“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

Icarus in a Bottle: The Classic Cask’s 1989 Bunnahabhain 24 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

icarus9In Greek myth, Icarus was the son of the master inventor Daedalus. When Icarus and his father are about to attempt an escape from Crete with wings that Daedalus constructed from feathers, twine and wax, the father warns his son first of being too complacent and then of pride, what the Greeks called “hubris”. Do not, daddy Daedalus told his son, fly too low, nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would weigh the wings down or the sun’s heat would melt the wax holding the wings together. Icarus ignored his father’s instruction not to fly too close to the sun and the melting wax caused his wings to disintegrate and Icarus to fall into the sea, where he drowned. Yes, this has something to do with the whisky here under review.

The Whisky

Oily in appearance when rolled in the glass, this elixir is a vibrant, brassy color, like soft, pure gold hammered so thin it becomes translucent. Like all the whiskies in The Classic Cask line (in my experience, anyway), this whisky is from a single cask, un-chill-filtered, untainted by the deceits of E150a and bottled at an ABV of 46 percent. Despite a couple of tastes and aromas that hint vaguely at a bit of sherry maturation, I suspect this juice was aged for it’s entire 24 years in a second- or third-fill ex-bourbon hogshead.

Nose

Juniper berries dipped in varnish and then rolled in watermelon flavored Kool-Aid powder. Below that, the compelling aromas of banana cream pie, a nutty maltiness and vanilla butter, if there is such a thing. There’s the ghost of an almost sour astringency, as if the person next to you bit into the white of a watermelon rind. The ghosts of peat and smoke are even farther off and more diaphanous. I get just a touch of rose water, too, and, above that, an approaching field of heather and carnations (we are driving through the country with the top down, evidently). Also some whole grain bread in there, last Saturday’s cut grass, and cookie dough – but cookie dough for which the recipe substituted lime juice in place of water. Quite a broad and diverse yet enjoyable sojourn across the olfactory bulbs… (23/25)

Palate

The warm and luxurious, mouth-coating light maple sugar sweetness of the delivery here may be the best I’ve ever experienced. For at least a few seconds after you take a sip, as this potion covers and coats the tongue, this is the best whisky you ever had. Anything this opulently perfect can’t last, of course, but that delivery may be worth the price of admission to this entire show. I sipped and sipped and sipped and sipped to keep experiencing that sumptuous few seconds of velvety tongue-bliss over and over and over again, as if I’d found a tiny fountain of splendiferous oral pleasures… And after those repeatable few seconds of heaven pass, you’re still in good territory, but now you’re back down on a recognizable planet. There is a whole grain bready wholesomeness to this second act, which is followed by alternating waves of malt and maple sugars. The nuttiness is still there, and just the slightest hint of nutty astringency along with a nice fluid saltiness and just enough spice to engage the back of the tongue. (24/25)

The Finish

Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe… Everything was going so well before this! Have I somehow swallowed a whisky other than the one that had just been bathing my tongue with such purring pleasures? I fear that isn’t the case. Beautiful Icarus, once again, has flown too close to the sun! Those ghostly whispers of astringency in the nose and palate become fully incarnate and unmistakable here. The malty sweetness is still present, but it is coupling with a pronounced bitterness. Are these oak wood tannins getting out of hand after 24 years? Yes, very likely, but that’s not exactly how this strikes me. It’s more a dance of sweetness and astringency and astringency is either a better dancer – winking at bitterness all the while – or it is just more noticeable because of the wondrous, complex waves of sweet one was experiencing just seconds before. It’s the contrast here that disappoints – this is really not all that bad a finish, but it is distinctly sub-par relative to the broad arc of complexity in the nose and the near perfection of the palate. And the spice becomes an assertive, radiating burn that swells and then fades rather quickly, leaving an astringent maltiness to slowly lose its luster at the back of the tongue. (18/25)

Balance/Structure

What can I say? This experience was like listening to a grand symphony being played almost to perfection when, suddenly, in the final measures, half the orchestra fumbles and drops its instruments to the floor. Yes, the rest of the musicians play on beautifully, but that’s just not sufficient to save the performance as a whole. Or, you might say this was like a ride in a splendid vehicle on a splendid day though a splendid park that ends with a fender-bender. Does that cancel and negate the pleasures of the full ride? No, of course not. Would I seek out and buy a bottle of this whisky? Yes, if only to re-experience that warm, soft, lavish delivery again and again. Should you seek out and buy a bottle? How can I say? I don’t know if your palate would respond as mine did – nor do I know that the awkwardness and bitterness in the finish would disappoint you as it disappointed me. I am very pleased that I got to try this whisky because it has given me a new touchstone for delivery. For all the pleasure it gives, I cannot judge it too harshly. (21/25)

IMG_20140612_115950_712~2~2
Total points for this whisky: 86

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.

Whisky Para Torcedores: The Exclusive Malts 2005 Laphroaig 8 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EM_Laphroaig_8The best Islay whisky I’ve ever drunk – thanks to Bikram at Norfolk Wine & Spirits – was the 25 year old cask strength Laphroaig distillery bottling released in 2011. Truly magnificent. The Ardbeg Day, a cask strength Caol Ila and a couple of Lagavulins came close, but all fell short of the experience of that stunningly complex, perfectly balanced Laphroaig 25.

While the drink before me doesn’t approach that experience, that doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent. It is, and at less than one-fifth the price of that magnificent 25.

I am reviewing a sample of a Laphroaig from The Creative Whisky Co.’s line of single cask, cask strength bottlings called The Exclusive Malts. I have tried and purchased and enjoyed many of these releases and I have never, not once, been disappointed. Admittedly, I’ve never had their Dailuaine 21 that reviewers exhibit such a lack of enthusiasm for, but everything I have had has been at least very good and typically, like tonight’s sample, excellent. The Creative Whisky Co. is certainly one of the best independents out there.

The Whisky

It’s funny what one can achieve with a phrase. I could say this potion is the color of flat Narragansett beer – or, rather, the color of Listerine Original – and you probably wouldn’t be very impressed. If I changed my perspective, however, and wrote that this whisky is the color of young gold, a poetic but meaningless phrase, you would probably be somewhat more impressed. Be that as it may, all three phrases describe the same color and that is the color of this whisky.

As with all of the single malt Scotch whiskies in The Exclusive Malts’ line, this is non-chill-filtered, untainted by E150, drawn from a single cask and bottled at cask strength – in this case, an ABV of 55.9%. It was distilled in March 2005 and bottled September 2013 at 8 years old from Cask # 484, one of 229 bottles.

At such a high ABV, it is no surprise that this liquor coats the glass like glue, nor that the rivuleting legs, once they begin, descend at a dreamy, languorous pace. Very promising. Let’s see…

Nose

This is young Laphroaig and, to some extent, that is exactly what it smells like. You have that hot macadam peat smokiness and salt, wet clove and seaweed, wood polish and iodine – scents you would very likely pick up if it were the distillery’s own cask strength 10 year old under your nose. At the same time, however, this is quite different. Though of a high ABV, it doesn’t stab the sinus passages. The malt itself is very fresh and forward and there is an allspice sparkle crackling under the clove. As in most Laphroaigs, there is very little sweetness apparent in the aroma, but here there is unripe banana, a restrained but fructose-like borderline sweetness. The oak of the ex-bourbon hogshead makes its olfactory appearance as a pile of oak sawdust. Think campfire on the beach with a woman wearing some kind of exotic musk perfume and rolling her own cigarette from a fresh pack of tobacco. Add a bit of water – not too much – and you get musky apples behind a beachfront tobacconist shop as the proprietor polishes her oak cabinets inside. This whisky’s youth is manifest in a bold, unflinching freshness that is not marred by even a breath of immature spiritiness. Full and exciting, especially undiluted. (22/25)

Palete

Wow! This is like rolling liquefied Cuban cigar smoke around in your mouth – so bold and yet so smoky and round! This is a wholly new expression of peat in my experience. There’s a nice oily body that seduces you to keep at it and, when you do, you get the sense that you might – and I mean this in the most positive sense possible – that you might be chewing salted leather. Tanned with tobacco and tar oil. Still, this is not without a sweeter element; it isn’t banana anymore – mango or some other exotic fruit perhaps. Add a dropper of water and the malt lifts its head above the tobacco and tar oil and offers you a warm, orange-zested cookie. Take it! (23/25)

Finish

All’s well that ends well, as the poet wrote, and to end well here I suggest you add a bit of water to this fearsome elixir. Like nearly all Laphroaigs – even the 40% ABV 10 year old – this can be a bit hot on the throat. Add a dollop of water to this expression, however – just enough to bring it down to, say, an ABV in the high 40s/low 50s – and the heat becomes sufficiently tamed to permit full appreciation of the integration of several elements that have appeared before: Peat, certainly, and malt and salt, but now everything is mellower, warmer, sweeter, even fruitier. The concluding spice mix is warm clove and nutmeg. The burn, with water, is much more subtle, and it’s long and warm and, as a final surprise, it leaves you with something butter-pastry-like on the tongue. I wasn’t expecting that at all. (22/25)

Balance/Structure

I enjoyed – savored, even – every aspect of this whisky. And if I weren’t paying such close attention I’d say it all hung together quite well. However, I did pay close attention and some structural problems, one in particular, became apparent between the nose, palate and finish. There was no smooth arc from one aspect to the other because – and this was its primary and only significant problem – some parts of the experience were better with water (especially the finish) and others better without it. A gobbet of water diminished the nose but improved the finish. As much as I liked this whisky, that’s an imbalance. Still, my advice to you, if you generally like Laphroaig releases, or like powerful but rich whisky experiences, is that you find this, buy it, share it with friends and savor it. Who knows – one of you may find the magic number of water drops per dram that can snap it all together like Arthur Ganson’s Little Yellow Chair. (21/25)

Total points for this whisky: 88

Check it out: http://www.impexbev.com/exclusive-malts

Little Yellow Chair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFG-Lk9c2CI

Thanks to ImpEx Beverages and to Katia – and to Bikram at Norfolk Wine & Spirits – for the samples.

Torc

The Pleasures of Promise: Kilchoman’s 2007 Vintage Single Malt Scotch Whisky

14 - 1-1I first tried this at a tasting some time around the beginning of this year and I liked it – along with the Loch Gorm and Machir Bay expressions – enough to add them to my ever-growing “must buy this someday” list. (In truth, I only added two of them to my wish list that day because I took a bottle of the Machir Bay home.) Since then, stronger obsessions – can you say Campbeltown? Springbank? Glen Scotia? – raised their fair heads and interrupted my Kilchoman train of desire. Thus, I never got around to picking up the 2007 Vintage, nor the Loch Gorm. As luck would have it, in the first package of samples sent to me by the good people at ImpEx Beverages, a goodly sample of the 2007 was included. Thank you, Katia!

The Whisky

According to Kilchoman’s own website, the Vintage series of bottlings is “created from specially selected fresh and refill bourbon casks. The bourbon casks selected for the Vintage releases are some of the oldest we have maturing. Being matured exclusively in bourbon barrels gives these releases powerful peat smoked fruit on the nose and mouth-filling butterscotch and clove sweetness on the palette”. Sure enough.

The 2007 Vintage, at 6 years of age, is the oldest Kilchoman juice bottled to date. The ABV is 46 percent. It is natural color (a nice summer hay) and un-chillfiltered. I had the 5 year old 2006 Vintage last year and liked it, but this 2007 represents a leap in quality in my opinion. With this bottling, you get the sense that this distillery, always courageous and far-sighted, has really begun to come into its own. When I sip and savor the 2007 Vintage, as much as I enjoy it, I can’t stop myself from dreaming ahead four to six years to the 10 and 12 year old vintages. Those, I am confident, will be vintages truly worth celebrating.

A New Rating System for Samples

Because I am dealing with a smaller amount of the juice here than I am wont to drink in undertaking one of my more in-depth, fully indulgent and indulging reviews, I have decided to simplify my process, using four categories instead of my usual six.

Nose

Sootiness and a clean, bracing freshness combine as if by alchemy. Sweet peat smoke, sweet soot, sweet tar (or should I say, macadam) and bright, sweet oak rise and comingle with a lemon-minty honeysuckle cloud wafting on the salt sea air. Its youth is so sensual it makes me blush. Like a bag of seashells left in the back seat of a minivan parked beside a bonfire and only discovered the next day, smoky ocean scents float an ambience in which a broad assortment of aromas dwell. Hints of vanilla and butterscotch – not caramel – and an ethereal yet earthy spice I can’t quite place. And a wonderful, rather prominent interweaving of sweet butter and what my aroma kit refers to as balsamic hay – a delightful, provocative medley of nose-pleasuring scents. But that is not all the nose of this potion has to give. There’s a menthol quality that reminds me a bit of Vick’s VapoRub and a slight powdery quality that reminds me of Desonex foot spray. These are admittedly odd, but not detrimental, elements of the nose here. They are very slight, but, in this context, I actually enjoy them. I enjoyed identifying them as well (it’s good exercise, running from the whisky in my dining room upstairs to the medicine cabinet and back downstairs to the whisky again). Finally, there is that spice I can’t define. Yes, it’s a bit clove-like, as the distillery says, and also a bit ether-like, but, still, it is darker than that, earthy and herbal. Altogether a heady mix of treasures from the ocean deep all wrapped in the t-shirt of an arsonist running home on itchy feet past a lemon cart to treat his sinus congestion with vaporous salve from a little blue jar… Mmm-mmm good! (24/25)

Palate

On the tongue, several elements of the nose are referenced, but nearly always in a less pungent way. You get the peat and soot and smoke and salt – even a bit of campfire ash – but that complex amalgam that blossomed in the nose is less giving here, less present. There’s a trickle of buttery sweetness, some nectar, some malt, a good bit of lemon – enough strands to weave a wide wrist band, but it’s not nearly as compelling as the nose, from which you could weave a multi-family house. The mouth feel, too, is a bit thin. After the gloriously Gordian, cornucopia-like aromas rising from the glass, the impression made on the palate, while not quite a disappointment, is something like a disappointment. Still, it has a roundness to it that is surprising for a 6 year old whisky. And I appreciate the practical joke quality of imparting some ash on the palate after all the smoke in the nose… (21/25)

Finish

Unfortunately, more like the palate than like the nose. You get the peat and soot, some sweet oak spice with a bit of clove and pepper, but it’s wrapped in something rather sour. Though long enough in terms of duration, it’s rather quick to dry, and while the burn holds on, it lacks much discernable character beyond that of a vaporous burning and even that doesn’t reach much past the throat. It’s not a repugnant finish by any means – there’s enough going on to hold your interest for half a minute or so – but, like the palate, it doesn’t nearly quench the anticipations aroused by the splendiferous nose. (19/25)

Balance/Structure

The overall impression this gives is one of immense promise on its way to fulfillment but not quite there yet. Perhaps for the first time with this Vintage series, the core product leaves you with no doubt that truly great things lay ahead. The nose is world class, right up there in terms of pure pleasure and complexity with some major contenders, but the palate and finish grew exhausted too soon to make it to the peak where those aromas live. They haven’t fallen down the cliff, but they’re barely within earshot. Nevertheless, there is great promise and a sure sense of direction running through every aspect of this surprisingly mature youngster. Perch your nose over the glass and you will harbor no doubt that this capable kid, barring unforeseen accidents, has a wonderful future ahead of him. (21/25)

kilchoman-2007-vintageTotal points for this whisky: 85

Kilchoman has a very good website: http://kilchomandistillery.com

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