Review: Aberlour a’bunadh Highland Single Malt Batch 54

Aberlour’s cask strength a’bunadh release is a special one among single malts, as it is released in serialized batches — now at least on #58. The construction is always the same — again, cask strength whisky, 100% ex-oloroso sherry barrel aged — but each batch varies in proof and, apparently, in flavor. Notably, there’s no age statement on this whisky, so the actual time in cask may vary from batch to batch, and batches are said to be blended from whiskies aged anywhere from 5 to 25 years old. No information about the number of bottles from each batch of a’bunadh is released.

We reviewed batch #26 some years ago. Today we turn our attention to batch #54, which features an updated label and, notably, at the time of its release, it was the second highest abv of a’bunadh ever released. (Proof levels are going nowhere but up since then.) Back during my review of #26, I had some reservations about the whisky. Let’s see how things have evolved in the last eight years.

The beautiful copper color, driven by all that sherry cask time, hasn’t gone anywhere. On the nose, the whisky is outrageously complex, loaded with notes of spiced nuts, reduced/concentrated orange oil, and oiled wood. There’s a green note that’s hard to place, something akin to lemongrass and green banana — which adds even more complexity to the experience. On the palate, the whisky is bold and rich and full of flavors, including all of the above, plus some lingering red berries, black tea leaf, ginger, and cinnamon. It’s a hot whisky, and water helps to round out the edges, revealing notes of black pepper and a stronger raspberry/blackberry component — which takes things out with some light but welcome sweetness.

Freshly comparing this batch to batch 26, batch 54 is a clear leader, though today I feel perhaps I was overly harsh with my earlier assessment of #26. Today I find the whisky on the muted side, but enchanting in its own way with notes of tangerine, sandalwood, fresh tobacco leaf, and some lingering phenols. Either way, I’ll keep checking out a’bunadh as I encounter it — and you should too.

121.4 proof.

A- / $100 / aberlour.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #12 – Glen Moray 2007, Balmenach 2003, Benrinnes 1995, Invergordon 1972

It’s been a couple of years — and far too long — since we’ve checked in with the independent bottlers at The Exclusive Malts, which are now on release #12 of their series of generally exceptional outturns. Today we look at four of the selections from this periodic release.

Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Glen Moray 2007 9 Years Old – A young Speyside ages in first-fill bourbon barrels. Quite sweet on the nose, the bourbon barrel carries the experience with notes of vanilla, sugar cookies, baked bread, and some mint. On the palate, the relative youth is clear, with notes of red hots and burnt sugar both heavy, but finding some room for notes of jasmine and nutmeg. Enjoyable in its youth, but a simple experience that is perhaps priced above its fighting weight. 111.4 proof. B+ / $85

The Exclusive Malts Balmenach 2003 13 Years Old – Balmenach is a little-known Speyside distillery, and this 13 year old is aged in first-fill bourbon barrels. Exotic nose, with notes of tropical fruit, incense, and some caramel and chocolate character to back it up. On the palate, more of those incense notes and spiced wood notes mingle with notes of cherry, some citrus, more tropical character, and a hint of menthol on the finish. It comes across as closer to a sherry-finished whiskey than a strictly ex-bourbon barrel one, but one that’s wholly worthwhile. 115.6 proof. A- / $125

The Exclusive Malts Benrinnes 1995 20 Years Old – 20 year old Speyside whisky, aged in a refill sherry hogshead. What a strange experience this whisky is, offering complex aromas of fresh tangerines, burnt rubber, Eastern spices, and dense florals. These are heady, spice bazaar-like notes that lead to a body that showcases somewhat more traditional flavors, including notes of banana and green apple, backed up with lots of camphor. I can safely say I’ve never experienced a Scotch whisky that approaches this flavor profile. I can’t say whether or not that is a good thing. 105.4 proof. B / $170

The Exclusive Malts Invergordon 1972 43 Years Old – This single grain whisky spent 43 years in refill barrels before bottling. As with many single grain spirits, it is rather pastoral in nature, offering florals and fresh granary notes on the nose, with just wispy hints of raspberry. The palate is slightly (black) peppery, with more cereal character and notes of black tea and a hint of apricot jam. The finish is a melange of all of the above, which merits considerable reflection. 96.4 proof. B+ / $260

impexbev.com

The Debate Over Whiskey Age Statements: A Drinkhacker Conversation

The age statement — the practice of putting the amount of time a spirit spends in the barrel — continues to be one of the most talked-about issues in the booze business. Long a staple of the whiskey world, where age statements have been a badge of honor and a matter of distillers’ pride for decades, the practice of putting a number on the label is rapidly falling out of favor. Why? Mainly because distilleries are short on old stock, so producing age-statemented whisky is harder and harder. This has led to the discontinuation of many longtime whiskeys with an age statement and their replacement with a No Age Statement (NAS) alternative… usually at a similar price.

Is the rise of NAS a good thing or a bad? Writer Robert Lublin and Editor in Chief Christopher Null engage in a debate over the issue as they attempt to suss out what’s really going on in the wild world of NAS, and whether or not “age matters” after all.

RL: Should whiskeys list their age on the bottle? I don’t think this is a simple question. When you pick up a single malt scotch, for instance, the age statement lets you know that the whisky you are about to drink spent at least that many years in the barrel after distillation. This might seem like a reasonable request to make of distilleries that are asking consumers to pay a high price for old scotch, but remember that age statements do not actually tell you the age of the whisky you are about to drink. They only tell you the minimum age of the whisky. An excellent Glendronach 15 Years Old includes older whisky inside.

The problem? Due to lack of stock, the whisky has been discontinued for the next three years until stocks can age appropriately. Will it be the same whisky when it is re-released? Not likely. The age statement on the new scotch will be identical to the old, but one can guess that the whisky in the bottle won’t have older stock in it and will ultimately taste very different. My conclusion? Age statements can be misleading.

CN: Age statements can be misleading, but not having an age statement can be even more misleading, can’t it? Taking your example even further, if we remove all age statements from that Glendronach, we don’t even have the safeguard of knowing the whisky in the bottle is at least 15 years old. NAS Glendronach would surely taste much different than whatever the new Glendronach 15 tastes like, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t the age statement provide some level of assurance that the consumer is getting what he expects?

RL: Yes, but sometimes having age statements would be even more misleading than excluding them. Consider some of the best NAS whiskies on the market today. One of my favorite peated drams is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, which blends Ardbeg aged in sherry casks for extended periods of time with Ardbeg 10 Years Old. With an age statement, this is simply 10 year old scotch, a detail that does no justice to the whisky’s complex, smoky, fruity flavor profile. If age statements were required on bottles, this excellent dram would simply, and confusingly, tout a 10 year old statement. Uigeadail costs more for good reason.

CN: That is actually my point. My biggest problem with the removal of age statements is less about flavor profiles and more about the way whisky is sold. Age statements originally came into vogue mainly as a marketing tool, to convince consumers that, in no uncertain terms, “older was better” and better was more expensive. Until recently, Ballentine’s slogan was “Age matters.”

Now the industry has done a 180. Age abruptly doesn’t matter any more. Taste matters. To some extent that’s true, but modern food science can make anything taste good, can’t it? “Age doesn’t matter” encourages shortcuts. It rejects tradition and chases after the lowest common denominator at the highest possible price, and it shrouds the whisky in the bottle in a veil of secrecy.

RL: It is frustrating to be reminded that for all of its history and artisan craftsmanship, scotch is an industry driven by a bottom line. The marketing slogan “Age matters” did more to drive up prices and demand for older stock than it did to make a statement regarding taste or quality. The whole issue is made more complicated by the amazing, high end whiskies that are being produced today in far less time than previously was needed. Bruichladdich’s Octomore series demonstrates that outstanding scotch can be made in roughly 6 years. As one who appreciates the time and artistry that goes into making great whisky, I want as much information as possible, but times are changing and age statements will probably never again carry the importance they once did.

CN: I think whiskies like Octomore are the exception, not the rule. In fact, one could argue that Octomore is a shining example of the gimmickry I mentioned: Ultra-peated whisky can be released young because the peat overpowers anything the barrel can do. The last thing I would hope for is that distilleries will start boosting the amount of peated malt they use simply because they know that if they do they can release an even younger spirit. Alas, I worry that is a calculus that is being carefully undertaken across Islay right now.

I am happy at least, as you allude, that Bruichladdich is at least somewhat transparent about what’s in the bottle. Octomore doesn’t have an age statement, but they aren’t hiding the fact that what’s inside is pretty young. I’m less thrilled about whiskies like Talisker Storm and Macallan Rare Cask, a $300 NAS whisky. What goes into these whiskies is not just unstated, it is purposefully opaque so as to make a consumer value calculation much more difficult. I like the way Macallan Rare tastes, but I just can’t justify spending $300 for it without knowing what’s inside. It would be like buying a car without knowing what kind of engine it has. I just want to know. I’m not alone in feeling that if that kind of information isn’t made available, then the whisky is less valuable to me.

RL: I find Talisker Storm to be very reasonably priced (roughly the same as Talisker 10 Years Old) and do not mind the absence of an age statement as the quality of the product speaks for itself. But I take your point regarding Macallan Rare Cask, which, I must admit, I have not yet tried specifically because it costs too much to purchase without some idea of what I am buying. One of the problems regarding age statements lies in EU regulations which state that a whisky must either (a) list the age of the youngest whiskey appearing in the bottle, or (b) post no age statement at all. There is good reason for these regulations. If distilleries were free to list the age of all of the whiskies appearing in a bottle, they could choose to include a negligible amount of very old whiskey and list it as an ingredient, thereby misleading the consumer. The downside is a pair of options that may be well intentioned but limit the information available to the consumer. In the current system, it makes sense to exclude an age statement if one of the components is considerably younger than the others.

A third choice has been recommended by the people at Compass Box who blend whiskies to create their scotch. They would like to be able to provide “Full Disclosure” — and have actually been penalized by regulators when they have provided it. This option, should it become law, would permit bottles and advertising to list the age of all of the whiskies included in a scotch, but would require that they list the exact percentage (to a decimal point!) of each and every component. I would like to see Full Disclosure become a legal option for scotch, but I am very curious to know how many distillers and blenders would choose it.

CN: Perhaps more than you’d think. “Transparency” as a business concept has legs, and companies that embrace it (whether in spirits or otherwise) are gaining traction. For example, when restaurants use open kitchen layouts, where cooks and customers can see each other, customer satisfaction is 17% higher. Look at the rise of companies making it easy to talk to the brand via social media, disclosing where they source their products, or even revealing everyone’s salary. All of these have been associated with higher satisfaction — and bigger sales. For its part, Compass Box sells out of seemingly everything!

My prediction is that eventually the market will swing back the other way, particularly as stocks of older whiskies become more available once again and age statements are less of a hardship. Consumers — particularly Millennials hitting their 30s in the next decade and who are branching out from bourbon to scotch — will want more information about their booze, and that in turn may get marketers thinking the same way they did decades ago: Put an age statement on the label and we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the market, which by then will probably be fully embracing NAS. Age statements will again become a point of differentiation. And suddenly, age might matter again. I mean, until it doesn’t anymore.

Review: Glenfiddich Project XX

Glenfiddich’s Project XX (pronounced “twenty”) is a unique experiment that defies easy categorization. I’m going to let the distillery explain before I go any further:

Project XX is the result of one of the most ambitious malt experiments of Glenfiddich’s 130 year history. The expression is the collaboration between the 20 Glenfiddich Brand Ambassadors from 16 countries from all over the world and malt master Brian Kinsman, who developed one unexpected, extraordinary whisky by bringing together 20 very special single malts.

Going against normal whisky conventions, Brian invited the ambassadors to explore and each select a cask from a warehouse at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown. Many of these ambassadors are the foremost experts on Glenfiddich in their respective countries, introducing single malts to whisky connoisseurs, enthusiasts and novices, imparting knowledge and information. Brian’s ambition was to create one remarkable single malt, by combining the curiosity and knowledge of these 20 experts.

This freedom of choice resulted in a 20-strong collection of some of the most unusual whiskies from Glenfiddich’s unrivalled stocks, amassed and carefully nurtured throughout the brand’s 130 year history. After each expert had chosen a single cask, from aged malts matured in port pipes to ancient sherry butts and first fill bourbon casks, Brian skilfully produced the final variant to reflect their individual tastes and interests. Expertly married together in a small batch vatting, the final flavour profile defined even his expectations.

So, 20 brand ambassadors each picked out a barrel from the Glenfiddich warehouses and then Kinsman blended the whole thing together. It sounds nutty, but Glenfiddich actually let us know what each barrel was, and if you click the image to the right you can completely geek out on the data, right down to the cask numbers on each barrel selected. The 20 casks include 17 ex-bourbon barrels, 2 sherry butts, and one Port pipe.

It’s an unorthodox whisky to be sure, but much to my surprise it’s a completely worthwhile one. I think it’s because Glenfiddich is not really mixing whiskies at random but is rather mixing these whiskies with a bit of a guided hand. There’s some method to the madness here, perhaps thanks to a benevolent intelligent designer working behind the scenes. How else would the mix of 17 bourbon casks and just 3 wine casks come to be if each of the 20 ambassadors was selecting in a vacuum?

Never mind all that. Let’s taste it.

The nose is lightly salty and nutty with clear citrus overtones, plus hints of nougat and baking spice. Surprisingly enchanting, it leads the way to a palate that’s filled with fruit — oranges, cinnamon-spiced raisins, and some quince — as well as ample caramel and vanilla, the classic components of those 17 ex-bourbon casks. The sherry component is modest but integrates well with the bourbon-soaked base, folding in gentle citrus and sweet, brown sugar before the clove-heavy finish arrives, again offering some well-roasted walnut notes and a lingering wood character that harmonizes well with what’s come before.

Bottom line: To be honest, I can’t stop sipping it. Pick it up if you happen to see a bottle.

94 proof.

A / $100 / glenfiddich.com

Review: Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak 10 Years Old

Johnnie Walker is the latest distillery to get into the experimental whisky game, with master blender Jim Beveridge launching a new series called Blenders’ Batch. Said to number in the hundreds, these experiments have long been “a crucial part of their work, focusing on developing and understanding a vast variety of unconventional flavors that can add depth and complexity to Scotch.” Now some of these experiments are being released to the public, and the first is arriving in the U.S. imminently. Some details from JW:

In the U.S., the first blend that will be available is Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak, which is the result of experiments focusing on the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavors on Scotch.  This whisky is inspired by the time Beveridge spent working in Kentucky blending bourbon and rye. Aged for at least 10 years in American oak, including bourbon casks, Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Triple Grain American Oak is crafted using five whiskies including grain from the now closed Port Dundas distillery and malt from Mortlach on Speyside. This combination creates a whisky that is uniquely smooth, with notes of sweet fresh fruit and gentle spice. This style of whisky is excellent as the foundation for classic and signature cocktails.

Technically this is the third blend in the Blenders’ Batch series, following Red Rye Finish and a Bourbon Cask and Rye Finish, neither of which were released in the U.S.

So let’s give Blenders’ Batch #3 a try!

The nose is quite grainy, typical of a younger blend, with the light vanilla notes and the lumberyard character of new American oak. Some banana and red apple notes provide the fruit, alongside some more savory, vegetal green bean aromas. The palate is sweeter than the nose would indicate, offering a banana bread character with hints of allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, plus elements of roasted nuts. Soon a sharpness takes hold and puts out some heat as the finish approaches, where we find a melding of sweeter elements — gingerbread, sticky bun, and vanilla custard — at play with a reprise of lighter lumberyard elements.

It’s a bit of a departure for the House of Walker, with no smokiness to speak of and now citrus-focused sherry casking either, but one that works out better than expected. Great value, too!

82.6 proof. Bottles are individually numbered.

B+ / $25 / johnniewalker.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest Washington DC 2017

WhiskyFest remains one of the best ways to meet other spirits enthusiasts, hear from some of the industry’s biggest names, and of course try a wide variety of whisk(e)y, including many hard-to-find and expensive offerings. The VIP ticket, which provides an additional hour of sampling, is particularly useful for discovering the true rarities, as most exhibitors showcase a special bottle (sometimes literally just one) only for that hour. Although celebrating its 20th year in 2017, this was only the second time the event has been held in my backyard of Washington, DC. As with years past, I discovered some real gems, sampled heavily, and stopped being able to really taste anything after about 8 o’clock. Notes on everything before that are below.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest Washington DC 2017

Scotch

AnCnoc Highland Single Malt Vintage 2001 / B / a golden, creamy whiskey with some pleasant stone fruit notes
Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch 3 / A / a real standout this year; sugar cookie nose with layers of dried fruit and baking spice notes; honeyed with a long finish
Deanston 20 Years Old / A- / the Oloroso finish shines at cask strength along with hints of gingerbread and a syrupy sweetness
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A / incredibly balanced and sultry; sweet smoke nose and a palate full of iodine and sugary oak
Compass Box Spice Tree Extravaganza / B / sweet and floral with coconut on the palate; a bit thin
Compass Box This is Not a Luxury Whisky / B+ / bolder than expected and almost too sweet, but wonderfully smoky with faint dark fruit notes on the finish
Ardbeg Kelpie Committee Release / A / matured in virgin oak from the Black Sea region; the palate is chocked full of sweet, oriental spices in addition to the honeyed brine and peat smoke of traditional Ardbeg
Ardbeg Kildalton / A- / a mix of sherry and bourbon casks; soft on the nose and gentle on the palate with a good balance of vanilla sweetness and raisin notes
Craigellachie 23 Years Old / B+ / the oldest Craigellachie in the range described as “meaty,” but I was getting more fruit and herbal notes on the palate
Alexander Murray & Co. The Glenrothes 22 Years Old / B- / honey sweet with minimal complexity; some anise and spice on the finish
Balblair 1983 / A / tons of caramel on the nose with a rich bourbon-inspired palate, cinnamon biscuit and semi-sweet chocolate developing into a slightly smoky, brown sugar finish

American

William Larue Weller / A- / cinnamon sugar nose with a syrupy palate that leaves a fantastic menthol and cinnamon RedHot flavor in the roof of the mouth
George T. Stagg / A- / hot brown sugar under loads of alcohol (72%!) but developing into chocolate and pipe tobacco
Blood Oath Pact No. 3 / A / rich caramel and dark fruit nose with a vanilla custard and berry palate, slightly drying on a long finish
Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey / B+ / sweet with subtle rye spice on the nose, dark fruit and a little dill on the palate; good balance of the sherry and rye
Yellowstone Limited Edition 101 Proof / A- / great oak nose and subtle red fruit notes layered with toffee and rye spice
Elijah Craig 23 Year / B+ / caramel and oak nose with a palate dominated by cinnamon and drying tannins
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition / B / more fruit on the palate than the standard small batch but lacking the complexity and body of previous editions
Hillrock Sauternes Finished Rye / B- / black tea and caramel nose but the palate seems unbalanced; clove and rye spice overpower the dark fruit in the wine cask
Hillrock Sauternes Finished Bourbon / B+ / floral nose with vanilla; baking spice notes integrate well with the wine cask, leaving a lingering raisin quality on the finish
Sagamore Spirit Cask Strength / A- / a great craft, cask strength rye; rich honey and vanilla on the nose with a creamy texture showcasing more of the same on the palate along with a warming rye spice
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades / B+ / a complex nose, chewy body, but the palate falls flat with too much menthol and candy corn
FEW Spirits Bourbon (Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary Bottling) / B / a touch of grain and shoe polish on the nose, tart cherry notes on the palate fading to cinnamon; interesting but not exactly an easy sipper

Irish

The Quiet Man Traditional / B+ / light on the nose with a buttery palate showcasing simple but enjoyable vanilla and faint citrus notes
The Quiet Man Single Malt 8 Years Old / A- / toasted cereal nose with honeysuckle; a luscious palate that is also soft and light with vanilla, fresh ground cinnamon, and nutmeg

Review: The Dalmore King Alexander III

King Alexander III is The Dalmore’s highest-end (and most expensive) whisky in its standard lineup, as well it should be owing to its over-the-top production process. Specifically, it’s a batching of whiskies finished in a whopping six different cask types: ex-bourbon casks, Matusalem oloroso sherry butts, Madeira barrels, Marsala casks, Port pipes, and Cabernet Sauvignon wine barriques. Whew!

A complex whisky? You better believe it.

This is a beautiful single malt, right from the start, with its rich and inviting nose of rich caramel, brown sugar, toasted coconut, and lingering caramel corn notes, all mingling with notes of jasmine and incense. The body is loaded with flavor, running through a wide gamut of flavors, including charred fruit, raisins, fresh plums, and plenty of those incense notes again. The finish sees more of the traditional, bourbon-barrel-finished character coming through, vanilla and caramel notes, with silky malt and lingering spices hanging on for the long haul.

A lovely dram from start to finish, it’s truly one to savor.

80 proof.

A / $200 / thedalmore.com

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