Review: The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old

macallan-12-double-oak

Macallan fans, as a rule, love its sherry-casked expressions but bemoan the existence of its bourbon-casked ones, namely the Fine Oak line (although the latter sees a bit of sherry finishing). At last Macallan has come up with a way to bridge the gap between the all-sherry Sherry Oak line and the sherry-minimal Fine Oak. The new line: Macallan Double Cask, a new style of whisky from the company. And it’s even got an age statement, folks.

Some notes on its production, per the distillery, “This is the first time The Macallan has used American Oak Sherry-seasoned casks as the most prominent flavor style in one of its expressions. To create Double Cask, The Macallan brings new oak from America thousands of miles to Spain, where the oak casks are crafted and Sherry-seasoned before traveling to the Macallan’s distillery on Speyside to mature for at least twelve years. These whiskies are then harmoniously united with those aged in the very best sherry seasoned European oak casks.”

So, to clarify, it’s a blend of whisky held in two types of casks: new American oak that’s been sherry seasoned, and standard European oak sherry casks. Note that there are no bourbon casks used in any of this; it is, in one sense, a 100% sherry-aged whisky, albeit an unconventional one.

As of now, there’s only one whisky in the Double Cask collection: this 12 year old bottling. Macallan hasn’t said anything about a line extension yet, but all signs seem to point to this as merely a starting point, presuming it does well in the market.

Let’s taste!

This is a well-rounded, even delightful expression of Macallan, showing off a nice balance between traditional American wood and sherry cask aging. On the nose, the sherry influence clearly dominates, though sharp orange peel and winey notes find balance in some caramel underpinnings. On the palate, a complex array of flavors await, beginning with fresh cereal before moving into more citrus, plus notes of coconut, caramelized banana, and even a curious touch of mint. The finish is lengthy but soothing and gentle, surfacing more of those new wood-fueled vanilla notes, a bit of leather, and some black pepper, which adds some grip to the otherwise lithe and supple body. Great balance from start to finish, and though it drinks a touch on the young side, it’s quite enchanting as a whole.

All told, it does “taste like Macallan,” the malt and sherry components combining for a surprisingly familiar (and somewhat simple) experience, double casking be damned. Die-hard Macallan fans won’t have any complaints here. The rest of you ought to give it a try, too.

86 proof.

A- / $65 / themacallan.com

Review: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and 105 Cask Strength (2016)

glenfarclas-105

Recently I looked back at my early reviews of Glenfarclas 10 and 12 year old single malts and was a bit appalled at their naivete. An upgrade was required, and I got my hands on a trio of expressions: Glenfarclas 12 Years Old, 17 Years Old, and the coveted 105 Cask Strength expression.

For those unfamiliar with this Speyside classic, Glenfarclas is all single malt, 100% sherry cask matured (using both oloroso and fino sherry barrels). Consistently underrated, it’s a distillery that’s always worth a look no matter what age you see on the bottle.

Glenfarclas 12 Years Old – Classic Speyside. On the nose, there’s lots of honey and maple notes, with a biscuity character that offers lightly buttery, grainy notes. The sherry influence is slight, offering some punch on the nose but also just a hint of orange peel on the finish, following a body that offers tastes of chocolate malt balls, lightly roasted peanuts, and some dried ginger. This is a perfect “everyday” dram — not overwhelming, but with enough nuance to merit continued exploration — and affordable. 86 proof. A- / $47

Glenfarclas 17 Years Old – There’s an immediately stronger sherry influence on the nose with this older expression, ripe with aromas of orange peel and oil which complement the underlying grain character. On the palate, the bold body kicks off with classic Glenfarclas biscuits and honey, moving from there into notes of lemon peel, gingerbread, and walnuts. Stronger sherry notes build with time in glass; the finish finds this in relative balance with the barley character. 86 proof. B+ / $70

Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength – This is a 10 year old expression of Glenfarclas bottled at 120 proof (not 105, which refers to its original proof under the old British system). The bottle and label have changed in recent years, but what’s inside seems to have stayed the same. This is a richly sherried whisky, complex with notes of Christmas spices, marzipan, honeycomb, brown butter, and ample orange peel — both on the nose and the palate. Boldly malty at its core, the whisky finds intrigue in the way it builds upon that, folding in nuts, spice, fruit, and more. Cask strength gives the whisky the level of heat and the complexity that you’d expect, which you can either embrace with both arms or, perhaps more sensibly, temper it with a healthy splash of water. (It can handle plenty.) Either way — or perhaps both ways — it’s well worth exploring. 120 proof. A- / $92

glenfarclas.co.uk

Review: Lagavulin 25 Years Old 200th Anniversary (2016)

lagavulin-25-yo

Islay is rife with 200th anniversaries this year. Up next is Lagavulin, which is putting out a special 25 year old anniversary bottling to commemorate the occasion. Some details from the distillery:

Lagavulin 25 Year Old, matured exclusively in sherry casks and bottled at cask strength, pays homage to the contribution Lagavulin’s distillery managers have made in crafting Lagavulin over the years. This limited-release offering honors the many craftsmen and great skill behind producing Lagavulin’s renowned whisky. Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s Head of Whisky outreach states, “To continue this special birthday we wanted to release a brand new bottling to Lagavulin enthusiasts worldwide. The 25 Year Old is a sublime expression of Lagavulin, I couldn’t think of a better way to pay homage to the distillery managers.”

No surprises are in store for the reader on this one. This is classic, well-worn Lagavulin, which kicks off on the nose with both heavy peat and more luxurious notes of brown butter, fresh herbs, tobacco, and lanolin. On the palate, it’s quite sweet up front, offering notes of spiced nuts, clove-studded oranges, and cinnamon toast. The peat slowly rolls in like waves hitting the shore, bringing with it iodine, meaty barbecue smoke, all dusted with a salt-and-pepper sprinkling. The biting peat notes haven’t been dulled out of this one despite its time in barrel, the experience ending on a toasty, fireside character that really lingers.

All told: It’s nearly textbook Lagavulin, exactly as it should be.

101.8 proof. 1200 bottles available in the U.S.

A- / $1200 / malts.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label (2016)

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bottle

It’s been a solid six years since we spent any serious time with Johnnie Walker’s flagship bottling, Blue Label. The House of Walker doesn’t talk much about whether or how the recipe for Blue Label has evolved over the years, but in 2010 it was said that there were nine single malts in the blend, while today reports peg the total number at roughly 16 — so it’s likely some things have changed.

Tasting 2010 and 2016 vintage Blue Label side by side reveals some evolutionary changes, though nothing overwhelmingly dramatic. Today, the 2010 offers well-rounded notes of heavy sherry, almonds, some mint, and a dense, malty core. In comparison, the 2016 release shows itself as more aromatic, with a younger overall vibe and some clear aromas of petrol and rubber right off the bat.

The body however plays to many of the same elements as the older bottling — lots of nuts and roasted malts, a more restrained sherry component, and mixed herbal notes. As with the nose, the finish diverges from the 2010 more considerably. While the older bottling is lightly sweet and lingering, the 2016 comes off as a bit ashy and charcoal-smoked. It’s still respectable, austere, and complex — thanks largely to its bold and burly body, the whisky’s most consistent element throughout the years.

Blue Label has always presented itself as a mixed bag, but its current direction feels misguided to me. (For the record, I’d give the 2010 an upgrade to an A- from my earlier review.)

80 proof.

B / $225 / johnniewalker.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Ardbeg 10 Years Old, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan

Ardbeg Trio Image (low- res)

At 200 years of age, Ardbeg is one of the most venerable of Scotch whisky distilleries, and it’s an icon of Islay, where peat has long been the currency of whiskymaking.

While we’ve reviewed many of Ardbeg’s annual, limited edition Committee releases, we’ve somehow never taken our pen to the core range, which spans three expressions. Finally, the time was ripe to review them all, and it just happened to coincide with Ardbeg’s release of a VR experience that lets fans who can’t get to Islay experience a virtual visit there, however brief. Three short but immersive experiences, delivered via VR headset, let you wander through the distillery, hike out to the Uigeadail loch, and even visit the Corryvreckan whirlpool north of Islay (the lattermost being the most disorienting of the trio). The Ardbeg VR experience will be available only at key events for now, but watch for a lighter, web-based version to arrive later this year — which may be all the better to experience, because you can do so with a glass of Ardbeg 10 in hand.

Thoughts on “the big three” follow.

Ardbeg 10 Years Old – The essential Ardbeg, and the only one of this bunch with an age statement, all 10 of those years having been spent in ex-bourbon casks. The classic Ardbeg bottling, and one of the most heavily peated entry-level whiskies from all of Scotland. Ten years are just about right for taming Ardbeg’s fire, though the nose is still moderately heavy with straight, smoky peat notes, though also lightly briny but distinctly maritime in its tone. The body follows in lockstep, adding to the burning embers of driftwood notes of iodine, orange peel, coriander, and ginger. Beautifully balanced despite the heavy peat influence, it remains one of the most essential Islay whiskies — and an essential whisky that is required drinking for anyone who wants to form a base understanding of single malts. 92 proof. A / $45  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Uigeadail – Named for Ardbeg’s own loch, Uigeadail — if you hike the 3 miles to get there from the distillery, you’ll find a lockbox containing whisky and glassware, gratis. Uigeadail is quite different from the 10 Year Old because it is blended from both bourbon and sherry casks, including some older stock. The sherry influence alone makes for a vastly different experience, starting with the nose, which dampens the smokiness with notes of roasted nuts, citrus, and an earthy, leathery character that simply feels like history. The palate offers a rather different experience, which adds to the curiosity and interest, melding smoke with notes of well-roasted meats, walnut shells, pipe tobacco, and cloves. The finish is lengthy and brooding — aided by the considerably higher alcohol level — a lingering reminder of how this Ardbeg may be an entirely different beast, yet just as good as the 10. 108.4 proof. A / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Corry is unusual in that it is a blend of whiskies aged in bourbon casks and in new French oak — the latter of which is rarely utilized in Scotch. While beloved by its fans, this is admittedly my least favorite of the trio, a bold and brooding Islay. For me, it simply takes things too far, the new oak damaging the seductive soul that’s inherent in the great Ardbeg expressions. The peat is doubled up here but it’s done in a rather brutish fashion, giving it a tarry, ashy character that finishes on salty licorice and heavy iodine notes. Peat freaks will absolutely love it — the finish lingering for what feels like hours — but a nuanced whisky it simply isn’t. 114.2 proof. B  / $80  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

ardbeg.com

Review: Compass Box The Circus and Enlightenment

Circus

Two new limited expressions from the ever-interesting blenders at Compass Box: The Circus and Enlightenment. Let’s take a look at both. Thoughts follow.

Compass Box The Circus – This is another complicated whisky that requires an infographic to explain how it is blended. The gist is that The Circus is composed of a mix of old malt whisky, grain whisky, and blended stock, in these proportions: 57.2% blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt; 26% blended grain whisky from a refill sherry butt; 15.4% Benrinnes malt whisky from a first-fill sherry butt, and 1.4% of a second blended Scotch whisky from a refill sherry butt. Whew! Compass Box says it actually doesn’t know much about the whiskies inside those mystery casks, but that those refill casks are all “marrying casks,” and that the whiskies inside each of them have been lingering there for a long, long time. To say that this whisky is sherry forward would be a massive understatement. All that time in sherry butts has given the spirit a nutty, citrus-peel intensity that is the very essence of sherry cask aging. Secondary aromas include tea leaf and tree bark. Underneath all that, the palate offers notes of nougat, cinnamon, dried fruit, and gentle brown sugar. It drinks more like a sherried single malt than a blend, providing just a hint of the underlying malty grain that endures into the finish, where lightly herbal notes linger. A stellar blend. 98 proof. 2490 bottles produced. A / $300

EnlightenmentCompass Box Enlightenment – This is a much different but equally complicated whisky, a blended malt rather than a standard blend (meaning there’s no grain whisky in this one). It’s almost all aged in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, so there’s no sherry influence and the color is much, much lighter. The all-single-malt blend looks like this: 48.2% Clynelish, 36.7% Glentauchers, 10.8% Balblair, and 4.3% Mortlach (this one in a rejuvenated bourbon barrel). UK regulations prevent revealing the ages of these whiskies, but nonetheless these are not young bucks. The nose reveals toasty wood, coconut, almonds, and subtle gingerbread notes. On the palate, there’s more of this lightly sweet, nutty character, leading to almond-laden nougat and Christmas spice notes later on. The finish is a bit heavier, with bolder granary notes, new leather, and a sense of wet earth that tends to weigh down the delights that have come before. Enlightenment is still a great whiskey — though perhaps it is difficult to consider it entirely fairly next to the near-masterpiece of The Circus. That said, I could still drink it every day. 92 proof. 5922 bottles produced. A- / $90

compassboxwhisky.com

Review: Lagavulin 8 Years Old 200th Anniversary Edition

Lagavulin 8 Year Old (with box)

To celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2016, one of Islay’s most beloved distillery’s has released a special bottling. No, it’s not a gorgeous 50 year old in a Baccarat decanter. It’s an 8 year old, just half the age of its signature release, Lagavulin 16.

Why 8 years old? Lagavulin tells us there’s a reason:

Lagavulin is kicking off the bi-centennial celebrations with the release of a special limited edition bottling of Lagavulin 8 Year Old, inspired by Britain’s most famous Victorian whisky writer, Alfred Barnard. During the late 1880s, Alfred Barnard sampled an 8 year old Lagavulin during a visit to Islay, describing it as “exceptionally fine” and “held in high repute.” This anniversary release is an honorary nod to the whisky that helped lead to the emergence of Lagavulin as one of the most highly sought after Scotch whiskies today.

Other than the age statement, there’s no particular production information available.

The whisky is a surprise at the start. First there’s the color — a pale, light gold that seems like eight years might be a stretch. On the nose: Pure Islay, intense and pungent smoke, filtered through iodine and layered with citrus, a bit of cereal, and a touch of mint. The palate finds a surprising level of sweetness, offering sweet hickory barbecue smoke, brown sugar, and some elusive floral elements that keep the experience on the light and lively side.

By the time the finish rolls around, things sadly start to fall apart a bit. The initially rounded and somewhat oily body starts to degenerate into a gummy character that’s overloaded with asphalt notes and a flavor that comes across with the essence of a long-disused vial of dried spices. It’s a bit of a letdown from what is initially a fun and quite lively whisky — though it is one that I can still cautiously recommend that Lagavulin fans at least sample once or twice.

96 proof.

B+ / $60 / malts.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira Edition 2016

laphroaig cairdeas madeira cask

Laphroaig’s latest annual Cairdeas release is finally here: Cairdeas Madeira. As the name suggests, this is Laphroaig finished in Madeira-seasoned hogsheads. Unlike some Cairdeas releases, there’s no information on how old the spirit is before it goes into the finishing cask. Traditionally it is an 8 year old whisky, but this year Laphroaig has been mute on the matter of age. This is Laphroaig’s first ever Madeira-finished release, so for novelty factor alone it’s worth a look.

The nose offers classic Laphroaig notes of peaty smoke, iodine, and coal ash — an altogether easy Islay with modest maturity. On the palate, the Madeira at least starts to creep through, offering a slight, wine-laden sweetness that evokes red fruit, macerated dates, and spiced nuts. This of course all comes atop that smoky, briny base that every Laphroaig offers as a given, but that Madeira influence is ultimately very restrained. Unlike some other recent Cairdeas expressions — notably 2014’s comparably lackluster Amontillado — the Madeira seems to be elevating the base spirit, but that impact is subtle, almost to an extreme. The good news is that what’s underneath is solid enough and doesn’t need much doctoring. The Madeira-driven additions don’t add much in the end, but they do give it a little something special to remember… and at the very least they don’t detract at all.

103.2 proof.

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

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Sixth Release

kilchoman 100 islay 6th edition

Kilchoman’s 2016 version of its annual 100% Islay release is here, and this time it’s a vatting of fresh and refill ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels that were filled in 2010 and bottled in 2016 — the most mature expression of 100% Islay to be released to date. As always, the 100% Islay line is more lightly peated than the rest of the Kilchoman range.

While Kilchoman tends to shine the brightest in its sherried expressions, this bourbon-only rendition is quite a delight. The bourbon barrel time imbues the whiskey with aromas of chocolate and vanilla, its light grain notes fragrant with peaty smoke. The body follows suit for the most part, though some citrus notes are a bit of a surprise. The lingering smoke on the finish is mild and fragrant, with notes of maple syrup, cinnamon, and green banana.

Brooding but very refreshing, it’s one of the most drinkable Kilchoman releases in recent memory.

100 proof.

A- / $100 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: The Exceptional Blend – Blended Scotch Whisky

The-Exceptional-Whisky-Blend

First there was The Exceptional Grain. Then came The Exceptional Malt. Now, of course, the trilogy is complete: The Exceptional Blend, which combines the best of both the grain and malt worlds.

For those unfamiliar, The Exceptional is a line of small batch Scotch whiskies from Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers, and Willie Phillips, former managing director of the Macallan for 23 years. Together they have sourced a variety of grain and malt whisky barrels and put them all together to make this trio of limited release spirits.

While The Exceptional Grain was composed entirely of grain spirits and The Exceptional Malt was purely single malts, The Exceptional Blend contains a bit of both, and includes grain whisky from North British, Strathclyde, and a 33-year old grain whisky from Cameron Bridge, plus mature malts from from Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Balvenie, Kininvie, Glenfiddich, Alt-a’Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Westport, Speyside, and a 30-year-old Macallan. The whisky is finished in first-fill sherry casks before bottling.

The results are impressive and fascinating — this is clearly the best whisky in The Exceptional lineup.

The malt kicks off with an impressively complex nose that includes a fistful of grains, strong aromatic herbal notes including fresh thyme, lavender, and a bit of nutmeg. There’s sweetness mixed in with all of this, gentle citrus-meets-sugar notes that are immediately both austere and enchanting.

On the palate, the whisky feels perhaps a bit simpler than that build-up would indicate, but I prefer to think of it as focused rather than uncomplicated. Sweetened grains kick things off, followed by light notes of dried herbs, melon, and lemon peel. Quite quickly the whisky’s sweetness kicks in, offering almondy nougat notes that burst quickly, followed by touches of gingerbread and Christmas spice. These notes take you through to the finish, which lingers without overstaying its welcome.

Again, it’s the clear winner of the Exceptional line, and a solid blended whisky in its own right.

86 proof. 1200 bottles produced.

A / $120 / craftdistillers.com

Review: The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve, Sherry Cask Reserve, Vintage Reserve, and Peated Cask Reserve

glenrothes peated

It’s a quartet of Glenrothes single malts today… all part of the new Reserve Collection that Glenrothes formally launched in 2015. These all arrive as new Malt Master Gordon Motion takes over from the venerable John Ramsay.

The first three whiskies reviewed here — Bourbon Cask Reserve, Sherry Cask Reserve, and Vintage Reserve — are each available separately as regular 750ml bottles, or as part of a “tri-set” of three 100ml bottles ($40). The newcomer, Peated Cask Reserve, is available on its own for now. Details on what’s inside each of these bottlings follow, along with a review, of course.

All four are bottled at 80 proof.

The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve – As the name implies, this whisky is exclusively drawn from bourbon cask-matured spirits from a range of years, though no specific age information is offered. The whisky drinks a lot like you’d expect from a bourbon casked single malt, with fresh grain up front followed by notes of caramel, coconut, chocolate malt balls, and a heavy nut character, both on the nose and the palate. There’s quite a bit of charcoal, tobacco, and scorched hazelnut on the back end, followed by notes of menthol. Again, it’s a classic bourbon-matured spirit, a fine example of the “base” style of single malts — those made without a finishing cask — but nothing that will feel at all unfamiliar to Scotch regulars. B / $50

The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve – The first all first-fill sherry cask expression from The Glenrothes, matured predominantly in European oak instead of American oak. Again, no age statement; this is a blend of sherry casks of different vintages. It’s not a completely iconic example of sherry cask malt, its orange peel aromas overpowered by notes of almonds and a small touch of mint. On the palate, the citrus finds a natural companion in notes of ginger and baking spice — particularly cloves. The finish is warming and considerably longer than the Bourbon Cask Reserve, quite satisfying as lingering caramel and gentle orange notes are the last to fade. A- / $50

The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve – This expression is a mutt of a whisky, representing a vatting of a variety of vintages and cask types that includes whisky from each of the following years: 1989, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. The greatest proportion of whisky comes from the 1998 vintage. (How refreshingly transparent, eh?) The malt shows off a range of styles, coming together in a nicely balanced fashion. The nose is classic Speyside, as is the attack. Chewy, malty cereals kick things off on the palate before a wave of flavors driven by gentle citrus notes and some cinnamon bun-heavy baking spice arrive on the back end. The body feels a little thin, the finish a bit rushed, but on the whole it presents a balanced, if unsurprising, vision of Speyside. B+ / $50

The Glenrothes Peated Cask Reserve – Like any good Speyside operation, Glenrothes doesn’t peat its whisky, but with this semi-experimental release, the distillery took the Vintage 1992 single malt and gave it a temporary finishing in a used Islay cask. The idea: “to reflect a time in the distillery’s history when it formed an association with the Islay Distillery Co Ltd. in 1887.” The gentle peat on this whisky’s nose is about as innocuous as smoke can get in a peated malt. Here the lick of iodine and coal fire smoke meld quite well with an otherwise lightly sweet body, which offers notes of heather, nougat, and a light lacing of herbs. The finish brings both worlds together with aplomb — it’s got just the right mix of smoky to go with the sweet and smoky — although the whisky’s body is so light on the whole that it ultimately doesn’t leave that much of an impression. See also The Balvenie, which previously released a peated cask expression to high acclaim. B+ / $55

theglenrothes.com

Review: Mortlach Special Strength

mortlach

The conventional wisdom holds that since the distillery’s relaunch, three Mortlach expressions are available — Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old.

Not quite. There is a fourth expression: Special Strength, which is available only at travel retail. (Where I bought this.)

Special Strength is a surprisingly appropriate and non-obfuscating name for this whisky. It is the same spirit as Rare Old (no age statement but a knockout of a single malt), but bottled at higher proof: 98 proof, to be specific. (All of the other Mortlach bottlings hit 86.8 proof.)

As for Special Strength, it takes everything that’s great about Rare Old and only makes it better. The nose offers classic Speyside heather and grains, but with some little twists — grapefruit peel, red pepper, pickles, and notes of smoked salt. The palate is lush without being overpowering, The barley still comes through, but it is tempered delightfully by notes of caramel sauce, orange oil, dried herbs, and sesame oil. It’s well balanced on the whole, its flavor profile running more toward the savory than the sweet — and even though it’s a solid 49% alcohol, it drinks as easily as iced tea. The finish evokes very light floral elements and a touch of pepper, a nice way to end the dram.

As with the rest of the Mortlach lineup, it’s a smashing whisky that commands significant attention.

98 proof.

A / $105 (500ml) / mortlach.com