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.