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

Warm Kisses from the Bride of Frankenstein: Cadenhead’s 1996 Ben Nevis 17 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

188384When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I would often go outside in the middle of winter with no more than a t-shirt or a short-sleeve cotton shirt on my back, telling myself that cold is just a feeling, just a sensation, and that any discomfort it caused could be willed away if one’s volition could be sufficiently steeled against nature – that is, if one’s will were manly and strong enough. I still felt cold, but I told myself I wasn’t cold and, now that I think back on it, I didn’t really suffer any ill consequences from dressing as I did in weather that called for warmer clothing. Eventually, however, thanks to something that might be called maturity (or maybe I just stopped reading so much Nietzsche and Max Stirner), I relinquished seeing every reality as a challenge to be overcome; I no longer considered a winter coat a sign of weakness or gullibility.

Which may or may not have something to do with this whisky.

As I look at my notes, I don’t see many descriptors for appealing aromas and tastes; yet my experience with this whisky was quite positive overall. It wasn’t as if one odd characteristic was masking another, either – the aromas and tastes, if noted, were present and discernable.

So, did I just refuse to be repulsed by, say, the aroma of petroleum jelly, or the taste of musk and meat drippings on cardboard, the way I used to refuse to acknowledge the cold? Was I trying to bend reality by liking this whisky despite its conglomerated oddnesses?

I don’t think so. Rather, I’d say, overall, that this is an unusual whisky that manages to balance unexpected and, on the face of it, undesirable elements into some sort of pleasing harmony.

The Whisky

This is a 17 year old single cask Ben Nevis distilled in 1996, matured in a refill bourbon hogshead and bottled in 2013 at cask strength, giving it an ABV of 55.2%. It has a rather stunning medium gold color and appears very oily in the glass, coating the sides and forming very slow, sultry rivulets. Provocative and alluring to the eye…

The Nose

Here’s where things start to (seemingly) go awry. The first aroma one picks up is salted caramel, but that soon becomes salted ham. There are raisons and dates, chocolate, taffy and a savory salt, but there is also an oaky musky spice that is almost feline in character. Hard to believe, but, believe it or not, this is not hard to take in the olfactory sense. It fits somehow. And just as weird, I get the smell of petroleum jelly. This is all rounded off with stone fruits, especially apricots, and gentle wafts of curry, but curry divorced from its wonted fire. All in all, one of the most unusual noses I’ve encountered, but somehow it works. Imagine going to a theatre and seeing a stage full of more or less misshapen people of many odd shapes and sizes who nonetheless have been beautifully choreographed and who all know their parts in the dance very well. That’s what the nose on this whisky is like. (23/25)

The Palate

Cardboard on which the meaty juices of hamburgers being basted with an organic musk cologne have dripped. You also get wood, oak, but not too-long-in-the-cask oak woodiness – just a nice oaky taste mixed with a moderate measure of malty sugars and a touch of tamarind. Also dried fruit, maybe those apricots again, but definitely stone fruits other than peaches. Almonds are thinly discernable, and a sense of leather as if it were suspended in the mouth without touching the tongue – something like that. This dance has fewer participants and they are a tad less practiced, but this is still a rich, enjoyable show. (22/25)

The Finish

Of medium length and moderately warming, with astringent leather and the taste of savory pineapple on grilled meat. As it goes along, the savory aspects linger as the malty sweetness dries. (21/25)

Balance/Structure

For some devoted whisky drinkers, a rich, multifarious nose is enough to carry a whisky; if that describes you, seek this whisky out immediately before it disappears. In terms of the balance and structure of the whole picture a whisky presents, however, the palate and finish, in my opinion, should make equal but distinctive contributions to the overall experience of the drink being savored. The problem with this 1996 Ben Nevis is that the nose is especially and unusually interesting while the palate, though very good, is less so. And the finish has the least of all to say. Still, I enjoyed drinking this whisky. It’s just that the palate and especially the finish were not as compelling as the oddly alluring nose caused one to hope they would be. (20/25)

Total points for this whisky: 86

Check out the bottler: http://www.wmcadenhead.com/about-us

Many thanks to David Catania of Burke Distributing for the sample.

The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester): More alluring than you remembered?
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At least until she sings!

Unwashed Sirens and Poppy Tears: Cadenhead’s Small Batch Ledaig Aged 16 Years

IMG_20140310_123428_528Savoring this whisky is like smoking opium at 3am in a slat hut hidden deep in the humid Cambodian jungle while watching, transfixed, the mythical Sirens’ sultry and alluring dance. There is a warm steam rising through the floorboards, mixing with the protean opium ghosts that waft like smoke to the ceiling, and the pungent, earthy aromas of the perspiring dancers permeate the air. My heart is beating slowly and I feel a deep, penetrating calm, but thrill and excitement are cascading through me like a Beijing fireworks display…

Yes, this malt is that good. Which is, evidently, a singular opinion. The only other reviews I’ve found (two) rate this independently bottled single malt as lacking complexity and interest, scoring it in the mid-80s at best. I could hardly disagree more. I swear, this must be the whisky they serve the highest ranking libertines in the penthouse suites of hell. It is liquid heaven for the epicurean damned, a lost elixir of Sybaris, brimstone for the brimstone connoisseur.

Appearance

In the glass, it isn’t very promising. The color of pale straw or diluted apple juice, it appears to have taken very little from its cask – which I reckon was a refill bourbon hogshead. Swirl it about and you’ll see it coats the glass (not surprising at 56% ABV), leaving a very well-defined “high water” mark. Once the legs form, they are thin but languid and slow to descend. (7/10)

Nose

Rising vapors begin seducing the nostrils as soon as the dram is poured – not quite as explosively as with the Lagavulin 12 CS, but you’ll know there’s an open glass of peated whisky nearby. This is pungent with a hint of decay, as if late autumn’s dying vegetation has been dried over a raging peat fire. The odor is a bit narcotic. The smoke on the nose is Laphroaig-like, but not entirely. A mingling, say, of 65% Laphroaig peat smoke with maybe 35% Longrow peat smoke. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both Laphroaig and Ledaig purchase their malted barley from the same maltings house (very likely Port Ellen) and have them peated to more or less the same levels. There is none of that Laphroaigy maritime iodine in the nose of this Ledaig, just a similarity in the character of the smoke.

Fortunately, there is a lot more than peaty smoke going on here. Just beneath the smoke and necrotic vegetation, there is the scent of a rubber inner tube. There is tobacco and the aromas of both real lemon and Lemon Pledge – and a hint of wintergreen, as from a pink Necco Wafer. I also pick up burned toast that has been buttered and white fish grilled with a bundle of sage. There is both a mineral flintiness and an autumnal earthiness integrated into the nose here – sort of a full helping of natures flora before anything has bloomed.

You know there was a fire here in the recent past, but this is nature in a state of recovery.

And finally, a suggestion of sourdough bread. Sounds like a stretch, I know, but I had a loaf of sourdough bread in the kitchen so I went there and cut myself a slice. Sure thing, that was an element in the nose of this hefty Ledaig.

I found all these aromatic constituents in the nose over two long nights, savoring my drams both neat and with water. How a whisky can integrate all of these aromas and reeks into a coherent, savory redolence without losing its solid sense of care and freshness is beyond me, but the people responsible for this whisky have done it. (19/20)

Palate

The first thing that strikes one is the gorgeous mouth feel, both oily and coating, and that is followed by a wonderfully peaty, mineralesque and malty burn. The palate here is significantly better than that of the distillery bottling at 10 years old, which I find similar but simpler and a little off. Here, a pool of liquefied malt sugar delights the center of the tongue while fiery ginger spice excites along the sides and a saltiness bites softly at the tip – lachrymosa, the gentle saltiness of tears! I also get a suggestion of a dense apple variety – Macoun, perhaps. The oily viscosity brings on an impression of butter. There is also a nutty taste, but I can’t narrow it down – not walnuts, not almonds and certainly not peanuts. Pine nuts, perhaps. And, finally, there it is again – I’m tasting the crust from my slice of sourdough bread buried deep in the heart of this whisky!

So this whisky brings you your malt and peat, your fruit and your ginger, your nuts and salt and sourdough bread, all delivered with a silky, coating mouth feel. This is very, very good whisky, but not quite as complex and compelling on the palate as it is in the nose. (18/20)

Finish

This elixir doesn’t just surround the heart; it embraces it and wraps it in a blanket of soft, warm sensation. A sweet, savory malt is followed by a bit of citrus, a little salt, a zest of ginger and – appearing for the first time – a whisper of prunes. As it goes it dries, exposing soft tannins, and you feel it, delighted, all the way down. (20/20)

Balance

The integration of so many elements in this single malt – from peat smoke and earthy pungency to lemon and a whisper of wintergreen to grilled fish and sage, tobacco and bread, barley malt, ginger, butter, malt sugar, mild salt and nuts – is wondrous to behold. I spent a lot of time with this whisky and it kept me interested and sufficiently curious to stay devoted to my task through it all. It’s only flaw – and I hesitate to use that word – blemish, perhaps? foible, even? – emerges in the slight imbalance between the endless interest of the nose and a palate that was a smidgen less compelling. For that, it loses one point. (19/20)

Quality of the Buzz

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, stands before a mural depicting tragic battles of the Trojan War, and he says: Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
 sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent (“Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards; 
there are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”). That came to mind as I sat down to write this final section. It is very late, the wee hours, when “mortal things touch the mind”. And there is that breath-catching, mind-focusing, melancholy phrase: Lacrimae rerum, the tears of things. The most profound, moving experiences in life are often accompanied by that feeling for “the tears of things” – that sense of the melancholy core at the ontological center of all human things, all human history, all family history, of every individual human life.

This whisky, in my opinion, is made for those nights when our perspective on our own lives and on the cosmos broadens and we sense the diminutive part we play, our infinitesimal duration, and how much sweeter and more precious that renders life, time, and all we hold dear.

This whisky – and only one other in my experience, the Longrow 7 Gaja Barolo, which remains the benchmark for this experience – will help you get to that place of honesty, and to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Is that a ridiculous thing to write about a whisky? Am I claiming this malt has metaphysical qualities? Well, no, not quite, but it may help get you to a place where your thoughts attain such qualities; a place that, ultimately, will render you more deeply human than you might be now. It is – and I am only half joking here – an Elixir of Transcendence. You can’t seriously believe mankind has pursued inebriants such as this for so many centuries just to find a means of letting off steam and of having a laugh with the old gang, can you? No, this is confirmation: Drinking great whisky is an act of alchemy, of turning dross to gold, of daring to go deeper into one’s own mind. Sit alone with this whisky some lonely night and follow where it leads. (10/10).

Total points for this whisky: 93

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