Review: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Scotch Whisky

abhainn_dearg_70clAbhainn Dearg (pronounded: Aveen Jarræk) is located on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s the only distillery located out here, and the malt whisky it produces is young and pungent. A brand new operation, the first whisky (new make) was released in 2010. Reviewed here is a limited release of a 2011 single malt, bottled after just three years and now quite difficult to find (and quite expensive).

The nose features moderate smoke, heavily charred grains, and some hospital character — all hallmarks of young malt. On the palate, there’s plenty of youth, with ample astringency, Band-Aid notes, simplistic smoke elements (no underlying sweetness or unusual overtones), and a short finish that resonates with notes of furniture oil. On the whole, there’s just not much going on here yet — not enough to warrant much more than a passing glance, anyway.

As an example of a work in progress, it’s a mildly interesting experiment, but on its own it doesn’t have the interest or excitement, say, of an early Kilchoman release.

92 proof.

C / $NA /

Review: Deanston Highland Single Malt 18 Years Old Bourbon Cask Finish


New to the distillery’s permanent lineup in 2015, Deanston’s 18 year old expression has more going on than the relatively light and straightforward 12 year old. Note that this is the bourbon cask finished expression — which is finished in first-fill bourbon barrels — and not the more expensive/exotic Cognac cask finished expression.

Here, we find a nose a nose that loads up light smoke elements, a bit of burnt rubber, and ample charred wood influence. Underneath, a bit of mothball and some honey notes don’t give away too many secrets, but stick with it for a few sips… On the palate, Deanston 18 nearly explodes with a melange of flavors, a veritable shotgun blow across the tongue. First, simple grains and some gentle honey notes, then fruit — banana at first, then some citrus. Nutty notes come along to provide a tertiary smattering of flavors, along with a touch of tar as the finish builds.

Deanston doesn’t have a reputation for offering a nuanced drinking experience — if you’ve heard of Deanston at all — but here’s proof of what a difference a few years can make to an otherwise standard and unchallenging malt, eh?

92.6 proof.


Review: The Glenlivet Nadurra Peated Whisky Cask Finish

glenlivet Nadurra Peated High ResGlenlivet’s third Nadurra (Gaelic for “natural”) expression is here (released yesterday) — and it’s Glenlivet’s first peated whisky in over 100 years.

For those unfamiliar with this line — which now includes three Nadurra bottlings, all permanent extensions to the Glenlivet stable — the goal is to bring whisky back to its roots, through cask strength releases with no additives or chill filtration.

Note that Nadurra #3 is not peated whisky but rather standard Glenlivet whisky that is aged in bourbon casks (no age is stated), then finished in casks that formerly held heavily peated whisky (again, no time is stated). So, bourbon barrel-aged malt, finished in used, peated malt casks. If you recall, Balvenie did this same thing a few years ago, to much acclaim.

Intense peat on the nose, with ample salt water and iodine character. Some fruit up front — banana and apples — plays nicely with nougat and almond notes. The body pumps up banana and apple, more nuts — walnut and almond — with a finish that plays to light chocolate character, coconut, some spearmint, and nuts. What’s not overdone here is the peat — which is incredibly present on the nose, but which doesn’t come across as strenuously on the body.

With some water — this is cask strength remember —  the fruitier elements come more to the forefront, giving the smoke a sweeter character to it. There’s more chocolate and more citrus here — two flavors that work well together — while the peat takes a nice position in the back seat. The finish is quite drying, though, leaving behind notes of ash rather than fruit.

Overall, it’s a nice extension for Glenlivet, taking it squarely out of its comfort zone and into some new and interesting territory.

123 proof. Reviewed: First production run, Batch PW0715.

B+ / $85 /

Review: Ledaig 18 Years Old

ledaig 18Ledaig — pronounced, seemingly impossibly, as “letch-igg” — is produced at Tobermory, the only distillery on the Isle of Mull, which is a bit north of Islay on the western Scottish coast.

Ledaig has a lot in common with Islay, namely the use of peated malt, but it cuts a much different figure than your typical Islay peat bombs. Primarily that is because this 18 year old malt is finished with sherry casks, a practice that is not unknown in Islay but which isn’t all that common.

From the color of Ledaig 18 alone, it appears the finish is much deeper and longer than most sherry-finished Islay whiskies, as well, and here we really see the best of both worlds — smoky peat meeting sweet sherry.

The nose starts off a bit rocky and rustic — smoky, but almost brutish at times with rubbery notes. The sherry influence is much more present on the palate, which hits hard with an intense bittersweet orange flavor before diving into anise, cloves, gravel, and forest floor notes. The smokiness returns with a vengeance for the lengthy, hot, and smoldering finish — with more of that rubbery character, plus notes of iodine and kippers.

Peat freaks will get a kick out of this whisky, though it really tires you out as it runs you from smoke to sweet and back again.

92.6 proof.

B / $98 /

Review: Johnnie Walker Select Casks – Rye Cask Finish 10 Years Old

johnnie-walker-rye-cask-finishThe venerable house of Johnnie Walker is always good for something different once in a while. This year we see the launch of the new Select Casks limited release series which will run for the next few years and showcase different woods used as finishing barrels.

First out of the gate is Rye Cask Finish. This blend starts with Cardhu malt plus a variety of grain whiskies which are aged for 10 years in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. It is then finished in ex-rye whiskey casks for one month before bottling.

I compared Rye Cask to Black Label, the closest analogue in the Walker stable, though it’s a bit older at 12 years of age. It’s a quite a different spirit, so clear your expectations before you dive in.

The nose is big with burnt marshmallow, dark caramel, toasted grains, and some medicinal, iodine-laden, kippered fish notes coming along in time. The seaside elements are mild, though, as the more woody/spicy/grainy character takes center stage. On the palate, it’s got heavy toasted notes, almost coming across as burnt bread at times, and ample barrel char. Again, light smoke comes across more as wood fire than peat smoke, but a gentle sweetness driven by raisins, cinnamon bread, and molasses notes more than compensates.

This whisky is bold and a little brutish, and it tends to be all over the place from start to finish. It’s initially a bit off-putting, but you’ll find it’s got quite a number of charms, provided you stick with it and give it a chance to breathe.

92 proof.

B / $45 /

Review: Speyburn Arranta Casks

speyburn arrantaOne of the biggest bargains in single malts is out with a new, limited edition, U.S.-only release: Speyburn Arranta Casks. This is a no-age-statement single malt that is aged entirely in first-fill ex-bourbon casks. I don’t know what kind of barrels standard Speyburn 10 uses for aging, but presumably some refill casks are in the mix. Upshot: Arranta (meaning ‘bold’, ‘daring,’ and ‘intrepid’ in Gaelic) should have a stronger barrel influence and a bolder wood profile.

The results are nice and in keeping with the Speyburn style. On the nose, ample malt up front, plus some citrus peel character and a little nutmeg. The palate adds to the above, folding in ample vanilla plus walnut and almond notes, a touch of milk chocolate, and some surprising tobacco touches that give it a spicy/herbal kick on the finish. There’s lots going on here, and Arranta is fun to kick around on a lazy evening as you explore its charms.

It could stand a bit more cohesion on the finish but I’d have no trouble tippling on this as an everyday dram — and it’s different enough to merit sustained exploration.

92 proof.

B+ / $40 /

Review: The Antiquary 21 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky

antiquary-21_0Made by Tomatin, Antiquary is “the rare old blend,” a hodgepodge of whiskies from all over Scotland (including a touch of Islay in it) that seems to want to out-walk Johnnie Walker.

The 21 year old expression (gold label bottling; there are others) is a malty whisky that’s mellow with notes of fresh barley and thick oatmeal, a touch of cinnamon, a bit of apple fruit, and a solid vanilla caramel character. A very slight touch of peat smoke is evident, more on the palate than the nose. Nothing shocking here; if you’re at all familiar with blended scotch you’ll find The Antiquary a fine example of the style, taking minimal chances while providing an easy-drinking, well-rounded whisky with just the slightest amount of edge on it – a real tour of the region.

86 proof.


Review: Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection Mortlach 1998 16 Years Old

signatoryThis beautiful indie bottling of Mortlach spent 33 months of its 16 years in an Oloroso Sherry butt, then was outturned and bottled at cask strength.

Gorgeous color here, with deep aromas of sherry, walnuts, oily leather, and some madeira character. At full strength, it’s quite a blazer. Though it’s barely over 110 proof, this bottling is positively scorching — and that’s coming from someone quite accustomed to high-test bourbons sans water.

A healthy splash of water brings out this whisky at its absolute finest. Malty and nougat-laden at the core, it offers notes of ripe banana and more of that walnut before segueing into the sherry finish. It’s a big one, showcasing the citrus-focused wine in all its glory, almost chocolatey at times as it offers flamed orange oil and spicy aromatics.

An amazing whisky. Don’t miss it.

111.6 proof. Reviewed: Cask #1, bottle 629 of 669, from K&L Wine Merchants. (Binny’s has cask #2, by the way.)

A / $100 /

Review: Ardbeg Supernova Committee Release SN2015

ardbeg supernova 2015By now you have probably had your fill of news about how Ardbeg sent some whisky into space and how it became a magical superspirit after three years in microgravity. 2015’s Supernova bottling — Ardbeg’s mega-peated expression — is being released in honor of these findings. (Remember: There is no actual space whisky in the bottle.) What you might have missed amongst the hubbub is that SN2015 is the final release of Supernova. I don’t know if that really means there will never be another Supernova release (distilleries are awful about that whole “never say never” thing), but for now, it’s your last chance to get your mitts on this heavily peated and highly coveted spirit.

There’s no real production information provided for this year’s whisky, so let’s just dive in.

On the nose, peat smoke starts things off as expected, but with an undercurrent of maple syrup and orange marmalade. As with most Supernova releases, the body is composed of a mix of pungent smoke, iodine and sea spray, and preserved fruits. The finish evokes bacon and some chocolate notes.

For 2015 the overall level of sweetness is in regimented, pacing the smokiness of the whisky step for step. Despite the 100ppm of phenols, it’s not a peaty blowout, nor is it sherried into oblivion. All told, it comes across not unlike any number of highly peated whiskies on the market  — well crafted and full of flavor, but ultimately short on uniqueness to the point of vague anonymity.

Can it be that after all these years, Supernova will not go out with an interstellar bang as promised — but will rather simply fade away?

108.6 proof.

B / $200 /

Review: The Exceptional Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

exceptional blend

The Exceptional Blended Malt is a line extension of The Exceptional Grain Whisky, which came out earlier this year.

The Exceptional Malt is a blend of single malts, with no grain whisky added, including: a 16-year-old Ben Nevis, a first-fill sherry butt of Glenburgie, a vatted barrel of Balvenie, Kininvie, & Glenfiddich, a 13-year-old Speyside, a 25-year-old Speyburn, and a 30-year-old Macallan. The conflagration is then blended for further aging in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks.

There’s not much to dislike in that lineup, at least on paper, and The Exceptional is a mighty and quite engaging whisky. The nose starts things off with a ton of malt and big, roasted cereal grains. No sugary breakfast cereal here, this is a hearty bowl of toasted barley, straight off the stalk. Sherry makes a moderate appearance after that, along with some lighter astringent/hospital notes.

The palate runs straight to the sherry, with grainy notes folding in atop that. Initially it’s a bit simplistic — a friendly duo of citrus and cereal — but over time notes of green banana, pound cake, and a slight vegetal character emerge. This adds a bit of depth, but the finished product isn’t 100 percent cohesive. I wonder if the collection of barrels that went into this blend were ultimately a bit random? Stuff that wouldn’t cut it as a single malt so, what the hell, let’s blend them all together.

As the finish emerges, nice caramel notes soothe the palate and smooth out the whisky — which has the tendency of making you forget many of your complaints. What was I saying, then?

86 proof.