Friday, August 24, 2012

An interesting Suntory Old Dusty

I've written about rummaging in my father in law's bottle pantry before. As an oenephile he has a wine cellar. He also has an "on deck" pantry where fifty or so wine bottles live, as well as his mineral water and bottles that rest upright, such as sake, liqueur and even the few odd bottles of whisky. A few years back a 28 year old single cask OB bottling of 1965 Springbank came to light. This time I rummaged a bit more and found this fascinating looking bottle of Japanese whisky:

Suntory Old Blended Whisky (and Hiroko Sherwin)
Several questions immediately present themselves: 1) Is this good whisky to enjoy now? 2) What year is it from (more or less)? 3) What the heck is it? The fill level stands at about 50%, a tax strip is partially present and an import label shows this as a USA import:

Fragment of tax strip
The bottle's bottom is singularly uninformative:

The tax strip, and use of proof rather than abv% puts it before the mid 80s according to SKU's article about dating bourbon dusties:

but the use of metric measuring is complicating to the dating.

Nonjatta, the premier blog about Japanese whisky published a post in February 2010 about dating Suntory Old bottles:

There are several generations of Old, reaching right up to the present day. Despite its name, it is not a particularly long matured whisky. It is a mid market blend (below Hibiki in Suntory's blended whisky pecking order but above Kakubin and the bargain basement Torys.) There are various ways to tell younger bottles from older version. Early bottles had the slogan: "A Blend of Ancient Whiskies". That was still on the bottle until at least 1868. Even after Kotobukiya changed its name to "Suntory" in 1963, the Suntory Old bottles appear to have continued to bear the "Kotobukiya" name. One way to tell really old Olds from 1960s versions is the addition of technical information at the far left bottom and far right bottom of the main label.

I am not sure when exactly things changed but, by 1994, " the label was different. The "Ancient Whiskies" were dropped in favour of "A Blend of the Choice Whiskies" and the main title on the whisky changed from "Suntory Whisky" to "Suntory Old Whisky". The line "Mild and Smooth" had also been added to the label by 1994 and the neck label had a completely different design.

This is a great bit of info - but unfortunately there is a huge gap between 1968 and 1994 in the information and this example was pretty clearly squarely in this gap. Furthermore, the bottle under consideration here lacks the word "Old" on the label.

Here is a site showing Suntory Old Minis that show how unusual the label without the word `Old` is - and the timing is at the cutoff between cork and screw top (see #4):

While this old minis site doesn't give a date for this label wording, it strongly suggests sometime in the late 60s or early 70s based on context. This allowed me to do a brute force search of the advertising for this period which yielded the following:

Advertisement dating the unusual label to 1973 `If You've Been There You Know`:

So, now that I had a year - I have the question of what is it?

Back on Nonjatta I find a review of the 2007 version which identifies it as a blend and gives it (barely 3 of 5 stars): Smells of marmalade and varnish with very faint earth and undergrowth notes slightly complicating things. The taste is quite nice: a very thin caramel with grainy harshness and plastics peeking through, but very suppressed. Just creeps above the two star threshold, but barely. 40 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 1,504 yen

However, this version was different. For one thing it is 43.4% abv. not 40%. Odd percentages sound promising to me. However, at half full would it be hopelessly oxidized? I did some interview work. The bottle was received as a gift around 10 years ago and was opened around that time. No one remembers it being opened since then so it was opened, half consumed ten years ago as a 30 year old dusty and presumably not touched again until now. The proof would be in the tasting:

Suntory Old 43.4% abv Probably 1973

Color: Very light amber with gold glints

Nose: caramel, apple brown Betty, tropical blooms, butter, vanilla pods, hemp, and sherry oak. It smells like Yamazaki with old school sherry highland influence. Just killer. Close to five star territory so far.

Palate: Honey, toffee, and floral vanilla on the entry which hits solidly mid-tongue. The mouth feel is thin and light. The mid-palate expansion is spicy and vibrant with persimmon fruit, cinnamon clove heat, allspice and sherry sweetness. There is plenty of oak tannins in the turn. The finish is long and spiced with nutmeg eggnog and sherry which comes off as dark chocolate cherry. Extensive air brings some honey to the sweet and a hint of body to the mouth feel but a bit of bitter note shows on the finish - not so unwelcomely. This is excellent stuff. Solid 4 star territory.

Adding a drop of water ups the honey and spice in the nose and adds a hint of smoke.

The water thins the palate - not a good thing here as the palate was a tad thin to begin with. The spice heat, however, is amplified a bit.

A mixed bag but very close to completely awesome.

The bottom line here is that this is very tasty whisky indeed. It is clear kin to Yamazaki, but has much more sherry in the palate. It has inferior mouth feel and richness compared to Yamazaki, either as a result of having grain whisky, being a younger NAS product, or as the effect of oxidation - or some combination of the above. While I wouldn't rank it higher than Yamazaki, the ways it is different than Yamazaki are instructive. Rich, spicy, complex and sherried it has more of a classic old time Scotch feel. It's very good whisky and awefully good for a mainstream blend: more evidence that fuller flavor used to be mainstream 40 years ago. This is particularly so in light of the lackluster tasting notes for the 2007 version on Nonjatta. This old 1973 stuff is clearly better than the 2007 stuff.


These come up periodically on auction sites and tend to go for 50-70 pounds. This isn't rare stuff and it's not totally amazing, but it's interesting and quite good - perfectly reasonable at that price.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Miltonduff 15 G&M Exclusive for PAL: Speyside In All The Right Ways

Miltonduff, near Elgin on the Black Burn, is one of those classic storied Speyside distilleries that you don't run into that often because they don't have regular expressions.  Gordon & MacPhail, located less than 3 miles away in Elgin, produces regular 12 and 15 year single malt bottlings and are the closest thing to a house OB that Miltonduff has.  In the familiar tale, Miltonduff, an old traditional distiller, was purchased and expanded into a giant to secure malt for a major blend, in this case Ballentines.  Most of the output goes into Ballentines which is why you don't see it much.  Along the way, there have been some fascinating bits of trivia.  Miltonduff was built on the old site of the Pluscarden Priory in 1824 and supposedly a stone of the ancient structure is kept in the distillery.  Miltonduff formerly practiced triple distillation, but adopted double distillation in the early part of this century.  In 1964 two Lomond stills were added for production of “Mosstowie" (a separate label produced entirely inside Miltonduff). Mosstowie is now one of those lost distilleries in plain sight a la Malt Mill.  The idea of the Lomond stills is that they can be tuned by adjusting the plates and necks to alter the character of the spirit.  The benefit was for Ballantines which could produce more variations for a more complex blend by tuning the Lomonds at Miltonduff.  There were some individual cask bottlings, but Mosstowie is rare.  By all accounts it isn't particularly good.  Lomond stills are still used at Loch Lomond - which isn't considered particularly good either.  Scapa, apparently uses a Lomond as their wash still.  I'm not a huge fan of that one either.  But the most famous Lomond still around is the salvaged "Ugly Betty" which makes The Botanist gin over at Bruichladdich which, by all accounts, is excellent.  In any case, by the 1980s the Lomonds were removed and replaced with additional post stills.   Since 2005 Miltonduff has been owned by Pernod Richard via Chivas Brothers.

Some of the aforefmentioned facts came from

The bottle considered here is part of a special single cask bottling made by Gordon & MacPhail for Park Avenue Liquors as an exclusive.  It was one of the first custom bottling projects put together by the relatively new Gordon & MacPhail US National Brand Ambassador Chris Reisbeck.  It's quite a cask - first fill Bourbon barrel #9461 which produced only 198 bottles.  Distilled on June 24, 1996 and bottled in August 2011.  It is bottled non-chill-filtered (as will become abundantly clear in a moment) uncolored, and at full cask strength.  This is raw - straight from the cask goodness brought to you by an impressive chain of whisky geeks for whisky geeks.

Miltonduff 1996-2011 15yo 56.3% Gordon & MacPhail

A drop of water turns it cloudy like milk
This is bottle 181 of 198.

Color: rich old gold. Even the tiniest drop of water causes this to turn milky with condensed fats.

Nose: densely honeyed, floral, and fruity in the white melon & pear way so classic of the Northern Highlands and Spey. Unctuous and almost incense-like in the sweet filigree of the floral-fruit sweet honey on the nose. Turns to an aching apricot-like acidic almost tangerine citrus note with additional time and deeper nosing. Indeed, this one can be nosed for a long long time.

Palate:  The entry is powerfully sweet up front with pure wildflower honey. There's a lacy filigree of floral esters at the light tiny white end of the floral spectrum. Then paraffin and sweet butter show right before the big expansion. The midpalate bursts with spirit heat and a broader more fruit centered sweetness marked by soft honeyed boiled citrus and melon with honeysuckle and vanilla florals in attendance. The turn to the finish sees a bitter eucalyptus note and then a relatively short finish with a clean cherry malt glow and a hint of oak tannins.

The addition of a few drops of water turns the dram cloudy but amps up the sweetness, richness, and the viscosity of the mouth feel.  In other words, this is a classic "swimmer": it loves water.  All that is good and great about this lovely Speyside honeyed fruit basket gets more honeyed and more "fruit basketier" (tm - by the Coopered Tot) with some water. 

Wow, what a lovely fruit bomb!  I'm in love.  I've been sipping this compulsively so much that I haven't been able to make myself sit down and write this review!

Before water it's clear

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Harmonic Resonance of Peat: An Ardbeg Vatting Mystery

I had the sublime pleasure of dramming the other day with one of New York's greatest whisky enthusiasts: Peter Silver, aka The Jazz Dentist, Malt Maniac, & PLOWED dude.  He is one of the most erudite, knowledgeable, experienced, generous, story filled, and whisky geekiest people I've ever met or even imagined.  To say I was in hog heaven at our dram session at "Dram Central Station" (his house) would be an understatement.  Among the wonderful things that went down that night and that blew my mind was an incredible vatting of two fierce drams... but, wait.  I should start the story a little earlier... 1803 to be precise...

Peter Silver at Dram Central Station (in the midst of post move unpacking)
In 1803 English genius polymath Thomas Young performed an interesting experiment on harmonic resonance.  You know, that phenomenon where waves can interact either constructively - via positive feedback - or destructively via negative feedback to yield either an increasing power or a decreasing one; a cancelling out.  You run into this a lot in situations like using a microphone too near a speaker, where positive feedback turns a sound into a howl, or in the corner of a swimming pool where the little waves might slap together and form a spout that soaks you in the eye.  Anyway, Thomas Young proved the wave nature of light using a clever experimental arrangement that looks like this:

(from wiki article on Young's Interference Experiment)

The two slits create a zone of raking interaction angle where the wave fronts alternately reinforce and and cancel each other out - producing a characteristic comb-like pattern.  The wave like nature of water waves was shown and then light was tested and the wave nature of light was empirically proven.  Of course, when most people see the double slit diagram they don't think of this vital and important piece of 1803 science.  They think of a later and perhaps even more important piece of science - the one performed in 1909 by G. Taylor and many times since showing wave particle duality in quantum physics.  In that experiment single particles going through twin slits build up over time to show the same comb shaped diffraction interference pattern as water or light.  This means that each particle goes through both slits  and interferes with itself - its own wave-like nature.  Einstein showed that matter and energy are different manifestations of each other. Wave particle duality shows that matter itself is inherently unlocalized.  Spooky - mysterious - inherently incomprehensible. 

Dr. Silver executes the vatting.
But what does any of this have to do with whisky?  This is where Dr. Peter Silver proceeded to blow my mind for the umpteenth time that night.  He replicated an experiment that a friend had shown him where two powerful expressions of peat, slightly out of phase, largely cancel each other out - just as two waves out of phase annihilate each other.

The two slightly out of phase powerful peat expressions are Arbeg Airgh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan - the two expressions I reviewed head to head earlier this week. (Thanks, Peter, for those samples!)

The story was that Dr. Silver's friend loved old expressions of Ardbeg that were more floral and fragrant and more gently peated than the current NAS monsters.  These old expressions have become virtually unobtainable however.  Being a serious whisky scientist, however he had figured out that vatting together Nam Beist and Corryvreckan at a 1 to 1 ratio (1/2 and 1/2) produced a product that, paradoxically, was dramatically less peated than either of its component whiskies and tasted, to the educated palate, remarkably like those old Ardbegs.

Full disclosure: I wouldn't know an antique Ardbeg if it shot me in the knees (Ardbegs typically bear loaded firearms and blast you with them so I figured this was an appropriate metaphor here).  Nevertheless I figure I could say whether vatting together these two peat monsters could somehow - magically, and in violation of all sense or reason - produce a lightly peated dram.

I tasted this vatting that night and was astounded.  Intelligently I took a sample to put under the intense scrutiny of a Jason Debly style "slow whisky" examination later - i.e. here:

A 50-50 Vatting of Ardbeg 2007 Airgh Nam Beist and Corryvreckan

Color: full gold

Nose: Damp clay, and sea airs yield to floral roses, and blackberry and strawberry fruits. These aromas float over a dark and complex backdrop that has me stretching for metaphor: hemp rope, clams, pitch and distant burning earth. Rich, delicious and heady. Loaded and 100% Ardbeg.

Palate: The entry is initially briefly off dry and loaded with sea salt up front. But this rapidly gives way to polite, elegantly rich malt sweetness with clover honey and white cane sugar elements. There is the fierce filigree of high proof white pepper heat and then a gentle stillness. This is the moment where Ardbeg's monster peat normally arrives with fierce dark tar and burning smoky hot ash. But now, this moment never arrives.

The mid palate grows juicy with lime that makes my saliva squirt and a distant warming earthy peat that brings a subtle tingle rather that a fierce burn. There is dark and dusty ash in the turn to the finish - but no wallop. The dominant flavors are herbal bitters, salt crust and sea weed and iodine. More than anything this mix of tar, lemon-lime acid, herbal bitters, and salt reads as high quality kalamata black olives. Delicious, gentle, warming, and ultimately mystifying. This is a vatting of a floral off-dry mature peat monster and a fierce, sharp sugared full bore peat monster. Yet their combination is not a peat monster at all. It is a gentle, richly complex subtly peated dram. The finish is long and gently subtle with malty berry sweet and a lingering earthy tar glow of peat. It's quite a bit sweeter and less "skinned palate" than the usual Ardbeg finish.

Is this a faithful replica of antique Ardbeg? I cannot say. What I can attest is that the spectacle of the cancellation of peat is a stupefying miracle. I'm dazzled and delighted. As a bonus, the resulting spirit is so delicious I could see deliberately vatting a pair of bottles and drinking this smooth, rich, and complicated concoction on a regular basis.  So what is happening on a molecular level?  How is this incredible phenomenon really taking place?  I have not the slightest idea.  Yet I have tasted it myself and can attest it is real.  I believe it is intimately connected with wave-particle duality and the deepest mysteries of the universe but I cannot say precisely why.  I cannot, indeed, even say extremely roughly why.  Frankly, it's really the whisky doing the talking here, completely.  Let it speak and listen to it and maybe we'll all learn something.

Update 8/17/12: This post has led to some lively debate - both in the comments section and on twitter.  Some folks took me literally with the harmonic resonance and quantum physics arguments.  I assure you these are metaphors.  However, what can possibly account for two powerful peat monsters to mix together to combine into a much less peated dram?

When I referred to Oliver Klimek and Bozkurt Karasu "backing" me I was referring to this conversation:

Thanks, Peter! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ardbeg Corryvreckan and Airgh Nam Beist head to head.

Last week I discussed Ardbeg's resurrection at the hands of Glenmorangie's brilliant master distiller Bill Lumsden in my post about Ardbeg Alligator. The emerging Ardbeg house style involves No Age Statement whiskies featuring young spirits of enormous power, sharp sweetness, and fierce young peat. These heady brews are then subjected to interesting barrel management techniques. The resulting expressions are then given a cool Celtic name and back story, a massive price tag, and then hyped to high heaven by an aggressive and effective marketing crew while whisky enthusiasts either grumble or cheer. Yet they invariably cough up and imbibe the stuff with gusto. The origins of this pattern come out of the big gaps in production caused by periods of closure, the recent enormous demand for Ardbeg's products, and the fact that youth is often an advantageous attribute for peat monsters. But it hasn't always been this way for Ardbeg. Enthusiasts should study the amazing pages at The Ardbeg Project - particularly the history page.

But much of the history and the issues contained therein can be summarized in a nutshell by looking at the capstone regular edition Ardbegs over the past decade: Airgh Nam Beist from 2006-2008 and Corryvreckan from 2009 on. Nam Beist was a 1990 vintage release that took the whisky community by storm. Powerful, peaty, yet fragrant and richly flavored - it marked the Ardbeg for greatness. It was also sold around $60-$70/bottle which was a fantastic value. Releasing the distillate from a single year over the course of several years is inherently limited however, and stocks were destined to run out. In 2009 the successor, a No Age Statement powerhouse with a fancy Burgundy wine cask finish barrel management angle with a great Gaelic name and back story angle and new, higher price ($85 official) set the pattern in complete detail. The real discussion, as always, takes place in the nose, on the palate, and in the glass:

Ardbeg Airgh Nam Beist 1990-2007 46%

Ardbeg Airgh Nam Beist (in the shelter of the beast) was made from old (pre-Glenmorangie) 1990 vintage stocks from 2006-2008. Thus it is 18-16 years old depending on which bottling. (these details from The following tasting notes are for a 2007 example. If you've ever compared Islay peat malts of different ages, say Laphroaig 10 and 18 or Caol Ila 12 and 18 you'll know that age tones down the peat heat and malt sugars and dials up oak influence, perfume, tannins, and complex spices.

Color: Light Gold

Nose: tight at first, but with a 10-15 minutes of air an intense honeyed and floral (roses and honeysuckle) aroma magically appears. The floral sweetness is the foreground and then apricot citrus with brine, iodine sea air, and the industrial putty and clay aromas of peat play well to the rear. This is an extraordinary nose for an Ardbeg - quite distinct from the currently offered NAS expressions.

Palate: Intense grassy off dry opening, unexpected from the sweeter nose (and later sweeter Ardbeg expressions) with a potent peat attack and spirit heat assault fast on its heels. The entry is heather, gorse and meadow sweet, but not honeyed. The mouth feel is silky but light. The honey comes with a burst of rose floral right before The mid palate's explosion of hemp and tar flavors with a light citrus acidic overlay which meld with the earthy burn to turn to ash with herbal anise and eucalyptus at the finish. The melding of grassy and floral sweet with acidic notes and peat burn combine to yield glints of lime flavor: aromatic sweet and acid and dark. It is this melding that is the secret to Nam Beist's yummy magic.

A few drops of water banish the silk from the mouth feel but turn the entry towards a wan sweetness, loaded with a sophisticated herbal complexity, lime, and nutty oak.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan 57.1 %

Corryvreckan shows its Burgundy wine finish in its color

Color: rich gold to old gold

Nose: Sweet meadow grasses with heather and blooming gorse and thicket but sharp and darkened by green lemon, fresh snapped green peas, wet hay, damp clay, and the mineral putty smell of peat. There are also heady phenolic notes of smoke, hemp ropes, iodine and salt sea airs, razor clams and the dangerous razor edge of fierce spirit heat. This is Ardbeg from 50 paces... with pistols.

Palate. Zoom! Pow! You came looking for an intense flavor experience and here it is. Young tongue forward intense sugars and zesty citrus malt, raw clams in sea water and then the white pepper bite of powerful spirit heat and a big robust expansion of gooey tar which blazes into powerful ash. The mouth feel is rich and silky. There are wine influence flavors of berries and bramble in play - mixing with the iodine and maritime and mineral notes to bring some flavors of olives and sea - but all subservient to the massive wallop of peat burn and reek.

This is a rich, seductive, full bore peat monster that skirts the edges of too much. It begs for some water. A dash of water ramps up the razor sweet into a richer, more honeyed, direction. It also makes the spicy peppery heat of the mid palate even hotter. The maritime airs of sea salt, brine, and lemon citrus on salty clams vibrant as ever. The tar-peat expansion is a tad less brutal after water- but still ranging and challenging. This is an intense kick-butt Islay peat monster of the first rank.


Tasting these two head to head shows clearly that something has definitely been lost in the vintage gap and the coping mechanism of releasing young spirit in a carefully crafted, nicely barrel managed way. There is a grace and beauty and balance in Nam Beist that is absent in Corryvreckan. In its place is a vibrancy and sheer raw power that operates on a much bigger scale. A brilliant string quartet is replaced by a couple of electric guitars and a wall of amps. So something is lost - but something, too, is gained. Corryvreckan is a monster dram. Drinking it is very much like quaffing Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte offerings. These are big peat monsters that challenge and delight. But they are not the graceful beauties of old. Time will tell if evolving styles and powerful market forces mean that those old and stunning flavor notes are gone for good.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Canadian Ryes Bottled in the USA Surveyed - Double Blind

Rye whisky has exploded in popularity in recent years with resurgent production in the USA after decades of neglect. Canada, however, has always been known for rye. In the past few years a number of bottlers in the USA have taken Canadian rye whisky, bottled it domestically and sold it, with varying degrees of marketing emphasis, as Canadian rye.

A couple of months back I was reading Davin de Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and I picked up a bottle of Pendleton 1910 to enjoy while reading. de Kergommeaux writes about Canadian distillers assembling Canadian whiskies from smooth "base whiskies" often made from corn or wheat, and rye "flavoring whiskies". These combinations are referred to as "rye" regardless of the exact percentage of rye grain in the mash bill. In the US a whisky labeled "rye" must contain 51% or more rye. Pendleton 1910 is bottled in Bend Oregon but contains Canadian rye whisky and is labelled thus. I'm not certain of its mash bill, but I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars. In comments on that blog post, talented Oregon whisky and cocktail blogger Jordan Devereaux, creator of the blog Chemistry of the Cocktail, recommended Jefferson's Rye. He said that Jefferson's Rye, while a couple of years younger (still a noble ten years old by age statement) had a higher percentage of alcohol for less money - and was also labelled as a Canadian rye - although bottled in the USA. This is covered in detail in his 2011 Whiskey Review: Jefferson's 10-Year Straight Rye. I put in on my list.

Shortly afterwards I saw The Porch Hound's review, "The Whistlepig Dilemma and Why All Whisky Isn’t Created Equal". It is an impressive survey of four different rye whiskies, two Canadian ryes (both bottled in the USA, again): Whistlepig and Mastersons; and two American ryes: Thomas H. Handy and Old Potrero. I had tried the American ones, but not the Canadian ones. I actually had Whistlepig in my in-pile for months and hadn't realized it was a Canadian rye. I had been under the impression that it was an American craft spirit. Indeed, Whistlepig is an American craft distiller in full operation, but while its juice is aging it has contracted to buy Canadian aged juice and bottle it under its own label. The Canadian rye that Whistlepig had sourced had taken the world by storm with rave reviews. The shocking thing about The Porch Hound's review was that in a blind tasting, they found that Whistlepig wasn't nearly as good in their opinion as another American craft distiller selling a US bottling of Canadian rye - but this time one that no one (certainly not I) had seemingly ever heard of: Mastersons.

This finding was so iconoclastic and exciting that I immediately resolved to replicate this finding. I wasn't the only one. Tim Read of top whisky blog Scotch and Ice Cream reviewed Whistlepig, Masterson's and Jefferson's rye head to head to head just this last week in "Canadian Rye, Three Ways". He found them all lovely (B+s in his rating system) - a near dead heat. In the review he doesn't crown a clear winner but has states that he puts Masterson's slightly ahead.

My goals in performing an overview of Canadian rye whiskies bottled in the US were:
1) I wanted to corroborate The Porch Hound's, findings (i.e. is Masterson's an amazing standout)- or not
2) address the issue of whether they were all from one distillery as Jordan had suggested they might be.
3) Determine whether there was a clear delineation between these Canadian ryes and their closest American kin.

To that end I resolved to replicate The Porch Hound's survey tasting as a blind. Recent experience has taught me that mental expectations can affect flavors to the extreme that even basic details of the mash bill can be mistaken. Furthermore, while I wanted to include The Porch Hound's original selections of Whistlepig, Masterson's, Old Potrero Single Malt Rye, and Thomas H. Handy Rye, I also wanted to make sure I included Jefferson's Rye as per Jordan Devereaux's suggestion and given Tim Read's conclusion that it was so close to the others. I also knew that I had to include the other US bottled Canadian rye I knew of - the one that had started me on this road: Pendleton 1910 Rye. Finally, I wanted a control. In my experience neither Old Potrero nor Thomas H. Handy tasted remotely like a Canadian rye, but Russell's Reserve Rye 6 - the high end rye from the makers of Wild Turkey - had a creamy smoothness that I had come to associate with Canadian ryes. Furthermore I have had quite a bit of experience with it recently. I felt that having Russell's Reserve Rye 6 in the mix would help keep me honest and prevent me from erroneously ascribing elements of the flavor signature of rye whisky in general to Canadian rye in specific. I never doubted for a second, however, that I would be able to pick it out cleanly from the lineup of Canadian ryes. Given the large number of selections here, I chose to separate the Handy and have it separately from the blinds because it has such a dramatically different strength (at full cask strength) and flavor profile I couldn't see it playing meaningfully in a blind. Because I had a bit of glassware shortage due to some other projects I could only muster 5 glencairns. Because I felt Old Potrero had the least to bring the blind in the head to heads I put it in a NEAT glass and separated it from the blinds. Thus the only true blinds in this tasting are Whistlepig, Masterson's, Jefferson's Rye, Pendleton 1910, and Russell's Reserve Rye.


I decided to use a full double blind system because my assistant in this endeavor was to be my 9 year old daughter. Part of the issue was I didn't trust her to make precise and even pours from full heavy bottles. I also wasn't sure she would instinctively be able to randomize the selections knowing what they were. I solved the issue by decanting precise pours myself into a series of sample bottles that were labelled with a sequence of letters from A to E. I wrote a key which mapped the whisky's names to these letters. Then I gave this series of small bottles to my daughter. She blindly and randomly poured them into the matrix of glasses and wrote a second key which mapped the sequence of letters to the sequence of numbers on the mat where the glasses were placed 1-5 (with place 6 reserved for Old Potrero in the NEAT glass - to be tasted along side). Only when I matched the two keys at the end would the identities of the whiskies in the glasses be revealed to both of us.


Here are my tasting notes as written during the blind tasting - followed by the revealed identity:

1. Nose: heavy musky oak, acetone, peach, citrus, old roses. A bourbon-like nose - very nice.

Entry is sweet with honey toffee, treacle and spicy with oak and herbal expansion: ivy and cilantro. A big classic rye flavor profile. The finish is a spice afterglow - herbal and malty.

w/water & extensive air the flavor profile is little changed: big, flavor dense, rich & bourbon-like with stewed peaches & musk, big spicy herbal expansion with ivy, cilantro, and eucalyptus and a big woody oaken finish. This is a big sleek bruiser of a rye. I was definitely thinking it was Whistlepig or possibly Jefferson's based on what I had heard. ****

Reveal: Jefferson's Rye 10 Years Old 47% abv
Batch 3, Bottle 1912

2. Nose: lighter, more floral. Toffee, and apricot bark. Floral notes of of marigold and honeysuckle, daisies and burdock root.

Thinner mouth feel (less proof?) Herbal sweet entry with tons of marigold and herbal ivy orchid lilly flowers. Herbal sweet entry, spicy expansion with ivy herbs and more floral orchid lilly flavors.

w/water and extensive air the nose is more savory (parma ham). Big marigold herbal flavor has become even more dominant on entry which has become off-dry. Lean, elegant, herbal and marigold flavor. Gentle sophisticated oak on finish. I was thinking Masterson's *****

Reveal: Russell's Reserve Rye 6 years old 45% abv.

3. Nose: light dry mineral, sweet plum, dust, lanolin, floral lilly, some spicy oak perfume. Palate: creamy off-dry entry with oak, mineral, and waxy or lanolin coating. Spicy heat and long finish with bitter almond.

w/water and extensive time: chalk mineral, spirit note, sweet solvent note. Entry is sweet, creamy and gently herbal with a spicy expansion at mid palate. The finish is tingling, glowing and waxy with faint herbal bitterness.

I was thinking Russell's Reserve 6. ****

Reveal: Masterson's Rye 10 years old 45% abv.
Batch 3, Bottle 6160

4. Nose: cake batter - noticeably less complex than the others so far. Maple syrup. Distant sandalwood dry oak. With more time some dark baked and almost chemical notes. Entry is sweet and simple with some artificial vanillin and caramel flavors. Cake batter, and fake vanilla. Less oak. Turn to the finish introduces some gentle cherry. Very gentle finish with very little oak influence.

w/extensive air savory (parma ham) nose. Musky sweet toffee and cake batter. Soft expansion with cherry notes in the turn to the finish and malty cherry in the finish. I was thinking (?) this was clearly the loser of the group - although still very nice. ***

Reveal: Pendleton1910 12 years old 40% abv.

5. Nose of floral cognac: very august and nice with marigold and roses floral notes. some old apricot citrus. "Smells like fancy whisky". Light, more acidic, spritely & fresh. Some lovely incense-like oak perfume. The entry is sweet and complex with tons of oak filligree. A spicy expansion - semi-dry with marmalade cognac. Plenty of oak tannins on the finish. Adding 3 drops of water the entry becomes more intensely sweet - with candied orange citrus and a creamy aspect.

With extensive air the nose becomes dust, preserved citrus, and still lightly floral. The entry is sweet with jammy citrus, spicy on the expansion with complex herbal ivy and cilantro notes. More oak on the finish. This was the clear winner overall. I was thinking Whistlepig or Jefferson's. *****

Reveal: Whistlepig Rye 10 years old 50% abv.

6. Nose: intensely herbal with eucalyptus, ivy and a big dose of 50% fermented golden brewed wulong tea (orchid toasted flavors). Maybe some herbal sassafrass. Gently herbal on the sweet entry with bourbon-like candy-corn. Spicy heat on the expansion with mild hops-like bitterness joining ivy, cilantro, and herbal effusion. A gentle finish marked by herbal bitterness. ***

Identity: Old Potrero Single Malt Rye Essay 10-SRW-ARM1 No Age Statement

Chaser: Thomas H. Handy Rye 2011 63.45% abv issue.

Nose candied citrus, musky cherry, and candy apple with cinnamon

Palate: Huge entry - explosive rye flavors much bigger. Bourbon-like stewed peaches cherry compote, crushed ivy and cilantro herbal note, floral vanilla oak, sandalwood incense, hints of cinnamon heat and plenty of oak on the finish.


My full dedicated review of Handy:

Analysis and Conclusions:

Goal #1) Is Masterson's the clear winner - was I (as Garrett and Jamie had written on The Porch Hound) "surprised to find out that the whisky that kicked everyone in the teeth was the relatively unheralded Masterson’s."?

No. Handy was the clear winner in my opinion. Whistlepig was the clear winner of the Canadian ryes in my opinion - but granted it was very close. Tastes are subjective and these small batch items are subject to batch variation. But today, with my samples, that's how it played out for me.

Goal #2) Are all the Canadian ryes here possibly from the same distillery?

I have put this question directly to various people in various ways, including asking Gavin de Kergommeaux directly. No one seems to know - or is willing to talk.
Judging this by palate alone is notoriously tricky. de Kergommeaux repeatedly makes the point that each Canadian distillery produces a range of blends using in-house produced whiskies with often widely divergent flavor profiles. Differences do not prove different distilleries. Also, similarities don't prove production at a single distillery either. Similar production methodologies and mash bills can end up producing very similar tasting products even at totally different distilleries.

Furthermore, I was struck by the fact that, blind, I confused Russell's Reserve Rye 6 for a Canadian whisky and confused Masterson's for a Kentucky product. I can state, however, that Pendleton 1910 tasted dramatically different from all the other ryes in the tasting and that Whistlepig and Jefferson's tasted very similar to each other - although Whistlepig had a more refined presentation. I would not be surprised if Whistlepig and Jefferson's ended up being produced by the same distillery, but I would be surprised if Masterson's was, and even more surprised if Pendleton was.

A word about Pendleton 1910's labeling: Masterson's, Whistlepig, and Jefferson's all specifically state "Straight Rye Whisky" which in the USA means 51% plus rye, no additives, and at least 2 years in the barrel. Pendleton 1910 says something quite different: "100% Canadian Rye Whisky". I get the feeling that Pendleton 1910 doesn't comply with US legal requirements for Straight Rye Whisky - but I have no idea in what way. Given the dramatically different flavor profile I would guess that Pendleton's might be a blended Canadian product. I was rather struck, too, by the fact that I found Pendleton 1910 to be a high 4 star whisky when tasted sighted and by itself and a 3 star whisky when tasted in the presence of a bunch of other Canadian ryes. This points to the power of context and also of blind tasting.  UPDATE:  In conversation Davin DeKergommeaux (Malt Maniac, author, top Canadian whisky blogger and noted Canadian whisky authority) confirms that Pendleton 1910 is made from 100% rye - but crafted in a different way from the others - which accounts for its unique flavor profile.

Goal #3) Determine whether there was a clear delineation between these Canadian ryes and their closest American kin.

Amazingly, the answer here is no. Blind I was not able to clearly determine which ryes were Canadian and which were American. The flavor signature of the straight rye mash bill trumped geographical location.

Final conclusion:

Rye whiskies are delicious. If you aren't familiar with them - try them today. Their herbal flavor is delicious neat, and in classic cocktails such as Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. The influx of Canadian pure ryes into the American market is a welcome advent. Some of these ryes compete favorably with America's best. From a financial perspective, Jefferson's Rye is a stunning bargain. With a bold assertive rye flavor and a clear kinship with the winners it is a standout value at around $30/bottle. Russell's Reserve Rye at around $36/bottle remains a stand out value as well. Masterson's at $50+ is pushing it a bit, in my opinion. Old Potrero also runs around $50+ and is a tougher sell at the price point given the competition. However Old Potrero is an innovative craft distiller that is still actively exploring different production methods, unlike Masterson's which is rebottling an imported product. Old Potrero is a distillery to watch. Whistlepig at $70+ is clearly high - but the quality is wonderful. I have no problem recommending it. Furthermore, I like that the proceeds are helping fund a working distillery that is producing its own distillate. Thomas Handy is an achievement and, while limited and hard to get, remains the top of the rye heap in my opinion and its high price and difficult availability are justified by its power, complexity, and obvious crafting. Pendleton 1910 emerges as a different product. At around $35/bottle it is reasonably priced and very tasty, but doesn't compete well against Jefferson's or Russell's at this price point head to head. Bottom line, all of these ryes are worthwhile in their own ways. There isn't a single one I would feel sad about owning.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ardbeg Alligator: A Soft Sweet Pussycat

Ardbeg was saved from closure by the 1997 sale to Glenmorangie - a step that brought Bill Lumsden's creativity. Lumsden, master distiller, is a pioneer and genius with wood finishes and interesting mash bills at Glenmorangie. Some have said that this creativity was rendered necessary there because Glenmorangie suffered a loss of flavor complexity in its base distillate over the decade prior to his arrival in the mid 1990s. I haven't tasted very old Glenmorangie yet so, personally I can't say. When Lumsden took over at Ardbeg he faced a similar problem to the one Jim McEwan had at Bruichladdich. New production not going to be ready for years and a gap in production timing. Lumsden responded in a similar way: with innovative wood finishes - and also with a strategy of releasing no age statement expressions that vatted some of the mature stuff with quantities of the younger stuff made since reopening. At the same time, the popularity of malt whisky has exploded and appetite for Ardbeg's richly peated flavor signature has reached a sort of mania. Old bottlings have become insanely expensive. Even the new no age statement stuff retails for quite a high price. Some resent this as gouging - others tolerate it as supply and demand. The resentment fixates on Ardbeg's rather prominent marketing efforts. Is Ardbeg over priced and over hyped? Maybe so. Is the whisky delicious and worth it anyway? You're not going to get an argument on that score from me.

Ardbeg Alligator, is universally reviewed with some mention of alligators (the animals). The marketing famously centers on them and their fierce snapping jaws. But, as has been pointed out extensively the name is due to its being crafted by aging sweet 'n peaty Ardbeg in barrels that have been so intensively charred that an "alligator" pattern of char burn has formed inside the casks. Thus, in this example we see the full spectrum of Ardbeg's issues: hyped, extensively marketed with a gimmick, no age statement, expensive ($99/bottle), limited (and mostly sold out), and made with a fascinating new wood barrel angle. What's the verdict?

Ardbeg Alligator Committee Reserve 2011 51.2%

Color: rich full gold

Nose: honey malt and phenolic "industrial putty" peat dominate the nose. There are also salty sea airs with wafts of iodine, clams and low tide flats, cut hay, and a gentle distant hint of wet dog. I'm well aware that this is the kind of descriptive language that make non-whisky people literally laugh out loud at us, but this is a lovely Islay nose that I found perfectly appetizing.

Entry is momentarily sweet with malt sugar and then with the darker sweetness of char. This is the sweetish burn essence of charred wood. The midpalate expansion is gentle for a dram of this proof with rich creamy lactones and a silky mouth feel. Peat takes over as the mid palate reaches full swing with an earthy burn. The peat drives the turn the finish as gentle wood ash. Ash and oak tannins and a lingering herbal malt mark a fairly long finish as you'd expect of a big cask strength peated Islay from deeply charred casks.

Adding a few drops of water thins the body but sweetens the hello. Where is the spirit heat? This among the more gentle and smooth Ardbegs I've had. It drinks a lot like Ardbeg 10 with an array of additional char flavor notes added along side.

I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. Delicious, but a very small incremental step up from the base expression. As such, close to 5 stars.


It's stunning that the flavor signature of the charred barrel is so readily apparent. Striking too, was the young nature of the spirit with fresh sugars and fresh phenolic flavors. However, the gentleness I detect stood up in a head to head comparison with another Ardbeg in the speed tasting organized by Graham of the Perfect Whisky Match:

In the speed tasting it was quite clear that Alligator's favor density and peat attack were well behind that of Ardbeg's sherried Uigedail expression.

Anyway - close to academic. This item is sold out pretty much everywhere.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 and The Accidental Vatting

Valinch - in the glass
A couple of posts ago I was reviewing a fascinating top ranked vatting of sherried and bourbon casks malts called Balvenie Tun 1401. I described my experience creating an analogous vatting myself by accident:

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.

What I don't make clear is the scene. Let me set it for you. Here's the table:

I'm doing a private tasting for a couple of VIPs. Note the big glasses and the full bottle of Auchentoshan Valinch and the 4 oz sample bottles at both ends. One of the 4 oz bottles has Glenfarclas 25 (reviewed previously in this blog). Another has Miltonduff 15 and the one of the left has Laphroaig 10. The 200cl bottle has Talisker 10. The tasting goes great, but only a small percentage of the pours are consumed. Ever frugal, I start to drink them. I quickly realize that this isn't realistic. I will pass out long before I finish. Plus the sheer folly of the attempt is blowing the good impression I just made. Thinking quickly I start pouring them back into the bottles - he head swimming slightly. Maybe it was bound to happen... Maybe it was just bad luck; or possibly good luck...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There are a number of whiskies on that table that I've not formerly reviewed. I'm going to formally review one right here and now - because it plays a major role in what follows:

Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 57.5% abv

Auchentoshan is one of the last remaining lowland distilleries. As such it triple distills, as is traditional in the lowlands - for a pure spirit with a more gentle and simple profile. Auchentoshan has had success with wood finishes and mature bottlings and the basic no age statement "Classic" is quite popular - sweet, floral, heathery and lovely; if a bit uncomplicated. Whisky folks demanded a cask strength version. Valinch is that: young, sweet, and fierce at full uncut uncolored unchill filtered unmessed with - straight from the cask.

Color: pale gold

Nose: Vanilla, gentle floral perfume (white lilies and honeysuckle), pure medicinal alcohol, and a hint of citrus and savory.

Entry is intensely and pointedly sweet with pure refined sugar, oak vanillins, and a delicate floral perfume. The mid palate expansion is intense, spirity, and hot. There is lacy malt and some gentle pale oak notes in the finish. The body is light but the mouth feel has a nice silky quality.

This flavor profile is overwhelmingly about the sweet intensity of the opening. It reminds me a bit of Octomore 4.1's intense sugar opening - with none of the tar or ash of what comes next. This is clearly young whisky, but not raw or graceless. Sweet and intense - it possesses flavor density - if at the expense of spirit heat.

Valinch cries out for a drop of water. After a phenolic burst, it settles down to an increased floral aspect to the nose. The entry is a bit more honeyed, but still full of white sugar, vanilla, and blossoms on entry. The mid palate bloom is fierce, malty, and lacy. The turn marked by an herbal bitters like dilute Fee Brother's. The finish is brief, but gentle and lovely. One of the really remarkable things about Valinch is that it continues to get sweeter and more honeyed as it sits in the glass. One hour, two hours... while some of the florals dissipate, the sweet honeyed glory keeps becoming more and more exquisite. It's really quite seductive.


In the tasting, however, Valinch was too strong for new whisky drinkers. They hated it. It would have been far better if I had gone for Classic. So I had a lot of Valinch left over. I was pouring glasses back into the sample bottles when I noticed with horror that I had poured the Valinch back into the Glenfarclas 25 sample bottle. I was horrified. I had "ruined" the nice Glenfarclas 25. It was a real "you got chocolate in my peanut butter" moment. I put the bottles away, sick at heart. The next day however, I investigated. Hey - not bad. In fact... quite good indeed:

The accidental vatting of 2/3 ths Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 and 1/3th Glenfarclas 25

Color: full gold

Nose: dry malt, citrus and apricot jam, a hint of floral and grass - like a distant meadow, and wine gum candy flavors - but without much sweetness. Also some dust and talcum powder. In the distance is a clear sherry note.

The vatting
The entry is sweet and powerful with fresh malt sugars, but immediately there is a jammy fig and and grape flavor darkening of the bright sugars. There are bitter notes of oak and a big mid-palate expansion of spirit heat an what reads as oak tannins - but yet really shouldn't be. The Glenfarclas 25 isn't overtly tannic. The finish is long and lingering and herbal bitter-sweet.

A few drops of water bring out spicy heat and clear sherry notes with bits of leather, dark chocolate and tobacco on top of a rich malt sweet hot chassis. The vinous notes aren't separate. They modify the floral and citrus aspects of the note to yield enhanced fruit basket notes simply not present in either component whisky. Then white pepper heat graces the expansion after honeyed lightly spritely sherried vinous notes. This white pepper isn't in either of the source whiskies either.

This is the part that reminds me of Tun 1401: the floral fruity aspect in harmony with sherry notes and an ascendent emergent blast of pepper - as if born of the friction.


Where did that heat come from? It was certainly present in the Tun 1401 too. The bottom line here is that home made vattings can be delicious. I was lucky. Many (and perhaps even most) chance pairings might prove bad. However some are glorious. This has become the beginning of a bit of a diversion. Watch for more posts on this topic in the near future. Certainly mixing single malts isn't necessarily a disaster.