Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

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This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Bender’s Whiskey Small Batch Rye 7 Years Old Batch #2

bender's whiskey

What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.

Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.

For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.

In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.

B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Regal Apple Canadian Whisky

CR_REGAL_APPLE_BOTTLE_CMYK

Apple is the cinnamon of 2015, showing up in all kinds of spirits but, particularly, whiskey. This familiar, nostalgic flavor seems to be a big crowd-pleaser, offering tartness, sweetness, and Americana all in a single package.

Now it’s Crown Royal’s turn, with its latest expression: Regal Apple. Regal on account of the crown, I guess. The spirit is specifically flavored with natural Gala apple flavor.

The good news is that this is a better product than Crown’s prior flavored whisky, Maple Finished. The bad news is that Maple Finished was so lackluster that that isn’t saying very much.

Here, the nose is distinctly apple-fueled, but almost bitter to the nostrils to the point of astringency. Some vague vanilla and baking spice character picks up the slack, but the apple notes are more central to what’s going on here. On the tongue, it’s fruity as expected. Not just tart apple notes — more authentic here than the nose would indicate — but also hints of pineapple, some lemon, and ample vanilla notes. For a bright, shining moment, Crown Royal Regal Apple is apple pie in a glass… but it doesn’t last. The finish takes a sour, mouth-puckering turn that has some unfortunate hospital character to it, marring what is actually a fairly decent start.

The world is probably not expecting much from Crown Royal Regal Apple, but in a world soon to be overrun by apple-flavored hooch, it’s probably as good as can be expected.

70 proof.

B / $25 / crownroyal.com

Review: Tap Rye Port Finished Canadian Rye Whisky

Tap-rye-White

Astute readers might recall Tap 357 Maple Rye Whisky — made with maple syrup, natch — which we reviewed a few years ago. Now Tap is back, ditching the 357 for its second product, a Canadian rye that’s been intriguingly finished in Port wine barrels.

Limited production information is available. This is a blend of pot-distilled Canadian ryes aged up to 8 years in barrel. A limited edition, the company says it will not be produced again after this production run is sold out. No mashbill information is available, but the whisky is finished in Port barrels and then gets a touch of actual Port wine added to the final product before cold filtration.

All of that aside, I can readily report that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree here — or rather, the sap doesn’t drip far from it. The nose is immediately full of maple syrup and cinnamon-raisin oatmeal. I would have guessed it was a flavored whiskey if I didn’t know better. Exotic nose aside, the body is gentle and indistinct, much like Tap 357, offering a fairly simple blended whisky experience that features mild grains, gentle wood notes, and light touches of brown sugar and burnt caramel. Port? Maybe you catch a touch of raisins on the nose, but otherwise the dessert wine’s distinctive character, so amazing when done right as a whiskey finish, is all but absent in the finished product here.

84 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniv Blend_Hi-Res Bottle Shot

Crown Royal is one of the most popular whiskeys on the planet, and for deserved reason. It’s a straightforward, balanced, and dare-I-say-smooth spirit. It mixes well, and it’s an easy straight sipper. Who doesn’t like Crown?

Crown Royal’s history dates back to 1939, when a Canadian entrepreneur crafted a local whisky for the then-royal couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who were the first British monarchs to visit North America. Crown Royal was born (and named) and the world has followed its lead. Now, the brand is celebrating its 75th anniversary, with Crown Royal Monarch making its limited-edition debut.

Crown enthusiasts will likely enjoy this spirit the most, but for the rest of us it’s hit and miss. It’s delicate and straightforward, and it does offer just enough uniqueness to spark at least some level of interest, but it doesn’t raise the bar completely. The nose isn’t the highlight here: Basic, grain-forward, and a little bit plasticky. The body is a bit of a different animal, where you’ll find the classic silky body of Crown Royal imbued with notes that start with liquid caramel and head to mild blackberry, a touch of cigar, and a bit of green pepper. It’s not at all bad, simplistic and for the most part well-balanced, at least until the finish, which has a touch of astringency to it and a return to that bit-o-plastic character. (Air helps to burn this unfortunate character off.)

Crown Royal’s various special editions are well regarded, but Monarch’s presentation is a bit more interesting than once it’s the bottle.

80 proof.

B / $75 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2014

Wet weather didn’t stop the masses from crowding onto the San Francisco Belle this year, a rite of passage for Bay Area whisky lovers attending the annual Whiskies of the World Expo. Lots of great stuff on tap this year, particularly from independent Scotch bottlers. Without further ado…

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World San Francisco 2014

Bourbon and American Whiskey

Balcones Brimstone / B+ / made from smoked corn; intriguing but a lot like sitting porchside in Santa Fe
Balcones Texas Single Malt / B / rough and tumble, fiery, with big grain character
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / B+ / long black and blueberry notes; unusually fruity
Calumet Farm Bourbon / B / straightforward; tough to get into
Corsair Old Punk Whiskey / B+ / a pumpkin spice-flavored whiskey; curious; tastes like Thanksgiving, of course
High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram / B+ / Rendezvous Rye finished in Port barrels; a bit heave with the fruity, Port-laden finish
High West The Barreled Boulevardier  / B / a barrel-aged cocktail from HW; a little heavy on the Gran Classico for my tastes
High West “mystery whiskey” 12 Years Old / A / a hush-hush grain whiskey, aged 12; surprisingly good stuff, watch this space…
Lexington Finest Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey / B+ / heavy with sweetness, but drinkable
Lost Spirits Seascape II / B+ / second round with this peated whiskey finished in white wine barrels; brooding but restrained
Lost Spirits Umami / A- / a crazy concoction made with 100ppm peat and salty seawater; difficult to describe in just a few sips… review hopefully forthcoming

Scotch

Arran Bourbon Premium Single Cask 1996 / A- / lush and rounded, malty with good fruit
Balblair 1975 Vintage / A / a standout; big, silky, and malty; soothing finish
Blackadder Bruichladdich 21 Years Old Raw Cask / A / a top pick of the show; unfiltered Bruichladdich aged in a first-use charred cask, very unusual for Scotch (you can even see chunks of charred wood floating in the bottle); intense, chewy fruit and nuts; a marvel
Duncan Taylor Octave MacDuff 1998 14 Years Old / A- / great balance
Duncan Taylor Octave Miltonduff 2005 7 Years Old / A- / lots of sherry and nougat, with huge floral notes; another surprisingly good, young spirit
Duncan Taylor Black Bull Kyloe / B+ / not bad for a five year old blended whisky; nice mouthfeel, cherry fruit, plums on the back
Duncan Taylor Dimensions North British 1978 34 Years Old / A- / a single-grain whisky; still has its grainy funk showing a bit; caramel up front with a biting finish
Duncan Taylor Bunnahabhain 1991 21 Years Old / A / gorgeous honey and spice on this
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2001 12 Years Old / B+ / big peat, rush of Madeira notes
Exclusive Malts Glencadam 1991 21 Years Old / B+ / smoldering, hay and heather
Exclusive Malts North Highland 1996 17 Years Old / A- / chew and rich, with raisins and plums
Glenmorangie Companta / B / Glenmorangie’s latest, finished in Burgundy and fortified Cote du Rhone casks; sounds like a lot of work for a pretty boring spirit that doesn’t have much balance
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban / B- / finished in ruby port casks; snoozer, missing the port altogether this time around
Gordan & MacPhail Mortlach 16 Years Old / A- / chewy malt and cookies
Gordan & MacPhail Scapa 10 Years Old / A- / good balance of nougat and cereal
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / for old time’s sake… still got it
Old Pulteney 30 Years Old / A – / solid, a sunny dram
Silver Seal 16 Years Old Speyside / B+ / straightforward, lots of nougat
Silver Seal 20 Years Old Speyside / A- / an improvement, sedate with a little cereal to balance things

World Whiskies 

Amrut Fusion / B+ / barley from Scotland and India; a little minty, smoky too; shortish finish
Amrut Intermediate Sherry / A- / lots of spice, some menthol; for those who like their whiskeys huge
Canadian Club Small Batch Classic 12 Years Old / B / why not? some spice, lots of wood
Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / chewy, great balance
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky / A- / lovely but strong with citrus notes
Sullivan’s Cove Double Cask / A- / muted on the nose, lots of malt
Sulivan’s Cove French Cask / A / a top pick, worthy of the praise being heaped on it; quite fruity and sweet, but gorgeous

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