Review: Rua American Single Malt Whiskey

Great Wagon Road Distilling can be found in Charlotte, North Carolina, where this small operation can be found making vodka, poitin, and malt whiskey under the care of Ollie Mulligan, a native Irishman. Today we look at Rua — Gaelic for “red” — the company’s American single malt made from 100% malted barley. The whiskey carries no age statement, but it’s a fairly young one that is apparently aged in considerably smaller barrels.

The nose of Rua has all the hallmarks of a youthful American single malt, scorched by the impact of plenty of new oak, but it shows that some liveliness lies beneath, in the form of cinnamon, apple cider, and some ginger aromas.

On the palate, again the new wood tends to dominate, but some secondary notes of tobacco, cloves, baking spice, and a lacing of sweeter vanilla elevate the experience above that of most American single malts. The light butterscotch notes on the finish are playful in a whiskey that can initially come across as brooding — at least enough to merit giving it a cautious recommendation.

Reviewed: Release 10, Batch 18. 80 proof.

B / $53 / gwrdistilling.com

Review: Westland Winter Release 2016

Seattle-based Westland Distillery makes only American single malt whiskey, but they have produced a range of variations on this theme to date including Sherry Wood and Peated, as well as more creative offerings like Garryana, part of the Native Oak series in which they age their single malt in oak sourced from the Pacific Northwest. In the winter of 2016 they added another addition to their range with the inaugural Winter Release. Westland has a rather romantic way of describing this whiskey, so I’ll let them do the explaining:

This inaugural release of Westland Winter celebrates the stark contrasts of the season. At once brisk and cozy, austere and comforting, it hovers over the threshold of the season’s two theaters, the hinterland and the hearth. Nine casks were married for this release. Smoke is the one constant, its waft on the wind carrying us in and out of each scene. The ex-bourbon casks shape the whiskey into a fully realized portrait of winter, but this release’s ascendant feature is a single ex-Oloroso hogshead of peated spirit. This sherry cask, with its immense richness and assertive peatiness, reminds us that this time of year togetherness is warming and indulgence is forgiven.

That’s a lot to pack into a bottle, but I can easily see what they are getting at. On the nose, Winter Release shows a subtle smokiness, but it’s sweet, almost like pipe tobacco or a dying campfire. There’s ginger there, too, golden raisin, and a little candy apple. The palate is oily and honeyed with cinnamon and dark fruit notes that become chocolate covered on a lingering and slightly spicy finish. I get the “winter in a glass” thing, but more importantly, this is a dram I would pick over a lot of other more traditional single malts out there. Here’s looking forward to next winter!

100 proof.

A- / $100 / westlanddistillery.com

Review: Virginia Distillery Port Finished Virginia Highland Malt Whisky

Virginia Distillery — which takes authentic single malt from Scotland and finishes it in unique barrels in Virginia — is back with another release, and like its inaugural release, this one finished in Port wine barrels. (Again, note that this expression differs from that first release and carries a different label.) The first Virginia release to carry a batch label (this one’s #3), the malt is finished in Port barrels from King Family Vineyards, Horton Vineyards, and Virginia Wineworks, for 12 to 26 months depending on the particular barrel.

The deep amber color is enticing, leading into a nose that is salty, a bit sweaty even, with hints of seaweed, roasted grains, and banana bread. The nose is a bit floral at times, much like Virginia’s Cider Barrel Matured release, though there’s no real hint of the raisiny Port notes from the finishing barrel.

There’s more evidence of the Port barrel on the palate, but even here it’s quite restrained, allowing more toasty cereal notes, vanilla-heavy barrel char, citrus peel, and hints of iodine to show themselves more fully. The Port influence becomes clearer as the finish approaches, though it takes on a chocolate character primarily, along with some hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. All told, it does bear significant resemblance to the original Virginia bottling, though here everything seems less well-realized, less mature, and generally a bit undercooked. While it’s still got plenty to recommend it, it simply lacks the magic of some of Virginia’s other releases.

92 proof.

B / $58 / vadistillery.com

Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Crying of the Puma”

Recently we gave you an accounting of a strange little whiskey called Abomination, in which newly-Los Angeles-based Lost Spirits Distillery takes Islay white dog, puts it through its patented reactor, and a week later comes out with a heavily-peated, rapidly-aged “Scotch” unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

You may not recall that Abomination was being released in two renditions: The Crying of the Puma (aka red label) uses toasted wood from a “late harvest riesling barrel” and The Sayers of the Law (aka black label) uses charred wood from the same barrels. (As a reminder, since there is no such thing as a late harvest riesling barrel, because late harvest riesling is not aged in a barrel, Lost Spirits gets these casks made special.)

Lost Spirits was out of the Puma bottling at the time of our initial coverage, but the red label is finally back in stock and ready for our analysis. Thoughts follow.

I’ll be right up front and say that Sayers/black label is by far the better whiskey. It has a complexity that Puma/red label is largely missing. I did considerable side-by-side work to compare the two, and the differences are stark. Sayers is loaded up with all manner of flavors — lots of fruit, coffee bean, peppery roasted meats, and more — all filtered through classic, briny Islay. But Puma has a much different bent, with a much heavier focus on coffee beans, beef jerky, and salted pork — all evident on the nose and carrying over to the body. Nothing wrong with those flavors, but the underlying fruit components — which are there if you go spelunking — have a hard time finding their way through some seriously beastly smoke and meaty notes to make any impact on the palate. Water is a huge help at softening up a somewhat overbearing whiskey and helping coax out some floral elements, and a finish that recalls honey.

Completists and peat freaks may want to pick up a bottle of each of these to compare and contrast the duo, but if you’ve only got 50 bucks to spend, The Sayers of the Law sayeth the truth.

108 proof.

B / $50 / lostspirits.net

Review: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and Diamond Peak (Late 2016 Bottlings)

We’ve reviewed several of Stranahan’s single malt whiskey bottlings in the past, and today we look at a fresh batch of both the yellow-labeled original and the company’s higher-end Diamond Peak release. Both are 100% malted barley whiskeys, made and aged in Colorado. Unfortunately prices batch information is not available for these, which were tasted from 200ml sample bottles with incomplete labeling. That said, Stranahan’s was able to give us a range of batch numbers; both shipped in October 2016.

Both are 94 proof.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (batch between 190 and 194) – Aka Stranahan’s Original. Fruity on the nose, with aromas of apricot, lemon peel, white flowers, and some icy menthol — plus a touch of medicinal character late in the game, particularly evident as it opens up a bit with air. The palate is sweeter than I expected, with notes of gingerbread (common with Stranahan’s), dried red berries, and some bitter herbs on the finish. Strong alcohol notes give the whiskey long legs, and the finish lingers for a long while with aromatic, floral notes hanging around the longest. Still fun and unique stuff. B+ / $60 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Stranahan’s Diamond Peak 2016 (batch 21 or 22) – This is a more fully-aged barrel selection of the Stranahan’s Original bottling, drawn from casks at least four years old. Compared to the original bottling, the barrel makes a more evident impression from the start here, with clearer vanilla and toffee notes, and fresh (rather than dried) red fruits. The palate is loaded with a complex array of flavors, starting with more toffee plus vanilla pudding, then venturing into fresh strawberry shortcake, cola, milk chocolate, and a fleeting kiss of warm gingerbread on the finish. Unlike the above, the alcohol here barely registers (even though it’s the same abv), and the whole affair finds a lushness and a balance that the “yellow label” bottling doesn’t wholly have. While Stranahan’s Original is a fine starter spirit, this bottling takes the promise of American Single Malt and shows that it can be fully realized. A / $85  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

stranahans.com

Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Sayers of the Law”

One can count on few things in life, but one of those things is the fact that Lost Spirits Distillery — now operating out of Los Angeles — is going to come up with something new to mess with your mind.

What did Bryan Davis do to create this “abomination?” Instead of distilling his own heavily peated new-make spirit (as was done with Lost Spirits’ prior whiskey releases), he imported white dog from an unnamed distillery on Islay. The smoky single malt was then put through Lost Spirits’ reactor to turbo-age it. Two expressions were the result. One, The Crying of the Puma* (aka red label) uses toasted wood from a “late harvest riesling barrel.” (The catch is that there is no such thing as a late harvest riesling barrel, because late harvest riesling is not aged in a barrel, so Davis had to order up a bespoke cask.) The second release is called The Sayers of the Law (aka black label, which is reviewed here). It’s aged with the same late harvest riesling barrel wood, only this time the wood is charred instead of toasted before it goes into the aging reactor.

The nose would be familiar to any Islay fan — sweet barbecue smoke to start — and then you start catching deeper aromas of gooey dried fruit compote, fresh peaches, and floral elements, clearly delivered by the riesling barrel. The palate is intensely smoky, with traditional Islay elements of briny seaweed and peat smoke. Notes of candied flowers mingle with fresh strawberry, coconut husk, and iodine, then lingering nuggets of coffee bean, dark chocolate, and lilacs. The finish is pushy and long as hell, soaked in liquefied wood and smoke and dripping with a hedonistic pungency.

Islay fans, though this is ruthlessly unorthodox I highly encourage you to buy this now. It’ll be the best $50 you’ve ever spent.

108 proof.

A / $50 / lostspirits.net

* The fanciful product names are drawn from chapters from The Island of Dr. Moreau. Get it?

Review: Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan Single Malt Whisky

A name like Colkegan may evoke Ireland, or perhaps Scotland… but not exactly New Mexico, does it?

Nevertheless, here we are with a distinctly American single malt — its barley dried not with peat but with mesquite — double pot-distilled, and aged (time unstated) in casks at 7000 feet above sea level (yes, in the Santa Fe area).

It is a decidedly unique drinking experience that drops a tumbleweed right on top of Islay.

On the nose, you can’t escape that mesquite, the distinctly sweet notes of those smoldering branches impacting heavily the comparably restrained notes of salted caramel and vanilla plus a mix of savory herbs including rosemary and thyme. The smoke overlays it all, just as it does over the sea in Islay, only here it’s barbecue sauce, not coal dust.

The palate is more in keeping with an American single malt, although Colkegan apparently has enough age on it to nicely temper the raw grain, and the mesquite helps to ward off the raw wood character so prevalent in American single malt whiskeys. Instead we get more of those salted caramel notes, some dried fruit, and dark chocolate — all filtered through a haze of mesquite. There’s a surprisingly high level of balance here, with what could have been a cacophony of flavors melding together incredibly well. The finish is lightly smoky, but ends up squarely on notes of dark chocolate-coated currants rather than burnt wood.

This is a whiskey that I first approached with significant hesitation, then I found myself slowly won over by its uniqueness, restraint, and charm. For fans of either Islay or American whiskeys, it’s definitely worth sampling and savoring.

92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #8.

A- / $51 / santafespirits.com

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