Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Lost Prophet Bourbon 22 Years Old

Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet Hi Res Bottle Shot 525x679 Review: Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Lost Prophet Bourbon 22 Years Old

These orphans are working harder than Oliver Twist for Diageo, and a fourth expression of the Orphan Barrel Project is now hitting the market: Lost Prophet.

The Lost Prophet stock was distilled in 1991 in Frankfort, Kentucky at what was then the George T. Stagg Distillery and, per the company, was found in the old Stitzel-Weller Warehouses in Louisville. The whiskey is bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The mashbill for Lost Prophet Whiskey is 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye.

This is a fun and intriguing spirit that’s hard not to like. The nose is immediately unique, almost startling, with notes of intense menthol, tanned leather, cloves, and citrus oils. The body punches hard — hotter at first than its proof level would indicate — with notes of molasses, dark cherry, big vanilla, some gingerbread lat in the game, and a moderate amount of wood.

Not at all hoary or tough the way many very old whiskeys can be, Lost Prophet Bourbon still manages to feel fresh and exciting, offering a rich and engaging experience that is both plenty complex while also being easy-drinking and refreshingly enjoyable. So many old whiskeys leave you with a bitter, astringent aftertaste, but Lost Prophet’s denouement is lightly sweet, lasting, and memorable.

For a bourbon over 20 years old, Lost Prophet is actually quite cheap. Doubt it will stay that way, of course…

90.1 proof. Reviewed: Batch Tul-Tr-1.

A / $120 / orphanbarrel.com

Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

Dec12 BruichladdichCuvee 382 1 525x684 Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

When people ask me what my favorite whiskey is — and they do that a lot — after I hem and haw about it for a while, I usually tell them it’s one they’ve never heard of: Bruichladdich 16 Years Old First Growth Series: Cuvee E Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes Finish, a limited edition that Laddie put out in 2010 and which is down to its last drops in my bar. (My “A” rating at the time is too low.)

Cuvee E is long gone from the market, but Bruichladdich recently put out a spiritual successor of sorts, Cuvee 382 La Berenice. It’s a different animal — five years older and finished in both Barsac and Sauternes casks, but with my beloved Cuvee E nearly spent, I sprang for a bottle of 382 to keep the party going.

Cuvee 382 is a study of contrasts, starting out much, much darker in color than Cuvee E, offering the appearance of what looks like a well-sherried whiskey. The nose is serious, more intense than Cuvee E, and less sweet from the start. Biscuits, gingerbread, and leather oil pervade the racy, punchy nose. The body brings lots of dried fruits into the equation, folding these into notes of roasted grains, more leather, and some citrus peel. It doesn’t offer the bright and sweet honey character of Cuvee E, however, rather it takes things in a more austere direction. Watch for a surprising rush of sea salt on the finish to polish it all off.

Altogether, this is a surprisingly different whisky than the distillery’s prior Sauternes-oriented bottling, though it has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While it sticks closer to a more traditional malt whisky formula than Laddie’s previous experiment with a sweet white wine finish, it remains a remarkable and remarkably drinkable dram.

92 proof.

A / $170 / bruichladdich.com

Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

The Balvenie Tun 1509 batch 1 525x660 Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

Lucky day: Not one, but two new bottlings from a perennial favorite: The Balvenie. Actually, the distillery has recently released three different whiskies, the third being The Balvenie Fifty, Cask 4567, a 50 year old expression that runs $38,000 a bottle.

We did not manage to nab a bottle of this lattermost one, but no matter: We did sample the other two, a new 25 year old single barrel release and a new sibling in the Balvenie Tun series, Tun 1509, Batch 1.

Let’s discuss each in turn.

First, The Balvenie is adding a new single barrel edition to its regular release range, a 25 year old single barrel expression that joins the 12 year and 15 year single barrel expressions that have launched in recent years. This new 25 year old expression spends its life entirely in traditional American ex-bourbon casks, a departure from the sherry cask barrels used for the 15 year single barrel bottling. Again, this is an ongoing release, and while stocks will be limited, it will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Second, The Balvenie Tun 1509 is the sequel and successor to the impressive Tun 1401 series, which composed a set of nine different batches of whiskies that were blended up in small quantities, about 2000 liters per batch, and released in very limited amounts over the last few years. We reviewed several of the Tun 1401 series (see Batches 3, 6, and 9) — only a few of the nine ever made it to the U.S. — but all were gone much too soon. Now, Tun 1401 has been retired, and Tun 1509 is in. This mixing vessel can hold 8000 liters, which means the whisky blended up in it may be less “rare,” but it will at least be easier to find.

Thoughts on both of these whiskies follow.

The Balvenie 25 Years Old Traditional Oak Single Barrel – Shockingly light in color, this hardly looks like it’s been in barrel for a year, much less 25. The actual presentation on the tongue and nostrils, however, is quite the opposite. Seductive notes of caramel and some citrus notes are well-integrated on the nose, making it candylike without being cloying. The body takes this and runs with it, firing on all cylinders. The caramel notes turn toward dark chocolate sauce, the fruitiness toward essence of orange flowers, caramel apples, honey, and some spice — cinnamon, allspice, and a bit of brown sugar. Throughout, Balvenie 25 keeps things light and lively, a whisky that’s lithe and light on its feet, a treat that combines the pleasures of a well-aged senior statesman with the gentler body of a fresher, younger spirit. If it weren’t so gorgeous I’d call it a simple pleasure. 95.6 proof. A / $599

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt – Batch #1 of Tun 1509 is made from whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels (35 casks) and sherry butts (7 casks), for a total of 42 casks worth of single malt commingling in Tun 1509. The results are powerful compared to the quieter 25 year old single barrel, evident from the start by looking at the deep amber color of the whisky. The nose is exotic and rich, offering punchy notes of well-burnt sugar, coffee, dried figs and raisins, and a touch of coal fire smoke. The body then takes all of these components and promptly kicks them right in the ass. Dried fruit takes a spicy, Christmas-like turn toward the baking pantry, with notes of cloves and cinnamon dominating. There’s more red fruit on the palate — think plums — along with notes of blood orange and tangerine. Some malt is here, but the cereal character is warm and inviting, like a well-doctored bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. This whisky drinks embarrassingly easy despite topping 94 proof, taking its burly, rounded body and just having its way with your palate from start to finish. Speaking of the finish — it’s long, warming, and, as it vanishes, it leaves you begging for more. One of Balvenie’s best whiskies ever. 94.2 proof. A+ / $350

thebalvenie.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach 25YO 525x787 Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bell 300x168 Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie BellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944

mortlach.com

Review: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res 480x1200 Review: Makers Mark Cask Strength

Hey, remember when Maker’s Mark said it was going to lower its proof from 90 to 84? That didn’t work out, so the company figured why not go the other way, with a limited-availability cask strength expression of the classic Maker’s Mark.

Cask strength bourbon is a bit at odds with the company’s avowed mission to market a “soft” whiskey, but there’s no denying that customers are going to eat this stuff up. The demand for overproof, barrel strength whiskey is seemingly insatiable, so, mission or not, I expect Maker’s knew exactly what it was getting into here.

Let’s engage in a tasting, shall we?

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is classic Maker’s on the nose — vanilla, lightly almond-like notes, modest wood, and hints of ripe banana. Modest and sweet-smelling, the spirit at first indicates little to the nose about its overproof nature. The body starts off with only a few minor surprises. Cinnamon and red hot candies start things off, but then it’s on to an intense, alcohol-laden punch as that 113-plus proof core takes hold. Bigger, tannic oak notes arise here, along with more of that sweet vanilla core, some cocoa powder, and hints of grain. The finish is drying and a little bittersweet — another Maker’s Mark hallmark — with notes of butterscotch and a little menthol and black pepper as the finish fades. All told, it’s not unlike classic Maker’s Mark, just punched up a bit in both the flavor and the body departments to appeal to the overproof whiskey lover in the family. There’s definitely more intensity and fire here, but it’s easily drinkable at bottle strength. A touch of water brings out more nuances in all of the above.

On the whole, I like it just fine, though not necessarily better than the classic Maker’s Mark. Frankly I’m not sure I need to have Maker’s at this proof level, but I like the idea that if I decide I do, I know it’s there for me.

Reviewed at 113.3 proof (abv will vary). Reviewed: Batch 14-02.

A- / $35 (375ml) / makersmark.com

Review: Jim Beam Kentucky Fire

Kentucky Fire Bottle Shot 470x1200 Review: Jim Beam Kentucky FireJim Beam’s spin on the cinnamon-flavored whiskey fad — the Fireball phenomenon — crept up so quietly earlier this August that no one seems to have taken much notice. I guess being, like, eighth to market doesn’t get you much press. No matter, though. Let’s have a look at Beam’s Kentucky Fire — cinnamon whiskey’s gotta have “fire” in the name, that’s the law! — and see how it stacks up.

Jim Beam Kentucky Fire is “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey infused with cinnamon liqueur,” so at least no one’s claiming there are imported cinnamon sticks delicately flavoring Kentucky’s finest. Beam says its focus here is on the bourbon first, with the cinnamon a secondary concern.

I’d say Beam’s description is pretty spot on. While the nose offers clear cinnamon spice, but the vanilla sweetness of bourbon does manage to muscle through even that powerful baking cabinet standby. The body offers the flipside of this. It actually starts sweet, not spicy, a slippery vanilla-caramel that takes a few seconds before the cinnamon kicks in. It’s warming on the finish without being at all racy, and the cinnamon heat fades after just a few seconds.

Perhaps more than any other cinnamon whiskey on the market, Kentucky Fire is understated on the cinnamon side. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of Red Hots character here, it’s just not designed to scorch your palate. That’s fine by me, actually. There are cinnamon whiskey blazers out there, but a spirit that lets the whiskey shine as brightly as the cinnamon at least gives you something to savor rather than merely grimace at. Kentucky Fire may not exactly be nuanced, but it’s easy-drinking and more than serviceable as a shot or a cocktailing ingredient.

70 proof.

B+ / $16 / jimbeam.com

Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter III – “The Fiendish Finale”

devils punch bowl 3 525x714 Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter III – “The Fiendish Finale”

All good horror stories deserve a trilogy, and Arran Malt, with its Devil’s Punch Bowl series, is back for a third and final round of this special release whisky: The Fiendish Finale. See notes on Chapter I and Chapter II here.

There’s unfortunately not a lot of production information on this batch, but it is drawn from whisky that has been finished in oloroso sherry butts. No age information is offered. As with previous editions, it is a cask strength bottling.

This expression of the Devil’s Punch Bowl is racier and spicier on the nose than previous expressions, with a clearer expression of its barley base at first. The body is huge — powerful with sherry notes, chewy malt, and a finish that pushes forth notes of dried fruits, milk chocolate, and a sweetness akin to caramel sauce on fresh Belgian waffles. It’s not at all smoky like Chapter II, instead letting the sherry do almost all of the talking here, building a dessert-like confection that layers both fresh and dried citrus notes atop a big caramel core. Lots of fun, and a real go-to whisky for after-dinner drinking.

All in all, this is a fantastic way to round out one of the more memorable series of Scotch whiskies to arrive in recent years.

106.8 proof.

A- / $130 / arranwhisky.com

Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey

Thistlefinch 039B 525x768 Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey

This white rye is made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. What about that name? “Pennsylvania Dutch folk art frequently features a bird in it, that, in German, is called a “Distelfink” or Thistle Finch. The bird is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.”

Thistle Finch is made from a mash of 60% rye, 30% wheat, and 10% malted barley — 90% of which is locally sourced. The company notes specifically that it mills its grains to a flour-like consistency (unusual if you’ve ever seen or tasted a typical, chunky whiskey mash), which it claims offers better conversion from starch to sugar and, thus, a more flavorful product. Distilled in a hybrid copper pot still and bottled unaged, all bottles are individually labeled and numbered.

This is an interesting and unusual white whiskey, and there might be something to the distillery’s claims that it extracts more flavor out of a flour-based mash. The nose offers classic white whiskey flavors — brisk cereal, fresh-cut hay, and slight vegetal, bean sprout notes. The body offers all of these, but it’s layered with more complexity than expected. As the grain fades out, in come waves of citrus peel, nougat, lemongrass, and butterscotch — the latter building particularly on the finish. Yes, it’s still young whiskey, but there are complex flavors here that go well beyond the harsh and funky bruising that you tend to get with the typical new make spirit. I’d try it first in a white whiskey sour.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #06.

B+ / $32 / thistlefinch.com

Review: Macallan Rare Cask

macallan rare cask 525x432 Review: Macallan Rare Cask

A $300 no-age-statement Scotch whisky? The time is here, folks, and Macallan is leading the charge.

Macallan Rare Cask is matured fully in first-fill Spanish oak casks that formerly held dry oloroso sherry for 18 months. How long the whisky was in there remains a secret.

This is a classic, heavy-sherry (and intensely deep-amber) expression of Macallan from the start. It’s got plenty of age on it (maybe not $300 of age, but plenty nonetheless), opening with a nose that’s rich in citrus notes, but which also bears notes of cocoa powder, plus some classic, slightly meaty, nutty, and almost hoppy notes. The body is mouth-filling and chewy, sherry and apricot undercut with some vegetal components — bean sprouts and roasted grains that counterbalance the sherry character pretty effectively. The finish brings the citrus back for a reprise — classic orange zest with a bit of dark chocolate, plus a doughy character that recalls wood fires, though not exactly smoke, if that makes any sense. Its sweetness is smoothed out in the finish — a characteristic that may or may not appeal to fans of Macallan’s typically sweeter style.

Macallan Rare Cask is a capable, curious, and punchy whisky that merits exploration, although the price tag is awfully heady. While it’s hardly the most expensive NAS whisky to hit the market, this is one of the most audacious and noteworthy general malt whisky releases to arrive in this latest push away from age statements. Macallan would of course like the spirit itself to do the talking, and not a number on the label of the bottle. But to get there, first you’re going to have to get past another number… and that’s one that has three digits in it, not two.

86 proof.

B+ / $300 / themacallan.com

Review: Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey

sons of liberty Pumpkins with award 525x702 Review: Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey

Pumpkin spice apparently knows no bounds. Now here it, in our whiskey!

Sons of Liberty is a craft distiller out of Rhode Island, focusing on American single malts as well as seasonal, flavored whiskies. In addition to a hop-flavored whiskey there’s this pumpkin one, which is focused on fall.

The base of the spirit is SoL’s single malt, a young NAS spirit, which is flavored with juice made from thousands of pounds of roasted, pressed pumpkins, plus a touch of traditional holiday spices — cloves, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange. When bottled, it is a deep, reddish brown, the color of very old brandy.

If you’re expecting a Starbucks-class sugar bomb, walk away. This is not a sweetened whiskey, but is quite literally a blend of young American malt with actual pumpkin juice and a bit of stuff from the spice rack. The nose is coffeelike, with a dusting of cloves, tea leaf, tobacco (cigars, really), and roasted grains. The pumpkin is much more evident on the body, where roasted gourds make a distinct — and unique — appearance. The combination of pure pumpkin and young whiskey makes for a bizarre experience in the mouth, with those vegetal squash notes waging war with brash, young malt character. Cinnamon comes along at the end, but it’s that coffee note that hits hardest on the finish, making for a reprise that feels a lot like you’re scooping out the dregs of the coffee maker at the office and taking a big bite out of sludge that’s in there.

This is an overwhelming style of whiskey but it’s wholly unique and worth experiencing, even if just to experience once what a madman can do with a copper still and a few tons of holiday squash.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.

B- / $40 / solspirits.com

Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

johnniewalker goldlabelreserve750  01937.1407759372.1280.1280 525x525 Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

Last year, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve arrived in the U.S. in limited release. We wrote about it at length at the time, but knew that, as just a visiting member of the family, our thoughts would be fleeting at best. Well, now Gold Label has its green card and is back in the family, a permanent resident in the JW lineup.

We got a fresh bottle of Gold Label Reserve (the non-gilded version of the bottle) and took it out for a fresh spin. While I didn’t like it quite as much as I did upon my first encounter, it’s still a standout blend and arguably the best part of JW’s lineup. My fresh thoughts on the latest release follow.

Racy on the nose, there’s an indistinct mix of citrus and grain character that combine with more base alcohol characteristics — all in all, the picture of a standard, sherried, blended whisky. The body starts off phenomenally sweet, spiking the cloves and citrus notes with big candy bar character. The sugar settles down as some more pungent Madeira notes emerge on the finish, but the overall spirit is balanced, on point, and lasting.

80 proof.

A- / $75 / johnniewalker.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011 525x700 Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky

 Review: Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky

If you’re a whiskey fan, by now you’ve heard of Haig Club, a new brand of Scottish single grain whisky that counts Simon Fuller and David Beckham among its originators. While it sounds like a vanity project, let’s put that to rest: Haig Club has a legit history and is quite an interesting spirit in its own right.

The Haig family dates its distilling heritage back to the 1600s and had one of the earliest licensed distilleries in Scotland. In 1824, John Haig built Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, and Haig’s cousin is credited as an inventor of continuous distillation (including the column still). Cameronbridge remains the oldest grain distillery in Scotland.

Today, Cameronbridge produces grain-based spirits for just about everyone in the Diageo portfolio, including Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and every blended whiskey Diageo markets (Johnnie Walker, J&B, and of course the Haig brand). Some 110 million liters of product flow from Cameronbridge every year, and now a small amount of that production is going to become Haig Club.

Grain whiskey is a lighter and more delicate style of whisky than malt whiskey, as well it should be. Made from 10% barley and 90% wheat, Haig Club is column distilled instead of pot distilled, and is aged in a mixture of ex-Bourbon barrels, refill whisky casks, and rejuvenated whisky casks. Haig Club is clearly on the young side — again, not unusual for grain whisky — but is bottled with no age statement in a soon-to-be iconic cobalt blue bottle. (The blue glass used is a nod to the opaque tasting glasses used during by distillers in order to avoid being influenced by the color of the spirit.)

Nosing Haig Club reveals a youthful exuberance: coconut husk, roasted grains, vanilla and faint touches of sawdust — some of the hallmarks of many younger whiskies, even something akin to a craft American whiskey or even some white rums. Th nose doesn’t immediately win you over, but the body is quite a surprise. Here you’ll encounter more of that coconut but less raw grain character. As it develops, you get butterscotch, some dried fruits, and curious evergreen notes — alongside some forest floor — on the back end. The finish is brisk and clean, unlike the brooding and lasting intensity of many malt whiskies. In theory that makes Haig Club a solid base for cocktails, but I find it sips rather beautifully and intriguingly on its own — an interesting diversion from the typical world of malt.

80 proof. Available in the U.S. in November 2014.

A- / $70 / haigclub.com

Review: Big Bottom Barlow Trail Blended Whiskey

big bottom BarlowTrail2Edited 525x347 Review: Big Bottom Barlow Trail Blended Whiskey

It’s been a year and a half since we checked in with Hillsboro, Oregon-based Big Bottom Whiskey. For those unfamiliar, Big Bottom sources various whiskeys and typically finishes them in a variety of wine casks. While Big Bottom has previously specialized in bourbon, this latest release is a blended whiskey — and it isn’t barrel finished, either.

Ted Pappas, proprietor of Big Bottom, explains:

For Barlow, we were looking at getting the most we could out of the current bourbon supply we had. Of course, with a blended whiskey, we could have stretched it out with neutral spirits per the federal regulations, but that’s not our thing. We decided to find other whiskeys that would go well with our straight bourbon and we did. We keep the other two elements as proprietary, but the straight portion is bourbon. The other two elements are well aged and they are whiskeys. Our goal was to bring a true American blended whiskey to the market without grain neutral spirits and as it rolls through your palate, you get the different whiskeys starting with the spice from the bourbon.  The name comes from a trail that early settlers used to settle in the northwest, so it was a obvious name for us to use since this type of American spirit is somewhat pioneering.  We believe this product will appeal to the bourbon and lighter style drinkers out there in the market.

Barlow Trail is an interesting study in contrasts. The nose is quite sweet and comes across as quite youthful, showcasing some grain elements along with citrus, menthol, and nougat character. Breathe deep and there are touches of lime zest in here, too. I don’t get a huge rush that screams “bourbon” at me from the nose, but the body plays this up a bit more, offering at first some popcorn — or rather caramel corn — character. This is punched up with secondary flavors that come along later, offering notes of butterscotch pudding and banana cream pie. Is there some single malt in this blend? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Youthful whiskeys can often feel undercooked and heavy on the cereal notes, but Barlow Trail feels closer to a finished product than a work in progress. (That said, Big Bottom will be releasing a Port-finished version of Barlow in the near future.) This spirit may not raise the bar the way that some of BB’s Port-finished bourbons do, but it does achieve Pappas’ goal of being approachable to newcomers and fans of lighter-style whiskeys while still being engaging enough for veterans to get some enjoyment out of. It’s also pretty cheap, so what can you complain about?

91 proof.

B+ / $30 / bigbottomwhiskey.com

Review: Highland Park 50 Years Old

013 525x700 Review: Highland Park 50 Years Old

When one receives an invitation to taste one of the rarest spirits in the world, one accepts before the bearer of the invitation realizes what he’s done. In this case, the offer was legit, and I found myself staring down a bottle of Highland Park 50 Years Old — 275 bottles made, $20,000 each, and sold out pretty much immediately upon release — and a 1/4 oz. of whisky that had my name on it.

After warming up on HP’s new Dark Origins and a gorgeous pour of Highland Park 25 Years Old, the main event arrived. You can spend a solid hour simply examining the Highland Park 50 bottle, worked over by the Queen’s royal silversmith and embedded with a sandstone carving, but eventually duty — and the liquid inside — calls. Approaching a spirit like this isn’t easy. It’s not the oldest nor the rarest whisky I’ve had — Dalmore Selene 1951, 58 years old, 30 bottles made, takes that honor — but that sampling was barely a drop. This was a small pour, but a true and proper one — enough to really get your arms around what you’re tasting.

Highland Park 50, distilled in 1960 and bottled in 2010, is deep mahogany in color, tipping you off right away to what you’re about to get into. It’s frankly nothing like the core line of Highland Park. The nose is redolent with tree sap, raisin, prunes, and wet leather straps — an earthy bog of aromas that hint at sweetness hidden deep within. On the palate, prepare for sheer intensity and a few flavors one rarely sees in single malts. Here, it’s all bitter roots, licorice, coal fires, and tons of wood. The fruit is there, but it’s locked up tight — dense, stewed prunes buried in a casket of old, brine-soaked wood. The finish is long and big with maritime notes — think salt air over seaweed — creating a neat counterpoint to the wild tannins on the palate.

I sat with these precious few sips of HP50 for at least half an hour, letting its leathery earthiness wash over me like I was browsing a rare old book — or taking a punch to the jaw from an ancient boxing glove. While initially a bit off-putting — particularly next to the seductively sweet HP25 — its charms grew on me as the evening wound down and I made my way home. The next day, as I write this, I find myself not with the gorgeous 25 on my mind, but rather with my thoughts returning to that punchy, cantankerous 50 year old, again and again and again.

89.6 proof.

A- / $20,000 / highlandpark.co.uk

Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along “The Highland Journey”

old pulteney 35 525x645 Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along The Highland Journey

I had the recent good fortune to attend an online tasting called “The Highland Journey,” a road that took us through four distilleries and six single malts, all from distilleries throughout the Scottish Highlands. Tasted roughly from southeast to northwest, the experience covered anCnoc, Speyburn, Balblair, and Old Pulteney. We sampled a range of malts made in a variety of styles, some youthful and tough, others much older and finished with fruit-forward sherry casks.

Tasting notes from the event follow.

anCnoc 22 Years Old – We recently covered a few offerings from anCnoc, but this 22 year old is something else. Lovely apple notes up front. Brisk roasted grain character attacks the palate, with a fiery note that melds well with strong sherry cask influence that hits hard on the finish. Touches of dried fruits here and there. A lovely, balanced whisky that still lets the grain shine in an enticing, attractive way — and does not feel at all like its anywhere near past its prime. 92 proof. A- / $130

Speyburn 10 Years Old – This is entry-level Speyburn, which is a perennial best buy in the single malt space. Simplistic nose, with some charcoal fire notes and a bit of raw wood. The body is quite malty, with caramel and cloves — the tougher wood character takes a nutty turn on the finish. Pleasant but loaded with an almost rustic character. Bolder than I remember. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Speyburn 25 Years Old – An older expression of Speyburn, which you don’t see as often. Aggressive citrus on the nose. Sherry character remains the showcase on the tongue, with some lightly smoky notes building as the spirit develops on the palate. Baking spices and fruit compote emerge, with a touch of iodine/sea salt on the finish. 92 proof. A- / $300

Balblair Vintage 2002 First Release – 10 years old. Woody/malty notes on the nose mask it at first, but the body of this Balblair is very sweet, almost with a granulated sugar character to it. The sweetness rises on the finish, taking on an almost cotton candy character. The finish offers nougat, caramel sauce, and a bit of dried fruit. A fun, after-dinner sipper. 92 proof. A- / $60

Old Pulteney Clipper – A new, limited edition NAS whisky from Old Pulteney. Surprisingly lively. Malty and grain-heavy up front, but with a seductive candy bar character that balances that out. The end result is something akin to raisin-studded oatmeal, a mix of savory and sweet that works. The body is modest — despite a punch of spice that attacks the back of the throat — but balanced and enjoyable. A fine everyday dram choice. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Old Pulteney 35 Years Old – A different animal in this roundup. Elevated above an otherwise solid crowd here. Notes of Port wine, sultanas, clementine oranges, and banana fill the mouth, along with touches of marshmallow. Glorious, bright sherry notes emerge in time for the finish, which melds fresh citrus juices with raisins and candy bars. Lovely! 85 proof. A / $720

Review: Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, and Unblended American Whiskey

To clarify my earlier commentary on the company: Michter’s is an old name that’s reviving its distillery operations — but while that’s getting going, the company is bottling contract-produced spirits under its own label. Label copy on this series of US-1 — aka US*1 — whiskeys is decidedly vague. The bourbon reviewed below, for example, is “made from the highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in a hand-selected charred white oak barrel… it is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”

Curious.

We’ve reviewed Michter’s before, and no matter how secretive it may be about its sourcing, the company makes a pretty solid product. (More to the point: It tells someone else to make a solid product, and they do.) The three spirits reviewed below comprise three of the four entry-level spirits from Michter’s (the Sour Mash fourth is covered in the review linked above), so we’re finally rounding out the company’s basic offerings. As for the older stock, we’ll just have to bide our time for it.

Thoughts follow.

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon - Aged in new oak for an indeterminate time. A bold and aggressive whiskey. Intensity from the get-go on the nose: Butterscotch, over-ripe banana, creme brulee, and cinnamon. The body takes all that and runs with it, adding brisk oak elements, apple pie notes, dried figs, and a touch of red hot candies. That bit of heat doesn’t last. The finish is seductive and supple, offering a wonderful balance between dusty wood and brown sugar sweetness. An excellent buy, the dearth of data on the spirit notwithstanding. Reviewed: Batch #14C123. 91.4 proof. A / $40

Michter’s US-1 Single Barrel Straight Rye – Aged 36 months-plus in new oak; otherwise no mashbill information is offered. Clear, spicy rye notes on the nose, with a dusting of sawdust. As the body develops, you get lots of caramel apple, more intense wood, and some bitter chocolate notes. While the nose offers tons of promise, frankly I was hoping for more on the palate. What comes across is a rather straightforward whiskey that masks its more interesting elements in lumber. Drinkable and mixable, but short on character. Reviews: Batch #14C118. 84.8 proof. B / $40

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey – This one’s the most mysterious of the bunch — a mystery grain whiskey that is aged (for a mysterious amount of time) not in new oak but in used bourbon barrels. The nose is immediately curious — gingerbread, molasses, and some lumber, but also tinned apples and cinnamon. The body is sweet with milk chocolate and maple notes, I’m thinking a distilled version of Sunday breakfast with some Nestle’s Quik on the menu. This isn’t a bad whiskey but it is a curious one, playing its identity cards close to the vest. Wheat whiskey, perhaps? Why not just say so? No batch information. 83.4 proof. B+ / $40

michters.com

Review: Speakeasy Bourbon

speakeasy 219x300 Review: Speakeasy BourbonSo this is an interesting one. Quietly released in a limited batch in September, the label reads that this was made by the Bardstown Club Distilling Company. However, a quick Google search reveals that this is indeed the handywork of none other than Willett, under another one of its noms de plume. This made Speakeasy all the more intriguing, given its recent string of quality offerings. And at a price tag of $30 what did I have to lose?

Not a lot, and thankfully there was plenty to gain. This is one of the most easygoing bourbons I’ve had in quite some time. It’s light and simple, with a nose of butterscotch and gratuitous amounts of vanilla, with a touch of crisp apples on the palate. Really ideal sipping for the transition from summer to autumn — and it’s a decent value. Not exactly sure how many bottles were made in this batch (or much more about it), but if you see one it may be worth picking up — especially if you’re not one who likes to pay top dollar for bourbon this time of year.

94 proof.

B+ / $30 / kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com

Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 Edition

old forester birthday bourbon 2014 525x725 Review: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 Edition

Old Forester’s annual release of Birthday Bourbon — a celebration of the birthday of George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman — may not have the level of breathless anticipation surrounding it that, say, the year’s Antique Collection or Parker’s Heritage whiskey does. But I’ll say one thing for it: It’s always a well-crafted, worthwhile spirit.

This year’s Birthday Bourbon provides the usual minimal about its composition. No mashbill information is offered, but one can deduce from the vintage label that it’s been aged for 12 years. Some have expressed concern that Birthday Bourbon 2014 is coming out a bit later than usual — never a good sign in the whiskey world — but I’m happy to report that any such fears are unfounded.

2014’s Birthday Bourbon starts off fairly typical of this whiskey’s usual profile. Very woody on the nose, it offers an immediate attack of dark chocolate cocoa powder before you take your first sip. The body is racy and spicy with notes of more wood, licorice, and gunpowder. The finish warms up with gingerbread, custard, and vanilla, tamping down some of that early, and close to overwhelming, wood character. The result is a nice balance between sweet and savory with plenty to recommend it, and one of Old Forester’s more elegant special releases.

97 proof.

A- / $60 / oldforester.com

Review: Kennedy Irish Whiskey “Spirit Drink” Complete Lineup

kennedy irish Review: Kennedy Irish Whiskey Spirit Drink Complete Lineup

Irish whiskey is all the rage right now — it’s the fastest growing spirit category there is — and there’s a mad rush going on in Ireland to build stills, increase production, and otherwise squeeze every dollar out of this market before everyone moves on to something else, probably rum.

Kennedy is a new launch of Irish Whiskey — er, “Spirit Drink.” I’m still trying to sort all this out, so bear with me. Here’s how the Kennedy label breaks out.

Upon a sticker stylized like an old Celtic helmet it reads KENNEDY in big letters, then ORIGINAL underneath. In delicate italics beneath that: Spirit Drink. Then in even smaller italics: “Oak Filtered & Hand Crafted using.” Then, larger block letters: “Whiskey with natural flavor & caramel.”

OK, so points for truth in labeling, I think, but points off for confusing the hell out of your consumer along the way. What is “oak filtered,” exactly? Check the back label and you’ll see that “Kennedy’s Spirit is a delicate fusion of the finest Celtic whiskies and malt to insure a unique, challenging and august drinking experience. Kennedy’s Spirit, handcrafted in West Cord, Ireland, is infused with Irish and Bourbon oak using a proprietary infusion process and steeped in malt through an artisan and near-forgotten technique.”

So, yeah.

Your guess is as good as mind about what all that means, but basically my deduction is this is a mix of various Irish whiskeys and grain spirits, somehow pressure treated with oak to artificially age it more quickly. Caramel is added liberally, based on the color, though your guess is as good as mine as to what the natural flavors referenced here are.

And that’s just the “original.” There are four flavored versions of the spirit available, too. Or, rather, more flavored.

So, with that out of the way, let’s taste them all!

Kennedy Original – A slight sugar character on the nose, with a malty, cereal character to it. Touches of honey and cinnamon dust the body, which is otherwise a soft caramel, lightly woody, mostly watery character to it. The overall impact is one of Irish whiskey that’s already been liberally doused with water. It goes down easy enough, but the finish is weak and a touch astringent, leaving behind a touch of hospital character as it fades. 80 proof. C+

Kennedy Spiced – Infused with visible, solid spices (including anise and cinnamon) floating around in the bottle. Tons of cinnamon on the nose. The body has an essence more akin to vanilla blended with dried apples — with that anise making a strong showing as a somewhat weird secondary note. I would have dropped the licorice components and pumped up the cloves, but that’s just me. At least there’s more going on here, even if it doesn’t come together the way you might hope. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Honeyed – Infused with vanilla and honey. Contains visible, fine sediment (but not big chunks like in the Spiced expression). It’s more hazelnut than honey on the nose, but the finish builds to more of an earthy honey character. Minimal whiskey character, though. 70 proof. B-

Kennedy Limed – Green, lime whiskey? Why not. Again, light sediment from flavoring involving vanilla and lime juice. Not as bad as you are expecting, but a bit like drinking a slug of Rose’s Lime Juice straight. Sweeter than most of the other whiskeys in this lineup, a necessity to offset the sour lime flavors. The color is beyond off-putting. Clearly this is designed exclusively as a mixer… but with what? When the label copy calls the product “intiguing,” you know something ain’t right. C-

Kennedy Chilied – Bright red, it is flavored with chili pepper and paprika(!). Wow, this is intensely hot — far hotter than your typical “pepper vodka.” I can see this doing brisk business as frat kids make bets with each other and buy shots to dare each other to drink. It’s a fiery, habanero-style burn that singes the lips and sticks in the throat for minutes. A hint of honey sweetness helps temper the burn. Discriminating it ain’t, but daredevils should go for it. B

each about $17 / westcorkdistillers.com