Review: Ardbeg Perpetuum

Ardbeg Perpetuum bottle & carton (NXPowerLite)

Ardbeg Day (May 30) is almost upon us, and as usual that means a new Limited Edition whisky from this classic islay distillery.

2015 marks Ardbeg’s 200th birthday, and for this momentous occasion the distillery has produced a special bottling: Ardbeg Perpetuum, an expression “inspired by the man styles, ideas and quirks of fate which have influenced Ardbeg recipes over time. It combines different styles, different flavours, different dreams and different trials, all skilfully married together in a melange of the very best Ardbeg has to offer.”

That means Perpetuum is a recipe that includes some very old and very young stock, aged in both bourbon and sherry casks, “and some surprises which hint at the future.” What that means, we can’t say for sure, but here’s what the whisky tastes like.

The color is moderate straw/light gold, hinting at youth. The nose cuts a familiar Ardbeg profile — sweetly smoky, like barbecue smoke, with a salty backbone. Don’t make any judgments yet, though. The body is something else entirely. Brine and seaweed hit the palate first, with less smoke than you’d think. Then comes a rich sweetness — honey, apricot jam, vanilla sugar, and some dark molasses on the back end. The finish has a sulfury edge to it, showcasing charred wood and dark chocolate, completing the tour of duty that takes this whisky from salt to sweet to bitter, all in one quick gulp. It’s incredible stuff that deserves a lot of time and even more introspection — and which stands as one of Ardbeg’s best releases to date.

94.8 proof.

A / $100 / ardbeg.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

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This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Highland Park Valhalla Collection – Odin

odin

The final expression of Highland Park’s four Valhalla Collection whiskies is here — Odin, “the Allfather” of the Norse pantheon. Odin follows Thor, Loki, and Freya (the lattermost was not readily available in the U.S. and we never reviewed it in depth), rounding out the collectible series.

16 years old and higher in proof than any of the quartet that preceded it, Odin, to my palate, hews closer to the Highland Park house style than its predecessors — although it’s truly an animal all its own. Odin spends its entire lifetime in first-fill and refill sherry casks, which give it a bracing winey, citrus character from the get-go. The nose is packed with juicy oranges, cinnamon, cloves, some honey/nougat notes, and just a hint of smoke, layers of complexity that engage the senses in full.

The body is rich to the point of being almost daunting, a silky and well-rounded spirit that goes down like a thick ice cream sundae. Flamed orange peel on vanilla custard, spiced nuts, fruitcake and gingerbread… it’s almost like a holiday in a glass. The powerful but nuanced malt goes on and on, but it’s that lightly smoky element that ultimately seals the deal and adds some balance to the dram. Imagine the embers of a dying fire and the aroma it kicks into the room at the end of the night… that’s what Odin drives into the mind and senses as it fades on the palate.

Yeah, too bad it’s April.

111.6 proof.

A / $350 / highlandpark.co.uk

Review: Chivas Regal Extra

Chivas Extra

Chivas? Yes, Chivas! And the brand is back with its first new blend in the U.S. in eight years: Chivas Extra.

Extra is made from Chivas’s collection of traditional malts and grain whiskies — including Strathisla single malt — that is finished in Oloroso sherry casks. The resulting spirit, positioned as a step up from the $25 Chivas 12 Year Old, is a surprisingly fun expression of Chivas Regal, distancing itself from the brand’s austere image through the use of the wine barrel finishing. (That said, Extra is bottled with no age statement.)

On the nose, it’s a bit hard to parse at first: It’s woody, with notes of brown butter, baked apples, tangerines, graham crackers, a little Mexican chocolate, and ample malt. The nose ultimately congeals all of this into a bit more cohesive experience, starting with huge cereal notes then layering on notes of sugary tinned fruit, (very) ripe banana, sandalwood, and a bit of cinnamon. The body isn’t heavy or oily, but it does have a chewiness that gives it an interesting grip on the palate. All told, it’s a solid blend, and something worth sipping on at least once if for no other reason than to remind yourself that Chivas is still hard at work.

Available now in major U.S. metros. Expanding to the rest of the U.S. later this year.

80 proof.

B+ / $40 / chivas.com

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 36.67 and 93.61

smws Cask No. 93.61Surprise, it’s two new outturns from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Thoughts follow on two current releases.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 36.67 – 9 year old Benrinnes from Speyside. Burly, with notes of wet earth and the essence of a pre-lit campfire. There’s fruit here, but it comes across a bit like a canned tropical medley, loaded with syrupy guava and pineapple notes. Water brings out all of the above, both an intense and oily oak character alongside that unctuous fruitiness. With time, things coalesce into something akin to a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, but with a curious, evergreen finish. 119.8 proof. B+ / $100

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 93.61 – 14 year old Glen Scotia from Campbeltown. An exotic mix of fire and spice, this iodine-laden whisky kicks off with supple notes of nougat and marshmallow, with hints of citrus and banana. The fire and smoke kick up then, starting with simple peat and pushing into some fishy, kippery notes. Iodine blends with some syrupy notes on the back end, leading to a dry and dusty finish. Some balance issues on the whole, but it’s not without some charms. Much more approachable with water. Compare to 93.47, which we reviewed last year. 116.6 proof. B / $135

smwsa.com

Tasting 2015 Bruichladdich Releases with Distiller Jim McEwan

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Since Bruichladdich was reopened in 2001, just one man has been running the stills: Jim McEwan. A veteran from Bowmore (where he began working as a cooper at age 15), McEwan has overseen some 300 different bottlings of Bruichladdich during its wild first decade (and change) of production. When Remy Cointreau famously bought Bruichladdich in 2012, the distillery’s notoriously scattershot inventory was reined in, with the company focusing on a more targeted and more closely curated range of expressions.

I sat down with McEwan in San Francisco to taste through eight current and upcoming releases, and one thing was made clear. You might be able to tame the number of SKUs that Bruichladdich is churning out, but you’ll never get rid of the distiller’s sense of adventure and experimentation. Case in point: His next trick involves 100 tons of barley given to farms in eight regions within Scotland, which has now been turned into whiskey and is aging in identical barrels on Islay. The results, when these spirits are matured and released in 2018, will demonstrate exactly how terroir impacts malt whiskey.

Until then, here are some brief thoughts on a guided (but unfortunately short) tour through eight of Bruichladdich’s finest current-release spirits follow.

The Botanist Gin – McEwan’s baby. A traditional, classic dry gin with a twist. Distilled from neutral alcohol and studded with 22 botanicals. Still a gorgeous, supple spirit. Recently repackaged. A [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Scottish Barley The Classic Laddie – This is a 7 year old version of the beloved Laddie Ten (which you’ll see again in, well, 3 years). Made from barley grown all over Scotland. 25% aged in sherry casks. Rich and honeyed, with a significant sherry influence. Big mouthfeel, big bite on the finish. A-

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2007 – Made exclusively from Islay-grown barley, the first such barley grown on the island since World War I. Not peated, but it offers salt and maritime notes, a lot of malt character, and a touch of iodine. A great dram. A

Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 4.1 23 Years Old – McEwan is a bit smug about Black Art, which is a well-aged whisky made from mysterious sources — involving a huge variety of barrel types of which McEwan will say nothing. It’s intended to “intrigue the consumer” and is a bottling McEwan says was made as “a protest” to the bullshit stories that distilleries are so fond of peppering their back labels with. Black Art hasn’t always been a favorite of mine, but 4.1 is drinking with a better balance, with nice chewiness and plenty of wine barrel influence to it. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Scottish Barley – The first of two PC releases tasted today, this peaty dram sees some wine cask aging, which gives it so much fruit it almost goes toe to toe with the peat. Same deal as above; this is made from Scotland-only barley, from all over the country. B+

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Islay Barley – Made only from the Islay barley mentioned above. This is a brand new release that also sees some wine casks for aging. It’s a searing whisky with lots of peat and seaweed in the mix. Nice balance. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Classic Octomore, ultrapeated to 157ppm, which gives it a dense smokiness and a barbecue-like sweetness out back. I’ve grown used to Octomore, but compared to 6.3 (see below) it’s a bit of a bore… 14 proof. B+

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.3 – In the nomenclature of Bruichladdich, .1 bottlings are global releases, .2 are for travel retail, and .3 denotes whisky made from Islay barley. This is the first .3 Octomore, and it’s easily the best rendition of this spirit ever. Peated to an absurd 245ppm — the most heavily peated whisky ever released by a mile — this 5 year old spirit (bottled in a frosted bottle instead of the usual black) is remarkably gentle on its own despite bottling at 128 proof. Some floral elements emerge along with vanilla, and it isn’t until you add a substantial amount of water that the peat really starts to kick up. Even then, it’s well integrated, balanced, and just lovely to sip on. Available April 2015 for about $225 (good luck). A+  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

bruichladdich.com

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Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2014

Clynelish Select Reserve Bottle & Box

Our final whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this no-age-statement offering from Clynelish, an active distillery in the far northern Highlands. The first Clynelish released by Diageo in this series, this whisky has been aged in “ex-bourbon, rejuvenated and refill American Oak, and ex-bodega and refill European oak.” All casks in the vatting have been aged for at least 15 years, “often far more.”

Lots of classic malt notes on the nose — barley, heather, and light sherried notes. A rich, sugar syrup character comes along in due time. On the palate, there’s plenty more where that came from. Bright orange fruit dominates at the start, then the whisky becomes quite drying and almost dusty on the finish. Water coaxes out more of the sweeter side of the spirit, with nougat, golden syrup, and maple notes all criss-crossing over the palate. That water helps temper that tannic, dry finish as well, lending it some lingering notes of honey-coated biscuits.

109.8 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $800 / malts.com

Review: Port Ellen 35 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Port Ellen 35YO Bottle & Box

Our 10th review in the Diageo Special Releases series is this old Port Ellen, a classic, beloved, and regular part of this series. The Islay-based Port Ellen was closed in 1983, which makes this 1978-distilled product (now carefully allocated) unbearably rare. Aged in refill American and European oak, it’s bottled at 35 epic years of age… and priced accordingly.

From the start, this whisky’s a scorcher. The nose is racy with heat and light, tempered smoke, a hallmark of well-aged Islay malts. On the palate, fire and brimstone with hints of fruit beyond the essence of burning oil wells. Water is essential with this dram, so give it a healthy shot to open things up. With tempering, the spirit reveals its charms in full, notes of tangerines, marzipan, butterscotch candies, and light petrol. Nicely honeyed on the finish, it recalls its cereal origins alongside a lightly peaty, lightly meaty finale.

Compare to last year’s 34 year old.

113 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.

A- / $3,500 / malts.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Lagavulin 12 Bottle & Box

A 12-year-old expression of Lagavulin is a perennial part of the Diageo Special Editions, and sure enough, this is the 13th Lagavulin 12 to be released in the series, again vatted from refill American Oak casks.

As usual, it’s a classic expression of Lagavulin, light on its feet (and a gentle yellow in color), radiant with coal fire smoke on the nose, some vegetal undertones, and a squeeze of bright lemon. The body is pushy with peat, hot and fiery, but tempered with a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar and gingerbread notes. The finish is as salty as the sea, just classic Islay through and through.

It’s easy to enjoy Lagavulin 12 every year if you’re a peat fan, but at this point the experience is becoming a little old hat for the whiskies in this line. I’m just having a hard time sustaining the excitement about younger Lagavulin (with a very consistent experience) at a higher price year after year. And with that said, if something’s released annually like clockwork, shouldn’t it really get a permanent home on the release calendar instead of being a “Special Edition?” Just askin’.

108.8 proof.

B+ / $130 / malts.com

Review: The Singleton of Glendullan 38 Years Old Limited Edition 2014

Singleton of Glendullan 38YO Bottle & Box

The Singleton of Glendullan (#8 in this year’s Diageo Special Edition releases) should be familiar to most American drinkers (other Singleton bottlings are targeted at other countries)… but never do we see this whisky at a whopping 38 years of age.

This Speyside whisky was distilled in 1975 and was aged fully in European refill casks.

Hot and racy on the nose (unusual for a whisky of this advanced age), this is one you can tell from the outset will benefit from a little water. Aromas of orange peel and a little sea salt muddle through, however. With lots of acidity, the body is equally punchy and quite sharp, citrus peel backed by modest granary notes. The finish is quite drying. Give it water and plenty of it and things start to open up nicely. The nose takes on an almost pretty floral character, and the sweetness on the palate really starts to develop, offering coconut and banana notes amid the spice-dusted grains. That finish remains on the dry side, though it’s less intense more accessible with a little water to smooth things out.

119.6 proof. 3,756 bottles produced.

A- / $1250 / malts.com