Like a Master Boatwright’s Apprentice: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Bunny22Bunnahabhain is one of those distilleries I can usually pick out of a line-up – especially independent bottlings of it. Its juice, in those instances, typically displays a very tight, subtle structure and has a core character that is quite distinct, with hard candy, lettuce, butter, cherries, wax and nuts at play, though the emphasis on each of these elements will differ.

Bunnahabhain ages well and age most certainly makes a difference with this elixir – which is not to say that the 8 and 12 year olds out there aren’t worthy of close attention and patient savoring – they are. But the older bottlings of Bunnahabhain I’ve had have nearly all approached greatness in one way or another.

So, if every good independent’s bottling of Bunnahabhain has strong similarities to every other (which is my experience), things like structure, level of refinement, signs of good casks and good cask management – and unusual characteristics – come forward to distinguish the best from the better and the better from the good (Bunnahabhain is always at least good). Therefore, less emphasis might be given to the flavor and aroma profiles, though there will be distinguishing individualities here as well that must be noted.

The Whisky 

This is a single cask bottling of Bunnahabhain from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line distilled in 1991, bottled in 2014 and reduced to an ABV of 46 percent. In appearance, it has a light golden honey color that, considering its 22 years in cask, suggests a second or third fill ex-bourbon barrel was used. Twirled in the glass, it displays multiple thin but slow viscometric rivulets. It was not chill filtered and is untainted by the duplicitous E150a caramel coloring.

Nose

Iceberg lettuce as ribbon candy; a large tab of sweet cream butter floating in a small cup of cherry juice; a refined earthiness (truffle?) over which a breeze of ozone floats like fog; pear juice and acetone spilled on a just-unpackaged flannel shirt; slices of Honey Crisp apple marinated in ‘lite’ caramel and Mott’s apple sauce on a slice of lightly toasted whole wheat sourdough bread. Mmm-mmm good… 24/25

Palate

Subtle, pleasant and warming. The oak comes through like the taste of the air in a small room where oak boards have been recently sawn – like walking into a room where oak floors have been sanded and tasting that! The sweetness is bitter and the bitterness is sweet, like biting into a sappy apple and chewing some seeds with the flesh. There’s a maltyness but it is tight and light. I suspect this juice came from a tight, secure, long-undisturbed cask – there are really very few signs of its rather advanced age. This drinks like a Speyside but has all the gustatory elements of the Bunnahabhain core. Which is an unusual thing but a good thing. 22/25

The Finish

Buttery candy with a whisper of white pepper and hot sauce that is thin and muted at first but follows through for a spicy, warming, moderately long finish. The kind of whisky that, once swallowed, causes one to pause for a long moment before speaking. 20/25

Structure and Balance

This has the tight architecture of The Exclusive Malts’ 26 year old single cask Bunnahabhain, but it is not cask strength and isn’t quite as good at balancing disparate elements. It also, like that 26 year old, lacks the mouthwatering maritime character that comes through in every distillery bottling I’ve had. The arc from nose through the palate is a good one, with consistent elements embellished by some unique differences, but interest falls off in the finish, which is notably simpler. Having said all that, let me emphasize that this is a very good whisky; I enjoyed drinking it very much. But I’ve been privileged to drink some very, very good Bunnahabhains and this falls a measure short of those. 20/25

Total points for this whisky: 86

Puer Aeternus in an Oaken Vest: The Exclusive Malts’ 1985 Longmorn 28 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EM LongmornJohn Duff built the Glenlossie distillery in 1876, Longmorn in 1893 and BenRiach in 1897. That’s a great string of distilleries if ever there was one, but Longmorn – if the bottling under review here is any indication – may be the greatest of them all. Beloved for its contribution to blends, Longmorn has been called “the master blender’s second choice” – his first choice being his own blend, of course. The only readily available bottling of Longmorn is the distillery’s own 16 year old, so finding this 28 year old single cask is quite a treat!

The Whisky

The wash stills at Longmorn were converted to steam heat in 1993, so this whisky, dating from 1985, is from a period when the distillery heated those stills directly with coal fires. Like all bottlings from The Creative Whisky Co.’s The Exclusive Malts line, this particular Longmorn juice is from a single cask and was bottled without the duplicitous E150a coloring and without chill-filtration. It is cask strength with an ABV of 51.6%.

Nose

My first thought upon holding a dram of this up to my nostrils: Wow! – This is going to take some time! So rich and full, so much going on. A handful of fresh peach stones with some flesh still on them. Cherry stones, too, but drier. Apples, stewed, with citrus peels, nutmeg and a few crushed banana chips – or, maybe: A very dry, light Calvados? Some bourbon barrel characteristics arise – light vanilla and light caramel and some white oak spice – but the wood character is young and fresh, like opening a package of little balsa wood panels purchased at the craft store. The malt is tight, bright and full and there’s a weave of fresh grain and the wholesome bouquet of a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. Less strong but still there is a whisper of dry cornmeal. Confectionary sweetness, as if you’d just opened a bag of marshmallows or – something I get now and then in these cask strength Speysides – a bag of those squishy orange “circus peanuts” that appear on pharmacy shelves around Halloween. There’s also a dry candy minty-ness, like crushed wintergreen Necco Wafers. There’s a more natural flintiness as well, and just a tad of dry grassiness or moss. The high ABV is quite apparent on the nose but it doesn’t stab the nostrils. A few drops of water bring out even more fresh cherry stones and a candy sweetness, but this is never cloying. A very firm, fresh, full, rich and classy act is presented here and I can find no fault with it. (25/25).

Palate

Now that the nose has me salivating and has the maltfreak in me eager as an ermine in estrus, I close my eyes and take a sip, allowing this silky elixir to cover my tongue like a 1000 thread-count bed sheet. Wow. The surprise is how big, rich and warm it is. The repeated suggestions of “dry” on the nose have completely liquefied here. And again, on the palate, I don’t get the least hint that 28 years was too long to mature in this cask – oh, what a cask this must have been! Fruit comes more to the fore now, as in peach cobbler fruit and apple pie fruit prepared with just a pinch of cinnamon. The sweetness is now more honeyed than sugared and there’s a wonderful progression as the sweet awakens the tip of the tongue, followed by a wash of fruit and malt, which in turn is followed by oaky drying tannins and spice – but, wait: That’s the finish… (24/25)

Finish

As I was just saying, the sweet fruit and malt delivery slowly dissolves into a drier development at the back of the tongue, with oak tannins and a pleasant spiciness unfurling in a fluid continuum to the back of the throat and down into the chest, spreading a life-affirming warmth all round the heart. Not a very layered or complex finish, but I do like that warmth! (22/25)

Balance/Structure

This is a fine Speyside whisky, an excellent presentation of what Michael Jackson considered “one of the finest Speyside malts, cherished by connoisseurs”. Its 28 years in cask did not make it sluggish or woody or thick, but seem rather to have bred a refined integrity, a weave of aromas no less plush and complex than a fine, intricately detailed Persian rug. The nose, in my opinion, achieved a level of perfection, and I’m confident I could have continued finding new bouquets and fragrances beyond the many I did find if I’d resisted sipping this potion a while longer. The palate was excellent, but not quite the equal of the nose, and the finish, though pleasant and even deeply satisfying, was also just a bit of a winding down in the arc of exultation this presents. Still, this is a wonderful whisky. I can’t imagine any devoted whisky drinker, except perhaps the most cultish peat-freaks, finding anything but delight and satisfaction in this excellent dram. (23/25)

EM Longmorn
Total points for this whisky: 94

Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.

Youth in Age (The Incomparable Jimmy Scott)

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 Serenity of Wow: The Classic Cask 1975 Dallas Dhu 28 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

IMG_20140501_143658_049~2This is good whisky, with a very long ooooooo between the g and the d. This whisky does so much right, it’s difficult to gauge – you want to put your damn pen down so you can freely and patiently drink and savor. This is a wondrous gift to the whisky drinker, granted by all of the people involved in its pilgrimage from the now long-gone Speyside distillery, where it was put into cask in 1975, to the XV Beacon Hotel in Boston, for whom The Classic Cask bottled this delectable potion for hotel guests, exclusively, nearly three decades later, to the esteemed little liquor store where I found this gem, ten years after it was bottled, in a small glass case I had neglected to look into on previous visits. I promise you this: I will find more of this elixir and, when I do, I’ll buy it and share it with friends. Anything this odd and enticing needs to be experienced by those who can and will appreciate it.

To stay on task and to keep myself from savoring aimlessly, I enlisted a friend of long experience and acute sensibilities in the whisky realm to join me in this endeavor of assessment. He wants his whisky reviewer moniker to be “Indy” – exactly why, I don’t recall. Regardless, he’s a good man to sit down with me to share and savor this rare, sumptuous find. I should say that Indy knew nothing of this bottle before he arrived; he had no idea he was to be deployed to Dallas Dhu duty immediately upon his arrival. In the end, however, as it turned out, Indy didn’t mind.

The Whisky

Exactly what this is is a bit of a mystery. Distilled at the Dallas Dhu distillery in the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands in 1975, a cask (or more?) evidently ended up being bottled for the XV Beacon Hotel in Boston – a very classy, luxurious, boutique establishment built in 1903 and converted to hotel use in 1999. The 28 year old juice was reduced to 43% ABV and bottled in 2004. Oddly, it was put into both standard 750ml bottles – for the hotel bar, perhaps – and 375ml hip-flask style glass pint bottles with aluminum screw caps –for sale to patrons to take to their luxury suites, no doubt.

The Dallas Dhu distillery was closed in 1983 and three years later converted into a museum by Historic Scotland. Much farther back in time, in the XIIIth century, a man associated with the Church of Saint Michael, located in the region where the distillery was later built (in 1899), changed his name from William de Ripley to William de Dallas – why, nobody seems to know. Nonetheless, one descendent of this early Scotsman leant his name to the distillery, while another, a George Mifflin Dallas, became the 11th Vice President of the United States under James K. Polk. The city of Dallas, Texas was named for that one in 1845. All of which is interesting for about the length of time it takes to write it out, and has nothing to do with the quality of this whisky.

Appearance

A pale gold, like a field of young barley at noon on a sunny day. Makes one suspect this was put into a refill bourbon cask for its slow, 28 year development. It grips the glass when swirled in one, with patient rivulets forming and running at a rather slow, sensual speed. Nothing wrong here, nothing at all, but there’s really barely a whisper of a hint of the splendors to come. Should that be admired? Hard to decide, hence the fraction… (7.5/10)

Nose

Indy’s first impression was melon. Mine was watermelon. I also sensed his melon, one of the cantaloupe variety, but only under that scent of watermelon one gets from watermelon-flavored candies, especially gums with gooey centers. Indy didn’t get this. He did get something flowery, which I did not. In any case, simultaneously, Indy and I both picked up a rather unexpected aroma: I said Gin & Tonic, Indy said Evergreen, then we both said Juniper! I also got lemon-lime where Indy got orange, but at least we agreed there was something citrusy at work. We also agreed there was a somewhat botanical undertone to the nose here, a very pleasant one, and a light honey sweetness comingling with a stunning, firm and fragrant maltiness that caused the mouth to water in anticipation of what promised to be a glorious ride on the tongue. (19/20)

Palate

This spirit has so much flavor, I don’t regret that it was reduced to a 43% ABV. Would it be better at 50% or at cask strength? Perhaps, but this whisky is so flavorful at its current strength, these thoughts never occurred to Indy or me while we were busy with our task of assessment.

Our individual analyses of the palate were very similar, with one exception: Indy said he could taste the Body of Christ… Well, what he actually said was he was getting the unleavened qualities of a communion wafer in the taste. I had already noted the taste of waffle, which is in some ways similar, though more reminiscent of a motel lobby in Atlanta than of an altar call at a Catholic church in, say, Billerica, MA. Be that as it may, we were both very impressed with the quality of the malt here, with a sweet, slightly peppery oakiness, with the citrus now less pronounced than in the nose but, like yesterday’s rain in a landscape, never quite out of sight. The honey sweetness, too, was ever present, but without being cloying in the least; a wildflower honey, perhaps, or, better, a heather or comb honey. All of this combining to make fulsomely manifest the promise of the nose. (19/20)

Finish

There is a real sparkle to the finish, as the honey sweetness fades to a delightful, diluted nectar. And the spice, though still mild, cranks up a bit to help the wondrous malt dissolve on the tongue into a very rounded, gin-like-drying (“slow” tannins, so to speak, and quinine?), moderately long and warming finish with just the slightest hint of licorice at the end. Mouthwatering in a sensual, almost erotic way. (19/20)

Balance/Structure

The nose of this whisky is wonderful and it swims like a school of humming mermaids into a no-less wonderful palate and finish. This is very good stuff! The citrus fruit bite is perfectly balanced by the just-right honey sweetness; the firm, round old malt balanced expertly by the slender but scintillating juniper qualities and by a light peppery spark. Every roundness is met by a counterbalancing titillation and every quality indicating long maturation is met by a counterbalancing freshness. The result is a sophisticated single cask excursion that is, in my experience, about as good as it gets. (20/20)

The Quality of the Buzz

Here I must speak for myself. Indy had to drive home, so over-buzzing with excessive drammage of this alluring malt, though difficult to resist, had, by Indy, to be resisted. He drove off. I sat back down and poured another dram.

While some whiskies induce excessive vigor or sloppiness beyond a certain sum, others become more unflappably calming, more sensual, making one more prone to tranquility and broad imaginings, massaging a capacity to ride long trains of thought with attentive ease. While not stupefying in the least, this delightful Dallas Dhu falls into the latter category. It makes you comfortable, thoughtful, open and unguarded. And the buzz itself, the “high” one gets, is stunningly fine and finely pitched, like the motion of a hummingbird’s wings. When one pours a dram of whisky not simply to savor it but in pursuit of peace and rest, to unwind and uncoil into a frame of mind that eschews all the nagging pinpricks of the day, the buzz one gets from this Dallas Due is exactly what one is looking for. Yes, I’d say this is perfect. (10/10)

Total points for this whisky: 94.5

Check it out: http://www.spiritimportsinc.com/index2.php#!/THE_CLASSIC_CASK

The Heart’s Cockles’ Heat: The Exlusive Malts’ 2000 Craigellachie 12 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

IMG_20140427_103934_395~2This distillery (with emphasis on the “ell” syllable) is completely new to me. I have learned that Craigellachie Distillery was built to take advantage of new railroads in 1891 on what is known as The Rock of Craigellachie in the Village of Craigellachie, not far from Thomas Telford’s elegant cast iron Craigellachie Bridge. The village is also home to the imposing Craigellachie Hotel, that itself houses the rather famous Quaich Bar, which stocks more than 700 malt whiskies. (I believe Craigellachie just rose to the top of my list of villages to visit along the River Spey!)

The Whisky

David Wishart writes that Craigellachie’s mash tun “is one of the most technically advanced in the industry, with continuous sparging, by which hot water is added continuously rather than in the traditional three batches. The arms move up and down while rotating and use a combination of rakes and blades to ensure maximum extraction of sugars.” That all makes it sound very modern, so it is good to know that “Craigellachie is one of the few distilleries to have retained traditional copper worm condensers” (see Whisky Classified, 2012 Edition, page 112). Wishart and others say this gives the Craigellachie juice a rich, sulphury character, but in this single cask expression – The Exclusive Malts’ Craigellachie 12 year old, untinted by any coloring, un-chillfiltered and bottled at a cask strength of 111.9 proof – there is richness galore and only the slightest, faintest wisp of sulphur. But I’m getting ahead of myself… The distillery did its own floor maltings until 1994 or 1997 (depends on who you read), so the whisky here at hand, bottled in the year 2000, was distilled after floor maltings had ceased.

Nose

At first, you don’t get a very broad redolence from this copper-amber, oily elixir, but give it time and its layers, slowly, begin to unfold. I get vanilla sugar icing, honeycomb, sweet lemon-orange glaze, new oak, sawn oak and those orange circus peanut confectionary treats that show up in bags around Halloween. There is also something very fresh and green, new moss with a small pinch of clove sprinkled on it, cantaloupe, sugar cookies, spearmint and just the slightest, not-unpleasant-in-the-least hint of sulphur. And, surprisingly, a brief, almost ghostly suggestion of smoke. Malt, the citrus, the sugar cookies and the vanilla icing become more prominent with water. This one is not very easy to disentangle and it’s a bit reticent, but take your time and make the effort and you will be pleasantly rewarded. (21/25)

Palate

Right away, I’m smitten. This has a beautifully full, oily mouthfeel. I taste wildflower honey, spelt, some spent-candle waxiness, a fresh mix of lemon and orange juice, sweet malt and a definite oakiness. There is also warm vanilla cake, Ak-Mak Armenian crackers, warm, pleasant spice, dried cherries and maybe some cherry juice. Adding a few drops of water dials down the sweetness – which wasn’t cloying to begin with – and emphasizes the oak, spelt and malty qualities. Truly a rich, satisfying dram. (24/25)

Finish

In any whisky, the one thing that usually gives me the most pleasure (if it is there), and thus the one thing I most hope to find, is a radiating, rich, soft-searing burn in the finish that goes all the way down to envelop the heart in its profligate, pleasant warmth – and here it is! The finish on this whisky hugs you like a loving, well-padded mama hugs her troubled child. It is long enough and warming with lots of oak and just a touch of peat smoke and some warming clove and a wonderful lack of harsh pepper or stinging cinnamon. Add a bit of water and just a bit of exotic (not black or white) pepper sneaks in. A deeply friendly dram. (24/25)

Balance/Structure

I have seen this whisky referred to as “muddled,” but I strongly disagree. While it may lack the clean, precise structure one often finds in these Exclusive Malts single cask bottlings, it is certainly not muddled. Slightly out of focus, perhaps? Or a bit fuzzy, like a thick cashmere sweater worn against the winds of a cold, cruel world? Yes, the nose is a bit niggardly, at least at first, so I suppose this potion is some distance from perfect, but it’s the kind of imperfection you might savor or smile about in a friend or lover. This whisky builds as you take your time with it, growing in quality from the nose to the richer palate and finish. I’ve already located a couple of bottles online and I’ll be ordering them in the morning. (22/25)

exmalts_craigellachieTotal points for this whisky: 91

This website makes me drool! http://www.impexbev.com/exclusive-malts

A big thanks to ImpEx Beverages and to Katia for the sample.

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

Making Solace of Cioran: Longrow 14 Year Old Cask Strength Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky

IMG_20140409_164405_594~2For some ungodly reason, I will often, after pouring myself a dram of some elixir from the Springbank distillery, take a volume of the writings of that sad, incisive pessimist, E. M. Cioran, down from my bookshelf. I’ll then sit in a comfortable chair to sip, savor and read. Cioran is not for the gloomy. If you’re already glum or predisposed to despair, I suggest you avoid him. Cioran tasted long and deep of a troubled life and he proclaimed it a joke of which the punch line is always and inevitably some mix of mortification and misery. Still, for no good reason that I can discern, the older I get, the more I feel compelled to read him. His writings often force us to admit things our egos toil to keep us from reckoning…

I have all the defects of other people and yet everything they do seems to me inconceivable.

Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds.

Not one moment when I have not been conscious of being outside Paradise.

And the mood gets even lower, darker than that…

The more you live, the less useful it seems to have lived.

Now, I have long been married to a profoundly sensible, steadfast and caring woman; with her, I have raised two whole and healthy, intriguing children who continue to surprise me and to make me proud. I have had wondrous, inspiring experiences in theater and in writing and performing music. I have a handful – just the right number – of very bright, very captivating, very generous friends. So, why in hell do I so often get stuck on, and find myself nodding in agreement with, Cioran, that brilliantly unhappy man? And why, when I am feeling most compelled to read him, am I nearly always clutching a Springbank dram? Frankly, dear reader, I haven’t the faintest idea. That’s just how it is.

The Whiskey

This Longrow is heavily peated for a Campbeltown malt – don’t expect Ardbog or a Laphroaig or a cask strength Lagavulin – all completely different experiences from this. It was distilled on the Kintyre peninsula at the Springbank Distillery in June of 1998, matured for 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask, and bottled in December of 2012. It has an ABV of exactly 50 percent.

Appearance

This deep copper-gold fluid coats my nosing glass like a fine, crystalline wax. Hold it up to the light and you may glimpse a slight shading of pink – a Madeira sunset? – amidst the liquid copper and limpid gold, but you will have to wait a minute or two for any legs to form. Not that this whisky is thick as tar sands oil or anything of that sort – it’s just the nature of this elixir to hold on firmly with both grace and tenacity. This unusual characteristic is common among the cask strength bottlings of the Springbank distillery. (9/10)

Nose

This could not have come from any distillery but Springbank. No other distiller in Scotland employs such a broad, eccentric, unorthodox approach to maturation, which is often a double maturation (never a “finishing” in the conventional sense) in the likes of Australian Shiraz or rum or Gaja Barolo barrels, or single-mindedly single maturations in odd casks, from a dozen years in ex-Burgundy or Calvados wood to the present whisky’s 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask. And yet, hold your nose over a glass of any of these fluid eccentricities – be they unpeated Hazelburns or lightly peated Springbanks or more heavily peated Longrows – and you will know immediately it came from the Springbank distillery. There is a family resemblance to every product of this admirably sui generis manufacturer. If you fall in love with one of this masterful whisky-maker’s daughters, you should be (and will be) happy to marry any one of his daughters – really, they are all wonderful, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

But, moving along…

The first thing one senses, exhaling like breath from the whisky in this glass, is the aroma of intoxication. Earthy, autumnal, vegetal, smoky, mossy, grainy and intoxicating. The smell of moist earth crumbling in your hand, the aroma of a field ripe for harvest, the vegetal freshness and sweetness of sprouted barley, an old forest after a days-long rainstorm – and, coming through it all, the promise of forgetfulness and of the nearly erotic dissipation of the stresses and strains of daily life. If finding a reason to affirm even an unhappy life had a smell, this would be it. (19/20)

Palate

The sweetness here is neither honey nor sugar. There may actually be a gentle wisp of that darker, heavier demerara sugar, maybe even molasses-soaked brown sugar, but it’s all riding on malt, on the inherent sweetness of barley grain. Yet this is not what most of us would call a sweet whisky – far from it. Earthy peat, new leather and tobacco are evident, as are oak and a somewhat winey, murky Madeira. There is a pleasant saltiness here as well. And nocturnal loam, as if you were lying in a garden at 3am and turned your head against the trowelled bed. There may be some dried fruit in there, but it isn’t prominent. Coconut, a common characteristic of the Springbank profile, is quite pronounced in the palate – surprising considering I didn’t pick up even a hint of it on the nose. (19/20)

Finish

You have two choices here. You can accentuate the earthy leatheriness, sweet maltiness and a somewhat biting, white pepper spice by swallowing this undiluted, or you can add water and bring out a more floral earthiness, a lighter, sweeter maltiness, a more complimenting, less dominant spice and, much to my surprise, just a hint of juniper/gin on the finish. Try it both ways – either is good and, whichever way you choose, you’ll get that wondrous slow burn spreading like dazzling contentment through your chest. Good stuff, this is… (18/20)

Structure/Balance

The promise of that glowing, coating, copper-gold potion in my glass was manifest in the nose, palate and finish of this whisky. In fact, once this had oxidized a bit in the bottle (I didn’t care for it for a week after opening), every aspect here became compelling and even seductive. This whisky does not ape the experience of some slinky fling, as many NAS and “reformulated” Scotch whiskies do; this whisky is a good, long marriage to a good, long suffering spouse. This is the kind of drink you learn to respect – and to go back to again and again. It does not exhibit the tight, clear structure that I have tremorously enjoyed in several scintillating drams from, say, The Maltman or The Exclusive Malts; no, this feels a little less clear, but richer all the same – more like life itself. It isn’t perfect – whatever that means – but it knows to counter its malty sweetness with a pinch of salt, its savory leatheriness with coconut and pepper, and its deep, smoky earthiness with a slightly sweet, vegetal breeze. As balanced as it should be. (18/20)

Quality of the Buzz

For some of us (Cioran, me and a million more), there’s a rancor at the core of life that, by the time we’re twenty-five years old or so, we have distracted ourselves from sufficiently to believe, most days, we have found some sort of happiness. Meanwhile, that rancor eats away at our souls, satisfaction is never felt deeply or long, resentments breed like cancer cells and the sordid, ever more palpable unfairness designed into the mechanics of the human world becomes so conspicuous as to be unbearable…

So, how do we endure? How do we reconcile ourselves to such a shabby, short, ignoble life? To an existence that is rendered ever more dreadful and unsatisfying as age breaks us down and the children move away and we have less energy for illusion, less patience for blatant deception, and thus must begin to see our lives, and life itself, for what they really are: Arduous descents into oblivion or abject surrender to doom.

The most base and opportunistic among us turn to politics, a perfect escape from reality for soulless, thieving cowards, while others turn to gardening or drugs, art, bingo, pumping iron or porn; some embrace fear and join cults, others make cults of family, some fixate on sports or start whisky blogs, and the most tedious among us turn to the vulgar satisfactions of amassing filthy lucre. Albert Ayler found his way out with a saxophone; Van Gogh, more or less, with brushes and paint. Vaslav Nijinsky distracted himself with dance and, ultimately, insanity.

I’m 59 years old. I’ve been disillusioned since the age of 12 and a cynic since I met my first landlord. I have chosen many effective paths to escape the abyss – a good wife, raising fascinating children, art, theatre, music. But, now, getting older, hoping to expand and unbutton the end of each day, the means I choose to escape the whorish, tawdry chasm of daily life is single malt Scotch whisky. This 14 year old cask strength Longrow is intoxicating in every way – in all the deeper, more embracing, more permeating meanings of that term. It provides the prefect companion to Cioran and his ilk, and the perfect solace if we are compelled to drive blindfolded into the beckoning void, or to waltz with abandon across a lake of thin ice. That, in fact, is what all of us are doing, and as soon as we admit that fact to ourselves, the gladder we’ll be to have a bottle or two of this potent elixir of Lethe close to hand. (10/10)

Total points for this whisky: 93

The Distillery
http://www.springbankwhisky.com

Emil Cioran, The Philosopher of Despair
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emil_Cioran

Good whisky taking the form of dark but enriching song…