Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Third Release

Loch-Gorm-2015

The third annual release of Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm is here. As before, Loch Gorm is matured fully in ex-Oloroso sherry butts — but this year, a larger proportion of smaller sherry hogsheads were used to mature a portion of the whisky, as opposed to larger sherry butts. That’s a small change but it should increase the sherry influence on the whisky. This edition is “marginally older” than last year’s Second Edition, coming from whiskies distilled in 2009-2010 and bottled in March 2015.

There’s nothing not to like here. The sherry influence is palpable, loading the spirit up with sweet, winey citrus notes before diving headlong into the peat. The nose is surprisingly restrained — offering some Mexican chocolate character atop the mild smoke elements — but the body plays up the peat and the sweetness at once, folding things together in well-balanced form.

This is Kilchoman at its best and a showcase of how sherry and peated whisky can do magical things together. It’s not a remarkable digression from last year’s glorious bottling, but since you won’t find that expression on the market anywhere, well, best to snap this one up instead.

92 proof.

A- / $100 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig 15 Years Old Scotch Whisky

Laphroaig_15YO_BottleImageThough it was introduced 30 years ago, Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a bottling that has come and gone over the years. For a short while, however, it’s back, with this expression being re-released in honor of the company’s 200th anniversary. That said, nothing has technically changed with the production of the spirit vs. older bottlings, but this one does at least come with bonus sentimental value.

Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a quieter expression of the spirit, where it’s just finding its balance between the peat blast it offers at 10 years old and the more fruity notes that emerge at 18 and 25 years old.

At this point in its maturity, the whisky offers a smoky nose that also showcases gentle honey alongside notes of yellow flowers. The peat however is dialed back significantly, creating the essence of a branch of mesquite that’s been thrown atop a barbecue pit. Citrus notes are present on the palate but they’re understated — a squeeze of lemon and a shaving of grapefruit peel — with some simple syrup adding a layer of sweetness atop the delicate layer of smoke.

At just 86 proof the whisky is remarkably easy-drinking, almost overly so — it sips almost like a mezcal-based Paloma, mixing citrus and smoke into a beautiful, satisfying whole.

Really lovely. Snap it up if you see it.

A / $70 / laphroaig.com

Review: Gordon & MacPhail Imperial 1995

imperial 1995This was my most prized purchase in Edinburgh, where I nabbed the last bottle from Royal Mile Whiskies. Imperial was a Speyside distillery, opened in 1897 and shuttered in 1998 (and demolished in 2013), making this one of a dwindling number of bottles still available.

Bottled in 2014, this is 19 year old Imperial, which has seen at least some time in sherry casks.

The nose is delicate, offering gentle cereal and mixed florals, all backed by easygoing, sherried, orange marmalade character. White peaches emerge on the nose with continued time in the glass. On the palate, it’s a quiet spirit that showcases roasted barley alongside nougat and marzipan, clove-studded oranges, and a soothing finish that keeps the sharp citrus notes dancing on the body. Hang on for a bit and a touch of smoky char makes an appearance as the whisky fades away.

Enjoyable and understated.

86 proof.

A- / $95 (70cl) / gordonandmacphail.com

Travel: Touring Scotch Whisky Distilleries in Speyside, Scotland

The trouble with drinking whisky in Scotland is the regret you experience the moment you get home. No matter how long you spend there and how much you purchase, by the time you get back to the States you wish you’d tasted and brought home more than you did. The vastness of malt whisky options available to residents and visitors to the UK is impossible to overstate. Even the humblest of pubs is likely to have 100 or so bottles on the shelf, a few of which you will never even have heard of. At major whisky meccas like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inns in the heart of Speyside, it isn’t unusual to see 500 Scotch whiskies on the back bar — or rather jammed into every corner of the place. Each night at the Quaich bar in the Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside I got to ogle whiskies, just sitting on shelves next to the armchairs, that retail for $4000 or $5000 a bottle. Of course, it’s the ones I was able to sample that I will remember forever.

And so it is that I return to you, my bags stuffed with liters of whisky but my heart left in Scotland, following a pilgrimage I’ve wanted to make for the better part of a decade.

Visiting distilleries in Scotland isn’t difficult, but you’ll want to plan your trip carefully to make the most of your time there. With this post, I want to share some tips and advice if you decide to venture to see Scotland’s stills for yourself, along with commentary about each of the distilleries I visited.

For starters, unless you have a week or more to spend here and can cover multiple areas, you’ll want to pick a region to focus on. For some, Islay and its smoky malts is the place to be — and I’m told there’s really nothing else at all to do there except drink whisky. For others, its Speyside, which is where I spent four solid days.

Speyside is a great choice for visiting for a lot of reasons. First, some of the best whisky in the world is made here, so you’ll have endless opportunities to sample lovely malts. Second, the central location makes it relatively easy to get to. (Fly into Aberdeen, then drive about 80 minutes.) Third, and most importantly, Speyside boasts about half the distilleries in Scotland. From a base in Craigellachie, you’re about 15 miles from 40 or 50 distilleries, and more if you venture 25 or 30 miles away.

Not all distilleries are open to visitors, so keep that in mind when planning your trip by researching them in advance, and many require you book in advance if you want a tour. Don’t overlook this step, as you don’t want to venture 5000 miles to Scotland only to find out that the tours for the week are all booked.

Lastly, and this is where I blew it a little, note that many if not most Scottish distilleries shut down for a month or two in the summer, usually starting in early July. This is called the “silent season,” and it’s a period when the distilleries are repaired, upgraded, cleaned, and otherwise worked on. The stills can’t operate during the silent season, so many are indeed very quiet. That’s not that big a deal — you’ve see one mash tun, you’ve seen ’em all — but the bigger problem is that with all that construction you often can’t even venture into the stillhouses or other parts of the distillery because they’re closed off as a safety precaution. Despite all that, July is still a heavy tourism month for Scotland and most everyone is still operating a tour of some kind even during the shutdown. Just bear in mind you might not see everything you could if you were there, say, in the middle of winter.

As I mentioned above, we chose the Craigellachie Hotel as our base. This is a lovely place to stay — though the Wi-Fi is pants — with a perfect location, nice rooms, and solid dining in the Copper Dog restaurant below. The breakfast options (included) are amazing — and nothing beats a full Scottish to prime the pump before heading out to the distilleries. The Quaich Bar makes for a perfect nightly ritual, too.

So let’s get on to the distilleries. Here they are, in the order I visited them.

The Glenrothes

The Glenrothes is not open to the public, so it’s perhaps not fair to start here, since you can’t actually visit. But Ronnie Cox really set the stage for a memorable time here, treating us to a tour of the Rothes House — the spiritual home of parent company Berry Bros. and Rudd (literally, the town minister used to live there) — plus lunch and an in-depth tour of the distillery. Capped off by a deep dive into the Glenrothes spirit archives, our time included discussions about the geology and history of Speyside, a stroll through the (no longer haunted) Glenrothes cemetery, and even the raising of the U.S. flag in honor of my visit. I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Cox, and he really set a high bar for the other distillery visits we had in store.

Cardhu

Cardhu was a last-minute addition to our trip after some scheduling hiccups at another distillery, but it was a nice one to visit because it was actually up and running. Cardhu mostly ends up in blends, not single malts, but the tasting did include three single malts from the distillery, each made in a slightly different style. Higher-end tastings are available for an additional fee. The nosing challenge (where you try to ID what’s in a series of sealed containers) is particularly fun.

Aberlour

Aberlour’s tour was one of the more unique ones, with a distillery that includes a look at some rare parts of the facility, including the funky biologically-powered tanks that process the waste product from the stills and turn it back into water which can be returned to the river. The tour is concluded with a very nice, sit-down tasting that lets you sample the full range of Aberlour products, including distillery-only releases.

Macallan

Macallan is in the midst of a massive expansion. In two years there will be a whole new visitor’s center here. Our visit to the estate began with lunch at Easter Elchies House, a historic home on the property that you can find on the label of Macallan whiskies. After lunch, a tour takes you through every aspect of production — and includes a very well-done museum-style exhibit on the various types of wood that the distillery uses. For whisky newcomers, consider Macallan as an excellent first stop in order to aid with education. Following the tour (sadly, photos were off limits in many buildings) we sat down to a private tasting that started with the Fine Oak 21 Year Old and went deeper from there. Macallan saved the best for last, though: A sampling of the 1979 Gran Reserva, a long-off-the-market bottling that spent 18 years in first-fill sherry casks. This beautiful but incredibly intense whisky really showcases what sherry aging can do, and it was the perfect way to cap off the day.

Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich is a massive operation, with 47 warehouses full of whisky on the property. Our tour guide, Fergus, led us on a private tour of the facilities — again, some areas off limits and many with no photos allowed — which included some fascinatingly fun times. A stop at a warehouse to try to identify — simply by smelling the casks — which of three whiskies was in an ex-sherry barrel was much tougher than you think, and the chance to see Glenfiddich’s Solera vat, from which its famed 15 year old is drawn, was a unique experience. Of course, a major highlight of the trip was dropping our own “dog” into our choice of Glenfiddich barrel — first-fill or refill, sherry or bourbon — to bring home our own, bespoke, single-cask selection. We ended the day at Glenfiddich with a tasting of rare bottlings, including the 21 Year Old Gran Reserva Rum Cask, the red wine barrel-finished Age of Discovery (third edition), and the oddball 26 Year Old Excellence. Very different whiskies, and each memorable in its own way. Again, a highly recommended tour especially for newcomers to Scotch.

Benromach

All good things must come to an end, and we wound up our time in the Highlands at Benromach, which is about 30 miles north of the heart of Speyside, near the Moray Firth on the coast. Benromach is younger and smaller than all of the other distilleries we visited, and it operates under the ownership of famed indie bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. We dropped by on the road to the city of Inverness, the gateway to Loch Ness. Benromach was a great place to stop because it was in production, there are no crowds, and unlike the distilleries in the heart of Speyside, it uses a bit of peated malt in its production. This was a very casual tour — we asked for an expedited visit due to a time crunch — but the staff was friendly and accommodating and really distilled the operation well despite our shortened visit. We’ll have a full review of the newly released Benromach 15 Year Old in short order.

Thanks to all my new friends in Scotland for taking care of us ugly Americans! See also our coverage of drinking in Dublin, Ireland.

Review: Tamdhu Batch Strength Single Malt Whisky

TAMDHU_BATCH_STRENGTH_HIGH_RESThe newly revived Tamdhu Distillery is back with its second expression, this time an overproof whisky known (curiously) as Batch Strength. Aged entirely in sherry casks (predominantly first-fill) for an unstated amount of time, it is bottled at cask strength.

The nose offers rich cereal, caramel, and notes of grilled fruits. On the body, heavy alcohol notes make an immediate impression before some fresh, sweet citrus hits the palate. Water helps considerably, bringing out clear notes of clover honey, orange juice, banana, and cinnamon notes. Some sweet breakfast cereal notes linger on the juicy finish. Without a little tempering, Tamdhu Batch Strength is a bit too racy for easy analysis, but when brought down to a more manageable level it starts to show off more of its charms. Definitely worth a look.

117.6 proof.

B+ / $90 / tamdhu.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #8 – Speyside 1991, Invergordon 1984, Balmenach 2007, North Highland 1995, Irish 2002, and Laphroaig 2005

exclusive malts

It’s quite a mixed bag in The Exclusive Malts’ latest batch, which includes a single grain release, two unnamed distillery releases and — a first for The Exclusive — an Irish whiskey release. With this batch I’m excited to announce that received the entire lineup to review, 6 whiskeys in total. Quality is all over the map. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Speyside 1991 23 Years Old – This mystery Speyside whisky was distilled in 1991, but no other production information is offered. It appears to be bourbon-cask-aged all the way, starting off with almost pungent boozy/grainy notes on the nose. Lightly medicinal on the tongue, the palate ventures into dense wood, a touch of coal dust, and some pastoral notes. Perfectly drinkable, but surprisingly simplistic. 102.6 proof. B / $160

The Exclusive Malts Invergordon 1984 30 Years Old – This is a single grain whisky, distilled in the Highlands near Dornoch Firth and aged in a refill oak hogshead. There’s lots of granary character on the nose with this one, then notes of orange peel, clove, and some occasionally intense lumberyard notes. The key component though, is the grain — racy, chewy, and full of cloves and allspice. It’s a hot whisky that takes some time to settle down, but once it does it reveals some charm. Whether that merits the supports the price tag is another question. 104.6 proof. B+ / $200

The Exclusive Malts Balmenach 2007 8 Years Old – Slightly pink, a clear sign that this is a Port-matured whisky. The Speyside-based Balmenach is primarily used for blending, so this is a real rarity. Unfortunately that doesn’t amount to a particularly special spirit; youth is still having its way with this bottling, which is heavy with granary notes and an almost musty, funky edge. Hospital notes mingle with raw wood notes, coffee grounds, and mushroom… a bit of a mess, ultimately. 105.2 proof. C+ / $79

The Exclusive Malts North Highland 1995 20 Years Old – Another mystery malt, sherry matured from somewhere in the north Highlands. (Note that labels may just read “Highland,” not “North Highland.”) Rich with citrusy sherry notes on the nose, the nose here also showcases notes of walnut, coffee, and a not insignificant amount of tar. No slouch in the body department, the palate is pushy with notes of menthol, burnt orange, matchstick heads, and ash. There’s fruit up front — figs, plums, and citrus — but the fade in to this melange of more savory notes is quick and a bit unforgiving. 109.2 proof. B- / $135

The Exclusive Malts Irish Whiskey 2002 13 Years Old – Distilled near the northern border of Ireland at an unnamed distillery (which sounds like Locke’s/Kilbeggan based on the description). It’s quite a lovely expression of Irish, beginning with rich honey and caramel notes before delving headlong into butter toffee, butterscotch, and milk chocolate. There’s just a touch of grain on the back end, a nod toward the rolling hills of Ireland. Supple and sweet, this whiskey isn’t overcomplicated but it offers an intensity and richness that is rare in the typically light-bodied world of Irish. Cask strength certainly helps with that. Gorgeous. 108.4 proof. A / $106

The Exclusive Malts Laphroaig 2005 10 Years Old – Last but not least, we close with young, peaty, cask strength Laphroaig. No surprises here, with gentle peat smoke and barbecue notes kicking things off on the nose, and a body that blends smoke with citrus, petrol, licorice, and dried herbs. Lots of character from the Laphroaig playbook here, but fans will find the high proof expression worth exploring. 108.4 proof. B+ / $146

impexbev.com

Review: Grand Macnish Six Cask Edition

Grand Macnish 6 Cask_btThis new blended malt from Grand Macnish includes whisky from six single malts — one each from the Highlands, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, Lowlands, and the Islands — and is designed to capture the very essence of Scotland in a single bottle. Note that this is a blended malt, with no grain whiskey in it. Most of Grand Macnish’s offerings are standard, blended whiskies.

On tasting, it’s quite a light style of whisky, malty on the nose with notes of sweet barbecue sauce, cinnamon, and lots of biscuity cereal notes. On the palate, very mild citrus emerges along with some butterscotch, chocolate, some raisin, and a touch of fig. The body is minimalistic, almost to the point of being watery, but it’s nonetheless surprisingly effective at getting its flavor across. The finish returns to the cereal notes, with just a wisp of smoke (hi there, Islay), coal dust, and heather.

Those looking for a complex whisky probably won’t find much of interest here, but for an everyday blended malt it has a lot more going on than you might expect.

80 proof.

B+ / $32 / macduffint.co.uk

Review: Tomatin 12 Years Old French Oak

Tomatin French Oak

This Highland whisky is a limited edition available only in North America. It is aged for 9 years in bourbon hogsheads, then spends 3 years in French oak casks. “The casks were specially sourced from various European cooperages, including Lafite, Vicard and Seguin Moreau, and originally contained red wine from the Bacalhoa winery which was formerly owned by Rothschild,” says Tomatin. But don’t expect a lot of red wine influence. The casks were de-charred and re-charred before being used.

And what a delightful little whisky this is. The nose is gentle, slightly salty, with notes of fresh grain, and baking spices. The body is impossibly light, some fruitcake notes giving it the impression of a sherried whisky at first, then notes of caramel, nougat, and apple pie. The finish is deft, simple, and refreshing. This isn’t a whisky that complicates things with a lot of showiness — or a lot of layers — but damn if it isn’t enjoyable from start to finish.

Uncomplicated, but so well-crafted — and a great bargain for the quality in the bottle.

92 proof. 12,000 bottles produced.

A / $46 / tomatin.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Balblair Vintage 2003, 1999, 1990, and 1983 Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

BB 1983 Pack Shot

I encounter Balblair regularly at whiskey events, but I was surprised to see that in all these years we’ve only ever done a formal review of Balblair one time — of the Vintage 2000 release.

Today we’re fixing that with reviews of four more expressions from this Highland distillery. On with the show!

Balblair Vintage 2003 – 10 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. Pale in color, and a bit fiery on the nose. Roasted grains, with a touch of honey, are aromatically intense — with some coal fire and a bit of industrial character. The body offers a bit of almond, some citrus, and a touch of cloves. The whisky hasn’t quite settled down yet, though, to bring out this whisky’s true charms. 92 proof. B / $70

Balblair Vintage 1999 – 15 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (My sample doesn’t indicate, but I’m presuming this is the Second Edition bottling.) Surprisingly racy, there’s red pepper and turmeric on the nose, with a backing of dried barley notes. The body is malty at its core, with winey-citrus sherry notes to add some complexity. Vanilla milkshake notes on the finish are nice, but they can’t temper this whisky’s ample heat, which lingers on the modestly scorching finish. 92 proof. B / $90

Balblair Vintage 1990 – 21 years old, aged in bourbon and sherry barrels. (Again, I presume this is Second Edition.) Much different nose here, with notes of toffee and caramel, along with walnuts and cloves. The body is dense, slightly smoky and heavy on the wood component, giving this malt a bit of a fireside character — with some lumberyard, more nuts, and slight vegetal notes on the back end. The finish is a bit short, with some late-arriving notes of raisins and spice. 92 proof. B / $140

Balblair Vintage 1983 – 30 years old, aged in bourbon barrels. The best Balblair I’ve ever had is the 1975 edition. ’75 is no longer on the market, and this just happens to be the whisky that is replacing it. It’s also a knockout. The nose is rich with butterscotch, menthol, spiced nuts, and fudge. The palate kicks things off with well-aged malt, chocolate sauce, and nougat before fading into notes of rich honey, chocolate malt balls, and almond candies. The finish is long and lasting, making this a delight from start to finish. 92 proof. A / $330

balblair.com

Review: anCnoc Cutter, 12 Years Old, 18 Years Old, 24 Years Old, and 1975 Vintage

Ancnoc1975-

Knockdhu’s anCnoc recently flooded our mailbox with a collection of single malts, including three members of the age-statemented line, one new one from the NAS “Peaty Range,” and a very special offering from anCnoc’s vintage-dated collection of whiskies. We gathered them all up and put them through the Drinkhacker gauntlet. Thoughts follow.

anCnoc Cutter Highland Single Malt – Part of the anCnoc Peaty Range, Cutter is peated to 20.8 ppm, which gives it a hefty smokiness that you don’t find much in the anCnoc lineup. The nose is well peated and gentle with cereal notes. The body wears its smoke up front, folding in iodine notes, some saltiness, and a biscuit character. The finish is more purely smoky — more wood fire than smoldering peat — which leaves things in relatively uncomplicated territory. 92 proof. B / $85

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 12 Years OldRevisiting this young malt reveals many similar notes — though it feels like an evolution of the expression I reviewed a few years ago. As before, there are plenty of cereal notes here, to be sure, but things soon evolve with notes of sweet breakfast cereal, citrus syrup, and some maple notes. It drinks young — and comes across a bit hot on the finish — but it’s charming in its own way. I’d give this slightly different spirit a bit better rating than I did back in 2011. 86 proof. B / $40

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 18 Years Old – This whisky is a bit medicinal on the nose, but the body is all malty grains. The cereal lingers for ages alongside modest honeycomb, nougat, and some gentle citrus character, driven by the sherry cask aging that some of anCnoc 18 undergoes. (The 18 year a blend of whiskies aged in either sherry or bourbon casks.) The finish takes things into slightly vegetal territory, folding almond nougat into some mushroom character. Yeah, that sounds weird and it is, a little. 6000 bottles made. 92 proof. B- / $105

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 24 Years Old – Sherry-forward, with some smoky elements, particularly on the nose. The body offers tons of orange and grapefruit, balanced out with fresh cut grains, hay, popcorn, and a bit of petrol. I get hints of fresh, fried fish — perhaps this expression’s nod to the sea — before it returns to notes of golden syrup, honey, and a bit of lumberyard. Lots going on here, but it all comes together in the end with a sunny, pastoral disposition. Very limited production. 92 proof. B+ / $170

anCnoc Highland Single Malt 1975 Vintage – 39 years old (and not to be confused with the former 1975 release, a 30 year old expression). A single-vintage vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry-casked whiskies. Gentle cereal notes backed by classic sherry sweetness lead the way on the nose, along with a touch of coal smoke. The body is well developed and features nicely integrated layers of fresh citrus, orange marmalade, ginger cake, and dried fruits. Hints of graham cracker, almonds, and milk chocolate emerge on a somewhat racy (and winey) finish. Very hard to find. About 1500 bottles made. 92 proof. A- / $530

ancnoc.com