Review: Lost Spirits Distillery Abomination “The Sayers of the Law”

One can count on few things in life, but one of those things is the fact that Lost Spirits Distillery — now operating out of Los Angeles — is going to come up with something new to mess with your mind.

What did Bryan Davis do to create this “abomination?” Instead of distilling his own heavily peated new-make spirit (as was done with Lost Spirits’ prior whiskey releases), he imported white dog from an unnamed distillery on Islay. The smoky single malt was then put through Lost Spirits’ reactor to turbo-age it. Two expressions were the result. One, The Crying of the Puma* (aka red label) uses toasted wood from a “late harvest riesling barrel.” (The catch is that there is no such thing as a late harvest riesling barrel, because late harvest riesling is not aged in a barrel, so Davis had to order up a bespoke cask.) The second release is called The Sayers of the Law (aka black label, which is reviewed here). It’s aged with the same late harvest riesling barrel wood, only this time the wood is charred instead of toasted before it goes into the aging reactor.

The nose would be familiar to any Islay fan — sweet barbecue smoke to start — and then you start catching deeper aromas of gooey dried fruit compote, fresh peaches, and floral elements, clearly delivered by the riesling barrel. The palate is intensely smoky, with traditional Islay elements of briny seaweed and peat smoke. Notes of candied flowers mingle with fresh strawberry, coconut husk, and iodine, then lingering nuggets of coffee bean, dark chocolate, and lilacs. The finish is pushy and long as hell, soaked in liquefied wood and smoke and dripping with a hedonistic pungency.

Islay fans, though this is ruthlessly unorthodox I highly encourage you to buy this now. It’ll be the best $50 you’ve ever spent.

108 proof.

A / $50 /

* The fanciful product names are drawn from chapters from The Island of Dr. Moreau. Get it?

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 /

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 /

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 /

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 / 

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 /

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 /