Tag Archives: Port

Oban Distillers Edition 2015

Following up on my Oban 14 year old review, here is an example of one of their annual Distillers Edition expressions. While there can be some variation from year to year, these are all pretty similar in style – and tend to be well received by whisky enthusiasts.

The particular vintage up for review here was released in 2015. It was distilled in 2000, and underwent a period of finishing in casks that had previously held Montilla Fino (a dry and pale variety of sherry). While not a common choice for finishing typically, it is the cask type that has been consistently used for Oban’s Distillers Edition for over a decade now.  The individual vintages are all around 14-15 years old. So you can expect pretty good consistency from year to year.

Bottled at 43% ABV. It sells for $140 CAD at the LCBO. I obtained a sample through a swap with the Redditor Throzen.

Here is how it compares to similar malts in my Meta-Critic Database:

Dalwhinnie Distillers Edition: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfiddich 15yo Distillery Edition: 8.71 ± 0.27 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition (all editions): 8.41 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Jura Prophecy: 8.67 ± 0.31 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Kilchoman Loch Gorm: 8.87 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Kilchoman Sanaig: 8.69 ± 0.25 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.51 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 18yo: 8.72 ± 0.19 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Oban 21yo: 9.02 ± 0.24 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Oban Distillers Edition (all vintages): 8.71 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.40 ± 0.38 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 17yo: 8.76 ± 0.24 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.82 ± 0.45 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Springbank 18yo: 8.96 ± 0.17 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker Distiller’s Edition (all editions): 8.92 ± 0.23 on 24 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Skye: 8.43 ± 0.28 on 12 reviews ($$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Starts off with the classic Oban honey notes, followed by golden brown sugar. I can definitely detect the sherry notes, with golden raisins added to the usual apple/pear and grapes of Oban. A hint of smoke is here, but it seems subdued compared to the regular 14 yo release. Heather is prominent, joining the typical cut hay and floral notes. In some ways, this reminds of an even more lightly-peated Highland Park. There is some ethanol nose hair singe, which I don’t get on the 14yo. A decent nose overall.

Palate: Honey and salted caramel to start. Stewed mixed fruits, but with a dose of bitter earth cherries (ground cherries) added to the mix. Also golden raisins. Cinnamon and nutmeg. There is a bit of pepper here, giving it some kick. Slight bitterness on swallow, but dissipates quickly (reminds of dried paper glue).

Finish:‎ Medium length. Odd mix of bitter and sweet, frankly. Pear and apple re-surface, but the glue note lingers. Sticky residue on the gums, which is nice.

With a bit of water, you get sweeter caramel in mouth. I would say it benefits from a few drops.

Personally, I prefer the regular Oban14 yo. The Distillers Edition is well put together, but I find that it is just not that interesting or compelling for the style. There are plenty of other lightly sherried malts you can try instead – the Glenkinchie Distiller’s Edition (aka “Double Matured”) comes to mind.

Among reviewers, Elizabeth of the Whiskey Reviewer gives Distillers Edition top marks. Most reviewers are more moderate in their praise, including for the example Nathan the Scotch Noob, Michael of Diving of Pearls, and Ruben of Whisky Notes – all of whom rank Oban 14 yo higher (as I do). In contrast, Patrick of Quebec Whisky finds them about comparable, while Jim Murray and Serge of Whisky Fun both prefer the Distillers Edition over the 14 yo. No real negative reviews out there, Gavin of Whisky Advocate has given it a lower score than typical.

Grant’s 18 Year Old Blended

This is a limited release of an age-stated version of the Grant’s line of blended scotch whisky (not to be confused with Glen Grant single malts). Prior to this premium age-stated release, I’ve only had the entry-level Grant’s blend (known as “Grant’s Family Reserve”). Although I haven’t reviewed it, I found that no-age-statement (NAS) blend to be very basic, and would not recommended it.

So what drew me to buying this bottle? In my experience, age-stated blends are generally pretty decent, especially from William Grant and Sons (e.g., the Storas 21 yo). Grant’s 18 yo has been finished in Port casks, which typically brings in a fruity character that I quite like. It is reasonably priced at the LCBO ($80 CAD, bought on sale for $64). And I found another whisky enthusiast willing to take a gamble and split the bottle with me, thus further lowering my risk.

Grant’s 18 yo is bottled at the industry-standard 40% ABV. I presume it is chill-filtered and colouring has been added.

Here is how it compares in my Meta-Critic Database to some other blended scotch brands that also come with age-stated expressions:

Ballantine’s 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.32 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Ballantine’s Finest: 7.62 ± 0.61 on 12 reviews ($)
Catto’s 12yo: 8.06 ± 0.31 on 5 reviews ($$)
Catto’s Rare Old: 8.02 ± 0.67 on 5 reviews ($)
Chivas Regal 12yo: 7.79 ± 0.44 on 23 reviews ($$)
Chivas Regal 18yo: 8.23 ± 0.46 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Dewar’s 12yo: 7.94 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$)
Dewar’s White Label: 7.52 ± 0.71 on 14 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12yo: 8.47 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse: 7.65 ± 0.55 on 20 reviews ($)
Grant’s 12yo: 8.47 ± 0.42 on 5 reviews ($$)
Grant’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Grant’s Blended Sherry Cask: 8.00 ± 0.21 on 6 reviews ($)
Grant’s Family Reserve Blended: 7.69 ± 0.66 on 14 reviews ($)
Hankey Bannister 12yo Regency: 8.65 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews ($$)
Hankey Bannister 21yo Partner’s Reserve: 8.55 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Hankey Bannister Original: 7.87 ± 0.31 on 6 reviews ($)
Johnnie Walker 12yo Black Label: 8.26 ± 0.47 on 24 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Blue Label: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Johnnie Walker Green Label: 8.53 ± 0.35 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Storas 21yo Rare Cask Reserves Blended: 8.69 ± 0.11 on 4 reviews ($$$)

As you can see, that’s a top score for an age-stated blended scotch. Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly rich and complex nose, likely owing to the Port finishing. Honey and brown sugar. Caramel. A base of apple and pear juice, with figs and raisins. Some red berries (and red grapes). Lemon citrus. Nutty, which I like. A slight bit of funk, which adds to character. A bit spirity, but no real solvent off-notes – definite shows its extended age.

Palate: Tons of honey and caramel to start, very sweet. Vanilla. Fruity, with dried red fruits prominent. Figs again, and the standard apples and pear. Toasted almonds. Malty, which is nice for a blend (i.e., not particularly grainy). Very light wood spice, nutmeg mainly. No burn. Pleasant to hold in the mouth. ‎Turns slightly bitter on the swallow. Still, this is one for those with a sweet tooth. Wish it was higher proof, as it has a rather watery mouthfeel (as expected).

Finish:‎ Medium-short. Lemon zest. Chocolate-covered almonds. A winey Port finish on the fade out, with a bit of oaky bitterness. Some mouth puckering astringency. Not bad for a blend, but a longer finish would be nice.

A good integration of malt and grain whiskies – heavier on the malt, it seems to me. Certainly higher quality than regular NAS blends‎.

I like a nice Port finish on a fairly simple base whisky, like Pike Creek 10yo and Kavalan Concertmaster.‎ This Grant’s 18yo reminds me more of the later, although sweeter in this case. And a lot cheaper around here, too. Higher proof would have been great, along with a longer lasting finish, but a good blend for what it is. I think the Meta-Critic average score is fair.

Lawrence of Malt Maniacs gives it a very high score, as does Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Ruben of Whisky Notes and Dominic of Whisky Advocate both give it a below average score (but positive reviews). The lowest score comes from Oliver of Dramming.

Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Cask

Welcome to my first Tasmanian single malt review.  Tasmania is an isolated island state off Australia’s south coast, and has been seeing a boom in whisky production lately. Sullivans Cove is arguably their most well-known distillery. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they have won numerous international whisky awards in recent years.

Indeed, this particular French Oak single cask single malt, which is finished in port wine casks, won “Best Australian Whisky” at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards and then “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky” at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. This latter one is a little odd in my view for a single cask whisky – it doesn’t really help you know what to except from all the other casks out there. And you could never track down the same winning cask – we can only hope that there is not a lot of variability from cask to cask (and I expect there is).

In any case, these expressions are bottled at a reduced ABV (47.5% for the sample I tried), and the age varies from between 11 to 12 years old. I don’t have the specific bottle code for the one I tried earlier this year, but I know it was barreled on 8/8/2000 and bottled on 1/25/2012 (so, 11 years old, in other words).

Here is how Sullivans Cove compares to other port-finished malt whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Amrut Portonova: 9.00 ± 0.30 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask (all casks): 8.77 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.59 ± 0.37 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.80 ± 0.36 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
BenRiach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.44 ± 0.28 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Solstice Peated Port (both editions): 8.98 ± 0.28 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.35 ± 0.42 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.74 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.29 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.78 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Sullivans Cove American Oak: 8.63 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Sullivans Cove Bourbon Cask Strength: 8.54 ± 0.73 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Sullivans Cove Double Cask: 8.29 ± 0.49 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Sullivans Cove French Oak: 8.67 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Sullivans Cove Port Cask Strength: 8.55 ± 0.62 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.60 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

Despite the early awards, most Sullivan Cove expressions get fairly typical average scores in my Meta-Critic Database.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel, vanilla, and milk chocolate are the most prominent notes. Baked goods – but more like a Blondie bar than a brownie (although there is a bit of dark chocolate too). Citrus, and some apple. There’s a general fruity sweetness, but nothing else very specific (i.e., seems more like fruit-flavoured candy, think Haribo gummy bears or fruit roll-ups). A little nutty. No real off notes.

Palate: Wow, tons of butterscotch and toffee notes now – very buttery, in fact. White chocolate is also prominent (that’s a first for me), along with hazelnut. The dark chocolate has become subdued, more like just a touch of bitterness now. Creamy mouthfeel. Really, this tastes is like a some sort of specialty chocolate bar that has been liquefied! Same candied fruit as the nose. Some mild baking spices (nutmeg), a touch of pepper. A bit grassy.

Finish: Fairly short, unfortunately. Or perhaps not, given the overwhelming sweetness of the nose and palate. The bitterness of the dark chocolate comes back at the end, along with that slight candy fruitiness.

Sullivans.Cove.French.OakVery unique experience. Closest thing in my mind is probably Glenmorangie Signet – but amped-up, with white chocolate and butterscotch.  Definitely not an everyday dram, but this could easily serve as a decadent dessert replacement at the end of a meal.

Not really getting much of the port finish here (beyond that sweet candied fruitiness). It does reminds me a bit of the old Pike’s Creek 10 Year Old Port Finish here in Canada (before they switched to finishing in rum casks). But this is really overwhelming in its sweetness.

This whisky was a hit for Serge of Whisky Fun and TOModera of Reddit. It also garnered fairly positive reviews from Jim Murray and Ruben of Whisky Notes (although only an average score from Ruben). Dominic of Whisky Advocate is moderately positive (but giving it a below average score). The only actually negative review I’ve seen is Craig of Malt Maniacs. While I appreciate that it is a quality product, it is not something I could see myself going for very often. I think the overall Meta-Critic average is reasonable.

Amrut Portonova Single Malt

Amrut is the biggest name in Indian whiskies. And like Japan and Taiwan before it, they are now garnering all sorts of awards and enthusiast interest. For this review, I am looking at their cask-strength, port-finished single malt – Portonova.

I’m long been a fan of port-finished whiskies. I find it adds a distinctive grape-like fruitiness to most whiskies, that differs from the more common sherry fortified wine-finished ones.

I previously reviewed the Amrut Intermediate Sherry – which is a bit of a misnomer (check out that review for my comments). Let’s see how Portonova compares to it and other recent Amrut whiskies, as well as other port-finished malts, in my Meta-Critic whisky database:

Amrut Bourbon Single Cask: 8.73 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Fusion: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Intermediate Sherry: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Kadhambam: 8.97 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Naarangi: 8.63 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Amrut Peated Single Malt Cask Strength: 9.13 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portonova: 8.97 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask: 8.82 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut PX Sherry Single Cask: 8.79 ± 0.47 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Spectrum: 9.15 ± 0.22 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)

Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.58 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
BenRiach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.50 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Solstice Peated Port: 8.92 ± 0.28 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.27 ± 0.55 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013 Port Wood: 8.82 ± 0.46 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow Red 11yo Port Cask: 8.70 ± 0.37 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Penderyn Portwood: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Talisker Port Ruighe: 8.49 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.56 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tyrconnell 10yo Port Cask Finish: 8.55 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, Portonova is one of the more popular Amrut whiskies – and one that out-scores the other port-finished malts in my database. A very impressive start.

My sample came from Redditor Devoz. It is bottled at a very high 62.1% ABV, cask-strength. Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity, with grape, raisins and berries. Dark chocolate. Pancake syrup. Toasted coconut. Dry malt. Definite nose-hair burn from the high ABV. Water dulls the nose, best to smell this one neat (carefully).

Palate: Intense flavour rush. Same dark chocolate and dark fruits from the nose, with new flavours like red currants, papaya, kiwi. Very luscious mouthfeel, like a melted Mackintosh toffee bar. Spicy kick, mainly allspice and cinnamon. Alcohol burn from the high ABV.  Unless you want to take ridiculous small sips, water is a definite must here. A tiny bit of water seems to bring up the spicy notes the most, without affecting the other flavours. Further dilution kills the mouthfeel though, and quickly starts to sap the flavours, so go sparingly here.Amrut.Portonova

Finish: Long finish, with creamy toffee throughout. Slow fade-out of the fruity notes, leaving just a touch of bitter coffee at the very end. Too much water oddly enhances the bitterness of the finish, so I again suggest you go easy on the H2O.

Not exactly your every day dram, given its incredibly rich flavour profile and mouthfeel.  It is also a lot spicier than most port-finished whiskies I’ve tried (e.g., the Kavalan Concertmaster is a tame affair, in comparison). And with its high ABV, this one demands a little water – but I find getting the dilution just right is pretty finicky.  Definitely a whisky for slow contemplation, and very careful dilution.

Among the highest reviews I’ve seen for this whisky come from the guys on Reddit (check out their Community Review). My Annoying Opinions and Serge of Whisky Fun are also really big fans. Nathan the ScotchNoob is moderately positive. The guys at Quebec Whisky are mixed on this one though, with high, moderate and low scores.

Pike Creek 10 Year Old Port Finish

Like Lot 40 and Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek was part of the original short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series of the late 1990s. Hearkening back to an earlier era of whisky production, these were created at Corby’s Hiram Walker facility to simulate previous production styles.

While the market wasn’t sufficiently receptive at the time, these higher-end offerings have made a strong resurgence in recent years.  This started with Lot 40, which was re-released in 2012 and remains the darling of Canadian straight rye whisky. More recently was the late 2015’s re-release of the multi-grain Gooderham & Worts.

Often overlooked in this series is Pike Creek, similarly re-launched in late 2012. Pike Creek is double-distilled in small copper column stills to a low ABV. The spirit is initially matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and then finished in vintage port pipes. A 10 year age statement is included on the domestic version (which is bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV).

Pike Creek is clearly formulated to appeal to those who like their fortified wine-finished Scotch whiskies.  Indeed, you could argue Pike Creek was a forerunner to the highly popular Alberta Premium Dark Horse – where a small amount of sherry is directly added to rye whisky. 66 Gilead Crimson Rye and the recently released Gretzky Red Cask are further examples of this wine barrel-finished style.

For reasons not clear to me, Pike Creek seems to be relegated to second-tier status among these recent offerings, with relatively little buzz and promotion.  Let’s see how it compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to other modern Canadian whiskies:

66 Gilead Crimson Rye: 8.30 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$)
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.63 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.38 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.60 ± 0.42 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Evolution: 8.85 ± 0.64 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Forty Creek Three Grain Harmony: 8.25 ± 0.59 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Double Still Rye: 8.34 ± 0.40 on 6 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.76 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.91 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.27 ± 0.51 on 12 reviews ($$)
Stalk & Barrel 100% Rye: 8.66 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$)

Pike Creek is definitely at the low end of overall scores, although the variance is high here (indicating that some reviewers seem to really like it, some really don’t). Note that the overall average for Canadian whiskies in my database is currently ~8.35.

Let’s see what I find in the glass. 🙂  My bottle is a late model batch, recently bought at the LCBO ($39.95 CAD).

Colour:  Medium orange-brown. Pretty confident this has been artificially colored with caramel, for a consistent look.

Nose: Definitely getting the rye, softened with sweet fruit – most especially currants, red grapes, prunes and raisins. I also get strawberries and blueberries. A bit of red wine, followed by vanilla and a dry oakiness. Classic light rye spices, quite a nice mix overall. No real solvent smell – except perhaps for a faint hint of glue (and I can almost imagine smoke). There is a fair amount of alcohol singe for 40% ABV. It’s a nice nose, and a good start to the tasting.

Palate: The rye notes dominate, but with a surprising amount of caramel and brown sugar throughout.  Lighter than I was expecting, and not as fruity as the nose suggests (mainly berries left, but a bit of citrus shows up now). Pepper and some ginger add to the spice. A bit nutty. Watery mouthfeel overall, consistent with the low ABV – I suspect it could be quite stunning if it were bottled at higher proof. Decent, but I was personally hoping for more rye kick.

Finish: Surprisingly short. The rye and fruit seem to exit first, with a slow lingering brown sugar finish. A slight sourness, but well balanced to the sweetness (reminds me of cherry blasters candy). Nothing wrong with this finish per se, but it sure would be nice if it lasted longer.

pike-creek-portThis is definitely one for folks who like their ryes light and sweet. Personally, I was hoping for more overt port flavours and a stronger rye presence (given the reported distillation method). But it doesn’t have the flaws of most light (and young) Canadian rye whiskies. I could see this one serving as a nice daily sipper.

As such, I don’t get the low scores overall.  While not as complex as Lot 40 or Gooderham & Worts, I would still have expected this to do above-average for a Canadian whisky. Based on the other Canadian whisky examples listed above, I would personally give Pike Creek something like a ~8.6.

For positive reviews of this whisky, check out Davin of Canadian Whisky, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and headlessparrot and TOModera on reddit. The most negative reviews I’ve seen come from Lasidar on reddit and André and Martin of Quebec Whisky (although Patrick there gives it an about average score).

If you are curious to try it, you might want to hurry to pick this one up: Corby has just replaced it with a rum barrel-finished version (as of October 2016). Stocks of the original port-finished Pike Creek are dwindling fast.

 

BenRiach 15 Year Old Tawny Port

BenRiach has recently announced a new 21 year old Tawny Port expression, apparently to replace the current 15 yo Tawny port-finished single malt in their core line-up.  As such, I figured it was about time I write up my review of this one, before it disappears off the shelves for good.

Port is a Portugeuse fortified wine, and comes in sweet, dry and semi-dry forms. I’ve even had white port, which is distinctive. I am typically a fan of port finishes for malt whisky, as I find it adds slightly sweet grape notes to the basic malt profile. Tawny port in particular is typically sweet (or medium dry), and often somewhat “nutty”.

As I mentioned in my 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Wood review, BenRiach typically has a fairly gentle base spirit. This makes it well suited to fortified wine barrel finishing, in my view.  Here are how some of the typical BenRiach expressions compare:

BenRiach 12yo: 8.42 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach 12yo Matured in Sherry Wood: 8.69 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$)
BenRiach 15yo Sauternes Finish: 8.11 ± 0.53 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 15yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.51 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Septendecim Peated: 8.51 ± 0.57 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
BenRiach 17yo Solstice Peated Port: 8.90 ± 0.29 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

And now some other port-finished whiskies:

Amrut Portonova: 8.98 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Amrut Portpipe Peated Single Cask: 8.80 ± 0.37 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Port Cask Finish: 8.59 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Balvenie 21yo Port Wood: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Tawny Port Finish: 8.54 ± 0.39 on 4 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask: 8.32 ± 0.59 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow Red 11yo Port Cask: 8.64 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Penderyn Portwood: 8.61 ± 0.42 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Tomatin 14yo Portwood: 8.57 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Tyrconnell 10yo Port Cask Finish: 8.55 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

BenRiach 15 Tawny Port is certainly within the typical range of other port-finished expressions (although at the low end of them).

I had a glass of the BenRiach 15 Year Old Tawny Port from a recently opened bottle at a bar here in Ontario.  It was my only drink that night, so I took my time with it.  Here’s what I found in the glass.

Nose: Sweet, as I would expect for a tawny port. Main fruits are raisins and grapes (doh!), with some subtler lighter fruits like apple. Net effect is sort of like a grape jam. Milk chocolate. I also get dry, musty woody notes, like sawdust. No off-putting solvent notes or alcohol singe (surprisingly mild, in fact).

Palate: Fruit jammy, but with less distinct fruits now. Milk chocolate again, and even more musty oak. Pepper, producing some tongue tingle. Chewy mouthfeel, even a bit syrupy. It’s a great malt to hold in your mouth – you don’t want to swallow.  Somewhat tannic and tart once you do, though. Fairly simple in composition, without much influence from the base spirit it seems.

Finish: Medium finish. Oaky bitterness present throughout, as it has been all along.  Surprisingly astringent. Nothing really unpleasant though, just a simple and gentle fade-out. Reminds me a lot of Kavalan Concertmaster.

Benriach.15.TawnyThe BenRiach 15 Tawny Port Wood Finish is an easy-drinking whisky, in much same the category as of the Kavalan Concertmaster. It has less character on the nose though, earning it a lower score in my books (although it does about the same or better with many reviewers). There’s nothing to particularly recommend BenRiach 15 Tawny Port over other port-finishes, but not much to complain about either.  I’m curious to see if the extra aging in the new 21 year old version brings up anything new.

Some of the highest scores that I’ve seen for this 15 yo expression come from the folks at Quebec Whisky (André and Patrick in particular).  Personally, I’m somewhat closer to Martin and Eli (Elisabeth) in my rating. Richard at the Whiskey Reviewer is similarly moderately positive, as is Jim Murray. End of the day, this is a decent dram, but nothing to get too excited about in my view.

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.