Review: Lagavulin 25 Years Old 200th Anniversary (2016)


Islay is rife with 200th anniversaries this year. Up next is Lagavulin, which is putting out a special 25 year old anniversary bottling to commemorate the occasion. Some details from the distillery:

Lagavulin 25 Year Old, matured exclusively in sherry casks and bottled at cask strength, pays homage to the contribution Lagavulin’s distillery managers have made in crafting Lagavulin over the years. This limited-release offering honors the many craftsmen and great skill behind producing Lagavulin’s renowned whisky. Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s Head of Whisky outreach states, “To continue this special birthday we wanted to release a brand new bottling to Lagavulin enthusiasts worldwide. The 25 Year Old is a sublime expression of Lagavulin, I couldn’t think of a better way to pay homage to the distillery managers.”

No surprises are in store for the reader on this one. This is classic, well-worn Lagavulin, which kicks off on the nose with both heavy peat and more luxurious notes of brown butter, fresh herbs, tobacco, and lanolin. On the palate, it’s quite sweet up front, offering notes of spiced nuts, clove-studded oranges, and cinnamon toast. The peat slowly rolls in like waves hitting the shore, bringing with it iodine, meaty barbecue smoke, all dusted with a salt-and-pepper sprinkling. The biting peat notes haven’t been dulled out of this one despite its time in barrel, the experience ending on a toasty, fireside character that really lingers.

All told: It’s nearly textbook Lagavulin, exactly as it should be.

101.8 proof. 1200 bottles available in the U.S.

A- / $1200 /

Review: Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon (2016)


Earlier this year, Elijah Craig became the latest Kentucky bourbon to lose its age statement. Formerly a 12 year old release, it is now NAS, though Heaven Hill says the product will be composed of stock aged from 8 to 12 years old (200 barrels at a time) and, of course, assures us that quality will remain exactly the same. A new bottle design was recently released, which is taller, sleeker, and more modern than the old — some might say dated — design.

To prove its claims, the distillery sent out bottles of the new Elijah Craig Small Batch to see how it fares. Sadly, I haven’t any of the old 12 year old stock to compare to, but I did put this 2016 release side by side with a recent Barrel Proof release (brought down to an equivalent proof with water) to at least give some semblance of comparison to the past.

First, let’s look at the new release. It’s a sugar bomb from the get-go, simple-sugar syrup heavy on the nose with some citrus undertones plus a baking spice kick. The palate pushes that agenda pretty hard; it’s loaded to the top with sweet butterscotch, light caramel, and vanilla ice cream notes before a more sultry note of orange peel and gentler baking spice character comes to the fore. Heaven Hill reportedly uses a 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley mashbill, and the spice level here comes across about as expected with that amount of rye in the mash. It isn’t until late in the game that gentle wood notes come around, making for a duskier finish to what initially seems like a fairly straight (and sweet) shooter.

While it’s an imperfect comparison, the watered-down Barrel Proof cuts a bit of a different profile, offering more wood, more spice, and a bolder body right from the start. There’s more nuance along the way in the form of cocoa, coffee, and raisiny Port wine, but this kind of enhanced depth isn’t uncommon with a cask strength release, even if you water it down in the glass. The new standard-grade Elijah Craig doesn’t have that kind of power, but it’s also a less expensive and more accessible bourbon. Taking all that into account, it’s definitely still worth a look. The grade is on the borderline with an A-.

94 proof.

B+ / $30 /

Review: Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Whiskey

slow hand

The Greenbar Collective in Los Angeles is home to Slow Hand, a white whiskey and this, an aged whiskey made of 100% malted barley. The company calls it “a new kind of whiskey that… has never been tasted before,” and the production description doesn’t falter on that front. Says Greenbar: “After fermenting and distilling a 100% malt mash, we age this whiskey to taste in 1,000 and 2,000 gallon French oak vats with house-toasted cubes of hickory, mulberry, red oak, hard maple, and grape woods.”

For how long? “Between 10 minutes and when it tastes good,” per the label. Oh, and it’s organic.

So, hickory cube whiskey, anyone?

It is, to be sure, an unusual spirit. The nose is heavily smoky, intense not just with traditional young oak notes but also notes of forest floor, charcoal, menthol, dark chocolate, and balsamic. It’s quite overwhelming at first, but as the initially overbearing wood aromas start to settle down, some of the more unusual secondary notes really start to gain steam — and add intrigue.

The palate is also very wood-forward at first, but this too can be tempered by time and air to showcase notes of butterscotch, Madeira wine, and coconut. Sure, it’s all filtered through the lens of intense wood influence, but these curiosities — plus a coffee-dusted finish — add some nuance. I’m considerably less thrilled about the appearance of the whiskey over time, which turns cloudy in the glass and leaves significant deposits — much more than a typical brown spirit. So… drink up fast before it settles out.

84 proof.

B- / $45 /

Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label (2016)

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bottle

It’s been a solid six years since we spent any serious time with Johnnie Walker’s flagship bottling, Blue Label. The House of Walker doesn’t talk much about whether or how the recipe for Blue Label has evolved over the years, but in 2010 it was said that there were nine single malts in the blend, while today reports peg the total number at roughly 16 — so it’s likely some things have changed.

Tasting 2010 and 2016 vintage Blue Label side by side reveals some evolutionary changes, though nothing overwhelmingly dramatic. Today, the 2010 offers well-rounded notes of heavy sherry, almonds, some mint, and a dense, malty core. In comparison, the 2016 release shows itself as more aromatic, with a younger overall vibe and some clear aromas of petrol and rubber right off the bat.

The body however plays to many of the same elements as the older bottling — lots of nuts and roasted malts, a more restrained sherry component, and mixed herbal notes. As with the nose, the finish diverges from the 2010 more considerably. While the older bottling is lightly sweet and lingering, the 2016 comes off as a bit ashy and charcoal-smoked. It’s still respectable, austere, and complex — thanks largely to its bold and burly body, the whisky’s most consistent element throughout the years.

Blue Label has always presented itself as a mixed bag, but its current direction feels misguided to me. (For the record, I’d give the 2010 an upgrade to an A- from my earlier review.)

80 proof.

B / $225 /

Review: Jameson The Cooper’s Croze Irish Whiskey

Coopers Croze Bottle Image 750ml

Wood is important in whiskey, and that’s why with this new expression, Jameson is highlighting the power of wood by turning its Head Cooper, Ger Buckley, loose in the warehouse. The goal, “to showcase the diversity of barrels at our Midleton distillery and the profound influence that wood yields. With knowledge passed down through 5 generations of his family, Ger selects, repairs, and maintains our treasured casks.” The croze (rhymes with rose), by the way, is the tool used to make the groove where the head of the barrel is positioned in order to seal it.

For this release, Buckley has collected a variety of whiskies aged in virgin American oak, seasoned bourbon, and Iberian (Spanish) sherry barrels. There’s no age statement or any other production information, but that wood treatment is wild enough on its own.

This is a drier expression of Irish, one of the least fruit- and sweetness-forward that I’ve encountered in recent memory. The nose gives up just a little — hazelnuts, dried thyme, and barrel char. A touch of sherry after some air gets to it. On the palate, there’s more of that roasted nut character, scorching notes of toasted wood staves, and some emerging vanilla at last as the woodier notes begin to fade. The sweetness remains elusive, and even the finish is drying, with notes of red pepper and cloves, and more dried savory herbal notes that tend to linger for far too long.

Even though the wood program is, to say the least, unique with this whiskey, I was expecting at least lip-service to traditional Irish in The Cooper’s Croze. What I got was something entirely different. The character is more like a young American whiskey, malt-heavy, with a heavy, heavy kick of new oak, rather unlike anything from the Emerald Isle. That wild departure may be a good thing, depending on your point of view, but for me, the heavy influence of barrel char was a real turnoff, and my suspicion is that the rest of you out there will have a similar experience.

86 proof.

B- / $60 /

Review: Brodsky Herbal Flavored Whiskey


Here’s a crazy concept. A Stamford, Connecticut medical doctor with Eastern European heritage decided to distill, age, and bottle his own herbal-flavored whiskey as a spin on the digestif/amaro formula. Brodsky, aka “The Original Brodsky,” is a wild idea that is frankly unlike any other whiskey you’ve had — or even any amaro, really — but I’ll let the creators of the spirit describe it:

Brodsky Flavored Herbal Whiskey is infused with 8 botanicals traditionally used to promote digestion. Brodsky Whiskey takes the Eastern European health remedy approach of using bitter flavoring in spirits, predominantly dandelion, as a digestif. It has no sugar added nor any ingredients other than whiskey made in the Bourbon style, specifically, mash greater than 51% corn, distilled to 160 proof in Connecticut. The distillate is cold soaked with a bag of 8 organic botanicals which were traditionally used for their “medicinal” properties to help digestion. All botanicals are removed after 1 week, and the distillate is aged 18 months in used bourbon barrels. Future batches will be produced in new bourbon barrels and aged 2 years. The whiskey is bottled from a single barrel, uncut and unfiltered at barrel proof at 100 proof.

If you like bitter spirits — and I mean bitter spirits — you’re going to love Brodsky. Everyone else, read on.

The nose is almost innocuous, with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, and orange peel. The alcohol is evident on the nose, but not overpowering. On the palate, it’s a whole different story. The body starts off with a quick hit of citrus, but the fruit is washed away almost immediately by heavy, overpowering, tongue-disintegrating bitterness. Triple down on Fernet and you’re in the ballpark, though here the flavors lean toward licorice, tree bark, and raw cloves. This lingers — scorching the palate with alcohol and attacking the mouth with raw, bitter notes and some intense, peppery heat — before finally a touch of relief arrives in the form of pure cinnamon notes.

The decision to create this spirit with no sweetness whatsoever is a bold one, but even as an avowed amaro fan, I find it difficult to drink much Brodsky on its own. Then again, those lunatic bartenders who have become accustomed to doing shots of straight Angostura bitters may find this a breath of fresh air. Tread lightly.

100 proof.

C+ / $40 /

Review: Ardbeg 10 Years Old, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan

Ardbeg Trio Image (low- res)

At 200 years of age, Ardbeg is one of the most venerable of Scotch whisky distilleries, and it’s an icon of Islay, where peat has long been the currency of whiskymaking.

While we’ve reviewed many of Ardbeg’s annual, limited edition Committee releases, we’ve somehow never taken our pen to the core range, which spans three expressions. Finally, the time was ripe to review them all, and it just happened to coincide with Ardbeg’s release of a VR experience that lets fans who can’t get to Islay experience a virtual visit there, however brief. Three short but immersive experiences, delivered via VR headset, let you wander through the distillery, hike out to the Uigeadail loch, and even visit the Corryvreckan whirlpool north of Islay (the lattermost being the most disorienting of the trio). The Ardbeg VR experience will be available only at key events for now, but watch for a lighter, web-based version to arrive later this year — which may be all the better to experience, because you can do so with a glass of Ardbeg 10 in hand.

Thoughts on “the big three” follow.

Ardbeg 10 Years Old – The essential Ardbeg, and the only one of this bunch with an age statement, all 10 of those years having been spent in ex-bourbon casks. The classic Ardbeg bottling, and one of the most heavily peated entry-level whiskies from all of Scotland. Ten years are just about right for taming Ardbeg’s fire, though the nose is still moderately heavy with straight, smoky peat notes, though also lightly briny but distinctly maritime in its tone. The body follows in lockstep, adding to the burning embers of driftwood notes of iodine, orange peel, coriander, and ginger. Beautifully balanced despite the heavy peat influence, it remains one of the most essential Islay whiskies — and an essential whisky that is required drinking for anyone who wants to form a base understanding of single malts. 92 proof. A / $45  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Uigeadail – Named for Ardbeg’s own loch, Uigeadail — if you hike the 3 miles to get there from the distillery, you’ll find a lockbox containing whisky and glassware, gratis. Uigeadail is quite different from the 10 Year Old because it is blended from both bourbon and sherry casks, including some older stock. The sherry influence alone makes for a vastly different experience, starting with the nose, which dampens the smokiness with notes of roasted nuts, citrus, and an earthy, leathery character that simply feels like history. The palate offers a rather different experience, which adds to the curiosity and interest, melding smoke with notes of well-roasted meats, walnut shells, pipe tobacco, and cloves. The finish is lengthy and brooding — aided by the considerably higher alcohol level — a lingering reminder of how this Ardbeg may be an entirely different beast, yet just as good as the 10. 108.4 proof. A / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Corry is unusual in that it is a blend of whiskies aged in bourbon casks and in new French oak — the latter of which is rarely utilized in Scotch. While beloved by its fans, this is admittedly my least favorite of the trio, a bold and brooding Islay. For me, it simply takes things too far, the new oak damaging the seductive soul that’s inherent in the great Ardbeg expressions. The peat is doubled up here but it’s done in a rather brutish fashion, giving it a tarry, ashy character that finishes on salty licorice and heavy iodine notes. Peat freaks will absolutely love it — the finish lingering for what feels like hours — but a nuanced whisky it simply isn’t. 114.2 proof. B  / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]