Monday, November 23, 2015

Whisky Review: Prime Malt Dailuaine 10 Year

Prime Malt is brand of the independent bottler Gordon Bonding Co, which may have some connection to Duncan Taylor. Whatever the provenance, they released a number of very reasonably priced single malts during the early-2000s that never seem to have grabbed much attention. The plain labels, relatively low bottling proof, and complete lack of name recognition might have something to do with that. But a few are still available and still cheap. I was able to pick up this bottle from Binny's during my last order before they stopped shipping.

Dailuaine is a distillery that I have not had too much experience with, which is unsurprising as very little of its output is bottled as single malt. It's another distillery in Diageo's vast stable that exists primarily to provide stock for its blends. However, I have been able to sample an old SMWS Dailuaine that was very, very good and I have nominally tried it as part of Compass Box's Oak Cross blended malt. But, as I said, very limited experience. This particular bottle gives very little information, stating only that it was aged in 'oak casks', which likely means a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, since that's usually the default in these cases. Either way, it's bottled at 43%, likely without coloring given the pale hue and possibly without chill filtration since I can see some sediment if I give the bottle a shake.

Prime Malt Dailuaine 10 Year

Nose: lots of clean fresh malt, light notes of apple and pear, orange peel, a touch of vanilla, some floral character, a little musky or oily. After adding a few drops of water, the malt character shifts into a grainier mode, but is otherwise largely unchanged.

Taste: clean malt up front with mild sweetness, gentle floral, apple/pear, grape, orange peel, and berry notes appear around the middle, light oak at the back. After dilution, the sweet malt becomes thicker, somewhat washing out the berry notes in the middle.

Finish: clean malt sweetness, very mild oak, fruit and berry esters, biscuit-y, light but lingering floral notes

This is an uncomplicated but enjoyable single malt. Nothing fancy, but nothing wrong. Surprising for its age, it does gain a bit more depth and complexity after sitting in the glass for a while, but even that has its limits. I'd also skip the water, since that seems to rob it of whatever complexity it has in favor of straight-forward malt.

Good, clean spirit appears to have been filled into casks with just enough extractives left to rub off any rough edges without imparting too much wood character. The bottling strength is just enough to give it a bit of weight without too much alcohol heat, making it for me better than many entry-level malts that are simply too tepid at 40%. The closest easily available whisky like this would be Glenmorangie Original, though that is more oak-heavy given Bill Lumsden's well-known focus on casks. And as with all Prime Malt releases in the US, the price is right, especially in the current climate - this is under $40 and would be my pick over any number of comparably priced single malts from Glenfiddich or Glenlivet. While there are only a few stores with this left, if you happen to run into it, I would highly recommend grabbing a bottle.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Whisky Review: Benriach Septendecim

Septendecim (a somewhat uncreative choice as it means 17 in Latin) was first released in 2012 and hit the American market last year. It rounds out their peated lineup, squarely in between the entry-level Curiositas 10 Year and the recently upgraded Authenticus from 21 to 25 years old.

Like the 10 and 25 year expression, Septendecim is aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

Thanks to Dave McEldowney of PDXWhisky for letting me sample this one.

Benriach Septendecim

Nose: mossy/smokey peat, organic/farm-y, vanilla, bubblegum, berries, grape/purple, oak, malt, fresh hay, smoked ham/fish, salty, freshly tanned leather. After adding a few drops of water it becomes softer, the peat becomes more mossy with the smoke holding on underneath, the oak and farm-y notes retreat and integrate, unripe apples and pears emerge, and there's a touch of anise.

Taste: sweet fresh malt up with fruit/berry overtones and hay in the background, slides towards building (but ultimately restrained) oak tannins, dirty vanilla, a hint of citrus on top, organic/farm notes, and mossy peat smoke at the back. After dilution, the peat becomes softer and spreads across the palate, showing up right after the initial sweet malt, the fruit and berry notes are pushed to the back, and the vanilla integrates with the malt.

Finish: sweet peat smoke, moderate oak, earthy, vanilla, whipped cream

One of the main things that holds me back from recommending Benriach's peated malts in a full-throated fashion is the fact that they almost universally seem to have very heavy oak influence. While the bitter tannins sometimes complement the sharp peat smoke, they can also throw the experience out of balance. Despite being 50% older than most of the peated Benriach I've tried before, Septendecim manages to achieve a far better balance, with the oak being a component, but not overwhelming the other elements. It also manages to be significantly better than the 19 year old single cask bottled for K&L that I recently tried.

While there are significant differences between the two, this reminds me a lot of Laphroaig 18 Year, with the same heavy vanilla component balanced with sweetness, oak, and peat. However, I like the Benriach better because the vanilla is less heavy-handed and it's not quite as sweet. Whatever the reason, Septendecim really hits the mark for me. As a bonus, it's quite reasonably priced, running under $90 in most parts of the States. Given steadily rising prices for older single malts, it's nice to see an independently owned company providing quality whisky at a solid price.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Whisky Review: Benriach 19 Year 1994/2014 for K&L

K&L is one of the few retailers in the US with a prolific single cask program. As part of that, they've been able to source casks directly from Benriach and its sister distillery Glendronach that were bottled by their respective distilleries rather than going through independent bottlers.

This particular cask is heavily peated spirit that was distilled in 1994, aged in an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled in 2014 at 53% without coloring or chill filtration.

After it was discounted, I ended up splitting a bottle several ways with Michael Kravitz, Florin, and MAO, who should have their own reviews up at the same time.

Benriach 19 Year 1994/2014 Cask #7187 for K&L

Nose: lots of aromatic oak, cedar, dry malt with a salty edge, peat smoke, tar, fresh hay, berries, caramel. After adding a few drops of water, the berries become bigger and sweeter, but the oak expands to push the peat out of the way.

Taste: barrel sweetness throughout, big berries and stone fruit beginning around the middle and carrying through, rising tide of oak near the back, a bump of malt joins the peat that begins just before the finish. After dilution, the wood becomes more dominant and sweeter - pushing out a lot of the other character, some caramel comes out around the middle, while the oak is more tannic at the back.

Finish: oak, salty malt, lingering peat, seashore, marsh, hints of berries

This is a cask that I suspect was sold on partially due to the fact that it's right on the edge of being over-oaked. While less tannic than many other peated Benriachs I've tried, the wood is very present and almost overwhelms the other elements, especially on the nose. If you've tried Curiositas before I think the structure of this whisky will be familiar, though age has amped up the oak while reducing the peat. It's also hotter at 53% than I would have expected. Dilution softens it a bit, but reduces its complexity even further. Surprisingly for all the wood, there don't seem to be a lot of the other extractives one would expect from this kind of cask - the lack of vanilla keeps the overall experience somewhat sharp.

Ultimately, this one doesn't quite click for me. I like the elements, but not their balance. I far prefer the OB Septendecim - which I'll review later this week - which has more peat character despite the lower strength and has far better balance, while running at roughly half the price of what this single cask was going for originally. At $150, I expect a lot more nuance and complexity than this cask has to offer. Slightly further afield, the Chieftain's Bunnahabhain 16 Year that was picked for K&L rested on a similar foundation of peat and oak, but pulled off a kind of bombast that this Benriach doesn't manage. Ultimately it's irrelevant as both the Benriach and Bunnahabhain single casks have sold out after being reduced in price, but this has made me more skeptical of the value proposition represented by Benriach's single casks.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Whisky Review: Faultline Blend

While it's become increasingly common for stores to offer exclusive cask picks, very few have gone so far as to construct their own blends. It's both more technically challenging, as flavors need to be balanced while being conscious of the price of the components, and riskier as it requires buying much more whisky than the several hundred bottles that a single cask usually produces. However the folks at K&L Wines decided to take the plunge and release a blend under their Faultline label.

This whisky is bottled at a solid 50%, without coloring and probably without chill filtration given the proof.

I got this as part of a split with Michael Kravitz and MAO, who should have their own reviews up at the same time.

Faultline Blended Whisky

Nose: mossy/vegetal peat, a little seaweed, ginger snaps, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, light grain and malt, bourbon cask berries and oak, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the peat becomes smokier and joins up with the oak to give an incense note.

Taste: basic malt and grain sweetness coupled with light berries and mild oak tannins throughout, peat pops out around the middle and rides on top while some sherry and chocolate plus more oak and berries emerge around the back. After dilution, the sherry spreads across the palate and gives it a thicker feel, while the peat retreats and integrates with the sherry and oak.

Finish: peat, oak, berry, chocolate, and malt/grain residue,

I have to hand it to the Davids, this is a rather well-constructed blended whisky at an eminently affordable price point. With that said, it only hit that point after I'd had the sample open for a number of months - when I first cracked the cap it was almost all young Ledaig assaulting my senses, which was rather overwhelming. With time the peat has settled down and integrated, providing a more pleasant experience overall. Now it's somewhere in the ballpark of Springbank, Highland Park, or Talisker. Speaking of which, adding a little bit of extra malt can really smooth it out - I particularly enjoyed adding a touch of Highland Park 15 Year, which amped up the sherry character and provided a bridge to the noisier Ledaig peat.

The closest comparable blend I can think of is Isle of Skye 8 Year, which packs a similar amount of peat at a similar price point, but at a reduced proof. All said and done, I think I would give a bit of an edge to the Faultline, simply because of the higher alcohol content letting it stretch further. I'll probably throw in a bottle the next time I order from K&L. For $25 it's hard to go far wrong as long as you enjoy some peat in your whisky.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Johnnie Walker Blue Label is, almost without a doubt, the greatest triumph of marketing within the scotch whisky world. Based purely on trust, as the bottle contains absolutely no age statements or firm expressions of provenance, Diageo has been able to build an almost impenetrable mystique around it and charge accordingly.

Nominally Blue Label is built from Diageo's 'rarest whiskies' of 'particular qualities' 'fine enough' for the expression. Which tells you exactly nothing. I've seen it suggested that Royal Lochnagar makes up a large percentage of the malt component, but what the other components are and how much of them are in the final mix is completely unknown. Diageo also drops hints that they include casks from closed distilleries, which would make them both old and rare at this point, but we have no way of knowing that and even if they are ingredients, they could very well be teaspooned in and contribute next to nothing to the flavor.

So, in essence, Blue Label is good because we have been told that it is good and many drinkers continue to believe that it is. With that said, it is constructed to appeal to people for whom that will be a self-reinforcing belief. Blue Label is the definition of smoothness, which, if you ask most spirits drinkers, is exactly what they are looking for. It tastes old, without having any well-defined characteristics that stand out from the experience as a whole. There is peat and sherry, but neither is a defining characteristic of the blend unless you're looking for them. It is almost an anti-geek whisky, but when Oregon put 200 mL bottles on sale for $30 I grabbed one because I was never going to have another opportunity to try it for a reasonable price.

So what is definite? The whisky is currently bottled at 40% ABV and is almost certainly colored and chill filtered.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bottled TA2 04000

Nose: balanced malt and grain, a hint of sherry, gentle old Caol Ila peat, mild toasted oak, slightly herbal, some floral notes tucked inside. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and oak perk up a bit, the peat and herbal notes come together, the malt fades a bit in favor of the grain, and a bit of burned cinnamon peeks out.

Taste: smooth, smooth, smooth - opens with mild grain and malt sweetness, sliding through an overlay of sherry with a puff of peat and oak near the back. After dilution, almost everything becomes more muddled and indistinct, except the grain becoming stronger at the back,

Finish: light sherry over grain and malt, a little peat and oak

The components of Blue Label are like river rocks polished by time. Everything flows cleanly from one element to the next without a bump. There's absolutely nothing objectionable about this whisky, other than the fact that you can probably get almost exactly the same experience for a fraction of the price. Heck, Johnnie Walker Green Label has a lot of the same characteristics, at higher proof and one third the price. But the appeal of Blue Label will continue to be not its price, but the perception of quality. So I have no doubt that people will continue to buy it. I just won't be included within their ranks - while I enjoyed this, I also see no reason to spend money on it again.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Green Label

Johnnie Walker Green Label is an oddity within the brand: a blended whisky composed entirely of malt among a seas of blended whiskies that contain grain. It was almost entirely withdrawn from the market a few years back as the lineup was reformulated, much to the consternation of whisky geeks. However, this was a completely understandable move from the perspective of Diageo, which has always been focused on its blends. The teenage malt components of Green Label could much more profitably spread across their blended whiskies or held in reserve for higher margin single malts, especially those like Talisker where they were having trouble keeping up with demand.

In a sign that the whisky market may be turning a corner, Green Label was reintroduced (albeit officially only temporarily) to the American market within the last year, even more surprisingly with the age statement intact and at roughly the same price point. Reviews suggest that the latest releases are basically the same in terms of flavor as well.

This sample is the previous version, bottled in 2006. It's at 43%, almost certainly with coloring and chill filtration. Thanks for Michael for the sample.

Johnnie Walker Green Label

Nose: lovely blend of Talisker and Caol Ila peat, a touch of wood smoke, pine resin, citrus peel, significant but not overpowering oak, something savory (yeast extract?), lightly burnt wildflowers, fudge-y, honey, breakfast cereal, underlying malt. After adding a few drops of water, the oak comes to the fore and pulls out more malt and floral notes, with the peat slipping back a bit.

Taste: lots of wood and malt sweetness throughout, berries and floral notes in the background, oak, sherry, and peat rise briefly near the back, then fade into herbal caramel. After dilution, the sweetness become smoother, with the floral notes becoming stronger at the back, and the oak waits until later to emerge.

Finish: caramel, light oak, pineapple, berry, sherry, and floral residue

As Curt of All Things Whisky noted, this blended whisky is not so much the components coming together to form a harmonious whole, but closer to a display of each in turn. While that's not a knock on its quality, the seams are clearly visible. The main elements are Linkwood and Cragganmore, two unpeated Speysiders, and Talisker and Caol Ila, two peated island whiskies. Each brings its own character to the mix and there's good evolution in the aromas and flavors. Even if those elements aren't necessarily integrated, they are balanced. Kind of like Highland Park, this ticks the 'a little bit of everything' box that makes it an enjoyable drink that doesn't require a lot of attention. It's easily worth the upgrade from Black Label as the all-malt construction gives it a lot more depth. So while there are comparably priced single malts that I would pick over Green Label, it's well worth having in your cabinet for less meditative evenings.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Whisky Review: Johnnie Walker Black Label - 1970s vs. Today

Johnnie Walker is one of the oldest and obviously most well-established brands of blended whisky in Scotland. The vast array of malt and grain distilleries owned by Diageo give it the scope to maintain almost unparalleled consistency through the magic of cask averaging. But with that said, changes must have occurred over the decades as production methods change, distilleries are opened and closed, and stock levels rise and fall.

I was lucky enough to get to try a bit of Johnnie Walker Black Label bottled in the 1970s care of Micahel Kravitz. You can read about the history of the bottle here and here. Suffice it to say that this is a piece of history.

There are both similarities and differences on the surface. Both are composed of grain and malt whiskies, but the proportions and distilleries those components were sourced from may have changed radically in the intervening years. Both are likely colored and chill-filtered. The bottle from the 70s is at a rather precise 43.4% while the new mini is at 43%. The old bottle didn't carry an explicit age statement while the new one does.

Johnnie Walker Black Label Duty Free - 1970s

Nose: odd sherry character with a metallic lavender edge, raisins, savory/yeasty, herbal, maple syrup, peanut brittle, grain (corn/wheat), a little sulfur, a whiff of peat and incense. After adding a few more drops of water, it gets drier and more savory, the sherry integrates a bit and shifts towards a more modern style, dry vanilla emerges, there's more American oak/bourbon character.

Taste: sherry hangs over the entire palate, opens with sweet malt that slowly transforms into grain with rising oak tannins, berry esters and gentle floral notes in the middle, bittersweet at the back. After dilution, the sherry becomes more integrated with the malt and grain, the savory character is ramped up, some vanilla comes out, and it gets more American oak/bourbon character.

Finish: metallic, savory, malt/grain, sherry residue, light but long lasting peat

It's hard for me to judge this, simply because it's so clearly constructed for a very different era in taste. It is far less immediately approachable than modern blends, which seek to round off all of the rough edges of the spirit. The flavors here are much more bold and less integrated, with the sherry speaking very loudly and with very different character than any modern sherry cask whisky I've tried.  One suspects that this might be due to the use of paxarete casks before the 1980s, as that would generate an entirely different profile from modern sherry casks that emulate more closely the transport casks of the 19th century.

Beyond the sherry, the cask influence was not readily apparent at full strength. But the use of refill casks could explain the lack of tannins or much vanilla. Instead this is a very spirit-driven whisky. Some of the differences might reflect the more widespread use of maize for making grain whisky during the middle of the 20th century, while there was generally a shift to wheat in the 1980s. But more likely this due to differences in the way malt whisky was produced. The intense savoriness of this whisky, especially on the nose, is really different than modern blends. The decreasing protein content of modern barley strains as well as increased copper contact as distilleries shifted from worm tub condensers could both account for these differences.

Ultimately, I would be pretty happy drinking a whole bottle of this blend. It's challenging, but ultimately an enjoyable experience. If you're in Europe, these do pop up at auction semi-regularly, so it's worth keeping an eye out. They don't seem to go for absurd amounts of money, so it's worth trying some history.

Johnnie Walker Black Label - Modern

Nose: grain-forward, malt behind, a touch of soft sherry, hints of Caol Ila peat, maple syrup, orange peel, vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes even stronger, oak and savory notes finally emerge, the peat becomes more mossy, the orange peel starts to resemble Starbursts,

Taste: caramel/grain/malt sweetness up front, shifting a bit towards bittersweet around the back, some sherry and soft oak come out around the middle. After dilution, it becomes sweeter, but grainier and more bland, with the sherry integrating and bolstering the caramel.

Finish: soft sherry, oak, grain, a touch of malt, a whiff of peat

Modern Black Label does exactly what it's supposed to do - provide an inoffensive but not completely boring experience. I've covered it a couple of times, in both 40% and 43% incarnations. In either guise, the most readily apparently difference with the 1970s version is the lack of sherry. What is there lacks the deep funkiness of the 70s bottling, again keeping the experience in a firmly unchallenging mode. Whether this is better or worse is going to depend on your taste, but it's clear that the scope of flavors allowed into the blend has narrowed and the malt content has dropped significantly. I still feel comfortable recommending modern Black Label, especially as a platform for further blending, but it's nothing like what it used to be.