Friday, December 19, 2014

Whisky Review: Master of Malt Bunnahabhain 23 Year/1989

This is a sample from the UK retailer Master of Malt, who have been doing their own bottlings for a number of years.

The whisky was distilled in 1989, then filled into an ex-bourbon cask and aged for 23 years, before being proofed down to 46% and bottled without chill filtration or coloring.

Master of Malt Bunnahabhain 23 Year/1989

Nose: very rich - gobs of honied malt, seashore/seaweed, a hint of bacon, herbal/grassy/hay, light floral perfume, soft green fruits (apple, pear, grape), light berries, light vanilla, orange creamsicle, nutty charred oak. After dilution, it becomes more integrated, but loses a lot of punch, with the creamy floral element dominating, bubblegum pops out, with salty seashore notes remaining in the background,

Taste: rather sweet with an almost sherried thickness up front, with clean malt slowly giving way to moderate oak, seaweed, fresh cut grass, floral perfume. After dilution, the sweetness up front becomes pure sugarcane, rounded out by a solid backbone of caramelized oak, which slips into fruit and bubblegum esters in the middle, then a big burst of creamy bittersweet herbal/floral flavors near the back

Finish: very herbal/grassy, floral perfume, fresh malt, a whisper of oak

This is an interesting example of a bourbon cask Bunnahabhain, getting significantly better with time in the glass. It reminds me a lot of the grassy/herbal Arran Bourbon Single Cask I had a while back, but inflected with the island character Bunnahabhain is known for.

If nothing else, I feel like this would have benefited from bottling at a slightly higher proof. While the nose had plenty of power, the palate felt weak and watery in comparison. Something in the 48-50% range probably would have given it a helpful boost.

Given its age, I'm guessing this was a rather inactive cask as the malt still tastes very fresh and the oak impact is quite minimal. If you like your whisky 'naked', this is probably a nice one, though I do wonder if it would have been better with a slightly more active cask as it feels a tad immature, with some edges left to round off. If I was tasting this blind, I would probably peg it at somewhere around ten to twelve years old, which makes the price that MoM wanted for it a bit hard to swallow. I'd stick to younger indies Bunnahabhains if you want a similar experience at a more tolerable price.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Aldephi Liddesdale 21 Year

This is the second sherry cask whisky this week from Bunnahabhain, though this one is significantly older. The name refers to a hill near Adelphi's recently opened Ardnamurchan distillery and is used for their small batch releases of Bunnahabhain. I believe this was from Batch 6, which was assembled from 4 European oak ex-sherry casks, proofed down to 46%, then bottled without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

Adelphi Liddesdale 21 Year

Nose: toasted malt, dry sherry, seashore/seashells, vanilla, pineapple, a thread of wood smoke, fresh grapes, baked apples, a hint of vegetal peat, herbal, caramel/toffee, burnt sugar, unsweetened chocolate, something savory. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes softer and more integrated without losing too much intensity, the sherry becomes more savory and the malt comes out more strongly, with some nuttiness emerging.

Taste: a sour top note (almost vinegary) runs throughout, big malty/vanilla/berry sweetness up front segues into oak tannins, unsweetened chocolate in the middle, which then turns into seashore/uncooked shellfish notes with a touch of peat and somewhat plastic-y sweetness near the back. After dilution, it becomes more balanced and less sour, the sweetness is cleaner, and the seashore notes become earthy and almost peated.

Finish: plastic-y sweetness, earthy sour peat, slightly creamy sherry, malt, burnt sugar, oak tannins, vanilla,

While there are good qualities to this whisky, especially the nose, it never quite reaches a point where I feel like it justifies its price tag. Most of what it has to offer can be had from Glenfarclas without some of the off notes that I found in this one. So I think I'll pass on a full bottle.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Whisky Review: Prime Malt Bunnahabhain 10 Year/1999

Prime Malt is a series of single cask releases from Gordon Bonding, which I can find basically no info about. They were usually reduced to a relatively low strength (40-43%), but also tended to be at bargain-basement prices.

The bottle states that particular whisky comes from a refill sherry cask that held heavily peated Bunnahabhain spirit. However, to my knowledge, Bunnahabhain was not distilling peated malt between its earlier 1997 experimental run and the sale of the distillery to Burn Stewart in 2003. This makes me wonder if this was actually unpeated spirit that was aged in a cask that used to hold peated whisky. Either way, the spirit was proofed down to 43% before bottling - I suspect that it was chill filtered, but the color makes me think that no caramel was added.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Prime Malt Bunnahabhain 10 Year/1999

Nose: clean malt, fresh hay, herbal/floral, sherry with a sour tang, berry sweetness, ink, graphite, cigarette ash, light earthy peat, bubblegum, vanilla, honey, pencil shavings. After adding a few drops of water, there isn't any drop in intensity, but it becomes more malt-focused, with the sherry (top note) and grassy/herbal peat (bottom note) sliding into the background a bit, with the vanilla and perfume notes growing stronger.

Taste: opens with malt and wood sugars overlaid with a thin veneer of sherry sweetness, segues through malty vanilla into mild oak tannins with a faint peat back, with the earthy/ashy peat coming into focus at the back, while there are orange peels overtones throughout. After dilution it becomes a little watery up front, with the malt fading a bit while the sherry becomes a stronger top note, while the oak tannins and peat becomes more pronounced at the back.

Finish: vanilla malt, light oak, earthy peat, whispers of sherry

This is, in my opinion, a very good whisky at a very good price. It pulls off a similar trick to Highland Park 12, opening sweetly, then switching to a more bittersweet peaty mode.

The only place I've ever seen it for sale is The Party Source and I'm still kicking myself for not grabbing a bottle when they still shipped spirits. At least I got to enjoy this little bit of it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Whiskey Review: Four Roses OESO Private Single Barrel for Rose City Liquor

This bourbon was bottled as part of Four Roses' Private Barrel Program, which allows retailers to select barrels from any of the ten recipes the distillery produces, which are then bottled at full strength without chill filtration. Barrel 89-1I was made from the 20% rye mashbill with the E strain yeast (red berries, medium richness), aged for 10 years and 9 months in warehouse SN, then bottled for Rose City Liquor in Portland around 2012.

Four Roses OESO Private Single Barrel for Rose City Liquor 55.3%

Nose: lots of berries (raspberries and blackberries, especially), solid but not aggressive oak, underlying corn sweetness, vanilla cake frosting, dry rye grain, light caramel, Cinnamon Toast Crunch,

Taste: lots of corn and caramel sweetness throughout, tempered by oak tannins, berry and ripe fruit ride on top, rye grain spice in the background, something lightly floral starting in the middle,

Finish: rye grain, residual corn, mild oak, berry compote

At full strength this is a big, bold bourbon. Everything comes in spades - berries, oak, corn sweetness. It usually needs some time in the glass to breath and let a bit of alcohol burn off, but eventually transforms into a magnificent experience. Unsurprisingly for an older bourbon, this is right on the edge of being over-oaked, but that helps to counterbalance the sweeter flavors from the corn and yeast. The only thing that is relatively subdued is the rye, which, while this is the 'low rye' recipe for Four Roses, is still higher than most other rye recipe bourbons out there (Jim Beam's OGD recipe and a handful from MGP are the only other recipes from from major distillers with a higher rye content that I can think of).

As I usually do with barrel proof whiskeys, I proofed down a couple of samples to see how the whiskey changed.

Four Roses SB OESO at 50%

Nose: more oak-dominated, with berry compote notes integrating with the wood, giving it a polished quality, with creamy grain (barley and corn) and sawdust in the not-too-distant background, while some apple peaks around the edges,

Taste: instead of an evolving experience, corn sweetness, oak tannins, berries, and mint all hit at once, intertwining and carrying through the palate, which gives it a great richness

Finish: minty grain, mild oak, berry compote residue

This is the strength at which the age of the bourbon is most readily apparent, with the barrel casting a strong shadow over the spirit. It's not bad, but as I tend to prefer my bourbons on the less oak-y side, it is less appealing to me. On the upside, the alcohol is quite subdued for being at 50% and only a bit less than the full strength.

Four Roses SB OESO at 45%

Nose: jammy berry and dry grain notes become softer, but are highlighted by the slightly reduced oak, which becomes younger and sawdust-y, rye comes out as mint/juniper, with caramel acting as a bass note

Taste: brief corn sweetness up front, which is quickly swallowed by the oak tannins, which dominate the back 2/3 and produce a bitter to bittersweet effect overall, with strong mint and berry overtones throughout

Finish: berries take center stage, with softer oak tannins

While less brash and bold than the whiskey at full strength, this is still very drinkable and doesn't lack  much in intensity. I like a whiskey that can take a lot of water without drowning. I also enjoyed how much more apparent the rye was at this strength, where the mint provided a certain coolness in counterpoint to the warmed berry and oak elements. I can see how this would fit well into the Small Batch recipe (which is bottled at 45%), providing the red berries that are touted in the official tasting notes.

At just about any strength, this is a fabulous bourbon. Rose City hit one out of the park with this pick. It's a perfect example of what Four Roses can do at a respectable price in this day and age (I want to say that it was under $50 when I bought it). Prices for Private Single Barrels have gone up and ages are down (Four Roses doesn't usually let go of anything above nine years old now), but I will definitely be exploring more of what's available now as they still seem like excellent values.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Whiskey Review: Four Roses Single Barrel

Four Roses has been one of the bourbon geek darlings over the last dozen years or so. There's the heartwarming story about how the distillery was a powerhouse for most of its life, was then neglected for decades while the name was used to sell terrible blended whiskey in the United States, then returned to glory when it was purchased by a Japanese company (which is the country where most of the good stuff had been going in the meantime).

One of Four Roses' claims to fame is that they produce whiskey from ten different recipes, which are the intersection of two different mashbills (20% rye and 35% rye, with the balance made up with corn and malted barley) and five different yeast strains. Only one of these recipes, OBSV (35% rye, delicately fruity yeast) is used for their Single Barrel. Each barrel is picked, then proofed down to 50% ABV, and bottled without coloring or chill filtration.

Four Roses Single Barrel

Nose: fairly closed at first, opens to nutty caramel, simple syrup, vanilla beans, solid slab of oak, milk chocolate/cocoa powder, pears, musky fruit, vinous notes, and berry overtones. After adding a few drops of water, the nutty caramel dominates the nose, the oak is more sawdust-y, the fruit/berry/vinous notes are tighter and less bright, while the corn fades to reveal more rye.

Taste: corn and caramel sweetness sweetness throughout, tempered by rich polished oak with a vinegar edge in the middle, with berries, floral notes, and rye spice in the background throughout. After dilution, the sweetness is significantly diminished as the oak tannins gain ground, though there is a big burst of berries at the beginning, and some apple and vanilla notes around the middle, fading into more pronounced tannic bitterness at the back.

Finish: moderate oak and grain, fresh apples and berries, rye spice

The standard release single barrel has clearly been chosen for mass appeal. This is a very classic bourbon, with strong elements of corn sweetness and oak, adorned with rye spice and berries. Everything you would expect is here, but the flip side of that coin is that it doesn't offer any flashes of brilliance either. It's very enjoyable and very solid, but it doesn't quite hit the high notes that some of their other recipes hit. I would put it in a similar category to Blanton's, another single barrel bourbon that has very classic notes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Whisky Review: Sia Blended Whisky

Sia is the only whisky I know of that got its start through Kickstarter. You can find most of the history there, but Carin's goal in creating the blend was to make something that would be palatable to new scotch drinkers without turning off more seasoned drinkers.

This whisky is bottled at 43% and is mostly likely chill filtered and colored.

Thanks to Carin for the sample.

Sia Blended Whisky

Nose: the grain whisky component is rather strong with green musky overtones, citrus (orange, lime, and lemon), digging deeper the malt can be found, with light peat, cured meat, and dank sherry embedded in the structure. After adding a few drops of water, it shifts towards the grain whisky and underripe fruit elements, with more ethereal sherry underneath, and some rhubarb pops out.

Taste: the grain whisky is once again the strongest element - especially at the beginning, with not entirely pleasant sweetness and young oak flavors, which fade through something metallic, underripe fruit, and floral esters, but eventually turns into more agreeable malt notes of sherry, cinnamon porridge, and peat near the back. After dilution, there is significantly more sweetness up front, some new make/green malt and mixed bourbon cask fruit right behind, the floral notes gain strength in the middle, then slide into almost fudge-y oak, and with time the flavors spread out and integrate more.

Finish: dank sherry, an edge of vegetal peat, grain and malt

All in all, this is a well thought out blend that suffers only because some of the grain whisky needs a bit more maturity. The components largely balance and complement each other, forming a reasonably coherent whole. It's light and eminently drinkable without being insipid - the above-minimum bottling proof gives it enough flavor density while producing almost no alcohol burn. The inclusion of small amounts of both sherry cask and peated malt go a long way to give malt drinkers something to engage with, though they're not the center of the show by any means. If you enjoy blends like Compass Box Artist's Blend, this will probably appeal.

Ultimately the stumbling block for me would be price. It retails around $45-50 in the US, which is firmly in single malt territory. While I can see this being a good whisky for bars to keep around, both because of the classy packaging and the approachability of the spirit, it's not something I can see myself buying. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Whisky Review: Black Bull 30 Year

While the 12 Year expression that I recently reviewed is a fairly standard, albeit well-done, blend, the 30 Year was a one-off with fairly interesting history.

Most blends are made from individual casks of malt and grain whisky. However, there are occasionally casks that were 'blended at birth'. This means that new make grain whisky and new make malt whisky were combined, then filled into a cask together. Theoretically this gives the two components much more time to integrate and harmonize with each other.

The components of this blend (50/50 grain and malt) were distilled in the 1970s, blended together, aged in sherry casks for at least thirty years, then bottled at 50% ABV without coloring or chill filtration. I can't find any information about which distilleries the components of this blend came from, so unfortunately that will have to remain a mystery.

Black Bull 30 Year

Nose: both dank and bright sherry cask influence inflected by grain whisky, stewed fruit, prunes, raisin reduction - almost like wood smoke, lemon and lime peel, cinnamon brown sugar, burnt sugar over oak with a touch of barrel char, porridge, vanilla, malt, rich caramel, mint and floral overtones. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and grain integrate to give a creamier kind of wine influence, with the floral notes tucked inside,

Taste: surprising amount of alcohol heat, clear balance between malt and grain whisky flavors, sherry and grain (corn and wheat) throughout, with a shift from dank to bright across the palate, almost syrupy sweetness, citrus peel in the middle, sliding into polished oak at the back, mint overtones throughout. After dilution, the sherry mostly pushes aside the grain until the back, with the flavors becoming a bit flatter and less bright, but with the alcohol burn mostly tamed, and the mint becoming more vegetal.

Finish: slightly vegetal malt spirit notes, sherry residue, grain, very mild oak

What I find most interesting about this whisky is that, despite being blended at birth and spending three decades in oak, the malt and grain whisky remain distinct elements rather than having integrated into a whole. As I noted, the grain and malt components are unknown, but I feel like the sherry dominates the experience so much that it's almost irrelevant. The one thing I am fairly confident about is that all of the malt was unpeated, as I don't get even a whiff of it.

If you like heavily sherried single malts, I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy this. When it was released about five years ago, the price was downright cheap at around $100 a bottle (this is also the price I got it at, as it was on closeout in Oregon), though it pushed up above $150 some years later as old whisky became more popular and people warmed up to blends. However, as it was a one-off, it's also nearly impossible to find anymore. There have been multiple releases of a 40 Year, which is obviously more expensive, but actually pretty reasonably priced around $250 when you consider that the 25 Year releases from many distilleries are now that expensive. I'll be keeping my eye on other versions of Black Bull, because Duncan Taylor seems to be putting quality whisky into the line.