Here’s a quick update to let you know about three Scotch tastings coming up in the California Bay Area, in February 2014:
February 10, 2014
Tamdhu distillery, during long-time ownership by the Edrington Group (of Macallan and Highland Park fame), played second fiddle to the company’s big hitters, and most of its production was destined for blends such as Edrington’s Famous Grouse, as well as J&B and Cutty Sark. The distillery was mothballed in 2011 due to surplus stock, and then sold to Ian MacLeod Distillers, who resumed production in 2013. The new owners gave the product line a much-needed refresh, with better packaging and a truly nice website (Check it out, and just start mousewheel scrolling), although they made the odd choice of bottling at 43% ABV for export, and 40% ABV for UK distribution. A brief search of the Internet reveals a general preference for the 43% ABV version, and no wonder.
Aged only in sherry casks (European and American oak, with a “high proportion” of first-fill casks), the distillery’s flagship bottling now sports a 10 year age statement. In my opinion, it’s nice to see a product line ADDING an age statement these days. Kudos, Ian MacLeod. There was also a Limited Edition 10 year-old bottling from exclusively first-fill sherry. That’d be an interesting comparison tasting! Thanks to ImpEx Beverages for the sample.
Nose: Pungent sherry. Orange oil, funky dried fruits, and sticky toffee pudding. A lot of aroma without much nose tickle. An undercurrent of malty caramel. Sweet, but not cloying. A lot of depth here.
Palate: Orange marmalade. More funky dried fruit – prunes and apricots – with a layer of chocolate malt. Not as much depth here, but very well balanced and flavorful.
Finish: Medium long. Orange creme popsicle. Slightly bitter – mostly in an orange peel kind of way. Mildly oaky. Fades with a hint of hazelnut and more orange peel.
With Water: A few drops of water seem to mute the aroma, and wash out the palate. I wouldn’t say this malt needs any water.
Overall: This is like a love-child between Dalmore 15 and GlenDronach 12. It has a burst of orange peel, with the funky “almost off” meaty/nutty notes familiar to GlenDronach fans. It’s not quite as meaty as the GlenDronach 12, but it’s much less bitter than the younger Dalmores. At this price point, I’d consider it to be a “step up” purchase for the mid-level sherried spot on your shelf, equally as deserving as GlenDronach 12, depending on your tastes. I know times have changed, still I’m never crazy to pay above $50 for a 10 year-old malt. At least this one delivers in the glass.
About The DistilleryThis Speyside distillery was built in 1896 and was soon sold to Highland Distillers (now a subsidiary of Edrington). Tamdhu is known mostly as the site of the only functional Saladin box-style maltings in Scotland, which produces all of the distillery’s own malt requirements and also supplies unpeated malt to Highland Park and Glenrothes as well (or did, when it was owned by Edrington). Tamdhu has six stills and uses wooden washbacks. Its malt was often used in The Famous Grouse, J&B, and Cutty Sark blends while it was owned by the Edrington group. In 2011 the distillery was sold to Ian MacLeod Distillers, owners of Glengoyne and several blended brands, after being shuttered for three years. Water comes from either the Tamdhu burn (which flows into the Spey), or from an on-site well that taps into the gravel of the River Spey. If the distillery still uses the well, that would make it the only distillery in Scotland that still uses water directly from the Spey.
February 3, 2014
Lately I’ve been thinking about Canadian whisky. Other than Crown Royal, there isn’t really a lot of Canadian whisky available to US drinkers, and most of what’s available is… uhm… not very highly-regarded. That’s all changing with imports of products from Forty Creek, Lot 40, and others. But to put that into perspective, I felt a need to sample some of the existing “blended” Canadian whisky products already available here.
I should know by now that a plastic 50ml sample bottle is a bad sign. A $15 price tag on a 750ml bottle? Equally bad sign. But hey, the bottle says the whisky is 8 years old! An age statement on a cheap blended whisky? Maybe things are looking up! I can’t find a website, or ANY information about the whisky, other than its age. Like most blended Canadian whisky sold in the US, it’s almost certainly bulk aged spirit imported by tanker truck into the US and then proofed down and bottled.
Nose: A blast of young grain, a wave of artificial vanilla, and something vegetal, like fresh-cut cabbage. There is also a cloying sweetness attached to the vanilla.
Palate: Eughh. Chemical solvent, and a very fake taste, like concentrated food dye. The melted-ice-cream vanilla flavor tastes like it was added in by the bag. I don’t want to swallow it, but onward, in the name of Science!
Finish: Extremely (mercifully?) short, although it leaves behind a coating in your mouth like someone’s been spraying RoundUp weed killer nearby and you got some in your mouth. Truly wretched.
With Water: Didn’t even try.
Overall: Please, please don’t buy this. If one person, somewhere, reads this review in a BevMo and puts the bottle back on the shelf, then I have done my duty as a whisky blogger, and I can die contented. Buy anything – literally anything – instead. You’re better off with vodka “aged” overnight in a coffee cup.
OK, yes, it’s possible this sample was contaminated by being in a plastic miniature bottle (I’ve certainly had bad luck before with miniatures, especially plastic ones). However, you’d have a hard time convincing me that this stuff could be improved by ANY amount of careful storage. Also, any company that cares so little about repeat business that it allows miniatures (which many people use to “try before buying”) with this amount of degradation to represent their product deserves the bad press.
January 31, 2014
January 27, 2014
Compass Box is doing something very cool. After the incredible success (due in no small part to its very high quality) of Great King Street: Artist’s Blend, the company is expanding its blended scotch selection under the Great King Street label. The first addition was a limited-edition New York Blend. Now, Compass Box is looking to add a second permanent blended scotch to the Great King Street lineup. To choose it, they’ve released (in Europe and Asia only, boo!) two Experimental Batch bottlings in a 500ml size. One, marked OO-V4 is partially sherried, and the other marked TR-06 is partially peated.
Compass Box being the cutting-edge innovators that they are, aren’t just offering two codenames and a set of tasting notes. They released specs, too (see below). I love me some whisky specs! Chris at Compass Box was kind enough to send a pair of samples to this poor benighted US whisky blogger, so that I might also take part in the future of Great King Street. Thanks, Chris! If you happen to be in Europe and want to try these for yourself, they’re retailing at around £32 for each 500ml bottle. Buy here and Vote here.
28% Lowland grain whisky
72% malt including a small amount of peated malt from Islay
Malt aged mostly in ex-sherry. Non-Chill-Filtered. No added color.
Nose: Bottling wax, cherry gummies, a thin cereal note like Frosted Flakes. A base of vanilla.
Palate: Sugar-frosted dried cranberries! No tongue burn at all, soft and pliable texture.
Finish: Short. Slightly sour fruit. Vanilla extract, slight oakiness. Fades without bitterness. Nice.
Overall: Easily drinkable straight. Nice, light fruitiness, soft grain. Perfect integration. Reminds me (a very little bit) of Hibiki 12. Would make an elegant Highball.
33% Lowland grain whisky
67% malt (1/3 of which is “from the village of Brora” AKA Clynelish)
Malt aged mostly in ex-bourbon, with some new french oak. Non-Chill-Filtered. No added color.
Nose: Peat! Earthy, twiggy peat without much smoke. An undercurrent of vanilla, and some baked goods – white chocolate blondies? A hint of caramel too.
Palate: Buttercream frosting. Evolving into mossy peat with a bit of seaweed and seawater coming through.
Finish: A little short for a peated blend, but longer than 00-V4. A tad hot. Earthy peat continues, mercifully without bitterness. Ends on vanilla.
Overall: Better than any other peated blended scotch I’ve had, but I prefer the 00-V4.
The V4 is like a creamy dessert with pleasantly tart fruit. The 06 is more like a high-quality version of Black Bottle, where the peat is present and well-integrated, but juxtaposes against sweet vanilla flavors. Somehow, this makes me think about dirt in vanilla ice cream, or vanilla custard on sushi… it just causes some low level of cognitive dissonance. I’m sure that’s my own weird tastes, though, since sweetness in peated malts is common. My vote? The sherried 00-V4. High-quality sherried blended scotch? Oh my yes!
January 20, 2014
The more I taste bourbon, the more I’m settling into preferred flavor camps. I hadn’t really noticed this with scotch (I’ll enjoy almost any scotch without too much young grain in it), but I’m really starting to prefer straight rye and wheated bourbon. Straight rye has a lot of interesting spice notes, along with herbal spikes of menthol, mint, or eucalyptus. I drink rye when I want something to think about and analyze. Wheated bourbon, on the other hand, is full of cereals, comfort-food sweetness (think Marshmallow Fluff), and comes across the palate as soft. I drink wheated bourbon when I want to sit back and relax… the spiritous equivalent to a mug of hot cocoa on a cold night. Even the high-proof stuff (like Pappy Van Winkle) is flavorsome in a deep, fully-fledged way that is very satisfying… even as it burns the tastebuds off your tongue. All of this may be because I taste less of that “fake” corn-syrup flavor in wheated bourbons than I do in rye-flavored ones. I don’t have an explanation for that – they’re both still mostly corn.
W. L. Weller is named after the eponymous William Larue Weller. Weller is thought to be the first distiller to use wheat as the flavoring grain for Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and built a successful business on the idea. His distillery eventually merged with Pappy Van Winkle’s Stitzel distillery to form the Stitzel-Weller distillery that yielded all that craze-making Pappy juice. Of course, both W. L. Weller 12 and (now) Pappy Van Winkle are made at Buffalo Trace’s distillery since Stitzel-Weller was closed in 1992.
This is the 12 year-old expression, and not to be confused with the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottle (“William Larue Weller” with a vintage year, usually 12 years old and at cask strength), which is as nearly impossible to find as Pappy. W. L. Weller 12 is sold alongside its (younger) non-age-statement siblings W. L. Weller Special Reserve and W. L. Weller Antique, and is basically 12 year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon that didn’t make the barrel selection cut for Lot B. While “failed Pappy” doesn’t sound like a great selling point, it should be pointed out that although the maturation differences resulting from barrel warehouse location and barrel individuality are well-documented (and the whole basis for the “single cask” phenomenon), the differences are often slight or incremental and are averaged together during vatting. In other words, 12 year-old Pappy is statistically only slightly better than 12 year-old W.L. Weller. This suddenly starts to matter when you look at the price tag: W. L. Weller 12-year is $26 a bottle. Failed Pappy 12 for $26? Sign me up!
Note: Someone might argue, rightly, that sometimes individual barrels are WAY better than the same barrel from another part of the warehouse. This can increase the average quality of the vatting they go into, and further accounts for the popularity difference between Pappy and Weller, as is the fact that the most popular Pappy (the 15 year) is cask strength, and 3 years older.
Nose: Lovely round profile, classic wheated bourbon notes of soft caramel and sugar-dusted breakfast cereals. This one has a sour twang, like sour cherries, and a distinctly corn-oriented acetone note. A little wood is detectable as a vein of ground cinnamon.
Palate: Very soft on the palate. Silky, even. Moderate tongue burn. A little anise on the front, some nice fresh corn notes in the middle, and a continuous acetic acid throughout, like cider vinegar or vermouth.
Finish: Medium length, with vanilla and some light drying barrel tannins. Caramel reappears, with honey-flavored candy (candy corn). No bitterness. Pleasant.
With Water: Several drops of water add maybe a hint of maple syrup to the nose. Alas, the water seems to introduce a bitter note in the finish. I personally will skip the water.
Overall: There is a nice array of pleasant flavors and aromas, although just because this is a wheated recipe does not mean it bears much resemblance to Pappy Van Winkle 15. There just isn’t that much depth in the W.L. Weller. Still, for the money this is an easy-going sipper – an uncomplicated glass of bourbon, both with and without an ice cube.
Hello all, after suffering through the holiday season with a very slow site, I’ve now finally gotten set up on a new host with better stats and some extra space. I’ve also changed the way I display my shelf: I’m loading up my profile page from Whisky Base, a pretty cool whisky database site. Check it out!
This week’s post will be a little late, while I clean up some stuff from the move. Cheers! -Nathan
January 13, 2014
I’ve been thinking about this statement recently, which shows up all the time in blogs, whisky books, magazines, and forums:
“Big whisky (and other spirits) brands strive foremost for consistency in their product.”
This statement is often used when discussing large-scale vatting procedures, wood management, blending and sourcing whiskies for blends, pricing and distribution, and so on. It seems to be a pretty much established statement of fact that big producers care very much about maintaining consistency, for the health of their brand and the loyalty of their customers. It’s certainly all over their marketing materials. It is also used for the explanation of a lot of less-than-ideal practices in the industry, such as avoiding experimentation, vatting together good casks with bad, covering up mistakes via vatting, using a large number of sources for a blend to discourage individual or unique flavors, and blending to target a (bland) middle-ground that is considered best for all palates. It also seems to be particular to the larger brands, which makes sense when you consider that consistency is most important to mainstream bartenders and restaurants, who want to be able to rely on a very specific flavor profile to make, in turn, consistent drinks. It also makes sense when you consider that the larger the company is, the more cost-saving efficiencies can be implemented in the name of efficiency (as opposed to doing things for the sake of quality).
Consider, for example, the fact that all whisky producers make “good” barrels and “bad” barrels, due to a wide (and usually uncontrollable) number of variables in whisky maturation. A quality-first company might sell off the “bad” barrels wholesale and only use the “good” barrels for vatting, while a “consistency” (read: profit) -first company might vat together the good and bad (and, of course, sell off the “best” as single-barrel expressions) and sell the whole thing for a price based on the historical average quality. If, in the course of many batches, more “bad” barrels start to appear, quality goes down and price remains the same. This is exacerbated by larger companies, who have an efficiency interest in not closely examining every single barrel. Such companies are also more likely (in fact are incentivized by the mitigating effects of large-scale vatting) to cut corners in the face of rising costs.
After a long time of accepting the consistency message myself, I’ve lately begun to think of it as an illusion. While it’s obvious that single-cask expressions have little or no consistency batch-to-batch due to the nature of single barrel production, and some brands like Glenrothes actually celebrate the individuality and variation of each batch release, I’ve seen many many examples of large “consistent” brands slowly losing quality over time, to the extent that consumers have begun to notice.
I’ve heard firsthand (from readers) about quality degradations in all of the mainstream blends, some bourbons, Lagavulin, Macallan, Bruichladdich, and elsewhere. I’ve had a large number of whisky consumers emailing me to ask if I’d noticed quality degradations in their favorite brands – often blends. I’ve had more than a few people complaining that the product had declined so much that they’d ceased buying it.
It seems to me that if an entire industry has put consistency (not price, quality, flavor, or volume) as priority number one and yet is seeing widespread complaints about lowering quality – something’s fishy. It should be considered, however, that as human beings are victim to several sensory biases, these accounts are not necessarily evidence of actual descending quality. As someone becomes accustomed to a bottle, a second or third bottle may appear bland due to familiarity. Also, if someone’s palate is disturbed (from food, previous drink, illness, weather) or if the bottle is mishandled (left open too long, left in direct light, poured and let sit too long, from a bad batch, shipped with a bad seal, etc.), it is natural human bias to attribute a drop in quality to the product, not to the context.
Consistency in whisky has never been particularly important to me – it certainly isn’t as big a deal in wine, where variation is so much the norm that yearly quality calendars and charts are published, and hence the expression “2003 was a good year in Bordeaux” – but is this just another whisky marketing ploy that turns out to be so much hogwash in the face of profits? Is the disappearance of available stock due to demand surge causing this severe a quality downslope, despite corresponding price increases? Is the quality degradation intentional, and being managed slowly over time in an attempt to keep consumers from noticing the “watering down” of their “consistent” products?
I have my suspicions about the answers to those questions.
So what can we do, as whisky consumers in the face of an unprovable industry-wide trend? Simple. Rely on your own tastes. If your new bottle of your favorite brand disappoints, give it a few more tries (spread over several days to eliminate context), and then try something new! Vote with your wallet and with your taste buds. Also, realize that constricting stocks and rising materials and fuel prices are going to squeeze down the quality (and squeeze up the price) of even the most conscientious brand, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for bad whisky passed off as a “consistent”.
January 6, 2014
Occasionally, I’ll be thumbing through the shelves at my whisky shop and I’ll come across a name I’m not familiar with. It’s often a plain bottle, and there’s usually only one expression present. I begin thinking, “Hey, maybe this is a hidden gem that the ‘mainstream’ hasn’t found yet, and I could be drinking the next Pappy Van Winkle in a kilt, for… -checks the price tag- $34!” Smiling smugly to myself, I cart my newfound treasure home and promptly fill a glass. Channeling generations of intrepid explorers before me, I open myself to the new experience and take a sip…
Bleh. I check the bottle again. Yup, it’s a single-malt. Why does it taste like alcoholic wallpaper paste? The spiritous equivalent to dry matzo. It doesn’t taste bad, per se, it just tastes like nothing. Then it hits me – I’ve duped myself. There’s a reason I’ve never heard of Tomintoul before, and a reason the store was still plenty well stocked with the single expression they carried. Feeling like an explorer whose new land of opportunity turns out to be a barren, lifeless rock in the middle of the ocean, I relegated the bottle to the back of my cabinet, with the rest of the “mixing fodder.” Ah well.
Tomintoul, built in 1965 and now owned by Angus Dundee is a light-bodied Speysider sold with the marketing slogan “The Gentle Dram” – which may be the most lackluster marketing spin I’ve ever seen. The 10-year is aged exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, and bottled at the minimum 40% ABV. Process water comes from the Ballantruan Spring.
Nose: Yeasty/bready. A little on the hot side, with some brown sugar, dusty dried apricots, and nondescript caramels.
Palate: Medium-bodied, with a hint of creaminess. “Gentle” is right – there is no tongue burn to speak of. A nice maltiness complements a hint of oak.
Finish: Medium-short. Walnut skins, some oak tannins, and a vanishing caramel sweetness.
With Water: Water seems to have no effect on the aroma, nor on the palate. Take it or leave it.
Overall: This may indeed be “The Gentle Dram”, but even at 10 years of age it leaves a lot to be desired. The usual suspects for a Highland malt aged in middling ex-bourbon casks are present – the typical caramel, yeasty bread, brown sugar, and nuts – but nothing serves to elevate this dram above any other similarly-aged malt. At least at 10 years of age, it’s unfortunately forgettable. The 12 year may be a better bet, with some oloroso sherry aging behind it, and older expressions may condense some of that “gentleness” into some actual flavor. For me, I say skip the 10 year.
About The DistilleryPronounced “Tom In Towel”, this Speyside distillery was built rather recently in scotch whisky terms, in 1965. The distillery is now owned by Angus Dundee and is marketed as “The Gentle Dram”, although Tomintoul also produces a peated malt made with local Highland peat. The distillery is situated on the river Avon, but draws process water from the Ballantruan Spring. The distillery has four stills, all steam-heated, and eight stainless-steel washbacks.
December 30, 2013
Nothing says “Whisky Boom” like new distilleries cropping up in countries that have no history of whisky production. It doesn’t take long for a country with celtic ties to notice the wild explosion in international whisky fervor, and stick some new make into a few barrels. The Welsh Whisky Company built its Penderyn Distillery in the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales in 2000, and began distilling whisky from a mash brewed by nearby Brains Brewery. Penderyn uses an usual pot still designed by Dr. David Faraday, which uses a 660 gallon copper pot still fed into a pair of rectifying columns. This hybrid approach produces new make in a single pass, but maintains the elegance and flavor associated with the use of copper pot stills. The spirit is aged in Buffalo Trace first-fill ex-bourbon barrels, followed by a six month dip in ex-Madeira casks. The company also sells a sherry wood expression, and a peated whisky (made by filling spirit into peated refill scotch barrels). Penderyn whisky is bottled without an age statement, and without chill-filtration.
Nose: The first word that comes to mind is “clean”. Penderyn smells clean, like freshly-folded laundry, or sparklingly clear spring water. The aroma laser-focuses on crushed nuts, lemon peel, and white chocolate fudge, with a tart high note of fresh plum or green grapes.
Palate: Creamy mouthfeel. Moderate tongue burn. Very nutty, with layers of pistachio and hazelnut over a bed of crisp roasted malt. The madeira only comes through on the end, with notes of golden raisin and a bare touch of balsamic.
Finish: Medium-long. Drying, with a bit of grape-skin tannin and even more nuttiness. Ends pleasantly, with no bitterness.
With Water: A few drops of water release a bumper crop of grape skins and white vermouth, making the nose somewhat drier. The palate is still creamy, and is undiminished by the water, which also pulls out a little more pure barley flavor. Try this both with and without water.
Overall: An excellent example of how high-quality a whisky can be made outside of the traditional whiskymaking countries. Penderyn is focused, superbly balanced, eminently flavorsome, and crystal clean. All at the correct strength – 46%. I could have been tricked into thinking this was a single-grain whisky, with all of that creaminess and clarity. A pleasure.
I marked this ‘Must Try’ because even though it doesn’t offer anything that’s unique in the whisky world, I believe that whisky drinkers should expand their horizons and taste the products – when of high quality – of every producer worldwide. With Penderyn, you can cross Wales off of your list!
December 23, 2013
Happy Holidays from the Scotch Noob! At this festive time of year, I always notice a significant increase in the amount of traffic I (and other whisky blogs) receive. The Holidays are the perfect storm for whisky appreciation: The weather is colder so a dram of whisky usually sounds better than a mojito. Gifts of high-end booze are a time-honored tradition (and as a consumable gift, a great idea for anyone from spirits newbie to aficionado), and get-togethers between family and friends are always the best time to break out the fine spirits.
The Holidays are also a fantastic time to break open that bottle you’ve been saving. I think it’s better to appreciate special bottles when the memory of what makes them special is fresh. If you dig that dusty bottle out of a closet in thirty years, are you going to remember why you bought it in the first place?
I’m also reminded at this time of year, because David Driscoll likes to harp on the subject on his blog, that pushing high-end bottles of booze in the faces of your family and friends must be approached carefully. A slug in a glass and a “here’s something special for you” will be appreciated far more than a thirty-minute lecture on the closure of the distillery and the extreme trials you went through to secure the bottle. Unless you’re with people who are genuinely interested (and asking questions!), just pour the good stuff and let the whisky do the talking. People will be more impressed with the silent profferance of some observably fine hooch than with a lesson on its origins and factual merits. Even the phrase “…and it’s twenty-one years old!” makes you sound a touch pretentious.
Lastly, don’t be afraid this season to kick up some cocktails with the better stuff. While I would rarely suggest pouring $50 bottles of scotch into a punch bowl, the sacrifice of a few jiggers of single malt can really make a Holiday cocktail into something special. I think this year I’m going to experiment with some single-malt egg nog!
A note: I am now in the process of switching web hosts, so there may be a day or two of shaky connectivity while I make the transition. Hopefully the site will run much faster with the new hardware!
So have a cheerful and memorable Holiday season, and raise a glass to all of the scotch noobs out there!
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!
-Nathan, the Scotch Noob