...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Some whisky updates and oh yeah I'm going to be live-blogging during the Super Bowl

1.  Not going to bury the lede here.  I was going to live-tweet during the Super Bowl, but realized live-tweeting is just a form of forced aggression.  My six twitter followers would have to keep seeing unfunny half-thoughts firing into their feed 60+ times in a three-hour period.  With live-blogging, a reader can choose when or if he/she wants to read my garbage.  Plus, I have the option to delete the whole post in case things go terribly wrong.

This will probably be the last Super Bowl I watch.  I missed thirteen in a row (XXXI-XLIII) when I didn't have cable, but really didn't miss a thing.  I've also been watching A LOT of football during these last three years.  Too many wasted Sundays watching people bludgeon the f*** out of each other in the hopes of witnessing a half second of derring-do.  Rules being instituted to try to curb life-crippling injuries cause issues with the gameplay itself and lead to other injuries because the sport is violent.  It's not bowling.  And it would also be nice if retired players (whom have helped make the NFL billions of dollars) received a little bit of long term healthcare assistance to deal with their broken bodies.  Both the league and the union have failed in this regard, and I feel ethical nausea watching it play out live in front of me.  But please know I'll be commenting on the gameplay as much as possible, I will check my ethics at the door.

And I love hating on advertising.  And I love hating on Sports Journalism Reporting Time-Filler Parasitic Flatulence; I hope you haven't wasted any of your life reading anything about gametime weather, Manning's legacy, Richard Sherman talking, Marshawn Lynch not talking, or the 12th Man (which won't be attending the game); do people really get paid for that "reporting"?  And I love hating on Joe Buck.

And there will be beverages, and profanity, and plenty of parasitic flatulence (for free).

I'm rooting for Denver.  But if I were a betting man, I would be taking Seattle (+2.5) and the over.

2.  I would to thank everyone for checking out my Whisky Consumer Advocacy post.  I appreciate the discussion that continues to follow.  There wasn't a single challenge from anyone in the hashtag-Whisky-Fabric community itself.  So I'm just going to assume that they were all incredibly humbled by words and will endeavor towards a higher level of ethics in the blogosphere and the whisky industry as a whole.  But if I were a betting man...

3.  Chemistry of the Cocktail posted a positive review of The Eagle Morning last Friday!  Please know that it only cost Jordan two ounces of his secret bottle of Malt Mill.

I'm thankful for all the feedback on The Eagle Morning.  There's a second full bottle of it in the cabinet.  I'd be happy to share it during swaps -- but I have to put swaps on hold for a few months because I don't have much stuff open!

And, yes, the cask is currently filled with another experiment.  It's one much less sexy than the previous two, but I really hope it winds up tasting good.

4.  You've probably heard this elsewhere, but The Angel's Share is now available for streaming on Netflix.  While one could carp about the fact that it seems like two films forced into one, both "films" are very good in their own way.  As the lead, Paul Brannigan's performance helps the script realize its intense emotional stakes.  It's a bit startling to witness comedy in a Ken Loach film, but it's also very welcome because the man continues to depict working class grit like no else.  Did I mention there's lots of whisky involved?  Keep an ear open for my favorite tasting note of all time.

5.  Finally, the full page view of the The Big Whisk(e)y List now has filters.  If Google Drive wasn't such a pain in the arse, there would be more sortable stuff.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Wild Turkey Rare Breed Straight Bourbon Whiskey

The last of this week's bourbons costs as much as the previous two combined, but can still be found for under $40.  (Damn, I wish I could say the same thing about single malts.)  Like the OGD114, it's a bourbon brand owned by (Ye Gods!) an non-American company.  Yep, Wild Turkey is owned by Gruppo Campari, proprietor of Skyy Vodka, Campari(!), Appleton Estate Rum, Irish Mist, Aperol, and the Glen Grant distillery.

Their Rare Breed bourbon is a mix of six-, eight-, and twelve-year-old straight bourbons and bottled at what they call "barrel proof" in small-ish batches.  I have an issue with a piece of their terminology, that "barrel proof" part.  We see a similar descriptor in Scotch whisky: "Cask Strength".  Often times the label "Cask Strength" just means that the whisky was bottled at a higher alcohol proof than normal whisky releases.  How do we know this?  Well, major "cask strength" releases like Glenfarclas 105, Ardbeg Corryvrecken, and Ardbeg Uigeadail are always released at the same exact ABV every year.  That alcohol content consistency sounds pretty darned magical considering the hundreds and thousands of casks they've mixed together over the years to design these products, meanwhile maintaining a similar character throughout.  The same amazing coincidence occurs with Rare Breed.  Wild Turkey makes different batches of Rare Breed each year, but unlike Laphroaig Cask Strength whose ABV varies from batch to batch, WTRB just happens to hit the same exact 54.1% every time.

Look, a lot of companies push the cask strength / barrel strength half-truths on their products.  The only reason why I'm prodding Wild Turkey here is because they actually continue to spin the story on their website, saying Rare Breed "has no added water to lower the proof or dilute the flavor after it’s been distilled."  After it has been distilled.  That is not even remotely unique.  But what they neglect to include is the fact that water is added to reduce the bourbon's ABV once it's out of the barrel and before it is bottled.  Thus the whiskey in the bottle is not at the same proof as it was in the barrels.

I actually like this whiskey, but I find the use of the "barrel proof" designation and the attempt to explain it in a tricky manner to be a little silly.  Okay, enough with all the bitching.  Time for some drinking.

If you squint, you'll see that this a mini (purchased during my last visit to Arizona).  It's shaped similarly to the full-sized bottle, thin at the top, sloping shoulders, and sort of pudgy around the sides.  What the mini does not include is the batch number.  What I was able to glean from the printed code is that the mini was bottled in December 2010.  Here's what a 750mL bottle looks like:

Owner: Gruppo Campari
Brand: Wild Turkey
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distillery
Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Mash Bill: around 13% rye (probably)
Age: a mix of 6, 8, and 12 year old bourbons
ABV: 54.1% ABV
Bottle year: 2010

Its color is dark gold.  Pine needles and tree sap are the nose's most prominent notes.  There's an earthiness that mingles well with caramel candy and granulated sugar.  There's also a bit of a black cherry syrup note floating around almonds; some young armangnac too.  Men's cologne and new carpet odors swirl around in the background.  In the palate there's a solid rye bite, milk chocolate, whole wheat bread crust, and cherry Sudafed meets cherry liqueur.  Something like saline and antiseptic show up occasionally.  A corny note and some amaretto bring up the rear.  The cherry flavoring appears again in the finish.  More rye, corn syrup, and Heath Bar.  It's mild and shortish considering its strength and age.  Slightly dry and woody.

The nose grows more candied.  More vanilla, milk chocolate, and caramel.  Still some pine, and now the saline.  The palate gets woodier and sweeter.  Vanilla and sweet tobacco.  The pine starts to appear here as well.  The finish is sticky sweet.  Lots of corn and wood.

The nose can be a lot of fun and much more challenging than the palate.  It's all more enjoyable when neat, but water doesn't kill it.  The finish is disappointing considering all the character that comes before it.

What I like about Rare Breed is that it establishes itself as more unique in character than most of the bourbons I've tried recently.  Though I have little interest in buying a bottle of my own, I will say that it's more complex than most single malt Scotch at its price range.  But that's more of stab at the price of Scotch than anything else.

While Rare Breed is bolder and more fulfilling than Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, the question arises: Is the addition of some 12yo whiskey and a 3.6 point boost in ABV worth paying a 100% premium?  That I cannot answer "yes" with full confidence.  If you're interested, what I do recommend is seeking out a 50mL mini as they can be found at many specialty liquor stores.  They're just a few bucks and they'll help you decide if you want to spring for the full thing.

Availability - Most liquor specialty retailers
Pricing - $3-$4 for 50mL; for the current batch: $35-$45 (750mL)
Rating - 83

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Old Taylor 6 year old Straight Bourbon Whiskey (1996 bottling)

I was doing some dusty hunting a couple weeks ago and spotted an old looking Old Taylor 200mL bottle on a shelf.  I turned it over to find the glass bottle's production year and thought I saw what appeared to be an '86'.  Holy moley, I thought, I've found a National Distillers era Old Taylor.  And it was $3.89.  Sold.

The following week I did some snooping around online and noticed that the label really didn't look like the National Distillers Old Taylors.  In fact it looked much like the current one.  After further staring and staring and staring, I realized the number was a '96'.

So what the heck does all that mean?

Like the Old Grand-Dad brand from yesterday's report, Old Taylor bourbon used to be owned by National Distillers.  Along with OGD and a number of other brands, Beam Inc (Fortune Brands) bought Old Taylor in 1987.  At that point, the production moved to Beam's Clermont plant using the standard-rye Beam mash bill.  In 2009, Buffalo Trace bought the brand from Beam.

The Old Taylor 6yo (OT6) distilled by National Distillers is well liked by many bourbon geeks who say that it was a big butterscotch bomb.  And, according to one fellow from Straightbourbon who quoted Michael Jackson (the whisky one), during the bourbon glut in the '80s OT6 was actually 10-11 years old.  Thus my glee when I thought I had a 1986 bottle.  Thus my tempered glee when I realized I had a 6yo Beam.

I really do not like Beam White Label (four years old) and I sorta tolerate Beam Black Label (eight years old) when on a plane.  But I do like this Old Taylor...

...which makes me wonder if Beam's current distillation and maturation processes have changed since 1989/1990.  Or perhaps they were still adding extra older stuff into the mix in the mid-90s.

As you may know, my palate is much more familiar (and happier) with single malt whiskies so this is a continuation of my bourbon education.  But let's give it a go anyway.

Owner: Beam, Inc. at time of bottling, but now owned by Sazerac
Brand: Old Taylor
Distillery: Jim Beam Distillery
Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Mash Bill: Standard 15% rye (probably)
Age: minimum 6 years old
ABV: 40% ABV
Bottle year: 1996

The color is a medium gold.  It looks a little watery and light.  The nose starts with a very rich vanilla bean blanket covering corn chips and black cherry syrup.  It's a little yeasty and bready at times.  Then there's more corn, as in corn meal and grilled cob.  With some air, a load of caramel notes develop along with butterscotch bread pudding.  It always smells like it's going to be sweet, but actually the palate remains very mild.  It's completely inoffensive.  Lots of whipped cream, vanilla, and caramel sauce.  There's a brief floral puff and a light vegetal note.  The finish is very short and mostly matches the palate.  Maybe a hint of bitterness and sawdust added in.

There it is.  A mild, light bourbon without any of the ugly off notes of Beam White and Black.  There's not much to it, but what there is is good.  I was (and am) a little shocked by how much I liked it, even going a second round without notes just to make sure.

It has none of the stamina or structure of OGD114.  It can't take water or club soda.  Its finish is non-existent.  And if you're looking for complexity, you need to go elsewhere.  But, I'd be happy to buy a bottle of this for the house bourbon.  I should match this up with Evan Williams to see who wins at this price point.

DISCLAIMER TIME:  I cannot say if the current version of OT6 is similar to this one.  In fact, I sincerely doubt it.  Even though Buffalo Trace / Sazerac owns the brand, the bourbon is still coming from Beam.  And as I mentioned above, the current Beam White and Beam Black are undrinkable compared to this.  Thus the current bottles of Old Taylor 6yo are likely to be very similar to White and Black.  IF you're interested in trying OT6, keep an eye open for the 200mL bottles.  They should be around $4 (and thus cheaper than a bar pour) at some corner liquor stores.  Before buying the bottle, take a look at the bottom and see if you can spot a two digit number beginning with '8' or '9'.  That will tell you the bottle's year.  If you find one with an older label, then that's probably made with National Distillers juice and seems to be recommended often by bourbon dorks.  Meanwhile, the current version is generally disliked.

Wow, that disclaimer was longer than my tasting notes.  I'm just trying to cover my bourbon butt in case someone buys a new bottle and proclaims that it's sh*t and it's all my fault.  Anyway, how the hell do I rate this?

Availability - More so in the Midwest, less so in the East and West
Pricing - $4-$5 for 200mL; for the current version $12-$15 (750mL), $18-20 (1L)
Rating - 80  (if it had any sort of finish it would be at least an 83)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NOT Single Malt Report: Old Grand-Dad 114 Straight Bourbon Whiskey

I was going to review a pair of Ardbegs this week, but I'm pushing them a couple weeks down the line.  Since it's the week before the Super Bowl -- seemingly the American-est week of the year -- I'd like to review a few bourbons, all of which are much cheaper than anything Ardbeg puts out.

Today, it's Old Grand-Dad 114, one of the most affordable high proof whiskies on the market.  Beam Inc., now owned by Suntory, distills and produces the Old Grand-Dad (heretofore shortened to OGD) line.  The range includes the regular OGD, OGD Bottled in Bond (BIB), and OGD 114, rising in proof (80 or 86, 100, 114) and price ($15, $20, $25 approx.).  They all utilize the same high-rye mash bill that Beam uses for (the more expensive) Basil Hayden straight bourbon and for good reason.  Mr. Basil Hayden was the old granddad himself and a distiller who preferred a higher rye content in his mash.

Some history in a snapshot (much of it courtesy of Chuck Cowdery):
1796 - Basil Hayden moves to Bardstown, Kentucky from Maryland.
1882 - Old Grand-Dad distillery is built, overseen by Basil's grandson Raymond Hayden.
1885 - Raymond passes away.  Distillery purchased by the Barber Family.
1899 - Distillery sells to the Wathen family.
1920-1933 - During Prohibition, OGD and many other distilleries are consolidated into American Medicinal Spirits.
1934 - American Medicinal Spirits is sold to National Distillers. The brand is re-released but the distillery is never reopened.  Instead the spirit is distilled at K. Taylor Distillers.
1987 - Fortune Brands purchases OGD, along with a number of other National Distillers brands, moving the distillation to their own facilities.
2011 - Fortune Brands is split up, its spirits division named Beam Inc.
2014 - Suntory purchases Beam Inc.  Much xenophobia ensues.
About 15 months ago, I reviewed OGD BIB.  I wasn't impressed by its flavor, though I liked its nose, and the bourbon made for a decent Old Fashioned.  Otherwise, I really couldn't recommend it.  Ever since then I've been pondering purchasing a bottle of the OGD 114 blindly because the price was so darned reasonable.  But luckily for me, my friend Florin supplied me with a sample to test it out first.

Owner: Beam, Inc.
Brand: Old Grand-Dad
Distillery: Booker Noe Plant
Location: Boston, Kentucky
Mash Bill: High rye, 30% rye
Age: NAS (It's not young. It's not old. I'm not helpful.)
ABV: 57% ABV

I tried it neatly, then reduced it to 50% ABV, then reduced to 43% ABV.

The color is an orangey dark gold.  The nose leads with charred oak, bark, and artificially-flavored maple syrup.  Then lemon peel, corn syrup, and vanilla.  There's lots of young spirity stuff like chlorine and ethyl in there.  After some time, a baked banana + caramel + cayenne pepper note arose.  But overall, sawdust seems to be its main characteristic.  The palate is warm, but not as hot as one would anticipate from such a high proof.  Lots of corn syrup is backed by toffee, milk chocolate, and fresh cherries.  There's also a little bit of salt and some peppery rye spice.  It finishes with lots of caramel and Corn Pops.  Then black pepper, sawdust, and barrel char.

REDUCED TO 50% (modeled after OGD BIB)
The nose smells like a rear end, and not a clean one.  Then some buttery (yes I said buttery) oak, white fruits (mostly apple), varnish, and sawdust.  The palate is pleasant and mellow.  All toasty grains, caramel sauce, and barrel char.  The finish is brief and mostly just that barrel char.

REDUCED TO 43% (modeled after OGD)
The nose is all caramel, corn syrup, oak pulp, and marshmallows.  The palate is lightly sweet and lightly bitter.  Corn and oak.  It finishes briefer and a little dry.  Oak and banana.

Firstly, I was impressed by how flexible the whiskey was.  I don't think I've had a bourbon that withstood so much added water and still came out flavorful.  Ignoring the quirky nose at the 50%ABV level, there were times that I preferred the lower ABVs.  It doesn't have much character at 43%, but makes for very easy pain-free drinking.

While I like the 114 much more than the BIB, nothing about it knocked me over.  I kept waiting for some more rye character to show up, but all I found was a little bit of pepper here and there.  The dominant sawdust note might be a turnoff to some folks, but I didn't mind it much.  So the bourbon neither sins nor shines.  But, again, its flexibility is a big plus for me, so I'd still order it at a bar as long as its price isn't out of whack.  Speaking of price, the bottle still costs about as much as it did five years ago.  I hope it holds...

(For another take, see Chemistry of the Cocktail's review.  Jordan's OGD 114 experience held much more rye-ness than mine.)

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $22-$30
Rating - 80

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Single Malt Report: Lagavulin 12 year old Cask Strength (2011 release)

Tuesday - Lagavulin 16 year old
Wednesday - Lagavulin 1991 Distillers Edition
Today - Lagavulin 12 year old Cask Strength (2011 release)

In what is possibly this site's final Lagavulin report, I present you with my favorite from their range...

Each year, Diageo presents to the whisky world their "Special Releases".  Amongst the old Broras and Port Ellens, whose MSRPs are exponentially increasing, sits the comparatively modestly priced annual Lagavulin 12 year old.  Sorry, that was a lot adverbs and adjectives.  Diageo makes me verbose.

Let's keep it short.  I've had the Lagavulin 12 release on a number of occasions, all of which were very positive.  It was nice to be able to buy a sample of the 2011 version from Master of Malt so I could officially dig in.

Please note: there are batch differences between each year's release.

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: THEM!  :-\
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Maturation: former bourbon casks, possibly lots of refills
Age: minimum 12 years
Release date: 2011
Chill-filtration? No
Caramel coloring? No much, if any
Alcohol by Volume: 57.5%

The color is pee.  My favorite whisky color.  It gives me hope that the oak levels are low and the e150a colorant is at a minimum.  The nose starts with peated sugar cookies, followed by a load of aromatic herb notes (fennel, anise, licorice) reminiscent of my other favorite distilled spirit (dubbed "The Mistress").  Then plaster, vanilla beans, bread pudding, butterscotch make up the midground.  The beach is in the background.  The palate delivers one of my favorite peat volleys.  Just a big dry chunk of peat moss.  Hints of vanilla and butter and lemon cake.  A light sweetness, like a little light brown sugar.  Then a little salt and a little savory to go with a honey & orange peel sting.  It finishes very clean and fresh with a menthol glow.  A little cracked pepper and mint leaves.  Grass clippings drying in the sun.  Some salt, along with that peat brick.

The nose gets maltier.  The peat goes a little farmy.  A little more oak, but not much more.  Menthol, lemon peel, pen ink(?), and soil.  The palate gets grassy, drier, and tarter.  A nice bitterness.  Walnuts and almonds.  Earthiness, bitterness, and moss in the finish.

Oh dear.  Great whisky, steep price, ugly company.  The quandary.  That's what I thought about last night while enjoying this sample.

Looking past the troublesome details, I'd say, "WOW! Go get it, peatheads!"

Bringing in the expense, I'd say, "Wow!  Go get it, peatheads with a lot of discretionary income."

Taking everything into consideration, I say, "Fabulous liquid, a shame about everything else."

Availability - Specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - (for Lagavulin 12s in general) $85-$100 East Coast, $110-$125 West Coast
Rating - 92

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Single Malt Report: Lagavulin 1991 Distillers Edition

Onto the whisky in the middle, Lagavulin 1991 Distillers Edition, a sample purchased from Master of Malt two years ago to the week!

There's no secret about the sherry presence in this whisky.  With its annual Classic Malts Distillers Editions, Diageo throws a whisky bone to its customers by releasing wine cask finished versions of its most popular single malts.  As they're somewhat limited, they carry a higher price tag, meanwhile their actual quality (when compared to the regular releases) is debatable.  But again, these releases do expand the somewhat narrow ranges of the Big D's "Classic Malts".

[On a grammatical note, where the hell are the apostrophes on the "Distillers Edition" appellations? Is it Distiller's or Distillers'?  I mean, it's a possessive.  The editions are for, to, of, or by the distillers.  Right?  Diageo?  Words?]

As you may have read in previous posts, I'm not the biggest fan of wine cask finishes, especially the sort of brief sherry work done on the DEs.  But since I've been tinkering around with my own finished whiskies at home, I've been trying to keep an open mind and maybe learn a thing or two.  I've tried two more recent Lagavulin DEs and found them......okay.  Absent was the Lagavulin thunder, present was a lot of PX (Pedro Ximenez sherry) sweetness that elbowed out everything else.  But those tries were in social settings.  This one was in my usual hermetic setup.

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: THEM!  :)
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Maturation & Age: approximately 16 years in ex-bourbon casks, then less than a year in former Pedro Ximenez sherry casks
Chill-filtration? Yep
Caramel coloring? Probably
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

To make things a little confusing, there were two releases of Lag 1991 DE: one in 2007 (4/495) and one in 2008 (4/496).  Because this sample was still available to buy in 2012, I'm leaning towards it being from the 2008 bottles.  But at the same time, I doubt that it sat in the casks for an entire additional year, as it seems like a little bit of an odd unplanned risk by the normally profit-hungry ownership.  Instead, my thought is that it was done in a second batch of bottling shortly after the first.  I could be wrong about all of this, but Serge has reviewed both bottlings and given them the same score and SGP number.  If anyone has any further information, please let me know and I'll update this paragraph.  Cheers!  Now onto the tasting.

The color is maroon mahogany.  Lots of fruity sherry on the nose, showing up as both fresh and dried fruits.  Fresh and dried cherries, plums and prunes, black grapes and raisins.  There are also some Heath Bar, corn chip, and rum-filled milk chocolate notes.  Lagavulin's spirit takes a seat waaaaaaaay in the back.  Often the peat doesn't even peek out from under the PX blanket.  But it does appear in the palate.  More moss than smoke.  The smoke that does show is a polite wood smoke.  After some air, the whisky releases a big floral burst.  And then maybe some orange zest.  It's a bit tart and very drying.  More action seems to happen in the finish as chocolate, flower blossoms, prunes, caramel sauce, and another whisper of wood smoke arrive.

The nose gets much quieter even with just a couple drops of water.  Fewer fresh fruits, more dried ones (especially prunes).  Some malt finally shows up, which is nice, but so does a garbage pail full of rotting fruit, which is not as nice.  The palate is similar to the neat one, maybe a little hotter along with some young-seeming wood pulp notes.  Otherwise, raisins and prunes register the loudest.  The finish is brief, but still aromatic with more sweet sherry.

Unlike the regular 16 year old, this one doesn't swim well.  So I recommend leaving water out of it.

I didn't mind this finished whisky that much, but I also found it sort of uneventful.  Dark chocolate was brought out as an accompaniment -- as per many online recommendations -- but the two flavors didn't dance well.  (Glenfarclas remains my favorite sherried-whisky partner for chocolate.)  Even though the whisky was from five years ago, sample oxidation did not appear to be a factor since the sealed bottle was fuller than many of my more recent MoM samples.

There are a lot of sweet sherried whiskies on the market, many of which are considerably cheaper than this one, so sherry fans have a lot of other options.  Some peat-heads may be a little bored with it, so I can't recommend it to all of them, either.  I think the sherry is much better integrated than Glenmorangie's Lasanta and more brings with it more character than Bowmore 15.  But at the same time, I prefer Laphroaig's Triple Wood because, even though its cask work is very aggressive, I can still get a reasonable hit of the distillery's character.  Of course, much of these comparisons aren't entirely fair because Lagavulin is using a completely different sherry.

I don't want to make it look like I dislike this whisky.  It's good.  The nose and finish are very good, when neat.  You're going to have to like some sweet sherry in your whisky and not expect a ton of Lagavulin phenolics.  Anticipate subtlety, not fireworks.

For more positive opinions see Serge's reviews or John Hansell's; for a moderate opinion see Jim Murray's in his Whisky Biblio; for a mix of takes see the LAWS reviews.

Availability - Specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - (for Lagavulin DEs in general) $90-$130, another wide range
Rating - 83

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Single Malt Report: Lagavulin 16 year old

Yes, I've made it this far without reviewing any official Lagavulins.  But now, to celebrate the 250th whisky reviewed on Diving for Pearls, I bust out a threesome of 'Vulins.

Today, #250 will be Lagavulin 16 year old.  Sample courtesy of Florin!

I will admit here that I have never owned a bottle of Lagavulin 16.  Instead I've only enjoyed it via other people's generosity or via buying a pour at a bar (back when it wasn't $20 a pop).  This wasn't due to any preference against Lagavulin.  I really didn't go peat moss crazy until 4 or 5 years ago, and then in the past three years I've been reducing my Diageo product patronage to zero.  But Lagavulin 16 is always of a reliable quality.  Some reviewers deem it an all-time classic like Highland Park 18.

Yet many of those same reviewers will admit that Lagavulin 16 has undergone some changes over the past decade.  Some years were deemed a little grittier and rawer, other years sweeter, other years oakier, other years smokier, other years sherrier.  We all have our palate sensitivities, but there may be something to the more recent claims of changes.  Around nine years ago, Lagavulin cask maturation moved from Islay to mainland Scotland, thus perhaps temperature, humidity, and climate differences in warehouses resulted in shifts in character.  In 1997, the distillery ramped up production to meet with increased demand, so starting with the most recent bottlings you may be drinking whisky from stills that were pushed harder than they were in the past.  (Here are some links with some of these discussions: WhiskyMag forum chain, WhiskyWhiskyWhiksy chain, Driscoll, David OG.)

This sample came to me in 2012, so it's from spirit distilled before Lagavulin distillery changed their processes.  I will say there is definitely some sherry lurking within...

Distillery: Lagavulin
Owner: THEM!  :)
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Maturation: likely a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks
Age: minimum 16 years
Chill-filtration? Yep
Caramel coloring? Yep
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The color is DiageoGold™.  I always found some sort of cinnamon thing going on in Lag16's nose, and happily it showed up on cue with this sample, this time reading as cinnamon sticks.  There's more peat moss here than in the palate, and it's joined by creme brûlée and vanilla pudding.  Then there's some Super Ball rubber and grapefruit, along with a little bit of sherry and golden raisins.  After 20+ minutes of air, much more citrus shows up.  It gets sugary and mossier.  Some caramel sauce as well.  The palate leads with boat diesel exhaust and charred fish.  The loch's on fire!  Then comes honey, wood smoke, and a veggie note that's not dissimilar to sautéed kale.  Maybe a little black pepper (though it's no Talisker) and pencils.  Very tannic on the tongue.  The finish is sweeter than the palate.  Smoke and charred meat, along with a tart candy tingle.  It's long-lasting considering the ABV and filtration, but its make up is mostly smoke.

(A thing of note: I finally bought a glass eye-dropper.  Previously, I'd been using small spoons to apply water to whisky.  But now I'll never go back.)
With just a few drops of water the whisky undergoes one heck of a transition.  In the nose there's a flood of sherry notes.  Oloroso sherry, dark dried fruits, cherries, and milk chocolate.  The cinnamon sticks are still there.  New notes of sawdust and leather couch.  But the more water drops, the more sherry shows up.  The palate gets much sweeter and meaty.  Sugar, caramel, and oranges.  It's still smoky, but the moss element grows as does some bitterness.  It finishes very tartly and dry.  Smoke, coffee grounds, and dark chocolate.

This is very good whisky.  If new and future bottlings do change, I hope it is not for the worse.  I may not wish the best for Diageo, but I don't like seeing whiskies lose their mojo due to financial decisions.  If you're a peated single malt lover and haven't tried Lagavulin 16 yet, then I'd recommend doing so.  If you can find it at a bar for $15-or-less, I'd suggest trying it that way rather than forking out larger sums for a blind bottle buy.  Maybe you'll fall in lust with it as many have or maybe you'll stay with your current favorites.

As for me, I find it of similar quality to younger official versions of its neighbors, Laphroaig and Ardbeg.  And it actually isn't that much of a step above Caol Ila 12.  I think the watering down, coloration, and filtration prevents a proper presentation to what should be a gorgeous middle-aged Islay.  (And may I be the 10,000th person to request a 46%ABV NCF version?)  But as I said before, it's still very good.  Quality and bold character still sneak through all of Diageo's manipulation.  And the fun shift that added water brought gives it a couple extra points in my book.  I can't promise there will be any sherry notes in future bottles nor do I have any idea how loud the peat will shout.  But hopefully it remains recognizably Lagavulin.

Availability - Most larger liquor retailers; also Costco has good deals once in while
Pricing - $65-$100, yes it's that wide of a swing
Rating - 88

Friday, January 17, 2014

'Phroaig Phriday: Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength Batch 005

Okay, maybe one more report this week.  Since there was a Laphroaig last Friday, I'll do another one today.  This time it's even a current bottling.  WOW!

I like Laphroaig's batches of 10 year old CS.  They bottle a new round every year and each tends to be pretty solid.  I reviewed batch 002 way back in the day (almost two whole years ago) and was very taken by the multi-layered finish.

No matter how many bottles Laphroaig churns out of the 10yo CS, it's often very hard to come by via European retailers.  Meanwhile, here in The States it appears to be easier to get, but the price rises $5 to $10 with each new batch.  In California, the price is climbing close to $80.  But last month, while traveling with my in-laws in Upstate New York, I found a bottle for $57.  And promptly grabbed it.  This review is from my bottle.  Not the top of the bottle, rather a few drinks down the shoulder.

I don't have a bottle pic as the bottle currently resides 3000+ miles away, so I'll have to go with an official one.

Distillery: Laphroaig
Owner: Beam, Inc. (who have their own new owners...)
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels
Age: minimum 10 years
Batch: 005, Feb 2013
Chill-filtration? No
Caramel colored? Probably not
Alcohol by Volume: 57.2%

The color is apple juice gold.  The first thing about the nose that strikes me is all of the rich American oak, much more than I remember there being in previous batches.  It's not off-kilter or new-ish oak (like in yesterday's report).  Instead it's a series of notes -- vanilla beans, coconut cream, and sawdust -- that are firmly integrated with the matured spirit notes.  There's very fruity honeyed peat that shifts to peat moss after several minutes.  Whole cloves, star anise, and dried cherries bundled in a burlap sack.  An occasional whiff of wood smoke too.  Lots of burnt stuff in the palate, from peat cigarettes to barrel char to wood ashes.  Some baking chocolate bitterness and hot tar.  A very intense herbal blast; not cooking herbs, but rather something more medicinal.  That note carries right into the finish and meets with sea salt and fresh seaweed.  Charred fish.  Something I can only describe as tangy tar.  It's extensive and very drying.

The burnt peat and cigarettes meet with some fresh apples in the nose.  Then grapefruits and cherry lollipops.  The beach, including sand and rotting seaweed.  The peat is more prominent now, the oak lessened.  The palate is lightly bitter, lightly creamy, and lightly floral.  There's the peat cigarette smoke and some orange and lemon rind.  It gets more candied with time.  The finish is also lightly bitter.  Some lingering smoke and a growing sweetness.

I read two reviews online in which the writers said they'd found sherry notes in this whisky.  I think what they'd experienced is the very rich oak imparting bold (not buttery) characteristics, maybe even some dried fruit.  This is indeed the oakiest of the Laphroaig 10yo CSes I've tried, the earlier batches being more nude and raw.

From what I've gathered from reading reviews by anoraks who have been drinking longer than I've been alive, this oak prevalence is becoming the new style almost across the industry.  When the oak is done well, it does add some richness to the whisky.  When it's done poorly, it's pretty awful.  The complaints by the older drinkers somewhat match my own: the added oak notes come at the expense of the actual malt spirit character.

I think ramping up the cask influence (via recharring, switching casks, warehouse climate adjustment, and increased knowledge about the oak itself) is easier and cheaper to do than improving the distillate.  If the company in charge of the distillery wants to make more product for less expense, then barley strains are going to be chosen for the amount of alcohol that can be squeezed out of each grain, yeast will be chosen for its activity, and still heating will be changed to cheaper less labor intensive means.  This will result in less expensive production processes, but it will also have an effect on the nose, palate, and texture of the resulting product.  And that's where the oak comes in to help bring more life into the whisky, or sometimes to artificially speed up the maturation.

All of that being said, I do like this batch of Laphroaig CS.  It's different than earlier versions, noticeably more decorated on the nose, but the oak plays well with the spirit.  If you prefer a brawnier Laphroaig zap, then I recommend going with an earlier batch (if you can find it).  I haven't had batch 004, but I do know that 001-003 are more raw than 005.  I hope that helps and I hope you find it at a good price.

Availability - Specialty retailers, though more available in the US than Europe
Pricing - $60-$85 (US), much higher in Europe
Rating - 87 (score dropped to 85 in a subsequent review)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Single Malt Report: Aberlour 13 year old 2000 Exclusive Malts (K&L exclusive)

Okay, I've gotta get a review in before this week slips away whiskyless.  What a shame that would be.

Four weeks ago, I posted a life-of-the-bottle report on the K&L exclusive Bowmore 2002 from Exclusive Malts.  It was an odd whisky with its malt overwhelmed by aggressive (and occasionally off-putting) oak.  That whisky wasn't a complete loss.  With lots of air and a little bit of water, it's decent.  But compared to the rest of the often excellent indie ex-bourbon cask Bowmores I've tried, it didn't fare well.

Released last year, that Bowmore is one of four single malts bottled by The Creative Whisky Company and sold exclusively through K&L Wine Merchants.  The other three, all very much in stock, are Fettercairn, "Island Distillery", and Aberlour.  My friend Florin (who also had issues with the Bowmore) sent me a sample of the Aberlour from his own bottle.

Aberlour's official bottlings are well known for a considerable ex-sherry cask influence.  In order to get a clear sense of what their malt tastes like without sherry, one often has to go to independent bottlings.  I'm not the biggest fan of the Aberlour's OBs.  That has its root in an awful awful bottle of the 10 year old, purchased and quickly handed off seven years ago.  But I have tried two indie ex-bourbon cask Aberlours and enjoyed them both.  One of those whiskies was another 2000 vintage from Exclusive Malts, a 12 year old released in the US in 2012.  So, though hesitant to buy my own bottle of the K&L whisky, I looked forward to giving the sample a try.  Thanks, Florin, for this opportunity!

Distillery: Aberlour
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co. Ltd.
Series: The Exclusive Malts
Retailer: K&L only
Age: June 2000 - 2013 (13 years)
Maturation: "Oak Casks" (American oak in this case)
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 55.1%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

The color is a medium gold.  The nose is just loaded with honey.  As a citrus note edges in, it reminds me of orange blossom honey.  But the nose is also very woody, similar to the Bowmore but less punishing.  Sometimes it's a little piney, sometimes it smells a little green (if that makes any sense).  Then there's some cardamom, dried ginger, and Juicy Fruit gum.  After some time, a touch of varnish shows up, then some anise and a hint of papaya.  At times it smells little blend-ish when it doles out a big chunk of lightly-spiced vanilla.  The palate is a little unusual so please pardon these weird notes as I'd tried to capture it.  At first there are nuts (peanuts & almonds), salt water taffy, lots of butter, a chocolate/caramel/tobacco hybrid, and shortbread cookies.  The butteriness mixes with the chocolate/caramel/tobacco thing, then out bursts some very young malt spirit followed by a considerable push of burned oak.  It's not off-putting but it is unbalanced.  The prevalence of butter, caramel, and actual charred wood point towards a cask that's overwhelming the malt.  Lots of oak in the finish as well.  Some of that young spirit too.  Lots of nuts.  Plenty of alcohol sting but narrow in content otherwise.

WITH WATER (approx. 43% ABV)
Honey, barrel char, caramel, and cardamom lead the nose.  Some pine needles and butter.  The papaya hint still sticks around, along with a floral (blossoms, not perfume) note.  The palate is more pleasant.  Very caramelly, nutty, and sugary.  Seems to get maltier too, and has a nice spicy zing.  The finish is briefer, but the malt shows well.  It's sweet and a little grassy.  Some of that spice and vanilla.  And then at the very very end (like 45 minutes into the process) a dried leaves in caramel sauce note appears.  That was my favorite part.

I'll start with the good aspects.  The nose is enjoyable with or without water.  But I definitely recommend adding water here.  While it causes the whisky to lose some complexity, it helps out by making both the nose and palate more pleasant and less oaky.

But there is still so much oak showing up in every corner of this whisky.  It almost seems as if they'd used virgin oak casks.  But at the same time, the whisky releases volleys of very young distillate.  So it's somehow both oaky and young, and usually not in balance.  It made me wonder what the whisky would be like had it been left to age another few years......in a different cask.

The Bowmore had similar issues, but the Aberlour's are easier to navigate and modulate.  The Aberlour makes for easier drinking -- and that comes from someone who usually prefers peated whisky.

The price on the Aberlour is very reasonable in the current market.  In fact, it's 25%-30% cheaper than the Exclusive Malts Aberlour from 2012.  Personally, I have no interest in buying a bottle, but I'd drink it again.  Meanwhile, I'll be on the lookout for other indie ex-bourbon cask Aberlours.

Availability - K&L Wines
Pricing - $64.99
Rating - 82

Monday, January 13, 2014

NEEDED: Whisky Consumer Advocacy

I began 2013 as a fawning fan of all things whisky.  I ended the year angry.  Much of the latter part of the year I spent internalizing way too much frustration.  But I'm not keeping quiet this year because when it comes to whisky, though the liquid is fun much of the rest is not.

There’s a lot being written about whisky both online and in print.  Most of it ultimately serves as promotional material for large corporations.  Even when the crustiest and most cynical of us bloggers write, “Hey, this is pretty good” about a whisky, we’re helping get more bottles sold.  But saying something nice about something we like isn’t the problem.  The issue at hand is the widespread regurgitation and propagation of marketing material at the expense of factual information and independence.  Plenty of folks are writing to support the whisky industry, but how many are considering the readers and consumers?

Let’s take a step back for a sec.  There are many categories of people writing about whisky, each with different influences in play.

Firstly, we have independent bottlers, like Single Cask Nation and Caskstrength.  Then we have retailers, like K&L Wines, who also occasionally do their own independent bottling.  These first two groups have a vested interest in sales.  That’s their income, it’s their job.  As long as they clearly disclose to their readership their involvement with the industry, then it is up to the reader to consider how much that involvement influences the writers' reviews or opinions on the business.

Next, there are the paid writers.  Their numbers are few.  Paid writing gigs are difficult to come by in any industry and whisky is no exception.  Sometimes these (mostly) men publish books, but more frequently they write articles for a handful of whisky journals.  While books don’t require outright advertising by whiskymakers in their pages, the journals do.  Those print ads can be the cause of healthy skepticism in a reader.  On one page he will see an advertisement for Glenmorangie, then five pages later a loving article about Master Morangie Bill Lumsden, then twelve pages later a rave review of the newest limited edition GlenMo.  While I don’t believe writers are being forced to sculpt their content, journals (and books) will have a difficult time being published if the industry that creates their subject matter experiences a steep decline or is no longer deemed exciting.  So while the writers may not purposely write things to keep the industry zooming along, it is in the publishers’ interest that whisky revenues barrel ahead.

Finally, there’s the vast blogosphere.  There are hundreds of us writing and posting tasting notes.  Some of us have direct connections to the industry, most of us have none.  Some of us get free review samples directly from the companies, most of us do not.  Some of us shmooze industry types, some of us attend free tastings, some of us resell our bottles in the secondary market.  Some of us do none of those things.  But those things we do, those social or financial choices, must be disclosed to our readerships in order to give everyone what he or she needs in order to consume our content in an informed fashion.

Three months ago, MAO from My Annoying Opinions critiqued the blogging community both privately in the Whisky Bloggers Facebook group and publicly on his blog.  He challenged us by saying that all of our warm “fuzzy” buddy-buddy-ness with each other, and with whisky professionals, had created a “(soft) corruption”, and that any sort of “spirit of critique” no longer existed.  He was roundly shouted down and labeled a “troll”.  Perhaps people took issue with his tone, as he minces no words.  Perhaps people were very comfortable in their give-and-receive whisky lifestyle.  Perhaps people felt like they and their friends were being criticized as human beings.  Unfortunately the one blogger who answered the challenge and attempted some public self-deconstruction took all the heat for sins that have been more heavily exploited by others.  The discussion turned absolutist and staunchly partisan and ultimately everyone went back to his and her Twitter Tastings.  MAO's original reasonable point was left neglected, and I was left concerned that most of us couldn’t bear to spare any meditation on the matter.

Those who say that blogging is merely a masturbatory endeavor are either deluded, in denial, or protecting something.  Only masturbation is masturbatory.  Once your blog post is "published" an audience other than you, the author, reads it.  Sometimes it is three people.  Sometimes it is 300,000.  Your words appear on someone else's screen and exist in that person's life.

People buy bottles of whisky after they read our reviews.  Yes, even some of my readers have purchased things influenced by something I’ve written.  Even I, a reader who hates buying blind, have bought things after seeing a number of positive reviews by bloggers I like.  Whisky is getting very expensive and there’s a whole lot of marketing blather out there, so folks are looking for reviews that appear at least somewhat independent.

I’ll frame that last paragraph another way.  For those bloggers who are posting reviews of whisky provided directly from brand ambassadors or other industry employees, please disclose in your review that the whisky was provided directly from a brand ambassador or another industry employee.  And even more importantly, I urge you to consider your readers when writing a final assessment of that free whisky, because that whisky you received for free is not free to your readers.

If you’re posting a 90-point/4.5-star/A-rated review about your free whisky and you yourself are not running out to buy a bottle of it with your own money, then I encourage you to tell your readers why.  Those folks inspired by your words will need to spend their own income to get that same whisky.

And to all bloggers, before you continue perpetuating popular whisky tales, go in and do some research.  Give us facts.  For instance, here's one issue: people writing extensively or repetitively that whisky prices are going up due to shortages caused by massive whisky sales over the last several years.  There are tables and PDFs available via the SWA and Shanken News Dailey and Drinks Business Review as well as other (often free) spirits news sites demonstrating that growth of volume sales has not risen consistently from year to year nor has volume growth been consistent across all brands.  I am not denying that whisky revenues have been up, nor that volume sales were very good in 2013.  Just give some numbers and facts before contributing to the scarcity fears stoked by companies that stand to profit off of fear-based purchasing and the resulting price bloat.  If your research supports the scarcity story, then that’s fine, give us the info.

I also encourage independent bloggers to challenge the industry when their tactics either mislead consumers or blur the truth.  There are the small things cropping up on a regular basis.  For instance, when "news" broke that Diageo will be releasing a new range of Mortlach single malt, it was revealed that the entry malt will be named Rare Old.  As an entry malt, a non-age-statement entry malt, it is almost certainly neither rare nor old.  But nonetheless they named it that and it is purported to be priced in the JW-Platinum-$90-range.  Or, how about the catalyst to my current discontent?  The Glenlivet Alpha.  There was an almost total lack of comment on the cynicism behind the abandon-all-ye-brains-and-wallets approach to the Alpha, a glorified version of the Nadurra but at thrice the price and with a lower ABV to match.  Rather, quite a portion of the blogosphere seemed to fall over itself to get a sample and encourage the mad rush to buy into a zero-disclosure ugly marketing stunt.  Meanwhile, the Rare Old and Alpha lead to another concern on a much larger scale: the growing spate of NAS releases means even less disclosure about what's inside the product consumers are buying.  Why should we not question the industry's fear of informed consumers?  If we don't question, then who will?

This is my plea for all of us to maintain a level of independence and keep our readers in mind.  I used to have 40+ blogs on my newsfeed.  Now I have 10, and a couple of those I keep on the feed just to piss me off.  Yes, whisky is a tremendous and glorious thing.  But not every whisky is tremendous and glorious and excellent and a rip-roaring rollercoaster thrill ride.  If every single review you write is about an amazing whisky, then I stopped reading your blog.  If you never site where you've sourced your whisky, then I stopped reading your blog.  If your blog actively encouraged scarcity fear, then I stopped reading your blog.  If your blog made generalizations that only served to benefit the industry, then I stopped reading your blog.  All it would have taken to keep this reader around would have been some background information about your whisky and some facts to back up your stories.  These elements lead me to believe you have thought about your readers before you clicked Publish.

So where the hell did this post come from?

Stop and consider for a moment what you value as a drinker and what the industry values.  Do those values match up?  As a whisky consumer, I would like good whisky I can buy.  Publicly-traded whisky producers would like to sell as much of a product at as high of a price and at as low of a cost as they can.  I don’t like paying more for less.  In order to satisfy their balance sheets and investors (which they value more than their employees, customers, and product quality), and to thus maintain rising growth, corporations need me to pay more for less.  You see how these things don’t really match up?

I believe many of the actual distillers and blending teams are working their tails off trying to create a product they can be proud of, often with ingredients of lessening quality.  But because most companies desire constant revenue growth above all else – thus all of the lawyers, lobbyists, and marketing divisions – selling a brand is what’s important.  So what if they lose a customer like me?  There are new malleable customers to be had, everywhere.  The lose-a-customer-gain-a-customer approach is not the best way to do business, but the tobacco industry got by on it for years.

If you think I’m a commie dick for my anti-corporate ravings, that’s fine.  You won’t be the first.  But at least think about your readers, your fellow drinkers.  There are enough mechanisms in place to support the whisky industry.  Why not recognize the rest of us, the humans?

Nothing we, the blogosphere, write exists in a vacuum.  Our rave reviews can sell bottles, which may eventually influence prices.  Our perpetuation of marketing blurbs (whether fact or myth) can sell bottles, which may eventually influence prices.  I doubt my little bloggie here has much influence on its own, but it is part of the larger blogosphere and sometimes contributes to The Whisky Talk.  In fact, I think half my readers are my fellow bloggers, which is why I wrote this.  Diving for Pearls has been far from exemplary in the past and should be held to the same standards I just wrote.  So here are some disclosures:
  • 96% of my reviews have been from sample swaps, sample purchases, gifts from friends outside the industry, or my own bottles.  The remaining percentage includes whiskies I’ve consumed at ambassador/rep-led free tastings.  As of the beginning of 2013, I stopped rating whiskies consumed at these events.  I will make an effort in every review to reference where the whisky came from.  If I don’t, please call my attention to it.
  • I do know a few brand ambassadors and distributor reps.  I say this not as “I’m kind of a big deal”, but instead there are a few folks from The Dreaded Industry whom I find cool to chat and drink with.  None of these people have requested any reviews of their products.
  • I actually wouldn’t mind working in the industry in some fashion.  In fact, I’ve snooped around about a few jobs.  But since I socialize and network terribly, that’s probably cost me some employment.  And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a couple things that potential employers wouldn’t be terribly excited about.
I would like to see a strong smart independent whisky blogosphere.  That would be fun.  I would also like some good whisky I can buy.  That would be fun too.  These are things within our reach.  So, let's all work to bring the fun back in 2014, okay?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Single Malt Report: Laphroaig 25 year old Cask Strength (2011)

Okay, so you weren't too impressed with yesterday's leadoff 2014 report?
Then it's time to bring in one of the big guns.

See, I have some goodies in the stash.
This sample, about 35+ mL, was gleaned from the groovy Laphroaig Vertical back in December 2012.  Remember, this one?

Photo courtesy of the great Bino Gopal
I escaped the event with a few samples, such as the 2012 Cairdeas Origin, and will review the remaining ones before 2014 is done.

Today, it's the 25 year old Cask Strength, 2011 version.  I wasn't sure what to expect of it, since my notes from the December 2012 tasting were a little on the esoteric side.  Jim Murray said this particular 25yo CS was "quite possibly the finest bottling of Laphroaig" he's yet had.  That actually doesn't mean much in reality since we each have our own palates; and his prefers LVMH products.  But I digress.  The regular Laphroaig 18 year old, which weighs in at a similar ABV (48%) is a little on the soft side in my opinion.  Meanwhile the 21 year old CS in the group photo above, the "Heathrow" bottling, is damn near erotic.

So I wasn't sure how this one would play, though I hoped it would taste like Laphroaig.

Filled past the brim, my sample bottle runneth over.
Distillery: Laphroaig
Age: minimum 25 years
Release Year: 2011
Chill-filtration? No
Caramel colored? Probably not
Alcohol by Volume: 48.6%

Firstly, the nose is a novel.  It starts with chalk, cocoa, and Armagnac.  Some sweat, then a very fruity peat.  Mentholated Calvados, papaya, muddled ripe peaches, and sticky confections.  Then at the 30 minute mark, there's this burst of Southern peaches in the summer; that ripe scent you can smell right through the stem.  Then caramel sauce and peach creamsicles.  At 50 minutes, there's some sugary citrus, toffee, cherry liqueur, grapefruit juice, and a hint of iodine.  So, yeah, the nose is alright.

The palate is leaner, but more focused.  There's so much peat moss it's ridiculous.  Somehow it withstood all that maturation time.  Then very rich cigar tobacco, dog fur, a hint of orange peel, baby powder, and jasmine flowers.  (Some of those descriptors I haven't actually tasted, but the flavor reads identical to the scent.  Though, dog fur?  Yum.)  After 40 minutes, here's comes the vanilla beans, orange candies, and peach crumble.  Fruity but not super sweet.

The finish is peat peat peat.  Some of the nose's tropical fruits show up, as do the dogs.  Caramel, a little bit of peach, charred pork, and camphor.  It's immense, tangy, and fragrant.

That fresh peach note in the nose is a stunner.  It teleported me back to July 2004 in DC, as I tore through peaches by the pound.  In the mouth, the peat radiates so much more than it does in the 18yo.  The cask combination in here is seamless; I can't tell where the oaks start and stop.

Now don't......don't look at the price for sec.  I know you just did.  Crap.  Now you see that Macallan isn't the only one charging a fortune for 25 year old non-limited official bottlings.  In Laphroaig's defense, at least they're bottling at a higher strength and it's a little cheaper.  And that's about it for any defending I'll do about the price.  Money aside, this is great whisky.  It's my favorite Laphroaig that I've reviewed here, so far.

(Please note: Laphroaig has released at least six batches of the 25yo.  This review only covers the 2011 edition.)

Availability - Specialty retailers on both sides of the Atlantic
Pricing - $450-$500 (US), $350-$450 (Europe, shipping not included)
Rating - 92

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Single Malt Report: Finlaggan Cask Strength


Yes, ladies and gents, I'm starting the year in style.  High proof Fin!  After reporting on the 40% ABV version of Finlaggan -- a malt best used for whisky hazing -- I discovered there was this 58% version being sold in Europe.  I was much too energized by this discovery.  What's better than a mouthful of dirty Fin, but a mouthful of hot cask strength dirty Fin!  [Note to self: Why does cask strength sound so similar to castrate?]  I almost bought a whole bottle, just because.  But then after the thrill wore off, I found out that Master of Malt was selling it by the 3cL sample.  A much wiser purchase.

As I mentioned in the Finlaggan Old Reserve report, the majority of folks who've postulated about its origin say that it's probably sourced from Lagavulin.  A smaller group thinks it's from Caol Ila.  Though Loch Finlaggan and Finlaggan Castle are located much closer to Caol Ila, I find little to no CI notes in the whisky.  Instead it seems much closer to the Kildalton malts down South.

Recently both Chemistry of the Cocktail and My Annoying Opinions did great writeups challenging the widespread belief that cask strength editions of whiskies are consistently better than the reduced editions of the same.  I really recommend you give them both a read.  They make a lot of great points and give us consumers something to think about.  But damn it, after reading those posts, I held this sample in my hand not sure whether this Cask Strength version of The Fin was going to be better or worse than the Old Reserve.
BottlerThe Vintage Malt Whisky Company
Style: Single Malt
Distillery: Lagavulin or Caol Ila
Maturation: probably refill ex-bourbon casks
Country: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 58%

The color is a medium amber with some light gold lingering around the corners.  The lightness of color gives me some hope due to what appears to be little to no caramel coloring.  The nose starts off with lots of pine sap.  And a bitterness, if one can actually smell bitterness.  Then dried apricots.  Quite some charred oak at the start but it disappears quickly.  On the whole, it is smoke free while the peat shows itself in that pine note.  There's also an odd but not off-putting synthetic plastic-like note, which actually grows as the oak recedes.  More air...  Nail polish, a hint of sulfur, and rye new make.  The palate is full of burnt.  Burnt grass, burnt hair, burnt barley.  Lots of mint.  A soft bitterness.  And more of that rye new make thing.  It finishes with charred peat and honey.  Maybe some grapefruit and yeast.  It gets ashier and bitterer with time.

Oxidation makes it grow younger.  And I mean REALLY young.  I haven't had much experience with malt new make, but I have had some rye and corn white dog, and I'm getting a lot of distillate in this whisky once it airs out.

Oh boy, a sewage note creeps into the nose.  Otherwise, more of the sharp piney peat.  More of the rye spirit.  Subtle stone fruits and dried lavender.  The palate remains lightly bitter.  The pine finds its way over here.  It's a little sweeter now with less of the burnt element.  A little smoke and some lemon rind.  The finish fades pretty quickly now.  Bitter peat moss, then a brief vague hint of the Old Reserve.

Adding water doesn't turn it into the Old Reserve, which plays well into Chemistry of the Cocktail's theory that different casks are used for CS releases versus reduced-ABV releases.

So is it better than the Old Reserve?  Yes.  Though that's not necessarily a big feat.  It does get a little soggy and slightly strange with added water, so I recommend it be tried neatly first.  The one element I noticed again and again is how much this felt like new make.  I've a had a few barely legal single malts before, but I'm not sure if any of them seemed this young, as in fresh off the still.

Even considering all that, it's less ugly and warped than the Old Reserve (nothing old or reserved about it), even though it thankfully hasn't been prettied up with oak manipulation.  Yet I wouldn't recommend anyone hurrying out to buy a bottle from Belgium.  Now let's see if I can find a sample of the 10-year-old Fin somewhere...

Availability - A few European retailers
Pricing - $60-$90, depending on shipping rates
Rating - 77