Review: Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection Mortlach 1998 16 Years Old

signatoryThis beautiful indie bottling of Mortlach spent 33 months of its 16 years in an Oloroso Sherry butt, then was outturned and bottled at cask strength.

Gorgeous color here, with deep aromas of sherry, walnuts, oily leather, and some madeira character. At full strength, it’s quite a blazer. Though it’s barely over 110 proof, this bottling is positively scorching — and that’s coming from someone quite accustomed to high-test bourbons sans water.

A healthy splash of water brings out this whisky at its absolute finest. Malty and nougat-laden at the core, it offers notes of ripe banana and more of that walnut before segueing into the sherry finish. It’s a big one, showcasing the citrus-focused wine in all its glory, almost chocolatey at times as it offers flamed orange oil and spicy aromatics.

An amazing whisky. Don’t miss it.

111.6 proof. Reviewed: Cask #1, bottle 629 of 669, from K&L Wine Merchants. (Binny’s has cask #2, by the way.)

A / $100 /

Review: Ardbeg Supernova Committee Release SN2015

ardbeg supernova 2015By now you have probably had your fill of news about how Ardbeg sent some whisky into space and how it became a magical superspirit after three years in microgravity. 2015’s Supernova bottling — Ardbeg’s mega-peated expression — is being released in honor of these findings. (Remember: There is no actual space whisky in the bottle.) What you might have missed amongst the hubbub is that SN2015 is the final release of Supernova. I don’t know if that really means there will never be another Supernova release (distilleries are awful about that whole “never say never” thing), but for now, it’s your last chance to get your mitts on this heavily peated and highly coveted spirit.

There’s no real production information provided for this year’s whisky, so let’s just dive in.

On the nose, peat smoke starts things off as expected, but with an undercurrent of maple syrup and orange marmalade. As with most Supernova releases, the body is composed of a mix of pungent smoke, iodine and sea spray, and preserved fruits. The finish evokes bacon and some chocolate notes.

For 2015 the overall level of sweetness is in regimented, pacing the smokiness of the whisky step for step. Despite the 100ppm of phenols, it’s not a peaty blowout, nor is it sherried into oblivion. All told, it comes across not unlike any number of highly peated whiskies on the market  — well crafted and full of flavor, but ultimately short on uniqueness to the point of vague anonymity.

Can it be that after all these years, Supernova will not go out with an interstellar bang as promised — but will rather simply fade away?

108.6 proof.

B / $200 /

Review: The Exceptional Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

exceptional blend

The Exceptional Blended Malt is a line extension of The Exceptional Grain Whisky, which came out earlier this year.

The Exceptional Malt is a blend of single malts, with no grain whisky added, including: a 16-year-old Ben Nevis, a first-fill sherry butt of Glenburgie, a vatted barrel of Balvenie, Kininvie, & Glenfiddich, a 13-year-old Speyside, a 25-year-old Speyburn, and a 30-year-old Macallan. The conflagration is then blended for further aging in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks.

There’s not much to dislike in that lineup, at least on paper, and The Exceptional is a mighty and quite engaging whisky. The nose starts things off with a ton of malt and big, roasted cereal grains. No sugary breakfast cereal here, this is a hearty bowl of toasted barley, straight off the stalk. Sherry makes a moderate appearance after that, along with some lighter astringent/hospital notes.

The palate runs straight to the sherry, with grainy notes folding in atop that. Initially it’s a bit simplistic — a friendly duo of citrus and cereal — but over time notes of green banana, pound cake, and a slight vegetal character emerge. This adds a bit of depth, but the finished product isn’t 100 percent cohesive. I wonder if the collection of barrels that went into this blend were ultimately a bit random? Stuff that wouldn’t cut it as a single malt so, what the hell, let’s blend them all together.

As the finish emerges, nice caramel notes soothe the palate and smooth out the whisky — which has the tendency of making you forget many of your complaints. What was I saying, then?

86 proof.


Review: The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 2 Single Malt

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 2 Bottle & Tube Diagram side 750ml EMAIL

Balvenie’s roughly annual Tun release is here, with Tun 1509, Batch 2 now arriving on our shores. (For the first in the series, see Tun 1509, Batch 1.)

Similar to Batch 1, Batch 2 is a vatting of 23 traditional American oak casks and nine European oak sherry casks, a somewhat smaller collection of barrels comprising this collection.

Here, the sherry influence is naturally strong on the nose, but that sharp, citrus note is balanced by deeply nutty, malty overtones. Some burnt marshmallow comes along in time. Topping 100 proof (Batch 1 was just 94.2 proof), it’s got more heat on it than you’d expect, and a drop or two of water does the whisky justice.

The body is initially quite warm and loaded with nutty notes, lots of malt and cereal. This drinks like a younger whisky and, judging from the alcohol level, it probably is, offering a palate that is dominated by wood and heavy, well-roasted grains. Sherry makes an encore appearance on the back end, fading out with a mix of sharp orange, cloves, and more granary notes. Again, the overall impact is one of youth — and though there’s nothing wrong with younger stock, I’m not sure it’s the right direction for the Tun series.

Let me put it another way: It’s not the right direction for a $350 whisky.

100.6 proof.

B / $350 /

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Fifth Release

kilchoman 5th ed

The 2015 edition of 100% Islay from Kilchoman (which features nothing but Islay-born ingredients) is now in its fifth generation. This lightly peated bottling is a vatting of whiskies distilled in 2009-2010 and matured in first-fill bourbon casks, just like last year’s fourth edition. The major difference is an extra year of age (though, as usual, there’s no actual age statement).

How does that extra year impact release #5? The peat is really starting to mellow out here, showing sweet elements alongside some emerging chocolate notes on the nose. Ripe banana remains a strong component on the palate alongside more traditional caramel and vanilla notes, though a relatively heavier smokiness on the finish takes this expression of 100% Islay in a somewhat different direction than earlier bottlings. There’s a considerable amount of lingering roasted grain character here, too.

All told it’s a curious but quite enjoyable malt: The smoke starts off understated but eventually builds enough to showcase the whisky’s Islay heritage while still providing enough room for the barley to shine.

100 proof.

B+ / $100 /

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Third Release


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 /

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.


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) /

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 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’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 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 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.


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 /