Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 18 Years Old Limited Edition 2017

This Caol Ila is a rare, unpeated version, aged in American oak hogsheads, that appears regularly in the Diageo Special Releases. This is the oldest unpeated Caol Ila released in the series to date.

I’ll be straight up here: This is my favorite Caol Ila ever.

The nose is rich with fruit, roasted grains, nuts, and — unpeated or no — an ample amount of campfire smoke in the mix. Has aging all that time next to regular Caol Ila led to cross-pollination? The palate is spot-on, offering everything you’d want to see in this style of whisky. A core of beautiful syrup is balanced with more gentle fruits, some floral elements, and a delightful amount of spice that starts off slow but builds to a lovely crescendo as the finish arrives.

Notes of fresh nougat, honeycomb, lavender, and lilac are all in effect, weaving in and out of an impressively bold body that finishes on a resprise of wispy smoke and notes of dried flowers. Incredibly complex and engaging, it’s well worth the asking price.

119.6 proof.

A / $100 / malts.com

Review: Brora 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2017

Another release in the Diageo Special Releases series from Brora, which was shuttered in 1983. This Highlands bottling was distilled in 1982 and has spent its entire life in ex-bourbon hogsheads. (Oddly, that’s the only photo we were provided, above.)

Brora is always a highlight of the Diageo Special Releases, and this year is no exception (even though it is a bit younger than some of the prior bottlings). All the hallmarks of a great Brora remain: A nose of sweet Sauternes, golden raisins, and a wisp of smoke. On the palate, it’s fully approachable at just under 52% abv, hitting the tongue with a roundness that is a lovely foil for the spikes of citrus that jut through and pepper the tongue. Golden syrup, some cocoa powder, cinnamon, and hints of lemon all make an appearance, before a finish that surfaces some herbaceous character along with a very light wood element.

Classic Brora — and hey, it’s cheaper than it usually is because it’s on the young side!

103.8 proof. 3,000 bottles produced.

A / $1700 / malts.com

Review: Blair Athol 23 Years Old Limited Edition 2017

Diageo’s Special Releases of Scotch whisky for 2017 are here, and as we do every year, we’ll be featuring a review of one each day for the next 10 days. As always, these represent some truly rare stocks, with prices commonly hitting four figures per bottle… of which only a few thousand or even hundred may be available. This year’s releases includes eight single malts, a single grain whisky, and an insane NAS malt whisky blended from stocks from all 28 distilleries in the Diageo stable.

We kick things off with a true rarity: 23 year old Blair Athol, from Pitlochry in the Highlands. This is the first release of any kind from Blair Athol since 2003 and the first ever in the Special Releases series. Distilled in 1993, it was aged fully in sherry butts.

On the nose, some fresh peach and pineapple notes back up a strong sherry component, not just classically orange-peel but also winey and dry, with overtones of melon and some Band-Aid notes, giving it a sake-like aroma. The palate falls largely in line with the nose, though the sherry-driven fruit notes are really pumped up here and dominate the experience. As that fades (or with water), some of the cereal-driven notes make their presence more clearly known, leading to a conclusion that is pungent but engaging. It’s never entirely in balance, particularly with those oddball melon notes, but it’s a unique and fun whisky regardless, engaging from start to finish.

116.8 proof. 5,514 bottles produced.

A- / $460 / malts.com

Make It a Boozy Christmas with Secret Spirits’ Advent Calendars

There’s no shortage of booze-centric Christmas gifts out there, but short of giving your loved ones a bottle of Pappy, one of the most exciting presents is an Advent calendar full of miniature bottles. The idea, in case you’re not in the know, is to open one little package on each day leading up to December 25th (typically starting on December 1st), after which you’ve enjoyed a full month of holiday fun. It really lets you enjoy the holiday in full.

Quite a few spirits-oriented Advent calendars are on the market, and the folks at Secret Spirits offers a variety of options, with a heavy focus on whiskey and rum.

The company sent us a sample from its two latest collections. Here’s some information on both:

Secret Spirits Scotch Whisky Advent Calendars ($600) feature 25 Scotch whiskies personally selected and sourced from some of the top independent bottlers in Scotland. The regions of Islay, Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Islands and Campbelltown are all represented. With a focus in Single Malt the Advent Calendars also offer a chance to explore the entire range of Scotch Whisky styles including, Blended malts, Single Grain and Blended Scotch. Half the whiskies are generally 18 years and above with day 25 topping 30 years old.

The Rums Revenge 1st edition ($350) showcases 12 premium limited edition rums including Molasses and Agricole styles from Grenada, Canada, USA, Barbados, Trinidad, Martinique, Reunion, Fiji, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Guyana and Jamaica. The collection is housed in a Rum’s Revenge Pirate chest, along with a skull glass, a wax sealed treasure map which will lead consumers on a hunt for hidden rums using the Rum’s Revenge ship in a bottle.

The packaging (see above) is pretty cool, and while Secret Spirits didn’t send us the whole shebang (so I can’t comment on the overall quality of what’s in the mix), we did get one sample from each of those lineups. Here are some specific thoughts on the two samples.

From the Scotch Whisky Calendar – Day 20 is a fun Samaroli bottling of a Glentauchers 1996 17 Years Old, this is a vibrant and lively whisky that offers a classic SPEYSIDE nose of caramel, vanilla, and spice, with a palate infused with milk chocolate, pipe tobacco, and lingering coconut notes. A lush and fun bottle from one of my favorite indie bottlers of all time. 90 proof. A-

From the Rums Revenge Calendar – Note that this collection comprises just 12 rums, not 25. The Jamaican Rhapsody Rum (day unknown) is also a Samaroli bottling, and it’s a young spirit that drinks with the funk of a pot still and the vibrancy of youth, but is tempered by enough time in the barrel to give it some vanilla-dusted gravity. This is a surprisingly fun and lively rum which I wouldn’t have pegged based on its relatively light color. 90 proof. A- 

secretspirits.com

Peat, Phenols, and ppm: Why Scotch Tastes Smoky

My first taste of peaty whisky was Talisker 10, and like they say with other things, you never forget your first. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, it was like someone had put a bonfire in my whisky. Now, I love it and feel like smoky notes give a complexity to many whiskies, especially at an older age. Actually, old peaty whisky is probably my favourite style, it’s just a shame it’s so damn expensive…

But what the hell is peat, and why does it make our whiskies smoky?

Essentially, peat is a naturally sourced fuel. Small plants and vegetation that have died in bogs or moors become part of the earth as it decomposes and a new layer of flora grows again. In the earth though, that decaying vegetation is compressed and pushed further underground by the following layers of the life and death cycle above. Peat is harvested by simply shoveling it out of the ground. Peat burns well and originally would have used as heating and cooking fuel before coal arrived in more remote parts of Scotland. The important thing for whisky though was that it was used to dry barley after it had been malted. Distillers found that the barley picked up the smoky flavour from the burning peat, and that intense smoky flavour came through into the whisky.

You do occasionally get people telling you that peaty flavour is coming from the water. It makes sense I guess, if you run a tap in the toilet at Kilchoman Distillery, it comes out brown with the peat sediment in it. Peat is in the water, water goes in the whisky. However, if you smell a piece of peat, without burning it, it barely smells of anything.

Understanding Phenol

Burnt peat smalls and tastes smoky because of the presence of Phenol? So what is this phenol that makes our whiskies smoky?

Phenol is a cyclic aromatic compound, but also describes a class of aromatic compounds. The main ones in whisky are Phenol, Cresols, Xylenol, and Guaiacol. There are a tonne of others, and not all are Phenols. Some don’t appear to have any effect on flavour but can affect the volatility of some of the other flavour chemicals. In essence: It’s complicated.

Phenol itself gives you carbolic and antiseptic flavours, Cresols give the whisky medicinal, bandage-like flavour that’s very distinctive in Laphroaig. Xylenol can be extracted from coal tar and has a similar note, while Guaiacol gives a wood smoke type of flavour.

Depending on where the peat is cut from can change the proportion of different Phenols that come through into the whisky too. Highland Park for instance is famous for having a more heathery style of smoke to its whisky and this is often attributed to there being much more heather decomposing and becoming part of the peat than on Islay or mainland Scotland.

You may have noticed that some peaty whiskies use a measurement to declare how peaty they are. The term ppm, which stands for parts per million, is the measurement, but perhaps should be written as Pppm: Phenolic parts per million. A whisky that is 40ppm would be made up of 0.004% phenols. Check my math on that, I’m rubbish at math. [It checks out. -Ed.]

The human nose can detect 1ppm of most Phenols normally, but that can depend on the person, some being more sensitive to the presence of Phenols than others. Also depends on the specific Phenol, because evolution-wise is it pretty advantageous to be able to detect wood smoke, so we are genetically more sensitive to Guaiacol.

Phenol Beyond Peat

Other things that can effect the amount of smoky flavour in a whisky are the production process and maturation, as Phenols are lost at almost every stage of the process. One important aspect though is the cut from spirit to feints, as the Phenols are more concentrated towards the end of the cut. The longer the cut, the more Phenols are going to get through into the spirit.

Note that a lot of Phenol is lost along the way. Laphroaig usually have its barley peated to 40ppm but only 25ppm comes through into the spirit. After 10 years of aging, this drops to 10ppm. This is because these phenolic compounds are only partially oxidised and within the barrel they are allowed to fully oxidise, becoming more complex aromatic compounds. Laphroaig is known for becoming more tropical and fruity at older ages.

So at what point do they measure ppm? Is it the spirit? The final whisky? Neither: It’s actually at the point the barley is malted. Most distilleries specify a ppm level for their barley and let the maltsters do the rest. They can then burn a specific amount of peat for a certain length of time to get it to that exact peating level, and it then gets to the distillery as a very consistent product.

How do they measure ppm? The usual way is High Pressure Liquid Chromatography which is a way of chemically analysing the components of whatever you’re considering. Maltsters and distillers split the category of peated whisky into a handful of sub-categories; lightly peated (2-10ppm), medium peated (11-29ppm) and heavily peated (30-55ppm). Recently another category has emerged: the super heavily peated whisky, which can be anything upwards of 55ppm. Bruichladdich’s Octomore is famous for creating this new category but Ardbeg’s Supernova whiskies (no longer produced) were also at 100ppm. The original Octomores were 80ppm but are now regularly 167ppm and up. Bruichladdich have been setting the bar higher and higher though, and a new record has been set with the Octomore 8.3 at an almost monstrous 310ppm.

Below is a small list of some of the whiskies using peat to give you an idea of the scale of ppm levels. (Numbers are approximate and can vary from release to release):

Bunnahabhain: 2ppm
Bruichladdich: 4ppm
Benromach: 10ppm
Ardmore: 15ppm
Springbank: 20ppm
Talisker: 22ppm
Bowmore: 25ppm
Caol Ila: 32ppm
Lagavulin: 37ppm
Port Charlotte: 40ppm
Laphroaig: 45ppm
Ardbeg: 55ppm
Benromach ‘Peat Smoke:’ 67ppm
Laphroaig Floor Malted: 80ppm
Ardbeg Supernova: 100ppm
Octomore 6.1: 167ppm
Octomore 6.3: 258ppm
Octomore 8.3: 309.8ppm

Tasting Peat and Phenol

Does this mean that Octomore 8.3 is going to taste 8 times peatier than Laphroaig? No, not really. Because nature likes to screw with you, human perception of phenols levels off at around 60ppm (remember, that’s in the barley; what winds up in the whisky is around 25ppm), and when a whisky goes well above this it can can actually taste less peaty than something much lower. The 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig, or some cask strength Ardmores taste peatier to me than some of the Octomores, which I find go beyond overt peat and into a new realm of minerality and meaty complexity. In the end, ppm is a reasonably useless marketing term, as there are a lot of other variables to how peaty your whisky is going to taste.

Peating whisky is a complex science and art. It’s going to bring smoky flavours into your whisky, which you might love or hate, but which you have to admit is distinctive either way. Whether it’s a lightly peated Benromach, floor malted Springbank, or a monster Octomore, peat brings character into a lot of different whiskies and really spreads out the spectrum of flavour you can experience from whisky. Remember that all peat is not created equal. My best friend thought he hated peaty whisky after having a Laphroaig, but now Ardmore is his favourite dram. Even if you think you don’t like peated whisky, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles, trying some different types, and seeing if it grows on you.

Review: Highland Park Magnus

Following on the release of Valkyrie, Highland Park continues to shake up its lineup with the release of Magnus, a NAS whisky that now serves as the unofficial entry-level expression of Highland Park. Unlike Valkyrie, Magnus is not replacing anything in the roster (though plenty of stuff, including Highland Park 15, Highland Park 21, and Dark Origins, has already been discontinued).

So what’s Magnus? Some back story:

Founding the northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world takes a very distinct sort of spirit. And we captured that spirit to make our own. Highland Park, The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul is proud to announce the newest addition to its core range: MAGNUS.

Exclusive to the US and Canada, this expression celebrates the distillery’s founder Magnus Eunson, a butcher and church officer by day, and bootlegger by night. Brave, irreverent and enterprising, Magnus was a direct descendant of the Vikings who settled on Orkney hundreds of years ago. His legacy of attention to detail and passion for whisky making remains today and little has changed in the way Highland Park is crafted in over 220 years.

Jason Craig, Highland Park Brand Director, said, “We are very proud to be launching MAGNUS exclusively in North America and we look forward to receiving reviews of the whisky from consumers who are already fans of our distillery as well as welcoming new drinkers to our tribe with this bold new bottling.”

“Magnus Eunson set up his illicit still at a small cottage at High Park, overlooking Kirkwall and it remains the site of our home today. We say that our distillery was founded in 1798 – but in truth, that’s just the year that the authorities finally caught up with Magnus – he was certainly making whisky before that!”

The label design in striking gun metal foil on the bottle represents M for MAGNUS. It has been created in the decorative Viking art style called Urnes, which complements the recently redesigned 12 and 18 Year Old packaging, just released in North America. The design harks back to Viking storytelling and features the legend of a lion locked in battle with the forces of evil in the form of serpent-like dragons.

The top of the bottle also features the heads of two serpent-like dragons as well as the brand’s signature ‘The Orkney Single Malt with Viking Soul.’  Established 1798 is also featured which references the date when Highland Park single malt Scotch whisky was established.

Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker, commented: “I wanted to create a whisky which had the lightly-peated characteristics familiar to the Highland Park family but with a sweeter and more profound vanilla flavor profile. The result is a whisky crafted using a high proportion of Sherry seasoned American oak casks along with refill casks which give MAGNUS its citrus, vanilla and lightly smoky taste.”

Now let’s give it a try.

This is one of the lightest whiskies I’ve ever encountered from Highland Park, and while that isn’t necessarily a slam, those looking for HP’s characteristic brooding depth of flavor will not find it here. The nose finds some of that trademark maltiness, an earthy note that conceals aromas of nutty sherry, dusky spice, musk, and furniture polish. Sounds intense, but the palate is something else: Light on its feet, almost floral at times, with sweeter notes of breakfast cereal, brown butter, graham crackers, and just a touch of smoke. The peat is extremely mild here, but there’s a green, slightly vegetal note on the finish that isn’t entirely what I was after.

As an introduction to the basic style of Highland Park, Magnus isn’t a bad place to start. The price is certainly right. The only issue: Magnus really doesn’t add anything new to the HP story; it just feels… a bit too familiar.

80 proof.

B / $40 / highlandparkwhisky.com

Review: Port Askaig 110 Proof

Before you book a flight to Islay, know this: There is no distillery at Port Askaig. This whisky is rather “created from carefully selected casks from distilleries across Islay. All whiskies from Port Askaig are truly ‘small-batch’ with as few as two, and no more than 40, casks used for each bottling.” Since it’s billed as a single malt, though, each Port Askaig must be sourced from a single distillery, not multiple ones. This is the first Port Askaig release to arrive in the U.S.

Port Askaig 110° Proof is the first of this unique range of single malt whiskies to launch in the US but there will be more releases, including US exclusives, to come in the next few years. Port Askaig 110° Proof is a cask-strength whisky, bottled at 55% and matured in American oak, offering the perfect balance of smoke and sweet fruit. In order to maintain the authenticity of the Port Askaig liquid, the creators do not use chill filtering and no colouring is added.

Let’s give Port Askaig’s first U.S. landing a taste.

A very pale straw color is the first inkling of how gentle this whisky will be. The nose is classically Ardbegian — light on its feet but oily, with significant floral overtones atop gentle petrol notes. The palate is equally quiet, despite bottling at 55% abv it shows more delicate floral notes, light vanilla, and a spritz of citrus. At the same time, there’s a backbone here — peat smoke, but with a character that comes across like it’s been well-filtered and refined, like a cigar detected from across the room, one which makes one wonder, maybe I should find one of those cigars for myself…

110 proof.

A- / $75 / portaskaig.com

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