...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Whisky #401: Willett 2 year old Family Estate Small Batch Rye (54.05%abv batch)

Well, you knew this was coming...

Kristen and I tried this two year old rye right alongside the Willett MGP 4yo that I reviewed on Tuesday.  It gave us quite a perspective on this new thing.

As mentioned on Tuesday, this 2 year old was distilled at Willett's own distillery.  The rye it is replacing in the Family Estate series had been distilled by Midwest Grain Products.  That MGP rye was much beloved in my home.  I'm a little late to the game in reviewing this 2yo.  Hell, even MAO beat me to it by a week.

BottlerKentucky Bourbon Distillers (also known as Willett Distilling Company)
Brand: Willett Family Estate Single Barrel
Type: Straight Rye Whiskey
Age2 years
RegionBardstown, Kentucky
Alcohol by Volume54.05%
(Thanks to smokeypeat for the sample!)

Once again my most special of guests, Kristen, contributes to this review.  Please see her notes in italics.

The color is similar to the MGP 4yo, though probably slightly lighter.  The nose begins like a piney cleaning fluid.  Rubber cement.  Elmer's glue.  Definitely an adhesive.  Thin, industrial.  Gradually some pear, rye seeds, and peanut brittle notes emerge.  Then comes those small sweet orange-ish lemons that gringos call Mexican lemons.  Sometimes it's kind of aquatic.  Chlorine.  It gets a little floral with a lot of air, but also gains a sharp cheese note.  The palate starts off sweet.  Sweeter than the nose lets on.  Vaguely fruity.  Red Hots candies, sort of reminiscent of The Rye Storm.  Cheddar cheese along with something green and herbal.  It's still fruity.  Just a hint of vanilla.  A simple sharp spice stab.  The finish is sweet as well.  There's a bit of lemon.  Also cinnamon, chlorine, and cheese.

Kristen's comments: Thinner than the 4 year old, and with less depth, it's okay on its own.  More alcohol in the palate and nose too.  The four year old is fuller, richer, with deeper vanilla and spice notes.

I'm not going to disagree with my wife on that.  It's a much different rye than the ol' 4.  Kristen quickly picked out which was which when trying the two blindly.

This 2yo has been reviewed by Sku, MAO, and Bourbon Truth, three heavy hitters who tell it like it is, shoot straight, and some other cliché.  If they don't like something, they state as much.  Yet, I think they all like this rye better than I do.  Though (and this may be important) they appear to have had a different (54.7%abv) batch.  Smokeypeat, also a swell whisky fellow, from whom I obtained this sample, did like this batch a lot so please see his review for another take.

To me this seems like a work in progress (WIP), an early prototype.  With American whiskey enthusiasm being what it is and the desire for companies to get something on offer while people are throwing their money around, it seems like this is another whiskey that needs some more time to bake before it's solid.  (Sorry for the mess of metaphors.)  It's not bad, but it is thin, a little flat, feels heavy on white dog, and lean on the finish.  I'm the last guy to shout for More Oak, but this needs more time in the barrel.

I really want Willett to succeed, but I just can't recommend this rye to anyone at its $50 price tag.  Had they labelled it as a WIP and priced it at $25-$30, I'd be happy to buy a bottle to support them.  But not this, not yet.

Availability - Most specialty retailers
Pricing - $40-$60
Rating - 78

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whisky #400: R.I.P. Willett 4 year old Family Estate Single Barrel MGP Rye

The bottle! It's disappearing!
If I had to pick my favorite American whiskey right off the top of my head it would be Willett's Single Barrel MGP-distilled rye.  It was the first rye I drank neatly, and it was luff at first sight.  It's also the only whisk(e)y that my wife requests by name; it's the only one that we drink together; it's the only one that we speak of when it's not around.

The last four year old Willett MGP rye I bought was found at a good source in Los Angeles.  One bottle remained (thank you to whomever bought the previous bottle and left one behind), I bought it not realizing it would be my last.  But before I delve into my thoughts on this brand, let me deliver the review for those who clicked over here for it.


BottlerKentucky Bourbon Distillers (also known as Willett Distilling Company)
Brand: Willett Family Estate Single Barrel
Type: Straight Rye Whiskey
Age4 years
MaturationNew American Oak
RegionBardstown, Kentucky (Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana)
Barrel: 98
Bottle: 159/204
Alcohol by Volume55%

For today's review, I have special guest.  Kristen!  As mentioned above she is also a Willett fan, so please see her notes in italics.

The color is grade A maple syrup.  The nose leads with both cassia and ceylon cinnamon sticks.  Caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream.  Cumin, black pepper.  Cloves, vanilla, holiday baking.  It's as if someone went overboard with the spices in a carrot cake.  Maybe a hint of wood smoke.  Orange peel.  Ah she beat me to it, orange peel.  The palate, mmmmm.  Atomic fireball candy.  A balance of sweets and spices.  Lots of brown sugar.  Chili powder in limoncello.  Sticky cinnamon syrup, cloves.  Grilled pear.  Pumpkin pie.  The finish is all of the warming baking spices.  Okay, I'll try to list 'em...clove, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg.  Cinnamon, oranges.  Something reminiscent of mulled wine, perhaps its the spices.  Rich toffee.

I wouldn't say it's the most complex of the Willetts we've had, but it's really really tasty.  We didn't find any of the dill (or pickle juice) notes here; it's just all sweets and spice.  It's a whiskey winter hug.  There are other very good MGP ryes out there, but something about the Kulsveen/Willett warehouses really pulls these Family Estaters up above the rest.

Availability - Here and there, but not really here anymore
Pricing - See the shpiel below
Rating - 89


For a number of years, the Willett Distilling Company was an NDP (non-distilling producer), thus bottling and releasing bourbons and ryes that had been distilled at other distilleries.  One of their highly esteemed brands was the "Family Estate" single barrels.  Some of these Family Estate whiskies were grand oldies from Stitzel-Weller or Old Bernheim, but many were younger whiskies from the Midwest Grain Products (formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana) facility.  All the while, the Willett folks were building up revenue and investment capital in order to refurbish and reopen their own distillery which had closed in the '80s.  And, as of 2012, they were again distilling their own spirit.

While the Family Estate bourbons are very good, it's the Family Estate MGP rye that I adore.  There were some 3 year old bottlings floating around several years ago, and the occasional 5 and 6 year old.  But most of the Family Estate ryes were labelled as 4 years of age.  Though they were all from different individual barrels, the ryes were always of substantial quality.  By late 2013, these ryes were becoming more difficult to find and in 2014 they were almost gone.  The same year (2014), Willett began releasing the rye they had distilled themselves, a 2 year old, under the Family Estate label.  There were secondhand and thirdhand reports that their MGP rye's popularity had put a serious drain on that particular stock in the Willett warehouses, but at the same time the company had its own product (with a different mashbill and source), didn't want to create brand confusion, and likely wanted to avoid competing with itself.

While Willett's MGP rye holds a lot of sentimental value for me, I'm not going to pretend that I've been drinking it for my whole life.  It's really only been 3+ years.  But over those 3+ years I watched the price of the 4yo go from $35 to $40 to $45 to $50.  The few remaining bottles I've spied recently were $55.  And that was at the same retailer that had it at $35 three years ago (a 57% price jump).  Because the whiskey's quality is reliably high, I had no problem paying $40-$45 for 4 year old.  Then, I paused for a moment before paying $50.  When I saw a bunch for $55, I walked away with my wallet in my pocket.  Of course all of those ryes were gone a month later when I had reconsidered.  Now the Willett-distilled 2 year old can be found everywhere at the 4yo's $50ish pricetag.  Meanwhile, now there are 6, 7, and 8 year old Willett MGP ryes hitting the shelves at $80-$140.  Clearly these are earmarked as the higher end of the brand and at the lower segment of that price range, they are flying off the shelves.

So we, the consumers, have been paying the price the market has set.  We'll scramble after the $55 4yo until it's gone, and we'll pay twice that amount for a similar rye just a little older.  I bought one 6yo and two 7s when I found them at their lowest local prices.  The price I paid for the second 7yo was the most I've ever paid for an American whiskey.  While I love the product and am sure these will be lovely bottles, that's the last time I'm blindly dishing out that sort of money for an American whiskey.  Even a Willett.  The market says that's the price, thus once again I'm priced out of the market.

I might be convinced to buy one more 4yo at the current rate, if I find a bottle after my Whisky Freeze has ended.  But that'll be it for me.  The product I sought, the 4 year old, is scarce and now replaced.  It makes sense that Willett wants to sell Willett rye; hundreds of other NDPs would kill to be in their position.  For my own needs, I'll have to go elsewhere.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

NOT Single Malt Report: Highland Queen Blended Scotch (bottled in 1964)

The Highland Queen brand was started by the McGraw/MacRae family just before US Prohibition took a chunk out of the whisky industry.  For a few decades James McGraw & Co. had a cheap blended whisky named Highland Gold.  But in 1916, during a brief trip to Ireland, James's daughter was accosted by two Irish sailors at St. John's Dock.  His daughter escaped unhurt, but the sailors weren't so lucky as she strangled them both to death with the brassiere she had just purchased in Dublin.  Her family rushed her back to Scotland before she had to face the Irish authorities.  In honor of her bravery, James McGraw renamed his brand after her.  But since Highland Biddy probably wouldn't move too many bottles, he instead named it Highland Queen.

None of what you have just read is even remotely true.  If you're interested in more information about Biddy McGraw, click here with a too-ri-oo-ri-oo-ri-yah**.

For some more accurate information about Highland Queen see this link from her owner.  Thanks to the former whiskysamples site, I have a sample of a 1964 bottling of the ol' Queen.  (For another review of this whisky online, see the The Coop's post.)

Let's drink it up.

Brand: Highland Queen
Current Ownership: Terroir Distillers (also owners of Tullibardine)
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: not stated
Bottling year: 1964
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The color is gold, very gold, almost DiageoGold™.  Lots of very contemporary (but not necessarily in a good way) buttery oak in the nose.  A bit acrid, cheesy, and vinegary; perhaps some cream that has turned.  Mild notes of orange oil, caramel, and peat moss.  Some brighter floral notes come out after the whisky has been aired out for a long time.  The palate is less off than the nose.  It's a little gritty, softly peaty, with the occasional bite of green peppercorn.  It's otherwise pretty blendy and unexciting.  It sweetens up with time, adding in vanilla and caramel.  Not much of a finish at first.  Maybe some tingly menthol and orange candy.  Towards the end of the glass, it sweetens and spices up.

Water doesn't do anything for the nose and might even bring some of the uglier parts back in.  The palate definitely goes the wrong direction when watered down; nothing but rough immature grain spirit.  This is proof positive that there were blah bottom shelf blends back when our grandfathers were hitting the sauce after their lodge and union meetings.

**Yes, I know this is a Irish tale, but c'mon a bottle of Highland Biddy would be pretty sweet.

Availability - Maybe via an auction?
Pricing - ???
Rating - 70 (neat only, much worse with water)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NOT Single Malt Report: Two Haig blends from the 1970s

Long before I served as David Beckham's eyebrow double for a certain perfume bottle grain whisky, Haig & Haig was known for its regular blended whisky under names like Pinch (or Dimple), Five Star, and Gold Label.  "Don't be vague / Ask for Haig" was their quippy slogan.

As per whisky lore, Robert Haig got himself in trouble back in the 17th century for distilling on the Sunday sabbath.  Two centuries later, John Haig was partly responsible for the building of the Cameron Bridge distillery (which was a bit smaller back in the 1820s than its 21st century 100-million-liter version).  In 1877, Cameron Bridge was amongst the distilleries that combined to created Distiller's Company Limited (DCL).  John Haig's own brand of blends was bought by DCL forty-two years later.  In 1986, DCL was bought out by Guinness in a series of fraudulent transactions, creating United Distillers.  United Distillers combined with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo in 1997.  So it's fair to say that Diageo's existence is entirely the fault of the Haig family, right?

On the same dusty hunt that resulted in my '82 Canadian Club find, I discovered an old 4/5 quart (757mL) bottle of Haig Blended Whisky.  I could tell from across the counter that it was pre-1980 with its imperial volume measurement and proof alcohol measurement.  Once I brought it I spied 72 and 297 on the inside of the label.  297th day of 1972 perhaps?

It was a fun discovery, one that I thought was very unique.  But then a month later I found a store that had at least a half case of 4/5 pint (or 378.5mL) bottles.  So I bought one of those to open before getting into the 4/5 quart bottle. And interestingly, that one also had a '72' printed behind its label.  I don't have a clear pic of that number, but here's the bottle:

At the time of this whisky's bottling for the USA, Haig Gold Label was on the shelves in Europe.  Gold Label has a very similar label, except that it has the words "Gold Label" in a gold font on the label.  My bottles do not have those words.  Also around this time there was a similarly labelled Haig & Haig Five Star blended whisky.  Though my bottles have five little stars on their upper labels, they don't have the words "Five Star" anywhere on them.  Meanwhile the Five Star whisky's label had ten stars on it.  But anyway, no "Gold Label" and no "Five Star".  So my whiskies are just Haig Blended Scotch Whisky.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the midst of my flurry of questionable purchases, my whisky buddy Cobo sent me a sample of actual Haig Gold Label (from Europe) from the 1970s (thank you, Cobo!).  His whisky bottle had the correct dumpy shape, brown glass, and real "Gold Label" description on it:

Here's his sample bottle along with what remains of my 4/5 pint bottle:

I smell a Taste Off coming...

...but first one more note.

I opened my 4/5pint bottle the very night I brought it home.  My experience with dusty scotch told me to let the whisky air out before drinking, so I poured it into a flat tumbler (rather than a Glencairn) and let it sit for ten minutes.  Then I sniffed.

Garbage.  Hot garbage was all I could smell.  I sipped it cautiously (for Science and all that).  Not terrible, mostly drinkable.

I left it in the glass for another ten minutes.  Not much change.  Then another ten minutes.  At that point it had been breathing for a half an hour.  Now the nose had shed its feculent fur (shitty shell?) and the whisky could be better studied.

Okay, time to get the Taste Off on and see if things have improved over the past four months:


HAIG BLENDED WHISKY - US, 1972 - 4/5 pint bottle, 86ºproof (43%abv)
Nose - Rotten greens, expired milk, old greasy pizza box.  Roasted brussels sprouts.  After a couple moments, it gets grassier and sugarier.  Struck matches and prunes tell of some sort of sherry cask action.
Palate - Only a hint of the nose's rottenness, reading as a slight vinegar sourness.  A nice oily texture.  There's a surprising spicy nip, with pepper biting at the back of my throat.  Burnt bread, cream, and plums.
Finish - Decent length.  Pepper sauce meets sherry vinegar, followed by a bit of sweetness.

HAIG GOLD LABEL BLENDED WHISKY - Europe, 1970s - 43%abv
Nose - Clean as a whistle.  Gentle floral notes float through seaside air.  A candy shop in the summer.  Clementines, hay, and a hint of peat moss.
Palate - Oily texture on this one too.  It leads with caramel candies, sugar cookies, and brown sugar.  That's followed by a little bit of salt, peppery spice, and a hint of bitters.
Finish - Mellower than its partner.  Sugar, spice, salt, honey, and toffee.

Comments:  My Haig has an ugly nose.  :o(  Meanwhile the rich Gold Label impresses immediately.


Nose - The old dirty cardboard pizza box remains, but most of the other rotten notes have departed.  In their place is mint extract, black licorice, and orange pulp.  It's a little herbal and bready.  The prune note grows with additional time.
Palate - Instantly creamy and sweet, with orange pulp, caramel, and whipped cream.  Walnut, horseradish, and (maybe?) a whiff of peat.  The pepper note is mostly gone, replaced by something tarter.  There's also a lingering floral soap note.
Finish - A little tongue drying and tart.  The pepper returns here as a honey pepper sauce.

Nose - Peat moss and dusty furniture.  Orange lollipops, mango, and salted caramels.  It freshens up with more air, think cucumber and green grass.
Palate - Malty, sweet, and spicy.  It's a solid piece, so it takes a moment suss out its parts.  Brown sugar, toasty grains, toasty oak, citrus candies, and maybe a little bit of earthy molasses.
Finish - Still spicy and a little floral.  It's grown sweeter, think brown sugar and lemon candies.

Comments:  My Haig saves a little face, just a little.  Meanwhile, the Gold Label becomes even more drinkable.

I'll lead with the good news.  The Gold Label is one of the better blended scotches I've had.  Something about it is reminiscent of Nikka's current Whisky From the Barrel.  Both are well made with a good balance of different whiskies from different casks while remaining malty and tasty.  The Nikka is more intense and complex, but it's also 51.4%abv.  I wish today's blends could be as solid as this old Gold Label is at 43%abv.

The same can't be said about my Haig.  Its intensity happens in the wrong direction.  While it improves with lots of air, the nose always hampers it.  The palate is what kept me going with this bottle as it doesn't totally suck, functioning as a whisky I can sip and forget.

While the bottle's 42 year storage may have been responsible for the problems, the liquor store I bought it from had no windows so damage from heat is a little less likely than at most stores and damage from light nearly impossible.  It's possible that this could have been Haig's cheapest whisky at the time of its production and its lower quality elements do not fare well over time.  One thing's for certain, it bears little resemblance to their Gold Label.

Availability - Some random corner liquor store
Pricing - my 4/5pint bottle was all of $6.99
Rating - 73 (without lots of breathing time, it would be closer to a 65)

Availability - Maybe the occasional auction
Pricing - ???
Rating - 88

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Single Malt Report: Glen Ord 30 year old

Glen Ord distillery is a significant asset for Diageo PLC.  Its stills produce approximately 5 million liters of spirit annually and as of last year that capacity was being doubled to 10 million liters (though I'm unsure if this expansion is still on track).  Meanwhile, their onsite maltings provide malted barley for several of Diageo's other distilleries.  While they've chosen to offer an official Glen Ord single malt only in the Far East, they're still selling over 2 million bottles of it per year (according to Malt Whisky Yearbook).  That would be more than the amount of Macallan that was being sold in the US a few years ago.  These "Singletons" include a 12 (reviewed here), 15, 18, and an NAS cask strength.

Once upon a time, there was an official 12 year old that was sold more broadly, including in its UK home, until it was discontinued about six or seven years ago.  And once upon a time, Diageo released 6000-bottle limited editions of 25, 28, and 30 year olds.  It's been ten years since then, but nothing official of that age has been released west of Taipei.

Thanks to MAO of My Annoying Opinions, I had a sample of the 30 year old, bottled in 2005.  The previous two indie Glen Ords this week were good to very good, but they were young compared to today's.  This one, deemed good enough to keep by DCL/Diaego, had spent three decades napping in casks somewhere in a dark mainland warehouse.  How did it turn out?

Not the original sample bottle, as I divided that one into two.
DistilleryGlen Ord
Age: minimum 30 years
Maturation: probably a combination of different refill casks, mostly ex-bourbon
Region: Northern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 58.7%
Bottling Date: 2005

I'm changing up my note structure for this one:

The color is apple juice, lighter than all of the Johnnie Walkers, even the infant Red Label, which leads me to think that there was a minimum of caramel colorant added to this Glen Ord.

Stick with me here on the nose.  It begins with orange and lemon concentrate, covered by a big barley blanket.  Underneath that, almost rye-like baking spices and milk chocolate.  Cinnamon and apple shishas.  Wet leaves and un-oaked chardonnay.  Toffee pudding with almonds.  Grilled pear with mint leaves.  Creme brulee with orange zest.  A new wood deck after the rain.  Cotton shirts and a boat dock.  It's remarkably vibrant and youthful, all the while carrying old musty cask character.  Adding water brings out old dusty furniture notes.  Caramel sauce and cinnamon candy.  A wooden crate of oranges.

The palate is impressively spirity for its age: roses, limes, lime soda, Orangina minus the sugar, mango juice, orange and lime syrup infused with (Talisker levels of) cayenne pepper.  Its particular zing takes that cayenne and mixes it with some perky wood spice.  Then comes tobacco and sea salt caramels.  Then mint tea and Cointreau.  Maybe some dusty peat in the background.  The sweetness rolls in gently.  Adding water seems to bring about some very dark chocolate and intensifies the fresh tobacco note.  It grows earthier, tarter, and a little sweeter.  Plenty of limes and spices remain.  Maybe some eucalyptus appears.

Orange oil forever in the finish.  Lots of barley and hay.  Fizzy and peppery with a little menthol.  Limes, roses, and sea salt.  Macarons and whipped cream.  Just a little bit of sweetness and toasted oak.  Adding water focuses it on the limes and salt.  Then dark chocolate and black pepper.

Oh......I am full of wist.  After trying this whisky I immediately sought out and acquired a bottle of my own.  It will be a special occasion bottle.  Maybe for Mathilda's third or fourth birthday.  It's that good.

Not sold on my word?  Then see this review.  And maybe this one.  And these.  And these scores as well.  He liked it.  And so did they.

So in addition to its financial importance to Diageo's whisky portfolio, Glen Ord is also producing some very very good whisky.  It blows my mind to know this oldie was priced at $150 upon release.  Compare that to the prices of Diageo's recent Special Releases.  This or a $450 Strathmill 25?  This or a $700 NAS Clynelish?  This or a $250 21 year old Cardhu?

But let me turn away from the negative and focus on the positive.  I like Glen Ord, and man oh man does it fit in well with my love of the Highland single malts.  It fits right in there with Ardmore, Pulteney, Glen Garioch, Glendronach, Clynelish, Balblair, and Ben Nevis.  I would probably throw Oban and Glenmorangie into the bunch if only there were some indies or under-produced versions available.

It was nice to meet you properly, Glen Ord.  May you visit more often.

Availability - Happy hunting!
Pricing - anywhere from $200 to $500
Rating - 92

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Single Malt Report: Glen Ord 12 year old 1998 AD Rattray

Yesterday, I reviewed my bottle of 12 year old 1998 Glen Ord from James Macarthur.  Today, I'll report on a 12 year old 1998 Glen Ord from AD Rattray, from a sample provided by Florin (a prince).  Like many of AD Rattray's often solid products, this Glen Ord was bottled at cask strength.  First I tried it on its own, with and without water.  Then the following night, I tried it alongside yesterday's James Macarthur Ord.  I'll list both days' sets of notes below.

Distillery: Glen Ord
Bottler: A.D. Rattray
Age: 12 years (March 17, 1998 - October 30, 2010)
Maturation: bourbon cask
Cask number24
Bottle count: 271
Region: Highlands (Northern)
Alcohol by Volume: 60.1%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

First, on its own:

Its color is of a sauvignon blanc.  The two largest notes on the nose are butter and lemons.  Buttered burnt toast, pound cake, and buttered rum.  Lemon zest, lemon candy, and lemon Mr. Clean.  In the mid-background there's a whiff of damp cow shed.  Some smaller notes of caramel, chives, and brussels sprouts as well.  Ah ha, another Glen Ord with a barley forward palate.  Creamy in texture and flavor.  Its sweetness is mild at first, then gradually builds with successive sips.  Some ripe peaches and apricots, along with tart lemons.  The butter returns in the finish.  Now the fruits read as limes and dried pineapple.  Some white pepper and vanilla too.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
Grass and mint now appear first in the nose.  A little less butter, the fruits are better integrated.  Maybe a little tropical fruit and salad bar not-really-ripe honeydew slices.  Smaller notes of sugar cookies and lemongrass.  Spicy and fruity (oranges, peaches, and mango) in the palate.  Some sweet caramel and big tartness.  A bit drying on the tongue.  Lots of citrus in the finish.  Mild bitterness and mild sweetness.  A peep of wood smoke, along with hot pepper sauce.

Then, when sampled neatly alongside yesterday's James Macarthur Glen Ord:

The nose is a little different now.  More baked goods, like cream puffs and lemon bars.  Less butter than before, but more confectioner's sugar.  Smaller notes of burnt grains, garlic chives, green onions, orange zest, caramel, and roses.  Big barley again in the palate, this time with yeast in tow.  Tart nectarines, orange zest, oats, and black pepper are also in the foreground.  Lime, vanilla, and brown sugar start to show after some time.  Lime, butter, unsweetened cream, and salt in the finish.  Maybe a little more herbal bitterness than before.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose is full of citrus and flower blossoms.  Lots of apples, sugar, pears, and roasted corn (WTF?).  But it also has a freshness comparable to the JM Ord.  The lightly sweet palate is spicy again.  More barley, but no butter or caramel.  Lemons, limes, and cucumber.  There's a hint of smoke in the finish, again.  Roasted nuts and apple skin.  It's sweet without being cloying.

I knew going into this tasting that Florin, Jordan, and MAO were fans of this one.  But I wasn't fully sold when trying it neatly.  The addition of water really helped it out, opening it up and presenting the spirit's character best.  Comparing it to another Glen Ord also helped bring out other elements and highlighted its crisp barley heart.  (See here for MAO's review.  And here for Jordan's review.  We found many similar notes.)

As recently as a few months ago, this bottling was being sold at an excellent price, especially considering that it's a cask strength single barrel whisky.  If you can still find it for that sub-$70 price, it's a good deal.

Two good to very good Glen Ords so far.  Tomorrow, (spoiler alert) an elder Ord awaits quietly, patiently...

Availability - Happy hunting!
Pricing - I think it was $60-$80
Rating - 85 (with water)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Single Malt Report: Glen Ord 12 year old 1998 James Macarthur

There is a sad lack of Glen Ord reviews on this site, so I'm going to remedy that situation with three straight G.O. reviews this week.  The intros for all of these reviews will be mercifully short because the posts will likely be written long past midnight, possibly with a dram already in my system.

First up, is a review of a Glen Ord bottled by James Macarthur & Co., in their Fine Malt Selection series.  Thus, though it's a single cask, the ABV was reduced to 45% before bottling.  You may see a few of this series lingering around your favorite US whisky specialist; I've spied Highland Parks, Bowmores, Glendullans, Clynelishes, and Mortlachs.

This review is actually from my own bottle (gifted by my Kristen last year).  And this is another instance wherein I had intended to a "Life of a Bottle" review, but I polished off this thing with such haste that all I was left with was one 2oz review sample.

There's a reason the whisky inside the bottle vanished so quickly.  I liked it, a lot.  To get a better sense of how it compared with another Glen Ord, I compared it to another Glen Ord.  I took notes while drinking it on its own, then I took notes during a Taste Off with tomorrow's Ord.  I'll list both sets of notes for this whisky below.

Bottle shot:

Distillery: Glen Ord
Independent Bottler: James MacArthur & Co.
Series: Fine Malt Selection
Age: 12 years (1998-2011)
Maturation: re-fill bourbon casks
Cask number27
Region: Highlands (Northern)
Alcohol by Volume: 45%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

First, on its own:

Its color is straw.  The nose is barley barley barley.  It's very fresh.  Yeah, that's vague.  But it's fresh.  Mingling with the barley are roses, anise, and tangerine pulp.  There are hints of honey and cream, probably from the cask.  A bit of hot cereal and dusty sandy peat.  With air, grass, coconut, and grapefruit notes arise.  Barley is the biggest note in the palate as well.  Think toasted, roasted grains.  Right up front there's some salt and pepper, and very little sweetness.  A bit of a pilsner thing going on as well.  With air, out come the lemons and peppercorns.  A slight bitter earthy note develops, which complements the lemons well.  It has a long effervescent finish (considering its age and ABV) with a spicy tingle and a citrus bite (or the other way around).  The soft bitterness finds its way into some smoke.

WITH WATER (43%-ish ABV)
The nose gets farmier and more herbal.  But it's still mostly barley grist.  Aromatic orange zest and rose blossoms.  Some vanilla beans, roasted coffee beans, and menthol, too.  More roast and toast in the palate.  The bitterness gets bolder; I'm thinking baking chocolate and Campari.  A brown sugar note sweetens things up.  The bitter and citrus notes remain in the finish, as does some peppery spice.  Then hay and vanilla bean appear in the background.

Then, when sampled neatly alongside tomorrow's Glen Ord:

Barley and yeast lead the nose.  Then grapefruit, mango, and apple mint leaves.  Caraway seeds.  As the whisky airs out, rock candy and a hint of moss appear.  Again, barley and yeast in the palate.  Black pepper and oats.  Orange zest, vanilla bean, lime, and tart nectarines.  Brown sugar.  Lots of pepper in the clean finish.  An herbal bitterness meets creamsicle sweetness.

This whisky was recommended to me by two folks.  I asked them each, independently, for a suggestion of a good affordable independent Glen Ord, and they both named this one.  And now I'm happy to recommend the same to you.  If you can find a bottle.

(I wish I could link to a bunch of other reviews saying the same thing.  But I haven't seen anyone else review it.  Oliver K. reviewed its sister cask four years ago and liked it.  And that's about it, I think.)

But here's the disclaimer: The whisky isn't full of rich oak.  It's not a fruit cocktail or a sherry bomb or a peat missile.  But at the same time, it is not under-matured.  Fresh, big on barley, and gentle on cask influence, it's the sort of whisky I wish I ran into more often.

Glen Ord's doing well so far.  Onto another 1998 tomorrow.

Availability - Happy hunting!
Pricing - anywhere from $60 to $90
Rating - 89

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Single Malt Report: Imperial 17 year old 1995 Signatory Vintage for K&L Wines

Tuesday's 1995 Signatory Imperial was decent and drinkable, though much better with water.  That one was sold exclusively through Binny's.  Today's 1995 Signatory Imperial was sold exclusively through K&L Wines.  Please note: This is not the '95 Imperial currently on offer at K&L.  This is the bottling they sold in late 2013.

Imperial Distillery had a rocky existence.  Though it technically stood for 116 years (from 1897 to 2013), it only operated for about 46 of those years thanks to repeated extended closings.  As mentioned on Tuesday, I've found Imperial's single malt to be fruity, simple, and enjoyable.  It's a shame that Pernod Ricard closed and bulldozed the distillery because I could picture Imperial making for a pleasant unchallenging 12+ year old.  But knocked it down they did.

Today, the one on the right. The review for the one on the left
can be found here.
Distillery: Imperial
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Retailer: K&L Wines
Age: 17 years (Aug. 21, 1995 - July 9, 2013)
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask #: 50135
Bottles: 44 of 168
Region: Speyside (Central)
Alcohol by Volume: 52.7%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
Sample courtesy of Eric S.  Thanks, Eric!!!

Like Tuesday's Imperial, this one's color is light gold.  The nose is more vibrant though.  The esters read right between citrus fruits and flower blossoms.  Then vanilla bean meets dandelions meet confectioner's sugar.  With some air, small notes of wood smoke, pine, and cologne develop.  A larger note of peach skin emerges.  The palate is more of a puzzle.  There's a soap note positioned in the foreground and it takes me a while to find my way around it.  There's salt, wood spice, hints of lime and butterscotch and pastry dough.  With time a tartness develops and the soap fades slightly.  The soap shows up again in the finish, though things perk up a little.  Salt, pepper, roasted grains, canned peaches, and dried apricots show up.

WITH WATER (approx. 46%abv)
Honeycomb and beeswax combine with orange and lemon zests in the nose.  The vanilla bean note remains prominent, now combining with cream and bakery scents.  The soap's still in the palate.  Lemon creme and custard show up along with flower blossoms.  Some welcome tartness and herbal bitterness appear.  Less soap now in the finish.  More sugar, more lemon.  Hints of flowers and tartness.

So...the soap.  No one else has referenced this issue.  MAO (K&L zealot that he is) has no mention of it in his notes.  The review by a whiskybase member also doesn't reference it.  And that's about it for online reviews, unless anyone knows of another.

[On a side note, with these K&L bottlings selling out left and right, why are MAO and I the only bloggers reviewing them?  Is it because K&L doesn't send out free samples?  Did Driscoll hurt everyone's feelings with his blogger comic?  Are members of the blogging community not buying their exclusives?  Or are these bottles ending up in everyone's bunkers?  All of the above?]

Because there's no sign of the soap in the nose, I don't think actual soap entered the whisky at any point.  A hint of soap is not a killer, but there's enough of it present here to handcuff the rest of the palate.  Without it, this whisky would probably get a score a point or two higher than Binny's Imperial.  Like Binny's version, this one has the charms of a good blend.  The nose might be better than Binny's's, the palate less hot, and the whole similarly improves with water.

So, for more positive soapless reviews, see the ones I mentioned above.  In any case, this Imperial has been sold out for quite awhile (timely reviews as always!) and the current one on K&L's shelf is from a different cask.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - $84.99
Rating - 76

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Single Malt Report: Imperial 15 year old 1995 Signatory Vintage for Binny's

Time to do a Taste Off between a pair of 1995 Imperials.  Both were bottled by Signatory for individual retailers.  Before this pairing, I'd had only two Imperials (both Duncan Taylors) and found them to be solid B-ish-grade fruity Speysiders.  So I was looking forward to trying more.

It might be my imagination, but 1995 Imperials seem to suffer from "1997 Clynelish Disease".  Certain bloggers/experts/writers have noted that 1995 was a good vintage for Imperial, like 1997 was for Clynelish.  But, like 1997 Clynelish, that perceived higher quality may be due to availability and familiarity.  Per whiskybase, out of the 309 Imperial releases distilled between 1962 and 1998, 111 are from 1995 (or 36% from that year alone).  In fact, since 2010, more than two-thirds of the Imperials released were distilled in 1995 (106/158).  So what we're buying and drinking is almost always from the 1995 "vintage", thus that's what we're most familiar with.  So, BAM, I hope you like how I just knocked the f*** out of that Straw Man.

Anyway, lots of 1995 Imperials out there, about a third of which were bottled by Signatory.  This first one was bottled for Binny's in Chicago, though since it was bottled more than three years ago it's now sold out.

The one on the left today, the one on the right on Thursday
Distillery: Imperial
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Retailer: Binny's
Age: 15 years (Oct. 9, 1995 - July 5, 2011)
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask #: 50314
Bottles: 219
Region: Speyside (Central)
Alcohol by Volume: 57.4%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
Sample from a swap with MAO, thanks MAO!, see his review here

Its color is light gold.  The nose feels a little tight.  At first there's some vague citrus, butter, and pencil shavings.  Once it's aired out, the nose picks up some more fresh fruit (maybe apricot and mango), more butter, and a hint of spice (cumin and pepper?).  There are also some smaller notes of orange peel, chlorine, brown sugar, and lemon cleaner.  The palate is tight as well.  And very hot.  There's some of the nose's fruit in with the butter.  Irish soda bread and more butter.  Tart lemon candy, caramel candy, cinnamon candy.  The finish has bread and butter, spice and ethyl heat, salt and malt.  Sorta plain.

WITH WATER (approx. 46%abv)
The nose gets brighter.  Apple and pear skins.  Lime and butter.  Hints of band-aids and orange pixy stix.  A tart fruit tart and other baked confections.  The palate is sweeter, pleasant like a good blend.  Roasted nuts and grains.  Some orange and peach.  It's still on the hot side of things, but at least it's pretty malty.  The finish is tart, toasty, and lightly grassy. There's a salted lemon in there too.

This is like a cask strength blend, inoffensive aside from being much too hot when neat.  It's also considerably better when reduced to Signatory's UCF series' 46%abv strength.  But while it's decent enough, it's also not much more than that.  In his review from the same exact bottle, My Annoying Opinions has some similar conclusions about the whisky, specifically regarding how closed and hot it was.  Again, this bottle has been sold out.  But if you have one in your stash and the whisky seems a bit off in its first pour, add a little water to your glass.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 81 (with water)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Single Malt Report: Grangestone Double Cask

Total Wine & More has an interesting approach to whisk(e)y.  Their locations (or at least their California ones) have excellent selections of single malts, including an extensive number of independent bottlings.  So they clearly have a knowledgable spirits buyer.  But they staff their stores with folks who don't know anything about these products.  Either they'll admit that whisky isn't their strong point or they'll just make up information.  And this includes the managers.  The first two times I heard the tall tales, I waited until the staff member left and provided some actual assistance to the customers.  In both cases, it was a middle-aged wife looking to get her husband something for his birthday.  After that, I had to ignore it.  They're far from the only liquor retailer with this problem, in fact they're in the majority.  But find it funny that they work so hard to get Exclusive Malts, AD Rattray, Berry Bros. & Rudd, Battlehill, Montgomeries, etc. onto their shelves but are not set up to move the actual bottles.

One of my friends used to work for Total Wine.  This person confirmed that product education was not valued while she worked there.  But what was/is prioritized foremost is the selling their own exclusive labels (I think they're called Spirits Direct products).  For instance, Grangestone is one of their whisky labels.  There are Grangestone blends and single malts, from NAS to 30 years.  And their because Grangestone's prices are very reasonable, I've stared at these bottles for longer than I should have.  But I don't know what's inside the bottles and (due to my experiences) I don't trust their staff to accurately inform me.  It's too bad that SoCal has so many liquor permit issues because a full public Grangestone tasting would be very useful for them (Total Wine) and us (the customers).

Happily, one of my other whisky friends (J.L.R.) received a bottle of Grangestone Double Cask as a Christmas present.  "Happily" for me, not for him.  He was not a fan, but he was more than amenable to part with a review sample.
Photobomb by someone who is not J.L.R.
Listed as "Grangestone Bourbon Cask" on Total Wine's website, the Double Cask is all of $24.99, a reasonable price for an NAS whisky.  The label is sort of vague.  It says that the first maturation happens in "handcrafted white oak casks", while the second maturation happens in "bourbon oak casks".  Since "bourbon oak casks" are in fact handcrafted from white oak, and the vast majority (and least expensive) white oak casks previously held bourbon, we might as well call the whisky, Grangestone Tautology.  Their website is of a little more help, noting that the first pass happens in "traditional American oak", then the second in first fill bourbon casks.  So let's just go with: 1st maturation is refill ex-bourbons, 2nd maturation is first fill ex-bourbons.
Warning: high quality photo!
Label: Grangestone
Retailer: Total Wine & More
Distillery: ???
Type: Single Malt
Region: Highlands
Age: no statement
Maturation: probably refill ex-bourbons and first fill ex-bourbons
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Thank you to J.L.R. for this sample!

It has the dark orange gold glow of added caramel colorant.  The nose starts of with a bit of orange candy.  Then switches directly to cardboard.  Then more cardboard and microwaved plastic fumes.  That's followed by cassia cinnamon, chives, mint, and hay.  After some airing out, notes of vanilla and pear, um, appear.  The palate has a weird amount of heat for a 40%abv whisky.  There's some vanilla and caramel up front.  Then notebook paper and Nilla wafers.  It doesn't air out well, growing sour and developing a case of The Turps.  It does have some texture to it, though.  It finishes with caramel and lemons.  It gets grainier with time and picks up some chlorophyl-ish notes.

Gah! Awful, awful, awful bitter poison. Cutty Sark reborn! Kill it! I tried to stab it with my United boot knife, but succeeded only in cracking the tumbler.

Refreshing, but that's due to all of the club soda I dumped in it.  There may be whispers of apple and vanilla in there though.

I'll start with the positives.  It's not an utter failure like Lismore NAS.  Aside from all of the cardboard notes, the nose isn't bad.  It doesn't taste too poorly as long as one drinks it immediately.  And the highball was consumable.  It's better than Dewar's White and JW Red (as if that was a feat).

Otherwise this is really young whisky.  And while it's possible to have characterful zippy baby single malt, this ain't it.  In fact, this is almost exactly like the current NAS iteration of Canadian Club 1858, with its Nillas, orange candy, caramel, and turpentine.  But what is this whisky in actuality?  Well, the label does say "Highland" on it.  My top three guesses would be in this order: Tomatin, reject Glenmorangie, and Dalmore.

And finally, though the price sounds tempting, there are better things to be found.  At Total Wine (in CA) one can get Glenfiddich 12, Tomatin 12, Glenmorangie 10, Speyburn 10, Chivas 12, and JW Black Label for almost the same amount (or less).  So it's difficult to recommend this on any level.  If the older Grangestones are any better, please let us know in the comment section!

Availability - Total Wine & More
Pricing - $24.99
Rating - 70