Review: Speyburn Bradan Orach

“Bradan Orach” is Gaelic for Golden Salmon, but I am assured that no fish were harmed in the making of this whisky. This is a NAS release from Speyburn, matured exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels. No other production information for this Highland whisky is available.

Grain-forward but not grain-heavy, Bradan Orach offers a nose of heather and classic “amber waves of grain,” just ever so lightly touched with red berries, smoke, and savory bacon fat. The palate is gentle and continues the granary theme, with a woody undertone that grows in prominence as the experience builds on the palate. The body is a fresh, but a bit chewy — the grain-heavy flavor profile makes me want to gnaw on it like a hunk of bread. As the wood-and-grain finish fades, you’ll find some green apple character hiding beneath all the savory notes, and a fade-out that offers a momentary glimpse of sweet vanilla custard.

This is a simple whisky, but it comes with a simple price tag. I prefer the similarly-priced Speyburn 10 Years Old to this release, but if you’re looking for something with a little more grit and a clearer focus on the barley, Bradan Orach is worth a look. Honestly, for 20 bucks, it can’t hurt.

80 proof.

B / $20 / speyburn.com

Review: Tobermory Single Malt Scotch Whisky 10 Years Old

Scotch drinkers quickly learn the four major regions in Scotland that produce whisky: Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, and Islay. But they aren’t the only parts of Scotland producing whisky, just the ones producing the most. Tobermory hails from the Isle of Mull, located to the west of the mainland and about 23 miles north of Islay. The distillery was built near the northernmost part of the island in the town from which it draws its name.

Tobermory is not a new distillery. The label notes that it was established in 1798. But the distillery closed periodically throughout its history and changed hands many times. As a result, the quality of the scotch has varied over time and one might be wary of giving this young malt a try. But recent years have seen the quality of the scotch improve significantly, and now it stands as a bold, enjoyable (and affordable) dram worthy of serious attention.

Tobermory’s light golden color attests to the fact that it was aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels and for only ten years. Un-chill filtered and bottled at 46.3% alcohol, the whisky is both assertive and complex. On the nose, Tobermory is floral and offers honey and vanilla with some pepper, a slight herbal element, as well as a bready component. It also has a distinctive briny quality that makes the whisky stand apart from other bottlings.

Tasting Tobermory, one might guess it was made with lightly peated malt, but the touch of smokiness and stronger saltiness derive entirely from the water the distillery uses, which runs over peat bogs near the distillery. Following a bright, briny entry, Tobermory offers flavors of honey, dried fruit, and pepper. The whisky has a surprisingly long, sweet finish for its age, exhibiting no bitterness at all, although the high alcohol content does lend the dram a bit of a burn. Still, I wouldn’t recommend adding water to Tobermory. The alcohol level seems well suited to the Scotch, whose flavors really pop at the slightly high abv. Tobermory is probably not a Scotch for newbies, but it might be a treat for someone who has tried and enjoyed more straightforward single malts and wants to sample something powerful yet nuanced.

92.6 proof.

A- / $55 / tobermorydistillery.com

Review: Benromach 35 Years Old

Speyside-based Benromach’s 10 year old expression is a lively but entry-level whisky that’s clearly made with love thanks to owners Gordon & MacPhail, one of Scotch whisky’s most noteworthy independent bottlers. G&M acquired this property, built in 1898, only in 1993 and began producing whisky in 1998. That makes this 35 year old expression a bit of an anachronism; this is stock from an old barrel that came along with the distillery purchase and is only now seeing release.

Matured entirely in first-fill sherry casks, this is a vastly different experience than modern Benromach, which focuses heavily on granary notes tinged with peat. In the 35 year old we find intense, almost overwhelming sherry notes kicking things off on the nose — ample flamed citrus peel galore but also oiled leather, some freshly-mown grass, and a hint of green banana. The palate is rich and fruity, offering notes of fresh tangerine and blood orange, backed up with ample notes of clove-and-cinnamon-heavy baking spices, gingerbread, raisin/prune, walnuts, and a bit of furniture polish creeping on the back end

The finish is spicy, racy, and alive with flavor, providing a callback to the nuttier elements that come to the fore earlier in the experience, ending on a note of coconut and nougat. All told, this is a stellar whisky that, I would be remiss not to mention, you will have to pay handsomely to experience.

86 proof.

A / $700 / benromach.com

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 

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: 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

5 Scotch Whiskies for Celebrating Burns Night

January 25th is Burns Night: a yearly celebration of the life and words of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Traditionally it is celebrated with a supper full of haggis, speeches, the occasional bagpipe, and of course, Scotch. While any Scotch will work, here’s a look at five whiskies you can use to toast the birthday of Robert Burns, drawing inspiration from his own words.

The golden Hours on angel wings
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Royal Brackla 12 Year Old

The majority of this distillery’s production ends up in the Dewars line of blends. For much of the time single malts were hard to come by and expensive through independent bottlers. Thankfully this was released as part of The Last Great Malts series. A lovely and accessible, golden-hued highland malt. Notes of poached orchard fruits and soft, sweet, malted chocolate lead into a finish of heather honey and gentle spice. An incredibly accessible and complex whiskey, a great choice for everyone at the table.

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire.

Kilchoman Impex Cask Evolution 01/2016

The youngest distillery on the beloved island of Islay is also the first new one since 1881. Part of the Impex Cask Evolution series, this release was aged in an Oloroso Sherry hogshead which gives the whiskey a wonderfully red hue. At only 5 years old, this whiskey uses its youth as an advantage. It is big and bold with smokey citrus at the forefront. A little bit of water will bring out some more fruit and spice flavors, but this one really is at its best when left big and fiery.

I’ll toast you in my hindmost gillie,
Tho’ owre the sea!

Old Pulteney 17 Years Old

Searching for the perfect dram to toast those who have moved away? This malt is richly lush and dense. Oak and butterscotch lead the way and then open up to some light brown spice and almond. The finish seems to stick around forever with the slightest touch of caramel, brine, and a very faint but present smokiness. The perfect dram for a wistful toast along the seaside.

Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!

Compass Box The Peat Monster

If you are going to steel yourself to face the devil, you may as well have a monster at your side. John Glaser’s Compass Box turns out so many coveted and fantastic limited releases that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good the standard line is. The Peat Monster is a near perfect showing of balanced complexity. Earthy smoke and brine lead the charge with touches of savory herbs and a slightly medicinal, oaky touch. The finish brings in a lingering sweetness which has become a bit of a Compass Box trademark. A cacophony of flavors which somehow meld together in a bold and extremely drinkable manner.

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow—
Let us do or die!

Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old

Whether in moments on revolution or celebration, sometimes it is important to remove all caution and just go. The Bunnahabhain Distillery produces one of the milder single malts on Islay. While they forgo some of the intensity of their neighbors, they excel in balance. First impression of this beauty is all leather and spice. Tannic cinnamon and clove mingle with a hint of fig and other stewed fruits. The finish is tremendously long.  So long in fact, you will be discovering new and lingering flavors well into an encore performance of Auld Lang Syne.

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