Friday, July 27, 2012

Balvenie Tun 1401 Marries Bourbon & Sherry Casks. Batch 2 vs 5 Head ToHead

Tun 1401 Batch 5's cask list

Note: Tim Read of and I are simultaneously reviewing Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5: our first coordinated reviewing effort. His review is at:

Balvenie Tun 1401 is a brilliant conception: a vatting of a number of rare old bourbon casks and sherry butts together, from different vintages for complexity. A month ago I debated the merits of bourbon versus sherry cask maturation in a post about two expressions of Springbank CS. There exists a real divide between sherried malts - which are delicious concoctions that taste of sherry with fig, prune, and dark chocolate notes - and malts aged in refill or bourbon casks which are truer to the taste of the distillate with floral and fruity esters in the fore. I became alive to the benefits of vatting these two types in a visceral and first hand way last week when I mistakenly poured a couple of glasses of unused whisky from a tasting event back into the wrong 4 oz transport bottle: I put Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 into Glenfarclas 25 at a 3 to 1 ratio. Initially horrified, I tucked it away. A few days later I took a dram and was delighted by a sweet and spirited result that was somehow more vibrant than either of its components on it's own. Lighter and more malty and floral than a sherried malt and more jammy and rich than the bourbon malt by itself. The whole in this fortuitous mix is greater than the sum of its parts. In Tun 1401, beloved Balvenie Master Distiller David Stewart is doing this with superb rare old casks of Balvenie, and decades of experience, of course. And the flavor signatures of extremely mature Balvenie in both sherry bomb and fruit bomb manifestations melded is the big story here.

I'm fascinated by this conception. I'm aware of other whiskies that age in bourbon cask and finish in sherry cask - but not whiskies that specifically vat these two dominant styles to achieve... what? A happy medium? A new flavor profile? Balvenie's web site doesn't address this question. They say the inspiration was the "magical atmosphere" of a particular warehouse where the greatest casks lay for ages:

"Tun 1401 is a very special vatting from the Balvenie’s Warehouse 24, one of the oldest areas of the distillery grounds and home to some of the most special casks in Speyside. It was conceived by the Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart, who was so inspired by the magical atmosphere inside Warehouse 24, that he created Tun 1401 to capture the essence of it in a bottle."

Because Tun 1401 holds less than 3000 bottles worth, Stewart has made a number of batches. I first began to pine for a taste of Tun 1401 back in April when Allison Patel blogged about her visit to Balvenie with Chip Tate and how David Stewart himself gave them a tour and then poured them special drams. Tun 1401 isn't explicitly named in the text but is depicted in the dead center front of the ultimate picture. (It's Batch 2- I checked the cask listing):

Among the many reviews of Tun 1401 I subsequently read, Tim Read's tale of a skeptic won over by Batch 3 (and won over utterly completely) was the most affecting: "This is one of those rare whiskies that I can’t see how I’d change or improve."

Frankly, given that, I began to believe. But would the next batch be as good as the one Tim had?

Balvenie's web site:
"The first batch was made for distillery visitors only, and was created from 6 casks – a 1973 Sherry Butt, a 1972 Sherry Hogshead and American casks from 1966, 1974, 1978 and 1988.
Batch 2 was released only in Europe, Asia, and South Africa and is made up of 10 casks, mostly from the 1970s with one from the 1960s and one from the 1980s.
Batch 3 is a similar to batch 2, but was made for US distribution only.
Batch 4 was made for travel retail..."

"When asked how he expects the batches to differ, Mr Stewart said, “…the batches do have some similarity but if one were to line the four batches up for sampling, which I haven’t done yet, we might be surprised by the differences that there are. I think that each has this citrus orangey flavour which seems consistent…”'

As for Batch 5, Balvenie states:
"Crafted from nine of the rarest and most precious casks from the distillery – 4 sherry butts distilled in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1975 and 5 American oak casks from 1966, 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1991– this drop is the culmination of years of work. Our Malt Master David Stewart says:
'Working with whiskies of this age is both a delight and a challenge as their individual characteristics are so rich and complex. Five very rare crafts and a long wait have gone into making these vintage whiskies.'"

Batch 5 is limited to 2862 bottles.

However, I'm not content simply to try Batch 5. I want to try them head to head, as Stewart speculates. So I obtained a sample of the now very out of stock Batch 2 from Master of Malt (now sold out):

Balvenie Tun 1401 batch 2 50.6%

Color: golden light amber

Nose: roses, cantaloup, honeydew, honey, bee's wax, musk, spermaceti, lanolin, chalk and gypsum mineral. Drifts of fruit like citrus and fig off in the distance... A bewitching, complex, and seductive nose that hits squarely in the middle of the Highland-Speyside profile but snakes out like an octopus into distant quadrants of the aroma gamut.

Entry, sweet and green/white fruited on the tip of the tongue and then rapidly darker with sandalwood incense, oak spice, and a sudden rapid expansion of spicy heat that lingers. The heat brings a bitter and tannic note. It also brings an august sherry flavor array into the mid-palate with rancio, figs, dates, and black raisins. This august old sherry note lingers into the looonnng finish with oak tannins, incense, fruity malt

A few drops of water adds more citrus to the nose and amps up the melon sugars in the palate, which pushes the bitterness back a notch. The palate comes close to matching the glory of the nose - only misses by the margin the bitterness.


This is a clear five star product. The twin natures of richly mature sherry bomb and superb extremely mature floral waxy Speyside fruit bomb are each distinct in various ways and yet are superbly married into a bold new flavor profile that is familiar and yet totally new in my experience. It is distinguished, rich, delicious, and richly dense in flavor, sweetness, heat, tannins, spice, and bitterness. It hits on all whisky cylinders.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5 50.1% abv

Tun 1401 Batch 5
Sourced from The Whisky Exchange.

Color: medium amber with gold glints

Nose: Beeswax, honey, floral honeysuckle and roses, Paraffin, warm roasted citrus, musk, some prune and fig and a complex backdrop of faint sandalwood incense

Entry: Sweet, floral, and richly honeyed but immediately complex and filigreed with oak tannins and fragrance. There is a wallop of peppery heat and cracked black pepper flavor in the midpalate expansion that rides shotgun with an emerging complex of sherry nutty vinous old Olorosso flavors of rancio, prune, fig, and dark chocolate. The sugars of the opening extend into this mid-palate pepper and sherry and give warmth and depth to the fruit and chocolate notes. At the turn to the finish the sugar fades and bitter chocolate meets rising oak tannins to produce a leather and tobacco sensation. Yet the finish isn't dominated by bitter. It is owned by sherry oak with a rich old scotch dark leather and black oak furniture vibe - like the House of Lords. I'll delight my wife, the English Professor and call it a "luxury oak" finish. The echoes in your mouth are formal and plush as if you are in the overstuffed antechamber of a rich and powerful old lawyer or politician.

This is a big big whisky, loaded with the rich mature fruit bomb and wax of Bourbon cask Speys and the big tannins and dark fruit and leather of mature sherry bombs. Of course this is exactly what this is. The genius was to marry them.

A dash of water lightens and accentuates the citrus and musk and honeysuckle melon notes and lightens and sweetens the palate. The entry becomes more honeyed and more effusively if less intensely floral. The malabar black pepper flavor and heat is unaffected while the other notes lighten. With water the flavor amplitude of this magnificent dram becomes wider and bigger. I think I prefer it with a bit of water.

Needless to say this big whisky needs s lot of time to open up. Plan on half an hour to 45 minutes before really sipping.


Another winner. Another monster. I think Batch 5 has a slight edge over Batch 2 because the bitter notes in the finish are less prominent. It's a bit smoother at the back end, but a bit more aggressive with the heat in the mid-palate expansion, which I prefer. What's striking to me having them side by side is how incredibly similar they are. These are clearly the result of the same intent on the part of the blender. They are obvious kin.

I'm very excited to read Tim Read's review on particularly because he said that there was a clear winner in the matchup between Batch 3 and Batch 5.  I wonder which it is?  Check out Tim's review at:

Update:  on repeated tasting I'm reversing my position.  Batch 2 has a more luscious nose.  Batch 5's nose is less effusive.  Batch 2 opens up and loses the bitter edge over time.  Whether Batch 5 opens more fully over time remains to be seen - but it hasn't happened yet.  Still very close.  I drank these two with a friend who has also tried Tun 1401 Batch 3 and he confirms Tim's assessment that Batch 3 is possessed of Balvenie's honeyed house style much more than either Batch 2 or Batch 5.  That's two votes for Batch 3.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Four Roses Single Barrel 17 OBSV distillery-only issue: the brutal blind.

The intellectual, analytical, and brilliant computer geek, whisky geek, creative hooch scientist and blogger Tim Read, the creator of the blog Scotch & Ice Cream challenged me last month with a blind bourbon to taste and try to identify.  It was labeled, simply "Bourbon 55.3%"

Granted, that's a huge clue.  But searching 55.3% abv bourbons yields next to nothing.  There just aren't any regularly distributed bourbons at that strength at all - at least according to Google.  I decided to let my palate do the walking:

Tim's Blind Bourbon 55.3% abv

Color:  dark coppery amber bronze: a rich and lovely hue.  Look at the metal copper and pumpkin orange when the light of the sun shines through it:
Tim's blind bourbon is a glory of copper metal by the rails

Nose:  a soft rich bourbon nose redolent of citrus, cherry, peach, golden tobacco, and musky toffee with an august and regal acetone glow and a spicy edge to the fruit mustiness.

Entry: Sweet and fruity with black licorice then suddenly peppery.  The mid palate turns dry and bold with Virginia tobacco at the expansion & turn. There are more fruits: jujube on the finish. What a wonderful balance between fruit and heat.  Loads of black pepper.  The turn to the finish sees the black pepper maintain its burn and oak emerge, along with a measure of char and creosote.

Adding a drop of water puts orange & orange blossoms in the nose after a few minutes. Big soft august sweet entry with cherry citrus. Then a tobacco laden mid with black licorice.  Finally, gentle oak char and oak, but not a heavily wooded finish.  This is more cracked black pepper and more amazing blond Virginia tobacco than I have ever had in a spirit.  I've heard these words used to describe Bourbon, but I have never tasted them bold, detailed, and up front like this before and I LIKED IT!

I tweeted my tasting notes to Tim:
 Then, I made two guesses:

Four Roses 100th Anniversary & Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend - neither of which I had tried, but both had the high rye mash bill I was tasting and they both had the right proof.  However, I couldn't bear for it to end so I tweeted:

Tim replied "how could I know if it was Four Roses given that they have ten different mash bills with widely divergent flavor profiles.  I agreed. (I wrote about the ten mash bills in this post).

A day passed and I returned to the blind but found myself befuddled and confused.  I forgot about my high-rye conclusion and got stuck on the idea that maybe Tim was trying to psych me out with the new Pappy 15 - which supposedly tastes more spicy than usual wheaters.  Never mind it's the wrong proof... I tweeted:

Then I floundered, suggested the Pappy hypothesis without making a definite guess, then ended weak.:

Note - Tim corrected this to 17 years a little bit later.

First - a couple of lessons for me about blind tasting: 1) Trust your instincts and your first impressions.  2) Don't listen to the voice telling you it might be a trick. The one psyching out is yourself.  How close had I come in my first guesses?  Well Four Roses 100th Anniversary is a 17 year old single barrel bourbon with the mash bill OBSV.  And Tim's blind?  Same exact story: a 17 year old single barrel bourbon from Four Roses with the mash bill OBSV.  This particular one is a distillery-only offering.  Tim wrote up a post about it with tasting notes and the conclusion:

"Quality-wise, I have to say that this particular barrel (78-30, Warehouse QS), honestly stands shoulder to shoulder with other highly regarded bourbons like those found in the Buffalo Trace Anniversary Collection; Pappy Van Winkle, or the Parker’s Heritage collection. Honestly, I think if Four Roses could find the right push for this one, they could release these in limited quantities to a broader market and have a serious contender for the Van Winkles of the world, which are becoming a chore to find anymore."

I find myself substantially in agreement.  This is a superb bourbon, with a delicious, strong, and unusual flavor profile.  It drinks younger than its advanced age, but achieves something unique.  Could Four Roses make this a regular expression?  I have no idea - but it clearly would be a popular issue.  Thanks so much, Tim for giving me a taste of something unusual and for taking me on a wild ride!

Note:  This is the 3rd single barrel expression from Four Roses I've formally reviewed on this blog.  The other two are:
1) The standard 50 % abv OBSV:
2) A Park Avenue Liquors exclusive 53.6% OBSQ:

Mortlach 22 yo Gordon & MacPhail for Sestante: time traveling to 1971 or before.

Mortlach is one of the oldest distilleries in Speyside, founded in 1823 (the same year as Glenlivet) in Dufftown.  It has a fascinating history (which I recommend you read on the excellent Malt Madness site here).  Mortlach is yet another of those distilleries that you mainly find in independent bottler editions. It rarely appears in its own label.  Most of its output ends up in Johnny Walker Black Label (yes, another whole distillery poured into the vast sea of square black bottles).  Have I mentioned that I really like Johnny Walker Black Label?  The essential feature for me in this history is that floor maltings continued through 1968 and direct fired stills were in operation through 1971.  This means that distillates prior to 1969 should be made in the old traditional Speyside manner - before mechanization and the homogenization that Oliver Klimek describes so elegantly in his though provoking article "Has Whisky Become Better, Worse or Just Different"  That 1971-1968 period feels so close - so in reach.

That's why I stopped when I saw this listing in the Whisky Samples web site:

Image of Mortlach 22yo (40%, Gordon&MacPhail, 75cl, Sestante Import, bottled before 1993)Mortlach 22yo (40%, Gordon&MacPhail, 75cl, Sestante Import, bottled before 1993)

This should have been bottled pré 1993 as the 75cl bottle is sealed by an Italian tax label in red/orange with 2 stars.

"Well," I thought, "that's distilled in 1971 at the latest - the era of direct fired stills.  If it's even a few years older than that, it might be the real deal."  Plus it had the allure of the "Sestante" name.  Allure?  Yes, I'm fascinated by the defunct independent bottler Sestante.  It might be silly to be enamored of obscure Italian independent bottlers, but this one isn't around any more, so it's yet another layer of unobtanium.  I couldn't resist.  What was I hoping for?  A taste of a vanished world, with complexity, sweetness & oak and whiff of smoke and maybe even a distant taste of peat, like the Dylan Thomas poem "A Child's Christmas in Wales" takes you back to a vanished world.  I was looking to time travel with this dram.  But it wasn't a sure thing.

Mortlach 22 yo Gordon & MacPhail Sestante bottled prior to 1993. 40% abv

Color: very dark amber w/coppery tints - like old bourbon.

Nose: A rapid evolution from sweet cherry bubble gum at first pour to, as it opens up, big intense dried figs, honey, dark old rum, cherry preserves, ripe persimmons, old oak drawers, dust, and old parchment. A huge august mature sherry bomb aroma.

The entry is robust sherry, a firm oloroso note with jammy raisin, plum, and maraschino notes giving way to sharp tannic bite.  With extra air time citrus flavors and sharp citric acids emerge through the dark chocolate dank prune. The mid palate is spicy with sandalwood incense resiny oak essence and a hint of distant smoke. There is a big tannic pucker at the finish and some dank oak bitterness to go with it. This is a hyper mature sherry bomb with a dense old time feel - like antique whisky - which in a sense it might really be.  The current dilution to 40% renders mouth feel light & silky, sadly, not honey thick like it should be. I didn't dare add water.

Ultimately it's a big and luscious dram but a tad unbalanced in the direction of dark and tannic.  Yet that somehow suited my fantasy.  The flavor signature reminded me, yet again (as many of these old Spey and Highland drams do) of a formative experience with a whole bottle of 1980s Balvenie coat of arms flagon no age statement back in my early days with Scotch.  It had an over-oaked intensity and a complex and almost noble rot quality that feels like "antique".  Indeed it smells a bit like an antique furniture shop or a visit to an old European palace.  Bottom line, this one took me there and I was reveling in the wild progression of a rainbow of old oak flavors and scents melded to big old sherry.  Not the last word is deliciousness, perhaps, but a fine choice to transport you to another time.

FYI - in looking over where I had been I came across Ruben's notes for an old Sestante labelled bottle of Mortlach 20 from the 1980s that would certainly have been made in the floor malting days.  His tasting notes are an eerie twin to mine.  This helps confirm my impression that this was similar stuff:

"Nose: old-style sherry with a thick liqueur-like character. Lots of old polished oak and leather. Old books and incense. A very soft smokiness too. Raisins, a hint of caramel maybe. Also a sweet beefy note and burnt fruit cake. Mouth: dry, pretty oaky (a tad too much for my taste). There’s still an underlying dark sweetness of sultanas, but it grows resinous and herbal as well, with a slight sourness. Again some smoke in the distance. Feels nicely old but maybe a bit past its prime. Finish: long, dry, still some herbal notes, oak and smoke.
A nice experience but you’ll have to stand some old oak and herbs. It’s closer to a Mortlach 1936 for example than to recent expressions."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

#SpeedWhisky - 4 drams in 15 minutes, then 15 minutes to blog it.

Uigedail, Alligator, PC6, and Brimstone left to right

Yesterday my #whiskyfabric pal Graham MacKenney of the Perfect Whisky Match blog suggested a speed tasting where we would dram a set in 15 minutes and then blog it in 15 minutes. I utterly hated the idea. I panned it in the comments to the post describing the exercise. But I decided to do it anyway, particularly when I saw the set chosen by Graham and Johanne - our hosts: Ardbeg Uigedail, Ardbeg Alligator, Port Charlotte PC6, and Balcones Brimstone. Only one would be new to me (Alligator). The others had been a little while since they were reviewed but were beloved.  Together they made a compelling flight that appeared to have the power to educate (and if not, to be an intense voyage into smoky flavors).

The suggestion took fire on twitter with the hashtag #speedwhisky and a number of others joined it (would list but short on time).  I decided to do the 4 drams Graham and Johanne were doing:

Update: the participants in the speed tasting are profiled and their reviews linked in a post on Perfect Whisky Match:

1) Ardbeg Alligator Committee Reserve 2011 51.2%

Color: Pale Gold

Nose: Industrial putty and library paste notes of big peat, but also some honey and treacle lurking, along with some golden grain, bee's wax and an aching glorious sweetness that bends my mind. This is a beautiful nose.

Entry is unexpectedly dry after the nose. I can taste the char right up front (deeply charred casks, fresh burn). The sugars of young whisky creep in around at the end of the entry. Notes of vanilla, and creme broulee round out the mid-palate. Turn to finish has the return of the oak char and the peaty progression of smoke, tar, and ash. This is lovely dram. Ding!

2) Ardbeg Uigedail OB 2011 54.2%

Color: Light amber

Nose: Apricots and sultanas over iodine sea air, salt spray, and fresh parma ham. There's a nutty quality too - dried chestnuts or hazelnuts. Glorious.

Entry: Big sweet fig cake and black raisins immediately shouldered aside by a huge blast of vivid peat char and burn. There's a lot of spirit heat - so I add a few drops of water. The nose takes on a vinaigrette acid note but the entry becomes softer and sweeter. The huge blast of peat becomes a softer fire. The peat is noticeably bigger and darker than in the Alligator. The flavor amplitude as a whole is bigger and both more sweet and fruited and more peaty and fierce. This is a monster dram. How can my palate recover. Good thing the next one is one of the fiercest I've ever had...

3) Bruichladdich Port Charlotte PC6 61.6%

Color: chardonnay - medium gold

Nose: A touch of lightly sweet grape acid (which I now recognize to be a lonely voice from the Madeira casks used to age this), hay, putty and paste (peat notes) and a delicate grassy sweetness. There's a slight savory note - too subtle to be meaty.

Entry is creamy and almost soft. I suspect palate anesthetic from the last one. Glorious grain sugars and a kiss of sweet wine muddled with fierce road tar, ash, and dark blackened earth. It's a classic Bruichladdich peat show - exquisite angelic sweet wedded to fierce earthy peat attack. I drop in water - reckless only 7 minutes left! The putty and sweet in the nose soar. I take a big sip - too big. Pow, grassy grain sugars - pointy and sharp meld with a golden honeyed sweet glow that then slams into a big mid palate expansion of huge earthy burning peat which goes from char to tar to ash to glow. This is a lot like Octomore! Want to dram this generous pour but must go on: last 5 minutes!

4) Balcones Brimstone

Color: lovely coppery medium amber bronze like a nice bourbon

Nose: Bam! There it is - huge sweet scrub oak perfume. I want to literally dab this on like cologne. Underlying notes of mesquite, chaparral, dust, burning wood, and sweet cream and honey. This is a wood fire smell - but of the desert southwest. It's not the earth of peat. It's the smell of a live burning wood fire with exotic fragrant herby desert brush.

Entry: powerfully sweet and oddly gentle after the peat monsters. The wood smoke attacks as powdery confectioners sugar, then a glowing BBQ smoke & sweet melding. The turn to the finish sees an earthy grain flavor: sweet corn but earthy: Blue Corn. The blue corn earthy sweet grain arrives at the finish. It's sugar sweet, then smoke sweet, then earthy blue corn sweet and then finally mesquite and desert chaparral dust - sweet, desert and old blaze. It's a wild west movie in a glass.

Out of time. Wow! What a journey!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Glen Grant Major's Reserve - a light fruity, floral, summer dalliance.

Glen Grant is a great old name in Scotch - dating back in the early half of the 19th century (1840 says the label).  It bears the family name of John and James Grant, also the guys who started Caperdonich. Glen Grant is located in Rothes in the heart of Speyside. It has bounced around a lot over the years. It was part of Chivas, then Glenlivet, Pernod Ricard... Since 2005 it has been owned by Campari. There has been some talk of increased use of caramel coloring, but there are many distinguished bottlings from this distillery that is famed for its high stills, pale coloring, floral and fruity Speyside aroma, and excellent ability to age in cask for long periods and continue to get better and better. Glen Grant is, according to materials I received from Danielle at Exposure (a company doing some marketing for Campari who also provided the bottle for my party today - thanks Danielle!) the 5th largest selling single malt whisky in the world, and the leader in Italy. This latter fact is presumably important to Campari.

Aging is a big issue for the Scotch distillers of today - because demand is up and production of new make doesn't help expand stocks at great age for age statement expressions. A common strategy - one that has engendered a lot of discussion and hand wringing - is the release of No Age Statement (NAS) expressions. Glen Grant's NAS expression is called The Major's Reserve. It has been out for a couple of years in Europe, but is new in the US and this Sunday the first big marketing push began. In fact, Glen Grant Major's Reserve, is only currently available in limited markets in the US: CA, NY, NJ, CO, FL, AZ, TX, IL, MD & MI. Its suggested retail price is a remarkable $29.95 - which makes it among the lowest priced single malts in America - and is priced lower than many popular blends. This is fantastic if it's good to drink.

The story here is that Glen Grant's The Major's Reserve (GGMR henceforth) is a light, mixable, floral sweet and easy drinking summer dram with an affinity for ice and for mixing into cocktails and punches. It is being, apparently, marketed to women. There was an event today in The Drink, a bar in Brooklyn, NY today where a couple of signature drinks designed to show off GGMR's attributes were served. For your convenience, I've listed the recipes below:

Recipes courtesy of The Drink, Brooklyn. The first is a punch, second a cocktail:

The Groundswell
10 oz. Glen Grant Major's Reserve
7.5 oz. Japanese sencha green tea
5 oz. lemon juice
5 oz. simple syrup
4 oz. Combier peach liqueur
1 teaspoon blood orange bitters (Brooklyn Hemispherical brand)

Stir ingredients. Pour over ice into punch bowl. Contains approximately 10 servings.

Salty Walnut
1.5 oz. Glen Grant Major's Reserve
.75 oz. Lustau East India Solera Sherry
.5 oz. lemon juice
.25 oz. sugar

Shake, strain into a collins glass over ice. Top with club soda and a sprinkle of salt.
I wasn't able to make it to The Drink, today, however - but I put GGMR to a strict test: a pool party with 30 people including a good mix of non-whisky drinkers and women. We had GGMR straight, with ice, mixed into highballs with soda & orange bitters, and with ice and water in Japanese-style mizuwaris.

GGMR in the glass - neat.

Glen Grant The Major's Reserve 40% abv.

Color: pale gold

Nose: spirity, heathery sweet, with hints of Spey fruit basket notes and a touch of hazelnut and cream. Mostly a light and simple nose

Palate: light and gently sweet on entry. There's plenty of spirit heat and a low density of flavor so it comes off as young, but the flavors that are present are very nice: honeysuckle florals, white and green fruit (pear, honeydew melon), some grassy meadow flavors and a hint of mineral. I suspect there are some nice more matured malts in the vat here to bring more distinguished Spey/Highland flavor notes to the party. The turn to the finish sees the spirit heat tingle eclipse the sweetness and a malty herbal bitter wash fills in behind. Very little oak on the palate - more testament to youth.

A splash of water sweetens the nose but loosens the already too-light palate until another 15 minutes or so enriches it again - a bit. Amazingly the sweet and floral nose remains prominent - clearly apparent and enjoyable even in the watery environs of a mizuwari - while the palate washes into a light slightly sweet wash. GGMR was a hit at the party. Everyone enjoyed their whisky and no one complained at all. It held up quite well in the summery party setting.

Never one to be complacent, I looked around in my cabinet for other entry level NAS single malts and popular blended Scotches to compare head to head. I alighted on the following: Glenrothes Select Reserve (GSR), Great King St. Artist's Blend (GKSAB), and my habitual touchstone: Johnny Walker Black Label (JWBL). All are better than I remember - taken on their own terms (i.e. don't look for huge density of flavor). All are strikingly different from each other. GGMR is a Glenfiddich-like Spey sweet and fruity thing. JWBL is almost peated by comparison - with a much darker cast, more oak, richness, malt foundation, and greater weight as well as a clear peat note. GSR is the least sweet, and had a slight sulfur off note at first that burns off after 15-20 minutes in the glass. Then GSR becomes almost apricot & old oak like an old 80s Balvenie. Sadly a trace of the off note remains. GKSAB is lemon curds and creamy custard - fresh and light. I went back and forth, my opinion shifting, until my head started to spin a bit. Final ranking 1) JWBL - wins by virtue of best balance and greatest flavor density 2) GKSAB - by its high malt content, fresh flavors, and nice balance 3) GGMR docked for spirit heat rawness in the mid-palate, but stands very well because of its superior nose 4) GSR - trails because of the slight off note but distinguishes itself by having an usual tartness and mature wood quality. On the whole it was much closer than these rankings suggest. Each had their charms and each was quite distinct. GGMR almost won on the floral perfume angle. It had the freshest and most perfumed nose and didn't embarrass itself by any means.

If you're interested in a light floral Speyside dram with a hint of the mature Speyside fruit basket aroma and flavors and don't mind a bit of spirit heat and a very light touch on the mid-palate - GGMR's a very cost effective option. It's not a rich or stunning malt from an epicurean perspective, but this gentle mixable malt sins primarily by omission rather than commission. It is better than expected and I have no compunction recommend it to people looking for an inexpensive introductory malt which mixes well and plays with ice nicely for a refreshing summer tot.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Linkwood 1975/2002 Rare Malts shows me the way of Spey with roses, honey, and tangerine majesty

Linkwood, in Elgin - Speyside, is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and was a significant producer in the latter half of the 19the century. Since 1971, much (and during certain periods all) of it's output is produced in a modern industrial facility with the same name as the original old distillery (but with the added designation "B"). There is no standard bottling (although for a time there was a Flora & Fauna 12 which was effectively so - but not currently). The gigantic output of Linkwood is sucked into the maw of blends: particularly Johnnie Walker Black Label - as Linkwood is a Diageo shop.

Full gold in the glass
But the old distillery "A" was in full operation until 1985 (when the whole operation was shut down for half a decade). It potentially matters because "A" uses smaller old fashioned wash backs and a cast iron worm coil. The stills have been steam heated since 1962.

That early 60s retro-fit was overseen by one Roderick Mackenzie who oversaw Linkwood until 1963. There's a lovely tale about him:

Roderick Mackenzie, distillery manager at one time, forbade the removal of even spider webs in case the quality of the whisky was adversely affected!.

Linkwood 26 1975/2002 56.1% Rare Malts

This current offering, long gone in full bottles, is still around as 3cl drams from - the sample wing of Belgium's excellent Bonding Dram. The time of distillation dates from back when distillery "A" was in full operation and "B" was a recent innovation.

Color: Full Gold

Nose: honeyed beeswax, rich vanilla cream w/a whiff of sherry, and a glory of bubble gum, white roses, oleander and a hint of orgeat. A paradise of floral and fruity esters. This is one you could gladly nose for hours.

picture credit:
Palate: The entry delivers on the expectations borne of the nose with a sweet and floral effusion with vanilla and roses leading the way with white fruits and a complex filigree of muted oak flavors filling in behind. The mid-palate expansion arrives with a gentle citrus tangerine tang which shimmers and grows spicy as it migrates from mid to hind tongue and the sweet roses and oak incense morph into gentle tannic bite and squeak. At the turn to the finish heat, tang, and sweet fade to a cherry malt glow with gentle spent oak lightly herbal & berry bitterness that acts as a soothing curb to the sweet front. This tastes like older refill cask - but in all the right ways.

The palate is in no way a disappointment here, but the nose is so meltingly, achingly beautiful that I almost cannot bear to actually sip it away or dream of adding any water. This is my first Linkwood. It's a stunner squarely in the Highland/Spey fruit basket flavor profile. What a luscious monster.  This experience really helps me understand the Spey region's special place in the Scotch constellation.


This classic Speyside (and, often, Highland) flavor profile of honeyed intensely floral sweet w/ white fruit notes and citrus is, when the citrus combines, often referred to as "tropical fruits" - or even as "passion fruit" (as I've seen this issue noted).  I get that - but as the roses and honey show up slightly before the tangerine citrus on the palate for me they register as two distinct flavor notes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

My Whisky Fabric

About half a year ago (roughly half a decade in "Internet Time") my buddy Ryan (aka "The Other Ryan") wrote a blog post called "The Whisky Brotherhood"
The post was about how he bonded in a bar with a stranger over the fact that they both drank brown. I commented that the term had a wider significance for me because I had found the Internet community of whisky lovers and bloggers so warm and welcoming. I had started blogging initially as a way of backing up my Amazon whisky reviews - with the goal of using the web as a free, universally accessible notebook for tasting notes. Quickly, however, I found something else far more valuable and involving: a community of like minded individuals. They were founts of information - about whisky, about bars, about blogging to be sure, but even more; they were full of information about people. They knew who knew. They knew about parenting, spouse "management", about managing and living with the hobby and the enthusiasm and all the joys and challenges that entailed. And, of course, they knew all about whisky: how to manage oxidation; how to share, what to try, what distilleries were coming up. In short, a living Zeitgeist of whisky culture.

This dynamic hit overdrive when I created a twitter account for this blog and started looking around. I had previously used twitter only as an emergency Internet monitoring tool. It had seemed crazy to me: a titanic flood of teenage mindless trending blither of mass culture empty tidbits. Suddenly, now with the focus of a topic of interest, I found a vibrant community of like minded people (many of the same people in fact). On twitter there is a global round the clock conversation about whisky (and virtually everything else). The latest news breaks there first and gets passed along ("retweeted", in the parlance) at incredible speed. Follow the right group of people, or even enough numbers of the wrong ones, and your twitter feed instantly channels the global Zeitgeist in real time. Twitter allow for two way exchange, allowing you to join in. That's how, for example, I was able to converse with Bruichladdich chief Mark Reynier about his feelings concerning the sale of Bruichladdich to Remy in the very hour the news became public.

Indeed, the set of relationships on twitter can powerfully approach friendship and often spill over into other forms of connection such as Facebook (useful for sharing longer form messages, rich media such as pictures, videos, and web content, and for mining existing networks of friends and acquaintances.). Email, still invaluable for one on one personal communication, feels downright quaint by comparison.

One of the ultimate payoffs is actual, real-world, friendships. This leads us back where we began: to the bar or living room, drinking brown. The whisky community is warm and welcoming; more so than some other shared topic communities I've experienced such as IT or food/wine epicureanship where professional competitiveness and knowledge snobbery seem to play a larger role.

A phrase has emerged - a shorthand expression for this complex of global social-network connected virtual whisky friends and knowledge pool: "Whisky Fabric". On twitter it is the hashtag "#whiskyfabric". This expression was created by talented, passionate, Canadian whisky blogger Johanne McInnis, co-creator of The Perfect Whisky Match blog:
(update - Johanne now blogs here:
The term first appeared in an interview on The Whisky Guy Rob Blog. Rob Gard wrote:

"Johanne talks about the “whisky fabric” – a layer in the whisky world where writers, reviewers, distillers and everyone else associated with the industry meet and interact."

Johanne has defined this phenomenon succinctly and coined the defining phrase deftly in the same moment. So, if you love whisky, join us on Twitter and Facebook, and in comments at the end of blog posts and in forums like Whisky Whisky Whisky. When the topic turns to this communal feeling, use the term "whisky fabric" and you may be surprised at how many know what you're talking about.

I was tempted, at this point, to list and describe some of the dozens (hundreds, really) of people and entities that make up my whisky fabric.  However, I already do that most Fridays on twitter, as part of an odd recurrent twitter ritual called "Follow Friday" (hashtag "#FF") where people recommend the twitter handles that they recommend others follow.  I have developed the practice of calling out and describing the personalities that make up my whisky fabric in a series of tweets that encapsulate the greats in particular genres.  I call out great writers, whisky bloggers by continent, style and region, great collectors, mixologists, scientists and tough guys.  Join in and follow me (click the blue bird on the left margin) or click here and check it out on Friday and see what I mean!

update: to see the omnibus of compelling #whisky people to follow. Get list any time by going onto Twitter, searching "#WhiskyFabric #FF", & clicking "All".  I believe this link will do it:


Also Follow The Coopered Tot on Facebook (click the link, log onto FB, and click "Like".

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bruichladdich "The Laddie Ten" outshines the beauty of its tale.

Bruichladdich "The Laddie Ten" is a phoenix rising from the ashes. Bruichladdich ("normally pronounced brook-lad-dee, or by some Gaelic speakers as broo-ee-clah-dee" according to the wiki article) was built in 1881 with the highest stills in Islay - to produce a pure and lovely spirit. It had a characteristically Hebridean history of conflict, struggle, and many instances of changing hands until 1994 when it was closed - apparently forever - for being "surplus to requirements".

It was purchased by a group of investors led by Mark Reynier of Murray McDavid on 19 December 2000 and Jim McEwan was brought from Bowmore (where he had worked since the age of 15) to manage the operations. McEwan's creative vision has made Bruichladdich one of the most dynamic and exciting distilleries in Scotland in the years since - mainly through the use of creative finishes on old stock produced before the shut down, and through the creation of young strongly peated expressions. The classic style of Bruichladdich - unpeated, sweet and floral with a hint of sea, takes time to mature. That meant waiting until at least 2011. And indeed that's what happened. The Laddie Ten is the classic style, made entirely by the new Bruichladdich team.

"The ten year old single malt, the first distilled under the new regime, went on sale following an emotionally charged ceremony as the bottles began to come off the Islay bottling line."

"Managing Director Mark Reynier, the man behind re-establishing Bruichladdich, said “It’s an inordinately proud and emotional moment for all of us. This is our first spirit we distilled once we got the old girl going again. And it’s not been easy; the Laddie 10 is the very hard-won fruit of a decade of unrelenting blood, sweat and tears by the whole team.'"

"The Laddie 10 is created by whisky legend Jim McEwan, designed to show off the timeless, Bruichladdich qualities of elegance, balance, purity and fruit, with that famous sea breeze tang."

It's a moving legacy for a dram of whisky. The question is - is it good enough to honor the legacy?

Bruichladdich The Laddie 10 46% abv.

Color: new 14 carat gold

Nose: honey, heather floral blooms of sweet roses and magnolias and less sweet lilies and daffodils - rich and lovely. A hint of citrus. Then a whiff of band-aid vinyl, salt air from ocean breeze. A classic Laddie aroma.

Entry is gloriously honeyed, sweet and floral with a lovely silky mouth feel. Notes of yellow pear and bourbon vanilla seeds billow. The mid-palate expansion is spicy and rich. Floral vanillas, creme broullet custard (without baking spices) fill the mid. The turn shows a whiff of peat, not as smoke or earth but as a dusky note and a tingle of spicy warmth. The finish is long, gentle, warm and only slightly oaked. Few tannins, but some lingering spice of peat heat. A delightful sweet lacy floral yet spicy and character-filled dram. This is better than the Laddies of the 80s and 90s by far - but squarely in that classic style. McEwan has fully redeemed Bruichladdich and then some. Way better than I was expecting. A superb standard expression of Laddie.

A few drops of water amps up the less sweet floral notes at the expense of the sweeter perfume in the nose and makes the hint of sea a bit brighter. On the palate sugars are accentuated, but at the expense of some mid-palate richness. Pear comes close to turning to melon. Water is marginal at best. Perhaps just one or two drops. It's the conflation of sea and peat that complete as a foil the white fruit sweetness and floral entry that is so beguiling here. Borderline 5 stars and as pleasing as any $50 bottle of Scotch Malt that exists on the market.

(samples are 3cl bottles from Master of Malt)


A lengthy discussion on twitter concerned where the peat flavor notes in this expression (and Rocks) comes from as these use unpeated malt. The consensus (led by Oliver Klimeck of is that it isn't coming from the water, but rather from cross contamination from stills, mash tuns, and other distillery equipment that is used to produce peated expressions at other times.

(Update: Seven hours after I posted this Reuters broke the news that Reynier is in negotiations to sell Bruichladdich to Remy Cointreau)

The news about the planned buy out is igniting a firestorm of controversy. John Hansell writes on the Malt Advocate blog

"Am I sad about this? Sure, a little bit. But this is the nature of the business. Distilleries get bought and sold. Even fiercely independent ones… Hopefully, a deal like this will be good for the consumer in the long run.
What is more painful to read, however, was Mark Renier’s comment to my post back then:

“No we are not interested in selling. Life is too exciting where we are just now with all the things we have been working on over the last decade finally starting to come to Market…”
Now that, my friends, makes me sad."

Olly Wehring, on Just Drinks, provides a pragmatic counterpoint:

"So, the purists may be aghast at today's news. But, ask yourself this: if somebody came to you to buy what you have found to be "a rollercoaster, not just a financial rollercoaster; it's been an emotional rollercoaster" since you bought it for US$10.1m 12 years ago, and offered you around US$52.8m, what would you do?"
(note - subsequently Mr. Wehring has informed me that the final figure is around half that . However when the news of the deal finally broke, the final figure is 58 million pounds - quite a bit more than the original estimate).

Sure enough, the purists have been publicly wringing their hands on twitter with comments like the following:

@markreynier should lovers be worried? Will you & Jim stay on for the foreseeable future to ensure consistency? So many Qs

I wonder what will happen to the integrity of the product...we're just getting to the good stuff with the laddie 10.

Indeed, the Laddie 10 has been a frequent topic in the issue of concern over the future of Bruichladdich - as a touchstone for the quality work that the team has wrought.

The twitter discussions have continued. I'll post a few of the highlights below:

Ian Buxton, Author of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (and 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die) nails the essential question of expansion:

Seems to me the interesting question is, will Remy build new Port Charlotte distillery?

Tim Read of Scotch & Ice Cream and I get to the emotional heart of the issue with Mark Reynier:

The surest sign of your business being a success is the intensity with which people get upset when you sell it. (congrats )
Awesome comment on the whole bruhahalala-ddich today, Tim. What a donneybrook. Do whatever is best for Laddie, Mark.
Remy have the funds to grow The Laddie even quicker than we can - & firmly establish it in the top ten.
Good luck with it. People are only so fierce about this decision because they have come to love Bruichladdich as I have
it feels like a bereavement cycle: shock, sorrow, anger, regret, resolve, calm, hope. Guess it might to others too.
..You saved it. For that I am eternally grateful. With luck it will be here long after we are all gone: bigger than us.
That's the idea.

"one can only regret what one didn't do."
Follow up. The deal was confirmed on July 23, 2012. Read Mark Reynier's moving account in his statement - briefly up on the Bruichladdich site, but still up on his own Facebook page:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rumble Cask Reserve is a delicious rarity that defies categorization

Balcones Distilling, the Craft Whisky Distiller of the Year Icons of Whisky award winner for 2012, makes a fascinating spirit called Rumble which is distilled from a mash of Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and sugar, sold at 47% abv. It has won a number of awards, including Silver at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010.  It is a delicious and exciting new spirit category.  What the heck is it really?  It's not a rum, or a mead, or a fruit eau de vie.  It's somewhere between all of those things.  For excellent tasting notes on Rumble and a characteristically amusing profile of the distillery, read the excellent post in top British whisky blog Cask Strength.

Balcones also makes a near cask strength version of Rumble which is aged for longer called Rumble Cask Reserve.  I've tried this stuff a couple of times already.  I had a nip at Whisky Live NY and was very impressed.  That might actually be an understatement.  Tasting Rumble Cask Reserve was actually more of a "conversion moment" when I came to understand that Balcones was making spirits on an elevated level and that Chip Tate was something of a genius.  He's a great guy, by the way, who loves to discuss the finer points.  "Geeking out", he likes to say.

When I attended a special tasting night at the Brandy Library in honor of the imminent distribution of Rumble Cask Reserve, I enjoyed another glass of Rumble Cask Reserve - further confirming my impression - and master distiller Chip Tate generously gave me the remains of a bottle for formal review.  The bottle yielded a 2 oz sample (seen at upper left).

A couple of points about the bottling.  There are reported to be only 320 bottles available world-wide.  The hand written label bears this out.  Notice the hand writing (which is not printed, I can attest) on the back of the label giving the batch and bottling date:

And even the alcohol by volume statement is hand written as well:


Rumble Cask Reserve 58.1% abv  Batch: RCR-12-1 Bottled 5/3/12

Color: Medium amber - bronze with copper & gold glints.  Beautiful and appetizing.

Nose: Subtle and subdued aromas of fig, mead, lemon-apricot citric acids, roses and irises. Adding a few drops of water releases a flurry of wine notes which burn off in 15 minutes or so leaving a growing aroma of vanilla, along with the soft fruit acids of fig, mead-like honey iris and oak.

The entry is surprising in its rich intensity after the gentle nose - honeyed and sweet with heathery floral sugars, citrus acids and a lovely silky viscosity. Mid palate is potent as spirit heat and spicy oak influence impact with a drying leanness. As this expansion fades vanilla sweetness wells up from the opening - redolent of rum raisin, Spanish dried fig cake and a mesquite note of Texas scrubland - "Chaparral" dust. There are savory notes in here as well, not meaty but musky and almost distant smoke. Then it is regal and august at the turn as the citrus figgy sweet meets tannins of drying oak to produce a majestic cognac-like flavor signature. Yowza! This doesn't come off as a rustic Texas craft liquor. Black raisins, rum infused fig cake, and walnuts in the turn and the finish which is mostly dry despite the dessert flavor signature. Yum!

This is some refined and elegant liquor. What the heck is it really? I don't even care. The mix of lean and rich, sweet and dry as the flavors evolve across the palate are particularly beguiling to me. Like True Blue, the glory here is in the palate more than the nose. This is a stunning and original spirit. New, innovative, yet amazingly refined and seemingly very mature.  This is a new category of spirit that strides with the assurance of a traditional old world classic.  Serious whisky drinkers are going to love this.


P.S. To the shadowy underworld figure knows as @Connoissaurus who vies with Lisa P. to be Mayor of Balcones Distillery on Four Square: "I'm watching you" (gestures two fingers to eyes and then outwards).