Review: Laphroaig QA Cask and Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013

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It’s not every day we get to experience a new Laphroaig expression, and it’s pretty much never when we get to try two of them. At a recent Laphroaig Live event, these two expressions were introduced by Laphroaig Distillery Manager and Friend of Drinkhacker John Campbell.

The night started with Quarter Cask, Laphroaig’s fastest growing expression, now accounting for 25 percent of the company’s sales just nine years after introduction, then moved on to the new stuff. Maker’s Mark, which supplies the used barrels to Laphroaig which it uses for its primary aging, was also on hand to let us taste Maker’s 46 by way of comparison.

Here are some thoughts on the new stuff.

Laphroaig QA Cask – A travel retail exclusive launched in April 2013. Like Quarter Cask, this is double matured, but rather than finishing this whiskey in small casks it is finished in unused, new charred oak barrels, a la Bourbon. (QA stands for quercus alba, the scientific name for white oak.) Compared to Laphroaig 10 or Quarter Cask this is a much different whisky, immediately striking the palate with more of a wood smoke character than a peaty one. It’s chewy and bold — yet bottled at just 80 proof — a surprisingly nutty whisky with notes of coal, chocolate, and light spice notes — nutmeg, perhaps — with a little toffee and burnt sugar on the finish. The saltiness of Laphroaig adds balance and curiosity, but it’s far from overdone. At first it’s quite jarring in comparison to Quarter Cask, but its charms grow on you, and fast. Definitely one to keep experiencing and contrasting against other Islay whiskys. A- / $84 (1 liter)

Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013 – It’s easy to see why Laphroaig bottled this, which is finished in Port pipes, in a clear bottle instead of its typical green: The rosy orange color is unique and really quite lovely. Wow, one sip and this is an instant, utter knockout. It starts with sweet strawberries and cream, jam on toast, light rose petals — then that characteristic Laphroaig DNA kicks in on the back end, with its salt and brine balancing things out perfectly. The brain barely knows what to do with this. Is it Islay? Is it a strange Highland whisky? Is it a Port cocktail? The mind boggles, but the tongue is happy. Incredibly hard to put down, and so pretty to look at, too. Stock up. 102.6 proof. A+ / $75

laphroaig.com

Review: Isle of Jura “Camas an Staca” 30 Years Old and “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old

jura 30 years oldTwo new and very rare single malts from Isle of Jura, based on an island just a stone’s throw north of Islay. These are ultra-limited-edition whiskys just now hitting the market. Snap them up while you can!

Isle of Jura “Camas an Staca” 30 Years Old – 30 year old spirit that has spent 3 of those years finishing in Oloroso sherry casks. Pretty butterscotch notes on the nose alongside gentle coal fires and old wood. On the body, there’s a really surprising amount of grain remaining in the spirit, plenty of fresh, roasted barley character. Hints of Madeira and old wine are evident as you continue to experience the whiskey, with a curious mix of licorice, orange peel, and sea spray on the back end. Named for Jura’s oldest standing stone. 200 bottles released in the U.S. 88 proof. A- / $550

jura 1977Isle of Jura “Juar” 1977 36 Years Old – Moving on up we get to this extra-rare expression of Jura (alternately listed as 35 Years Old on some listings). Finished in Port pipes for 12 months. A stark contrast to the almost youthful 30 Year Old whisky, the 1977 is a glorious revelation on the nose, full of fruit and mystery. A punch of fruit aromas hit the senses up front: apples, Bing cherries, blood oranges, and crushed raspberries — plus a bit of incense. On the palate, quite a bit of that Jura grain character comes across, but it’s well tempered and balanced with more of that fruit — including some tropical fruit notes. Over time, a chocolaty richness develops, leaving behind a long and lasting finish that comes across a bit like salted caramel. Really, really gorgeous whisky… and hard to put down. Named after the Yew tree. 52 bottles released in the U.S. 92 proof. A+ / $950

jurawhisky.com

Review: Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1079, 1414, and 1146

artenom 1079If you haven’t heard of what ArteNOM is doing, you’re not a tequila lover. NOMs are four-digit numbers assigned by the Mexican government to each tequila distillery. Want to know where any given bottle of tequila is made? It’s easy: Just look up the NOM, which is printed on every bottle of tequila sold. (Numerous brands are invariably made at the same distillery.)

What ArteNOM does is it eschews its own branding and simply seeks out really great products — selling them at generally reasonable prices. These are issued in limited release as “ArteNOM Seleccion de XXXX,” where the X’s roll from one NOM to the next — wherever the very best tequila is being made.

That’s the theory anyway. A three of the expressions below come from highland distilleries. Oddly, the reposado and anejo expressions don’t indicate the amount of aging they undergo — and I haven’t found this information online. All are of course 100% agave and all are 80 proof. Here’s how they shake out.

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1079 Blanco – Made at the highest-altitude distillery that makes tequila. I’ve had good blanco tequilas before, but this is something else. Immediately peppery on the nose, it features true agave character plus some sea salt/marine notes. The body brings on layer after layer of complexity. It starts with a rush of agave, then turns to a rich dessert — caramel, Mexican chocolate, burnt marshmallow. The finish is hazelnuts, long and soothing. All of this: In perfect balance. Really exquisite. Love tequila? Think you don’t like tequila? Try this blanco and see what you think. (This bottling seems to have been retired but there’s plenty of it left on the market.) A+ / $40

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1414 Reposado – Another racy tequila, rich with space and ample agave notes. Wood has mellowed things out a bit, though it’s clearly still hanging on to its agave roots. More of a butterscotch character in the mid-palate here, along with modest wood notes. The finish is a bit vegetal, not in a bad way. Good stuff, but not nearly the masterwork that the blanco is. A- / $45

Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion de 1146 Anejo – Ample agave on the nose leads to a lush and well-rounded body. Deeply complex, this anejo offers immediate caramel sweetness but also cinnamon, coffee beans, toasty oak, and a long, long finish where the agave makes a lightly spicy return. Not overdone, with agave the clear and continued focus of the spirit. Amazing balance here, it’s difficult to follow the blanco no matter what, but this anejo just about does the job. A / $50

deltequila.com

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2012

Brora 35 Year OldThis whisky comes to us from the Northern Highlands’ Brora Distillery, where it was distilled in 1976 and 1977… before the plant was shuttered in 1983.

The color of yellow Chartreuse, this whisky is a true delight, the kind of experience that you can get from a malt only after it spends decades mellowing in cask.

Classic Highland structure, this is a malt that wallops you with complexity — fruit, wood, and touches of smoke one after the other. Honey starts you off, then the fruit rushes in — orange juice, applesauce, and bananas. There’s a nut character below that — a Three Musketeers nougat with almonds and walnuts — with a touch of spice dusting the lot. The finish is just the lightest bit smoky, a puff of cigar smoke sent your way by a billionaire who nods to let you know, yeah, he knows you’re drinking the good stuff. It’s an incredible whisky. Don’t even think of cutting it with water.

Yeah, it’s hard to give out two A+ ratings in a week, but it’s another whisky that earns its stripes.

96.2 proof. 1,566 bottles made.

A+ / $624 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2012

Port Ellen 32 Year OldIslay’s Port Ellen, shut down in 1983, is one of the most collectable and prized whiskys on the market today, particularly if you’re a pan of peated Scotch. This 12th release for the Classic Malts series is a whopping 32 years old, distilled in 1979 and bottled at cask strength.

Wow, this is a stunner of a whisky. The smoke has mellowed and integrated into a lush and beautiful, balanced whole. What’s inside? What isn’t? There’s orange, banana, lemon, marshmallow, amber waves of grain, and Chanel No. 5 perfume all crashing together with Louis Armstrong playing full throttle in your ear. This all turns out over the last ashes of a campfire where you had the best meal of your life, sitting on a tree stump under the stars.

OK, I may be waxing poetic, but this is a deep and complex whisky that defies simple tasting notes. It is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I’d love to tell you more of my impressions about it, except I drank it all. (Don’t get jealous, it was just a mini.)

Crazy expensive, mind you.

105 proof. 2,964 bottles made.

A+ / $936 / malts.com

Review: The Glenfiddich Rare Collection: 1974 Vintage Reserve

Mitch Bechard is a Glenfiddich ambassador and a friend, and I don’t just say that because he drops by the house with goodies like this from time to time, I swear.

This very special whisky is a vatting of just a handful of barrels from 1974, selected by Bechard and the other Glenfiddich ambassadors in conjunction with the company’s Malt Master, Brian Kinsman.

One taste and you’ll see why. This 36-year-old, green-tinted whisky hints at its age by looks alone, but once you tuck into it the proof is right there in the spirit. Up front the character is a bit madeirized, with notes of banana, wood, and salty iodine. Let it open up for a few minutes so those more acidic notes can blow off, and layers and layers of character reveal themselves. Graham crackers, strawberries, classic nougat notes, and vanilla sugar cookies all come through, and that light saltiness really balances things out, the way sea salt in a good dessert really ups the flavor. (Think salted caramels.)

It’s a deep and lasting experience with an incredibly long and soothing finish. At 93.6 proof, it isn’t even remotely hot, but rather a dead-solid-perfect expression of how a properly cared-for old whisky should taste. I wouldn’t dream of adding water, but Bechard says it opens things up even more.

1000 bottles produced, 35 on sale in the U.S. (I’m told all 35 are sold out but you can find them at some specialist shops on the west coast.) Reviewed from bottle #964.

A+ / $800 / glenfiddich.com

glenfiddich 1974

Review: Z Tequila

The brainchild of Pepe Zevada, a spirits industry veteran, Z Tequila is a fairly new brand of 100% agave tequilas based on Zevada’s own recipes. These tequilas use seven-to-nine year old agave plants and age the reposado and anejo in new Canadian oak barrels.

We tasted each of the three expressions extensively. All are 80 proof. Universally we had trouble with the closures: Some wouldn’t seal tightly after opening, some wouldn’t pour well. The photo below doesn’t lie, either: The bottles are simply terribly ugly. Never mind all that though, it’s what’s inside that counts. Thoughts follow.

Also known as “Pepe Z Tequila.”

Z Blanco Tequila – An unaged silver tequila, this is a really beautiful spirit. Lovely caramel notes (always surprising in an unaged tequila), matched with touches of lemon, lightly smoked wood, leather, and of course a moderate slug of agave. Amazing balance, with modest sweetness to counter the agave’s vegetal notes. Absolutely solid. A / $30

Z Reposado Tequila – Aged nine months, this pale yellow reposado offers a very similar profile to the blanco. A touch more edge, a touch more creaminess in the body. Vanilla, again, is the primary character, and it comes together in wonderful harmony with the agave. The finish is more on the chocolate front, really lush and smolderingly sweet. Like the blanco, this is simply a beautiful tequila — but it’s bigger body and slightly bolder flavor push it just that much higher. Remarkable value, too. A+ / $33

Z Anejo Tequila – After 21 months in oak, Z’s anejo is a bit overcooked. The sweet dessert flavors of vanilla and chocolate have disappeared into a surplus of raw wood and smoke — and result in a surprisingly hotter tequila with considerably more bite. In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be a bad tequila by any definition — the whiskey-like finish is particularly appealing — but compared to the masterful blanco and reposado it just isn’t in the same league. B+ / $35

pepeztequila.com

Review: Big Bottom Whiskey

It’s hard not to think of Big Bottom without immediately jumping to this, but after a few sips of this distillery’s products, my thinking is finally changing.

The company produces two very young whiskeys largely in the Bourbon style (though they aren’t billed as Bourbon). The whiskey is actually made in Indiana, then it is shipped to Oregon where it is barreled and finished; you’ll find the latter state’s name on the label. The mash is primarily corn but they’re heavy on the rye and feature a barley kicker. They’re night and day when it comes to tasting notes but both are exemplary — not to mention incredible bargains.

Snap these small batch whiskeys up if you ever see them for sale.

Both are 91 proof.

Big Bottom Whiskey 3 Years Old New White Oak – The rye (36% of the mashbill) immediately jumps to the top of mind — and the palate — when you sip this young but powerful whiskey. It’s a shock that it’s just three years old, with a maturity and depth of flavor — vanilla, caramel, and intense cinnamon, pepper, and tons of spice — that many eight-year-old Bourbons can’t touch. Great balance among all the elements. Love it. A / $30

Big Bottom Whiskey 2 Years Old Port Cask Finish – Also a 36% rye mashbill whiskey, but just two years old — and finished in Port casks from Prager Port Works in Napa, California. The difference between the New Oak whiskey is astonishing, with this whiskey frankly exhibiting an embarrassment of riches: Dark, dark chocolate, raisins, and intense caramel notes, plus all that rye spice on the back end. The balance is perfect, the color a deep and ruddy rust that looks more like Cognac than whiskey. It’s sweet and savory in perfect harmony: This is an absolutely gorgeous whiskey and, now, one of my favorites. Watch out Kentucky, you’ve got competition. A+ / $40

bigbottomwhiskey.com


Drinking Tequila with Casa Dragones’ Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Casa Dragones is almost certainly a tequila brand you have never tried or likely even seen. That’s a sad thing, because it is one of the best silver tequilas on earth.

Casa Dragones is the proud bearer of a number of unique traits. It is the brainchild of Bob Pittman, a founder of the MTV network. It is a joven tequila — blanco in appearance but made up of both unaged and aged tequilas, then filtered to clear, giving it a substantial complexity. It is a lowland tequila, rare in an age where most tequila makers boast about their mountain agaves. It is column distilled, not pot distilled. It is made by the only female Maestra Taquilera ever to be certified in Mexico. Only 24,000 bottles will be produced this year, each at a cost of $275 per bottle.

Said Maestra, Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, explained all of this to me on a recent trip to San Francisco. A former cultural ambassador from Mexico to Japan and ten year veteran of Cuervo, Nieves doesn’t look like the typical Maestro Taquilero I meet with — usually grumpy old men who’d rather be back in the agave fields than on the road meeting with bloggers — but she understands tequila to a surprising depth. In between discussions about the origins of Casa Dragones (born at a New York City party where she and Pittman met) and who the Dragones actually were (left as an exercise for the reader), we enjoyed a fabulous shot of this unique “sipping tequila.”

The tequila is simply superb. Again, there is only one variety — and there will only ever be one — and the nose at first hints at nothing special. Lemon and orange peel mingle with what come across as somewhat boozy vodka notes. Breath deep and you get a sense of nuttiness, but little else. I wasn’t expecting a lot… and then I took a sip.

Casa Dragones slips across the tongue with beautiful citrus notes, building warmth as it segues into vanilla and cocoa notes, driven clearly by the extra anejo tequila that makes up the blend. It gets sweeter as you sip, showing coffee character and more of a dessert-like body, a surprise that makes you reconsider the crystal clear color of what you’re sipping. And yes, you’re sipping, not gulping. The finish is warm but has no bite, a smooth operator through and through. This tequila may indeed be a Johnny come lately, a stunt driven by a millionaire who wants a tequila to call his own — and a price tag to match — but damn if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.

80 proof. Tasted bottle #655 of lot #3.

A+ / $275 / casadragones.com

Review: Tequila Avion

This new brand hails from New York, where a former Seagram exec decided to strike out on his own in the brave new world of tequila. As the story goes, founder Ken Austin scoured Jalisco for the best spirit that hadn’t made it to the U.S., and found it on the highest agave plantation in the area, where the agave was being slow-roasted at low temperatures in order to keep a mellow, sweet character in the resulting spirit.

The result is Avion, bottled from this mysterious source (and even ready in reposado and anejo versions) and ready for sale in the U.S.

I tasted all three varieties during an Avion visit to San Francisco recently and have sampled the Silver on its own later — only reconfirming my thoughts about this solid, top-shelf product.

All are 100% agave and 80 proof.

Tequila Avion Silver – Sweeter than the blanco you’re probably used to, with a buttery body and fruity notes of pineapple and lemon. Herbs and some agave kick in for the finish, which is smooth and without almost any bite at all. Gorgeous. A / $45

Tequila Avion Reposado – Aged 6 months, quite long for a reposado, which gives it impressive caramel and vanilla notes, which play well with the agave in the body. It’s surprisingly light in color for a spirit with a flavor this rich, while also disarming in its complexity. A / $50

Tequila Avion Anejo – A masterpiece. Aged two years, giving it huge vanilla and cinnamon character, with notes of nougat, chocolate, and fresh cookies. Maple syrup lines the finish, but all the way it is nothing but smoothness. A beautiful, old tequila that can stand up to the big boys’ anejos — and extra anejos. Also an absurd bargain considering the quality. A+ / $55

tequilaavion.com