Category Archives: Whiskey

Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey

Thistlefinch_039B

This white rye is made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. What about that name? “Pennsylvania Dutch folk art frequently features a bird in it, that, in German, is called a “Distelfink” or Thistle Finch. The bird is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.”

Thistle Finch is made from a mash of 60% rye, 30% wheat, and 10% malted barley — 90% of which is locally sourced. The company notes specifically that it mills its grains to a flour-like consistency (unusual if you’ve ever seen or tasted a typical, chunky whiskey mash), which it claims offers better conversion from starch to sugar and, thus, a more flavorful product. Distilled in a hybrid copper pot still and bottled unaged, all bottles are individually labeled and numbered.

This is an interesting and unusual white whiskey, and there might be something to the distillery’s claims that it extracts more flavor out of a flour-based mash. The nose offers classic white whiskey flavors — brisk cereal, fresh-cut hay, and slight vegetal, bean sprout notes. The body offers all of these, but it’s layered with more complexity than expected. As the grain fades out, in come waves of citrus peel, nougat, lemongrass, and butterscotch — the latter building particularly on the finish. Yes, it’s still young whiskey, but there are complex flavors here that go well beyond the harsh and funky bruising that you tend to get with the typical new make spirit. I’d try it first in a white whiskey sour.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #06.

B+ / $32 / thistlefinch.com

Review: The Macallan Rare Cask

macallan rare cask

A $300 no-age-statement Scotch whisky? The time is here, folks, and Macallan is leading the charge.

The Macallan Rare Cask is matured fully in first-fill Spanish oak casks that formerly held dry oloroso sherry for 18 months. How long the whisky was in there remains a secret.

This is a classic, heavy-sherry (and intensely deep-amber) expression of Macallan from the start. It’s got plenty of age on it (maybe not $300 of age, but plenty nonetheless), opening with a nose that’s rich in citrus notes, but which also bears notes of cocoa powder, plus some classic, slightly meaty, nutty, and almost hoppy notes. The body is mouth-filling and chewy, sherry and apricot undercut with some vegetal components — bean sprouts and roasted grains that counterbalance the sherry character pretty effectively. The finish brings the citrus back for a reprise — classic orange zest with a bit of dark chocolate, plus a doughy character that recalls wood fires, though not exactly smoke, if that makes any sense. Its sweetness is smoothed out in the finish — a characteristic that may or may not appeal to fans of Macallan’s typically sweeter style.

Macallan Rare Cask is a capable, curious, and punchy whisky that merits exploration, although the price tag is awfully heady. While it’s hardly the most expensive NAS whisky to hit the market, this is one of the most audacious and noteworthy general malt whisky releases to arrive in this latest push away from age statements. Macallan would of course like the spirit itself to do the talking, and not a number on the label of the bottle. But to get there, first you’re going to have to get past another number… and that’s one that has three digits in it, not two.

86 proof.

B+ / $300 / themacallan.com

Review: Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey

sons of liberty Pumpkins with award

Pumpkin spice apparently knows no bounds. Now here it, in our whiskey!

Sons of Liberty is a craft distiller out of Rhode Island, focusing on American single malts as well as seasonal, flavored whiskies. In addition to a hop-flavored whiskey there’s this pumpkin one, which is focused on fall.

The base of the spirit is SoL’s single malt, a young NAS spirit, which is flavored with juice made from thousands of pounds of roasted, pressed pumpkins, plus a touch of traditional holiday spices — cloves, allspice, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange. When bottled, it is a deep, reddish brown, the color of very old brandy.

If you’re expecting a Starbucks-class sugar bomb, walk away. This is not a sweetened whiskey, but is quite literally a blend of young American malt with actual pumpkin juice and a bit of stuff from the spice rack. The nose is coffeelike, with a dusting of cloves, tea leaf, tobacco (cigars, really), and roasted grains. The pumpkin is much more evident on the body, where roasted gourds make a distinct — and unique — appearance. The combination of pure pumpkin and young whiskey makes for a bizarre experience in the mouth, with those vegetal squash notes waging war with brash, young malt character. Cinnamon comes along at the end, but it’s that coffee note that hits hardest on the finish, making for a reprise that feels a lot like you’re scooping out the dregs of the coffee maker at the office and taking a big bite out of sludge that’s in there.

This is an overwhelming style of whiskey but it’s wholly unique and worth experiencing, even if just to experience once what a madman can do with a copper still and a few tons of holiday squash.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1.

B- / $40 / solspirits.com

Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

johnniewalker_goldlabel

Last year, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve arrived in the U.S. in limited release. We wrote about it at length at the time, but knew that, as just a visiting member of the family, our thoughts would be fleeting at best. Well, now Gold Label has its green card and is back in the family, a permanent resident in the JW lineup.

We got a fresh bottle of Gold Label Reserve (the non-gilded version of the bottle) and took it out for a fresh spin. While I didn’t like it quite as much as I did upon my first encounter, it’s still a standout blend and arguably the best part of JW’s lineup. My fresh thoughts on the latest release follow.

Racy on the nose, there’s an indistinct mix of citrus and grain character that combine with more base alcohol characteristics — all in all, the picture of a standard, sherried, blended whisky. The body starts off phenomenally sweet, spiking the cloves and citrus notes with big candy bar character. The sugar settles down as some more pungent Madeira notes emerge on the finish, but the overall spirit is balanced, on point, and lasting.

80 proof.

A- / $75 / johnniewalker.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky

Haig Club Bottle Image

If you’re a whiskey fan, by now you’ve heard of Haig Club, a new brand of Scottish single grain whisky that counts Simon Fuller and David Beckham among its originators. While it sounds like a vanity project, let’s put that to rest: Haig Club has a legit history and is quite an interesting spirit in its own right.

The Haig family dates its distilling heritage back to the 1600s and had one of the earliest licensed distilleries in Scotland. In 1824, John Haig built Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, and Haig’s cousin is credited as an inventor of continuous distillation (including the column still). Cameronbridge remains the oldest grain distillery in Scotland.

Today, Cameronbridge produces grain-based spirits for just about everyone in the Diageo portfolio, including Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and every blended whiskey Diageo markets (Johnnie Walker, J&B, and of course the Haig brand). Some 110 million liters of product flow from Cameronbridge every year, and now a small amount of that production is going to become Haig Club.

Grain whiskey is a lighter and more delicate style of whisky than malt whiskey, as well it should be. Made from 10% barley and 90% wheat, Haig Club is column distilled instead of pot distilled, and is aged in a mixture of ex-Bourbon barrels, refill whisky casks, and rejuvenated whisky casks. Haig Club is clearly on the young side — again, not unusual for grain whisky — but is bottled with no age statement in a soon-to-be iconic cobalt blue bottle. (The blue glass used is a nod to the opaque tasting glasses used during by distillers in order to avoid being influenced by the color of the spirit.)

Nosing Haig Club reveals a youthful exuberance: coconut husk, roasted grains, vanilla and faint touches of sawdust — some of the hallmarks of many younger whiskies, even something akin to a craft American whiskey or even some white rums. Th nose doesn’t immediately win you over, but the body is quite a surprise. Here you’ll encounter more of that coconut but less raw grain character. As it develops, you get butterscotch, some dried fruits, and curious evergreen notes — alongside some forest floor — on the back end. The finish is brisk and clean, unlike the brooding and lasting intensity of many malt whiskies. In theory that makes Haig Club a solid base for cocktails, but I find it sips rather beautifully and intriguingly on its own — an interesting diversion from the typical world of malt.

80 proof. Available in the U.S. in November 2014.

A- / $70 / haigclub.com

Review: Big Bottom Barlow Trail Blended Whiskey

big bottom BarlowTrail2Edited

It’s been a year and a half since we checked in with Hillsboro, Oregon-based Big Bottom Whiskey. For those unfamiliar, Big Bottom sources various whiskeys and typically finishes them in a variety of wine casks. While Big Bottom has previously specialized in bourbon, this latest release is a blended whiskey — and it isn’t barrel finished, either.

Ted Pappas, proprietor of Big Bottom, explains:

For Barlow, we were looking at getting the most we could out of the current bourbon supply we had. Of course, with a blended whiskey, we could have stretched it out with neutral spirits per the federal regulations, but that’s not our thing. We decided to find other whiskeys that would go well with our straight bourbon and we did. We keep the other two elements as proprietary, but the straight portion is bourbon. The other two elements are well aged and they are whiskeys. Our goal was to bring a true American blended whiskey to the market without grain neutral spirits and as it rolls through your palate, you get the different whiskeys starting with the spice from the bourbon.  The name comes from a trail that early settlers used to settle in the northwest, so it was a obvious name for us to use since this type of American spirit is somewhat pioneering.  We believe this product will appeal to the bourbon and lighter style drinkers out there in the market.

Barlow Trail is an interesting study in contrasts. The nose is quite sweet and comes across as quite youthful, showcasing some grain elements along with citrus, menthol, and nougat character. Breathe deep and there are touches of lime zest in here, too. I don’t get a huge rush that screams “bourbon” at me from the nose, but the body plays this up a bit more, offering at first some popcorn — or rather caramel corn — character. This is punched up with secondary flavors that come along later, offering notes of butterscotch pudding and banana cream pie. Is there some single malt in this blend? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Youthful whiskeys can often feel undercooked and heavy on the cereal notes, but Barlow Trail feels closer to a finished product than a work in progress. (That said, Big Bottom will be releasing a Port-finished version of Barlow in the near future.) This spirit may not raise the bar the way that some of BB’s Port-finished bourbons do, but it does achieve Pappas’ goal of being approachable to newcomers and fans of lighter-style whiskeys while still being engaging enough for veterans to get some enjoyment out of. It’s also pretty cheap, so what can you complain about?

91 proof.

B+ / $30 / bigbottomwhiskey.com

Review: Highland Park 50 Years Old

highland park 50 years old - drinkhacker

When one receives an invitation to taste one of the rarest spirits in the world, one accepts before the bearer of the invitation realizes what he’s done. In this case, the offer was legit, and I found myself staring down a bottle of Highland Park 50 Years Old — 275 bottles made, $20,000 each, and sold out pretty much immediately upon release — and a 1/4 oz. of whisky that had my name on it.

After warming up on HP’s new Dark Origins and a gorgeous pour of Highland Park 25 Years Old, the main event arrived. You can spend a solid hour simply examining the Highland Park 50 bottle, worked over by the Queen’s royal silversmith and embedded with a sandstone carving, but eventually duty — and the liquid inside — calls. Approaching a spirit like this isn’t easy. It’s not the oldest nor the rarest whisky I’ve had — Dalmore Selene 1951, 58 years old, 30 bottles made, takes that honor — but that sampling was barely a drop. This was a small pour, but a true and proper one — enough to really get your arms around what you’re tasting.

Highland Park 50, distilled in 1960 and bottled in 2010, is deep mahogany in color, tipping you off right away to what you’re about to get into. It’s frankly nothing like the core line of Highland Park. The nose is redolent with tree sap, raisin, prunes, and wet leather straps — an earthy bog of aromas that hint at sweetness hidden deep within. On the palate, prepare for sheer intensity and a few flavors one rarely sees in single malts. Here, it’s all bitter roots, licorice, coal fires, and tons of wood. The fruit is there, but it’s locked up tight — dense, stewed prunes buried in a casket of old, brine-soaked wood. The finish is long and big with maritime notes — think salt air over seaweed — creating a neat counterpoint to the wild tannins on the palate.

I sat with these precious few sips of HP50 for at least half an hour, letting its leathery earthiness wash over me like I was browsing a rare old book — or taking a punch to the jaw from an ancient boxing glove. While initially a bit off-putting — particularly next to the seductively sweet HP25 — its charms grew on me as the evening wound down and I made my way home. The next day, as I write this, I find myself not with the gorgeous 25 on my mind, but rather with my thoughts returning to that punchy, cantankerous 50 year old, again and again and again.

89.6 proof.

A- / $20,000 / highlandpark.co.uk

Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along “The Highland Journey”

old pulteney 35

I had the recent good fortune to attend an online tasting called “The Highland Journey,” a road that took us through four distilleries and six single malts, all from distilleries throughout the Scottish Highlands. Tasted roughly from southeast to northwest, the experience covered anCnoc, Speyburn, Balblair, and Old Pulteney. We sampled a range of malts made in a variety of styles, some youthful and tough, others much older and finished with fruit-forward sherry casks.

Tasting notes from the event follow.

anCnoc 22 Years Old – We recently covered a few offerings from anCnoc, but this 22 year old is something else. Lovely apple notes up front. Brisk roasted grain character attacks the palate, with a fiery note that melds well with strong sherry cask influence that hits hard on the finish. Touches of dried fruits here and there. A lovely, balanced whisky that still lets the grain shine in an enticing, attractive way — and does not feel at all like its anywhere near past its prime. 92 proof. A- / $130

Speyburn 10 Years Old – This is entry-level Speyburn, which is a perennial best buy in the single malt space. Simplistic nose, with some charcoal fire notes and a bit of raw wood. The body is quite malty, with caramel and cloves — the tougher wood character takes a nutty turn on the finish. Pleasant but loaded with an almost rustic character. Bolder than I remember. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Speyburn 25 Years Old – An older expression of Speyburn, which you don’t see as often. Aggressive citrus on the nose. Sherry character remains the showcase on the tongue, with some lightly smoky notes building as the spirit develops on the palate. Baking spices and fruit compote emerge, with a touch of iodine/sea salt on the finish. 92 proof. A- / $300

Balblair Vintage 2002 First Release – 10 years old. Woody/malty notes on the nose mask it at first, but the body of this Balblair is very sweet, almost with a granulated sugar character to it. The sweetness rises on the finish, taking on an almost cotton candy character. The finish offers nougat, caramel sauce, and a bit of dried fruit. A fun, after-dinner sipper. 92 proof. A- / $60

Old Pulteney Clipper – A new, limited edition NAS whisky from Old Pulteney. Surprisingly lively. Malty and grain-heavy up front, but with a seductive candy bar character that balances that out. The end result is something akin to raisin-studded oatmeal, a mix of savory and sweet that works. The body is modest — despite a punch of spice that attacks the back of the throat — but balanced and enjoyable. A fine everyday dram choice. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Old Pulteney 35 Years Old – A different animal in this roundup. Elevated above an otherwise solid crowd here. Notes of Port wine, sultanas, clementine oranges, and banana fill the mouth, along with touches of marshmallow. Glorious, bright sherry notes emerge in time for the finish, which melds fresh citrus juices with raisins and candy bars. Lovely! 85 proof. A / $700 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon, Rye, and Unblended American Whiskey

To clarify my earlier commentary on the company: Michter’s is an old name that’s reviving its distillery operations — but while that’s getting going, the company is bottling contract-produced spirits under its own label. Label copy on this series of US-1 — aka US*1 — whiskeys is decidedly vague. The bourbon reviewed below, for example, is “made from the highest quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection in a hand-selected charred white oak barrel… it is then further mellowed by our signature filtration.”

Curious.

We’ve reviewed Michter’s before, and no matter how secretive it may be about its sourcing, the company makes a pretty solid product. (More to the point: It tells someone else to make a solid product, and they do.) The three spirits reviewed below comprise three of the four entry-level spirits from Michter’s (the Sour Mash fourth is covered in the review linked above), so we’re finally rounding out the company’s basic offerings. As for the older stock, we’ll just have to bide our time for it.

Thoughts follow.

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Bourbon - Aged in new oak for an indeterminate time. A bold and aggressive whiskey. Intensity from the get-go on the nose: Butterscotch, over-ripe banana, creme brulee, and cinnamon. The body takes all that and runs with it, adding brisk oak elements, apple pie notes, dried figs, and a touch of red hot candies. That bit of heat doesn’t last. The finish is seductive and supple, offering a wonderful balance between dusty wood and brown sugar sweetness. An excellent buy, the dearth of data on the spirit notwithstanding. Reviewed: Batch #14C123. 91.4 proof. A / $40

Michter’s US-1 Single Barrel Straight Rye – Aged 36 months-plus in new oak; otherwise no mashbill information is offered. Clear, spicy rye notes on the nose, with a dusting of sawdust. As the body develops, you get lots of caramel apple, more intense wood, and some bitter chocolate notes. While the nose offers tons of promise, frankly I was hoping for more on the palate. What comes across is a rather straightforward whiskey that masks its more interesting elements in lumber. Drinkable and mixable, but short on character. Reviews: Batch #14C118. 84.8 proof. B / $40

Michter’s US-1 Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey – This one’s the most mysterious of the bunch — a mystery grain whiskey that is aged (for a mysterious amount of time) not in new oak but in used bourbon barrels. The nose is immediately curious — gingerbread, molasses, and some lumber, but also tinned apples and cinnamon. The body is sweet with milk chocolate and maple notes, I’m thinking a distilled version of Sunday breakfast with some Nestle’s Quik on the menu. This isn’t a bad whiskey but it is a curious one, playing its identity cards close to the vest. Wheat whiskey, perhaps? Why not just say so? No batch information. 83.4 proof. B+ / $40

michters.com