Review: The Glenlivet Code

Though everyone’s a fan of transparency, whisky drinkers also love a good mystery.

Well, our friends at The Glenlivet are happy to indulge us with this new whisky, Glenlivet Code, which intentionally keeps its composition a secret.

Some details… er, so to speak.

The Glenlivet takes whisky enthusiasts on a journey of discovery, while also putting their single malt knowledge to the test with the U.S. launch of limited-edition The Glenlivet Code, a mysterious single malt introduced without cask information or tasting notes. Inspired by the iconic British Code breakers, the latest innovation is a unique combination of flavors that will measure the senses of even the most discerning whisky drinker by entering a digital tasting experience where they will be challenged to “Unlock the Taste” of the mystery whisky.

The global launch for The Glenlivet Code is supported by the innovative digital campaign to cement The Glenlivet’s role as the definitive Speyside single malt, renowned for its heritage as an authority within the single malts category. Maintaining this exceptional quality that The Glenlivet is famed for, The Glenlivet Code embodies the brand’s smooth and fruity tasting notes with some additional twists to unlock. The mystery whisky is crafted from specially selected casks to produce a new, never-before created single malt scotch whisky.

“With The Glenlivet Code, we had a unique opportunity to create a whisky that has never been crafted before, using new casks and techniques to push the boundaries of what people expect from The Glenlivet,” said Master Distiller, Alan Winchester. “This year’s limited edition is a labyrinth of flavors that will test the senses of even the most discerning whisky drinker and we’re excited to invite consumers worldwide to take on the ultimate challenge by unlocking its mystery taste. The interactive experience will allow whisky enthusiasts at all levels to build their knowledge of the category while also developing a deeper understanding of The Glenlivet.”

To begin the decoding challenge, consumers are invited to scan a code on the back of The Glenlivet Code bottle carton using the Shazam app to enter a virtual underground room. There, they will be greeted by a hologram of The Glenlivet’s Master Distiller, Alan Winchester, who will challenge them to decode the taste of the liquid by selecting four aromas for the nose and four flavors for the palate from several possible combinations.

After decoding the flavors of the new whisky, participants will be given a score which they can post on their social channels to see how they rank against their peers. The official tasting notes will be revealed at the end of the year to give consumers the time to discover and enjoy the liquid themselves.

We only received a small sample, not a full bottle, but it turns out you can play the interactive game on this website all the same. (Heck, it’s interesting to check out even if you don’t have the whisky in hand.)

We played the game, but our tasting notes on the mystery dram are more free-form than the game would direct.

It’s clearly a well-sherried whisky from the start. The nose is boldly spicy with notes of red pepper, ginger, citrus, and hints of sulfury molasses. After some time in glass, some astringent notes of old vermouth and a salty, briny note — almost camphor-like — emerge.

The palate is bold and lively, the sherry notes dampening any astringency and some of the camphor notes. Here they are replaced by a rich dark chocolate character, with notes of salted caramel, toffee, raisins, and Christmas spices. Chewy and soothing, the body is lightly oily, while the finish is lengthy with those spice notes hanging on — a eucalyptus character emerging on the back end.

What do I think this is? My guess is a 15 to 18 year old malt, aged primarily in sherry casks, perhaps with some finishing in an exotic wine cask, maybe something unusual, like a Spanish white. That’s just a wild guess, of course. Feel free to offer up your own!

96 proof.

A- / $120 /

Review: 2016 Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc

The 2016 Gamble Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Gamble Vineyard Yountville (its full name) is a fresh and fruity, with minor tropical notes, this wine evolves in glass to showcase notes of mandarin orange, with a spray of fresh herbs and a bit of dill on the back end. A lively and fun version of sauvignon blanc.

A- / $25 /

Review: BenRiach Classic Cask Strength, Single Cask #7367 Virgin Oak 10 Years Old, and Single Cask #2683 Peated Port Wood 12 Years Old

And now, three new limited releases from BenRiach, one of the few distilleries in Speyside that uses peat in some of its expressions. (BenRiach also triple distills some of its whisky, another oddity for Scotland.) All three of the whiskies reviewed below are a bit off the beaten path for single malt.

BenRiach Classic Cask Strength Batch #2 – This is a no-age-statement blend of whiskies from ex-bourbon barrels, Oloroso sherry casks, and virgin oak barrels. Big notes of licorice, black pepper, cloves, and gunpowder are all atypical for single malt Scotch. Credit (or blame) the virgin oak for that — this whisky wears its new oak notes on its sleeve. Heady on the nose and the palate, bold notes of fresh lumber, beef jerky, a bit of smoke, and roasted meat — again, all driven by new oak. After the initial savory rush, some sweetness merges. Water helps, revealing notes of nougat, lemon syrup, and almond. The finish is easy and short, again evocative of the barrel foremost. 121.2 proof. B / $95

BenRiach Single Cask #7367 Virgin Oak 10 Years Old – This is the Classic Cask Strength x2. Or more, considering it’s entirely aged in new, unused barrels. Huge lumberyard notes, immense with pepper, cloves, bacon, and almost acrid barrel char fill the nose. Malted barley has had quite a time interacting with the new oak, beaten to within an inch of its life by all that wood. Notes of red pepper, plum, and allspice add some nuance… but all have trouble competing with the overwhelming influence of the barrel. 118.8 proof. B- / $95

BenRiach Single Cask #2683 Peated Port Wood Finish 12 Years Old – This is a peated whisky, aged (presumably) in bourbon barrels and finished in Port pipes. The peat element dominates the nose, coming across as smoky though not particular salty, with some spice hiding beneath. The palate sees fruit melding with the smoky character, with notes of dusky, dried berries, blackberry bramble, and some menthol emerging. The finish keeps the full court press of wood smoke going strong, drowning out any real nuance. 107.2 proof. B / $110

Review: Innis & Gunn Kindred Spirits

For its latest release, Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn teamed up with Irish distiller Tullamore D.E.W. to produce this collaboration: Kindred Spirits. It’s a simple formula: I&G’s stout aged in Tullamore whiskey barrels, giving a traditional stout a bit of a twist.

Let’s taste!

The beer provides a surprisingly nice balance between the natural punch of the stout and the power of the barrel. On the attack, the relatively light-bodied stout makes a big impact, offering toasted nuts, Port wine, and light coffee notes. As the beer develops, a bitter core develops, with toasty, vanilla-dusted barrel char notes lingering on the back end. Far from overbearing and syrupy in the way that many barrel-aged beers can be, Innis & Gunn’s collaboration manages to draw from the best of both worlds. Try it!

6.1% abv.

A- / $9 per four-pack /

Review: Wild Turkey Longbranch

It’s no secret that Matthew McConaughey and Jimmy and Eddie Russell have been collaborating on a new whiskey, the culmination of McConaughey’s two years working as the “creative director” for Wild Turkey. Now it’s here: Longbranch, a straight bourbon with a slight twist. It is charcoal filtered twice, once through American white oak charcoal and once through Texas mesquite charcoal — giving the spirit its distinctively regional McConaughey spin.

Here’s the crew talking about its creation:

Longbranch is finally on the market, and while conceptually it sounds gimmicky, my initial skepticism was completely undone by tasting the finished product.

The nose is fairly typical of Wild Turkey, though it steps a bit in a new direction. Aromatically, it is primarily wood-forward, with notes of apple but perhaps just a whiff of barbecue smoke lingering in the glass. On the palate, the fruit immediately hits you hard. It’s much more powerfully fruity than the nose would indicate, those apples stepping back to reveal a strong cherry note, along with a spicy, almost peppery character. Notes of allspice emerge alongside a charred character late in the game, giving the finish a toasted marshmallow note. This burnt sugar sweetness lingers for some time, but a savory hint provides balance, keeping the whiskey from ever developing into a sweetness bomb.

All told, Longbranch is cohesive, intriguing, and unique all at once — especially for Wild Turkey, where tradition is way of life. It’s easily my favorite release from them in the last couple of years — and one of the best whiskeys of the year so far. Pick it up immediately.

86 proof.

A / $32 /

Review: Wines of Columbia Winery, 2018 Releases

Woodinville-based Columbia Winery is a reliable producer of affordable but well-crafted wines from the Washington wine world. Today we look at Columbia’s 2018 releases, including three reds and a white, all well under 20 bucks a bottle.

2016 Columbia Winery Chardonnay – Mild on the whole, this chardonnay shows notes of vanilla, light coconut, and a hint of mango, before diving into a melon-heavy body that lingers well into the finish. That alone makes the wine a bit exotic for a chardonnay, particularly one at this price point. B+ / $10

2015 Columbia Winery Merlot – Semi-sweet, a fresh berry note here complemented by mild florals. A brown sugar character lingers on a simple but approachable finish, tinged just so with violet notes. B / $12

2015 Columbia Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – The best red in this mix, this is a relatively classic yet youthful cab, with plenty of bright red fruit, a hint of chocolate, barrel-driven vanilla, and some spice. An earthier influence takes hold late on the game (though you can catch it on the nose), though the finish sees an unfortunate bit of canned green bean character. B+ / $14

2015 Columbia Winery Red Blend – A heavy syrah blend (plus merlot, cabernet, and malbec), it’s thick with smoky meat notes, but not overbearing, coming across more as a brush fire than a pyre built for a barbecue. The fruit that hits is a bit restrained: currants, mixed berries, and a little orange peel, with hints of red apple on the finish. Better with red meat. B / $10

Review: Jefferson’s Presidential Select Twin Oak 16 Years Old

It’s been a few years since Jefferson’s released a new addition in their Presidential Select line. While Jefferson’s has a considerable lineup of bourbon and rye, the Presidential Select bottlings have always been the most glamorous, owing to the fact that the first releases, like the now legendary Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17 Years Old, included some of the last stock from the infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Like all current Jefferson’s releases, the Twin Oak 16 Years Old is a sourced bourbon. It’s reportedly from a high rye mashbill that was aged for ten years in new, American oak barrels, dumped, and barreled again in fresh barrels for an additional six years (hence the name Twin Oak). The stated goal of this double-barreling process was to add complexity and depth of flavor to the bright notes of a classic bourbon. So did Jefferson’s succeed?

Twin Oak initially has a burly nose full of baking spice, leather, and vanilla that turns bright rather quickly, offering sharp floral and citrus notes that border a little on furniture polish. On the palate, ample cinnamon and golden raisins become Cracker Jack, vanilla custard, and orange marmalade with a big helping of oak. It’s not overly drying, but the slight astringency does get in the way of some of the other flavors. It has an oily sweetness to it that develops into a savory nutty element on the finish, and it all comes together in a kind of praline and cream finale. In the end, it’s an enjoyable bourbon. The extra aging time in new oak has clearly added some welcome complexity and flavor to this bottle, but it doesn’t seem to come all the way together the way it could. As the youngest Presidential Select released to date, it has just a little more growing up to do.

94 proof.

A- / $200 /

Review: 2016 Barossa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

This Aussie cabernet shows some of the classic trappings of the grape: blackberry and currants, with a sweetness that approaches pie filling at times. As the fruit mellows out in the glass, the wine evolves to show notes of clove, mint, and graphite, a modest acidity balancing a touch of vanilla. The racier back end allows the wine to show more complexity than you might otherwise expect based on first impressions.

B+ / $14 /

Review: Ardbeg Grooves

Ardbeg’s latest Ardbeg Day Committee Release is here (or at least it will be in June): The funkily named Ardbeg Grooves. If you’re thinking music has something to do with it, you’re not wrong, as the whisky is inspired by the life and times of livin’ on Islay in the 1960s. Says Ardbeg:

From the experimental folk at Ardbeg, comes this intensely mellow dram – Ardbeg Grooves.

Here at Ardbeg, we’ve always been passionate about the benefits of an alternative lifestyle. We dig peat. But we also dig crofting, crocheting, Celtic crosses and campfires.

And for this Limited Edition Committee bottling, we’re rolling back the years to an Islay time gone by – back to village of Peat & Love.

Produced using our grooviest casks ever, aromas of smoked spices combine with distant bonfires fading into a mellow haze of apple and smoked pear.

Ardbeg Grooves – It’s just good vibes…and good whisky, man.

That’s not a lot of information to work with, but it turns out those “groovy casks” are actually re-toasted red-wine casks, of which a portion of the whisky has been matured.

We received a sample of the cask-strength Committee Edition (as always, a lower-proof version will also be available in wider release). Let’s taste.

The aroma of the whisky isn’t immediately expressive of what’s inside. Saline and seaweed dominate, with more of a wood-burning campfire smoke heavy on the nose. The palate is a different animal, showing complexity immediately. On top of the peat comes a rush of fruit: pineapple, orange slices, and a hint of lemon. Maritime notes build in short order, but the salt spray takes on a sweeter note, akin to salted caramel. The finish sweetens the picture even further; I get a note of banana pudding, though the kick of smoke at the tail end reminds you, hey, this is Ardbeg after all.

103.2 proof.

A- / $123 /

Review: Allagash Belfiüs

Allagash Brewing Company has been busy of late creating new beers with unique profiles. Belfiüs is particularly adventurous, labeled as a Saison Ale Blended with Spontaneously Fermented Ale. The bottle provides a helpful description:

This bottle contains two of Belgium’s well-known beer styles: a spontaneously fermented ale and a saison. The spontaneously fermented ale is also known as our Coolship beer. The name comes from a key brewing tool – the coolship – that allows the beer to be inoculated with wild yeast and other microflora.

After inoculation, the beer ages in oak barrels for up to three years. The second beer in the blend is our Saison, a dry ale defined by its notes of citrus and peppery spice. Blended together, they create a golden beer with an herbal aroma that contains both spice and tart fruit. Its taste is one of restrained sourness rounded out by a hint of oak.

Let’s give it a try. Poured aggressively into a glass, this bright yellow-golden beer presents a large head that quickly dissipates. The nose offers vibrant saison character with notes of hay, grass, citrus, and green apple. The beer’s high carbonation level can be seen in the bubbles that rise steadily from the bottom of the glass. It is a pleasure to note that the carbonation results from the fermentation process that takes place in French oak wine barrels, not other sources.

On the palate, Belfiüs opens with green apple, which is followed by a surprisingly sharp acidity. The acidity makes this an excellent beer to pair with a range of foods, and I was wishing I had some sausage and onions to enjoy with it. The acidity also suggests this beer could improve with aging. Following its bracing attack, the beer presents a mild sourness. The finish is a soft one, as the sour note slowly fades but never turns bitter. For all that this beer offers, it is fairly light bodied and quite drinkable. For those who love saisons, this is an exciting beer to try thanks to its distinctive, sour twist.

6.7% abv.

B+ / $15 per 375ml bottle /

Review: Crown Royal Deluxe Blended Canadian Whisky

We’re filling in some of the back catalog today, kicking things off with a long overdue review of Crown Royal, the Canadian whisky classic with the motto “An Unmistakably Smooth Taste.”

The original Crown Royal — the one in the purple bag — is officially known as Crown Royal Deluxe (or “Fine de Luxe” if you’re feeling Quebecois). The whisky’s a blend, but a blend of what? Crown says a full fifty whiskies go into the mix here, but beyond that, who knows?

Let’s give the cruise ship standby a sip, shall we?

The nose is heavy with apples, followed by some basic barrel aromas and hints of the cereal so common with young whisky. It’s all fairly innocuous, though, and the palate follows suit: That apple fruit is unmistakable, as is a significant brown sugar and honey note that provides plenty of sweetness to the whisky. The finish has an industrial bent to it — in that there really isn’t one, just a quick fade-out designed to be as harmless as possible.

It’s not much for sipping straight, but considering what Crown Royal is really for — to mix with Coke and not really be tasted — it’s probably just about perfect.

80 proof.

B- / $17 /

Review: 2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Chardonnay, Grand Detour Pinot Noir, and Overlook Pinot Noir

Today it’s a trio of 2016 vintage wines from Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma — a chardonnay and two pinot noirs — including a few expressions we’ve never seen before.

2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – This standby chardonnay finds a moderate to heavy wood profile giving its underlying fruit a slathering of bacon, vanilla, and a hint of Eastern spices. The finish is lengthy and unctuous with butter and oak; on its own it’s a bit much, but it does pair well with seafood. B+ / $40

2016 Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – With that earthiness and chewy graphite character, this is iconic Sonoma Coast pinot noir from the outset. Notes of tea leaf give the black cherries at the wine’s core some gravitas, with a light meatiness adding weight to the back end. Some floral notes emerge in time, particularly as that finish lingers. While its dense and rich, there’s an elegance here that’s beautiful today — and will probably be more forthcoming in 2021 and beyond. A- / $30

2016 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir – Very meaty, this wine is almost tough with notes of beef jerky and fried ham, with a bit of a charred, burnt toast character to it. The savory elements dominate any fruit that’s to be found here; that runs to plums and a slightly raisiny, almost Port-like note. Pairs reasonably well with food, but on its own it lacks the vibrancy one wants from a truly soulful pinot. B / $20