Review: Glenmorangie Astar (2017)

Glenmorangie released Astar way back in 2008. The concept was a weird one: It was a single malt entirely matured in oak from the Ozark mountains of Missouri, “designed to impart the wood’s maximum flavor to the spirit.” These barrels were toasted then filled with bourbon for four years before being emptied and shipped to Scotland to be filled with new-make single malt.

Astar was a one-off release (seeing as the barrels used were a one-off experiment), but nearly 10 years later, Dr. Bill Lumsden has orchestrated a revival, using the same Ozark wood. The new Astar as a bit different than the original — namely it has dropped from the original 114.2 proof — but the approach is otherwise the same.

Let’s taste.

Astar is heavy duty on the nose, not just driven by the wood but by the spirit itself. Things kick off with brisk lemon honey notes at first, followed by plenty of wood overtones driven by the Ozark-sourced wood. That wood mutes some of Glenmorangie’s characteristic floral notes, leaving behind more savory aromas that ultimately verge on mushroom and tobacco leaf, leaving things surprisingly earthy in the end.

The palate is quite racy at full strength, but here the lemon notes shine brightly before venturing down a path that takes you to roasted nuts, an amontillado sherry character, dried fruits, a melange of gingerbread/baking spices, and more of that intense wood character, here bordering on slightly smoky at times. Water helps the various flavor elements meld more fully, leading to a surprisingly savory yet complex finish.

Definitely worth a look.

105 proof.

B+ / $100 / glenmorangie.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend

Johnnie Walker’s experimental, limited-time releases continue this month with the second expression in the series to be released in the U.S.: Wine Cask Blend. (Two more expressions from this series, Rum Cask Blend and Espresso Roast, have been released internationally and are not available in the U.S. That brings the total number of experimental releases up to six.)

Some details:

The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in The unique blend is influenced by experimentation of maturation in wine casks, a project set in motion by Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge nearly a decade ago. In 2015 Aimee Gibson, a member of the Johnnie Walker blending team, took on the project and through experiments of her own, developed a wonderful new whisky in the Blenders’ Batch series. This welcoming blend includes some whiskies matured in wine casks. It is crafted with malt whiskies from the Highland such as Clynelish and some from Speyside such as Roseilse. It also includes creamy grain whiskies, such as those from Cameronbridge. The result is a light and vibrant whisky with notes of orchard fruit and red berries.

It’s a bit troubling that the only information on the aging is that “some whiskies” are matured in “wine casks.” There’s no information about how much of the blend goes into wine casks, for how long, or even what kind of wine we’re talking about. After all, sherry, Port, and white zinfandel are all “wine.” Naturally, there’s no age statement on the bottle, either.

Anyway, we’ll have to plow forward despite our ignorance…

Light as a feather, pinkish in color, and pleasantly aromatic, the whisky offers a few unusual aromas (driven by the wine cask treatment) of bold florals, fresh peaches, strawberry, and mint, alongside more traditional vanilla and some modest cereal notes. The palate is soft and expressive — and so sweet that it initially feels a bit like a rum, complete with plenty of fruit and lots of vanilla character. As it evolves on the tongue the whisky reveals more fruit character, including some apple, citrus, and red berries, along with classic baking spice notes. The finish is where you see the granary character the most, with a lasting cereal note that lingers as the fruit quickly fades.

For what it’s worth, my wife calls it a “whisky for ladies.” That ain’t a bad thing, but she’s not wrong.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / johnniewalker.com

Review: Ardbeg An Oa

Peat fans, consider it your birthday: Ardbeg is announcing a fourth whisky to join its core trio as a permanent addition to the range. Ardbeg An Oa (pronounced “an oh”) is the first new permanent expression from Ardbeg in almost a decade. The expression is named for the southernmost point of Islay, where towering cliffs stand resolute and shelter the southern coast of the island.

An Oa is a unique property drawn from Ardbeg’s new Gathering Vat – “especially created from fine French oak to bring Ardbeg An Oa into being.” Much like Glenfiddich’s Solera Cask, the Gathering Vat lets a variety of casks “mingle” in a large-scale environment. Into this cask go whiskies matured in Pedro Ximénez casks, ex-bourbon barrels, and virgin oak casks. There’s no info on the age of the whiskies that go into the Gathering Vat at the outset, and no information on how long they might stay in the Vat itself. However, the idea seems to be that, in classic Solera style, some of the spirits in the vat will get older and older even as new casks are added to the mix. We’ll have to see how An Oa evolves in the years to come.

For now, anyway, in a lot of ways, this comes across a bit like “starter Ardbeg.” The peat is dialed back on the nose, which allows notes of crisp brine, toasted marshmallow, and hints of nutty sherry to emerge. The palate finds sherry-driven citrus dominating, with tea leaf and a rounded vanilla character creeping up behind it. Peat weaves in and out of all of this, along with notes of grapefruit, gingerbread, and some more raw petrol notes that linger on the finish.

All told, it’s a bit of a melange of flavors that, if not exactly “starter Ardbeg” then at least comes across like “greatest hits Ardbeg” — a mix of this and that that feels at times like a blend of leftovers that didn’t get used in other expressions. That’s not totally a bad thing, really. Infinity bottles are fun for everyone!

93.2 proof.

B+ / $80 / ardbeg.com

Review: Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release and Loch Gorm 2017

Two 2017 updates from Kilchoman have hit our desk. Let’s dig in!

Kilchoman 100% Islay Seventh Release – Kilchoman’s 2017 version of its annual 100% Islay release — grown, malted, distilled, matured and bottled on Islay — is here. At seven years old, it’s once again the oldest expression of 100% Islay released to date. As always, the 100% Islay line is more lightly peated than the rest of the Kilchoman range. As is typical, this year’s is completely matured in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Fresh and lively, 100% Islay is always a crowd-pleaser, and the 2017 release is no exception. The nose offers notes of fresh cut grass, sharp lemon, and a smattering of herbs, all filtered through a layer of peat smoke. The palate stays on target, citrus and grassy notes melding with a hint of vanilla, some coffee bean grit, and a reprise of that smoky finish, dusted with a hint of cloves. It’s quite lovely from start to finish (though water is an improvement) and, as always, a top pick if you’re considering anything from Kilchoman. 100 proof. A / $77

Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2017 – This is the sixth edition of Loch Gorm, which is Kilchoman’s annual, sherry cask matured edition. This release has been matured exclusively in Oloroso sherry butts filled in 2009, the longest Loch Gorm maturation to date. This year’s edition is one of the better expressions of Loch Gorm, the sherry maturation really hitting its stride and revealing some interesting nuances in the whisky. The peat is dialed way back vs. prior years’ releases, letting aromas of orange blossoms, lemon peel, and sandalwood peek through. The palate is quite sweet and seductive, with notes of camphor, spearmint, and a hint of licorice adding intrigue to the base notes of citrus and peat smoke. The 2017 Loch Gorm is a whisky that really comes together with a surprisingly deft balance. Though it’s a much different whisky than the 100% Islay, it’s definitively worth checking out. 92 proof. A / $73

kilchomandistillery.com

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: Jura 10 Years Old

Is it peated? Unpeated? Sherried? This new 10 year old single malt from Jura (located on the eponymous island next door to Islay) is all three. Here’s some info on this brand new expression:

Jura Whisky today announced the launch of Jura 10, an exceptional Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky and the first release in Jura’s new core line for the U.S.  Hailing from one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, this whisky marries peated and unpeated malt with a Sherry cask finish to create a spirit that is a long way from ordinary.

Jura 10 is handcrafted on the Isle of Jura, a rugged, elemental island nestled a few miles off the West Coast of Scotland.  Home to around 200 Islanders, one road, one pub and one distillery, Jura was once described by author George Orwell as the ‘most un-get-at-able’ place due to its remote location. Established in 1810, Jura whisky has been crafted on its island home for over two centuries.

“The launch of the new Jura 10 celebrates our heritage of whisky-making,” said Graham Logan, Jura Distillery Manager.  “The craft of producing great whisky has been at the heart of Jura’s close-knit community for hundreds of years and we look forward to sharing the long-standing traditions and unmistakable flavors of Jura 10’s island home with the world.”

While many distilleries create either peated or unpeated whiskies, Jura 10 marries together the best of both for a truly unique Island Single Malt that is subtly smoky with a sweet Sherry cask finish. It is matured for ten years in American White Oak ex-bourbon barrels with an aged Oloroso Sherry cask finish.

The results are surprisingly excellent.

On the nose, the whisky is light and fragrant, with notes of fresh flowers, gentle cinnamon and nutmeg notes, an undercurrent of fresh grains, and the slightest hint of smoke. Largely standard stuff, aromatically speaking, but it all comes together cleanly and invitingly.

The palate sees the florals bursting — geraniums, orange blossoms, and honeysuckle — before settling into a comfortably sweet groove of caramel and butterscotch, with a backbone of roasted barley. While light and almost playful in its construction — this is far from a brooding, or even a very “serious” single malt — the whisky finally sees its peated element coming to the foreground as the finish develops, though here it’s not a hoary puff of peat smoke but rather gentle hint of the campfire, adding a lightly roasty-toasty element to everything that’s come before.

Dangerously drinkable and more complicated than you’d expect, for 40 bucks (or less in some places) this is a huge win from Jura.

80 proof.

A- / $40 / jurawhisky.com

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