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+

Review: Brora 37 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Brora 37 (Medium)

Our final (final final) bottling in the Diageo Special Editions, this 37 year old Brora, from the northern Highlands of Scotland, is the oldest (of 14 releases) of Brora ever bottled in this series, following a series of 35 year old expressions. Distilled in 1977, it has been aged fully in refill American oak hogsheads.

Brora has long been my favorite in the Diageo Special Editions, and the last few years’ releases of 35 year old bottlings have been second to none in Scotch whisky.

At 37 years of age, though, something seems lacking. The nose offers a familiar mix of honey and citrus, yet comes off a bit astringent, with a heavily perfumed element on the back end. The body is more successful, with gently peat layered atop notes of honey buns, crisp apple, blood orange, and toffee. Yet, there’s something the slightest bit off here, the flavor profile being pulled in a few too many directions, and the finish taking things in a slightly vegetal bent.

I enjoyed the whisky immensely, but it’s a step back from some of the most recent, stellar Broras we’ve seen. Not exactly a tragedy, but perhaps it’s a triple when you were hoping for another home run.

100.8 proof. 2976 bottles produced.

A- / $1800 / malts.com

Review: Pittyvaich 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Pittyvaich 25

Why don’t you know anything about Pittyvaich? Because the Speyside distillery was built in 1975 and torn down in 1993. As Diageo notes, this Special Edition release, distilled in 1989, survived longer than the distillery itself did.

Aged in refill American oak and first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, this is classic non-sherried Speyside from start to finish. On the nose, it’s surprisingly racy, its golden hues offering up gentle malt, heather, warm honey, butterscotch, and gentle vanilla.

In keeping with the luscious nose, the body is fairly hot yet quite well rounded, its oily, honey-dripping body showcasing a variety of treasures. Mild citrus, almonds, a smattering of baking spice — all come together quite beautifully to present themselves atop an enchantingly sweet palate, with a lingering finish that recalls Sauternes, honey syrup, and a slight dusting of cinnamon. Balanced just right, it showcases an achingly gorgeous sweetness without ever becoming cloying. It may not be incredibly complex, but its intensive focus on a handful of key, nicely harmonized flavors elevate this malt considerably.

A highlight of the 2015 Specials, at a “mere” $350, it’s also one of the best bargains in this year’s lineup.

99.8 proof. 5922 bottles produced.

A / $350 / malts.com