Monday, July 21, 2014

Whisky Review: Bowmore The Devil's Casks Batch #1

If one has been watching Bowmore over the last couple of years, it has become clear that the focus has shifted away from the core range and towards any number of limited and travel retail-only releases.

Following on the heels of Tempest, an ongoing series of 10 year old whiskies matured exclusively in first-fill bourbon casks, the distillery released another 'small batch' 10 year old whisky, this time matured exclusively in first-fill sherry casks. This was greeted with much fanfare and bottles in Europe nearly flew off the shelves as collectors snapped them up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowmore noted just how popular the first release was and has recently announced that there will be a second batch. My guess is that this will turn into a regular release, much like Tempest. But let's see how the first one did.

Batch #1 was bottled at a fairly hefty 56.9% ABV, without chill-filtration (though it doesn't appear to say anything about coloring).

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Bowmore The Devil's Casks Batch #1

Nose: at first there is cigarette ash/tarry peat (more Laphroaig/Kilchoman/Bunnahabhain than classic Bowmore), moderate sherry with a rubbery/meaty/sulfurous edge, wood char, lumber yard oak, a bit of low tide seashore, fresh malt/hay, vanilla, dark chocolate - with time the peat settles down, the sherry becomes fruitier and more assertive, the focus shifts towards savory/salty malt, and some cinnamon toast notes pop out. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much drier overall, the sherry, oak, and peat integrate nicely, with the seashore becoming seaweed/iodine, the oak becomes even fresher and more lumber-y, the cinnamon toast gains some brown sugar, and eventually the sherry becomes more savory than fruity and gives way to the malt, and the peat shifts into a more traditional Bowmore mode.

Taste: extremely sweet up front - a mix of pure sugar, malt, and sherry, a slightly sour edge, flipping into alcohol heat, ashy peat, wood char, dry oak tannins, rich sherry, and tarry Bowmore malt/peat notes - becomes drier and more malt-focused over time, with the sherry and peat tapering off a bit. After dilution, the opening gains some floral cherry syrup, the oak becomes more assertive and pervasive in a way that tempers the sweetness a bit - with that new lumber quality (it almost works in this context, but not quite) becoming clearer, the peat dims a bit, plus pine sap and black pepper emerge near the back.

Finish: more classically Bowmore peat, tar, malt, polished wood, oak tannins, sherry residue

Not quite sure how I feel about this one. It's definitely a wild ride and has lots going on to catch your attention, but I feel like it's given up some balance for the sake of fireworks. The opening is just a bit too sweet, though the flip to dry peat and oak is a nice touch.

While it would be nice to get the undiluted flavors with a bit less alcoholic heat, adding water seems to emphasize the youthfulness of the whisky, bringing out the lumber yard notes that I got in the rather unpleasant Exclusive Malts Bowmore I tried a while back. Given that they were distilled and casked at roughly the same time, I wonder if there was something about either the spirit Bowmore was making or, more likely, the casks they were filling at the time. Maybe recharred casks that let the spirit come in contact with fresh wood? In Devil's Casks, the sherry helps to paper over some of the oak, but I still find it hard to ignore.

More generally, the character of the peat makes me wonder if I would have pegged this as Bowmore tasting it blind, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Bowmore has too often been focused on being the kinder, gentler Islay distillery, so it's kind of fun to see them being more bombastic. But in trying to shout, it's slipped over the line into being vaguely annoying. A bit more restraint would have moved this from 'pretty good' to 'excellent'. However, that's just my taste - sweet + peat seems to be a crowd-pleaser these days (see, for instance, the most recent batches of Laphroaig Cask Strength), so it's not my taste that they're catering to. Still, if you prefer your whisky to be a bit more reserved, I would probably give this one a miss, especially considering the price tag at retail, let alone on the secondary market.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Springbank 15 Year

Last up in my series of Springbank reviews this week, the 15 Year. Like the 12 Year Cask Strength, this is fully matured in ex-sherry casks. Like the 10 Year, this is proofed down to 46% without chill filtration or coloring before bottling.

It's still available as a miniature from The Whisky Exchange, though from the picture it appears to be a more recent release than this one.

Springbank 15 Year

Nose: musty/musky oak, malt core, mild peat, dank sherry, prunes/figs, raspberry-glazed pork, seashore, WD-40, lots of vanilla, gentle floral notes (hand soap?), a touch of orange peel, India ink. After adding a few drops of water, the tannic oak, peat, and seashore/maritime notes become more prominent, the sherry and malt edge back a bit, and the floral notes disappear.

Taste: malty sweetness with a sour edge throughout, tannic oak and sherry come in around the middle, with a gentle fade of dark chocolate/cacao and peat at the back. After dilution, the wood sugars come out on top of the malt sweetness, making it much sweeter overall, berry esters come out, and the sourness, oak, and sherry integrate but fade a bit more into the background.

Finish: tannic oak, very mild sherry and malt, a touch of oily peat

While I enjoyed this whisky more than the first time I tried it, I still found roughly the same notes, though the sherry was more readily apparent. There seems to be some significant batch variation, with some people finding very little sherry influence, with a concomitant increase in peat. Ultimately, there still isn't anything about it that would make me pick it over the standard 10 Year, let alone the 12 Year Cask Strength. The oak feels a bit too strong in here - maybe a shift towards refill instead of first-fill casks would help - without adding much to the experience. I wouldn't say no if someone gifted me a bottle, but with prices in the US approaching $100 a bottle, it's not something that I'm going to spend my own money on. While lacking the same kind of coastal notes, I'd reach for Glendronach 15 Year instead as a mid-teen sherry matured whisky for significantly less money. For something a bit younger, Talisker Distiller's Edition is also a great substitute and should have some more peat to balance the sherry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Whisky Review: Springbank 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #1

Springbank has been releasing batches of 12 year old, cask strength whisky since 2010. The releases have been once or twice a year (they're up to #6 right now) with slightly different strengths. Beyond the age, the common thread is that every drop comes from a sherry cask, with a 60/40 split of first-fill and refill casks. In theory this should make them more aggressively sherried than the 10 Year I reviewed on Monday, but we'll see if that's actually the case.

This was the first batch, released in March 2010, which was bottled at 54.6%. I managed to pick up a bottle that had lingered on the shelves in Oregon until going on closeout a few months ago.

Springbank 12 Year Cask Strength Batch #1

Nose: very savory - peat/sherry/oak sync up, slightly meaty, red berries, a malty core, a touch of wine vinegar, salmon, burnt sugar, caramel/pine sap, fresh hay, olive oil, more sherried with plum notes emerging over time. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes much more assertive, while the oak and sherry retreat and integrate, the oiliness becomes more like canola, and the sherry has more refill cask character and largely turns into dark chocolate,

Taste: oak-driven, balanced between wood sugars and tannins, malt running through the middle, and sherry bolstering everything underneath, mild peat joining the oak at the back, citrus peel and baker's chocolate overtones. After dilution, the palate becomes much sweeter and smoother, while the flavors become a bit flatter with more refill sherry cask character, with oak and malt still dominating, while the peat and oak meld with a touch of pepper, and the alcohol seems if anything even hotter on the tongue,

Finish: mild oak and peat, lots of clean malt, baker's chocolate, sherry residue

Now this is more like it. Everything I liked about the 10 Year is turned up to 11, while actually having less aggressive sherry. The oily/meaty notes of the distillery's malt are a perfect complement to the sherry, while the oak keeps it from getting too sweet. In that respect, it makes me think of a lightly peated Arran Port Cask Finish. However, I wouldn't add any water, as that seemed to make it too sweet for my taste.

Everything I've read suggests that the 12 Year Cask Strength releases have been consistently good, so I wouldn't hesitate to grab one from a different batch. I have a bottle of Batch 3 that I'm looking forward to opening up and comparing to this one.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Whisky Review: Springbank 10 Year

While I've tried quite a number of other malts from Springbank before, I had never tried their core release - the 10 Year.

As with all whiskies designated as Springbank (in contrast to unpeated Hazelburn and heavily peated Longrow), the malt is peated for 6 hours to give roughly 10 PPM phenols in the finished product. This puts it in the 'lightly peated' category, where the peat flavors are likely to be present, but usually won't smack you in the face.

The 10 Year is composed of a 60/40 split of ex-sherry casks and ex-bourbon casks. After the casks are dumped, the spirit is proofed-down to 46%, married for a while, then bottled without coloring or chill filtration.

This particular bottle is probably from the mid-to-late-2000s, before the most recent style of labels was introduced. I found it in a liquor store in Oregon and decided to pay a bit over the odds to see what it had been like a little while ago.

Springbank 10 Year

Nose: moderate sherry mingling with oily malt and peat, minty, floral perfume (violets and roses), creamy. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry retreats and becomes more dank, while the peat and malt move into the foreground, the floral notes remain - but are accented differently by the increased bourbon barrel character, some meaty chocolate notes come out,

Taste: thinner body than the strength would suggest, sherry/malt/floral sweetness throughout, warm caramel starting in the middle, segueing into bittersweet oak and mild oily peat near the back. After dilution, the body becomes a bit thicker, while the overall profile becomes more bittersweet, the sherry pulls back a touch, while the bourbon cask influence becomes stronger alongside more prominent oak, with some rich dark chocolate coming out near the back,

Finish: sherry and malt sweetness, floral, mild oak and peat, maritime notes wrapping around it all

This is a good introduction to the style, with everything that makes Springbank Springbank present - the oily character of the malt, the maritime notes, the light peat, and well-integrated sherry. If you can find a bottle for, say, $50 or less, I'd happily recommend it, especially if you already like sherried single malts.

With that said, I'd be a little happier if they flipped the ratio of sherry and bourbon casks. While the sherry is pleasant, I feel like it overwhelms the distillery a character a bit. I could also do with a bit less sweetness, but again, this is supposed to be the introduction to the brand, so it's not surprising that they would aim to make it more of a crowd-pleaser.

All of this makes me very interested to try the all-bourbon cask 10 Year/100-Proof, which I'm hoping will have more of the distillery character that I enjoy so much.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Whiskey Review: High West Rendezvous Rye

Rendezvous Rye was one of High West's first products, alongside Bourye. Both were some of the first whiskeys to tap the hidden treasures of Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (now renamed Midwest Grain Products), which was a former Seagram's plant that had been anonymously cranking out rye whiskey with a unique 95% rye mash bill for flavoring blended whiskeys.

Rendezvous rye is a mix of 6 year old rye whiskey from LDI and 16 year old, 53% rye mash bill whiskey from Barton. So it has a similar structure to the Double Rye that I reviewed earlier, but with a higher average age, both because the bulk of the whiskey is older (6 years vs. 2 years) and, given the price, there is also likely to be more of the 16 year old whiskey in the mix.

As with all of High West's whiskeys, this one is bottled at 46%.

Thanks to Michael Kravitz for the sample - see his review here.

High West Rendezvous Rye 12E0E

Nose: lots of pine, savory herbs, sawdust, caramel, vanilla, dusty grain and oak, salty/maritime. After adding a few drops of water, the pine becomes less aggressive and integrates with the wood, while some of the complexity diminishes.

Taste: wood sugars, caramel, and oak tannins throughout, with rye pine and creamy berry overtones. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter throughout, the pine, berries, and oak overlap and integrate, with the oak becoming almost raisin-y.

Finish: berries, oak tannins, light caramel

I'm just not sure this brings much to the table in comparison to Double Rye except more oak presence and sweetness. It's not bad, just not good enough to make me want to pony up for a bottle.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Whiskey Review: High West Double Rye

High West is a distillery in Park City, Utah. However, most of its fame so far has actually come from acting as an independent bottler and blender, creating whiskeys from barrels sourced from Kentucky and Indiana.

This particular whiskey is an attempt to make a more reasonably priced rye, put together from 2-year old, 95% rye mashbill whiskey from MGP and a smaller amount of 16-year old, 53% rye mashbill whiskey from the Barton distillery. These are then proofed down to a very respectable 46%.

Thanks for Michael Kravitz for the sample. See his own review here.

High West Double Rye (Batch 13C07)

Nose: a little thin, very rye-focused, vegetal/pine (PineSol), clover/alfalfa, grainy, fresh cedar, mild oak (more with time), pineapple/vanilla/bubblegum, sandalwood, berries. After adding a few drops of water, the edges are rounded off, the pine becomes richer and more sappy, there is more barrel influence, and some coffee beans and wood spices peek out.

Taste: slightly watery caramel up front, then vegetal/pine/mint with a touch of pepper and oak from the middle to back, some pineapple and berries in the middle, underlying grain throughout, more barrel sweetness with time. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes flatter but more integrated,  much sweeter (sugar rather than caramel and rounder, pepper and pine are less assertive, it's more fruit-forward (grapes and berries), there's more earthiness, and vanilla pops out.

Finish: thin and vegetal, prickly pine and pepper, mild oak and caramel

While I have been less than enamored of young MGP ryes, the older whiskey in the mix really does help to balance it. I think it takes a certain amount of digging to find the complexity - if you're primarily interested in something easy drinking or for cocktails, I would lean towards cheaper options like Bulleit or Redemption rye. But at $30, I think this actually offers something different enough to make it compete. Unfortunately it's almost $45 here in Oregon, which is far too much.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Whiskey Review: Blanton's Single Barrel

Blanton's holds the distinction of being the first modern single barrel bourbon released as a regular expression. In the depths of the mid-80s whiskey slump, Elmer T. Lee started Blanton's as a way to showcase barrel variation, which had previously been ignored as batching for consistent flavor profiles averaged out the differences. While it took almost three more decades for the idea to really gain traction, single barrel bourbons are now quite popular.

Blanton's is named after Albert Blanton, who worked at what would later become the Buffalo Trace distillery from 1897 until 1952, becoming president in 1921.

While the bourbon is distilled by Buffalo Trace, it, as well as the Rock Hill Farms and Elmer T. Lee expressions, are actually owned by a Japanese company, Age International. Edit: Unlike the other two, Blanton's usually provides information about their barrels (though this mini did not), which is nice as it allows customers to actually know whether a bottle they're scoping is from a barrel they've already tried.

The standard Single Barrel is bottled at a respectable 93-proof.

Blanton's Single Barrel

Nose: good balance of wood - caramel and tannic oak, dusty rye grain supporting, slightly vegetal and minty, corn (polenta), citrus (orange?), warm roasted carrots, brown sugar oatmeal, cream of wheat. After adding a few drops of water, there is more dusty grain (but sweeter- more corn, less rye), less oak, plus more mint and orange, and some vanilla pops out.

Taste: classic bourbon - caramel and oak tannins throughout, wood sugars over rye grain, with almost sherried dankness, and bright mint and orange peel, plus savory cooking spices (cumin and coriander). After dilution, it becomes more bittersweet, with oak dominating in a pleasant fashion with sappy/polish sweetness, more mint and savory spices come out, it's slightly medicinal at the back (cough syrup), and the caramel provides more smoothness but less sweetness, and overall it's a bit flatter.

Finish: rye pine notes, bittersweet, sugar cane grassiness, mild oak tannins, cumin

This is almost the Platonic form of bourbon - all the elements one expects are present in almost perfect harmony. However, this is a single barrel product, so one can't expect exactly the same thing every time. But between this, Elmer T. Lee, and Rock Hill Farms, the single barrel bourbons made from the Buffalo Trace high rye recipe seem to be very, very good. While this review is from a miniature, I'm quite tempted to grab a bottle. It's a shame that we don't get Blanton's Straight from the Barrel in the States, which should have even more punch, but it is reserved primarily for Japan and duty free stores.