Tasting with Branded Spirts: Hana Gin, Motu Rum, HM Blended Scotch, and Majeste Cognac

Majeste_XO_White Background

Treasure Island, California-based Branded Spirits recently sent us its Arctic Fox Vodka for review… then they stopped by with more — everything the company is currently producing, in fact. Originally a major exporter to China — where it once held the license to sell Heineken beer — it’s now making a bigger, broader push for the U.S. as well.

We tasted through four additional products from Branded, including a gin, rum, Scotch, and Cognac. The company promises more goodies to come, including a single malt and some vintage Cognacs, to boot.

All spirits are 80 proof. Thoughts follow.

Hana Gin – Triple distilled (presumably from corn, like Arctic Fox Vodka), this gin is infused with just four botanicals: Albanian juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, and lavender. The lavender note is quite fragrant up front, leading to a floral-driven nose. Juniper is big on the finish, but modest medicinal notes creep in as the finish fades. B / $20

Motu Rum – Distilled from Polynesian molasses, then rested in used French oak barrels for two months. A hint of hogo up front, with some agricole character at first. The rum sweetens out as the body builds, offering tropical and coconut notes. Quite chewy, with a lasting, slightly fruity finish. Quite unique and sophisticated for this price level. Some proceeds go to support Tongan conservation charities. A- / $20

HM The King Blended Scotch Whisky – A Highland style blend which includes some peated malt along with other Highland malts mingled with Lowland grain whisky. Leather saddle notes start off what develops into a rustic nose, with a slight smokiness and plenty of earth. The body offers honey and toffee, plus some floral elements, making for a spirit with two faces — brooding and leathery on the nose, but sweeter and gentler on the palate. Curious. B+ / $25

Majeste L’Empereur Cognac XO – A 10-plus year old Cognac sourced from Dupuy Bache-Gabrielsen in Cognac. Delightfully minty on the nose, followed by the expected raisin notes, plus hints of cloves. The body builds to a sultry, leathery note, studded with tobacco character but balanced with fruit, lots of sweetness — a bit of vanilla, with some burnt marshmallow — and a perfectly crafted finish that pushes out gingerbread, baking spice, and a bounty of those sultry raisins. Great stuff. A / $110

brandedspirits.com

Review: Kilchoman Original Cask Strength

Data Sheet Original Cask Strength copy

It’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of whiskies that flow from Islay’s Kilchoman, but this one really is unique: It’s the first official distillery bottling to be released at cask strength. (An ImpEx exclusive was also cask strength, but that was a just a single barrel. This release comprises 9,200 bottles.)

Production is simple for this release. All ex-bourbon-barreled whisky here, no sherry finishing, and all five years old. Non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength.

This is a big, briny, classically Islay whisky that sticks closely to the iodine-driven Kilchoman house style (at least its sans-sherry style). There’s a nice sweetness in the middle of this, some marshmallow, banana, and just a bit of pear on the back end. The finish offers up notes of smoked meats and peppery bacon — with ample fire driven by the high alcohol level. Good balance, and plenty of oomph thanks to the cask strength, but ultimately this doesn’t much change the overall picture that Kilchoman has painted to date.

118.4 proof.

B+ / $115 / kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Label 5 Blended Scotch Whisky – Complete Lineup

LABEL 5 EXTRA RARE 18YO GIFTPACK TURNED

Label 5 is a blended scotch whisky that is marketed not by the Scots but by a French company called La Martiniquaise. The company dates back to 1934, and its products comprise a number of spirit brands that you have surely never heard of.

Label 5 has a small footprint here in America, namely with its Classic Black, a low-cost blend that is often found by the handle. But now the company is expanding its U.S. presence, starting with its new Gold Heritage bottling and likely to continue with two more expressions that carry age statements.

We received four expressions of Label 5 for review, starting with the Classic Black. How do they stand up to the Johnnie Walkers and Cutty Sarks of the world? Come along with us on a journey to, er, France…

Label 5 Classic Black Blended Scotch Whisky – The entry level blend, no age statement. Made with a “generous ration of Speyside malt.” The most commonly available expression of Label 5, even available internationally now. It’s not at all bad, but there’s not much to it. Modest notes of malt, roasted grains, brown sugar, and a touch of vanilla on the nose lead to a very light body, touched just so with heather, more malty grains, and some simple, plain alcohol notes. The finish is largely absent. 80 proof. B- / $20

Label 5 Extra Premium 12 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Bolder and more powerful than the Classic Black, the 12 year old expression ups the quotient of malt, nougat, and caramel notes. The body isn’t overly complex, but hints of lavender, thyme, cinnamon, and some almond character can be found if you spend enough time with the whisky. The more rounded body and longer, broadly malty finish are nice upgrades from the entry level bottling, but it’s still a simple spirit at heart. 80 proof. B / $NA

Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Slightly sweaty on the nose, with some green/vegetal notes, plus the essence of raw wood and fibrous coconut husks. All the sweetness is drained out of this whisky, leaving behind a spirit with a big, savory body but not much life left in it. Toasty oak is the dominant character here, which would be fine if there was more going on to balance it out. Instead, it attacks the back of the throat with tannin, campfire ash, and a touch of that almond character, plus a final dash of coconut that comes along on the finish to add just a tiny bit of balance. Even the simplistic 12 year old has more going on — and, presumably, it will be much cheaper. 80 proof. B- / $NA

Label 5 Gold Heritage Blended Scotch Whisky – No age statement, but the company says it includes whisky as old as 20 years of age. There’s a nice balance between malt and sweetness here, the nose offering touches of heather and baking spice, the body loaded with roasted cereal notes and bits of honeycomb. I also catch notes of citrus peel, honeydew, and leather oil. This is the most sophisticated of the Label 5 bottlings, offering a melange of flavors that evolve and morph as the palate develops, while keeping things incredibly affordable. 80 proof. A- / $40

la-martiniquaise.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #6 – Ledaig 1997, Speyside Port Matured 2004

Ledaig

New indie Scotch bottlings are hitting now from The Exclusive Malts, we got two to try. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Ledaig 1997 17 Years Old – Batch #5 featured a youthful 8 year old Ledaig (which is made at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull). This one’s over twice as old. Surprisingly pale for a whisky of this age, this Ledaig features soft peat notes that are laced into notes of crisp apple cider, fresh cereal, and barbecued meats. Well structured but with a featherweight body, the finish is seductive but not entirely lasting. I had expected more grip and power from a peated whisky of this age. 109.8 proof. B+ / $150

SpeysideThe Exclusive Malts Speyside Port Barrel Matured 2004 10 Years Old – Much like Batch #5’s Speyside bottling, this is also a mystery Speyside malt, sourced from a distillery “near Aberlour.” This 10 year old expression is matured in Port casks, making it an unusual offering in single malt world. Glorious from the start, if offers a nose of intense raisin, cloves, and gingerbread. The body punches those notes up even further, with gentle touches of cereal on the back end. God, look at that color! The Port has done an impressive job on this whisky, tempering the granary character and giving it a festive, holiday-like exuberance. Too bad it’s January. 115.4 proof. A / $110

impexbev.com

Review: Oban Little Bay and Oban 14 Years Old

Oban Little Bay

Next up in the NASverse is Oban, which is releasing its mew Little Bay expression just in time for Burns Day (January 25).

This isn’t just another random collection of mysterious whiskies. Much like Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Little Bay is aged in part in smaller casks, giving it a distinct character.

Says the company: “Crafted by selecting small batches of our finest single malt whiskies, and marrying the whiskies in our smallest casks to allow more contact with the wood, Oban Little Bay delivers the signature rich, smooth Oban expression with its rich, fruity style but with a more pronounced maritime and citrus character.”

Based in the Western Highlands, Oban (pronounced OH-bun, with the stress on the “OH,” not OH-BANN), creates a distinct style of malt whisky that is one of the standbys of the whisky world. How does Little Bay compare to the ubiquitous Oban 14? We put them head to head…

Oban Little Bay – Immediately, it seems on the thin side. The nose is restrained, offering more citrus and sweetness, but less smoke. The body is quite malty, but the chewiness comes at the expense of a lot of that fruity character. What remains is a sense of oatmeal character, some light cinnamon notes, and a touch of lemon peel that grows on the finish. None of this seems particularly enlightening, almost like the standby Oban 14 has been muzzled a bit, then bottled as a special edition. It isn’t bad. It’s just… curious. 86 proof. B+ / $75  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Oban 14-Year-Old… and for comparison’s sake…

Oban 14 Years Old – A classic. Lightly smoky, it offers tons of big, roasted grains up front, layered atop notes of toasted marshmallow and a hint of citrus. Oban is so easygoing it’s easy to guzzle by the glassful thanks to its big, rounded body, but if you did so you’d miss those wisps of incense, tropical guava, and just a touch of seaweed on the back end. Deserving of its reputation as one of the standbys of the whisky world. 86 proof. A- / $60

malts.com

Review: Glencadam 10 Years Old, 15 Years Old, and 21 Years Old

glencadam

Glencadam can be found in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. It is the only working distillery in County Angus here, but thanks to CIL US Wine & Spirits (the company behind Camus Cognac), it’s now available in the U.S.

The distillery last changed hands in 2003, when it was acquired by a Scottish indie producer. If you’re looking to try some old guard Scotch that isn’t produced by a multinational conglomerate, well, this is a good place to start.

All of these are single malts bottled at 92 proof. Thoughts follow.

Glencadam 10 Years Old – Simple, rustic nose, with some notes of vegetation and a bit of hospital character. The light-as-gossamer body is more charming and more expressive than this simple beginning might indicate. While it leads off with some more base alcohol notes, it evolves to reveal notes of fresh-cut barley, heather, orange peel, nougat, a bit of baking spice, and sugary breakfast cereal. That’s meant as a compliment. Cinnamon toast, maybe? B+ / $55

Glencadam 15 Years Old – Evolving nicely at 15 years old, this expression of Glencadam offers a richer and more focused look at malt that takes things in the direction of chewy, dried apples and apricots, more intense baking spice, and stronger citrus notes on the finish. It’s very much a big brother to the lighter, more spry 10 year old — a bit more wise to the ways of the world but a bit cocky as well. B+ / $85

Glencadam 21 Years Old – All grown up, this expression features ample citrus to the point where it takes on a slightly bitter edge. Pure, well-roasted grain notes start the show before heading into notes of cocoa powder and some raisin character. Classic, racy, spicy malt finishes out the show, lending austerity to an otherwise sweet and sultry whisky. B+ / $199

glencadamwhisky.com

Review: The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition

macallan testino edition

The Macallan isn’t exactly known for doing things half-assed and on the cheap. The distillery is known for megabucks, megaold bottlings of some of the most renowned whiskies in Scotland. One of its pet projects is called Masters of Photography, in which it partners with a series of megafamous photographers and releases a limited-edition, one-off, megaexpensive whisky with each of them. Prior shutterbug partners have included Annie Leibovitz and Albert Rankin.

This is Edition #5, a partnership with Mario Testino, who’s probably best known for this picture of Princess Diana (and perhaps, now, Miley Cyrus). Testino is from Peru, so I figure he knows diddlysquat about Scotch whisky, but that’s no matter. The Macallan’s whisky pros have done the hard work for him: Selecting six casks from the archives to be bottled as the Mario Testino Edition.

There’s a big cover story here about Macallan’s “six pillars” of whiskymaking, and how the six casks chosen for this release represent each of those pillars, but I wouldn’t let any of that distract you too much. This is an amazing spirit — easily the best Macallan I’ve ever tasted, though it strays considerably from the sweeter, more syrupy house style.

There’s no age statement on this, but the deep color and powerful nose indicate this is a spirit with considerable age. While it’s drawn from a variety of styles of sherry casks, the nose pushes past the citrus to reach into a world of leather, cloves, and toasted almonds — just a bit of the essence of that glorious, well-aged sherry character. The nose is so delightful it’s hard to pull your head out of the glass.

That’d be a big mistake, because Macallan’s Mario Testino Edition is even better on the palate. Chewy raisin and fig, chocolate pudding, fresh gingerbread, and loads of baking spices get things going, as the sweet-but-spicy body builds. Here the more raisin-laden notes battle with gentle wood, some walnut, and touches of exotic incense. It just goes and goes, bursting with intensity and popping in the mouth. The finish is long, lasting, and seductive, the ultimate expression of a whisky that was plucked from the cask at just the right moment and released into the world at last… and soon, alas, never to be seen again.

But wait, there’s more! Per the distillery:

This limited edition whisky – only 1,000 have been created – is presented, along with one of the four iconic shots captured by Mario, in a beautiful, glossy black case, designed in collaboration with Mario himself.  The pièce de résistance is a secret compartment, released by pressing a button hidden under the bottle.  It contains six miniatures from the six single casks that make up the limited edition whisky.  Never before has a whisky maker released the individual casks that make up his craft.

Hell, I’d drink it even without the minis and the fancy picture.

92 proof.

A+ / $3500 / themacallan.com

Review: Lonach Tomatin 43 Years Old

tomatin lonach 43

Lonach is a rarely seen independent bottler that, of late, has specialized in bottling some very old spirits at very affordable prices. This bottling of Speyside’s Tomatin was distilled in 1965 and bottled in 2009 at 43 years of age.

It’s a cask strength release, but just 41.1% abv given all the alcohol evaporation it’s seen. I had the pleasure of tasting this well-aged monster.

Light cereal on the nose, with notes of incense and some walnuts. On the palate, the whisky reveals some citrus notes, well-roasted grains, a bit of lumberyard, and just a handful of chewy, dried fruits. While it’s fairly obvious that this whisky has spent a few too many years in barrel, robbing it of its sweetness and its fruity essence, it hasn’t totally beaten up the Tomatin. What remains, as is often the case with very old spirits, is an austere and restrained dram, lightly oxidized but still welcoming you with open arms, as frail as they might be becoming.

82.2 proof.

A- / $165 / lonachwhisky.com

Review: Kilchoman Single Cask Releases – Sherry Matured and PX Finish

kilchoman px finish

Lookee here: Two new single-cask, barrel-strength Kilchoman releases (literally, these are both made from one cask), exclusive to U.S. importer ImpEx. We got to try them both.

Kilchoman Single Cask Release Sherry Matured – Distilled in 2009, this Islay whisky then spent 5 years in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. This is a powerful and searing expression of Kilchoman, blazing with peat smoke up front before segueing into notes of burnt orange peel, Madeira, black pepper, and iodine. Not exactly a subtle whisky, but rather a pure essence of Islay, filtered through a sherry haze. The 2012 lower-proof, non-single-cask sherry release of Kilchoman was a bit more manageable. 115.8 proof. Cask #85/09. B / $130

Kilchoman Single Cask Release PX Finish – Distilled in 2009, aged in first-fill Bourbon casks, and finished in a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask. A much more balanced and engaging dram than the above. It’s just as full of seaside peatiness as the Sherry Matured expression, but it finds a foil in sweeter orange and light tropical character, brown sugar, and a gentler expression of smokiness that approaches beautifully barbecued beef. Despite an even higher alcohol level that approaches 60% abv, it’s also an overall gentler whisky — something to savor by the fireside for this surly winter. 118.4 proof. Cask #394/09. A- / $130

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Syndicate 58/6 Blended Scotch Whisky

syndicate 58-6

If nothing else, Syndicate 58/6 is the most uniquely named whisky you’ll drink all year. What’s it all about? Syndicate, so the story goes, began as a blend of malt and grain whiskies discovered in 1958. Six guys got together to make a whisky out of these barrels, and they named it after themselves (the “syndicate” and the 6) and the year of discovery.

OK, so let’s jump ahead to 2014. The Syndicate 58/6 that’s just now hitting the market obviously has little to do with that 1958 discovery… or has it? This blend of 18 single malt whiskies and 4 single grain whiskies has been being kept up over the years in a solera system (it’s unclear how long things were dormant, but they’re back up and running now), with new whiskies added in and blended with the older stock. Today’s Syndicate 58/6, so they say, actually still contains small quantities of the original 1958 blend! The final blend is matured for up to 2 years in 4 year old Oloroso sherry casks before bottling.

Whew!

OK, so let’s attack this animal.

The nose is instantly burly and rich. I’d peg it as a single malt over a blend — you just don’t see this much complexity and punch in a typical blend. Here you get roasted grains, cinnamon oatmeal, orange peel, and light smokiness — just enough intrigue to lead you into the spirit proper. The body is instantly engaging. Just the right combination of malty cereal, apple pie, sweet nougat, honey, rich sherry, butterscotch, and just a wisp of smoke on the back end. Gentle but full of depth and intrigue, this is one little whisky that’s tough to put down.

Never mind the kooky backstory and nutty name. Give the Syndicate a spin.

86 proof.

A / $150 / syndicate58-6.com