Tag Archives: Single Malt

Kavalan Concertmaster

Kavalan Concertmaster bottle

One of my goals with these commentaries is to explore whiskies that seem divergent in some way  – be it across reviewers, across a flavour class, or across a distillery’s offerings and price range.  The Kavalan Concertmaster – from Taiwanese distillery King Car – is an interesting single malt to examine for several of these reasons.

As a bit of background, Taiwan has generally a marine tropical climate (although mean temperatures will vary across its rather mountainous terrain). This means that relative to more temperate northerly climes (like Scotland and Ireland), whiskies will mature more quickly in the barrel in Taiwan, thus requiring less aging time. A similar (and even more dramatic effect) can be observed with Amrut in India. As a result, you don’t typically see age statements on these tropical whiskies – it would be misleading, in relation to what we have come to expect from Scottish single malts of equivalent age.

Kavalan has adopted a distinctly musical theme for its labeling. The higher-end Soloist family will be the subject of a future commentary, but for right now I would like to discuss how the Concertmaster fits it with the rest of their more entry-level line-up of single malts. From the current Metacritic scores:

Kavalan Podium: 8.82 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews
Kavalan King Car: 8.58 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.53 ± 0.55 on 11 reviews
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.41 ± 0.53 on 12 reviews

With the standard caveat that you should treat whiskies with a low number of reviews as provisional until more results come in (i.e. Podium and King Car), the Concertmaster does seem to be getting the lowest overall rating. And note that despite the plain labeling of the third example above, all of these are actually single malts (i.e., all malt whisky, from a single distillery, using traditional copper pot stills).

There is definitely a wider-than-typical range of reviewer opinions on these whiskies. While most reviewers seem to consider the Single Malt and Concertmaster expressions to be about average (note that the mean whisky score is currently ~8.55 in my database), there are a couple of quite negative responses out there for both whiskies – and more so for the Concertmaster. This is interesting, as the Concertmaster has won Best in Class twice at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), along with a slew of Silver medals at other international competitions (and even a couple of Golds).

I am curious as to why there is a seeming discrepancy here, as I personally find the Concertmaster to be a quite decent whisky. I would rate it as a slightly above-average single malt, with the Kavalan Single Malt as slightly below. This is the reverse of most reviewers who have tried both (although the difference in absolute scores isn’t great).

There are several factors potentially at play here. For one, Port cask finishes generally seem to be less popular among reviewers than Sherry cask ones. Kavalan has quite a few Sherry-finished expressions among their higher-end lines, so the Concertmaster may be suffering in direct comparison.

Concertmaster is also unusual in that it uses a combination of three varieties of Port casks – Ruby Port, Tawny Port and Vintage Port – after its initial period of time spent in American Oak casks (hence the “concertmaster” title). When you consider the unusually high number of different casks – combined with the relatively short time needed in cask – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more batch-to-batch variability than typical for a single malt. While speculative, this could account for some of the variability seen between reviewers.

Of course, it’s also possible that not everyone likes the distinctive characteristics of this particular whisky. 😉 There is something quite distinctive about all of these Kavalan whiskies, compared to Scottish single malts. Indeed, this gets back to my other reason for choosing to profile this whisky – there seems to be a different meaning behind some of the words used by reviewers to describe it.

Here are my tasting notes for the Concertmaster:

Nose: Classic port-infused aromas spring up, like berries and dark fruits, plus rich dark chocolate. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits at all. Definitely plenty of honey here, and some vanilla (although it’s a bit lost beneath the sweet fruits). Great nose, Concertmaster is one of those whiskies that I can happily smell all night. 🙂

Palate: A direct repeat of the nose, in the same order. I get a lot of the “earthy” sweet grape flavours up front, like figs, dates, raisins, black currants – even stewed prunes. It’s like an alcohol-infused Ribena! A dry maltiness quickly appears, along with a heavy astringent effect – just as it does on the standard Single Malt edition. Personally, I find this works here, and makes a good contrast to the initial port-infused flavours. Mouth feel is pleasantly thick and slightly chewy (thanks more to the malt). Despite the port influence, It is definitely not overly sweet – indeed, if I have any complaint here it is that the winey fruit-forward flavours don’t linger longer on balance.

Finish: Moderate. Like with the Single Malt, the astringent effect remains prominent, and you are left with rather dry gums and tongue in the end – but with a well-balanced touch of stewed fruits left behind this time.

The astringency characteristic I describe above likely explains the apparent discrepancy you will note in some reviews: namely that Concertmaster is too “sweet” (especially on the palate and finish) and exceedingly “dry” (again on the palate and finish). Same goes for the complaint by some reviewers that it has an unusually high alcohol “burn” or “kick” (again, especially on the palate) – despite only being bottled at a low 40% ABV.

I think the explanation for both these apparent discrepancies is the same – the significant astringency in Kavalan whiskies, especially noticeable on the palate. This makes your tongue feel “dried out” very quickly after tasting. A similar effect occurs when you drink sodium-infused water, such as club soda (aka soda water). See my Chivas Regal 12 yo commentary for a discussion of when this can enhance a whisky’s flavour.

And so, “dry” – in the likely meaning of these reviewers – is not the opposite of “sweet”, but rather a commentary on how “drying” it is on the tongue. And what else is “drying” of the tongue? A high alcohol content. Basically, the Kavalans are producing a higher astringent effect than normal, but the issue is confused by our usual terminology for this effect (i.e., dry, burn, etc.).  As an analogy, it is very hard to describe the subjective difference between physically “hot” food and spicy “hot” foods. Indeed, many of the same receptors on the tongue respond to these two signals, which is probably how we got the “hot” term to describe the effect of spicy food.

One thing most reviewers seem to agree on is the nose – most like it, detecting those classic rich Port-infused flavours I describe above. I don’t get as much of the so-called “tropical” notes (i.e., banana, pineapple, coconut, melon, etc.) that some reviewers report, although I do detect those on the tropical Amrut (especially tons of banana in that case).

Kavalan Concertmaster bottleI also agree with many that the palate doesn’t necessarily match up to the promise of the nose (as nothing new really presents itself). But I still find it quite acceptable and enjoyable for a Port finished whisky (although again, batches could vary). You do need to get used to the astringency effect, though, which may detract for some.

The finish is also quite acceptable in my view. I find it a bit longer than some reviewers. And while slightly sweet on the way out, I find it pleasantly so (i.e., not cloying).

Anyway, I suggest you make your own mind up about this whisky. Given the relative cost in North America and Europe, you are probably not likely to opt for this over a well established single malt (even if you can find it). But if you get the chance to sample it somewhere, I think its well worth the effort to seek it out for its distinctive properties.

I picked this Concermaster bottle up for $125 CAD at the LCBO, although I know it is no longer in stock. FYI, the standard Single Malt edition was $140 CAD at the LCBO, and I previously picked up a 50mL sample in Europe for about 10 Euros (~$15 CAD).

For different perspectives and reviews, you can can start by searching the Reddit Scotchit collective – most reviewers there seem to really like the Concertmaster. Alternatively, the Rumhowler has one of the most negative reviews I’ve seen of this whisky. The guys at QuebecWhisky.com all seem to take a more middle-of-the-road view.

 

 

 

 

 

Single Malts at the LCBO – October 2015

Well, it’s that time of year again!

After the drought of new single malt releases through the spring and summer, the LCBO is finally starting to stock new expressions for the ramp-up to the holiday season.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed ~40 new single malt expressions on the LCBO website (well, new for this calendar year at least). I’ve just completed an update of my database, and most of these are now included in there. Many of these are higher-end aged expressions, but there are some good (and not-so-good) bargain choices to consider as well. More on that in moment …

Sadly, things aren’t so great on the bourbon front. Here, we continue to lose the mid- and high-end range of popular brands, as US producers adjust their allocations (and cut some international destinations – like Canada – out of their distributions altogether). This de-listing of good quality (and reasonably well-priced) bourbons is a very disturbing trend. See this post on Whisky Buzz for some examples.

But back to happier news – there are lots of new single malts for the Scotch lover to consider. The one sour note here is price – exchange rates do not currently favour the Canadian dollar. And the LCBO has always had some peculiar pricing habits, where certain “popular” brands and/or expressions get walloped with higher-than-typical prices (I’m thinking about you, Balvenie).

When it comes to the higher-end stuff, I will let you browse the database for your own recommendations.  But at the lower-end, there are some interesting new releases to consider, especially in the NAS segment (no age statement).

If you are very budget-conscious, the LCBO is now carrying the Tomatin Legacy for $43.25. That makes it one of the cheapest single malts out there, with a respectable (for the price) metacritic score of 8.25 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews. That is better than the previous entry-level Tomatin 12 yo at $52.25 (7.8 ± 0.63 on 12 reviews).  Keep in mind though that the overall average score for my current whisky database is ~8.5. But again, at $43, that is a simple single malt for less than some blends.

Going up in price, the Jura Brooklyn caught my eye – although my interest soured a little at $79.95. Isle of Jura expressions don’t typically get a lot of love from aficionados, but the flavour descriptions of this one sound interesting. I am only currently tracking one review so far across my metacritic group, although it was fairly positive and above average for that reviewer (60th percentile). One to watch, perhaps, if you have a high risk tolerance.

As always, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask remains a screaming good deal at the LCBO at $72.95 (9.19 ± 0.18 on 14 reviews). But if you want to try something a little different, the new 2015 edition of the Laphroaig Cairdeas is now out ($99.90). Again, it is early for the reviews, but the same reviewer above really liked it (85th percentile score). From the description, it sounds like a slightly fruitier and sweeter version of a typical Laphroaig ~10-12yo (apparently a nod to an earlier style of production). Could be a nice gift under the tree for a classic Laphroaig lover.

Finally, the (new for the LCBO) Kilchoman Loch Gorn gets impressive scores in this heavy-peat class, at 9.12 ± 0.14 on 10 reviews. But is sadly rather highly-priced at $175.95.

For those who don’t like peat (but not so frugal as to go for the Tomatin Legacy), I suppose you could try the new NAS Glenlivet, the laughably-named “Founder’s Reserve” at $52.95. The metacritic score of 8.32 ± 0.19 is based on just 3 reviews, so proceed with caution here. Most scuttle-butt I’ve seen online is that it is inferior to the entry-level 12yo at $56.95 (8.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews), when tested head-to-head. So I would easily expect that early Founder’s Reserve score to drop as more detailed reviews come in.

On that note, I’m sorry to say to are likely going to want to skip the new NAS Auchentoshan American Oak at $54.50 (7.75 ± 0.92 on 6 reviews). That is quite a bit lower scoring that the entry-level 12yo at $59.95 (8.33 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews). Indeed, personally I’d recommend you skip all the entry-level NAS in this flavour class and go right to the Auchentoshan 12yo, if you are looking for an inexpensive and unoffensive dram.

As a step-up from there, the newly-released Glenfiddich 14yo Rich Oak sounds interesting, at $65.95 (8.68 ± 0.36 on 6 reviews). That’s quite a score step-up from the entry-level 12yo (8.1 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews), and for only $11 more. Indeed, there are a good number of new Glenfiddichs to consider this year, although most are not as attractive in price.

Aberlour is another one that is typically well-priced at the LCBO, and the new 16yo at $89.95 seems reasonable (8.75 ± 0.19 on 9 reviews). But for $5 more, the A’Bunadh remains your best best in this family, with an overall average across all batches of 9.01 ± 0.22 on 15 reviews. And keep your eyes peeled to see if you can find any old stock of the very well-ranked batch 49 (9.22 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews).

Happy hunting in your LCBO searches!

 

 

 

 

 

Whisky in Korea

Selection from the Malt Shop

I’m just back from my second trip to Seoul, South Korea, and had a chance to look into whisky options available there.

Whisky remains a fairly popular drink in Korea, and you will find it on a lot of bar menus. However, the most commonly available choices are generally limited to scotch-style blends, with only a small number of single malts (if any). Prices for the standard scotch fare are generally a little higher than you would pay in North America, but not hugely so. The various expressions of the two common “Korean whisky” brands you will find – Scotch Blue (by Lotte Chilsun) and Windsor (by Diageo) – are typically all blends, sourced from Scottish distilleries for the Korean market.

In terms of selection for purchase, you can be well served by checking out the liquor boutiques in the basement of the major conglomerate department stores (i.e., where the excellent food courts are kept). I perused a couple, but was generally disappointed by the whisky selection and prices (i.e., mainly blends, and rather expensive at that). You do a bit better for wine here, but this is again not exactly a cheap option. Of course, across Seoul there are plenty of small stand-alone liquor stores – but these can be hard to find (and may be difficult to deal with if you are not fluent in Korean).

Your best option for price remains the airport duty free. Unfortunately, the main terminal at Incheon was undergoing renovations when I was there (September 2015), and many of the larger duty free outlets were closed – including the one that has the largest selection of liquor. However, a new large duty free shop recently opened in the Concourse terminal. It had the common whisky items for international duty free, at the usual excellent prices. While again somewhat more heavily biased toward blends than typical, there were a good number of well-known single malt expressions (especially the travel editions). Sadly, there were no Japanese or Taiwanese whiskies present on my traipse through. Also, unlike most duty frees, the whiskies were intentionally scattered across the entire store. This requires you to carefully scan every display, aisle and shelf when looking for products – and interact with a large horde of sales associates at every turn.

Another option is the small but well-organized Malt Shop, in the Gangnam district of Seoul. This store has an excellent collection of international whiskies, as you will able to tell from their website. Be advised however that not everything you see on that site is available for sale (even if it is shown as in stock). For example, while I counted 5 miniature 180mL bottles of the Hibiki 21yo on the shelf, these were all marked “not for sale”. According to the sales clerk, they were part of the owner’s personal collection. And none of the other miniature Japanese bottles shown on the website could be found in the store. That said, most of the full-sized malt whisky bottles listed were available.

The website does not list prices, and I found these to be somewhat variable in-store. Some of the commonly available single malt expressions were quite reasonable – especially the mid-range ones, which were often comparable or even cheaper to what I would pay here at the LCBO (e.g. most of the Balvenies, Highland Parks, etc.). That said, most of the higher-end and entry-level malt whiskies were typically more expensive than you will find in North America. As an aside, the listed shelf prices assume a credit card purchase. If you are paying cash, you may be able to negotiate ~5-10% off these prices.

The inventory was certainly a lot better than what I can find domestically at the LCBO. There were about half-a-dozen expressions available for each of the common Scottish single malt brands (e.g. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Benromach, Dalmore, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Talisker, Tomatin). In some cases, there were even more expressions than I expected to find (e.g., I counted 9 different examples of Arran malts). Some brands only had a couple of expressions available (e.g., Auchentoshan, BenRiach, Bruichladdich, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, Highland Park, Jura, Springbank, etc.), although that is understandable in some of those cases.

Of course, what I was really looking for was the selection of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies. 🙂 While there were only two bottles of Kavalan (one Soloist, one ConcertMaster), there were about a dozen or so expressions for each of the Nikka and Suntory lines. Unfortunately, the Nikka ones were largely entry-level expressions (e.g., Super, Gold & Gold, etc.) – including many that I had never even heard of previously. I did however manage to snag the Taketsuru 21yo, which is one I was really looking to find.

Suntory was generally a better mix, with a range from standard Kakubin to the entry-level Yamazaki/Hakushu malts and mid-range Hibikis. Unfortunately, the prices for all the Japanese whiskies were very high, relative to most of the Scottish malts. For example, they wanted ~$300 CAD for the Yamazaki 12yo, ~$400 CAD for the Hibiki 17yo and ~$600 CAD for the 21yo! It’s true that Japanese whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately (and Korea has significant import taxes on Japanese whiskies), but I could typically find those bottles at a quarter of those prices a year ago in Japan. Even the new entry-level Yamazaki NAS “Distiller’s Reserve” was listed at ~$140 CAD. Simply put, Korea is not a place to look for reasonable prices on Asian whiskies – but you can do okay for the Scottish malts.

The Malt Shop, Gangnam, SeoulIn any case, the Malt Shop is definitely worth a visit if you are visiting Seoul and have to some free time. Some of the map links for this store on other blogs are incorrect. Here is a confirmed direct link to google maps, using the store’s address.

It is accessible by public transit, right near the Seonjeongneung subway station. You can access this station off either the yellow Bundang Line (station 214), or the light brown Line 9 (station 927). Once there, take the #4 street exit, and head due south along Seolleung-ro for about 100m – you won’t miss the shop.

Kamsahamnida!

 

Beginner’s Guide to Selecting a Single Malt Whisky

Single Malt whisky guide

Following up on my how to host a whisky tasting article, I thought I’d provide some suggestions of popular, commonly-available, and highly-ranked single malt whiskies in each of the identified flavour Super Clusters.

First thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the characteristics of the individual flavour clusters and super clusters – which you will find described at the bottom of my Flavour Map page. I don’t recommend you get caught up on geographical regions in Scotland (although I will provide classical details below) – it’s far more important to characterize single malts by the flavour characteristics identified through the cluster analysis.

I am going to go through the Super Clusters in the order I recommend when hosting a whisky tasting. That is, starting with the most delicate whiskies and working up to the more complex ones. If you are new to whisky, I also recommend you work your way up the “winey” flavoured whiskies before trying the “smokey/peaty” ones. For those of you more visually-inclined, I’ve posted this commentary as a YouTube video:

 

Super Custer G-H

  • Dalwhinnie 15 year old is one of the gentler drams, highly ranked in my metacritic database for this super cluster. It’s a Highland whisky with dominant notes of honey and heather/floral aromas. Very easy to drink, and popular with newcomers to single malt whiskies in my house.
  • Glenmorangie 10 year old “original” is perhaps the quintessential delicate whisky that most would be familiar with. Also a Highlander, this is the base spirit that goes into all the more “winey” cask-finished expressions from Glenmorangie (which I personally prefer). But this basic expression does have fans in its own right.

Super Cluster E-F

  • Auchentoshan 12 year old gets a somewhat middling score in my database, but you can’t beat the price – a very good budget whisky. From the Lowland region, it has a delicate base spirit, but has picked up some caramel notes from its time in wood. Fairly dry, it also goes over very well with newcomers to single malts.
  • Redbreast 12 year old is not actually a single malt, but rather an Irish single pot still distillation of malted and unmalted barley. Regardless, it is a good single malt whisky-like dram. Somewhat bolder in flavours and mouthfeel, it is a very highly ranked (and inexpensive) example of this super cluster. Worth venturing across the Irish sea for.

Super Cluster A-B-C

  • BenRiach 12 year old matured in sherry wood is a good introduction to the effects of sherry wood aging on single malts. The base spirit of this Speysider is fairly delicate, so you can really taste the sherry without having overwhelming whisky complexity. A good budget place to start on your heavily “winey” single malt journey.
  • GlenDronach 12 year old “original” is a bolder example of this super cluster, with a stronger range of flavours present (sometimes described as more “meaty” or “savoury”). Technically a Highlander, this one is a lot older than it first appears (as you will see explained in my linked commentary above). Definitely greater complexity than the BenRiach.
  • Aberlour A’Bunadh is a cask strength Speyside whisky (~60% ABV), produced in specific batches (mine is lot 49, but lot 50 is more commonly available now). You will definitely want to add some water to this one, as the full strength effect can be overwhelming. Helps to show off not just the red fruit flavours from sherry wood aging, but the cholocate/mocha richness as well.

Super Cluster I

  • Highland Park 12 year old should probably be in everyone’s whisky cabinet. A good all-rounder from Scotland’s most northerly distillery, on the island of Orkney. A mix of light smokey flavours and sherry, Highland Park is distinctive for its unique lightly peaty characteristics. While the 12 year old won’t win many awards, it illustrates the base characteristics of this distillery well. A poor man’s version of the popular (and much more complex) 18 year old.
  • Talisker 10 year old is a great example of this cluster (especially if sherry is not your thing). Talisker is a peated whisky from the Isle of Skye, and again has some distinctive regional characteristics (described by some as a distinctive sea-air “minerality”). Highly ranked in my metacritic database.
  • Ardmore Traditional Cask gets a somewhat more middling rating in my database, but is great NAS budget choice in this class. Very smokey without being peaty (if that is possible), and more interesting than the similarly priced entry-level Bowmores, in my view.
  • Oban 14 year old is another Highlander like the Dalwhinnie, with similar honey and floral notes. But the Oban is probably more typical of the Highland style, with distinctive smokey notes as well. A bit pricey, which I suspect contributes to its more middling score in my metacritic database. But probably my favourite all-rounder of the four listed here.

Super Cluster J

  • Lagavulin 16 year old is currently my favourite Islay whisky in this class, but it isn’t cheap. A rich flavour explosion, I’ve heard it described as the “depth charge” of whiskies – very popular with experienced drinkers for its complexity and long finish. However, you are likely to smell like a walking ashtray for the rest of the evening (and maybe still the next morning) – so you should warn your significant other before opening a bottle.
  • Laphroaig Quarter Cask (and 10 year old) are two of your best budget Islay offerings in this class. Intensely smokey and peaty, I don’t find there is much else going on here – but some seem to really like these. The QC is better in my view (and the metacritics), and is oddly cheaper here in Ontario – go figure! Great value if you are a fan of smoke/peat.

Of course, those are just starting points for you. Please explore the full Whisky Database for additional options in each flavour cluster.

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old

Auchentoshan 12yo bottle

Another relatively unloved single malt in my Whisky Database, I thought I’d put in a good word for the Auchentoshan 12 year old (pronounced OCKen-TOSHan).

Auchentoshan is one of the few Lowland distilleries still operating in Scotland. This style of whisky is typically characterized as “lighter” than most other single malts. Although you shouldn’t rely on geographical location for flavour, as previously observed, this is one case where the traditional triple-distilling method of lowland malts does produce a gentler base spirit. That said, there is more flavour to this malt than you might expect, earning it a spot in the E flavour cluster in this analysis.

As previously presented here, delicate whiskies get lower overall metacritic scores compared to more complex ones. As such, the 8.33 ± 0.30 (based on 16 reviews) for the Auchentoshan 12 yo is a very middle-of-the-road score for its flavour class. Note that this is significantly improved over the earlier Auchentoshan 10 year old and Classic expressions, which were more poorly received (and by all accounts, even lighter in flavour). The current Duty-Free expressions – typically identified by a certain type of wood for finishing – are similarly not well regarded by the critics (although I don’t currently track them in my database).

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having a soft spot for this whisky – it was the first bottle that I actually purchased (although I still kick myself for letting a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling of a 21 yr old Glenlivet pass me by a few months earlier). Up until this Auchentoshan, the common Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12 yr olds or Johnny Walker Black were my entry-level introductions to the world of Scotch whiskey (as they are for many). The Auchentoshan 12 yo was suggested to me at a tasting bar as one to try next, and I was very impressed by its sweet maltiness and dry oakiness (and light touch of caramel throughout).

Not being a fan of cloying fruity/floral sweetness, this was a refreshing change for me – and I bought a bottle on the spot. Like many, my tastes have expanded over the last couple of years, and I can now appreciate most anything (although I am not a fan of the young, medicinal members of cluster J). Personally, I now tend to gravitate toward the well-aged members of the cluster A-C whiskies. But I still enjoy returning to this old favourite on occasion, when looking for something uncomplicated.

Auchentoshan 12yo bottleAnother reason for the soft spot – this is also one of my wife’s favourites. 🙂 She is not a fan of the heavily “winey” or “smokey” single malts in my collection, and prefers this expression over most others. The Hibiki 17 year old and the Dalwhinnie 15 year old are also high on her list – as they are with most novice whisky drinkers.

And that’s the secret to the Auchentoshan 12 year old – it goes over well with almost everyone who tries it. If there were such thing as a “universal donor” among whiskies (i.e., something that all could accept), this is the closest I’ve found to date. For literally only a few dollars more than the ubiquitous (and innocuous) Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr olds, you get a much nicer experience here. Highly recommended if you are just starting out.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen for this whisky is on the RumHowler blog. Jim Murray also seems to be a relative fan. For a balanced perspective, you may want to check out Ralfy’s video blog.

Incidentally, this bottling  made it onto Esquire’s Seven Best Scotch Brands Under the Radar You Need to Know.

 

 

 

BenRiach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Wood

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottle

Following up on my recent commentary of the GlenDronach 12 yr, I thought I would put in a word for the 12 year old, similarly sherried expression released under the BenRiach name (who also owns GlenDronach).

There is not a lot of information on this expression online, which is surprising given its price – like the GlenDronach, this is a remarkably affordable young “sherry-bomb” at the LCBO (currently ~$67 CAD). The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood gets a very good composite score in my Whisky Database, at 8.80 ± 0.26 on 9 reviews.

I recently received a bottle of this BenRiach expression for Father’s Day, and was surprised to find how different it is from the GlenDronach. As discussed in that commentary, the GlenDronach 12 yr is actually from much older stock than the label indicates (i.e., my early 2014 bottle contains whisky that is a minimum of >17-18 yrs old). But the base spirit from GlenDronach is clearly quite different from BenRiach – I find the BenRiach to be a much gentler dram, with a more more delicate underlying base.

BenRiach 12yo Sherry Wood bottleTo my mind, this would make the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood a much better choice for newcomers to single malts (especially newcomers to sherried malts). Despite the classic sherry sweetness up front, this expression is definitely on the drier side going out – compared to most sherried malts I’ve tried. And this is something I find inexperienced whisky drinkers typically prefer, as many are put off by excessive or sustained sweetness (and overwhelming flavour and complexity).

If I were to sum up the difference, I think the GlenDronach is a great choice for experienced sherried malt drinkers who are looking for distinctiveness. That said, the BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood is still something that I think everyone may enjoy, given its good balance of flavours and easy drinking nature.

For a good concise review of this expression, please check out Dramming.com. The boys at QuebecWhisky have reviewed what they call a “Sherry Cask” version of the BenRiach 12 yr, but it sounds from the description that the flavour profile is much the same (as is the photo).

 

 

GlenDronach 12 Year Old “Original”

GelnDronach 12yo bottle

The GlenDronach 12 year old is a popular entry-level example of the “sherry bomb” style of single malt whisky. It earns an above-average rating in my Whisky Database for the ABC super cluster: it currently receives an 8.68 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews (the overall average for this ABC group is ~8.55).

I have picked it to highlight in this commentary for a number of reasons. For one, although it receives a fairly consistent average-to-slightly-above score from most reviewers, there is at least one reviewer who rates this as a top pick. It is also an exceptional value in the ABC group, especially in Ontario (only $66 CAD at the LCBO). And it has a surprising amount of flavour for a supposedly young “12-year old” expression.

This last point is the most interesting to me. The GlenDronach 12 yr was first released in 2009, after the distillery had been sold to BenRiach. But the GlenDronach distillery had been shut down between 1996 and early 2002. So under the rules of single malt labeling, they had to rely exclusively on the pre-1996 stock to make these bottlings. At time of launch (in 2009), that meant the minimum age of the whisky in those bottles was at least 12-13 years old, depending on the exact end date of production in 1996 (but most was likely much older, for reasons I’ll explain below).

By 2010, the source barrels for that year’s “12 yo” bottlings would have to have been at least 13-14 years old. This trend continues up to the 2013 bottlings, where the minimum age going into those “12 yo” bottles could not have been younger than 16-17 years old. It is only at some point in 2014 that they would have been able to start using some of the new make 12-year old whisky in the vattings (and I’m going to guess not much – again scroll down for an explanation).

Given how production actually works (see my understanding single malts page for more info), it is highly unlikely that they would have blown-out all their late 1995/1996 stock in the first production runs of the GlenDronach 12yr. It is more likely that the blend of whiskies used in the vattings for those early bottles was heavily biased toward older barrels even at the start, in order to maintain some consistency in vatting over subsequent production runs. I say this because at the time of launch of this expression in 2009, they already knew that they wouldn’t be able to use any new make before some time in 2014. And given that the new make was not likely to be same as the old (due to differences in production methods), they presumably are still using a lot of that aging old stock in the current bottlings (to maintain consistency).GelnDronach 12yo bottle

For more info, this back-story is described in an excellent blog post on Words of Whisky. But do scroll down through the comments, as the included chart in the article is off by one year in its calculations (i.e., whisky made in 2002 would only be 1-year old in 2003, etc.).

Anyway, this helps explains why the GlenDronach 12 yr tastes remarkably robust for its apparent low age statement. So if you like that sort of thing, then you might find this to be an exceptional value. Note that some people online have complained about a “bitterness” in the palate/finish (which likely relates to differing abilities to detect sulfur compounds, as discussed here).

I plan to post a commentary soon on how the BenRiach 12 yr old Matured in Sherry Wood compares (hint: that is a gentler dram, better suited to beginners interested in trying something in the sherried class). UPDATE: commentary posted.

But for those of you who are already fans of the well-aged style of single malt, I recommend you check out these two very positive reviews for more info on this particular whisky: The Scotch Noob and Ralfy.

 

Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottle

This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.

There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉

The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.

Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.

Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).

What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.

Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottleHere is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).

I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.

For a balanced perspective on this whisky, you can check out Andre and Patrick’s reviews at QuebecWhisky.com, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis for other ideas.

If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!

1 6 7 8