Tag Archives: Sherry

GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 4 and Batch 5

GlenDronach traditionally used sherry casks to mature its malts, and has thus long been known as “sherry bomb” maker.  As discussed in my commentary of their 12 year old expression, the distillery was shut down between 1996 and early 2002. When production re-started with new owners, the focus was on aging in more typical ex-bourbon casks.

Over time though, GlenDronach re-discovered its sherry mojo, and now emphasizes this aspect in most of their new releases.  As an aside, I find some of their vintage single casks expressions to be among the best heavily-sherried single malts that I have tried.

For those on more of a budget, a good option to consider are the batch releases of the GlenDronach Cask Strength.  Lacking an age statement, these releases (now up to five) combine whiskies aged in different sherry barrels, bottled at cask-strength. They are also reasonably well priced (although this has been going up on recent batches).

I haven’t had the pleasure of trying the early ones, but I do have on hand a sample of Batch 4 from Redditor xile_, and a recent bottle of Batch 5 that I purchased at the SAQ in Quebec (regularly $150 CAD, got it on sale for $128).

Here is how they compare in the Meta-Critic Whisky Database, relative to other Glendronachs, and to other cask-strength sherry-bombs.

GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 1): 9.06 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 2): 9.05 ± 0.09 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 3): 9.05 ± 0.33 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 4): 8.92 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 5): 8.92 ± 0.08 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.57 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 15yo Revival: 8.91 ± 0.29 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Allardice: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 21yo Parliament: 8.68 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.44 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.96 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 8.97 ± 0.20 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.78 ± 0.37 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.14 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.89 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)

And now my tasting notes:


Batch 4

Batch 4 consists of 17,806 bottles released in early-mid 2014, bottled at 54.7% ABV. The whisky was drawn from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks.  While you would normally expect a dark sherry appearance, I note the colour is more of a light golden brown (suggesting a sweeter and fruitier ride is in store). Note that GlenDronach does not artificially alter the colour of these whiskies.

Nose: Syrupy, like stewed fruits. Main fruit notes are pear, peaches, plums and some raisins. Baking spices, like cinnamon. Very sweet overall, makes me think of rum-raisin ice cream on top of a moist dessert cake. Some nose hair singe due to the high ABV. Water brings up the cereal/cakey notes more.

Palate: Thick, luxurious mouthfeel – like a good cask-strength sherried whisky should be. Very fruity, getting more of the classic prunes, raisins and plums now from the sherry. Cereal again. The rum-like flavours only intensify on the palate. A touch of bitterness creeps in too over time. Water really brings up the baking spices, cinnamon and nutmeg especially.  Doesn’t need much to tame the burn.

Finish: Sweetness dies down a little, reminding me more of dried fruits now (still raisins and prunes mainly). Pretty good balance of sweet and bitter (although perhaps a bit too much of both, if that is possible?).

I don’t know the exact mix of sherry casks that went into this, but I’m going to guess it is biased toward the sweeter PX.  Indeed, it is so sweet that it actually reminds of some rum-finished malts, like the Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva.  Certainly a decent malt, but the sticky sweetness seems a bit out of character for GlenDronach.


Batch 5

Batch 5 is again from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, bottled at 55.3%. Released at the end of 2015, this batch has just shown up here in Canada. Colour is quite a bit darker now, more of the expected medium red gold.

Nose: Less fragrant than Batch 4. Definitely dryer, not as overtly sweet (think dried fruits instead of stewed ones). Lighter fruits dominate again, mainly pear, apple and apricot this time, and a bit of orange. Also getting some cocoa now, and a slightly nutty aroma (almonds?). No real nose hair singe, but a touch of glue is present unfortunately. Time in the glass helps with the solvent note (as does water, which also brings up the sweetness). I recommend adding a few drops of water, for the improved effect.

Palate: Rich, with dark berries join the other fruits now. Citrus picks up further, with some lemon. Silky and syrupy in texture, without being overly sweet – very nice. Milder baking spices, like nutmeg, mixed with some brown sugar. Not bitter, and the glue note from the nose turns into a dry cardboard sensation in the mouth. Malty.  Surprisingly drinkable at this ABV. Water lightens the mouthfeel slightly, and raises the sweet fruit factor.  Enjoyable either way, frankly.

Finish: Medium long finish. The lingering fruit notes are mainly raisins and sultanas (but not too sweet). Some oak comes in at the end – but this is again more drying than bitter.

Personally, I find this to be closer to the Glendronach core style than Batch 4 (although perhaps somewhat fruitier here).  It seems like a good selection of the drier Oloroso sherry casks went into this.  If it weren’t for the glue note, this would get an unreservedly high score in my books.


Glendronach.Cask.5Ranking these two whiskies is difficult. On initial tasting, I was inclined to give Batch 5 a higher score – but that was mainly because the sweeter Batch 4 wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  On re-tasting the next day, I’ve revised my opinion, and would give Batch 4 a very slight edge. It is interesting that the current Meta-Critic has the same average score for the two of them.

In the end, it really comes down to how much sweetness you like.  If you are a fan of Pedro Ximenez, I suggest you try to hunt down an old bottle of the Batch 4. Drier Oloroso fans should stick with the new Batch 5.

For reviews of Batch 4, I recommend you check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, Serge of Whisky Fun, and Ruben of Whisky Notes. For Batch 5, I suggest you check out Thomas of Whisky Saga, along again with Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes.

 

Royal Brackla 16 Year Old

Royal Brackla is one of five Scotch whisky distilleries controlled by John Dewar & Sons, a Bacardi subsidiary. Brackla – located in the Scottish Highlands – has been in operation for a long time, with a few brief periods of shuttered production (like many other Scottish distilleries over the centuries). It is one of only a handful of distilleries to ever earn a Royal Warrant from the King/Queen, thus allowing it to use the official “Royal” prefix.

Its current capacity is fairly large, but it is not well known among enthusiasts, as the vast majority of its production has typically found its way into Dewar’s blended products. Official bottlings have been rare over the years, and even independent bottlings are not common (usually small batches developed for specific events or groups).

Late in 2015, as part of their “last great malts” campaign, Bacardi announced they were diverting significant Brackla production into a new range of official bottlings – 12, 16 and 21 years old. Along with their recent Deveron re-branding, I suspect they are trying to capitalize on their successes with the dedicated Aultmore, Aberfeldy and Craigellachie OBs.

Initially, these Royal Brackla offerings are only being offered in established Scotch whisky markets – specifically, the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and Taiwan. But they are also available through Global Travel Retail, which is how I managed to pick up a bottle of the Royal Brackla 16 year old earlier this year, while passing through an European duty-free. They have just recently arrived at the LCBO here in Ontario, Canada.

According to Dewar & Sons promotional material, Brackla whiskies produce above-average complexity and fruitiness, due to extended fermentation and distillation time. I could see how this would appeal to the blend-making Dewars.

The new OBs are bottled at the (unfortunately) minimum standard of 40% ABV. I don’t normally comment on colour, but my 16 yo looks slightly unnatural, making me think caramel colorant has been added (i.e., a little too medium gold). The bottles have an old-fashioned appearance (very “regal”, especially the labels), and come with an unusually large punt.

There are not a lot of reviews out there yet, but here is how they compare to each other, and some similar Scotch whiskies:

Aberfeldy 12yo: 8.16 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Aberfeldy 18yo: 8.60 ± 0.18 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Aberfeldy 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.22 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
AnCnoc 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$)
AnCnoc 18yo: 8.61 ± 0.48 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
AnCnoc 22yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.28 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan 18yo: 8.44 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Auchentoshan Three Wood: 8.25 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Aultmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Aultmore 25yo: 8.91 ± 0.26 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.27 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 15yo: 8.37 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Craigellachie 13yo: 8.43 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Craigellachie 14yo: 8.30 ± 0.27 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Craigellachie 17yo: 8.61 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Royal Brackla 12yo: 8.24 ± 0.59 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Royal Brackla 16yo: 8.85 ± 0.17 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Royal Brackla 21yo: 8.82 ± 0.23 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)

Again, take the numbers on the 16 and 21 yo expressions with a grain of doubt, as there are relatively few reviews so far.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with obvious sherry influence (although more along the lines of light berries and sultanas than the typical dark, earthy fruits). Very fruity overall, with lots of apple, pear, and apricot. Pronounced vanilla. It’s a bit spicy too, with some cinnamon. Strong herbal component, but again mingled with sweetness (more woody and grassy than floral). No off notes. Surprisingly complex, but in a subtle way – actually a bit elusive. Well done, it is a pleasure to come back to the nose between sips, trying to tease out additional notes.

Palate: Very soft body, sweet, with confectionery sugar, vanilla and caramel. Less fruity than the nose, although I’m getting some citrus now (especially orange). The baking spices – cinnamon and nutmeg – are more prominent, especially after a few sips. I’m getting milled grains coming through. Reminds me of some sort of light dessert cake (orange-glazed sponge cake?). Some light chocolate shavings too. Consistent with the low ABV, there is not much burn. Relatively light, even a bit watery – I wish they had bottled this at higher proof. Adding further water lightens the body, and brings up even more sweetness – don’t do it.

Royal.Brackla.16Finish: Medium length, although longer than I expected honestly, given the light body. Lingers, with a somewhat indistinct, light sweet dessert cake taste. A bit like the younger An Cnocs, nothing specific really leaps out here. Certainly inoffensive, with no bitterness. Cinnamon continues to the end, which I like.

The nose is the most impressive thing about this dram – it displays great subtlety, and it is fun to try and tease out all the components. The mouthfeel is understandably light, given the 40% ABV, but with more baking/confectionery notes than I expected.  In the end, this really seems to me like the classic dessert whisky – something to be savoured and gently contemplated at the end of a satisfying meal.

There are not a lot of reviews for this relatively new expression yet. For consistently positive ones, I suggest you check out Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes, and Gavin of Whisky Advocate.

Highland Park 18 Year Old

Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is distinctive for being the most northerly whisky distillery in Scotland. But what truly makes it stand out is the taste – all Highland Park expressions show an unusual combination of native peat and sherry cask aging.

Referring back to my modern Flavour Map page, you will see that the highly complex whiskies (“rich” tasting” bifurcate into either heavily “winey” or heavily “smokey” flavours.  Highland Park is distinctive as it is actually somewhat in the middle of the winey-smokey scale, but still with a rich range of flavours (i.e., top of cluster C on the chart).

Support for this distillery among Scotch single malt drinkers is very high. When asked what would you choose if you could only have one bottle of Scotch, I have heard a couple of people answer immediately: Highland Park 18. One enthusiast even told me she married her husband because this was the one scotch he stocked in his liquor cabinet (presumably this wasn’t the only reason). 😉

It is not exactly cheap, mind you – the standard 750mL, 43% ABV bottle goes for $200 CAD at the LCBO.  Here is how it compares to some similarly aged expressions in my Meta-Critic whisky database:

Bowmore 18yo: 8.51 ± 0.54 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Bunnahabhain 18yo: 9.01 ± 0.17 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.67 ± 0.51 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.19 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Lagavulin 16yo: 9.25 ± 0.23 on 25 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.23 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Oban 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.21 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Springbank 18yo: 8.96 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.20 ± 0.20 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

A very respectable ranking, coming in just below the smokier Longrow 18, Talisker 18 and Lagavulin 16.

Here is how it compares to some of the other common HP expressions:

Highland Park 10yo: 8.49 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.66 ± 0.22 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 17yo Ice: 8.87 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.24 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.86 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.02 ± 0.40 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park Dark Origins 8.49: ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($$$$)

The HP 18 gets the second highest score I’ve seen for this distillery – despite being a lot less expensive than the higher-end line of Highland Parks.

I have had this scotch on a number of occasions. For this review, I sampled it from my brother’s bottle. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Moist earthy peat. A fair amount of fruit, with lighter summer fruits like peaches and plums plus the typical sherry raisins and figs. Citrusy, with definite lemon. A touch of brine. Doughy bread being baked on a campfire. Very nice.

Palate: The smoke asserts itself now, but the sherried sweetness still takes you home. Same lighter fruits as the nose, but also sweet sultanas now. Some darker berries too, like raspberry and blackberry. Salted caramel, with brown sugar and a touch of nutmeg. Sweet black licorice. Has a decent mouthfeel for a 43% ABV scotch (I would normally find this strength to be watery). Great experience – none of the bitterness I noticed on the 12yo.

Finish: Very long, and smokey to the end. Pleasant light sweetness initially, but not very fruity. Has a clarity about it, with great balance. Leaves you with some mouth puckering astringency.

Highland.Park.18

I can understand why some would see this as the quintessential scotch for your liquor cabinet – there is something for everyone here.  There’s really no negative that I can find, it all just works well together. That said, I can see why some would prefer more of the extremes (i.e., a sherry bomb or a smoke monster). But for those wanting to walk the line in-between, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Among the highest ratings I’ve seen for this whisky are Gavin of Whisky Advocate, Jason of Whisky Won, Oliver of Dramming, and Ralfy. Also quite positive (but more typical of the average score) are Serge of Whisky Fun, My Annoying Opinions, and Nathan the Scotchnoob. What can I say, it is very highly recommend by all.

 

 

Aberlour 12 Year Old – Double Cask Matured

While not necessarily a house-hold name, Aberlour is widely perceived among scotch enthusiasts as a consistently good choice – and one of the best value plays among highland/speyside single malts. Indeed, I have sometimes seen Aberlour referred to as the poor man’s Macallan, due to the similar composition and flavour profile for many of their expressions.

The double cask matured version of the Aberlour 12 year old is made from a mix of traditional oak and sherry casks, and is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. It retails for $65 CAD at LCBO, making it one of the most affordable single malts available here.  Note that there is a separate non-chillfiltered (NCF) version of the 12yo, but that is not available in Ontario.

The Aberlour 12yo Double Cask has recently garnered a fair bit of publicity in Canada, as it was recently selected by the Speaker of the House of Commons as his “selection scotch” for use at official functions. Many in the Canadian whisky community complained that a scotch whisky was selected over a Canadian whisky for this official role.

Here is what the Meta-Critic database has to say for this whisky, relative to others of similar style.

Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured: 8.38 ± 0.15 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Aberlour 12yo Non-Chill-Filtered: 8.80 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Auchentoshan Three Wood: 8.26 ± 0.41 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.34 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.57 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Dalmore 12yo: 8.45 ± 0.27 on 16 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.58 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Glenfarclas 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition: 8.38 ± 0.30 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Glenmorangie Lasanta: 8.40 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Macallan 12yo Fine Oak: 8.47 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$$)

Although towards the lower end of the range of average Meta-Critic scores, it is also the cheapest of all the above whiskies – and so does seem to represent good value for money.

I was given a bottle of this malt for Father’s Day recently, so I thought I would share my tasting experiences here.

Nose: Sweet pear apple (red delicious) and lighter sherry fruits, like plums and maybe a touch of raisins. Has a mouthwatering “juicy fruit” aroma. Light body otherwise, and not as malty as I expected (more cake-like, if anything). Very slight nose hair burning sensation if you inhale too deeply.

Palate: Same fruits as the nose, but they seem a bit diluted here. A faint touch of spice coming in now (mainly cloves). Still getting the cake and fruit sensation throughout. Light body overall, with a somewhat watery mouthfeel. Would probably have benefited by a higher ABV, as there isn’t all that much going on at this low proof. A touch of bitterness creeps in at the very end. Certainly on the delicate side for sherry matured.

Finish: Medium length. Not overly sweet – reminds me of exhausted juicy fruit gum once the sweetness has given out (and you are left with just the subtle, spent fruitiness). A touch of cloves persists to the end.

Aberlour.12.DoubleThe Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured reminds me a bit of Auchentoshan Three Wood or the BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood – in all these cases, there is a fairly gentle underlying base spirit. If anything, I suspect the Aberlour 12 spent less time in sherry casks than the others, but it is still a good introduction to the Aberlour house style.  A good place to start, and something of the opposite extreme from the “sherry bomb” A’bunadh.

Reviews of this whisky are very consistent, as indicated by the low standard deviation above.  Probably the most positive review I’ve seen is from Serge of Whisky Fun, and the least positive from Michael of Diving for Pearls. Otherwise, you can check out Whisky Advocate, the guys at Quebec Whisky, or Richard at the Whiskey Reviewer for typical rankings.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask

Kavalan is an internationally-renowned whisky distillery operating in Taiwan.  It makes a number of relatively entry-level single malts (like Kavalan Single Malt and the Concertmaster reviewed previously). But they also produce higher-end single cask whiskies under the Solist label. For this review, I have a bottle of the popular Solist Sherry Cask, which I brought back from my travels there last year.

Identifying Kavalan expressions can be tricky. In addition to the Solist Sherry Cask, there is the separate Solist Fino Sherry Cask available, plus the Solist Vihno Barrique and Solist Ex-Bourbon.  Note that if you are in the United States, Kavalan doesn’t use the “Solist” brand name (likely for a trademark issue). The whiskies there simply drop that word from the labels, which otherwise looks identical to Solist labels every where else (the front label on my bottle shown above). As you can see, these labels provide a lot of information on the specific cask and bottling: my bottle is from cask S090123071 (58.6% ABV), and is bottle 434 of 514 (I will come back to this point in a minute).

FYI, If you have traveled in Asia, you may also have noticed the Kavalan “Sherry Oak” expression, sold at 46% ABV with a plan label not identifying a specific cask or bottle. While generally believed to be diluted versions of the Solist Sherry Cask, I have also seen at least miniature bottles of “Sherry Oak Cask Strength” (58% ABV) that again do not identify a specific cask. So, it thus seems like Kavalan produces distinct single cask sherry-aged expressions under the “Solist” brand (word dropped in the US), and a more general “Sherry Oak” expression sold at both regular and cask strength in Asia. I have a sample on hand of the regular-strength Sherry Oak that I plan to review shortly.

As previously mentioned in my other reviews, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate – which means that their whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel compared to more temperate northerly climes like Scotland and Ireland. As such, don’t expect to see age statements here – they are all quite young whiskies, and tend to be heavily influenced by the types of casks they were matured in. Since production only began in 2006, all of their whiskies are currently younger than 10 years old.

Actually, you can pin it down a lot more specifically with these single cask expressions: the specific cask numbers define the type of whisky and its distillation date. For the S090123071 cask here, S for Sherry, 09 is distilling year (2009), 01 is January, 23 is the 23rd of the month, and 071 is the 71st barrel of that day.  On the back is a sticker with the specific bottling date and hour (in this case, 2015.08.17 13:34). That means this cask was bottled at about six and a half years of age.

It’s great that they provide this much info, but don’t get hung up on trying to compare this to a standard Scottish single malt – the effect of accelerated aging in the tropics is immense.

Here are how some of the major Kavalan expressions compare in my database, to some other well known cask-strength “sherry bombs”.

Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 9.00 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.97 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (all batches): 9.04 ± 0.17 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.77 ± 0.38 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.22 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.98 ± 0.39 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak (46% ABV): 9.09 ± 0.47 on 3 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.39 ± 0.48 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.80 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

Interestingly, the Solist Sherry Cask is currently the highest-ranked Kavalan expression in my database (although many who have tried both typically prefer the Fino Sherry Cask).

While the LCBO used to carry the regular Kavalan Single Malt and Concertmaster, there are no whiskies from this distiller currently listed on the online site. However, I have recently seen bottles of the Solist Sherry Cask at one of the downtown Toronto flagship locations (Queens Quay) for ~$350 CAN.

I don’t normally comment on whisky colour (since it can be artificially manipulated), but I have to note that my Solist Sherry Cask has the darkest colour I’ve even seen in a whisky – it looks like dark mahogany wood!

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet rich flavours, showing the sherry cask selection. I get raisins and cocoa powder mainly, with additional marzipan, nuts and black licorice (i.e., anice spice). Not as overtly fruity as some sherry bombs, you do get a variety of dark fruits below the surface. There are some vegetal notes here too, evoking the tropical environment (i.e, a humid jungle, for those who have been in one). Very complex. Surprisingly for a cask-strength whisky, there is not much alcohol burn here (i.e., little nose tingle). Water lightens the nose, and doesn’t seem to bring out anything new – I recommend nosing it neat.

Palate: Thick and creamy, with an almost resinous quality. The fruits show up now, with cherry, raisins, plums and papaya. The cocoa on the nose turns to rich dark chocolate, and the spices turn to sweet cinnamon. Some pancake syrup. There is a moist earthy quality that adds character. I also get something that brings to mind tree bark, in a good way (not that I can ever recall actually trying it!). A bit of tongue tingle, but still surprisingly easy to drink neat (more so than other sherry bombs I’ve tried). Very complex, even by sherry bomb standards. With a bit of water, it becomes even sweeter up front, with more cherry/raspberry – and a new milk chocolate pudding texture and taste. If you keep adding more water though, it eventually loses complexity.

Kavalan.Sherry.CaskFinish: Long. The sweetness continues for a good long while, and there is no hint of the bitterness that often accompanies sherry bombs on the way out. Water doesn’t change much here, for good or ill.  You’ll be enjoying the after-glow of this whisky long after you’ve finished the glass. 😉

I typically prefer some water in my cask-strength sherry bombs, but this is one where I don’t think it is necessary.  If you do choose to water it down, I recommend no more than a few drops.  But since there is bound to be variability between individual casks, you will want to experiment to see what works best for you and your bottle.

I think I’ve lucked out here – this particular cask is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tried. It is certainly my new favourite sherry bomb.

While every cask is different, here are some reviews that I think capture the gamut well.  The boys at Quebec Whisky all give their single cask among their highest personal scores. Oliver of Dramming really liked his sample, as did Ruben of Whisky Notes for his two samples (here and here). My Annoying Opinions has had some variable experiences (i.e., very positive here and here, less-so more recently here). Thomas of Whisky Saga gave his one sample a middle-of-the-road score. Serge of Whisky Fun has reported on six separate bottlings of Solist Sherry Cask to date, with diverse scores ranging from his 7th percentile right up to his 98th (!), with most doing fairly well.

 

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.

Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries

Welcome to my second Ichiro’s Malt review, the Double Distilleries.

As mentioned in my Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) review, Ichiro’s malts are vatted malts from two distilleries: the closed Hanyu distillery, and the currently operating Chichibu distillery. Both distilleries were controlled by the Akuto family, currently led by Ichiro Akuto.

In this case, the “double distilleries” label refers specifically to old Hanyu stock matured in ex-Sherry casks, and new-make Chichibu matured in new Japanese Mizunara oak casks. I’ve seen suggestions online that old Hanyu Puncheon casks may also have been used in the vattings. The exact proportion is unknown, although I expect it is weighed more towards the new make (from both an economic perspective, and from my tasting notes below).

Here are some scores for the various Ichiro’s Malts in the Meta-Critic database (from Hi to Low):

Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.29 ± 0.21 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The Peated: 8.85 ± 0.41 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.68 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu The First: 8.57 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.23 ± 0.56 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Here is what I find in the glass for the Double Distilleries:

Nose: I can definitely smell the sherry cask influence – despite the light colour, I get rich chocolate notes. Apple and pear are the main fruits, not really getting the typical sherry figs or raisins. There is also a lot of honey sweetness here, similar to the Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR). A bit of allspice comes in as well, like in a nice rye blend (not over-powering). And the perfumy/incense wood notes from the MWR are also present throughout. Nice.

Palate: Definite spicy kick up front, just like the MWR. The sweet fruity notes come in next, along with the honey and chocolate. Not as much sherry influence as I was expecting from the nose – getting more general oakiness now. Taste of Graham crackers. A bit malty. Also some bitterness, but greatly attenuated compared to the MWR (which was overwhelming). The baking spices – allspice, nutmeg – linger nicely. Nice mouth feel, not too watery.

Finish: The sweet honey and Graham cracker notes are the most prominent. That MWR bitterness is present, but greatly subdued. The baking spices really help here, and linger for a nice long while. I even get a touch of apple at times. Not overly complex, but pleasant and fairly long-lasting.

Ichiro-DoubleDistilleriesI suggested in my MWR review that blending with additional casks would help that whisky out – and that is exactly what you get here. You can still detect the fragrant incense characteristics of the MWR, balanced by a more general sweetness. A clever blending of different flavour components – and a better way to glimpse the effect of younger whiskies from Mizunara wood, in my view.

This is certainly a nice, easy-drinking dram, with no real flaws. In contrast to the MWR, it goes down easier the more you sip. That said, the Double Distilleries could probably have benefited from a bit more sherry cask influence.

For some additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Ruben of WhiskyNotes, Brian (Dramtastic) of JapaneseWhiskyReview, Michio of JapanWhiskyReviews, and Tone’s review on WhiskySaga.

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.

Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).

 

Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.

 

Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.

 

Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.

 

 

 

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 

Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.

 

American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.

—-

Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

 

 

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.

 

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