Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2016

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The 17th annual Whiskies of the World event wrapped this March in San Francisco, and it was as fun and chaotic as ever to wander three stories of the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, moored in the San Francisco Bay.

This year I focused my attention primarily on independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, with Alexander Murray and Gordon & MacPhail both in attendance, along with veterans like the Exclusive Malts and Chieftain’s collections. Also highly worthwhile: A new distillery, Mosswood, which ages light whiskey in a variety of oddball barrels to produce the most exotic and interesting “flavored” whiskey you’ve ever tried. As for my favorite spirit of the night? Arran’s delightful “Smugglers’ Illicit Stills” offering, which comes complete in a fake book (see photo).

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Alexander Murray Bladnoch 25 Years Old – Notes of roasted nuts, grains, a touch of lychee / B
Alexander Murray Monumental Blended Scotch 30 Years Old – Very grainy — a surprise — notes of hay / B
Alexander Murray Speyside 40 Years Old – Quite gentle, malty, quiet citrus; surprising that this is 40 years old / A
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso – A bit overblown, with big toffee notes / B+
Aberlour Scapa Skiren – Simple; easygoing, with gentle grain structure / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old – Big molasses notes, scorched caramel, nice stuff / A-
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old – Ginger is fun, but granary notes surprise / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Years Old – Quite maritime, gentle peat and salt spray / A-
Lagavulin 12 Years Old – The classic; nothing new to report / B+
Lagavulin Distillers Edition Double Matured – Gorgeous, big mouthfeel and better balanced than the standard Lag 12 / A-
Glenmorangie Signet – Sweet chocolate notes, coffee, almost overblown with dessert notes / A-
The Balvenie 17 Years Old DoubleWood – Classic; light sherry, nougat, well balanced / A-
Macallan Rare Cask / Rounded and well sherried; still drinking lovely / A-
Chieftain’s Glen Grant 20 Years Old – Slightly racy, with heavy cereal notes / B
Chieftain’s Linkwood 17 Years Old – Chewy, with cherry notes, gentle finish / A-
Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 2002 – A big crowd pleaser, but it didn’t resonate with me; big cereal notes, yeasty, slightly astringent / B
Exclusive Malts Girvan 1988 Single Grain – Butterfinger candies, buttery body, surprising for a single grain / B+
Arran Amarone Finish – Starts off hot; leads to raisin and chocolate notes, a bit scattered / B+
Arran Smugglers’ Illicit Stills – Quietly spicy, with tons of malt, honey, and a touch of smoke; really compelling / A

022Bourbon

PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Eagle Rare – The first of five single barrel releases on tap from SF’s PlumpJack; big butterscotch notes, but quite woody / B
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV 8 years, 8 months – Lovely, with some pepper to it / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO 10 years, 6 months – Lots of heat; a bit astringent; peppermint notes / B+
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF 11 years, 7 months – Honeyed with baking spices and cinnamon / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OESQ 10 years, 5 months – Popcorn and malt, rather plain / B
Healthy Spirits Old Scout 9 Years Old – Another private bottling; big caramel, chocolate, cinnamon… but a touch grainy / B+

Other

Brenne 10 Years Old – The 10 year old expression of this French malt; enduring grain, notes of gingersnaps / B+
J. Seeds Apple Cider Whiskey – Unpalatable, incredible bite / C-
Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof – Lovely apple and caramel, with a drying finish / A-
Mosswood Apple Brandy Barrel Aged – Mosswood makes light whiskey and ages it in different barrels, giving it a really unique structure; this one has beautiful fruit, with gentle, cider-like character / A-
Mosswood Espresso Barrel Aged – Slightly smoky, earthy, and nutty – not the heavy coffee bomb you might expect / A-
Mosswood Umeshu Single Barrel Aged – An Asian plum wine barrel gives this a curious notes; on the palate the fruit really emerges alongside spice and a sweet backbone; quite a revelation in “flavored” whiskey / A
Germain-Robin Old Havana Brandy – A touch of tobacco, lingering raisin, very soft / A-
Germain-Robin Single Barrel Brandy – Bigger body, heavy raisin and spice elements / B+
Low Gap Wheat Whiskey 4 Years Old – Heavy pear notes, very fruity / B+
Roundstone Rye – 100% rye; youthful, earthy, mouth-filling / B-
Roundstone Rye 92 Proof – More rounded; heavy cloves / B+
Roundstone Rye Cask Proof – Aged in maple syrup casks and it shows; a bit cloying / B
Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose – 7 Stills makes whiskey from different styles of beer; this one’s an IPA base. Classic IPA notes add density and ample hops / B+
Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate – Coffee porter base with a touch of espresso added on the back end; clear coffee notes, slight caramel; lingering coffee finish / A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Dogpatch – Sour beer based, finished in a sour beer barrel. Some funk, a little cherry and raisin character; a bit crazy as whiskey goes. Need to spend more time with this one / B+

Review: Barrell Bourbon Batch 6 and 7

barrell 6

Two new releases from our friends at Kentucky’s Barrell Bourbon, which take a variety of sourced whiskeys and release them at cask strength, one (often wildly different) batch at a time.

Batch 6 and 7 are here, as are our thoughts.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 006 – A close sibling to Batch 5, this is 70% corn, 26% rye, 4% malted barley, distilled in Tennessee, aged 8 years, 6 months — “low in the rickhouse.” Big and blazing up front, it’s got an overload of baking spices, and plenty of barrel char influence. Big rye notes attack the body, which is heavily herbal but also showcases scorched caramel notes. As with its predecessor, water helps a lot, which helps to coax out fruit while taking all that wood in the direction of buttered popcorn. Racy and spicy through and through, it’s a classic rye-forward bourbon that fans of big whiskeys will enjoy, though it never quite cuts all the way through the hefty wood character. Compare to the more well-rounded Batch 5 if you can. Reviewed: Bottle #1864. 122.9 proof. B+ / $80

Barrell Bourbon Batch 007 – This bourbon is made in Tennessee from 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, and is aged just 5 years in #4 char oak barrels — putting this batch alongside the almost identical Bourbon Batch 1. I was promised ahead of time that this bourbon was “wise beyond its years,” and the nose comes across as a bold, relatively well-aged expression, with notes of butterscotch and heavy wood char. The body is more youthful than that would indicate, fairly heavy with popcorn and mushroom notes on the body. Water offers some improvements by coaxing out ample sweetness and balancing the affair, but it’s ultimately a bit short on nuance. Reviewed: Bottle #5446. 122.4 proof. B / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

barrellbourbon.com

Review: Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength

bulleit barrel strength

It’s probably long overdue, but one of the biggest success stories in bourbon is finally coming out with a barrel strength release.

Bulleit Barrel Strength is made from the same high-rye mashbill as its primary expression (roughly 1/3 rye), with no age statement provided. Batches will vary in alcohol content, but will hover around 60% abv.

We got a first look at the new edition. Thoughts follow.

As with any cask strength offering, this is initially a bit of a blazer on the nose and tongue. When the alcohol blows off, notes of butterscotch, honey, and cinnamon emerge — all classic components showcased here with impressive balance. On the tongue, give it time to settle down a bit to reveal red pepper, some barrel char notes, more cinnamon, and a sweet but spicy finish. This is a big bourbon, full of fire to be sure but approachable enough for anyone with any level of experience with cask strength bourbons.

Tempering with water brings more of the wood components to the forefront — which takes it closer to the classic, somewhat rustic Bulleit “frontier” character. At full strength, the whiskey is a bit sweeter and more dessert-like than the standard bottling, which is a bit of a surprise. That aside, I like the new release quite a bit — both at the full force of cask strength and in its tempered form with some water added.

119.2 proof as reviewed.

A- / $50 / bulleit.com

Review: High West Bourye (2016)

bourye_bottle_2015One of the icons of new wave distilling is back: High West Bourye, which is returning to limited release right about now.

The 2016 Bourye is, as always, a touch different from its forebears. This version of the now-classic bourbon and rye blend features a mashup of 9-year-old straight bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley malt), 13-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt), and 17-year-old straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% barley malt) — all from MGP. As always, the proportions of these three whiskeys are not disclosed — but the overall focus looks a lot like the 2015 rendition of this spirit, which also featured a nine-year-old-minimum. The major difference is really that everything in the bottle is from MGP this year.

Bourye is a whiskey I have always admired, and this year’s release is no exception, though it presents much differently than the fruity 2015. The nose is exotic and a bit unusual — heavy on the cloves, along with dark brown sugar, dark toast, barrel char, and some freshly burnt rubber — all meant in a good way.

On the palate, it’s sweet but restrained, a host of bittering elements — more cloves (classic Bourye), licorice, toasty wood, and a touch of roasted vegetable character. The caramel and vanilla notes endure above all of this, though, the bitterness catching in the back of the throat as the whiskey finds a balance slightly on the savory side of the wheel.

This is a significantly different whiskey than last year’s release — and frankly I prefer the sweeter 2015 edition to a slight extent. That said, this return to a more frontier style will likely resonate with more of the hardcore American whiskey fans.

Reviewed: Batch 15X20. 92 proof.

A / $80 / highwest.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: 1792 Single Barrel Bourbon

1792 Single Barrel Bottle

Barton’s 1792 bourbon is on a line expansion tear lately, and it’s newest release is here: 1792 Single Barrel. Like Sweet Wheat and Port Finish, it’s a limited edition so grab it while you can.

Nothing tough to understand about this one: These are standard-production, single barrel offerings, with no other specific information provided. Naturally, only top barrels from Barton are selected for inclusion in this collection.

1792 Single Barrel is surprisingly racy on the nose, with notes of caramel apples, cinnamon, and some barrel char hitting the nose first. On the tongue, the whiskey explodes with sweetness, tempering the fruit with ample baking spice, brown sugar, and some tobacco character. The finish continues the theme of sweetness, tempered with just a touch of bitter cloves to add balance, along with a warming conclusion.

Nothing doing here: This is just good bourbon, plain and simple.

98.6 proof. (No lot/barrel information provided.)

A- / $40 / 1792bourbon.com

Review: Old Hickory Blended Bourbon and Straight Bourbon Whiskey

old hickory bourbonNashville-based R.S. Lipman revived this very old brand recently, but the spirit inside has nothing to do with whatever came before. Within you will find MGP-sourced whiskey which is bottled in Ohio.

Old Hickory — not just named after Andrew Jackson but featuring his picture on the label — is offered in two varieties, a blended whiskey and a straight bourbon. Both are reviewed here.

Old Hickory Great American Whiskey Blended Bourbon Whiskey – “Black label Old Hickory.” This is a blend of bourbon and other, unspecified whiskey. The label says it’s 89% four year old whiskey and 11% two year old whiskey, but offers no other direction beyond that. The nose offers ample caramel and vanilla notes, but also tons of almonds and a bit of baking spice. There’s unusual depth of aroma here for a whiskey with such an uninspired provenance, but the body doesn’t go far enough in backing it up. On the tongue it’s a relatively simple whiskey, with notes of caramel sauce and sweet tea, plus lots of that almond character. There’s a touch of chemical character on the finish, something driven more by youth, I suspect, than anything funky in the production. Its disappearance arrives quickly, though — just like that, Old Hickory Blended is all but gone. 80 proof. B- / $30

Old Hickory Great American Whiskey Straight Bourbon Whiskey – “White label Old Hickory” is a real bourbon, but it carries no age information on the bottle, but research shows its components to be a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 7 years old. Slightly higher abv than the black label, the nose combines the sweetness of the forebear alongside a not-insignificant lumberyard-plus-barrel char influence. The almond notes are muted here, replaced by more of a butterscotch character. On the palate the moderate sweetness is backed by a slightly bittersweet note, a bit herbal with some anise notes. All told, it’s a relatively straightforward but well-crafted bourbon with plenty of elements to enjoy. 86 proof. B+ / $35

oldhickorywhiskey.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye Whiskey

JD Single Barrel Rye BottleIt’s no secret that Jack Daniel’s has been working on its rye for the better half of the decade. The company has been putting out works in progress since the beginning. “Unaged Rye” came in 2012; a brash “Rested Rye” hit in 2014. Now, in 2016, the finished product is finally here.

My math pegs this about 3 1/2 years old. The mash hasn’t changed — 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley — and the rye undergoes the same charcoal filtration as all expressions of JD (and other Tennessee-based whiskies). It is worth noting that this final release has a significantly higher abv than either of the preview bottlings — and it is, curiously, a single barrel product.

On the nose, the new rye offers nutty, roasted grains at first, backed up with sweet caramel, some chocolate, menthol, and a little red pepper. Over time, a bit of that characteristic JD charcoal emerges. The big baking spice aromas of a typical rye aren’t immediately evident, but the nose isn’t atypical, at least, of a younger, rye-heavy bourbon.

The palate paints a somewhat different picture, offering a nutty character at first, fading into more grain with a fairly heavy toast. Dark caramel, licorice, some barrel char — elements of a fairly young but relatively indistinct whiskey — are all strong on the somewhat racy body. But the whiskey, at this age, remains a bit shapeless, offering a variety of muddled, barrel-driven flavor components but little to distinguish it from a young bourbon or blended whiskey.

That said, I found the spirit enjoyable and worth a look, though it adds little to the growing universe of rye. It’s clearly a young product — and probably still quite a bit ahead of its time — that will fare best as a mixer in a more intense cocktail.

Fans of Old No. 7 will wonder what the fuss is about.

94 proof.

B / $50 / jackdaniels.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]