Kirkland Small Batch Bourbon – 7 year

Kirkland (Costco’s brand name) has been offering up some substantial values in quality single-malt scotch over the last few years. I decided that their track record warranted trying out the American whisky side of the aisle, so I plopped down my $20 for a liter of “Premium Small Batch” Kentucky Straight Bourbon at 7 years of age and an impressive 103 proof. It’s from batch B-5183, if it matters. The label indicates that it was made in Clermont, which leaves no doubt as to its distiller – the Beam Corporation’s Jim Beam Clermont Distillery. Hoping that this was a 7-year batch of the company’s Knob Creek product (which I’ve enjoyed in the past and will be reviewing soon), I cracked open the bottle to see what kind of bourbon one gets for $20 a liter at Costco.

Right away I could tell. This was not Knob Creek. This was Jim Beam, and no question about it. Jim has a very specific flavor and aroma profile, which has no doubt been “crafted” over the decades to “perfection”, but which comes across to me as a vaguely vegetal, light-in-character nail polish remover. Eugh. I never liked the stuff in college, and it’s certainly not to my taste now.

Nose: Light brown sugar, a bare hint of acetone (nail polish remover), which reminds me instantly of Jim Beam. Less oak and less caramel than comparable bourbons. No detectable cherry element. Some raw corn and light corn syrup candies (caramel corn). The alcohol is somewhat biting.

Palate: A little syrupy, but with a rough tongue burn. Some astringency but without the woody flavors that come with older bourbon. Now there’s a bit of cherry (lozenge) and some hay notes. Still light on the sugar (no molasses) and rough on the palate.

Finish: Medium long. A little oak and more caramel corn. Forgettable.

With Water: A few drops of water don’t do anything to elevate the aroma, perhaps instead accentuating the nail polish remover. If you’re drinking this neat, water isn’t going to make much difference, except perhaps by proofing it down to tame the burn.

Overall: Unlike most Kirkland labelled booze, I’m severely underwhelmed by this one. It’s obviously Jim Beam, but I don’t think it comes from the recipe used to make Knob Creek (which was my hope) and instead seems to be slightly younger Jim Beam Black. I would not recommend this for drinking neat. It makes a passable cocktail (and $20 a liter isn’t a bad price), but you’d do much (much) better with a bottle of Knob Creek Small Batch, which is superior in basically every way. If you’re a Jim Beam lover, though, and looking for a value bottle, this should suit.

Kirkland Small Batch Bourbon – 7 year
51.5% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $20
Acquired: (1 L bottle) Costco, San Jose, CA, $20.
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Tomatin (12 year)

Tomatin is one of those distilleries – once the largest in Scotland – that was purpose-built to produce malt for use as blending stock. Only recently has the boom in whisky appreciation prompted Tomatin to release and market a single malt. The 12 year in the official lineup from Tomatin is aged in ex-bourbon casks, and then finished for 6 to 9 months in oloroso sherry casks.

Sometimes this oft-repeated “blend fodder to single-malt” Cinderella story is a boon to the marketplace, giving consumers access to previously-unavailable excellent malt. Sometimes, however, whisky that has been engineered for decades to “fill up” a blend with bulk malt might not perform so well as a solo act. Let’s find out…

Nose: Predominant note of candy apple, with undertones of nougat, cinnamon, fruit punch, and breakfast cereal. Standard, in a partially-sherried kind of way.

Palate: Nice density to the body, almost silky. Nut skins, shredded wheat, and dried cherries on a bed of hum-drum malt.

Finish: Short. Some dried fruit, nougat again, and a hint of bitterness, like over-caramelized sugar.

With Water: A few drops of water draw out the tart fruits – cranberries, sour apple, both on the nose and palate. Also some cocktail bitters and marshmallow on the finish. Water isn’t a bad idea here.

Overall: Underwhelming. There are some nice “sherried malt” effects, but nothing stands out as worthy of attention. Forgettable. Of course, it’s wisely marketed at the bargain basement price of $23 to $26, which is perfectly in line with its quality. If you’re desperate to find under-$30 malts in a market inundated with price increases, you should give this one a look. Then again, it probably performs best in a blend.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Built in 1897 with originally only two stills, Tomatin gradually increased capacity over the years until it reached a crazy 23 stills by 1986, which made it the largest malt distillery in Scotland at the time. It has since removed almost half of its stills, and now boasts the still-respectable number of six pairs. Tomatin also now produces less malt for blending and more for release as single malt, although its reputation remains as a “filler malt” for the blending crowd. The stills are small with long necks and condensers, and the distillery uses a long fermentation. It uses both ex-bourbon casks and sherry butts, but has its own cooperage, which is unusual these days. Process water comes from the Alt na Frith stream that runs through peat-covered quartzite hills and over red granite.

Tomatin (12 year)
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $23 - $26
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.
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Talisker 57° North

Ahh, Talisker. Although a prize pony in Diageo’s stable, this distillery has always seemed to be a wild card to me. A fiercely independent, borderline wild ward of the Diageo State, always going against the grain and getting away with it. I like to imagine meetings at headquarters where all the cowed distilleries of the Diageo rank and file nod in unison, eyes trained on the floor, while Talisker causes trouble on the third floor – getting the interns drunk and making photocopies of its arse. Now while I’m sure that’s wildly inaccurate, it helps rationalize my love of Talisker despite its corporate overlord.

Lately, however, Talisker has been starting to show its megacorporate stripes by releasing mediocre pap like Talisker Storm, trying to cash in on the NAS craze. Luckily for me, Talisker 57° North is different. Duty-free only (a.k.a. the Screw The Whisky Customers Who Don’t Travel Internationally market category), but entirely worth haranguing a travel-worn acquaintance into securing a bottle for you. As reliable as the Talisker 10 is, 57° gives you everything you expect from Talisker, plus more. Talisker++, if you will.

I have to say the marketing on this is refreshing – no obscure gaelic or strained nearly-factual allegories about the deer that used to graze in the valley by the water source. Just the latitude line that the distillery is located on – 57° (North) – and the ABV set at 57% ABV to match. Of course, one must wonder if 57% was really the ideal strength… what if it tasted better at 55% or 61%? Ah well, I guess that’s the price you pay for a good marketing campaign.

Nose: Nutmeg! A barrage of white pepper, nutmeg, smoked salt, burning incense sticks, salted caramel, and salmon jerky. There’s a lot of complexity packed into this little bundle. It definitely delivers on the promise of Talisker peat, plus a little something extra.

Palate: Thin body. Serious tongue burn (of course), with attendant smoke coming out of my ears. When the fury subsides, there is fresh (spicy) ginger, cracked black pepper, and a sensation of salty sea breezes.

Finish: Medium-Long. The peat makes a comeback, with plenty of brushfire smoke, residual brine, and only a faint touch of sweetness. A bit of mouth-drying tannin. Not a lot of bitterness.

With Water: Normally a dram is better when it’s cohesive, but here I find the opposite. The separate, independent notes of aroma create a chaotic jumble that very much works. When I add (a little) water, it becomes more cohesive and loses something – becoming muddied. The palate becomes markedly sweeter. If I add enough water to proof it down to around 50%, there’s a significant smoked fish element to the aroma. Also adds dried lemon peel and gingerbread (??) to the palate. I would only add water to proof it down if you aren’t enjoying it straight at full proof.

Overall: Well, that’s Talisker all right. A big, brutish dram with most of the complexity on the nose. It definitely delivers everything you’d expect from nearly-cask-strength Talisker. If you’re already a Talisker fan, then you’re ready to try this. If you’re not a Talisker fan, get comfortable with the standard 10 year first.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Talisker is located on the lonely Isle of Skye, off the western coast of the Scottish Highlands (included in the “Island” region by owner Diageo). The population there still speaks Scots Gaelic, and Talisker is the only whisky distillery on the island. But oh, what whisky. Poet Robert Louis Stevenson identified this distillery’s product as a category of its own, and once referred to it as “the king of drinks.” He wasn’t alone. In Ian Fleming’s original James Bond books, 007 drinks Talisker, not martinis shaken or otherwise. Like Bond, Talisker is rough by nature – rocky and influenced by the sea by which it is made. The spring water flows over peat and has a very high mineral content.

Talisker 57° North
57% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $80-$100
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.
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Hankey Bannister Original Blended Scotch

There’s something I like about a little miniature bottle of a cheap blended scotch. It has so much promise. Might this be the next old-school gem from the days when blended scotch was what everyone drank? Has this one stood the test of time, and resisted the stultifying effects of a whisky market gone insane? Maybe I’ll find a new favorite value bottle, that I can mix or sip with impunity.

…and then I open it and I find more or less the same thing. Too much grain. too little flavor. Sigh.

Hankey Bannister is produced by Inver House Distillers, owners of Balblair, Old Pulteney, Speyburn, Balmenach and anCnoc. The blend, not surprisingly, contains malt from all of these distilleries, although other details are scarce. The line includes some weighty products with age statements of 12, 21, 25, and 40 years, but I only have a miniature of the Original non-age-statement blend. Also, while the name sounds like a silly British play on words, it’s in fact a conjugation of the names of the brand’s founders, Beaumont Hankey and Hugh Bannister.

Nose: Light grain, lemon peel, and a heavy dose of grain neutral spirit (vodka).

Palate: Nice, creamy mouthfeel. A Glenkinchie-like lemon pervades the flavor, and isn’t much balanced by anything, including the continuing vodka notes.

Finish: Short. A slight marshmallow sweetness, lemon candy, and vodka. Finishes with – you guessed it – vodka.

With Water: A few drops of water heighten the citrus notes – adding grapefruit, notably – but do little on the tongue or finish. Water neither hurts nor helps.

Overall: Some part of me thought that a little-known (in the States) homestyle blend might carry with it a cure for the common blend, perhaps carrying the Old World love of blended scotch into the modern age. Alas, this is brown vodka in the worst sense, with entirely too much “light whisky” – practically grain neutral spirit or vodka – without nearly enough flavorful malt to fill it out. The only things it has going for it, aside from the silly British name, is a bumped ABV and some pleasant lemon notes.

For once, I can’t blame the plastic miniature bottle (this one is glass).

Hankey Bannister Original Blended Scotch
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $20
Acquired: (50ml glass miniature)
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Isle of Jura (16 year)

The Isle of Jura is within spitting distance of the eastern shore of the island of Islay, off of Scotland’s southwesterly tip. The tiny island claims only a few hundred inhabitants, and exactly one whisky distillery. Perhaps this harkens back to a time in Scotland when every community of 200 people required its own distillery? Sounds like a place I’d like to live!

The Isle of Jura distillery is owned by independent bottlers Whyte and MacKay, which also owns Dalmore distillery. The whisky of each is surprisingly similar, with lots of sherry-derived flavor, and some citrus elements. Jura is a little lighter in style and much more floral, while Dalmore is darker, sweeter, and more pungent. Neither is peated, except for some peat that might be in the water used to mash and proof down the bottles.

The 16 year-old official bottling, also subtitled ‘Diurach’s Own’ after the name for the people of Jura, spends 14 years in ex-bourbon, and then is transferred for 2 years into Amaroso Oloroso sherry casks to finish.

Nose: Elegant citrus – grapefruit maybe, or bergamot. Mildly sherried, as befits the finish. If there’s any Island peat present, it’s in the form of a soft, ferny, heathery aroma in the distance. The fruit is fresh and bright, and backed up by a capable maltiness with breakfast cereal and spongecake. Soft, lovely, and floral. Very nice.

Palate: Slightly chewy texture, and quite sweet. Candied orange peels, tawny fudge, blanched almonds, and marzipan. Not an ounce of burn on the tongue. Ladylike, even.

Finish: The heather notes return, with honey and a bit of oaky tannins. A final wave of very mild citrus – just pith, maybe – and a ghost of bitterness.

With Water: Several drops of water draw out a bit more of the eccentric aspects of the sherry, namely a leather note, and some lemon peel, which continues through the palate and finish as extra tartness. Water is not needed here, but does add something interesting.

Overall: An eminently likable malt. Flawless in execution, sweet and mild on the tongue, with a moderately perfumed aroma. This would be excellent with a mild cigar. Jura has a lot of ardent admirers, and I can see why. It is not intense nor challenging, but it is complex enough to reward contemplation.

I have not been able to say this much recently, but this malt is definitely worth the $65 or so that it retails for.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Owned, along with Dalmore distillery, by independent bottlers Whyte & Mackay, The Isle of Jura Distillery was built in 1962 and is the only distillery on the Isle of Jura, situated across a narrow strait from Islay. Process water comes from Loch a’Bhaile-Mhargaidh (the Market Loch). While the water flows through a great deal of peat, the whisky itself is not smoked and does not carry much peat character, in sharp contrast to most of its contemporaries across the strait. Jura malt, aged in bourbon and with some finished in sherry casks, is said to come into its own around the age of 16, the age of the distillery’s flagship official bottling. The distillery has only recently begun producing small amounts of peated malt for the single-cask market.

Isle of Jura (16 year)
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $60 - $65
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.
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Longmorn (16 year)

Longmorn has long been a sought-after component for blending. Robust and flavorful even without heavy cask treatment, it adds depth and sweetness to a blend. After several changes of hands, Longmorn is now owned by drinks giant Pernod Ricard, although they don’t bother to recognize the fact on their English website. What gives, Pernod?

Having already tried Longmorn in the form of an independently bottled single-cask exclusive to K&L, I’m coming at this one from the wrong direction. Longmorn’s 16 year-old official bottling is aged in ex-bourbon, not sherry, and is bottled at a surprising 48% ABV.

Nose: Lemon and honey, over a bed of warm cereal grains and lightly toasted nuts. A faint oiliness suggests complexity.

Palate: Rich and syrupy in body. A poignant tongue burn at 48%, which subsides into nutty malt, nougat, and a faint tartness, perhaps orange peel. Chocolate-chip cookie dough! Yes.

Finish: Medium. Warming, with remnants of freshly-baked sugar cookies, fresh cashew butter, and white chocolate. No bitterness to speak of.

With Water: Water seems to only tame the burn (and useful, at that). It cuts a little of the cohesiveness, making the malt somewhat disjointed. I’d skip the water unless the burn is too much.

Overall: I’m coming at this a little backwards, having first tasted a heavily sherried single-cask expression of Longmorn before tasting the official distillery bottling, which is not sherried at all. I do miss the heavy fruit notes, but Longmorn still delivers flavor, and not just the typical ex-bourbon vanilla notes. It has enough body to stand on its own, and plenty of malty sweetness. The raw cookie dough component is especially exciting.

I’d recommend this to lovers of whisky who think bourbon is too strong, peat is too smokey, and sherry is too sweet. This is the kind of middle road whisky where you find the caramel, cookie, nutty notes that you want without sacrificing body or intensity. HOWEVER… we’re looking at an unreasonable $95 price tag, which I simply would not pay for a flagship official bottling at 16 years. What are they thinking? Sell this at $60 and you’ve got me hooked. If you do some web searching you might find it for $78, but that’s still too high in my opinion.

Good whisky, abhorrent price. For the price ALONE, I’m marking this “Not Recommended” – give us a break, Pernod Ricard.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

This Speyside distillery was opened in 1897 by John Duff, who also built Benriach next door. Spring water flows from Mannoch Hill. Little-known among mainstream whisky drinkers, new marketing efforts have started to expose this cult malt to a larger audience. It is a principal component in many blends, and was not sold as a single malt until recently.

Longmorn (16 year)
48% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $95 - $105
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.
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Exclusive Malts: Longmorn (20 year) 1992 – 2012

Ok, so I’m super late to the party, again. I have a bad habit of buying really good bottles and then sitting on them until it’s too late to do any good to my readers. So, in the interest of saving myself some face, this post is a birthday present to myself. Why? Well, it’s my birthday, it’s a post about something that none of you can buy, and (drumroll), this particular cask was distilled ON MY BIRTHDAY when I was 10 years old! I don’t even remember being 10, so the thought of this juice splashing out of the still and into a (probably) refill sherry cask to sleep for the next 20 years gives some real perspective to the glass in front of me. Also, it makes me feel old.

Distilled at Longmorn on the 22nd of June 1992, cask 86620 was bottled at 52.8% ABV 20 years later, in 2012, exclusively for K&L Wine Merchants by independent brand The Exclusive Malts. K&L Exclusives get a lot of buzz in the whisky scene online, but don’t have much impact to the rest of the world that doesn’t happen to live in California. That’s why I try to avoid writing about them, even when I buy one. However, I have the utmost respect for David Driscoll’s ability to select and negotiate excellent casks of whisky, even if they usually come out above my ideal price point. This one I got to sample last year and I was blown away. I bought a bottle, even though $120 is significantly higher than I usually spend. My excuse? Birthday!

Nose: Sticky sherry notes of strawberry jam, apple cider vinegar, fig preserves, underlayed with oaky sap (not quite maple syrup). Powerful, and delectable. The fruit is profound, but not cloying. The oak is beautifully balanced, and while the whole smells integrated and mature, there aren’t excess rancid notes. Very fresh for 20 years old!

Palate: A powerhouse of fruit, with equal helpings of jammed, dried, and fresh. The oak is present, but not overwhelming, and the tongue burn is surprisingly minimal for something over 50% ABV. It doesn’t fully represent its age, without much balsamic-type flavors, but it is round and complete. Eyes closed, I would say it was 16 years old.

Finish: Jolly rancher candies, a touch of cinnamon, a lot of fruitcake, and some more of that maple syrup (but not quite) on the fade-out. Becomes slightly bitter, with nut skins and burned caramel on the tail.

With Water: A dash of water really opens up the fresh fruit – there are even some cherry blossom or apple blossom notes added. On the tongue, the burn is even more muted, and some chocolate notes are displayed. The malt alone is an experience, water brings it to another level.

Overall: Wow. What a birthday present to me! I have a weak spot for fruit-bomb sherried numbers, and this ticks all of the boxes (except one). The nose is phenomenal, especially with some water to open it up, and on the tongue it purrs with sherry goodness and no undue burn. Alas, the finish has more bitterness than I like. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic whisky, and a real solid reason to seek out some more Longmorn, especially if it’s sherried.

Note: K&L sold out of this a long time ago, but they still have this, which sounds similar: http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku=1155020.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

This Speyside distillery was opened in 1897 by John Duff, who also built Benriach next door. Spring water flows from Mannoch Hill. Little-known among mainstream whisky drinkers, new marketing efforts have started to expose this cult malt to a larger audience. It is a principal component in many blends, and was not sold as a single malt until recently.

Exclusive Malts: Longmorn (20 year) 1992 – 2012
52.8% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $120 (Unavailable)
Acquired: (bottle), K&L Wine Merchants, paid $120.
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Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Maker’s Mark is a classic American Kentucky Straight Bourbon. There’s really not much point in my reviewing it – there are plenty of die-hard Maker’s fans that aren’t going to care what I have to say on the subject. On the other hand, appreciators of a wide range of fine bourbons will continue to think of Maker’s Mark like the Glenlivet of bourbons: decent enough in its own way, maybe worth mixing cocktails with, but something to graduate from.

I was curious about Maker’s because it’s a wheater. In a world of high-rye bourbons, a mashbill with wheat instead of rye is somewhat uncommon. The Pappys, the Wellers, Old Fitzgerald, Larceny, and Maker’s. That’s a pretty short list considering the hundreds of bourbon brands on the market. Wheated bourbons tend to be softer on the palate, with more bread-and-cake flavors and fewer spicy cinnamon-and-clove flavors. Maker’s is also distinct for making its own bourbon, not slapping a label on bourbon produced at MGP or KBD (see this post for more on that topic).

Maker’s mashes “soft red winter wheat” and barley (probably malted for enzymes to kick-start fermentation), along with its corn, and ages the bourbon for around 6 years. Unlike most other whiskies, Maker’s rotates the barrels between upper and lower floors of the warehouse to even out maturation differences. This would make a “single barrel” of Maker’s Mark less likely to be significantly different than the final bottled product. The brand has been around since 1958, when the first bottle was dipped in red wax to seal it.

In 2013, Maker’s Mark was embroiled in a little public relations nightmare when it announced that the brand would be reducing its bottling strength from the iconic 45% ABV to 42% ABV, due to production shortages. The media and consumer ****-storm that ensued resulted in the company backpedaling and resuming production of the 45% ABV bottling, thus proving that even in the whisky industry, consumers have a voice.

Nose: Classic wheater aroma – soft wheaty grain (like shredded wheat cereal), cherry syrup, and a slight band-aid plastic note.

Palate: Thin body, but lots of up-front sweetness. Oaky, with loads of vanilla and dried coconut. A bit of young grain mars the progression.

Finish: Brown sugar, corn syrup, charcoal, and a little bit of mouth-drying tannin.

With Water: A few drops of water bring a bit of vanilla to the nose, but otherwise have no appreciable effect. Water is strictly optional.

Overall: Well it’s a pretty standard mid-grade bourbon. There are no stand-out elements, and even the wheat is only halfheartedly present. I would put this a step or two under W.L. Weller in quality. When mixing a bourbon-centric cocktail, I might be inclined to use Maker’s Mark if I don’t want to shell out for something top shelf. The 45% ABV fills out the flavor and keeps it from feeling thin, which would be an added bonus in cocktails. It would make a killer julep. I’ve given this a ‘Recommended’ rating because as long as you know what you’re getting, $25 for a decent wheated bourbon is not a bad deal.

I’d like to point out that this is from a plastic miniature bottle, which does not appear to have inflicted any debilitating effect on the whisky. I’m inclined to think that the previous “bad” bourbons I’ve blamed on the plastic miniatures may themselves (or their specific batches) be to blame. Who knows.

Maker’s Mark Bourbon
45% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $23 - $28
Acquired: 50ml plastic miniature
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Counterpoint: Stereotypes are Useful

I read this sort of thing frequently in blogs and hear it from the mouths of whisky evangelists: “Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can’t go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.” (I lifted some of that from this post from awhile ago.)

While this statement is correct, I’d like to offer a counterpoint. Stereotypes in human culture aren’t an accident, a case of mass delusion, or corporate propaganda. They aren’t inherently evil. Stereotypes are one of the many strategies that human brains use to reduce our insanely complex world down into manageable and understandable units. This is the same reason that we like to categorize things (Islay, Speyside, Lowland). It’s easier to think and speak about “Islay malts” when discussing peated single malts, rather than “Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich sometimes, Bunnahabhain like once, oh and Talisker, Highland Park, Ardmore, and some BenRiach. Oh and…” Even if it’s technically incorrect, the statement “If you want to try peated scotch, go find a single malt from Islay” is easier than convoluting the technically correct but less-helpful list of distilleries into accurate advice. If everyone went around every day speaking only exact truth in exactly specific, factually correct statements, none of us would ever get anything done. We NEED stereotypes, reductionist logic, generalizations, and inaccurate categorization or we’d go flat-out nuts.

When a newcomer to the whisky scene is directed to the dizzying array of products adorning the walls of the local liquor shop, especially these days with the whisky boom and retailers stocking more and more different expressions to meet the ever-rising level of demand, I can attest firsthand that there is a sensation of vertigo. I felt, honestly, dizzy while staring for the first time at that cornucopia of liquid goodness, with absolutely no idea what differentiates any of it. Without some voice in the back of my head saying “blends are bad” (or more accurately, its partner-in-crime, “single malts are best”), I’d have been truly lost, and I’d have likely fled the store with a bottle with a sailing ship on it. Because it’s pretty. And I think I remember the name from an advertisement in Wine Enthusiast.

Let’s take one incorrect stereotype and think about it further in this context: “Blends are cheap and bad”. Unlike a lot of stereotypes, this one clearly didn’t originate from the mass-production liquor industry. Single-malt, despite the mass hysteria, is still small change to the industry. They need to sell a lot of cheap, blended booze, and this stereotype is bad news for the makers of $15 – $20 hooch, which is most of them. My guess is that this particular stereotype evolved via word-of-mouth from freshly-minted whisky anoraks (read: snobs, a moniker that I’ve been assigned more than once) as a shortcut to direct new whisky drinkers to introductory products, and as a way to short-circuit the marketing money spent by the big blends. If a newbie walks into a liquor store and sees familiar names like Chivas, Cutty Sark, Johnnie Walker, (and for that matter, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich), do you think they’re going to gravitate towards the Balvenie, the GlenDronach, or the Highland Park? No. The stereotype, while patently wrong, is nevertheless the only thing between our newbie and a life of pouring down Cutty on the Rocks (hyperbole warning).

Are all blends bad? Of course not. Are they all cheap? Absolutely not. Like all stereotypes, this one outlives its usefulness once the user attains a certain level of knowledge about the field. I would thus contend that it’s our duty, as “in-the-know” whisky drinkers to use stereotypes judiciously, and be prepared to refute them when necessary. I, for one, am grateful for the “Blends are bad” stereotype. It’s probably responsible for driving more new drinkers to single malts than any other aspect of this market, including the proliferation of whisky blogs like this one. It may well be responsible for my first decision to try a single malt, rather than stopping after my first underwhelming experience with a mass-market blend (Johnnie Red, I think). But as consumers, we need to recognize it for what it is – a tool, not an absolute truth. We need to keep our eyes and minds open, once we no longer need the training wheels to keep us on the path. We can move from “blends are bad” to “some blends are awesome, let’s find them!”. But only once we’re ready.

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Kirkland Highland Sherry Cask Finish – 18 year

Every time Costco gets in a new Alexander Murray bottling of unnamed single malt for unbelievable prices (which seems to be about every 4 months, recently), I get a flurry of emails asking for a review. It’s no wonder – while the Kirkland-Alexander Murray duo has performed excellently in the past, with several releases with very high quality-to-price ratios, it’s still hard to believe that they can keep doing it. In an industry where filling contracts are locked down, whisky stocks are drying up like California reservoirs, and “all the good casks” have long since been bottled and sold, how does Alexander Murray put out Costco-sized allocations of 18 and 20 year-old single malt (good single malt!) for $35 a pop? I have no earthly idea. Surely they’ll be forced by market conditions to release a dud, right? Or set the price above the value of the liquid?

If you are a budget-minded single malt lover who has a local Costco that sells whisky (depending on your state), you can rest assured that the latest release is (still) worth your money. For how much longer? Who knows.

Like the previous Speyside Sherry Cask Finish at 18 years of age, this one gives no hint to the distillery source, aside from the “Highland” designation. Considering that the entirety of Speyside is technically inside the “Highlands” and that some distilleries located in Speyside routinely put “Highland” on their labels, this is less than useful information. Also like the previous release, this one was “finished” in Sherry casks, which implies that it spent most of its maturation period in ex-bourbon. Even at 40% ABV, a sherry-finished 18 year-old malt for $38 is an impressive feat.

Nose: Very Floral. Elderflower, dilute cranberry juice, a hint of candle wax. Orange-blossom honey, and a note of heather that reminds me of some of the ex-bourbon-cask Balvenies. Elegant, slightly tart, and with excellent florals. On the lighter side (for a sherried malt), but quite surprisingly nice.

Palate: Somewhat waxy. Tart, fruity notes of fresh berries. Vanilla pound cake, some blonde fudge. A bit one-dimensional, but pleasant.

Finish: The slightest peat, mossy and a little herbal. this fades into hazelnut butter and echoes of the berries from earlier. Absolutely without bitterness.

With Water: A few drops of water yield a little stonefruit and a little more maltiness. Really, this is already watered to its limit and doesn’t need any more, especially with the already-present florals on the nose.

Overall: This is a fabulous malt for $38. Tasted blind, I’d have said it was worth at least $60, and these days an age statement of 18 will net you a minimum of $100. Well done, Alexander Murray. Well done. I could wish for a little higher ABV to provide some bite, but for straight sipping, this is correctly watered.

While this is totally a shot in the dark, the waxy notes make me think this could be sherry-finished Clynelish. Again, wild conjecture – let me know what you think in the comments.

Note: The “Must Have” rating refers to my recommendation that if you have a Costco that sells liquor and they stock this product, you won’t be sorry for dropping $38 on a bottle or two. It’s certainly worth the price. That said, it’s not so spectacular that it’s worth driving across state lines or conning friends into mailing you a bottle… that effort would invalidate the point: This is good whisky for a GREAT price.

Kirkland Highland Sherry Cask Finish – 18 year
40% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $38
Acquired: (750ml bottle) Costco, San Jose, CA, $38.
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