#5 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this rarity from Strathmill, located in Speyside. Strathmill is predominantly used in blended whisky, making this old expression exceedingly rare. The whisky has spent 25 years in ex-Bourbon barrels and is bottled at cask strength.
This is classic, beautiful Speyside at the perfect age. Liquid gold in color, its nose offers heavily spiced grains — almost gingerbread in character — touches of almond, honey, and hints of fresh mint. Elegant and restrained, it’s a pretty lead-in to a body that ranges far and wide. Fresh-cut grains, cut apples, and burnt sugar lead in to cinnamon and clove notes as the finish starts to build. The finish is drying and slightly aromatic, while echoing notes of honeyed biscuits, menthol, and more spice. Fantastic stuff.
104.8 proof. 2,700 bottles produced.
A / $475 / malts.com
Do you like fruit? Do you like pale ales? Have I got a brew for you: Alaskan’s new spring seasonal, Big Mountain Pale Ale.
Big Mountain is a flavor departure for us, with a very new combination of hops that we have never used in our bottled beers before,” said David Wilson, Alaskan’s head of Quality Assurance. “The most distinct flavors and aroma come from Simcoe and Mosaic hops, which bring a stone fruit and berry taste and aroma, but also have a very complex nose and a flavor of tropical fruit and herbs.
That’s no flowery overstatement: Big Mountain starts off with big apple cider notes, then positively pours on notes of pineapple and peaches. Some hints of lemon and grapefuit — traditional in many IPAs — come around, but by then the rugged, bitter hops have come to the forefront, lingering and pushing towards a woody, earthy finish. This is fun for a while, but eventually the rollercoaster of fruit-bitter-fruit-bitter becomes a little overbearing. It’s just a bit too far in left field to be a big hit.
B / $8.50 per six-pack / alaskanbeer.com
Yesterday we experienced Caol Ila’s unpeated expression; today it’s the full monty, and bottled at a full 30 years of age — the oldest Caol Ila ever released by the distillery itself. #4 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is a peat bomb straight outta Islay, distilled in 1983.
After 20 years or so, peated whiskies tend to settle down, and this Caol Ila is no exception. The nose offers notes of sweet citrus, mesquite smoke, and dense toffee. The body continues the theme, with gentle smokiness settling over notes of rum raisin, quince, licorice, and bitter roots. When the smoke settles, it leaves behind a bittersweet character that is paradoxically at once racy and soothing, a maritime whisky that is starting to feel its age — and I mean that in a delightful way.
110.2 proof. 7,638 bottles produced.
A- / $700 / malts.com
Napa’s Frank Family has two of its flagship wines ready for their 2015 debut. Thoughts on the winery’s Chardonnay and Zinfandel follow.
2013 Frank Family Vineyards Chardonnay Carneros – Same aging regimen on this Carneros bottling — barrel fermented in 34% new, 33% once, and 33% twice-filled French oak barrels for 9 months. Moderately tropical on the nose, but it’s surprisingly mild on the whole. The big, oaky body is a clear Cali bomb — all brown butter, vanilla, and notes from the barrel. Desperate for some acidity, the finish is a bit flabby and uninspired for a wine at this price. B- / $35
2012 Frank Family Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley – Textbook Zin, pushing the fruit to within an inch of its life, but still just hanging on to some balance by the skin of its teeth. Raisin notes, some forest floor, and tea leaf all make an appearance, giving this an unusual but surprisingly lively construction. Quite food-friendly. 79% Zin, 18% Petite Sirah, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. B / $37
Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.
This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.
The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.
Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.
B+ / $120 / malts.com
San Franciscans, please join me on March 16 at the Metreon City View for In Pursuit of Balance, a tasting of California pinot noir and chardonnay that has an honest-to-God manifesto behind it. IPOB is a group of producers “seeking a different direction with their wines, both in the vineyard and the winery. This direction focuses on balance, non-manipulation in the cellar, and the promotion of the fundamental varietal characteristics which make pinot noir and chardonnay great – subtlety, poise and the ability of these grapes to serve as profound vehicles for the expression of terroir.”
You can get your lips around these wines — and these are some excellent producers, I can attest myself — in just over a week. To wit:
On March 16 (from 6 to 9 pm), thirty-three of California’s top wineries will share their wines at In Pursuit of Balance, an event created in 2011 to celebrate balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Joining those wineries will be nine of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, including SPQR, Nopa, Bar Tartine and RN74. IPOB represents a unique opportunity to taste thirty-three of the finest California pinot and chardonnay producers in a focused setting. As one of the most exciting and controversial movements in California wine, IPOB has been covered by, among others, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Food + Wine Magazine.
Tickets are $125, and you can nab them here. (Not in SF? IPOB is also headed to Houston and Japan.) Cheers!
Whisky #2 of 11 for Diageo’s 2014 special releases is a familiar one: Brora 35 Years Old, which is being issued for the third time in three years.
Distilled in 1978, this is a classic expression from a long-shuttered distillery. (Shuttered in 1983, there can’t be much Brora left out there.)
The nose is a beautiful, old Highlands classic, offering a melange of fruit, Sauternes, nuts, and wisps of smoke. The whisky attacks the palate with buttery sweetness, bright fruit — apples, citrus, and a bit of banana — then mellows out as the woodier, more maritime notes take hold. The distinct salt and seaweed notes are stronger here than in recent years, with the finish pushing on toward iodine and more smokiness than the nose would indicate. It’s this fireside character that lingers for ages, until you cut it again with a sip of that sweet nectar that comes on like sweet relief.
Simply gorgeous and hard to put down (as always), if you enjoyed Brora’s 2013 or 2012 special edition releases, well, pull out your wallet.
97.2 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.
A / $1,250 / malts.com
One of the most anticipated annual events in Scotch whisky is now upon us: Diageo’s Special Releases, antiquities both old and new (mostly old) from some of Scotland’s most storied distilleries. We’ve covered these releases for a few years, and 2014 (as each is formally labeled) presents us a bigger bounty than usual: 11 whiskies from some old friends and some new ones, too.
We’ll be reviewing one spirit a day for the next 11 days, so keep coming back to get the lowdown on the whole series.
Our first Diageo 2014 review is from Benrinnes, an active Speyside distillery that was best known for a curious triple distillation method, unusual for Scotland. This was abandoned in the 2000s, but this 21 year old would have undergone the process back in 1992 when it was distilled. There are no ongoing, distillery-issued Benrinnes bottlings produced today, so this release (the first in five years) comprises just a handful of the few casks that will get the “official” seal.
At 21 years old, Benrinnes showcases a mild, malty nose redolent with nuts, toast, and fresh grains. The palate is something else entirely. Huge fruit notes start things off: apple cider, currants, and orange peel. There’s a somewhat musty undertone to this, but it’s beat out by the other elements. The body is chewy and oily, the finish lasting, warming, and grounded by its grainy roots — just hinting at smoke at the very end. This is a whisky with a lot going on — but fortunately the fruit and the malt elements remain in harmony throughout the experience. None of the characteristics here are entirely unexpected, but the way Benrinnes brings them together is well worth considering.
113.8 proof. 2,892 bottles produced.
A- / $400 / malts.com
What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.
Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.
For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.
In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.
80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.
B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com
The Glenmorangie Private Collection continues to grow, with Tusail the latest launch from this Highlands producer. The focus on this one isn’t a special barrel-aging regimen (typical for Glenmorangie), but rather it’s a unique type of barley used to make the whisky. In Glenmorangie’s own words:
The 6th release from Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition, Tùsail is the product of a carefully-selected parcel of Maris Otter barley, floor-malted by hand using traditional techniques, and non chill-filtered. A rich winter variety of barley first introduced in 1965, Maris Otter was bred specifically to meet the demand for a high quality brewing malt and recognized for its ability to impart rich, rustic malty flavours. Now used only by a select few who continue, like Glenmorangie, to uphold an ethos of sacrificing yield for quality by using only the finest ingredients, the result is a whisky celebrating the variety’s renowned taste profile.
This is an exotic and curious expression of Glenmorangie. The nose features cereal notes backed by lots of sugared fruit — pears, tangerine, and some honey on the back end. The body is driven heavily by the grain, but it’s tempered with notes of cinnamon toast, pears (or pear-sauce, if that exists), and a bready, malty chewiness. The finish is racy and hot, really a bit of a scorcher at times, pushing a bit of fruitcake character blended with pear cider. Ultimately, Tusail isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like. I understand the desire to showcase the grain, but said grain just isn’t integrated well enough with the fruity components of the spirit, leaving behind a whisky with two faces. Both are interesting, but they seem to still be struggling against one another for dominance.
B / $125 / glenmorangie.com