Review: I.W. Harper Bourbon and 15 Year Old Bourbon

I.W._HARPER_15_YEAR

Diageo recently announced another spiritual resurrection: I.W. Harper. I.W. Harper was a Kentucky bourbon brand started by Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (another familiar whiskey name) in 1879. It changed hands a few times over the years, ultimately winding up with Diageo, which turned it into a super-premium product … in Japan. Discontinued in the U.S. in the 1990s, now Diageo is bringing Harper back to the States.

Two expressions are launching, a lower-cost NAS expression and a 15-year-old version. Chuck Cowdery has a lot of info on the likely origins of the distillate in these bottles, but these are different spirits with different origins; the full mashbills were recently revealed (see below for details). The 15 year is the bigger mystery here, and it’s likely a blend of lots of “orphan” barrels that didn’t become Orphan Barrels.

Harper hits U.S. shelves this month. Here’s what to expect.

I.W._HARPER_I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – There’s no age statement on the “base” expression, but it’s made from a mash of 73% corn, 18% rye, and 9% barley. It “was most recently aged at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Ky., and contains whiskeys distilled at the current Bernheim Distillery. It is hand bottled in Tullahoma, Tenn.” The nose is quiet, and a little sweaty at times with notes of walnut and some lumberyard. Vanilla emerges over time, with more salty shortbread character building on the palate. The finish offers almonds, with a touch of astringency. Capable, but it doesn’t add a lot to the world of bourbon at this price range. 82 proof. B / $35

I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 15 Years Old – This “was distilled at the current Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Ky. and aged most recently at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville. It is hand bottled in Tullahoma, Tenn.” The mash is 86% corn, 6% rye, and 8% barley. This is a much different spirit than the above; it really bears little resemblance to it at all. On the nose: lots of mint, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and some lumber. The body features ample citrus notes, more baking spice, and emerging chocolate and caramel on the backside. There’s heat at first, but this settles down into supple sweetness and a finish that’s surprisingly gentle for a 15 year old bourbon. Ultimately it’s quite balanced and delightful — and well worth sampling. Delightfully retro decanter, too. 86 proof. A- / $75

iwharper.com

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 36.67 and 93.61

smws Cask No. 93.61Surprise, it’s two new outturns from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Thoughts follow on two current releases.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 36.67 – 9 year old Benrinnes from Speyside. Burly, with notes of wet earth and the essence of a pre-lit campfire. There’s fruit here, but it comes across a bit like a canned tropical medley, loaded with syrupy guava and pineapple notes. Water brings out all of the above, both an intense and oily oak character alongside that unctuous fruitiness. With time, things coalesce into something akin to a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, but with a curious, evergreen finish. 119.8 proof. B+ / $100

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 93.61 – 14 year old Glen Scotia from Campbeltown. An exotic mix of fire and spice, this iodine-laden whisky kicks off with supple notes of nougat and marshmallow, with hints of citrus and banana. The fire and smoke kick up then, starting with simple peat and pushing into some fishy, kippery notes. Iodine blends with some syrupy notes on the back end, leading to a dry and dusty finish. Some balance issues on the whole, but it’s not without some charms. Much more approachable with water. Compare to 93.47, which we reviewed last year. 116.6 proof. B / $135

smwsa.com

Tasting 2015 Bruichladdich Releases with Distiller Jim McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bruichladdich.com

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Review: Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak Bourbon

E.H.Taylor Cured Oak Small

After a flood of Col. E.H. Taylor whiskeys hit the market in 2011-12, the release schedule suddenly went quiet. I’d thought brand owners Buffalo Trace had forgotten about it, but at last here we go with a new expression: Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak.

Cured oak? Allow BT to explain:

This 100 proof, Bottled-In-Bond, small batch bourbon was aged in Taylor’s warehouse “C” at Buffalo Trace Distillery. The barrel staves used for this special release were allowed to dry outside in the open air for 13 months, more than twice as long as standard barrel staves. Most white oak barrel staves used for Buffalo Trace’s bourbons are placed outside for 6 months before being fashioned into whiskey barrels.  Collaborating with barrel manufacturer Independent Stave Company back in 1998, this extra aging curing process allowed the wood to dry even longer, eventually allowing the whiskey to extract more rich and complex flavors deep within the oak. After crafting and filling these unique barrels, they were then aged inside of Taylor’s iconic brick and limestone warehouse “C,” built in 1881 … for seventeen years.

Now, Buffalo Trace does regular experiments with longer wood curing for its staves — half the whiskeys in the Single Oak Project use wood that is cured for 12 months instead of the typical 6 — but, fair enough, this isn’t the norm.

The E.H. Taylor Cured Oak bottling offers lots of fruit on the nose, surprising for a whiskey that, remember, is 17 years in barrel — making it, by far, the oldest E.H. Taylor ever released. Red apple, some cherry, and mint hit the nostrils… all preludes for an engaging and impressively complex body. Lighter than you’d think given the 100 proof alcohol level, it pushes more of that fruit on the palate, laced with vanilla and a bit of lumberyard, before settling into a sultry, dark cocoa note. Beautiful balance, moderate but lush finish.

Taylor Cured Oak goes down much too quickly, and my sample vanished well before I was finished exploring its charms. That said, this is likely a whiskey that is likely defined more by its advanced age than the extra few months the lumber spent in the sun before they turned it into barrels.

But that’s just my analysis.

No matter. My advice: If you see it, buy it without hesitation.

100 proof.

A / $70 / buffalotrace.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Sixteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Old Grand-Dad Bonded

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

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

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

100 proof.

A- / $25 / beamsuntory.com

Review: Yellow Spot 12 Years Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Yellow Spot Whiskey

It’s hard to fathom that some of the most anticipated whiskey releases in recent years are named after, well, colored spots. Yellow Spot originated in the late 1800s — there were a whole host of “Spot” whiskies made by the Mitchell family back in the day, including the beloved Green Spot, which were made at Jameson and placed into a variety of empty barrels provided by the Mitchells then aged back at the Mitchell cellars. This practice was known as whiskey bonding and was quite popular in the first half of 20th century Ireland.

By the 1960s nearly all the Spots had vanished (along with much of the rest of the Irish whiskey industry), and eventually Green Spot was handed over to Irish Distillers in the 1970s. Green Spot — finally — came to the U.S. last year, and now Yellow Spot, formally relaunched in Ireland in 2012, has arrived on our shores, too.

Green Spot is said to be 7 to 8 years old (though it carries no age statement), 25% aged in sherry casks. Yellow Spot is a much different animal. 12 years old, stated on the label, this single pot still whiskey is aged in a combination of American bourbon, Spanish sherry, and Spanish Malaga casks. (Malaga is another Spanish fortified wine in the vein of sherry.)

But you maybe knew all that. Here’s what the experience of this newly available dram is like.

The nose is fresh cinnamon rolls, dense honey, raisins, and lots of mixed, fresh fruits. Notes of crushed red pepper emerge over time, lending heat to the aroma. The palate is grainy and full of notes of fresh biscuits, crushed cookies, and, later, vanilla custard and butterscotch. The finish is lightly nutty, warming, and loaded with more granary notes. Some sea spray and iodine sneaks in there, before a marshmallow sweetness takes hold to finish things off.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

92 proof.

A / $95 / singlepotstill.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2014

Clynelish Select Reserve Bottle & Box

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

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

109.8 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $800 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Port Ellen 35YO Bottle & Box

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

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

Compare to last year’s 34 year old.

113 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

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

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Lagavulin 12 Bottle & Box

A 12-year-old expression of Lagavulin is a perennial part of the Diageo Special Editions, and sure enough, this is the 13th Lagavulin 12 to be released in the series, again vatted from refill American Oak casks.

As usual, it’s a classic expression of Lagavulin, light on its feet (and a gentle yellow in color), radiant with coal fire smoke on the nose, some vegetal undertones, and a squeeze of bright lemon. The body is pushy with peat, hot and fiery, but tempered with a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar and gingerbread notes. The finish is as salty as the sea, just classic Islay through and through.

It’s easy to enjoy Lagavulin 12 every year if you’re a peat fan, but at this point the experience is becoming a little old hat for the whiskies in this line. I’m just having a hard time sustaining the excitement about younger Lagavulin (with a very consistent experience) at a higher price year after year. And with that said, if something’s released annually like clockwork, shouldn’t it really get a permanent home on the release calendar instead of being a “Special Edition?” Just askin’.

108.8 proof.

B+ / $130 / malts.com