Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

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This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Bender’s Whiskey Small Batch Rye 7 Years Old Batch #2

bender's whiskey

What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.

Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.

For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.

In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.

B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Regal Apple Canadian Whisky

CR_REGAL_APPLE_BOTTLE_CMYK

Apple is the cinnamon of 2015, showing up in all kinds of spirits but, particularly, whiskey. This familiar, nostalgic flavor seems to be a big crowd-pleaser, offering tartness, sweetness, and Americana all in a single package.

Now it’s Crown Royal’s turn, with its latest expression: Regal Apple. Regal on account of the crown, I guess. The spirit is specifically flavored with natural Gala apple flavor.

The good news is that this is a better product than Crown’s prior flavored whisky, Maple Finished. The bad news is that Maple Finished was so lackluster that that isn’t saying very much.

Here, the nose is distinctly apple-fueled, but almost bitter to the nostrils to the point of astringency. Some vague vanilla and baking spice character picks up the slack, but the apple notes are more central to what’s going on here. On the tongue, it’s fruity as expected. Not just tart apple notes — more authentic here than the nose would indicate — but also hints of pineapple, some lemon, and ample vanilla notes. For a bright, shining moment, Crown Royal Regal Apple is apple pie in a glass… but it doesn’t last. The finish takes a sour, mouth-puckering turn that has some unfortunate hospital character to it, marring what is actually a fairly decent start.

The world is probably not expecting much from Crown Royal Regal Apple, but in a world soon to be overrun by apple-flavored hooch, it’s probably as good as can be expected.

70 proof.

B / $25 / crownroyal.com

Review: Tap Rye Port Finished Canadian Rye Whisky

Tap-rye-White

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: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend_Hi-Res Bottle ShotCrown 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: Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Barley and 12 Year Old Straight Wheat Whiskeys

masterson's trio

The folks at Masterson’s — made by California-based parent company 35 Maple Street — make what has already become a cult rye whiskey, Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Rye. Now the company is back with an even stranger pair of siblings: two well-aged whiskeys, one 100% wheat, one 100% barley.

Both are straight whiskeys made from 100% of their respective grains, sourced from Canada and bottled in the U.S. How do they measure up against the masterful Masterson’s Rye? Thoughts follow.

Masterson’s 12 Year Old Straight Wheat Whiskey – Modest straw in color, the unique nose is immediately hard to place. What comes across are notes of butterscotch, mint, woodsy cedar closet, and a touch of mothballs (not in a bad way). The body is sweeter than expected, with more of a sense of balance than you might expect from the quirky nose. There’s more of a graham cracker character on the palate, with notes of pear, cinnamon, and vanilla. It’s got quite a bit of bite — this is 100 proof stuff — but that masks the relative thinness of the body. This is a whiskey that is initially a little confusing because its flavors are so unexpected… but it grows on you quite a bit after you spend some time with it, which I recommend you do. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #3538. A- / $62

Masterson’s 10 Year Old Straight Barley Whiskey – 100% unmalted barley, an extreme rarity in the whiskey world. Well, I disliked this at WhiskyFest and I still dislike it now that I’ve had more time to spend with it. The nose offers an immature, bready character, weighted down with hospital notes. On the body, more of the same — but intense. The stock is rough, the palate leaden with the essence of wood oils, mashed grains, chimney soot, and burnt toast. Something hints at intrigue on the finish — a bit of honey and vanilla, perhaps — but it’s not nearly enough to elevate this beyond a misfiring curiosity. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1, bottle #6045. C / $62

35maplestreet.com

Review: Collingwood 21 Year Old Rye Canadian Whisky

Collingwood Rye 21 Year Old high res

Who, who, whoooo is putting out 21 year old rye? At a price of 70 bucks (or less)? Collingwood, that’s who.

Collingwood is best known for bottling its spirits in what look like oversized perfume bottles, but it should be known for the quality of the spirits inside. Standard Collingwood, a young Canadian blend, offers a huge amount of flavor for a whisky that’s just three years or so old. At 27 bucks it’s a steal.

Now comes Collingwood 21, a 100% malted rye with a full 21 years of age on it, aged primarily in new oak barrels and finished in toasted maplewood barrels. There’s plenty going on here. The nose offers rich wood character, butterscotch, and hints of maple syrup. It’s quite enticing and invites you into sipping away, revealing more syrup and butterscotch notes, plus intriguing notes of orange peel, evergreen, and some light lumberyard. The finish is woody but far from overdone, an engaging rush that brings along hints of that rye spiciness, something akin to a clove-spiked orange. Dangerously drinkable.

This is a one-time-only limited release. Grab it while you can. 

80 proof.

A / $70 / collingwoodwhisky.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2013

WhiskyFest 2013 is now in the books, and my what an embarrassment of riches this show was. While I heard grousing about the show not having as many hits as usual (most of the independent Scotch bottlers like Samaroli were absent), I managed to find a ton of them. Driven this year perhaps by a ruthless attempt to avoid lesser products (one industry bigwig, with all seriousness, suggested I give Johnnie Walker Red Label a try), it didn’t take much doing to suss out some really great whiskeys being poured. Who can complain when Julian Van Winkle is pouring his best stuff, after all?

It was quite the global event this year, with numerous whiskeys from Japan, Canada, and Ireland on tap that you don’t normally see at shows. And more and more craft distillers, like Masterson’s and Smooth Ambler, are taking to shows to give people a taste of something new.

Anyway, as usual it was a great evening with old friends and new ones – both of the whiskey and the human variety. Thoughts follow.

American Whiskey / Bourbon
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Ten / A- / some menthol, caramel with a dusty finish
Masterson’s 12 Year Wheat / A- / big wood, cherries, a fun whisky
Masterson’s 10 Year Barley / C- / funky mint and rubber notes, unripe banana, not at all to my liking tonight
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit / A- / lovely sweetness without being saccharine, tried just to say hi to Jimmy and Eddie Russell, both pouring
Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select / A- / a new limited edition from JD, the same spirit but aged in barrels that have been “grooved” with extra cuts to expose more wood surface; as expected, this is like JD, but woodier; not bad at all
Pappy Van Winkle 15 Years Old / A / still maturing, with a little burn
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Years Old / A+ / Pappy at its best, raisins, wood, big body… just perfect
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A / you can finally see the age on this spirit at 23, where the balance is just starting to turn toward too much wood

Scotch Whisky
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve / B / chewy barley and rubber bands
The Balvenie Single Barrel 12 Years Old / A- / cake, nuts, smoke, malt
Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice / A+ / best spirit at the show, aged in American oak for 21 years, then finished in Chateau Yquem barrels; liquid gold, sweet and savory in perfect balance
Bruichladdich Black Art 3 22 Years Old / B+ / always a funky expression, bristly and huge this year, with a smoky, old-world character
Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1 / A- / is Octomore losing its ability to shock me? This struck me as plenty peaty but not overdone, with evergreen and charcoal notes
Buchanan’s Red Seal / A- / Buchanan’s first WhiskyFest; a peaty blend with some citrus and sweetness, good balance
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition / B+ / a new release from Cutty; very mild, surprisingly malty, with fresh grain and wood notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1973 / A / hearty sherry character, drinking beautifully
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1983 / B / dusty with lots of wood; couldn’t be more different than the ‘73
Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend / B / overcooked, unthrilling
Compass Box Delilah’s 20th Anniversary Limited Edition / B+ / bottled as a tribute to a famed Chicago area bar, matured partly in new oak barrels (rare for Scotch); bourbon-like character, peppery with lots of wood, caramel notes

Irish Whiskey
Jameson’s Rarest Vintage Reserve / A / always a standout, this beautiful bottling (~26 years old) features lovely spicy notes beneath a sweet core
Midleton Barry Crockett Edition / A- / a vatting of 7 to 22 year old spirits; more rustic than the Jameson, chewy grain notes, still fun

Canadian Whisky
Wiser’s 18 Years Old / A- / mellow, well developed, sultry finish
Lot No. 40 / B- / a 100% rye bottling, a powerhouse of rubber, pungent basil and cherry notes

Japanese Whiskey
Hakushu Heavily Peated / B+ / not at all “heavy” in my mind, good balance with citrus notes
Nikka Taketsuru 17 Years Old / B+ / ample cereal notes
Nikka Taketsuru 12 Years Old / A / great balance of grain and honey, a standout

Brandy
Gran Duque De Alba XO 18 Years Old / A- / Spanish brandy; big coffee and licorice notes; intriguing and powerful
Gran Duque De Alba Oro 25 Years Old / B+ / a little overblown, same character as the XO, but just too much, too hoary

Review: Canadian Mist Flavors – Peach, Cinnamon, Maple

canadian mist Cinnamon MistCanadian Mist is well known for its very affordable, basic blended whisky, so it makes sense that it would leap into the flavored whisky business along with so many others. CM arrives with a whole new line of ultra-cheap flavored spirits (“Canadian Mist” is actually hard to find on the label), each of which blends various flavored liqueurs with a Canadian Mist base. Here’s how three members of the group (all but Vanilla Mist) shake out. (Spoiler: Far better than I was expecting.)

Each is 70 proof, with caramel color added.

Canadian Mist Peach Mist – Can you out-SoCo Southern Comfort? This mix of peach liqueur and Canadian Mist is a credible knockoff, packing less sweetness and more of a whisky kick than the standard Southern Comfort bottling, and it lacks all that astringency. Surprisingly easygoing, this fruity number offers modest, not overpowering peach on the nose, backed up with vanilla notes. That vanilla is what really hits you on the body, where the peach character takes more of a back seat along with the mild, almost honeyed character of the Canadian Mist. Not much to it, but there doesn’t really need to be. There’s plenty of balance in the spirit as it stands. It doesn’t do a whole lot, but what it does, it does well enough to recommend. B+

Canadian Mist Cinnamon Mist – Cinnamon liqueur, of course, blended with CM. The description on the bottle is a little disarming… “hot cinnamon & sweet cream vanilla that has a smooth finish of warm brown spice.” Warm brown spice? Errr… maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Very mild bite here. As with the peach whisky, this is understated with relatively easy cinnamon character, more than a hint but less than a mouthful. It’s definitely more pleasant than most cinnamon-flavored spirits, which are spiked to within an inch of their life and specifically designed to burn your tonsils off. Lots of vanilla on the back end, though the balance isn’t quite as well-done as the Peach Mist. Still, it’s one of the better cinnamon whiskys on the market. B

Cinnamon Mist Maple Mist – This one has far more of the sweet stuff than the two above. On the nose and on the tongue, all you get is maple syrup coating the mouth. That’d be great if I was having pancakes, but in the after hours it’s just far too much. Punchy and heavy with (authentic) maple syrup, the body is enormous and the finish is overwhelming. That’s not entirely CM’s fault, all maple-flavored spirits (at least the ones I’ve tried) end up this way. But that doesn’t make it right. C-

each $10 / canadianmist.com