pleasant sweetness.  Caramel and peat.  One of the few blends that improves with water.

Finish -- The same as when served neatly, though perhaps a little briefer and not as dry.

It's still my favorite blended scotch, though Bank Note will have no trouble wearing its crown.

Johnnie Walker Double Black (2012?) - 40%

Despite my enjoyment of JW's Black and Green Labels, I have had little to no interest in this new addition to the Johnnie Walker range.  I've even had retailers tell me it's less than exciting.  The official marketing of it spins a story of it being like Black, but with more smoke (likely due to a larger quantity of Caol Ila among the malts) and more barrel char.  Yet, I have a sense memory of Black Label having once been smokier -- or has my palate shifted?  Also, Serge Valentin and Dominic Roskrow have expressed their approval of it.  So maybe this could stand up to the old and new Black Label...

Color -- Johnnie Walker (not doubly black)

Nose -- Candied balloon rubber.  Cotton candy peat.  Brown sugar and cinnamon.  Hint o' mint.  Less of the sherry, in fact not much oak.  Not much malt either?

Palate -- Lighter in texture and tone than JWBL.  Sweetness, sourness, and sharpness are all dialed down to focus on the light peating.  A little BBQ -- think bacon and burnt hay, maybe charred beef.  With time some more ash and sugar cubes seem to appear.  As the texture is thinner than JWBL, it feels like the easiest drinker of these three.

Finish -- The most muted of the three, as it fades quickly.  Some BBQ, some sugar, ash, and echoes of the peat.

Nose -- The barbecued meat finds its way to the nose, along with caramel.

Palate -- Salt and pepper.  Something like dried basil or thyme.  Otherwise pretty similar.

Finish -- More sweetness here, otherwise similar but even quieter.

It offends the least, but in this instance that's not a strength.  Makes me want to drink some Caol Ila instead.

The old Black Label does not resemble either of the two modern blends whatsoever.  This may be due to the following factors:

1.) Paxarette - Until it was banned in the 1980s by the SWA, a dense syrupy grape-must-laden Sherry called Paxarette was secretly (or not so-secretly) added to reused casks in order to spruce them up and add a stronger flavor element to the malt whisky within.  Also since American oak was cheaper and more prevalent than Spanish oak, Pax was added to ex-bourbon casks in order to quickly turn them into Sherry casks.  This may account for some of the complaints that sherry-aged whisky doesn't hold up as well as it used to.  Perhaps the Pax had helped.  But now it's banned while industrial caramel colorant is not.

2.) Old Bottle Effect (OBE), especially the dusty, metallic notes.  Plus all that rich sherry stank (really that's the only word I have for it after three months and one liter consumed) must be influenced by being locked up in a bottle for 30+ years.

3.) Now-defunct distilleries' malts in the mix.  Could Convalmore, Glen Albyn, Glen Mohr, Brora, Banff, Coleburn, Port Ellen, Glenesk, Dallas Dhu, Glenury Royal, Millburn, Glenlochy, North Port, Pittyvaich, St. Magdalene, Coleburn, or Rosebank malt be in there?  Man, even typing that list made me sad.

4.) A very different recipe.  This is so much maltier than any JW label -- save Green (R.I.P.).  And it's much more sherried too.  Old bottle effect aside, this was definitely highly sherried in its original creation.  More folks were drinking sherry back then, thus palates were more familiar with sherry, and sherry casks were more plentiful (also see factor #1).  I'm wondering if some of the grain whisky was casked in ex-sherries too.

[One more thing of note.  Examining the old bottle carefully, one will notice not a single mention of an age statement.  The original Black Label (first called "Old Highland Whisky") came with a guarantee of "Over 12 Years Old".  Sometime in the 1950s that guarantee was removed from the label.  It came back onto labels the 1980s.  I've gone through all of my whisky books and online resources, but I'm not sure if the removal of the age statement was due to the addition of younger whisky (any help here would be appreciated!).  But, if anything, this NAS Black Label has the texture, scent, and palate of something significantly more mature than the current 12 year old Black Label.]

Meanwhile, the two current blends are light and brisk compared to the old one.  The oldie puts up a fight with its metallics and mold.  While the current ones are ready to drink upon pouring as if they were engineered that way.  Like a true product.  The oldie is a roughie, not seeming like it's a conglomerate's carefully controlled property.  It may offend.  Today, most Diageo products are designed not to.

The thing is, even considering the above paragraph, I like the current Black Label product; sort of like how your healthy friends still crave McDonald's fries.  Both are mass marketed consumable goods designed to please.  And it works for me.

Meanwhile, Double Black is decent but there are better blends at better prices.  I can buy both Burn Stewart's Black Bottle (never mind, Black Bottle is hideous) and AD Rattray's Bank Note together for less expense than one bottle of Double Black.  What it does do, as I mentioned above, is make me want some Caol Ila single malt instead.

What strikes me as most odd is the pricing of Double Black higher than Black Label, sometimes at a $15 premium.  I haven't found a reasonable defense for it.  It's not richer, thicker, bolder, or more sophisticated.  There doesn't seem to be more malt, and if there was a higher malt content that would certainly be a marketing point.  It almost certainly has younger malt; if not, then they would be touting an age statement.

I guess Diageo wants it to seem more expensive......by making it more expensive.  And the box does have some more design detail to it.  The bottle IS blacker.  And there's the word "Double" in the name.  But......?

So that's it for Johnnie Walker and I.  Splitsville.  Double Black didn't tempt me.  My feelings about their other two newest labels have been previously posted here.  Red Label can be topped by most blends in its price range (excepting Dewars).  Gold Label went out with a whimper.  Green Label has been silenced.  And I'm not paying $200 for Blue Label when some of the best single malts in the world can be had for less than half that price.

It's been a good fifteen years, Black Label.  Now off with you.  Go steal the heart of yet another dictator in an "emerging market".

Johnnie Walker Black Label (late '70s)

Availability - My whisky cabinet
Pricing - ?
Rating - 87

Johnnie Walker Black Label (current)

Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $28-$40
Rating - 88

Johnnie Walker Double Black Label

Availability - Most liquor retailers
Pricing - $40-$50
Rating - 80

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Storm

After experiencing the loss of someone close to you, what follows is partially about healing, but also largely about learning and adapting.  Healing has a connotation of mending so that one can get back to the life before the injury.  But there is no full return.  After a loss, one learns many things about oneself -- feelings, thoughts, and ideas, but mostly feelings -- he or she would never have otherwise known.  Then after the learning, one takes the experience and merges it with the life going forward.

Some people experience pure grief.  Others postpone it so that they may forget about themselves and help those who suffer.  Some people go back to work in order to maintain some level of equilibrium.  Ultimately we all feel things at different speeds and in different colors.

Three months ago, I posted a short piece called "Awake" announcing on this blog that we were pregnant with our first child.  I have since regretted that post deeply, because I now have to write this follow-up.

We lost the pregnancy and our little boy with it.

It's been a difficult year, probably the most difficult one I've faced in my first three and a half decades.  My health has not been its best.  Our home has been (mostly figuratively) polluted by our neighbors.  My job has become insufferable.  I have spent over 500 hours on the road going to and from work over the past 9 months.  I've seen dozens of drunk drivers swerving all over the freeway first thing in the morning.  I have seen housepets with their eyes torn out and beheaded on a Tuesday, crushed by gardening equipment on a Wednesday, flailing to death after being run over by a truck on Thursday.

It's safe to say that I have retreated from society a bit.  I have gotten even worse at returning emails and calls, for I which I am very sorry because the only lightness I have found is in the people I have met.  From doctor's offices, to operating rooms, to supermarkets, to restaurants, to living rooms, the people in my life are the best part.  And I am thankful for them.

This blog, with all of its whisky posts, has been a welcome distraction.  If it ever becomes too much of a distraction, I will openly address it.  But for now, it allows me to fixate on something I enjoy.  The next two whisky reports (one this week, one next week) will be bittersweet because they were the pregnancy celebratory whiskies.  I will be retiring them from my life with those posts.

I feel very conflicted writing this post.  This blog was originally intended to be about my personal journeys, not just about one particular amber restorative.  Yet the 200+ whisky posts have brought an audience much wider than my local friends and family.  Thus many of you don't actually know me.  And here I am disclosing private things; wounds, scars, and all.  Come for the whisky, stay for the despair?  No, if you're here for the booze, thank you.  Just think of this as a bit of additional perspective to my thoughts on the next two whisky posts.

If you're here just to be here, thank you.  I still intend to post non-whisky things someday soon, but for now, this is all I can focus on.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Peatin' Meetin' 2013

I am not someone who goes to $500/ticket whisky extravaganzas.  I am secure enough to know those fall far outside of my financial means.  Nor do I go to $150/ticket whisky fetes, because often the peripheral travel, transport, and lodging expenses build up to that $500 price tag.

But I do go to Peatin' Meetin'.  I went last year, I'm going this year, and I look forward to next year's bash.  The concept is simple: peated whiskies and peated barbecue.  And the whisky, oh the whisky.  Gallons of it.  Stuff I've never tried, stuff I've wanted to try, stuff I can't try anywhere else.  Moreover the people who run it, my fellow LA Scotch Club members (led by Andy Smith), are great folks who know whisky and love whisky.

That's me on the left looking severely more beefcake than I have any right to be. (source)
This year is going to be the biggest Meetin' yet.  And it's not just due to the peated beer, peated side dishes, or the Peat Monster.  There are TON more exhibitors than last year:

Ardbeg, Arran, Balvenie, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Chieftain's, Connemara, Douglas Laing, InBev, Impex, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ledaig, Lost Spirits, Samaroli, Seven Grand, Single Cask Nation, Smokehead, and more.

(I had a great time last year when there were a handful of exhibitors, so this year proves to be CRAZY.)

There will even be a piper: Lorne Cousin of Glenfiddich fame, in fact.  And there will be two live bands present to tear it up.  A pair of modern additions for this year: a smartphone app and......um......shade.

I may even be found behind the tables pouring drams for other people.  Not the old "one for you, one for me", because that would be one short night.  This is the one whisky event I've been looking forward to all year and I want to remember (or at least document) it all.

This stash above was from last year's event and did not include the goodies the exhibitors brought.  This year will be BIGGER.  More malt, more peat.

As an attendee, the first word that should float through your mind (after "HOLY S***") is STRATEGY.  Seriously, you must make a game plan, then drink to it.  It is easy to overindulge quickly when presented with such a bounty.  But you don't want to be nuzzling the soil before Hour One is done.  Strategy.

Here's my post after last year's event (wherein I consistently misspell Peatin') providing a short rundown of each of my whisky choices.  While there were a couple bottles I wished I'd tried, I am comfortable in saying that 13 whiskies was not only enough to fully satisfy, but also surprise me, romance me, and introduce me to a distillery that has since become my favorite.  And I left in one piece.  And woke up the next morning without a killer hangover.  Some may say I didn't try hard enough.  No one will be able to say that this year.

Peatin' Meetin' V unveils itself on Saturday, June 29th at 5:30 at the UCLA (go Bruins!) Sunset Canyon Recreational Center.  Here's the link to the website for more information.  If you're in town, I hope to see you there!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Single Malt Report: Isle of Jura Superstition

Onto another Scottish Isle: Jura, Islay's northern neighbor.  The single distillery on Jura opened for production back in 1810.  After passing through at least four separate owners, it was then closed and dismantled in 1901.  Fifty-nine years later, Charles Mackinlay & Co rebuilt and expanded the distillery, then restarted production by 1963.  Through another handful of corporate buyouts and restructuring, the distillery came under the ownership of United Spirits (the largest alcoholic beverage company in India) in 2007.

There has been a real dearth of United Spirits whiskys on this blog for a mix of reasons.  Their Whyte & Mackay blend has yet to make to the US even after so many years.  Dalmore's zany pricing and agressive push into the ultra-luxury market leaves a worse aftertaste than does their current 12yr single malt.  It's difficult to find much Fettercairn in The States and no one yet has convinced me to shed my cash for even a sample of it.  And then there's Jura, a dram that's usually just okay.  I used to like their 10 year quite a bit, but my two most recent attempts at it brought me back to that "just okay" response.

I wanted to give one of their more interesting bottlings a chance here before much more time passes.  Why worry about time?  Well, guess who now holds the largest ownership in United Spirits?  Diageo.  But let's not let Diageo piddle on this parade yet.

Richard Paterson (Whyte & Mackay Master Blender and genuine whisky celeb) and his Jura team start with a dose of Jura's peated malt (which also makes up their Prophecy bottling) then add various older casks.  The peated (at a healthy 55ppm, though this amount is disputed) malt is likely young since no age is provided, though Jura is happy to let us know that it makes up 13% of the final Superstition product.  Superstitious!  Meanwhile the older whiskys are between 13 and 21 years old.  Superstitious! And Blackjack!

I jest in jest.  What it actually is is a lightly peated NAS whisky chillfiltered, colored, and bottled at 43%.  But as part of modern whisky marketing, it is given a character and a story.  And though that story references the superstitious nature of the Jura people, the Egyptian key of life is emblazoned on the front of the whisky bottle.

But is the whisky any good?
What a slinky bottle!
DistilleryIsle of Jura Distillery
Type: Single Malt
Ownership: United Spirits Ltd
Age: NAS peated malt mixed with 13 to 21 year old non-peated malt
Maturation: ex-Bourbon casks
Region: Isle of Jura, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Chillfiltered? Yes
Colored? Yes

Sampled neatly from a 30mL sample

Color -- Very rosy gold

Nose -- It's at its best towards the beginning of the glass: Cherry liqueur, cantaloupe, and veggie peat.  With time the veg note gets a bit astringent.  Not gassy, but quite sharp.  There's some milky coffee, dry sherry, and cranberries mixed in.  At its worst: chlorine meets pencil lead and sour milk.  Time does it no favors.

Palate -- More smoke than peat.  Butter and notebook paper, a little earthy.  It gets MUCH sweeter with time in the glass.  It reminds me of a blend but with more hoppy bitterness and malt sugar.  Seems very young.

Finish -- Vanilla smoke with bitter burnt coffee grounds.  Lightly sour, but very sweet.  That bitter note grows and grows.  The smoke lingers along with some cayenne pepper.

I'll lead with a positive thought.  I'm actually curious to try their straight-up peated whisky, Prophecy.  Its phenolic content measures higher than that of Ardbeg, Longrow, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig's regular whiskys.

But about this Superstition...  I'm not sure where those older casks are hiding because this tastes like a young blend.  Not a bad blend.   But when I tried it side-by-side with the five-year-old Bank Note (an actual blend, btw), the Note felt both fuller and subtler with better oak interaction.  And maltier too for that matter, but that could just be my tastebuds' interpretation.

The nose is like Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, sorta all over the place.  The finish has many of the elements that should appeal -- vanilla, earthiness, pepper -- but it just sweets-up and bitters-out big time.  Even the reddish color seems odd coming from ex-Bourbon casks.  Well, not that odd if the color is getting a chemical boost.

Wow, this turned out to be a much longer report than I'd thought, as my tasting notes were very brief on this one.  I'll depart by encouraging the curious to seek out a 50mL mini of Superstition rather than going in on a whole bottle blind.  Perhaps you'll discover the positive side as Ian Buxton has or maybe you'll side more with Andy Smith.  I'm with Andy on this one.

Availability - Some liquor specialists
Pricing - $40-$55
Rating - 72

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Single Malt Report: Arran 10 year old

Until very recently, I didn't know much about the Arran Distillery, other than the following:
1.) It's located on the Isle of Arran.
2.) It's a new distillery, opened in 1995.
3.) Their distributor's local rep is very cool.
4.) The Arran 14 year old is delicious and their 15yr single sherry cask isn't half bad, either.

And that was about it.  Here's some more useful information from Charles MacLean's Whiskypedia:
The Isle of Arran Distillery was the brain-child of Harold Currie, former Managing Director of Chivas Brothers and later of Campbell Distillers.  Some money was raised by a novel 'bond-holder' scheme which invited subscribers to invest by guaranteeing them a certain amount of whisky -- five cases of blended whisky in 1998, five cases of Arran Founder's Reserve in 2001, all for 450GBP. The distillery, which stands above the picturesque village and sea loch of Lochranza, opened in 1995.
I love that setup.  Ten cases of whisky for 450GBP?!  In addition to helping support a brand new small distillery, you're getting $6-$12 a bottle of brand new mystery booze.

With his background in Speyside malt production, Currie went with a whisky closer in nature to that fruity type than some of the other isles' styles.  And he opened his facility at the perfect time to catch a piece of this current whisky boom.  In addition to the 10 and 14 year olds, there's an NAS "Robbie Burns" single malt, a good number of single cask releases, some wine-finished bottlings, a peated Machrie Moor, and a limited (and pricey) new 16 year old.

A few stores in LA have minis of the Arran 10yr in stock, so finding a taste of it wasn't much trouble.  I really wish other whisky producers would go the mini route in the US.  As you'll see in this post, the sale of this mini will likely lead to the sale of at least one 750mL bottle.

Distillery: Isle of Arran Distillery
Type: Single Malt
Ownership: Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd.
Age: minimum 10 years
Maturation: 70% second-fill sherry casks, 30% a mix of ex-bourbon and first-fill sherry casks
Region: Isle of Arran, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No.
Colored? No.

Color -- Light gold (what refill-sherry-cask-matured whisky actually looks like)

Nose -- Malty! Lightly spiced with a hint of dried stone fruits. Yeast, lots of grains, bready.  Vanilla, Werther's Originals, very light on the wine, and a little bit of a maritime note too.  After some time there's melon or tropical fruit juice along with a bit of anise.

Palate -- Bready here too. The ABV and lack of filtration gives it a good zing and a creamy texture.  Some citrus, vanilla, and American oak char.  Maybe even some bourbon, but almost no sherry.  Butter and hay.

Finish -- The vanilla picks up some force here.  Salt and cracked black peppercorns.  Some gin-like herbal notes show up after awhile along with a little bitterness.

Sugary fruit juice (cherries and peaches) develops in the nose.  Brown sugar, cinnamon, and grapefruit join the barley in the palate.  The finish gets much drier.

I appreciate Arran's approach with this whisky, similarly to how I enjoy Glen Garioch's 12 year old -- bottled at a higher strength with no filtration and fashioned so that the malt shines.  According to Dominic Roskrow's 1001 Whiskies, 70% of this malt is aged in second-fill sherry casks with the rest a mix of former bourbon barrels and first-fill sherries.  What impresses my nose and palate is that the wine takes a distant backseat to the oak and spirit -- that's the very reason I prefer refill-sherry-maturation to first fills.

Finally, it's priced in Laphroaig 10yr territory.  While the fact that young malts are being priced at $45 stinks, consider Arran runs a much smaller operation and keeps more whisky in its whisky than most others in this price range.  Or maybe you can just grab a mini when you find one and see if Arran 10yr suits your needs.

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $35-$50
Rating - 87

Friday, June 7, 2013

Whisky Storage: The Samples

I used to store my samples in these:

They work quite well, though you'll need to make your own dividers if you don't want samples bumping into each other.  In order to keep my bottles separated, I fashioned a number of grid-like dividers out of the cardboard boxes Amazon would ship these Snap-N-Stores in.

I had a few boxes of these and enjoyed them a lot.  Made me look all organized and stuff.  But then, last month, an alternative presented itself.

When the Long Beach Antique Market makes its monthly stop near our home, Kristen has been known to peruse it and find some great vintage furniture and decor at decent prices.  I join her, partially for some fresh air, partially to search for baseball cards that I will never buy, partially to look for old nudie mags that I (um) will never buy, partially for a big plastic cup of beer.  Without fail, I usually wind up going through sellers' tchotchkes more than she does.  But this time, I found these:

And these:

My ammunition boxes:


and stored...

...but not until after all the boxes were wiped down and thoroughly sanded.  Don't want to get a splinter under a fingernail when I reach for a Springbank sample.  This new sample storage serves me so well, I almost like it more than the whisky inside.  Almost.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Single Malt Report: Ardbeg Uigeadail versus Ardbeg Uigeadail

Product: Uigeadail
Type: Single Malt
Ownership: Glenmorangie Plc (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy)
Age: unknown other than a mix of young stuff and old stuff
Maturation: ex-oloroso (35-45%) and ex-bourbon (remainder)
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 54.2%

An intro

A little over ten years ago, Glenmorangie plc (now LVMH), the new owner of the Ardbeg distillery, was faced with a whisky challenge.  Due to a pair of closings in the '80s and '90s, Ardbeg didn't yet have a consistent library of annual malts to pull from.  In release, they had a ten year (which was sometimes older than ten years), a seventeen year (which was often older than seventeen years), and some well-aged bottlings from the 1970s.  At hand, they had very young malt from their own production, begun in 1997, and much older casks from the previous ownership.  A solution was reached: create a whisky that combined the old sherry-wood-aged whisky with the young ex-bourbon oak whisky.  It was dubbed Uigeadail, named after one of the local water sources, and released to the public in 2003.

Uigeadail was met with raves.  Year after year, batch after batch, people enjoyed the grace from the old malt and the power from the new malt.

But recently, over the past two years, some of the raves have quieted.  Some have even become gripes. In anorak circles online (forums, Facebook, Twitter), some have declared that recent batches have been disappointing.  These fans felt like they were experiencing a great whisky's fall from grace.

We all knew it couldn't always remain the same.  Eventually Ardbeg was going to run out of that old malt, or salvage the better old casks for exclusive exorbitantly-priced single cask editions.  Also, the new malt was going to evolve as the new ownership worked through the kinks of their production.  Cask technology was changing -- for better or worse, depending on one's perspective -- and the demand for whisky was booming.  Wasn't change inevitable?  And if so, we can only wonder what sort of cask experiments are being used to simulate or supplement the old stuff...

Bottle codes

Every bottle of whisky contains some sort of code printed on it by its packaging facility.  Ardbeg bottles have specific codes that have become something that most collectors eye carefully.

The first part of the code begins with an L, then the numbers follow.  First there's a number that denotes the year.  For Uigeadail it'll be a 3 through 13 (and counting).  The next three digits denote the day of the year, 001 through 365 (or 366).  Then the time is shown.  And finally, three digits representing the bottling facility.

To illustrate, here are the bottle codes for the two whiskys I'm reporting on today:

(from 2006)
L6 242 00:22 4ML

(from 2012)
L12 012 15:44 5ML

Often when referring to Uigeadails, fans will refer to them by their bottling code year, like L9 or L10.  The heyday, the supposed cream of the Uigeadail crop, are the L3s through the L9s.  L10s are still well regarded.  But the L11s have received complaints, as have the L12s.  (Side note: I saw an L13 in a liquor store the other day.)

2006 versus 2012

I've been following the critiques with some interest because I've enjoyed Uigeadail every time I've had it.  Though, since I've never purchased my own bottle, I wasn't certain which years (or Ls) I'd been trying. The rave review I gave Uigeadail last year was likely from an L10 or L11.  But I can't be sure.  Could the old ones really be that much better?

I was able to get my grubby mitts on drams of an L6 and an L12.  Something old, something new.

Personal bias

I came to this tasting with a great fondess for Uigeadail's nose.  It's one of my favorites.  I like to call the whisky Oogy, Oogs, The Oog, or El Oogerino (if I'm not into the whole brevity thing).  While Corryvreckan (Corry, we're on a first name basis) is my favorite Ardbeg, I refer to Oogy as Corry's sexy sister.  She's prettier and smells like soused happiness.  (Corry, on the otherhand, is pale and smells like a peated tirefire.)

I wanted to use this opportunity to try to see where the critiques were coming from.  And I wanted to find out what the Old Oogy fuss was all about.

This report going to look different than the usual Taste Off since I'm detailing them side-by-side:

The whisky on the left is......okay, so I took the picture backwards.  Here let's flip the pic:

Okay, so, the whisky on the left (near the small sample bottle) is from bottle code: L6 242 00:22 4ML.  It was bottled in 2006.  Going forward I'm calling it L6.

The whisky on the right, near the 50mL mini, is from bottle code: L12 012 15:44 5ML.  It was bottled in 2012, so I'll be calling it L12.

Let's drink.

L6 - A solid dark gold, unbroken by any highlights
L12 - Noticeably darker, a reddish brown

L6 - Unspeakably rich; there are some scents I can't place, but I'm going to try. Wood smoke with cinnamon and cardamom spices right up front.  Then: honeyed peat, shoe leather & polish, and a touch of vanilla beans.  With time there are golden raisins in molasses, sweat, cherry syrup, camphor candles, dried mango, and loquats (which are delicious).

L12 - Has some of the same elements as the L6 but at different volumes and different orders.  It leads with farmy notes from the peat, some ham, and a good whiff of cinnamon vanilla cake.  There are also molasses chews, fig newtons, lemon zest, balsamic vinegar, and fennel.  A big noticeable difference is the prevalence of the familiar sherry note of raisins and prunes......at a level I tend to find in younger sherry malts as opposed to older sherry malts

L6 - A pile of charred meat with a basket of fresh fruit in the background.  A candied campfire or toffee pudding next to a bonfire.  Cinnamon sticks in hot cocoa, black pepper, smoked almonds, melon, an industrial oily note, with some brief bitterness.  It's a tremendous merging of malt and cask.  A solid singular statement.

L12 - Very direct peat at the start, and much sweeter.  White fruits, red berries, toffee and brown sugar. More obvious sherry notes again and more of an ethyl bite.  Sweet tobacco (shisha), dry red wine, and a mild bitterness.

L6 - The candied campfire returns...  Level upon level of char... ... ... ... sorry got lost... Very sticky, honey-dipped fresh peaches and cantaloupe.

L12 - A little briefer but still bold and long, more drying, mostly peat and smoke.  It actually has a second wind, bringing out shisha, swimming pool chlorine, and a sour lemon tang.

It's probably no secret which one I enjoyed more.  While the L12 is an excellent dram to pair with some bread pudding by the fire on a rainy night, the L6 is Miles Davis's trumpet on Kind of Blue.  It's Grace Kelly's face in Rear Window.  The L6 is a beautiful experience.  And I was thankful to have had it.

It's a damn shame Uigeadail is no longer at That Level.  Because the L12 has more immediate sherry notes and a riper bite of both peat and alcohol, I wouldn't doubt if there's a lot more young stuff in the mix than there used to be, including some young sherry-matured malt.

While I can still find it for under $60, I'll try to get a bottle......though if I can find an older one, that would be preferred.  It does sound as if we may be seeing some LVMH price increases in 2014.  If The Oog blasts into the $70+ range, then I'd find it difficult recommending it at that price.  Should we doubt that it'll reach $80 in the next two years?  Nope, unless Uigeadail is retired for a different product, which I don't see them doing.  So again, we whisky lovers will be paying more without gaining anything.

As I said recently on a tweet, L12 is very good, but L6 is gorgeous.  If you can find the old stuff (and can afford the "collector" premium) grab it.  In the meantime, the newer Uigeadails make for a very good desserty sherry peated malt for a cold and rainy winter.

Ardbeg Uigeadail L6
Availability - Scarce
Pricing - Whatever the seller asks for
Rating - 96

Ardbeg Uigeadail L12
Availability - Most liquor specialty retailers
Pricing - At $60, hooray!  At $75+, boo.
Rating - 90

For a different perspective, see Chemistry of the Cocktail for his post, also published today!