...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bunnahabhain 13 year old 1997 Murray McDavid, Chateau Lafite ACEing

Yes, another 1997 Bunnahabhain!  But this one's a different creature than yesterday's.  Today's was bottled by Murray McDavid -- yes, the one indie bottler whose name alone inspires a physical response in many a drinker.  This particular Bunnahabhain spent the better part of its life in ex-bourbon casks, then was ACEd finished in Bordeaux casks (courtesy of Chateau Lafite Rothschild).

Often Murray McDavid's whiskies come across as unbalanced who-knows-what'll-happen experiments to salvage crap casks. While that's not necessarily a bad thing -- strange whisky often equals fun whisky -- only once was I convinced that anyone should pay money for a MMcD's tootling product.

But because this was a '97 Bunnahabhain and because Jordan (Mr. Cocktailchem) had a sample to swap, I figured what the hell.

Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Independent Bottler: Murray McDavid
Age: 13 years (1997-2011)
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks
Finish: Bourdeaux casks from Chateau Lafite Rothschild
Limited bottling: 1200
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

Color - Sazerac cocktail.  Think orange, peach, pink, and gold. At least it's not maroon like the $300 McEwan wine spit bucket known as Black Art (Parts 1 through 4).

Nose - The peat reek stands tall above the wine.  Smaller, well-incorporated notes like brown sugar, cinnamon, coconut, and creme brûlée appear.  With time, the peat element peels back, revealing a big vanilla buttercream frosting note.  Then there's peach candy and something PX sherry-ish.

Palate - Aggressively dirty peat with an underpinning of something sweet.  But then they flip-flop as something (the wine?) gets very sweet very quickly.  A big peppery spiciness, like white and green peppercorns, rumbles beneath.  Some overripe stone fruits here and there.  A bit of salt.

Finish - Ashes and char.  Cigarettes and cracked pepper.  Hint of sweet wine, sort of like Madeira.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Nose - Wine gets stronger, peat weakens.  More frosting.  Some peachy stuff.  Lots of lemons.

Palate - Peat and sweet.  An herbal bitterness now appears.  The peat is up front.  The sugar and overripe stone fruits are in the exhale.

Finish - Peat smoke, sweet wine, sugar, and salt water.

The nose was a surprise, working even better when I had the second half of the sample the day after the tasting.  Wine element is not only pleasant, but also plays very well with the malt, in the nose.  I'm less convinced about their interplay in the palate.  I'm not sure where the palate's aggressive sweetness is coming from as it feels more like a dessert/fortified wine rather than a Bordeaux.  If the sweetness is due to the malt, as Jordan mentions in his review, this would be the first time I've seen this level of sweets in a '97 Bunna.  Or perhaps it was due to some booming first-fill bourbon casks.

While I'm in no way panning this whisky, Jordan is a bigger fan of it than I.  He had a whole bottle of it to ponder, so I recommend giving his review a read.  I wish I'd discovered the dry and savory notes he found!

As mentioned, the nose is very good and the palate shows better (for me) with some water.  It's also the second best Murray McDavid bottling I've had and the best of their wine finishes I've tried so far.  It's an MMcD experiment that is worth paying for, though I'm not sure how much retailers are charging for it as it has become scarce.

Availability - Scarce
Pricing - $??.??
Rating - 83

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bunnahabhain 16 year old 1997 Chieftain's hogshead #3181 (K&L exclusive)

Adult voices speaking in babytalk tones shriek out from Mathilda's toys over and over and over and over and over as I write this post.  I'm going fugging (per Norman Mailer) crazy.

Last week I reviewed a pair of 2015 K&L exclusive single casks (here and here) from friends' samples.  Today, I'm reviewing a single cask K&L found in 2014, and it's from my own bottle!  Bottles of this one are still on the shelves, and have an Insider's Advantage price, so I wanted to make sure I got a review out before they're all gone.  I'm straining to be relevant here, people.

In 1997, Bunnahabhain experimented with distilling some highly peated (50ppm? 38ppm, thanks Jordan!) spirit and then promptly discontinued the exercise for more than decade.  It seems as if they traded most of those peated results away to independent bottlers.  And I've really liked the results.  '97 Bunnahabhain is kinda punk.  It's scuzzy and imperfect and tends to play only power chords.  So when I read that the K&L Davids were bringing back a cask I was very excited.

And then it arrived with a $130/bottle price tag and I was a lot less excited.  My hope was that someday it would wind up on clearance and drop below $100 dollars.  Four months ago, that very thing happened.  $97 is still on the high side (though I guess mathematically appropriate), but luckily my fellow '97 Bunnahabhain geek Jordan (of Chemistry of the Cocktail fame) was willing to split a bottle with me.

So with the final two ounces of my half bottle, I did an actual tasting last week.

Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Independent Bottler: Ian MacLeod
Brand: Chieftain's
Age: 16 years (August 1997 - May 2014)
Maturation: Hogshead
Cask number: 3181
Limited bottling: 259
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 56.1%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

Color - Dark gold.  In the bottle it looks almost as if it's a first fill sherry cask.

Nose - In my first pour from the bottle, all I got was bus exhaust.  Which was great.  But, onto the official nosing...  It's deep and dingy.  Charred, burnt pine.  Sometimes a little sugary (confectioners') and candied.  Orange blossoms, dark chocolate, and salty ocean air.  Big peat, but also graceful peat.

Palate - More smoke than moss.  More honed and refined than any other '97 Bunny I've had before.  Dark chocolate and mellow vanilla sweetness, but also some peppery charred beef around the edges.  There's a richness that almost seems sherried, like a sweet nutty praline thing.

Finish - Extensive vibrant peatin'.  Pleasantly subtle vanilla, sugar, and salt.  Pipe tobacco.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
Nose - The burnt piney note remains in the forefront.  Burnt pan scrapings.  Pencils.  Hints of oranges and limes.

Palate - Sweeter and more aromatic.  An almost floral peat (NOT Bowmorian).  Still quite strong, a little rougher young spirit shows up.

Finish - Shorter.  Salt, slightly bitter, and peat residue.

This makes me wish more indie '97 Bunnahabhains would make their way to The States, but since this clearly did not fly off the shelves I don't know how many more of these we Yanks will ever see here.  For some reason even the peated '89 Juras sell out faster than the '97 Bunnas.  Is that due to the allure of larger age statements?

I'd recommend this bottling to those former fans of Ardbeg who have lost confidence in the single malts coming from LVMH.  I'd also recommend it to geeks who like indie Caol Ilas and Bowmores.  As mentioned in the notes, there's something sherry-ish to it.  Whatever it is, it works.  If anyone else finds this characteristic let me know in the comments.

As Mathilda's toy threatens "I SEE YOU, MONKEY" for the fourth straight time, I'm getting creeped out and will end this post thusly.

Availability - K&L Wines only
Pricing - $96.99 via Insider's Advantage
Rating - 88

Friday, July 24, 2015

WTF Is This? will return next week

Hi folks.  Due to personal circumstances, I will be unable to post a WTF Is This? this week.  But the series will indeed return next week.

The WTFs have been really fun to do and I hope you've enjoyed them too!  I have added another three weeks' (Fridays') worth of them to my schedule.  I'll try to keep it going as long as possible, as long as I have WTF-type whiskies at hand.  I haven't really been soliciting samples since I cleared out the last Dram Quest list, but if you have whiskies that are the weirdest, worstest, mysteriously magnificent, or just generally unknown and you want to send one over for a WTF post then drop me a line.  Thank you much.  Back to more reviews next week.

Here is a water buffalo eating a watermelon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bowmore 12 year old 2001 Signatory (K&L exclusive)

After my second year of posting whisky reviews, I took a tally of my posts and realized that Bowmores made up one out of every eight of my reviews.  Since then I've reviewed a grand total of two.  This week, I'm reviewing another two.  Both are twelve years olds, distilled in 2001, matured in hogsheads, bottled by independent companies, and sold exclusively through K&L Wine Merchants.  But there the similarities end.

Monday's Bowmore was aged in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.  Today's was aged in a refill ex-sherry hogshead.  While the hoggie was shy in Monday's Bowmore, today's Bowmore highlights a very active (and excellent) cask.  While both bring plenty of power, Monday's was young and wild, today's shows its age as well as its strength.

Distillery: Bowmore
Independent Bottler: Signatory
Retailer: K&L Wines
Age: at least 12 years (September 2001 - July 2014)
Maturation: ex-sherry refill hogshead
Cask number: anyone have this info?
Bottle count: anyone have this info?
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 59.1%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(Thanks to Florin for the sample!)

Its color is gold.  The nose begins with a mild plum wine-like sherry note that dovetails with a strong mineral (lots of rocks) character.  A campfire the following morning.  Clover honey, oranges, and again more plums than prunes.  After some time in the glass, there's a little note of struck matches but it's just a hint, a seasoning.  Lots of charred meat with a honey glaze in the palate.  Honey pepper sauce.  It's a sweet sherry but not cloyingly so.  A vibrant sugar→peat smoke→sugar→cayenne pepper progression.  Great thick mouthfeel.  The moderate length finish is a little ocean-y.  Then there's the honey, pepper, and peat.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose seems peatier now, almost hotter too.  Still a very well integrated peat + sherry combo.  Maybe some more nuts now, hazelnuts and walnuts.  Orange zest and cinnamon.  That hint of sulphur.  Moss and char in the palate.  Salt, pepper, and honey.  Some peppery bitter lettuces.  Less sweet now, still well balanced.  The sweetness also calms down in the finish.  The smoke note builds with time, as does the black pepper note.

Richer and more complex than Monday's Bowmore, this might have a better peat and sherry combo than the current iteration of Ardbeg's Uigeadail.  Of course Oogy is engineered using hundreds of casks while this is just a single cask, so they're very different whiskies.

Unless my sherry receptors were hyperactive during this tasting, this refill sherry cask feels like a first fill.  Perhaps that's due to how much smaller a hogshead is than a sherry butt.  Yet the sherry hasn't smothered the spirit; and the spirit hasn't overwhelmed the cask.  The parts work very well together.  And now I wonder what they did with the cask after the whisky was dumped.  Fill it with Bowmore spirit?  Or another Islay?  Or maybe toss a fruity Speyside in there to create something fun?

In any case, another great cask from Signatory, one of my favorite bottlers.  This whisky is on sale at K&L via their Insider's Advantage program.  As of mid-July there are a number of cases of this stuff left.  I might just pick up a bottle.

Availability - K&L Wines only
Pricing - $79.99 if you're signed up for their Insider's Advantage
Rating - 89

Monday, July 20, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bowmore 12 year old 2001 Hepburn's Choice (K&L exclusive)

Today's generalization: With two exceptions, every independently bottled non-FWP Bowmore I've had has been very good.  Now, let me clear away all of the qualifiers in the previous sentence: Independently bottled Bowmores are very reliable.

(Those two mentioned exceptions were reviewed here and here.  Though they were both by David Stirk's Exclusive Malts/Casks, that same company also released an excellent Bowmore when Stirk first brought his whiskies to The States.)

Over the past few years, K&L Wine Merchants have gotten into the indie Bowmore game by picking five or six single casks to sell exclusively through their stores.  Though my previous run-in with one of those exclusive Bowmores wasn't entirely positive, I was still willing to give the others a try.  Luckily two of my whisky pals gave me samples from their bottles of current K&L exclusive Bowmores.

Despite having the same age, vintage, cask size, and price, these two Bowmores are very different from each other.  I'll be reviewing the first one today, the second one tomorrow.

Distillery: Bowmore
Independent Bottler: Hunter Laing
Retailer: K&L Wines
Age: at least 12 years (2001-2014)
Maturation: ex-bourbon refill hogshead
Cask number: ?
Bottle #:  ??? of 266
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alcohol by Volume: 58.4%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(Thanks to SmokyPeat for the sample!)

Hepburn's Choice is one of Hunter Laing's smaller brands, one that they don't tout on their site.  Their releases are often bottled at 46%abv, uncolored and unchillfiltered.  But the single casks that K&L picked up are bottled at full strength.

Its color is Five Beer Piss, my favorite whisky color!  The nose begins with young, though buttery, malt.  There's vinyl, peat (bog as opposed to smoke), lemons, and fruity Ceylon cinnamon.  Give it some time and find some VapoRub-style menthol.  Then comes an herbal note somewhere between rosemary and thyme.  Perhaps a hint of elephant cage.  The palate is hot and raw, but in a good way.  Lots of smoldering peat; the PPMs feel much larger here than in the nose.  Vanilla, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt, and peppercorns.  It finishes with burnt leaves, burnt pages, and the nose's menthol note.  It gradually picks up some sweetness, salt, very green grassiness, and hint of bitterness.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
This pretties the nose up a little.  More lemons, some orange blossoms and mint.  Less menthol, though the peat bog stays strong.  The palate is softer though saltier.  Still smoky, still sweet.  Gets sweeter with time.  A nice wormwood bitterness floats below.  The finish gets sugarier.  The bitterness and smoke mellow a bit.

More Katherine than Audrey Hepburn, this one.  Though K&L says this was a second-fill hogshead, it feels like a fourth or fifth-fill hoggie.  It seems half its age.  I mean we're almost in Talisker "Speakeasy" territory here.  But like the Speakeasy, it's really solid strong spirit.  One could reasonably argue that it's one-note, but a good note it is.  I'm going to score it a couple points higher than the Speakeasy because it's less of a novelty and more of a whisky one would want to consume on multiple occasions.

I'd say this was a brave pick by the Davids because it isn't exactly a crowd pleaser.  But peatheads should find that it delivers.  As is the case with many indie Bowmores, this one's peat levels feel far larger than those of the official bottlings.  In fact this one's peat strength is reminiscent of the Islay distilleries to the south.  This could be due, again, to the cask's restraint.  The whisky swims very well, so if you find it too booming at full strength, watering it down will help.  But it'll read as a young bold Bowmore no matter what.

Availability - K&L Wines only
Pricing - $79.99
Rating - 86

Friday, July 17, 2015

WTF Is This? Forged Oak 15 year old Straight Bourbon Whiskey

A Diageo bourbon?  How could I resist?  When I saw that SmokyPeat (who is more optimistic than I about...well...everything) totally panned Forged Oak and concluded "This stuff is the worst," I was intrigued.  Then he offered me a sample.  I took it.

I'll start with the positives.  A lot of effort and skill was utilized for the bottle label design.  And the result is nice, detailed, textured, and metallic.  Though while the muscular 7000-point deer is a striking visual, big bucks are really more in Scotch's domain.  (Puns!)  SmokyPeat's bottle was number 44877.  Woo, limited.  Wait, this was the positive section.

Since there is no Forged Oak Distillery now, nor fifteen years ago, who made the bourbon in the bottle?  Despite Diageo's marketing department's enthusiastic usage of the words "Stitzel" and "Weller" for every Orphan Barrel press release, neither this bourbon nor any of the other Orphan Barrel whiskies were distilled at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.  Some of the barrels may have been "found" (read: aged) at the Stitzel-Weller warehouses, but those warehouses are far from defunct and Diageo has been regularly using them since at least 1992.  Instead the spirit was distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery just before Diageo sold the distillery to Heaven Hill in 1999.

Thus the distillery is in regular use, as are the warehouses, and with 50000+ bottles (250+ "orphan" barrels!) the bourbon itself is not in terribly limited supply.  Luckily this was the lowest priced of the Orphan Barrel bourbons to date, originally priced near $70 (though it's now selling for $100+ in California).  So what it is is a 15 year old low-rye bourbon.  The end.

Owner: Diageo
Brand: Orphan Barrel
Orphan: Forged Oak
Distillery: New Bernheim
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Mashbill: 86% corn, 8% barley, 6% rye (yep, more barley than rye)
Age: minimum 15 years
Bottle #: 44877
Alcohol by Volume: 45.25%
(Mid bottle sample from SmokyPeat. Thanks!!!)

The color is a reddish brownish gold, pretty normal for a bourbon of its age.  It has one of the nuttiest (as in actual nuts, not craziness) bourbon noses I've experienced.  There are hazelnuts, sesame seeds, peanuts, and a can of roasted mixed nuts.  Alongside the nuts are notes of rock candy and caramel.  Hints of floral vanilla bean and baby urine.  It gets woodier with time; like green woody stems.  Considering its age and abv, a surprising amount of ethyl burn remains.  The palate?  Woof.  Really oaky; pulp, char, bark, roots.  Tannic, astringent, and bitter right out of the gate.  Gradually it picks up some sugar, vanilla milk, and pepper.  Salty and a little malty.  Still tannic and very drying in the unpleasant finish.  Lotta heat, pepper, sugar, and Purple.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
The nose gets a little musty.  Lots of sawdust.  Burnt pasta on the stove.  Anise and fennel.  The palate is very woody and aggressively saccharine.  Slightly eggy.  Nope, I'm done.  Maybe some vanilla and confectioner's sugar in the finish, but it's really bitter.

Part of me, deep down, wanted to write a rave review about this whiskey, as a punkish tweaking of expectations.  For what it's worth, Whisky Advocate and The Whiskey Jug loved this stuff.  Then I tasted the bourbon and I did not love it.  My opinion lies somewhere between that of SmokyPeat's and Sku's.

No one else lists the nut notes that I found, but then again everyone seems to have his own unique notes for the nose.  And I like the nose the best, though "like" may be too strong a word.  The palate is mostly oak juice with a little bit of sweetness and salt, and of zero interest to me.  Adding water turns the palate into an awful slurry, so I really don't recommend going that direction.

Forged Oak?  More like Forced Oak!  (A forced joke.)  It seems to me that Diageo had a bunch of old over-oaked bourbon of which they needed to rid themselves.  The whole "oops, look what we found" story sort of makes sense here because I can't see anyone purposely letting their stock get out of whack like this.  But this whiskey may appeal to those who like lots of oak effects as the spirit soaked these barrels clean through.  It is absolutely not for me, so I can't compliment it on its low-for-15-year-old-bourbon original MSRP.  I wouldn't pay $20 for it.

Availability - Many US specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - from $70 to $120
Rating - 71 (neat only, adding water lowers it into the 50s)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Meditations on Stay-At-Home Fatherhood and also Glen Spey 21 year old 1989 (Diageo 2010 Special Release)

Today's four meditations:

Your child's excretory proclivities will be of boundless interest to you and your partner, but no one else.

Your arm muscles will adjust as your child gets heavier and heavier.  Soon her 25 pounds seem normal, while infants who weigh 15 pounds are almost dangerously feather light.  You begin to think, I'm getting so strong!  Then you go back to the gym to start lifting again and you discover, no you are actually not stronger.  You are weak.  You only have Dad Strength, a currency useless with everything else in life.  Meanwhile your back muscles are fucked.  Sorry dude.

You will now treasure every time you can go to the bathroom alone.  Sometimes, half the reason you go to the gym is to hand your daughter off to the child care brigade so that you can utilize the fitness club's dirty-ass latrine in semi-peace, serenaded by gray matter curdling pop-dance beats.  Otherwise, enjoy the challenges faced by your own excretory proclivities at home as your infant crawls between your ankles while you are upright or attempts to climb into your lap while you are in a state of focused repose.

FACT: Every time you are unable to stop your child's weeping 10% of your soul dies.  It exits the body through the sternum and vaporizes in the troposphere.  The good news is that, thanks to math, your soul will never be reduced to absolute zero.  Unless you run for public office.

Today's single malt:

This whisky has appeared on this blog before.  I reviewed a sample of it in April 2012.  It was referenced again in January 2013.  And then in May of this year, I mentioned it was the bottle I opened to celebrate Mathilda's first birthday.  It gets so many mentions because I enjoy it thoroughly, and also because I often repeat myself.

Part of this whisky's charm, and why it's probably difficult to compare it to other Glen Speys, is due to its creative maturation.  Back in 1988, someone at Diageo for some reason thought it would be a good idea to season 20 to 30 virgin American oak casks with sherry before filling them with newmake.  The mix of the new oak with the sherry and the fruity Speyside malt is a hell of a thing.  I'm not sure if anyone else has released something like it since.  Especially anyone named Diageo.

Distillery: Glen Spey
Owner: Diageo
Age: minimum 21 years (1989 - 2010)
Maturation: new American oak seasoned with sherry
Region: Speyside (Rothes)
Alcohol by Volume: 50.4%
Limited Release: 5844 bottles

The color is a reddish gold.  The nose starts with rye and corn.  Or is that my nose interpreting the oak's influence as rye whiskey and bourbon whiskey?  Then there's lime peel, nutty sherry, and almonds in toffee.  There's a note that exists somewhere between cookie dough and Play-doh.  Then milk chocolate, pencil shavings, pipe tobacco, and roasted coffee beans.  Vanilla bean and incense.  Hints of honeydew.  The palate has a whole bunch of ripe fruits in sugar: think loquats, apricots, and tangerines.  Wood spice, like an oaky old rye.  Baklava with rose water syrup.  It gets more floral (definitely roses) with time.  Cigar tobacco.  A subtle bitterness appears, but I'm not sure if it's from the spirit or oak.  It finishes floral and sweet, citric and toasty (both grains and oak).  Vanilla, halvah, toffee, tangerine-ish citrus, and a hint of tropical fruits.  Some drying tannins.

WITH WATER (~43%abv? I don't know, I had a foot cramp mid-hydration and lost track of how much water I added but I never add water to this whisky anyway and run-on sentence.)
Lots of maple and vanilla in the nose.  Some tropical fruit, but also a bit of wood pulp.  The palate is very tannic, bitterer.  There's tart grapefruit, vanilla, some nuts, some pencils.  The finish is woody.

At times it's as if someone mixed a little old rye or high-rye bourbon into well aged Speyside.  Not only does it work, but damn this thing sings.  The oak, the sherry, the spirit all combine into something that's both pretty and muscular.  BUT, I concur with MAO, do not add water.  Neat only.

Also, this was released back when Diageo's annual special releases didn't cost as much as a mortgage.  In fact, this one went for $150ish in some areas -- I found it for $120ish in the UK -- but it still stayed on many retailer shelves for 3-4 years.  Considering how many lesser whiskies sell out much quicker while being more expensive and less limited, and considering how many great reviews this got (from MAO, Sku, Murray, and Serge), it took considerable effort for the hoard-happy whisky community to avoid cleaning this out years ago.  And I am thankful for it.

Availability - Still lingering around in a couple dozen specialty shops around the world
Pricing - $150-$250
Rating - 91 (neat only)