...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fail...er...Adventures in Blending: Trader Kirk's 10 year old blended malt

On Monday, I reviewed the 10 year old Highland single malt that bears Trader Joe's name on its label.  On Tuesday, I reviewed Kirkland's 18 year old sherry-finished Speyside.

Just gonna keep recycling the same bad picture
TJs' 10yo Highland joins the "don't buy at Trader Joe's" list, accompanying their chicken (the grisliest butchery since I, Robot and Bicentennial Man -- seriously, leave Asimov the f**k alone), their whole wheat pita (reliably covered in mold less than 24 hours after purchase), their refried beans (which taste like absolutely nothing), and the Dark Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Slims (because I will eat the entire damn bag in the car).  Meanwhile, Kirkland's 18yo Speyside is worth its $30 price tag.

TJs' single malt's weakness is its palate.  It is light on character, like a bland blend.  I was hoping that adding a little Kirkland malt would pep it up.  And by "little", I mean "a lot".  The ratio in my blend experiment was 3 parts Kirkland 18yo to 2 parts TJs 10yo.  The result?

The biggest element of the nose is a wall of charred American oak, almost like a watery bourbon.  Once that, and a big ethyl pop, wears off it gets lightly floral and grainy.  More welcome notes of halvah, cardamom, anise, and honey appear with time.  The palate is papery, bitter, and has an odd amount of heat for its 40%abv.  Tart lemons, black pepper, banana, and malt make brief appearances.  Grain, heat, caramel, and banana appear in the finish, but it's mostly black pepper and blah.

Thus, if you have a bottle of $19.99 Trader Joe's 10 year old Highland single malt that needs pepping up, you're going to need something bigger and bolder than Kirkland's 18 year old sherry-finished Speyside.  You'll need a sherry bomb or something Laphroaig-ish.  Otherwise, you shouldn't waste too much of the 18yo on it.

For this Turkey Day, I recommend not drinking.  That's right!  Whisky blog guy says don't drink on Glutton Day.  Save those calories for all the awesome food on the table.  Though, if the food sucks (and/or the company sucks) then drink something that tastes really good and isn't necessarily a bargain.  You gotta enjoy something.  May you all have a great Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Single Malt Report: Kirkland 18 year old Speyside Sherry Finish

During this Thanksgiving week, I'm determining my level of thankfulness for two inexpensive store brand single malts:  Trader Joe's 10 year old Highland (reviewed on Monday) and Kirkland 18 year old Speyside Sherry Finish (reviewed here today).

While not terrible, the Trader Joe's single malt was mild-to-bland on the palate, almost a light beer type of whisky.  Kirkland's single malts are provided by Alexander Murray & Co., just like TJs'.  So they also have 40%ABVs and are inexpensive.

Like yesterday's TJs sample, this one was provided by Florin (a prince).  When he and I first tried this whisky two years ago, we found some similarities between it and Tomatin 18.  But Tomatin is not in Speyside, so if anyone has anything theories as to what distillery provided this "Speyside", please let me know in the comments below.  This whisky has been replaced at my local Costco by a 20yo sherry finish Speyside and a 18yo sherry finish Highland at different times, but there may still be bottles of this one left on shelves at other locations.

Label: Kirkland
Distillery: ???
BottlerAlexander Murray & Co.
Type: Single Malt
Region: Speyside
Age: minimum 18 years
Maturation: probably ex-bourbon casks to start and ex-sherry casks to finish
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

The color is an orange gold.  The nose's most prominent straightforward notes are honey, nutty sherry, fuji apples, and maple.  But it also shows quirkier things like vinyl, graphite, new shoes, and wet sheep.  The palate is mellower than the nose, malty and tangy.  Milk chocolate, caramel, honey, and peaches make up much of the delivery.  A chemical bitterness intrudes here and there.  Burnt black raisins and wood pulp also have cameos.  The finish grows more citrusy and the bitterness improves a bit.  The wood pulp lingers as do those burnt black raisins.

(I'm ambivalent at best about whiskies resulting from brief finishes in ex-sherry casks, so that should be taken into account when considering my conclusions.)

This was an improvement over the Trader Joe's 10yo right from the start.  And it's better than one would normally expect from a 40%abv store brand whisky.  But I wouldn't say this is a particularly great single malt.  Again, the nose is the best part, showing some decent complexity possibly coming from the age.  The palate works occasionally, but something keeps screwing it up -- whether it's e150a or some crap casks.

We consumers should not be lured by an 18 year age statement, as in "Woo! 18 year old whisky for only $30! I'll buy a case!".  An older whisky doesn't guarantee quality and a bargain isn't necessarily a great find.  (This is coming from someone who has been hunting bargains for his entire life.  This year alone I've purchased a half dozen cheap whiskies which have provided me nothing but regret. More about this issue another time.)  I think $30 is a reasonable price for this single malt.  The quality is significantly better than the Trader Joes 10yo, arguably better than Glenmorangie Lasanta, but falls short of Tomatin 18yo.

Level of thankfulness: I'm thankful I had multiple opportunities to try this whisky.  And I'm thankful to have a little extra that I can utilize to improve TJs' 10yo...

Availability - Costco
Pricing - $29.99-$32.99
Rating - 78

Monday, November 24, 2014

Single Malt Report: Trader Joe's 10 year old Highland

For Thanksgiving week, I'm going to determine my level of thankfulness for two inexpensive store brand single malts:  Trader Joe's 10 year old Highland (reviewed today) and Kirkland 18 year old Speyside Sherry Finish (reviewed on Tuesday).

Both were supplied to the retailers by Alexander Murray & Co, the US's leading independent bottler of 40%abv cheapie single malts.  I've seen Murray's own bottlings at liquor retailers of decent repute, yet though their labels carry the names of well known distilleries and actual vintages, their 40%abv deters me from trading my cash for their whisky.

Some Trader Joeses are carrying these distillery-named whiskies and are keeping the price low, but none of those specific TJs stores are in my local area.  Instead, it's this 10 year old "Highland" single malt that I've seen on the shelf since 2012.  I've probably been to TJs 70-80 times over that time period and have considered buying this $19.99 single malt 70-80 times.  Should I have gone for it?  Lemmee see.

LabelTrader Joes
Distillery: ???
Bottler: Alexander Murray & Co.
Type: Single Malt
Region: Highlands
Age: minimum 10 years
Maturation: I can only assume oak casks
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Thank you to Florin (a prince) for this sample!

The color is a light amber.  Not much e150a?  The nose starts with dried grass clippings and potpurri-like floral notes.  It's slightly earthy without being peaty, maybe some dirty herbal notes too.  Moments of black pepper, lemon peel, and prunes as well.  Quite a bit of buttery oak lingers throughout.  The palate is... ... ... Buttery.  Papery.  Some caramel.  Stale raisins?  Maybe some bitterness.  Not much.  Kinda blendy.  The nose's floral note returns in the finish.  There's the sherry-ish raisins and prunes.  Lots of caramel and butter.  A good lime note starts up only to turn into sour vinegar.

Okay, I'll start with the pros.  It costs $19.99.  The finish is somewhat interesting.  The nose is the best part of the package, leading one to think he or she is getting a decent simple palate to follow.

The cons?  That palate never arrives.  Instead there's something bland and empty in its place.  It's not terrible.  It's just not there.  And while the finish is better than the palate, it's let down by the off vinegary thing in its conclusion.

There are worse whiskies to buy for $20 (e.g. JW Red Label, Dewars White Label, Cutty Sark).  But that's not much of a compliment, especially when Speyburn 10 can be had at the same price or less for a major step up in quality.  If you've got $20 and you're determined to spend it on crap whisky at TJs, go for Finlaggan -- at least The Fin is so ugly that it's fun -- and save the extra dollar for a pack of dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

Level of thankfulness: Better off having a dram of gravy instead.

Availability - Trader Joe's (though it's been getting harder to find)
Pricing - $19.99
Rating - 71

Friday, November 21, 2014

Single Malt Report: Dalmore 12 year old (old label, 2005 bottling)

This week, I declared that a Brora was better than a Craigellachie.  That's what is referred to in some circles as a steaming hot take.  With this post, I happily lay another steamer out just for you.


Actually, this version of the 12 year old was bottled before the three-dimensional silver plastic stag head was glued to bottles, before the ABV was lowered, before the price doubled.  Yes, this was back when Dalmore 12 cost $25-$30.  And it looked like this:

Rather than going through a list of Dalmore gripes, I'll give you some background to this particular sample.

Ownership: Whyte & Mackay (United Breweries Group)
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: ex-sherry casks (likely American oak), possibly some ex-bourbons too?
Region: Highlands (Northern)
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Bottled: 2005

Once upon a time, Florin (a prince) gave me one-third of his bottle of Dalmore 12 (bottled 2005).  We had tried the stuff the evening before he gifted the large sample, but I didn't remember what it was like.  He had found it to be noticeably peated.  Before I started into my 8oz, I sent 2oz of it to My Annoying Opinions in a sample swap.  Yes, you read that correctly: I swapped part of someone else's sample for a sample.  Yup.  Moving on...please see MAO's review here.  Though he did not find any peat in the whisky, MAO had some nice stuff to say about it.  There was further conversation about its peat levels in the post's comments.

Many months later, I finally tried the whisky and...... yyyyuck it was all rotten eggs with a hint of orange peels.  I let it sit in a half full bottle for a week before trying it again.  Things had changed.

The color is rosy gold.  The first notes on the nose are hot hay and moss.  The rotten egg element while still present has mostly vanished.  LOTS of orange peel, though.  There are smaller prune, beach, and sweat (yes, with an 'a') notes.  Also some toffee and cherry lollipops.  The mild palate gradually grows sweeter with time.  The sherry stays subtle.  Some orange candies, raisins, salt, and moss.  A wormwoody bitterness and maybe some mold on the sherry casks.  The sherry ramps up in the finish, as does the sweetness.  Small notes of sea air, orange candies, and raisins.   Not much else.

WITH WATER (approx. 40%abv)
The farmy hay note remains in the nose, as does the orange peel.  More moss.  Buttery toffee and caramel.  Seaweed and canned peaches.  The palate gets bitterer, while the rest of the flavors flatten out into a blur, like a sherried blend.  Maybe also some burnt white bread crusts, stone fruits, toasted grains.  The finish has some sherry, tobacco, stale dried fruit, and grass.

It's definitely not boring, seeming to change with every sniff and sip, sometimes off-putting, sometimes fascinating, good and bad elements firing at the same time.  Thank goodness that rotten egg thing slipped to the background.

Next, I left the final ounce in a 2oz sample bottle for ten more days to see what a little more oxidation would do...

The nose is much fruitier now with raisins, prunes, pears, and green apples. No eggs! But also, no orange peel. Hint of moss, soil, and wet sand.  The palate remains mild.  The nice bitterness is still there.  More sherry.  A little pepper in the throat.  That pepper remains in the finish, along with the bitterness.  Some salt, sherry, and celery(!).

The more it oxidized, the better it got.  It basically went from an F to a C to a B-.  I don't really recommend adding water to it as the whisky is already light.  That rotten egg issue appears to be unique to my experience, so discount it (if you dare!).  While I would not say this is peaty whisky (probably a 2 on Serge's 0-9 P scale), there were mossy notes repeating in the nose and palate.

As MAO concludes, this was a reasonable whisky at $25.  Can't get much sherried malt (especially with an age statement) at that price.  Plus as I mentioned above, it gets points for amusement value.  I've seen a number of these older bottles on shelves in this neighborhood.  But at $50.  For half that price, I might bite.

Availability - Random corner liquor stores
Pricing - $25-$30 once upon a time, almost twice that price now
Rating - 80 (with oxidation)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Single Malt Report: Craigellachie 11 year old 2000 Duncan Taylor Dimensions

In one of the few bright spots in this year's whisky news, the Dewars/Bacardi folks decided to start releasing more of their distilleries' single malts.   The Aberfeldy range received a facelift.  Aultmore is also technically getting a refresh, but the previous 12-year-old they used to offer had never been widely available.  Royal Brackla will have three expressions in 2015, as will Macduff (aka The Deveron).  Meanwhile Craigellachie has already hit the market with four different age statement-listed bottlings.  The 13yo is actually in the US (but not the West Coast for some reason).  I've heard the prices on the older whiskies are very high, but at least Bacardi chose to avoid the NAS fad.  Plus the Craigellachies are all at 46%abv and early reports say that the Craigs are not overoaked.  So far, so good.

But since I'm no longer in the habit of blind bottle buys of brands I don't know, this review is NOT of Bacardi's new stuff (fake out!!!).  Instead it's of the one Craigellachie sample sitting in my stash, an 11 year old 2000 bottling by Duncan Taylor.

I'd only had one Craigellachie before last week, a baby one (8 years? from AD Rattray) which inspired only a shrug and the designation as the only ADR I've had that was less than good.  So, despite the first paragraph, I don't have the experience to vouch for Craigellachie's quality.  Let's see if this sample provides clarity.

Distillery: Craigellachie
BottlerDuncan Taylor
Series: Dimensions
Age: at least 11 years old (2000 - 2011)
Region: Speyside (Central)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
(Thank you to Tetris for donating this MoM sample to D4P Laboratories!)

The color is that of a decently hydrated pee.  And I use that comparison because its nose's main characteristic is urine.  And no, not baby pee or yellow diapers, but grown-up whizz.  Everything else happens in pairs.  There's a heck of a lot of barley and pine sap.  Then sand and seashells, cinnamon and sugar, anise and fennel seeds.  The palate has the big barley note too.  There's a momentary baked apple sweetness which retreats into a mild bitterness.  There's also some salt, sand, and hot cereal.  And wee-wee tinkle.  Very grainy again on the finish, along with some bitterness.  Lingering the longest is a very specific note that reminds me of St. Peter's gluten-free sorghum beer, a beverage unfriendly to these taste buds.

The nose opens up a bit, becoming more floral and (fresh) herbal.  Some new notes of cardamom and lemon.  Also sand and pee.  Meanwhile the palate gets knocked out of whack.  It gets yeasty, with a less palatable bitterness.  There's burnt wood, salt, dry mild cheese, and (yes) piddle amongst the barley.  The finish is bitter, yeasty, cheesy, salty, and barley.

So, this whisky is another one that qualifies as quite nude, but also quite boring.  It feels as if it could serve as malt filler for one of Dewars' blends, though maybe with a bolder cask giving it the required vanilla and caramel notes.  Water did improve the nose, but screwed up the palate.  Perhaps the piss notes may appeal to some -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but dang if it does not do it for me.

I'm 0 for 2 with my Craigellachies.  If any of y'all have had good ones let me know in the comments below.  If you've tried the new Craig 13, do tell.  That one's price is in the $45-50 range on the East Coast; this one's price was more dear when it was on European shelves.

Availability - possibly all gone
Pricing - may have been in the $80-90 range (minus VAT, plus shipping)
Rating - 73

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Single Malt Report: Brora 30 year old, 6th release

On Saturday, my daughter turned 0.5 years old.  And on Monday, my wife and I ended our dietary cleanse.  It was indeed time to celebrate and reflect and--

Yes, there was Brora last night.

My previous experiences with Brora were okay.  But "okay" was disappointing because I expected the sublime.  Peated Highland malt is probably my favorite sub-sub-sub category of scotch whisky.  And Brora's reputation (and pricing) are sky high.  But, again, "okay".  Meanwhile, its Diageo dead stablemate, Port Ellen has never let me down.  All four of the PEs I've tried were excellent.  The best Brora I had previous to last night was kinda good.  With my expectations lowered a full step, how would this one (my first Brora OB) fare?

Many many many thank yous to Eric S. for sharing this sample with me!

Distillery: Brora
Bottler: Official (Diageo), 6th Release
Age: 30 years (bottled in 2007)
Maturation: ex-bourbon and ex-sherry caks (per Whiskybase)
Limited Bottling: 2577 of 2958
Region: Highlands (Northern)
Alcohol by Volume: 55.7%

Its color is medium gold, slightly lighter than classic DiageoGold™ though possibly more legitimately gilded.  The nose leads with seaweed and band-aids held in very graceful American oak.  A nice farmyard element lingers throughout: manure, hay, and soil on denim.  There are also gentler notes of dandelions, sea air, rosewater syrup, and an apple/pineapple syrup.  With additional time in the glass, the whisky starts to develop some dusty book page notes.  The farm and fruit notes rise in intensity together.  The ABV is more apparent in the palate, though there's a very aromatic note, perhaps old peated malt merging with good oak.  The progression happens something like this: salty peat → mango & pineapple → umami → floral peat.  There are also notes of vanilla extract, broken rocks, rock salt, ink, and something industrial.  It's a sharp attack delivered with a creamy texture.  The finish has barnyard hay, seaweed, ink, and caramel sauce.  There's a big note of snuffed bonfire and a smaller bitter one.

Well, here's my first great Brora.  It beats the snot out of the Old Malt Cask and Connoisseur's Choice versions I'd had.  It's both bigger and subtler.  It's one to nose for an hour.  I'm clearly no Brora expert, but this whisky is what I imagine folks are referring to when they opine on classic Brora.

If I'm to pick nits amongst the whisky heights, then I'd say the nose is amazing, the palate very good, and the finish merely good.  I'm grading this the same as the 2011 edition of Laphroaig 25 CS, but I might take that Laphroaig over this Brora if the prices were the same, even through one could get two or three of the Islays for the price of this Highlander.  Nonetheless, this Brora is excellent.  If you can get your mitts on a sample or a pour, I recommend it.

Now, back to fatherhood...

Availability - European shops and auctions
Pricing - could originally be found for $300ish, now is over $1000
Rating - 92

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Single Malt Report: Braeval 17 year old 1989 Cadenhead

With the first three days of The Cleanse complete, I am now a perfect being.  Everything I say is terribly interesting, my feet glide across the dancefloor like Gene Kelly's, and my s**t don't stink.  Oh what is this, a whisky review?  Ah, whisky my old crutch.  It's a good thing I wrote these notes before The Cleanse because I am through with you.  I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine--

Oh f**k, who am I kidding? Whisky dear, please be there to meet me when I return.  In the days between I will think on you fondly.  I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love--

Okay maybe I'm somewhere in the middle.  The one thing that stinks (other than, well never mind) is that the nights have cooled down and whisky weather is beginning to show......and I'm stuck enjoying it with a red quinoa salad and a glass of club soda.  I'm sure the temperatures will jump to 90 degrees once The Cleanse has ended.

Today's review is of a Braeval single malt.  Braeval, also known as Braes or Braes of Glenlivet, is another distillery that's a little foreign to me.  It's a youngin', built in 1973 by the Chivas folks who still use almost all of the malt for their blends.  In fact, I don't think they've ever released an official single malt bottling.  Thus the only way to try the Braes is via the few independent bottlers who are crafty enough to get a cask.  Cadenhead has released several and here is one of the more recent ones.

Distillery: Braeval
Bottler: Cadenhead (Authentic Collection)
Age: 17 years (1989 - February 2007)
Maturation: Sauternes Hogshead
Bottle: ??? of 276
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Alcohol by Volume: 55.9%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
Thank you to Cobo for the sample!!!

It has a filtered apple juice coloring.  The nose introduces the whisky as a potential sweetie: sugary cream, overripe tropical fruit, and overripe bananas.  Also lots of charred oak and BIG vanilla.  Smaller notes of citronella candles, lemon curd, and dried apricots.  Very sweet citrus strikes first in the palate, followed by a blast of ethyl heat.  Then buttery caramel, mint candy, white peppercorns, and tobacco appear next, with an undercurrent of Campari-like bitterness.  More bitterness in the finish.  The peppercorns, mint, and tobacco carry through.  Then barrel char and smoked lemon peels.  Maybe some prunes too.

On the nose there's vanilla.  And more vanilla.  Cream, caramel, and lots of sugar.  The fruits recede way into the background.  Maybe something floral remains.  Meanwhile the palate keeps the bitter note.  Some tart lemons and limes show up.  Though there's lots of sugar here too.  It finishes very candied.  There might be a raisin or two.  It's also slightly floral, vaguely citrusy, and a little bitter.

This whisky is almost entirely oak and wine, especially in the nose.  The refreshing bitterness in the palate occasionally salvages it for me, as do the tarter and peppery notes.  But most of the time it feels like a high abv liqueur which has only a passing resemblance to whisky.

There are some people who would love this stuff.  Folks who love Glenmorangie Nectar D'or and/or Jim McEwan's Sauternes finishing flights of fancy might be over the moon with this one.  But I can't be counted amongst that demographic.  Where is the whisky in this whisky?

Other opinions:
--Whiskybase members like this Braeval much better than I, judging by the ratings.
--One of the Malt Maniacs gave it a score of 50.
--Serge at whiskyfun finds more spirit to it than I did, but he also notes the gobs of oaky vanilla, butter, and caramel.

Availability - possibly all gone
Pricing - may have been around 65EUR
Rating - 75

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Single Malt Report: Blair Athol 11 year old 1998 Signatory UCF (cask 2757)

This week I'm participating in a so-called dietary cleanse.  No dairy, no gluten, no processed sugar, and no alcohol.  Normally, I have no interest in cleanses.  People should consciously moderate their intake of toxins and troublesome dietary elements so that an abrupt purge isn't necessary.  But it's become obvious that moderation hasn't been one of my strong points since my stay-at-home-father gig began.

I've completed the first day of the cleanse and I haven't eaten the neighbors, yet.  Though my daughter got wise and hitched a ride to another state.  In classic fashion I did four whisky reviews in the thirty-six hours before the cleanse so that this blog would have some sort of content over the next two weeks.  The sacrifices...
Label information written by foot
Anyway, Blair Athol!  Blair Athol?  This the second Blair Athol review in this calendar year.  What the hell?  That's twice as many graded reviews as I've done of Bowmore in 2014.  If you missed my first exciting Blair Athol review, here's the link.  It was of a 25 year old single cask release by the independent Dutch bottler, Van Wees.  And it was very good (89 points worth).

I've had quite some luck with Van Wees.  I've also had a lot of luck with Signatory.  Signatory has a number of different ranges but the two most familiar ones are their Cask Strength and Unchillfiltered collections.  Today's Blair Athol is an 11 year old single hogshead from the Unchillfiltered Collection.  And it arrives courtesy of Florin (a prince).

Distillery: Blair Athol
Age: 11 years 1 month (4/8/98 - 5/8/09)
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask #: 2757
Bottle: 250 of 361
Region: Highlands (Central)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No

The color is a very pale amber.  At first the nose is bready and yeasty with some butter, caramel, and pencil shavings.  But moments later it opens up into mango and grapefruit.  Then it expands further into lavender and violet (flowers, not soap).  Then some more patience brings fresh orange pulp and sea air.  The palate leads with grasses and dried leaves, followed by oranges and limes.  Caramel pudding, maybe some peppery spice and a candy cane.  It's effervescent but very delicate.  Its sweetness gradually expands.  The finish seems shortish at first but then comes back for a second round, boomerang-style.  Lots of citrus peels, lager, dried leaves, pepper, and cocoa powder.

This was much too fragile for water, almost as if it were 40%abv.  That being said, I like it a lot.  While the palate isn't terribly complex, it's very pleasant.  It's the nose that thrills.  It opens and opens and opens like a little blossom in the sun.  It's all pretty.  I'm considering tracking down a bottle, especially since my wife likes it.  She and scotch whisky are acquaintances but not pals, so this a rare thing.  Gives me an excuse to say, "Hey, I bought you a present!"

Availability - Scarce (US)
Pricing - $60-$70
Rating - 87

Friday, November 7, 2014

Single Malt Report: Benromach Peat Smoke 2004

Two weeks ago, I led a tasting session for a group of great folks who were relatively new to whisky.  While prepping for it and considering all of the stuff that's helpful to beginners, I inevitably started thinking about the whisky "regions".  The "regions" are still being included in whisky pamphlets, maps, ad propaganda, and even in books published by professional writers.  But other than for geographic purposes (as I use them on my blog), the "regions" are have become meaningless.  Islay does not make the only heavily peated whisky in Scotland, nor do all the Ileach distilleries make peated whisky of consistent quality.  There's light wispy (even triple-distilled) single malt being made outside of the Lowlands.  Bladnoch, a Lowlander, was making quality peated malt before its closure.  The "Island" distilleries each have their own very specific style (see Tobermory versus The World).  Campbeltown distilleries often seem to have an industrial, almost grimy, style thanks to Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia; but, again, Springbank has a triple-distilled brand (Hazelburn) and Longrow, a heavily-peated brand that can kick the asses of most of the Islays right now.  And, yes, a few Speyside distilleries are making competitive peated whiskies as well.  So those regions, which could once be used as relevant helpful shorthand, have become neither relevant nor helpful nor shorthand.

I'm following up Tuesday's review of one peated Speysider with another peated Speysider today.  This time it's a highly peated (50+ppm at maltings) single malt from Gordon & MacPhail's distillery, Benromach.  Sadly, I'm way behind in my Benromach experience.  Because they're one of the ten smallest distilleries in Scotland and because G&M pried it out of United Distillers claws in 1993 (after it had been mothballed for ten years) I really want to root for their success.  But if the whisky isn't good, then there's no need to cheerlead another so-so distillery.  So far, their ten year old makes for decent drinking and I like their Organic product, though I may be alone on the latter.  Here's a recent batch of their heavily peated stuff.

Distillery: Benromach
Ownership: Gordon & MacPhail
Age: 8-9 years (2004 - 8/2/13)
Maturation: first-fill ex-bourbon casks
Region: Speyside (Findhorn)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Peat PPMs: 53
Chillfiltered? No.
Caramel Colored? Probably not
(Thanks to Eric S. for the sample!  Eric, please let me know if any of my data is incorrect and I'll update it ASAP.  Thanks!)

The color is of a pinot grigio.  The nose begins with vanilla-covered roasted peat.  Very roasty and toasty in general.  There are some youthful rubber and acetone notes, but they're in the far background.  Apples and pears around the edges.  A whiff of sea air and sugary pastry notes.  Seems to get more vibrant as it opens up, but overall it's not as peaty as I had expected.  There's more peat smoke (as per the name) in the palate, though it doesn't dominate.  Big notes of cinnamon, anise, and vanilla lead the way.  Then cinnamon toast (cinnamon + granulated sugar + butter + toast).  Smaller notes of tangy lemons, sea salt, and notebook paper in the distance.  The peat gets dustier in the finish.  The tangy lemons and cinnamon toast fill up the most space, though the whole experience is sort of short.

Vanilla, cinnamon, and barley move to the fore in the nose.  The peat recedes further but is still present.  Spiced orange peel and overripe mango start to emerge.  An oak pulp element develops after some time.  The palate becomes rather shy.  There's some pleasant bitterness hovering around the cinnamon, peat, bacon, brown sugar, and dust.  A hint of bacon remains in the finish, as does the peat smoke and cinnamon toast.

The first thing I noticed with this whisky is that the Peat Smoke is more like peat smoke.  Perhaps it has something to do with the shape of the stills, but the peat is very mellow considering its levels (50+ppm at malt) are similar to Ardbeg and Kilchoman, while being higher than Laphroaig and Lagavulin.  I'd say that most Caol Ila (30-35ppm) and some Ardmore (10-15) single malts register their phenolics more aggressively than this one.  This isn't necessarily a problem, delicate peat can be gorgeous.  It just caught me off-guard.

The whisky is much better without water than with, though the fruit notes that develop in the hydrated nose are nice.  At times all the sugar, cinnamon, paper, rubber, and acetate notes make this feel even younger than its age.  The overall mildness of the package may appeal to people who don't want peat fireworks, but the name is "Peat Smoke" thus it's the peat geeks who will buy it first.  And I'm not sure this will impress the geeks.

Overall it's decent, without any gruesome sins, and gets better with some air.  But right now (in their price range) they're dealing with BenRiach as competition in their geographic neighborhood and Kilchoman in the youthful peater category.  This may get close to Curiositas, but has a ways to go before it reaches Machir Bay's quality.  But since the Peat Smokes are done in small batches perhaps they will nail it well in other releases.  I would drink this again, but I'll pass on a bottle.

Availability - Some US specialty retailers
Pricing - $55-$80
Rating - 80

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Single Malt Report: BenRiach Arumaticus Fumosus

You'll find me bitching and moaning about whisky finishes plenty of times on this blog, but I have yet to meet a rum-finished whisky that wasn't at least entertaining.  BenRiach Arumaticus Fumosus comes to the rum-finished arena from a different angle than others.  Firstly, it's peated.  This will be the first time I've tried a peated whisky finished in rum casks.  Secondly, BenRiach didn't utilize one-note sugary rum in those casks, instead they used an unspecified Jamaican rum.  Though my experience with Jamaican rum is limited, I highly recommend that folks with adventurous palates try a glass of Smith & Cross (neatly).  Smith & Cross is a bold estery beast, and I'm probably going need to review it some day.
Almost got the JJ Abrams lens flare on this one.
I obtained this BenRiach sample from Jordan from Chemistry of the Cocktail via a sample swap.  Jordan knows much more about rum than I do; his rum posts (especially this beginner's guide) are musts.  As per his recommendation, I got to know Smith & Cross a little bit before diving into Arumaticus Fumosus.

I've been looking forward to trying this whisky for some time.  I enjoy BenRiach's peated stuff, especially the 21 year old (whose review has made everyone think I'm Weedy McPotface), and have been very impressed with the cask work utilized for BenRiach and its mate GlenDronach (despite their occasional questionable label disclosure).  So, good peated malt meets quality casks......yes, please. 

Ownership: The BenRiach Distillery Company
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks for most of its life, then finished in Jamaican dark rum casks
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colored? No

Its color is amber with very little in the way of oaky (or e150a) gold.  The nose has a definite blast of rum, but it's not the super-desserty version one will find in Balvenie Caribbean Cask, rather something with a bit of an herbal spicy bite to it.  It's well integrated, leading right to the malt and peat moss.  There are notes of a floral vanilla simple syrup, cotton candy, lemon peel, honey, molasses, wood smoke, and dry soil.  It alternates between earthy and pretty.  The palate is well-layered too.  Peat→molasses→honey→lychee and fresh cherries.  Very earthy (again) yet also sugared.  A smaller note of fresh oranges shows up occasionally.  Peat, pepper, and bitter notes begin to grow with some oxidation time.  Lots of smoke and sweets in the finish, think honeyed peat.  A hint of salty olives merges with some citrus.  The smoke grows with time.

I added a little bit of water, then took an intermission to hang out with my little critter......who immediately ate my notes (she has good taste, obviously)...

And then she came for the cell phone...

Luckily, my wife came to save me before all was lost to The Appetite.

Now back to the whisky.

WITH WATER (approx. 40%abv)
The farm takes over in the nose; very Ledaigy in fact.  The floral notes have been stripped away, leaving us with a fireplace in a candy shop.  There's a burst of dijon and honey mustard notes in the palate.  There's also some sugar, honey, and peat moss.  The smoke note is very delicate, and there might be a hint of ham in there too.  A pleasant dryness lingers into the finish.  It's much milder now, all on mustard and peat.

Having high expectations met has become a rarity for me recently, but this whisky was as good as I'd hoped.  Its palate even garnered a "Wow" from my mouth.  For me, there isn't a single misstep in the whole package.  I aim to track down a full bottle for myself and perhaps will later indulge in further hyperbole if warranted.

Tracking down a bottle can be more challenging than one might expect of a BenRiach.  While there was a Arumaticus Fumosus release in the US in 2007, it was very limited since the first batch of this experiment was limited to 290 6-bottle cases worldwide.  There appears to have been another batch or two in 2012 so that leaves me hoping that they continue producing this whisky.

Availability - Some European specialty retailers
Pricing - $65-$85 (minus VAT, including shipping)
Rating - 89