Review: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength

usqaebach-anardri

Usquaebach’s first new release in nearly 25 years is here: Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength, a blended malt composed of more than 20 single malts (and no grain whisky), each aged 10 to 21 years, packaged in a blue glass version of its traditional flagon decanter. Says Usqy:

Carefully crafted by longstanding Usquaebach blenders, Hunter Laing and Co., the An Ard Ri is made with casks from Master Blender Stewart H. Laing’s personal collection. Mr. Laing selected from a range of Highlands whiskies, including Inchgower, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Glengoyne, Dailuaine, Blair Athol, and Auchroisk. At 57.1% ABV, the finished product is a powerfully complex and structured, yet harmoniously smooth cask strength blend that faithfully maintains Usquaebach’s position as “King of the Blended Whiskies.” The 2,000 bottle limited release is packaged in a striking gold and blue variation of Usquaebach’s signature flagon bottle, keeping with the product’s theme of bringing ancient tradition to a modern audience.

This is a well-rounded but distinct blended malt. The nose offers some unusual notes, topping a backbone of malty grains with notes of roasted carrots, anise, pipe tobacco, and leather. The palate shows a bit more sweetness, including some molasses notes, burnt bread, coffee grounds, and a touch of torched citrus peel. The finish is modest and drying, coaxing out a bit of prune alongside notes of dried herbs.

All told, Usquaebach makes more interesting whiskies, but An Ard Ri is adept at showcasing the blender’s more savory side of the blend.

114.2 proof. 2000 bottles produced.

B / $200 / usquaebach.com

Review: Glenfiddich 50 Years Old

img_8908

It’s not every day you get to sample a 50 year old whisky. I’ve now had four of those days, but the experience I had with Glenfiddich’s 50 year old single malt was definitively the most fulfilling and complete.

The evening began with dinner at Sausalito’s Murray Circle, with dishes paired with a variety of malts from Glenfiddich and sister distillery The Balvenie, all preludes to the final act, GF50.

Among the appetizers (whiskily speaking) were a sampling of Glenfiddich 15 Years Old Solera Vat, served atop a frozen layer of mineral water — a neat twist on “on the rocks,” followed by Balvenie 21 Years Old PortWood Finish, which was served in a miniature copper “dipping dog,” used in the warehouses to retrieve whisky — authorized or otherwise — from a cask. This unctuous, fig-and-raisin-dusted dram led to a tasting of austere Glenfiddich 26 Years Old, wrapping up with Balvenie 14 Years Old Caribbean Cask, served with dessert, its gooey sweetness pairing perfectly with something sugary.

At last it was time for the finale, Glenfiddich 50 Years Old, bottle #301 of 450. Glenfiddich 50 was distilled in 1959. Two 50-year-old casks were married and put into a neutral vat in 2009 to suspend aging. 50 bottles have been released every year since then. The last 50 will go into bottle in 2017, and GF50 as we know it will be finished. The company says something old will be coming thereafter, but mum’s the word for now as to what it might be.

Unlike many very old whisky tastings I’ve attended, this one included a significant pour, at least 3/4 of an ounce, not a “full shot” but more than enough to really get a feel for the spirit. Given its rarity, the pour was quite generous and unexpected.

Digging into this dram, it immediately shows itself as light and delicate, a much different experience than many a hoary, old whisky that’s been done in by too much time in wood. The nose offers immediate surprises: tropical notes, primarily mango, and ample floral character. Just nosing it, you’d think this was a rather young spirit, not something born during the Eisenhower administration.

The palate showcases a considerably different experience. Quite nutty and malty, and infused with some barrel char, it’s here where it starts to show its age. I spent a long 20 minutes with this dram, letting it evolve with air and allowing its true nature to reveal itself. Notes of toasted coconut and orange peel make their way to the core, before the finish — quite sweet with creme brulee notes and candied walnuts — makes a showing. If there’s a dull spot in the 50, it comes as this finish fades, a very light mushroom/vegetal note that may well be remorse for having to live through the 1970s.

All told, this is a beautiful old whisky, one of the most engaging I’ve ever encountered. Should you find yourself with a spare $28K, I highly recommend picking one up.

96 proof.

A / $28,000 / glenfiddich.com

Review: Chivas Regal Ultis

70cl-bottle-box-closed-on-white

Chivas is a venerable blended Scotch whisky brand, and after over 100 years in business, the company is releasing its first ever blended malt — a vatting of single malts, with no grain whisky included.

Chivas Regal Ultis is a premium offering composed of just five single malts that represent the “signature” of Chivas. The quintet are all Speyside distilleries: Strathisla, Longmorn, Tormore, Allt A’Bhainne, and Braeval. No aging information is provided, however, and Ultis does not carry any age statement.

And never mind any of that, because it’s a glorious whisky, showing that Chivas is a perpetually underrated producer that really knows its stuff. On the nose, you’ll find some unusual and exotic notes — Eastern spices and incense, sandalwood, flamed orange peel, and some dried flowers. The body kicks off with a core of sweetness — nutty malted milk, brown butter, some seaweed, and sesame seeds. The finish sees more of a fresh floral element, a touch of mint, and some almond notes.

That’s a lot to try to pick out, and indeed Ultis is a complex whisky with a big body and lots of depth. There’s a little bit in Ultis for everyone, but I don’t think master blender Colin Scott was being populist in creating it. I think he was merely looking at the five single malts he had to work with and said, “What’s the best whisky I can make out of this group of spirits?” Well, job well done.

80 proof.

A / $200 / chivas.com

Review: Kilchoman ImpEx Cask Evolution 2/2016 Bourbon Barrel

impex-ce-2_2016-w_box

This is a single cask release of Kilchoman exclusively for the U.S. This barrel was distilled on August 11, 2011 and bottled on May 16, 2016, making it just shy of five years old, entirely aged in a bourbon barrel, cask #470/2011. (This series is meant to showcase the impact of different types of wood on Kilchoman.)

Kilchoman’s last ImpEx Exclusive was a sherry bomb, which makes this a fun counterpart and point of comparison. On the nose, gentle smoke gives way to notes of coconut, cloves, and bacon fat. It’s quite inviting, and the body keeps things going from there. The palate offers notes of almonds, more coconut, and a surprising amount of fruit considering that this is a young, bourbon-barreled whisky. The finish sees more of that gentle smoke returning, along with some sweet cola and clove notes that add nuance and intrigue. Everything comes together surprisingly well in this one; it’s easy to see why ImpEx picked this particular cask at this particular time.

120.2 proof.

A- / $135 / impexbev.com

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

-->