Review: Westland American Single Malt, Sherry Wood, and Peated Whiskey

westland sherry woodAmerican single malt whiskeys get a bad rap, and that’s usually for a good reason: Many of them are borderline undrinkable.

Seattle-based Westland is trying to change that perception with it offerings, all single malts, and all produced in the style of their Scottish inspirations. Westland makes its whiskeys from five different malts, including a base made from Washington state barley. They’re clearly made with care and conviction — and watch out for the various single cask releases (generally bottled at cask strength) that hit the market periodically.

None have age statements. All are 92 proof. Thoughts follow.

Westland American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in new American oak casks. Surprisingly supple from the start, with a gentle nose of fresh malt and cereal, black pepper, a bit of lumberyard, and fresh mint. The palate is mild, again surprisingly so, offering notes of baking spices, especially cloves and ginger, then more wood and a butterscotch-driven finish. It drinks like a young Scotch, nothing over-complicated, but balanced and approachable. A nice surprise. B+ / $70  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in American oak casks used for Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry. This ought to be a killer combination, but the sherry doesn’t really elevate the spirit appreciably. Here the nose is overwhelmed by burnt sugar and toffee notes, plus a touch of scorched citrus. On the tongue, it’s surprisingly malty, almost chewy, with notes of graham cracker plus a mushroomy character on the back end. While the sherry element is tangible on the nose, it doesn’t really translate completely to the palate. B / $70

Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey – Aged in a variety of used American oak and sherry casks. Modestly peated, this would be an appropriate introduction to this smoky style of whiskeymaking. The nose has a bit of a menthol edge to it, perhaps a remnant of the original spirit’s minty edge. The palate is mild with smoke, more barbecue than coal fire, with overtones of red fruit and cloves. The smoke lingers, but not for long, making for a pleasant and gentle winter warmer that doesn’t require an extreme amount of deep thought. B+ / $70  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

westlanddistillery.com

Review: WhistlePig “Old World” Rye Whiskey 12 Years Old 2015

whistlepig old world

Every year WhistlePig — the acclaimed 100% rye whiskey — puts out a special edition. For the last three of those years the whiskey has been a spin on the original WhistlePig, generally getting older every year and/or bottled from a single barrel. For 2015, WhistlePig has something different in store: A whiskey that’s been finished in a variety of wine barrels.

WhistlePig has been experimenting with a variety of finishing barrels for its rye for a few months; I’ve never tasted any of them but they are still available in very limited release. Old World (aka Old World Marriage) marks the conclusion of those experiments — and unlike the finishing barrel releases it is a permanent addition to the WhistlePig lineup. The finished release is a blend of finished whiskeys: 63% from Madeira finished barrels, 30% Sauternes finished, and 7% Port finished. The whiskies inside are not 100% rye but rather 95% rye and 5% malted barley. There’s no information available on the length of the finishing — but the whiskey inside is 12 years old. Of special note: While the individual Old World finished whiskeys were bottled at 90 proof, this one hits the bottle at a slightly lower 86 proof.

The experience is considerably different from the standard WhistlePig bottling. There’s tons of astringency and heat on the nose here — that’s nothing new — but give all that a little time to blow off before diving in. What emerges are distinctly winey aromas coming directly from those barrel finishes. No surprise that the Madeira leads the way, offering those oxidized wine notes plus dark chocolate, salted caramel, and some pungent rhubarb character. On the palate, it’s less overpowering than you’d think given the hefty proof level. Surprisingly easily drinkable without water, the whiskey offers a complex array of flavors that starts off with golden syrup and bright citrus (the Sauternes influence, perhaps), then fades toward roasted grains, chocolate (here comes the Port…), and the winey notes that the Madeira drives.

WhistlePig is a textbook rye, all grain, lumber, and baking spices, but this expression takes the spirit in a whole new direction. Definitely worth seeking out, even if you’re just curious from a novelty factor perspective.

A- / $130 / whistlepigwhiskey.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Tamdhu Batch Strength Single Malt Whisky

TAMDHU_BATCH_STRENGTH_HIGH_RESThe newly revived Tamdhu Distillery is back with its second expression, this time an overproof whisky known (curiously) as Batch Strength. Aged entirely in sherry casks (predominantly first-fill) for an unstated amount of time, it is bottled at cask strength.

The nose offers rich cereal, caramel, and notes of grilled fruits. On the body, heavy alcohol notes make an immediate impression before some fresh, sweet citrus hits the palate. Water helps considerably, bringing out clear notes of clover honey, orange juice, banana, and cinnamon notes. Some sweet breakfast cereal notes linger on the juicy finish. Without a little tempering, Tamdhu Batch Strength is a bit too racy for easy analysis, but when brought down to a more manageable level it starts to show off more of its charms. Definitely worth a look.

117.6 proof.

B+ / $90 / tamdhu.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #8 – Speyside 1991, Invergordon 1984, Balmenach 2007, North Highland 1995, Irish 2002, and Laphroaig 2005

exclusive malts

It’s quite a mixed bag in The Exclusive Malts’ latest batch, which includes a single grain release, two unnamed distillery releases and — a first for The Exclusive — an Irish whiskey release. With this batch I’m excited to announce that received the entire lineup to review, 6 whiskeys in total. Quality is all over the map. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Speyside 1991 23 Years Old – This mystery Speyside whisky was distilled in 1991, but no other production information is offered. It appears to be bourbon-cask-aged all the way, starting off with almost pungent boozy/grainy notes on the nose. Lightly medicinal on the tongue, the palate ventures into dense wood, a touch of coal dust, and some pastoral notes. Perfectly drinkable, but surprisingly simplistic. 102.6 proof. B / $160

The Exclusive Malts Invergordon 1984 30 Years Old – This is a single grain whisky, distilled in the Highlands near Dornoch Firth and aged in a refill oak hogshead. There’s lots of granary character on the nose with this one, then notes of orange peel, clove, and some occasionally intense lumberyard notes. The key component though, is the grain — racy, chewy, and full of cloves and allspice. It’s a hot whisky that takes some time to settle down, but once it does it reveals some charm. Whether that merits the supports the price tag is another question. 104.6 proof. B+ / $200

The Exclusive Malts Balmenach 2007 8 Years Old – Slightly pink, a clear sign that this is a Port-matured whisky. The Speyside-based Balmenach is primarily used for blending, so this is a real rarity. Unfortunately that doesn’t amount to a particularly special spirit; youth is still having its way with this bottling, which is heavy with granary notes and an almost musty, funky edge. Hospital notes mingle with raw wood notes, coffee grounds, and mushroom… a bit of a mess, ultimately. 105.2 proof. C+ / $79

The Exclusive Malts North Highland 1995 20 Years Old – Another mystery malt, sherry matured from somewhere in the north Highlands. (Note that labels may just read “Highland,” not “North Highland.”) Rich with citrusy sherry notes on the nose, the nose here also showcases notes of walnut, coffee, and a not insignificant amount of tar. No slouch in the body department, the palate is pushy with notes of menthol, burnt orange, matchstick heads, and ash. There’s fruit up front — figs, plums, and citrus — but the fade in to this melange of more savory notes is quick and a bit unforgiving. 109.2 proof. B- / $135

The Exclusive Malts Irish Whiskey 2002 13 Years Old – Distilled near the northern border of Ireland at an unnamed distillery (which sounds like Locke’s/Kilbeggan based on the description). It’s quite a lovely expression of Irish, beginning with rich honey and caramel notes before delving headlong into butter toffee, butterscotch, and milk chocolate. There’s just a touch of grain on the back end, a nod toward the rolling hills of Ireland. Supple and sweet, this whiskey isn’t overcomplicated but it offers an intensity and richness that is rare in the typically light-bodied world of Irish. Cask strength certainly helps with that. Gorgeous. 108.4 proof. A / $106

The Exclusive Malts Laphroaig 2005 10 Years Old – Last but not least, we close with young, peaty, cask strength Laphroaig. No surprises here, with gentle peat smoke and barbecue notes kicking things off on the nose, and a body that blends smoke with citrus, petrol, licorice, and dried herbs. Lots of character from the Laphroaig playbook here, but fans will find the high proof expression worth exploring. 108.4 proof. B+ / $146

impexbev.com

Review: Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection from Nasa Liquor

Four Roses private barrel offerings are invariably fun to find and taste, and this selection from Nasa Liquor, a shop in Houston, Texas, is no exception.

This is an OESF Four Roses (20% rye, made with Four Roses’ “herbal” yeast), aged 10 years, 2 months. This is a slightly younger expression of the 2014 Single Barrel, which was an amazing release.

Nasa’s private selection is an amazingly sweet and surprisingly fruity expression of Four Roses. It starts on the nose: Butterscotch candies, candied apples, and vanilla caramels abound. More raw wood character emerges on the nose in time, and left in the glass for a while it will overpower the more dessert-like elements of the whiskey.

On the palate, the vanilla is astonishing at first, intense with notes of fresh creme brulee. Again, sip and reflect and you’ll find juicy raisin notes and some mint chocolate, particularly on the finish. It doesn’t drink especially hot, despite the barrel strength, but a touch of water does help to bring out more of the chocolate elements along with some cracked pepper notes.

There are more than a few similarities between this whiskey and the 2014 Single Barrel linked above, but that general bottling is a bit hotter and coaxes out a bit more wood on the back end. Kissing cousins, for sure, but both are great exemplars of Four Roses single barrel bottlings.

111 proof.

A / $59 / facebook.com/nasaliquor1

Review: Grand Macnish Six Cask Edition

Grand Macnish 6 Cask_btThis new blended malt from Grand Macnish includes whisky from six single malts — one each from the Highlands, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, Lowlands, and the Islands — and is designed to capture the very essence of Scotland in a single bottle. Note that this is a blended malt, with no grain whiskey in it. Most of Grand Macnish’s offerings are standard, blended whiskies.

On tasting, it’s quite a light style of whisky, malty on the nose with notes of sweet barbecue sauce, cinnamon, and lots of biscuity cereal notes. On the palate, very mild citrus emerges along with some butterscotch, chocolate, some raisin, and a touch of fig. The body is minimalistic, almost to the point of being watery, but it’s nonetheless surprisingly effective at getting its flavor across. The finish returns to the cereal notes, with just a wisp of smoke (hi there, Islay), coal dust, and heather.

Those looking for a complex whisky probably won’t find much of interest here, but for an everyday blended malt it has a lot more going on than you might expect.

80 proof.

B+ / $32 / macduffint.co.uk

Review: Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1897 Bottled in Bond Bourbon

Old Forester 1897 Bottle Shot

Last year Old Forester got started with its new Whiskey Row Series of Bourbons with its 1870 Original Batch Bourbon, meant to recreate the company’s batching process that it introduced in that year. Now comes OldFo’s 1897 Bottled in Bond, the next in the series, is bottled in honor of the 1987 Bottled-in-Bond Act and a recreation of Old Forester’s production at the time. Lightly filtered and stored in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, it is bottled at 100 proof (as specified by the BiB regulations).

This is a blazer of a bourbon, with an instantly, notably hot nose. Push through the raw alcohol notes and you get lumberyard, gingerbread, and butter cookie notes, all in a row. On the palate, the heavy alcohol character takes a while to dissipate, but eventually it opens with either time or a bit of water. Here you’ll catch notes of (more) gingerbread, buttered toast, cloves, and plenty of wood notes. Over time, banana notes and some raw cereal character emerge. The classic Bourbon vanilla notes are a bit dulled here, giving this whiskey a more rustic composition, but that may just be what Old Forester had in mind in whipping this whiskey up.

It’s (already) not my favorite in the lineup, but as a look back to the past, it’s a worthwhile experiment.

100 proof.

B+ / $50 / oldforester.com 

Review: Old Forester Mint Julep

old fo mint julep

No, there’s no substitute for the real thing, but one often finds the afternoon hot and the mint absent, so what’s a julep lover to do?

Old Forester has been bottling pre-made, ready-to-drink mint juleps for years, and should this summer find you wanting, it’s a fine way to get your minted bourbon on in a pinch.

This concoction — essentially Old Forester, mint flavoring, sugar syrup of some form, caramel color, and some water to knock it down in proof a bit — makes for an easy way to enjoy a horse race. The key ingredients are present: The mint reasonably authentic, particularly on the body vs. the nose. The bourbon has a distinctly peachy spin to it, really boosting up the fruitiness. That works fairly well with the mint, giving the beverage an almost tropicality to it. The finish is sweet but short of overbearing, which is pretty much how you want the julep to fade out.

Again, a quality julep with fresh mint will put this concoction to shame — but I’ve made worse mint juleps than what comes out of this bottle myself.

60 proof.

A- / $24 (1 liter) / oldforester.com

Review: Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon

duke-bourbon-bottle-shot-front-print

John Wayne wouldn’t let something as silly as being dead get in the way of drinking a good whiskey, and neither should you. Now you can drink just like John Wayne by drinking, er, the very essence of John Wayne — by swilling some Duke.

Duke Bourbon (sometimes called “The Duke,” but that’s not what the label says) is emblazoned with an iconic picture of Wayne along with his fabled nickname. Designed to celebrate everything about his Wayneness, it is said to have been formulated specifically to Wayne’s personal tastes “learned when his son, Ethan Wayne, discovered a private collection of his father’s liquor, letters and tasting notes dating back to the early 1960s.”

Read that again: John Wayne kept tasting notes, people.

Though producer Monument Valley Distillers laughably claims to be an artisan distiller “crafting small batches of superior bourbon, whiskey and brandy,” Duke is really (undisclosed) sourced bourbon from Kentucky (so not MGP) and is bottled without an age statement (and, of course, without mashbill information), but some have suggested it’s being produced by Wild Turkey (which would be unusual) and is a five to ten year old product (which would also be old for sourced whiskey). No one knows for sure, but does this whiskey have true grit?

The nose doesn’t give a lot of hints. The aroma is gentle and slightly corny with some lumberyard notes. It’s racy with alcohol but not particularly with spice — leading me to believe it’s got only a small amount of rye in the mash. On the palate, again it’s very easygoing — much more than its slightly overproof alcohol level would indicate anyway — very gentle with notes of candied almonds, dried apples, Cracker Jack, and some milk chocolate. A slight hint of smoke and a touch of mint add layers of complexity, but the finish is sweetness, a bit of baking spice, and gentle vanilla caramels.

Sure, Duke is a vanity bourbon project — God knows there are dozens of them on the market now — but I’d be remiss if I dismissed it as mere plonk served up in an overpriced bottle. I can’t weigh in on whether this resembles anything John Wayne would have actually consumed in real life — his persona seems like it would surely have preferred something more fiery and frontier-like — but if he was a man of discriminating tastes, he wouldn’t have been wrong in making this whiskey his go-to tipple.

88 proof.

A- / $30 / dukespirits.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Swords (and Glasses) Up to the Knights of the Single Oak Project!

SingleOakLogoRecently I ventured to Frankfort, Kentucky with a handful of other spirits writers to digest Buffalo Trace’s exhaustive Single Oak Project. We tasted the five bourbons from the project most highly rated by consumers and voted for the winner. That winner… Barrel #80, whose recipe will be recreated by Buffalo Trace and commercially bottled — in 2023!

The group of tasters were all christened with knightships while we there… Kentucky, style, that is. Raise a glass to my fellow Knights of the Single Oak Project, and get ready for a damn fine whiskey to hit the shelves in a few short years! Huzzah!

Many more insights about the SOP to come… stay tuned!

More insights from my fellow knight, Sir Gary Regan