Review: Balblair Vintage 2003, 1999, 1990, and 1983 Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

BB 1983 Pack Shot

I encounter Balblair regularly at whiskey events, but I was surprised to see that in all these years we’ve only ever done a formal review of Balblair one time — of the Vintage 2000 release.

Today we’re fixing that with reviews of four more expressions from this Highland distillery. On with the show!

Balblair Vintage 2003 – 10 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. Pale in color, and a bit fiery on the nose. Roasted grains, with a touch of honey, are aromatically intense — with some coal fire and a bit of industrial character. The body offers a bit of almond, some citrus, and a touch of cloves. The whisky hasn’t quite settled down yet, though, to bring out this whisky’s true charms. 92 proof. B / $70

Balblair Vintage 1999 – 15 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (My sample doesn’t indicate, but I’m presuming this is the Second Edition bottling.) Surprisingly racy, there’s red pepper and turmeric on the nose, with a backing of dried barley notes. The body is malty at its core, with winey-citrus sherry notes to add some complexity. Vanilla milkshake notes on the finish are nice, but they can’t temper this whisky’s ample heat, which lingers on the modestly scorching finish. 92 proof. B / $90

Balblair Vintage 1990 – 21 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (Again, I presume this is Second Edition.) Much different nose here, with notes of toffee and caramel, along with walnuts and cloves. The body is dense, slightly smoky and heavy on the wood component, giving this malt a bit of a fireside character — with some lumberyard, more nuts, and slight vegetal notes on the back end. The finish is a bit short, with some late-arriving notes of raisins and spice. 92 proof. B / $140

Balblair Vintage 1983 – 30 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. The best Balblair I’ve ever had is the 1975 edition. ’75 is no longer on the market, and this just happens to be the whisky that is replacing it. It’s also a knockout. The nose is rich with butterscotch, menthol, spiced nuts, and fudge. The palate kicks things off with well-aged malt, chocolate sauce, and nougat before fading into notes of rich honey, chocolate malt balls, and almond candies. The finish is long and lasting, making this a delight from start to finish. 92 proof. A / $330

balblair.com

Review: 2012 Forward Kidd Red Wine

forwardI’m going to start by noting that “Forward Kidd” is a terrible name for a wine. (Forward and Kidd both refer to types of loamy soil common in the mountains of Napa, neither of which any wine drinker has heard of.) And this wine also has an even worse label. (“Forward” and “Kidd” are in different fonts, and none of this is explained on the back.) But Forward Kidd — a Merryvale-owned wine in its inaugural release — is a fantastic wine. So, as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.

The blend is an intriguing one: 30% Petit Verdot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 20% Malbec, 3% Syrah, 2% Petite Sirah.

Somehow this works out really well.

Pretty florals on the nose lead things off, violets and lavender, hinting at some lush fruit underneath. On the palate, the floral notes add nuance to a panoply of richly layered fruits — cherries and plums, strawberry, currants, and a bit of lychee. The wine is soft and fruit-forward, but neither sweet nor jammy, with a gentle but lasting finish. All seduction. No pandering.

A / $50 / merryvale.com

Review: Ardbeg Perpetuum

Ardbeg Perpetuum bottle & carton (NXPowerLite)

Ardbeg Day (May 30) is almost upon us, and as usual that means a new Limited Edition whisky from this classic islay distillery.

2015 marks Ardbeg’s 200th birthday, and for this momentous occasion the distillery has produced a special bottling: Ardbeg Perpetuum, an expression “inspired by the man styles, ideas and quirks of fate which have influenced Ardbeg recipes over time. It combines different styles, different flavours, different dreams and different trials, all skilfully married together in a melange of the very best Ardbeg has to offer.”

That means Perpetuum is a recipe that includes some very old and very young stock, aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, “and some surprises which hint at the future.” What that means, we can’t say for sure, but here’s what the whisky tastes like.

The color is moderate straw/light gold, hinting at youth. The nose cuts a familiar Ardbeg profile — sweetly smoky, like barbecue smoke, with a salty backbone. Don’t make any judgments yet, though. The body is something else entirely. Brine and seaweed hit the palate first, with less smoke than you’d think. Then comes a rich sweetness — honey, apricot jam, vanilla sugar, and some dark molasses on the back end. The finish has a sulfury edge to it, showcasing charred wood and dark chocolate, completing the tour of duty that takes this whisky from salt to sweet to bitter, all in one quick gulp. It’s incredible stuff that deserves a lot of time and even more introspection — and which stands as one of Ardbeg’s best releases to date.

94.8 proof.

A / $100 / ardbeg.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Tigre Blanc Vodka

TIGREBLANCgold4CYou’re not wrong to be suspicious of a $90 vodka. It’s vodka, amirite?

Tigre Blanc is a new spirit that hails from the Cognac region of France. It is distilled six times in alembic copper pot stills and is made from 100% French wheat grown in Cognac. The bottle is ostentatious, an oversized gold-encrusted number with a suspicious, egg-like protrusion on the top. (The white frosted bottle on the Tigre Blanc website is a different product not on sale in the U.S.) A portion of proceeds go to the Panthera Organization, dedicated to aiding and preserving wild cats. (Tigre Blanc, get it?)

So how about a tasting…

The nose is quite clean. Lightly medicinal, with just touches of pepper on the nose. On the tongue, the vodka offers some sweetness, which grows as the palate evolves. This isn’t sickly sweet at all, just a gentle cane sugar character that carries with it a hint of vanilla and a touch of chocolate. Surprisingly, this melds well with that spicier nose. A little punchy up front, then a sweet little massage on the back end. All of this is done in a very gentle fashion, nothing heavy-handed about it, simple and seductive from start to finish. It’s a vodka that’s both clean and balanced, offering mild flavor notes that enhance the experience instead of detract from it.

80 proof.

A / $90 / tigreblancvodka.com

Review: Hooker’s House Sour Mash Whiskey 7 Years Old

hookers houseIt’s been a couple of years since I first encountered Hooker’s House, and I’ve remained a fan since then. Now the company is back with its first new release in two years, Hooker’s House Sour Mash. This is a single barrel release made from 100% corn that spends 7 years in new, charred white American oak barrels before being finished in used premium French oak barrels at the Hooker’s House Sonoma distillery. The French oak barrels were formerly used for aging Carneros Pinot Noir.

Hooker’s House, like Angel’s Envy, sources its older whiskeys, then finishes them to give them their own unique spin. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a choice that takes HH’s whiskeys in a unique direction.

Case in point is this “Sour Mash,” a curious name for an aged and finished corn whiskey, but what’s in a name?

This is quite a spirit, lush but powerful from the get-go. The nose is sweet and offers lots of bakery notes — fresh doughnuts, Nutella, and raisins. On the palate, this silky-smooth spirit goes down easy, with gentle notes of vanilla and caramel starting things off. The corn underpinnings are notable, melding to give this spirit something of a caramel corn character, which is surprisingly enjoyable in liquid form. But you can’t fight off that Pinot Noir finishing for long. In time as the finish develops, there’s a burst of raisin, dark cherry fruit, dried figs, and chocolate notes. These are flavors that are rare in straight-outta-Kentucky bourbons, but which are minor wonders in Hooker’s House Sour Mash. Really great stuff that’s worth seeking out.

90 proof.

A / $40 / prohibition-spirits.com

Review: Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye, 2 Year Old Blended, and 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskeys

LG_100ProofThe mad microdistillers at Craft Distillers keep rolling with the Low Gap line. These whiskeys began as white dog releases in 2011, and the company has been putting out progressively older and more interesting expressions in the years since. Today we got to sample a trio of two year old whiskeys, including a rye, a blend, and an overproof (wheat) rarity. As with all of the Low Gap line (six bottlings are currently on the market), all of these spirits are made in Craft’s 16 hectoliter cognac still, fermented on site from scratch, and brought to proof using filtered rainwater(!).

Thoughts follow.

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye Whiskey – Malted rye with some corn and barley, aged in new and used bourbon and cognac barrels. The nose is quite grainy, but mellowing out as it settles down, with some smoky notes along with some interesting almond and graham cracker characteristics. The body is initially sweet with just a touch of cognac-driven raisin character that adds a lot more nuance than you might expect. The finish gets a bit hoary though, a clear showcase of this whiskey’s youth, with dried herbs and some baking spice finishing things off. 88.2 proof. B / $65 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Blended Whiskey – Malted corn and barley, aged in used Van Winkle bourbon barrels and new Missouri oak bourbon barrels. The nose exudes some notes of classic — but very young — bourbon. Corny and woody, but also racy with spices and sharp vanilla extract. The body is somewhat brash and still showing itself as a young gun, but one with lots of charm. Think caramel corn, vanilla cream soda, and some maple syrup. Still plenty of lumberyard notes here, but there’s enough character to get me excited, not just for today, but to see where this goes in the next couple of years. 92 proof. A- / $65  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey – This is Low Gap’s Bavarian wheat whiskey, aged two-plus years, bottled from a selection of just three barrels (comprising new and used oak) at 100 proof, of course. This whiskey starts off demure and restrained, but give it a little time and a wealth of fruit notes emerge on the nose: Apples and orange flowers, some banana, backed up with a bit of cereal. On the palate some coconut notes mingle with cinnamon, cloves, nougat, and milk chocolate. Wood makes a belated appearance on the back end, but in a gentle and approving way. The evolution on the palate is both fun and intriguing as an exploration. Arguably the best Low Gap expression Craft Distillers has put out to date. A / $75

craftdistillers.com

Review: 2010 Montes Alpha M

MontesAlphaM11Here’s a gorgeous release from Montes, the (almost) top of the line of the well-regarded Alpha line, Montes Alpha M. This 2010 bottling is a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc, 5% merlot, and 5% petit verdot. A “Chilean first growth,” this wine has all the hallmarks of a Bordeaux blend, offering dense currants up front, then spicy black pepper, a touch of sour cherry, and a bit of mushroomy earth at the back end. Deep and complex, it’s got notes of black tea, rhubarb, dark chocolate, gooseberry… it goes on and on. Enjoyable at first pour, it only gets better and opens up as it evolves with exposure to air.

A / $85 / monteswines.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Review: Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA, Bandstand Barleywine, and Little Red Roostarr (2015)

Reviver_bottleStarr Hill keeps cranking them out. Here’s a look at three limited and seasonal releases for spring 2015.

Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA – A hybrid, amber-hued IPA, this is a great example of how blending beer styles can turn out well. Up front, the brew offers semi-sweet notes driven by malty caramel and chocolate note… then the hops take hold, slowly turning things bitter and slightly citrus-focused. There’s no big piney notes like you see in the typical IPA but rather a more harmonious bitter finish that balances out the sweeter notes up front. Really well-balanced and deftly crafted — and just 6.2% abv, too. A / $NA

Starr Hill Bandstand Barleywine Ale Volume 1 – A big American barleywine, dry-hopped and aged in bourbon barrels from Smooth Ambler Spirits. Unsurprisingly massive, this bomb of caramel and chocolate offers gentle coffee notes and a touch of bitter on the back end. Nice little number with a solid balance between its sweet and savory components — but a glass of this will go an awfully long way. 13.5% abv. A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

Starr Hill Little Red Roostarr Coffee Cream Stout (2015) – This is our third annual look at this coffee stout, and it doesn’t cut a terribly different profile in 2015 as it has in the last couple of years. It may be a little milder in 2015 than in previous years — with a bit less malt, slightly more watery coffee notes, and a touch of dark chocolate on the back end — but my primary issue, the lack of “creaminess” promised by the name, remains. Drinkers will likely remain divided. 5.8% abv. B / $7 per 22 oz. bottle

starrhill.com

Review: Highland Park Valhalla Collection – Odin

odin

The final expression of Highland Park’s four Valhalla Collection whiskies is here — Odin, “the Allfather” of the Norse pantheon. Odin follows Thor, Loki, and Freya (the lattermost was not readily available in the U.S. and we never reviewed it in depth), rounding out the collectible series.

16 years old and higher in proof than any of the quartet that preceded it, Odin, to my palate, hews closer to the Highland Park house style than its predecessors — although it’s truly an animal all its own. Odin spends its entire lifetime in first-fill and refill sherry casks, which give it a bracing winey, citrus character from the get-go. The nose is packed with juicy oranges, cinnamon, cloves, some honey/nougat notes, and just a hint of smoke, layers of complexity that engage the senses in full.

The body is rich to the point of being almost daunting, a silky and well-rounded spirit that goes down like a thick ice cream sundae. Flamed orange peel on vanilla custard, spiced nuts, fruitcake and gingerbread… it’s almost like a holiday in a glass. The powerful but nuanced malt goes on and on, but it’s that lightly smoky element that ultimately seals the deal and adds some balance to the dram. Imagine the embers of a dying fire and the aroma it kicks into the room at the end of the night… that’s what Odin drives into the mind and senses as it fades on the palate.

Yeah, too bad it’s April.

111.6 proof.

A / $350 / highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Square One Bergamot Vodka

square one bergamot

The bergamot is a type of sour orange, grown mainly in Italy, that often shows up in tea preparations (particularly Earl Grey) — and which is now arriving on the marquee of this new flavored vodka from Square One.

Bergamot is really just the beginning, though. Based on the company’s outline of the infusion bill, there’s quite a bit more to it: “The vibrant taste of organic bergamot citrus is layered with the essential oils of pressed organic mandarin, navel and tangerine oranges and the essences of organic ginger, coriander, and juniper botanicals.”

So, almost a gin? Not at all, really.

The nose is distinctly orange, with clear notes of mandarins and a slightly caramel-infused back end. In between those two, this is quite a gentle, restrained vodka, keeping its sweetness in check while promoting a pretty melange of citrus character. A slight bitter edge evokes the reality that citrus peel is a major component here, but that’s not a slight. This is on the whole a delightfully crafted and mostly straightforward citrus vodka that I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to incorporate into any orange-centric cocktail… or even, on a lark, sip on its own or with a simple soda or tonic mixer.

Don’t let the gothic “bergamot” turn you away — this is your new favorite citrus vodka.

80 proof.

A / $35 / squareoneorganicspirits.com