Review: Glen Oak Single Malt Whiskies – 10, 17, and 30 Years Old

Glen Oak

Today we’re looking at a collection of single malt Scotch whiskies from our friends at Branded Spirits. This whisky is bottled under the brand of Glen Oak, which isn’t an actual distillery — in fact, the various bottlings of Glen Oak are sourced from two different distilleries, in two different regions of the country, but all of them carry the Glen Oak name.

Thoughts on the full lineup follow.

Glen Oak 10 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Sourced from an undisclosed Highland distillery. This is a very fresh and lively single malt, offering pretty florals up front, grassy notes, and just a hint of smoke. On the back end, nougat and light honey notes make this incredibly easy to enjoy. The finish is light, fresh, and uncomplicated. 80 proof. A- / $41

Glen Oak 17 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Sourced from Bruichladdich, a very lightly peated expression. Wildly different from the 10 year old, with nutty and intense roasted barley notes, the brooding nose leads the way to light notes of iodine and tobacco. Quite bold and chewy. 80 proof. B+ / $95

Glen Oak 30 Years Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Sourced from the same still as the 10 year old. The nose offers heavy florals, powerful notes of furniture polish, and a growing barrel influence. Very rich on the palate, it showcases a much different character here, comprising florals, light honey, and sandalwood notes. Complex and thoroughly enjoyable. 80 proof. A- / $290

brandedspiritsusa.com

Review: Alexander Walker & Co. Polly’s Casks Double Barrel Aged Single Malt Scotch Whisky

pollys casks

Who is Polly and what is so special about her casks? Allow me to explain.

Alexander Murray is a major private Scotch bottler — in the U.S. it’s best known for making the Kirkland brand of whiskies that show up in Costco (and which we often write about).

With Polly’s Casks, Alexander Murray has something far more complex in mind. It starts with 60 barrels of Tullibardine single malt whisky, aged normally in used bourbon barrels. AM shipped this whisky to Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in California, which then aged for an additional 12 months that already-maturing Tullibardine in oak barrels used for Firestone’s Proprietor’s Vintage beers. (Those barrels in turn were also used bourbon barrels… circle of life, circle of whisky.) The whiskies, released with no primary aging information, have been named after the matriarch of the Walker clan, Polly Firestone Walker.

That’s a big build-up. How does it all acquit itself?

The whisky is clearly very young, a pale shade of yellow I mainly associate with aged gins or reposado tequila. The nose offers simple and sweet cereal notes, gentle fruit, and just a touch of smoke. Some green, vegetal hints emerge here as well, once the whiskey opens up with air.

On the palate the spirit is a bit brighter, but it still drinks quite young. Sweet and grainy, the body offers caramel corn and a hint of baking spice… and little else. Only on the finish does the brewery’s influence start to show itself, with a slightly tannic, bittersweet edge that offers echoes of roasted nuts, charcoal, and iodine.

This isn’t an immediately successful spirit, but the main problem lies in its youth. A beer barrel might take a mature single malt in a new direction, but this whisky just doesn’t seem to have much to work with from the start. It’s not a bad product by any means, but there’s just not enough to get excited about, particularly at this price.

80 proof.

B- / $86 / alexandermurray.com

Review: Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Lineup – 12 DeLuxe, Master, 18 Special Reserve, and Red Seal

Buchanan's Special Reserve

Buchanan’s isn’t a blended Scotch brand that gets a whole lot of play, or respect, stateside, and my experiences with it in the past have not been particularly memorable.

Today I put aside my preconceptions and sat down with the full hierarchy of four expressions, tasting them in order from bottom to top, to see how they really stack up against the big blend brands. Note that two of the products are just “Buchanan’s.” The higher-echelon bottlings add “James” to the front of that to give them more gravitas.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

Buchanan’s DeLuxe 12 Years Old – Malty and fresh, this is a young but lively blend  that showcases ample honey and sugared cereal notes, plus a light dusting of citrus. The finish is surprisingly lengthy and warming, its honey and lemon notes hanging on for quite awhile. Overall, it’s exactly what you’re expecting in a light-bodied blended Scotch, uncomplicated and built for blending — or budget sipping, if that’s your bag. B+ / $26

Buchanan’s Master – A NAS blend that is the “personal creation” of master blender Keith Law. It’s a burlier, more savory blend that more clearly showcases the grain, heather, and some light mushroom notes. A bolder, more oily body leads to a slightly vegetal finish, lengthy with notes of roasted nuts, rhubarb, and a bit of motor oil. An interesting adjunct to the 12, but less balanced or clear in its approach. B / $38

James Buchanan’s Special Reserve 18 Years Old – Drinking with austerity, this blend amps up notes of almond, nougat, and chocolate, all atop a dense honey syrup backbone that gives it some weight. Some orange notes arrive on the otherwise nutty finish, touched with a slight dusting of herbs — and a healthy, palate-coating grip. Surprisingly engaging. A- / $60

James Buchanan’s Red Seal – The top of the Buchanan’s line, here we find the blend pumping up the sherry considerably, while backing that up with a weighty, oily body that offers plenty of malt, nougat, and a smattering of fresh herbs, particularly a clipping of rosemary. The finish is enduring and strongly focused on the sherry component, an unmistakably earthy, woody, slightly sweet orange peel character that really endures, leaving behind echoes of toasted marshmallow and slivered almonds. As blends go, you’ll have trouble finding one with more nuance and grace. A- / $140

buchananswhisky.com

Review: Laphroaig Lore

Laphroaig_Bottle and Tube_LORE_

“The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies.” “A stunningly complex expression.” “The story of how we make Laphroaig, encapsulating the skills that have been passed down from generation to generation for over two centuries.”

Laphroaig doesn’t beat around the bush when describing Laphroaig Lore, its newest limited edition release from the peat-filled island of Islay.

Lore is heavy on superlatives but short on actual production information. What is known is that it is a “marriage of classical Laphroaig styles and many ages of Laphroaig; some as old as vintage 1993.” What that means is that Lore is essentially a vatting of a wide range of Laphroaig casks, including including “double matured first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels followed by virgin European Oak, first-fill Oloroso Sherry butts, first-fill and refill quarter casks, and refill ex-Laphroaig stock.”

So, you can take a shot of every bottle of Laphroaig in your collection and mix it up… or try this.

The results are quite good, completely in line with some of Laphroaig’s best expressions.

The nose is loaded with classic and heavy peat notes, all iodine, seaweed, and beachside fire pit. The sweetness lies beneath, taking the form of green banana, tangerine, and some scorched cloves.

On the palate, things start off as expected, with dense and sticky-smoky-sweet peat over everything. Quite a bit of that fruit comes through — primarily sherry-driven citrus notes, backed up by notes of sugar cookies, lemongrass, and lots of salty brine. The finish is big, bold, and lengthy, gripping the palate for ages. All the stuff of classic Laphroaig, just a bit outsized in comparison to standard expressions.

Lore doesn’t reinvent the wheel (Laphroaig would likely argue that it merely rediscovers it), but it’s not one that was in need of reinvention in the first place.

96 proof.

A- / $125 / laphroaig.com

Review: Ardbeg Dark Cove

dark cove

There’s been much chatter about Ardbeg’s latest special release, Dark Cove, which uses a lot of flowery language to say that this “darkest Ardbeg ever” is blended from a mix of bourbon cask-matured and sherry cask-matured (presumed to be Pedro Ximenez) stock. No age statement is included, per the norm.

Saying this is the darkest Ardbeg ever (which is always very pale in color) is a bit like me bragging about my darkest tan ever, but perhaps that’s irrelevant. How does Dark Cove actually taste? Let’s give it a shot.

The nose shows sherry first, with an undercurrent, quite restrained initially, of pure peat. Touches of coffee, anise, and cloves fade in and out, giving the whisky an exotic approach. The body is smokier but still mildly peaty, with notes of smoked fish, creosote, dark (nearly burnt) toffee, and some fresh ash. The sherry-driven citrus notes find a purchase here, but only for a time before the slightly rubbery finish takes hold.

Ardbeg’s limited edition releases have slowly been dialing back their heavy peat character for years now, and Dark Cove is another step along that journey. The sherry masks some of the youth that’s otherwise evident in this release, but I can’t say I don’t like the way it works with the addition. It’s not my favorite expression of Ardbeg to arrive in recent years — and in comparison to a number of recent releases it’s on the lackluster side — but on the whole I still find myself managing to enjoy it well enough to cautiously recommend.

93 proof.

B+ / $190 / ardbeg.com 

Review: Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old and 18 Years Old

Port Dundas 12

While the history of the distillery is complex, Diageo-owned Port Dundas has been producing single grain spirit since the mid-1800s, making it one of the oldest grain distilleries in Scotland. At least until 2010, when it was shuttered. The whisky that flowed from these Glasgow-based stills was used far and wide in blends like Johnnie Walker, J&B, and more. To honor this storied but now silent still, Diageo is releasing two single grain expressions that bear the Port Dundas name, drawn from now restricted stock.

Let’s look at these two limited release expressions, a 12 year old and an 18 year old bottling.

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 12 Years Old – No surprises on the nose, which offers heavy cereal notes and some astringent hospital character, alongside some root vegetable character. On the palate, things brighten up, the grains offering up some notes of lemongrass and dark brown sugar — but counterbalanced by notes of mushroom and wet earth. On the whole it drinks like a very light style of blended Scotch, which isn’t a slight, but which isn’t the biggest compliment I have in my pocket, either. 80 proof. B / $50

Port Dundas Single Grain Whisky 18 Years Old – A clear step up from the 12, this is single grain firing on all cylinders. The nose is much more dense, with aromas of nuts, toffee, flamed orange oil, and a wisp of smoke. On the palate, the slightly higher alcohol level makes all the difference, rounding out the mouthfeel with some welcome oiliness and punching up the body with notes of spiced nuts, more toffee, vanilla custard, cinnamon toast, and some menthol, particularly on the finish. Unlike the simplistic 12, this expression drinks closer to a quality single malt, offering both complexity and boldness, elegance and power. Definitely worth seeking out. 86 proof. A- / $100

malts.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2016

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The 17th annual Whiskies of the World event wrapped this March in San Francisco, and it was as fun and chaotic as ever to wander three stories of the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, moored in the San Francisco Bay.

This year I focused my attention primarily on independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, with Alexander Murray and Gordon & MacPhail both in attendance, along with veterans like the Exclusive Malts and Chieftain’s collections. Also highly worthwhile: A new distillery, Mosswood, which ages light whiskey in a variety of oddball barrels to produce the most exotic and interesting “flavored” whiskey you’ve ever tried. As for my favorite spirit of the night? Arran’s delightful “Smugglers’ Illicit Stills” offering, which comes complete in a fake book (see photo).

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Alexander Murray Bladnoch 25 Years Old – Notes of roasted nuts, grains, a touch of lychee / B
Alexander Murray Monumental Blended Scotch 30 Years Old – Very grainy — a surprise — notes of hay / B
Alexander Murray Speyside 40 Years Old – Quite gentle, malty, quiet citrus; surprising that this is 40 years old / A
The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso – A bit overblown, with big toffee notes / B+
Aberlour Scapa Skiren – Simple; easygoing, with gentle grain structure / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old – Big molasses notes, scorched caramel, nice stuff / A-
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old – Ginger is fun, but granary notes surprise / B+
Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Years Old – Quite maritime, gentle peat and salt spray / A-
Lagavulin 12 Years Old – The classic; nothing new to report / B+
Lagavulin Distillers Edition Double Matured – Gorgeous, big mouthfeel and better balanced than the standard Lag 12 / A-
Glenmorangie Signet – Sweet chocolate notes, coffee, almost overblown with dessert notes / A-
The Balvenie 17 Years Old DoubleWood – Classic; light sherry, nougat, well balanced / A-
Macallan Rare Cask / Rounded and well sherried; still drinking lovely / A-
Chieftain’s Glen Grant 20 Years Old – Slightly racy, with heavy cereal notes / B
Chieftain’s Linkwood 17 Years Old – Chewy, with cherry notes, gentle finish / A-
Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 2002 – A big crowd pleaser, but it didn’t resonate with me; big cereal notes, yeasty, slightly astringent / B
Exclusive Malts Girvan 1988 Single Grain – Butterfinger candies, buttery body, surprising for a single grain / B+
Arran Amarone Finish – Starts off hot; leads to raisin and chocolate notes, a bit scattered / B+
Arran Smugglers’ Illicit Stills – Quietly spicy, with tons of malt, honey, and a touch of smoke; really compelling / A

022Bourbon

PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Eagle Rare – The first of five single barrel releases on tap from SF’s PlumpJack; big butterscotch notes, but quite woody / B
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV 8 years, 8 months – Lovely, with some pepper to it / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO 10 years, 6 months – Lots of heat; a bit astringent; peppermint notes / B+
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF 11 years, 7 months – Honeyed with baking spices and cinnamon / A-
PlumpJack Wine & Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel OESQ 10 years, 5 months – Popcorn and malt, rather plain / B
Healthy Spirits Old Scout 9 Years Old – Another private bottling; big caramel, chocolate, cinnamon… but a touch grainy / B+

Other

Brenne 10 Years Old – The 10 year old expression of this French malt; enduring grain, notes of gingersnaps / B+
J. Seeds Apple Cider Whiskey – Unpalatable, incredible bite / C-
Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof – Lovely apple and caramel, with a drying finish / A-
Mosswood Apple Brandy Barrel Aged – Mosswood makes light whiskey and ages it in different barrels, giving it a really unique structure; this one has beautiful fruit, with gentle, cider-like character / A-
Mosswood Espresso Barrel Aged – Slightly smoky, earthy, and nutty – not the heavy coffee bomb you might expect / A-
Mosswood Umeshu Single Barrel Aged – An Asian plum wine barrel gives this a curious notes; on the palate the fruit really emerges alongside spice and a sweet backbone; quite a revelation in “flavored” whiskey / A
Germain-Robin Old Havana Brandy – A touch of tobacco, lingering raisin, very soft / A-
Germain-Robin Single Barrel Brandy – Bigger body, heavy raisin and spice elements / B+
Low Gap Wheat Whiskey 4 Years Old – Heavy pear notes, very fruity / B+
Roundstone Rye – 100% rye; youthful, earthy, mouth-filling / B-
Roundstone Rye 92 Proof – More rounded; heavy cloves / B+
Roundstone Rye Cask Proof – Aged in maple syrup casks and it shows; a bit cloying / B
Seven Stills of San Francisco Whipnose – 7 Stills makes whiskey from different styles of beer; this one’s an IPA base. Classic IPA notes add density and ample hops / B+
Seven Stills of San Francisco Fluxuate – Coffee porter base with a touch of espresso added on the back end; clear coffee notes, slight caramel; lingering coffee finish / A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Dogpatch – Sour beer based, finished in a sour beer barrel. Some funk, a little cherry and raisin character; a bit crazy as whiskey goes. Need to spend more time with this one / B+