Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016


WhiskyFest is always a great opportunity to get a look at new releases — and pre-sampling products I won’t be able to formally review for a few weeks or month is my favorite part of the show. WhiskyFest 2016 was shaping up to be a windfall for these kinds of releases, including Ardbeg Dark Cove, Redbreast Lustau, Glenmorangie Tarlogan, and Writers Tears Cask Strength, among others. Alas, none of these whiskies (and more) ever made it to the show floor. The Writers Tears broke in transit, I was told. The Lustau was sitting on the back bar, unopened and would only be served at the masterclass session. As for Dark Cove and Tarlogan, well, no one seemed to know a thing. They just weren’t there. Making matters worse, more than once attendees complained to me that vendors had long ago run out of certain whiskies, only to have me tell them I’d just sampled the very same spirit minutes earlier.

I can’t and don’t fault the festival for these issues — and I hope it was just bad luck this year — but I also can’t help but feel disappointed to have left without trying all of these spirits.

Anyway, I did manage to suss out a few new and unusual bottlings, including some all-stars, though I opted not to stand in the 150-person strong line for a sip of Pappy Van Winkle this year. Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016


Glenfiddich 26 Years Old / A- / a classic expression of old Glenfiddich; malty and biscuity, with a sugar cookie finish
031Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength Flagon / B+ / a 57.1% abv release of this vatted malt; bold and herbal, with lemon peel notes
The Deveron 12 Years Old / B- / Dewar’s-owned; restrained to the point of being muted on the palate
Royal Brackla 16 Years Old / B / quite malty, rough around the edges
Old Pulteney 21 Years Old / A- / a classic, but surprisingly sweet, its maritime note dialed down; just a touch of smoke on the back
Wolfburn Aurora / B / chewy with woody overtones; a bit youthful
The Macallan Reflexion / B+ / a $1200 monster from Macallan, aromatic with dried fruits, but a bit hoary on the back end; I’d have trouble mustering up this kind of coin
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / always worthwhile, rich and malty with plenty of dark fruit notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask / B- / not getting much wine character; restrained and thin at times
Auchentoshan 21 Years Old / B- / heavy with grain, much more youthful than expected
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old / A- / notes of burnt bread and biscuits; lots of malt and wood influence
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / highlight of the show; remarkably gentle but studded with golden raisins and a lovely simple sweetness
Alexander Murray & Co. Dalmore 15 Years Old / B- / oddly smoky, dull on the finish
Alexander Murray & Co. Benrinnes 19 Years Old / B / malty, with big nougat notes and some savory spices
Alexander Murray & Co. Monumental Blend 30 Years Old / B / rounded with ample grain character; somewhat grassy


Westland Garryana / B / a bruising whiskey, smoky with meaty, pork rind notes; full review in the works
Wild Turkey Decades / B+ / ancient Wild Turkey, and it tastes like it – wood on top of wood
Stranahan’s Snowflake Batch 16 / A- / Port notes shine here; very sweet but drinking beautifully now
Parker’s Heritage Collection 24 Years Old Bottled-in-Bond / A / another highlight of the show that I’m looking forward to reviewing in full; initially surprisingly fruit, which fades to a drying finish with notes of camphor
Jefferson’s Ocean-Aged Bourbon / B+ / finally a chance to see what the fuss was about, which turns out to be tons of wood and some toffee notes; not even a hint of the sea


Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / smoldering with burnt sugar and lingering sweetness; sultry


Redbreast 21 Years Old / A- / lovely pot still character, punchy yet balanced


Dos Maderas Luxus / A- / a very high-end rum aged 10 years in the Caribbean, then 5 years in Spain in sherry casks; the results are extremely powerful with fruit and sweetness, notes of figs, raisins, and cherries

Review: Captain Morgan Jack-O’Blast


You know how you have those neighbors that go all out at Halloween? They put their decorations up in September. Everyone gets dressed up, even the dog. They give out the full size Snickers. You know the type.

Well, I had no idea, but Captain Morgan is that family. This new limited edition expression follows in the footsteps of Captain Morgan Cannon Blast, which was designed as a Jagermeister-like shot and bottled in a faux cannonball. Jack-o-Blast, as you can see from the photo above, is bottled in a faux pumpkin! And it looks legit! It doesn’t really matter what this stuff tastes like. You can put the bottle on your dining table as a credible centerpiece for the Halloween season.

Anyhoo, there is actual liquid inside the bottle, which is described as “pumpkin spiced rum.” At 30% alcohol, it’s lower-proof than Cannon Blast even, which is likely part of why the color is so light and golden hued. On the nose, imagine a liquified pumpkin pie, heavy with cloves, ginger, and vanilla — the hallmarks of a classic pumpkin pie. The palate isn’t quite as crystal clear. It drinks foremost with cola notes, from start to finish, the herbal elements adding a layer on top of that. Quite sweet from start to finish, it manages to keep from being overblown with sugar. In fact, while that sweetness hangs in there, it’s the cloves that linger longest on the finish, though its the aroma that makes the biggest and most lingering pumpkin-like impression.

Prototypical “pumpkin everything” fans will probably enjoy this beverage a bit more than I did… but I expect more of it will end up in coffee and on ice cream than it does in shot glasses.

60 proof.

B / $15 / captainmorgan.com

Review: Vizcaya Black Rum Reserva

Vizcaya Black Rum Bottle

The Dominican Republic’s Vizcaya is a little-known but very high-end producer of rum, and its latest expression, Vizcaya Black, is no letdown. Some details:

Crafted in small batches in the Dominican Republic using the traditional Guarapa method, Vizcaya Black Rum features pressed sugar cane juices as the primary ingredient, not molasses that is used for producing lower quality rums. The ingredients are carefully blended, then aged for 12 to 21 years in premium charred oak barrels. The aging time determines the richness of the rum’s dark color.

It’s a beautiful rum, not quite black but coffee brown, with a touch of crimson to it. The nose is intense and rich — burnt marshmallow, chocolate syrup, and roasted nuts, hallmarks of nicely aged rum. On the palate, the rum takes you even deeper. Honey sweetness adds a kind of graham cracker note, then along comes more of those dessert elements: syrupy chocolate, caramel sauce, and Vietnamese coffee.

There’s a distinctly unctuous character that runs throughout the rum — but the finish is particularly mouth coating, which causes it to linger for probably a bit too long. Otherwise, I can’t really complain about Vizcaya Black. It’s a knockout of a rum that features incredible depth and versatility — and an impressively low price tag.

A- / $29 / vizcayarum.com

Review: Plantation O.F.T.D. Rum


For the record, that’s Old Fashioned Traditional Dark. The rum itself may be old-fashioned, but its creation is decidedly newfangled. Constructed by a crew of seven self-described “rum geeks,” the team behind Plantation’s OFTD includes Plantation’s rum master Alexandre Gabriel, plus David Wondrich, and five rum-centric bar owners, including Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (New Orleans’ Latitude 29), Martin Cate (SF’s Smuggler’s Cove), and Scotty Schuder (Paris’s Dirty Dick). Their goal: To create a rich, flavorful, and strong rum, something that might be given out to old navy sailors back in the era of clipper ships.

The blend the septet came up with includes rum from Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados, and it’s bottled at “a full 20 degrees overproof” according to Royal Navy measurements. At 69% alcohol, it’s really designed for cocktails — to serve as the definitive dark, overproof cocktail ingredient.

Let’s see what Gabriel and this motley crew have come up with.

The color is a nice toffee-coffee brown, which seems like it should be nice and easygoing, not an overproof bruiser. The nose quickly proves you wrong, offering a mix of Madeira, burnt sugar, black coffee, coal fire, and a mix of Caribbean spices… cloves, anise, and salty licorice. Very hot with alcohol (as it should be), this heat spills over into the palate, which offers a heavily charred barrel influence to dry out the rich molasses underpinning it. The secondary character includes some lingering orange peel, more of those heavy cloves, ginger, some petrol. It’s slightly nutty at times, and even a little floral if you can push past some rather intense and tarry licorice notes. If nothing else, at least the heavy amount of alcohol makes for a finish that gently burns away anything lingering on the palate, leaving behind some light but not unpleasant notes of tar and coffee grounds.

It is tough to make a great overproof rum, but our friends at Plantation have done quite a good job of it. Let us honor their hard work of delving through hundreds of samples and historic reference points by taking a hearty pull from the OFTD flagon, no?

138 proof.

A- / $32 (1 liter) / plantationrum.com

Review: Gosling’s Gold Seal Bermuda Gold Rum

goslings gold seal

Gosling’s is well-known for its flagship Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, but it actually has quite a family of products on offer, including our highly-rated Gosling’s Old Rum and this, Gosling’s Gold Seal.

Launched in January in its native Bermuda, Gosling’s Gold Seal is an amber rum that replaces its old Gosling’s Gold Rum and builds on Black Seal’s pinniped theme. It is now expanding nationally. We received this bottle from none other than Malclom Gosling, Jr., himself, so of course we’re taking it for a spin!

The nose is heavy with sugary notes — marshmallow and light brown sugar with a touch of molasses-driven gingersnap. On the palate, there’s fruit at first, tropical pineapple and coconut, before the overwhelming sweetness of this rum comes round to bear down on your taste buds. Simple syrup, more of that marshmallow note, and some maple syrup character, particularly strong on the back end. The finish is lasting, yet saccharine.

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the archives to see I like a bit of sweetness in my rum, but Gold Seal just takes it too far, coming across as a bit doctored, and just unnecessarily sugary.

80 proof.

C / $18 / goslingsrum.com

Review: Antelope Island White Rum


Dented Brick Distillery in Salt Lake City, Utah is the home of Antelope Island Rum. Antelope Island is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake, but Dented Brick has a more exotic connotation, referring to a shootout in the area that occurred only in 2008. At present, it’s the only spirit they make, a white rum that is made from both sugar cane and molasses and is bottled without aging.

The nose is pungent, loaded with gooey brown sugar notes, caramel, and a hint of petrol. Nothing overly memorable or offensive, the body shows off notes of marshmallow and a little milk chocolate, before sliding into a fairly heavy vegetal note on the finish. This is a rum that is rough around the edges and which could definitely benefit by seeing a few years in wood to sweeten up the more herbal edges and add complexity while dulling its gumminess. As it stands now I’d expect to see it used primarily as a mixer.

80 proof.

C+ / $NA / dentedbrick.com

Review: Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 – Copper Column vs. Copper Pot

mount gay origin series volume two

One of my favorite things in the world of whiskey is when distilleries start to get experimental. Buffalo Trace has become legendary for putting out all manner of experimental whiskeys that you can sample side by side. The idea isn’t just to see what different barrel treatments or mashbills do to a spirit — but to see how the various experiments compare to one another.

Last year, Mount Gay decided that whiskey shouldn’t have all the fun, that rum could do the experimental thing, too. It released Volume One of what has turned into an ongoing Origin Series of releases, two half-bottles of rum, identical in every other way, except one was aged in virgin oak and one was aged in a charred barrel. This release was a Barbados-only release and never made it to the U.S., but now Volume Two is out, looking at another variable in the distillation process.

For rum, this is a major one: The impact of the column still vs. the pot still. The two rums in this release are identical in ingredients and maturity (though none of that information is made public), they simply vary by the type of still used to create them.

So, let’s try these guys side by side and see how they compare. Fun, fun stuff!

Both rums are 86 proof.

Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 Copper Column – This is a fairly straightforward rum, sweet and slightly woody on the nose with a slightly winey note to it. On the palate, it’s a bit duskier than I expected, taking on a slightly burnt brown sugar character plus notes of coffee, light licorice, and cloves. The finish is still on the woody side, lightly astringent but otherwise clean and balanced — not too sweet, but plenty rich. When I think of a good rum for simple mixers, this is the kind of rum I look for. Bottle #6566/7200. A-

Mount Gay Rum Origin Series Vol. 2 Copper Pot – An immediately different experience. On the nose, some funk, with hints of hospital character, green vegetables, and piquant astringency. The body immediately shows off fruity notes of apricots and some grapefruit, offering a curious sweetness that verges toward bubble gum at times. The finish is dusky, with notes of gunpowder and pencil lead, also showing the wood that the column rum offers but with a hoarier, more forest-floor undertone. Normally I gravitate to pot-distilled rums over column-distilled rums, but this one shows how pot-distilled expressions might need and benefit from more barrel time. Bottle #0797/7200. B+

$95 for set of two 375ml bottles / mountgayrum.com