Jun 132018
 

Hey, all.

Those sounds that have been keeping you up at night?  Yeah…probably me.  Sniffles, coughing, throat clearing.  My bad.  I’ve battled one cold after another for weeks now.  I imagine it has something to do with the fact that my wife works in a virtual petri dish of kid germs and somehow manages to smuggle home enough to share with me.  Lovely lass, ain’t she?

Anyway…lest ye think I’ve turned tail and run for the hills, I do have a couple of partially written reviews coming in the next wee while (as soon as I feel my senses are back where they need to be).  Look for some Elements of Islay (as requested), some more Cadenhead releases (again…just cause you asked) and a few peated gems to share the word on.

In other news, I’ve been shopping around my second novel and am 30k words deep into my third.  Blogging’s fun and all, but fiction is where my heart is.

But let’s not wait for reviews to trigger dialogue here.  I’m curious as to which distilleries – in this age of delusion and nearly unfathomable prices – you feel are still worth the investment of loyalty and income.  Share your thoughts.  Don’t be shy.

 Posted by at 9:30 am
May 032018
 

Cadenhead Invergordon 43 y.o.

48.3% abv

Score:  87/100

 

Grains were starting to worry me there for a bit.  I can’t say the fear has been entirely alleviated, but I’m starting to relax my guard a bit.  I was beginning to think that grain whisky was the new NAS.  You know…a cheap, mass-produced product that required little investment on the part of the big brands and would help ease pressure on maturing malt stocks.  Haig Club was a prime example of how bad it could get if we allowed the narrative to continue unchecked.

Fortunately, most of the grain whisky we’re seeing (almost entirely via the indie bottlers) is being showcased with a substantial amount of age behind it.  Usually at least two or three decades.  It’s this sweet spot (actually, I’d argue that maybe it’s more like the fourth or fifth decades) in which grain whisky really shines.  Kinda like the awkward and gawky little sister who finally emerges – chrysalis-like – from her teen years to be the princess her parents always knew she was.

Yet even with age statements that supercede my years (not by much anymore, sadly), I find grains largely miss the mark for me.  There is a lack of complexity that brings them more in line with mature Canadian whisky than any other category.  It serves to showcase just how important the malting process is to Scotch whisky.  Those myriad layers of flavour and aroma simply don’t develop the same when the distillers are using maize, wheat, rye or unmalted barley as their mashbill.  Not to say those can’t all be great in their own right, but examples of spectacular expressions are much more few and far between than in the single malt sphere.

This Invergordon from 1972 is a bit of a gem.  Not a pristine diamond, but a precious stone nevertheless.  There is a sparkling purity here that is easy to fall for.  And even more easy to become enamoured with?  The price.  $400, give or take.  For a four decade old dram, that is a steal.

Nose:  Soft-smoked caramel notes.  Toasted oak.  Crème Brulee.  Steamed milk.  Nougat.  Pine and eucalyptus.  Brioche.  Old notebooks.  Furniture polish.  Soft chocolate.

Palate:  A surprisingly vibrant palate.  Super-creamy and easygoing.  Fresh woods.  Raw almond notes all over this one.  Faint marmalade.  Hot cross buns.  Toasted marshmallow.  More on those warm toasty caramel aromas.  But ultimately…a little too woody.  That kinda negates what would have been a lovely finish.

Thoughts:  I like it.  A lot.  But it’s short term relationship kinda stuff.  Not a full blown love affair.

 

 – Image & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 11:47 am
May 012018
 

Laphroaig 25 y.o. Cask Strength 2015

46.8% abv

Score:  91.5/100

 

It’s always a treat returning to this wizened old granddad of the Islay family.  I’ve tasted this expression going back to 2008 and every year is a balancing act between restraint and indulgence.  Part of me itches to pop the cork with a couple of mates and not stop until we reach the bottom.  Another part of me recognizes how special the malt is and keeps my indulgent side at bay.  A true Jeckyll and Hyde show.

Yes, of course there have been ups and downs in this run of 25s, but there is not one I haven’t loved and savoured along the way.  As you’d expect, soft and restrained smoky tones smash head-on into a melange of gentle fruits that run the gambit from juicy orange and lime to soft melon and pseudo-tropical trappings.  The resulting spirit is never short of delicious and more often than not hits the spectacular mark.  Campbell and co. at Laphroaig know what they’re doing when it comes to ensuring the more mature stocks are kept tiptop and the resultant vattings are consistently excellent.

As for the 2015?  Beauty.  The 2016 is better, but it’s nothing more than shades and nuances.  If you can afford the sticker price (high, I know), it’s well worth securing a bottle.  At the very least hit up your local whisky bar (if such exists wherever you may be) and sip a dram.  You’ll not be disappointed.

Nose:  Soft and beautiful.  Driven by soft fruits – almost tropical – and very clean white smoke (by that I mean not black, dirty, oily smoke).  Creamy and threaded through with oily vanilla bean.  Slightly minerally.  A little grilled pineapple (brilliant caramelized sugar notes) and charred orange peel.  Black Wine Gums.  Faint lime notes.  Rubber band and fabric bandages.  Give it time in the glass for the smoke to grow.

Palate:  Almost tropical again, and an incredibly bold and lively delivery.  Rich and gorgeous.  Some tannins do grow toward the back end though.  Surprisingly jammy and gooey.  Rubber and char notes.  Great soft confusion of flavors (hinting at good integration/complexity).  Slightly more vegetal here.  Some grapefruit too.  Gorgeous development.

Thoughts:  I think we’ve said it all, haven’t we?

 

 – Image & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 12:16 am
Apr 172018
 

Highland Park Full Volume

47.2% abv

Score:  87/100

 

The Blasda of the Orkeys.  Had to be said.

Malts like this to, to me, are kinda like CCR touring without Fogerty.  Or the Doors continuing after Jim Morrison died.  You may still be trading off a well-established brand, but ultimately you’re not really giving fans what they want.

Highland Park without sherry is neat, but it’s not Highland Park.  Just as Blasda was a cool as hell Ardbeg (and, contrary to what you may have heard, very good), but let’s face it…it was just barely an Ardbeg.  Full volume is a bourbon cask-driven version of our Orkney darling, rich in soft vanilla, clean spice and firm oak, but lacking in the oomphy, gooey dried fruits that work to enhance that smoke and slightly peaty tang.  It is decent enough malt to be sure (and the price point is just over half of what the regular 18 is), but I probably wouldn’t reach for this one very often.

And dear lord, that packaging.  Bad.  So bad.

I’ll stick with my HPs with some age and sass to them.

Nose:  Vanilla and very clean smoke.  Homemade fruit salad.  Pepper and ginger.  Orange and mixed berry scones.  A touch of artificial cherry. More orange.  Peppered custard.

Palate:  Smoke.  New tooth picks.  Opening a fresh ream of paper.  Faint white pepper.  Overbaked pie crust.  A lot of fruit, but there’s a slightly too strong oak thread running interference.  Good mouthfeel.  Good arrival.  Then…it’s kinda downhill.

Thoughts:  Not bad, but rather pointless.

 

– Image & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:49 pm
Apr 082018
 

Highland Park Fire

45.2% abv

Score:  80/100

 

One of two in this mini-series from Highland Park (I think this one came out second, actually.  We’re probably doing this backwards, but oh well).  The Fire Edition is a 15 year old malt finished in refill port wine-seasoned casks.  I have no clue what that actually means.  Same concept as sherry-seasoned barrels, I assume.  So…are these full pipes then, or maybe just hoggies?  No clue.  Anyway…

Nose:  Slightly muddled and barnyard-y.  Nutty.  A touch of rubber and some peat, of course.  Suede.  Faint coffee.  Damp hay.  Pepper and chili.  Cinnamon.  Faintly floral (dead, faint potpourri).  And an organic earthiness that isn’t entirely pleasant.

Palate:  Earthy and dirty.  Slightly cardboard too (almost cork taint-ish).  Orange.  Herbal and kinda leathery.  There’s a touch of smoke and an organic peatiness, but its all rather restrained.  A drying sensation at the back end (some tannins from the port, I imagine).

Thoughts:  Ultimately…not awesome and rather boring.  I expected bigger and bolder.  

 

Highland Park Ice

53.9% abv

Score:  81.5/100

 

And the other in the series.  Ice was a 17 year old HP composed from ‘rebuilt first fill bourbon’ casks.  Ummm…aren’t they all?  Or is they again just referring to inserting a few staves in the ‘bebuild’ and being able to call it a hogshead.  No matter.  More importantly, I suppose, these have been capped with virgin oak heads.  That should bring some spice and fat vanillins, no?

Nose:  Definitely noses as the fruitier of the two.  Quite some eucalyptus.  Peppered melons.  Floral notes (heathery).  With a touch a bubblegum.  Marzipan.  Cinnamon cookies.  Faint whiffs of peat and a soft smokiness.

Palate:  Vibrant – definitely moreso than Fire – but sharp and tangy.  Ginger.  Almost wine-y (ironic, considering Fire was the port-seasoned malt).  Lemon pepper.  More peat here.  Citrus.  An almond sweetness.

Thoughts:  Meh.  I do like it better of the two, but it’s still just okay.

 

Wrapping up:  Over-packaged.  Over-priced.  Over-promised.  Under-delivered.  Anyone else over Highland Park’s Viking obsession?  Once one of my unquestionable favorite distilleries has become a rather sad triumph of style over substance.  I’ll stick with the 12 year old.  It’s the only one in the range that offers any value (seeing as the 18 is now $220, the 21 about $350, the 25 running at almost $800 and the 30…fug.)

 

 – Image & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:24 am
Mar 012018
 

Highland Park Magnus

40% abv

Score:  78/100

 

You don’t come here for justification of the philosophies that support NAS whiskies.  And that’s good.  ‘Cause you wouldn’t find it.  However…if we have to have NAS whiskies, let Highland Park Magnus be an example to all.

Magnus is the latest cutesy HP to hit our shores (nosing out Full Volume by just a short bit).  It arrived with little fanfare, but quickly garnered a bit of a rumbling in the malt spheres.  Not because it was a spectacular dram (it’s not), nor because it was a bad dram (it’s not that either).  But because it was much more than decent and the price point was enough to have us all scratching our heads in bewilderment.  Is this the same brand that nearly doubled the price of the iconic 18 year old over the last few years?  Magnus landed and almost immediately hit LTO, retailing at about $35.  Even at full retail it’s rarely over $45.

While I have trouble getting excited over most young malts like this, I can’t help but be pleasantly surprised at the product’s placement.  It immediately ratcheted up my openmindedness and tolerance for imperfections.  Now this all seems like a case of ‘damning with faint praise’, but trust…at this sort of price it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed.  It’s young, aggressive and almost certainly recognizable as Highland Park.  Even a modicum of malt experience should be enough to ensure the buyer knows what they’re getting into when the product lacks an age statement and has a sticker price that rubs shoulders with the lower tiers of Johnnie Walker.

A reluctant ‘well done, Highland Park’.  I’m still not on board with NAS (and never will be), but I get what you did here.

At the end of the day, though, if we’re going to call NAS whiskies a necessary evil (which I won’t), then at least this is the way to do it.  Dump it at the bottom of your range at an entry-level price point.

Nose:  Definitely a young’un.  Feisty and bearing all the hallmarks of what our beloved Iain MacArthur (he of Lagavulin fame) often refers to as ‘baby whisky’.  Malty and honeyed.  Not surprisingly, rather floral.  And sorta creamy.  Little bit of pepper.  Little bit of ginger.  Just a faint earthiness that hints at the pedigree.

Palate:  Now here’s where things get a bit rockier.  Some lemon curd.  A touch of rubber.  Some peat.  Drying citrus pith (but not overly citric in terms of flavor).  A tad minerally (like sucking on a pebble.  More ginger and pepper.  Surprisingly oaky back end.  And something akin to dry grape skins.

Thoughts:  All told?  This is too young.  BUT…and it’s a big but (hush up with the bad jokes)…for this price point I’m okay with it.  Outprices many blends, and definitely more interesting than most too.  Definitely needs some time to mellow in the glass.

 

 – Image and words:  Curt

 

 

 Posted by at 8:20 pm
Feb 182018
 

Arran James MacTaggart 10th Anniversary Edition

54.2% abv

Score:  87/100

 

Just a couple weeks back I walked the club through a range of ten single cask Arran releases that were all bottled exclusively for Kensington Wine Market.  Ten cask strength beauties ranging from seven years to two full decades of age.  Nary a bad drop in the lot.  I was already a fan of this wee island distillery, but this event cemented things to an even greater degree.

At it’s core it comes down to three basic elements:  1) Arran has a clean and estery base spirit coming off the stills that is cut just right.  2) The brand’s wood policy is excellent.  3) The talents at pulling together barrels for vatting are immense.  The sum of these pieces is a beautifully cohesive whole.  And what it ultimately leaves us is a rich portfolio of Arran malts that are always fun to sit down to and rarely leave me anything but impressed.

This particular expression just hit our shelves in Calgary a couple weeks back.  It’s a ten year old malt, composed as an homage to Master Distiller James MacTaggart, who’s been plying his craft at Arran in this coveted role for…yep…ten years.  A nice little tribute to a gent who I understand is an absolute gen of a human.  Nice to see these things in our jaded age.

As for the malt…clean and lovely.  Broadly appealing, I’d imagine and infinitely drinkable.  Almost a ‘session malt’ in my humble opinion, if maybe a tad too sweet for my own personal tastes.  But, hey…that’s just me.  My own personal leanings shouldn’t color what, ultimately, should be as objective a review as we can fathom.  The whisky is well-composed and without a trace of off-key notes.  Well worth a tip.  And the price is right for a cask strength beastie like this: ~$115.

Nose:  Clean and custardy.  White chocolate and sprinkles of ginger.  Poached pear.  Orange and cherry.  Cinnamon.  A slight popcorn note (maybe just the strong influence of ex-bourbon barrels bringing a corn-iness?).  Beignets with a dusting of powdered sugar.  Toasted oats.  White tea.  In short…soft fruits and soft white baking aromas.

Palate:  Orange.  Clean oak notes.  A lot of bourbon influence seeping through here.  I can only assume some very active barrels in the mix.  Plenty of spice.  Ginger and chili.  Some pepper.  Lots of syrupy sweetness.  Underripe Bartlett pears on the finish.

Thoughts:  Clean and easy-drinking.  Uber-sweet.  The ice wine of malt whisky (or should that appellation be reserved for Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or?)

 

 – Image & words:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Feb 162018
 

Lagavulin 12 y.o. (2015)

56.8% abv

Score:  90.5/100

 

Just realized how few of the Lag 12 CS releases we’ve actually looked at here on ATW and kinda feeling a bit of shame right now.  This is definitely a release worth following year upon year.  Buying it, however, has gotten harder and harder.  Not for lack of availability, but because of sky high pricing locally.  Over the past couple of years we’ve gone from about $120 up to nearly $180.  Ouch.

But old man grumblings aside (“back in my day, we could buy Lagavulin 12 for…”) this is a really good malt.  Some of the 12s have seemed a little thin in recent years, almost one-trick-ponies in a sense.  This 2015 limited release, however, has a little more to it than initially meets the eye.  It needs a bit of time to develop in the glass, but allowing the clock to tick away long enough for the fruits and soft vanilla notes to come forth is well worth it.

I know there has been mention for a couple years now of declining quality of Lagavulin (especially as it relates to the 16 year old), but as I’ve said before, I haven’t really bought into that camp.  The 12 year old annual outturn merits a slightly different narrative, however, in that is batch-released and maybe isn’t targeted for the same sort of consistency the 16 is.  Ergo, a bit of a game of chance with each successive release.  So be it.  The quality is fairly consistently high, if not consistent in exact profile.

This is the most recent of the 12s I’ve tried.  Now let’s see if I can’t get my hands on the more recent ones (and maybe a couple older ones too).

Nose:  Warm rubber.  Dry earth.  Wet smoke.  Oily vanilla.  Red, black and green ju-jubes.  Citrus.  Brine.  A whiff of red berries.  A touch of orange zest.  Key lime pie.  An over-torched crème brulee.

Palate:  Over-toasted notes.  Salt licorice.  Oversteeped Lapsang Souchong tea.  Fisherman’s Friend cough drops.  Boiled greens.  Lemon.  Rather herbaceous as it develops.  Granny Smith apple skins.  Cinnamon-flavoured tooth picks.  Earthy peat and waves of smoke go without saying.

Thoughts:  Juicier than expected.  Multi-dimensional.  Nice smashing together of fruit and phenols.

 

 – Image and words:  Curt

 Posted by at 9:30 am
Feb 152018
 

Compass Box Phenomenology

46% abv

Score:  88.5/100

 

Held to impossible standards, maybe.  Such is the esteem John Glaser has written himself into.  Even the least of the Compass Box releases stands head and shoulders taller than any comparable whiskies on the market.  Glaser has done amazing things for the world of blending, especially as it relates to the world of blended malts.

A visit to the Compass Box website tells us that “phenomenology is a school of thought in psychology that focuses on phenomena or the experiences we get from our senses.”  Okay.  Leave no stone unturned in your search for intelligent and intellectual marketing.  This has always been a forte of the company that has brought us the Lost Blend, Enlightenment and Hedonism.  Tie that to packaging that shames nearly everyone else in the industry (excepting maybe Ardbeg) and whiskies that consistently hit harmonious heights that others merely gawk at and it’s no wonder Compass Box is such an industry darling.

In keeping with their stance on transparency in whisky, the good folks at CB have kindly jotted down the recipe for Phenomenology for us (on their website, of course, because to do so directly on the bottle itself is obviously such an overt threat to the dinosaurs in the SWA that we need to find workarounds to share the info).  Quite a concoction, this.  One you’d never peg blind, I’d wager.  72% Glenlossie, 24% Tamdhu, 2% Highland Park, 1% Talisker and 0.5% Caol Ila.  The latter three contributors – making up just 3.5% of the cumulative volume – bring so little heft to the final product that smoke is nothing but a suggestion.  It wouldn’t surprise me if most folks thought that was nothing more than barrel char notes.  I did.

So what do we think?  Well…it’s great, of course.  I’d expect no less.  Unfortunately it’s also almost forgettable.  Beautifully constructed, but just not enough personality to differentiate itself.  It’s like the models that grace the pages of the fashion magazines in your local grocery.  They’re all lovely, but they’re also interchangeable, nameless and soon forgotten.

Nose:  Clean grains.  Soft fruits.  Pear and underripe pineapple.  Fruit flan.  Vanilla.  Heavy cream.  White chocolate.  Just a hint of eucalyptus.  Syrup-heavy fruit cocktail.  A whiff of smoke somewhere in the far reaches.

Palate:  Firm, oaky backbone.  Crunchy apple and pear.  A touch of pineapple again, caramelized.  Lychee fruit.  Oily vanilla.  Lemon.  Alcohol-soaked angel food cake.  Decent finish that fades mostly on fruit and a slightly woody note.

Thoughts:  Quite lovely, all in.  Just maybe lacking a little of that oomph we expect from Mr. Glaser.  Especially at the $220 mark.  Left me wanting more.  Happy to drink it, but doubt I’d buy it at this price.  Compass Box aficionados should be well-pleased, though, I’d think.

 

 – Image and words:  Curt

 Posted by at 10:36 am