Review: Highland Park ICE Edition 17 Years Old

ICE Bottle Cradle 700ml LR

Highland Park continues its release of rarities with ICE Edition, a limited release of 17 year old single malt whisky. Now that it’s exhausted the Norse pantheon, more or less, it’s moving on to the elements. This is the first in a series, though how far it will go is a mystery for now.

HP offers a mountain of information about the inspiration behind the release. While it’s short on actual production data (we do know it’s a 17 year old, and seems to be fairly traditionally produced in the Highland Park style), it does tell quite a story to at least get you in the mood:

Highland Park, the award-winning single malt whisky, is proud to announce the launch of ICE Edition.  This stunning expression celebrates the Viking roots of the brand’s Orkney Islands home, where the Norse influence and culture existed for hundreds of years before Highland Park single malt whisky was even created.

Naturally vivid and radiant in color with a 53.9% abv, this special edition is limited to only 3,915 bottles for the U.S.

In blue tinted, bespoke glass reflecting dazzling and glittering ice, the bottle shape has been designed to evoke the distinctive sharpness and coolness of the mythical, magical Ice Realm.  The bottle is encased in a stunning mountain-shaped wooden cradle with an accompanying wooden stopper.

The intricate circle design on the label itself represents the circle of life – the creation of the world, protected by a dragon, which is a mythical creature often central in classic Norse mythology.  A booklet accompanying this new expression, recounts the story of the realm of the Ice Giants and their colorful battle against the Gods to rule the world.

ICE Edition will be followed by FIRE Edition in 2017 and follows on from the recent Valhalla Collection, which championed the stories of the four legendary Gods of Asgard:  Thor, Loki, Freya, and Odin.

OK, ready to visit the magical Ice Realm with me?

First up, the whisky is quite light in color, with a bit of a greenish cast even when it’s not in the blue-tinted bottle. The nose is moderately briny, but also quite sweet — simple brown sugar notes engaging curiously with iodine and just a touch of peat smoke. A touch of orange blossom notes add a floral element after the whisky gets some air.

On the palate, the sugary sweetness initially dominates, quickly morphing into a fruity, citrus character. Some tropical notes grow in time as well. Lightly oily, the emerging iodine kick is heavy, giving the whisky a solid sense of the sea, complete with an ashy, coal-fired cruiser putting around in the water. The finish is light in comparison to the typical Highland Park bottling, despite the relatively high alcohol level, though the lingering smokiness is both unusual and somewhat enchanting.

HP fans will easily find it worth a look.

107.8 proof.

A- / $300 / highlandpark.co.uk

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- / $50

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+ / $99

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- / $500

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