Review: Caol Ila 30 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Coal Ila 30YO Bottle

Yesterday we experienced Caol Ila’s unpeated expression; today it’s the full monty, and bottled at a full 30 years of age — the oldest Caol Ila ever released by the distillery itself. #4 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is a peat bomb straight outta Islay, distilled in 1983.

After 20 years or so, peated whiskies tend to settle down, and this Caol Ila is no exception. The nose offers notes of sweet citrus, mesquite smoke, and dense toffee. The body continues the theme, with gentle smokiness settling over notes of rum raisin, quince, licorice, and bitter roots. When the smoke settles, it leaves behind a bittersweet character that is paradoxically at once racy and soothing, a maritime whisky that is starting to feel its age — and I mean that in a delightful way.

110.2 proof. 7,638 bottles produced.

A- / $700 / malts.com

Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Caol Ila 15YO Bottle & Box

Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.

This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.

The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.

Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.

120.78 proof.

B+ / $120 / malts.com

Review: Brora 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Brora 35YO Bottles & Box

Whisky #2 of 11 for Diageo’s 2014 special releases is a familiar one: Brora 35 Years Old, which is being issued for the third time in three years.

Distilled in 1978, this is a classic expression from a long-shuttered distillery. (Shuttered in 1983, there can’t be much Brora left out there.)

The nose is a beautiful, old Highlands classic, offering a melange of fruit, Sauternes, nuts, and wisps of smoke. The whisky attacks the palate with buttery sweetness, bright fruit — apples, citrus, and a bit of banana — then mellows out as the woodier, more maritime notes take hold. The distinct salt and seaweed notes are stronger here than in recent years, with the finish pushing on toward iodine and more smokiness than the nose would indicate. It’s this fireside character that lingers for ages, until you cut it again with a sip of that sweet nectar that comes on like sweet relief.

Simply gorgeous and hard to put down (as always), if you enjoyed Brora’s 2013 or 2012 special edition releases, well, pull out your wallet.

97.2 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A / $1,250 / malts.com

Review: Benrinnes 21 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Benrinnes 21YO Bottle & Box

One of the most anticipated annual events in Scotch whisky is now upon us: Diageo’s Special Releases, antiquities both old and new (mostly old) from some of Scotland’s most storied distilleries. We’ve covered these releases for a few years, and 2014 (as each is formally labeled) presents us a bigger bounty than usual: 11 whiskies from some old friends and some new ones, too.

2014 Diageo Rare Malts

We’ll be reviewing one spirit a day for the next 11 days, so keep coming back to get the lowdown on the whole series.

Our first Diageo 2014 review is from Benrinnes, an active Speyside distillery that was best known for a curious triple distillation method, unusual for Scotland. This was abandoned in the 2000s, but this 21 year old would have undergone the process back in 1992 when it was distilled. There are no ongoing, distillery-issued Benrinnes bottlings produced today, so this release (the first in five years) comprises just a handful of the few casks that will get the “official” seal.

At 21 years old, Benrinnes showcases a mild, malty nose redolent with nuts, toast, and fresh grains. The palate is something else entirely. Huge fruit notes start things off: apple cider, currants, and orange peel. There’s a somewhat musty undertone to this, but it’s beat out by the other elements. The body is chewy and oily, the finish lasting, warming, and grounded by its grainy roots — just hinting at smoke at the very end. This is a whisky with a lot going on — but fortunately the fruit and the malt elements remain in harmony throughout the experience. None of the characteristics here are entirely unexpected, but the way Benrinnes brings them together is well worth considering.

113.8 proof. 2,892 bottles produced.

A- / $400 / malts.com

Review: Glenmorangie Tusail

Tusail Bottle & Carton (White)

The Glenmorangie Private Collection continues to grow, with Tusail the latest launch from this Highlands producer. The focus on this one isn’t a special barrel-aging regimen (typical for Glenmorangie), but rather it’s a unique type of barley used to make the whisky. In Glenmorangie’s own words:

The 6th release from Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition, Tùsail is the product of a carefully-selected parcel of Maris Otter barley, floor-malted by hand using traditional techniques, and non chill-filtered. A rich winter variety of barley first introduced in 1965, Maris Otter was bred specifically to meet the demand for a high quality brewing malt and recognized for its ability to impart rich, rustic malty flavours. Now used only by a select few who continue, like Glenmorangie, to uphold an ethos of sacrificing yield for quality by using only the finest ingredients, the result is a whisky celebrating the variety’s renowned taste profile.

This is an exotic and curious expression of Glenmorangie. The nose features cereal notes backed by lots of sugared fruit — pears, tangerine, and some honey on the back end. The body is driven heavily by the grain, but it’s tempered with notes of cinnamon toast, pears (or pear-sauce, if that exists), and a bready, malty chewiness. The finish is racy and hot, really a bit of a scorcher at times, pushing a bit of fruitcake character blended with pear cider. Ultimately, Tusail isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like. I understand the desire to showcase the grain, but said grain just isn’t integrated well enough with the fruity components of the spirit, leaving behind a whisky with two faces. Both are interesting, but they seem to still be struggling against one another for dominance.

92 proof.

B / $125 / glenmorangie.com

Review: Grand Macnish Black Edition Blended Scotch

grand_macnish_black_edition

That weirdly dimpled bottle belongs to Grand Macnish, a venerable — but seldom seen in the States — brand of blended Scotch whisky that hails from Glasgow. Several expressions are produced, with this newly released “Black Edition” being a non-age-statement spirit that is aged in double-charred bourbon barrels.

A little brutish on the nose, it offers a punch of raw alcohol notes, followed by a modestly malty, grainy, and lightly peaty character that builds as you breathe deeply. On the palate, both of these elements are present in ample proportions, complemented by sawdust and some honey character, the latter mostly evident on the back end. The finish isn’t entirely appealing, with a somewhat raw and tough character that comes across as a bit weedy and overbearing. Some smoky elements eventually emerge, particularly as the whisky gets some air into it. On the whole, though, there’s just not much to see here except a standard, almost workmanlike example of a basic blended whisky.

80 proof.

C+ / $25 / macduffint.co.uk

Review: The Exceptional Grain Whisky

the exceptional grainGrain whisky fans can get excited. Here’s a new blended grain whisky that’s whipped up from some really old stock — by some industry pros. Details are a bit scarce about the inaugural product from this new label — “Sutcliffe & Son” — but here’s what we do know.

[The Exceptional is a] … small batch Scotch Whisky created by Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers and 35-year veteran of distilled spirits marketing, in collaboration with Willie Phillips, for 23 years managing director of The Macallan. A blend of remarkable aged grain whiskies, including a barrel of 30-year-old from the Carsebridge Distillery, long since closed. Finished in first-fill sherry casks.

Big cereal notes attack the nose, with an undercurrent of sherry and citrus. As can often be the case with grain whiskies, it’s a bit tough to sink your teeth into at first, those toffee- and caramel-scented cereal notes really muscling everything else out of the way. There’s some essence of mint, jasmine, and coal dust that phases in and out while sipping this spirit, but the finish remains stuck with the granary. Drying and a touch dusty, it’s almost stark in its austerity and simplicity, until finally The Exceptional Grain lets go of its grip and releases just a hint of sweetness at the very end to soften things up. It’s an intriguing whisky, but one that takes some warming up to.

86 proof. 1500 bottles produced.

Also of note: An Exceptional Malt and Exceptional Blend are currently in the works for release this year.

B / $90 / craftdistillers.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

Majeste_XO_White Background

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

Data Sheet Original Cask Strength copy

It’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of whiskies that flow from Islay’s Kilchoman, but this one really is unique: It’s the first official distillery bottling to be released at cask strength. (An ImpEx exclusive was also cask strength, but that was a just a single barrel. This release comprises 9,200 bottles.)

Production is simple for this release. All ex-bourbon-barreled whisky here, no sherry finishing, and all five years old. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

This is a big, briny, classically Islay whisky that sticks closely to the iodine-driven Kilchoman house style (at least its sans-sherry style). There’s a nice sweetness in the middle of this, some marshmallow, banana, and just a bit of pear on the back end. The finish offers up notes of smoked meats and peppery bacon — with ample fire driven by the high alcohol level. Good balance, and plenty of oomph thanks to the cask strength, but ultimately this doesn’t much change the overall picture that Kilchoman has painted to date.

118.4 proof.

B+ / $115 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com