5 Scotch Whiskies for Celebrating Burns Night

January 25th is Burns Night: a yearly celebration of the life and words of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Traditionally it is celebrated with a supper full of haggis, speeches, the occasional bagpipe, and of course, Scotch. While any Scotch will work, here’s a look at five whiskies you can use to toast the birthday of Robert Burns, drawing inspiration from his own words.

The golden Hours on angel wings
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Royal Brackla 12 Year Old

The majority of this distillery’s production ends up in the Dewars line of blends. For much of the time single malts were hard to come by and expensive through independent bottlers. Thankfully this was released as part of The Last Great Malts series. A lovely and accessible, golden-hued highland malt. Notes of poached orchard fruits and soft, sweet, malted chocolate lead into a finish of heather honey and gentle spice. An incredibly accessible and complex whiskey, a great choice for everyone at the table.

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire.

Kilchoman Impex Cask Evolution 01/2016

The youngest distillery on the beloved island of Islay is also the first new one since 1881. Part of the Impex Cask Evolution series, this release was aged in an Oloroso Sherry hogshead which gives the whiskey a wonderfully red hue. At only 5 years old, this whiskey uses its youth as an advantage. It is big and bold with smokey citrus at the forefront. A little bit of water will bring out some more fruit and spice flavors, but this one really is at its best when left big and fiery.

I’ll toast you in my hindmost gillie,
Tho’ owre the sea!

Old Pulteney 17 Years Old

Searching for the perfect dram to toast those who have moved away? This malt is richly lush and dense. Oak and butterscotch lead the way and then open up to some light brown spice and almond. The finish seems to stick around forever with the slightest touch of caramel, brine, and a very faint but present smokiness. The perfect dram for a wistful toast along the seaside.

Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!

Compass Box The Peat Monster

If you are going to steel yourself to face the devil, you may as well have a monster at your side. John Glaser’s Compass Box turns out so many coveted and fantastic limited releases that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good the standard line is. The Peat Monster is a near perfect showing of balanced complexity. Earthy smoke and brine lead the charge with touches of savory herbs and a slightly medicinal, oaky touch. The finish brings in a lingering sweetness which has become a bit of a Compass Box trademark. A cacophony of flavors which somehow meld together in a bold and extremely drinkable manner.

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow—
Let us do or die!

Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old

Whether in moments on revolution or celebration, sometimes it is important to remove all caution and just go. The Bunnahabhain Distillery produces one of the milder single malts on Islay. While they forgo some of the intensity of their neighbors, they excel in balance. First impression of this beauty is all leather and spice. Tannic cinnamon and clove mingle with a hint of fig and other stewed fruits. The finish is tremendously long.  So long in fact, you will be discovering new and lingering flavors well into an encore performance of Auld Lang Syne.

Review: Nomad Outland Whisky

“Born in Scotland and raised in Jerez, Spain.” So says the tagline on Nomad Outland Whisky, and it’s not just a euphemism for the typical sherry cask finishing: Nomad is a blend of of some 30-plus five to eight year old malt and grain whiskies from Scotland that are aged for three years in their homeland, then physically shipped to Jerez, Spain, where they spend at least another year in old Pedro Ximenez casks.

As blends go, you won’t find much like it — and if you’re a hardcore sherried whisky fan you’ll want to snap up a bottle to experience.

Nutty on the nose, Nomad offers heavy overtones of maple syrup, vanilla, and orange peel that wash over the drinker. On the palate, the body plays up that sticky-sweetness with notes of blackberry jam, molasses, and sticky toffee. Heavy notes of oxidized Madeira wine (or aged sherry) endure on the finish. If you’re getting the impression this is a sweet and sherry-forward whisky, then at least I’m doing my job halfway decently, but the truth is Nomad isn’t so much sherry-forward as it is sherry-laser-focused, as if it’s actually a blend of aged sherry and Scotch, with the focus bent more toward the former.

Sherry-heavy whisky isn’t unusual in the world of Scotch, but Nomad is something else entirely. Raised in Jerez, Spain? You better believe it.

82.6 proof.

B / $45 / gonzalezbyass.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTER OF MALT]

Review: Virginia Distillery Cider Barrel Matured Virginia Highland Malt Whisky

If Virginia Distillery Co.’s flagship product — a Scottish single malt imported to the U.S. and finished in Virginia Port wine casks — wasn’t wacky enough for you, now comes its first line extension, which sees that first product finished not in Port barrels but instead in locally-sourced cider barrels (specifically barrels from Potter’s Craft Cider). It’s the first release in Virginia’s new Commonwealth Collection, which will see additional oddball finishes being applied to its releases in the months to come.

As with the original release, this is an enchanting whisky that merits some serious study. The nose has a classic single malt structure with gentle granary notes, honey, and some florals, but it’s tempered with a slight citrus character — or at least, more of a citrus character than you’d expect from a traditional single malt. There’s an undercurrent of funk — hard to describe but perhaps driven by the cider barrels — that is at once unusual and appealing.

Rich and malty, the nose leads into a moderate but compelling body that grows in power as you let it aerate. Here the apple influence is a bit clearer, melding with the malt to showcase notes of lemon, grasses, a bit of honey, and more cereal. Again, that slight funk on the finish offers a little something extra — a touch of chocolate, a rush of acidity, and some bitterness, all notes that serve to enhance the experience by taking things in an unexpected direction.

92 proof.

A- / $55 / vadistillery.com

Now Shipping: 2017 L.A. Burdick Robert Burns Chocolates

We all drink whisky on Robert Burns’ birthday (January 25), but if you really want to wow folks, get your hands on a box of L.A. Burdicks’ Robert Burns Chocolate collection, which is available only during this time of the year.

Each box of about 36 bonbons (1/2 a pound) includes multiples of seven different items, each made with a different whisky. Those include Lagavulin, Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, and Glenfarclas. A final chocolate is a whisky honey truffle made with an unspecified whisky.

These are some amazing chocolates and, even though mine got a little freezer burned during shipping thanks to some unseasonably cold weather, they are absolutely delightful and totally worth getting. Order now in time for Burns Night!

More specific reviews and ratings of the individual chocolates can be found here.

$42 / burdickchocolate.com

A Tour of Scotland: Understanding Scotch Whiskies

Even to a whiskey drinker comfortable with bourbons and Irish whiskeys, Scotch can seem like a whole different world. Due to the varied climate of Scotland, from the wind-buffeted western islands to the famous highlands, Scotch can be incredibly different from distillery to distillery. So join us now for a whisky tour of Scotland, where we will see what makes this noble dram so unique.

Perhaps the most recognizable Scotch whiskies come from Speyside, a small but densely-packed region in northeastern Scotland named after the river Spey that runs through it. Despite being a smaller region than its neighbors, Speyside has more distilleries than the others by an order of magnitude; ask your average tippler their favorite Scotch and there’s a good chance you’ll get a Speyside distillery named, and if you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, or countless others, you’ve experienced Speyside. Speyside Scotches are generally light on smokiness, and may be aged or finished (after an initial run in old bourbon casks) in casks that once held wine or other spirits, and these traits give them a sweeter, more easygoing nature that is attractive to a Scotch neophyte. Distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan mostly use sherry wine casks to impart flavors or orange peel, almonds, and cloves, while others like Balvenie use casks that contained the likes of rum, port, and Madeira to give its Scotch different levels of sweetness and spiciness to stand out from the crowd.

Surrounding Speyside are the imposing Highlands, which take up nearly half the island and as a consequence contain the most varied styles of Scotch in the country. Glenmorangie drinks like a Speyside Scotch, especially its trio of casked expressions like the port-casked Quinta Ruban, or the Sauternes-casked Nectar D’Or. On the other hand, Oban is dense and heavy with peat and smoke, and would be a shock to anyone who has only experienced sweeter drams. The famed Scottish moors dominate the landscape, which provide the variance in wind and temperature that effects Highland barley so differently. There is a style for everyone within the Highlands, and even seasoned Scotch connoisseurs will come back to their favorite Highland bottle.

South of the Highlands are, of course, the Lowlands. Like Speyside, Lowland Scotch can be a great place to start with Scotch whisky, because the whiskies that come out of the region are easily approachable. Lowland Scotch would be an especially easy entry into the whiskies of Scotland for those who are ardent fans of Irish whiskey. Like Irish whiskey, Lowland drams like Auchentoshan can be triple-distilled, which gives them that characteristic citrusy fruit taste that anyone who cut their teeth on Green Spot or Redbreast would recognize. Notes of ginger, toffee, and lemon custard are all easy to recognize in a glass of Lowland Scotch, and its light sweetness on the palate makes it easy to like.

The western coast of the country is a long island chain called the Hebrides, and generally the climates of each island are the same: very cold, very windswept, and very barren. These conditions combine to make some of the roughest, brambliest whiskies in the world, of which the island of Islay is a shining example. Deep in the southwest of the Hebrides, Islay dominates the western whisky regions in Scotland, and brings us monstrous drams bathed in the taste of peat, impregnated into the barley from the burning of said peat during grain malting, and sea salt iodine from the cold maritime air around the island. Islay is a style on the rise, and even those who have not tried any Islay whiskies may recognize names like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Ron Swanson’s favorite Lagavulin. Like French wine, Islay Scotch can be imposing and alien to the uninitiated, but also like French wine, getting a handle on the style reveals untold complexities within each glass, as the peat and smoke and salt complement and flatter the barley. Islay Scotch lasts forever on the palate, with each minute revealing to the imbiber a new facet that was initially hidden under that ruggedness.

Islay is the most famous of the Hebrides, but many of the other islands in the chain house distilleries as well. Talisker and Arran are both easy enough to procure, and like Islay Scotch, these islands produce whiskies that are as rough and powerful as the land they are made on, with notes of the briny sea salt characteristic to all of the islands, as well as heather and ash.

And that brings us to the last region in Scotland, Campbeltown. Far to the southwest, near the coast of Ireland, Campbeltown was once known as “The Whisky Capital of the World”, but those days are long gone, and now Campbeltown has within its region only three distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank. Like the Highlands, Campbeltown thrives on variety, and its whiskies are an interesting mingling of the salt and smoke of Islay and the sweet simplicity of the Lowlands; Springbank’s Hazelburn is triple-distilled and fruity, while Longrow from the same distillery is peated and briny.

As you can see, Scotland’s whiskies are as varied and complex as the most daunting European wine regions. This is a topic that could require research to fully grasp, and we hope that we’ve managed to make things more clear to those curious.

Review: Loch Lomond Blended Scotch Reserve and Single Grain Scotch

Loch Lomond, an independent distiller and blender in Scotland, is finally bringing its wares to America. (Loch Lomond owns the Littlemill Distillery, which lays claim to being perhaps the oldest distillery in Scotland, if not the world.)

In all, 14 expressions of various brands of whisky are arriving. Today we start with two under the Loch Lomond label, a blend and a single grain whisky. (A variety of other expressions are available, including single malt varieties, but aren’t reviewed here.)

Loch Lomond Blended Scotch Whisky Reserve – Blended only from malt and grain whiskies made in-house, no external product is used. No age statement (note that the “Signature” bottling is higher up than the “Reserve” expression). The nose is interesting, kicking off with lots of cereal notes and spiced nuts (particularly almonds), but there’s also an undercurrent of more raw alcohol, common in relatively young blends, and just a hint of smoke. The body is fresher and livelier than the nose would indicate, tempering the malt with gentle notes of apple and banana, milk chocolate, and more almond. Some light cafe au lait notes bubble up on the finish, which is otherwise lightly sweet, modest in length, and relatively understated. 80 proof. B / $18

Loch Lomond Single Grain Scotch Whisky – A single grain bottling, with no other production information provided. Very light on the nose, with faint notes of peat, raw granary character, and some rubber cement notes. The body surprises immediately with a bold, tropical fruit-driven attack, with pineapple and coconut all up in there. It doesn’t last, though, with those raw alcohol and petrol notes pushing aside the fresh fruit, which tends to happen with young single grain. The finish is hot and heavy on the grain notes, ending on a bit of a rubbery character again. 92 proof. B / $28

lochlomondwhiskies.com

Review: The Macallan Highland Single Malt Edition No. 2

Macallan continues its numerical series that began last winter with The Macallan No. 1, with this natural, numerical follow-up. No. 2 is a collaboration between Macallan’s Bob Dalgarno and the co-founders of Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca, Joan, Josep, and Jordi Roca, which is considered one of the world’s top restaurants. “The Macallan Edition No. 2 brings together seven handpicked cask types from four different Spanish bodegas and cooperages to showcase the strength of co-creation and mastery,” says the company.

Continuing the diverse story of The Macallan’s oak casks and their obsession with wood, the focus remains on the commitment introduced with The Macallan Edition No. 1, to unlock the workings of the intricate whisky making process. From the provenance of the oak to the expert crafting of the cask, the seasoning and the size, it is these diverse components and, in this instance, the distinct personas of the collaborators, which have ultimately shaped Edition No.2.

Some casking details:

  • The European oak Tevasa casks selected by Bob Dalgarno define and carry the shape of Edition No. 2 with characteristic notes of rich, dried fruit.  This speaks of his ever curious, patient and empathetic character.

  • Closely following are notes of green wood and toffee from the American and European oak Diego Martin casks selected by Joan Roca. These casks bring to life the generous, reflective and passionate nature of this co-creator.

  • The notes of allspice and ginger are derived from the Jose Miguel Martin European oak casks selected by Josep Roca which denote of his complexity, warmth and maturity.

  • Finally, notes of citrus and light vanilla combine from the American oak Vasyma butts and puncheons chosen by pastry chef Jordi Roca which reflect the lively and vivacious aspects of his larger than life personality.

Despite all the talk of exotic wood, this rendition of Macallan nonetheless cuts a familiar, but quite delicious, profile. The nose is a showcase for wood, though it is gentle and rounded and integrates well with both dark caramel and fresh fruit notes, particularly green apple and some citrus. As you breathe deeper it offers some darker baking spice notes, particularly allspice and cardamom.

On the palate, chewy caramel and gentle citrus give way a cornucopia of spiced nuts, toffee, and a touch of Mexican coffee. As the finish builds, the malt remains the focus, a chewy cereal character that is well-tempered by brown sugar and baking spice. At a bit under 100 proof, it’s got the perfect alcohol level for easy sipping, exposing all its charms with just the right amount of backbone.

96.4 proof.

A / $90 / themacallan.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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