The Glenrothes Retrospective: 2001, 1994, 1991, 1985 and 25 Years Old Single Malt

vintage1985After our recent trip to The Glenrothes in Scotland, we were sent home with a collection of bottlings representing the company’s whisky production back to the early 1980s. Let’s take a walk into the past with a look back at five Glenrothes expressions, most of which are no longer in production but which you can still find somewhere on the market these days.

All whiskies are 86 proof. Prices are all based on 2015 sales.

The Glenrothes 2001 Single Malt – A fresh look at a whisky (an exuberant 11 years old, bottled in 2012) we’ve seen before. Nice malt backbone, and very, very gentle. An everyday dram at its heart, it nonetheless offers nuance and complexity in the form of coconut, red fruit, allspice, and light chocolate notes — but by and large it lets the grain-driven malt notes do the talking. A solid, easy-drinker. B+ / $53

The Glenrothes 1994 Single Malt – 11 years old, bottled in 2006. More citrus driven than the typical Glenrothes, here we see sherry having its way with the spirit, imbuing it with notes of orange peel, cloves, and some darker stuff underneath — licorice, burnt coconut, and some dark chocolate. Engaging, if considerably more fruit forward than the typical Glenrothes. B+ / $100

The Glenrothes 1991 Single Malt – 13 years old, bottled in 2005. Nicely sherried, with some more savory notes here — featuring roasted meats, dried herbs, and some charred wood. Solid fruit elements (lots of lemon) emerge alongside just a hint of sea spray. Dried fruits and a touch of incense emerge on the finish, making for a complex and nicely balanced dram. A- / $225

The Glenrothes 1985 Single Malt – 19 years old, bottled in 2005. Medicinal on the nose, which is a real surprise. This fades with time, however, leading to a quite delightful palate.  The body is nutty — again, a departure for Glenrothes — with secondary notes of leather, dried plum, and cloves. At first a bit closed off, this really grew on me over time. Worthwhile. A- / $200

The Glenrothes 25 Years Old Limited Release Single Malt – A rarity for Glenrothes — age statemented rather than vintage dated. That said, this was bottled in 2007, making it the equivalent of a “Glenrothes 1982,” if anyone cares to check my math. Again, a departure: The nose offers notes of almonds, beef jerky, camphor, and orange peel, all in a thick melange. On the tongue, the citrus is tempered by bready notes, more roasted nuts, and a long, slightly smoky, caramel-fueled finish. Once again, give this some time before you judge this dram. It needs more than a few minutes to properly open up and show all its charms. When it does, get ready for the fireworks. A- / $380

theglenrothes.com

Review: William Grant New Releases 2015 – Girvan No. 4, 25 Years Old, 30 Years Old, Kininvie 23 Years Old, Annasach 25 Years Old, and Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old

william grant (1)

William Grant is the home of Glenfiddich and Balvenie, two of the biggest name in single malt whisky. But lately the Grants have been pushing some of their lesser-known offerings, including new bottlings from lesser known malt shops like Kininvie, single grain whisky from Girvan, and limited edition blends. Over a recent lunch, the company walked me through an array of these new launches, most of which are already hitting store shelves.

Here’s a look at everything tasted.

Girvan Single Grain No. 4 Apps – The entry-level offering from Girvan is a NAS single grain, named for the still it is produced in. Aged in bourbon casks, this lovely grain whisky offers ample vanilla notes, plus melon and candylike citrus character. 85.2 proof. A- / $50

Girvan Single Grain 25 Years Old – Like No. 4, this is made primarily from a wheat mash. Beautiful in the glass, it is dark and deep whisky that presents a big butterscotch and toffee bomb, turning to cocoa powder on the back end. Gentle grain notes wash over a lovely experience. 85.2 proof. A / $330

Girvan Single Grain 30 Years Old – 30 years ago, Girvan was making whisky mainly from corn, not wheat. The results are staggeringly different from the 25 year old, where sweetness takes a back seat to much stronger grain character from the start. Delicate fruit notes – lemon peel and some melon — collide with popcorn and heavier wood character. A real surprise. 85.2 proof. B+ / $500

william grant (2)Kininvie 23 Years Old – Tucked in next to Balvenie and Glenfiddich is Kininvie, a smaller distillery mainly being used to make blending malt. Now William Grant is realizing what they’ve been sitting on, releasing as a limited edition a 23 year old single malt expression (the second batch of Kininvie ever made) aged in 80% bourbon casks and 20% sherry casks. Very floral on the nose, it offers a mix of flowers and restrained sweetness, with some coconut notes. But the experience is as light as a feather on the palate. The finish is long, engaging, and sultry at times. 85.2 proof. A / $150 (375ml bottles only)

William Grant Rare Cask Reserves The Annasach Reserve 25 Years Old Batch #1 – This is a blended malt (no grain whisky) made from old William Grant stocks. The catch? Some 40 single malts go into this blend, and none are owned by William Grant itself; all are acquisitions from other distilleries. Slightly musty and mushroomy, it offers notes of leather, vegetables, roasted nuts, and breakfast cereal. Deep and complex, it’s one to savor and explore, despite some vaguely odd notes. Exclusive to BevMo. 792 bottles made. 80 proof. B+ / $280

William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old – This one-off release is a blend of malt and grain whisky from three defunct distilleries, Ladyburn, Dumbarton, and Inverleven, most of which have been closed for decades. The nose is restrained, ultimately revealing toffee and some nutty elements. The palate plays up grain, citrus, and nougat, with a touch of smokiness. Very Old World in construction. 80 proof. B+ / $TBD 

williamgrantusa.com

Review: Aberlour 10 Years Old

aberlour 10Aberlour’s 12, 16, and 18 year old expressions are commonly available in America, but surprisingly its entry-level bottling, Aberlour 10 Years Old, isn’t sold here.

That’s a shame, because it’s a fine example of the Speyside distillery’s house style and comes at a very reasonable price (the appropriate US dollar conversion has been made below). “Double cask” aged in both bourbon and sherry barrels, it is a youthful but quite exuberant little dram that you should pick up if you ever happen across it.

Malty on the nose, but well sherried, offering a nice balance between savory and spicy by way of an introduction. On the palate, Aberlour 10 fires immediately: Big baking spices, lots of sherry-fueled orange peel, roasted (but well-integrated) grains and cereal notes, and a lengthy, warming finish. The balance is just about perfect, with hints of petrol raising their heads from time to time and a smoldering, coal-dust character on the finish. What sticks with you though is that racy, sides-of-the-mouth sherry punch, though — not overdone, but just enough to wake you up and ask for another. Please, sir.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / aberlour.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTERS OF MALT]

Review: Usquaebach Reserve and 15 Years Old

usquaebach 15 Yr Old USQAs the back label of Usquaebach Reserve tells us, Robert Burns immortalized the name of Usquaebach in his poem “Tam O’Shanter,” when he wrote, “Wi usquabae we’ll face the de’il.”

Usquaebach, pronounced OOS-keh-bah, is a brand of blended whiskies that are made in the Scottish Highlands. The highest end bottling of the three expressions of Usquaebach (sadly not reviewed here) is bottled in an iconic stoneware decanter.

Note that the two whiskies reviewed below are both blends, but offer markedly different compositions: One is a blended Scotch (which includes grain whisky), one is a blended malt (which only includes whisky made from malted barley). Let’s dig in and see how these stack up.

Usquaebach Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky – A solid blend, with none of the acrid rubberiness of so many blended Scotches. Malty and full of cereal notes, but balanced by gentle sugars, mushroom notes, hints of cloves, banana, and sweetened coconut. That sounds like a lot going on, but this is a quiet blend that doesn’t push things too far in any of these directions. Mild but accessible from start to finish, it’s a glorious entry-level dram that doesn’t take itself too seriously (Robert Burns’ stipple photo on the back label be damned), but which is hard not to find a delight writ small. 86 proof. B+ / $44

Usquaebach Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey 15 Years Old – Austere and heavily malty with big overtones of leather oil and aged wood on the nose. Wintry and warming, it offers a heady nuttiness on the palate, with notes of cloves, dark toffee, molasses, tree sap, and dates. Well-roasted cereals round out an oily and dense body that is otherwise fairly straightforward and evocative of many a Highland whisky. Some pruny, almost Port-like notes on the finish add to the winter-weather character. 86 proof. B+ / $86

usquaebach.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

It was another unforgettable year at 2015’s WhiskyFest, with some of whiskydom’s most cherished icons on tap for tasting, and plenty of old friends to mingle and catch up with.

Of course, many of those old friends come in liquid form, and I had ample opportunity to revisit plenty of classic whiskies while spending time with a number of newer drams. Here’s a brief look at everything I tasted at the San Francisco installment of this essential spirits show.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

Scotch

Tullibardine 20 Years Old / A- / showing beautifully, a nice balance of vanilla and cereal notes (bourbon barrel aged)
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / A / a much different experience, with gorgeous nougat and honey notes (sherry barrel aged)
Balvenie 50 Years Old Cask 4567 / A+ / snuck out from behind a curtain, this is Balvenie shining at its brightest; not old and hoary but light on its feet and ready to dance; explosive, with dried berries, dense toffee, baking spices, and florals on the finish; 2 casks produced, the other cask is said to be very different
Balvenie 15 Years Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask / A- / very caramel heavy, racy but dense, with lots of brown sugar notes
William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old / A- / blended whiskey from three silent stills; restrained with toffee, nuts, and some kippered notes; comes out next year
Glengoyne 18 Years Old / A- / big body, notes of grain and fruitcake
Glengoyne 21 Years Old / B+ / traditional malt, with cocoa hints
Aberlour Scapa Skiren / B / lots of sweetness, with a malty backbone – plus melon, sweet mandarins
Highland Park Odin / B+ / dense and handsome, sherry with some smoky charcoal notes; not in love with this today
Dewar’s Scratched Cask / B+ / Dewar’s White with a little “scratched cask” aging; not readily distinguishable from the entry level blend, though quite powerful
Aultmore 12 Years Old / B+ / heavy vanilla and chocolate, dense with shortbread notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1964 / A- / heavy wood notes play with raisins and spice; this has seen wood for too long, though
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1984 / A / right where it’s at; vibrant and exotic, with tropical notes, plum pudding, and hints of grain; absolutely gorgeous
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend / B+ / well-balanced, malty with some smoky notes
Compass Box Hedonism 15 Years Old Anniversary Bottling / A- / a blend of single grains, all 20 years old or more; fun toffee and fruit trifle notes
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A- / rich, smoky, with a gentler fruit core
Compass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky / B / a blend of single malts and grain whisky, 19 to 40 years of age; Compass Box got into trouble over this one (more on that later); I got a little mustiness and mushroom notes here, with creosote bubbling up; not feeling it tonight

American

McKenzie Pure Potstill Whiskey / B- / American pure pot still? wacky! this one is very young, but that hint of classic Irish sweetness hits hard on the finish
Sonoma County Distilling Company Truffle Whiskey / B+ / 100% rye, with shaved truffles added to the barrel; not what you’re expecting, but with forest floor notes a-plenty
Stranahan’s Snowflake (Dec. 2014) / A- / easily my favorite Snowflake bottling to date, beautiful balance of sweet and spice, very pretty
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak / A- / lush and big with dried fruits, spices, and gentle granary notes; another winner from Colorado
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Years Old / A- / a classically structured bourbon, dense and stylish, with a spicy finish
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A+ / there’s a reason this whiskey is the most expensive bourbon made in America — it’s the best thing anyone is making in the country; dense raisin, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee… it just goes on and on with layer after layer of goodness
High West A Midwinter’s Night Dram Act 3 / A / my favorite AMND yet; cherry and herbs in balance (not blown out), with a licorice kick
High West Bourye Batch 15B03 / A / still gorgous; syrupy and fruity, unctuous at times
High West Single Malt 1 Month Old / NR / a work in progress, surprisingly gentle for single malt but a fun look at something coming down the pipeline… give it another 5 years at least

Canadian

Forty Creek Confederation Oak / A / beautiful vanilla and maple notes, but dense and balanced
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve / A- / very enjoyable, candy corn and chocolate raisins at play
Forty Creek Evolution / A- / again, quite candylike and very sweet; 9000 bottles made
WhistlePig Straight Rye Old World Sauternes Finish 12 Years Old / A- / a very strong and sweet whisky (just one of the components of the new Old World bottling), with lemon curd notes

Other

Diplomatico Blanco Rum 6 Years Old / B / solid, uninspired as a sipper though
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Vintage 2000 / A / vintage Diplomatico; gorgeous, sherry-finished rum, balanced perfectly

Review: Benromach 10 Years Old

benromach-10-year-oldWe’ve written a lot about the limited edition expressions of Speyside’s Benromach, but the expression you’re most likely to encounter is this entry level bottling, which is fairly easy to find.

Benromach is part of the Gordon & MacPhail empire, a very small operation in the north of Speyside that is unique for using a small amount of peated malt in its mash. Otherwise this 10 year old is a traditional blend of 80% bourbon casks, 20% sherry casks. The final blend is finished for a year in first-fill oloroso sherry barrels.

Benromach 10 is a gentle dram, surprisingly balanced for a whisky just a decade in cask. The nose offers ample notes of roasted grains, sweet sugar cane, and wisps of smoke. On the palate, the spirit is far more enveloping than this simple introduction might indicate, offering notes of fresh apple, banana, sugary cereal, honeycomb, and lavender. The smoke character is somewhat stronger here, leading the whisky to a powerful, almost pungent finish. A few petrol notes add a lightly industrial element to the mix — think the sweat and tears of industry, not bulk chemicals, that is.

86 proof.

B+ / $55 / benromach.com

Review: Chivas Regal 18 Years Old Ultimate Cask Collection First Fill American Oak Finish

Chivas_closeup_3-4 Etiquette_Q

That’s a bit of a mouthful for a blended Scotch, but hear them out: With the Ultimate Cask Collection, the venerable Chivas Regal is launching a series of limited edition whiskies that “reinterpret the brand’s celebrated Chivas 18 expression.”

Chivas 18, a storied blend stuffed with single malts from across the island, is well-worn ground. What could possibly be done to reinvent this sweet, grainy, well-honeyed old guard blend?

Let’s start with a barrel finish: For this first of three editions of the Ultimate Cask Collection (the next two will arrive in 18 month intervals), the whisky is rested in first fill American Oak casks (though no length of time is specified). Second is the proof. Chivas calls it “special strength.” You may call it 96 proof (compare to Chivas 18 at a standard 80 proof). Naturally, this will be available only at travel retail.

Looking at these two whiskies side by side, a close familiar resemblance is palpable. If you enjoy Chivas in any form, the Chivas UCCFFAOF should be up your alley. The nose is richer and more powerful than the standard bottling, offering more powerful toffee, caramel, and pure vanilla notes. It promises depth, and the body follows through, building on the elements in the nose with notes of malted chocolate balls, chocolate oranges, burnt marshmallow, and other dessert-like notes. Some more classic fruit character emerges with time — baked apple, a touch of banana — but the sweeter notes remain the focus. Thankfully, the Ultimate bottling keeps the sugar in check, and it never becomes cloying. Rather, the whisky engages from start to finish with a lush and enveloping richness that keeps itself balanced instead of blown out.

Recommended.

96 proof.

A- / $126 (1 liter) / chivas.com

Review: Glasgow Distillery Co. Prometheus 26 Years Old

promehteusGlasgow Distillery Co. is the producer of Makar Gin, but it also put together this one-off single malt, essentially an independent bottling of a 26 year old whisky sourced from a mystery distillery in Speyside. Oddly, it’s a peated Speyside (and one source on GDC’s website says it’s 27 years old, not 26), so it’s already a bit eyebrow-raising.

I had the tiniest of samples of this rarity, which offers a classic honey/citrus Speyside nose, tempered with a lacing of peat smoke. The peat is extremely light-handed, and peat freaks need not apply. It’s more akin to a fire burning in the chimney next door — just enough to whet your appetite for a winter warmer.

The palate is well balanced and firing just right, with fresh apples, flamed orange peel, spicy chutney, and a touch of white pepper. Just the lightest touch of smoke comes along on the back end — think cedar branches or other evergreen needles aflame — before whisking away with a torched brown sugar note.

Nice stuff.

94 proof.

A- / $930 / glasgowdistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas 200th Anniversary Edition 2015

Laphroaig_Cairdeas_October 2015

This year’s limited edition Cairdeas bottling from Laphroaig commemorates the distillery’s 200th anniversary. This year, the distillery eschews avant garde wood finishes and goes with a decidedly traditional approach: “The 2015 is produced from our finest malting floor’s malt, distilled using only the smaller stills, and fully matured in our famous No. 1 warehouse, right by the sea. Cairdeas 2015 is John Campbell’s interpretation of how Laphroaig would have been produced at the distillery 200 years ago.”

That’s kind of a neat idea, but it turns out Laphroaig 200 years ago tastes a lot like Laphroaig today. (This makes sense, as consistency is often the avowed goal of any master distiller.)

Cairdeas 2015 offers a heady nose of gentle fruit and sweet peat, mixed together beautifully, with notes of lively wood fires and barbecued meats. The body drinks easy — though it’s bottled at over 100 proof — and is initially heavy with fruits — apples, clementines, and some banana. As the finish arrives, some notes of spiced nuts come along — almost offering a Christmas-like character. The denouement features drying notes of ash and tar — nothing surprising for Laphroaig, but perhaps a bit heavy on an otherwise fruit-heavy whisky.

Nice stuff on the whole, and totally in line with the house style. Laphroaig fans should grab it while they can.

103 proof.

A- / $75 / laphroaig.com

Review: Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 and This Is Not a Luxury Whisky

Flaming Heart_pack shotCompass Box is probably the most exciting whisky blender in Scotland right now, and these two new limited releases, if nothing else, show just how avant garde the company can be.

Let’s take a dip into the blending pool, shall we?

Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition – Flaming Heart is a semi-regular blend, released every few years, which takes predominantly Islay and Highland malts and mingles them together in a variety of wood types (including sherry casks). Last made in 2012, this edition really raises the bar. Sultry smoke, laden with iodine and salt spray, kicks things off — with a particularly old school, medicinal character on the nose. On the palate, gentle sweetness — think older Laphroaig — tempers the beast, pumping in a wild collection of flavors: orange candies, rose petals, nougat, marzipan, and some gingerbread/baking spice notes on the back end. There’s just a lovely balance of flavors here, that floral character the most enchanting (and enduring) part of the dram. Incredibly drinkable from start to finish, this is one that both peat freaks and fans of less smoky whiskies can thoroughly enjoy. 97.8 proof. A / $130

This is not a luxury Whisky_pack shotCompass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky – Compass Box CEO John Glaser actually got in trouble with the law when this whisky was first unveiled in Britain. An unorthodox gentleman through and through (you need only consider the name of the spirit, inspired by Magritte, to see that), Glaser published in explicit detail on the back of the bottle the full details of the four whiskies that make up this spirit: 79% Glen Ord (first fill sherry single malt) 19YO, 10.1% Strathclyde (grain) 40YO, 6.9% Girvan (grain) 40YO, and 4% Caol Ila (refill bourbon single malt) 30YO. The problem? Scottish law only lets you write about the youngest whisky, not anything older. Whoops. Labels are being redone, but meanwhile TINALW is getting out there, including this sample to us. Results are scattered. The nose has a deep graininess, with notes of light barbecue smoke, mushroom, and forest floor. On the palate, the spirit is incredibly complex, with initial notes of evergreen needles, mushroom, and tar — but also sweetened grains and soft heather. As it develops on the tongue, the sweetness becomes more intense, developing notes of coconut, banana, marzipan, and baked peaches. Following that comes more smoke — think wet wood trying to ignite, and a rather intense and funky canned vegetable character that really takes a wild departure and ultimately saps the life out of the spirit. At first, TINALW is an exotic but quirky little dram that’s fun to tinker with. By the end, I was ready for something else to liven up the party. 106.2 proof. B / $185

Both on sale November 12.

compassboxwhisky.com