Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Years Old

10year 525x700 Review: Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Years Old

Finding any sort of Japanese whisky in the middle of Kentucky seems to be a very complex chore at the least, nearly impossible at best. Limited to a scant few offerings — Hibiki, Yamazaki, and the yearly arrival of Hakushu — the choices within the Commonwealth are muted amongst a frothy sea of bourbon enthusiasts (though this may change with the Suntory acquisition of Beam, we shall see). When wanting something different beyond the traditional quartet of Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, or Canadian, the shelves offer limited options. So when a friend offers to bring back something from Japan for your shelf, it provides extra incentive for their safe (and early) return home.

The nose on Nikka’s Miyagikyo 10 Year Old expression is light and pleasant, with traces of floral and smoke elements that linger, hanging about for almost too long. It’s almost better to let it breathe a bit in the glass before beginning the whole experience. Tasting reveals mild citrus and spice with some traces of oak and pepper, a medium body that keeps the citrus lingering in the finish along with the oak.

Unlike some of the older siblings in the Nikka stable, this really doesn’t contain some of the heavy malt tones usually synonymous with the brand. On the plus side, this mild inconsistency may prove useful as an accessible entry point to the Nikka line and to Japanese whisky as a whole. Those desiring more complexity may elect to upgrade to the 12 or 15 year if the option presents itself. 80 bucks is an investment, but if Japanese whisky is your (new) game, expect to pay that and more stateside.

90 proof.

B+ / $80 / nikka.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Bourbon Round Thirteen

Round 13 of Buffalo Trace’s “Single Oak Project” experiment is here, putting us into the final few stretches of whiskey flights in this bold, 192-bottle Bourbon experiment.

Previous rounds can be found here:

Round One (including all the basics of the approach to this series)
Round Two
Round Three
Round Four
Round Five
Round Six
Round Seven
Round Eight
Round Nine
Round Ten
Round Eleven
Round Twelve

This slightly oddball release features Bourbons which were all aged in barrels made from the top half of the tree, while keeping the other variables such as entry proof (at 125 proof), and stave seasoning (12 months) the same. The remaining variables, recipe (wheat or rye), grain size, warehouse type, and char level vary. As always, all are bottled at 90 proof.

Overall, this round shows lots of variability with a number of standouts — barrel #109 being one of the best whiskeys in the entire series to date. Lots of good wheat whiskeys here (though there are a few bums in the batch, too), but overall there’s plenty of variety in this round to keep things interesting. If nothing else, I think this round alone shows that barrels from the top of the tree have pretty much no impact on the finished spirit.

Complete thoughts on round 13 follow.

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #11 – Muted nose, with straightforward wood elements the clearest component of this whiskey. The body is wood all the way, very drying on the finish, and with only some dried herbal elements to give it much life or interest. Not a “bad” whiskey, but it’s one of the most boring of the entire Project to date. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #13 – Very heavy on the wood, this is big oak in a glass, tempered a touch by some winey notes on the mid-palate. The finish is as woody as the attack, with hints of licorice. A bit plain, but if you’re a fan of heavily wooded whiskeys, you may find more to like. B- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 18 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #43 – Clear orange character on the nose, with woody, smoky overtones. On the body, it’s not 100% harmonious, the fruit and wood elements doing a bit of battle on the palate. But with a little time in the glass, things settle down and it develops some spicy, dark chocolate notes that give it a curious uniqueness. A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 21 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #45 – Indistinct nose, but a little salty and sweaty. Some chocolate note emerges after a time, giving the overall spirit a salted caramel/candy bar character to it. Overall the body is modest to restrained, and the finish is short and fleeting. B (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, tight grain, 17 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #75 – The nose brings out notes of tobacco, lumberyard, and slight hospital notes. The body is much softer and sweeter, with silky caramel, some citrus peel, and fresh cinnamon character. Hot on the tongue and fiery on the finish, which tends to dull any nuance here. B (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #77 – Heavy on cherry notes, this is a fruitier Bourbon with plenty of charm. The fresh fruit character is pretty and almost intense, finishing sweet so that it almost comes across like a strawberry ice cream or sorbet. Quite pleasant, if not wholly nuanced. A- (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 13 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #107 – Ample wood, but just on this side of being too hoary for easy drinkin’. This whiskey develops some curious notes — licorice, dark cherries, chocolate — but wood remains the most dominant component. Very good, but not the wild curiosity of #109… A- (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 14 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #109 – A solid, well-balanced, yet unexpected spirit. The nose is both spicy and woody, with some really unusual overtones of racy incense. The body is silky sweet and lush, balanced with notes of raisins, mincemeat, sugar, wood, and some intriguing savory notes. This is a unique bourbon not just for the Single Oak Project, but for bourbons altogether. You may not like it as much as me, but it’s so much fun to explore you’d be a fool to pass it up. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, average grain, 12 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #139 – Classic but hot on the nose, with big notes of vanilla and hefty lumberyard character. Similar on the palate, but it’s those wood elements that begin to overwhelmingly dominate as the whiskey aerates. Finishes very dry, almost dusty. C+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 10 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #141 – Notes of petrol and gas fires and burnt wood up front, particularly on the nose, leading this whiskey into a more savory funnel than the others in the Project. More sweetness develops on the body — a brown sugar and caramel character — which creates balance with the more savory, and somewhat jarring, early encounter. B+ (rye, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 8 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #171 – The indistinct nose offers vague cherry syrup notes alongside lots of raw alcohol character. The body is a bit gentler, but its charms are fleeting. Lots of tobacco smoke and leather here, with touches of motor oil creeping up on you on the astringent finish. C (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, wooden ricks, #4 char, top half of tree)

Buffalo Trace Distillery Single Oak Project Barrel #173 – Initially racy, this spicebox of a whiskey settles into a nice little groove, offering well-rounded tones of applesauce, citrus oil, cinnamon, and mellow wood notes, particularly on the finish. This is a whiskey that invites exploration and revisiting, a lush spirit that balances sweet and savory with aplomb. A striking difference to #171. A (wheat, 125 entry proof, level 12 seasoning, coarse grain, 9 rings/inch, concrete ricks, #3 char, top half of tree)

$46 each (375ml bottle) / singleoakproject.com

Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery – Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

lost distillery gerston 525x721 Review: Whiskies of Lost Distillery   Auchnagie, Stratheden, and Gerston

This is one of the niftiest ideas to come out of the whisky world in years. As the Lost Distillery Company reminds us, some 100 Scottish distilleries were shut down or destroyed in the last century, which means most of us will never know what their spirits tasted like. Until now, as they say.

What Lost Distillery does is concoct recreations of these “silent stills,” some of which have been nothing but ash for 100 years. By doing a lot of research about the stills used, the type of barley, the water, the wood, and more, the company sources malts and mixes up a spirit which — in their mind — is a faithful recreation of the original. (All are vattings of various single malt whiskies, technically “blended malts.”)

No, they don’t have stashes of whisky made in the 1800s to compare their version to (you can check out the Shackleton bottlings if you’re interested in a taste-alike approach to recreating old whisky), but are rather using history as a guide.

Lost Distillery launched with three recreations, and the company has copious historical information about all three of the whiskies on its well-researched website. What I can offer, however, is notes on how the spirits they’ve created taste.

Note: All three of these bottlings are available in “Deluxe” and “Vintage” editions, the Vintage versions being limited edition, one-off bottlings. We’re only looking at the Deluxe versions today — which, to make things even more confusing for you, don’t say “Deluxe” anywhere on the bottle.

Lost Distillery Auchnagie – Auchnagie was around from 1812-1911 in the southern Highlands. Here we have a whisky with a fairly typical Highlands construction: Lots of heather and grain, ample citrus, and a healthy backing of dense wood and smoky notes on the nose. The body plays up the orange and lemon notes, almost hinting at grapefruit on the finish. Sweet to start, the cereal character becomes stronger as the whisky develops on the palate, leading to a finish that is a bit on the hot side but which offers a bold afterimage rather than a gentle fade-away. Reviewed: Batch i. 92 proof. A-

Lost Distillery Stratheden – Stratheden existed from 1829-1926 in the Lowlands. This recreation offers a gentle experience, with nicely mellowed cereal notes, light chocolate and caramel, and a light squirt of orange oil. A mild peatiness emerges with time, lending a smoldering note to the spirit that is reminiscent of  toasted bread. It’s a straightforward and somewhat simple dram, but not nearly as rustic as I’d expected. Warming but a bit short, the finish vanishes just in time for you to reach for another sip. Reviewed: Batch ii. 92 proof. B+

Lost Distillery Gerston - Gerston existed in two incarnations, from 1796-1882 and 1886-1914, based in the far north of the Scottish mainland (part of the Highlands). Elusive nose, with more of a raw alcohol character than the Stratheden, but with much of its cereal character to offer. This is a bolder, pushier, and more forward whisky, punctuated with notes of bitter orange, roasted grains, licorice, and diesel fire. As the finish fades, watch for sea salt and seaweed notes to develop. This is a less refined and less purely enjoyable spirit on its own merits, but my hunch is its a more authentic recreation of the spirits of the era. Reviewed: Batch 1.1X. 92 proof. B

each $65 / lost-distillery.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth Release

Islay-based Kilchoman may be one of the youngest distilleries in Scotland, but somehow it cranks out more different spirits than just about everyone else in the business. (Mainly because it’s presenting itself as a bit of a “work in progress,” so Kilchoman’s releases tend to be annual updates.)

Today we consider two of the main Kilchoman expressions, Loch Gorm and 100% Islay, in their 2014 editions.

Loch Gorm 2014 BC 249x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release – Distilled in 2008-09, bottled in March 2014. Fully matured in oloroso sherry butts (and five years old), this is the only all-sherry-matured release from Kilchoman. On the whole it’s a much more compelling whisky than the Loch Gorm First Release, which had a finishing round in a different type of sherry cask and which couldn’t find a balance between the peat and the sweet. With this second release, things have settled down nicely, with the overall impact being one of smoked, grilled citrus fruit. The nose is well-peated without being overpowering, while the body is packed with notes of tangerine and pears, singed with smoke. Miraculously it’s all exquisitely balanced, so harmonious that it’s hard to believe this is just another iteration of last year’s Loch Gorm, which boasted none of these qualities. I take back what I said about sherry being better as a finish for Kilchoman. Can’t wait for 2015’s expression. 92 proof. 17,100 bottles produced. A / $95  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Kilchoman 100 Islay 4th Edition 250x300 Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Second Release and 100% Islay Fourth ReleaseKilchoman 100% Islay Fourth Release – Distilled in 2009-10, bottled in May 2014. It’s round #4 for this all-Islay release (where everything from growing the barley to bottling is done on the distillery property). Lightly peated, this release is vatted from 32 five-year-old barrels and 8 four-year-old barrels, all of them first-fill Bourbon barrels. The combination of five-year and four-year whiskies is about on par with last year’s Third Release. Up front this whisky offers lots of smoke — creosote and coal fires and a bit of burnt paper. The fruit doesn’t arise until you’re will into your third sip, where some banana and pear notes start to emerge on the finish. Over time in the glass, it develops the character of orange marmalade, tinged through and through with those wisps of smoke. Mild fruitiness aside, it’s a slow burner. Not a palate-buster, but redolent with the character of a just-extinguished birthday candle. The lightly fruity finish adds complexity, but it never brings the whole package together in quite the way the prior installments of the 100% Islay expression have managed to do. 100 proof. B+ / $110

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

laphroaig 10 year cask strength 525x969 Review: Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength

The only member of the Laphroaig core lineup that we haven’t reviewed — but stay tuned for two new expressions dropping in the next couple of weeks — Laphroaig 10 Years Old Original Cask Strength is exactly what it says on the label: A cask strength version of the classic Laphroaig 10 Years Old expression.

Now anything from the Islay-based Laphroaig is always hot stuff, but Laphroaig Cask Strength is a true blazer. Packed with peat smoke and the essence of red pepper, it takes some doing to get it to settle down in the glass. Lots of air works if you’re patient, or you can start adding drops of water to speed up the process. Actually, I recommend the latter no matter what. While you can catch the whiffs of citrus and grapefruit uncut, these are far stronger when you add a splash of water. Try adding more and more as you drain the glass (which will have the side effect of making the glass appear to never empty) and out come more tropical notes of banana, lychee, and pineapple, even a touch of coconut.

Think of it as a more complicated, layered, and — yeah — expensive version of the standard bearer, one that doesn’t let go of its secrets without a fight.

114.4 proof. Reviewed: Batch #005, bottled February 2013.

A- / $67 / laphroaig.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

 Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel Apple Whiskey and Icemint Schnapps

Founded in 1758 in Haselünne, Germany, Berentzen is known for its eponymous apple liqueur, as well as some other fruit liqueurs. The company is expanding — hey, 250 years is long enough to wait — recently adding two new products to its lineup. We got ‘em both, and put them to the Drinkhacker test.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel is “straight bourbon whiskey, neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors.” Made with the apple juice-based Berentzen liqueur, this is a credible apple-pie-in-a-glass beverage, featuring silky-sweet apple juice notes balanced by a healthy slug of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. Sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and with just hints of those “neutral spirits” that provide a bit of a chemical character by way of aftertaste. Perfectly serviceable for those in love with apple cocktails, but you can approximate the same thing by splashing some standard bourbon into a glass of Berentzen if you don’t need a short cut. 60 proof. B / $22

Berentzen Icemint Schnapps is a “supermint” schnapps according to the company, and I’d say that’s fairly on point. I’m hardly an aficionado of peppermint schnapps, but Berentzen’s offering is surprisingly intriguing. The nose offers a light eucalyptus menthol note, and it’s surprisingly gentle. I couldn’t detect any real alcohol burn in it at all. On the palate it’s equally easygoing. The body is icy cool and appropriately minty, with wispy hints of chocolate, altogether coming across much like an after-dinner mint. It doesn’t drink at all like it’s overproof, which makes it a bit dangerous. Try sipping on a half-shot as a digestif. No more. No shooters. 100 proof. A / $25

berentzenusa.com

Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend Hi Res Bottle Shot e1404796063243 525x491 Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary BlendCrown 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: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection – Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

jim beam harvest 525x308 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat

Discontent to let Buffalo Trace have all the fun with experimental whiskeys, Jim Beam has been hard at work with its annual Signature Craft releases to show how little changes can have a big impact on a finished spirit.

Now it’s pushing boundaries even further, with a series of six Bourbons called the Harvest Bourbon Collection (technically a sub-group of Signature Craft). The spin on this project is that these six whiskeys each incorporate one unusual grain into the mashbill. They’re all still Bourbon — made with at least 51% corn and some amount of malted barley — but in each whiskey that extra grain is used in a significant amount in the mash (though in undisclosed and variable proportions). All six expressions were aged 11 years before bottling at 90 proof.

The six expressions include: Soft Red Wheat, Brown Rice, Rolled Oat, Triticale, High Rye, and Six Row Barley. The first two on that list arrive in September 2014. The other four will ship through 2015.

Some of these are more unusual than others on that list, of course. Wheat, rye, and barley are all common whiskey components, though here Beam is using different strains or proportions. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye, which leaves two big oddities on the list: Rolled Oat and, especially, Brown Rice. Both are common supermarket grains that are nonetheless bizarre to find in a whiskey. Color me curious on how these things turn out.

For now, we’ve got our hands on two of the six: Soft Red Wheat and Rolled Oat. Without further ado, here’s how they turned out.

JB SC Harvest Wheat 134x300 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection   Soft Red Wheat and Rolled OatJim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Soft Red Wheat – Made with Kentucky and Indiana wheat, a common ingredient in Bourbons like Maker’s Mark. This initially struck me with a slightly funky, sweaty nose, but I let it settle down and things started to clarify, revealing a more straightforward wood character, with hints of earthiness. This is well-aged whiskey and it shows from the start. On the palate, hints of cherry (not unusual for Beam products) and ample, almost overpowering oak character. Even with a healthy amount of water you can’t push that wood character down, a fact which I chalk up more to the aging regimen than to wheat being in the mashbill. Surprisingly tough to muddle through. B-

Jim Beam Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection Rolled Oat – I’ve had a few whiskeys that incorporate oats and I always find them fascinating, at least for a diversion. Here Beam has produced a whiskey with a distinct sweetness on the nose, almost like baking spices with cinnamon and cloves, with rich wood notes underneath. On the palate, again it is quite hot on the tongue, and water helps to bring out the unique charms of the spirit. This is a far different whiskey than the Red Wheat expression, a much softer, gentler, and more engaging spirit on the whole. Cinnamon sugar notes play well with a caramel/dulce de leche base, with that woody nose melting into a pulpier, piney character on the palate. All of this plays well together, giving the Rolled Oat expression a balance that the Red Wheat doesn’t have. Perhaps it was simply better able to stand up to the aging regimen? Either way, it’s a winner. A-

This is a fun start to an interesting lineup. Hopefully we’ll have reviews of the other four expressions for you in the Harvest Collection soon!

each $50 (375ml) / jimbeam.com

Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

JB SC Quarter Cask e1404621828786 525x830 Review: Jim Beam Signature Craft Quarter Cask Finished Small Batch Bourbon 2014

For the third installment (and second annual release) of Jim Beam’s Signature Craft series (find reviews of the first limited annual release and the permanent member of the series here), the company is offering a curious concoction. While it’s called “Quarter Cask Finished,” that’s a little misleading. The whiskey is actually a blend of standard five-to-six year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon that is married with a separate Bourbon that has spent from four-to-six years in quarter casks. (Craft whiskey and Laphroaig fans know that quarter casks are exactly what they sound like: Barrels that are 1/4 the size of regular ones, and which tend to mature much more quickly.)

Semantics aside, this is an intriguing new, limited edition whiskey from Beam, and the use of small barrels (at least in part) makes it a considerable departure from the norm. Thoughts follow.

Jim Beam Quarter Cask Finished Bourbon starts off sweet and doesn’t let up. The nose offers notes of caramelized fruit — Bananas Foster, I would argue — along with sugared orange peel and vanilla-scented sugar cookies. The body brings that home, with heavy doses of vanilla caramels, milk chocolate, and hints of cherry. Wood notes start to develop, particularly on the finish, as the whiskey settles down in the glass. It’s not particularly hot, at 86 proof, but it does benefit from a little air time, which allows the various flavor and aroma components to meld.

I like this whiskey a lot, though it’s not at all what I was expecting (a bruiser heavy on wood and tannin) and ultimately doesn’t venture all that far from the winning Beam formula. Bottom line: With ample fruit and sweeter elements in abundance, there’s a little something here for Bourbon fans of every stripe.

86 proof. Available beginning in September 2014.

A- / $40 / jimbeam.com

Review: Talisker 27 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Talisker1985 bottlebox High Res 525x742 Review: Talisker 27 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

The final whisky in the 2013 Diageo Special Releases series comes from venerable Talisker on the Isle of Skye. It’s a 1985-distilled spirit aged exclusively in American refill casks, so this whisky’s considerable age should be the main focus here rather than any finishing it encounters.

Sure enough: This is classic Talisker, a peaty, green-tinted malt loaded with aromas of wood smoke and seaweed, with just hints of citrus fruit. The body’s got ample peat, but it’s not overwhelming, with just a bit of vegetable character to it — green bean and green tomatoes, perhaps. Lots of salt splashes you on the finish, showing off this maritime spirit’s true colors.

Final analysis: Very enjoyable, but it never ventures far from its roots.

112.2 proof. 3,000 bottles produced.

B+ / $815 / malts.com

Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Singleton 28 bottlebox High Res 525x773 Review: The Singleton of Dufftown 28 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Whisky #8 in the Diageo Special Releases series is an installment from The Singleton line, this one from Dufftown. (There have been many whiskies in “The Singleton” line, but only Dufftown is current.)

This old fogey is from an actually operational still in Speyside, aged completely in American oak for its 28 years. (It was distilled in 1985.)

This is a big, malty whisky. The nose is rich with wood notes and hints of oatmeal, and there’s a little acetone character in there as well. As noted, bit malt notes are the key element here. It’s a big bowl of cereal (good cereal, mind you) with raisins, maple syrup, and a squirt of honey. It sweetens up as air gets to it, and it also brings out more of its well-aged wood notes.

The Singleton of Dufftown 28 may start off simple, but its complexity grows as the whisky matures in the glass. I was ready to dismiss it as almost boring at the start, but eventually it won me over as a warm and inviting new friend.

104.6 proof. 3,816 bottles produced.

A- / $400 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Port Ellen 34yo 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Port Ellen 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Whisky #7/9 from the Diageo 2013 Special Release series comes from Port Ellen, Islay’s cult distillery which was shuttered way back in 1983. This spirit was produced in 1978, just five years before the stills were mothballed. Aged in American and European oak, it’s one of the oldest whiskies ever to be bottled from this distillery.

Port Ellen is always heavily peated, and this expression is no exception. The nose is rich with barbecue smoke, salty, with citrus overtones. The body’s a big burner, rich with barbecue sauce, both sweet and peppery. Water is of considerable benefit here, but that serves mainly to tame the beastly body rather than coaxing out additional character. In Port Ellen 34 the smoke never lets up, but it does find a few companions in notes of orange pulp, rosemary, and honeycomb. Surprisingly restrained, this is a decidedly simple example of Port Ellen — plenty tasty, but not a powerhouse of complexity.

110 proof. 2,958 bottles produced.

B+ / $2,570 / malts.com

Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Oban21 bottlebox High Res 525x935 Review: Oban 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

#6 of 9 in the 2013 Diageo Special Release series comes from the classic Oban Distillery, located on the west coast of the Highlands where it’s a bit of an honorary, lesser member of the Islay group. Aged in rejuvenated American oak and second fill sherry casks, it’s the first Oban to come out of this series in a decade.

Unlike most of the whiskies that precede this spirit in the lineup, the Oban immediately strikes you as hot. The nose is fiery — with salt air and coal smoke peeking through, along with touches of buttery biscuits. The body cries for water, but after the heat dies down a bit it reveals notes of syrup-coated pancakes and some citrus. The smoke fades away almost completely here. Water coaxes out some herbal character along with lots of nuts — walnuts and almonds — before falling back on its core of malty grains with a twist of orange peel.

With the appropriate splash of water, this emerges as one of the best Obans I’ve ever had, balanced and pretty and full of complexities that invite exploration.

117 proof. 2,860 bottles produced.

A / $385 / malts.com

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old and Lagavulin 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

These two Lagavulin single malts are our #4 and #5 entries into the 2013 Diageo Special Release series. For the uninitiated, Lagavulin’s standard bottling is a 16 year old, but Diageo puts out a younger 12 year bottling pretty much every year as part of the annual Special Release program. This year it’s backing that up with an extremely rare and ungodly expensive 37 year old. Let’s take them both in turn.

Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2013 is everything you’ve come to expect from this Islay distillery. Vatted from refill American oak casks, it’s a pale yellow in color, offering a gentle, sweet, smoked meat style of smokiness on the nose along with touches of citrus. Though bottled at cask strength, the body is surprisingly easygoing. The smoke and fruit are well integrated here, that light peat — more earth than seaside — quickly giving way to notes of fresh orange, banana, and surprising tropical notes of mango and pineapple. It’s nicely balanced but the experience fades away all too quickly due to a relatively short finish. 110.2 proof. “Limited quantities.” A- / $136

Lagavulin 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2013 – Now here’s a real rarity (distilled in 1976), bottled after 37 years in American and European oak refill casks. It’s the oldest Lagavulin that Diageo has ever released (and undoubtedly the most expensive, too). Deep amber in color, the nose offers notes of old Madeira, iodine, sea spray, and balsamic vinegar. There’s lots going on here, maybe too much. With complex and layered notes of fading coal fires, wood polish, menthol, pine needles, and ancient, oxidized bottles of sherry, it’s a whisky that invites exploration but never really reaches Nirvana. The finish is rustic and more than a bit rough — a long way from the gentle simplicity of the 12 year old and further evidence that this Lagavulin has, tragically, probably spent a few years too long in the barrel. 102 proof. 1,868 bottles produced. B / $3,320

malts.com

Gelateria Naia Puts Frozen Whiskey on a Stick

photo 300x225 Gelateria Naia Puts Frozen Whiskey on a StickNow here’s a fun item I never thought I’d see in my local supermarket: A gelato popsicle flavored with St. George Spirits Single Malt Whiskey. Both companies are local to NorCal: Gelateria Naia is based in Hercules, St. George in Alameda, both in the East Bay.

This popsicle is quite a little delight, flavored with sugar, a touch of caramel, and real St. George Single Malt poured right into the pop. The texture is a bit icier than a non-alcohol-based pop from the company I tried, but still easy to munch on. The flavor is slightly nutty, and sweeter than I’d expected. The closest analogue I can suggest is a dulce de leche ice cream, swirled with caramel. The flavors linger with you, though, for quite a while after it’s all gone, and its there where some of the more whiskeylike notes — cereal and oak staves — start to emerge.

Fun. Would eat again. About $2.50 a pop.

gelaterianaia.com

Review: Convalmore 36 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Conva 36 bb 2013 High Res 525x736 Review: Convalmore 36 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Diageo 2013 Special Release #3 of 9 is a very rare offering from Convalmore, a Speyside distillery closed in 1985. Distilled in 1977, this is only the third release to come from Convalmore in the Special Release series.

The beautiful amber color is instantly mouth-wetting, but the nose is elusive. After the alcohol vapors fade, you get notes of sherry, well-aged wood, and old furniture leather. There are hints of menthol and a touch of iodine, too.

The body is hefty on those wood characteristics. The fruit has faded considerably here, leaving behind a rather dusty spirit that offers notes of coconut husk, cedar closet, and well-oxidized sherry. The finish returns us to the lumberyard, with just a few touches of that previously encountered iodine character. Sadly, it all ends too soon.

While Convalmore 36 is far from a whisky that’s faded away completely, it is one that is on its way. My advice to Diageo is to get whatever’s left and lingering around out of barrels and into bottles, posthaste.

116 proof. 2,980 bottles produced.

B+ / $1,020 / malts.com

Review: Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve Unpeated Style Limited Edition 2013

Caol Ila 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve Unpeated Style Limited Edition 2013

Diageo 2013 Special Release #2 of 9 is this whisky, from Islay-based Caol Ila, which is a well-known bastion of the peated style of malt whisky. This however is a very rare unpeated malt from the distillery, made just once a year by the company. Made from a mix of casks using refill American Oak, rejuvenated American Oak, and ex-bodega (sherry casks, I presume) European Oak, it is bottled without an age statement.

Made in a “Highland style,” this whisky is big and hot, and a dash of water is a huge help from the start. With some tempering the Stitchell Reserve offers a savory nose of coal dust, roasted grains, and sandalwood. The body follows suit, keeping any sweetness at bay while playing up those notes of oatmeal, almonds, and gentle wood. Honey notes — a bit denser and a bit more herbal than you’d expect — start to build as the whisky settles down, adding just the right amount of sugar to a very well-balanced spirit. Not your father’s Caol Ila by any stretch, and a fun diversion from the usual fare from Islay.

119.2 proof.

A- / $119 / malts.com

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

Brora 35yo 2013 High Res 525x742 Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

This is the beginning of a special week here at Drinkhacker, as we’re finally about to launch into one of the most anticipated and exciting annual events in the whiskey world. No, it’s not a new Pappy Van Winkle release, it’s the arrival of Diageo’s annual limited edition Special Release single malts.

These whiskies are sourced from very rare, very old casks — often from long-since closed distilleries — and are produced in fleetingly limited numbers. While they all bear a 2013 release date, most are still in the process of hitting our shores.

2013 Special Releases Group Shots High Res1 525x193 Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2013

This series encompasses nine spirits, and we’ll be tackling them in turn, one each day.

First out the gate is this 35 year old expression from Brora (distilled in 1977), a Highlands-based distillery that was shuttered in 1983. Aged in refill American and European casks, it’s a bright yellow in color, a deception that masks its true age.

The scent of the sea pours out of the glass — iodine and seaweed, peat fires and smoked fish — along with hints at a sweeter underpinning. The body, as with most old Brora releases, is just gorgeous. Liquified honey gets things going, followed by notes of citrus peel, heather, brandy-soaked raisins, coconut, and ripe banana. Here, the smokiness so evident on the nose is almost completely lost, these big fruits and some dessert-like cookie notes running all the way to the finish line. Oily and mouth-filling on the body, the long and lasting finish brings out tropical fruit and some burnt sugar notes… a sweet dessert that counters that perfectly tricky, savory nose.

99.8 proof. 2,944 bottles produced.

A / $1,278 / malts.com

Tasting Mystery Whisk(e)ys with the Revamped Whiskey Explorers Club

We’ve been fans of For Whiskey Lovers’ Whiskey Explorers Club for years — since the beginning, really — and when founder Douglas Stone announced he’d revamped his Whisk(e)y IQ Game, I was excited. The Whisk(e)y IQ Game is one of the only places you can taste whiskey completely blind, offer your opinions on it, then see whether you were drinking ritzy shizz or rotgut.

I haven’t played the game since February 2013, and the latest version (officially March 2014) offers a whole lot of changes to the mix.

To wit: The whole game — which, for the uninitiated, involves describing the color, nose, taste, body, and finish of four or five unlabeled spirits — has been redesigned. The mechanics are the same (you earn points for “correct” guesses and lose them for “wrong” ones), with color coding for every category — this being particularly helpful when determining a whiskey’s color. There’s a brand new section that has you taste the whiskey with water, and some other changes that make it much harder to cheat when it comes time to pick which actual spirit you’re drinking.

The game, on the whole, is now more fun — though it does take longer to work through, as there’s a lot more clicking around — but I still see room for improvement. Some comments on the new game:

My biggest complaint from day one of this game remains intact: So much of this is so subjective that it’s absurd to grade players on how “correct” they are. Things like a description of body — is it soft? creamy? austere? — are vague to the point of meaninglessness. If I say “luscious” and you say “oily,” what the hell does that really mean? I’d love to see some partial credit here. If you say a whiskey’s color is “old gold” and the “correct” answer is one shade lighter, that should give you partial points, not zero.

Similarly, I still have problems with the “right” answers here; these are apparently drawn from the distillery’s tasting notes, and in some cases I disagree completely with their choices. What on earth does “fragrant” mean when describing the taste of a whiskey? Every whiskey is “fragrant,” and everyone’s palate is different, after all. What’s the difference between “dry hay” and “mown hay”? “Mown hay” and “grass cuttings”? “Soothing” and “lingering”? Some of these terms involve way too much guesswork to the point where the thing gets frustrating…

For Whiskey Lovers has finally taken my long-running advice, putting your selections next to the “correct” choices when you complete a round, so you can compare your tasting notes with what the “correct” choices are in the database. This is a huge win. The formatting needs work (it’s still very hard to read the way it’s laid out), but it’s a massive improvement to the game.

Certain elements of the game just don’t seem to work. The price information doesn’t show up in the end, for example. And there are some technical problems with the design, where items jump from one line to the next after they’re selected.

I’d love to see pop-ups for certain descriptive terms, like aldehydes and esters, explaining what the terms mean for those who aren’t in the know.

Finally, once I accidentally hit “back” and hard to start all over. Argh.

That said, I still recommend this program to just about anyone. You get to try new whiskeys blind — in this round there were two whiskeys I’d never had before — and put your senses to the test in a way that you just can’t do when you know exactly what it is you’re drinking. Good times, good times.

Review: Kavalan Whisky Lineup 2014

kavalan 300x300 Review: Kavalan Whisky Lineup 2014Kavalan is the best-known Taiwanese whisky distiller (at least in the U.S.), rapidly increasing its footprint from a single bottling just a few years ago (which we reviewed) to a total of nine on the market now. At least five of these whiskies, all single malts, are available in the U.S., and today we take a fresh look at this five-bottle lineup, which includes two standard-proof bottlings and three from the cask-strength Solist line.

Kavalan doesn’t bottle its spirits with age statements, but it does rely on some exotic barrel treatments to create some truly unique spirits.

Thoughts on the five-whisky lineup follow.

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky – I get strong apple notes up front this time around, followed by healthy citrus character. Otherwise my notes mimic those I had in 2011. The palate drips with honey, balanced with modest toast-and-cereal notes, vanilla, and and touches of nougat. The finish brings a pleasant bit of fruit to the forefront before fading away. Straightforward, a bit rustic, and quite simple, it drinks like a young single malt Scotch, modest yet full of life. 80 proof. B+ / $73  (prior rating: A-)

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Concertmaster Port Cask Finish – Look for the unmistakeable jade-green bottle. Finished in a variety of Port casks, this whisky has a bolder, fruitier nose that hints at raisins and Christmas spice. The body brings it all home, with lush fruit notes — plum and plump raisins, hints of fresh cherries, all lightly touched with cinnamon and morsels of cereal. The finish keeps it going for the long haul — lasting with ample spice notes. It’s drinking well in the summer but would be perfect for Christmastime. 80 proof. A- / $89

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask - A rather muted nose, hard to parse out from the aroma, though eventually it reveals notes of apple and red berries, with a slight iodine kick to it. The body is something else entirely, punchy with raw alcohol that masks a citrus kick alongside notes of vanilla and peaches — maybe even a touch of coconut. The finish is on the short side — mostly fire, a touch of sawdust, and a vanilla-soaked marshmallow that fades away just a bit too fast. Try water. 114 proof. B+ / $170

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Sherry Cask – Matured fully in oloroso sherry casks; a dark tea-brown in color. What an unusual spirit… the nose offers notes of dried figs and prunes, with a well-aged sherry character to it. The body is intense, a bruising collection of Madeira notes, rum-soaked raisins, burnt orange peel, and cocoa bean. Slightly bittersweet on the finish in the way that old sherry can be, it’s a digestif style whisky with plenty of depth and originality. 114 proof. A- / $180

Kavalan Single Malt Whisky Solist Vinho Barrique – Matured fully in ex-American red wine barrels that have been re-charred. Deep amber, about the same as the prior whisky, this spirit offers a dense and deep nose, offering exotic notes of ginger, chocolate cake, and salted caramel. The body brings out those chocolate notes, touched with a surprising licorice note and some extra spices — lemon pepper, cloves, and a healthy slug of wood. Wild and, again, exotic stuff. 114 proof. A- / $157

kavalanwhisky.com