Review: Speyburn Arranta Casks

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

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

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

92 proof.

B+ / $40 / speyburn.com

Review: The Antiquary 21 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky

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

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

86 proof.

B+ / $95 / theantiquary.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM MASTER OF MALT]

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

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

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

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

An amazing whisky. Don’t miss it.

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

A / $100 / klwines.com

Review: Ardbeg Supernova Committee Release SN2015

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

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

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

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

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

108.6 proof.

B / $200 / ardbeg.com

Review: The Exceptional Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

exceptional blend

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

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

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

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

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

86 proof.

B+ / $110 / craftdistillers.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 2 Single Malt

The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 2 Bottle & Tube Diagram side 750ml EMAIL

Balvenie’s roughly annual Tun release is here, with Tun 1509, Batch 2 now arriving on our shores. (For the first in the series, see Tun 1509, Batch 1.)

Similar to Batch 1, Batch 2 is a vatting of 23 traditional American oak casks and nine European oak sherry casks, a somewhat smaller collection of barrels comprising this collection.

Here, the sherry influence is naturally strong on the nose, but that sharp, citrus note is balanced by deeply nutty, malty overtones. Some burnt marshmallow comes along in time. Topping 100 proof (Batch 1 was just 94.2 proof), it’s got more heat on it than you’d expect, and a drop or two of water does the whisky justice.

The body is initially quite warm and loaded with nutty notes, lots of malt and cereal. This drinks like a younger whisky and, judging from the alcohol level, it probably is, offering a palate that is dominated by wood and heavy, well-roasted grains. Sherry makes an encore appearance on the back end, fading out with a mix of sharp orange, cloves, and more granary notes. Again, the overall impact is one of youth — and though there’s nothing wrong with younger stock, I’m not sure it’s the right direction for the Tun series.

Let me put it another way: It’s not the right direction for a $350 whisky.

100.6 proof.

B / $350 / thebalvenie.com

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Fifth Release

kilchoman 5th ed

The 2015 edition of 100% Islay from Kilchoman (which features nothing but Islay-born ingredients) is now in its fifth generation. This lightly peated bottling is a vatting of whiskies distilled in 2009-2010 and matured in first-fill bourbon casks, just like last year’s fourth edition. The major difference is an extra year of age (though, as usual, there’s no actual age statement).

How does that extra year impact release #5? The peat is really starting to mellow out here, showing sweet elements alongside some emerging chocolate notes on the nose. Ripe banana remains a strong component on the palate alongside more traditional caramel and vanilla notes, though a relatively heavier smokiness on the finish takes this expression of 100% Islay in a somewhat different direction than earlier bottlings. There’s a considerable amount of lingering roasted grain character here, too.

All told it’s a curious but quite enjoyable malt: The smoke starts off understated but eventually builds enough to showcase the whisky’s Islay heritage while still providing enough room for the barley to shine.

100 proof.

B+ / $100 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Kilchoman Loch Gorm Third Release

Loch-Gorm-2015

The third annual release of Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm is here. As before, Loch Gorm is matured fully in ex-Oloroso sherry butts — but this year, a larger proportion of smaller sherry hogsheads were used to mature a portion of the whisky, as opposed to larger sherry butts. That’s a small change but it should increase the sherry influence on the whisky. This edition is “marginally older” than last year’s Second Edition, coming from whiskies distilled in 2009-2010 and bottled in March 2015.

There’s nothing not to like here. The sherry influence is palpable, loading the spirit up with sweet, winey citrus notes before diving headlong into the peat. The nose is surprisingly restrained — offering some Mexican chocolate character atop the mild smoke elements — but the body plays up the peat and the sweetness at once, folding things together in well-balanced form.

This is Kilchoman at its best and a showcase of how sherry and peated whisky can do magical things together. It’s not a remarkable digression from last year’s glorious bottling, but since you won’t find that expression on the market anywhere, well, best to snap this one up instead.

92 proof.

A- / $100 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Laphroaig 15 Years Old Scotch Whisky

Laphroaig_15YO_BottleImageThough it was introduced 30 years ago, Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a bottling that has come and gone over the years. For a short while, however, it’s back, with this expression being re-released in honor of the company’s 200th anniversary. That said, nothing has technically changed with the production of the spirit vs. older bottlings, but this one does at least come with bonus sentimental value.

Laphroaig 15 Years Old is a quieter expression of the spirit, where it’s just finding its balance between the peat blast it offers at 10 years old and the more fruity notes that emerge at 18 and 25 years old.

At this point in its maturity, the whisky offers a smoky nose that also showcases gentle honey alongside notes of yellow flowers. The peat however is dialed back significantly, creating the essence of a branch of mesquite that’s been thrown atop a barbecue pit. Citrus notes are present on the palate but they’re understated — a squeeze of lemon and a shaving of grapefruit peel — with some simple syrup adding a layer of sweetness atop the delicate layer of smoke.

At just 86 proof the whisky is remarkably easy-drinking, almost overly so — it sips almost like a mezcal-based Paloma, mixing citrus and smoke into a beautiful, satisfying whole.

Really lovely. Snap it up if you see it.

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

Review: Gordon & MacPhail Imperial 1995

imperial 1995This was my most prized purchase in Edinburgh, where I nabbed the last bottle from Royal Mile Whiskies. Imperial was a Speyside distillery, opened in 1897 and shuttered in 1998 (and demolished in 2013), making this one of a dwindling number of bottles still available.

Bottled in 2014, this is 19 year old Imperial, which has seen at least some time in sherry casks.

The nose is delicate, offering gentle cereal and mixed florals, all backed by easygoing, sherried, orange marmalade character. White peaches emerge on the nose with continued time in the glass. On the palate, it’s a quiet spirit that showcases roasted barley alongside nougat and marzipan, clove-studded oranges, and a soothing finish that keeps the sharp citrus notes dancing on the body. Hang on for a bit and a touch of smoky char makes an appearance as the whisky fades away.

Enjoyable and understated.

86 proof.

A- / $95 (70cl) / gordonandmacphail.com