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

Review: Virginia Distillery Cider Barrel Matured Virginia Highland Malt Whisky

If Virginia Distillery Co.’s flagship product — a Scottish single malt imported to the U.S. and finished in Virginia Port wine casks — wasn’t wacky enough for you, now comes its first line extension, which sees that first product finished not in Port barrels but instead in locally-sourced cider barrels (specifically barrels from Potter’s Craft Cider). It’s the first release in Virginia’s new Commonwealth Collection, which will see additional oddball finishes being applied to its releases in the months to come.

As with the original release, this is an enchanting whisky that merits some serious study. The nose has a classic single malt structure with gentle granary notes, honey, and some florals, but it’s tempered with a slight citrus character — or at least, more of a citrus character than you’d expect from a traditional single malt. There’s an undercurrent of funk — hard to describe but perhaps driven by the cider barrels — that is at once unusual and appealing.

Rich and malty, the nose leads into a moderate but compelling body that grows in power as you let it aerate. Here the apple influence is a bit clearer, melding with the malt to showcase notes of lemon, grasses, a bit of honey, and more cereal. Again, that slight funk on the finish offers a little something extra — a touch of chocolate, a rush of acidity, and some bitterness, all notes that serve to enhance the experience by taking things in an unexpected direction.

92 proof.

A- / $55 / vadistillery.com

Review: Seattle Distilling Idle Hour Whiskey

seattle-whiskey

Home-grown Washington barley finds its way into Seattle Distilling’s Idle Hour single malt whiskey, which adds local wildflower honey into the fermentation to sweeten things up a bit (Seattle Distilling calls this “its Irish character”). The distillate is aged in re-charred, used French oak cabernet sauvignon wine casks, though no age statement is offered.

This is oaky American malt whiskey, and like most American single malts, it’s youthful and brash and overloaded with new wood — but at least Idle Hour shows a bit of restraint in comparison to other whiskeys in this category.

Perhaps its the old wine barrels that temper Idle Hour, which kicks off on the nose with plenty of fresh cut lumber, yes, but also offers notes of menthol, honeysuckle, and jasmine. The palate is a surprise, milder than expected, again tempering its evident and drying toasty oak character with gentle florals, some almond notes, and a bit of lime zest. The finish sees some canned, green vegetables and offers some odd, lingering notes of ripe banana and tobacco leaf.

All in all it’s better than I expected, and despite some odd departures and U-turns, it reveals itself to be a unique and often worthwhile spirit in many ways.

88 proof. Reviewed: Batch #7.

B / $25 (375ml) / seattledistilling.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016

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WhiskyFest is always a great opportunity to get a look at new releases — and pre-sampling products I won’t be able to formally review for a few weeks or month is my favorite part of the show. WhiskyFest 2016 was shaping up to be a windfall for these kinds of releases, including Ardbeg Dark Cove, Redbreast Lustau, Glenmorangie Tarlogan, and Writers Tears Cask Strength, among others. Alas, none of these whiskies (and more) ever made it to the show floor. The Writers Tears broke in transit, I was told. The Lustau was sitting on the back bar, unopened and would only be served at the masterclass session. As for Dark Cove and Tarlogan, well, no one seemed to know a thing. They just weren’t there. Making matters worse, more than once attendees complained to me that vendors had long ago run out of certain whiskies, only to have me tell them I’d just sampled the very same spirit minutes earlier.

I can’t and don’t fault the festival for these issues — and I hope it was just bad luck this year — but I also can’t help but feel disappointed to have left without trying all of these spirits.

Anyway, I did manage to suss out a few new and unusual bottlings, including some all-stars, though I opted not to stand in the 150-person strong line for a sip of Pappy Van Winkle this year. Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016

Scotch

Glenfiddich 26 Years Old / A- / a classic expression of old Glenfiddich; malty and biscuity, with a sugar cookie finish
031Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength Flagon / B+ / a 57.1% abv release of this vatted malt; bold and herbal, with lemon peel notes
The Deveron 12 Years Old / B- / Dewar’s-owned; restrained to the point of being muted on the palate
Royal Brackla 16 Years Old / B / quite malty, rough around the edges
Old Pulteney 21 Years Old / A- / a classic, but surprisingly sweet, its maritime note dialed down; just a touch of smoke on the back
Wolfburn Aurora / B / chewy with woody overtones; a bit youthful
The Macallan Reflexion / B+ / a $1200 monster from Macallan, aromatic with dried fruits, but a bit hoary on the back end; I’d have trouble mustering up this kind of coin
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / always worthwhile, rich and malty with plenty of dark fruit notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask / B- / not getting much wine character; restrained and thin at times
Auchentoshan 21 Years Old / B- / heavy with grain, much more youthful than expected
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old / A- / notes of burnt bread and biscuits; lots of malt and wood influence
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / highlight of the show; remarkably gentle but studded with golden raisins and a lovely simple sweetness
Alexander Murray & Co. Dalmore 15 Years Old / B- / oddly smoky, dull on the finish
Alexander Murray & Co. Benrinnes 19 Years Old / B / malty, with big nougat notes and some savory spices
Alexander Murray & Co. Monumental Blend 30 Years Old / B / rounded with ample grain character; somewhat grassy

American

Westland Garryana / B / a bruising whiskey, smoky with meaty, pork rind notes; full review in the works
Wild Turkey Decades / B+ / ancient Wild Turkey, and it tastes like it – wood on top of wood
Stranahan’s Snowflake Batch 16 / A- / Port notes shine here; very sweet but drinking beautifully now
Parker’s Heritage Collection 24 Years Old Bottled-in-Bond / A / another highlight of the show that I’m looking forward to reviewing in full; initially surprisingly fruit, which fades to a drying finish with notes of camphor
Jefferson’s Ocean-Aged Bourbon / B+ / finally a chance to see what the fuss was about, which turns out to be tons of wood and some toffee notes; not even a hint of the sea

033Japanese

Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / smoldering with burnt sugar and lingering sweetness; sultry

Irish

Redbreast 21 Years Old / A- / lovely pot still character, punchy yet balanced

Other

Dos Maderas Luxus / A- / a very high-end rum aged 10 years in the Caribbean, then 5 years in Spain in sherry casks; the results are extremely powerful with fruit and sweetness, notes of figs, raisins, and cherries

Review: Slow Hand Six Woods Malt Whiskey

slow hand

The Greenbar Collective in Los Angeles is home to Slow Hand, a white whiskey and this, an aged whiskey made of 100% malted barley. The company calls it “a new kind of whiskey that… has never been tasted before,” and the production description doesn’t falter on that front. Says Greenbar: “After fermenting and distilling a 100% malt mash, we age this whiskey to taste in 1,000 and 2,000 gallon French oak vats with house-toasted cubes of hickory, mulberry, red oak, hard maple, and grape woods.”

For how long? “Between 10 minutes and when it tastes good,” per the label. Oh, and it’s organic.

So, hickory cube whiskey, anyone?

It is, to be sure, an unusual spirit. The nose is heavily smoky, intense not just with traditional young oak notes but also notes of forest floor, charcoal, menthol, dark chocolate, and balsamic. It’s quite overwhelming at first, but as the initially overbearing wood aromas start to settle down, some of the more unusual secondary notes really start to gain steam — and add intrigue.

The palate is also very wood-forward at first, but this too can be tempered by time and air to showcase notes of butterscotch, Madeira wine, and coconut. Sure, it’s all filtered through the lens of intense wood influence, but these curiosities — plus a coffee-dusted finish — add some nuance. I’m considerably less thrilled about the appearance of the whiskey over time, which turns cloudy in the glass and leaves significant deposits — much more than a typical brown spirit. So… drink up fast before it settles out.

84 proof.

B- / $45 / greenbar.biz

Review: Woodford Reserve Distillery Series – Five Malt

woodford reserve Five Malt Bottle Shot

Woodford’s latest Distillery Series bourbon — a limited edition experimental series that doesn’t quite merit Master’s Collection status — is here. “Five Malt” connotes what it is, though the company doesn’t exactly tell you everything:

Inspired by the popularity of micro-breweries to explore malted grains typically used for beers when crafting whiskey, Five Malt’s distinctive flavor profile is established within the grain recipe and aging process. To obtain the desired sensory elements, minimum wood exposure is required. Five Malt is a whiskey distilled from malt mash then aged in recycled Double Oaked barrels for a span of six months resulting in warming malt notes with a coffee flavored finish.

That doesn’t quite tell you the whole story, as it is mute on the identity of the five malts, which it turns out are these:

  1. Two row barley
  2. Wheat
  3. Pale Chocolate barley
  4. Kiln Coffee barley
  5. Carafa barley

All five are malted renditions of the grain, of course.

Again, this concoction is cooked up and distilled and aged for all of six months before bottling. In other words, while it’s got a touch of wheat in there, this is effectively a very young single malt, American style.

It fits the part. Master distiller Chris Morris wants us to experience the grain in all its glory here, and damn but you’re gonna get it. Anyone with familiarity with young American malt whiskey will know exactly what they’re getting into before the bottle is ever opened. Intense cereal notes meet a heavy wood influence on the nose — think hard pretzels, heavily charred toast, and coal. The palate offers notes of rye bread, fresh malt, and more of that intensely charred wood influence, with hints of licorice and cloves on the back end.

In other words — there’s not a whole lot to see here, as the finished product is largely indistinguishable from any number of other immature malts aged in new oak. I know Woodford likes to experiment with young whiskeys from time to time, but I also know that this would have been a lot more interesting in roughly 2022.

90.4 proof.

B- / $50 (375ml) / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey

swift whiskey

Swift is a new entry into the burgeoning Texas craft distilling industry, a region which is particularly enamored with malted barley rather then the more typically American corn and rye.

The latest single malt to cross our path comes from Swift, a husband and wife team with a distinct and particular goal: To replicate Scotch whisky as closely as possible, just in Texas.

Swift starts with Scottish malted barley, which is shipped to Dripping Springs, Texas, where it is made into a mash and fermented. Two distillations take place in a copper pot still, then the whiskey is aged in bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. There’s no age statement per se, but Swift does include the date of distillation on each bottle. This one was from a batch distilled just about two years ago (as of the time of this writing).

Let’s give this whiskey a go.

There’s a slight haze to it — Swift doesn’t mention filtering its whiskey — and the color is a very light gold, clearly youthful but not overwhelmingly so. The nose is gentle, with notes of caramel corn, sandalwood, and some dried herbs. On the palate, it’s a youthful experience, with notes comprising gentle caramel, coconut husk, and a lick of smoke. The sherry barrel influence bubbles up in time, with an orange peel character becoming evident for a bit before the finish arrives. The conclusion offers some winey character followed by a return of somewhat malty, grain-forward notes to end the experience.

In attempting to recreate Scotch on Texas soil, Swift has been remarkably successful. I’d say two years in ultrahot Texas are roughly the equivalent of five in chilly Scotland. It’s a terrific start… but oh, what I’d give to see Swift at the age of six.

86 proof. Reviewed: Distillation from 3/14/2014

B+ / $46 / swiftdistillery.com

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