Review: Glenmorangie Bacalta

Recently I had the opportunity to visit and taste with Glenmorangie’s own Dr. Bill Lumsden in San Francisco… only he was back in Scotland, tending over the imminent launch of his new baby, Glenmorangie’s Bacalta.

Lumsden is the master distiller at both Glenmo and Ardbeg, and each year (or thereabouts) he oversees a new addition to Glenmorangie’s Private Edition line. Bacalta is the 8th installment in this popular series, which tends to focus on an unusual wood variety, grain type, or other twist on the traditional trappings of Scotch whiskymaking.

Bacalta, Scottish Gaelic for “baked,” isn’t launched in honor of relaxed cannabis laws. Rather, it is a nod to the sun-drenched island of Madeira, where baking in the elements contributes to the production of a unique world wine. A project that was eight years in the making, Bacalta began when Lumsden decided he wanted to revisit Glenmorangie’s old and long-off-market Madeira bottling, but he says he wanted to do things a bit different this time. Bespoke from start to finish, Lumsden himself selected the wood — American oak, not the usual French — to be used for the barrels, had them constructed, then shipped them to the island of Madeira for seasoning. Working with a local winemaker, he had super-sweet Malmsey wine used to fill the casks, then left them to season for two full years. The wine was dumped and the empties shipped to Scotland for filling with (roughly) 10 year old bourbon cask-aged single malt. The spirit spent another two years in the Madeira casks before bottling.

The results are powerful and exceptional. The nose offers sharp and sweet notes of orange marmalade, oxidized fruit (some tropical), a mix of herbs, and a smattering of nuts, especially walnut and hazelnut. The palate is again quite sharp and sweet, loaded up with fruits both fresh and dried — the hallmarks of chew Malmsey Madeira wine. Eventually that orange takes on a candied note, with layers of baking spice (especially ginger) and a little tobacco on the back end. Black pepper lingers on the rounded and exotic, perfumed finish. All in all, it’s a hard whisky to put down.

Another exceptional release from Glenmorangie — this makes two in a row — that I look forward to tasting again after it’s official release later this month.

92 proof.

A / $100 / glenmorangie.com 

From Barrel To Bottle: How Wood Aging Impacts Whiskey

When you contemplate any barrel-aged spirit there are many flavors and aromas that will confuse and astound your palate. Look at any review of these products and you will get my point. A lot of the characteristics you experience come from the internal chemical and biological attributes of the wood itself. Many distillers attribute around 40% to 80% of the overall characteristics experienced in whiskies, provided it hasn’t been influenced by other means, are produced by the interaction of the spirit with the wood. To understand how the wood does this, you have to delve into the inner workings of the tree.

The main structure of a barrel is composed of multiple staves that are cut from the heartwood of a tree. There are two internal structures inside the plant’s cell wall known as hemicellulose and lignin that influence the character of the spirit. Hemicellulose is made up of organic compounds and numerous sugars that are soluble in alcohol, and with the application of heat will produce color and caramel notes. Lignin is a source of Methoxy phenols, such as vanillin and syringol. These are naturally occurring organic compounds and they change with the help of heat and acidity, creating the smoky vanilla flavors and aromas in the spirit.

Throughout the wood, there are four broad components that further influence the spirit; tannins, lactones/trans-lactones, phenolics, and acids. Tannins produce an astringent, mouth drying characteristic that creates structure. Lactones/trans-lactones create coconut, clove, and butterscotch flavors and aromas. Phenolics and acids create over 400 different flavor and aromatic compounds including Ethyl syringate (tobacco and fig), Ethyl ferulate (spice and cinnamon), Ethyl vanillate (burnt, smoky and vanilla), and Methyl salicylate, which gives off minty wintergreen notes. These components also help to create the aromatic differences found in various wood varietals. Some examples include American white oak (Quercus alba), which has aromas of vanilla, coconut, pine, cherry, and spice. European oak (Quercus robur) has aromas of dried fruit, clove, raisin, and orange peel, and Japanese oak (Quercus mongolica) has intense, perfumed notes of spice and sandalwood. All of these properties are enriched and balanced during a curing process, where the cut oak is seasoned in the elements for 1 to 3 years before use. This helps with reducing astringency in the tannins, and allows for airborne bacteria and fungi to collect and grow. These organisms help breakdown complex carbohydrates in the wood, making it easier for further chemical reactions to take place inside the barrel.

After the curing process, the wood is shaped into staves and the main body of the barrel is built, from there it is toasted and charred. This application of heat effectively changes the outer structure of the staves, and chemically changes the sugars in the wood. Toasting affects the wood in two ways; oak tannins are degraded, giving color to the spirit, and the lignin degrades, producing vanilla flavor and aroma. Charring changes things a bit further, the hemicellulose is broken down into ten simple sugars, which then caramelize into what’s known as the “red layer,” creating flavors and aromas of caramel and chocolate.

Once the spirit is in the barrel, chemical and environmental reactions begin to shape the final product. Fluctuations in temperature expand and contract the barrel, forcing the alcohol in and out of the wood, extracting flavor congeners and sweetness. During this time the alcohol passes through a thin carbon filter on the inner surface of the barrel created during the charring process, this smooths out the spirit by absorbing aldehydes and sulfur compounds. As the temperature reaches higher levels it causes the evaporation of around 3% to 10% of the liquid yearly — the famous “angel’s share.” Humidity levels during this process influence the loss of liquid and effect the alcohol percentage. Higher humidity causes alcohol to evaporate more readily than water, and decreases the level of alcohol over time. In lower humidity the water is first to evaporate, causing an increase in alcohol percentage.

After evaporation has occurred the headspace created in the barrel is replaced by oxygen. This enters the barrel through pores in the wood and dissolves into solution with the spirit, this forms esters, aldehydes and acids that create fruity, nutty and vanilla flavors. At this point in maturation the flavors and aromas continue to concentrate in the reduced volume of spirit. During this period the spirit’s natural characteristics start to diminish, and the complex flavors and aromas of the wood start to take over; this is controlled by the length of maturation, climate and the size of the barrel. Typically, you will see barrels that range from the standard american 53 gallon barrel, all the way up to the 132 gallon sherry butt. The spirits matured in these larger barrels tend to take longer to appreciate in complexity because of the higher volume of liquid and the larger vessel. Aging in smaller barrels allows for more play between spirit and wood, due to an increased surface to volume ratio. In these small barrels, characteristics of the wood such as a darker color and oaky vanilla flavor and aroma are more readily infused in a shorter period, but the uptake of other components such as tannins which can quickly overpower the spirit is also accelerated.

The use of smaller barrels has been popularized within craft distillation because of their ability to produce a richly flavored and colorful product in a shorter period. A lot of these products can be quite vibrant and complex, yet some experts argue against their ability to create a well aged spirit. They propose that the longer periods of maturation are integral to the formation of flavor and aromatic compounds. While there is some validity in that statement, many aged craft spirits on the market today have shown great promise and continue to gain in popularity.

The act of aging spirits in wooden barrels has been a tradition for a long time, and has inspired some of the most sought after bottles in the history of alcohol production. The complexities brought forth from the interaction between spirit and wood will continue to astound and perplex the senses, creating a want for more experimentation. We are now seeing a multitude of new techniques being applied in wood aging: Different types of wood, re-use of barrels, and experimental maturation processes continue to create varied and expressive end products. Because of this, it is essential to educate yourself on the inner workings of wood, allowing for a greater understanding of what you are experiencing. Although this only scratches the surface of how wood influences alcohol, I hope it makes things a little easier the next time you pour a dram.

Review: Grant’s Ale Cask Finish Scotch Whisky

Beer and whisky continue to merge from both ends of the spectrum (whether its barrel-aged beers or beer cask-aged spirits like Glenfiddich IPA Cask Finish), and the latest member of the family is this (from the same company that produced the Glenfiddich IPA Cask): Grant’s Ale Cask Finish.

Grant’s version is a major value in comparison to its $70 big brother, but for $20 you get the same kind of idea. Instead of a single malt, Grant’s a blend, which is finished for four months in ale casks from a small microbrewery in Scotland (they don’t say which).

Grant’s Ale Cask Finish is technically the first in a series of differently finished Cask Editions from Grant’s, with three expressions now available.

As for No. 1, the nose is typical of a modest blend — honeyed grains, heather, and some nougat — all very light and fragrant, without any real hint of the ale cask finish. The palate is quite sweet but reasonably light in body, with notes of baked apples, quince jelly, and orange blossom honey — all fresh and easygoing right up to the finish, where some of that ale cask impact can finally be felt. Here some bitterness creeps into the whisky, hinting at hops without overwhelming things, taking you on a slightly different journey than you get with a typical blended Scotch. I also get a little kick of dark chocolate on the back end.

Grant’s Ale Cask Edition isn’t an unqualified knockout, but it’s a winning whisky that is pushed into “A” territory thanks to an absurdly reasonable price that puts it on the same shelf as any number of very affordable but wholly anonymous blends. The ale cask finish doesn’t exactly add enough to make it completely unique, but it does at least allow the whisky to stand out enough to merit recommending.

80 proof.

A- / $20 / grantswhisky.com

Review: Lord Calvert Canadian Whisky

I have to say, I was only interested in Lord Calvert, a budget Canadian whisky imported by Luxco, because it is now available in a limited edition decanter that looks like a dog with a dead duck hanging out of its mouth. 4500 of these, made in partnership with Ducks Unlimited and all filled with Calvert, are available for $100.

Or you can get a regular old bottle of Lord Calvert (pictured at right), which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, for $11. Your pick.

Either way, Lord Calvert is made from a mix of rye, corn, wheat, and barley, aged three years. (36 months, to be specific, according to the label.)

The nose is initially innocuous, a little heavy on raw alcohol notes but otherwise quiet with modestly sweet granary notes. Breathe deep though and that alcohol really starts to dominate, taking on a plastic-like hospital character.

The palate doesn’t exactly sing, and though it offers some unusual evergreen and eucalyptus notes, the primary focus is on cereal, which is dusted with notes of mushrooms, sour cherries, and green beans, with more overtones of rubbing alcohol. The finish is short and fairly hollow. It’s got a bit of a random collection of flavors, to be sure, but let me say this: It’s nothing I’d feel unusual about while pouring out of a decanter shaped like a hunting dog.

80 proof.

C- / $11 / lordcalvertwhisky.com

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

Tasting: Late 2016/Early 2017 MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

Today we’re ganging up two recent quarterly shipments of MashBox spirits samplers, one a rather random collection of recent releases, the other a trio of the same whiskey but finished in different barrels types. Read on for details from this outturn of the internet’s most interesting booze-of-the-month club.

As a reminder, $99 a year gets your four boxes of three 50ml samples.

Manhattan Moonshine – Full review here. A pungent and somewhat mushroomy white dog, tempered by notes of gingerbread and breakfast cereal. 95 proof. B

Owney’s New York City Rum – A white rum, unaged. Quite weedy on the nose, with hard cereal notes. The palate doesn’t offer much intrigue and the finish is harsh and astringent. Generally, a funky rum like this needs some barrel time to mellow out, even if it’s being filtered back to clear. 80 proof. D+

Black Button Distilling Bespoke Bourbon Cream – A whiskey cream liqueur, made with bourbon (whose is unclear, but Black Button doesn’t make any). This is super stuff, easy to drink and loaded up with notes of vanilla and butterscotch, atop a creamy, cake-frosting-like base. Bourbon creams always manage to pack in more flavor than Irish creams, and Black Button’s is no exception. 30 proof. A-

And now for a trio of releases from Filibuster Bourbon. These are each aged for four years in new oak, then finished for two years in different types of French oak wine barrels (details follow). (Check the stickers on top to see which is which; the individual bottle labels are otherwise all the same.) Each is 90 proof.

Filibuster Bourbon Finished in 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels – Lively, with sweet butterscotch, milk chocolate, and vanilla custard notes. The finish sees some baking spice and red pepper, making for a supple and sultry sugar bomb of an experience. A-

Filibuster Bourbon Finished in 100% Chardonnay Barrels – A big surprise — this one is far racier up front, with lots more of that peppery character and a more powerful baking spice element. The finish sees the spice fading and the sweeter elements enduring more clearly, making for a distinctly different, but equally compelling, experience. A-

Filibuster Bourbon Finished in 60% Cabernet Sauvignon/40% Chardonnay Barrels – Is this the sweet spot? While still rather heavy on the pepper notes up front, the whiskey fades a bit after that rushing attack, becoming a bit dull in tone across a somewhat gummy body. The finish is soft and a bit flabby — a big surprise considering the pedigree of its lineage. Proof that the whole can indeed be less than the sum of a whiskey’s parts. B+

mashandgrape.com

Review: Glen Scotia Double Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Campbeltown, a tiny region on Scotland’s west coast, was once a hotbed of whiskymaking, but today there are just three companies with active stills. Springbank is by far the best known. Glengyle/Kilkerran is largely unheard of in the U.S. The third is Glen Scotia, which was built in 1832 but has changed hands and gone through so many owners that few have kept count. The current owner is Loch Lomond, which produces whisky under its own name as well.

Glen Scotia is a single malt, and among its small handful of whiskies is this, Glen Scotia Double Cask, which is a non-age statement single malt whisky that is finished in first-fill bourbon casks followed by time in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.

In the glass, Glen Scotia Double Cask is immediately redolent of the Pedro Ximenez casking, offering aromas of coffee, Madeira wine, dried fruits, and roasted nuts. The palate is more well-rounded, with caramel and vanilla sweetness quickly leading to a heavy baking spice character, particularly focused on cloves and cardamom. There are some simple granary notes here, indicative of youth, but they’re well masked behind all the spice, wine, nuts, and fruit. Those winey notes find a reprise on the finish, where they are showcased well along with a bit of salt spray and overtones of spiced nuts.

While not a particularly dark in color, the whisky packs in tons of sherry flavor atop more traditional barley base. It really grows on you over time, particularly after it gets some air in it to mellow things out. I love Springbank as much as anyone, but it’s nice to have more of a presence from this unique region, and Glen Scotia Double Cask is a welcome addition to the U.S. market.

A- / $42 / glenscotia.com

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