Single Cask Nation (http://singlecasknation.com/) is a private members-only independent bottling business which is part of the Jewish Whisky Company founded by Joshua Hatton and his partners Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Seth Klaskin about 3 years ago. Hatton is also a whisky blogger at http://www.jewmalt.com/ - a very impressive whisky blog. Johnstone-Yellin is also a whisky blogger at the perhaps even more impressive http://www.guidscotchdrink.com/
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of tasting the Single Cask Nation line with Josh Hatton (@jewmalt) and a group of very welcoming Jewish gentlemen in New Rochelle, NY. This wasn't my first time tasting Single Cask Nation's line. I had had parts of it at Whisky Live last year and at Single Cask Nation's second Whisky Jewbilee last autumn - their phenomenally impressive fledgling whisky show. This time, however, with a smaller room and more intense focus I finally got it. I had always wondered about single cask clubs like this. "Why bother"? You can buy single cask bottlings from independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead, Wymiss, and a host of others. Why do I need to join a club? But with Josh Hatton walking us through the selections I finally understood. It's not just that each selection is bottled at cask strength in a minimally fussed with way. (Although this is real difference from a lot of single cask bottlings you find from IBs.) It's that the selections each have a story - a particular angle on the flavors of that distillery. This has to do with the palate of the people doing the cask section. When you join a club like this you are putting a bet down on the palate of the people doing the cask selection. The idea is that the payoff will be interesting whiskies worth drinking with the risk involved in making selections substantially reduced by the pre-selection going in. This isn't just marketing talk. It involves people you can meet, talk to, drink with, and come to trust; a palate you respect. It's not, as is the cask of, say, Gordon and MacPhail, a series of contractual relationships that give them access to rare distilleries you cannot get via an OB bottling. Rather it's that only special casks that really impress the bottlers are chosen at all. It's a curatorial thing. You're joining someone on their whisky journey. Obviously this only works if the selections speak to you. Here I found each selection a cat and mouse game where there was a twist on some aspect of what you'd expect.
|Joshua Hatton is a compelling presenter.|
Arran 12 54.8% - Spanish oak pinot noir cask.
Color: pale amber
Nose: Lush sweet floral rose, vanilla, and turkish delight (fruity with powdered sugar on it). Rancio, figs, and sherry lurk beneath and some earthy loam and mineral dust beneath that. Layers and layers in this nose.
Palate: Sweet honeyed malt on the opening, with a rich beautiful expansion that brings out dense layers of nectarine fruit, fig jam, lemon candy, green apple, sherry, estery floral melon and yellow fruits, vidalia onion, sweet oak and sandalwood perfume. The finish is long and gently spicy with tannin heat. Layers and layers of fruit, wax, flowers, malt, tannins, heat, spice and oak. This is a 12 year old? This is an Arran? And extraordinary cask. It's more complex than any other Arran I've yet tasted.
With a drop of water things get more meaty on the nose, with animals and minerals more in evidence. But things open up with more richness on the palate. The mouth feel becomes more silky and the spice is enhanced. This is a rich mouth filling experience balanced between unctuous fruity florals and black pepper spices and dark toothy oak. This shows Arran squarely hitting mainstream Highland Scotch flavors (while, granted Arran is an Island malt), and achieving flavor density and balance in the process.
Glen Moray 7 58.8% Full maturation in a Fino sherry cask
Color: medium amber with coppery glints
Nose: Iodine, vanilla, oak. The lingering note of iodine speaks to the youth of this dram. If you let it air out a lot, it retreats and more mature aromas of figs and bourbony charred oak come to dominate.
Palate: sweet vanilla opening, sherry rancio fig expansion, turn has smoke and earth and rising oak. The finish brings back the young note of the nose with a touch of iodine, lingering oak tannins with some sandalwood oak perfume. Tartness and fruity sweetness vie. With a drop of water there are white grapes and strawberries on the opening. But the expansion is darker with complex spice, caramel, fig cake, and brown betty flavors in the mid-palate but the same drying finish. Big - nay, hugely flavored with elements of wine cask, old oak, and some of the iodiney flavors of youth too. This very young Speyside whisky turns most everything I thought I knew about maturation on its head. Normally only peated drams are bottled this young in carefully selected single cask bottlings. But this is not a young hot peat monster. It's a young complex, sweet wine drenched dram that alternately tastes young but then very mature indeed. Fino was an interesting choice here. Fino is dry. Indeed, this doesn't come off as sherried. It comes off as fruited and regal. Tasted blind I would be hopelessly confused. It doesn't really taste like any recognizable genre of Scotch.
BenRiach 17 53.2% abv. 2nd fill ex-Bourbon barrel
Color: pale gold
Nose: Putty, clay, peat, medicinal bandages, honey heathery meadow. Deeper there are herbal vegetal notes.
Palate - opens sweet and lemony and then glows in to rich earthy peat. This is superficially Caol Ila or even Port Ellen territory, but the lemony here waxes into a more fruity profile with air and time. There are layers of tart apple, pineapple, and quince and white melon underneath. The expansion shows a smooth, clean, earthy and warming peat. This is a mature Highland malt whisky that drinks like a good Islay malt of decades past. Tasted blind this would fool a lot of people. BenRiach is known for its peated expressions. Somehow this doesn't taste quite like any of them. It's hard to say what this tastes like. It's pretty unique.
Dalmore 12 46.1% 12 years in refill bourbon barrel then 10 months finish in PX Spanish oak cask.
Color: Medium amber with gold tints
Nose: A dry nose of sun baked earth, dried flowers, bresaola, alfalfa, and fragrant sawed yard aged oak belies the explosion that awaits.
Palate: a titanic blast of treacle sweet honeyed figs, fig cake, fig newtons and fig compote leap out a the opening and just get bigger through the expansion where notes of rancio, more black fruits and baked figs with port add up. At the turn the oak asserts - lovely old oak. The finish is long and sherried and oaken. Wonderful. This is 46%? This is a true cask strength experience. Why aren't all Dalmores this big?
A drop of water ups the air cured meats in the nose and adds an herbal undercurrent. But the palate is sweetened and enriched further. This is a lush, succulent, over-ripe candy-sweet dessert dram of high order. This is a 12 year old? An inspired cask selection.
Laphroaig 6 57.8%
Nose: Lemon, fresh grass (hay), putty, some fresh ocean air. With more air, some goats in the distance.
Palate: big soft gentle lemon-cream chiffon opening, with some pointed grassy sugars and fruity acid that adds zing and salivation. After the soft creamy opening there is a strong expansion with heat and peat that shows you this is cask strength. The peat is a clean earthy peat reminiscent of Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte. Earthy, and burning, but not the usual cigarette note encountered on young Laphroaigs. The turn is marked by the creamy lemony quality driving through the peat's gradual turn to ash. The finish is long and gentle, alternately malty, ashy, and slightly herbal.
|Josh challenged us to some blinds later on.|
Tasted blind I would guess Port Charlotte, Kilchoman, or perhaps a young Port Ellen. I would never guess Laphroaig. Unusually clean and pure and lemony for Laphroaig. A really special cask.
Water amps up the animal and clay and putty of the peat in the nose. But it adds a richness to the mouth feel and a honeyed aspect to the palate opening that are vital. With water it's more herbal and creamy on the opening, bigger and spicier on the expansion with a peat that has become more polite, but also richer, with more spice less burn, enriched by a delicate chamois animal skin flavor. Rich and ashy on the turn with a finish that lingers even longer on road tar, blowing ash and soft herbal bitters. A grand slam. With water this is drinking almost like a mid 1970s example of a young Port Ellen. Powerful, yet poignant.
Kilchoman 4 58.2% - Buffalo Trace ex-Bourbon barrel
Nose: coal tar, road dust, sweet cream, a hint of mint. Underneath there is some broth and some oregano.
Palate: explosive, sweet and instantly herbal with effusive licorice, verbena, and lemons. The lemons wax towards the end of the opening, becoming creamy and sweet with white chocolate and buttery graham cracker smores. The expansion to the mid-palate is big and prickly, with plenty of lemon acid, sweet cream, and a growing surge of peat heat that smolders with earth and clean anthracite. At the turn the peat is turning to clean ash and herbal bitters with lingering black licorice, lemon pith and rind and a soft creamy aspect still carrying through. This is classic Kilchoman - but with the intensity of cask strength.
Water brings up animal skins in the nose, like the Laphroaig before it. But here it's more about the herbals and licorice and coal tar on the nose. Water amps up the sweetness of the opening and adds viscosity to the mouth feel. This is rich, creamy, lemony, and aggressively peated stuff with real Port Charlotte PC7-like anthracite coal notes in the peat. This is high praise coming from me. Rich, cerial sweet and creamy on opening it rapidly transitions to peat monster burn and then turns to ash, lemons, and burning earth at the turn. The finish is long with ash, tar, licorice root and wormwood. Sophisticated and rather august. This drinks like one of the cask strength monsters of Islay - which, indeed, it is.
Conclusions: Impressive. Each selection epitomizes something and also plays a twist on the expectations you'd have for each distillery. A host of things jump out at me. Most of these whiskies drink way older than their chronological ages. Some, like the Glen Moray play with your head, exploding your notions about maturation. They also tend to belie the usual flavor profiles for their distilleries or even their regions. But the bottom line for me is that they are all good - really good. I'm sold. Indeed, I was sold. I became a Single Cask Nation member that night.
Part of the excitement with the Jewish Whisky Company are the special bottlings associated with Jewbilee. http://whiskyjewbilee.com/ Last year there was a 15 year old Heaven Hill single barrel bourbon that is extraordinary. You can see the bottle to the right in the image just above and in the image at top. We tasted it (and I have a bottle I bought at the Jewbilee last year). It's very special. Rather like you might expect an Elijah Craig 18 or 20 might be at full cask strength if they offered such a thing. There were 87 bottles and they sold out instantly. This year there is a special unique blend from High West that features rye whiskey vatted with an oddly flavorful oddity called "Light Whiskey". We got to taste it too (blind). I guessed it was a mature 6-8 year old rye finished in Sauternes cask. I was wrong. New society-only bottlings include a 2 year old single barrel rye from Cacoctin Creek in Virginia, as well as a 20 year old single barrel Scotch. There is an effusive creativity and an American perspective going on with Single Cask Nation, beyond just some good Scotch whisky palates.
Disclosure: Josh Hatton generously gave me samples of each whisky so that I could leisurely write formal tasting notes at home. However I purchased a membership on the spot with my own money.