...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Let's Knockando it! Knockando 12 year old 1999 (OB)

Let's start where I started, with this recent Knockando 12 year old.  Knockando's official bottlings aren't sold in the US and their independently bottled versions are scarce everywhere because the J&B needs its 'do.  Thus when Florin (a prince) offered up a good portion of his bottle of the 12, I was happy to receive it.  At first I found it to be an easy drinker, something to sip and generally ignore.  With successive pours, it began taking on more form and character.  I set two ounces aside for a future review, and now the future has arrived.

Distillery: Knockando
Owner: Diageo plc
Type: Single Malt Report
Region: Speyside (Central)
Age: 12 years (1999-2011)
Maturation: primarily ex-bourbon casks with a smaller amount of ex-sherry casks
Chill-filtration? Yes
Caramel colored? Yes
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The color is DiageoGold™.  Large quantities of barley and yeast in the nose, and a hell of a lot of honey.  Some notes of apples, fresh pears, orange hard candies, vanilla, and marzipan.  Some nuts, cigar tobacco, and cocoa from the sherry casks (probably).  An occasional gritty note.  With time in the glass, the whisky develops notes of dried berries, dried grass, and tangerines.  At first the palate is lightly smoky, with some salty butter and something a little dirty (literally dirt).  There are smaller notes of oak spice, lemons, sweet wine, and pilsner.  After some time in the glass, the whisky gets a little creamier, the lemons becoming lemon bars.  Some sugary frosting, orange pulp, walnuts, honey, and burnt barley emerge as well.  A hint of the honey.  The dusty/toasty/burnt thing sticks around into the finish.  There are also some oranges, black peppercorns, honey, and vanilla.  In later sips, the citrus grows as does a jasmine-like note.  A moderate length finish overall.

As I hinted at in the intro, the whisky really grew on me.  It's very pleasant and barley-forward.  It's not actually complex, but I did two different tasting sessions, which is why there's a pile of tasting notes.  I also wrote down, "Would be great with a beer."  It would be even better at a $30-$35 price point -- as it is in much of Europe -- since it's a small step up from Glenfiddich 12 and probably comparable quality-wise to Tomatin 12.  Hell, if J&B included more of this in their bland blend, I'd buy that as well.  But that's not happening, so maybe someday Diageo can find it in its cold black heart to bring Knockando to the US.  Perhaps?

Availability - European retailers
Pricing - $30-$40 (w/VAT, w/o shipping)
Rating - 84

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Good news everyone!  It is time for me to review the one distillery for which every single one of you have been waiting breathlessly.  The pride of J&B.  The little black hill.  Knockando.

Photo from scotchwhisky.net
For the next two weeks, I'm going to pile so much Knockando (nock-AN-doo) on you, you'll need a shovel to find sunshine.  Six reviews covering the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s.  Mostly the '60s though.

You may be asking your screen, "He's talking about AnCnoc, right?"  Nope, that's Knockdhu, another Speyside distillery, which changed its single malt's name to AnCnoc to prevent brand confusion with Knockando, only to create new confusion about how to pronounce AnCnoc.  AnCnoc is owned by Inver House.  Knockando is owned by a wee independent company called Diageo.  I'll be ignoring AnCnoc going forward and lavishing attention on the Diageo distillery.

Knockando Distillery broke ground in the late 1890s by entrepreneurs who wanted to take advantage of what was being hailed as a whisky boom.  By the time the distillery was complete, the boom was revealed to be bupkis and the whisky industry had tanked.  The distillery then closed soon after.  I'm sure there's no lesson to be learned there.

In 1904, W. & A. Gilbey, a London-based wine and spirits producer, bought the distillery and fired up the stills again.  Fifty-eight years later, W. & A. Gilbey merged with United Wine Traders to create International Distillers and Vintners (IDV).  One of the branches of IDV was Justerini & Brooks, or J&B.  Knockando became an ingredient of J&B's blended scotch, later becoming its main malt.  Justerini & Brooks was also responsible for releasing Knockando's first single malt, a decade later.  The distillery did their own floor maltings until 1968.  In 1969 they began purchasing malt (as of 2010 they were doing so from Burghead) and doubled their capacity by increasing their still count from two to four.  In 1972, IDV was bought by Watney Mann who was taken over by Grand Metropolitan who merged with Guinness to create Diageo in 1997.

Today, J&B is one of the world's top five best selling blended scotch brands, and was as high as #3 as recently as 2009.  So, it's popular stuff.  Thus most of Knockando's malt whisky is directed into that vat.  But quite a bit (650,000 bottles worth) still makes its way into a single malt each year, making it (as of 2012) Diageo's 7th best selling single malt.  We don't see those official bottlings here in the US since the sales are focused in Western Europe.  When Knockando was owned by IDV, its single malts always listed a vintage year (and not always an age statement).  Diageo took the unique (for Diageo) step by keeping that practice.  Currently the Knockando single malts list both the vintage and an age statement.

I'm going to begin the reviews with a recent release, then work my way back through the years.  This week's three single malts (two officials and one indie) will be from the time period after the floor maltings had closed.  Next week's three will all be from the floor maltings.  I write this intro having not yet tried the old stuff, but I'm excited to do so!  Stay tuned.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Friendly Reminder to Kill Your Whisky Gods (figuratively)

Jackson, Valentin, Murray, Roskrow, Cowdery, Smith, Bryson, Mitchell, de Kergommeaux, MacLean, Broom, Gillespie, van den Heuvel.  These people (amongst many more names) brought us to whisky.  All of these people motivated us to explore beyond Johnnie Walker, Macallan, Grant's, Jameson's, Ballantine's, Crown Royal, and Chivas.  They inspired us to record and classify our sensory experiences.  Sometimes they were the catalysts for us to publish our reactions in digital or printed formats.  For those of us who do air our hubris publicly, our writing styles were influenced by the writers that came before us.  Our very reactions to whiskies, even those we've never tried, were on some level formed by their opinions.

And that's okay.  We all have to start somewhere.  A lot of these gentlemen have an expansive acquaintance with whiskies that the rest of us will likely never accrue.  They set us off on our way, provided guidance, and helped set a foundation (how many metaphors would you like?).

But we don't have to drink like them or write like them.  And we don't have to endeavor to drink like them or write like them.  We are not them.  I know that sounds simple, but it's not.  Acknowledging our influences is easy, breaking free from them to fully discover our own preferences is the challenge.  Why only buy what other people like?  Why spend our time chasing other people's pleasures?

We can like wine cask finished whiskies.
We can like young whiskies,
NAS whiskies,
Whiskies aged in rejuvenated casks,
Whiskies with caramel colorant,
Those that have been filtered,
Those bottled at 40%abv,
Those distilled at Loch Lomond.

Even if our mentors smell mirabelles and quince, it's okay if we smell maple syrup and pancakes.
Even if our mentors smell boat hulls and the Islay shore, it's okay if we smell cow shit.

We don't have to like Brora.
We don't have to like Port Ellen.
We don't have to like Stitzel-Weller.
We don't have to like Karuizawa.
We don't have to like Kavalan.
We don't have to like Clynelish, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, or Glendronach.
We don't have to force ourselves to enjoy these.

We don't have to drink from a Glencairn glass.
We don't have to add teaspoons of water to our whisky.
We don't have to drink it neatly.
We don't have to read whisky blogs.

We can love Edradour and still thrill to Glenlivet 12.
We can hate Johnnie Walker Green and love its replacement, Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve.
We can hate shopping at retailers beloved by anoraks and instead frequent BevMo.

We don't have to write down tasting notes.
We don't have to think about our every dram.
We don't have to call it a "dram".
We can call it a "dram" without shame.
We can spell flavor like flavour, no matter where we're from.
We can load our tumblers full of ice on a summer's day.  Or a winter's night, for that matter.
We can nose our whisky with one nostril while we keep both eyes closed.
We don't have to smell our whisky.

We may even discover one day we don't even enjoy whisky, we just got caught up in the excitement, and we would rather drink beer or martinis or a flavored spirit or pinot noir or grapefruit juice with Clamato.  Without the burden of conforming to those who came before us, we might enjoy more fully what we're drinking.

Thank you for your time.  This has been a friendly reminder to kill your whisky gods (figuratively), brought to you by Fireball Cinnamon Whisky: Tastes Like Heaven, Burns Like Hell.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Single Malt Report: Laphroaig 21 year old Cask Strength (2008)

Until the day before Mathilda's first birthday, I'd decided to select the two Ledaig 1973s as the celebratory samples and to end it there.  But then I realized that my celebratory sample stash was much bigger than it used to be, and how many occasions would be bigger than this?  There needed to be a third sample, and I knew exactly what it would be.

Best club event, ever.  And that gent in the gray label -- sometimes called the Heathrow Laphroaig because 750 bottles were sold exclusively at Terminal 5 -- was the best Laphroaig I'd had, easily one of the best whiskies I'd ever experienced up until that point.  Though everyone I had spoken to at the event had chosen it as their favorite of the bunch, there was inexplicably a quarter of the bottle remaining at the end of the night.  So I made off with my own sample.  And that sample is this sample:

Here's to Mathilda.  Here's to Kristen and I, we two noobs, keeping her alive for an entire year.  Slàinte mhath!

Distillery: Laphroaig
Owner: Beam Suntory
Type: Single Malt
Region: Islay
Age: minimum 21 years
Release Year: 2008
Distillation Year: 1987 or earlier
Maturation: unknown, but 9 casks were utilized
Chill-filtration? No
Caramel colored? No
Alcohol by Volume: 53.4%
Limited Release: 750 in UK, 1427 in US

Color - Light gold

Nose (neat) - Many smoked things: salmon, ham, mesquite wood, orange peels, and probably peat.  Mango-infused lapsang souchong followed by the plastic siding of my childhood home.  There's lemon marmalade, orange oil, peated cream puffs, and a whole street of Scottish chimneys.  It's also very floral; blossoms, not soap.  Cognac, ocean, and a hint of caramel sauce.

Nose (with water) - Peels the peat back, turning this into a politer whisky.  Malty, creamy, some vanilla, peaches, and oranges.  A distant ship's smoke on the horizon.

Palate (neat) - Somehow both massively fruity and massively smoky.  Deep dark char meets tropical fruit punch.  There are also peaches, plums, cherries, oranges, honey, and key lime pie.  Mint and basil and whipped cream.

Palate (with water) - Even more floral and fruity esters.  Lots of citrus peel, cherries, and rose petals.  Small nibbles of peats and a subtle bitterness.  More sugars and vanilla gradually emerge.  Very graceful from start to finish.

Finish (neat) - Enormous.  And it's the peat that rules the night.  There's everything peat-related: moss, roots, dirt, char, ash, and smoldering coals.  Then brine, seaweed, menthol, and chili oil.

Finish (with water) - Fruitier and more aromatic.  Sweeter as well, with just a peep of good bitterness.

This whisky somehow brings together both categories of official Laphroaigs: the graceful fruiters like the 18 & 30 and the peat behemoths like the old 10CS & 25CS.  When neat it leans more towards the latter, then with water added it tilts towards the former.  But, man, what a finish.  It's that finish that'll make me recommend drinking this one neatly.  Though, it's a stunner no matter how one chooses to drink it.

I'm not going to ruin the glow in the report by talking about its four figure price.  I won't pick nits, it's a pretty close competition between the 25yo CS (2011 edition), the 40yo, and this 21yo CS for my favorite all time Laphroaig.  If you have a bottle of this in your collection, know that it's a treasure, a special occasion whisky, an experience you won't soon forget.

I have no idea how I'm going to celebrate the completion of Mathilda Year Two.

Availability - A few retailers, the occasional auction
Pricing - in 2012 it was $400-$600, today it's $1000-$1500
Rating - 93

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Single Malt Report: Ledaig 14 year old 1973-1987 Sestante

Okay, the 24 hour mystery is now over.  Yes, I had a sample of full strength 1973 Ledaig.

This 14 year old Ledaig, bottled by the much revered but now shuttered Italian independent bottler Sestante, received raves from the Malt Maniacs so it arrived in my glass with a reputation.  But I knew that no matter if this whisky was disappointing or great I was very thankful for this opportunity.  (Many many thank yous to Cobo!)

Distillery: Ledaig
BottlerGordon & MacPhail
Series: Connoisseur's Choice
Age: 14 years (1973-1987)
Maturation: ???
Region: Isle of Mull
Alcohol by Volume: 56.3%

Its color is amber, lighter than yesterday's Ledaig.  The nose immediately brings to mind three things:  A christmas tree farm.  The docks of a fishing village.  A grove of fruiting lemon trees.  Then highlights of grilled meat, soil, and kiln follow next.  With time some bold notes of cruciferous leafy vegetables, brine, and cow patties arise.  With water, there's noticeably more barn.  Then pineapple and burning hay.  While the nose is big, the palate is larger.  Such depth to its char and phenolic swamp...but then a sweet fruity twist at the end.  Fresh herbs in manure.  Sea salt and wasabi.  Time and water bring out lemon oils and candy canes.  That wasabi bite is in the very long finish even before the water is added.  There's a lot of brine and smoke with California sauvignon blanc (believe it or not) to balance it out.  Water and time makes it very rich and syrupy.  Stroopwafels!

It is indeed great.  While I prefer the nose on yesterday's G&M Ledaig (at any strength), this one smells very good.  But the Sestante's palate beats the snot out of the G&M's.  While the 14yo's kiln smoke is near monolithic on the tongue at first, herbs and fruits and sugars make brief appearances to balance things out.  Water and time in the glass do a few nice things, but this stuff is still so brawny after 28 years in the bottle.  There's a 40%abv version of this, but I personally wouldn't even bother (if I had that kind of scratch) because the power is the main attraction.

I will have to dig deep to try and top this one.  Tomorrow, I'll attempt it.

Availability - Happy Hunting?
Pricing - Yoooooge
Rating - 91

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Single Malt Report: Ledaig 16 year old 1973 Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice (brown label)

I believe this is the actual bottle,
courtesy of Andy Smith of LASC and LAWS

In 1973 Tobermory Distillery was called Ledaig.  Or maybe in 2015, the Ledaig Distillery was called Tobermory.  This 1973 bottling has the old Connoisseurs Choice label on the outside and the heavily-peated Isle of Mull spirit on the inside.  The distillery had sat closed for 42 years before it was reopened in 1972.  And then it went bankrupt again in 1975, closed, then reopened in 1978, then closed in 1982, then reopened in 1989, as Tobermory.  The facility has bounced between the two names a few times in its history.  While the current ownership has kept the Tobermory name, they have labelled their peated single malt brand as Ledaig.

Today's specific whisky, bottled over a quarter century ago with a label that just looks like essence of Ledaig, was distilled when the property (and the company that owned it) was called Ledaig.  I anticipate there being some peat involved.

My sample label, FWIW.

Distillery: Ledaig
BottlerGordon & MacPhail
Series: Connoisseur's Choice
Age: 16 years (1973 to 1989 or 1990)
Maturation: "oak casks"
Region: Isle of Mull
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Sample purchased from the LA Scotch Club.

The color is light gold.  The nose is unbelievably massive.  And I'm not just casually throwing in that overused adverb.  I had no idea that a whisky watered down to 40%abv could have a sniffer so expansive.  It starts with peated mint chip ice cream.  And also peat.  And then some peat.  Antiseptic and roses.  Bandaids and baklava.  Cinnamon candy, cologne, and mint leaves.  After twenty minutes, a note of extra nutty sherry emerges.  Then vinyl and burning plastic.  Seaweed rotting at the beach and, curiously, raspberries.  After 45 minutes, the stuff is still alive, emitting notes of oranges, cigarettes, and red lollipops.  I was afraid to actually drink it because then it would be gone. :(  But I did so anyway because whisky is for drinking.  Here on the palate it feels much more like a 40%abv whisky, thinner and briefer than the nose.  It starts with root beer barrel candies, a note that remains present throughout.  Then there's smoked seaweed, smoked brown sugar, figs, sweet peat stuff, sea salt, and a light bitterness.  It stays vivid even after 30-45 minutes of air, with smoked almonds, cinnamon, salt, and peat moss hanging around.  Those root beer barrel candies and figs make up much of the finish, followed by mesquite barbecue.  A salty note expands with time.  Gradually a mellow bitter note moves in with the salt.  Some tart lemons pop up.  Just a moment of sweetness.

What a tremendous nose.  I really don't know what distilleries did differently back then to make possible an olfactory landscape at the lowest legal ABV.  Today there are few full strength whiskies that approach this nose's depth.  The palate and finish are more realistic, though still of considerable quality.  This isn't a crowd pleaser, but it certainly will make Ledaig fans (all six of us) very happy.  Goodness gracious, what if I could find a '73 Ledaig that was bottled at full strength...

Availability - Happy Hunting!
Pricing - probably north of $500 :(
Rating - 90

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mathilda Year One, complete

The first year of Mathilda is officially in the books.  Most days I feel as if I have aged three decades in that time.  The New Parent Adrenaline wore off at Month Three, but I drag my dad ass out to the gym anyway most weekdays.

Mathilda, the girl of a thousand faces, 999 of which are my favorite (the crying one being subtracted).  She is becoming a person very quickly and that fact becomes less terrifying every day.  That doesn't mean I'm turning into a better father.  This whole parent business is impossible.  I fail so often every single day, that in order to survive I've learned to just yield to the whirling forward momentum.  Mathilda agrees to nothing, gives no quarter, every emotion a thunderclap.  Just my luck, a Kravitz.  But she loves with an intensity no rational adult could muster.  She makes me laugh every day.  I never laughed every day before.  I marvel at her curiosity, her appetite, her delights, her physical strength (if she lifted the couch to reach a blueberry underneath, I wouldn't be surprised).

No, there is no way I can do this experience justice via whisky reviews.  But Diving For Pearls turned into a whisky blog years ago, so there shall be whisky.  Before the possibility of Mathilda entered this reality, I earmarked a bottle for my child's first birthday.  A whisky I had once tried and loved.

Or, with a Mathilda filter:

While I won't be reviewing the Glen Spey this week (mmmm, you got your rye in my single malt!), I did haul out three special samples for this week.  No, these aren't Littlemills (as I did for her arrival last year), but they do all begin with the letter L.  No, they're not Lismore, because I love my daughter.  Nor Ladyburn, because that sounds like shaving accident in the shower.  Tune in tomorrow...