Review: Bruichladdich Cuvee 382 La Berenice 21 Years Old

Dec12-BruichladdichCuvee-382-1

When people ask me what my favorite whiskey is — and they do that a lot — after I hem and haw about it for a while, I usually tell them it’s one they’ve never heard of: Bruichladdich 16 Years Old First Growth Series: Cuvee E Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes Finish, a limited edition that Laddie put out in 2010 and which is down to its last drops in my bar. (My “A” rating at the time is too low.)

Cuvee E is long gone from the market, but Bruichladdich recently put out a spiritual successor of sorts, Cuvee 382 La Berenice. It’s a different animal — five years older and finished in both Barsac and Sauternes casks, but with my beloved Cuvee E nearly spent, I sprang for a bottle of 382 to keep the party going.

Cuvee 382 is a study of contrasts, starting out much, much darker in color than Cuvee E, offering the appearance of what looks like a well-sherried whiskey. The nose is serious, more intense than Cuvee E, and less sweet from the start. Biscuits, gingerbread, and leather oil pervade the racy, punchy nose. The body brings lots of dried fruits into the equation, folding these into notes of roasted grains, more leather, and some citrus peel. It doesn’t offer the bright and sweet honey character of Cuvee E, however, rather it takes things in a more austere direction. Watch for a surprising rush of sea salt on the finish to polish it all off.

Altogether, this is a surprisingly different whisky than the distillery’s prior Sauternes-oriented bottling, though it has plenty to recommend it in its own right. While it sticks closer to a more traditional malt whisky formula than Laddie’s previous experiment with a sweet white wine finish, it remains a remarkable and remarkably drinkable dram.

92 proof.

A / $170 / bruichladdich.com

Review: The Balvenie 25 Years Old Single Barrel and Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt

The-Balvenie-Tun-1509 batch 1

Lucky day: Not one, but two new bottlings from a perennial favorite: The Balvenie. Actually, the distillery has recently released three different whiskies, the third being The Balvenie Fifty, Cask 4567, a 50 year old expression that runs $38,000 a bottle.

We did not manage to nab a bottle of this lattermost one, but no matter: We did sample the other two, a new 25 year old single barrel release and a new sibling in the Balvenie Tun series, Tun 1509, Batch 1.

Let’s discuss each in turn.

First, The Balvenie is adding a new single barrel edition to its regular release range, a 25 year old single barrel expression that joins the 12 year and 15 year single barrel expressions that have launched in recent years. This new 25 year old expression spends its life entirely in traditional American ex-bourbon casks, a departure from the sherry cask barrels used for the 15 year single barrel bottling. Again, this is an ongoing release, and while stocks will be limited, it will remain available for the foreseeable future.

Second, The Balvenie Tun 1509 is the sequel and successor to the impressive Tun 1401 series, which composed a set of nine different batches of whiskies that were blended up in small quantities, about 2000 liters per batch, and released in very limited amounts over the last few years. We reviewed several of the Tun 1401 series (see Batches 3, 6, and 9) — only a few of the nine ever made it to the U.S. — but all were gone much too soon. Now, Tun 1401 has been retired, and Tun 1509 is in. This mixing vessel can hold 8000 liters, which means the whisky blended up in it may be less “rare,” but it will at least be easier to find.

Thoughts on both of these whiskies follow.

The Balvenie 25 Years Old Traditional Oak Single Barrel – Shockingly light in color, this hardly looks like it’s been in barrel for a year, much less 25. The actual presentation on the tongue and nostrils, however, is quite the opposite. Seductive notes of caramel and some citrus notes are well-integrated on the nose, making it candylike without being cloying. The body takes this and runs with it, firing on all cylinders. The caramel notes turn toward dark chocolate sauce, the fruitiness toward essence of orange flowers, caramel apples, honey, and some spice — cinnamon, allspice, and a bit of brown sugar. Throughout, Balvenie 25 keeps things light and lively, a whisky that’s lithe and light on its feet, a treat that combines the pleasures of a well-aged senior statesman with the gentler body of a fresher, younger spirit. If it weren’t so gorgeous I’d call it a simple pleasure. 95.6 proof. A / $599

The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1 Single Malt – Batch #1 of Tun 1509 is made from whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels (35 casks) and sherry butts (7 casks), for a total of 42 casks worth of single malt commingling in Tun 1509. The results are powerful compared to the quieter 25 year old single barrel, evident from the start by looking at the deep amber color of the whisky. The nose is exotic and rich, offering punchy notes of well-burnt sugar, coffee, dried figs and raisins, and a touch of coal fire smoke. The body then takes all of these components and promptly kicks them right in the ass. Dried fruit takes a spicy, Christmas-like turn toward the baking pantry, with notes of cloves and cinnamon dominating. There’s more red fruit on the palate — think plums — along with notes of blood orange and tangerine. Some malt is here, but the cereal character is warm and inviting, like a well-doctored bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. This whisky drinks embarrassingly easy despite topping 94 proof, taking its burly, rounded body and just having its way with your palate from start to finish. Speaking of the finish — it’s long, warming, and, as it vanishes, it leaves you begging for more. One of Balvenie’s best whiskies ever. 94.2 proof. A+ / $350

thebalvenie.com

Tasting Mortlach Rare Old, 18 Years Old, and 25 Years Old with Georgie Bell

Mortlach_25YO

Mortlach, “The Beast of Dufftown,” is a storied Speyside distillery that has a long reputation as the maker of a connoisseur’s whisky. For years, single malt from Mortlach has been hard to come by; most of its production has been destined for inclusion in blends like Johnnie Walker. But demand for single malts continues to rise, so a couple of years ago, current owner Diageo announced it would be increasing production and launching some new Mortlach malts. The results are finally here, in the form of three general releases (plus one travel retail release). All of the prior bottlings of Mortlach are now being dropped.

georgie bellThe trilogy of malts was introduced to many of us via a web-based tasting by the enchantingly goofy Georgie Bell, aka “Miss Mortlach,” Mortlach’s Global Brand Ambassador. Bell led the group through the history of Mortlach, including its fabled yet confusing “2.81 distilling process,” which involves a carefully calibrated utilization of its three stills, each a different design, in the production of its whisky.

But the highlight was a tasting of these amazing whiskies, all hitting the market soon. All of the whiskies are bottled at 86.8 proof. (And here’s a pro tip: Real Scots pronounce the distillery MORT-leck. The R is nearly silent.)

Thoughts follow.

Mortlach Rare Old – Bottled with no age statement, but don’t let that deter you. Rare Old has a solid grain structure on the nose, plus hints of honeycomb, vanilla, and chocolate malt balls. Over time, some notes of dried herbs and barrel char emerge… give it some minutes in the glass before downing the sucker. The body is big, showcasing lots of honey from the start along with salted caramel, citrus, and some emerging floral notes later on. The finish is bold and satisfying, very lush, lovely, and warm with a touch of chocolate on the very end. Despite the lack of an age statement, this is not really an entry-level dram — but one which should really earn a top shelf spot on any bar. A / $110  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Mortlach 18 Years Old – Now we’re entering into age statement territory. Racier on the nose, the 18 Year Old features stronger sherry notes, some raisin, and stronger floral elements. Quite sharp on the nose, this is actually quite misleading. The body turns out to be a sweeter, more uplifting experience, offering notes of gingerbread, dark chocolate, candied orange peel, and some notes of almond, nougat, and cocoa nibs. Bolder on the body than the Rare Old but quite sharp again on the finish, it’s a fun companion to the Rare Old that proves itself to be a clear sibling — but one with its own DNA. A / $280

Mortlach 25 Years Old – More brooding on the nose, with some smokiness and more of that barrel char. Think roast beef and old wood — a departure from the more elegant, grain-meets-fruit composition of the above two spirits. The nose’s composition carries over to the body, where you find a more burly, fireside-type whisky that offers gentle smoke alongside both citrus notes and some floral elements. All of this is well-balanced and integrated, but it does step away from the sweeter style of Mortlach showcased in the above. Today I find myself drawn to the less austere expressions, but this is a lovely and unique expression of Mortlach as well. A- / $944  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

mortlach.com

Review: The Arran Malt Devil’s Punch Bowl Chapter III – “The Fiendish Finale”

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All good horror stories deserve a trilogy, and Arran Malt, with its Devil’s Punch Bowl series, is back for a third and final round of this special release whisky: The Fiendish Finale. See notes on Chapter I and Chapter II here.

There’s unfortunately not a lot of production information on this batch, but it is drawn from whisky that has been finished in oloroso sherry butts. No age information is offered. As with previous editions, it is a cask strength bottling.

This expression of the Devil’s Punch Bowl is racier and spicier on the nose than previous expressions, with a clearer expression of its barley base at first. The body is huge — powerful with sherry notes, chewy malt, and a finish that pushes forth notes of dried fruits, milk chocolate, and a sweetness akin to caramel sauce on fresh Belgian waffles. It’s not at all smoky like Chapter II, instead letting the sherry do almost all of the talking here, building a dessert-like confection that layers both fresh and dried citrus notes atop a big caramel core. Lots of fun, and a real go-to whisky for after-dinner drinking.

All in all, this is a fantastic way to round out one of the more memorable series of Scotch whiskies to arrive in recent years.

106.8 proof.

A- / $130 / arranwhisky.com

Review: The Macallan Rare Cask

macallan rare cask

A $300 no-age-statement Scotch whisky? The time is here, folks, and Macallan is leading the charge.

The Macallan Rare Cask is matured fully in first-fill Spanish oak casks that formerly held dry oloroso sherry for 18 months. How long the whisky was in there remains a secret.

This is a classic, heavy-sherry (and intensely deep-amber) expression of Macallan from the start. It’s got plenty of age on it (maybe not $300 of age, but plenty nonetheless), opening with a nose that’s rich in citrus notes, but which also bears notes of cocoa powder, plus some classic, slightly meaty, nutty, and almost hoppy notes. The body is mouth-filling and chewy, sherry and apricot undercut with some vegetal components — bean sprouts and roasted grains that counterbalance the sherry character pretty effectively. The finish brings the citrus back for a reprise — classic orange zest with a bit of dark chocolate, plus a doughy character that recalls wood fires, though not exactly smoke, if that makes any sense. Its sweetness is smoothed out in the finish — a characteristic that may or may not appeal to fans of Macallan’s typically sweeter style.

Macallan Rare Cask is a capable, curious, and punchy whisky that merits exploration, although the price tag is awfully heady. While it’s hardly the most expensive NAS whisky to hit the market, this is one of the most audacious and noteworthy general malt whisky releases to arrive in this latest push away from age statements. Macallan would of course like the spirit itself to do the talking, and not a number on the label of the bottle. But to get there, first you’re going to have to get past another number… and that’s one that has three digits in it, not two.

86 proof.

B+ / $300 / themacallan.com

Gold Label Reserve Joins Johnnie Walker Permanent Lineup

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Last year, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve arrived in the U.S. in limited release. We wrote about it at length at the time, but knew that, as just a visiting member of the family, our thoughts would be fleeting at best. Well, now Gold Label has its green card and is back in the family, a permanent resident in the JW lineup.

We got a fresh bottle of Gold Label Reserve (the non-gilded version of the bottle) and took it out for a fresh spin. While I didn’t like it quite as much as I did upon my first encounter, it’s still a standout blend and arguably the best part of JW’s lineup. My fresh thoughts on the latest release follow.

Racy on the nose, there’s an indistinct mix of citrus and grain character that combine with more base alcohol characteristics — all in all, the picture of a standard, sherried, blended whisky. The body starts off phenomenally sweet, spiking the cloves and citrus notes with big candy bar character. The sugar settles down as some more pungent Madeira notes emerge on the finish, but the overall spirit is balanced, on point, and lasting.

80 proof.

A- / $75 / johnniewalker.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

011Another WhiskyFest has come and gone, filling the masses with a smorgasbord of Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and a little bit of everything else. There was nothing not to like in San Francisco this year, with the masses gobbling up the west coast introduction of Yellow Spot, a rare showing from Stranahan’s, and a surprise appearance of Balblair 1975 and — unlisted in the program — Balblair 1969. The only bummer: An utter dearth of independent Scotch bottlers. No Samaroli, no Gordon & MacPhail, no Duncan Taylor. Bring back the indies in 2015! (Also, the line for Pappy Van Winkle is now getting full on ridiculous.)

Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2014

Scotch
Balblair Vintage 1975 2nd Release – Bottled 2013; firing on all cylinders, a spicy, seductive malt / A
Balblair Vintage 1969 – Bottled 2012; not as deep in flavor as the 75, but easygoing with a melange of mixed fruit and wood notes / A-
The Glenlivet 21 Years Old – fruit and spice; racy; lots of wood here / A-
The Glenlivet Guardian’s Chapter – a limited NAS release, heavy on the grain, some nuts; drinks young and not terribly impressively / B
Glen Grant Five Decades – very sweet, strawberry notes; lots of sherry / A-
Glenglassaugh 30 Years Old – really, really old; wood has beaten this one up / B
BenRiach Authenticus 25 Years Old – sneaky peat notes; some light cherry in there / B+
GlenDronach Parlianemtn 21 Years Old – good balance between cereal and sherry character / A-
Tullibardine Cuvee 225 Sauternes – ample smoke, sweet BBQ finish / B+
Tullibardine 20 Years Old – lots of smoke, drowns out some distant sweetness / B
Tullibardine 25 Years Old – aged fully in sherry casks, giving this a striking citrus finish and a sultry body / B+
Compass Box Great King Street, Artists Blend – extremely chewy; spice and cinnamon with a long-lasting finish / B+

Bourbon
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2014 – refreshing my memory on a fun whisky; cherry fueled, with dusty wood notes / A-
Old Forester Original Batch 1870 – a new limited edition; austere, a bit winey / B+
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 – lots of spice, some cocoa, good wood structure / A-
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – had a bit of this on a lark; nicely wooded, with caramel apple notes to follow / B+
Highland Park Freya – we never got to formally review this 3rd release in the Valhalla series, so it was fun to try it here; just a light touch of peat, with solid sherry and vanilla structure; lightly dusty finish / A-
Blanton’s Bourbon – bottled 8/12/14; nutty with cinnamon notes, long, madeira-like finish / A-
Stagg Jr. – I tried this again to see if I could see what the hate was about; 132.1 proof, this is the 3rd edition of the Bourbon; rich with red pepper and cloves, I still think it’s a winner / A-
Bib & Tucker – an upcoming release; I didn’t get a big read on it outside of its big wood character / B
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – bottled 7/5/12; chewy, drinking young but with pure fruit inside / B+
Sranahan’s Snowflake Mount Snuffles – this bizarre, very rare whiskey is aged in cherry wine barrels (that’s not a typo), which gives this whiskey an overwhelming fruit bomb character, like an out of whack Manhattan; it’s just too much / B

Japan
Hakushu 18 Years Old – a well rounded Japanese malt, coffee and chocolate notes on the back end / B+
Hibiki 21 Years Old – gorgeous, sweet and touched with brine / A

Irish
Green Spot – light as a feather, clean and spicy / A
Yellow Spot – a much different animal, 12 years old; big sherry and sugary notes; lots to love / A
Midleton Barry Crocket – minty, big tropical notes; long finish; a bit of an odd combination of flavors / B+

Other
Charbay Rum – an upcoming release of navy-style rum (140 proof) distilled in 2005; huge char, fire and brimstone galore / B+
Charbay Direct-Fire Alembic Brandy 1989 – smoke and spice; apples and cherries hit on the finish / A-
Hudson Maple Cask Rye – a special release from our friends in New York; a touch of syrup on grainy base / B
Westland American Single Malt – subtle; mint and chocolate notes / B+
Westland American Single Malt Cask #312 – cask strength release; sherry finished; overpowering with coffee notes, heavy / B-
Kavalan Sherry Cask – tasting racy and a bit raw tonight / B-
Kavalan Vinho Barrique – aged in red and white wine barrels; rasins and port notes, figs / A-
High West Son of Bourye – now a blend of 6 year old Bourbon and 6 year old rye; sweet meets spice in this butterscotchy whiskey / A-

Review: Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky

Haig Club Bottle Image

If you’re a whiskey fan, by now you’ve heard of Haig Club, a new brand of Scottish single grain whisky that counts Simon Fuller and David Beckham among its originators. While it sounds like a vanity project, let’s put that to rest: Haig Club has a legit history and is quite an interesting spirit in its own right.

The Haig family dates its distilling heritage back to the 1600s and had one of the earliest licensed distilleries in Scotland. In 1824, John Haig built Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, and Haig’s cousin is credited as an inventor of continuous distillation (including the column still). Cameronbridge remains the oldest grain distillery in Scotland.

Today, Cameronbridge produces grain-based spirits for just about everyone in the Diageo portfolio, including Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and every blended whiskey Diageo markets (Johnnie Walker, J&B, and of course the Haig brand). Some 110 million liters of product flow from Cameronbridge every year, and now a small amount of that production is going to become Haig Club.

Grain whiskey is a lighter and more delicate style of whisky than malt whiskey, as well it should be. Made from 10% barley and 90% wheat, Haig Club is column distilled instead of pot distilled, and is aged in a mixture of ex-Bourbon barrels, refill whisky casks, and rejuvenated whisky casks. Haig Club is clearly on the young side — again, not unusual for grain whisky — but is bottled with no age statement in a soon-to-be iconic cobalt blue bottle. (The blue glass used is a nod to the opaque tasting glasses used during by distillers in order to avoid being influenced by the color of the spirit.)

Nosing Haig Club reveals a youthful exuberance: coconut husk, roasted grains, vanilla and faint touches of sawdust — some of the hallmarks of many younger whiskies, even something akin to a craft American whiskey or even some white rums. Th nose doesn’t immediately win you over, but the body is quite a surprise. Here you’ll encounter more of that coconut but less raw grain character. As it develops, you get butterscotch, some dried fruits, and curious evergreen notes — alongside some forest floor — on the back end. The finish is brisk and clean, unlike the brooding and lasting intensity of many malt whiskies. In theory that makes Haig Club a solid base for cocktails, but I find it sips rather beautifully and intriguingly on its own — an interesting diversion from the typical world of malt.

80 proof. Available in the U.S. in November 2014.

A- / $70 / haigclub.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Highland Park 50 Years Old

highland park 50 years old - drinkhacker

When one receives an invitation to taste one of the rarest spirits in the world, one accepts before the bearer of the invitation realizes what he’s done. In this case, the offer was legit, and I found myself staring down a bottle of Highland Park 50 Years Old — 275 bottles made, $20,000 each, and sold out pretty much immediately upon release — and a 1/4 oz. of whisky that had my name on it.

After warming up on HP’s new Dark Origins and a gorgeous pour of Highland Park 25 Years Old, the main event arrived. You can spend a solid hour simply examining the Highland Park 50 bottle, worked over by the Queen’s royal silversmith and embedded with a sandstone carving, but eventually duty — and the liquid inside — calls. Approaching a spirit like this isn’t easy. It’s not the oldest nor the rarest whisky I’ve had — Dalmore Selene 1951, 58 years old, 30 bottles made, takes that honor — but that sampling was barely a drop. This was a small pour, but a true and proper one — enough to really get your arms around what you’re tasting.

Highland Park 50, distilled in 1960 and bottled in 2010, is deep mahogany in color, tipping you off right away to what you’re about to get into. It’s frankly nothing like the core line of Highland Park. The nose is redolent with tree sap, raisin, prunes, and wet leather straps — an earthy bog of aromas that hint at sweetness hidden deep within. On the palate, prepare for sheer intensity and a few flavors one rarely sees in single malts. Here, it’s all bitter roots, licorice, coal fires, and tons of wood. The fruit is there, but it’s locked up tight — dense, stewed prunes buried in a casket of old, brine-soaked wood. The finish is long and big with maritime notes — think salt air over seaweed — creating a neat counterpoint to the wild tannins on the palate.

I sat with these precious few sips of HP50 for at least half an hour, letting its leathery earthiness wash over me like I was browsing a rare old book — or taking a punch to the jaw from an ancient boxing glove. While initially a bit off-putting — particularly next to the seductively sweet HP25 — its charms grew on me as the evening wound down and I made my way home. The next day, as I write this, I find myself not with the gorgeous 25 on my mind, but rather with my thoughts returning to that punchy, cantankerous 50 year old, again and again and again.

89.6 proof.

A- / $20,000 / highlandpark.co.uk

Tasting Report: 6 Whiskies Along “The Highland Journey”

old pulteney 35

I had the recent good fortune to attend an online tasting called “The Highland Journey,” a road that took us through four distilleries and six single malts, all from distilleries throughout the Scottish Highlands. Tasted roughly from southeast to northwest, the experience covered anCnoc, Speyburn, Balblair, and Old Pulteney. We sampled a range of malts made in a variety of styles, some youthful and tough, others much older and finished with fruit-forward sherry casks.

Tasting notes from the event follow.

anCnoc 22 Years Old – We recently covered a few offerings from anCnoc, but this 22 year old is something else. Lovely apple notes up front. Brisk roasted grain character attacks the palate, with a fiery note that melds well with strong sherry cask influence that hits hard on the finish. Touches of dried fruits here and there. A lovely, balanced whisky that still lets the grain shine in an enticing, attractive way — and does not feel at all like its anywhere near past its prime. 92 proof. A- / $130

Speyburn 10 Years Old – This is entry-level Speyburn, which is a perennial best buy in the single malt space. Simplistic nose, with some charcoal fire notes and a bit of raw wood. The body is quite malty, with caramel and cloves — the tougher wood character takes a nutty turn on the finish. Pleasant but loaded with an almost rustic character. Bolder than I remember. 80 proof. B+ / $29

Speyburn 25 Years Old – An older expression of Speyburn, which you don’t see as often. Aggressive citrus on the nose. Sherry character remains the showcase on the tongue, with some lightly smoky notes building as the spirit develops on the palate. Baking spices and fruit compote emerge, with a touch of iodine/sea salt on the finish. 92 proof. A- / $300

Balblair Vintage 2002 First Release – 10 years old. Woody/malty notes on the nose mask it at first, but the body of this Balblair is very sweet, almost with a granulated sugar character to it. The sweetness rises on the finish, taking on an almost cotton candy character. The finish offers nougat, caramel sauce, and a bit of dried fruit. A fun, after-dinner sipper. 92 proof. A- / $60

Old Pulteney Clipper – A new, limited edition NAS whisky from Old Pulteney. Surprisingly lively. Malty and grain-heavy up front, but with a seductive candy bar character that balances that out. The end result is something akin to raisin-studded oatmeal, a mix of savory and sweet that works. The body is modest — despite a punch of spice that attacks the back of the throat — but balanced and enjoyable. A fine everyday dram choice. 92 proof. B+ / $60

Old Pulteney 35 Years Old – A different animal in this roundup. Elevated above an otherwise solid crowd here. Notes of Port wine, sultanas, clementine oranges, and banana fill the mouth, along with touches of marshmallow. Glorious, bright sherry notes emerge in time for the finish, which melds fresh citrus juices with raisins and candy bars. Lovely! 85 proof. A / $700 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]