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

Review: Pike Creek Canadian Whisky

pike creek whiskeyNewly acquired from Corby Distilleries — a growing Canadian whisky producer whose products continue to be difficult to find in the U.S. — by Pernod Ricard, Pike Creek is the brainchild of one Don Livermore, who has a Ph.D. in — wait for it — wood science.

That science has clearly taught Livermore a thing or two about making good whisky, and with Pike Creek he has made the exceptional decision of aging his spirit in Vintage Port barrels. This is a trick we’ve seen repeatedly (and wonderfully) with Bourbon and Scotch, but it’s a new one for Canadian.

Matured for an unspecified time in Ontario, Canada, the whisky is bottled at 80 proof. And now it is finally going to be available in the U.S.

Results: Exceptional. The nose is immediately sweet, with caramel notes but also cooked apples and some spice. On the tongue, it’s racier than you think, the rye backbone (common to most Canadian whiskys) giving the sweet body a little heft. Graham crackers, milk chocolate, and golden raisins fill out the finish, along with just enough heat to make things interesting. Let it open up in the glass for long enough and you get lots of citrus oil notes, too. This is a complex spirit that I could sip on all day. Well done.

A / $32 / goodeatsfor.me  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Black Velvet Toasted Caramel Canadian Whisky

Black Velvet Toasted CaramelA funny thing happens when I try to type “Canadian.” I always mistype “Candian” instead. Never has that been a more apropos typo than with Black Velvet’s Toasted Caramel Whisky.

Flavored with a hefty dose of “natural toasted caramel flavor,” this sugar bomb is so dense with sugar it’s actually difficult to swallow it. The nose cues you in for what you’re about to get hit with, but the mouthfeel is something else. It’s so sugary I swear you can feel the grains of sugar grinding around in your mouth. The “toasted caramel” (which means what, exactly?) is something akin to burned Bananas Foster, and there’s a touch of a woody finish on the end that reminds you that this is indeed whisky and not caramel-flavored vodka.

Sweet tooths only need apply.

70 proof.

D+ / $11 / blackvelvetwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Maple Finished Canadian Whisky

crown royal maple finished“Finished” has a particular meaning in the world of whisky, normally implying that a whisky has been moved from one type of barrel to another, usually a different type of wood or, more commonly, a barrel that once held another spirit or wine. “Maple finished” has actually been done before: Woodford Reserve made a maple-finished limited release Bourbon in 2010.

That’s not what Crown Royal Maple Finished Canadian Whisky is.

This, in fact, is standard Crown Royal that’s been flavored with maple. How that is achieved is, well, a little confusing. Crown says it is “made with the perfect balance of whisky and natural maple flavors to create a high quality product for Crown Royal’s consumers” — indicating that maple syrup has basically been dumped into the vat before bottling — but also that “the new installment is finished by running the whisky through maple toasted oak.” I’m not sure how you “run whisky through oak” but perhaps we can put all that aside. The fine print on the label says it’s “maple flavored,” and once you crack open the bottle, you’ll know by one sniff you aren’t dealing with a simple, wood-finished spirit.

Syrupy? You better believe it. On the nose it’s overpowering, like Mrs. Butterworth came over and gave you a swift kick to the huevos. On the tongue, it’s like Sunday morning, with syrupy waffles a-plenty to go around. It’s all very authentic, but tough to push through unless you’ve got an incredible sweet tooth. I know there’s whisky in there. I’m sure of it. But after an hour of sipping on Crown Maple (to coin a nickname), I never really found it aside from a bit of wood on the finish.

80 proof.

B- / $25 / crownroyal.com

Review: Crown Royal XR Extra Rare – 2012 LaSalle Distillery Release

In 2006 Crown Royal released its first XR bottling, a whisky that didn’t joke when it used the “extra rare” moniker on the label. Crafted from whiskys salvaged from its Waterloo distillery, which had actually burned down, it’s safe to say that if you haven’t picked up the 2006 Crown Royal XR by now, you aren’t going to.

Now Crown is back with a new version of XR, this one from its LaSalle Distillery. LaSalle did not burn down, but the whisky remains a limited release bottling that will be on sale for only a limited time. We got a sample. Here’s how it comes across.

Light and fruity on the nose, this smells a bit like very young Bourbon, fresh and vibrant. Not much wood to be found. This is backed up on the tongue: Very fruity, with apple and banana up front, nougat, bread, and biscuit characteristics. Rye grain comes along on the finish. Not nearly as woody as the Waterloo edition, and very clean. For this price, though, I’d like to see a bit more complexity.

80 proof.

A- / $130 / crownroyal.com

crown royal xr 2012 lasalle edition

Review: Pendleton 1910 Aged 12 Years Canadian Rye Whisky

With 1910 Pendleton (based in Hood River, Oregon) takes its Canadian whisky upmarket, bottling this 100% rye after a lengthy 12 years in oak. (The name is a reference to the first ever Pendleton Round-Up rodeo, which took place 102 years ago.)

I’ve previously discussed the standard, blended Pendleton bottling as overwhelmingly sweet, but things are more mellow with this expression. Intensely fruity, it offers lots of thick cherry notes, orange marmalade, and well-integrated spice throughout. Sweetness is still there in the form of a bit of butterscotch syrup, but it’s not overwhelming in the way regular Pendleton is.

Good balance and a strong but not overpowering body. Surprisingly mellow finish considering this is a 100% rye spirit.

80 proof.

A- / $40 / hrdspirits.com

Review: Tap 357 Canadian Maple Rye Whisky

The name says it all, pretty much: Canadian Rye whisky (a blend of whiskys aged 3 to 7 years — the 3, 5, and 7 refer to barrel ages) blended with Quebecois Canada 1 Light maple syrup (and caramel color). Distilled four times, it is aged in used Bourbon barrels and bottled at an odd 81 proof.

Results are significantly heavier on the Maple than the Rye. Deceptively light in color, the nose exudes the rich aroma of the forest, smoldering coals, pine cones, and wet leaves, all backed up with maple syrupy sweetness. This character hangs with you for a long while. Consumed neat, it’s got an epic finish you won’t soon forget.

There is whiskey character here, but it’s tough to peg it as Canadian rye — or any rye, or anything else specific, for that matter. Instead it comes off with more of a vague graininess somewhere in the middle of the experience, almost more like a dark beer extract than whiskey. But hey, maple syrup is a tough thing to do battle with.

Consumed solo this is all a bit much, but I can see how Tap 357 would make an exemplary ingredient for one of those modern cocktails where the sweetness comes from something other than simple sugar.

81 proof.

B / $36 / tap357.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Fireball Cinnamon Whisky

“It tastes like heaven, burns like hell.”

Cinnamon spice isn’t usually what people have in mind when they say a whiskey “burns,” but this 66-proof flavored oddity, made in Canada and bottled by Kentucky’s Sazerac Company, certainly doesn’t have much going on in the alco-burn department. But if you’re a fan of Hot Tamales candy and over the age of 21, you’re in luck: Fireball has managed to create a dead solid rendition of that confection.

There’s just no mistaking this whisky from the get-go. The nose is full of grated cinnamon and little else. This carries over to the body: Full of spice, a nice slug of sugar, and a long, lingering, cinnamon burn. Imagine crushing up Red Hots and steeping them in lower-proof alcohol — any alcohol will do, as Fireball doesn’t have a distinct whisky taste aside from a bit of brown sugar — and drink.

And yet, surprisingly, this isn’t a half-bad spirit. It’s not much of a departure from cinnamon schnapps, but the balance is right and the tastes are authentic. Candy-coated, to be sure, but with a week to go ’til Christmas, who’s complaining?

B+ / $17 / fireballwhisky.com

fireball cinnamon whisky

Review: Rich & Rare Reserve Blended Canadian Whisky

Sazerac’s Rich & Rare Canadian Whisky is a fast-growing brand — the fastest-growing U.S.-bottled Canadian brand last year — but one that is available in only about a dozen states right now. It’s also dirt cheap: The standard bottling sells for about $7.50.

The line is already expanding to add a Reserve bottling which will sell for all of $10 to $14 when it’s released this month.

This whisky — no age statement, 80 proof — is a brilliant orange in color, and citrus is the dominant flavor on the palate. It’s sweet but not cloying, with rich, sherried fruitiness to it — orange, plums, and grilled peaches. The finish is driven by the wood — caramel and cotton candy notes — but it goes out clean. While rye is obviously a component here, it’s not a dominant one: Spiciness is limited largely to the nose, where you get a touch of herbs, and a fleeting hint of it on the finish.

All told, it’s easygoing but surprisingly alive and balanced for a whisky that will probably set you back all of 13 bucks.

A- / $13 / sazerac.com