Saturday, June 30, 2012

George T. Stagg 2011 - The Titan. The King.

George T. Stagg is the famous poster boy of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  Huge alcohol concentration, dark color, amazing reputation.  What kind of reputation?  This ran on the PR Newswire at the end of May 2012:

"For the second year in a row, George T. Stagg, the iconic uncut, unfiltered bourbon released annually from Buffalo Trace Distillery, has been named the number one spirit in the world by noted spirits reviewer F. Paul Pacult" 

http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/george-t-stagg-named-top-spirit-in-the-world-for-second-year-in-a-row-155340915.html

Yes - Pacult considers George T. Stagg 2010 and 2011 to have been the finest spirits in the world - period.  It made big news in 2010 when Highland Park 18, his top pick for over a decade, was finally unseated by *gasp* a Bourbon.

This is a perfect selection for this, the 100th post on The Coopered Tot.  We're celebrating with fireworks.

Let's drop by top whisky blog The Casks yet again to get the lowdown on George Stagg's bio & and some details about the bottling, such as age and the number of casks:

"George T. Stagg was successful whiskey salesman who, in 1870, helped E.H. Taylor purchase a distillery originally built in 1812 by one Harrison Blanton. They named the distillery “O.F.C.” after its original name, “Old Fire Copper” and proceed to make a number of significant improvements until 1878 when Stagg bought out his partners share. The distillery was re-named the George T. Stagg distillery in 1904 and ultimately was re-named the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1999." ... "Along with the strikingly high proof (142.6), another incredible stat about this whisky is the amount lost to evaporation over the years, nearly 58%. After maturing in new American Oak for 18 years and 5 months, the 2011 version was pulled from 124 barrels to make up arguably the most well-known and revered expression of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection."

http://thecasks.com/2012/04/18/george-t-stagg-kentucky-straight-bourbon-2011-buffalo-trace-antique-collection/

So, it's the marquis product, incredibly old, enormously powerful, rare, and reputed to be the best spirit in the world.  What a build-up.

George T. Stagg 2011 71.3%


Color: Dark Reddish amber bronze. A fascinating and incredibly rich color.

Nose: Dense dry leather, saffron, apricot. Old orange, canned peaches and cherry preserves. Virginia tobacco. Chrysanthemums, dried daisies, sultanas. Citrus flowers. A wild and wonderful nose with nobility, depth, and complexity.

Explosive on entry with juicy dried apricot orange paste, cherry, leather, and tobacco. There is sandalwood perfumed oak and  intense spirit heat. The flavors keep coming and evolving on the palate:  dust, parchment, old books, dried fruits.  The finish has old oak bitter tannins, walnuts, and almonds

A few drops of water adds some hard candy and flowers to the dense apricot leather nose. It also adds some smoky, meaty notes.

With those few drops of water, on the tongue the sweetness and mouth feel are enriched and oak forms a rich incense filigree. Char and smoke mingle with the oak incense and deep dried citrus cherry fruit leather. Huge. Titanic. Mouth filling.

With extensive time (an hour) the entry evolves from fruits to brown sugar blackstrap molasses and the sandalwood box wood perfume grows in influence become exquisite and intense.

The afterglow bears the flavors of having eaten red hots jujubes, and cherry pie.

Dense. Layered. Evolving shades of sweet wood fruit and char.

What a monster.  What a stupefying tour de force of flavor density, august majesty, and complex and delicious flavor profile.  It's clearly one of the greatest spirits ever.  Who am I to disagree?  My conversion is complete.  I am 100% smitten.

*****

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sazerac Rye 18 2011 rich flavor, zest, and balance for an old rye but at some expense of power




Sazerac 18 is the mature rye in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and is, by many accounts, a lot of people's favorite. I received a sample from Tim Read, the incredibly thoughtful whisky blogger of Scotch & Ice Cream, LAWS member, and a man who was one of the original inspirations for me to blog in the first place. Encountering him on the Internet was a thrill. Being able to sample his bottles of the BTAC is a big thrill too. I had skipped the annual BTAC frenzy for years, with a superior "I'm not a joiner. I'm not going to jump through hoops just to get some bourbon or rye" kind of attitude. My recent tastings showed me that the frenzy was justified and I have been missing out on some of the finest whiskies that America has to offer. But the fact remains, these are wickedly hard to get even in the limited autumn season they are available.

The 2011 Sazerac 18's composition is described on the excellent SF whisky blog "The Casks" as follows: "Created from a mashbill of Minnesota rye, Kentucky corn, and North Dakota malted barley, this was aged for, you guessed it, 18 years and bottled from a selection of 28 barrels."
http://thecasks.com/2012/04/24/sazerac-18-year-old-kentucky-straight-rye-whiskey-2011-buffalo-trace-antique-collection-review/

Just 28 barrels. No wonder these are so hard to get. I hope they start putting more away for the decades to come.


Sazerac 18 rye fall 2011 45%


Color: Amber Bronze (orange and gold)

Nose: Initially acetone, cherry, leather and peach - bourbon-like. With 15 minutes or so of air floral and candy notes emerge mysteriously and wonderfully: roses, orange blossom, candy apples (the red glazed kind) and cotton candy join the cherry peach. The apple note have a nutmeg allspice aspect that is reminiscent of compote or baked fruit desserts. Ultimately floral and fruit sweet meets potent baking spices. Nice. It's an extraordinary nose by any standard.

Entry is initially soft. Sweet citrus and then dry strawberry wine with a potent floral aspect mark the opening. Certain sips are marked by a strawberry candy note like a Jolly Rancher or strawberry-orange turkish delight - but with much less sugar on the palate than this signature implies. The mid-palate expands with spicy cinnamon heat, cardamom pods, sweet lotus, baked spiced apple, or mulled cider, leather and oak. It's a rich and full palate - but the mouth feel is light and fairly dry, and the density of flavor is as well. Rich, but not intense. The turn to the finish sees the sweet notes fade and oak warm an fill the void. The rye bitter herbal finish waxes over that and you end up left with a bittersweet vegetal note like having eaten lotus root with cherry glaze and bitter almond oil. There is a black tea like tannin aspect at the finish as well.

Gentle, rich, spiced yet soft. This is another regal august flavor profile. The floral and strawberry aspects are particularly beguiling for me, although after the Handy this barely reads as rye. Blind, I might guess a high rye bourbon.
After the Handy I miss the pow and density of the flavor. However, truth be told this is incredibly lovely hooch no matter whether it plainly appears to be rye or not. This is a common paradox with older ryes. Smoother, more regal, but less herbal flavor and less spicy heat. Sazerac 18 avoids the most common pitfall: an overly strong oak influence.

I don't know the factors that led to this being bottled at 45%. Perhaps after the angel's share this was what was left? If not, my hope is that they skip dilution in the future. With a touch more intensity this might be one of the greatest spirits ever. Actually, even as is it is one of them.

*****

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Canadian Whisky - the portable expert" by Davin De Kergommeaux shines a brilliant spotlight on a vital area long overlooked

Canadian Whisky - the portable expert fills an enormous hole in the high-end whisky Zeitgeist where the largest selling whisky in the USA lives. Canadian whisky constitutes over 1/3rd of the American whisky market, and has so since forever (perhaps the Civil War) by being smooth. However, "smooth" has become a dirty word in the new high-end movement and there hasn't been a voice for Canadian whisky pride until now. Indeed, until this title, virtually nothing authoritative has been written about this vast and important area. Canadian Whisky - the portable expert is a stunning achievement that is really three books in one: 1) a treatise on whisky, its production, and how to appreciate it; 2) an economic and biographical history of the Canadian whisky industry: it's titanic industrialists, innovators, and entrepreneurs; and 3) a comprehensive set of tasting notes and distillery profiles. As such it is one of the most useful and complete books on a whisky segment that I have ever seen or, indeed could even imagine. And while the tone is authoritative and scholarly, the obsessive love and attentions to detail, plus the language of the epilogue makes it clear that De Kergommeaux is a partisan, a defender, of Candian whisky's particular and unique flavor profile and role in Canadian culture, life, and economy.

This isn't a book coming from some Canadian chamber of commerce type, however. Davin De Kergommeaux is one of the twenty-four Malt Maniacs - the elite group of whisky epicures who help mold and shape the culture and agenda of high end whisky epicurianism world-wide. Thus his whisky connoisseurship is impeccable and well predates his particular career as a blogger of and advocate for Canadian whisky. FYI - his blog http://www.canadianwhisky.org which has been around for a couple of years, is clearly the web's preeminent location for Canadian whisky reviews, news and scholarship. Since 2011 De Kergommeaux's position eminence concerning Canadian whisky was confirmed further by his appointment as Canadian Contributing Editor to Whisky Magazine.

Canadian Whisky is a fairly compact 300 pages. It begins with the elements of grains, water, and wood. Then it moves onto the mechanisms and methods of distillation, blending and aging. Next is flavor science, tasting, and epicurianism covered from glassware to flavor mapping. These sections on how to drink are brief but as solid a treatise on the subject as you'll find. Then De Kergommeaux spends the next hundred pages on "A concise history of Canadian whisky" - which consists of biographies of mercurial geniuses and titans of industry such as Gooderham and Worts, Thomas Molson, Henry Corby, Joseph E. Seagram, Hiram Walker, J.P. Wiser and Sam Bronfman. But this section is far more - it is the history of towns and whisky expressions both booming and long gone. It is a vigorous bit of investigative journalism into a secretive industry that is seldom documented well - if at all. This is the first time that this history has been told with anything like this kind of comprehensive reach and vision. It is a gripping achievement which will appeal to students of history and economics as much as whisky enthusiasts. It reminds me quite a bit of wonderful books of economic history such as Ron Chernow's The House of Morgan. The book concludes with 100 pages profiling the nine distilleries of Canada: Alberta, Black Velvet, Candian Mist, Gimli, Glenora, Highwood, Hiram Walker, Kittling Ridge, and Valleyfield. Yes, all of Canada's titanic output of whisky comes from just those 9 distilleries.

Interspersed among the content, as color block side bars, are brief encapsulated tasting notes. Ultimately, this is the weakest part of the Canadian Whisky. Anyone who wants to read the full treatment of these tasting notes will have to visit http://www.canadianwhisky.org as the full tasting notes do not appear in Canadian Whisky at all. This is really much more of a book about Canadian Whisky's history, production, and industry than a flavor analysis of the particular expressions. Nevertheless, this book has revolutionized my understanding and appreciation of Canadian whisky - not only because I now have a much fuller sense of the full segment and the universe of expressions being made (and that were made in the past). It's the depth of analysis of how Canadian distillers achieve their flavor profiles - and why they labor so hard to achieve them - than has really affected my comprehension and perspective. Most Canadian whiskies are blends. "Base" whiskies, typically distilled via column still at high proof, aged in extensively refilled barrels, and then diluted down to a greater extent than many other whisky traditions, are mixed with rye "flavoring" whiskies. Rye gives the character and the base whiskies bring sweetness and smoothness. Massive averaging and blending traditions assure consistency - but also another layer of smoothing. The incredible smoothness and soft finishes of Canadian whiskies are no accident. They are the achievement of a century of careful tuning to kill the bugaboo of 19th century raw whisky - roughness and the taste of youth.

Bottom line, every whisky drinker or student of any related field needs to read De Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky - the portable expert. It is a towering achievement in the field of whisky writing and shines a brilliant spotlight into a huge, important, and yet almost totally overlooked subject.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thomas H. Handy Rye is a fireworks display in your mouth.


Next up, Thomas H. Handy Rye from the 2011 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  I'm a big fan of rye whiskies. They have, generally, a lovely sweetness and powerful vegetal note and lovely spicy heat.  The combination is seductive, traditionally American, and works well straight or mixed in cocktails.  Having read the stellar review in the SF whisky blog The Casks, I was aware of the history, rarity, and big flavor profile of this moderately young Rye from the BTAC.  It's quite a story that connects this brand with the roots of a great American cocktail in the birthplace of Jazz:

"As Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, and Sazerac was founded by Thomas H. Handy, it seems only fitting to begin a look at Buffalo Trace’s 2011 Antique Collection with the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye. The story begins (more or less) at the Sazerac Coffee House which was located on Exchange Alley in New Orleans’ French Quarter and was well-known for its cocktail made with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac, bitters and absinthe. Handy purchased the Sazerac Coffee House in 1869, switching the Cognac to Rye whiskey in the 1880′s as the Phylloxera epidemic wiped out the supply of grapes for wine and spirits in Europe. Handy steadily built his spirits empire over the years, purchasing and marketing brands like Peychaud’s Bitters and opening another establishment, The Sazerac Bar. The actual Sazerac company was started by a former secretary of Handy’s, C. J. O’Reilly, but it was Handy who laid the groundwork and is generally seen as the father of the company."
This straight rye whisky is made from a mashbill of Minnesota rye, Kentucky corn, and malted barley from North Dakota. 41 barrels of new American White Oak were filled and the spirit was aged for six years and five months before it was bottled uncut and unfiltered."
http://thecasks.com/2012/04/16/thomas-h-handy-sazerac-straight-rye-whiskey-buffalo-trace-2011-antique-collection-review/

I certainly was expecting a lot.  Shockingly (to me), my expectations were exceeded:

Thomas H. Handy Rye Fall 2011 63.45% abv


Handy, at 6 years old is the younger of the two ryes in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (as Sazerac 18 is 18) and the youngest spirit in the collection overall. However it has a magnificent regal quality all its own.

Color: a shade deeper and redder than new penny copper. More like old red copper, like a gem large cent that will bring tens of thousands at auction. It's a henna auburn color.

Nose: like a mature sherry bomb Scotch. Noble, august, cognac-like jammy marmalade and cherry, fragrant sweet oak spice perfume. The big notes are jammy dried orange citrus with musky overtones and a sprightly dancing nimble cherry note above with a bit of sweetness and fruit acid zing. After 45 minutes or so of air caramelized sugars like a baked cinnamon candy apple lead off. What a rich and lovely nose.

Entry is sweet and complex with bourbon peaches, cherry compote, crushed ivy and cilantro herbal note, floral vanilla oak, sandalwood incense, raging cinnamon spice heat and sawn rugged oak. Long air time (45 minutes to an hour ups the opening sweetness better here than adding water does - with no loss of intensity). Then the mid-palate expansion rocks these flavors into explosive overdrive. Vibrant cinnamon heat overlays a powerful coiling bittersweet herbal filigree. The turn to the finish sees the herbal notes take over from the sweet and transition into a bitter and medicinal eucalyptus or bitter almond note. The bitterness rides the finish into rich charred oak flavors and lingering ivy herbs at the fade out.

This is a fresh rye palate of flavors yet seemingly paradoxically young and vigorous and aged, mature, and regal at the same time. How do they do it?  If I hadn't had the William Larue Weller 2011 last week I would have said this was the most flavor density I had ever experienced in a spirit.

(sample provided by my friend Tim Read, creator of the amazing blog http://www.scotchandicecream.com/ )

*****

Powerful Rye put me in the mind of Old Potrero - a rye with a powerfully herbal spicy rye kick. So I queued up a dram and sipped them head to head.  It's not a fair fight as Old Potrero is diluted to 45% abv, and doesn't sport an age statement.  I don't know how old Old Potrero is , but the fact that it is issued in uniquely labelled "Essays" - as indicated in labels on the neck - indicate that it is a small batch product of a single distillation run, rather than a vatting of different ages.  Furthermore Old Potrero is, unusually for an American rye, made from 100% rye and malted rye at that.  Old Potrero is a much gentler flavor on entry, sweet and clean and vegetal with a spicy kick that builds up over repeated sipping.  The rich vegetal flavor is fresh and cleanly plant-like.  Thomas H. Handy is redolent of other flavors - with burnt sugar, cinnamon spice, cherry and other fruits and an almost smoky richness overlaying the powerful vegetal note.  It's a far more complicated and richly flavored brew of sensations.  Ultimately Handy is in a totally different league from a flavor density perspective.  It's truly an incredibly dense flavored spirit.  Amazing.  Old Potrero's clean clear vegetal note seems a signature of it's 100% rye mash bill.  However Handy's traditional mash bill is utilized to full effect with incredible complexity and intensity of flavor that delights and mystifies.  How, indeed, does Buffalo Trace achieve such remarkable intensity of flavor in this 6 year old Rye?

Monday, June 18, 2012

William Larue Weller 2011 - The General


Do you believe in love at first sight? Yeah, me neither. But I believe in love at first kiss and I just had that experience with tasting William Larue Weller from the 2011 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For some tragic reason I skipped the hype and mania surrounding the annual Autumn releases of these limited edition bourbons. How could I have been so foolish?

I can't do a better job of telling the story of Weller than this paragraph from the excellent whisky blog "The Casks":

"The name Weller is as intertwined and as important a name as you will find in the history of American whiskey. Daniel Weller was operating a still near Bardstown, KY as early as 1800. His son Samuel followed in his father’s footsteps, and his son, William LaRue Weller started making and selling whiskey in 1849. W.L.Weller is generally credited for being the father of wheated whisky, that is, substituting wheat for rye in the mashbill, and was a strong proponent of aging whisky for longer periods of time. He was both a salesman and an educator, and whiskey with his name on it was always of reliably high quality. Weller’s company was eventually purchased by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle under whose guidance the relationship with the Stitzel Brothers and their distillery began. After weathering the doldrums of Prohibition, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery officially opened in 1935. Today, the Weller name lives on with the brand being owned by Buffalo Trace. Their range includes the 90 proof W.L. Weller Special Reserve, the 107 proof “Antique”, the 12 Year Old, and this eponymous release which is part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection."

"The 2011 William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon was distilled from a mashbill of Kentucky corn, North Dakota wheat, and North Dakota malted barley and matured in new American oak (of course) for 12 years and 11 months. It was bottled un-cut and un-filtered from a selection of 45 barrels."
http://thecasks.com/2012/04/21/william-larue-weller-kentucky-straight-bourbon-whiskey-2011-buffalo-trace-antique-collection-review/

Data source for these specs from the distiller:
http://greatbourbon.com/docs/WLWeller.pdf

William Larue Weller 2011 66.75% abv


Color: dark amber bronze with copper orange glints

Nose: Startlingly, chocolate. Then deep dank rich black prunes, stewed peach and black raisin compote with fragrant sawn oak incense.

A dazzling rich explosion of flavor with a dense syrupy mouth feel: sandalwood perfumed oak and rich orange citrus peach toffee sweet literally explode onto the palate at opening then immediately get huge and mouth filling at mid-palate joined by sweet rich pipe tobacco. Cowboy saddle leather appears at the turn, and a distinct note of freshly ground dark roasted coffee beans. Huge tannic walnut skin bitterness emerges at the finish. Dark as a brother's war, rich as the Kentucky bluegrass and as august and tough as an aged Civil War general. This Bourbon owns its hype. This is just astounding bourbon. Over oaked to be sure, but I wouldn't change a thing.

In discussions with serious bourbon people I have learned that this 2011 version is less oaked than a number of other years. Tim Read, the whisky blogger who writes the superb meditations known as www.scotchandicecream.com,  tweeted "WLW is all about big oak. 2010 is a lumberyard. 2011 was relaxed in comparison. 09 more so.". These observations are also reflected in Tim's blog post on the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  (Tim also provided the sample. Thanks, Tim!) I'll endeavor to get a hold of samples of the earlier expressions, if possible - and definitely get the new expressions as they come out. Meanwhile, this first experience was a dazzling and mind opening experience. Not only was this 2011 WLW bigger and more densely flavored than any other bourbon I have ever tried. It is bigger and more densely flavored than just about any other spirit of any kind that I have ever tried. The flavor signature isn't the last word in balance - but it is so magnificently BIG that I fairly swoon with love. Love at first kiss.

*****

The very definition of five stars.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A note to my father...

Left to right: the author, his father, Robert, his sister, Rhea, and his son, Ben.
I was raised by my father, Robert. My mother, Baila, died of cancer a few days after my 8th birthday and my sister, Rhea, six years older than I graduated from high school within a couple of years and left for college. My father taught me to cook, and to use tools to build. He taught me to love art and culture and history and beautiful things. My father taught me to love beauty. He also taught me to love science and learning and to put things to empirical test. That's because my father is a scientist.

My father is a technically a medical doctor, and actively saw patients through his professional life - but that was always on the side of his first love: research. He researched diabetes, but much of his life was dominated by researching medical methods themselves - how hospitals run and how this impacted the HMO model. He started doing this research in the 1960s with the father of the HMO concept itself: Sidney Garfield; the man who invented the concept of opt-in prepaid health care on the LA Aqueduct and Grand Coolee dam projects in the 1930s.

Robert Feldman, MD and Sidney Garfield, MD in 1972
My father brought this love of experimentation into the home and into our culinary life together. We made pickles in the refrigerator, cooked together inventions of our own. These were often amalgams of traditional Eastern European Jewish foods that my father learned from his father, Jacob. Jacob's wife, Rose had become sick and was in a hospital for years when my father was a boy. My father lived and cooked with his father - without a mother as I did.

My father married a woman (my mother) who became an artist and they built a beautiful home in the Berkeley, CA hills. They filled it with luminous art and beautiful rugs and plants. They traveled and explored, both physically and intellectually, the cultures of the world. Later, my father and I continued this sense of aesthetics and appreciation. We had trips to France, to Italy, to Spain and Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and more. We went to cathedrals and monasteries, castles and museums. We went on the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela. Along the way we had fantastic food, wine and spirits. We ate at 3 star restaurants on occasion. At home we participated in the Berkeley born nouvelle cuisine revolution. I was taken to Alice Waters' restaurant and given a salad of baby greens and warm goat cheese while still an adolescent - a formative experience.

My father and I collected together. We purchased, loved, and shared Persian rugs, Japanese Imari porcelains, and coins. Coins and medals, numismatic lore and passionate shared study, research, investment and labor dominated years of our time. Another pathway into cultural appreciation and tangible connection with the wider world.

Thanks, Dad. You have taught me love and lust for life! On this Father's Day I raise my glass to you with the finest drams. You took the raw new make that was me and aged it lovingly in a series of well seasoned casks and made of me a spirit worth drinking.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dalmore 15 is a deeply sherried delight.

Dalmore is one of those venerable 19th century distilleries that developed a marketing aura and has positioned itself as able to sell multi-kilobuck malts. For example the recently launched "constellation" series of multiply wood finished single cask offerings with distillation dates from 1964 to 1992 are priced from US $3,233 to $32,333 per bottle. That kind of thing, personally, makes me a little sick to my stomach. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Dalmore expressions that regular people can drink. Recently The Scotch Noob reviewed several: the 12, 15, and NAS Gran Reserva. The 15, in particular, was found to be good and a good value:

"The 15 is good. As I’d hoped, its sherry fruitiness was muted in the same way that 18+ sherried malts are – leathery and resiny with some umami notes bordering on meaty. Think old leather furniture and orange-scented upholstery cleaner. The house characteristic orange was in force, but as a contributing player and not the main event. This 15 year-old tastes to me like a much more accomplished 17- or 18 year-old sherry finish"
http://scotchnoob.com/2012/04/19/the-dalmore-15-year/

Some of the crafting and fancy barrel management that pulled this off is described on Dalmore's own web site:

" For this Dalmore, 13 years in American Bourbon Casks and then a year split between Matusalem, Apostoles and Amoroso sherry butts from Jerez de la Frontera have been elemental. And to achieve this extra layer of complexity, we marry these liquids together in an upstanding sherry butt for one final year. The redolence of these vessels delivers the perfect balance between spirit, wood and maturity."
http://www.thedalmore.com/the-distillery/our-collection/the-15.aspx

That's some fancy barrel management and some serious apparent concern about the specific sherry flavors. Part of the Scotch Noob's appreciation is the value equation. Not discounted currently, Dalmore 15 is currently running $65-$85 in the NY metro area. This is around what, say, Glendronach 15 runs around here. That's only interesting if it stands up to Glendronach. I was half expecting this to be a bit overblown - but I took the Scotch Noob's recommendation and tried it.

Dalmore 15 40% abv


Color: Rich copper tinted medium amber

Nose: A rich and noble sherried whisky aroma: dried bitter orange slices, sandalwood incense, jammy figs wrapped in dry parma ham, nuts, and a bit of tanned leather like nice men's gloves. Reminiscent of Glendronach - high praise.

Entry: surprisingly dry on entry but loaded with flavor: old oak and walnut furniture lead off, with a fairly rich oily mouth feel. Then citrus, fig, prune and black raisin fruits with a trace of rancio, leather and black pepper bloom at mid-palate. A vinous dark sherry note warms the turn to the finish for a moment. Then walnuts and walnut skin tannins and bracing bitter flavors dominate the lovely warm finish which isn't particularly lingering but isn't abrupt either. There's a feeling of butteriness - or prochutto fat - in the finish along with the nut skins and old sherry flavors that's quite nice.

A few drops of water accentuates the ham meatiness in the nose. After a few minutes some traces of stone fruit and more spiced incense old oak furniture smells too.

The water takes the august majesty down a notch and thins the mouth feel a bit but adds a bit of sweetness and light. Spicy heat joins the dark rich medley of flavor elements - and a nice buttery note. Ultimately I preferred it neat but, despite the low 40% abv the flavor density is rich enough to add a bit of water.

All in all a lovely sherry bomb quite reminiscent of Glendronach 15, so it seemed. So, characteristically I set it up in a head to head against Glendronach 15 OB 40% abv which was moderately sherried and Glendronach 18yo 1993/2011 (54.9%, OB, Oloroso Sherry Butt 1, 509 bts) which was rich and syrupy and intense. The Dalmore 15 wasn't the massive sherry bomb the Glendronach 18 was, but the flavor signature was much closer to it than it was to the comparatively aged and priced Glendronach 15. Scotch Noob's words came back to me: "This 15 year-old tastes to me like a much more accomplished 17- or 18 year-old sherry finish". Indeed. He had nailed it. Dalmore 15 tastes more like an 18 than a 15. It has the flavor signature of a bigger, older, sherry bomb.

Dalmore 15 should take its place along side the Macallan and Glenfarclas and Glendronach as a real world non-cask strength everyday sherried dram with a lovely complexity and spin all its own. This is eye opening value for the price and quality in absolute terms. High 4 stars - almost 5:

****

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jura Prophecy melds frangrant sweet with heat and peat.













Jura is the island jutting out like a peninsula between the Scottish mainland and the island of Islay.  It has a tiny population of 200 souls.  Whisky distillation, which had ceased at the turn of the 20th century, was resurrected in 1963 to provide an economic focus for the island.  This account and the development of the bottlings is admirably described on Malt Madness: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/jura.html
Gal Granov recently posted a lovely and loving depiction and travelogue of his experience visiting the distillery at Jura:
http://whiskyisrael.co.il/2012/05/10/visiting-isle-of-jura-distillerypart-i-of-ii/

Today I'll be tasting a sample of Jura Prophecy obtained from Master of Malt.  Prophecy is the top of the line of the regular editions.  It is a mature and heavily peated expression (as opposed to the more lightly peated "Superstition" expression).  Jura's "house" flavor signature, particularly as seen in the 10 and 16 year expressions is sweet with citrus and fruit flavors and a bit of the sea.  I'll be curious to see how peat sits with that flavor signature.

So, what's up with the name "Prophecy"?

From the Jura web site:
"In the early 1700’s the Campbells of Jura evicted a wise old seer. Bristling with resentment, she prophesised that the last Campbell to leave the island would be one-eyed with his belongings carried in a cart drawn by a lone white horse. Over time the story became legend and the prophecy drifted from memory. Until 1938, when Charles Campbell, blind in one eye from the Great War, fell on hard times and led his white horse to the old pier for the last time."
http://www.isleofjura.com/distillery/classic-bottlings/prophecy.aspx

Truth?  Fiction?  Who cares?  It's fun.

Some more pertinent information about this expression is found on Ruben's WhiskyNotes (There's a lively debate about caramel color in the comments following the post):

"It’s a mixture of casks with different peat levels and peat styles, finished off by a 1989 oloroso sherry butt from Gonzalez Byass. It’s non-chill-filtered but coloured with caramel, I’m afraid."
http://www.whiskynotes.be/2009/jura/jura-prophecy/


Jura Prophecy 46%


Color: coppery amber.

Nose: Fruity notes (wine gums), citrus, pear, putty, honeyed malt, slight iodine, and distant smoke. Peat and fruity eaters all over this nose. Literally makes me drool.

Entry with a lovely light honeyed toffee sweetness and a whiff of roses. The mouth feel is creamy and silky. The mid-palate blooms with some spice heat (I think this is the cinnamon many reviewers speak of), well-done stewed peaches and caramel and a bit of the sea. Then at the turn an ash note appears and you sense the peat. This peaty flavor builds as you sip, growing from a mild, scarcely noticeable influence to a clear tar and ash peat flavor profile.

A drop of water makes the nose a tad less intense but works to make the jammy sweetness hold into mid-palate and it also makes the heat and peat tar flavors pop. Sweet then heat then tar and ash - I like it.

I was just rocking to a very similar flavor profile last week with Amrut Fusion. So I poured a dram of Fusion and put them head to head.  Prophecy has more fruits in the nose and more citrus notes in the peachy mid-palate.  Amrut's floral entry is comparably sweet and floral, but more focused on vanilla.  Amrut also has a cardamom note and more burn in the finish. Amrut has greater amplitude (more vivid flavors, ultimately).  Jura has a more refined and complex palate range, with less of the rough edges.  Ultimately, despite the many differences in specific tasting points the common ground of sweet floral and toffee entry followed by citrus in the mid-palate, with heat, and peat notes on the back end that were initially hiding is striking. The sweet, then heat, then peat arc is a lovely and unusual progression that they share.

Bottom line Jura Prophecy is delicious. Thanks for bottling at 46% and not chill filtering. This is a clear success.

****

Like Fusion - high 4 star territory.  If I had to choose one over the other I would pick Prophecy by a whisker.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Glenrothes 1995



This very lovely bottle of Glenrothes 1995 (15 or 16 years old depending on you choose to interpret the label) was a gift from Danielle of Exposure (thanks, Danielle). I wasn't able to make the Cocktail World event where she was pouring the new Glenrothes expressions (it was on Mother's Day for heaven's sake). Very kindly she sent me this bottle and the Suntory samples for review.  In the context of my tastings of the Select Reserve, 1998, and 1985 expressions last week, the 1995 has emerged as something of a tie breaker for me.   While the Select Reserve had aspects of the august and elegant presentation that typifies the Glenrothes flavor profile as well as some terrific youthful fruit basket notes, it was marred by a young rough aspect and some off flavors.  The 1985 was glorious with dried fruits and old books.  The 1998 had some lovely aspects of both but had an acidity and some admittedly extremely subtle sulfur notes that affected my enjoyment.  I'm not normally particularly sensitive to sulfur notes, but in this case the combination with the acidity took the 1998 from apricot/citrus into balsamic which didn't ruin the show but took things down a notch for me.  The 1979 expression I drank in the 90s was quite good, but not an overwhelming success like the 1985 is.  Thus, if the 1995 was a lovely dram I would actively seek out I would come away with the impression that Glenrothes was a brand to pursue.  If it was a disappointment then the glory of the 1985 might appear as more of a fluke and I might be tempted to look elsewhere in the future. 

As it turns out, I had an extremely hard time with this review, perhaps as a result of the pressure latent in this context.  I ended up drinking about 1/3rd of the bottle over the course of the entire week (yes, I know, whisky blogging is a brutal business).  My impressions seemed to veer wildly.  In some tasting sessions the 1995 the flavor profile bothered me.  In others it delighted me. 

Is Glenrothes Vintage 1995 a 16 year old or a 15 year old?  I don't know.  The big green square says "Distilled in 1995 Bottled in 2011" which sounds like 16 years.  The handwritten dates say "checked" October 26, 1995 and "approved" September 6, 2010 which sounds like just under 15 years.  It's not clear from the label.  Doesn't particularly matter to me - but it's an interesting question for a bar tender or brand ambassador.

Glenrothes 1995 43% abv


Color: very light amber with abundant gold tones.  With a splash of water it becomes rich old gold.

Nose: vanilla, apricot, malted milk, touch of iodine, goji berries. There's also a distinctive sweet-sour acidic note that runs like a common thread through all of the vintage Glenrothes expressions. In the 1998 it had a balsamic aspect. Here and in the 1985 it turns up like dried apricots (more convincingly in the '85. In the '95 this note is little bit like wine.)  A bit of water smooths and sweetens the nose a bit, emphasizing honey and grain.

Entry is off-dry, yet with clear flavors of honeyed grain with a nice creaminess: a filigree of barleycorn, honeycomb, and apricot Danish pastry. There's some nice woody heat at mid-palate, with a waft of vanilla perfume, some red fruits, and old citrus glow. At the turn to the finish there is a relative decline in flavor density that almost escapes notice. The finish is medium-long with plenty of oak influence sandalwood spice and drying tannins. The slightly lean aspect of the middle comes off as elegant restraint, with a burst of spices balancing the sweet lacy opening and the robust wooded finish. I get the feeling that the creaminess would be enhanced and the mid-palate improved if they skipped the chill-filtering (like Glen Garioch). But this is a quibble, the flavor signature is quite enjoyable and remarkably similar to the 1979 16 year old version I enjoyed a decade and a half ago.

Adding several drops of water to another dram and allowing half an hour for full air and time for integration works a beguiling transformation. Sprightly flavor notes of Speyside fruit basket appear on the entry.  The apricot note takes on a lovely light lemon flavor  on the palate. Sweetness and creaminess is enhanced along with floral vanilla and caramel notes, producing a citrus and butterscotch effect. There are still red fruits in the mid-palate, and plenty of oak on the finish, coming off as a slightly bitter note after the sweeter opening before devolving into a lightly fruity and post-tannin squeaky afterglow. The bit of water fills in the flavor presentation, paradoxically making the whole thing a bit richer and fuller. This has become my preferred way of taking Glenrothes 1995.  Indeed, I'd go so far as saying that Glenrothes 1995 is a convincing delight when taken this way.


****

Self portrait in reflection from bottle shot at right
Creamy, sweet with beehive and grain flavors, with a mid-palate that tends towards and elegantly lean and dry profile and plenty of oak on the finish; this constellation of flavor elements is quite consistent across the line, making for a clear family resemblance. The vinous acid note shows as quince in the Select, Balsalmic vinegar in the 1998, apricot Danish in the 1995 and dried apricots in the 1985. The honeyed barley, fruits, elegant off-dry presentation, lean middle, and rich oak in the finish are all across the line. Water ups the vanilla and sweet. In a number of conversations I have found this Glenrothes flavor profile has a polarizing effect. Some folks don't like; others like it a great deal. I'm used to polarization like this in powerful flavor profiles, like peat monsters and sherry bombs, but not in fairly lightly sherried fruity Speyside dram. Yet it is so. For example Tim Read of Scotch And Ice Cream reported on Twitter that he hadn't found a Glenrothes expression he really loved, even after a fairly extensive exploration of the line. Gal Granov of Whisky Israel, by contrast, liked this expression a good deal, and the 1985 as well.  I suspect its the peculiar arrangement of the flavor signature with the acids that can read as sourness or as lovely fruits depending on how they are aligning.  In the end I'm coming down on the side of Gal here.  Glenrothes is nice stuff - particularly when it's mature and when it has aired for a good long period in the glass.  It takes aging very well in the wood and the older expressions have a noble quality.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Three expressions of Glenrothes ascend the ladder of age, wood, and august presence.


On a visit to my local liquor emporium (the magnificent jumble known as Park Avenue Liquors) I spied this lovely sample pack from Glenrothes, sporting 100ml mini bottles - a more generous portion than the 50ml miniature or 3cl sample bottles reviewers often use as samples.  They are the No Age Statement "Select Reserve", the vintage 1998 and the vintage 1985.  Priced in the mid $30s it wasn't a hard decision.

Glenrothes was founded in the Speyside town of Rothes in 1878 as part of the big late 19th century boom in distillery building. It didn't launch as a modern single malt brand until the early 1990s (most of it going into blends such as Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse). I have a bottle of Vintage 1979, bottled in 1994 (16 years) that @GlenrothesCarol (Carolina, the Glenrothes brand ambassador for Spain) told me was the first year. The labels for these "vintage year" offerings have what looks like a hand written label with signatures for "checked by" (and a date around the time of distillation) and one for "approved by" (and a date around the time of bottling - but sometimes well before). Johannes Van Den Heuvel has some fun with these labels in the distillery profile over at Malt Madness. Van Den Heuvel points out

"The labels of the OB's from the 1990's and early 2000's have printed signatures for the 'checked' and 'approved' dates on the label. This gives the impression that these are small batches, but in fact all the 'vintage' releases are massive 'vattings' of many different casks. And the dates themselves don't always make a lot of sense either. My 1987/2000 vintage was checked by one J. L. Stevens on 23/5/'87. That makes sense; I assume that was on (or around) the distillation date. But the fact that it was approved by someone who's name I can't read (R. H. Fenwick?) on 3-9-98 while the whisky was bottled in 2000 makes no sense at all...."
 
Funny, I recall being put out by that with my 1979 bottle that was checked on 3/8/79 and approved on 17*9*94, but bottled in "1995 Aged 16 years". This implies that the contents were checked on the order of a year before bottling because the 16 anniversary of distillation happened on August 3, 1995.  I was also a bit put out by the fact that the label appears handwritten but was clearly printed.  This appeared like trickery - although by now I've seen it so often (such as on most of my favorite bourbons, for example) that I no longer hold it against anyone.  Frankly I didn't really hold it against the 1979-1994 example, as the whisky in the bottle was rather good:  fairly dry, nicely wooded, with lovely dried fruits and a bit of leather.  Rather august - but somehow didn't tickle my monkey bone enough to buy another.  FYI, while we're on the subject the two vintage examples in this review are so labeled as well:  the 1985 vintage is checked 21/7/85 and approved 31/5/05 and "bottled 2005".  The 1998 vintage is checked 17/12/98 and approved 11/02/09 but "bottled 2010". 


Glenrothes Select Reserve 40% abv


Color: full gold

Nose: initially a bit harsh with some raw spirity, grainy onion notes, but after some air honey, quince, floral vanilla slight metallic note like nickel - but isn't bad and fades with time. After 15 minutes of air perfumey fruit basket aromas of green melon and pear show up lightly. It's a nice nose for the most part.

Sweet entry with cereal and malt sweetness. Pancakes with treacle. There are some sweet heathery floral grassy meadow notes up front too. The mid-palate falls a bit flat. There's a thinness in the mouth feel and flavor - a "grainey" quality, like a nice blend like Chivas, that I'm not used to with single malts.

At the turn to the finish there is a slight bitter note that feels of a piece with the midpalate thinness. There's spirit heat but not a lot of wood influence. All in all a nice pleasant young feeling malt with some hints and glimpses of really nice aromas and flavors. Sadly the good ones don't dominate. It's borderline between two and three stars.

**

Glenrothes Select v.s. JWBL
A word on value: Select Reserve is $36.99 at Shopper's Vineyard (as opposed to $52.99 for the 1998 Vintage expression). Johnny Walker Black Label is $33.99 there at the moment which suggest an immediate comparison. Head to head, JWBL has the slightly richer more neutral nose. There is less raw, grainy notes in the nose with JWBL. JWBL also has the sweeter and richer entry and more wood notes on the back end, with that slight kiss of peat. Furthermore JBWL drinks smoother and cooler, with less spirit heat at the same 40% abv. As a whole, I find JWBL a richer and better balanced dram for the money than Glenrothes Select Reserve. That being said, Glenrothes has clearer, more direct flavor signature. It has, as becomes clear while drinking this set of three, a Glenrothes flavor signature. This is clearly the intention. That being said, the financial gulf between this introductory expression and the first vintage expression isn't as wide as the difference in drinking enjoyment, in my opinion.

Glenrothes Select in glass

Glenrothes 1998 - 43% abv

bottled 2010 (12 years old)

Color: full gold with light amber tints

Nose: Olorosso sherry, estery green apple / green melon fruits, flints and matchsticks. Some acid, like a sweet dark balsamic vinegar and distant sandalwood

Entry: off dry with a lithe elegant feel. Rich dry sherry, prunes, some broth notes, muscular dark malt, then some smoky notes, rich old oak with walnut tannins on the finish.  The afterglow features some of the prunes and some sandalwood from the nose's finish.

There is sweetness here, jammy fruits - and the flavor signature of a lightly sherried malt (along with some of the sulfur notes).  It comes off as older and more mature than 12.  This particular expression has an acidity that I didn't love and I didn't recall from others I have tried.  I have a vintage 1995 on deck for the next review and I'm going to look at this issue in greater detail.  Watch my blog for a follow-up shortly on this topic.  As it stands, this is borderline 4 stars - which means I give it 3.  I can easily recommend it, but personally don't really love it.

***
($53 at Shopper's Vineyard)
Glenrothes 1998 in glass

Glenrothes 1985 43% abv

bottled 2005 (19 years old)

Color: light amber with rich old gold glints

Nose: Rich and august with musk, buckwheat, dried apricots, dried figs, and plenty of sandalwood perfumed oak. Further nosing shows a walnut nuttiness, some tanned leather, and old books. After 30 minutes or so dark sherry vinous aromas add to the mix. Lovely whisky showing its age aromas.

Entry is lean of body, off dry, and rich with spicy fig jam, preserved citrus, dry Parma ham, musky spices like mace, a hint of rancio, and plenty of old book leather.  The mouth feel is creamy.  Tannins at the end give a cleansing oak and walnut skins finish. Reminds me of the old flagon bottles of NAS Balvenie from the late 1980s (the one with the coat of arms and flags on a gold foil label): heavily wooded and tannic on top of rich fruits turned dry from age with leather and old books. Lovely stuff - richly flavored.

After about an hour it finally opens up. Honeyed, figs, rancio, leather. Old fino. It's become quite glorious. I imagine that if you had a full bottle and drank it over months then oxidation would take it to this state after less of a wait. It's worth pointing out that despite extra time in barrels with sherry this one doesn't have either the acidity or the sulfur noted in the 1998 expression.  This 1985 version is a really special treat: a walk into your Grandfather's library for a special dram.

*****
(a bit over $100 on line)

Through these three expressions there is a common thread: an elegant off-dry and august presence with a lightly sherried nature and excellent wood presence.  Glenrothes is a nice example of an old traditional style of Scotch whisky.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Amrut Fusion brings big buttery tropical sweet but sneaks in potent spice, peat, and heat

I've been in love with Amrut for a while.  Recently I had a great tasting of much of the Amrut line at Whisky Live NY.  Last weekend I reviewed Amrut Cask Strength and Amrut Cask Strength Peated and gave them five stars and four stars respectively.  However I've had an unopened bottle of Amrut Fusion sitting on the shelf for months now.  That had to end so I cracked it and have been dramming it all week.  What's special about Fusion; what makes it virtually unique in the whisky world, is that it is made with both Scottish peated malt and also Indian unpeated malt.  The combination of malts made on two continents and both peated and sweet was unique - at least, to my knowledge, until High West came out with Campfire (for that unique combination of US Rye and Scottish peated malt, See Tim Read's excellent post).  Combining peated and unpeated malts should make the peat more subtle and produce a sweeter mix.  Using Indian malt should add some more of the stunning Amrut spice scented flavor profile that it's hot tropical rapid maturation brings.

Of course Amrut is pretty special - not only because their single malts are delighting reviewers all over - but also because India is a land of adulterated rums being sold as whisky and Amrut is changing the paradigm.  Last week Canadian whisky blogger Jason Debly wrote a brilliant review of Fusion that highlights the Indian whisky market, some images from the advertising of those crazy rum adulterations, and what's special about Fusion.  Tasting notes of those adulterations (and Amrut's expressions, including Fusion) and also a great account of Amrut's Ashok Chockalingham's show is British whisky blogger Billy Abbott's great post about an Amrut Whisky Squad tasting dinner.  Just two days ago the Whisky Drinker blog posted news that John Distilleries, another Indian distiller was introducing a single malt. United Distilleries is also producing malts.  Clearly Amrut's success crafting single malts is beginning to shift things in Indian distilling.  The extraordinary flavor profile of Amrut's malts might influence things more widely in the whisky world as well.  I just noticed that Master of Malt described Amrut's Two Continents whisky with the following copy:


"Interesting this one -matured for part of its life in India, then shipped over to Europe for the final three years. An interesting experiment, and one which makes us wonder if the reverse might not be coming soon (whiskies being shipped from Scotland to India to undergo accelerated maturation). Couldn't call it 'Scotch Whisky' of course, but who'd give a monkeys' if you could buy spirit from some of Scotland's most iconic distilleries 'flash matured' for 3 years in India's sunny climes? Just a thought."
http://www.masterofmalt.com/whiskies/amrut/amrut-two-continents-whisky/

So, Amrut is, strikingly, making a dramatic impact all over the whisky world far beyond India's shores.  This innovative spirit is well represented in Fusion's dramatically unconventional mash bill.


So, how does Amrut Fusion taste?  Here are my tasting notes, after several days of tasting:

Amrut Fusion 50% abv


Color: Dark gold / light amber with olive tints (Amrut color)

Nose: Spirity sweet heat then dust, buttered toffee, creme broulle, nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom and a little bitter orange.  It's a rich and inviting nose.  Curiously missing is a sense of the peat.

Entry is toffee sweet with Amrut's lovely characteristic honey, butter, toffee, ripe banana flavors.  The mid-palate expands big with spicy black pepper and a rich butterscotchy malt foundation.  The turn to the finish is dominated by oak, sandalwood incense, and some mild peat smoke which evolves on the palate to tar and ash flavors in the finish with tannins drying.

As you continue to sip Fusion the spiciness and peaty quality builds in intensity. Towards the end of the dram the fiery peat which began very subtly has become a powerful sensation and fiery peppery heat has your mouth buzzing as if you had eaten Vindaloo. This is pretty unusual. 50% abv (100 proof US) is strong - but doesn't fully explain this fiery spicy quality. It's something special about Amrut peated expressions.

A few drops of water ups the peppery and the dark in the nose. It also amps up the toffee banana sweetness in the entry and the mid-palate heat to Scotch Bonnet levels. The sweet and hot suits me. It's a lovely spicy dish with some subtle but very distinct sharp peat tar kick at the finish.

Bottom line, a stunning dram that manages to seem almost sweet and mild at first; but is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  It builds quietly, until later you realize that you are rocking to a monster flavor profile.  It has a few rough edges, and isn't what you'd call "elegant" or "refined" - but it's a stunning new flavor profile that succeeds brilliantly.

Borderline five stars.

****