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!
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.
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.