Tag Archives: Scottish

Highland Park 25 Year Old

The Highland Park 25 Year Old has long been one of the highest-end official expressions available from this Orkney island distiller.

As I noted in my earlier review of the Highland Park 18 Year Old, this distillery has an unusual profile of rich sherry-cask notes and distinctive island peat. The additional aging here should further enhance the wood-derived characteristics, and attenuate the peat presence.

I recently had the chance to sample a 2005 edition bottling. This one was bottled at 50.7% ABV cask strength. The current bottling (48.1% ABV) sells for a rather steep for $900 CAD at the LCBO.

Here is how the 25 yo expression compares to other Highland Parks in my Meta-Critic database:

Highland Park 10yo: 8.52 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.66 ± 0.22 on 25 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.22 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 15yo Fire: 8.74 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 17yo Ice: 8.72 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.22 on 25 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.90 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.14 ± 0.23 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.14 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 40yo: 9.17 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.47 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park Valkyrie: 8.74 ± 0.22 on 6 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, it gets one of the highest scores for this family. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, and very fruity – including berries, banana, cantaloupe and grapes. Seems almost port-like in its characteristics. I’ve never gotten this much fruit from a Highland Park before. Honey. Strong wood spice, plus some eucalyptus – kind of reminds me of Old Spice after-shave. Anise. Something vaguely Springbank-like with its sweet peat notes. Only lightly smokey, but very complex, with lots going on here. No real off notes.

Palate: ‎ Initial smoke, but it fades quickly. Caramel, and sort of a burnt toffee sensation joining the honey. Berries and mixed fruit salad. Oranges. Wood spice as expected, slightly bitter. Coffee and a touch of chocolate join the anise. Good mouth feel – though not as strong as I expected for 50.7% ABV (i.e., not as thick, but still coats well). You can really taste the extended wood aging. In the end, this really isn’t very smokey.

Finish: Long. Nice mix of fruit and wood spice. No real bitterness or other impairments.   Again, not much smoke though.

Adding water makes it a touch sweeter (bringing up the honey in particular). It also seems to accentuate the wood spice. Your call of course, but I think it benefits from a few drops.

I can see why this scores so well – it is really a pretty flawless presentation, with no off notes at any point. It’s also very complex – especially on the nose, which I like (I’m a big fan of sniffing my whisky). It is heavily oaked without being bitter, which is impressive. If I were to have any criticism it would be the lower levels of smoke than I’m used to from Highland Park. For the price, I’d personally prefer the Caol Ila 30 Year Old over this, mainly for its extinguished campfire notes. And where I am, I can get the fruity and woody Redbreast 21 Year Old for almost a quarter the price (although of course, it is completely unpeated).

There aren’t many reviewers who have compared multiple editions, but Serge of Whisky Fun gives this edition a very similar score to the earlier and later editions. Ruben of Whisky Notes gave this expression is a very good score, slightly higher than newer expressions. For the various versions, most reviewers are very positive – including Jim Murray, Oliver of Dramming, My Annoying Opinions, and Thomas of Whisky Saga. The guys at Quebec Whisky are the typically moderately positive.

Hankey Bannister 12 Year Old Regency

I first came across this blended scotch at a beer lounge and restaurant called Easy Beer in Riga, Latvia. Although I had heard of Hankey Bannister scotch blends, I had never actually encountered one in my travels. And to my surprise, it was priced similarly to Bulleit bourbon as the lowest-priced whisky on hand for sampling. After this tasting, I subsequently went out and bought a 700 mL bottle at a nearby Spirits & Wine depot for 27 € (or just under $40 CAD).

In case you were wondering about the brand name, it is actually the combination of two proper surnames – Beaumont Hankey and Hugh Bannister – who came together to form the Hankey Bannister & Co. in 1757. While not as well known as some other blenders, their range of blended scotch whiskies have found favour with many over the years (e.g. Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have been a big fan).

Today, the brand is owned by Inver House, which also owns the malt distilleries Balblair, Pulteney, Speyburn, Balmenach and Knockdhu (AnCnoc) – whose malts, presumably, are used to create this 12 year old blend. Note that this 12 yo “Regency” bottling is different from their no-age-statement offering (also known as “Original”), which typically sells at around the floor price for blended scotch in jurisdictions that carry it (e.g., it is about half-priced in Latvia, at 14 € for a 1 L bottle – or $21 CAD). As an aside, Latvia has generally good prices on spirits – except for premium bottles, which have an even greater mark-up than here in Canada.

Packaging for Hankey Bannister 12 yo is pretty basic, and reminds me a lot of the current entry-level Johnnie Walker bottles (i.e., screw caps, and thin rectangular bottles and boxes to allow easy shelf stocking). Bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV.

Here’s how Hankey Bannister compares to the competition in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Ballantine’s Finest: 7.62 ± 0.61 on 12 reviews ($)
Ballantine’s 17yo: 8.79 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.59 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Compass Box Great King St Glasgow Blend: 8.56 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Chivas Regal 12yo: 7.77 ± 0.42 on 22 reviews ($$)
Chivas Regal 18yo: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Chivas Royal Salute 21yo: 8.53 ± 0.62 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.52 ± 0.70 on 14 reviews ($$)
Dewar’s 12yo: 7.87 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister 12yo Regency: 8.57 ± 0.20 on 6 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister 21yo Partner’s Reserve: 8.56 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Hankey Bannister Heritage: 8.50 ± 0.10 on 4 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister Original: 7.87 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 24 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Johnnie Walker Green Label: 8.53 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Platinum Label: 8.42 ± 0.45 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Johnnie Walker Red Label: 7.37 ± 0.59 on 21 reviews ($)
Té Bheag: 8.47 ± 0.29 on 15 reviews ($$)

That’s a decent Meta-Critic score for what is basically still an entry-level price scotch blend.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Colour: Standard whisky colouring – pretty sure E150 spirit caramel has been added to this one.

Nose: I get classic honey and caramel on the nose, plus vanilla. Light berries, green grapes. Lemony citrus. Graham crackers. Creamy wheat and a grain sensation. Something spirity, almost mineralized (flint?). Furniture wax (lemon-scented Pledge, in fact). Faint touch of glue. Quite a decent nose for a blend.

Palate: Sweet honey and caramel dominate, with butterscotch and nougat. Very buttery – in both taste and texture. Lemon biscuits. Frosting. No real fruit, beyond typical apple/pear. Light spice. Some minor tongue tingle.  A bit light overall, consistent with low ABV.

Finish: Short. Caramel is the main note that remains. That spirity note from the nose returns – there is a definite minerality here. Has a club soda-like cleansing feel at the end.

This was a great find – one of the better blended Scotch whiskies that I’ve tried. I would put it on par with Johnnie Walker Blue Label (which is nearly 10 times as expensive), with which it shares a similar honeyed style. It rivals the quality of some comparably-aged Japanese blends out there (which are now sadly unavailable, or much more expensive). And it matches or exceeds most entry-level single malts in this age range (e.g., I find it more complex than the similarly honeyed – but more expensive – Singleton of Dufftown 12 year old). If you like this style of whisky, Hankey Bannister 12 yo Regency is pretty hard to beat for the price.

As an aside, my wife (who is not a big scotch drinker) really enjoyed this one – and encouraged me to bring back a bottle. I think it is very well suited to the casual whisky drinker who doesn’t like obvious smoke in their whisky. Among reviewers, the most positive is Ralfy, followed by Serge of Whisky Fun. It gets slightly below average scores from Jim Murray and Jan of Best Shot Whisky.

Caol Ila 30 Year Old

This is a review of the official bottling of a vintage 1983 Caol Ila, released by Diageo in 2014. Only 7,638 bottles of this 30yo bottling were produced.

Normally, I only review whiskies where I have a significant sample on hand for tasting (typically sampled at home, in a controlled environment). In this case, I got to enjoy a generous pour from a bottle at a flagship LCBO store, and had a chance to record my notes in a quiet corner.

At $750 CAD, this is the most expensive whisky I’ve reviewed yet.  It is also the oldest, at 30 years of barrel aging. This is thus an interesting opportunity to see what effect extended aging has on the so-called “lightly peated” flavour profile of Caol Ila (see my recent 12yo review for a discussion of the house style).

First, here are the Meta-critic scores for some other popular aged smokey/peaty single malt original bottlings:

Ardbeg 17yo: 9.05 ± 0.29 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.66 ± 0.54 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Caol Ila 30yo: 9.38 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo :8.89 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.06 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 40yo: 9.07 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Lagavulin 16yo: 9.30 ± 0.25 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Laphroaig 18yo: 9.09 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Laphroaig 25yo: 9.21 ± 0.31 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.25 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 25yo: 8.95 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)

The 30yo Caol Ila certainly tops the Meta-Critic scores for this class. Note that it is rare to see original bottlings of this age, given the limited availability of stock (i.e., more commonly found as small batches with independent bottlers).

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fragrant nose, with a lot going on. I don’t get the wet peat of the younger Caol Ilas, but lots of extinguished smoke and ash (more the latter). Some distinctive medicinal/briny notes, plus well-worn leather. A faint nutty aroma, with a creamy overall feel. There is a fair amount of sweet fruit as well, like honeydew melon, along with a touch of citrus. Complex, yet elegant – you will want to spend a lot of time exploring this nose.

Palate: The salty and medicinal iodine notes come through up front, but they aren’t overwhelming. Same for the smoke/ash notes – present, but not as intense as the younger Coal Ilas. Some moist, earthy peat showing up now. Still getting the melon and some sort of pulpy fruit (papaya?). There is a spiciness as well, like anise – balanced with just the right level of sweetness (i.e., low- to mid-sweet black licorice, as I’ve only found in specialty shops in the UK). Definite oaky elements coming through, with clear vanilla. It is nowhere near as hot as you would expect for a 55.1% ABV whisky – shockingly easy to drink at this level. It has an incredibly luxurious mouthfeel.

Caol.Ila30Finish: Very long, with lingering smoke and ash. That balance of spicy and sweet (e.g., black licorice) persists as well.

This is a stunner!  It’s hard to express in words just how well this whisky works. Note that despite the descriptions above, a lot of the classic peaty notes have been attenuated by the extended barrel aging. Think of this one as a nice meal over an extinguished campfire.

I made the mistake of sampling the Highland Park 21yo after this whisky, and it just couldn’t compare on any level (and that’s coming from a big HP 18yo fan). Certainly not fair to the HP – I will need to try it again before I can fairly review it.

The Meta-Critic score for the Caol Ila 30yo seems reasonable to me – it is certainly one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had. While I would not pay the going rate for a bottle, I do recommend you try it if given the chance. For detailed reviews by reviewers who share my enthusiasm, you can try Serge at Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Tone of Whisky Saga. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate is also fairly positive.

Te Bheag Blended Whisky

Té Bheag Nan Eiliean Gaelic Whisky is a distinctive blended whisky – and not just for its hard to pronounce name (“CHEY-vek”). Té Bheag uses a relatively high proportion of malt whisky (40%) – with some peated malt at that.

Produced by the Pràban na Linne company on the Isle of Skye, it is not going too much out on a limb to suspect that some Talisker peated malt may have found its way into this blend. 😉 In addition to explicit Island malt, there is supposedly malt from the classic Islay, Highland and Speyside regions. Also distinctive is the use of ex-sherry casks for some of these malts, thus imparting both winey and smokey flavours to the final blend. The age of the malt component is reportedly in the 8–11 year range.

Also impressive for a blend, Té Bheag is not chill-filtered – although it is bottled at the common 40% ABV. Combined with the above malt sources, you can expect an above-average range of flavours in this inexpensive blend.

Here is how Te Bheag compares to other scotch whisky blends in the Meta-Critic Database, for the same lower mid-range price category (in alphabetical order):

Bushmills Black Bush: 8.36 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.60 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.36 ± 0.51 on 19 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Double Black: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)

Te Bheag is actually one of the cheapest whiskies in the “$$” category, making it one of the best value buys. It is significantly cheaper than Johnnie Walker Black or Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend – two of the other top scoring mid-range blends. Famous Grouse Gold Reserve is the only blend that scores higher, for about the same price.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sharp aromas, with definite peaty/smokey notes and some sherry influence. A medicinal iodine effect is present, as well as a distinctive glue aroma (the latter is not particularly appealing, personally). The sherry influence is unmistakable, although relatively light with just a bit of raisin and chocolate. There is also a dusty and dry aspect – which, when combined with the glue, gives the impression of old book bindings.  Smells sort of like Johnny Walker Black finished in a sherry cask for a period of time. Distinctive aroma for a blend, you could easily mistake this for a Scottish Island malt whisky.

Palate: Very Highland Park-like in its initial approach, with a peaty/smokey note tamed by sherried sweetness (plus some salty caramel here). A little tongue tingle, with a bit of leather (in a good way) and some mixed nuts. This initial profile could almost be described as succulent, promising something juicy to come (which never really arrives, though). A bit of bitterness soon creeps in (similar to HP 12yo), and there is a dry astringency effect that builds over time.

Finish: Medium length. Fortunately, the bitterness disappears quickly, and there is a lingering sweetness that carries you through to the end. There is no real resurgence of any of the original flavours though, and the peat/smoke disappears fairly quickly (unlike most peated single malts, where they linger longer). There’s nothing offensive here, but ultimately, like most blends, this one does fizzle out a little bit for me.

Te.BheagTé Bheag is a great value for what it is – a decent Scotch blend at an excellent price. It has noticeable traces of peated barley and sherry cask finishing – an uncommon combination in an inexpensive blend. Despite the Isle of Skye origin, I could see this as the poor man’s Highland Park. 🙂  Indeed, while it is challenging to equate blend scores with single malts, I am also struck by how well Te Bheag matches the more-expensive entry level HPs, as shown below:

Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.49 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (2014 onward): 8.39 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)

Something to consider if you are a fan of the lightly peated and sherried style, but are on more of a budget.

At the end of the day, I think the overall Meta-Critic score here is reasonable. There is definitely more going on in this blended whisky than in the more expensive Johnnie Walker Black label. But there are also a few rougher edges here that some drinkers of simpler blends may not be used to.  I do think it is fair to say that Te Bheag is closer to an entry level single malt than a typical blend.

Nathan the Scotch Noob and Jason of In Search of Elegance both rank this whisky similarly (and match my own view). Dominic of the Whisky Advocate is even more positive, and Ralfy gives it probably the most enthusiastic review I’ve seen.

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Caol Ila is a high-capacity malt distillery, from the Islay island of Scotland. As you would expect for the region, most of its production features the use of peated barley (although it does make some unpeated whisky as well).

Caol Ila (typically pronounced “Cool-EEL-ah” or “Coo-LEE-la”) has a long history, and is currently owned and operated by whisky conglomerate Diageo. Most of the distillery’s production is therefore directed toward the high-volume Diageo blends, where it serves as the “smokey” backbone of the flagship Johnnie Walker Black and various Bell’s blends. Fortunately for us, Diageo now also allows direct bottlings of Caol Ila single malts.

Interestingly, most enthusiasts seem to consider Caol Ila’s malts to be “lightly” peated.  Indeed, most of the Caol Ila single malts can be found in flavour cluster I – which are less intensely smokey/peaty than cluster J (where you will find most of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions).  This is interesting, as Caol Ila actually uses a comparable level of peat to Lagavulin (i.e., typically 35ppm). Presumably, there are other aspects to whisky production at Caol Ila that attenuate the effect of peat on final whisky flavour. See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour for more background information.

Long story short, it may be more accurate to say that Caol Ila single malts are typically less extremely peaty/smokey flavoured than those of other distilleries on the island.

Here are the Meta-Critic scores for similar single malt expressions (i.e., mainly from flavour cluster I), at comparable price points:

Bowmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.45 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Caol Ila 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.43 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.30 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Old Pulteney Navigator: 8.42 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Talisker 10yo: 8.92 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Dark Storm: 8.78 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$)

Caol Ila is definitely well received by reviewers for this class. My review sample of the Caol Ila 12yo comes from Reddit user wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very peaty nose, in a moistened earth way (i.e., a peat bog). There is some smoke as well, but it seems restrained relative to the peat (although I can definitely detect the subtle smokey note of JW Black here). There is a Lagavulin-like quality to the peat that I quite like (i.e., it is “sweeter” and less iodine-rich than the typical Laphroaig/Ardbegs to me). That sweetness is hard to place (maybe baking bread?). There is definitely something salty here too, which helps produce a mouth-watering effect. Also slightly bitter (lemon zest?) with some grassiness rounding out the overall bouquet nicely. Quite complex and fragrant for flavour cluster I.

Palate: An oily texture, with a nicely balanced mix of peat, ash and smoke. Definitely not as overwhelming as the flavour cluster J malts (i.e., I can see where the “lightly smokey” moniker comes from).  Still sweet, but with the baking bread from the nose turning into moist vanilla cake in the mouth. There’s a bit of nuttiness now as well.  Not overly complex, but pleasant and easy going (even if you are not a big peat/smoke-fan). I am surprised to see that it is actually bottled 43% ABV, as it tastes as smooth to me as most 40% whiskies.

Caol.Ila.12Finish: Moderately long. Like many peated whiskies, the smoke is the longest-lasting characteristic, but it is balanced by a persistent sweetness. I wasn’t getting much in the way of fruits on the nose or palate, but there does seem to be a light fruit vibe on the way out (maybe pear?).

I am not typically a fan of heavily peat-flavoured whiskies – but I quite like the Caol Ila 12yo. The nose in particular is very pleasant, with a lot going on. It is nice on the palate and in the finish as well, but somewhat less interesting here. That said, there are no false notes.

I don’t know if I would recommend this as an introduction for newcomers to whisky, but it is certainly a good choice for those who like a little smoke, or want to dip a toe into the peaty/smokey realm.

Despite being an entry-level single malt, most reviewers rank this whisky as slightly above average overall (which I would agree with).  Representative reviews are the most recent sample by Serge of Whisky Fun, Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and the guys at Quebec Whisky.  Even the reviewers who score this whisky a little lower tend to be very positive in their comments – see for example Ruben of Whisky Notes or Ralfy. Ralfy also recommends this as a single malt for beginners to try.

Glenrothes Vintage 1995 (2014)

The Glenrothes Vintage 1995 was the first attempt by Glenrothes to produce a specific flavour Vintage, by laying down a defined mix of casks at a single point in time. The chosen casks were about 30% first-fill Sherry cask, using a mixture of American and Spanish Sherry oak. The balance were “refill casks” of unspecified origin – but apparently typical of the characteristic Glenrothes flavour profile.

My friends from the UK tell me that the basic Glenrothes was considered something of a “supermarket malt” when they were growing up, given its near ubiquity and relatively mild flavour. The Vintage series was clearly an attempt to introduce some additional quality and complexity into the classic Glenrothes house style.

The history of this particular Vintage 1995 bottling is a little unclear to me. The first Vintage 1995 batch was bottled in 2011, with official tasting notes dating from 2010 printed right on the bottle. A second batch was made in 2012, and a third in 2014 (which my bottle is from). However, all that has been updated on the label is the bottling date – the rest of the information remains unchanged.

The official Glenrothes website makes no mention of the various bottlings, but it is generally believed that a selection of the best casks from any given Vintage year are used when deciding on a particular bottling run. Presumably, they have tried to keep a relatively consistent flavour profile across the various Vintage 1995 bottlings. This would also explain why they don’t give an exact percentage of Sherry casks, as it presumably varies somewhat across bottlings.

I picked up the 2014 bottling a little over a year ago, after sampling it at the LCBO and enjoying the range of flavours. At the time, it was $95 CAD – which seemed like a pretty good deal for a 19 year old whisky!

Let’s see how some of the Glenrothes fares in my Meta-Critic database. Note that reviewers do not always specify which bottling of the Vintage 1995 they sampled, so I have combined them all together. Ranked from high to low score:

Glenrothes Vintage Reserve (NAS): 8.69 ± 0.28 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Glenrothes Vintage 1995 (2011/2012/2014): 8.63 ± 0.28 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Vintage 1998 (2014): 8.32 ± 0.64 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve: 8.08 ± 0.87 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glenrothes Select Reserve: 7.92 ± 0.33 on 11 reviews ($$$)

Note as well that the “Vintage Reserve” above is a new No-Age-Statement (NAS) bottling, meant to replace the Select Reserve. There are very few reviews of that whisky so far, so please treat the numbers above as very provisional.

Here is what I found in the glass for my Vintage 1995 (2014 bottling):

Nose: Definite sherry casks in the mix, despite the golden colour.  I get rich milk chocolate, honey, and tons of creamy toffee and butterscotch. Less fruit-forward than some whiskies, but I still get juicy raisins, prunes, and figs, plus cherries and a bit of apple. A light floral scent as well, with something a bit earthy. Very nice.

Palate: Lots of vanilla, with the honey from the nose turning into maple syrup – the latter helping contribute a thick and syrupy mouth feel. Rye baking spices quickly show up, especially sweet cinnamon and dusty nutmeg. A bit nutty as well (peanuts? walnuts?). Not getting much fruit here, as the sweetness seems to be coming mainly from the wood. Rich and pleasant, but not overly complex.

Finish: Fairly long, thanks to all that woody sweetness – although the rich maple syrup turns into generic no-name pancake syrup by the end. Some mixed nuts as well. But  what happened to the spice and fruit?

Glenrothes.1995This has always been one of my favourite flavour profiles – a fairly gentle base spirit, bridging standard ex-Bourbon barrels with just the right amount of  ex-Sherry barrels. The Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition is another example of this style (although typically younger, with a little more sherry fruitiness in that case).

I can only hope Glenrothes has gotten the mix right on their new NAS version of the Vintage series. Note that the philosophy seems to have changed, as the Vintage Reserve NAS is apparently a vatting of nine different vintage years (and not including the 1995). Time will tell.

For generally positive reviews of the Glenrothes Vintage 1995, please see Nathan the ScotchNoob, Serge of WhiskyFun, Oliver of Dramming, and Jan of BestShotWhisky.

AnCnoc 12 Year Old

The AnCnoc 12 yo is the entry-level release from Knockdhu distillery. It is a popular and relatively available example of the “apperitif-style” single malt from flavour cluster H (i.e., relatively light and sweet).

It is also a very good value, at least here in Ontario ($69 CAD at the LCBO, when in stock). Here is how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts, in this same flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.38 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.50 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews ($$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.23 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

I recently reviewed the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which I consider to be one of the standard bearers for this “apperitif” class. The AnCnoc 12 yo has a nearly identical average score and standard deviation, on a comparable number of reviews. Given that it is typically priced a bit lower, I was curious to try it out.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Overwhelming apple juice – sweetened apple juice in particular, although some sour green apple does come through as well. Honey is the next major element, followed by some floral and grassy notes (heather in particular). A bit of graininess (i.e., cereals). No smoke per se, but a faint ashy characteristic is present.

AnCnoc.12.Palate: Apple and honey similarly dominate the initial palate. There is also a definite citrus taste (more lime/lemon than orange). Not much else in the way of fruit – I am certainly not getting any of the darker fruits. A bit of vanilla. The grassiness is unmistakable, with hay and heather most prominent. Dried bread, with some mild baking spice. The ash is also there – relatively subtle in the background.

Finish: Surprisingly quick. There are no real lingering flavours – just a bit of light honey sweetness continuing for a brief time, with some of the cereal notes. There is a also a slight waxy bitterness that comes in at this stage (like cereal packaging?), but it is relatively mild. Frankly disappointing, to be honest – I was hoping for a more prolonged finish.

The AnCnoc 12 yo is a nice example of the GH flavour super-cluster, with a fair amount going on for such a light whisky. I expect it would make a good summer sipper – either neat or as a highball.

For me though, it does pale in direct comparison to the Dalwhinnie 15 yo, which has more clearly pronounced flavours at every stage of tasting (including some smoke). The finish is certainly relatively anemic on the AnCnoc 12, in comparison. As such, I would personally give the Dalwhinnie a definite edge in scoring (and frankly, a higher absolute score than the meta-critic average). That said, the AnCnoc is still a great bargain for the class, and I think the meta-critic average is pretty bang-on.

For very positive reviews of this whisky, Chip the RumHowler, André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky and Ralfy all consider it quite highly. I would probably fit in closer to the moderately positive score of Ruben from Whisky Notes. Josh of the WhiskeyJug and Nathan the Scotchnoob are both somewhat less enamored by this expression.

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old

The Dalwhinnie 15yo is something of a standard bearer for me. It gets one of the best meta-critic scores for its flavour cluster (H) – and it is surprisingly complex for such a light dram. It is also widely available, and reasonably priced for the quality. It is currently $95 at the LCBO.

A final point to commend it – it is one of Mrs Selfbuilt’s current favourites among my collection. 🙂

Let’s see how it compares to some other commonly available Scottish single malts in this flavour cluster:

AnCnoc 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.50 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews ($$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Dalwhinnie 15yo: 8.70 ± 0.38 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.23 ± 0.48 on 9 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Cu Bocan: 8.10 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, the Dalwhinnie and AnCnoc offerings lead the pack here. You can expect to pay a bit more for the Dalwhinnie 15, though.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet floral quality, with apple blossoms and honeysuckle. Light fruits like apricots, pears, peaches, and apple.  Honey is definitely the dominant sweet note, although there is a touch of vanilla as well. There is also definite whiff of smoke. Very nice.

Palate: Tons of honey now, along with vanilla and toffee flavours. Same fruits as the nose. Malty overall, with a strong cereal component. Not as drying as some malty whiskies, nor as cloying as some fruity/floral ones. Individual flavours are sharp and clear, as opposed to smooth and mellow. A surprising amount of smoke comes in at the end, and lingers as you swallow.

Dalwhinnie 15yo bottleFinish: Moderate. The sweetness lingers after the smoke clears, so there is no real bitterness to speak of. Persistent malty notes, and a touch nutty and fruity until the end.

The GH flavour super-cluster is considered to comprise the “aperitif” class of single malts, owing to their typically lighter flavours. But make no mistake about it, there is a lot going on under the surface here.  The individual flavour components are crisp and clear, not muddled into a “smooth” jumble (as you sometimes find on lighter whiskies).

The smokey aspect to the finish suggests to me that this may be better suited as a disgestif rather than an aperitif (i.e., an after-dinner drink). I expect it would also do very well as a refreshing highball in the summertime – which should nicely bring up its sweet aromatic characteristics.

For more reviews of this whisky, Jason at Whisky Won and Ralfy both have quite positive reviews. Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes both give it more middle-of-the-pack scores.

 

Aberlour A’Bunadh – batch 49

Welcome to one of the best known “sherry bombs” – the Aberlour A’bunadh.

From Gaelic, a’bunadh means ‘(of) the origin”, or “the original”, and is meant to honour an earlier style of whisky making at the speyside distillery Aberlour. Pronounciations are always tricky, but the full name of the distillery and whisky would best be pronounced a-ber-LAU-er ah-BOON-ar.

A’bunadh is a cask-strength single malt, produced in limited run batches. For this reason, each batch has a batch number instead of an age statement, with a variable absolute alcohol by volume (typically, ~59-61% ABV). They make several batches a year.

One of the distinctive features of A’bunadh is the exclusive aging in first-fill Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts. I’ve seen various estimates online, but it appears that each batch is blended from barrels in the 5-25 year old range. Note that while it is widely believed that there is significant batch-to-batch variability (see below), all would qualify as “sherry bombs”, given the exclusive sherry cask aging.

Given the heavy focus on statistics on this blog site, an interesting question is how best to incorporate the batch-based A’bunadh into the meta-critic whisky database?

Given the large number of batches each year – and the corresponding limited number of reviews for each batch – I initially considered simply collecting scores on a per reviewer basis. So, if a reviewer had sampled multiple batches, I would average their scores across those batches (thus producing a single score per reviewer). As always, I would limit batches to those produced in the last ~5 years or (i.e., from batch ~30 and on up), to be consistent with other whiskies in the database.

Now, you could argue that this method would obscure any underlying pattern in natural batch variation. So I decided to first look at reviewers who had scored multiple batches. Surprisingly, I found very low variation across batches from each of these reviewers. Indeed, for reviewers who had scored a good number of A’bunadh batches (n>6), the standard deviations of their scores varied from ~0.10 up to ~0.25, per reviewer. Thus, despite the commonly held view that individual batches of A’bunadh are highly variable, you don’t see much variance in scores among at experienced reviewers. As such, I think it is worthwhile considering what an average across batches looks like, for all reviewers:

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviewers

Clearly, this is a popular whisky, with a well above-average meta-critic score for its class (cluster A, of the ABC super-cluster).  It also has a below-average standard deviation across reviewers, compared to other whiskies in my database.

But that isn’t the end of the story – you need to consider all patterns in the data. Specifically, while reviewers generally look favourably on all batches of A’bunadh, they do have their relative preferences. And more importantly, there seems to be some consistency in the relative rankings across reviewers.

To explore what I mean by that, let’s take a look at all A’bunadh batches scored individually, across all reviewers. For this, I am only reporting below modern batches for which I have at least 4 individual reviews.

Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 30): 9.00 ± 0.17 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 32): 8.89 ± 0.72 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 33): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 34): 8.93 ± 0.32 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 35): 9.06 ± 0.24 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 36): 9.05 ± 0.52 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 39): 9.12 ± 0.24 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 47): 8.88 ± 0.41 on 5 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 48): 8.84 ± 0.57 on 4 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 49): 9.24 ± 0.08 on 6 reviewers
Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 50): 8.81 ± 0.42 on 4 reviewers

Keeping in mind the relatively low number of reviews, you can see that almost all of these fit quite well within the overall mean and SD of the all-batch data presented earlier (which is, by definition, based on the largest number of reviewers). But one batch really stands out for me, as it is a full SD unit from the overall mean – batch 49.

As you can see above, batch 49 gets the highest score (9.24) and lowest standard deviation (0.08) of any specific batch in my database. More than that, when looking over percentile rankings for the five reviewers who have tried multiple batches including this one, batch 49 is consistently their highest ranked A’bunadh version.

Below is what I find in the glass for this batch. Again, expect some variability from batch to batch, but all should fall within a general flavour range:

Nose: Big and bold sherry flavours, with raisins, figs and chocolate most prominent. Some other dark fruits are below the surface (e.g. cherry), but you will need some water to bring them out. Neat, there is a fair amount of alcohol burn here (i.e. it singes the nose hairs if you inhale too deeply). Water helps on this front as well.

Palate: Sweet and delicious, with more of the fruits showing up now – especially cherry and raspberry. Also orange marmalade and dark chocolate. Mouthfeel is thick and oily, with a syrupy nature. Just a touch nutty as well. With water, it opens up further, with rich notes of Christmas cake, fig pudding, and creamy milk chocolate. Becomes like Christmas in glass, including those chocolate orange candies.

Finish: Long. While there is an initial alcohol burn (subdued with water), a fruity sweetness persists for awhile. Unfortunately, a bit of bitterness creeps in over time (almonds? coffee?) – which is the one thing holding this expression back a bit for me.

General consensus on the subject of water is hard to come by here, as it seems that many prefer drinking it neat, at cask strength. Personally, this is one where I think water greatly improves the experience. And not just a few drops – a significant amount of water is actually better. Taking it down to ~50% ABV was my personal sweet spot, taming the burn and bringing out more of the fruit flavours. There were rapidly diminishing returns beyond that though – by ~45% the whisky definitely felt flooded. You will want to experiment to see what works best for you.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49I am glad I was able to pick up a bottle of batch 49 while it was available, and am now on the hunt for samples of other batches to compare. Batch 49 is certainly very flavourful, with no hints of the sulphur that sometimes mars some sherry cask batches. It is an outstanding value for $95 CAD at the LCBO.

To get the experience of those who have sampled many batches, I suggest you check out André, Patrick and RV at QuebecWhisky.com, Serge and WhiskyFun.com, or Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be. Given the generally high scores, it is hard to find a truly negative review of any A’bunadh batch. When it does happen, it is usually due to the detection of sulphur compounds (see for example Oliver’s experience of batch 45 at Dramming.com).

If you can find it, the Aberlour A’bunadh is a strong candidate to consider for the “sherry-bomb” corner of your whisky cabinet.

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

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