Puissant Juice of Insouciance – The English Whisky Co.’s Classic Single Malt, Unpeated, Cask Strength

article-1231476-0760BC40000005DC-463_233x423A distillate of the sweat of Hercules – or, rather, of Geb, the Egyptian God of the Earth – or maybe it’s eau de Gaia, Goddess of the Earth – or, just as likely, a distillation of the Sirens’ song that nearly drove Ulysses out of his wits.

But perhaps it’s a distillation of the natural world itself, of that half that glows in sunlight.

This is a whisky of stunning amplitude and depth and, yes, undeniably, I am enthralled by it. Until now, all of the single malts I hold dear, those I go back to again and again, have been single malt Scotch whiskeys with a date or an age statement printed clearly on the label. This one has no age statement and it comes from, of all places, England, erstwhile scourge of the Scots, “Scotland’s Mexico” as I once heard a Bowmore distillery manager joke – and, surely not least among its many sins, the nation responsible for flooding the world with the gut-peeling, vile trepidations of gin.

Still, despite its provenance, let’s get in closer to what beckons from the glass: Hot smooth rocks along the banks of a tidal river; the sandy scent of old bleached bones long dried in the desert sun.

This is elemental stuff, earthy and mineral. Leaves in an overgrown hardwood forest that have fallen to the ground, before they rot. Dry bark; cereal grains; a smidgen of raw pollen. Dried wildflowers, pussy willows, cat ‘o nine tails…

Breathe it in undiluted and it’s almost indescribable, as if a new wet sponge had sopped up Autumn, a fermentation of the naked heat of time-smoothed river rocks drying in the sun.

A hint of camphor, perhaps? A whisper of organic solvents?

Take your time and more familiar elements arise. At this point, I have devoted nearly a week of nocturnal study to unraveling this libation’s recalcitrant code. The first night I spent with this spirituous soul-wash, the first thing I smelled was Dentyne Gum, the red version, in the old flat packs. And my second thought was: Rocket fuel! And yet, there are scents of malty sugars in there, and the brittle sweetness of ribbon candy.

Much more develops with the addition of water, but we should buck up and taste this muscular dram at its undiluted cask strength first.

That first night, I opened the bottle as soon as I got home from Andy’s and left the cork off for an hour or so before pouring a wee measure of its contents into my new Villeroy & Boch nosing glass. Enticing aromas filled the room.

Swirling it in the hand-blown glass, one thing struck me immediately. This whisky, a lucid gold in hue, does not form legs. As high up the sides as you get it, it simply and evenly coats the glass. After some time, small beads form and begin their very slow descent. And, night after night, it did exactly the same thing.

Cautiously, then, I bent my nose to the glass and inhaled its emanations for a good ten minutes. Finally, I poured it over my tongue.

This is indubitably powerful stuff, a fluid containment for a force of nature, the taste of the souls of mountain men, a distillate of nature untrammeled…

Still, there are real-world comparisons to be made. At full strength, this makes me think somewhat of the Caol Ila unpeated cask strength, but without the sherry mitigation of the newest edition of that dram. It also reminds me, just a bit, of the peated Connemara cask strength single malt from Cooley, despite this “Classic” being decidedly unpeated. I can’t explain that, I’m just reporting my experience…

My first note on that first night upon first tasting it: Red Hots candy, those compact little nuggets of concentrated cinnamon sweetness and heat. But I didn’t get that on subsequent nights nor even later that first night. More consistently, one gets a light, very pleasant oakiness in the taste, and drying woody tannins balanced against a sweetness that is neither sugar nor honey, but something in between.

ewc-245x300At 60.5% ABV, it’s more than recoil that counsels adding a bit of water to this. I did so using an eye-dropper, which is the best way to observe the mesmerizing viscimetric whorls that come alive when two liquids of different viscosity – water and cask strength whisky – mix. There used to be scientists called viscimetrists devoted to the study of this naturally occurring phenomenon, but they are long gone, disappeared with the likes of hepatomists and xylomancers into the opaque mists of time. Still, I highly recommend the essay “Awakening The Serpent” found in Charles MacLean’s compelling Miscellany of Whisky, which looks into this lost science at some length.

Adding water two eye-dropper measures at a time, I finally diluted this mighty distillation to what I imagine is its sweet spot, likely somewhere around 100 proof US. Thusly diluted, this is where the rose opens and unfolds above the thorns of this whisky’s formerly brawny bearing.

Where the undiluted nose was reminiscent of, among other things, a heady autumn day, adding water transforms the olfactory experience significantly and blows the calendar back to late spring, early summer.

Immediately, thin layers of raw green vegetables emerge, celery, crushed peas and their pods, iceberg lettuce. The smell of grass in the sun, wafting mint. A breeze coming through a small pear tree orchard. But also, surprisingly, way in the back, the scent of talcum powder. Weird, yes, but, in this particular aromatic context, not unpleasant. One of my notes adds an even more obscure reference: The smell of a fresh hide banjo skin! Still, in the mix, you find those river rocks drying in the hot sun and that unspecific but pleasurable sweetness.

The finish – even diluted – is long, very long, its sweet radiating burn embracing the heart. And it is sweet, malty, a bit nutty, full, with those woody tannins directing the experience to a drying and still pungent and delightful dissipation. But it never really ends. Never before have I drunk an unpeated whisky that still mingled on the taste buds the morning after, that remained ghostly in the nose while making the morning coffee and buttering the morning chiabatta toast. Octomore, yes, but an unpeated whisky? This is the first.

It took five long nights and more than half a 750ml bottle to get me this far in my assessment of this very special drink. And I’ve already bought a second bottle. And I am contemplating the purchase of a third. Evidently, only five six-packs of this unprecedented whisky were shipped to the U.S. and, if I could afford it, I would buy them all. This is something I want all of my friends and even a few of my enemies to experience.

Check out the distillery here: http://www.englishwhisky.co.uk

I don’t rate whiskeys, but, if I did, this unpeated Classic Single Malt from The English Whisky Company’s St. George’s Distillery, Roudham, Norfolk, England, would be the first non-Scottish single malt tipple to find its place in my top ten. This is the potent, burning side of glorious, and, every time I pour a glass, my estimation of it rises.

Here are a couple of music clips to accompany your ride through this whisky. First, something that, like this whisky, is young and indisputably amazing…

And second, something powerful, stunning, intoxicating and far from ordinary…

Bunnahabhain 18 – What Makes Scheherazade Glisten in the Night?

Bottle-Shots-040The deep, rich intricacy of a dear, luxurious Persian rug, with all the stories, from text and notes, found in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights – all of this taking place on and among the opulent textile’s deep pile of lusty fibers, on a dark, warm, humid night – that’s the experience of Bunnahabhain 18 year old. This is a deep, rich, luxurious whisky. Savor it or leave it to others who will. This is, as I’ve already hinted, the glistening perspiration of Scheherazade on a warm moonless desert night. And this generous, glorious elixir of Lethe seems to glow from within, the color of translucent gold held up before a ravaging sunset. My favorite color of any whisky yet. And the mouth feel is rich, fine oil and silk.

My notes on the aromas wafting up from this whisky are a weave of interlocking redolences, more various and extensive than I can remember writing down for any other whisky.

The nose, then… First sniff… There is a fragrant mustiness that is unmistakably musty but not unpleasant in the least. Long-closed damp old room in an abandoned Victorian garden house. Moist, damp, woolen socks in the laundry closet of an athletic youth with impeccable hygiene. But these are just a few layers among a myriad. As whisky personalities go, this is Sybil’s more complex sister. Not a monster in the mix by any means, but a liquid host for multitudes!

Going back in… Baked cherries, dried cherries, sweet butter, toffee, cheap chocolate wafers from the discount grocer, spilled dried vanilla extract, thin Grade A maple syrup, black licorice, an open can of crushed tomatoes, dry sherry, a touch of citrus – lime? – candy, whole grain wheat bread, malty cereal, salted almonds, honey baked ham, and a very slight influence of peat (from a water source?) but nothing I would specify as smoke per se.

Second and subsequent sips (as the first is always preparatory): A cool, sweet savoriness with late developing spice, drying sherry cask tannins balanced with a wildflower (i.e., not cloying, but understated) honey sweetness, a sensuous warm burn, salt and white pepper, rum-soaked green herbs, those cherries again, sweet maltiness, red grapes, butterscotch candy, and the slight, unexpected taste of Marshmallow Fluff on the roof of the mouth.

The finish is classic, long, with ginger, thin honey, dark raisins in the sun, sweet malt and drying tannins and, finally, a scintillating trace of clove.

This is really, really good whisky!

No, I didn’t even mention that it hales from the most remote and unconventional distillery on Islay, ‘the whisky island’ – what difference does that make?

You can check out the distillery here:
http://www.bunnahabhain.com/

Nota bene: Thanks to Bikram Singh, I was talking to that erudite, gracious hombre Ed Kohl at Andy’s Market in Taunton, MA, the other evening, sampling several of the wondrous malts he represents, and he mentioned that his Exclusive Malts of Scotland independent bottling brand will soon bottle and distribute a single cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain. Based on the quality of other single cask bottlings in this series (the Exclusive Malts of Scotland Bowmore 11 and Clynelish 15 were particularly exquisite – and reasonably priced – in my opinion), I couldn’t possibly be more excited about this forthcoming dream dram.

Here’s some Bunnahabhain 18 sipping music. Take your time and enjoy!

Beethoven

Holger Czukay

Glenfiddich Malt Master’s Edition – A Long Night’s Journey To A Pleasant End

MaltMasterEdI’ve touched on this observation before, that one should not judge a malt whisky based on the first few drams poured from a newly opened bottle. A whisky’s complex of sensory triggers changes, often remarkably, in the first few minutes, first few hours, in the first week or even months, and those changes can transfigure one’s first impressions utterly.

So, what I am about to do is neither fair nor evenhanded as regards the malt whisky in question – Glenfiddich’s recent Malt Master’s Edition NAS bottling – but it is, I hope, instructive.

This is Glenfiddich’s first double-matured spirit, having spent 6-8 years in ex-bourbon casks and another 4-6 years in sherry butts. And the Malt Master in question is Brian Kinsman – that’s his picture on the tube – who combined the components of this limited-edition bottling in commemoration of Glenfiddich’s 125th anniversary.

But let us get back to the wrong way of judging a whisky. I cut the foil and pop the cork (how I love that sound!) and watch as the limpid, golden dram spills down into my nosing glass…

First Impressions, very first sniff, as the alcohol from the first pour wafts up: I am not impressed. In fact, the aroma is that of repugnant cheap blends that left their stains and traces in the luckless clusters of memory cells compelled to carry forward in time the appalling, raggedy-ass wreckage of my misspent youth. I’m smelling cheap Cutty Sark in particular, that real swilly stuff that was available for a few bucks a bottle in the late ‘70s (it’s better now). My worst ever whisky experience involved that foul intoxicant, but now is not the time nor place for reprising that cringeworthy tale. Let it suffice to say that my sister’s children, who found me on the bathroom floor the following morning, still remember that mortifying mise-en-scène with a nauseous mix of contempt and recoil!

Anyway… I’ve given this stuff five more minutes to open up and now I get more of a sour woody chewed pencil thing (if you’ve ever chewed a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 to splinters, that is exactly what I’m smelling, including the graphite), but it is still mixed with a bit – less, but still a bit – of that old late ‘70s blended cheapo menace. Up the nose, that is – I haven’t tasted it yet. Let’s give it a little more time.

It has now been 10, maybe 15 minutes since I last stuck my nose in the glass. The cheap Cutty foulness is just about gone. The wafting alcohol is more pleasant now, rubbing less harshly against the nerves descending from my dear, endearing olfactory bulb, but this is not that enticing candied honeydew alcohol that pulls the nose in closer when it is Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera in the glass.

I do, however, get some apple now, both fresh-sliced and stewed, and maybe just a hint of Bosc pear. The 4-6 years in sherry butts is also coming, just, into evidence. And then wafting traces of cantaloupe and black licorice. Golden raisins, too. We’re at a much better place now than where we started – much, much better – with the sherry slowly coming on, but there’s still something not quite right here, not as right as it could be, as if a very good whisky is masked, just a bit – a tinier and tinier bit the longer this sits in the glass – under a veil of masticated pencil splinters. Some of you older readers will recall, when nosing this whisky, the smell that rose from the gray metal school wastebasket when you emptied the accumulated shavings from a Boston Ball pencil sharpener into it. The more time this whisky has to open up in the glass, the less and less of that smell there is – but it’s there.

It’s been about 30 minutes now since I opened this whisky and the nose it offers does keep improving – but, let’s move along.

First sip… Second sip… hold… hold… slide about the tongue and… swallow. This is a nice surprise. The palate is much rounder than I expected. Third sip… Fourth sip… Here, I think, with its warm and full, silky and coating (but not sticky) mouth feel, is where this Malt Master’s Edition surpasses the 15 year old Solera, which, like the 18, is a tad thinner by comparison (though I’m pretty sure they are all chill-filtered). And I really like what I’m tasting. Lots of apples, now – Cortland and Braeburn and MacIntosh – with just a crick, as it were, of the sourness of Granny Smiths. Just enough. Below that, a nice reminder of fortified grape. And there is a pepperiness, more black than white, more Spanish oak tannin spice than anything ex-bourbon. And warm, liquid caramel toffee poured over candied Bing cherries, the lot of it crushed in a bowl.

Well, not quite that good, but close.

The color, a golden amber that is not quite as lucid as the golden amber of the 15, but nearly identical in its honeyed color-tone, barely even hints at the 4-6 years of sherry butt in this whisky’s past. Yes, it is a fraction of one shade darker, but, all the same, this strikes me as a little weird given the sherry’s influence on the palate. No summer evening magenta here. No ruby blush…

Nonetheless, we move along…

The bottle has been open and uncorked for nearly two hours now and I am drinking my third, umm, unselfish dram.

If you – yes, you – are trying to make a good impression, your comportment as you arrive on a scene is important, of course, as is the firmness of your handshake and the flow, intelligence and import of the first words you speak. But the one thing you absolutely must get right is the final impression you make as you leave. The finish, let’s say.

The nose on the Glenfiddich Malt Mater’s Edition, even now, leaves a bit to be desired. The palate is, if not excellent, at least very good. But the finish is this malt whisky’s greatest distinction. It is my favorite part of the experience of this whisky. The finish is long, very long, with a very good balance between honeyed sweetness, savory spice, and drying, oaky tannins. It is a mouthwatering combination of assets that makes me want to pour still more into my glass…

I hope this chronicle of the opening up of a malt whisky over the duration of an evening has been instructive. Whiskeys, after all, are people, too, and you must learn to give them time and a chance to impress you. Sláinte!

Glenfarclas 17 Year Old – Like French-Kissing Angels

lzdxsIf the saints in heaven drink water, I suspect it tastes like Glenfarclas. Every dram I’ve drunk at every age I could find it – 10, 12, 17, 21, 25 years old – is a fluid variation on profundity and lucid wonder. Pour a sweet measure of Glenfarclas on your tongue and you’ll be convinced you just French-kissed an angel!

Is that exaggeration? No! Is it absurd? Maybe!

In my opinion, Glenfarclas, as a full range, provides the most tenaciously dependable and the most richly sensual, sensuous experience offered by the world of sherried Scotch single malt whiskey. Drinking a Glenfarclas of advanced age, say anything 17 years or beyond, is like drinking poetry, like drinking the voice of Maria Callas or Jussi Bjorling. The 10 and 12 year olds are Billie Holiday in a glass.

Here’s what Sir Thomas R. Dewar – who, with his brother John, built the Dewar’s Blended Scotch label to international renown – had to say of Glenfarclas back in 1912:

“Glenfarclas [is] the King of Whiskies and the Whisky of Kings. In its superiority it is something to drive the skeleton from the feast and paint landscapes in the brain of man. In it is to be found the sunshine and shadow that chased each other over the billowy cornfield, the hum of the bee, the hope of Spring, the breath of May, the carol of the lark, the distant purple heather in the mountain mist, and the wealth of autumn’s rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.”

I agree, to the extent my experience allows, with every word mister Dewar says.

Well, you might argue, the Glenfarclas Tom Dewar was drinking back in 1912 is surely not the same Glenfarclas that is now available to us.

And I would reply: That, friend, is the difference between the carol of the lark and French-kissing angels – which is to say, there is no difference at all!

Seriously, though, Glenfarclas has been a family business – in the same Grant family – for 177 years, and they are known as very traditional distillers. While there have certainly been variations in the sherry casks, say, or weather extremes, or in the moods of the master distillers over the years, Glenfarclas is one single malt that very probably does taste at least quite similar to the way it did 101 years ago: In other words, I feel confident that, if Tommy Dewar were here with me tonight, he would thoroughly enjoy, and recognize, the distillery character of the Glenfarclas I pour into his glass.

It has taken me 10 or more sessions over three weeks or so, and nearly an entire 750ml bottle, to feel the least bit of confidence in describing this artfully contained mastery of nature. Everything in this whisky is so well integrated, so closely and firmly knit, that parsing it almost doesn’t feel like the proper thing to do, as if I were crassly to strip a good lady bare to catalogue her charms in public.

But, for you, dear reader, I shall overcome this reluctance…

The color is pale copper, a summer evening’s gold.

The nose is honey thinned with watery almond oil exuding unhurried wafts of fine sherry. With roasted herbs and charred hazelnuts, perhaps. A bit of citrus oil and just the slightest percolation of smoke. From the far distance, a breeze blows in through a cluster of sappy young pine trees.

The palate flows elegantly forward with ginger-spiced honey balanced perfectly with a drying sherried maltiness. There is a very slight, but sure, pine-needley, resinous, herbal trace, as if a tiny drop of the Carthusian liqueur Chartreuse had discreetly snuck onto the palate. On top of that, and nearly as slight, is an iota or two of peppermint. And just the faintest memory trace of smoke.

Some darker fruits emerge in the finish – dates and figs – but that balance of savory sweet honey and sherried malt predominates, drying slowly with scintillating richness and sure elegance.

The overall impression is one of balance – of weight and light, of crispness and pungent depth, of structure and lusty richness, as if Verdi had completely re-written a Wagnerian finale and secreted it into fine sherry oak and ex-bourbon casks for seventeen long and gentle years.

Here’s my suggestion: Buy yourself a bottle, pour yourself a dram, let it cascade neat over the rim of your glass onto your eager and excited tongue, close your eyes, lean your head back, wiggle your tongue and let your imagination do the rest…

Subaru isn’t love – this is!

Aberlour 18 Year Old – As If The Spanish Civil War and America Never Happened (Sort Of)

Aberlour_18yo_bottlepackagePlease bear with me. I will make a determined attempt to un-tie the Gordian pleasures of this whiskey a little farther on. First, I would like to take you on a time-traveling international road trip through Roman cooperage, French forests, British tastes, the Spanish Civil War, American whiskey law and, last but not least, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobia – all to explain to you just one of the reasons I love this luscious libation.

The short version is this: Whiskies matured in Spanish oak sherry casks, though now the exception, were once the rule. While the current Aberlour 18 Year Old is not aged exclusively in such casks (as earlier bottlings under this designation were), the nose and palate it provides have a very pronounced sherry-aged profile. It spends most of its years of maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, but does spend some time in American oak as well. Still, it is so damn good and has such a sherry signature that it got me wondering why the craft of maturing single malt Scotch whiskey ever shifted away from the use of Spanish ex-sherry to the predominant use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks.

Cooperage itself is an ancient art. There are references to it in ancient Egyptian painting and throughout the Bible. The word “cooper” is said to derive from cupa, the Latin word for vessel. A Roman, Strabo, writing in AD 21, high-fives the Celts in one of his books for being ‘particularly fine coopers’.

By now, coopering skills among the Celtic peoples must be inscribed in their DNA. And that’s a good thing: The whisky industry currently needs about 3 million coopered oak casks a year for maturing whisky. And coopering skills of the highest order are required for so-called “wet” cooperage – the building of oak casks that can hold a liquid without leaking.

All that need – millions of casks made of oak staves – and yet the British themselves have very few oak trees. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the belligerent empire-builders and Gallophobes clear cut most of their oak forests to build Royal Navy warships for use in fighting the French, among a world of others.

Think about that: Entire forests wiped out to build war ships: It took about 3,400 oak trees (70 acres of forest) to build one 74 gun ship. One well-placed cannon ball and 70 acres of British oak sank in splinters to the bottom of the sea!

For this reason, and with a level of acumen and foresight far beyond the piddling crania of any modern politician, the French planted immense acreage with oak saplings beginning in the early 17th Century. Once Napoleon came along, he forbade any oak tree in France to be cut down at less than 150 years of age.

On the British front, from the 17th Century onwards, various alliances, treaties and wars meant that Spain’s fortified wines – those suitable for long distance travel, such as Sherry, Port and Madeira – became available, and particularly popular, in Britain. Shipped in casks, these wines were bottled at the port of entry – Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bristol, Liverpool – and the emptied casks re-used by grateful distillers. Hence the use of fortified wine casks, primarily sherry, to age single malt Scotch whiskies.

When do American oak casks come into play? There is some evidence that American oak barrels started to be used by Scots distillers early in the first decades of the 20th Century. Just when, exactly, is hard to pinpoint, but the U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits requires that bourbon and rye whiskey be stored “in charred new oak containers” – “new” being the operative word for our purposes here, because “new” means those barrels cannot be re-used for the aging of bourbon or rye. Charring, by the way, came into practice when oak barrels used to transport fish were later used to transport whiskey! Charring got rid of the stink!

In any case, I assume those American distilled spirits standards were originally formulated after the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and maybe a couple of decades later when the fights over prohibition came to a boil and stern, opprobrious control over whiskey and its distillers became all the blithering rage.

Nonetheless, by writing those standards, tens of thousands of used-once bourbon casks became available to Scottish distillers. And in 1915, the Brits passed their law requiring that whiskey be aged in oak containers for a minimum of three years. Some things – not much – but some things in the realm of historical coincidence actually do work out for the best!

Still, there must be more at work here. Though I haven’t come across this notion anywhere else, it seems to me that a major cause of the shift from Spanish sherry casts to American ex-bourbon barrels lies hidden in the annals of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from July 17, 1936 until April 1, 1939.

But first came the phylloxera epidemic, which originated in North America and crossed the Atlantic in the last half of the 19th Century, ravaging the grape vines of France and nearly destroying the French wine industry (and thereby much enlarging the market for Scotch whiskey because Cognac, made from grapes and very popular with the British, became a very scarce commodity).

Eventually, in the last decades of the 19th Century, this epidemic crossed the Pyrenees and attacked Spanish grape vines as well. However, the desolation of the Spanish wine market was much less severe because the remedy – grafting American rootstock to European vines – had already been discovered by the time the epidemic hit Spain.

Anyway, a few decades pass and we come to the mid-‘30s and the Spanish Civil War, during which the entire Spanish wine industry suffered greatly as vineyards were neglected and wineries destroyed throughout Spain. Important regions such as Catalonia and Valencia were particularly hard hit.

Consequently, exports of fortified Spanish wines, and of the casks they came in, dwindled to almost nothing. It is worth noting that the Spanish Civil War began just two years after prohibition was repealed in the United States. And when prohibition was lifted, demand for Scotch whiskey soared in the U.S. The Scots had to get their barrels somewhere and the U.S. made perfect sense.

Further darkening of the prospects for Spanish wines came with the Second World War, which closed off European markets to Spanish exports and further damaged its economy.

Given all of these converging factors, there were far, far fewer ex-sherry casks available for use by Scottish distillers, and those that were available were exorbitantly costly (as they still are). So, following as it does upon the dictates of both history and finance, the general shift to the use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks comes as no real surprise.

The final nail in the sherry cask coffin came with the outlawing of bulk shipments from Spain to the UK in 1981, just one of the xenophobic laws enacted under that blunt-edged iron battle ax called Margaret Thatcher.

And thus, with all this, we arrive where we are today: Approximately 97% of all Scotch whisky now maturing is maturing in casks made of American white oak.

Meaning, unfortunately, that people who really know the art and craft of whiskey maturation with sherry casks are disappearing from the industry. And as a consequence of that, just a tiny fraction of Scottish single malt is now matured – as distinct from “finished” for a few months or a year – in sherry casks.

And thus we come back to the wondrous, sherry-soaked aromas and tastes of the Aberlour 18 Year Old. I hope you enjoyed our circuitous little trip!

The distillery manager and master blender at Aberlour – Alan Winchester and David Boyd, respectively, at the time the whiskey in this bottle was put in cask – surely knew what they were doing. While I am not sure why they made the recent shift from exclusive maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, I do know that the overall character of this whiskey still shows a heavy sherry influence. Some reviewers say they can’t tell the difference between the earlier bottlings and the current product.

Here, for example:
http://www.whiskyadvocateblog.com/2011/01/05/review-aberlour-18-year-old/

So, finally, on to my review!

The nose on this coppery golden intoxicant gives wafts of sherry at first, without the least scintilla of sulfur. Soon enough, there are also raisons, baked apple, peach, some vanilla, melted sugar, a little allspice, a little caramel, rose petals and maraschino cherry juice. These aromas combine to give off something rich and rewarding, but not as powerful as one might expect. The alcohol, though only 43%, is noticeable.

On the palate, it’s the apples – fresh sliced Granny Smith and plain red baked Macintosh – that are first to pleasure the tongue, followed by more sherry, a bit of light honey, thin sugary vanilla extract, and a quietly sharp almost peppery spice – but not quite pepper. More a mix of ginger and cinnamon. Very nice, with a mouth feel that is both clean and moderately creamy.

The finish is lucid, warm and savory with vanilla on green apple slices followed by a slow, engaging alcohol burn that ends with a pleasant and mouthwatering ginger-spiciness.

From beginning to end, the high quality of this single malt is palpable.

If you do not like whiskies with a heavy sherry influence, this is probably not for you. If you like the Aberlour 16 or some of the older Glenfarclas bottles, the 17, 21 and 25, say, you should definitely give this a try. It isn’t like those, really, though its family resemblance to the Aberlour 16 (which exhibits a bit more ex-bourbon cask influence and is actually a tad smoother) is unmistakable. The comparison that is begging to be made, of course, is with The Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Cask – which is matured exclusively in Spanish ex-sherry casks – but I haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into that one just yet. Soon enough, you can be sure…

If you want more information on this whiskey, go here: http://www.aberlour.com/en/therange/aberlour18yearold.

I made liberal use of Wikipedia, several of my favorite whiskey books and the excellent Bruichladdich site in researching the shift from Spanish to American oak for aging whiskey – in particular, this page: http://www.bruichladdich.com/library/whisky-casks-and-oak

Finally, if any of my readers can tell me the date of the passage of the original U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits or lead me to a good source for such information, please do. Sláinte!

Balm of Usquebaugh – Peat Smoke, Allergies & My Hard-Packed Nose

This is not a review of a whiskey. Rather, it’s a story of miraculous healing, with good whiskies as the central characters.

My experiences with those characters are, of course, chronicled below, so you might say there are reviews embedded here, but that is not the point of this particular piece of writing.

The point is: To find a remedy!

REDNOSEThis time of year, my allergies grow intense. Sneezing, watery eyes and, above all, sinuses as productive as an active volcano one moment and, the next, as crammed, jammed and densely packed as a pint of fossilized Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. The first stage is annoying as hell and the second is painful. Like a migraine headache is painful.

Among the standard remedies, Afrin works. However, if you use enough Afrin to clear your sinuses, the next day is worse still, with sinuses even more densely and dryly jammed with snot-rocks than they were the day before. Use Afrin again and the consequences are even worse. It becomes a vicious cycle of relief followed by ever-intensifying sinus pain.

Afrin, then, is not the answer. Not for me.

Last evening, about an hour or two into the second, hard-packed phase of my daily sinus vexations, as the migraine-level pain commenced, I decided a good strong whiskey might help. And, if not, it might at least dull the pain.

blogger-image-1028707313Having recently acquired a bottle of Auchentoshen Valinch 2011, which comes at you with 57.5 percent alcohol by volume, I chose that as experimental remedy #1. This Valinch is a little odd, but wonderful. Tart-sweet red fruits, like a warm Naked red berry smoothie, swirled together with a goodly measure of refined, high-grade, tasteless but burning rocket fuel. The startle of the alcohol even pierced my stuffed-up nose. In the mouth, this intensity is mollified somewhat with the taste of a creamsicle melting on the tongue. Really quite nice. I highly recommend this whiskey, as whiskey.

However, as a remedy for my beleaguered nose, it did not work.

And yet, a sense of mission had overtaken me and was driving me forward with grim determination and fortitudinous resolve. With my chosen arsenal (my whiskey cabinet), I was determined to defeat this sinus-pummeling foe of the nose.

I remembered reading somewhere, in some review of one of Bruichladdich’s Octomore releases, the speculation that peat phenols, at a high enough concentration, would prove to have medicinal qualities. I hadn’t read of any further research on this premise, so I decided to engage in some research of my own.

LGVOB.12YOV1My mind seemed to take on whiskey-soldier status as it marched about my whiskey cabinet, seeking out the strongest phenologic impact on the nose that I could recall. Then it hit me, a memory arose, sitting with my good friend Brad on the night I opened a bottle of the wondrous Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength, which also came in at 57.5% ABV. We both immediately commented on how the peat-soaked aroma filled the room. The nose on this whiskey was (and is) so intense that, as I recall, neither of us tasted it for a good twenty minutes. In addition to the peat, the vapors rising from the glass wafted sea and salt and fresh squeezed lemons through the air. And sugary vanilla. As all these scent-memories converged, it struck me that this would be the perfect whiskey to deploy as experimental remedy #2. So I poured me-self a hefty dram.

The taste of this glorious stuff, even with barely functioning nostrils, is a natural wonder of the whiskey world. All kinds of sweet and citrusy fruits merge with smoke and peat, a windy beach and an intriguing, mild saltiness to form a taste experience that is at once powerful and elegant. A wondrous whiskey!

AND, as it turns out, an effective remedy for severe sinus congestion! After just a few sips of this phenolic elixir, I noticed my sinuses clearing. By the time I drained the generous dram to its bottom, my sinuses were better than they had been all week!

Blessed relief!, the whisky-soldier cried. And yet, my sinuses were not completely clear, so I felt my mission was not yet fully achieved and I could thus not be discharged from my duty. Like it or not, I would have to continue my quest. The search for experimental remedy #3 began.

My guess is that the Lagavulin 12 Cask Strength has a peat phenol ppm of about 50-55. Strong stuff. But, if that much was good, might not more be better?

When the talk is of ppm, the conversation will likely begin and end with the mighty Bruichladdich Octomore range.

I have two of them in my cabinet – the first release, with a ppm of 131, which will remain unopened for the foreseeable future, and the most recent release, the 5.1, which is a veritable pipe bomb of peat phenols with a ppm of 169 and an ABV of 59.5 percent. It was already open and more than half gone.

octomore5whiskynl-620x350Although I’ve never done this, my guess is that, in a blind tasting death match of the Lagavulin 12 vs. the Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1, most of the judges would guess that the Lagavulin is the stronger in terms of peat phenol ppm. The nose on it is certainly much more smoky and puissant.

The mighty Octomore, in contrast, has a more reticent aroma. The nose here is a perfect integration of sweetness and peat, yet it is not overpowering in any way. There’s a bit of port and dark chocolate in there, red fruits, almonds, and a simple syrup sweetness.

Pour it on your tongue and that 169 ppm explodes in your mouth! This is a walloping coastal storm and you can taste the sea-sprayed searing coals and the hot-spiced barbecued steaks on the grill, the salt in the wind and, again, that sweetness, something reminiscent of salt water taffy with a liquid center of ruby port.

Yes, this is medicine! And, two days later, with just the smallest drams of reinforcement as part of a salubrious regimen I have prescribed for myself, my sinuses are still open and clear. A remedy has been found! While I am not so cruel as to wish on you any of the sinus pain and blockage I experience, I highly recommend the cure – whether you think you need it or not!

The Ascent of Mount Balvenie: Three Whiskeys, Three Finishes, Three Nights

4652490124_b08e36fd58I love the whiskeys of the Balvenie Distillery. I even love the shape of their bottles, their wood-capped corks, the informative but restrained sophistication of their labels. But especially, and above all, I love the mollifying, mesmerizing, balmy elixirs cached in each of those shapely vessels.

Though I am not a fan of buying new make – after all, half or more of the magic of whiskey comes via cask choice, maturation and finishing, long after the new make courses through the worm – the Balvenie new make is something I do long to taste because there is a core to each of their expressions that is the object of my obsession with the brand. Going from expression to expression with this distillery is like falling in love with each of several beautiful sisters in the same family – makes you want to meet the mother, to get some insight regarding the origins of a gene pool that can be so beautifully and yet so variously expressed…

But anyway…

The sweet project I have set myself is to savor and taste three of my favorite Balvenie whiskeys in three consecutive nights: The 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask; the 17 Year Old Madeira Cask; and the 21 Year Old Port Cask. In that order…

Night I: Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask

The-Balvenie-14-Caribbean-Cask-e1341585859671-215x300Mmmm – That sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-melting-toffee Balvenie thing.

Just. Sooo beautiful.

Like a Milky Way bar made by a summa cum laude graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.

The influence of the rum cask finish is definitely there rising from the glass, but it is in wondrous balance with other components; it isn’t there in a swashbuckling or bumptious or nagging way – no salt, sand, sea, hot native sweat nor piles of coconut flesh in a blazing tropic sun. Rather, the gentle rum cask influence presents itself as a perfectly fitting piece of the tasty puzzle this whiskey is. The good breeding in this dram is more than evident!

It’s viscous, but still light. A perfect weight for the many integrated flavors this whiskey holds like copper holds heat.

There is fruit – some Guava, I’m thinking, and Canary melon and, aah… what is that semi-sweet melon that also has some spiciness to it? It’s yellow and almost barky, with pink and green splotches on the skin. Hhmmm… Crenshaw! That’s it, Crenshaw melon. I taste Crenshaw melon. The fruity spiciness and clean sugar-honey taste of Crenshaw melon – with a bit of white pepper sprinkled on the flesh!

The core truth about this one is balance. Honey, vanilla, fudge, toffee, maple, moderate oak spice, white pepper, sweet but not overly sweet fruits, rum, a touch of coconut milk – all dancing in unison on a balance beam. Not too sweet, not too dry, with a lingering, flavorful, slowly developing then slowly drying finish.

In short, I think I’ll pour another dram…

Night II: Balvenie 17 Year Old Madeira Cask

madeira-caskAfter dating one of the youngest daughters in the Balvenie family, one thing stands out about her somewhat older sibling – she’s had more time in school and thus her refinement and sophistication are that much more evident.

The integration of oak, honey and fruit – apples, melon and fresh green grapes, mostly – is mouthwateringly rich and stunning here.

And there is more viscosity here and less white pepper than in the Caribbean Cask. Perhaps due to this voluminous mouthfeel, one of the first impressions I get when it hits the palate is the taste of a liquefied Charleston Chew bar! Or, rather, what I imagine that would taste like…

One begins to wonder how much of the nose and palate of these whiskeys is determined by the finishing casks and how much by the extra years in ex-bourbon casks. What differences would one experience in a Balvenie malt at 14, 17 and 21 years of age if there were no finishing casks used? Or, conversely, what if a cask of Balvenie aged, say, 15 years (so we could compare it with the ex-bourbon only Single Barrel), were finished some in rum, some in sherry and some in port barrels, so that the finishing became the distinguishing characteristic of each? If anyone reading this should happen to run into Balvenie’s longtime malt master, David Stewart, be sure to ask him these questions and get back to me – with an assortment of samples, if possible!

Anyway, the array of fruits proffered by the Madeira Cask is broader and more extensive than in the Caribbean Cask. There are the apples, honeydew melon and green grapes already noted, but also hints of banana and even of blackberries. With a slight touch of citrus zest.

The spiciness here puts the white pepper much further back in the profile and brings forward both fresh and candied ginger with just a wisp of cinnamon.

There’s something like shortbread cookies in there, maybe a bit undercooked, but with a very slight maple coating. I taste vanilla sponge cake, too. With a bit of bittersweet chocolate frosting on top.

Oak, as always with Balvenie, is present, but there is no resinous chewiness nor any woody tannins as found in the anCnoc 16 I reviewed last week (drying aspects of the palate I liked in that whiskey). In the same general category of taste notes, there is a nuttiness – almonds, primarily – and the slight taste of oats or oat clusters – no, actually, it is the taste of Muesli, the cereal.

In a sense, this is a whiskey for all seasons. It has the lightness of Spring veering into Summer with its diverse fruits and honeycomb and plenty of oak and a spicy warm glow to carry one through the Fall and Winter months.

And the finish is long with Madeira wine, chocolate and drying oaky spices. This is superb!

Night III: Balvenie 21 Year Old Port Cask

Singapore-Whisky-Balvenie-21Aahhh, now – This Balvenie sister is old enough to drive, drink, vote and marry. In many respects, her refinement and sophistication surpass that of her 17 year old sister, but all that extra time and schooling haven’t rendered her any less sweet.

In fact, that sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-toffee-caramel Balvenie thing seems at once both more prominent here but less sweet overall. This is a sweetness that does not in any way verge on cloying.

What may account for this sense of somewhat attenuated volume or impact of sweetness is the thinner body of this one compared to the other two. It is not creamy nor does it display much viscosity, if any. It is actually a bit thin, especially compared against the Madeira Cask.

Is that perhaps the price one pays for the extra refinement and sophistication? One remembers the bulbous lips of glowing youth, but this one’s lips have thinned a bit in the years of becoming more urbane.

But just a bit – she is still achingly kissable!

One difference that is immediately noticeable upon drawing a dram of this elegant elixir is its color. Whereas both the Caribbean Cask and the Madeira Cask were of similar shades of golden amber honey, the pink of the port is clearly visible in this one. And it may be, if I am not mistaken, just a tad lighter overall.

On the nose, beyond the vanilla-honey-caramel sweetness mentioned above, is a very distinctive aroma of port wine – of deep red savory port wine. There is also something rind-like in there, like the smell of the orange itself after zesting. And malty waftings as from a bowl of dry cereal.

Unusual aromas announce their presence. Wet cotton t-shirts? Really? Yes, and even a bit of that starchy-earthy smell of potato peels. But these are buried between layers of rich, sweet honey and wine. This is, in my estimation, the most complex nose of the three whiskeys under consideration here (though the others are wonderfully complex in themselves).

The array of fruits here is as broad and extensive as in the Madeira Cask, with some blueberry, pineapple and other tropical fruits added along with the banana, melon, green grapes and blackberries.

On the palate, these same fruit notes are there, but almost as if the fruits have been dried. Dried apricot and mango are added on the palate. This is not an unpleasant taste whatsoever. And there is plenty of vanilla and spiciness from the oak as well. The white pepper is back in the forefront and the ginger has receded almost beyond notice – but not quite. For the first time with these Balvenies, I sense a hint of nutmeg in the spice. And there are tannins in there, perhaps too many, drying out the otherwise multiplex sweetness of this malt.

The finish is sweet and peppery and moderately long, leaving a spicy, vinous dryness on the tongue.

Conclusion?

I’m bad at choosing. My suggestion would be, of course, to run out and buy all three of these tomorrow. Sell those old CDs you never listen to anymore and those old snow tires gathering moss out in the shed – and why keep those running shoes and wellingtons you never wore, those old silk ties and turtleneck sweaters? That’s what eBay exists for, right? I love good single malts and these are all very-good-to-great single malts proffering delightful infusions of richness and sophistication. You should really have them all in your cabinet.

The Port Cask offers a bit more refinement than the others; still, though it displays the richest complexity of the three, it is lacking (only relative to the others) in puissance and a sense of body.

The Caribbean Cask is delightful and rich and almost splendid in its spicy-sweet rum-tinged fruitiness.

The Madeira Cask is the most sensual and seductive with all its creaminess, layers of fruitiness, deeply satisfying honey-sweetness and warm spice.

If I had to marry one of these gals right now and sail off to a deserted island with her and her alone, I would, with sidelong glances at the others, propose to the 17 year old Madeira Cask. It is just a more sensual and luxurious experience. I know I would not regret my choice.

Still, as every one of you single malt drinkers reading this knows, it’s possible I would make a different choice if asked again tomorrow night.

Slainte!