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 ;-)
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.