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

Review: Dalwhinnie 25 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

 

Dalwhinnie 25

When we covered the 2015 Diageo Special Releases, we were bummed to receive samples of only 6 of the 9 malts released this year. Then, out of the blue, the final three in the series showed up on the doorstep. At last, we are able to present our coverage of the late 2015 releases from Dalwhinnie, Pittyvaich, and Brora.

Let’s start with Dalwhinnie 25, made at the highest and coldest distillery in Scotland. Distilled in 1989 and aged for 25 years in refill American oak hogsheads.

A bit salty and sweaty on the nose, its aroma is actually a little off-putting, with seaweed and animal feed notes where you wouldn’t expect to find them. The body is more appealing, but still green and on the maritime side: Salty, slightly oxidized, with lingering notes of almond, green apple, lemon peel, chamomile, and a bit of petrol.

The finish is short but relatively clean, heavily perfumed but also loaded with some roasted grain notes. All told it drinks like a younger malt, enjoyable enough but not a real standout.

97.6 proof. 5916 bottles produced.

B / $500 / malts.com

Tasting 2016’s Octomore 7 with New Bruichladdich Master Distiller Adam Hannett

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When Jim McEwan left Bruichladdich last year after 50 years in the business, many wondered how a legend like McEwan could be replaced. The answer: You can’t, really, but the Islay distillery’s Adam Hannett is on his way to filling some mighty big shoes.

Hannett recently visited San Francisco as part of a U.S. “get to know ya” tour, and he brought with him a collection of Bruichladdich’s Octomore releases, including three from the Octomore 7 line. Among those is Octomore 7.4, the first “.4” release in the line (more on that later) and Hannett’s first solo release since McEwan’s departure.

The distillery world is full of nice guys, and while Hannett is one of the nicest I’ve met, he’s also full of big ideas, like the recent announcement that, in the name of transparency, customers will soon be able to look up the complete provenance of their Bruichladdich bottles online — even NAS releases. At SF’s Wingtip, we walked through the three latest Octomore 7 releases, plus a couple of whiskies for comparison.

IMG_7542Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie – “Classic” for a reason, this sweet whisky offers notes of granulated sugar and gentle notes of grain wafting in and out. Impossibly good, it’s one of my favorite “everyday” malts, Hannett says he chalks up the gentle, oily body to the slow distillation it undergoes. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1 – Last year’s release (5 years old, all ex-bourbon barrel) remains a classic, strong peat on the nose (at 167ppm) that offers intense citrus once you dig into the body. The finish is clean and fruity, with layers of smoke on top of everything. I’m really digging the structure and balance today. Perfect at 114 proof. A

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.1 – This new release (also a 5 year old, ex-bourbon bottling, as all the .1 releases are) is a bit hotter, with much more peat at 208ppm. It doesn’t come across heavily on the nose, where sweeter notes prevail. The body offers chocolate and caramel, and then the smokiness takes hold, leading to a heavy, petrol-laden finish. This rubbery note lingers for a while. Quite a counterpart to the sweeter 6.1. 119 proof. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.3 –.3 signifies an “all Islay” release. This year’s spends 5 years in bourbon cask, with a little Spanish wine cask included. Earthy and maritime notes explode on the nose — a true essence of Islay aroma — the body is clean and uncomplicated, offering fruit and grain together, with a distinct chimney smoke finish. 169ppm, 126 proof. A-  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Bruichladdich Octomore 7.4 – The newest Octomore is the first in the .4 line, which signifies the whiskey was aged in virgin oak casks instead of refills. Unlike other Octomores, which are generally 5 years old, this release spent 7 years in toasted French oak, laid down in 2008. It’s quite a departure from other Octomore releases, and the intense grain and lumberyard notes immediately reminded me of younger American single malts, which are also generally aged in new oak, a la bourbon. Malt always struggles with new oak, but the heavy peat at least gives Octomore 7.4 some legs to stand on. After seven years, the grain notes have tempered only slightly, but the smoky character gives that something to play again. The finish offers notes of chocolate and gentle candy-like sweetness. It’s a whiskey that is initially a little off-putting but which definitely grows on you over time. Definitely a series to keep an eye on. 167ppm, 122.4 proof. B+

bruichladdich.com

Review: Chieftain’s Batch #9 – Linkwood 1997, Mortlach 1997, Braeval 1996, Fettercairn 1996, Glen Grant 1995

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Don’t look now! It’s our biggest single review of indie bottler Chieftain’s yet — five new releases of well-aged single malts, all distilled in the late 1990s, all but one hailing from Speyside.

Let’s dig in to these morsels and have a taste.

Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Speyside. Exotic and nutty with notes of old sherry on the nose, with a touch of mothball — though not in a bad way. The sherry pushes through to the palate, almost bruisingly so, bringing on notes of baking spices, roasted grains, stewed fruit, and more nuts on the finish. Everything is delightfully well integrated, with a lengthy, warming finish. 92 proof. A / $90

Chieftain’s Mortlach 1997 18 Years Old Pedro Ximenez Sherry Finish – Speyside. Mortlach is one of my favorite distilleries, but here things are blown out by the overwhelming PX sherry notes, which kick things off with notes of malted milk, carob, and burnt almonds. The body has a slightly bitter, acrid tone to it, again with notes of burnt — burnt nuts, burnt grain, burnt wood. Touches of classically honeyed Mortlach sweetness offer plenty to enjoy, but the sherry finish is just a bit too far off to make this the knockout it should be. 92 proof. B / $90

Chieftain’s Braeval 1996 19 Years Old Beaune Cask Finish – Speyside, with a red Burgundy wine cask finish. A quaint operation in central Speyside that’s part of Chivas Bros., dating back to only 1973. The red wine finish runs the show here, starting with a nose that mingles toasty grain with raisin and cherry notes. The nougat-laden body is loaded with fruit, more of that raisin-cherry compote with a touch of lingering cinnamon and clove. Fun and unexpected. 92 proof. A- / $110

Chieftain’s Fettercairn 1996 19 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish – Eastern Highlands. A classic, big, and burly whisky, heady on the nose with florals, fresh cut apple, and caramel sauce. The body is unctuous and creamy, offering hot and nutty marzipan notes plus a vegetal character. The finish layers on the slightest touch of smoke. 114.8 proof. B+ / $121

Chieftain’s Glen Grant 1995 20 Years Old Bourbon Finish – Speyside. I’m unclear if this is finished in a second bourbon cask or if it just spends the full 20 years in one, but this is a bit off the beaten path of your typical Speyside single malt. Zippy and spicy on the nose, it offers notes of gunpowder and matches, plus well-torched caramel and hints of licorice. On the palate, again it showcases red and black pepper, creme brulee notes, and crispy caramel — with a touch of mint. It’s a relatively straightforward whiskey, but one that is well-balanced and enjoyable throughout. 110.2 proof. A- / $143

ianmacleod.com

Review: Kirkland Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 16 Years Old Bourbon Cask Matured

kirkland 16 years old single maltEvery time Costco’s Kirkland brand releases a single malt Scotch whisky without revealing the distillery that made it, tongues start to wag. Prices are generally well below retail — though today’s 16 year old is higher than the mystery 20 year old released just three years ago — so whisky enthusiasts often grab a bottle to see if something wonderful has been sleeping in the stacks and stacks of pallets.

A departure from recent whiskies that have generally seen some time in sherry casks, this latest Kirkland release is a 16 year old matured exclusively in bourbon casks. It’s a Highland malt — which basically means it could be from almost anywhere — and the use of bourbon casks, which are ubiquitous in Scotland, offers no guidance, either. Producer Alexander Murray has a long history of releasing whiskies like this.

Let’s give it a taste.

Malty on the nose, there are aromas of honey, toffee, vanilla, and coconut, plus a touch of menthol. The body is traditional and wholly expected for a bourbon-cask aged malt whisky of this age and provenance. Chewy nougat, more toasted coconut, and lightly leathery notes endure for a while. The mouthfeel is rather flat and restrained, though that may largely be a product of it being bottled at just 80 proof. The whisky kicks up a slight sweetness on the finish that hints at fresh green apples, a touch of lemon (think hot tea with a slice of citrus), and caramel sauce — adding a little nuance. It’s pleasant and fairly clean — and improves with time in the glass — but on the whole it’s largely an uneventful dram.

So, what is it?

While Costco has had a lengthy relationship with Macallan, this doesn’t much resemble it. The whole affair is just a bit too flabby for Speyside, I think, leaving me to wonder if this doesn’t hail from somewhere a bit further afield and without a ton of notoriety — Glen Garioch, Glencadam, or Deanston, even — although it’s worth noting that Murray did produce a 16 year old Dailuaine for Costco last year.

80 proof.

B / $49 / costco.com