Review: Glenfarclas The Family Casks 1989 from Astor Wines & Spirits

In the whisky world, single casks are great because they offer the opportunity to try a unique and rare version of an otherwise familiar spirit. Glenfarclas’ Family Casks go one step further and lets you pick across vintages spanning five decades. Since 2007, this Speyside distillery owned by the Grant family has produced more than 380 bottlings of vintage single malts from the early 1950s to the early 2000s. Of course no one bottle year is like the next, and cask finishing varies from year to year and release to release, so you never quite know what you’re going to get. There’s also a lot of history in these bottles, as each year’s complete release showcases multiple generations of the Grant family’s approach to whisky-making. Pricing varies accordingly from a few hundred dollars a bottle to thousands for those from the 1950s.

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a bottle of The Family Casks 1989 bottling selected exclusively for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City. This cask was bottled at the end of 2013, putting it at almost 25 years old. That’s somewhat on the younger side for that year’s releases but still a healthy, old age. Glenfarclas is typically associated with sherry-finished whiskies, but this bottling is all ex-bourbon cask, making it all the more unique.

The nose on this whisky is full of buttered pastry and orange blossom honey with a little clove, melon, and black pepper. On the palate, an initial burst of heat gives way to a malty, biscuity quality. As a fan of this distillery’s core range, I’m always looking for the dark fruit notes from the traditional Oloroso sherry finish, but I find in their place vibrant flavors of vanilla bean, oak, ginger, and an almost caramel apple quality. The finish is spicy with more honey and ginger root. Adding water creates a musty, leathery note on the nose, restrains some of the spice on the palate, and really amplifies the honeyed sweetness overall. I’m honestly not sure which way I prefer to drink this one, but I can confidently say I’m looking forward to the opportunity to try my next Glenfarclas Family Cask.

114.8 proof. Reviewed: Cask #7299.

A / $250 / glenfarclas.com

A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

copperfox.biz

Review: Firestone Walker Helldorado Blonde Barley Wine Ale (2017)

Barrel aging has become wildly popular in the craft-brewing world, but it remains, for the most part, a process almost exclusively applied to darker beers like porters and stouts. No strangers to pushing the envelope with their brews, California-based Firestone Walker Brewing Company bucks that trend with its Helldorado Blonde Barley Wine Ale, which is brewed solely with English and American pale malts. It’s a risky move given how well the caramel notes in whiskey (and whiskey barrels) complement darker styles of beer. So how does this lighter beer fare with barrel aging?

Helldorado pours a great rose gold color. There are subtle tropical fruit and raw honey notes on the nose and less of the roasted cereal aroma typical of darker barrel-aged beers. It’s deceptively refreshing. Where darker boozy brews caution patience, this thing begs to be gulped. It’s initially crisp but with a huge body. On the palate, there are sticky sweet biscuit notes, vanilla, dried coconut, and more honey. Many darker beers slowly develop a slightly bitter finish, but Helldorado’s sweetness lingers like cream soda. Don’t get me wrong. I love my barrel-aged stouts and dark barley wines, but it’s very exciting to see lighter beers that barrel-age so well.

12.8% abv.

A / $15 / firestonebeer.com

Review: Bushmills Single Malt 21 Years Old Irish Whiskey

If you haven’t already noticed, whiskey prices are going up across the board, particularly for older single malts. The record for a single bottle price at auction exceeded six figures just last year (a Yamazaki from Japan, no less), and there’s still no sign we’ve hit the ceiling. Even readily available older single malts, like the Macallan 18, have started creeping steadily north, and if you’re seeking to splurge on a bottle that’s old enough to drink itself (that’s 21 years, for those who’ve forgotten), you will typically have to fork over multiple hundreds of dollars. Thankfully, there are a few exceptions to this trend, one of which happens to be a single malt made by the oldest distillery in the world.

The venerable Bushmills Distillery received its grant to distill in 1608, so you’d assume they know a thing or two about old whiskey. Their 21-year-old offering, the oldest in their standard line-up, is aged for a minimum of 19 years in Oloroso Sherry and ex-Bourbon casks before being vatted and then finished for a further two years in Madeira wine casks. A fortified wine hailing from a small Portuguese archipelago in the north Atlantic Ocean, Madeira is aged deliberately in a hot island climate to achieve unique dark fruit and caramel notes. While not as common as bourbon or sherry casks for finishing, Madeira is growing in popularity with whiskey-makers, and it’s easy to see why with the Bushmills 21 year.

The pale gold color of most Irish whiskeys tends to immediately set my expectations for a lighter, often less flavorful spirit, so it’s refreshing to see a healthy dose of darker color, closer to amber, in the Bushmills 21 year. The nose also evidences a rich, deeply flavored spirit with notes of stewed dark berries, buttered toffee, and vanilla bean. The palate holds true to these promises with a sizable body for something triple distilled. All that barrel finishing has added honeyed layers of clove and cinnamon, sweet prune, dark fruit jam, and caramel. The finish is exceptionally long with lingering notes of oak and raisin. This is delicious stuff at any price point, but in a world of six figure whiskies the comparatively meager price of admission on Bushmills 21 makes it even harder to beat.

A / $120 / bushmills.com

Review: Lexington Brewing Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

The gateway to whiskey obsession for fans like myself tends to be beer, usually craft beer. So it’s no wonder that breweries the world over are aging beers in whiskey barrels. While whiskey tends to best complement very dark beers, like stouts, there are a number of lighter barrel-aged beers on the market today. One of the easier to find brews in this category is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, produced by Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in Lexington, Kentucky.

While the increase in barrel-aged beers has not coincidentally seen the demand for used bourbon barrels skyrocket, the folks at Lexington likely have their neighbors in the Bluegrass State keeping them in good supply. Their Kentucky Ale ale is aged for up to six weeks in freshly decanted bourbon barrels from unnamed Kentucky distilleries, and that bourbon influence is not at all subtle in this ale.

It pours with a light head and a golden amber color. The nose is all rich vanilla and oak, a predominance of aroma somewhat unusual even for barrel-aged beers. The approach is crisp and filled with caramel and toffee under a light, malty body. It’s immediately refreshing, which is unexpected given those big bourbon notes. Alltech has been making this beer since 2006, and my first sip of it years ago blew me away. The latest releases haven’t quite lived up to those first impressions, though. Despite the robust whiskey influence, it’s a little thin overall, and the flavor up front is sometimes fleeting.

8.2% abv.

B / $12 per 4-pack / kentuckyale.com

Review: Amrut Spectrum 004 Single Malt Whisky

In 2004, Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore, India, introduced the first single malt whisky made in India to the UK market. Since then, the distillery has released several expressions of single malt all over the world using Indian barley, as well as peated barley sourced from Scotland. Amrut bottles their whisky at a comparatively younger age than most Scottish or Irish distilleries (only 4-5 years old), but that doesn’t mean it tastes young. Because the whisky is aged at 3,000 feet up in the tropical conditions of southern India, maturation occurs at roughly three times the Scottish rate, giving Amrut a significant advantage in the industry.

While the distillery offers traditional single malt expressions, both peated and non-peated and at standard proof or cask strength, they have also experimented with many different barrel finishes. Perhaps none of these experiments has been as complex or as interesting as Amrut’s Spectrum. The goal of this whisky was to achieve the effects of multiple barrel influences simultaneously by constructing casks from four different types of barrels: American oak (with a standard level 3 char), toasted French oak, and two sherry casks (Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez). Amrut then took their original single malt, aged three years in ex-bourbon casks, and transferred it to these Spectrum casks for an undisclosed amount of time. The first run of Spectrum in 2016 actually used an additional Spanish oak as well, but the 2017 release (dubbed 004) dropped it because it reportedly didn’t add that much to the final product. Whether the product of four different casks or five, Amrut Spectrum is an interesting experiment that I’m surprised we haven’t already seen from the industry leaders in Scotland. So what comes out of this Frankenstein barrel, you might ask?

One word: magic.

On the nose, Amrut Spectrum is immediately bold and nuanced with notes of blackberry jam, clove, wet oak, and new shoe leather. It’s silky on the palate with a great balance of sweet and spice. It has a fantastic sherry backbone, with notes of black cherry, ripe prune, and a little campfire smoke, which you would expect with the Oloroso and PX influence, but this surprisingly doesn’t dominate the rest of the spirit. Several different oak tannins are apparent, but again, they’re expertly integrated. There’s also a great balance with the other barrel influences which impart a wide range of rich flavors: dark chocolate, hazelnut, cinnamon, and toffee, along with some citrus and overripe stone fruit. The finish is just long enough to keep you going back to the glass to coax out cracked black pepper underneath lingering coffee notes, plus a little menthol. I was excited to see how this whiskey might develop with a little water, but a few drops just dulled the initial complexity without adding much. This one is perfect at its original abv so sip it neat if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle.

100 proof.

1,800 bottles produced (600 for the U.S.).

A+ / $160 / amrutdistilleries.com

Review: One Eight Distilling Rock Creek Rye Whiskey and Untitled Whiskey No. 3

Several distilleries have opened in the nation’s capital in recent years, but only One Eight Distilling can claim to have in their Rock Creek Rye the first grain to glass whiskey distilled, aged, and bottled in the District since prohibition. Also in their sizable portfolio are several quality non-barrel-aged spirits, including Ivy City Gin, and a host of sourced whiskeys released through their Untitled series that showcase various experiments with different finishes and proofs.

As the first distillery to bring whiskey back to DC, you wouldn’t expect One Eight to be satisfied with just a rye. Later this fall, they’ll release their own bourbon with plans to introduce single malt into their line-up in the near future. Drinkhacker got its hands on a sample of Rock Creek Rye along with a sample of one of the more unique whiskeys in the Untitled series. Thoughts follow.

One Eight Distilling Rock Creek Rye Whiskey – The nose on this whiskey has a fair amount of toasted cereal owing probably to the high amount of malted rye in the mashbill. There’s a little spearmint in there, as well, and notes of lemony floor polish and honeydew melon. There’s minimal spice or heat on the nose and none of the grassiness typical of younger rye whiskey. It drinks almost like a bourbon, and a nicely balanced one at that. There’s a little raw honey on the front palate followed by some spice, more lemon, and savory baked grain notes — almost like banana bread with a bit of walnut in it. The spice shows up more on the tail end, and cinnamon and vanilla bean round out a gentle, warming finish. In the increasingly crowded world of craft rye whiskey, this one has a lot going for it. 94 proof. A- / $50

One Eight Distilling Untitled Whiskey No. 3 – This whiskey is one of the more interesting in the growing Untitled line-up, and it displays some real creativity. It’s a product of collaboration with DC-based coffee roasters Vigilante Coffee who provided the roasted coffee beans to fill the finishing barrel for an undisclosed amount of time before a sourced six year-old, wheated bourbon was aged in it. The resulting whiskey has a powerful nose of dark chocolate-covered caramel and freshly ground coffee with a little molasses and cardamom lingering in it, too. The palate has great heat on it with bold notes of dark roast coffee and baking cocoa, along with traces of caramel and butterscotch. The finish is surprisingly long — perhaps this is a bourbon best paired with dessert. Still, if One Eight can make a coffee-finished whiskey this good, I’d love to see what they can do with more traditional wine casks. Batch 3, 92 proof. A- / $78

Oneeightdistilling.com

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