Thursday, October 20, 2016

Whisky Review: Classic of Islay Cask #530

Classic of Islay is a mystery malt. Bottled by Jack Weibers Whisky World in Germany, it has long been rumored that the source of the casks is the Lagavulin distillery. That would make them one of if not the only independently bottled Lagavulin on the market today. How this would be is a significant question as Lagavulin already sells very few casks to blenders, as the demand for the OB single malts already consumes the vast majority of their supply. Whatever the source, they have consistently delivered full strength heavily peated sherry cask whisky for prices that are a little hard to believe by the current standards of the industry. Let's see if it's too good to be true.

This whisky was bottled in 2014 at 56%, without coloring or chill filtration.

Classic of Islay Cask #530

Nose: seaweed, herbal/vegetal peat, dry smoke, moderate American oak, background sherry, cured meat/ham

Taste: a bittersweet balance of sherry and oak throughout, only slightly tannic, dry peat and more rounded emerge at the back, and the oak becomes more toasty

Finish: cold smoke, herbal peat, oak, sherry residue

While this malt has faded somewhat since I first opened the bottle, it's still a very solid experience. The flavors could do with some more complexity, but the aromas and finish elevate it above the price point. Even if this is Caol Ila rather than Lagavulin, it's still quite a deal in comparison to the sub-10 year old Caol Ila single casks that have been hitting the market at over $100 lately.

Diluted to 50%

Nose: a solid amount of American oak, dry peat smoke, ham, subtle sherry, plums, herbal, cold tea,

Taste: sherried sweetness up front and through the middle, not particularly tannic American oak takes over around the middle, very little peat until the very back, joined by a touch of herbal ham and some more rounded sherry

Finish: somewhat thin and indistinct, cold smoke, mild oak, herbal peat

This isn't precisely bad, but the flavors really seems lacking in peat. While not overly complex, the aromas have some nice touches that tend towards the dry side, which is a nice change of pace for a sherry cask malt.

Diluted to 45%

Nose: strong chlorine and vegetal peat, cold smoke, sour sherry, cheap beef jerky, green onions, soy sauce

Taste: rather thin, moderately sweet up front, then a muddle of oak and sherry around the middle, becoming more tannic with intruding peat smoke at the back

Finish: soft American oak, barrel char, cacao nibs, cold smoke, bittersweet

At this strength the nose is nearly unpleasant, with strong chemical notes and little sherry to balance the youthfulness. The flavors are thin and somewhat indistinct until the finish, but generally inoffensive. Overall it feels like there are very good reasons for this cask to have been bottled at full strength - while I can't quite say that it entirely falls apart, much of the appeal is lost by diluting it this far.

After trying a 9 year old first-fill sherry cask during the warehouse tasting at Lagavulin, I'm willing to say that this is at least in the same ballpark. There's a lot of overlap in my tasting notes, so even if that's not actually where it's from you're probably getting something that does a decent impression. With that said, it sounds like not every cask is a winner, but at least you won't be out a ton of money if you get one that isn't quite up to snuff.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Whisky Review: Glendronach Single Cask 19 Year 1995/2015 for WhiskyBase

Over the last few years Glendronach has been bottling a huge array of single casks, usually either oloroso or PX sherry. Many have helped to reinforce their status as one of the premier sherry-driven malts in Scotland. Quite a number have been private bottlings for various stores and organizations, which include this one for WhiskyBase.

This was distilled on September 20th 1995, possibly filled directly into a PX sherry puncheon, then bottled in August 2015 at 54.2% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 694.

I got a couple of samples as freebies in WhiskyBase orders (this may say something about how well the bottles have been selling).

Glendronach Single Cask 19 Year 1995/2015 PX Sherry Puncheon #3804 for WhiskyBase

Nose: rich but somewhat subdued sherry, brown butter, vanilla, salted roast peanuts, fresh waffle cones, dark chocolate, fresh sawdust, herbal, rhubarb, orange, apricot, strawberry. After adding a few drops of water the cookie/waffle cone notes are amplified and integrate with the sherry, while the chocolate gets darker.

Taste: big but moderately sweet sherry throughout, hints of malt underneath, kind of hot in the middle, shifts towards savory and bittersweet oak near the back. After dilution it becomes kind of flat but the alcohol heat is almost completely banished.

Finish: savory, yeast, sherry residue/raisins, malt in the background, cacao nibs

I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with this whisky - it's a solid representation of the style - but it just doesn't excite me right now. It especially doesn't excite me to the tune of $150. The nose is easily the best part and offers some nice savory notes, but the palate is just too flat to justify the price. Reading reviews on WhiskyBase it sounds like a lot of other people agree. The fact that this is still available when all of the oloroso single casks appear to have sold out says a lot. It's possible that there are better Glendronach single casks out there, but given their exponentially rising prices I doubt I'll ever try any of them.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory Caol Ila 20 Year 1995/2015 for K&L Wines

Much like older Laphroaig, older Caol Ila is becoming hard to find, despite the absolutely gargantuan output of the Islay distillery. This is unsurprising as Diageo has largely cut off independent bottlers due to their own expanding requirements for peated malt. But every so often casks still slip into the marketplace that aren't astronomically expensive, despite the eye-popping price tags on even sub-10 year old Caol Ila right now.

This whisky was distilled on January 24th 1995, filled into a hogshead, then bottled on September 30th 2015 at 54.4% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 237 bottles for K&L Wines.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection Caol Ila 20 Year 1995/2015 Cask #445 for K&L Wines

Nose: moderately strong oak, cedar, caramel, gentle sea air, soft Caol Ila peat, soft coal smoke, pine needles, creamy berries. After adding a few drops of water the aromas lose most of their oomph, leaving a washed-out nose that's mostly oak.

Taste: moderate cask strength sweetness up front, quickly joined by a thick layer of oak with berry undertones that persists to the back, not overly tannic, with classic Caol Ila peat and pine dancing through the wood. After dilution the sweetness and oak become brighter, but the peat and berries mostly disappear until the finish.

Finish: solid oak, pine resin, peat

Looking at both the color of the whisky and the flavors and aromas, this was a relatively active hogshead. While less oaky than the 2012 unpeated release I recently reviewed, it feels like a toned down version of that with the peat added back in. While I think it's a solid cask and doesn't have any overt flaws, it doesn't really have the complexity that would have made me want to shell out $150 when it was available. I need to re-try them to be sure, but this doesn't seem to be bringing a lot to the table that can't be found in any of the official Caol Ilas for less money.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Whisky Review: Caol Ila 14 Year Unpeated 2012 Release

For the last decade Diageo has been putting out annual releases of unpeated Caol Ila distilled between 1997 and 1999. Ages and casks have varied from 8 to 17 years old and from ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and European oak casks.

The 2012 release from from European oak casks and bottled at 59.3%, probably without chill filtration but maybe with coloring.

Thanks to Florin for the sample.

Caol Ila 14 Year Unpeated 2012 Release

Nose: heavy oak, caramel, ripe apples, sea air/salinity, dry malt, light creamy vanilla, berries in an almost sherried mode. After adding a few drops of water the oak and malt shift closer to balance, the salinity becomes savory yeast extract, more vanilla comes out, and the fruit notes mostly disappear.

Taste: cask strength sweetness up front, strong oak and tannins come in right behind, apple and salty undertones throughout, fade out through bittersweet caramel and a touch of barrel char at the back. After dilution the sweetness becomes stronger and spreads out while integrating with the oak to give a brighter but more flat profile, and berries are added to the apples in the background to give an almost refill sherry character.

Finish: caramel, heavy oak, a little hot, green apple

In all honesty this whisky feels pointless. The oak dominates the spirit so thoroughly that it could be from practically any distillery in Scotland producing unpeated malt whisky. And while I can kind of detect some European oak character, it feels much more like first-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks. The 2010 release that I reviewed a while back was also oak-heavy, but not so much that it felt out of balance. If you happen to see a bottle sitting on the shelf at your local liquor store, don't bother. There are any number of cask strength whiskies out there that would be better for the same money or less.

For a similar review, see Michael Kravitz's take on this malt.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Whisky Review: Gordon & Macphail Caol Ila 10 Year

While Caol Ila aged over ten years seems to be getting kind of thin on the ground, Gordon & Macphail still have fairly deep reserves and regularly release it at more respectable ages. While the majority of these are vintage releases, this one simply has an age statement, more like their Macphail's Collection lineup.

This whisky was aged in refill sherry hogsheads, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

G&M Connoisseur's Choice Caol Ila 10 Year

Nose: solid but not overwhelming Caol Ila peat, fresh tobacco, putty, lightly farm-y, wood ash, seashore, subtle oak, cedar bark, faint sherry in the background. After adding a few drops of water the the same elements are present but more muddled - the peat and oak integrate to become less well-defined - but peat becomes more vegetal than smokey, there is more sherry, and a touch of orange comes out.

Taste: malt sweetness up front, a touch of berries and sherry in the middle, slowly fading into rising peat, tar, and moderate oak tannins. After dilution elements integrate - the malt and sherry come together in the front and middle, while the peat and oak integrate and spread out at the back.

Finish: oak, light peat, wood ash, hints of sherry, malt sweetness in the background

It was a bit frustrating to have to use so many "you're going to have to dig for it" adjectives for the notes beyond the peat, but this was a very subtle whisky in other respects. Whatever casks were used for this release were clearly well-used, because the cask influence in general is quite unobtrusive and any sherry is difficult to detect.

With all that said, this isn't a bad whisky, it's just that you need to calibrate your expectations. While a little higher strength, this feels very similar to the OB 12 Year in terms of its punch. Also, don't expect much in the way of sherry, despite what it says on the bottle. And because of all that I would be disinclined to buy a bottle for more than the standard 12 Year as I don't think it has a lot more to offer.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Whisky Reivew: Double Barrel Highland Park/Bowmore

Douglas Laing is a long established independent bottler. Given their deep stocks from distilleries all over Scotland, they also produce their own blends and blended malts. The Double Barrel series combines malts from two different distilleries that presumably have complementary character.

This whisky was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Lydia for the sample.

Double Barrel Highland Park/Bowmore

Nose: fresh dry peat smoke, earthy, raw onion without the sulfur, green malt, lemon furniture polish. After adding a few drops of water the peat fades to reveal more fresh malt and a little pine comes out, but it remains rather simple.

Taste: malt sweetness throughout, very green but not overly new make-y, acidic peat smoke enters quickly with prickles of oak tannins, a little heather underneath. After dilution the malt dominates and the bitter/acidic notes of peat and oak smooth out, but the heather is lost until the finish.

Finish: distinctly bitter - sharp peat smoke and oak, background malt

Despite the conceit that this is a blended malt combining the character of two different distilleries, most of what I get from this is the Bowmore. It doesn't seem fundamentally different from Bowmore's own NAS releases such as Legend or Small Batch, but slightly amplified at 46%. I get a little Highland Park heather on the palate, but it would be easy to miss if you're not paying attention. Overall I would give this one a miss as it doesn't seem to be significantly better than other NAS malts that can be had for less money.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Bual is one of the handful of named grape varieties still commonly used for making wine on the island of Madeira. The version produced by Blandy's ferments the wine at 18-21º C for three days before fortifying it with brandy to halt fermentation. It is then aged for an average of five years in American oak casks in what amount to giant attics where the subtropical heat acts on the wine. The wine is fined and bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.43, residual sugar of 78 g/l, and a total acidity of 6.53 g/l tartaric acid equivalent.

Blandy's 5 Year Bual

Nose: expected rich raisin notes, gently sour, oak, a touch of vanilla, lime, citrus peel, floral, hints of yeast, fresh bread, and chocolate

Taste: a brief burst of sweetness up front that quickly changes hands with a bright acidity that becomes increasingly tart towards the back, fruit ester overtones, apples, and juicy grapes rather than raisins in the middle, and a pleasant thickness throughout

Finish: solid fade out with pleasant acidity, floral vanilla, a touch of oak

Much like the 5 year old malmsey I reviewed a while back, this is not an overly complex wine, but I still enjoy it quite a bit. It's noticeably less sweet than the malmsey, letting the acidity and cask notes play more prominent roles. While this style is still a bit sweeter than I usually prefer, it is a noticeable improvement on the malmsey, which is almost too sweet for me. But for someone coming from sweeter fortified wines like port I feel like this would be a perfectly decent entry point to madeira.