Tasting 2015 Bruichladdich Releases with Distiller Jim McEwan

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Since Bruichladdich was reopened in 2001, just one man has been running the stills: Jim McEwan. A veteran from Bowmore (where he began working as a cooper at age 15), McEwan has overseen some 300 different bottlings of Bruichladdich during its wild first decade (and change) of production. When Remy Cointreau famously bought Bruichladdich in 2012, the distillery’s notoriously scattershot inventory was reined in, with the company focusing on a more targeted and more closely curated range of expressions.

I sat down with McEwan in San Francisco to taste through eight current and upcoming releases, and one thing was made clear. You might be able to tame the number of SKUs that Bruichladdich is churning out, but you’ll never get rid of the distiller’s sense of adventure and experimentation. Case in point: His next trick involves 100 tons of barley given to farms in eight regions within Scotland, which has now been turned into whiskey and is aging in identical barrels on Islay. The results, when these spirits are matured and released in 2018, will demonstrate exactly how terroir impacts malt whiskey.

Until then, here are some brief thoughts on a guided (but unfortunately short) tour through eight of Bruichladdich’s finest current-release spirits follow.

The Botanist Gin – McEwan’s baby. A traditional, classic dry gin with a twist. Distilled from neutral alcohol and studded with 22 botanicals. Still a gorgeous, supple spirit. Recently repackaged. A [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Scottish Barley The Classic Laddie – This is a 7 year old version of the beloved Laddie Ten (which you’ll see again in, well, 3 years). Made from barley grown all over Scotland. 25% aged in sherry casks. Rich and honeyed, with a significant sherry influence. Big mouthfeel, big bite on the finish. A-

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 – Made exclusively from Islay-grown barley, the first such barley grown on the island since World War I. Not peated, but it offers salt and maritime notes, a lot of malt character, and a touch of iodine. A great dram. A

Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 4.1 23 Years Old – McEwan is a bit smug about Black Art, which is a well-aged whisky made from mysterious sources — involving a huge variety of barrel types of which McEwan will say nothing. It’s intended to “intrigue the consumer” and is a bottling McEwan says was made as “a protest” to the bullshit stories that distilleries are so fond of peppering their back labels with. Black Art hasn’t always been a favorite of mine, but 4.1 is drinking with a better balance, with nice chewiness and plenty of wine barrel influence to it. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Scottish Barley – The first of two PC releases tasted today, this peaty dram sees some wine cask aging, which gives it so much fruit it almost goes toe to toe with the peat. Same deal as above; this is made from Scotland-only barley, from all over the country. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley – Made only from the Islay barley mentioned above. This is a brand new release that also sees some wine casks for aging. It’s a searing whisky with lots of peat and seaweed in the mix. Nice balance. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Classic Octomore, ultrapeated to 157ppm, which gives it a dense smokiness and a barbecue-like sweetness out back. I’ve grown used to Octomore, but compared to 6.3 (see below) it’s a bit of a bore… 14 proof. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3 – In the nomenclature of Bruichladdich, .1 bottlings are global releases, .2 are for travel retail, and .3 denotes whisky made from Islay barley. This is the first .3 Octomore, and it’s easily the best rendition of this spirit ever. Peated to an absurd 245ppm — the most heavily peated whisky ever released by a mile — this 5 year old spirit (bottled in a frosted bottle instead of the usual black) is remarkably gentle on its own despite bottling at 128 proof. Some floral elements emerge along with vanilla, and it isn’t until you add a substantial amount of water that the peat really starts to kick up. Even then, it’s well integrated, balanced, and just lovely to sip on. Available April 2015 for about $225 (good luck). A+

bruichladdich.com

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Review: NV Ferrari Perle Trento DOC

stilllife 012This sparkler is made in the same method as Champagne, but in Trento, Italy, located in the far north of the nation, midway between Milan and Venice. Made from 100% Chardonnay. It’s a fresh and flavorful wine that lands somewhere between Champagne and Prosecco in most of the facets of its construction.

Fizzy, but not too fizzy, it’s big with apple and peach notes and a touch of lemon oil up front. As it evolves, a touch of walnut, some light notes of roasted meats, and hints of red berry fruit come to the fore. Watch for a touch of floral character — white, springtime flowers — particularly on the nose as the wine opens up in the glass.

A- / $35 / ferraritrento.it

Review: 2012 Flora Springs Trilogy

flora springs trilogy2012’s bottling of the Bordeaux-style Trilogy is composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 6% Malbec, and 6% Petite Verdot — another quartet of grapes for a wine named for threes. It’s another knockout vintage, offering a lush core of cherries, currants, and plum, well-laced with notes of chocolate sauce. Beautiful perfume on the nose offers violet notes but also a mix of fresh and dried herbs, with a lightly tannic kicker. Very well crafted and ready to go now.

A- / $75 / florasprings.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Sixteen

This is it! The end! The last 12 bottles in the unfathomably ambitious Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project have arrived. I’ll be offering some in-depth coverage of the lessons learned from the project in the months to come — more on this later — but for now it’s time to consider this last dozen whiskeys on their own merits. Meanwhile, hats off and glasses raised to Buffalo Trace for putting on such an impressive and — likely — industry-shaping experiment.

Need a primer on the Project? Here’s the entire Single Oak Project:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve
Round Thirteen
Round Fourteen
Round Fifteen

This final round is a mixed bag of basically the leftovers in the project. The only constants are stave seasoning (6 months) and barrel char level (#4). Everything else — recipe, entry proof, wood grain, warehouse type, and tree cut varies. As always, all expressions are bottled at 90 proof.

There are no major standouts in this round, but there’s plenty of intrigue in the mix. As for the field as a whole, barrel #82 remains the fan favorite among all the bourbons released to date, with #109 and #111 close behind.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #7 – A melange of aromas here, but heavy on the mint. The body has more of a chocolate mint character to it, but some racy heat and a slightly odd oatmeal character underpins the finish. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 15 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #20 – Well-rounded, with touches of cinnamon atop some traditional, lumber-heavy notes. The body heads strongly into sawdust territory, with some citrus notes on the back end. Fine, but undistinguished. B (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #39 – Gentle nose, heavier on lumberyard notes than anything else. There’s some cola amidst the vanilla caramel notes and a touch of citrus oil on the very back end, but otherwise this bourbon comes off with a bit of a thud. B- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #52 – A racier expression on the nose, with peppery notes and some cereal character behind that, but it settles into a creamy caramel character as the body takes hold. Quite a pleasure, with two faces to consider. A- (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #71 – A little raw on the nose, this whiskey seems like it will be a fire bomb on the palate, but that’s not the case for the most part. Caramel, cinnamon, and red hots candies are all in the mix, and working well together. The finish is a bit hot, with some rougher granary notes dominating. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #84 – Engaging from the start, a little minty, with a little butterscotch character to it. Lovely and dessert-like on the palate, with an echo of that mint on the finish. A- (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #103 – A fireside whiskey, almost smoky at times. The palate’s a little thin, but it does offer some red fruit and curious berry notes to spice up the vanilla and lumberyard notes on the body. Particularly fruity on the finish. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #116 – Chewy with cereal, but layered with menthol notes. Rounded on the palate, it’s got fruitcake and nutty elements that fade with the arrival of a more grain alcohol character on the back end. B (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, average grain, 12 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #135 – More citrus here than most of the other expressions in this round, with a bit of butterscotch to back it up. The finish is warming, and quite drying at times. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #148 – Oaky, and a bit racy. Plenty of red pepper here but the dusty, vanilla-tinged caramel that makes up the core makes it both balanced enough and worthwhile on its merits. B+ (rye, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #168 – Plenty of lumber at first, but a unique element of hazelnuts emerges if you give this whiskey some time, a bit of Nutella character that lingers for quite awhile before some cayenne pepper notes kick back up on the back end. A little weird, but worth sampling for its uniqueness alone. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 8 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #180 – A simpler whiskey, without a lot of classic bourbon character to it. Here I get more simple lumberyard notes, some cereal, and mixed fruit, but it’s missing that vanilla slug, particularly on the rustic back end. B (wheat, 105 entry proof, level 6 seasoning, coarse grain, 10 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, bottom half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Old Grand-Dad Bonded

OGDBIBIt’s back with a (sort-of) new look. The bourbon created by Basil Hayden to salute his grandpappy has been given a bit of a facelift and a new nudge into the spotlight. There’s been a quiet murmur about some of the selling points within the marketing of this reboot, and a very detailed and excellent history behind the brand (as well as some marketing missteps) can be found courtesy of one Chuck Cowdery, a long time Old Grand-Dad supporter and venerable author.

Discussion of history and artifacts aside, let’s crack this open.

Thankfully, it’s the same as it ever was and they did no tinkering to the mash as far as I can tell. Gratuitous vanilla throughout mixed with a light blend of citrus and corn. Not blasting or intrusive, but quite light with an easy finish and traces of caramel. At $25 its still a fantastic value, and lord knows how many of those will be readily available in the distant future.

100 proof.

A- / $25 / beamsuntory.com

Review: Founders Brewing Dirty Bastard, Porter, and Imperial Stout

founders porterGrand Rapids, Michigan is home to Founders Brewing, the company behind these three chilly-weather brews, all excellent choices for knocking back while you’re sucking out the last of the heat from those fireplace embers.

Founders Brewing Dirty Bastard – A Scotch style ale, loaded with malt, dried figs, sawdust notes, and heavy chocolate overtones. Filling but wintry, soothing but with a bitter edge, almost like a very dark chocolate. Initially a bit overwhelming, Dirty Bastard manages to settle down eventually — particularly with food — to finish its tenure as a welcome, bittersweet companion. 8.5% abv. B+

Founders Brewing Porter – A silky, chocolate-heavy porter, this is a sexy little number with substantial length and depth. Roasted chocolate notes and just a hint of coffee help balance a chewy, malty body, but it’s the solid, well-curated hops selection that brings on the bitter finish, and turns this brew from a curious dessert concoction into a more thoughtful beer. 6.5% abv. A-

Founders Brewing Imperial Stout – Chewy, chocolatey and rich, this is a classic imperial stout, loaded with notes of dried fruit, prunes, and figs, lending some unctuous sweetness to a lightly bitter, heavily malty, unmistakably stouty brew. Very rich and filling, this heavy hitter is a bit like trudging through molasses in every sense of the word. In a good way. 10.5% abv. B+

each about $10 per six- or four-pack / foundersbrewing.com

Review: McMenamins Phil Hazelnut Liqueur

PhilHazelnutLiqueurBottleCraft Frangelico? You better believe it. Our pals at the Northwest brewpub/restaurant/microdistillers McMenamins churn out a small amount of this hazelnut spirit, called Phil. (Filbert? Get it?)

Phil is made from unaged wheat whiskey that’s infused with Oregon hazelnuts. Bottled at 60 proof, it’s considerably stronger than both Frangelico and Fratello, both of which are bottled at 40 proof.

And what’s not to like here? Phil has big, authentic hazelnut notes, with subtle notes of vanilla and milk chocolate. Almost any essence of the base spirit is completely overpowered by the hazelnut character, just the mildest hint of cereal amid the notes of pure hazelnut. The slightly higher alcohol level helps to clarify the nutty notes and saves Phil from delving too deeply into sugary sweetness.

Feel free to drop this in your coffee, your kicked-up White Russian, or your Nutty Irishman. You don’t have to tell anyone what the spirit is called.

60 proof.

A- / $18 (375ml) / mcmenamins.com

Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2014

Clynelish Select Reserve Bottle & Box

Our final whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this no-age-statement offering from Clynelish, an active distillery in the far northern Highlands. The first Clynelish released by Diageo in this series, this whisky has been aged in “ex-bourbon, rejuvenated and refill American Oak, and ex-bodega and refill European oak.” All casks in the vatting have been aged for at least 15 years, “often far more.”

Lots of classic malt notes on the nose — barley, heather, and light sherried notes. A rich, sugar syrup character comes along in due time. On the palate, there’s plenty more where that came from. Bright orange fruit dominates at the start, then the whisky becomes quite drying and almost dusty on the finish. Water coaxes out more of the sweeter side of the spirit, with nougat, golden syrup, and maple notes all criss-crossing over the palate. That water helps temper that tannic, dry finish as well, lending it some lingering notes of honey-coated biscuits.

109.8 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $800 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Port Ellen 35YO Bottle & Box

Our 10th review in the Diageo Special Releases series is this old Port Ellen, a classic, beloved, and regular part of this series. The Islay-based Port Ellen was closed in 1983, which makes this 1978-distilled product (now carefully allocated) unbearably rare. Aged in refill American and European oak, it’s bottled at 35 epic years of age… and priced accordingly.

From the start, this whisky’s a scorcher. The nose is racy with heat and light, tempered smoke, a hallmark of well-aged Islay malts. On the palate, fire and brimstone with hints of fruit beyond the essence of burning oil wells. Water is essential with this dram, so give it a healthy shot to open things up. With tempering, the spirit reveals its charms in full, notes of tangerines, marzipan, butterscotch candies, and light petrol. Nicely honeyed on the finish, it recalls its cereal origins alongside a lightly peaty, lightly meaty finale.

Compare to last year’s 34 year old.

113 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $3,500 / malts.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Sipp Sparkling Organics

sipp organics

What’s a Sipp? These new “eco beverages” are organic, sweetened with agave nectar, and designed to compete with those bad-for-you artificial sodas. Each 12 oz. bottle has about 100 calories. Four flavors are available. We tasted them all and present our notes for your consideration.

Sipp Summer Pear – Flavorings include pear, green tea, and honey. Starts off crisp and refreshing, but the pear character eventually becomes a bit overwhelming as that unmistakable “pearness” starts to dominate the back end. Otherwise the honey and green tea elements are fun and make the soda worth exploring. B

Sipp Lemon Flower – Lemon, elderflower, and tarragon. Not nearly enough lemon here, and the elderflower is indistinct. Vaguely sweet and touched with citrus — plus just a hint of that curious herbal character on the finish — it’s harmless but on the whole quite pleasant. B

Sipp Ginger Blossom – Ginger, vanilla, and lime. Emphasis on the vanilla. This sounds great but it comes across more like a cream soda than a ginger beer, so heavily vanilla-scented it gets to the point where it’s got a kind of candy-melted-in-your-pocket character to it. My kids would probably like this a lot more than I do. B-

Sipp Mojo Berry – Blackberry, mint, and lime. This one also sounds great just from the description, and it’s easily the best of the Sipp lineup. Intensely fruity up front — though more strawberry than blackberry — the mint notes rise on the finish to evoke a kind of wacky mojito alternative. Surprisingly easy to, well, sip. A-

each about $3.50 / haveasipp.com [BUY IT HERE]