Review: Port Askaig 110 Proof

Before you book a flight to Islay, know this: There is no distillery at Port Askaig. This whisky is rather “created from carefully selected casks from distilleries across Islay. All whiskies from Port Askaig are truly ‘small-batch’ with as few as two, and no more than 40, casks used for each bottling.” Since it’s billed as a single malt, though, each Port Askaig must be sourced from a single distillery, not multiple ones. This is the first Port Askaig release to arrive in the U.S.

Port Askaig 110° Proof is the first of this unique range of single malt whiskies to launch in the US but there will be more releases, including US exclusives, to come in the next few years. Port Askaig 110° Proof is a cask-strength whisky, bottled at 55% and matured in American oak, offering the perfect balance of smoke and sweet fruit. In order to maintain the authenticity of the Port Askaig liquid, the creators do not use chill filtering and no colouring is added.

Let’s give Port Askaig’s first U.S. landing a taste.

A very pale straw color is the first inkling of how gentle this whisky will be. The nose is classically Ardbegian — light on its feet but oily, with significant floral overtones atop gentle petrol notes. The palate is equally quiet, despite bottling at 55% abv it shows more delicate floral notes, light vanilla, and a spritz of citrus. At the same time, there’s a backbone here — peat smoke, but with a character that comes across like it’s been well-filtered and refined, like a cigar detected from across the room, one which makes one wonder, maybe I should find one of those cigars for myself…

110 proof.

A- / $75 / portaskaig.com

Review: Glenmorangie Astar (2017)

Glenmorangie released Astar way back in 2008. The concept was a weird one: It was a single malt entirely matured in oak from the Ozark mountains of Missouri, “designed to impart the wood’s maximum flavor to the spirit.” These barrels were toasted then filled with bourbon for four years before being emptied and shipped to Scotland to be filled with new-make single malt.

Astar was a one-off release (seeing as the barrels used were a one-off experiment), but nearly 10 years later, Dr. Bill Lumsden has orchestrated a revival, using the same Ozark wood. The new Astar as a bit different than the original — namely it has dropped from the original 114.2 proof — but the approach is otherwise the same.

Let’s taste.

Astar is heavy duty on the nose, not just driven by the wood but by the spirit itself. Things kick off with brisk lemon honey notes at first, followed by plenty of wood overtones driven by the Ozark-sourced wood. That wood mutes some of Glenmorangie’s characteristic floral notes, leaving behind more savory aromas that ultimately verge on mushroom and tobacco leaf, leaving things surprisingly earthy in the end.

The palate is quite racy at full strength, but here the lemon notes shine brightly before venturing down a path that takes you to roasted nuts, an amontillado sherry character, dried fruits, a melange of gingerbread/baking spices, and more of that intense wood character, here bordering on slightly smoky at times. Water helps the various flavor elements meld more fully, leading to a surprisingly savory yet complex finish.

Definitely worth a look.

105 proof.

B+ / $100 / glenmorangie.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend

Johnnie Walker’s experimental, limited-time releases continue this month with the second expression in the series to be released in the U.S.: Wine Cask Blend. (Two more expressions from this series, Rum Cask Blend and Espresso Roast, have been released internationally and are not available in the U.S. That brings the total number of experimental releases up to six.)

Some details:

The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in motion by Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge nearly a decade ago. In 2015 Aimee Gibson, a member of the Johnnie Walker blending team, took on the project and through experiments of her own, developed a wonderful new whisky in the Blenders’ Batch series. This welcoming blend includes some whiskies matured in wine casks. It is crafted with malt whiskies from the Highland such as Clynelish and some from Speyside such as Roseilse. It also includes creamy grain whiskies, such as those from Cameronbridge. The result is a light and vibrant whisky with notes of orchard fruit and red berries.

It’s a bit troubling that the only information on the aging is that “some whiskies” are matured in “wine casks.” There’s no information about how much of the blend goes into wine casks, for how long, or even what kind of wine we’re talking about. After all, sherry, Port, and white zinfandel are all “wine.” Naturally, there’s no age statement on the bottle, either.

Anyway, we’ll have to plow forward despite our ignorance…

Light as a feather, pinkish in color, and pleasantly aromatic, the whisky offers a few unusual aromas (driven by the wine cask treatment) of bold florals, fresh peaches, strawberry, and mint, alongside more traditional vanilla and some modest cereal notes. The palate is soft and expressive — and so sweet that it initially feels a bit like a rum, complete with plenty of fruit and lots of vanilla character. As it evolves on the tongue the whisky reveals more fruit character, including some apple, citrus, and red berries, along with classic baking spice notes. The finish is where you see the granary character the most, with a lasting cereal note that lingers as the fruit quickly fades.

For what it’s worth, my wife calls it a “whisky for ladies.” That ain’t a bad thing, but she’s not wrong.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / johnniewalker.com

Review: Ardbeg An Oa

Peat fans, consider it your birthday: Ardbeg is announcing a fourth whisky to join its core trio as a permanent addition to the range. Ardbeg An Oa (pronounced “an oh”) is the first new permanent expression from Ardbeg in almost a decade. The expression is named for the southernmost point of Islay, where towering cliffs stand resolute and shelter the southern coast of the island.

An Oa is a unique property drawn from Ardbeg’s new Gathering Vat – “especially created from fine French oak to bring Ardbeg An Oa into being.” Much like Glenfiddich’s Solera Cask, the Gathering Vat lets a variety of casks “mingle” in a large-scale environment. Into this cask go whiskies matured in Pedro Ximénez casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and virgin oak casks. There’s no info on the age of the whiskies that go into the Gathering Vat at the outset, and no information on how long they might stay in the Vat itself. However, the idea seems to be that, in classic Solera style, some of the spirits in the vat will get older and older even as new casks are added to the mix. We’ll have to see how An Oa evolves in the years to come.

For now, anyway, in a lot of ways, this comes across a bit like “starter Ardbeg.” The peat is dialed back on the nose, which allows notes of crisp brine, toasted marshmallow, and hints of nutty sherry to emerge. The palate finds sherry-driven citrus dominating, with tea leaf and a rounded vanilla character creeping up behind it. Peat weaves in and out of all of this, along with notes of grapefruit, gingerbread, and some more raw petrol notes that linger on the finish.

All told, it’s a bit of a melange of flavors that, if not exactly “starter Ardbeg” then at least comes across like “greatest hits Ardbeg” — a mix of this and that that feels at times like a blend of leftovers that didn’t get used in other expressions. That’s not totally a bad thing, really. Infinity bottles are fun for everyone!

93.2 proof.

B+ / $80 / ardbeg.com

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release and Loch Gorm 2017

Two 2017 updates from Kilchoman have hit our desk. Let’s dig in!

Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release – Kilchoman’s 2017 version of its annual 100% Islay release — grown, malted, distilled, matured and bottled on Islay — is here. At seven years old, it’s once again the oldest expression of 100% Islay released to date. As always, the 100% Islay line is more lightly peated than the rest of the Kilchoman range. As is typical, this year’s is completely matured in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Fresh and lively, 100% Islay is always a crowd-pleaser, and the 2017 release is no exception. The nose offers notes of fresh cut grass, sharp lemon, and a smattering of herbs, all filtered through a layer of peat smoke. The palate stays on target, citrus and grassy notes melding with a hint of vanilla, some coffee bean grit, and a reprise of that smoky finish, dusted with a hint of cloves. It’s quite lovely from start to finish (though water is an improvement) and, as always, a top pick if you’re considering anything from Kilchoman. 100 proof. A / $77

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2017 – This is the sixth edition of Loch Gorm, which is Kilchoman’s annual, sherry cask matured edition. This release has been matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts filled in 2009, the longest Loch Gorm maturation to date. This year’s edition is one of the better expressions of Loch Gorm, the sherry maturation really hitting its stride and revealing some interesting nuances in the whisky. The peat is dialed way back vs. prior years’ releases, letting aromas of orange blossoms, lemon peel, and sandalwood peek through. The palate is quite sweet and seductive, with notes of camphor, spearmint, and a hint of licorice adding intrigue to the base notes of citrus and peat smoke. The 2017 Loch Gorm is a whisky that really comes together with a surprisingly deft balance. Though it’s a much different whisky than the 100% Islay, it’s definitively worth checking out. 92 proof. A / $73

kilchomandistillery.com

Review: Slane Irish Whiskey

Remember Slane Castle Irish Whiskey? Of course not. Brown-Forman bought the brand a few years ago, and even then it was hard to find in the U.S. Now it’s been relaunched, rebranded — the “Castle” is now gone, leaving just “Slane” — and a distillery of its own is being build in Ireland.

The current version of Slane is a whole other animal than the old Slane Castle. This one is a blend of malt and grain whiskey — not single pot still, it seems — that is then split up and aged in three different types of casks: Virgin new oak, heavily toasted and lightly charred; oak formerly used for American whiskey; and used Oloroso sherry casks. There’s no age statement on the bottle.

Ultimately all that adds up to a drinkable, if somewhat muddy spirit. New oak is very rare in Irish whiskey, and here you can see why: It really dominates the experience. On the nose, it’s big and grainy, with bold lumberyard notes and a dusky edge of charcoal. Some lighter fruit notes hide out in the background, but they have trouble pushing through the burlier aromas that dominate.

On the palate, wood remains dominant, though here it is filtered through notes of heavily roasted grains, walnuts, cloves, and some orange peel. The overall impression is not one typical of Irish but something closer to blended Scotch, though the finish does offer a hint of honeycomb and lavender that would be unusual in something from Ireland’s neighbor to the east.

80 proof.

B / $30 / slaneirishwhiskey.com

Review: Wolfburn Single Malt Whisky and Aurora Sherry Oak

Located on the extreme northern tip of the Scottish mainland, Wolfburn is one of the youngest distilleries in Scotland, getting its start in 2013 on the site of an old distillery from the 1800s located outside the town of Thurso. The distillery ages in a combination of bourbon casks (of various sizes) as well as Spanish sherry casks — but so far, none of its products carry formal age statements. You can do the math: Since none of this is sourced whisky, it’s a maximum of four years old, probably less.

Today we look at two of the earliest releases from Wolfburn, the eponymous single malt and another bottling called Aurora, which sees a considerable influence (judging from color alone) of sherry casking.

Both are 92 proof.

Wolfburn Single Malt Scotch Whisky – All the hallmarks of young whisky are here. This one’s green on the nose, with notes of new leather, fresh cut wood, evergreen needles, lemon peel, and menthol. On the palate, the pungent character that comes across is wholly expected, the grain taking on a surprisingly heavy bitter citrus note along with notes of dusky cloves, green pepper, and roasted onion. Those can be off flavors for sure, but here they work reasonably well as they build to a burly, if uneven, crescendo. The overly bitter finish is a bit further off the mark, though. B- / $55 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Wolfburn Aurora Sherry Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky – The heavier sherry is evident here from the first whiff, though again it is filtered through notes of fresh herbs, ample wood, and a tobacco note. The palate is sharply sherried, though still somewhat vegetal (though less so than the single malt), with notes of mint (fresher than the menthol notes in the single malt), cinnamon, and nougat. The finish is incredibly sharp and biting, with an even more bitter, herbal edge than the above — quite a surprise, and a bit of a letdown over what is otherwise a pretty interesting dram. B / $60

wolfburn.com

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