“Tho’ much is taken, much abides” * or, Good Whisky Uncorks and Blows the Marketers Down: The Exclusive Malts’ 1987 Bunnahabhain 26 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

FullSizeRender copy 2I’m currently reading a history of Cognac (no surprise to friends who receive my wee hour emails on the subject) and find it interesting that, as advertising began to flourish among the sellers of cognacs in the nineteen-thirties – entre les guerres, as they phrased it then; between the wars – the equation of age and quality began to be emphasized. If it’s older and was properly matured, it’s better – that was the gist of their primitive marketing message. Now, however, the entire Scotch industry, with its deluge of no-age-statement expressions bearing more and more ridiculously romanticized names, appears hell-bent to deny the equation of quality with age. Say what they will, this 26 year old Bunnahabhain contradicts those Scotch marketers and their transparent mendacities at every sip. The idea that age equals quality is as valid now as it ever was.

The Whisky

Bunnahabhain is the northernmost distillery on Islay and it’s whisky tends to be the least peated of Islay spirits (with exceptions like Caol Ila’s unpeated 14 year old or the unpeated Bruichladdichs). But I don’t need to tell my readers these basics.

This particular bottling of Bunnahabhain juice was distilled in 1987, matured exclusively in a what I adjudge to be a second or third fill ex-bourbon hogshead, and bottled at an ABV of 47.8% in March of 2014. This is a single cask, cast strength whisky, unchillfiltered and unadulterated with the mendacious E150a coloring. This single cask produced only 297 bottles (but seek and you shall find: it’s still out there).

Appearance and Nose

The color in the glass is honey, or light amber, with no rufous blush of sherry or other wine aging or finishing evident. The relative intensity of the color suggests a second fill or (considering its 26 years in cask) perhaps a third fill ex-bourbon hogshead. The legs are thin but numerous and languid. Any whisky drinker would be seduced to follow this potion farther on…

On the nose, right up front, I get almond oil in a new rubber boot (peat?); ethereal wax, warm caramel, yesterday’s cotton candy, a creamsicle fortified with a wash of rum; white and pink Necco wafers in an old tobacco pouch; patchouli dripped on whole wheat toast; light truffle oil mixed with a smidgeon of shellac poured into a woven basket that recently held raspberries and lemons; also, as imagination whirls in this sedating mist, the smell of nylon stockings on a freshly bathed and well turned leg (smooth as silk it is, and not hirsute as that waft of patchouli might suggest); birch bark or – no, not that – balsa and cedar woods carved into a bowl that contains a mix of wet autumn leaves, garden soil, kandy korn, corn chips, salted caramels and a few maple sugar candies. And nutmeg.

This is the olfactory version of a gourmet meal (rubber boot and all!), rich without being overly pungent, enticing, tempting, drawing you forward. It’s all very subtle, but the mix of ethereal and earthly, of candied and organic and epicurean pleasures all in a keen yet beguiling balance of unlikely combinations, each element playing off the next, none overwhelming the others – yes, this is how a good whisky is supposed to greet the olfactory senses – and I like it! 23/25

Palate

Sensual, silky mouth feel. The honey, nutmeg, salted caramels and almonds find taste buds to connect to all over the top of the tongue, and then this nutty, sweet wash brings the toast and light truffle oil up and, slowly, a milder, lightly smoked paprika, which remains the dominant spice. The citrus and raspberries are still there, but are far more subtle now. While not quite as complex as the nose, this is serious pleasure. 22/25

The Finish

The paprika spice comes forward and it is the element of the finish that endures and lasts for several minutes, but it doesn’t completely overwhelm the honey-vanilla-truffle-oil sweet earthiness of this elixir. The creamsicle is still there, too, along with what seems to be a bit of unripe peach. As the spice grows in intensity, the experience slowly transforms from wet to dry and from sweet to savory. This is very good stuff. 22/25

Structure and Balance

The structure here, as with so many bottlings from Exclusive Malts, is a tight architecture of disparate but counterbalancing elements. Over the years of drinking whiskeys from this very consistent independent bottler, I’ve really grown to enjoy the challenge that each of their single cask tonics presents. Because the structure is so tight (is this the cut? the attention to and control over maturation? cask selection? all of these?), these whiskeys force the connoisseur – one who takes the time to savor and unfold his or her experience – to be patient, to give the whisky the time it requires to be properly and fully understood. This particular whisky is no different and it rewarded my patient parsing of its promise with one curiosity and delight after another.

Bunnahabhain’s own distillery bottlings are excellent, but their structure is more loose and their sweetness not quite as well balanced (as this Exclusive Malts bottling is balanced despite being an unblended product of a single cask) with other more drying and savory elements. However, I must say, the maritime characteristics are more prominent in the exquisite 18 year old distillery offering. And while I can’t say for sure if this Exclusive Malt single cask is the best Bunnahabhain I’ve ever drunk – one reason being that my memory of the distillery’s own 25 year old, which I only had once, is, though glowing and positive, vague – it very well might be. It is certainly one of the three or four best bottlings from this distillery I have ever had. 23/25

Total points for this whisky: 90

300_tennyson* This line in my title is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which you can read in its entirety here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174659

Fire Water from Planet Tar: Blackadders’s Raw Cask 15 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Ledaig 1998

LedaigSCRAW1999815y63_9PICTDear Warrior God of Ethanol – this is potent stuff! Really, this punctuates the evening’s previous sampling of one warming cognac and one lovely Speyside like the word “fuck” would punctuate a nursery rhyme. At 62.2% ABV, this isn’t the fiercest potion to ever scorch my tongue, but it tastes like it is. Fortunately, water tames and transforms this beast – somewhat – into something that can be sipped and savored without irreversible harm.

The last time I reviewed a Ledaig of around this age (the soul-smoldering cornucopia of Cadenhead’s Small Batch 16 year old Ledaig), I was immediately transported to a realm of power, poetry and mind-altering mists. The Blackadder I’m tasting here is not like that. It is powerful and there’s quite a bit going on, but it’s harder, less inviting, less organic, less yielding. Whereas Cadenhead’s luscious bottling seemed intended for peat smoke libertines, this one may be targeting masochists – which does not necessarily mean I won’t like it. Let’s see…

Appearance

Certainly more inviting than the Cadenhead, which was pale as a Chinese ghost. This is an amber-copper, almost like an older cognac but without the rufous hues, suggesting maturation in a first fill ex-bourbon cask for at least a few of it’s 15 years. And the legs are seductively viscid, treacly and oh-so-slow. At this very high ABV, I’m not surprised by any of this, but that doesn’t make its appearance any less inviting. (5/5)

Nose

Pine nuts – absolutely! In a dry old leather sack, perhaps. But the first thing one notices (before a liberal dash of water is added) is the stab of the untamed alcohol. This is certainly sharply brawny stuff, especially for a 15 year old, but even prior to a little dilution there are distinct aromas coming through. Above all else, the smell of burnt or toasted caramel. If there’s a fruit, it’s ripe banana. There is also whatever that tar-like, slightly acrid, burning-tug-boat-rope smoky peatiness from the Tobermory distillery on Mull is – and whatever it is, I love it! Both paving tar and tobacco tar aromas entwine around the scent of smoldering peanut shells. The pine nuts remain quite noticeable, even under this puissant potion’s barbed ethanol armor. Add a dropper or three or four of water (oh, the viscimitrical wonders of watching water added to such an oily demon!) and you get a bit more: Some sanded poplar comes through (yes, I was sanding poplar window trim this afternoon) and, weird to say, the smells of pewter and Vaseline. And just a hint of that singularly distinctive Springbank bloom. Is this as alluringly fulsome of wonders as the nose on the Cadenhead? No. Is this nonetheless an experience I would wish for my whisky-savoring friends? Well, despite the fact that it may burn out all of their nasal hairs – Yes, it is. (17/20)

Palate

The taste is predominantly honey, charred caramel, butter, crayons, pine sap and burnt toast. And maybe a bit of cowhide. Those are the only elements I can pull out of this thorny palate, six or seven of them, but that doesn’t make it simple or lacking in complexity. This is certainly a unique combination of taste elements, an appetizing soup of very angular sweets and savories. And the spice is like crushed black pepper inhaling a waft of ginger. And of course there’s the sting of the alcohol, like a red-hot-pepper infused clover honey. For once, I am a tad more intrigued by the palate than by the nose! (18/20)

Finish

This is where this whisky is most evidently lacking in sophistication. It is just too sharp and pungent – even with liberal squirts of filtered water added. It’s a very long finish because the burn of the alcohol won’t quit, but it is undeniably harsh. Add too much water and it lacks interest altogether – there doesn’t seem to be a happy balance point between fiery burn and insipidity (I tried diluting it with water, little by little, in three different glasses three different times, to no avail). There is honey and something bitter here, like a very overripe melon, perhaps, but this is not the long warming finish of a great whisky by any means. It scorches and dries the tongue, burns the throat like napalm, and any promise of heart-warming becomes heartburn much too soon. (14/20)

Balance/Structure

In one sense, this traces a perfect arc – from a harsh stabbing nose to less harshness on the palate to a ruinously harsh desert fire in the finish. So, yes, it is certainly in balance with itself, but is it the balance one would hope for? No. (14/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Okay, this is not the easy becalming mellow that some great whiskeys give; it just remains too harsh, even here in the realm of the mental-buzz. The unending harshness of the finish distracts the drinker from the thermal, affable place one hopes to arrive at in a long night of savoring good whisky; nor is this one of those bright-light intellectually keening experiences the highly refined cask strength Speysiders sometimes bestow upon a drinker. No, this is just too harsh – that’s the word for this one. And while the hope was certainly there at the start, to be carried to the land of the carefree by a compelling ethanolic beverage, this one is just too stingingly distracting to bring one peace or much pleasure at the end of the day. And if an expensive bottle of Scotch like this one can’t do that, what the hell is it good for? (9/15)

Total points for this whisky: 77

A Hiccup in Trueheartedness: My Sidetracking Affaire de Coeur with California Brandy

14 - 1-1Remember these names: Hubert Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale and Dan Farber. And this book: American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution.

I’m asking you to remember what I am convinced I shall never forget. The book, by James Rodewald, is compelling from beginning to end and provides a selective but relevant and informative overview of the art of craft spirit making in America. Though I am not typically a cheerleader for American distilleries – with a few very remarkable exceptions, I prefer Scotch malt whisky in every way – this book, consisting for the most part of interviews with the distillers themselves – is a delight to read and may persuade you to sample a few or a dozen American spirits that you might never have tried otherwise. I suggest you go buy the book right now and read it. I’ll wait…

There we go… The chapter that stood out as unique for me was #7, on the Germain-Robin and Osocalis brandy distilleries in California.

After searching through five large liquor stores in my region, I finally found a store that had one bottle from each distiller, both entry-level bottlings costing about $45 each. More searching in more stores in both upstate NY and in MA has turned up nothing. I resist ordering good spirits online, but again, as so often, I am left no alternative.

As I wait for the mail, and before I get to my notes on the entry-level brandies themselves, I’d like to quote a few things Ansley Coale and Dan Farber said to James Rodewald when he was visiting their distilleries in preparation for his book.

Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin:

We keep the varietals, or even individual vineyards, segregated. We vinify them, distill them and age them separately because that gives us the maximum complexity when we blend.… 

Another thing we do, we dilute with rainwater. That’s important. Distilled water is flat and dead; rainwater’s alive and beautiful.

He goes on to say how, using that rainwater, each distillate is diluted slowly, 4 or 5 percent at a time, and that the spirit needs “about nine months to recover” from each dilution. And, from there, he says, “the real work begins” – meaning the cellar work, which Coale estimates takes up about 85 percent of his time because it is very important to know exactly what’s going on in each of his fourteen hundred French oak barrels – some new, many used, with a few being 100 year old cognac barrels – at all times.

My point in quoting and relating all this is to show how thorough and thought-out and slow and patient the entire process is if you want to make brandy as good as Germain-Robin makes brandy.

And remember: All this is new. Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin didn’t start making American brandy until the 1980s. Yes, there’s a centuries-old tradition and practice to learn from and to look back on and to use as a guide, but in America the grapes are different, vinification techniques are different, the climate is different, the soil is very different, the whole process is different than in Cognac, France, where there are 100+ year old brandies maturing in casks built in the 17th century stored in chai warehouses much older than that. It’s a truth that needs telling: Germain-Robin and Coale invented great American brandy by themselves only about 35 years ago. When you taste what they’re making, you’ll find that hard to believe.

Daniel Farber of Osocalis

Brandy is the only brown spirit that can beneficially spend time in wood for the time scale of a human life.

If Ansley Coale is California brandy-making’s pioneering practitioner, its vanguard, pinnacle and most articulate advocate, Dan Farber is its fanatical, single-minded, selfless, soulful master. While the Germain-Robin distillery produces many things other than brandy – Hangar One vodka (now sold off to a conglomerate), Low Gap whisky, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, Russell Henry gin, an incredible absinthe and a line of Los Nahuales and other mezcals – all of them winners of many awards – Dan Farber’s Osocalis distillery makes only one thing: Brandy – one apple brandy and two traditional grape-based brandies including the entry-level juice I found in NY and a very highly regarded XO.

The art is to try to get the essence of great fruit, wherever it comes from. We don’t drink grape juice with dinner; we drink wine because of that transformative character that fermentation gives to that grape juice. In the same way, we ferment the fruit and extract from it the entire essence of the fermented wine. Then we put it in barrels for long periods of time to again have it undergo a transformative process and produce something new.

Having learned his craft in Cognac, France and through his friendship with Hubert Germain-Robin, Farber started out to make apple brandy but realized it could take as many as 25 years of maturation in his fine-grained French Limousin forest oak casks before he would consider it good enough for bottling; so, he turned, like Germain-Robin, to grapes. By doing so, however, he was not lowering his standards. It took seven years before he blended and bottled anything for the public – all of it from his own stills and casks, needless to say, unlike so many bottlers of bourbon and rye – and about 16 years before he blended and bottled his first XO. How he can afford to be such a high-minded, no-compromise distiller, I don’t know – but I’m certainly glad he has found a way!

Now, here’s something that, in all my endless hours of reading about Scotch and whisky/whiskey of all kinds, I never came across nor thought of for myself:

Part of the aging process of great brown spirits is the aging of the warehouse. You don’t get as much of that in bourbon because you have this rotation of new barrels in. You get a little bit of it in the rickhouse itself, but it never really gets to permeate the wood or penetrate into the whiskies because you never have that rich development of microflora on the barrels. Here, from the inception, we knew we needed to age the building, the barrels, the whole thing. You’ll never get that kind of character by just throwing spirit in a cask and putting it in a metal building. It’s not to say it’s necessarily bad or good, but if you like it that’s the only way to get it.

By “it” he means finesse and rancio, the first of which requires deep knowledge and precise, patient, unwavering application of very high standards, the best grapes, the best wood and very ancient techniques; and the second of which, rancio, does not even begin to develop until at least 10 years in cask (if the cask is the right cask, made from the right wood, its staves properly dried in open air before it is assembled and filled and stored in the right place in the right old wooden chai warehouse, I suspect). Farber is a man who, like Coale and Germain-Robin, knows his craft thoroughly and profoundly, puts all that he knows (along with all his money and time) into making his brandy, and who finds all the motivation he needs to pursue such a selfless craft in the very thing he is making: Brandy. Who wouldn’t at least want to try a spirit made by a man of such character?

TASTING NOTES

a2f97e4482498fb754cd19532c9589b9Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy 40% ABV

I opened both this bottle and the Osocalis the night I brought them home; at the time, this Germain-Robin struck me as slightly superior despite some real similarities between the two. The color on this is a gorgeous translucent copper. On the nose there is cedar and a fresh fruitiness that is mostly grape (not of the too-fragrant Welches grape juice kind; the components here are primarily colombard, with pinot noir, riesling, zinfandel, all of various ages, but each aged at least six to seven years, blended in); there is a hint of marshmallow, and oak sugars of a far more confectionary kind than one experiences with spirits aged in new white American oak, which seem far less subtle by comparison. In the mouth, one is immediately struck by the rich, refined quality of the drink, by how rounded this is despite it being ever so slightly spirity, by a warming grape-fruitiness and a very long, slow burning, fragrantly flavorful finish. The influence of the limousin oak cask is both ever-present and nuanced – yet there is a slight sharpness that I’m sure more time in such tight-grained casks would tame. Despite its relatively young age and it’s entry level status for this distillery, this is obviously an exercise in soft, fragrant delicacy unlike (though not necessarily better than) anything I have ever experienced in grain-based whiskeys. And for $45 this is absolutely superb.

OsocalisOsocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, Lot No. IX, 40% ABV

I am pouring the final drams of these brandies from their respective bottles tonight and I will replace them both as soon as possible. However, if I found myself staring at bottles of each, but having only enough cash to pick up one bottle, I would be going home with the Osocalis. Don’t get me wrong, the Germain-Robin is superb and, upon first impressions, it seemed a shade superior to me. The Germain-Robin was “easier” and more rounded at first, while the Osocalis leaned ever-so-slightly to a more monolithic youthfulness. Nonetheless, as the eight or so days I’ve been sampling these fine spirits have gone by, oxidation has blessed the Osocalis, in my opinion, with somewhat finer qualities. Though the color, a pellucid copper, is very similar, the legs here are slightly slower and the mouthfeel just a bit more oily and substantial. On the nose, the Osocalis has become far fruitier, far grapier than the Germain-Robin, though the influence of the limousin wood is less obvious here – making me suspect that the Germain-Robin has some older brandies in the blend. That only makes sense considering Germain-Robin was fired up at least a decade before Osocalis. Still, there is something here, in the fresher, more complex fruitiness and the less obvious influence of the fine-grained French oak, that makes this Osocalis experience one of immense promise – and for some reason I find that more exciting. The Germain-Robin is a better example of the art of blending, perhaps, but the promise contained in this Osocalis is, as I said, immense, and that, too, is of appreciable merit. On the palate, the Osocalis is a jot more flavorful, more intense, but still so well-rounded it could almost be called “smooth”. Yes, there is more youthfulness here, but there is nothing spiritous about it whatsoever. And the finish here is, if anything, even longer, more flavorful, more complex.

For the single malt Scotch drinker, I think the Osocalis may be more than minutely more satisfying because it is (just) more discernibly rich in complexities. But anyone who reads this – and especially you, my good friends and Ethanolics – should run out and buy both of these exquisite bottlings as soon as possible and give them a thorough savoring. You’ll be amazed, I promise – and, if not, well, I’ll gladly take those bottles off your hands!