Review: Ledaig 19 Years Old 1996

Ledaig, produced at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, makes an 18 year old expression as a standard bottling. This is a vintage expression distilled in 1996, bottled at 19 years old. So, one louder. This expression is aged in Oloroso sherry casks (though it’s unclear if that is full maturation or just a finishing).

The whisky has a significant similarity to the 18. I don’t have the 18 on hand for side by side comparisons, but my notes are quite similar on the whole. On the nose it’s thickly peaty, with sea spray and iodine making only a minor impact against the dense and smoky/rubbery core. The palate finds more nuance, the sherry notes giving a velvet wrapping to the peat underneath, though here the whisky has more sweetness than you’ll find in the 18. That helps even out some of the briny seaweed and coal smoke character and gives it a suppleness that rounds out the finish and elevates the spirit above more straightforward peat bombs.

92.6 proof.

B+ / $159 / tobermorydistillery.com

Review: Highland Park Valkyrie

Highland Park just surprised us with a new single malt release: Valkyrie, part of a new series of three releases called the Viking Legend series.

First, some backstory:

Having once been part of Denmark and Norway, Orkney became the raiding headquarters for Norwegian Vikings in the 8th and 9th century, shaping a unique past for the island. Magnus Eunson, who founded Highland Park in 1798, was a direct descendant of those first Viking pioneers.  Even today, 1 in 3 Orkney islanders bear Scandinavian DNA and share a fierce pride for the rich Nordic ancestry woven into the islands’ traditions and culture.

It is this enduring culture and legacy that is the inspiration for Valkyrie, set to launch in June 2017.

Highland Park approached Danish designer Jim Lyngvild, himself a modern day Viking and expert in Norse mythology, to design striking new packaging for the three special edition whiskies.

Valkyrie’s unique one-off design is inspired by two important Nordic sources – a typical Viking pendant from around 300 – 700 AD discovered in Uppland, Sweden and the ancient Hammar Stone of Gotland which details the epic journey of the Valkyries.

In his distinctive style, Lyngvild has interpreted the ancient legend of the Valkyries – avenging horse-backed angels who combed the battlefields for the bravest of their fallen warriors – in an expressive, story-telling illustration for Highland Park.

Noticeably different from the traditional black and silver Highland Park packaging, the re-imagined design maintains the distillery’s ongoing references to Viking design whilst updating the graphics with a bolder, hand-drawn aesthetic.

Using embossed metallic detailing, he represents the Valkyries as shield-maidens of Odin, offering their god a drink of mead from a curved horn. The larger illustration features a winged Valkyrie with coiled hair and a necklace that pays homage to the goddess Freya’s magical Brísingamen torc (necklace).

That’s the story. As for what’s in the bottle, well, a little deeper research finds that this expression is made with approximately 50 percent peated malt (whereas Highland Park’s standard expressions are typically made with about 20 percent peated malt. As with all Highland Park expressions, all the peat used is sourced locally from Orkney. It is bottled with no age statement.

A smoky spin on young Highland Park? That’s not a bad way to describe Valkyrie, but there’s more going on beyond that simple descriptor. The nose is sharp, smoky for sure but also with notes of citrus oil, bergamot, and other sherry-fueled aromas, hallmarks of Highland Park’s heavy usage of sherry casks for aging. On the palate, the smoke and sweet citrus come together rather explosively. It’s like Dark Origins, but pumped up and concentrated on all fronts, using its slick, quite oily body to showcase notes of roasted nuts, some coffee ground, bacon, and baked beans. That oiliness leads to a biting and almost overwhelming finish, slightly bitter around the edges.

Don’t be afraid of water here, which opens up some chocolate notes, dulls the smoke, and brings the innate nuttiness more fully into focus.

91.8 proof.

B+ / $59 / highlandparkwhisky.com

Review: Bunnahabhain 13 Years Old Marsala Finish

It’s been years since I’ve encountered anything new from Islay’s Bunnahabhain, but here we have a new 13 year old: That’s 10 years in bourbon casks, and three years in former Marsala wine casks.

There’s beautiful color here, and the nose is sweet and fruity. It’s similar to a heavily sherried whisky, lightly sweet, but with the citrus notes replaced by — and this is a surprise — loads of fresh strawberry, and a hint of milk chocolate. The palate offers plenty of sweetness — this clearly comes from a pretty “wet” set of casks — but the strawberry impact so powerful that it threatens to overwhelm the briny undercarriage, and what minimal smoky peat influence there is.

The finish is long, silky, and voluptuous — it’s hard to go wrong with berries and cream for dessert — and although that threatens to limit this whisky’s complexity, it nonetheless exits the game as a fun crowd-pleaser that’s hard not to like, as well as a significant departure for anything you’ll find out of Islay. Definitely one to try no matter what kind of whisky you’re into.

92.6 proof.

A / $80 / bunnahabhain.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: Chapter 7 Highland Single Malt Whisky 19 Years Old

Chapter 7 is a newish independent bottler (established only in 2014) that has released only a couple dozen indie Scotch releases to date. Many of these are distillery-labeled, but this one, among its latest — and newly available in the U.S. as an exclusive for us Yankees — is a 19 year old with unstated provenance other than that it hails from The Highlands of Scotland.

This is my first go-round with Chapter 7, and based on this release they sure seem to know what they’re doing. The nose of this cask strength release is loaded up with sherry-driven citrus, nutty almonds, heather, and nougat, sharp with alcohol as well as oily orange notes. The palate segues into some tropical character, featuring mango notes, ripe banana, and coconut, before building up notes of cocoa powder, sweet white wine, and a touch of floral character. The finish is long, soothing, and gentle, even at full strength, without water.

Deeply complex and loaded with layers and layers of flavor, this is a whisky to seek out — and to savor.

112.4 proof.

A / $180 / chapter7whisky.com

Review: Tamdhu Batch Strength #2 Single Malt Whisky

Tamdhu’s limited edition “batch strength” single malt whisky, an overproof bottling released in 2015, is back for a second round. As with the first batch, it is aged entirely in sherry casks and is bottled with no age statement. Abv is just 0.3 percent lower. Note that you can easily tell the different between Batch #1 and Batch #2 because the bottle label on the former is white, and on the latter it’s black.

Tasting notes are similar but not identical to the original batch. The nose is bold with banana, mango, almonds, and ample cereal character, with a hefty alcoholic kick. On the palate, you’ll find honeyed citrus first, followed by a slow fade into notes of roasted nuts, some red fruit, and stronger sherry notes. These citrus notes endure well into the finish, outweighing the cereal character that was more evident in batch #1. For what it’s worth, although the whiskies are virtually the same proof level, I find this one to be considerably more approachable at full cask strength, without water added.

117 proof.

B+ / $80 / tamdhu.com

Review: Ardbeg Kelpie

A kelpie is a mythical sea creature that Scots say can be found in the lochs and bays around the island. It’s also the name of Ardbeg’s latest annual, limited-edition Committee Release, which arrives in general distribution in the coming weeks.

As always, there’s a twist in store for Islay fans: Kelpie is the first expression of Ardbeg matured in Black Sea (Russian) oak casks, an extreme rarity for barrel usage. These Russian oak casks are then married with traditional Ardbeg, which is aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

The smoky-sweet nose of Kelpie belies something unusual and non-traditional that is maddening hard to place. Ripe banana, nougat, and coconut find strange counterpoints in light notes of acetone, petrol, and oxidized white wine. The weird dichotomy continues into the palate, which kicks off with some traditional peatiness before diving headlong into a heavier petrol character that is somehow blended up with notes of sweet cream and Mexican vanilla. The finish showcases a wholly new flavor — coffee grounds — before letting the background radiation of peat smoke and barrel char linger for quite some time.

I’m typically a fan of Ardbeg when it goes “off script,” but Kelpie is so weird that it defies easy categorization and, unfortunately, unbridled enjoyment. While I appreciate how truly unique this whisky has turned out — and figure that different palates may find some of the more unusual flavors enchanting — the Russian oak has really done a number on the underlying malt, rendering it simply a bit too strange for me.

103.4 proof.

B- / $110 / ardbeg.com

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