Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old

balvenie sherry cask single barrel Review: The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old

The latest release from Balvenie is this 15 year old expression which has spent its entire life in former sherry casks. It is also a rare single cask release (Balvenie is the only distillery that has an ongoing single cask release of a single age as a part of its range), so you’ll find variation from bottle to bottle. How much variation? We were lucky enough to try this spirit drawn from two different casks — adjacent ones, in fact. The results might surprise you. Read on.

All bottles are 95.6 proof.

The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old Cask #4450 – Great balance on this, with supple notes of cinnamon-raisin oatmeal mixing with vibrant citrus notes. The body amps that up further, lending butterscotch and flamed orange peel notes to an already rich and vibrant whisky. This whisky is firing on all cylinders, and as it continues to open up it starts to show gentle smoke notes, a touch of iodine, and a return of roasted grain character (think really good pretzels). The sherry’s what sticks with you the most, however, hanging on for an epic finish. A

The Balvenie Single Barrel Sherry Cask 15 Years Old Cask #4451 – A surprising degree of grain character here, infused with nougat and bitter orange peel. This doesn’t feel like a whisky that’s spent a full 15 years in sherry casks, the wood having more of an impact than you’d expect. The finish is drying, with emerging notes of seaweed and iodine, hemp twine and dusky roots. Interesting but flat, a whisky where the fruit is pulled back a bit too far for a whisky that wears its sherry cask heritage on its sleeve. B

$100 / thebalvenie.com

Review: Tap Rye Port Finished Canadian Rye Whisky

Tap rye White 525x1100 Review: Tap Rye Port Finished Canadian Rye Whisky

Astute readers might recall Tap 357 Maple Rye Whisky — made with maple syrup, natch — which we reviewed a few years ago. Now Tap is back, ditching the 357 for its second product, a Canadian rye that’s been intriguingly finished in Port wine barrels.

Limited production information is available. This is a blend of pot-distilled Canadian ryes aged up to 8 years in barrel. A limited edition, the company says it will not be produced again after this production run is sold out. No mashbill information is available, but the whisky is finished in Port barrels and then gets a touch of actual Port wine added to the final product before cold filtration.

All of that aside, I can readily report that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree here — or rather, the sap doesn’t drip far from it. The nose is immediately full of maple syrup and cinnamon-raisin oatmeal. I would have guessed it was a flavored whiskey if I didn’t know better. Exotic nose aside, the body is gentle and indistinct, much like Tap 357, offering a fairly simple blended whisky experience that features mild grains, gentle wood notes, and light touches of brown sugar and burnt caramel. Port? Maybe you catch a touch of raisins on the nose, but otherwise the dessert wine’s distinctive character, so amazing when done right as a whiskey finish, is all but absent in the finished product here.

84 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old

willettrye Review: Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey 2 Years Old

 

With Willett’s renaissance running high, people have been waiting with anticipation for the first 100% rye offering from master distiller Drew Kulsveen’s new operations at the distillery.  Thankfully, patience has paid off and the whiskey was worth the wait. This small batch rye is like a rookie baseball player stepping up to the plate and hitting a walk-off home run at his first major league at-bat. Don’t be deceived by the label’s youthful age statement: this bottle presents a maturity that belies a rye aged only two years. It’s immediately evident in the nose; where there’s a wild complexity of citrus and spice that proceeds to a dose of floral notes. Tasting is another matter altogether: there’s an immediate hot punch usually reserved for rye spirits 4 to 6 years older, with wood and cinnamon giving way to a finish generous with fruit and mint that lingers for a pleasantly long time.

This is just the opening volley for something potentially incredible happening down the road in Bardstown (an expression with a Grand Marnier finish is on tap for later this fall), and as a bonus we get to reap the benefits of time. As the stock gets older, it will be interesting to mark the contrast between younger and older siblings of the same stock. If this two-year rye is indicative of things to come in the future, get ready for the media myth-making maelstrom to catapult the Willett brand into the stratosphere.

109 Proof.

A- / $40 / kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com

Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone Bourbon

With over a dozen spirits on offer, Three Oaks, Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery has a specific focus on craft whiskeys, bottling six expressions of the stuff in its permanent lineup. Here we review three — all young and punchy, and all worth sampling at least once.

Thoughts follow.

Silver sq 130x300 Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone BourbonJourneyman Distillery Silver Cross Whiskey – Made from a mash of equal parts rye, wheat, corn, and barley. No age statement. The nose is youthful and grain-focused, with citrus notes and some sea salt character along with touches of menthol. The body, as you might expect, has a ton going on. Alongside some surprisingly supple grains, I get notes of chocolate caramels, butterscotch, and Bit-O-Honey. It’s a rustic liquid dessert all the way — unusual for a young craft whiskey. A drop or two of water goes a long way toward smoothing out its rough edges and coaxing the sweetness forward. 1% of proceeds from the sale of this product go to a local golf-oriented charity. 90 proof. A- / $50


Journeyman Distillery Ravenswood Rye
– An organic blend of Minnesota rye and Michigan wheat, aged in 15 gallon barrels. No age statement. Notes of licorice and phenol on the nose, settling into an intense herbal character. The body is racy and on par with craft expectations: Very young, punchy, and heavy on granary notes. Give it some time, though. As with Silver Cross, notes of chocolate and caramel emerge, along with touches of orange peel, quinine, and a touch of Bing cherries. Less enticing than the Silver Cross (though, againFeatherbone 750 130x300 Review: Journeyman Distillery Craft Whiskeys: Silver Cross, Ravenswood Rye, Featherstone Bourbon, water is of benefit here), but a solid effort. Reviewed: Batch #29, bottle #50. 90 proof. B / $50

Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon – Named for the Featherbone Factory, a Prohibition-era factory that made buggy whips and corsets and in which Journeyman is now based. Made of midwest organic corn, Michigan wheat, a little rye, and malted barley. Noage information offered. Credible craft bourbon here. It’s frontier style stuff, with a grainy, rustic attack, but the body settles down to reveal lots of vanilla, milk chocolate, and a touch of hazelnut. As with the Silver Cross, Featherbone eschews fruit in favor of dessert, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 90 proof. B+ / $45

journeymandistillery.com

Review: Tomatin Cu Bocan Standard Edition Single Malt Scotch

Cu Bocan Bottle Image1 Review: Tomatin Cu Bocan Standard Edition Single Malt Scotch

The newly released Cu Bocan is a bit of a “second label” for Highlands-based Tomatin, with CU BOCAN in big letters up top and “Tomatin” buried at the bottom of the bottle.

There’s a good reason for this. Cu Bocan — the name refers to a purported ghost dog that haunts the nearby village — is Tomatin’s only peated expression. It makes non-peated whisky year-round, then one week a year it cooks up its spirit with peated malt. (A limited edition 1989 vintage, bottled in a black decanter and not reviewed here, was allegedly made by accident to get this whole party started.)

Anyway, those peated whisky barrels are now being turned into the ongoing Cu Bocan line, which is bottled without an age statement but which is matured in a mix of raw oak, bourbon, and sherry casks. Phenol totals about 15ppm, so ultimately the peat level is pretty light.

For all the talk of peat, the nose on Cu Bocan is surprisingly delicate and enchanting. It’s just wisps of smoke, with overtones of nougat and a clear sherry influence. The palate ramps up with incense and baking spice, gently roasted grains, and fruit notes that include peaches and apricots. The body is moderate to big — mouth-coating to a degree — and the finish is both warming and gentle. All in all this is a representative whisky of the lightly smoky Highland style and a well-rounded, balanced spirit in just about every way. It may lack the extremes of depth and flavor you get with more mature spirits, but it’s so easy to sip on that it’s difficult not to recommend.

92 proof.

A- / $53 / cu-bocan.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish

008 525x393 Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish

Every year, Chris Morris releases a special edition of Woodford Reserve called the Master’s Collection. This November will see the ninth release of the Master’s Collection, and yours truly was the very first person outside of Brown-Forman to sample it.

I sat down with Master Distiller Morris last night in advance of this bourbon’s formal previewing in San Francisco for a sample and chat. The appearance of Sonoma-Cutrer in the name may have tipped you off already that this is a wine barrel-finished bourbon, and that’s indeed the case. But part of the promise of the Master’s Collection is, in Morris’s own words, that Woodford will never repeat a whiskey. Every year, the company will focus on a different grain, barrel, fermentation process, aging regimen, or other facet of whiskeymaking, but once a Master’s Collection release is sold out, it’s gone.

009 300x225 Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir FinishThe second release of the Master’s Collection way back in 2007 involved a Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay finish, and it was a huge hit. The whiskey is now a bit of a cult favorite and sells for a pretty penny at auction. According to Morris, people still ask him regularly when he’s going to do it again… but given the restrictions of the Master’s Collection promise, the answer has always been “Never.”

Well, not quite. Now Woodford has put out a new Sonoma-Cutrer-finished whiskey, only this time Morris is using Pinot Noir barrels instead of Chardonnay to polish off the spirit.

The production process is straightforward: Fully matured, cask strength Woodford Reserve (roughly seven years old) is moved from its new oak barrel home to French oak Pinot Noir barrels, where it spends another 10 months. These barrels have seen three vintages of Sonoma-Cutrer (the winery is owned by Woodford parent Brown-Forman), so they’re about at the end of their life for wine barrels. Once the finishing is done, the final product is brought down to 90 proof (the same as standard Woodford) and bottled.

I tasted the whiskey with Morris alongside a glass of standard Woodford Reserve for comparison. And man, what an amazing spirit it is.

There’s a lot of DNA shared between these two whiskies, as well there should be. The standard Woodford offers strong notes of cherry, walnuts, and cinnamon, and the Pinot Noir finished whiskey builds on that. Butterscotch is the (surprising) initial rush, but over time – I worked my way through two glasses while Morris regaled me with tales of whiskeymaking – you pick up other notes, including dark chocolate, and fun licorice kick on the back end. The Sonoma-Cutrer bottling picks up more fruit as it aerates, while the standard bottling of Woodford sticks close to its nutty, woody core.

Amazingly balanced and so much fun to explore, this is one of the finest – if not the finest — Master’s Collection bottling I’ve encountered to date. It’s a whiskey that smartly starts with an already strong base, then builds upon it with a savvy finish. With 24,000 bottles produced (vs. 11,300 of the prior Sonoma-Cutrer bottling), you should be able to track some down if you give it a bit of effort, but you will have to wait until November before you start hounding your local liquor store.

What’s up next for these Woodford releases? Morris plays his cards close to the vest but he does reveal that this will be the last Master’s Collection release to feature a special finishing treatment for quite a while. In fact, the Master’s Collection releases have been fully planned out and are now aging in barrels which will cover the distillery’s annual releases through 2021(!) – so any finishing treatments will have to come after that… at which point Morris claims he’ll be preparing for his planned retirement in 2023. Why not start planning a Retirement Edition Bourbon now, I asked Morris. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied, looking off into space with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

A / $100 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Ardbeg Auriverdes

ardbeg auriverdes 525x585 Review: Ardbeg Auriverdes

Earlier this summer, iconic Islay distillery Ardbeg released its annual “Ardbeg Day” limited-edition whisky release, Auriverdes. The name is from Portuguese and refers to the colors green and gold (Ardbeg’s classic color scheme) and is a nod to the Brazilian flag and the just-completed World Cup.

The whisky eschews finishes for what is a bit of a gimmicky barrel treatment: Standard American oak (ex-Bourbon) barrels are given “specially toasted lids” that were used just for Auriverdes. Considering the relatively small surface area of the lids of the barrel compared to the rest of the cask, I can’t imagine that this toasting regimen has had a significant effect on the whisky inside. Putting that aside, let’s look at the spirit within. As usual for these releases, it is bottled at cask strength and with no age statement.

Auriverdes starts off with sweet barbecue smoke on the nose, with touches of burnt orange peel, sherry, and salted caramel. The body is quite sweet — sweeter than I expected from an Ardbeg — with notes of rum raisin, creme brulee, and Madeira up front. As the whisky develops in the glass and on the tongue, you catch snippets of meaty bacon and syrup, more smoked meats (pork ribs, methinks), plus light chocolate and vanilla malt notes on the back end. The finish is long and continues to grow in sweetness, really coating the mouth and becoming increasingly warm and rounded as it develops. The only cure is the fiery bite of another sip… and we know what that leads to.

This is a completely solid Ardbeg release, and the heavy, winey notes make it seem like it has had a finishing run in some kind of fortified wine barrel, but that’s not the case. It doesn’t entirely reinvent the well-worn Ardbeg wheel, but it provides enough of a unique spin on the formula to make it worth exploring.

99.8 proof.

A- / $100 / ardbeg.com

Review: Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Years Old

10year 525x700 Review: Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Years Old

Finding any sort of Japanese whisky in the middle of Kentucky seems to be a very complex chore at the least, nearly impossible at best. Limited to a scant few offerings — Hibiki, Yamazaki, and the yearly arrival of Hakushu — the choices within the Commonwealth are muted amongst a frothy sea of bourbon enthusiasts (though this may change with the Suntory acquisition of Beam, we shall see). When wanting something different beyond the traditional quartet of Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, or Canadian, the shelves offer limited options. So when a friend offers to bring back something from Japan for your shelf, it provides extra incentive for their safe (and early) return home.

The nose on Nikka’s Miyagikyo 10 Year Old expression is light and pleasant, with traces of floral and smoke elements that linger, hanging about for almost too long. It’s almost better to let it breathe a bit in the glass before beginning the whole experience. Tasting reveals mild citrus and spice with some traces of oak and pepper, a medium body that keeps the citrus lingering in the finish along with the oak.

Unlike some of the older siblings in the Nikka stable, this really doesn’t contain some of the heavy malt tones usually synonymous with the brand. On the plus side, this mild inconsistency may prove useful as an accessible entry point to the Nikka line and to Japanese whisky as a whole. Those desiring more complexity may elect to upgrade to the 12 or 15 year if the option presents itself. 80 bucks is an investment, but if Japanese whisky is your (new) game, expect to pay that and more stateside.

90 proof.

B+ / $80 / nikka.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Thirteen

Round 13 of Buffalo Trace’s “Single Oak Project” experiment is here, putting us into the final few stretches of whiskey flights in this bold, 192-bottle Bourbon experiment.

Previous rounds can be found here:

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

This slightly oddball release features Bourbons which were all aged in barrels made from the top half of the tree, while keeping the other variables such as entry proof (at 125 proof), and stave seasoning (12 months) the same. The remaining variables, recipe (wheat or rye), grain size, warehouse type, and char level vary. As always, all are bottled at 90 proof.

Overall, this round shows lots of variability with a number of standouts — barrel #109 being one of the best whiskeys in the entire series to date. Lots of good wheat whiskeys here (though there are a few bums in the batch, too), but overall there’s plenty of variety in this round to keep things interesting. If nothing else, I think this round alone shows that barrels from the top of the tree have pretty much no impact on the finished spirit.

Complete thoughts on round 13 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #11 – Muted nose, with straightforward wood elements the clearest component of this whiskey. The body is wood all the way, very drying on the finish, and with only some dried herbal elements to give it much life or interest. Not a “bad” whiskey, but it’s one of the most boring of the entire Project to date. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #13 – Very heavy on the wood, this is big oak in a glass, tempered a touch by some winey notes on the mid-palate. The finish is as woody as the attack, with hints of licorice. A bit plain, but if you’re a fan of heavily wooded whiskeys, you may find more to like. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #43 – Clear orange character on the nose, with woody, smoky overtones. On the body, it’s not 100% harmonious, the fruit and wood elements doing a bit of battle on the palate. But with a little time in the glass, things settle down and it develops some spicy, dark chocolate notes that give it a curious uniqueness. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 21 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #45 – Indistinct nose, but a little salty and sweaty. Some chocolate note emerges after a time, giving the overall spirit a salted caramel/candy bar character to it. Overall the body is modest to restrained, and the finish is short and fleeting. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #75 – The nose brings out notes of tobacco, lumberyard, and slight hospital notes. The body is much softer and sweeter, with silky caramel, some citrus peel, and fresh cinnamon character. Hot on the tongue and fiery on the finish, which tends to dull any nuance here. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #77 – Heavy on cherry notes, this is a fruitier Bourbon with plenty of charm. The fresh fruit character is pretty and almost intense, finishing sweet so that it almost comes across like a strawberry ice cream or sorbet. Quite pleasant, if not wholly nuanced. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #107 – Ample wood, but just on this side of being too hoary for easy drinkin’. This whiskey develops some curious notes — licorice, dark cherries, chocolate — but wood remains the most dominant component. Very good, but not the wild curiosity of #109… A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #109 – A solid, well-balanced, yet unexpected spirit. The nose is both spicy and woody, with some really unusual overtones of racy incense. The body is silky sweet and lush, balanced with notes of raisins, mincemeat, sugar, wood, and some intriguing savory notes. This is a unique bourbon not just for the Single Oak Project, but for bourbons altogether. You may not like it as much as me, but it’s so much fun to explore you’d be a fool to pass it up. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 12 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #139 – Classic but hot on the nose, with big notes of vanilla and hefty lumberyard character. Similar on the palate, but it’s those wood elements that begin to overwhelmingly dominate as the whiskey aerates. Finishes very dry, almost dusty. C+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 10 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #141 – Notes of petrol and gas fires and burnt wood up front, particularly on the nose, leading this whiskey into a more savory funnel than the others in the Project. More sweetness develops on the body — a brown sugar and caramel character — which creates balance with the more savory, and somewhat jarring, early encounter. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 8 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #171 – The indistinct nose offers vague cherry syrup notes alongside lots of raw alcohol character. The body is a bit gentler, but its charms are fleeting. Lots of tobacco smoke and leather here, with touches of motor oil creeping up on you on the astringent finish. C (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #173 – Initially racy, this spicebox of a whiskey settles into a nice little groove, offering well-rounded tones of applesauce, citrus oil, cinnamon, and mellow wood notes, particularly on the finish. This is a whiskey that invites exploration and revisiting, a lush spirit that balances sweet and savory with aplomb. A striking difference to #171. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

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

Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery – Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

lost distillery gerston 525x721 Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery   Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

This is one of the niftiest ideas to come out of the whisky world in years. As the Lost Distillery Company reminds us, some 100 Scottish distilleries were shut down or destroyed in the last century, which means most of us will never know what their spirits tasted like. Until now, as they say.

What Lost Distillery does is concoct recreations of these “silent stills,” some of which have been nothing but ash for 100 years. By doing a lot of research about the stills used, the type of barley, the water, the wood, and more, the company sources malts and mixes up a spirit which — in their mind — is a faithful recreation of the original. (All are vattings of various single malt whiskies, technically “blended malts.”)

No, they don’t have stashes of whisky made in the 1800s to compare their version to (you can check out the Shackleton bottlings if you’re interested in a taste-alike approach to recreating old whisky), but are rather using history as a guide.

Lost Distillery launched with three recreations, and the company has copious historical information about all three of the whiskies on its well-researched website. What I can offer, however, is notes on how the spirits they’ve created taste.

Note: All three of these bottlings are available in “Deluxe” and “Vintage” editions, the Vintage versions being limited edition, one-off bottlings. We’re only looking at the Deluxe versions today — which, to make things even more confusing for you, don’t say “Deluxe” anywhere on the bottle.

Lost Distillery Auchnagie – Auchnagie was around from 1812-1911 in the southern Highlands. Here we have a whisky with a fairly typical Highlands construction: Lots of heather and grain, ample citrus, and a healthy backing of dense wood and smoky notes on the nose. The body plays up the orange and lemon notes, almost hinting at grapefruit on the finish. Sweet to start, the cereal character becomes stronger as the whisky develops on the palate, leading to a finish that is a bit on the hot side but which offers a bold afterimage rather than a gentle fade-away. Reviewed: Batch i. 92 proof. A-

Lost Distillery Stratheden – Stratheden existed from 1829-1926 in the Lowlands. This recreation offers a gentle experience, with nicely mellowed cereal notes, light chocolate and caramel, and a light squirt of orange oil. A mild peatiness emerges with time, lending a smoldering note to the spirit that is reminiscent of  toasted bread. It’s a straightforward and somewhat simple dram, but not nearly as rustic as I’d expected. Warming but a bit short, the finish vanishes just in time for you to reach for another sip. Reviewed: Batch ii. 92 proof. B+

Lost Distillery Gerston - Gerston existed in two incarnations, from 1796-1882 and 1886-1914, based in the far north of the Scottish mainland (part of the Highlands). Elusive nose, with more of a raw alcohol character than the Stratheden, but with much of its cereal character to offer. This is a bolder, pushier, and more forward whisky, punctuated with notes of bitter orange, roasted grains, licorice, and diesel fire. As the finish fades, watch for sea salt and seaweed notes to develop. This is a less refined and less purely enjoyable spirit on its own merits, but my hunch is its a more authentic recreation of the spirits of the era. Reviewed: Batch 1.1X. 92 proof. B

each $65 / lost-distillery.com

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth Release

Islay-based Kilchoman may be one of the youngest distilleries in Scotland, but somehow it cranks out more different spirits than just about everyone else in the business. (Mainly because it’s presenting itself as a bit of a “work in progress,” so Kilchoman’s releases tend to be annual updates.)

Today we consider two of the main Kilchoman expressions, Loch Gorm and 100% Islay, in their 2014 editions.

Loch Gorm 2014 BC 249x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release – Distilled in 2008-09, bottled in March 2014. Fully matured in oloroso sherry butts (and five years old), this is the only all-sherry-matured release from Kilchoman. On the whole it’s a much more compelling whisky than the Loch Gorm First Release, which had a finishing round in a different type of sherry cask and which couldn’t find a balance between the peat and the sweet. With this second release, things have settled down nicely, with the overall impact being one of smoked, grilled citrus fruit. The nose is well-peated without being overpowering, while the body is packed with notes of tangerine and pears, singed with smoke. Miraculously it’s all exquisitely balanced, so harmonious that it’s hard to believe this is just another iteration of last year’s Loch Gorm, which boasted none of these qualities. I take back what I said about sherry being better as a finish for Kilchoman. Can’t wait for 2015′s expression. 92 proof. 17,100 bottles produced. A / $95

Kilchoman 100 Islay 4th Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Fourth Release – Distilled in 2009-10, bottled in May 2014. It’s round #4 for this all-Islay release (where everything from growing the barley to bottling is done on the distillery property). Lightly peated, this release is vatted from 32 five-year-old barrels and 8 four-year-old barrels, all of them first-fill Bourbon barrels. The combination of five-year and four-year whiskies is about on par with last year’s Third Release. Up front this whisky offers lots of smoke — creosote and coal fires and a bit of burnt paper. The fruit doesn’t arise until you’re will into your third sip, where some banana and pear notes start to emerge on the finish. Over time in the glass, it develops the character of orange marmalade, tinged through and through with those wisps of smoke. Mild fruitiness aside, it’s a slow burner. Not a palate-buster, but redolent with the character of a just-extinguished birthday candle. The lightly fruity finish adds complexity, but it never brings the whole package together in quite the way the prior installments of the 100% Islay expression have managed to do. 100 proof. B+ / $110

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

laphroaig 10 year cask strength 525x969 Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

The only member of the Laphroaig core lineup that we haven’t reviewed — but stay tuned for two new expressions dropping in the next couple of weeks — Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength is exactly what it says on the label: A cask strength version of the classic Laphroaig 10 Years Old expression.

Now anything from the Islay-based Laphroaig is always hot stuff, but Laphroaig Cask Strength is a true blazer. Packed with peat smoke and the essence of red pepper, it takes some doing to get it to settle down in the glass. Lots of air works if you’re patient, or you can start adding drops of water to speed up the process. Actually, I recommend the latter no matter what. While you can catch the whiffs of citrus and grapefruit uncut, these are far stronger when you add a splash of water. Try adding more and more as you drain the glass (which will have the side effect of making the glass appear to never empty) and out come more tropical notes of banana, lychee, and pineapple, even a touch of coconut.

Think of it as a more complicated, layered, and — yeah — expensive version of the standard bearer, one that doesn’t let go of its secrets without a fight.

114.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #005, bottled February 2013.

A- / $67 / laphroaig.com

Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

 Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

Founded in 1758 in Haselünne, Germany, Berentzen is known for its eponymous apple liqueur, as well as some other fruit liqueurs. The company is expanding — hey, 250 years is long enough to wait — recently adding two new products to its lineup. We got ‘em both, and put them to the Drinkhacker test.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel is “straight bourbon whiskey, neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors.” Made with the apple juice-based Berentzen liqueur, this is a credible apple-pie-in-a-glass beverage, featuring silky-sweet apple juice notes balanced by a healthy slug of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and with just hints of those “neutral spirits” that provide a bit of a chemical character by way of aftertaste. Perfectly serviceable for those in love with apple cocktails, but you can approximate the same thing by splashing some standard bourbon into a glass of Berentzen if you don’t need a short cut. 60 proof. B / $22

Berentzen Icemint Schnapps is a “supermint” schnapps according to the company, and I’d say that’s fairly on point. I’m hardly an aficionado of peppermint schnapps, but Berentzen’s offering is surprisingly intriguing. The nose offers a light eucalyptus menthol note, and it’s surprisingly gentle. I couldn’t detect any real alcohol burn in it at all. On the palate it’s equally easygoing. The body is icy cool and appropriately minty, with wispy hints of chocolate, altogether coming across much like an after-dinner mint. It doesn’t drink at all like it’s overproof, which makes it a bit dangerous. Try sipping on a half-shot as a digestif. No more. No shooters. 100 proof. A / $25

berentzenusa.com

Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend Hi Res Bottle Shot e1404796063243 525x491 Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary BlendCrown Royal is one of the most popular whiskeys on the planet, and for deserved reason. It’s a straightforward, balanced, and dare-I-say-smooth spirit. It mixes well, and it’s an easy straight sipper. Who doesn’t like Crown?

Crown Royal’s history dates back to 1939, when a Canadian entrepreneur crafted a local whisky for the then-royal couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were the first British monarchs to visit North America. Crown Royal was born (and named) and the world has followed its lead. Now, the brand is celebrating its 75th anniversary, with Crown Royal Monarch making its limited-edition debut.

Crown enthusiasts will likely enjoy this spirit the most, but for the rest of us it’s hit and miss. It’s delicate and straightforward, and it does offer just enough uniqueness to spark at least some level of interest, but it doesn’t raise the bar completely. The nose isn’t the highlight here: Basic, grain-forward, and a little bit plasticky. The body is a bit of a different animal, where you’ll find the classic silky body of Crown Royal imbued with notes that start with liquid caramel and head to mild blackberry, a touch of cigar, and a bit of green pepper. It’s not at all bad, simplistic and for the most part well-balanced, at least until the finish, which has a touch of astringency to it and a return to that bit-o-plastic character. (Air helps to burn this unfortunate character off.)

Crown Royal’s various special editions are well regarded, but Monarch’s presentation is a bit more interesting than once it’s the bottle.

80 proof.

B / $75 / crownroyal.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

jim beam harvest 525x308 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

Discontent to let Buffalo Trace have all the fun with experimental whiskeys, Jim Beam has been hard at work with its annual Signature Craft releases to show how little changes can have a big impact on a finished spirit.

Now it’s pushing boundaries even further, with a series of six Bourbons called the Harvest Bourbon Collection (technically a sub-group of Signature Craft). The spin on this project is that these six whiskeys each incorporate one unusual grain into the mashbill. They’re all still Bourbon — made with at least 51% corn and some amount of malted barley — but in each whiskey that extra grain is used in a significant amount in the mash (though in undisclosed and variable proportions). All six expressions were aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

The six expressions include: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye, and Six Row Barley. The first two on that list arrive in September 2014. The other four will ship through 2015.

Some of these are more unusual than others on that list, of course. Wheat, rye, and barley are all common whiskey components, though here Beam is using different strains or proportions. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, which leaves two big oddities on the list: Rolled Oat and, especially, Brown Rice. Both are common supermarket grains that are nonetheless bizarre to find in a whiskey. Color me curious on how these things turn out.

For now, we’ve got our hands on two of the six: Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat. Without further ado, here’s how they turned out.

JB SC Harvest Wheat 134x300 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled OatJim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat – Made with Kentucky and Indiana wheat, a common ingredient in Bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This initially struck me with a slightly funky, sweaty nose, but I let it settle down and things started to clarify, revealing a more straightforward wood character, with hints of earthiness. This is well-aged whiskey and it shows from the start. On the palate, hints of cherry (not unusual for Beam products) and ample, almost overpowering oak character. Even with a healthy amount of water you can’t push that wood character down, a fact which I chalk up more to the aging regimen than to wheat being in the mashbill. Surprisingly tough to muddle through. B-

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Rolled Oat - I’ve had a few whiskeys that incorporate oats and I always find them fascinating, at least for a diversion. Here Beam has produced a whiskey with a distinct sweetness on the nose, almost like baking spices with cinnamon and cloves, with rich wood notes underneath. On the palate, again it is quite hot on the tongue, and water helps to bring out the unique charms of the spirit. This is a far different whiskey than the Red Wheat expression, a much softer, gentler, and more engaging spirit on the whole. Cinnamon sugar notes play well with a caramel/dulce de leche base, with that woody nose melting into a pulpier, piney character on the palate. All of this plays well together, giving the Rolled Oat expression a balance that the Red Wheat doesn’t have. Perhaps it was simply better able to stand up to the aging regimen? Either way, it’s a winner. A-

This is a fun start to an interesting lineup. Hopefully we’ll have reviews of the other four expressions for you in the Harvest Collection soon!

each $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

JB SC Quarter Cask e1404621828786 525x830 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

For the third installment (and second annual release) of Jim Beam’s Signature Craft series (find reviews of the first limited annual release and the permanent member of the series here), the company is offering a curious concoction. While it’s called “Quarter Cask Finished,” that’s a little misleading. The whiskey is actually a blend of standard five-to-six year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon that is married with a separate Bourbon that has spent from four-to-six years in quarter casks. (Craft whiskey and Laphroaig fans know that quarter casks are exactly what they sound like: Barrels that are 1/4 the size of regular ones, and which tend to mature much more quickly.)

Semantics aside, this is an intriguing new, limited edition whiskey from Beam, and the use of small barrels (at least in part) makes it a considerable departure from the norm. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon starts off sweet and doesn’t let up. The nose offers notes of caramelized fruit — Bananas Foster, I would argue – along with sugared orange peel and vanilla-scented sugar cookies. The body brings that home, with heavy doses of vanilla caramels, milk chocolate, and hints of cherry. Wood notes start to develop, particularly on the finish, as the whiskey settles down in the glass. It’s not particularly hot, at 86 proof, but it does benefit from a little air time, which allows the various flavor and aroma components to meld.

I like this whiskey a lot, though it’s not at all what I was expecting (a bruiser heavy on wood and tannin) and ultimately doesn’t venture all that far from the winning Beam formula. Bottom line: With ample fruit and sweeter elements in abundance, there’s a little something here for Bourbon fans of every stripe.

86 proof. Available beginning in September 2014.

A- / $40 / jimbeam.com

Review: Talisker 27 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Talisker1985 bottlebox High Res 525x742 Review: Talisker 27 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

The final whisky in the 2013 Diageo Special Releases series comes from venerable Talisker on the Isle of Skye. It’s a 1985-distilled spirit aged exclusively in American refill casks, so this whisky’s considerable age should be the main focus here rather than any finishing it encounters.

Sure enough: This is classic Talisker, a peaty, green-tinted malt loaded with aromas of wood smoke and seaweed, with just hints of citrus fruit. The body’s got ample peat, but it’s not overwhelming, with just a bit of vegetable character to it — green bean and green tomatoes, perhaps. Lots of salt splashes you on the finish, showing off this maritime spirit’s true colors.

Final analysis: Very enjoyable, but it never ventures far from its roots.

112.2 proof. 3,000 bottles produced.

B+ / $815 / malts.com

Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Singleton 28 bottlebox High Res 525x773 Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Whisky #8 in the Diageo Special Releases series is an installment from The Singleton line, this one from Dufftown. (There have been many whiskies in “The Singleton” line, but only Dufftown is current.)

This old fogey is from an actually operational still in Speyside, aged completely in American oak for its 28 years. (It was distilled in 1985.)

This is a big, malty whisky. The nose is rich with wood notes and hints of oatmeal, and there’s a little acetone character in there as well. As noted, bit malt notes are the key element here. It’s a big bowl of cereal (good cereal, mind you) with raisins, maple syrup, and a squirt of honey. It sweetens up as air gets to it, and it also brings out more of its well-aged wood notes.

The Singleton of Dufftown 28 may start off simple, but its complexity grows as the whisky matures in the glass. I was ready to dismiss it as almost boring at the start, but eventually it won me over as a warm and inviting new friend.

104.6 proof. 3,816 bottles produced.

A- / $400 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Port Ellen 34yo 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Port Ellen 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Whisky #7/9 from the Diageo 2013 Special Release series comes from Port Ellen, Islay’s cult distillery which was shuttered way back in 1983. This spirit was produced in 1978, just five years before the stills were mothballed. Aged in American and European oak, it’s one of the oldest whiskies ever to be bottled from this distillery.

Port Ellen is always heavily peated, and this expression is no exception. The nose is rich with barbecue smoke, salty, with citrus overtones. The body’s a big burner, rich with barbecue sauce, both sweet and peppery. Water is of considerable benefit here, but that serves mainly to tame the beastly body rather than coaxing out additional character. In Port Ellen 34 the smoke never lets up, but it does find a few companions in notes of orange pulp, rosemary, and honeycomb. Surprisingly restrained, this is a decidedly simple example of Port Ellen — plenty tasty, but not a powerhouse of complexity.

110 proof. 2,958 bottles produced.

B+ / $2,570 / malts.com

Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Oban21 bottlebox High Res 525x935 Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

#6 of 9 in the 2013 Diageo Special Release series comes from the classic Oban Distillery, located on the west coast of the Highlands where it’s a bit of an honorary, lesser member of the Islay group. Aged in rejuvenated American oak and second fill sherry casks, it’s the first Oban to come out of this series in a decade.

Unlike most of the whiskies that precede this spirit in the lineup, the Oban immediately strikes you as hot. The nose is fiery — with salt air and coal smoke peeking through, along with touches of buttery biscuits. The body cries for water, but after the heat dies down a bit it reveals notes of syrup-coated pancakes and some citrus. The smoke fades away almost completely here. Water coaxes out some herbal character along with lots of nuts — walnuts and almonds — before falling back on its core of malty grains with a twist of orange peel.

With the appropriate splash of water, this emerges as one of the best Obans I’ve ever had, balanced and pretty and full of complexities that invite exploration.

117 proof. 2,860 bottles produced.

A / $385 / malts.com