Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Caol Ila 15YO Bottle & Box

Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.

This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.

The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.

Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.

120.78 proof.

B+ / $120 / malts.com

Event: IPOB Offers Pinot with a Twist

San Franciscans, please join me on March 16 at the Metreon City View for In Pursuit of Balance, a tasting of California pinot noir and chardonnay that has an honest-to-God manifesto behind it. IPOB is a group of producers “seeking a different direction with their wines, both in the vineyard and the winery. This direction focuses on balance, non-manipulation in the cellar, and the promotion of the fundamental varietal characteristics which make pinot noir and chardonnay great – subtlety, poise and the ability of these grapes to serve as profound vehicles for the expression of terroir.”

You can get your lips around these wines — and these are some excellent producers, I can attest myself — in just over a week. To wit:

On March 16 (from 6 to 9 pm), thirty-three of California’s top wineries will share their wines at In Pursuit of Balance, an event created in 2011 to celebrate balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Joining those wineries will be nine of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, including SPQR, Nopa, Bar Tartine and RN74. IPOB represents a unique opportunity to taste thirty-three of the finest California pinot and chardonnay producers in a focused setting. As one of the most exciting and controversial movements in California wine, IPOB has been covered by, among others, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Food + Wine Magazine.

Tickets are $125, and you can nab them here. (Not in SF? IPOB is also headed to Houston and Japan.) Cheers!

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Brora 35YO Bottles & Box

Whisky #2 of 11 for Diageo’s 2014 special releases is a familiar one: Brora 35 Years Old, which is being issued for the third time in three years.

Distilled in 1978, this is a classic expression from a long-shuttered distillery. (Shuttered in 1983, there can’t be much Brora left out there.)

The nose is a beautiful, old Highlands classic, offering a melange of fruit, Sauternes, nuts, and wisps of smoke. The whisky attacks the palate with buttery sweetness, bright fruit — apples, citrus, and a bit of banana — then mellows out as the woodier, more maritime notes take hold. The distinct salt and seaweed notes are stronger here than in recent years, with the finish pushing on toward iodine and more smokiness than the nose would indicate. It’s this fireside character that lingers for ages, until you cut it again with a sip of that sweet nectar that comes on like sweet relief.

Simply gorgeous and hard to put down (as always), if you enjoyed Brora’s 2013 or 2012 special edition releases, well, pull out your wallet.

97.2 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A / $1,250 / malts.com

Review: Benrinnes 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Benrinnes 21YO Bottle & Box

One of the most anticipated annual events in Scotch whisky is now upon us: Diageo’s Special Releases, antiquities both old and new (mostly old) from some of Scotland’s most storied distilleries. We’ve covered these releases for a few years, and 2014 (as each is formally labeled) presents us a bigger bounty than usual: 11 whiskies from some old friends and some new ones, too.

2014 Diageo Rare Malts

We’ll be reviewing one spirit a day for the next 11 days, so keep coming back to get the lowdown on the whole series.

Our first Diageo 2014 review is from Benrinnes, an active Speyside distillery that was best known for a curious triple distillation method, unusual for Scotland. This was abandoned in the 2000s, but this 21 year old would have undergone the process back in 1992 when it was distilled. There are no ongoing, distillery-issued Benrinnes bottlings produced today, so this release (the first in five years) comprises just a handful of the few casks that will get the “official” seal.

At 21 years old, Benrinnes showcases a mild, malty nose redolent with nuts, toast, and fresh grains. The palate is something else entirely. Huge fruit notes start things off: apple cider, currants, and orange peel. There’s a somewhat musty undertone to this, but it’s beat out by the other elements. The body is chewy and oily, the finish lasting, warming, and grounded by its grainy roots — just hinting at smoke at the very end. This is a whisky with a lot going on — but fortunately the fruit and the malt elements remain in harmony throughout the experience. None of the characteristics here are entirely unexpected, but the way Benrinnes brings them together is well worth considering.

113.8 proof. 2,892 bottles produced.

A- / $400 / malts.com

Review: Bender’s Whiskey Small Batch Rye 7 Years Old Batch #2

bender's whiskey

What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.

Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.

For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.

In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.

B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com

Review: Glenmorangie Tusail

Tusail Bottle & Carton (White)

The Glenmorangie Private Collection continues to grow, with Tusail the latest launch from this Highlands producer. The focus on this one isn’t a special barrel-aging regimen (typical for Glenmorangie), but rather it’s a unique type of barley used to make the whisky. In Glenmorangie’s own words:

The 6th release from Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition, Tùsail is the product of a carefully-selected parcel of Maris Otter barley, floor-malted by hand using traditional techniques, and non chill-filtered. A rich winter variety of barley first introduced in 1965, Maris Otter was bred specifically to meet the demand for a high quality brewing malt and recognized for its ability to impart rich, rustic malty flavours. Now used only by a select few who continue, like Glenmorangie, to uphold an ethos of sacrificing yield for quality by using only the finest ingredients, the result is a whisky celebrating the variety’s renowned taste profile.

This is an exotic and curious expression of Glenmorangie. The nose features cereal notes backed by lots of sugared fruit — pears, tangerine, and some honey on the back end. The body is driven heavily by the grain, but it’s tempered with notes of cinnamon toast, pears (or pear-sauce, if that exists), and a bready, malty chewiness. The finish is racy and hot, really a bit of a scorcher at times, pushing a bit of fruitcake character blended with pear cider. Ultimately, Tusail isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like. I understand the desire to showcase the grain, but said grain just isn’t integrated well enough with the fruity components of the spirit, leaving behind a whisky with two faces. Both are interesting, but they seem to still be struggling against one another for dominance.

92 proof.

B / $125 / glenmorangie.com

Review: Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey and Single Malt Straight Rye

old potrero 18th centuryOld Potrero is the craft distilling arm of San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling, and in addition to a number of gin and unaged whiskey products, it also produces a handful of aged spirits under the OP label.

Today we look at two extreme oddities, both made 100% malted rye, which means the rye has been partially germinated in the same way that malted barley, the key ingredient of single malt Scotch whisky, is made. Malting rye is hardly common, and that’s hardly the only trick up OP’s sleeve when it comes to producing these two spirits. It has also been pointed out that both of these whiskeys are technically “single malts,” though neither is what you would expect from the phrase.

Thoughts follow.

Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey – This is a 100% malted rye whiskey that is aged for 2 1/2 years in barrels that are not charred — by far the standard in American whiskey — but are rather merely toasted. Both new and used barrels are incorporated into the production process. It’s extremely unusual from the choice of grain to the exotic barrel program, and it shows in the finished product. At heart this is a young spirit, racy on the nose with raw wood, raw grain, and a bit of hospital character. The body is almost astringent — so much wood character has leeched into this spirit that it’s drained of just about everything else. There’s a little bit of peppery rye up front, but this fades to a fiery, almost smoky, medicinal character in the finish. It’s, sadly, difficult to really dig into. 102.4 proof. C / $65

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye – This is another 100% malted rye whiskey, but it’s aged for 3 1/2 years in traditionally charred oak barrels. Often referred to as Old Potrero’s “19th Century Style Whiskey,” it has a more modern construction to it altogether. The nose offers the cereal character of many a craft whiskey, though there’s plenty of the medicinal funk of the 18th Century Style to go around. The palate is initially tempered nicely with sweetness — butterscotch and toffee — but this fades to a more breakfast cereal character within a few seconds. The finish brings up more of those pungent wood notes, and a modest amount of menthol-laden medicinal character, but again it hints at some caramel and coffee character from time to time that elevates the drinking experience to something much more intriguing. Released seasonally with a fluctuating alcohol level, the expression we reviewed (there’s no vintage/batch or other identifying information on my sample bottle) is bottled at 90 proof. B / $70

anchordistilling.com

Review: The Legendary Hatfield & McCoy Whiskey

hatfield and mccoy whiskey

Much has been made about the authenticity of the genealogy behind Hatfield & McCoy whiskey — a new spirit allegedly being produced by blood relatives of the infamous West Virginia-vs.-Kentucky clans who put aside their differences to sell hooch. I won’t rehash the who’s-who behind this new brand or whether this is just an attempt to capitalize on some famous names. My concern here is for what’s in the bottle, and I’ll leave the politics for the comments or elsewhere.

As for what’s in the bottle, it’s sourced* whiskey, bottled in South Carolina by Local Choice Spirits on behalf of the bottler. It’s also a flavored whiskey, though that’s buried in the press release and not disclosed on the label — not that they have to, as this is just “whiskey,” not bourbon, even though it’s made from a mash of “corn, barley, malt, and special strains of yeast.” (Barley and malt are generally terms used to describe the same thing… but I’m digressing again.)

Anyway, we tasted it, and here’s what we have to say.

The nose is restrained and initially a bit difficult to parse. There’s not a whole lot to report, just some floral notes amid some of the dust, a bit of apple and caramel, and indistinct baking spices. The body has little more to report, offering a surprisingly dry palate with notes of banana, butterscotch, and cigarette smoke. The finish features elements of sea salt and tar, along with a touch of cedar chest. It’s a bit on the watery side, too. I’m not sure what this whiskey is flavored with, but maybe it needs more of it? Or less?

80 proof.

*Hatfield & McCoy responds that this whiskey is not “sourced,” saying:

The whiskey was created by 10 direct ancestors of the original feuding families (five Hatfields and five McCoys) using a combination of authentic, original family recipes that had been used privately for generations. The families selected Local Choice Spirits, a distillery based in Charleston, South Carolina, to produce, bottle and ship the liquid using precise specifications and ingredients as outlined in the recipe. Legendary Hatfield & McCoy Family Brand Whiskey is not a “sourced” whiskey.

C+ / $40 / legendaryhatfieldandmccoy.com

Review: 2013 Menage a Trois Chardonnay California

Menage a Trois 2012 Chardonnay Hi Res Bottle ShotThis year’s expression of California Chardonnay from Menage a Trois is a tough one, loaded with vanilla candy to within an inch of its life, and balanced only by a hint of caramel apple and a twist of lemon on the finish. Cloying and mouth-coating from the get-go, it grabs you by the sweet tooth and never lets up. Enter at your own risk.

D+ / $8 / menageatroiswines.com

Review: Arkansas Black Applejack

arkansas HI-RES

As far as local spirits go, for me, there’s nothing more local than Arkansas Black Applejack. It’s made by a husband and wife that live right around the corner from me, from Arkansas Black apples (hence the name) plus some Golden Delicious. The applejack is actually produced in Oregon at Clear Creek, after which it is aged in a mix of French Cognac and American Bourbon barrels.

Each bottle is a limited-cask bottling; the sample I tried came from a 2014 batch of just 2 barrels. (In 2015, 10 barrels are on tap for bottling.)

This is about as pure an expression of applejack as you’re likely to find in America today. The nose if immediately filled with baked apples — and a little bit of the funkiness you expect to see in a craft apple brandy. Bittersweet but authentic, the body is powerful with chewy apple notes, vanilla caramels, and baking spices. Initially quite sweet, almost like a grape brandy, it edges toward bitter as the palate takes hold, with the wood influence becoming more expressive. The finish balances these elements, offering a sugary zing tempered by notes of apple cider, root beer, licorice, and some savory herbs.

98 proof. Reviewed: Batch A, barrel TL-1, bottle #273.

A- / $50 / via facebook