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

Review: The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Years Old, Peated Triple Cask 14 Years Old, and Peat Week 14 Years Old 2002

The Balvenie is getting peaty. In a rare move for a Speyside distillery, The Balvenie is introducing not one but two peated expressions, both of which use locally sourced peat from the Highlands. The Peated Triple Cask 14 Years Old is headed only to duty free, while the new Peat Week 14 Years Old is going into general release. (The short version: Peat Week is the one to get.)

Peat Week? Is that like Shark Week but way better? Let’s start with some details on what may sound a bit like an oddity.

A product of trials and experimentation, The Balvenie Peat Week was conceptualized by The Balvenie’s Malt Master David Stewart MBE and Ian Millar, former distillery manager and current Prestige Whiskies Specialist at William Grant & Sons.

In 2002 –  a time when very few Speyside distilleries were using peat in production – The Balvenie distilled a batch of heavily peated malt, which was laid down to mature at the distillery in Dufftown, Scotland under the watchful eye of the industry’s longest-serving Malt Master. Since this pioneering moment, the distillery has dedicated one week each year, aptly named Peat Week, to using only peated barley in its production, to craft a different style of The Balvenie liquid with enhanced smoky notes.

Commenting on the release, David Stewart MBE said, “Being able to experiment with different elements of whisky making and stock management is one of the most exciting and important parts of my job. The new Peat Week bottling is a result of our continued efforts to innovate and trial flavors not typically associated with The Balvenie. The expression is testament to the freedom we enjoy as a family company, and shows The Balvenie in an unexpected way, yet still remaining true to the distillery style our drinkers enjoy.”

The new release pays special homage to a time when peated whiskies were commonly produced by distilleries across Speyside, including The Balvenie, who utilised locally sourced peat throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s to dry barley processed at the distillery’s traditional malt floor, which is still in use today.

Additionally, Ian Millar noted, “When we first started the experiments it was an incredibly exciting time as very few Speyside distilleries were using peated malt in production. Along with cask type, there’s nothing quite like peat to change the flavor profile of a whisky, so it was great to have the chance to undertake these experiments.”

There are a few differences between Peat Week and the Peated Triple Cask, though both care a 14 year old age statement. First, Peat Week is a single-vintage bottling, while PTC does not carry that designation, so it may include older whiskies as well. If Peat Week 2002 is a success, I suspect we’ll see additional vintages of it down the line, while PTC will likely remain relatively static. From a production standpoint, note that PTC, as the name suggests, uses three types of wood in the aging process, whereas Peat Week is a 100% bourbon casked release.

More on how these differ (which is a lot) as we dig into the details, but first let’s start with the basics to ground ourselves before jumping into the new stuff…

The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Years Old – The classic, essential expression from The Balvenie’s core range, DoubleWood 12 sees 12 years of total maturation split between bourbon casks and sherry cask. The sherry is bold on the nose but tempered by walnut, ground ginger, and some lingering cereal notes — evidence that even at 12 years old, DoubleWood is still quite young. The palate pushes all these flavors aggressively, a nougat-like backbone folding in almonds, pumpkin, and some cinnamon. The finish is a bit coarse, a tad gummy, and in today’s market nothing all that fancy… but it’s good enough to tipple on in a pinch. 80 proof. B / $55

The Balvenie Peated Triple Cask 14 Years Old – As notes, this is a peated whisky aged in first-fill bourbon, refill bourbon, and sherry casks for a total of 14 years. If you recall Balvenie’s old Peated Cask Finish 17 Years Old expression and are expecting something akin to it that’s very lightly smoky, rest assured that the peat’s not subtle here — this is an entirely different whisky that’s made with peated malt, not finished in a cask that once had peated whisky in it. The smoke isn’t Islay-dense, but it’s hefty enough, offering some fresh coal embers on the nose, sweet tobacco notes, and some flamed orange peel character. On the palate, the smoke really does dominate, though brown sugar notes give it ample sweetness. The finish runs to baking spices, clove-studded oranges, and some hints of figs. The sweetness and brightness is interesting — distinguishing it to a degree from what you find in Islay — but otherwise I find the peat can at times be a little overwhelming given the erstwhile delicacy of the underlying spirit. 96.6 proof. Travel retail exclusive. B+ / $100

The Balvenie Peat Week 14 Years Old 2002 Vintage – A single-vintage bottling, with a limited (but general retail) release. Aged 100% in bourbon casks. This is a really special and unique whisky, and I’m going to tell you right now to grab it if you’re even a modest fan of peat. The nose is very sweet — strangely fruity, with notes of honey and spice — with smoky (but not overwhelming) overtones. The palate is where things really get interesting: The smoke and honey meld together to become this dense, rich dessert-like thing, adding layers to the experience the way a bunch of brandy-coated bananas become far more interesting when whipped up tableside and set ablaze by a man in a white tuxedo. It’s much lighter on the smoke than Peated Triple Cask, and that works to this whisky’s advantage. As notes of toasted marshmallow, white peaches, and, yes, flambed banana come to the fore, the finish of golden syrup, sultanas, and a whiff of pipe smoke starts to make its case. The denouement is lengthy and lasting… and incredibly memorable. If you’re looking for a successor to the Peated Cask Finish 17 — in fact, one that outdoes it — look no further. 96.6 proof. A / $99

thebalvenie.com

Review: Parker’s Heritage Collection Single Barrel Bourbon 11 Years Old (2017)

For the latest installment in the always engaging Parker’s Heritage Collection (which now spans 11 releases), Heaven Hill is making a return to the basics. For 2017, the special release whiskey is an 11 year old single barrel bourbon, aged in the late Parker Beam’s favorite rickhouse location in Deatsville, Kentucky. The bourbon is non-chill filtered, of course, and bottled at a whopping 61% abv.

As has become tradition with these releases, a portion of proceeds ($10 per bottle) go to ALS research, the disease from which Beam passed away earlier this year.

This is a classic cask strength bourbon expression, blazing hot at full proof with a spice-heavy nose that hints at butterscotch and gingerbread atop its vanilla-caramel core. Even though I commonly deal with overproof spirits, this one is barely manageable at full strength, alcohol overwhelming everything. At full proof you do get hits of dark caramel which subtly takes on a dark chocolate tone, albeit it’s one dosed with plenty of fire.

Water and plenty of it is your friend here, as it coaxes out all manner of flavors and aromas, ranging from apple and Bit-O-Honey on the nose to white pepper, rhubarb, and more of a salted caramel note on the tongue. The finish is long and sultry, with enduring notes of baking spice and a lasting taste of Nutella, everything coming together quite beautifully.

All told, this is a knockout bourbon that’s clearly been selected from the very best barrels that Heaven Hill has to offer. This may not have the exotic provenance of, say, the Golden Anniversary bottling, but it’s a bourbon that absolutely shines. Nothing wrong with that!

122 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #5027255, OED 4/10/2006.

A / $130 / heavenhill.com

Review: Virgil Kaine Robber Baron Rye Whiskey

Virgil Kaine, based in North Charleston, SC, is known for its ginger-infused bourbon — and now it’s stretching its brand to reach into straight spirits. First up is Virgil Kaine Robber Baron, a rye. It’s actually a blend of two whiskeys: 4% is bourbon and 96% is rye. Digging deeper, the bourbon is from a mash of 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley. The rye is from a mash of 94% rye and 6% malted barley. There’s no age statement and no information on the sourcing of the whiskeys, but some finishing with port and sherry barrel staves is involved before bottling.

On the nose, lots of spice — heavy menthol and cloves — plus notes of green banana and flowery perfume. A wood influence lingers underneath, but it’s so heavily perfumed and spiced, it’s surprisingly hard to access aromatically.

On the palate, the barrel has a significantly more powerful influence, punchy lumberyard notes that mingle with hints of ginger, more banana, orange peel, and plenty more of that clove-heavy baking spice. The finish is a bit rough, dense with pencil shavings and tons of clove, gripping at the back of the throat.

This is a young whiskey but one that’s incredibly expressive — perhaps overly so, its spicy character in need of a bit of tempering. Still, as it stands today it isn’t something I’d turn my nose up at, even in what feels a bit like an unfinished condition.

91 proof.

B / $36 / virgilkaine.com

Review: Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey Sauternes Finish

In case you missed our earlier review, Texas’s Swift Single Malt Whiskey is a gem in a world of lackluster single malts made in the U.S. Now the distillery is out with a new expression: single malt finished in Sauternes casks instead of the Oloroso sherry casks used for the mainline release.

The distillery gives us a little more info to run with:

We start with a 2-row barley that is grown and malted in Scotland, mostly the Speyside region. This is the same barley as our original single malt (Oloroso Finish).

We double distill on our copper pot stills.  We now have two stripping stills, our original one and a new one we had made to our specifications after spending time in Japan.  The Japanese whisky makers alter the shapes of their stills to extract more flavor, so we decided to do the same.  I believe the new shaped still gives more of a floral note than our original still does.

After the double distillation, we begin the aging process in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels. Here the whiskey remains for 1.5 years (or so), then all of the whiskey is transferred to a Sauternes cask, which comes from Chateau d’Arch in Bordeaux, France.  We traveled to Sauternes a few years ago and picked out the barrels to best match our flavor profile.  We wanted a Sauternes wine that would have balanced citrus notes and mild sweetness.

The whiskey ages 1 year in the Sauternes cask before it is bottled. Overall the Sauternes Finish is 2.5 years old.

The standard (Oloroso) bottling of Swift is well-crafted, but quite young, with a distinctly woody edge to the nose and the palate. That’s all but gone in the Sauternes Finish, the wood replaced by a surfeit of fruit — green apple (a big surprise), quince, watermelon, and some floral notes of honeysuckle and orange blossoms, which take the whiskey in yet another direction. The palate is quite sweet, almost so much so that it can initially come across with a rum note. Those Sauternes barrels have had quite an impact here, although finally the grainy underbelly starts to shine through, alongside notes of golden raisins, eastern spices, and, to a lesser degree, barrel-driven notes that seem closer to cedar than oak. On the finish — there’s the barest hint of dark brown sugar and milk chocolate, with a sprinkling of graham cracker crumbs on top. Very dessert-like.

This is a whisky that I like a lot, but here the Sauternes finish does seem to some extent to be covering up something rather than enhancing it. In this case, there’s plenty of young spirit that needs to be carefully massaged. As with the standard bottling, another year or so in the barrel would likely do wonders to help temper the beast inside. For now, though, we’ve got a unique offering that shows that some of the best single malt coming out of America can be found, in all places, in Texas.

88 proof.

B+ / $57 / swiftdistillery.com

Tasting: Late 2017 MashBox Club Spirits Samplers

What’s new from MashBox? The last couple of packages we’ve received include these samples. (We also received duplicates of the Black Button products below and Black Button’s Bourbon Cream.)

Oak & Rye Wormwood – Spirit distilled from grain distilled and flavored with herbs. Somewhere in the vein of an aquavit, the nose is lightly licorice-inflected, showing evergreen and mixed herbs atop a base of vanilla and caramel. The palate is on the bitter side, again heavy with herbs and a sizable amount of licorice, with a sharp finish of orange peel and dusky cloves. Intriguing as a sipper, but not exactly a versatile spirit. 90 proof. B

Black Button Distilling Citrus Forward Gin – There’s ample citrus on the nose as promised, but it primarily takes the form of dried orange peel and a touch of grapefruit. Some floral aromas can also be found here — rose petals and some potpourri. The palate is a bit on the rustic side, a grainy character muscling aside the more delicate elements, though there’s a sizable amount of that citrus peel on the finish, which is touched with black pepper and grains of paradise. 84 proof. B

Black Button Distilling Four Grain Bourbon – Made from 60% corn, 20% wheat, 9% rye, and 11% malted barley. Aged at least 18 months in 30 gallon barrels. Young stuff, but it’s getting there. The nose is a mix of popcorn and sweet candy, some orange peel, and salted caramel. A touch of smoke and an herbal kick recalls aquavit. The palate is more straightforward, caramel corn, some vanilla, and a smarter of cloves on the back end. It needs more time in barrel to mellow out, but this isn’t a bad start. 84 proof. B

mashandgrape.com

Review: Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon

Rock Hill Farms is one of the sub-labels of Buffalo Trace/Sazerac, an upscale bottling in a fancy decanter that people really seem to love because it has a horse on the label.

Rock Hill Farms (bottled with no age statement or anything else by way of production data) is a rather typical expression of Buffalo Trace’s house style, a rye-heavy bourbon that’s well spiced from start to finish.

The nose features orange peel, oily furniture polish notes, and loads of nutty sherry (or sherried nuts?). A winey, Port-like character emerges with more time, studded with aromas of cloves, raisins, and dried cherries. On the palate, many of the same notes persevere, though those fruitier notes come with a slightly bitter edge, along with some more exotic notes of dried papaya, allspice, and candied walnuts.

All told it’s a fine example of bonded-style bourbon, though it may be an overly familiar one for hardcore bourbon enthusiasts.

100 proof.

A- / $49 / sazerac.com

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