Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Just in Time for Fall: Three Drams of Laphroaig

I first read about Laphroaig back when I was perhaps fourteen or so, in what I recall was an essay by Harlan Ellison, who I'm told has announced that he is dying. I'm unable to recollect which essay this was, and Google isn't much of a help, but I'd like to take just a few words to thank him -- his essays and stories never failed to inspire me. I probably will never get to meet him, but -- Harlan, a toast to your amazing life and career. Three, in fact.

Laphroaig might be called the most iconic of the Islay distilleries; the distillery holds the Royal Warrant of Prince Charles, and right on some of the bottles, it says "The world's most richly flavored Scotch whisky." I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is literal truth or marketing-speak these days. I have no doubt that Laphroaig produces quality whisky. The playing field has definitely tilted, though, especially with the success of Ardbeg. So, is Laphroaig still relevant and competitive in the world with Ardbeg getting such raves?

To find out, I lined up three drams of Laphroaig: the Cask Strength 10, the 18, and the Quarter Cask. I'm sure I've tasted their standard 10 Year Old bottling at some point, but I don't have any on hand --  I've made it a general policy to taste whiskies at cask strength, or close to it, if possible, so it was a no-brainer for me to buy the Cask Strength version instead. Since Laphroaig sells most of its whisky in these 18-and-under expressions, older Laphroaig is relatively rare and quite expensive. I wouldn't turn down samples of their older bottlings, the 25, 27, 30, or even the 40, but I'm probably not going to pick any of these up myself, at least not this fiscal year.

The Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength (in Michigan, about $60) weighs in at 57.8% ABV, and it claims to come "straight from the wood" -- with no chill-filtering or caramel coloring added. I had long read about whiskies that would become cloudy in cold weather, but this cool, humid fall day, with this glass of Laphroaig, is the first time I've ever seen it in action, so I believe them! The color is a slightly greenish bronze.

Warm it in the hand a moment to try to bring out the nose: of course there is smoke, right off the bat: smoldering grass, maybe, and mesquite charcoal -- not fruitwood -- burning paper and lighter fluid. There's a not-entirely-pleasant note of an isopropyl alcohol prep pad, which takes me back to the days when, as a child, I got weekly allergy shots. There's a sweeter, vanilla note on the nose, but the smoke tends to dominate it. There's a little hint of Nabisco Pinwheels (dark chocolate-covered marshmallow-topped cookies), which makes me smile at another childhood memory.

The first sip is pungently bittersweet and smokey: a slick mouth feel, with a light burn on the lips and roof of the mouth. It reminds me of beef jerky and smoked mackerel. A little orange marmalade comes trickling through. It's just a little bit buttery, and is that ginger, cinnamon, and clove? The finish is long, and there is a lingering butterscotch and candied orange peel note, while the ashy smoke continues to drift for several minutes, and the slightly numbing phenolic afterburn lasts much longer.

This is very fine whisky -- it gets an A. It is competitive with the Ardbeg 10, and which of the two you prefer may come down to more a matter of your specific tastes than of quality.

The Laphroaig 18 Year Old is fairly expensive -- here in Michigan, it runs over $100. One could complain, but this is a fairly reasonable and competitive price given the age and scarcity of the whisky. I am unable to see much difference between their colors -- if anything, the 18 is lighter than the 10 -- which was constantly confusing me while I tried to keep the glasses straight. It is bottled at 48% ABV, so there is no big distinction in alcohol content when comparing it with the Cask Strength 10.

Right off the bat, the peat on the nose is a little milder; the antiseptic is not present. However, the nose actually seems a little closed when compared to the 10. I'm finding it hard to nose any sweet notes at all.

On the palate, there is much less "kick" and less "burn" -- it does warm the back of the throat on the swallow, but it doesn't burn my lips or the roof of my mouth. There's a wonderful seaweed and brine saltiness, like eating orange marmalade on a saltine. A reviewer notes "Sauvignon Blanc," and that's apt -- an off-dry white wine, with notes of tart apple and lemon instead of orange. The oak notes are less vanilla and toffee and more salted licorice -- very reminiscent of Good and Plenty licorice candy -- and that's a note I really love in a whisky. I've also tasted it in The Balvenie Single Barrel 15, but here it blends beautifully with the salty notes.

The finish is long and that slightly puckering wine oak lasts, with just a breath of cigarette ash.

This one is also very fine, paticularly for the gorgeous salt, licorice, and wine cask notes on the palate and finish, but it loses a half-grade for the slightly disappointing nose. A-.

The Laphroaig Quarter Cask (in Michigan, about $50) is an attempt to re-create an older style of whisky that was matured in smaller barrels -- there is no age statement. In Michigan it is a bit less expensive than even the Cask Strength 10. Jim Murray calls this expression closer to the Laphroaig of old. The color is slightly lighter than the 10 -- or is it just the light? The nose is remarkable: it has the smokiness of the 10, with a buttery toffee and dark chocolate sheen.

In the mouth, it is warming, with a wonderful texture, but not burning. There's a distinct flavor of coconut, even a little Pina Colada. The smoke has taken on the character of a fine cigar and leather armchair. There is that cinnamon note again! This one is considerably sweeter than the 10.

The finish has the interesting quality of alternating -- quite literally -- between sweet notes and smoke notes. I thought it was just marketing hyperbole, but the two are so well-balanced that they behave like a "figure and ground" optical illusion in which the two keep switching places while you try to concentate on them. It's a remarkable finish.

There's no question that the whisky itself is very fine; the only question is "how does it compare to the others?" I wanted to give it an A+, but felt that I had to knock off a half-point because, personally, I've lot a bit of my taste for sweeter whisky, and the palate is a little unsubtle and young. I will say, though that this is one of the few bottles I've come close to emptying over the past year of occasional evening drams, so this one definitely gets my personal seal of approval along with a grade of A.

So, the 18 has more subtlety; the Cask Strength 10 is more aggressive; the Quarter Cask is a little more "candied" and youthful. That said, the differences between them are not major. If price is an issue, I suspect that the standard 10 is quite fine as well -- here in Michigan, it is priced at about $30, and there is a reason it is a big seller.

Which is my personal favorite? I'm going to have to vote to the 18 -- despite the slightly unimpressive nose, that winey and licorice-infused palate is just amazing and it has several of the flavor notes I personally like best in whiskies. But it's a fairly close race, and I reserve the right to change my mind at a later date!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Beginner's Cabinet

Following an interesting article on Connosr, I decided to run with their basic idea: given a limited budget, what four bottles would you advise a beginner to purchase to set up his or her whisky cabinet? They set a budget of 100 pounds (U.K.) Whisky prices vary enormously from state to state in the U.S., and from store to store within some states, so I'm not going to try all that hard to hit the 100 pound mark. I'll give what I think are the approximate Michigan, U.S.A. prices for the whiskies on my list. And I'm going to recommend five, not four.

My goal is to allow the taster to survey a couple of regions, without sinking a huge amount of money into individual bottles. I also wanted to pick whiskies that, while lower on the cost scale, none of these choices should be lower on the quality scale -- in other words, they shouldn't be "beginner" whiskies in quality. I've really enjoyed all of them, and still think these choices to hold their own with some considerably more expensive choices. I also wanted to recommend an "upgrade path" -- if the taster really likes this particular whisky, what would be a good next step?

My choices are somewhat different than the Connosr panelists -- but that's the joy of having so many intriguing choices, isn't it?

1. Glenfiddich 15 -- approximately $35. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). In my opinion, the 15 is the most well-rounded of this distillery's 3 basic age-statement whiskies. It's a Speyside whisky, somewhat middle-of-the-road, somewhat sweet, but this doesn't make it bland; it has a lot of intriguing fruit and wood notes. Upgrade path: Glenmorangie 10, The Balvenie Single Barrel 15.

2. The Tyrconnell, a single malt Irish whiskey -- approximately $35. Single malt Irish whiskies are uncommon compared to Scottish whiskies. (Here is a link to an old review of mine). This is a very nice and smooth, not-too-expensive dram, with an absolutely lovely mouth feel. Upgrade path: I haven't really tasted enough Irish whiskies to be able to confidently recommend one. I haven't tasted Redbreast 12, a blend that is reportedly very good, but that might make a good upgrade, or at least a side-grade.

3. Laphroaig Quarter Cask -- approximately $50. There are a lot of good basic Islay whiskies, and a lot of good extra-aged Islay whiskies. This one is a wonderful and relatively inexpensive mix of those two general types (it isn't really extra-aged, but the extra wood contact has largely the same effect). It has the marvelous dry Laphroaig peat and smoke notes, but they are moderated by some fantastic oak vanilla, orange, and dark chocolate notes. In that way I see it as a good introduction to the peaty Islay whiskies, while those sweeter flavors keep it from being too much of a shock to the system. It's also at a slightly higher ABV (48%) than the 10 (at 43%), so it's a good introduction to slightly stronger whisky, without being too much of a shock to the system like recent Ardbegs, that are upwards of, or even over, 60% ABV. If cost is critical, consider the basic Laphroaig 10, which is a damned fine Islay whisky in its own right, although a little drier and more uncompromising in flavor. Upgrades: Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Laphroaig 15.

4. Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured -- approximately $35. A great introduction to the huge variety of whiskies that are aged in the combination of bourbon and sherry casks. Has some great and slightly unusual bittersweet notes including coffee flavors. If the taster particularly loves this one, I'd recommend as possible upgrades the Glenfarclas 17, the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX, Springbank 15, or the amazing crossover with peat, Ardbeg Uigeadail.

5. Jim Beam Black (8 year old bourbon) -- approximately $20. This one is interesting in that it is a really delicious and complex bourbon, that ranks up there with some very expensive bourbons, but it is itself quite inexpensive. Upgrade path: Buffalo Trace.

Total price: approximately (very approximately) $175. At tonight's exchange rate, $175 is equivalent to about 117 pounds sterling, so I went a little over budget -- but not by much! If you substitute the Laphroaig 10, at about $35, for the Quarter Cask, you'll be very close.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Apotheosis of Ardbeg

Ardbeg these days is regarded by some reviewers as a distillery hitting its stride and producing some of the finest whisky in the world. In particular, Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible rates the whole current peated lineup quite highly. (Note that he had not yet reviewed the Rollercoaster, and I have not yet tasted the Blasda, a very lightly peated whisky, and so will say nothing else about it today).

Jim says of the 10 that it "...goes down so beautifully with such a nimble touch and disarming allure..." That's the ten, their least expensive bottling. The 10 rates a 97 in Murray's estimation, the same rating he gives the Supernova. The Corryvreckan, at 96.5, he calls "...slumping-in-the-chair stuff... simply brilliant." The Uigeadail, which he gives a 97.5, he calls "quite simple: perfect."

The distinction between these scores may start to seem like an administrative detail, but it highlights a truth some readers may find a bit uncomfortable, and an important point that I will make once and then come back to in several different ways: the differences between these bottlings are of much less importance than their similarities. What I'm really saying here is that Ardbeg, with these bottlings, has mostly released an excellent whisky in such a way that they have also activated every whisky geek's inner Pokemon Master. The theme music is playing: you wanna be (or taste) the very best? You've gotta catch 'em all!

People who pick one to taste will simply not go wrong (assuming they have a basic taste for peated Islay whisky, of course). Nerds who, like me, make a near-fetish of flavors will be in nerd heaven blissfully, and slightly drunkenly, cataloging their differences and similarities and promoting their favorite and dismissing their least favorite in a frenzied expression of the narcissism of small differences. Ardbeg's marketing here is clearly brilliant in every respect, including their packaging and even their label design and typography, which is both classy and extremely clever, full of visual puns (like the way the "beast" has charged right through the border, and the Corryvreckan name is being sucked into a vortex, and the way the flavor "stars" form a "constellation" on the stellar Supernoval label). The only down side I can see: they may lose a potential Ardbeg fan who looks at the lineup and can't be bothered to decide, and choses instead to go with a distillery whose offerings are more clearly differentiated.

OK, still with me? Are you in violent disagreement, or nodding your head so far? All that said, let's quickly review these bottlings. You can read longer reviews elsewhere; you can read my own long review of the Rollercoaster on this blog. For now let's try to get quickly to the point.

Ardbeg 10 (46.0% ABV) is the best bang-for-the-buck of the lot. It is very roughly comparable to another young Islay whisky, the Laphroaig 10, which it somewhat resembles. Where Laphroaig's citrus note tends towards a bitter-ish orange, Ardbeg's tends towards lime. I have no idea why this would be so -- Arran's citrus note, by the way, is more lemony -- but it probably has something to do with the shape of the still. The 10 is very fine stuff, with rich, saliva-inducing, "chewy" barley notes, that fine clean lime, and of course a healthy dose of smoke. It has a little bit of the salt and smoked fish that shows up in pretty much the whole lineup. If you like Islay whisky, you can't really go wrong with this bottling. I rate it an A.

If you haven't tasted a peaty Islay whisky before, but feel like you want to try, the Ardbeg 10 would be a great starting point. Just remember to taste it on at least 3 or 4 separate evenings before you decide if you really like Islay whisky or not. It seems to take people a few tries to really ones taste buds "calibrated" and capable of tasting the other flavors in the presence of the peaty notes. (But you may find that once you've gone through that "calibration," Islay flavors really grow on you!)

Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (46% ABV) (it's pronounced just like it is spelled -- that's a little joke, son) is a limited edition 16-year-old whisky, bottled in 1990, and now may be a bit hard to find. I reviewed it some time ago, before spinning my beverage reviews off to this blog. It is, perhaps, very roughly comparable to the Lagavulin 16, although given that the house styles are quite different, that isn't truly a fair comparison. It is a bit "meatier" than the 10, with more smoked bacon notes, and the extra aging has imparted a little more vanilla and oaky spices (maybe a touch of cloves, maybe a touch of ginger). I rate it an A-. If you come across a bottle on the shelf it is worth picking up, but I wouldn't pay collector's prices for it or go out of your way to track it down.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (57.1% ABV) seems to replace, at least indirectly, the Beist in the Ardbeg lineup; it started out as a limited edition Committee bottling, but now seems to have become a standard. It is similar, but younger, and so slightly fruitier, with a huge array of flavor notes, among them malty flavors (fudge, shortbread), that "tarry ropes" note, and, I kid you not, hot chili sauce. It has some of the toasted-nut flavors that I love in the Rollercoaster -- in particular, I get a nice flavor of slightly burnt toasted pecans. The difference between the 10 and the Corryvreckan is kinda-sorta like the difference between the Laphroaig 10 and the Quarter Cask: the Quarter Cask simply has more wood character and more depth of flavor. Complex and pungent. A+.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (54.2% ABV) is a whisky that includes some sherry cask influence. Jim Murray calls this one a little more "cerebral" than the other members of the Ardbeg lineup, and he's right. The flavors aren't quite as in-your-face -- but that's not to say there isn't a lot of flavor to study here, particularly juniper, smoked kippers, caraway, butter, candied ginger, and pine needles. It has a fantastic oily texture. It is very roughly comparable, perhaps, to the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, which also has a fantastically complex nose. This one really is for quiet, possibly solo, contemplation. I wrote a more extensive review over at Connosr, condensed from a longer original version, and much of the flavor notes I pointed out in the Uigeadail would apply to other Ardbeg bottlings as well. A+ as well.

The Ardbeg Rollercoaster (57.3% ABV) I've also already reviewed. I've been going on about how these whiskies are variations on a theme, and not so very different, and so perhaps it is not truly worth your hard-earned money to buy them all -- but with the Rollercoaster I have to break down and say that, yes, this one is a little different. Some of the young-ish flavors in it are very roughly comparable to the Caol Ila "unpeated style" 10, but only very roughly. Among the notes I get from it are hazelnut, almond, bubble gum, apple, fried green tomatoes, and spearmint. A limited release, unbelievably complex in flavor, and, interestingly, containing some extremely young whisky, some of it just three years old. Jim Murray applies phrases like "your whisky-drinking experience is not complete until you taste this one" to a number of different whiskies, but in this case I must say that, yes, I really think that if you like Islay whisky, you, you personally, should get a bottle of the Rollercoaster with all due haste, if you can still find one, and taste it. Slowly. It really is one of those taste experiences that is likely to be imprinted on your brain; you will look back, years from now and remember where you were and what you were doing when you first tasted Ardbeg Rollercoaster. A+.

Ardbeg Supernova (58.9% ABV) is billed as one of the most heavily peated whiskies in the world. This is slightly deceptive, and, I fear, might be off-putting. It put me off -- in fact, I put off trying it for some time because I was expecting an enormously phenolic, explosively peaty flavor. But while the phenol numbers are laughably high, it would be a mistake to think of this whisky as some kind of exotic outlier in the Ardbeg family. Five times the peat doesn't result in whisky that is five times "stronger," or it would probably eat through the bottle. Ones ability to detect levels of flavors probably follows a logarithmic, rather than linear, progression. After tasting all these Ardbegs, I've become pretty confident that Ardbeg would likely not risk the reputation for quality they've established by using their marketing materials to sell "stunt whisky" that was actually mediocre. So, it is quality whisky -- but will it appeal to you?

It seems to be closer to the Rollercoaster than the Corryvreckan, and it must have some very young casks in it. But the peat flavors, and the ABV, are both more intense. It's not all about smoke, though; it's oily, and actually somewhat sweet and nutty, under those thick waves of hickory smoke. It reminds me strongly of hickory-smoked almonds, or even mackerel grilled on a hickory plank, with a barley sweetness that is almost like the sweet and salty miso- and maple-infused sauce you might find on such a dish.

I still can't decide exactly how much I like this whisky. It's a bit enigmatic. It certainly invites further study, although after tasting small drams on three separate nights it still remains a somewhat inscrutable. It's probably not for everyone. It's almost 120 proof. There is more going on in the nose and palate, but at full strength, has an effect on the palate not entirely unlike Listerine -- a numbing heat that can leave me fearing that it might actually be burning holes in my tongue.

Adding a bit of water seems to make it easier to actually taste the flavors, but I still find it hard to separate them them from all that peat. I get bitter licorice, of the salty style, and asparagus-like vegetal flavors, and the black pepper that the official tasting notes mention -- but the floral and herbal and fruity notes are all packed too tightly together for me to distinguish under all that smoke. I'll try again next time, but I find myself thinking that whisky shouldn't be this hard to enjoy, and perhaps the peating level and ABV are actually dimishing, rather than intensify, the availability on the palate of the usual complex of intriguing Ardbeg flavors.

Whether you're happy with the intense flavors that are there, or feel cheated by the lost complexity, is probably very much a matter of individual taste, and reviews I've seen tend to follow a strongly bimodal distribution (either quite positive or quite negative), which is not something I tended to see at all in reviews of a less controversial whisky like the 10 or the Uigeadail.

Keeping all this in mind, I'm going to give the Supernova a somewhat provisional letter grade of A- for now. And the 2010 Supernova, even peatier and, at 60.1% ABV, even higher in alcohol, I have not purchased and tasted yet -- and may not.

So, let's say you haven't tried any of these. What would I advise?

If you're on a budget -- and do some serious soul-searching here, folks; it's whisky, not food or housing; don't punish your future self by going into debt for it -- save up for the 10 and enjoy the hell out of it. It's really good whisky. Some of the best in the world, in fact.

If you want something a little more complex and you'd like to taste what is, in my opinion, pretty much the best example of the peated Ardbeg style, and one of the absolute best Islay whiskies, pick up the Corryvreckan.

If my description of the Rollercoaster sounds appealing, and you're up for a younger whisky with a very high alcohol content and a hugely complex flavor profile, track down a bottle the Rollercoaster immediately. I don't know whether the Rollercoaster is going to become an annual release, or whether there might be future editions, but by design it is quite distinctive, and so I can only speak for this one bottling -- which may be pretty much gone by now. And so far, I've never tasted anything quite this complex -- like a maze of flavors that you can get lost in.

If you like sherry cask influence and Islay, and really like to study a whisky, the Uigeadail is absolutely the way to go. It's the best example out there of a "marriage" between wine cask flavors and Islay flavors -- all the other bottlings I've tasted that attempt to achieve this mix, such as Caol Ila and Lagavulin Distiller's Editions, don't succeed as well.

I'd call the Uigeadail a very "serious" whisky, a little restrained and sophisticated, designed to be appreciated by slightly older folks who no longer want to attend hot sauce tastings, who may no longer be flavor "thrill-seekers," as it were, and who have trained their palates a bit on dry wines, basic but flavorful food such as game braised with herbs, and appreciate a good sherry. It may seem silly to talk about the "world's best whisky," as if there were any possibility that tasters the world over could agree on a style, much less a bottling, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Uigeadail is on that top shelf, on that slightly other-worldy, rarefied plane, and is one of the very finest bottlings of whisky of any region or style, period.

The Supernova can be considered, I think, mostly an especially costly and extra-pungent variant of the Rollercoaster; or perhaps you might think of the Rollercoaster as a limited-edition "Supernova Light." I may wind up changing my opinion when I've tasted it a few more times, but I have not convinced myself that the Supernova is worth the extra money. (Here in Michigan, it's a lot more money -- the Corry runs in the $80 range, and the Supernova, if you can still find a bottle, runs in the $130 range). Some folks will not buy it at all on because of the price, either because they really can't afford it, or as a sort of protest against Ardbeg's pricing, an I can certainly respect either of those positions.

The Airigh Nam Beist is quite good -- in fact, some Ardbeg fans are unhappy to see it run out. If you come across a bottle, and you have the money on hand, it is certainly worth buying -- however, I wouldn't recommend paying collector prices or bending over backwards to get a bottle. It's nice to taste an older Ardbeg. I think the particular flavor qualities of this 16-year-old whisky suggests strongly that there is still room for an older Ardbeg in their regular lineup, perhaps in the 14-17 year range, especially given that their 25-year-old Lord of the Isles is very expensive and scarce.

Even though Ardbeg has spent the last several years proving that whiskies without age statements can be blockbusters, I expect to see one arrive eventually. I've never tasted it, but I've heard that their late and much-lamented 17 was quite good. I think the distillery has very handily turned what to some would seem a liability -- a lack of middle-aged casks in the warehouse -- and instead, with a combination of great blending and very clever marketing, turned it into gold. But there still is room for a whisky that is hitting what I consider to be the aging "sweet spot" of about 15 years. So far, I have not been convinced that whiskies older than that are, in general, worth the usual price premium they command -- although I have tasted a few exceptions.

I should caution you that it is fairly pointless to try to taste more than one or possibly two of these in any one tasting session: the high ABV and high peat levels will generally tend to confound and even nearly disable your taste buds, to the point where you can no longer distinguish delicate notes. If you decide to taste them all I recommend that you taste them on multiple evenings and take notes. Give yourself a quiet hour each night, and sip very slowly. To get the most out of a bottling, you will want to taste it multiple times, perhaps at least three! And take a day or two off to let your taste buds (and your liver) recover from the alcohol, and from some of those slightly numbing phenols.

I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Rainbow of Lagavulin

Lagavulin is a major distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. Its standard and quite popular bottling is the 16-year-old, which is a peaty whisky at somewhere around 40 parts per million of phenols. Lagavulin's house style is within a stone's throw of Laphroaig's, although that comparison might make some Islay lovers indignant. Lagavulin's style is perhaps even more austere and uncompromising. It was a sample bottle of the Lagavulin 16 that inspired me to write my first-ever review of a whisky. In that review I wrote:
It's notably lacking in some of the sweeter aromas, like caramel, although there is a little bit of vanilla in there to sweeten it up just a touch; as I progress through the dram, slowly, there's a build-up of a sweetness in the back of the tongue that reminds me of sweetened condensed milk. I don't get anything floral from it at all. I can imagine a little orange, or maybe bergamot, or cherry... there's just a touch of saltiness, and the flavor they call 'sea air,' the iodine reek of seaweed. There's something like black peppercorns.
After about another ten months of nosing and tasting whisky, I have to confess that at 43% ABV, the Lagavulin 16 no longer hits my palate quite like a freight train. I stand by most of what I wrote, but I'd tone it down it a little; the Lagavulin 16 is drying, but not "dry, dry dry." I called the palate "oily, with a smooth feel across the tongue, almost like cream or honey..." I would now add that it is actually a little too watery. Of the finish, I wrote "the sensation of peat, and even charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, sticks with me, and I notice it even more as I exhale... in fact, this dram makes me wake up feeling like I've spent the night face-down in a bog." I would now add that it is something almost like clove or pine oil is a bit numbing on the palate, and that tends to interfere with tasting the finer points of this whisky. This knocks it down slightly; other peated Islay whiskies don't have this effect on my mouth, it seems, or at least not to the same extent, even at high peat levels.

I originally gave it a 7.5 out of 10. Now I'd call it a B on my letter-grade scale. I don't think it is great, but only good. That seems to be a little heretical, since this whisky routinely gets very high reviews. I'd like to nose and taste a Lagavulin 16 at cask strength, or closer to cask strength.

And now Michigan has gotten some bottles of a 12-year-old Lagavulin, marked as a "Limited Edition," bottled in 2009 at 57.9% ABV, and so I get my opportunity to taste a Lagavulin at a much higher ABV. As you can see this one is lighter in color, and on the nose the smoke is fresher (the campfire is still smoldering and hasn't been put out yet). There are some different notes: shoe leather and overripe bananas, maraschino cherries and lighter fluid, pears and paraffin. The mouth feel is altogether creamier and more syrupy, hot in the throat but quite smooth. It's dry on the nose but fruitier on the palate, and some of that fruitiness lasts on the finish, as lingering lemon oil. That numbing quality is not so pronounced here. There are some intriguing coffee and cocoa notes that I don't taste in the 16. The Lagavulin 12 should also get credit for a nice fresh grainy barley chewiness on the finish. I find it better in most respects than the standard 16, and so it gets an A. The exception is that the smokey notes are not quite as developed.

When I first reviewed the 1993 Distiller's Edition (also bottled in 2009), finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks (a dark and sweet dessert wine), I wrote:
Unlike some other sherry-finished malts, this one does not remind me of maple or honey; it is not extremely sweet. The notes are more of dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots and even papaya, fig newton cookies, and blood oranges. It also has perhaps the faintest hint of sulfur. The flavor is very rich, and has a bit of mellowing biscuit maltiness that is very pleasant.
Jim Murray in his 2009 Whisky Bible did not rate this one very highly, on the grounds that the sherry notes and peaty notes tend to cancel each other out, and saying one would be "hard-pressed to find a Lagavulin this dull." I see his point, and I will agree with him to the extent that this is a much, much mellower dram. I find that I am a little ambivalent about sherry finishing, and this dram is a good example of why. While whiskies like the Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX and the Aberlour 12 seem to be fully structured and designed around the sherry, leaving the sherry notes and the bourbon cask notes in harmony, this one does seem like the distillery's character is a bit deadened by the extra sweetness. Peat and sherry aren't natural allies. There are some wonderful counterexamples: the Ardbeg Uigeadail gets it just right, but in that bottling the sherried Ardbeg casks are blended in with a very light and masterful touch.

There is some real interest here, though -- and the real story is the finish. In my original review I wrote:
Five minutes after finishing my last sip, I'm still tasting kumquat peels, a dry lingering driftwood smoke, tamarind, and peppered beef jerky. In fact, my impression of this whisky keeps going up as I experience the finish, and sniff the empty glass!
So on the whole I also rate this one a B. If the nose and palate matched the finish, this would be phenomenal whisky. I think the idea of a finished Lagavulin has great potential, although Pedro Ximenez may not be the right cask to use, the finishing period should perhaps be shorter, and the finished product should be bottled at a higher strength. Offhand, I wonder what Lagavulin might get from a Chardonnay cask, or even a white Bordeaux cask. I'd be happy to taste any of Lagavulin's experiments in this direction!

One final note: because the phenols specific to Lagavulin's wide cut tend to deaden the taste buds a little, if you taste these, I don't recommend tasting them back-to-back, or with another whisky. The second or third one won't get a fair shake that way.

Glenkinchie 12 and Distiller's Edition

So, just to get it out of the way: I wanted to like Glenkinchie whisky. There aren't many Lowland distilleries left in operation. I'm hoping that one day soon I will taste a new bottling from Glenkinchie and really enjoy it. But I found both of these to be disappointing, albeit for different reasons.

I don't have a bottle of the Glenkinchie 12, but I tasted it at a tasting organized by Stadium Market. The program was presented by a woman from Diageo, and of course featured Diageo's products. Her enthusiastic description of the Glenkinchie 12, which I listened to while I was tasting it, was a slightly surreal experience -- an excellent example of the "don't piss on my head and tell me it's raining" phenomenon. I had a hard time believing that she believed what she was saying.

The Glenkinchie 12, per my notes, is unpleasantly hot and burning on both the nose and palate, despite the modest 43% ABV. On the nose it is mostly vanilla, while the major notes on the palate are citrus and cream: a lemon cheesecake, a lemon meringue pie. There are some floral and herbal notes, especially ginger, but overall I didn't find the flavor complex enough to spend a lot of time on. I didn't make detailed notes on the finish, but my recollection is that I just didn't enjoy this whisky very much at all and was immediately put off the idea of buying a bottle. So the Glenkinchie 12 gets a C+.

The Distiller's Edition is interestingly different: the casks used for the additional aging are Amontillado, which is a lighter, sweeter sherry made famous by Poe. On the nose we get a lot of sweet sherry flavors immediately. The alcohol burn of the 12 is lightened. I also get vanilla and cinnamon, with a little toffee, raisins, and lemon oil (think furniture polish). These are mostly promising notes, although a little unbalanced towards the sweet side; perhaps there is just a bit too much of the sherry influence?

The palate is where the disappointment begins. It is strangely thin and watery in texture and mouth feel, but the delivery is burning hot. There's a difference, or at least there ought to be, between "light" and watery." There are some nice citrus and burnt sugar flavors (lemon creme brulee, or lemon meringue pie).

The finish is where things get downright unpleasant. As the flavors fade there is a twinge of peanut brittle and toffee, which is nice enough, but it does out quickly leaving unpleasant sulfur notes: overcooked egg yolks, an overheated fan belt, and foundry clinkers.

So, I would say this is an improvement on the Glenkinchie 12, but that finish is really off-putting. My wife Grace did not like it either. The Amontillado finish concept is nice; I'd like to taste something else aged in such a cask. One of their casks may have been off, though. For a whisky in about the $75 range, if it has any off notes, they should be subtle. The poor finish here is not subtle at all. The best I can say of it is that it is "almost good," so I give it only a B-. I'd be curious to taste this one again, since a different year might come from better casks -- but again, probably not curious enough to pay for a bottle, at least until I have more confidence in the distillery. And so this bottle goes into my "giveaway" pile.

I'm told that Diageo closed Rosebank while they kept Glenkinchie, since they didn't feel that they needed two Lowland distilleries in their "Classic Malts" portfolio. I hope to see their bottlings improve, but so far the evidence suggests that Diageo kept the wrong one open.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Caol Ila Redeemed, Unplugged, and Unpeated

If you've been reading my reviews, you will recall that I was quite frustrated with Caol Ila after two expensive but disappointing recent bottles, the 12 Year Old and Distiller's Edition. But Caol Ila has now entirely redeemed itself in my eyes, and proven that they can make a very fine single malt indeed. Their 10 Year Old "Unpeated Style," the 2009 bottling, ranks up with the finest, and has stretched my definition of an Islay whisky.

This dram is quite pale, and bottled at an eye-watering 65.8% ABV, or just over 130 proof. At that alcohol level one might expect paint thinner or rubbing alcohol, but in fact this whisky is very smooth and creamy, even without water.

On the nose I get fine vanilla notes, very bourbon-ish, like bourbon vanilla or natural vanilla extract made with rum. It seems very odd given the light color, but there are also some very dark, bittersweet burnt sugar notes, like molasses but with no sulfur, or nearly-burnt pecans on top of a pecan pie left in the oven just a little too long. The "burnt" character of the sweet notes keeps the whisky from crossing over into cloying, excessive sweetness, and I find it delicious. It's clear that a truly excellent casks were chosen to hold fantastically clean and fruity new make spirit. I'm no authority, but I'd be very surprised if the casks weren't ex-bourbon, holding their first batches of Scotch whisky.

The palate is very smooth, with a texture like a that of fruity hard candy dissolving on the tongue. I am strongly reminded of the Arran Malt 10 and its lemon-peel notes on top of a big mouthful of chewy barley. This dram is perhaps less grain-like and more candied, like chewy sesame candy. There's something of the same intense, fruity sweetness that I find in Sazerac Rye whisky. A few spices are evident: white pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. There is maybe just a hint of spearmint, fennel, tarragon, and perhaps even bay leaves.

With water, the burnt-sugar notes fade a little bit and the spice notes become clearer. Some coffee notes emerge, like in the Aberlour 12. That intensely creamy mouth feel remains intact, though. My personal preference is to sip this one neat, but please do take that 65.8% ABV as a flashing "caution" sign, and pour yourself a small serving!

The only fault I can possibly find with this whisky is that the finish is a bit short, and not quite as rich as the nose and palate. That takes it down just a hair from a perfect A+. But there are no clashing or off notes whatseover, and so not only does it get an A grade, but I highly recommend that you track down a bottle before this one disappears from the shelves. I hope to see more unpeated bottlings (or even lightly peated) whisky from Caol Ila -- they've set a very high standard and perhaps even a new benchmark Islay style!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ardbeg Rollercoaster (2009 Bottling)

The Rollercoaster, per the bottle's label, was created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee. Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ardbeg Committee. (All you have to do is sign up on their web site). They sent me a nice little promotional packet with a satirical rule book. I think Committee members can get any special bottlings shipped to the United Stages, though. And I don't get free samples from anyone.

Ardbeg was closed in 1981, and distilled in limited quantities from 1989-1996. It came back to full production in 1997 under the new ownership of Glenmorangie, and the Committee (basically, the Ardbeg fan club) was founded in 1999. This means that there is a dearth of Ardbeg older than 12 years, which helps to explain why the Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, and Supernova have no age statements. Oddly, since age statements represent only a minimum -- they may have whisky of wildly different ages in them. And since an age statement is only a minimum, not a maximum, we may be in a situation where the 10 contains some whisky that is much older. I wonder if the distillery will re-introduce regular bottlings with age statements as they gradually build up stocks of older casks, or does the success of their bottlings with no age statements prove that flavor, not age, is what matters?

Anyway, back to the Rollercoaster. This one is not packaged in a box, but comes with a little booklet hung from the neck. The booklet details how the Rollercoaster consists of Ardbeg from 1997 to 2006 -- so the youngest whisky was, at the time of bottling, just 3 years old, which is the youngest it can legally be and still get called Scotch Whisky! (Technically, I think it has to be 3 years and a day). So, per the label, 5.4% of this bottle is almost new make spirit.

The official tasting notes are kind of mind-boggling. Each year's contribution is described in the little booklet; the descriptions range far afield from the the usual toffee and citrus notes to include some more exotic ones: "beeswax, soy sauce" (1998), "black cherries" (1999), "coriander leaves" (2000), "almonds, smoked fish, carbolic soap" (2001), "Tabasco" (2002), "asparagus" (2004), "diesel" (2005), and "fish pie (mussels, lobster, potatoes)" (2006).

Well, that's a lot to take in, and given that all these are blended, a lot to nose and taste in one glass. So, I don't think it will be a shock to say that I can't taste all those notes in this whisky, at least not in one tasting. But that doesn't mean it isn't very good and very rich in flavors. To my untrained palate, the notes all blend together in an enormously delicious "flavor bomb" that is initially quite hard to dismantle -- you just want to enjoy it, not analyze it! I will do what I can to take those flavors apart. But I can tell you this for sure: the Rollercoaster is not your typical Ardbeg!

This Ardbeg is quite pale in the glass: a light straw color. The legs are very short and runny. Bottled at 57.3% ABV, the casks are all probably vatted together cask strength, or so close as to make very little difference. That's great for flavors, but murder on the head. Ardbeg's site advises us to drink responsibly, and I generally try to -- but the wonderful flavor complexity of this whisky is a big, big incentive not to. I first tasted this one at bedtime. I almost never drink more than a single, modest dram, but this whisky was so appealing in flavor that I sipped and nosed my way through two, and they were closer to bar-sized.

Anyway, to make a long story short, two drams required that I go lie down before I fell down. I decided to just give in to the inevitable and go to bed, and woke up quite hung over. I don't know if that is just the alcohol content itself, or might also have something to do with the youth of the whisky, the undigested sugars, or some compounds from the raw distillate that are not as broken down by the aging process as they might otherwise be. Anyway, proceed with caution!

On the nose, the trademark peat and smoke is quite light, reminding me more of a young Laphroaig than an Ardbeg. The smoke is wood smoke -- maybe pine? There are vanilla notes, and iodine seaweed notes, and some smoked sturgeon, but in particular this whisky gives up a lot of delicate nut and fruit aromas. I am strongly reminded of a hazelnut liqueur called Frangelico, and also of Amaretto (almond liqueur). It also reminds me a little bit of Bunnahabhain 12: oily, nutty aromas and vanilla nougat (a Pay Day candy bar, or a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll). The high ABV burns the sinuses a bit, but those toasted nut aromas keep bringing my nose back to the glass.

On the palate, the sinus-burning heat is moderated and it warms but does not burn the throat. That smoke flows around the tongue almost like smoke around a plane fuselage in a wind tunnel, seemingly barely even landing on it. I taste some kind of undefinable tutti-frutti (bubble gum) or fruit cocktail that is hard to tease apart, but there are definitely apples and pears, and white grapes. There is something that could be fried green tomatoes. There are those wonderful nut flavors, Wrigley's spearmint gum, ground cayenne pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. That very light smoke prowls around in the background like a bat hunting mosquitoes on a hot summer night right at dusk, making a little noise and movement every once in a while just to remind you it is there. It's all so wonderfully light. The texture is indeed a little waxy -- tongue-coating, but in an appealing way.

This is A+ stuff. The palate really lives up to the nose. The finish is quite long and warm and it is those delicious nut flavors, reminding me of pecan pie, that dominates, but there are also some of those spicy cayenne pepper flavors. In other words, the balance between the nose, palate, and finish is just wonderful. Despite the burn in the sinuses and the high ABV, I just can't bear the thought of watering it, so you'll have to try that experiment yourself. Just remind yourself to take a small serving and go slow, or the Rollercoaster may make you a little dizzy!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Some Springbanks

I read in Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible that the Springbank distillery is "mothballed." What does this mean? Per their web site, they are shutting down their distillery operation and have laid off staff, but not their warehouses. If all goes well I would look for the distillery to start production again in a year or two. But meanwhile, although the distillery still has a lot of whisky in the pipeline, Michigan apparently is no longer importing Springbank product. If I want more, I might have to mail-order it.

So, Stadium Market in Ann Arbor had (past tense) a couple of bottles of the 100-proof version of Springbank 10, and I've snapped those up; several other stores around the Saginaw and Ann Arbor area had the standard 10 and the 15, so I've snapped up those as well.

First, the 15. I opened one of the bottles last night to make a toast to our new home with my wife, Grace. The 15 has some sherry-cask aging and is a gorgeous tawny color. It's bottled at 46% ABV, which seems just about perfect for this whisky.

The nose is just wonderful. The sherry influence is huge, and I can't detect any off notes -- and thankfully it has not been sherried to death, since there are still malty and oaky notes that have not been drowned out. It's a fruity, spicy whisky -- a cream sherry influence, nutmeg, cinnamon, light vanilla, spearmint, espresso, dried orange peel, and a whole range of "dark" sugary notes: burnt sugar fudge or frosting, molasses, dark, chewy toffee, and a rum hard sauce. 

It's a sweet whisky, but dries out nicely, and the sweet flavors aren't bland caramels, but these more "burnt" or cooked sugars, like homemade candy burned on the stove.

The palate is a slight disappointment compared to the nose -- there is just a shade too much bitter oak, I think, although it has a very nice buttery texture.

And the finish -- wow! It lasts a long time, and to me it tasted like a big slightly burnt bran muffin made with sour cream and topped with a huge pat of melting salted butter.

My advice to you is this: if you can find this Springbank 15 -- don't hesitate! It will be especially tasty at Christmas time where it would go very nicely after a big meal with a slice of homemade fruitcake, or rum-soaked spice cake of some kind. But for now, it is Christmas in July!

Note that the bottle and box graphics have changed over the years and the current artwork is not quite the same. (Not as nice, in my opinion; I really love that classic calligraphic Springbank logo and the parchment-look labels and boxes). My other bottle of the 15 has a lighter-colored box and label. There is no bottle code or date that I was able to find, so I have no idea which of the two is older.

Now, the 100-proof version of the 10. (I have not tasted the standard 10 yet).

First off, this whisky is hot, hot, hot. It's funny how an Ardbeg can be smooth as silk at upwards of 120 proof while this one can easily bring on a coughing fit. I usually don't prefer scotch watered, but this one really benefits from a little water. The pungent alcohol at full strength are a detriment to both the nose and the palate.

There's a traditional patisserie here in Saginaw that makes fruit tarts, with a vanilla egg custard in a pasty shell, topped with fruit like fresh rasberries and strawberries. That's pretty much the nose of the 10. It's quite nice, although it doesn't have the depth and complexity of the 15.

On the palate the fruity notes dominate. There is a lot going on here. Sour cherry jam? Canned pears? Fruit cocktail? I've tasted this one on 3 different days and come away with a slight different impression each time. The fruit notes are fascinating, but unfortunately the palate is just a shade too bitter.

So, the grades: the 15 gets an unqualified A. It barely misses an A+. If the palate was just a shade less bitter, I'd have nothing at all but praise for this whisky.

The 12 (100 proof version) gets a B. It is too hot, and probably should be tasted at 46% or 43%. It is pleasant and interesting but just lacks greatness. I will have to compare it to the standard 10, although my guess is that the standard 10 will taste very much like my watered 100 proof 10.

I look forward to tasting future Springbank bottlings -- on the strength of these two bottles, it is definitely a classic distillery with a very distinctive character, and the 15 is one of the few un-peated whiskies I've tasted that I felt really rates up there with the Ardbegs and Laphroaigs for blissful depth and flavor intrigue.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Expressions of Caol Ila

In my regular blog, I reviewed a sample-sized bottle of Caol Ila 12 that came in an "Isles of Scotland" gift set. At the time, I wrote:

Caol Ila is a pale amber dram, considerably lighter in color than the Lagavulin 16 I reviewed yesterday. On the nose, Grace reports a citrus tang (as in Tang, the fruit drink; I'm calling it Mandarin orange, which Grace says is "grilled.") She commented on the legs and the syrupy texture (but this Scotch is not oily), and says it reminds her of a nice white wine.

There's a light and pleasant smokiness, but it's not overpowering. Grace reports charcoal and an anise (licorice-like) flavor. There are modest notes of caramel and vanilla. There isn't much iodine or sea salt to speak of. The burn is mild, and the oaky, peaty, smoky finish is long and dry, tempered by some bittersweet spices, like nutmeg (Grace says cinnamon, I say bittersweet chocolate -- Grace suggests that it reminds her of Maya Gold chocolate, produced by Green & Black's, which is flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange -- and I concur! There's quite a strong resemblance.)

Well, that bottle was a bit older. I am unhappy to report that I have purchased two recent bottlings of Caol Ila: the standard 12-year-old, and a "Distiller's Edition" finished in Moscatel casks. Both are disappointing. Those delicate cooked fruit and dark chocolate notes aren't there. It's lacking those nice spices. But this malt's problems go beyond just lacking a little complexity. It's got some notes that I just don't like in the finish that really knocks it down in my estimation.

To my taste, the problem seems to be what Mr. Murray refers to as "that damnable oil." By this, I don't think he means oiliness in texture -- the Ardbeg Uigeadail has what I would call a thick texture: oily, syrupy, or even gelatinous texture. That can be very nice. No, what I think he means is the tendency of certain Islay whiskies to finish on a very bitter note. I am not sure how to characterize this flavor -- it tastes to me like lime oil, or the aftertaste from kimchee (hot pickled cabbage), or chili oil. It almost reminds me of the aftertaste you might get from chewing an aspirin tablet.

The flavor lingers unpleasantly. Does it come from a particular type of cask? I'm not certain. Is it related to sulfur-treated casks? I've tasted sulfur in some whiskies, and I know it can take different forms -- I've tasted the faint "cooked egg yolk" note, and it also shows up as "burnt rubber" or "burned matches." But I'm not sure this bitterness is sulfur-related.

I know that the budget bottling McClelland's Islay has it, and the flavor sticks with me for hours; I know that my bottle of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist exhibits the same "afterburn," which makes it my least favorite Ardbeg. And both of these Caol Ila bottles have it. It isn't that I don't like Islay whiskies in general -- the Uigeadail has a wonderful finish and is my absolute favorite whisky to date; the Ardbeg 10 has some nice citrus on the finish that doesn't veer into this bitterness. I also am very fond of both the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and 18 year old -- they finish wonderfully. The wonderfully in-your-face, up-your-nose, "Wow!" Lagavulin 16 does not seem to have this flavor. So what is it that I'm tasting? Do some people like this on the finish?

Anyway, now my review. I've spent a lot of words talking about this specific problem, so my review itself will be brief. Caol Ila 12 is a somewhat lighter Islay whisky; the nose is quite smoky. I also nose idione (seaweed), bacon, something like turpentine, a hint of vanilla, and a trace of lemony citrus.

In the mouth, there is some slightly hard-to-pin down dry fruitiness -- maybe a tart apple juice, maybe a bit of unripe banana. The bacon on the nose becomes smoked kippers. The dark chocolate and mandarin orange notes that I found excellent in my old sample bottle are lacking in this bottle. There's a little bit of something like tar, or pine oil (the cleaning product).

On the finish, I taste smoke, citrus, and chili powder. The peat is not overwhelming in this whisky, but it seems unbalanced to me; there isn't enough in the way of barley, malt, or vanilla flavors on the finish to balance it. So the Caol Ila 12, sadly, gets only a B-. It seems to have been bottled at a standard 43%. In general, I prefer to taste whiskey at cask strength, or at least closer to it.

The Distiller's edition is finished in Moscatel casks. Moscatel is a sweeter, white dessert wine, often fortified, with a light, "grapey," fairly simple, and distinctive flavor. So, it makes sense that if you wanted to try to "sweeten up" a Caol Ila, you might try this type of cask. And in fact on the nose we now have a very distinct and clean Moscatel wine flavor -- not aged notes like you might nose on a Reisling or a Chardonnay, but simple sweet wine notes, almost like nosing a sweet white un-fermented grape juice. But the translation from cask-imparted nose to palate is not so straightforward -- after all, the whisky is not actually mixed with Moscatel. Those sweet grape notes are there on the palate, and they don't overwhelm the Islay flavors -- and they do improve it slightly.

But just slightly, because that bitter finish is still there, waiting for you. So, the Moscatel finish gets a B. It seems like Moscatel is an interesting choice and could create quite an interesting extra-aged whisky if applied to the right stock -- but this whisky, also at a standard 43%, isn't quite it.

It is tempting to blame this on Diageo, which now owns a huge number of distilleries, including Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Knockando, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Oban, and Talisker. It is hard to believe that they can properly take care of so many distilleries. And reading Jim Murray, it is clear that Caol Ila has a history of inconsistent quality. I'm sad to say that these stocks probably should have been sold off for blending along with the rest.

There's a saying: "there's no accounting for taste." It means, literally, that it is fairly pointless to try to justify or explain why one person likes something and another doesn't. Nevertheless, since Caol Ila is a fairly popular whisky and a big distillery, I do feel as if I need to attempt to justify my reviews; I'm still pretty new to this, and don't feel as confident in my palate and nose yet -- they aren't "calibrated." As they say, your mileage may vary. If you agree, or disagree, I'd welcome your opinion on either or both of these whiskies.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Glen Moray 12 Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Speyside whiskies are known for their lighter, sweeter character, and this expression of Glen Moray lives up to that. On the nose, it is fruity -- in particular, canned pears in syrup, and maybe a little bubblegum. There's a little Scapa-like heather honey. In the mouth, it is a little dry, with a lot of powdered cocoa flavor, and a bit of spicy ginger and cloves. The ginger is more evident with a little water. There are some subtle floral notes -- is that carnations? On the finish, there are some nice lingering licorice flavors. There's also something that several other reviewers call "potato" or "starchy." That's not the most pleasant note, but it's not awful, and mainly just a little odd. The finish is longer than I'd expect from the nose and flavors on the tongue.

The casks used are bourbon casks -- no elaborate wine finishing for this one (and it doesn't need it). I'd expect more vanilla and caramel -- the web site says "toffee" -- but I don't really taste a lot of toffee, or caramel. Instead I get a lot of cocoa notes, which I really enjoy. It reminds me of Nestle Quik chocolate powder, which as a child I used to stir into milk, or occasionally eat straight from the can by the spoonful.

At 40% ABV, it is light, a little thin, not very "hot" at all, and drinkable -- a dessert whisky for summer, or for when you don't want to wrestle with a big peat monster. A lot of reviewers seem to criticize this whisky for excessive sweetness. I disagree. It is sweet, but it is also light; it doesn't have the cloying caramel or toffee of, say, the Glenfiddich 12. I give it a B+. That starchy note is a little bit off-putting, and I'd like to taste it at cask strength; I think it would have more to offer at, say, 46%. But this is still a good dram, and the price is right.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Introduction and Review of the Arran Malt 10

So, I'm moved into the new family house -- sort of. Right now it's just me and one van-load of stuff, with many more loads to come, and the family, books, and furniture to arrive later. In this load I brought up a few crucial and fragile items. Here is a picture of one of those crucial and fragile items: the Arran Malt 10 (isn't it pretty?)

So, here's how I'm going to roll in this blog.

First off, I'm going to de-emphasize color in my reviews, unless the color of a whisky is particularly striking. I think too much emphasis is placed on the color, with the general idea that a darker or richer color will mean a darker or richer flavor. This is not strictly true; I've seen very young whisky with a mahogany color, and very aged whisky that was quite pale. The compounds that impart color are not the same as those that impart flavor, and color does not directly correlate to strength of either alcohols or flavor components. Fixating on color seems to lead to distilleries using caramel to darken their bottlings. I'd like to see that practice end, because I think it can have a detrimental effect on the flavor. In a similar vein, I don't want our need my whisky to be chill-filtered, and personally I'd like to taste them all at their original cask strengths. After all, you can always dilute a dram with a little water, and this sometimes improves the flavors and aromas, but you can't distill it to remove water. If I am tasting a whisky with a higher alcohol level (say, 46% or higher ABV), and want to keep my head clear to write a review, I'll simply take a smaller glass!)

I've also been giving some thought to a scoring system. Jim Murray uses a 100-point scale, and this gives the impression of great precision; he even scores some whisky by half-points, in order to make very fine distinctions in quality between bottlings. But no whisky has ever reached 100, in his system, or 1; in actuality, if you browse his guides, you realize that for all practical purposes, his "spread" of points for actually good whisky covers only about 18 points (80 to 98). Another point about Murray's system is that it is effectively logarithmic, like the Richter scale; there are a lot of 85s, and a handful of 90s, but the number of whiskies that come in at 95 and above drops off dramatically. And in the high score range, a difference of a single point can mean the difference between good and incredible, mind-blowing, spend-an-hour-nosing-it-before-you-even-take-a-sip dram. So, not to criticize Jim Murray and his authoritative reviews, but I'd rather expend my effort telling you why a whisky is good than trying to decide if Ardbeg Uigeadail deserves to be a half-point higher or lower than Ardbeg Supernova.

I've been using a 1-10 scale, allowing for half points. I considered using a 5-star system. But I think for these reviews I'm just going to use a simple, traditional letter grade scale: F, F+, D-, D, D+, C-, C, C+, B-, B, B+, A-, A, A+. Everyone should be familiar with that system! And I'll tell you right now: by the time I've purchased a whisky, it should be at least a C+. If it was expensive, it had better be a B+ or better, or I just wasted some money. On the other hand, I will try to avoid "grade inflation" -- only the very best should get an A+.

I think the purpose of this kind of review should generally be to promote and celebrate quality, not attack a lack thereof; we all know that mediocrity is as common as hydrogen in the universe; I'm not really interested in spending a lot of effort reviewing whisky that is only so-so. I'm interested in the great, delicious, fascinating, luscious stuff, whether simple or complex.

So, speaking of delicious, let's begin with the Arran 10, shall we?

The Isle of Arran distillery is one of the newest distilleries in Scotland; it opened in 1995. They operate only one wash still and one spirit still. While they have produced a number of special wood finished released, it seems that we can only get the standard 10 year old in Michigan.

My favorite liquor store, Stadium Market in Ann Arbor, had only one bottle, stashed on their top shelf. The box was very dusty, which tells me that Arran Malt 10 is not selling like hotcakes.

This dram is entirely unpeated, and as a result, on the nose it has some similarity to an irish whisky, such as Knappogue Castle. If you've been drinking a lot of pungent Islay whisky, it may seem a bit startling -- a little like switching to a Chardonnay after tasting a lot of tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. This one would, in fact, be a pretty good starting place for someone new to single malt scotch.

On the nose, I get: vanilla wafer cookies, toasted coconut, lemon peel, honey, cinnamon-topped sweet bread pudding, and something like creamy peanut butter fudge. Interestingly, I don't taste any cocoa or chocolate notes at all, and very little in the way of fruit. This one is mostly about malty flavors.

On the tongue the whisky is hot and lemony in the back of the throat, but on the front of the tongue there is a whole complex set of raw or lightly cooked barley flavors: like steel-cut oats, couscous, buckwheat, and bulghur. (The barley seems to give it that peanut-butter note on the nose). These barley flavors are not unique to the Arran Malt, but in most other distiller's bottles, barley notes tend to be a bit more faint, and they lean towards malted, baked flavors like sweet shortbread and wholemeal digestive biscuits. This difference may have something to do with the width of the "cut," something to do with the type and quality of the barely itself, and something to do with the youth of the Arran Malt.

This is a fairly "hot" whisky at 46% ABV. (I always find it baffling how some whisky can burn your throat at 40%, and some is as smooth as soothing as egg custard at 50% -- the relationship between alcohol content and "heat" is an indirect one!) Anyway, my wife finds the Arran Malt 10 a little bit unpleasantly raw in the throat. It wouldn't do this whisky any harm to cut it with a little water. In fact, I prefer this one just slightly watered.

This is a nice, light, summery whisky, and as single malts go, it is quite inexpensive. I give it an A-, because another year or two might smooth out that heat just a bit, giving it a slightly more balanced flavor. The 10 is proof that you don't need long aging or fancy woods to get fine, enjoyable flavors out of barley and water.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Introducing The Whisky Dungeon

My existing general blog, "Geek Like Me Too" has become too top-heavy with whisky reviews, so it is time to spin off another blog. In the next week, I will be moving, and setting up a wine/whisky cellar (that will be the "dungeon," hence the name of the blog). I'll also be adding quite a few new drinks to my stocks, re-tasting some old ones, revising my old reviews, and adding new ones. I have a copy of Jim Murray's 2010 Whisky Bible, and I'm using it to help guide my shopping.

Should you wish to pick up a copy -- and I do recommend it, as it is both informative and entertaining, consider using my Amazon affiliate link; I'll get a (very modest) kickback (or so I'm told; I have yet to earn a penny blogging).

The goal is to be an independent and quite possibly contrarian reviewer. Check back soon!