Book Review: Tasting Whiskey

tasting whiskeyLew Bryson must be some kind of spirit whisperer. He knows seemingly everything about the whiskey world, and — more importantly — he has managed to distill (ha!) it down to fully readable, understandable essentials with this impressive tome, Tasting Whiskey.

As the title implies, Bryson is here to be your insider guide to this often confusing and contradictory world, but through jargon-free writing, intuitive organization, and — critically — a plethora of explanatory illustrations and infographics, he lays the business bare for you.

Bear in mind: This is not a “Dummies” class book. Tasting Whiskey literally has everything you need to know about how whiskey is produced in its 250 some pages. No, everything. Want to understand where your whiskey draws its flavors from — grain, barrel, or something else? Bryson explains. How about the locations of the key Japanese distilleries? The various names for the parts of a whiskey barrel? All here. All laid out in charts, maps, and diagrams.

I consider myself a whiskey expert, but devoured Bryson’s book like it was a new Four Roses Limited Edition release. Drink it up, folks.

A / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel – Texas Only Single Barrel Whisky

crown royal texas barrel select

And now for something completely different from Crown Royal — no, not another flavored whiskey — it’s Crown Royal’s first ever single barrel expression, straight from the cask!

The catch: It will only be on sale in Texas (and only through retailers who sign up to buy a full barrel of the stuff).

Off-the-rack Crown Royal is a blend of lots of different whiskeys, so expect Single Barrel Crown Royal to be a different animal. What we have here is a bottling of just one of the whiskeys that go into Crown.

The whisky is distilled in Crown’s Coffey Rye still in Gimli, Manitoba using a mash of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley. The spirit is aged in new oak, though no age statement is offered. Note that individual bottles are not labeled with a barrel code, so if you’re a collector, you’ll need to keep track of where you got each bottle on your own. My sample bottle did not include the neck ringer seen in the photo.

This is a considerably different whisky than your dad’s (granddad’s?) Crown, which tends to be driven more by the baking spice than the sugary notes. In this Hand Selected Barrel, big butterscotch on the nose duels with tropical fruit, bananas, and some cinnamon oatmeal character, making for a surprisingly sweet entry point. The body doesn’t stray far. Pure spun sugar hits the palate first, lingering on the tongue for a long while. Some more subtly grain-driven notes — think Sunday buckwheat pancakes, plus syrup — come along after, dusting the spirit with more cinnamon, ginger, browned butter, and powdered sugar. The finish is punchy and racy — at barrel proof it’s much stronger than other CR expressions — but warming and quite soothing.

Whisky fans looking for the big wood notes that are often implied by “single barrel” won’t find them here. Crown has pulled this whisky from the cask at the height of its ripeness. It isn’t the most complex Crown Royal I’ve tried, but damn if it isn’t fun to drink.

103 proof.

A- / $55 / crownroyal.com

Review: Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon

JB750_84Here’s a new release that really came out of the blue. Bonded whiskey was a big deal before Prohibition — when heavy tampering with spirits was a major problem — but it is rarely seen these days because of the cost involved and, surely, limited demand. (Rittenhouse 100 is one good example that’s still around.)

Bonded whiskey must be produced in accordance with strict Federal law and under official Federal oversight, so consumers could be sure of what they were getting: Bonded whiskey has to be 100 proof, spend at least four years in barrel, and be produced from a single season at a single distillery. Bonded, or “bottled-in-bond,” whiskey has to be stored at a Federally monitored warehouse, where it is essentially kept under lock and key for those four-plus years. For a bonded whiskey to be a bonded bourbon, it also has to meet all the standard requirements for bourbon, too (at least 51% corn, barreled in newly charred oak, and so on).

And so we get to Beam’s new Bonded Bourbon. The company has a bonded product, but it seems to be sold only in a few duty-free markets. This is a new, four-year-old expression destined for the U.S. this February. (This expression also has no age statement.)

On first whiff, it’s just like the whiskey dad used to drink. Sharp and woody, it’s austere, with a frontier-style nose. As the body unfolds, intense butterscotch and deep vanilla notes emerge, on top of notes of charry burnt marshmallow and thick wood oils. The finish coaxes out some bitterness in the form of rich pipe tobacco, possibly even cigars. Sweet and almost syrupy at the start, the hefty level of alcohol makes for an interesting juxtaposition on the back end.

Fun, old-timey stuff.

100 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #6 – Ledaig 1997, Speyside Port Matured 2004

Ledaig

New indie Scotch bottlings are hitting now from The Exclusive Malts, we got two to try. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 1997 17 Years Old – Batch #5 featured a youthful 8 year old Ledaig (which is made at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull). This one’s over twice as old. Surprisingly pale for a whisky of this age, this Ledaig features soft peat notes that are laced into notes of crisp apple cider, fresh cereal, and barbecued meats. Well structured but with a featherweight body, the finish is seductive but not entirely lasting. I had expected more grip and power from a peated whisky of this age. 109.8 proof. B+ / $150

SpeysideThe Exclusive Malts Speyside Port Barrel Matured 2004 10 Years Old – Much like Batch #5’s Speyside bottling, this is also a mystery Speyside malt, sourced from a distillery “near Aberlour.” This 10 year old expression is matured in Port casks, making it an unusual offering in single malt world. Glorious from the start, if offers a nose of intense raisin, cloves, and gingerbread. The body punches those notes up even further, with gentle touches of cereal on the back end. God, look at that color! The Port has done an impressive job on this whisky, tempering the granary character and giving it a festive, holiday-like exuberance. Too bad it’s January. 115.4 proof. A / $110

impexbev.com

Review: Boathouse Distillery Colorado Bourbon Whiskey

boathouse bourbon

Boathouse Distillery is based in Salida, Colorado, from which Colorado Bourbon hails. The back label copy of this whiskey alone is worth the price of admission: “Colorado Bourbon is especially formulated for Western women and men. We like adventure and the great outdoors.”

And that’s it!

Colorado Bourbon is sourced whiskey from whereabouts unknown, aged four years. As Boathouse proudly proclaims, “Our craft is in the finishing of spirits.”

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working pretty well. Boathouse is slightly smoky, slightly sweet, with a nose that offers curious notes not of the expected vanilla and wood staves but rather of match heads, beef vegetable stew, and celery salt. I mean all of that positively, offering intensely savory possibilities.

The body offers a nice combination of smoke and baking spice, some butterscotch, and lingering notes of roasted meats. Touches of red pepper and pencil shavings come along on the finish. Ultimately it’s hard to put your finger on it exactly. Boathouse rolls round and round, mingling a surface-level frontier character with a surprising sophistication and complexity deep down. At this price, it’s undoubtedly worth exploring.

80 proof.

A- / $35 / boathousedistillery.com

Review: Oban Little Bay and Oban 14 Years Old

Oban Little Bay

Next up in the NASverse is Oban, which is releasing its mew Little Bay expression just in time for Burns Day (January 25).

This isn’t just another random collection of mysterious whiskies. Much like Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Little Bay is aged in part in smaller casks, giving it a distinct character.

Says the company: “Crafted by selecting small batches of our finest single malt whiskies, and marrying the whiskies in our smallest casks to allow more contact with the wood, Oban Little Bay delivers the signature rich, smooth Oban expression with its rich, fruity style but with a more pronounced maritime and citrus character.”

Based in the Western Highlands, Oban (pronounced OH-bun, with the stress on the “OH,” not OH-BANN), creates a distinct style of malt whisky that is one of the standbys of the whisky world. How does Little Bay compare to the ubiquitous Oban 14? We put them head to head…

Oban Little Bay – Immediately, it seems on the thin side. The nose is restrained, offering more citrus and sweetness, but less smoke. The body is quite malty, but the chewiness comes at the expense of a lot of that fruity character. What remains is a sense of oatmeal character, some light cinnamon notes, and a touch of lemon peel that grows on the finish. None of this seems particularly enlightening, almost like the standby Oban 14 has been muzzled a bit, then bottled as a special edition. It isn’t bad. It’s just… curious. 86 proof. B+ / $75  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Oban 14-Year-Old… and for comparison’s sake…

Oban 14 Years Old – A classic. Lightly smoky, it offers tons of big, roasted grains up front, layered atop notes of toasted marshmallow and a hint of citrus. Oban is so easygoing it’s easy to guzzle by the glassful thanks to its big, rounded body, but if you did so you’d miss those wisps of incense, tropical guava, and just a touch of seaweed on the back end. Deserving of its reputation as one of the standbys of the whisky world. 86 proof. A- / $60

malts.com

Review: Glencadam 10 Years Old, 15 Years Old, and 21 Years Old

glencadam

Glencadam can be found in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. It is the only working distillery in County Angus here, but thanks to CIL US Wine & Spirits (the company behind Camus Cognac), it’s now available in the U.S.

The distillery last changed hands in 2003, when it was acquired by a Scottish indie producer. If you’re looking to try some old guard Scotch that isn’t produced by a multinational conglomerate, well, this is a good place to start.

All of these are single malts bottled at 92 proof. Thoughts follow.

Glencadam 10 Years Old – Simple, rustic nose, with some notes of vegetation and a bit of hospital character. The light-as-gossamer body is more charming and more expressive than this simple beginning might indicate. While it leads off with some more base alcohol notes, it evolves to reveal notes of fresh-cut barley, heather, orange peel, nougat, a bit of baking spice, and sugary breakfast cereal. That’s meant as a compliment. Cinnamon toast, maybe? B+ / $55

Glencadam 15 Years Old – Evolving nicely at 15 years old, this expression of Glencadam offers a richer and more focused look at malt that takes things in the direction of chewy, dried apples and apricots, more intense baking spice, and stronger citrus notes on the finish. It’s very much a big brother to the lighter, more spry 10 year old — a bit more wise to the ways of the world but a bit cocky as well. B+ / $85

Glencadam 21 Years Old – All grown up, this expression features ample citrus to the point where it takes on a slightly bitter edge. Pure, well-roasted grain notes start the show before heading into notes of cocoa powder and some raisin character. Classic, racy, spicy malt finishes out the show, lending austerity to an otherwise sweet and sultry whisky. B+ / $199

glencadamwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Regal Apple Canadian Whisky

CR_REGAL_APPLE_BOTTLE_CMYK

Apple is the cinnamon of 2015, showing up in all kinds of spirits but, particularly, whiskey. This familiar, nostalgic flavor seems to be a big crowd-pleaser, offering tartness, sweetness, and Americana all in a single package.

Now it’s Crown Royal’s turn, with its latest expression: Regal Apple. Regal on account of the crown, I guess. The spirit is specifically flavored with natural Gala apple flavor.

The good news is that this is a better product than Crown’s prior flavored whisky, Maple Finished. The bad news is that Maple Finished was so lackluster that that isn’t saying very much.

Here, the nose is distinctly apple-fueled, but almost bitter to the nostrils to the point of astringency. Some vague vanilla and baking spice character picks up the slack, but the apple notes are more central to what’s going on here. On the tongue, it’s fruity as expected. Not just tart apple notes — more authentic here than the nose would indicate — but also hints of pineapple, some lemon, and ample vanilla notes. For a bright, shining moment, Crown Royal Regal Apple is apple pie in a glass… but it doesn’t last. The finish takes a sour, mouth-puckering turn that has some unfortunate hospital character to it, marring what is actually a fairly decent start.

The world is probably not expecting much from Crown Royal Regal Apple, but in a world soon to be overrun by apple-flavored hooch, it’s probably as good as can be expected.

70 proof.

B / $25 / crownroyal.com

Review: The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition

macallan testino edition

The Macallan isn’t exactly known for doing things half-assed and on the cheap. The distillery is known for megabucks, megaold bottlings of some of the most renowned whiskies in Scotland. One of its pet projects is called Masters of Photography, in which it partners with a series of megafamous photographers and releases a limited-edition, one-off, megaexpensive whisky with each of them. Prior shutterbug partners have included Annie Leibovitz and Albert Rankin.

This is Edition #5, a partnership with Mario Testino, who’s probably best known for this picture of Princess Diana (and perhaps, now, Miley Cyrus). Testino is from Peru, so I figure he knows diddlysquat about Scotch whisky, but that’s no matter. The Macallan’s whisky pros have done the hard work for him: Selecting six casks from the archives to be bottled as the Mario Testino Edition.

There’s a big cover story here about Macallan’s “six pillars” of whiskymaking, and how the six casks chosen for this release represent each of those pillars, but I wouldn’t let any of that distract you too much. This is an amazing spirit — easily the best Macallan I’ve ever tasted, though it strays considerably from the sweeter, more syrupy house style.

There’s no age statement on this, but the deep color and powerful nose indicate this is a spirit with considerable age. While it’s drawn from a variety of styles of sherry casks, the nose pushes past the citrus to reach into a world of leather, cloves, and toasted almonds — just a bit of the essence of that glorious, well-aged sherry character. The nose is so delightful it’s hard to pull your head out of the glass.

That’d be a big mistake, because Macallan’s Mario Testino Edition is even better on the palate. Chewy raisin and fig, chocolate pudding, fresh gingerbread, and loads of baking spices get things going, as the sweet-but-spicy body builds. Here the more raisin-laden notes battle with gentle wood, some walnut, and touches of exotic incense. It just goes and goes, bursting with intensity and popping in the mouth. The finish is long, lasting, and seductive, the ultimate expression of a whisky that was plucked from the cask at just the right moment and released into the world at last… and soon, alas, never to be seen again.

But wait, there’s more! Per the distillery:

This limited edition whisky – only 1,000 have been created – is presented, along with one of the four iconic shots captured by Mario, in a beautiful, glossy black case, designed in collaboration with Mario himself.  The pièce de résistance is a secret compartment, released by pressing a button hidden under the bottle.  It contains six miniatures from the six single casks that make up the limited edition whisky.  Never before has a whisky maker released the individual casks that make up his craft.

Hell, I’d drink it even without the minis and the fancy picture.

92 proof.

A+ / $3500 / themacallan.com