Tag Archives: Single Malt

Old Pulteney 21 Year Old

The Pulteney (PULT-nay) distillery is the most northerly mainland distillery in Scotland, and they certainly make great use of sea imagery on all their products. Indeed, a general “maritime air” is believe to infuse their whisky, with subtle notes of sea salt/brine.

The 21 yo expression of Old Pulteney is a mix of whisky from Fino sherry and refill bourbon casks. It sits at the top of their core expression range, above the 12 yo and 17 yo expressions (which I have yet to review).

Of note, Jim Murray is a big fan of this whisky – he once rated it whisky of the year in his annual Whisky Bible (2012).  But let’s see how it fares among all critics in my Meta-Critic database, relative to other similarly aged expressions.

Aberfeldy 21yo: 8.77 ± 0.22 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.75 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 18yo: 8.57 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenfiddich 21yo Gran Reserva: 8.68 ± 0.33 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 18yo: 8.58 ± 0.19 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenlivet 21yo Archive: 8.83 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Glenmorangie 18yo Extremely Rare: 8.69 ± 0.23 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.12 ± 0.25 on 22 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo: 8.86 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Pulteney 17yo: 8.85 ± 0.28 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.77 ± 0.50 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

The overall average score is in keeping with many in this age class, but there is an unusually high degree of variance for this whisky. This indicates significant discordance among reviewers.

Let’s see what I find in the glass. This was sampled recently at Bar le Grincheux in Strasbourg, for 21€. It is bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Sherry influence is unmistakable, with definite chocolate notes. The fruit is secondary, and pretty much all apple, pear and a bit of banana – I am not getting any of the typical dark sherry fruits. Their is a sweet and salty maritime air, like salted caramel. No real alcohol burn or any off notes. This is a nice nose, with a fair amount of complexity under the surface. A pleasure to return to.

Palate: Sweet and lightly smokey is the initial impression.  The salted caramel and chocolate notes continue (especially creamy milk chocolate), joined by some oak vanilla. A hint of pralines and nougat. Effect reminds me of some of those higher-end Belgian chocolatiers (but not too sweet). Not very fruity, but the light fruits from the nose persist (especially apple), with again no dark fruits. There is some alcohol burn now, definitely feels like 46% ABV. Mouthfeel is a bit syrupy, and some soft spices enter the picture eventually. A touch of bitterness comes in at the very end.

Old.Pulteney.21Finish: Not particularly sweet, more slightly savoury – like the lingering finish of some south asian dishes. Astringent mouthfeel (with that “maritime air” again). Moderate finish, could be longer.

Certainly a very drinkable expression. Overall impression is that that of hidden spice and salt, having been muted by the more extensive barrel aging.  While I enjoyed the initial presentation, this one looses some marks from me on the way out – it just sort of fizzles, when you would expect a more substantial exit. As such, I think the overall Meta-Critic score is fair here.

For additional reviews of this whisky, generally positive ones can be found from Thomas of Whisky Saga and most of the members of Quebec Whisky (although André is quite negative). Another relatively negative review comes for John Hansell of Whisky Advocate (although that is an older bottling). For a more middle-of-the-pack review, you could see Ruben of Whisky Notes. And of course, there is Jim Murray for the most positive review of this whisky I’ve ever seen.

Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old

Bunnahabhain is a Scottish distillery that lies on the north-eastern tip of Islay, just north of Caol Ila. And like its nearest neighbor, most of its expressions are a lot milder than what you would typically associate with Islay (i.e., not smokey or peaty).

The reason for this is that Bunnahabhain apparently doesn’t use peated malt for its core line. At least, that is what is commonly reported online. The distillery website actually drops phrases like “lightly peated” or “minimal peating” occasionally, which is a definitely ambiguous. But most would agree that there is no real peated malt in the core age-statement line. That said, in more recent years, they have started making some heavily peated “Bunnys”, like Ceòbanach and Toiteach.

Here is how Bunna 12 yo fares relative to other unpeated 12 yo single malts:

Aberlour 12yo Double Cask Matured: 8.37 ± 0.17 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 12yo Doublewood: 8.45 ± 0.38 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.72 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Bunnahabhain 12yo: 8.55 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.11 ± 0.49 on 17 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.60 ± 0.24 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenfarclas 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.39 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.07 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glengoyne 12yo: 8.52 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Redbreast 12yo: 8.80 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$$)

The Bunna 12 yo is sort of middle-of-the-pack here, if you don’t count the ubiquitous entry-level Glenfiddich/Glenlivet malts (which are lighter tasting and rank lower).  Thanks to redditor xile_ for the sample tasted here.

I don’t normally discuss colour (since this can be manipulated), but the Bunnahabhain 12 yo has no colour added and is not chill-filtered (hurrah!). It has a rich pancake syrup colour, indicating a certain amount of sherry cask influence in the mix. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with definite sherry overtones – milk chocolate, raisins and prunes most especially. Overall, very light-bodied though (i.e., this is no sherry bomb). Honey and apple are also prominent. Something vaguely coastal or woody, but no real peat or smoke. Also no nose tingle, or any false notes. Bodes well for what is to come.

Palate: Highland Park-like initially, with sherry sweetness upfront followed by an underlying bitterness underneath (tree bark? coffee?). I normally associate this sort of bitter note with smokey whiskies, but I am not really getting any smoke here. A bit of honey and vanilla. Slightly nutty. Has a relatively light taste and mouthfeel overall, despite the 46.3% ABV. However, a touch of water might help with the underlying bitter note. Decent enough, but not very complex, and nothing to really distinguish it from the competition.

Finish: Some bitter chocolate on the way out, like an unsweetened cafe mocha. The balance is more toward bitter over the sweet (i.e., wood and some dry sherry). Slightly astringent, making you want to sip again.

Bunnahabhain.12Certainly a reasonable and tasty enough dram, but nothing that really stands out for me. It does have more of the dry sherry influence than you get in a typical Highland/Speyside whisky of this age, but none of the smoke/peat of the typical Islays. As such, I find it odd that there is so much bitterness throughout here.

I find the overall Meta-Critic score for the Bunna 12 yo to be reasonable. I would recommend something like the GlenDronach 12 yo for a more full-flavour whisky, or the Redbreast 12yo for higher quality in the same E flavour cluster. The BenRiach 12 yo Matured in Sherry Wood would be a better choice if you want a more sherried (but still delicate) whisky.

Reviewers are reasonably consistent in their view of this whisky. Probably the most favourable one I’ve seen is from Ralfy. One of the lest favourable would be Nathan the Scotch Noob. Oliver of Dramming, Serge of Whisky Fun and Thomas of Whisky Saga all give it fairly typical reviews.

Glenlivet 12 Year Old vs Founder’s Reserve

Like for many, the Glenlivet 12 yo was the first single malt Scotch that I would routinely order in a bar, neat. It was a considerable step up from the basic whisky blends I had tried (both domestic and international), and had a relatively gentle and inoffensive flavour profile.

I don’t mean that to sound belittling. When first exploring the world of whiskies, it is easy to get overwhelmed by strong flavours. Indeed, my first experience of malt whisky put me off it for years – a heavily peated malt, I recall remarking that it tasted like peat moss in vodka (as that was all I could discern at the time). The Glenlivet 12 yo was a revelation in comparison, and gave me an opportunity to appreciate the subtler flavours in malt whisky.

Of course, most of us eventually move on from this relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous single malt, searching for wider flavour experience.  But it remains a staple for its class, and one worth considering here – especially in comparison to the new Founder’s Reserve, a slightly cheaper new no-age-statement (NAS) from Glenlivet.

Founder’s Reserve immediately replaced the 12 yo as the sole entry-level Glenlivet expression in some smaller and emerging markets.  In more established markets (including North America), the two expressions are available side-by-side. That seems to be changing however, and the expectation is that the Founder’s Reserve will replace the 12 yo in most markets eventually.

As an aside, that name has received a fair amount of ridicule online – it is hard to imagine how the most entry-level whisky in a producer’s inventory could be described as a “Founder’s Reserve”. 😉

Fortunately, both the Founder’s Reserve and the original 12 yo are still available in Canada (for the time being). So I was able to try them both in short succession one recent evening.

Glenlivet.12Let’s see how they compare on in the Meta-Critic database, relative to other popular entry-level malt whiskies (age and non-age expressions).

Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.49 ± 0.94 on 6 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.31 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu Amber Rock: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Deanston 12yo: 8.05 ± 0.48 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.21 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.30 ± 0.43 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.08 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.95 ± 0.50 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 12yo: 7.82 ± 0.66 on 14 reviews ($$)

As you can see from the Meta-Critic average, they get roughly equivalent scores overall (and about middle of the pack for this entry-level group). But what you can’t tell from above is the repeated measure of individual reviewers who have tried both. There are only six reviewers that I track that have scored both whiskies, and the difference is interesting: three rank the Founder’s Reserve considerably higher than the 12 yo, two find it equivalent, and one finds it worse. Not quite what I expected for a lower price NAS.

Here is what I find in the glass for each:

Glenlivet 12 yo

Nose: Slightly sweet, with a touch of honey, and light fruits like apple and pineapple (a distinctive Glenlivet trait). Definite vanilla. Slightly floral, but I can’t identify anything specific. Slight solvent note, but not offensive.

Palate: Sweet up front, with the vanilla turning more to caramel now. The apple remains prominent, but also getting some citrus – with a touch of bitterness. Remains light and relatively sweet overall, and not very complex. Somewhat watery mouthfeel.

Finish:  Moderate finish – a bit longer than I would have expected from its light taste, but still relatively short overall.  That sweet apple remains the key note, although a bit of bitterness also lingers. As I remember it – a light and inoffensive whisky.

Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve

Glenlivet.Founders.ReserveNose: My core notes read the same – slightly sweet, light fruits like apple, slightly floral. But there is more going on here, with a malty characteristic now. There is an almost maritime air, with hints of salty chocolate (i.e., seems like it could be just a tiny touch sherried). Definitely a more complex nose than the 12 yo. Unfortunately, the solvent characteristic is also more noticeable (a touch of glue in particular).

Palate: Still sweet and fruity, and I find some maltiness is coming up now as well. Classic apple and honey are still there, but with faint chocolate notes, and something slightly spicy (pepper?). Still light and watery overall. Improves on multiple sips.

Finish:  As before, medium length for its class (short overall for a Scotch). The various new notes (like chocolate) linger, as does a bit of caramel sweetness. Less fruity than the old 12 yo.

The Verdict: The Founder’s Reserve is both more and less than the 12 yo. It lacks the simple charm and elegance of light fruit-driven 12 yo, and brings in more complexity (likely from wider barrel blending). With that wider mix comes some additional off notes though, so it really is a mixed bag.

For its extra complexity, I would give Founder’s Reserve a marginally higher score. But I can really understand why individual reviewers vary so much in their relative opinions of these two. It thus makes sense how the overall average scores came out pretty much the same, but with a larger standard deviation for the Founder’s Reserve.

For direct comparison reviews of both the 12yo and Founder’s Reserve, I recommend the boys at QuebecWhisky (12 yo, FR), Oliver of Dramming (12 yo, FR), and Richard of WhiskeyReviewer (12 yo, FR).

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.

 

Caol Ila 30 Year Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenrothes Vintage 1995 (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AnCnoc 12 Year Old

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

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

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

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

Here is what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I find in the glass:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kavalan Single Malt

A few months ago, I reviewed the Kavalan Concertmaster – a port-finished single malt whisky from Taiwanese distiller Kavalan. In this commentary, I thought I would look at their base model malt whisky – known simply as Kavalan Single Malt.

As previously mentioned, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate. This 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.

Both the Single Malt and the Concertmaster are classified as single malts, which means that are solely malt whisky, from a single distillery, made using traditional copper pot stills. And despite their entry-level status, both have won a number of medals at international wine & spirit competitions.

In the interest of full disclosure, my source for the Single Malt was a 50mL sample bottle (glass bottle, in the classic Kavalan art deco shape), picked up on one of my travels through Europe. When it was available at the LCBO, the full 700mL bottle retailed for $140 CAD. As an aside, I’ve noticed that the Single Malt tends to be sold for more than the Concertmaster just about everywhere (i.e., Concertmaster was $125 at the LCBO). One exception in Canada is Nova Scotia, where you can pick the Single Malt up for the relative bargain of $100 CAD (and Concertmaster for $104 CAD).

Here are some current stats for the various entry-level Kavalans from my meta-critic whisky database:

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

What I notice in the glass for the Single Malt:

Nose: Starts with classic oaky vanilla, with a touch of sherry dark fruits as well. Nothing very specific jumps out at me – a light mixed berry blend mainly. There’s also a perfumy floral smell, but no specific scents that I can identify. I definitely get a malty aroma, as if a bit of yeast were left behind. There is also a solventy smell lurking underneath it all (which is something I don’t personally care for).

Palate: Toasted caramel and vanilla are probably the most prominent flavours, consistent with ex-bourbon casks. A touch of the dark fruits, like dates and raisins, but not as much as I would like. I don’t really get the promised tropical fruits here at all (unlike, say Amrut, where they come through in spades). It really isn’t sweet – somewhat bitter, in fact. Also very malty, even more than the nose suggests (although this is not a problem for me). Taste of wood pulp. A bit boring perhaps, but not unpleasant. Note that this whisky is oddly astringent, and really dries out the tongue quickly after every sip.

Kavalan Single Malt bottleFinish: Much the same flavours as the palate, medium finish. Leaves you with a vaguely woody and malty aftertaste, and very dry gums and tongue.

I would consider this to be an entry-level single malt. The astringent effect is significant (i.e., very drying in the mouth). This may explain why some reviews complain that it is “hot” or has a “kick” to it, despite its relatively low 40% ABV – I suspect they are really referring to this astringency (i.e., a high alcohol content is also drying).  It comes across as rather young otherwise.

This is one case where I personally differ from the meta-critic scores – I would rank the Concertmaster higher than the Single Malt expression, as I find the port-finishing adds a lot of distinctive flavours to the base spirit. Please see my earlier Concertmaster review for additional comments, and a further discussion of the astringency characteristics.

For more reviews, you could check out Ralfy for a detailed discussion of this whisky. Some favourable reviews can be found by the guys at Quebec Whisky. Oliver at Dramming has a short review, with a somewhat different take on the flavour profile.

I have samples on hand of a couple of the higher-end Kavalan expressions, and will post commentaries of those when I get around to sampling them.

1 6 7 8 9 10