Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whisky Review: Chivas Regal 12 Year

Chivas Regal is one of the most well-known blends in the world, owned by Pernod Ricard. This is the second biggest conglomerate in scotch whisky, with fifteen distilleries, including some of the biggest such as Glenlivet and the new Dalmunach. It is claimed that Strathisla is the 'home' of Chivas Regal and presumably this forms the biggest malt component in the blend, though it is likely that grain whisky from Strathclyde forms a much larger share.

This blend is bottled at 40% with coloring and chill filtration.

Chivas Regal 12 Year

Nose: very light - basic grain notes with a bit of malt, caramel, vanilla, a little solvent, herbal notes underneath, a faint hint of peat. After adding a few drops of water it goes even flatter.

Taste: simple malt/grain sweetness throughout, a little sherry roundness in the middle, and a surprisingly lack of oak tannins at the back. After dilution the grain whisky sticks out more and gives a bit of a bitter finish, but some fruit notes emerge (apples, pears), the sherry becomes bigger in the middle, and the oak becomes more noticeable.

Finish: grain, light oak, a bit of sherry residue

Well, it's a blend. As these things go, it manages to hit what I think was its mark: more or less inoffensive. Unlike Johnnie Walker Black Label, its most obvious competitor, there is little in the way of peat. This seems unsurprising since Pernod Ricard does not own any distilleries that regularly produce peated malt. Given the high demand over the last decade, that would not have left them in a position to trade for it in a regular fashion. So we're left with a much lighter whisky, without the dirtier backbone of JWB. With that said, it's not a bad blend by any stretch. It's just that you can get more interesting blends, like Isle of Skye 8 Year or Cutty Sark Prohibition, or basic single malts from Glenmorangie or Tomatin for only a few dollars more, so I don't think this is one I would buy again.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Whisky Review: G&C Pearls of Scotland Auchentoshan 16 Year 1998/2015

While most of Auchentoshan's lineup is not particularly well-regarded, the Three Wood gets far more love in the whisky community. This is likely because almost any malt with a big whollop of sherry will have significant appeal these days. While I wasn't quite so fond of it, I figured I would give this one a try anyway.

This whisky was distilled in September 1998, filled into sherry butt, then bottled in May 2015 at 55.3% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 590 bottles.

G&C Pearls of Scotland Auchentoshan 16 Year 1998/2015 Cask #2197

Nose: fresh, not a ton of sherry, clean malt, a little sour, grilled pineapple, savory, cured meat, creamy herbs, gentle oak. After adding a few drops of water the freshness turns into new make character briefly, then the savory character and oak become stronger.

Taste: rich but not overwhelming sherry, subdued sweetness, savory undertones, mild oak, barrel char, chocolate, and raisins start around the middle and grow slightly towards the back, herbal/grassy notes in the background throughout. After dilution some nice savory character is layered on top up front, with the oak becoming chocolate-y near the back.

Finish: dry sherry, raisins, oak tannins, leather

Unlike the bourbon matured Auchentoshans I've reviewed, this one is mostly about the sherry cask rather than the distillery. While there's nothing particularly wrong with this whisky, there's nothing very gripping either. The savory character is probably the best part, but isn't enough to make this a winner. I appreciate that it's drier than a lot of sherry casks without being overly tannic, but I think this one could have been left for another 5-10 years to develop more fully. It's OK, but that's not enough to make me shell out $100. $70, maybe, but I don't think it's going to go on sale like that.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Whisky Review: Old Malt Cask Auchentoshan 15 Year 1997/2013

Auchentoshan tends to be a hate it or love it malt, with relatively few in the latter category. While some dislike it because they find it boring, others find it a strange and inconsistent malt. I tend to be a fan, especially when aged in pure bourbon casks, but there are still exceptions.

This whisky was distilled in December 1997, filled into an ex-bourbon cask (probably Nth-refill), and bottled in May 2013 at 50% without coloring or chill filtration in an outturn of 211 bottles.

Thanks to Florin for this sample.

Old Malt Cask Auchentoshan 15 Year 1997/2013 Cask #9807

Nose: a fair bit of residual new make character - green malt and solvent, popcorn without butter, floral perfume, pink bubblegum, horse manure with partially digested hay/grass that turns somewhat peat-y with time, brine, berry jam. After adding a few drops of water the farm-y notes resolve more clearly into peat.

Taste: fairly sweet up front with a layer of caramel throughout, dirty lemon peel, vanilla, and a thick layer of dusty floral notes begin around the middle fading slightly towards the back, earthy and sour oak going into the finish. After dilution the palate becomes flatter but loses some of the more unpleasant notes in a cheap blend-y kind of way, generic sweetness and minimal oak but less grungy.

Finish: muddy floral notes, vague sweetness, cardboard, lemon furniture polish

The first time I tasted this I couldn't really understand why it was bottled. There wasn't anything that made me think it was ready for primetime. The second tasting was more positive as the younger elements had largely blown off, leaving a more pleasant but not particularly remarkable malt. Blind I might have picked it as a youngish and reasonably competent blend with a little bit of something peated. This makes me wonder if this was a cask that didn't fit any of the profiles for Auchentoshan's lineup and was sold on. It certainly doesn't seem like any other Auchentoshan I've tried before. It's still available from some shops in the EU and while I wouldn't actively dissuade anyone from buying a bottle, it wouldn't be at the top of my list. For younger Auchentoshans the 1999 bourbon barrels seem to be a better bet.

For a different perspective, check out Michael's notes from the same bottle.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Does Anyone Actually Want Complexity?

When people bemoan how much whisky has changed over the last few decades, one of the points that often comes up is that modern spirits aren't as complex as they used to be. This raises two important questions - how much have they actually changed and how much is driven by changing tastes?

The mostly commonly cited factor for why spirits used to be more complex than they are today is
A decidedly uncontrolled washback at Springbank
production methods. What most of them come down to is less control - more fallible humans operating maltings, washbacks, and stills, strains of barley less optimized for yield, more floor maltings, longer fermentation times in wooden washbacks, direct fired stills (especially if they were heated with coal) instead of steam coils, stillmen making cuts by feel, more dunnage than racked warehouses, etc. Compared to modern methods that have relentlessly focused on increasing yield and consistency, older methods were more prone to mistakes - floor maltings could operate at the wrong temperature or turn the germinating barley at the wrong time, insufficiently clean washbacks could introduce bacterial infections into the wash, direct fired stills could burn the wash and create off flavors, and improperly timed cuts could let heads or tails into the hearts.

To quote Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg and Ed Dodson of Glen Moray:

"The ‘good old days’: ‘A large proportion of the whisky made 30, 40 and more years ago was horribly inconsistent… Ed Dodson, the former distillery manager at Glen Moray, laughs and says: “Bill, you know, the reason we closed the floor maltings down was because the malt we made was [crap], because we couldn’t do it properly, we just didn’t have the facilities to do it.” The whisky was all over the place.’"

At the same time that variability could occasionally come together to produce accidental brilliance - uncontrollable factors that made a uniquely good cask or batch that would be less likely to happen in today's far more controlled environment. This creates a trade-off - we're less likely to drink overtly flawed whisky now because there are fewer dud casks, but there are fewer of the soaring accidents of yesteryear.

With all that said, there is nothing stopping modern distilleries from reverting back to previously used production methods. Many distilleries retain these kinds of features - floor maltings, worm tub condensers, direct-fired stills, and the like. There were rumbles a few years ago that Ardbeg might rebuild its floor maltings, which have been silent since the early 1980s, but it appears that the powers that be decided not to greenlight the project. All of this suggests that distillers do not believe that the costs of less efficient production will be offset by increased sales of higher quality products.

If anything, the malts that have become popular over the last decade suggest that less rather more complexity is what many drinkers want. In 2008 Bruichladdich kicked off the Peat Wars with Octomore, which featured higher phenolic PPMs in the malted barley used to make the whisky than anything that had come before. Ardbeg responded with Supernova in 2009, which, while somewhat more modestly peated than Octomore, more than held its own. Since then an increasing number of distilleries have released heavily peated whiskies, often following in the footsteps of Octomore and Supernova by being NAS and likely young, thus retaining more of the peatiness that drinkers are looking for. While these whiskies can be good in their own terms, I have joked that the only way for them to push the envelope would be for the next release to be a ticket to Islay where someone would shove your face into a peat bog.

We have seen similar trends when it comes to sherry maturation. While it is unquestionable that many of the whiskies that led this trend, including Aberlour A'Bunadh, Glenfarclas 105, and Macallan Cask Strength, were and often are quite good, the singular focus seems to have led to increasingly unidimensional whiskies. They are bombastic and often enjoyable, but the combination of more and more first-fill sherry casks coupled with increasing youthfulness as stocks are strained means that they often end up being little more than high-proof sherry, with much of what we think of as malt whisky character subsumed by the wine. I think this can also be seen in the rapturous praise that is heaped on extremely dark whiskies that have not been colored with spirit caramel, as many believe this suggests a particularly active sherry cask. In my own experience these are often too sherried, with little else to recommend them.

My personal feeling is that the decreases in complexity are driven by both of these factors. Tighter stocks and more consistent production methods have decreased the scope for complexity, leading to few complex whiskies available on the market. At the same time, the influx of new drinkers has brought in many people who are looking for bold, comparatively simple flavor profiles, which has encouraged producers to cater to those tastes. While this is good for distillers, who can now move younger whisky more easily and a happy coincidence for the drinkers who enjoy those spirits, it leaves the people who are looking more more complex, subtle spirits in a bind without clear solutions.

Monday, October 30, 2017

New Cocktails: the Great Satan

I found this Negroni variation through Cocktail Virgin that piqued my interest. Mezcal, much like peated whisky, can be a difficult ingredient to work with because it is so bold, but the heft of a strong amaro and an equally powerful vermouth in the form of Punt e Mes seemed like they could tame it.

The Great Satan

1 oz mezcal
1 oz Ramazzotti
1 oz sweet vermouth

Combine ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with orange peel.

The nose is dominated by the smoke and plastic from the mezcal, backed up by herbs and mint from the Ramazzotti. The sip opens sweetly with cherry and faint smoke in the background, which becomes stronger towards the back. Herbs and orange peel pop out in the middle. The finish is balanced between the sweet vermouth and plastic-y smoke.

This is a rather peculiar drink. It took a while to grow on my and the plastic notes from the Mezcal Vida continued to through a bit of a wrench in the works. However, the cherry, citrus, and herbal notes provided an excellent counterpoint. I'd be interested to try this again with either a slightly more refined mezcal or possibly a peated whisky in its place.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Whisky Review: Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Bruichladdich 19 Year 1992/2012

While I have a complex relationship with Bruichladdich, there are just enough expressions that I really enjoy to keep me on the lookout for more, however many of them end up being stinkers. So I was pleasantly surprised when The Party Source had a well-aged Bruichladdich at what looked like a killer price (subsequently jacked up significantly). After working my way through a number of other expressions without any kind of fussy cask finishes, this seemed like the next one to try.

This whisky was distilled on November 20th 1992, filled into an ex-bourbon hogshead (probably refill) #3627, and proofed down to 46% without coloring or chill filtration on March 5th 2012 in an outturn of 342 bottles.

Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Bruichladdich 19 Year 1992/2012 Cask #3627

Nose: malty, green, a touch of seashore and vanilla, honey, distant oak. After adding a few drops of water the oak becomes a little more present, some banana and berry notes emerge, and the malt becomes more grainy.

Taste: malt and wood sweetness up front, trademark Bruichladdich salinity with honey and mild bourbon cask fruit esters in the middle, fades out through malt with a touch of bitterness, citrus, vanilla, and oak. After dilution it is largely unchanged, though possibly a little smoother and sweeter.

Finish: fresh malt, a touch of seashore/salinity, vanilla, hints of oak

The best I can say for this whisky is that there's nothing to actively dislike about it. Well, except for the part where I shelled out ~$90 for a whisky that is kind of boring. While I had hoped that Signatory was slipping us a bargain in comparison to OB Bruichladdichs of comparable age - usually double or triple what I paid for this - it appears that they decided to bottle it to catch the Laddie hype with something that wasn't going to get any better if they continued to sit on the cask. Just goes to show that sometimes a deal that seems too good to be true actually is. Unfortunately at the time I bought it the TPS review "It's a great study in malt character, if a bit basic in that regard." hadn't been posted or I might have more wisely given it a miss.

For a slightly different take on this whisky, check out Michael Kravitz's review.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 15 Year First Edition

Bruichladdich 15 Year was part of the first wave of releases after the distillery was reopened by Mark Reynier and Co in the early-2000s. This was a fairly standard set of releases, including a 10 Year and a 17 Year, which were fairly standard combinations of bourbon and sherry casks that had been distilled under the previous regime.

The whisky was bottled at 46% without coloring or chill filtration and released in 2003. This miniature was purchased at the Islay Whisky Shop in 2013 during my trip to Scotland.

Bruichladdich 15 Year First Edition

Nose: rich, buttery fortified wine character, dried fruit, light vanilla, solid oak (American/European), background malt, orange/lime peel, floral. After adding a few drops of water the wine and malt notes are amplified, softer overall, and some cinnamon notes come out.

Taste: wine-driven, sweet fruit (grape) and honey up front, growing acidic and floral towards the back, grassy/oak bitterness into the finish. After dilution the fruit becomes brighter, there is more citrus and less acidity, plus increased oak tannins.

Finish: acidic, grape, light European oak, grassy malt

While I think this is a good whisky, I found it a little hard to find the 'Laddie character underneath the wine. In a lot of ways this is surprising since the first edition was a very sensible mix of bourbon and sherry casks, but it is in keeping with their style at the time.

In an interesting demonstration of the influence of expectations, I originally thought that this was the second rather the first edition, which would have meant that it had a sauternes cask finish rather than the sherry. Lo and behold, I interpreted a lot of the wine notes as sauternes, à la Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or. When I corrected this impression, the wine notes were more clearly sherry. So mistaken beliefs about what you're drinking can radically alter your perceptions.