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Monday, October 13, 2014

Notes from a Tasting: Exclusive Casks from Total Wine & More

In February, David Stirk's Creative Whisky Company (CWC) released a series of single casks exclusively through Total Wine & More, via CWC's Exclusive Casks label.  On February 16th, Southern California Whiskey Club held an event that allowed folks to taste eight of the dozen or so Exclusive Casks.  I was unable to attend the event but was able to arrange getting samples of the eight single malts.  (Ethics note: I paid the event fee in order to receive these samples.)

Many of these bottlings are still available at Total Wine & More's California stores.  Unlike single casks sold exclusively at other California retailers, this set received nearly no hype online.  As you'll see below, I don't think my notes count as hype, but I don't think it would hurt to get some digital ink running in case you've been eyeing these chaps.  Due to the size of the samples I'll be using a grade range (as I did for the last tasting) rather than a number rating.

I sampled these 1/2 ouncers here at my dining room table, a pair at a time, over a two hour period.  During this tasting, two mysteries arose, one I can solve and one I cannot.

1. Invergordon Single Grain Whisky, 25 year old 1988.  378 bottles, 53.9% ABV
Color - Light amber
Nose - Light, bright vanilla. A little grassy. Chicken stock, anise, and orange juice.
Palate - All coconut and caramel.  Coconut flavored rum.  Very pungent though somewhat thinly textured.
Finish - More coconut! Then crème brûlée with a little sea salt. Lengthy.

Thoughts: The nose is the best part, substantial enough to almost fool one into thinking that it was a Lowland malt. How one feels about this whisky depends how one feels about coconut, both the real and artificial flavoring versions.  It was a bit too Malibu Rum for me.
Grade range: C+

2. Auchentoshan 13 year old 2000. 488 bottles, 53.6% ABV
Color - Pale amber
Nose -  Twizzlers, cheddar cheese, and hospital disinfectant.  Yep.  Kinda fleshy, new carpet, paint, cinnamon.  After a lot of air.....candy and puss.
Palate - Goes from sweet to grainy. Candy canes without mint.  Barley and notebook paper.  Coconuts again.
Finish - Supermarket cake frosting, cherry lollipops, very sweet. Gets weirder as it goes.

Thoughts: Here was the first mystery.  I've found many indie Auchentoshans to be weird -- there's an AD Rattray one that was all roots and clay, which I adored -- but this one is not my type of weird.  Here's the catch, the LAWS guys loved it.  But I don't recognize most of their notes.  Did something weird happen to my sample?
Grade range: C-

3. Glen Spey 11 year old 2002. 186 bottles, 56.7% ABV
Color - Light amber
Nose - All kinds of American oak and (relatedly) lots of butter.  Then butterscotch, black licorice, cardamom, and flower blossoms.
Palate - Pleasant, lightly sweet, lightly creamy.  Here's the oak again: vanilla, butter, and caramel.  A little meaty savoriness and sweet spices.
Finish - Geraniums. Salty and savory. Some tartness.

Thoughts: Could have been of interest if not for all of that aggressive oak.  This is a CWC song I've sung twice before (here and here).
Grade range: C+/B-

4. Ben Nevis 14 year old 1998. 258 bottles, 53.2% ABV
Color - Light gold
Nose - Leather. Very dry sherry, but a funky moldy old school sherry.  Or, is it finally time for this blog to use the ultimate snoot word......rancio?  Then bacon, hay, burnt grains, cardamom.  Then floral soap (but good!), industrial grease, and grapefruit peel.  Yes, that bizarre.
Palate - Strange and herbal.  Cannabis meets orange peel, and it gets more candied with time.  And there has to be peat in here -- at least Bowmore levels.  Very silky texture.
Finish - More peatiness. Light toffee sweetness. Hazelnuts and walnuts. Intensely herbal.

Thoughts: Wut?  Very very strange.  There's the moldy sherry, tons of herbs, the Springbank industrial character, and peat.  There's another review of this whisky online and it lists bourbony characteristics and no peat.  So, seriously, what the f**k?  How could this be a sample issue?  Thus this is mystery #2.  I know that some Ben Nevises have noticeable peating and I've smelled the industrial and bacon thing in the other Ben Nevis I've tried.  Also, this bottling is the most difficult to find of all of these eight as it has sold out at almost every Total Wine location.  Ben Nevis selling out quickly?  I can't be the only one who found this to his liking.  So I bought a bottle.
Grade range: B+/A-

5. Arran 16 year old 1997. 595 bottles, 51.2% ABV
Color - Rosy gold
Nose - Cleaner sherry than in the Ben Nevis, sticky toffee and chocolate. Toasted barley and almonds. Pine sap and beef jerky.
Palate - Perky malt shows through the sherry. Toffee and taffy. Peach and menthol. Medium sweetness. Creamy in texture and taste.
Finish - Sherry is subtle. Sugar and pepper. Marshmallow and peach.

Thoughts: I was happy that the sherry didn't choke out the malt, but nothing really superb occurs otherwise.  I prefer the younger official sherry cask I tried this year.
Grade range: B-/B

6. Bruichladdich 22 year old 1991. 222 bottles, 50.6% ABV
Color - Medium gold
Nose - Orange glaze, dried apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, golden raisins, pears......it keeps going......vanilla ice cream, pencils, and honey.  It's purdy.
Palate - Lightly floral, lightly citric, lightly vanilla-ed, lightly tropical fruit-ed, lightly buttery. Some shisha, too.
Finish - Apricots, vanilla, mild sugars, lychee, and bubblegum.

Thoughts: Prettiest of the bunch. Probably no real flaws, but after the lovely nose, the palate was sort of vague.  Also, please see my notes in the final paragraph about a potential issue.
Grade range: B/B+

7. Glen Garioch 23 year old 1989. 198 bottles, 54.1% ABV
Color - Amber
Nose - Pencils, dried grass and grains, light caramel. White fruits emerge after some time. Sugar cookies, subtle rubber and herbs.
Palate - Tons of barley, toasty and bready. A suggestion of peat smoke. Tart, salty, gets grassier and sweeter with time.
Finish - Smoke increases here, though more like wood or cigar smoke.  Mango and sugar.

Thoughts: Everything is very delicate. The finish is the best part.  The barley forwardness makes it feel more old school than most of these other malts.
Grade range: B

8. Bowmore 11 year old 2002. 596 bottles, 56.8% ABV
Color - Five beer piss
Nose - Stinky skunky peat encased in a load of American oak (weird vanilla and slightly-off butter, almost chemically so).  Mossy, baseball card ink, cinnamon candy.
Palate - Very sugary peat. Vanilla, hay, hot cinnamon spiciness.
Finish - All peat and sugar.  Of significant length.

Thoughts: Sigh. It has the potential of being a half step better than the K&L Exclusive Malts Bowmore due to its brutish peat, but that oak again...
Grade range: C+/B-

A final ranking:
Ben Nevis 14yo**
Bruichladdich 22yo**
Glen Garioch 23yo
Arran 16yo
Bowmore 11yo
Glen Spey 11yo
Invergordon 25yo
Auchentoshan 13yo**

** -- So, mysteries sit at the top and the bottom of the rankings.  With a lot of hindsight, I'm noticing that my Bruichladdich notes are very similar to LAWS's Auchentoshan notes.  Perhaps the wrong whisky was poured into two of my sample bottles.  If that was the case, then what the heck was in my Auchentoshan?  Was that the Bruichladdich?  Meanwhile, there's the strange instance of Ben Nevis.  That was a mystery I was willing to pay to solve.  And now that my full bottle has been emptied, I'll report my findings in Wednesday's post...


  1. I'm starting to wonder if Bowmore bought a bunch of dud casks around 2002. Every one that I've tried or read about from that vintage has had the weird oak thing going on, to a greater or less extent. Given that I even found it in the Devil's Casks, it suggests that it isn't just a case of passing off the lower quality stuff to the independent bottlers.

    1. That's a good point. I'm also wondering if they were starting to tool around with rejuvenating casks (or a new rejuv process) that year. It'll be interesting to see if we find the same stuff in '03 and '04 barrels. I hope it doesn't/didn't continue.

      My final count of 2013 CWC bottlings: 12. The number of these with the weird oak issues: 4. Three from 2002, one from 2000.

  2. My money is on Exclusive Casks' cask selection being more focused on cost than quality....

    1. I can see that. Compared to prices 3+ years ago, these bottles aren't cheap, but compared to the current prices most of these seem reasonable. All of these were under $100 except the Glen Garioch and 'Laddie. Can you get a single cask 22-23yo old school Bruichladdich and Glen Garioch for less than $130 anymore? Despite that, I don't think you're getting more than what you're paying for on any of these.

    2. I'm guessing you had a bad sample of the Auchentoshan 13yo**
      Check out the Whisky base take and who's doing the ratings.
      Link or address below.
      I have a bottle but but it remains unopened for the time being.
      Anyway keep up the great work love your site. Always love to read your take on things.

    3. Thanks Oscar! I certainly value CJ's (or Ras Mazunga's) whisky palate. He and Menno have (in my opinion) a very good track record with their Archives cask selection. Two of my whisky buddies here loved the Auchentoshan. So I do believe there's a possibility that something was screwy with my sample. If I can pry a fresh larger sample from one of them then I'll do a full review of it.

      This is part of the problem with (unpaid AND paid folks) reviewing samples and it's one of the reasons why I don't give full number grades when I have particularly small samples. Thanks again for your comment!