The holly bears a berry
Today we're reviewing a Glen Moray of very different character than Single Cask Nation's last bottling. This one is younger - just 7 years old - but matured full term in a first fill Fino ("refined") sherry butt. Ah, the proverbial sherry matchup. Pioneered by Balvenie and Glenmorangie as early as the 1960's (although the method was almost certainly used in antiquity, if less deliberately), sherry butt finishes have become staples of the modern whisky industry. It is not a relationship of unqualified success. Sulfured wine casks, sherry "masking" (using dry, rich sherries to hide flaws in the original spirit), and just plain horrible whisky-sherry pairing choices have left some whisky fans wary of the method. Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid sherry finished whisky.
Just so you know, when you start to ask questions about preferred finishes among whisky geeks, you quickly create an atmosphere that sounds like something out of Sideways: "And if they want to drink sherried whisky, we're drinking sherried whisky." | "No, if anyone orders sherried whisky, I'm leaving. I am not DRINKING ANY F***ING SHERRIED WHISKY!
It can get ugly, and it's rarely attractive. The situation reached a head last year when Jim Murray (of Whisky Bible fame) called out Scotch whiskies on the QA front, saying sulfured cask influences were "[...] a canker on the great and hallowed name of whisky." For what it's worth, many professional tasters are divided on whether Jim is overreacting (and not everyone shares Jim's sulfur sensitivity).
Of course, this Glen Moray features not what you would call a sherry finish. This is full term maturation. Look at that color!
What a beautiful little sherry bomb. Unfortunately, this whisky is just a few months late for the season, as I definitely prefer these strongly sherried Speysides during the winter months (for reasons I'll explain at the end). However, Easter is a poignant and beautiful fulfillment of the promises of Christmas, so perhaps it's appropriate that this whisky arrives on Holy Week. We can then poetically remix "The Holly and the Ivy":
The whisky and the sherry,
Sherry comes in a number of different varieties, but the important thing to remember is that it is a dry, fortified Spanish wine. Even the name "sherry" is an Anglicized form of Xerez (Jerez), a prominent denominacion de origen. In the picture above you may behold Oloroso sherry (left), Amontillado sherry (center, which is also considered "fino"), and a classic Fino sherry (right, probably Jerez Fino) compared side by side. Fino is the lightest and palest of the sherry varieties, and it is notoriously dry. In case you were about to ask, I'm not certain whether the Fino used in this Glen Moray was Jerez, Amontillado, Manzanilla or some other type of Fino. I'm leaning toward the darker varieties (Amontillado, Manzanilla, Manzanilla Pasado, Palo Cortado), but I could be completely wrong. You may be asking yourself then, "How did this tiger (whisky) get its stripes (color)?" Look at those sherries again, then look at that photo of the Glen Moray. The answer, along with the obvious sherry influence, is undoubtably the oak.
The picture above depicts a very helpful cross section of sherry as it matures in an oak barrel. Oak, like any other wood, is "alive" and porous. It will draw the wine in and out of the wood as temperature and humidity cycle with the seasons (this process is also what gives you your whisky maturation and subsequent "browning" of the spirit). You know what else is alive? That yellow layer of foamy yeast called flor floating at the top of the barrel. Once upon a time in early Spain, sherry producers thought this layer of yeast signaled that the wine had gone bad. These barrels were often discarded! We now know that this particular layer of Saccharomyces is important in preventing the wine from over-oxidizing as it ages. Some sherries are deliberately oxidized (i.e. Oloroso) since they never develop flor.
Having established that Fino sherry is this whisky's birthright, let's give it a nose. I find that sherried whiskies respond very well to water (they are great for high-balls, especially the Yamazaki 18 - another famous sherry bomb), so I'm going to bring this 58.8% heat down to proof with a few pipettes.
Already a rich, soft vanilla aroma is filling the room. This sensation, along with a powerful winy rancio and the distinct spiciness of youth, is not at all unlike a Christmas candle burning away in your kitchen while you bake... Christmas sugar cookies? Orange zest and cherry pie filling lurk in the background. Any strong oak influence, other than perhaps an assistance of vanilla (which is starting to seem like classic Glen Moray) is hard to detect under those 7 years of Fino.
Delightfully, the palate lives up to the nose in most respects.
On the palate those Christmasy baking spices dial it up a notch, and it's here where I believe this whisky shows its youth compared to similar offerings from other distilleries. This is strikingly close to Aberlour A'bunadh (another NAS cask strength sherry bomb, matured in Oloroso instead of Fino), with the main difference being that A'bunadh is all toffee where Glen Moray is spice. I would have loved to see what an extra few years maturation could do here, but it's more curiosity than regret. In any case, the spice doesn't last forever and gently fades into caramel-glazed donuts and a nice sherry alcohol. Only at the very end do you pick up a subtle pulse of oaken nuttiness, and that's long after you're licking your lips from this whisky's enormously long and dry finish.
I mentioned that these sorts of drams are largely a winter affair for me, and that's because I find that the dry, tart winy notes expertly complement a whole host of holiday treats, including peppermint, white chocolate, and coffee in most respects. Last Christmas my wife and I paired Aberlour A'bunadh with homemade peppermint white chocolate pretzels and ended up eating almost the entire batch. It also adds a delicious kick to a peppermint white chocolate mocha, for those of you looking to spice up your holiday caffeine experience. Give it a try and you will not be disappointed.
For my Jewish friends at Single Cask Nation, Chag Pesach Sameach (Happy Passover)! To my many Christian friends and family, may you enjoy a wonderful and blessed Easter!
Everything I have,
Hey, you may be a little old for being told to throw your hands up in the air, but this Laphroaig just doesn't care. Consistently one of my most recommended distilleries, Laphroaig makes more whisky than any other distillery on Islay by far. They're just some worka-whisky-holics over there, but the craft shows. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a regular feature in my Friday's Finest series, and last year's Cairdeas expression (matured in port wood) was the runner up to my most Highley Recommended single malt whisky. Laphroaig's table is always a blast at whisky shows, by the way. Friends of Laphraoig who've claimed their "own square foot of Islay" can always ask for what's under the table (or in the boot - trust me) for a taste of something special. It's how I came to describe Laphroaig's 25 year old whisky as "strawberry fields forever" last year. Someday I'll own a bottle. Someday.
I recently hosted a private world whisky tasting with friends and family. We went through a lineup of single malts from St. Louis, Missouri (J.J. Neukomm, cherry wood smoked), Tasmania (Sullivan's Cove American Oak), India (Amrut Fusion), Japan (Hakushu 12yo), and Scotland (SCN bottlings of Glen Moray and Laphroaig). It is telling that this whisky was the biggest crowd pleaser, the real highlight of the evening. As I make my notes on this whisky (in between grilling up some St. Louis ribs), you should know that this bottle screams typical Single Cask Nation in its approach. At only 6 years old, this is a completely different Laphroaig than you're used to. I famously describe it as "the naked Laphroaig," naturally beautiful, ready for the artist's sketch. It is Laphroaig at its most elemental, without any pretext or assumption.
The nose is a beachside BBQ bonfire. There are seaweed rolls, and lamb chops, and kebab, all over a propane grill while the surf crashes just yards away. I'm hard pressed to think of a more obviously maritime presentation, only it's not fishy, and the only dampness is the gristle of sand between your toes. This is one of the cleanest, purest Islays I've come across. The refill hogshead is just pencil shavings in the background. The iodine is powerful, classic Laphroaig, smothered all over with the sensation of a hospital OR that just burnt to the ground.
The palate entry roils across your tongue like a rogue wave, bringing with it clouds of BBQ ash and barrel char. However - surprise, surprise - the fire quickly dissipates into a sweet little sugar bomb! It's like you sprinkled tons of sugar onto heavily caramelized red pepper and then just chomped into it. Juices and pepper char flow between your gums. Delicious clean peat clings to the roof of your mouth like a newly roasted marshmallow. Save this one for block party summer, folks; she's a real beaut!
Believe it or not, there was a time when this whisky was "just another Islay" to me. Until I collected a boatload of Islay. Then I realized: they just don't bottle them like this. This is a true highlight of the independent bottler experience, and I think its relatively modest price point makes this a steal.
I don't want to tease too much, but I just can't help myself as I'm sampling whiskies and grilling away. The whisky fairy came today :-) Stand by for my notes on this sherry bomb Glen Moray!
Today we're moving past Single Cask Nation's sold out bottlings and covering Kilchoman, the little distillery that could. There's a soft spot in many a whisky geek's heart for this distillery. Founded in just 2005, it's the youngest distillery on Islay and the first to be built on the island in 124 years. Kilchoman is a small distillery, a "farm distillery," and everything is done on site: farming, harvesting, malting, distillation, maturation, coopering, and bottling. Soup to nuts, Kilchoman does it all, because Kilchoman cares. They're like the Apple of whisky, making every part of the widget and strictly controlling the entire process. You can probably guess that I'm a fan, and you'd be right.
One of the first things people notice about this whisky is its age. That 4 isn't a mistake, it's a feature! How often do you get to taste a whisky on its way to becoming? (In start-ups who need to see a return on their investment, that's where.) With Kilchoman you're already seeing 4, 5, and 6 year old whisky making its way into bottlings, and it won't be long until the company is putting out 10 and 12 year old expressions. It's similar to Bruichladdich's post-reboot strategy where they bottled PC7, PC8, PC9, etc. while they waited for the whisky to "finish." Lest you're tempted to think that this is ripping off the consumer, you should know that Kilchoman's Machir Bay (a vatting of 4 and 5 year old whisky) took the title of Whisky of the Year at the 2012 International Whisky Competition - the youngest whisky ever to do so. Kilchoman is often described by aficionados as "mature beyond its years," so I would not say that this particular 4 year old cask is unfinished. It is doing what single cask bottlings do best: capturing a snapshot of a great whisky in its youth for posterity. It's whisky scrapbooking. But is it worth the money?
Here I'm going to do some flying by the seat of my pants and capture some first impressions. On the nose, this whisky is young, dirty, fruity, peaty, peppery, and ABV hot (it's 58.4% - cask strength does a body good). Immediately Bruichladdich's Octomore springs to mind as a close cousin. The comparison is apt: both whiskies are young (Octomore is typically bottled at 5 years old, although a 10 year old expression exists), both are intensely peaty, and both present a stunningly rich combination of oils, fruits, and umami on the palate (here I credit both distilleries' use of a longer-than-usual fermentation, typically 96 to 100+ hours). This particular bottling isn't exactly representative of what you'd find in Machir Bay. The pepper and peat are more intense and argumentative. The whisky is more "farmyard" in its character. It is absolutely a close cousin to Octomore, if a bit of a departure for Kilchoman. In fact, I'm stunned to think that this is only peated to somewhere between 20-50 ppm phenols.* Octomores are famous for being the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, and they're well known to be the most treasured and unique whiskies in my collection (Orpheus and Comus). What I'm basically telling you is that you can get a taste of Octomore here for half the price, and that is remarkable. Who's ready for a highland hoe-down?
*Kilchoman grows 25% of the barley used in its maltings on site, with the other 75% coming from Port Ellen. Port Ellen maltings are peated to around 50 ppm phenols (similar to Ardbeg), while Kilchoman's own maltings are peated to around 20-25 ppm. I can't be sure which malting (possibly it was both) was used to fill this cask, but whatever it was the peat is still enormous.
This smells like a whisky from another age. It's earthy and farmy - like you can practically smell the dirt clods and cow paddies (actually not unpleasant). There's a lot of white pepper, tarry ropes, wet steam engine coal smoke, heavy train grease, and smoke n' oakum on the gun decks. What a powerhouse of a nose! It's like few other whiskies you'll ever experience, even if - no, especially if - you're a fan of the Islay style. Prepare to be surprised.
The whisky betrays a little more of its youth on the palate. It's way hot, greasy, and peppery, like the surface of a charcoal grill after you've just had a monstrous 4th of July cookout on it. There's a good malty note, but it's more fruity lambic and less light beer. This is making me wonder how old Talisker's Storm really is, because there are similar malt characteristics at play. The finish is steak seasoning all over your tongue, with peppery heat concentrating on the tip of your tongue and the back of your throat. You can smell it and taste it on your breath hours later.
I really am pleased to have this little crowd pleaser at the back of the cabinet. I often break it out for a teachable moment on whisky maturation, but I need to remember to enjoy it on its own more often. While it's still in stock, I suppose you can too. In either case, you really owe it to yourself to enjoy this little snippet of history in the making if you get the chance. Kilchoman is a distillery that's going places.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
Welcome back! We're making our way through our journal of discontinued casks from the independent bottler Single Cask Nation. Some of you may have asked me about my favorite independent bottler last year, but were disappointed to hear that the membership fee was a little steep (even if it included a complementary bottle of your choice). I don't get paid to shill for these guys (let's be kind, it's hardly "shilling" given the quality of their whiskies), but they have a new "White Lite" level of membership that is just a basic entry fee, giving you access to all of their member whiskies. It's worth it if you're itching to get your hands on the things I'm writing about.
It's worth mentioning that independent bottlers (IB's) are not just for the uber nerds of the whisky underground. Most IB's have a definite mission or vision behind their work. I am of the mind that SCN whiskies stand out because they don't just buy old casks or rare casks (the unique provenance of many IB's), but they specially curate their cask selection for unique whiskies that stand out from the pack. They are the Pandora Radio / Zite App of IB's, taking input from their members (usually straight from their members-only Facebook page) and bottling what they know we'll enjoy. Best of all, despite their affiliation with the Jewish Whisky Society, you don't have to be Jewish or a whisky expert to join. I am neither.
Don't take my word for it though. Before you deep dive into this Benriach, it's worth hopping over to The Coopered Tot to see what he thought of the whiskies a few weeks ago. Pay special attention to the differences in how he approached each bottling. Where I saw deodorant and pickles, he saw vidalia onion and dark, toothy oak. That's the joy of whisky, friends. We each approach it in our own way.
17 years old - I love how so many SCN whiskies defy the arbitrary 10, 12 ,16, 18, 21 year age statements that you find in the core ranges. This Benriach was distilled in 1995 (bottled in 2012), three years before the distillery gave up their own floor maltings for a decade and half. Any Benriach this old today would have been distilled from barley malted offsite by a large malting corporation. Thankfully, the distillery fully resumed the floor malting process in 2013, making it one of only a handful of Scottish distilleries that continue this time-honored tradition (most of them Hebridean). Look at the names of the distilleries who still do their own floor malting: Laphroaig, Bowmore, Kilchoman (Islay represents!), Highland Park, Springbank, the Balvenie, and Benriach. You'll notice that these names are among the short list of those I esteem as the absolute best of Scotch whisky. I don't necessarily think that's because of the floor malting process. I think it's because the floor malting shows these distilleries care.
What strikes you after the age statement is the color of this particular Benriach: such a rich, lustrous gold, like a Yukon stream adorned with bright gold nuggets, heralding the rush you're about to experience. For the longest time I thought this whisky was among the most complex I ever tasted. It's certainly a tough bone to pick, but that's largely because of the way it assaults your senses. At its heart, I think its beauty is really a product of its simplicity. We have here a representative of the rare, heavily-peated Speyside, full of bright floral peat, rich tropical fruits, and classic oak. These elements come together in a way so beautiful you want to cry. Maybe it's the ash from this fire I'm sitting next to...
So much lemon on this nose, backed up by earthy sensations (a product of the peat smoke) like the tea in an Arnold Palmer. It's a country club, genteel sort of fellow. There's a note of old Coca Cola Classic left open for a long time in your grandfather's garage, along with a prickly sort of sensation on the nose from the carbonation (the Coke, not the whisky) - it's still fizzy! At the end I'm getting birthday candles, not blown out yet, with a hint of icing. The execution is flawless, and the smoke truly doesn't overwhelm. Instead, it eeks its way into all of the other elements and imbues them with flavor and personality. Inland peat is different from maritime peat, so there's little of the "boggy" sensation you get with most Hebridean malts.
Well, you can't come all this way and not taste it. I've been catching up with it for days now, and yet now that I'm outside (camping trip) this is showing its truest colors so far.
Lots happening here on the palate. The mouthfeel starts oily but finishes long and dry. You've got a big mouthful of sour Starburst lemon chew at the beginning, backed up by the dry, powdery sweetness of the highland peat. Pez for peat, yay! As the sour, oily sensations fade you're left with bittersweet chocolate morsels left out to in the air too long. Someone spilled some oregano and 7up here. Near the end there's a Tobasco sensation at the back of the throat. Finish is dry. This is from a 2nd fill bourbon cask, so there's not as much bourbon dominating this whisky as in the Glen Moray we covered. The barrel's presence is a whisper, passing on the best of itself in the form of oaken maturity and peat sweetening. I'm a solid fan - this has long been my crown favorite of the SCN bottlings. So far ;-)
My motto's always been, "When it's right, it's right."
I'm kicking myself for not buying another bottle of this when I had a chance (1 of only 238 from the cask, now sold out). This is one sexy whisky, all dressed up in Speyside gentility and then nestled in the loving arms of a Pedro Ximinez (PX) cask for 10 months. 10 months? You'd hardly know it from the color. Although it's actually more along the lines of a rich mahogany, I'm tempted to classify this as a member of the purple food group.
Dalmore is a heavy name to be throwing around these days. Frankly, I'm kind of surprised they parted with this cask (although my notes on the palate will let you know that this just doesn't fit much of their usual flavor profile, making it unsuitable for many blends). You probably know Dalmore for its sterling reputation (it always does well at auction), a recognizable name brand Scotch along the lines of Glen-this or Glen-that but with an ultra premium / luxury status to boot. That, or it's possible you've been drawn into their cigar malt marketing (actually a decent whisky), or it was (absolutely nothing wrong with this) gifted to you because "It's Dalmore. So and so drinks Dalmore so it must be good stuff." Much of Dalmore's celebrity status comes from the gravitas of its master blender, a man you can't not watch talk about his whisky. Take it away, Richard "The Nose" Paterson (an educational experience; I'll wait until you come back).
The nose does not surprise on this whisky. This is one of those drams that lets you know where it's going. "If you like it, you can take it. If you don't, send it right back. I want to be on you." Dalmore, ever the man's man, stands there as confident as ever in his velvet smoking jacket. But there's lipstick on his collar and a sweet, winy perfume all over him. Someone got lucky. I'm getting a monstrous praline hit, suggesting that we may have another froyo match coming on. There's a crunchy bite of Heath bar, all chocolate and toffee like - perhaps this is more Willy Wonka than Ron Burgundy. Raisin Bran and sugar dates underneath it all. C'est magnifique! He's a well respected man about town, doing the best things not conservatively at all. Take a bow, Gene Wilder!
That must have been one frisky PX cask. On the nose it's just right, but on the palate... it's almost too much. It practically crosses the line into a cuvee. In fact, comparing it to other famous PX whiskies I own (Bruichladdich 1992 Sherry Edition, Bruichladdich 407 PX, Auchentoshan Three Wood - not PX exclusive) this takes the cake. Similar to international bitterness units (IBU's) for hopped beer, or phenols for peated whiskies, I am now going to enforce a unitary standard on the PXization of whisky liquids. I'll call it the Cuvee Approachiation Measure (CAM). Auchentoshan's expression earns it a solid 1 on the CAM scale: "Suited to the character of the spirit." Those two Bruichladdichs each earn 2 CAMS: "Enough to alter the dynamic of the spirit in an unusual way." This Dalmore? 2.5 CAMS: "It is dangerous to be this close to 3 CAMS. Only attempt this if you know what you're doing." This whisky knows what it's doing.
The rich fruits don't let up on the palate - they just keep rolling and rolling. Keep in mind that these are sweet, dry, fibrous fruits, not anything like a fruit salad. I'm sitting here grilling a tri-tip out on my porch and this dram combined with a good hickory smoke are making my mouth water for succulent, umami-rich food stuffs. People will compare this palate sensation with "tobacco" or "leather", only because they lack the words to describe the dark, dry, syrupy richness that's swirling in that 46.1% ABV (surprisingly cask strength). Would you eat tobacco? Okay, leather? Right. I'll say this: on the tip of your tongue and the back of your throat you definitely have the impression of a wine. It's spicy, it's tangy, it's full bodied like a Shiraz. On your mid palate this thing goes nuts with the cereals, sugars and classic Dalmore richness. BIIIIG CARAMEL. You can pronounce caramel however you'd like. Now that you've read my notes on the nose, and this paragraph in search of meaning (or vainglorious nosing notes), I'll just post this:
It's a work of dessert art.
Things this whisky pairs well with: friends, special occasions, good unfiltered pipe tobacco, vanilla froyo, pie crusts, romantic anniversaries, daytime lovemaking, night-time lovemaking, baby showers, blind dare tastings, and quiet readings on a porch. Possibly I have experienced all of these.
The Colorado rocky mountain high,
Maybe it's because I just returned from the Rockies, but I'm feeling pure Rocky Mountain High all over this glass. I just poured myself a dram of Single Cask Nation's first Glen Moray bottling, a 12 year old, first fill bourbon barrel expression that was one of only 148 bottles from the cask. This is my second review* of a Nation whisky so far. Yesterday I wrote about the whisky that started it all, a 12yo Arran finished for 4 years in a pinot noir cask. I'm going through all of their original (now sold out) expressions until I make my way up to their current line-up.
*[Regarding reviews: unless I say otherwise in the write-up, I only review stuff that I like** or that leaves a deep impression on me. I'll pen my notes on origin, craftsmanship, and tasting, and I'll even tell you how much I seem to like it and compare it to what I already know. My "reviews" are more like a journal in that respect. Nevertheless, I'm still happy to tell you what I think about the usual stuff.]
**[Which means you should totally seek out the drinks you read about in this section; again, unless I am warning you otherwise.]
This is my only real experience with a Glen Moray, so it's hard for me to know what I'm supposed to expect on the nose. Like many Speyside whiskies, the origin doesn't really help here as "Speyside" the style is often quite different from "Speyside" the specific distillery. This particular Glen Moray cask presents more like a highland whisky, all light and buttery oaked, not entirely unlike Glenmorangie's Astar. The light, heathery sweetness makes this drink quite palatable for whisky newcomers, or when you're trying to show off the many unique facets of Scotch whisky style. I've even had great success drizzling this whisky on vanilla froyo and peach custard (yes, you really should).
Of course, it's not all Scotch you're getting on the nose. That first fill bourbon cask leaves its mark with delicious buttery sourdough and rye spices. Don't confuse the rye spice for an oak spice, it's definitely a high-rye bourbon imprint we're dealing with here. The oak leaves its mark with a cool mountain lake of vanilla. Underneath the bakery we have hints of highland flowery shrubs and lichens, with a warm field of granite evaporating off an early summer rain.
My mouth is already watering. I've added water to open up the whisky's nose a bit, but this is one of those rare whiskies that you can actually sip at cask strength (56.1% ABV) and not worry about the alcohol burn: "neat and sweet." I love letting this one sit on the palate for a while.
The sweetness jumps out at you in the form of pure, tangy honeysuckle honey, not that sugary processed honey you buy in the little plastic bears. There may even be a honeycomb waxiness here. The rye spices come marching in, and I'm starting to wonder if I sipped a bourbon for a moment. Then the fruity malt shows up and I'm back in the highlands. This is just a delicious little dream of a dram, but I'm not done yet. I have an experiment in mind.
I'm going to add an equal dose of Breckenridge Bitters to my glass and see what happens. It seems everyone is making their version of a "bitters" these days (which are basically just infused vodkas unworthy of names like "citron" and "razz"), but Breckenridge has something special on their hands. As legend would have it, their master distiller personally hikes up above 8,000 ft (which Breckenridge, the "world's highest distillery," basically is anyway) and gathers the herbal ingredients for this highland infusion. There's something distinctly "Colorado" on the nose of these bitters (if you've ever been hiking up near tree line, you'll recognize the aromas immediately), but here's the bottom line: it is basically an American Drambuie! It even looks the part.
The combination of Breckenridge Bitters and this buttered up Scotch is superb! I'd be tempted to muddle in some fruit and put it all on ice for a tipple. I think Breckenridge imagined the potential of pairing their bitters with their bourbon as being an Americanization of the Rusty Nail. It works beautifully, I can attest to that, but then I almost prefer the marriage on display here. A Scotch barley malt, matured in American bourbon barrels, mixed with American bitters not unlike its close Scottish cousin, and matured in Scottish terroir. The Pond is shrinking by the hour.
We live in cities you'll never see on screen,
I'm a big fan of Single Cask Nation, an independent bottling company with a sweet Hebrew flair (not a community requirement). I first met these guys at Whisky Live NYC in 2013, pouring away their first three bottles and generally having the time of their life. Less than a year later, I was privileged to represent the Nation and pour alongside co-founder Joshua Hatton at Whiskey in the Winter (St. Louis). I've also collected every single release SCN has put out. Believe me when I say to you that this is about as fun as whisky imbibing can get: cask strength, single cask, independent bottling. All of this time I have been asking myself, "Why haven't I reviewed these amazing drinks?"
Well, I'm a bit late to the game now. 4 of the first 6 bottlings have sold out (only available online), and as such are passing quickly into the annals of history. This particular cask, a 12 year old Hebridean malt, yielded only 277 bottles. The two I own will never happen again. When they're gone, they're gone! A whisper in the wind. This is the magic of single cask bottlings. They exist as a wrinkle in time.
I've chosen to review the Arran bottling first, because it's the whisky that won me over to Single Cask Nation. It was so utterly unique that I knew I'd never stumble across something quite like it again. This spirit was distilled in 1999 and spent its first 8 years in a first fill bourbon barrel. It then spent its last 4 years in a first fill pinot noir cask. "Whoa" is right. Check out what's happening in the nose.
There's an enormous, spicy, pungent hit of Brisa Tropical deodorant. This whisky's like a tweenager who still hasn't figured out how much cologne to wear to the dance. I know what song I'm going to use now (pastes the URL into the plug-in above). The scent lingers long after the whisky has left the room. There are some growing pains going on here, so strange for a 12 year old (whisky). The oily, pickle brine explodes from the glass. Underneath all this there's some soft, tumbling surf, sandalwood, and a distant hint of sun dried agave. It's been a while since I've really sat and nosed this one, but it never gets familiar. Let's taste it.
It's hot, as in oleo capsicum hot, but it's not all the 54.8% ABV. Hot pepper spices and cilantro rise up your sinuses, then unfold into something sticky and sweet on the palate - like a s'more with crispy burnt marshmallows. Kids and their junk food. You can still feel the chili heat on your lips, like when you get a little overzealous with the salsa in your scrambled eggs. Speaking of breakfast, here comes the blood orange marmalade. The finish is long and oily and no I will not drink water because I want it to last forever. I may just have to finish this bottle tonight.
I can't wait to review the others. Coming tomorrow, a very creamy delicious Glen Moray. I'll keep posting one a day until we catch up to the current inventory. Hope that Catoctin Creek travels quickly...
Boys you can break,
If single malt whiskies are the boys in the yard (strong, rugged, handsome) then blended whiskies are arguably the finer sex: light, smooth, and demure, with curves instead of blunt angles. That's because blended whisky (in this case, we're specifically talking blended Scotch whisky) must include some grain whisky in the final blend recipe. This distinguishes blended whisky from a blended malt, since a blended malt eschews the addition of unmalted grain spirit and sticks with a pure mixture of single malt whiskies. "Grain whisky" could refer to just about any fermented and distilled grain wort, but in Scotland it tends to be made from unmalted barley.
Grain whisky is typically produced in continuous column stills, which can purify the distillate to a rather insane (compared to multiple runs in a pot still) 94-plus percent ABV. That's close to the natural limit of modern distillation techniques, and the resulting spirit tends to be very fine, sweet, and "neutral" ethanol. That ethanol is aged in oak barrels like any other Scotch whisky, and over time the alcohol evaporates faster than the water which brings down the proof (water is frequently added before bottling to accomplish this as well). This is not at all unlike the production processes behind many Irish, Canadian, and American whiskies. In fact, you'll notice that blended whiskies naturally deliver that desired "smoothness" that many American whisky drinkers swear by. That could be part of the reason that the vast majority of Scotch whisky sold is actually bottled and sold in the form of blends.
I just told you that with blended whisky, master blenders choose to marry single malt whiskies with base malts and grain whiskies to create an entirely new drink. What John Glaser over at Compass Box has done with Hedonism is something quite unusual. It's a blend of only grain spirits (i.e. not malted barley), chosen by the barrel from undisclosed Lowland distilleries (there are dozens). These grain whiskies are of "varying ages", some old, some rare, but all come from first fill American ex-bourbon casks. That little detail will exhibit some signature trademarks as we dive into the nose. Actually, "dive into the nose" sounds kind of gross, so we'll just "loiter above the nose"... or something. Let's do this.
That first fill bourbon cask has dumped all kinds of sweet, bourbony goodness into this neutral spirit, giving it a distinct tequila character similar to Don Julio Anejo. In fact, at first sniff, I'd challenge you to tell the two spirits apart. Alongside the barrel-aged agave spirit we have coconut cream pie, mint chip ice cream, and a slight sensation of rubbing alcohol. I'm already looking forward to tasting this. Shall we?
C'est magnifique! It's actually a bit flatter (probably the alcohol heat; water tames the fire) on the palate than expected, but it opens to a huge, earthy agave spice very similar to a rested tequila. That spice is quickly drowned in a cream soda with extra fizz, followed by a touch of cognac. I'd reckon this would make a great aperitif, or even a Sidecar if you're mixing. The finish is not overly long, but leaves with a bit of pleasant, buttered sourdough (real butter, not margarine).
I'm not sure what I expected from a grain whisky, especially unmalted barley, but it wasn't this. The comparison to other distilled spirits (tequila, cognac) is as apt as it is curious, and the oak influence - apart from the bourbon and vanilla notes - really doesn't make its presence known. It's good whisky, great even (as long as you weren't expecting Springbank or Aberlour) and I'm thinking I'm always going to try to have a bottle on hand for educational purposes. Hedonism really isn't all about the glory of grain whisky, it's about showcasing grain whisky's contribution in a solid way. If you can find, it is worth the exploration and the understanding. Plus, in an age when whisky prices are running amok, Compass Box tends to be something of a steal.
Maybe we will meet again, further down the river,
In the early 1930's, Masataka Taketsuru left his job at Suntory's Yamazaki distillery - the "true birthplace of Japanese whisky" (Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014) - and toured Japan in search of a place to make the perfect, traditional Japanese single malt. Taketsuru was a rugged individual who helped found Japanese whisky in the 1920's. The heir of generations of sake brewers in Hiroshima, Taketsuru actually traveled to Scotland to obtain a degree in organic chemistry from the University of Glasgow in 1919. He then spent time living and working at Scottish distilleries before returning to Japan.
"That's great, Mr. Alchemist. Skip to the good stuff."
Wait for it, dear reader. The most important part of this story is where Taketsuru-san spent time living and working in Scotland: Campbeltown, a titan of distillation in its prime but home to only 3 functioning distilleries today. Campbeltown is the home of Springbank single malt whisky, a whisky startlingly close to Yoichi single malt in both quality and complexity. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Yoichi is Springbank's closest cousin ... on the other side of the world. How does this happen?
Campbeltown does incredible things making whisky in the old ways (i.e. open-oil firing of the stills). Yoichi is no exception. Taketsuru chose Yoichi as the location for Nikka's first distillery because he felt the terroir best resembled Scotland (Yoichi is situated on Hokkaido, Japan's northern-most island). The stills are traditionally coal-fired. There is no micro-barrel distillation here; instead, time and provenance take their course. Yoichi is, in a very deliberate sense, proof that you don't have to reinvent the lyne arm to make stunning and delicious whisky that appeals to consumers. In an age where craft distillation is booming in a way similar to craft brewing of yore, too many distillers see a need to cut corners or do something novel to make their spirit and story stand apart. Yoichi just isn't playing that game, and it's certainly not suffering for that decision.
The Yoichi 15 year old is leaning towards the older end of Nikka's core range of single malts. I'm not certain about the barrel-maturation make-up here, but I know Nikka's coopers work in sherry butts, ex-bourbon barrels, and Japanese oak alike. Honestly, judging from the nose, I wouldn't be surprised if all three are represented here in some fashion.
The nose presentation is extremely complex. Since it's so difficult to grab one thing at a time out of this one, I'm going to settle for an exercise in comparisons. In the breakdown I'm getting a definite sherry finish, similar to something like Balvenie's Double Wood but more subdued. There's also a strong, deliciously creamy bourbon-note here, similar to Single Cask Nation's 12 year old Glen Moray (matured entirely in a first fill bourbon barrel) or Hakushu's Bourbon Barrel. This adds up to dried dark fruits (figs, dates) swimming in creme brûlée while someone cooks with teriyaki just over in the kitchen. There are delicate hints of toasted oak (not as oak-forward as a Scottish highland malt) along with a very subtle campfire smokiness, certainly in the sub-10 parts per million. I know very few whiskies this complex and well integrated, and even fewer Japanese whiskies in particular. It's one of the reasons this was a finalist for my Highley Recommended single malt of the year.
Let's try the palate. (Gasp)... TWIST! That nose was just playing with us!
The smoke delivers right up front, certainly more than you'd expect from sub-10 ppm. It is tightly integrated with that bourbony cream flavor in a way that creates a slight drying spice on the palate, almost like sampling a spoonful of nutmeg and burnt coffee grounds (soaked in Texas Pete hot sauce). There are boatloads of umami going on here, just tons and tons of it. Since I lack the skills to adequately describe this sensation without going into glutamates and nucleotides, I'll just post a picture of where you get it on the tongue. And boy, do you GET IT. There's a certain salty seafood broth aspect to this, although it's hard to say if this comes from Yoichi's location as it is just about a kilometer from the coast. We're totally going down the rabbit hole now, as sour lime juice lurks down there somewhere along with fibrous, pitted dates. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you. What a journey!
What really sets this whisky apart is just how tightly integrated and structured all of its disparate elements are. The finish (which is long on the spice and heat) is a testament to the monumental deliciousness of what you've just experienced: a journey that would be fraught with peril in most other distilleries' hands. If you can find a bottle of this whisky (rarely available in stores, although much more widely available online) it is worth every penny. Its unique Japanese terroir combined with Scottish craft ensures you'll have special story to tell.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
One of three remaining distilleries in Campbeltown (a distilling region all to itself), Springbank produces some of Scotland's most stunning and complex single malt whiskies. All of them possess terrific, pioneering, and masculine names like something out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel: Straight-Tongue, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, Longrow, Hazelburn, Springbank (ok, so only those last three are whiskies). All of them are unique in their own right, despite coming from Springbank: The Distillery. Longrow is distilled twice and heavily peated to around 50-55 ppm phenols. Hazelburn is distilled three times and is unpeated. Springbank is the most complex of the bunch, being distilled two and a half times (I'll explain what that means some other time) and being mildly peated to around 12-15 ppm. I found this particular bottle hiding away in Middle Earth (Arkansas) in a small, expertly-run liquor store on Christmas Eve. It was surrounded by three different single cask bottlings of 12 year old Springbank and two other bottlings of Hazelburn (one since discontinued). Woe, that I have but a limited budget for holiday whiskey!
I have most recently tried Springbank's 12 year old cask strength expression, but in this case I wanted to venture off the beaten path and try something truly unique. This particular single cask was matured in a refill sherry hogshead (the type of sherry was not specified). Only 281 bottles of it will ever exist, which by my iPhone calculator means that I am drinking approximately 1/281th of all of this liquid that will ever exist. There were 3 bottles left at the store (Colonial*SNEEZE*LittleRock*COUGH), but for how much longer...
While you're chewing away at that, I'm sitting here puzzling over this liquid's color. I didn't expect a refill hogshead to contribute much to the color (or the flavor, really), but this goes beyond the pale (pun fully intended). No, really, it's a super-light yellow, much lighter than I'm used to in an 11 year old. When you add water - which you should certainly do at 57.1% ABV - it gets even crazier. I'm calling it a slightly greenish straw color. Limeade? Meh. By color alone, you'd worry that there's not gonna be much there.
Boy would YOU be wrong. The nose is massive and complex, distinctly bright and Springbanky with tons of sprightly peat smoke whisping about. I'm getting lemon chews, tons of pencil shavings, dried banana chips, horse's stables filled with hay and sawdust, nectarine rind, magic marker (black), and something a bit like the exhaust fumes of an original 1967 Mustang as you ride down a road in winter with your sunroof open. There's an elusive hint of something like pickle juice lingering underneath it all that lends an oily character to the whole affair. Beautiful!
Initial entry on the palate is dry and hot, a bit like biting into a chili pepper. That heat chases the smoke right through your sinuses, only the sensation here is ever so sweet, vegetal, and intensely minty, like chewing up a pack of Trader Joe's Green Tea Mints. That minty freshness morphs into a mellow, malty sweetness about halfway through, like licking brewer's malt extract off your fingers. Green hay smoke, green tea mints, and grapefruit notes linger on the extremely long finish (which you can still taste at least half an hour afterward). The traditional Springbank oiliness is held greatly in check, presenting itself only through a persisting umami quality in the barley malt itself. What a delightful departure!
I'm supremely pleased with this choice! It certainly benefits from being bottled at cask strength (raw cask at that - you can see bits of barrel char floating around in the bottle!), and the sweetness comes out in droves with the addition of water. I can't wait to try my turn at a Hazelburn in the near future. Slainte, friends, and a merry new year!
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.