Review: Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky (2016)

blackbottle

Back in the day (at least in the late 20th century), Black Bottle was the go-to blended whisky for peat freaks. In fact, at the time it was said to be made from stock sourced from almost every Islay-based distillery. But Black Bottle has a lengthy history — the brand actually dates back to 1879, when it was originated by a tea blender named Gordon Graham.

Black Bottle faded away in the last decade (the recipe reportedly changed considerably)… until 2013, when the brand was relaunched.

The new Black Bottle is made from just four single malts (plus presumably a grain whisky or two, as this is not a blended malt), and I’d be surprised if more than one of them is from anywhere close to Islay.

The deep amber color of the whisky is quite inviting, as is the nose, which features attractive, if muted, notes of green apple, unripe banana, sherried orange peel, and roasted nuts. Some wisps of chimney smoke emerge here, but they aren’t the focus of the spirit.

The palate is surprisingly full bodied, but mostly typical of blended Scotch. Citrus melds with almond and nougat notes up front, melding into a pleasantly dessert-like character. As the palate builds, chocolate and vanilla notes emerge, with curiously exotic spice notes coming on as the finish starts to build. Those smoky elements finally make a comeback here, but they’re cut with sweetness to the point where I think even a total peat hater would find it palatable. It’s a real jack of all trades, master of none.

Let’s be absolutely clear that this Black Bottle has virtually nothing in common (except, well, a black bottle) with the Black Bottle of yesteryear, so don’t come crying to me that “it’s just not like it used to be.” No, it’s not. It’s a totally different whisky. If you want a peaty blend, you can find those, too. But for what the new Black Bottle aspires to be — a very affordable blend that is easy to sip on, mix with, or otherwise keep around the house — it gets the job done.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / blackbottle.com

Review: Glenmorangie Milsean

Glenmorangie Milsean - Bottle shot transparent backgroundThe latest expression in the increasingly convoluted and difficult-to-pronounce Glenmorangie line of Highland single malts is this one: Milsean, Scots Gaelic for “sweet things.” (Pronunciation: meel-shawn.) This is the seventh release in the company’s annually updated Private Release line.

Glenmorangie has long been a massive proponent of wine barrel finishing, and Milsean is no exception. After an initial stint in bourbon barrels, the twist here is that the wine casks (reportedly Portuguese red wine casks) used for finishing the whisky are re-toasted with flames before the spirit goes into them for round two. (Typical finishing casks are left as-is in order to let the wine or other spirit that was once inside mingle with the whisky.) Re-toasting essentially re-caramelizes the wood, along with whatever was once inside.

Milsean’s name is a hint that sweetness is the focus, and the name seems wholly appropriate to this reviewer. The nose is a beaut, featuring pungent florals — the hallmark of Glenmo — mixed with candied fruits, a touch of alcoholic punch, and cinnamon-driven spice. The aroma alone is enchanting and offers plenty to like — but of course there’s more ahead.

On the tongue, Milsean is equally delightful, offering a host of flavors that develop over time. Watch for golden raisins and clementine oranges up front, followed by the essence of creamy creme brulee mixed in with a melange of cinnamon and nutmeg notes. The finish tends to run back to those florals — I get bright white flowers in my mind as the whisky fades — as it evaporates on the palate, leaving behind a crisp brown sugar character — the sweetest moment in this whisky’s life.

Glenmorangie special release expressions can be hit and miss — and often gimmicky — but Milsean is a magic trick that works wonderfully. I don’t hesitate to say that it’s the best expression from this distillery in years. I’d stock up on it.

92 proof.

A / $130 / glenmorangie.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 39.99 and 95.19

Every year our friends at the SMWS send us a couple of recent releases to sample and enjoy. Some quick thoughts on a couple of nice little indie releases follow.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 39.99 – Linkwood from Speyside, 23 years in refill (bourbon) hogsheads. Distilled in April 1990. Curious and atypical iodine and seaweed notes hit the nose up front, very strange notes for Speyside whisky. These are backed by notes of grains, cinnamon rolls, mixed nuts, some citrus, and light vanilla. On the palate, this cask strength spirit is surprisingly easy to sip on, offering notes of marzipan, ripe banana, spiced nuts, and a lengthy finish that pours on the flamed citrus oil notes. It’s here where things finally start to get a little racy, the alcohol kicked up a notch as it warms and soothes. It’s not a whisky that feels like it’s got 23 years under its belt, but it’s a very capable sipper nonetheless. 117.8 proof. B+ / $185

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 95.19 – Auchroisk from Speyside, 17 years in refill hogsheads. Distilled in August 1997. Pale straw in color, it seems set up to be mild and youthful. That’s not the case here, as this whisky cuts a shockingly powerful profile. The nose is a bit astringent and hot — though this is hardly a blazer of a spirit. Light medicinal character, savory herbs, incense, and some green bell pepper get things started. I know, that hardly sounds like a recipe for excitement, but stick with me for a bit and take a sip or two. On the palate, the whisky explodes with flavor — caramel collides with spearmint, burnt honey runs with gently fruity notes, including raspberry and hints of strawberry. The finish is hot but offers a denouement of roasted grains and a bit of citrus peel… all of which leaves one with a big question: How is so much flavor packed into such a mild-looking spirit that offers no hints of it on its nose? Answers are far from forthcoming. 106.4 proof. A- / $150

smwsa.com

Review: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky

famous grouseThe Famous Grouse — a blended whiskey made by the same folks that produce Highland Park and The Macallan, including a significant sherry cask regimen — is a major player in the blended world. (It is the best-selling whisky in Scotland, so that’s saying something.) Somehow it’s escaped our review (though the more recent Black Grouse did get a writeup in 2010) — until now.

It’s easy to see why the Famous Grouse is so well-liked — it’s a baby Macallan at a fraction of the price.

The sherry doesn’t take long to make its presence known — big, sharp, and juicy, it’s got a powerful punch of citrus peels and a squirt of clementine juice that hits the senses right away. Toasted brioche notes are sizeable underneath all that citrus, but the overall aroma is altogether gentle and inviting.

On the palate, the juicy rush is palpable, offering notes of both grapefruit and satsumas, amply sherried with some winey/oxidized notes. As this fades, a stronger grain character hits; what is restrained on the nose is more palpable on the tongue, and as the sherry washes away, the toasty/bready character dominates the palate in full. Secondary characteristics include touches of heather, honey, and a hint of nutmeg — but none of this is overwhelming or particularly pushy.

The finish is more astringent than I’d like, with a slightly chewy mushroom quality and some more raw alcohol character that is a bit at odds with what’s come before, but given the price of the whisky and the pedigree of its makeup, it’s hard to complain too vociferously.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / thefamousgrouse.com

Review: Old Pulteney Single Malt Whisky 35 Years Old

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A rare treat of an old Highland malt, at 35 years old this expression of Old Pulteney is showing just beautifully, with notes of figs and plum pudding, raisiny Port, citrus peel, green banana, and a touch of cinnamon-spiced oatmeal on the back side. Slight salt-sea notes emerge from time to time, but only as hints of its maritime ancestry. The body is perfectly balanced between sweet and savory notes, with ample but well-integrated sherry influence bringing everything into focus.

As the finish fades, the malt tends to fall back to its barley roots, a gentle respite from what has come before. Elegant and refined, it showcases how truly beautiful these sometimes rough-hewn Highland whiskies can be.

85 proof.

A / $700 / oldpulteney.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Macallan Amber and Gold

amberThe Macallan has never been a distillery to do things in a straightforward way. Case in point: the 1824 collection. There’s not just one. There are many.

There’s an 1824 Master Series (which Rare Cask is part of). And there’s an 1824 Collection Travel Retail (which these whiskies are part of).

Amber and Gold are part of neither of those. They are from the 1824 Series, which is a European-only line of NAS expressions delineated by color alone. (In the UK, all the Master Series whiskies are dumped into the 1824 Series as a big group.)

OK, so what’s the deal with the color names? The 1824 Series is, per Macallan, the only malt whisky line ever produced with barrels selected by the color of the spirit. Four versions are in release: Gold, Amber, Sienna, and Ruby, from least expensive to most. Again, there are no age statements in this line, but as color is generally tied to time spent in cask — all of these are drawn from sherry casks to keep the playing field at least somewhat level — you can at least get a sense of the age of the whisky just by looking at it. Or at least that’s the idea.

On my recent trip to Scotland I picked up samples of both Gold and Amber — and will have to leave the luxe other two for my next trip. Should you find yourself across the pond, well, here’s what you can expect from these drams.

Both are 80 proof.

The Macallan Gold – The whisky is immediately youthful, with ample cereal notes, but also quite charming. The nose balances cereal with spice and gentle brown sugar notes. Lots of cinnamon here along with flamed orange peel. On the palate, ginger emerges along with more citrus — orange and lemon — though again it is backed by some sweetened breakfast cereal character folding in both sugar and grain. The finish is modest and very easygoing, a gentle conclusion to a relatively straightforward — but never unenjoyable — little whisky. B / $47 [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTER OF MALT]

The Macallan Amber – Stepping up on the color wheel brings you to this whisky, which is just barely a shade darker than the Gold expression. Similar color or not, Amber really does kick things up in the flavor department. Much stronger sherry notes emerge right from the start, with a nose of spiced nuts and more citrus — plus lots of vanilla and some menthol. On the palate, it’s surprisingly bold — well sherried grains, candied ginger, more nuts (hazelnut?), and a fruity finish. All in all, there’s simply more going on here — and that’s generally a good thing. B+ / $56 [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTER OF MALT]

themacallan.com

Review: Kilchoman 2008 Vintage and PX Finish 2010

kilcohman 2008 Vintage 2015 (2)

Kilchoman may be just a kid on the distilling scene, but that doesn’t mean it’s taking its time. Here’s a look at two new expressions from this up-and-coming Islay distiller.

Kilchoman 2008 Vintage – This is a vatting of exclusively bourbon-cask-aged barrels of Kilchoman distilled in July 2008 and bottled in August 2015, making this, at 7 years old, the longest-aged expression to date to come from this now 10-year-old distillery. The nose is quite a surprise, loaded with apple and pear notes, with smoke taking a secondary (though plenty strong) role. The body is smokier, though far from overwhelming, but here more of an orange character comes into focus alongside the apple notes. On the finish, it’s quite gentle, with stronger vanilla custard notes, some almond and walnut notes, and an echo of smoke on the back end. A very strong showing for this vintage, and something that even a peat novice might be able to enjoy. 92 proof. A- / $100

Kilchoman Single Cask Release PX Finish (2010) – This is an ImpEx exclusive, a single-cask of Kilchoman aged for four years in bourbon barrels, then finished for four months in Pedro Ximinez sherry casks and bottled at cask strength. (Last year Kilchoman released a 2009 vintage version of basically the same expression, so feel free to compare.) The very light smoke on the nose is almost surprising — this is perhaps the most gentle of any Kilchoman expression I’ve tried to date. Sea spray, some coal fire, and standard peat fill out the aroma profile. On the palate the whisky is lightly sweet and touched with burnt citrus, darker baking spices, and again a modest smoke profile. The finish is moderately drying and short. Good effort, but it’s surpassed by the 2009 release. 114.4 proof. Cask #680/2010. B+ / $140

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Sheep Dip Islay Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

SheepDip_Islay_Blend_nv_botSheep Dip is a relatively well-known blended whisky, but few realize that there are multiple Sheep Dips (Sheeps Dip?) to choose from. The “original” Sheep Dip is easily the best known and most widely available, but producer Spencerfield Spirit Co. has also produced vintage bottlings from time to time.

The latest expression is a (nonvintage) Islay Blended Malt — all peated single malts from Islay, with no grain whisky added. No other production information is available. It’s easy to tell apart from the other Dips: Look for the green label vs. the original’s white.

This is a much different whisky than the original Sheep Dip or, really, almost any other blended whisky. The nose is pure Islay, sweet smoke layered with salt spray and iodine. It’s not overpowering, but it isn’t shy about its agenda. The body follows suit, but downplays its hand. Here we find the lighter side of Islay, a more gently smoky body that comes across as almost watery at times. The familiar smoke-and-seaweed notes are still there, but dialed way back. Big Islay fans will probably find it quite a bit too gentle, almost to the point where it seems unsure of itself. The finish takes a slightly strange spin with a kind of gravelly and rubbery character, one which doesn’t exactly take things out on a high note.

80 proof.

B / $35 / spencerfieldspirit.com

Drinkhacker’s 2015 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

We at Drinkhacker have been busier than ever this year, and yet it seems impossible that it’s time for our eighth annual edition of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards.” As always, the list comprises some of the best-rated products we looked at over the last 12 months but is also focused on products that are 1) actually available, 2) worthwhile as gifts, and 3) not entirely out of the realm of affordability.

This year, by popular demand, we’re adding wine to the gift guide. It’s one of the busiest categories on the site, one of the most popular gift items on the market, and something we’ve overlooked for too many years.

As always, the offerings below are only a tiny selection of our favorite spirits from the last year, and we welcome both your suggestions for alternatives and questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting. Chime in in the comments, please!

Happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! As always, thanks for reading the blog!

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

Rhetoric 21-Year-Old_Hi-Res Bottle ShotBourbon – Diageo Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Years Old ($100) – So many amazing bourbons hit this year, and so many are already impossible to find. While Diageo took some early drubbing for its curious Orphan Barrel project, this year it really hit its stride. Rhetoric 21 is the best of the lot to date — and part of an ongoing project that will see older and older expressions of Rhetoric shipping every year. It’s still widely available at its original selling price, as is its near equal in the Orphan Barrel project, Forged Oak 15 Years Old ($75). I loved Col. E.H. Taylor Cured Oak ($75 on release), but you’ll be lucky to find it for $500 today. That makes the over-the-top (but delightful) Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century ($400/1 liter) seem like a downright bargain.

Scotch – The Exclusive Malts Ben Nevis 1996 17 Years Old ($140) – I’m not going to break the bank this year with my malt whisky pick and rather send you hunting for the 17 year old Ben Nevis from The Exclusive Malts, an indie bottler that has been absolutely on fire with a string of amazing releases. The exotic fruit, sweetness, and cereal notes combine in an inimitable and very compelling way. A big hand is due to Diageo again in this list for its 2014 limited editions (which hit the U.S.) in March this year. If you have the cash, check out Rosebank 21 Years Old ($500), Strathmill 25 Years Old ($475), or Brora 35 Years Old ($1,250), all three from that series. Finally, peat fanatics should head directly for whatever Laphroaig 15 Years Old ($70) they can still find.

journeyman ThreeOaks_750Other Whiskey – Journeyman Distillery Three Oaks Single Malt ($47) – Craft whiskey in the U.S. is finally, finally, arriving, and this year it’s landing a top spot on our best of the year list. Michigan-based Journeyman is showcasing how single malt should be made in America with this young but exuberant spirit that any whiskey fan owes it to himself to try. For another top craft pick, consider Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey ($75), a young wheat whiskey that is the best of this series so far. The Irish Yellow Spot ($95) maintains a special place in my heart next to its Green sibling — and don’t forget that rye is making leaps and bounds. One of the best is Woodford Reserve Rye ($38) — where it is actually made instead of trucked in from another state.

Gin – Oppidan American Botanical Gin ($30) – Our top gin pick this year comes from a Chicago microdistillery where a bounty of botanicals is used to spice up a London Dry style gin, giving it a delicate, floral character that should not be missed. Other great options include Tanqueray Bloomsbury ($33), Anchor Distilling Old Tom ($30), and the exotic Painted Stave South River Red Gin ($22/375ml), which really is red.

Vodka  Square One Bergamot Vodka ($35) – If you must give vodka this year, try this unusual, citrus-flavored vodka from Square One. Other good (and unflavored) options include Vodka Mariette ($30) and Tigre Blanc Vodka ($90), proceeds of which go in part to support large cats in the wild.

DP30yrs_white_USAhighresRum – Don Pancho Origenes Rare Rum 30 Years Old ($425) – New rum brands don’t pop up every day, and when they do rarely do they have a legend in the business attached. Don Pancho (aka Francisco Fernandez) is putting his name on a finished product for the first time, and it’s a doozy not to be missed. For less ritzy outlays, consider the well-aged offerings in the form of Kirk and Sweeney Dominican Rum 23 Years Old ($50) or Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva ($40).

Brandy – Cognac Paul Giraud Grande Champagne Tres Rare ($179) – A tough call from among these three stellar Cognacs, and really you can’t go wrong with any of them. My slight preference ultimately goes to Giraud and this well-priced rarity. Close runners-up: Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO ($110) and Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 Cognac ($100).

dulce vida extra anejoTequila – Dulce Vida Extra Anejo ($160) – Another solid year for tequila, with a flood of excellent extra anejos really showing their stuff in 2015. My favorite of the bunch is from Dulce Vida, aged 5 1/2 years in used wine barrels. Great tequila with a great story behind it, too. Also worthwhile are Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia 2015 Rolling Stones Tour Pick ($150, also available for less sans the Stones imagery), El Mayor Reposado ($30, amazing bargain!), and the luxe Patron Extra Anejo 7 Anos ($299).

Liqueur – Spirit Works Sloe Gin ($40) – It’s a light year for quality liqueurs, but I have to give the nod to my hometown heroes Spirit Works and their killer sloe gin. Other top picks include Maraska Maraschino ($27) and Tempus Fugit Creme de Cacao ($31), both of which should be home bar staples.

Wine As promised, this year we’re adding a smattering of ideas for some of the best wines we’ve seen this year that would be appropriate for gift-giving. It’s hard to pick a single “winner” (and probably not fair because availability will vary widely) but here are my top seven wines of the year, in no particular order:

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: The Feathery Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

Feathery_btSpencerfield Spirit Co. makes some relatively well-known blended whiskies (at least in whisky nerd circles), Pig’s Nose and Sheep Dip. Now it’s back with a new blended malt (no grain whisky added, only various single malts): The Feathery.

The name is a reference to the first golf ball (golfing being sacred in Scotland), which were made of leather and stuffed with bird feathers. That doesn’t have a lot to do with what’s in the bottle as far as I can tell — The Feathery is a collection of Highland malts, all first-fill sherry cask matured. It’s got as much to do with feathers as it does with octopi.

Let’s try it all the same.

The nose is much bigger than I expected, with intense notes of walnut, almond, leather oil, and dark caramel. A touch of salt air is a nod toward this whisky’s Highland origins.

The body backs up the nose fairly closely, its heavily nutty character the most prominent element. Brooding sherry notes back up the core, offering a natural companion to all those almonds and walnuts. Notes of chocolate, burnt caramel, vanilla, and a bit of candied ginger add nuance and interesting counterpoints to the nutty core. The finish is modest, fading before it has outstayed its welcome.

All told, this is one of the best blended malts I’ve encountered all year, and any fan of malt whisky will do himself a service by tracking down a bottle.

80 proof.

A- / $55 / spencerfieldspirit.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]