Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Whisky Review: Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005

For a number of years now, Laphroaig has been releasing their ten year old cask strength whisky in batches, roughly one a year, since 2009. While nominally forced to do so by the SWA, it has had the added benefit of making them even more popular, as whisky geeks try to hunt down every batch in an effort to see how they are different from each other. We're now up to the sixth release in America, but I'm a little behind the times. Thankfully, unlike Europe, batches don't tend to sell out immediately over here.

Nominally, this is roughly the same whisky that goes into the standard 10 Year, but undiluted and un-chill filtered. Batch 005 was bottled at at pretty hefty 57.2% and was released in February 2013.

Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 005

Nose: classic Laphroaig malt character, fresh grain and the earth it was grown in, leafy/mossy peat, vanilla, thick slab of oak, putty, dusty pepper. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes fresher and more prominent, the peat becomes more mossy, some sandalwood incense smoke pops out, and it gains an almost buttery quality.

Taste: thick cask strength caramel sweetness throughout, sharp, heavy oak quickly descends on the palate, almost obscuring the peat. After dilution, the palate becomes almost aggressively sweet, the sugars integrate with the oak, the peat almost disappears until the very end, and some bourbon cask berry/fruit notes emerge in the middle.

Finish: moderately bitter oak tannins, day-old ashes, malt and peat peek around the edges

More than anything else, this feels like an even more amped-up version of Quarter Cask. You have the same basic elements - lots of sweetness, lots of wood, and less peat than you might expect. Laphroaig seems to be shifting towards managing their casks for maximum extraction, which, to me, results in minimal complexity. I will give some points to the nose, but the taste seems like a huge let-down in comparison. After trying the dilutions I made, I also notice that this takes a lot more time to open up at full strength.

Laphroaig Cask Strength at 50%

Nose: noticeably more fruit/berry notes than the other strengths, strong undercurrent of toasted oak, backed up by creamy fresh vanilla malt, peat is very mossy and subdued, dusty soil, honey,

Taste:very oak-driven, with wood and malt sweetness up front flowing into polished wood, fruit/berry esters, black pepper, and oak tannins integrated with peat, to give a somewhat astringent character, with a final puff of mossy peat right at the back

Finish: polished oak, phenolic tannins, a mix of fresh and decaying vegetation, ink

This may be my favorite strength. While the wood is starting to dominate, it hasn't obliterated the Laphroaig character like it does undiluted. Additionally, while the flavors and aromas are at a solid level of intensity, the alcohol doesn't make itself too apparent and it opens up more quickly than at full strength. This makes me wish for an NAS Laphroaig at 50% without any fancy casks. Just give it to me raw.

Laphroaig Cask Strength at 45%

Nose: mossy Laphroaig peat with a touch of ash is much more evident and rides on top of the other aromas, fresh ground malt and bread dough just underneath, with a touch of seashore air and berries, oak is minimal and well-integrated

Taste: clean sweetness dominates up front, with a brief burst of bourbon barrel berry/fruit esters, becoming someone flat in the middle before fading out with fresh malt and mild mossy peat, while the oak and vanilla sit under everything else - adding a layer of richness

Finish: gentle peat and malt

This brings the spirit more in line with its reduce 10 Year brethren, though I find it interesting that the taste has less intensity than the standard 10Year at 43%. Though this integrated for several weeks, it still seems a bit watery, though not offensively so. Just goes to show that casks that work well at full strength are not necessarily the same ones that work well when they are reduced.

As a side-note, one thing I noticed after making these dilutions was that the one at 45% was obviously cloudy - there's a good reason the cut-off for non-chill filtered whiskies is usually 46%.

Overall, I have to say that this whisky wasn't what I was hoping for. After reading reviews of earlier batches, it sounded like Cask Strength had minimal cask impact, opting instead to let the unique character of Laphroaig's spirit shine. So this more oak-driven release was something of a disappointment. It's not bad whisky, it's just that it feels like they're trying to cover something up, instead of letting the peat shine. Thankfully it sounds like Batch 006 may have returned to their original formula, so I have hopes that this was an aberration rather than the direction in which Laphroaig is taking all of their whiskies.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whisky Review: Exclusive Malts 'Island Distillery' 7 Year/2005 for K&L Wines

As I noted when reviewing a previous Exclusive Malts Ledaig, it seems like more and more young single malts from the distillery are being bottled.

This particular cask, while of the same vintage (it seems like a lot of the recent Ledaigs have been from 2005) and type (ex-bourbon), is slightly younger and was selected by the Davids at K&L Wines. It was bottled at 57.2% without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Florin for a sample of this whisky.

Exclusive Malts 'Island Distillery' 7 Year

Nose: lots of fresh vegetal peat with fairly well-integrated new make notes, warm rubber, toasted and fresh wood notes, restrained malt underneath, salty playdough, seaweed, struck matches, an undercurrent of lavender fields, ethereal berry notes. After adding a few drops of water, the peat becomes cleaner, more vegetal, and less earthy, while the malt and oak are emphasized, and some maritime notes come out.

Taste: restrained malt and wood sweetness up front, fading into earthy cacao, grainy malt, vegetal peat, and bittersweet oak, with light berry esters riding on top over everything. After dilution, the berry esters and malt/wood sweet become more prominent, while the peat becomes more mild, all making it seem less youthful and toning down the alcohol.

Finish: malt sweetened vegetal peat, mild oak tannins, earthy loam, and lots of alcohol heat

This seems significantly better than the Exclusive Malts Ledaig 8 Year/2005 I reviewed a little while ago. There's just enough oak and oxidation to temper the youthfulness without losing too much of the unique qualities of the spirit. With that said, it still doesn't have anything on the Blackadder Ledaig 6 Year I tried - sherry casks seem to be necessary to transform young Ledaig spirit from a curiosity into something magnificent. As is, I feel like this remains no more than a curiosity - if I want a younger Ledaig, I would still turn to the OB 10 Year first as it is much more enjoyable. On the upside, this EM bottling isn't a whole lot more money ($60), which is one of the requirements for picking up something as an education rather than enjoyment (though I'd still try to split it with a few friends or put it in a tasting). As of this post, there are still a number of bottles left, so if this or any other reviews (see Michael, who liked it a lot more, and MAO, who seemed closer to my feelings) make you want to grab some, it's still available.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Whisky Review: Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 18 Year 1996/2014

This is another one of the single cask releases from the Creative Whisky Company.

Glenrothes is another Speyside distillery that primarily focuses on producing spirit for blends (Cutty Sark has Glenrothes as a major constituent) - only 2% of their output goes into single malts. Ownership is somewhat peculiar - the independent bottler Berry Brothers & Rudd owns the rights to the Glenrothes single malt brand, but the distillery itself remains in the hands of Edrington, owners of the more famous Macallan and Highland Park distilleries.

I've heard very mixed reviews of Glenrothes before - a lot of people actively loathe their single malts, but a few people seem to enjoy them. Sifting through, it seems like sherry casks and age help a lot. Thankfully this particular whisky has both.

This whisky was bottled from a single sherry cask at 52.3% without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to Helen at ImpEx Beverages for this sample.

Exclusive Malts Glenrothes 18 Year 1996/2014

Nose: honeyed malt, soy sauce, mildly sweet/dank sherry, vanilla, well-integrated mild oak, light cinnamon, green grapes, jelly candy. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes more prominent and dank,

Taste: intermingled sweet malt, honey, and oak up front, slowly fades into more oak in the middle, then sherry finally hits right near the back. After dilution, structure of the palate is flipped - the sherry moves forward and integrates with the oak - producing a sort of vinegar/soy sourness, while the malt hides until the back, the oak has much more pronounced tannic bitterness - which dries out the palate, but that effect is somewhat balanced by more malt sweetness

Finish: bittersweet sherry, soy sauce, mild oak tannins,

This is a very nice, but slightly generic Speysider. The sherry provides most of the interest, given the experience structure without overwhelming the malt. I like the way that there is a progression of flavors, rather than having them hit all at once. The fact that the structure significantly rearranges with a bit of water makes it an even more interesting experience.

This one comes down to QPR. The one place I've seen online that appears to have it for a reasonable price is Specs down in Texas. Everywhere else it's $130 and up, which isn't something I could swallow. Closer to $100 I think this would actually be a decent buy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Exclusive Malts Bowmore 12 Year 2001/2013

While Bowmore was the subject of derision for a number of years due to issues with their distillate in the late-80s and early-90s, there has been a resurgence of interest in recent years as their late-90s and early-2000s distillate becomes mature enough to bottle and the potential of the distillery has been emphasized with growing interest in older bottles like the Black, White, and Gold 1960s-vintage Bowmores. On top of that, recent special releases like The Devil's Casks have sold out in record time, suggesting that even their younger spirit can attract a lot of attention.

What we have here is a refill sherry cask from 2013 that was bottled by The Exclusive Malts at 58.4% without chill filtration or coloring. Let's see how it measures up.

Thanks to Helen at ImpEx Beverages for the sample.

Exclusive Malts Bowmore 12 Year 2001/2013

Nose: perfectly balanced peat smoke - right in between ashy, tarry, and vegetal, undergirding oak tannins, subtle sherry influence, crisp/dry Bowmore malt (seriously takes me back to standing on their malt floor), a touch of meaty sulphur, light maritime notes, some of the off wood notes I found in Devil's Casks. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes greener and fresher, with the peat fading slightly and shifting into a wood/fresh peat smoke mode, while the sherry continues to peek around the edges with brighter and lighter character,

Taste: clean malt with restrained sweetness up front, segues into dank sherry, which slides into tar, peat, and cigarette ash, with some almost wine-y oak tannins underneath, resinous pine/cedar right at the back. After dilution, the palate becomes much more tame - the sherry becomes brighter and slides forward over a lot of the malt, while the peat becomes much more restrained and fudge-y, though the odd resinous wood notes at the back now seem more obvious,

Finish: creosote-preserved logs, mossy peat, sherry residue, hints of dry malt, graham crackers

This just about makes up for the god-awful 2002/2013 Exclusive Malts Bowmore that I tried earlier this year. This is almost exactly what I want out of a sherried Bowmore: their distinctive malt character, waves of tarry smoke - all barely held together by the sherry influence. The flavors don't beat you about the face like some cask strength whiskies, but they're gripping. This is also much, much better than Bowmore's own Devil's Casks - the sweetness is less unsettling, the sherry is less overt, and the weird wood notes are much less aggressive.

As always, the sticking point is price. The best I've found - and there aren't many places that appear to have any left - is north of $100. Sadly, much like indie Laphroaig, that's just where the market is for Bowmore right now, double if it's from a sherry cask, because the distillery just isn't selling many casks anymore and demand has grown exponentially. But if you're the kind of person who likes Bowmore enough to pay the prices asked for Devil's Casks or Dorus Mor, I think you'll be very, very pleased with this one. I'm tempted, but it's just too far over the odds for me to pull the trigger.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Sonalta PX

Sonalta PX was the first release in the 'Private Editions' line of whiskies from Glenmorangie. As the name suggests, it was made from 10 year old ex-bourbon cask whisky finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks for two years, as with the rest of their standard cask finishes. As with most of the whiskies in this line, it was bottled at 46% without chill filtration or coloring.

This is another one that I got to try at the Highland Stillhouse.

Glenmorangie Sonalta PX

Nose: mushrooms, PX sherry undertones (brighter with time), dank, savory. After adding a few drops of water, there is more sherry presence and some cooked raisins.

Taste: mixed malt and subtle sherry sweetness, fades into very mild oak and some dankness. After dilution, the sherry/malt combo is more vibrant and shifts towards bittersweet, there is more oak at the back, the fruit notes are brighter, some grain whisky, raisin, and cocoa powder notes emerge.

Finish: mild sherry and malt

While my notes sound kind of simple, I enjoyed this more than any of the others I reviewed this week. Despite PX sherry generally being one of the more robustly flavored varieties, it's surprisingly subtle in this context. The fact that I mostly get dank savory character rather than overwhelming sweetness is really fun.

I really wish I could spend more time with this one, as I feel like there's a lot of character that I wasn't able to get at from one short drink, but unfortunately this one was snapped up long ago. It's a shame that most of Glenmorangie's subsequent cask finishes have dominated the spirit rather than working with it - this more delicate approach is a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Artein

Artein was the third limited release in Glenmorangie's 'Private Edition' line, announced at the beginning of 2012.

The whisky is composed of two thirds 15 year old and one third 21 year old ex-bourbon casks that were then finished in Sassicaia "Super Tuscan" Bordeaux-style red wine casks. After marrying it together, the whisky was proofed down to 46% and bottled without chill filtration or coloring.

I had a pour of this whisky at the Highland Stillhouse.

Glenmorangie Artein

Nose: lots of wine/berry esters, underlying malt, a pleasant whiff of sulphur, raspberry jam, oak is buried in the other notes, creamy vanilla, milk chocolate undertones - but elements are not well integrated overall. After adding a few drops of water, the malt and wine integrate more - but the result is kind of thin, creamier, more milk chocolate, more sherry-like wine, more toasted oak.

Taste: rather malty throughout, sour wine note ride on top, mixed with sharp but not particularly intense oak (tastes like the ex-bourbon casks were kind of tired), vanilla extract. After dilution, it becomes more integrated but still lacks a well-defined structure.

Finish: wine, malt, oak, a little heat, lemon pith

This is a really interesting contrast with Glenmorangie Companta - Artein feels like the first unsuccessful try. The red wine is present, but hasn't properly integrated with the malt whisky. Additionally, while the whisky here is older, it tastes like it came from more tired casks - there aren't enough oak tannins to give it structure. Overall I'd give this one a miss - if you like red wine finishes, Companta is the superior product.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Companta

This whisky is the latest (2014) release in Glenmorangie's series of limited edition whiskies that has included Astar, Finealta, Sonalta PX, Artein, and Ealanta. I'll be covering three of them this week in reverse chronological order of release date.

Companta is composed of two different sets of whisky finished in two different types of Côtes du Rhône Burgundy wine casks. See Josh's review at The Coopered Tot for all the details. The whisky is finally married together, proofed down to 46%, and bottled without chill filtration or coloring.

Thanks to MAO for this sample.

Glenmorangie Companta

Nose: red wine and toasted oak dominate, vanilla, raisin fudge, dried cherries, warm malt buried underneath, sandalwood incense, bubblegum/nougat, barrel char/wood smoke. After adding a few drops of water, the red wine and oak integrate and dominate to an even greater extent, the raisin notes become stronger and more dank, and some tropical fruit pops out.

Taste: sweet malt and wood sugars up front, sweeter wine, rose, and whipped cream/nougat notes in the middle, transitioning into thick oak tannins, tart raspberries, and red wine. After dilution, the flavors are flatter and less bright, while the malt, red wine, and oak fully integrate and provide a consistent set of flavors across the palate, but with more malt creaminess.

Finish: malt reasserts itself, overlaid with red wine and less aggressive oak, plus some sea salt

I can see where Bill Lumsden was trying to go with this and it is a well-constructed whisky. I found that the nose was significantly better than the palate, which felt simple by comparison. It also could have been tipped a little bit more towards letting the malt shine, but clearly that's not how he likes to put these things together. Ultimately, if you've enjoyed other Glenmorangie wine finishes, odds are that you'll enjoy this one. It's well-matured and the flavors are pleasant - they're just not my cup of tea. Either way, I'd say this is at least worth trying a pour if you can find it at a local bar, as an exercise in understanding red wine cask-finished whiskies.