Review: Chieftain’s Batch #9 – Linkwood 1997, Mortlach 1997, Braeval 1996, Fettercairn 1996, Glen Grant 1995

chieftains

Don’t look now! It’s our biggest single review of indie bottler Chieftain’s yet — five new releases of well-aged single malts, all distilled in the late 1990s, all but one hailing from Speyside.

Let’s dig in to these morsels and have a taste.

Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Speyside. Exotic and nutty with notes of old sherry on the nose, with a touch of mothball — though not in a bad way. The sherry pushes through to the palate, almost bruisingly so, bringing on notes of baking spices, roasted grains, stewed fruit, and more nuts on the finish. Everything is delightfully well integrated, with a lengthy, warming finish. 92 proof. A / $90

Chieftain’s Mortlach 1997 18 Years Old Pedro Ximenez Sherry Finish – Speyside. Mortlach is one of my favorite distilleries, but here things are blown out by the overwhelming PX sherry notes, which kick things off with notes of malted milk, carob, and burnt almonds. The body has a slightly bitter, acrid tone to it, again with notes of burnt — burnt nuts, burnt grain, burnt wood. Touches of classically honeyed Mortlach sweetness offer plenty to enjoy, but the sherry finish is just a bit too far off to make this the knockout it should be. 92 proof. B / $90

Chieftain’s Braeval 1996 19 Years Old Beaune Cask Finish – Speyside, with a red Burgundy wine cask finish. A quaint operation in central Speyside that’s part of Chivas Bros., dating back to only 1973. The red wine finish runs the show here, starting with a nose that mingles toasty grain with raisin and cherry notes. The nougat-laden body is loaded with fruit, more of that raisin-cherry compote with a touch of lingering cinnamon and clove. Fun and unexpected. 92 proof. A- / $110

Chieftain’s Fettercairn 1996 19 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Eastern Highlands. A classic, big, and burly whisky, heady on the nose with florals, fresh cut apple, and caramel sauce. The body is unctuous and creamy, offering hot and nutty marzipan notes plus a vegetal character. The finish layers on the slightest touch of smoke. 114.8 proof. B+ / $121

Chieftain’s Glen Grant 1995 20 Years Old Bourbon Finish – Speyside. I’m unclear if this is finished in a second bourbon cask or if it just spends the full 20 years in one, but this is a bit off the beaten path of your typical Speyside single malt. Zippy and spicy on the nose, it offers notes of gunpowder and matches, plus well-torched caramel and hints of licorice. On the palate, again it showcases red and black pepper, creme brulee notes, and crispy caramel — with a touch of mint. It’s a relatively straightforward whiskey, but one that is well-balanced and enjoyable throughout. 110.2 proof. A- / $143

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Review: Kirkland Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 16 Years Old Bourbon Cask Matured

kirkland 16 years old single maltEvery time Costco’s Kirkland brand releases a single malt Scotch whisky without revealing the distillery that made it, tongues start to wag. Prices are generally well below retail — though today’s 16 year old is higher than the mystery 20 year old released just three years ago — so whisky enthusiasts often grab a bottle to see if something wonderful has been sleeping in the stacks and stacks of pallets.

A departure from recent whiskies that have generally seen some time in sherry casks, this latest Kirkland release is a 16 year old matured exclusively in bourbon casks. It’s a Highland malt — which basically means it could be from almost anywhere — and the use of bourbon casks, which are ubiquitous in Scotland, offers no guidance, either. Producer Alexander Murray has a long history of releasing whiskies like this.

Let’s give it a taste.

Malty on the nose, there are aromas of honey, toffee, vanilla, and coconut, plus a touch of menthol. The body is traditional and wholly expected for a bourbon-cask aged malt whisky of this age and provenance. Chewy nougat, more toasted coconut, and lightly leathery notes endure for a while. The mouthfeel is rather flat and restrained, though that may largely be a product of it being bottled at just 80 proof. The whisky kicks up a slight sweetness on the finish that hints at fresh green apples, a touch of lemon (think hot tea with a slice of citrus), and caramel sauce — adding a little nuance. It’s pleasant and fairly clean — and improves with time in the glass — but on the whole it’s largely an uneventful dram.

So, what is it?

While Costco has had a lengthy relationship with Macallan, this doesn’t much resemble it. The whole affair is just a bit too flabby for Speyside, I think, leaving me to wonder if this doesn’t hail from somewhere a bit further afield and without a ton of notoriety — Glen Garioch, Glencadam, or Deanston, even — although it’s worth noting that Murray did produce a 16 year old Dailuaine for Costco last year.

80 proof.

B / $49 / costco.com

Review: Highland Queen Blended Scotch 3 Years Old

highland_queen__68997_origProduced by the same parent company that owns the Tullibardine single malt distillery, this young blend drinks right about where you’d expect, considering its sub-$20 pedigree and obvious youth.

The nose is initially a little odd — hot, but — and stick with me for this — with a funky yet crystal-clear tomato sauce character. It isn’t exactly off-putting, but it does seems wildly out of place. On the palate, things at least settle down a little. Notes of iodine, burnt sugar, licorice, and mothballs alternately arise over the course of a session, none making much of an impact. The finish is laden with camphor and vague vegetal notes.

Generally safe to pass unless the rock bottom price tag is appealing.

80 proof.

C- / $16 / highlandqueen.com

Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Port Ellen 15

And, for last: The unicorn, Port Ellen 32.

After years of incrementing the age on the most-treasured release of the Diageo Special Releases — Port Ellen — the company has taken a step back. While 2014’s edition was a 35 year old distilled in 1978, this year’s is a 32 year old distilled in 1983, the year in which Port Ellen was shut down.

In other words: We’re getting to the end of the line of Port Ellen, so if the price tag doesn’t put you off, it’s time to pick up a bottle or two.

This 2015 edition of Port Ellen, aged in refill European oak, is a bold expression of three-decade-old PE that won’t offer many surprises to fans of this distillery’s style. The nose features sharp citrus and tons of smokiness, a chewy blazer from the get-go that pours on the peat. While prior expressions of old Port Ellen utilize smoke almost as an afterthought, here it’s a touchstone that defines the spirit.

Water helps to settle down a spirit that is loaded with barbecue smoke and juicy sherry notes. Tempered, it shows a far more nuanced fruit character, including classic banana, peach, and some golden raisins. The smoke takes a back seat, as it should on this spirit.

Still, I can’t help but feel that in the five years that passed between when the last edition of Port Ellen was distilled and this one was, something has been lost. A whisky from a distillery’s final year of production may mean a magical rarity — but it may also mean you’re getting something from the final season of Lost. Were things going south at Port Ellen, things which necessitated its closure? Were corners being cut? I don’t have the details, but I do feel like the magic seems to have seeped out of this whisky a bit in those five lost years.

It’s still a good whisky, mind you. Just not $3500 good.

107.8 proof. 2964 bottles produced.

A- / $3500 / malts.com

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Lagavulin 12

A perennial part of the Diageo Special Releases, this is 15th time Lagavulin 12 has appeared in the collection.

At this point you probably know what you’re getting with the Lag 12 — a slightly younger, higher-proof version of the classic Lagavulin 16. Hot and peaty, with sweet smoke and lots of iodine, it’s a mammoth Islay with all the classic notes of the sea. Hints of overripe fruit, green banana, and oily petrol all mingle together in a classic expression of this heavily peated whisky. The finish is scorching and lengthy. Water tempers the beast and coaxes out the sweeter, more rounded notes.

As I said with last year’s review, nothing much changes with this 12 year old edition of Lagavulin, and perhaps that’s as it should be. “Special” or no, it’s a reliable standby if you’re looking for an overproof Islay.

113.6 proof. 2964 bottles produced.

B+ / $135 / malts.com

Review: The Cally 40 Years Old Single Grain Limited Edition 2015

The Cally 40

Not every release in the 2015 Diageo Special Releases is a single malt — this one’s a single grain whisky.

The Cally was made at the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh, which was shuttered in 1988. The nickname stuck around, though, and Diageo kept a few barrels on hand to see how well single grain whisky could age into its fourth decade. Distilled in 1974, this is the oldest expression of The Cally ever released and reportedly only the second time Diageo has included a single grain release in the Special Release collection.

Immediately exotic, the nose mixes camphor with intense butterscotch sweetness and vague floral notes — a curious hint of things to come. The body is as powerful as the build-up hints at. The attack is all butterscotch — super-saturated with Demerara sugar — spiked with cinnamon and cloves. The medicinal and austere camphor notes build as that initial sugar rush fades, the whisky taking on a pungent character as it builds to a fiery finish. Here the fruitier elements of the whisky come to the fore — baked (burnt?) apples and nectarines — along with some gentle rosemary and thyme notes. A scent of nutmeg closes the door as The Cally 40 fades away — undoubtedly the best and most unusual single grain whisky I’ve ever experienced.

106.6 proof. 700 bottles released in the U.S.

A / $1200 / malts.com

Review: Dailuaine 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Dailuaine 34

This is my first experience with Dailuaine, and it’s quite a unique one. A Speyside distillery that’s been running off and on since 1852, nearly all of Dailuaine’s production ends up in Johnnie Walker blends. A rarity in the Diageo Special Releases, this 34 year old bottling (aged fully in ex-American oak casks) is the oldest official release of Dailuaine ever — by 12 years! — and the first time since 2009 that any official single malt has come from the distillery.

At over three decades in cask and two grand out of pocket, this better be a good whisky, no?

I’m happy to report that it is. The nose is dusty, deep, and rich, both woody and coal-fired, with notes of dark brown sugar and lightly vegetal overtones. The palate loads up from there, featuring notes of candied nuts, some menthol, clove-studded clementines, and a touch of floral character on the finish — rose petals, predominantly. The finish is quite warming, though it isn’t particularly high in alcohol, those fruity citrus notes giving it a bit of a hot cider character on the back end. The whisky lingers for the long haul, showcasing a melange of flavors that work together harmoniously.

This is one I kept going back to, a unique whisky that has tons of depth to explore.

101.8 proof. 700 bottles produced.

A- / $2000 / malts.com