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: Piehole Flavored Whiskeys

PieHole

Piehole is arguably the most maligned name in spirits today. Named in honor of a common insult, designed with labels that feature buxom farmer’s daughters, and a member of what is probably the most reviled category of spirits on the market — flavored whiskey — that’s three strikes before the bottle’s even open.

Piehole is Canadian whisky, flavored with one of three “pie flavored liqueurs.” No one’s trying to pass off artisan biodynamic infusions here, this is classic whisky-‘n’-chemicals, just like mom used to make. (Presuming mom worked down at the local food science lab.)

Well, without further ado, let’s have a taste of these three Pieholes, shall we?

All are 70 proof.

Piehole Apple Pie Flavored Whiskey – Lots of sweetness evident on the nose, though the apple notes don’t quite come through until the body takes hold. They nailed the crust flavor here — slightly well-done — but that combined with the heavy sweetness directs the finish toward a more generalized, super-gooey-sweet character that’s hard to peg as any specific fruit. The cinnamon flavors help establish it as apple pie more than anything else. Drinkable. B-

Piehole Cherry Pie Flavored Whiskey – This one’s quite medicinal on the nose, a common hazard among cherry-flavored spirits. Here things go off the rails, with an intense cough syrup character that simply doesn’t let up. It’s arguably not distinctly cherries and it’s definitely not pie, adhering closer to the melted Jolly Rancher motif one tends to find in this spirits category. The finish veers wildly into astringent elements that linger uninvited for quite awhile. D+

Piehole Pecan Pie Flavored Whiskey – Very sweet again up front, offering a fairly authentic glazed and heavily sugared pecan character on the nose. The aroma is almost like a praline, really, and that carries over to the body, though again, as with the apple pie expression, an almost burnt cookie character threatens to unravel things. While the nutty elements are fun enough (and conceivably cocktail-worthy in modest dosage), there’s so much sugar here that it’s tough to get through more than a few small sips of the stuff; a full shot would probably kill you. Not from the alcohol, but from the diabetes. C

each $15 / pieholewhiskey.com

Review: The Legendary Hatfield & McCoy Whiskey

hatfield and mccoy whiskey

Much has been made about the authenticity of the genealogy behind Hatfield & McCoy whiskey — a new spirit allegedly being produced by blood relatives of the infamous West Virginia-vs.-Kentucky clans who put aside their differences to sell hooch. I won’t rehash the who’s-who behind this new brand or whether this is just an attempt to capitalize on some famous names. My concern here is for what’s in the bottle, and I’ll leave the politics for the comments or elsewhere.

As for what’s in the bottle, it’s sourced* whiskey, bottled in South Carolina by Local Choice Spirits on behalf of the bottler. It’s also a flavored whiskey, though that’s buried in the press release and not disclosed on the label — not that they have to, as this is just “whiskey,” not bourbon, even though it’s made from a mash of “corn, barley, malt, and special strains of yeast.” (Barley and malt are generally terms used to describe the same thing… but I’m digressing again.)

Anyway, we tasted it, and here’s what we have to say.

The nose is restrained and initially a bit difficult to parse. There’s not a whole lot to report, just some floral notes amid some of the dust, a bit of apple and caramel, and indistinct baking spices. The body has little more to report, offering a surprisingly dry palate with notes of banana, butterscotch, and cigarette smoke. The finish features elements of sea salt and tar, along with a touch of cedar chest. It’s a bit on the watery side, too. I’m not sure what this whiskey is flavored with, but maybe it needs more of it? Or less?

80 proof.

*Hatfield & McCoy responds that this whiskey is not “sourced,” saying:

The whiskey was created by 10 direct ancestors of the original feuding families (five Hatfields and five McCoys) using a combination of authentic, original family recipes that had been used privately for generations. The families selected Local Choice Spirits, a distillery based in Charleston, South Carolina, to produce, bottle and ship the liquid using precise specifications and ingredients as outlined in the recipe. Legendary Hatfield & McCoy Family Brand Whiskey is not a “sourced” whiskey.

C+ / $40 / legendaryhatfieldandmccoy.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: Hush Spiced Apple Moonshine

Hush Spiced Apple Moonshine1Hush is a new brand that now encompasses a half dozen flavors of moonshine, hailing from the realm of North Charleston, South Carolina. These are corn-based products (grain neutral spirits) that undergo a secret, “patented refining process called TerraPURE” before bottling. (Technically it can’t be both secret and patented, but this is flavored moonshine, so who’s counting?)

Anyhoo, Hush sent us one of its many flavors — spiced apple — for us to put to the test. Which we did.

Pure apple cider attacks the nose. That unmistakable cinnamon/clove/baked apple mix permeates the room and, soon enough, your palate as it takes hold once you begin sipping. Well-sugared but not quite over the top, Hush rumbles along, content to hold forth its autumnal agenda until, eventually, some of the more bitter elements start to hit more squarely on the finish. Things start to gum up at the back of the palate at this point, but that isn’t much of a surprise. This is a simple spirit with modest goals, and by and large it achieves them.

80 proof.

B / $19 / hushmoonshine.com

Review: Jeremiah Weed Spiced, Cinnamon, and Sarsapirilla Whiskey

jeremiah weed

 

Has flavored whiskey jumped the shark? Jeremiah Weed, which got its start with a sweet tea flavored vodka and then a credible sweet tea flavored whiskey, has now extended itself further into the whiskey world — with spiced, cinnamon, and sarsaparilla expressions.

As with any flavored whiskey, whiskey purists need not apply. These are garden variety blended whiskeys with no real pedigree. The flavoring, on the plus side, does seem to be reasonably effective and, for the most part, harmless.

Some thoughts on the latest volley of old-timey inspired flavors follow.

Jeremiah Weed Spiced Whiskey – Extremely gentle, with mild cinnamon notes atop an innocuous, vanilla-heavy whiskey. There’s nothing specifically woody here; rather it’s replaced with an apple cider character that feels designed for holiday tippling, mixing with Coke, or both. 70.6 proof. B-

Jeremiah Weed Cinnamon Whiskey – A fair enough Fireball competitor, this cinnamon spirit offers big red hots notes on the nose, and a modestly spicy bite on the palate. A lengthy, authentically cinnamon-flavored finish and at least a nod toward the whiskey that serves as a base spirit makes this a winner — at least as far as cinnamon whiskeys go. 70.2 proof. B+

Jeremiah Weed Sarsaparilla Whiskey – Root beer whiskey, eh? Tastes like a can of A&W, again without much concern for whiskey. Some curious touches of licorice and just a hint of vanilla on the back end make you remember this isn’t rum of vodka, but it just doesn’t really venture far enough into the whiskey world. 70.4 proof. B-

jeremiahweed.com

Review: Freedom Moonshine

freedom moonshine

This new unaged whiskey (a moonshine as they call it) — available in a straight version and four (heavily watered down) flavors — is distilled in Indiana from 95% rye and 5% malted barley and flavored and bottled in Tennessee. What, no corn? No neutral grain spirits? It’s true, believe it or not!

We tried all five expressions of this Skittles-colored spirit. Thoughts follow. (Some proceeds go to support military-focused charities.)

Freedom Moonshine White Rye – On the nose: mostly harmless. Slightly sweet-smelling, with some hints of grain and Band-Aid notes. The body is mild and punchy with fresh grain character and a very simple structure that pushes notes of twine and hay. Surprisingly, there’s almost no sweetness at all here — which is not at all in keeping with expectations, considering the candy-colored rainbow of flavors that lies ahead. 80 proof. C+

Freedom Moonshine Apple Pie Rye – OK, on to the flavors. Apple pie flavor tends to go hand in hand with moonshine, and while this expression is on the mild side, it’s still credible and quite drinkable. A bit more sugar (I hate to admit) would help the apple and cinnamon notes here taste a bit more authentic, but that might also rob it of some of its more savory, pie-crust-like character. 40 proof. B+

Freedom Moonshine Red Cherry Rye – Impossibly red, like maraschino cherry juice. Not quite cough syrup on the nose, but getting there. The body is sweeter and less focused, something akin to melted Jolly Ranchers. After a few sips, things take a turn toward a syrupy character, artificial and only vaguely tasting of cherry. 40 proof. C-

Freedom Moonshine Blueberry Rye – Certainly patriotic in color, but nothing like any blueberry I’ve ever seen. The overall impact is somewhere between blueberry schnapps and blueberry Pop-Tarts. 40 proof. C-

Freedom Moonshine Firecracker Rye – A cinnamon moonshine, naturally. Slightly less crimson than the cherry expression — more of a fuchsia. Quite watery on the whole — it must be tough to pull off a cinnamon spirit at 20% alcohol — with more sweetness than cinnamon to it. The color is off-putting, but the impact is mostly innocuous and far from anything describable as “firecracker.” 40 proof. C

each $20 / letfreedomshine.com

Review: Virgil Kaine Ginger Infused Bourbon

Virgil_Kaine[1]

Ginger and bourbon go together so well that bourbon and ginger ale is a classic, standard, two-ingredient cocktail. Why not put them together in one bottle, then? Named after a supposed bootlegger from South Carolina, where this spirit also hails form, Virgil Kaine is made from a (sourced) “young” bourbon composed from a mash of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. It is infused with Yellow Hawaiian ginger, then bottled without chill-filtering.

Both bourbon-driven vanilla/oak character and fresh ginger character are evident on the nose, right from the start. Don’t go expecting either a flood of spicy ginger or a big bourbon character. Mild all around, it’s almost inconsequentially simple from an aromatic standpoint. The body follows suit. Very clean and pleasant, it’s a refreshing and easygoing whiskey that’s touched with a light smacking of ginger root and some chocolate notes that develop later in the game. Nothing fancy — the bourbon is light bodied and mildly sweet. The ginger is restrained and pleasant, not pungent or sharp. The finish is more akin to a good ginger ale than anything else.

If the idea of ginger and bourbon (sans a watery mixer) sounds appealing to you, you can pull off this trick by putting a few drops of Barrow’s Ginger Liqueur into a glass of Jim Beam. But if that sounds like too much work for you, this handy shortcut is just fine.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / virgilkaine.com

Update: Clyde May’s Whiskey Makes Some Changes

clyde may

It hasn’t quite been two years since we reviewed Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, but big things are afoot at this operation, which is rapidly picking up steam and notoriety.

A rebranding and radically updated design is the major news. “Conecuh Ridge” has been shrunken down on the label and in fact is no longer part of the official name (probably because the region could be anywhere in the minds of most drinkers). The label has also been completely redesigned, wisely jettisoning the black-and-gold silhouette landscape motif which was straight out of the 1970s for a more post-modern typographic design that etches tasting notes (legible, this time) right on the glass.

The recipe hasn’t changed — the company new notes that it is a blend of 5 and 6 year old bourbon mash finished in the Alabama Style, which is the natural infusion of apple and spice such as cinnamon (which is why it isn’t called a “Bourbon”) — and a side by side tasting of old and new bottles confirms that nothing is different. Lots of apples and butterscotch, with toasted coconut on the finish — but a much cleaner look.

Still 85 proof.

B+ / $30 / clydemays.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: McMenamins Billy Whiskey and Aval Pota Apple Whiskey

BillyWhiskey_4

In the Portland area (and elsewhere in Oregon and Washington), McMenamins is a bit of an institution. Operating dozens of restaurants and some two dozen breweries, the bar/pub/dining destination is also home to two different microdistilleries, which have been running since 1998: Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery in Hillsboro and Edgefield Distillery in Troutdale.

At these locations, the company uses copper pot and column stills to manufacture spirits for sale exclusively at a handful of McMenamins locations. (These include numerous whiskeys, two gins, two rums, three herbal liqueurs (coffee, hazelnut and herbal), and several brandies.) Thoughts on two of the company’s whiskeys follow.

McMenamins Billy Whiskey – Made primarily from a wheat-based mash (malt barley makes up the rest), Billy Whiskey is pot distilled then aged for two years in new oak barrels before bottling. The nose is youthful but not brash, with ample cereal notes touched with popcorn, vanilla, and the heavy, young wood elements that are wholly characteristic of young whiskeys like this. The palate has more to chew on, if you will. Notes of caramel apple, mixed nuts, Cracker Jack, and banana bread come on strong here. While the finish is lightly cerealed and a bit racy, it’s just mature enough for easy sipping, and just complex enough for lasting enjoyment. 87 proof. B / $35 / mcmenamins.com

aval potaMcMenamins Edgefield Distillery Aval Pota – Made in a column still, this is apple flavored whiskey inspired by Irish poitin. Made from malted barley then infused with fresh apples and a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon, it is bottled with no aging information. The nose is very heavy on the apples, though its closer to applesauce than apple pie. Appealing, it invites exploration on the palate, but here things start to break down. The initial apple rush is sweeter than expected, but that doesn’t last long, as a sizable alcoholic burn quickly takes over. A bit raw and punchy, it quickly washes away the apple and leaves behind an indistinct medicinal character. 66 proof. C / $26 / mcmenamins.com