Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bourbon Review: Maker's Mark

So, just for kicks, Grace and I decided to taste a sample-size bottle of an American-made bourbon, Maker's Mark, and see how it struck us after all these lovely single malt scotch whiskies. Bourbon is an American whisky made from corn instead of barley, and by law all bourbon that is labeled as such must come from Kentucky. And yes, they spell it "whisky," instead of the more common American spelling "whiskey."

In the glass, Maker's Mark is a pale caramel color, with long legs. On the nose, the first impression is a pungent alcohol burn, almost like moonshine or slivovitz ; this isn't a terribly smooth drink, despite their claims. The main flavor note is vanilla, although there is a little bit of a floral note -- maybe rose or carnation. Grace says "light Karo syrup." There's some oak, a little bit of char like burnt toast, and a bit of a licorice-like anise flavor. The finish is long and a little bit sour-tasting.

If you add a bit of water, the burn smooths out and the flavor opens up -- there is some apple and pear in evidence, although the flavor never gets complex.

Grace and I only give this a five on our ten-point scale. With water, it deserves a six. It would make a good mixer, and I wouldn't turn it down over ice and certainly not in certain mixed drinks, but there are much better things to savor after dinner.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenfiddich 12

Tonight we tasked a depressingly small sample bottle of Glenfiddich 12. The color of this one is a very pretty light gold; it's got a little less cling on the glass than some, and forms legs quickly. I had never tasted a Glenfiddich before and it was a treat.

On the nose, the first thing I notice is a big hit of toffee. It never ceases to amaze me that these are just made with malted barley, sometimes peat to smoke and dry it, and water, and the various types of casks, and that's about it. And suddenly you've got butter pecan ice cream. This has the most pronounced buttery aroma and flavor of any whisky I've tasted. Think baking homemade chocolate chip cookies, and pecan pie. There are some delicate floral notes hiding in there -- maybe a bit of rose; Grace suggested lavender. Think baclava flavored with rose water and made with a light, grassy and fruity olive oil.

On the tongue this whisky has a pleasant burn, with a little burnt toast and black pepper, a little drying but not unpleasantly hot. If I had some more I'd try it wet, but alas, I did not; I'd expect a little water to bring out a slight saltiness and emphasize some of the fruit and nut flavors. There's not a lot of oak to speak of.

The balance is excellent. It would be an excellent first scotch for beginners, while still providing a suite of very pleasant and rich flavors for more experienced tasters. Despite the sweetness, I don't think it need be reserved entirely as dessert drink; it would also make a nice aperitif.

Some of the other reviews I read of this whisky mentioned vanilla, apple, pear, coconut, and honey. I'll go along with the coconut, especially if it is toasted, but the fruit flavors are softened and sweetened -- not like the crisp and tart apples in the Bunnahabhain 12, but more like applesauce with a touch of cinnamon, or apple pie with a butter crust.

Grace gives this one an 8.5, while I give it an 8. Looking at prices, it appears that this one is quite inexpensive as these things go, which makes it a terrific bargain. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that since it is inexpensive, popular, and produced in large quantities, that it isn't also very good -- this one really is a very appealing and "moreish" whisky, if a little simple. I'm looking forward to comparing it to the Glenfiddich 15 and 18.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or

This "expression" of Glenmorangie is aged in Sauternes casks. Sauternes is a French dessert wine, made from white grapes, with a sweet and tart flavor. This bottling is a pale yellow-orange, with a syrupy consistency that clings to the glass.

On the nose, there's a lot of citrus and sweet flavors, primarily lemon custard, a hint of lime, caramel candy, and a malted vanilla milk shake. Instead of apple flavors like those that the Bunnahabhain 12 offers, on this one we get pear and coconut notes. It has a wonderful mouth feel, and a nice lingering heat on the palate, with a bit of of nutmeg but very light on the oak. On the finish it reminds me of a cinnamon and sugar donut, or an almond croissant.

Blended with a little water, it gets hotter and the creaminess backs off, revealing more orange, and the sweet notes become more like brown sugar and toffee. Try adding just a touch of water; I think it makes this one slightly better.

Overall, it's a very tasty beverage, but so oriented towards sweet flavors that it is pretty much exclusively a dessert drink. I wouldn't make it a regular dram for that reason and the flavors are enticing but not very deep or complex, and don't evolve on the mouth. I give it a 7.0.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: The Balvenie PortWood 21

We have only a small 50 ml tasting bottle of this scotch, and I just poured it. Even letting the glasses breathe, I can already tell from the aroma wafting my way that this one is going to be interesting.

The color is a nice amber -- it's actually similar to a the color of tawny port, but perhaps with a little more red. It is thick and leaves nice legs on the glass. On the nose, there's a citrus sharpness, like lemon oil, honey, vanilla, and a rich perfume of oak and port. It's a gorgeous, thick aroma... I'm almost tempted to just keep smelling it and skip tasting it. (Well, almost, but not quite!)

On the tongue, it's quite a potent, "hot," drying flavor, but the burn is pleasant. I'm hoping it will help keep me free of viruses this flu season. There's a whole set of peppery, spicy flavors I'm having trouble unpacking -- cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. I'm not getting much in the way of floral tastes, but that's OK. There is plenty to keep both the nose and tongue occupied as it is!

I'd explore the taste with a little water added, but I can't bring myself to do it! There's just not enough in that little 50 ml bottle, especially split with my wife, to risk ruining it.

Some of the professional reviews I skimmed noted toasted nuts, and I can agree with that, and also notes a flavor of armagnac. I agree -- a nice armagnac is filled with vanilla and caramel notes while also providing a little heat and spice, and this whisky does just that. They also mention "cedar," and I guess that's fair, although I'm not sure I can really distinguish my aromatic woods. Maybe I need to do some homework.

Grace gives this one an 8 -- she is somewhat turned off by the "burn." I think it's incredibly nicely balanced and I don't mind the burn -- because it isn't as overpowering and doesn't stick in the mouth as much as the Lagavulin 16, where the peat and iodine really stay with you. I give this one a nine. I probably wont' be tasting it again anytime soon, unfortunately -- full bottles of this whisky are expensive, ringing up at around $100. But still -- maybe someday!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: The Singleton of Glendullan

This one is going to be brief. The Singleton is an inexpensive single malt scotch whisky, as these things go; it goes for about $36 here in Michigan. Can a lower-cost dram compete? The answer, as usual, is "it depends." Are you looking for an exciting drink that will shock or titillate or intrigue your tongue? Then look elsewhere. But if you're looking for a dram that is just plain very good, then my answer is yes, the Singleton is an excellent bargain and holds its own against some single malts that cost two or even three times as much.

This is a bottling from the Glendullan distillery in Speyside, a coastal region of Highland Scotland that is dense with distilleries. It's a 12 year old whisky. Even without reading the notes on this one, it's pretty obvious from the color and the nose that it was finished in sherry casks, but the literature on this one indicates that it also spent some time in bourbon casks.

On the nose: orange, honey, vanilla, malt, hazelnut, and oak. A professional review I consulted notes "sandalwood," and that helps clarify that faint floral, perfume-like note that I was unable to identify. In the mouth, the texture on the tongue is very smooth and oily. The burn in the mouth is warm and pleasant, not overbearing, and there are no big surprises -- there's nothing in the mouth that wasn't there in the nose. The finish is not overly drying.

This whisky holds up well to a little water, and it brings out some of the drier notes, especially the dry sherry, oak, and date flavors. (Grace says "pine nuts.") I found it pleasing either way.

While sweet, this whisky is not as sweet as the Scapa, which I found slightly cloying. The flavor is very nicely balanced and soothing, without any notes that seem out of place. Grace and I agree that this one would make an excellent regular dram after dinner or before bed. It gives a very warming, appealing blend of flavors. And because it doesn't "show off" like some of the other whiskies with big or very complex flavors, I don't have much more to say about it. Grace and I both give it an 8 out of 10.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenmorangie La Santa

The La Santa is an "expression" of Glenmorangie -- that seems to be the recent term of art for taking a mature whisky and putting it in a particular type of cask to age again for a short while, in order to impart some additional flavors. In this case, the casks are casks that previously held sherry (a style of Spanish wine made from white grapes and fortified with brandy). Therefore, it is comes as no surprise that this whisky has a reddish-gold color. On the nose, there is a bit of light alcohol burn -- surprisingly light for a whisky bottled at 46% alcohol -- and a strong sherry aroma, together with a bit of oak, lime, and vanilla. There is no smoke, peat, salt, or iodine that I could notice.

In the mouth, this scotch is smoothly textured, quite sweet, and creamy, with what Grace called an "agreeable" burn -- milder than some other whiskies. The flavors remind me of a malty sweet biscuit, or maybe a vanilla sandwich cookie. There's something reminiscent of a marshmallow held in the fire too long, and a citrus note -- is it lime? Or maybe Seville orange marmalade on burnt toast? There is a slightly bitter plastic or burnt flavor similar to the one I noted in the Scapa, and a professional taster would probably know what to call it, but I don't. There is something slightly inharmonious -- like drinking orange while tasting lime peel, as if two of the fruity notes were clashing. I wish I could describe it better than that, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

There is a mildly drying oak in the moderately long warm finish. Water does not improve this whisky, diluting pretty much all the flavors. Grace called the sherry flavor "maple syrup," and gave it an 8.5. I give it an 8. Altogether a very nice whisky, but that slight disharmony between flavors makes me downgrade it just slightly. It isn't quite as "moreish" as the Bunnahabhain, to my taste, but still a very nice dram.

We have two more "expressions" of Glenmorangie to taste: the Quinta Ruban (with a port finish) and Nectar D'Or (with a Sauternes finish). Of course, it wouldn't be fair to taste them without also comparing them to the original Glenmorangie. We'll be tasting all of them over the next few days.

Scotch Whisky Review: Scapa 14

Scapa is from the Mainland (the biggest island) of the Orkney archipelago -- so it's an island malt, but not an Islay. This is not my first experience with Scapa -- I tasted a Scapa bottling years ago, and liked it enough to buy a bottle a few years back. I haven't pulled it out very often, though, and this is the first time I've tried to coherently rate and evaluate this whisky.

In color, this malt is a nice light gold; it's moderately syrupy, clinging slightly to the glass. On the nose, I first notice a fairly powerful alcohol burn, and a very noticeable sweet cake and vanilla icing flavor, with a touch of honey and oak. There is something faintly unpleasant underneath -- I wrote down "burnt plastic," and I saw another reviewer note "rubber tires." Fortunately it isn't very powerful.

On the tongue, this whisky is syrupy-sweet while very drying, with a hot burn and a short finish. I note something herbal, like sage, a flavor like Keemun (English breakfast) tea, a note of hazelnut, notes of dates, orange peel, and unsweetened chocolate. Scapa is often associated with the phrase "heather honey," and I get the honey, but am not sure I'd know what heather tastes like if it bit me. That's probably the herbal, floral note that I'm calling sage. Whatever you call it, it's somewhat subtle, like the other flavors. Some other reviews I found noted a definite pineapple flavor, and I can agree with that, but it reminds me of pineapple juice rather than the fruit itself.

I tasted it after adding a little water, and was disappointed -- the flavors weaken, and the burnt, bitter notes become more apparent. There's a salty-sweet meaty pickled plum note, which I'll just call "umami," that becomes more apparent -- another reviewer noted this as the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi, which I'd say is pretty accurate. In any case, it doesn't really get better with water added -- this whisky is better neat.

This dram is pleasant enough, but its flavors are rather mild, and while some of the flavors are interesting and it is well-balanced, it isn't layered with flavors like the Islay malts. I don't enjoy the sweet notes now, at 42, as much as I did when I was in my twenties. Note that this would be a great first single malt to taste, if you aren't sure if you'll like the peat and smoke characteristic of most of the Islay malts.

Because of the mildness of the flavors, and the predominance of sweetish flavors to the exclusion of most others, my overall rating is only a 7 out of 10. (Grace says 6.5). Scapa now sells a 16 year old bottling which I'm curious to taste. I'm also looking forward to comparing this with an Aberlour.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain 12

About fifteen or sixteen years ago, I had a flight of scotch whiskies at Ashely's pub in Ann Arbor. It was one of my first experiences with single malts. I don't remember exactly which ones I tasted, but I'm pretty certain that there was a Scapa, an Aberlour, a Talisker, and a Bunnahabhain.

The Bunnahabhain, which I'm told is pronounced "Boona-hahvin," stood out from the rest because it was a milder whisky, with very little heat or harshness, and also because of its exceptionally smooth, oily mouth feel, almost like peanut oil, and nutty flavors. So I have a bottle, and now that I'm a few years older and, I hope, wiser, and I've tasted a few more whiskies, it's time to put this one in context.

Bunnahabhain is quite different from the other Islay malts we've just tasted. On the nose tonight my first impression was almond. There's a little tang of salt in the background, and no peat or smokiness to speak of. With a few more sniffs the flavor of green apples becomes evident, and that flavor stays in the finish -- not a cider, but more like a tart sparkling apple juice. There's a wonderful almond flavor, reminiscent of marzipan, and toasted coconut, and vanilla, but I don't pick up a lot of herbs or flowers. It's evocative of pumpkin pie spice. There's a nice warming heat, but it isn't overly drying. The sip fades out on a little bit of oak, but the tart apple flavor stays with you. There's just the slightest fresh pepperiness, like Nasturtium, or ground white peppercorns.

Adding a splash of water to this malt changes the character rather dramatically -- the apples recede into the background, but the sweetness is ramped up, reminding me of toffee, and suddenly it's a salty scotch. It's a bit like a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll! There's also a touch of peat that was almost absent before. Grace tells me that to her it gets some of that slightly unpleasant Islay assertiveness, what she calls "rubbing alcohol." The flavors don't collapse with a little water, but do become quite different, so try it both ways.

Grace rates this one a nine. I'll give it an 8.5. It's definitely "more-ish" -- it makes you want to taste it again. Despite having tasted many more whiskies since my first experiences with single malts, this remains one of my absolute favorites, and not merely for nostalgia value.

Update: tasting this again last night, with a clear head, it is evident that there is a little bit of peatiness to the Bunnahabhain 12. Also, The cork tore apart, and I had to remove it with a corkscrew, and replace it with a different one that doesn't fit quite so well. I'd better finish this bottle soon! It's a few years old; it would be useful to compare it to the latest Bunnahabhain 12 bottling, since despite the best efforts of the distilleries the bottlings do change over time, and sometimes even for the better.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Talisker 10

Talisker is not technically an Islay scotch; the distillery is on the Isle of Skye. However, it may as well be -- the style is quite similar to the Caol Ila and the Lagavulin. Grace and I tasted the ten-year-old bottling.

The color is a medium-pale amber. It coats the glass nicely, clinging in sheets and leaving a "high-water mark," and gradually forming thready legs. On the nose, I pick up a light smoke, a bit of iodine, a little spark of sour lemon candy, and a sweet something in the back of the throat -- maybe shortbread, and vanilla icing.

The first sip has a wonderfully smooth mouth feel, although not really oily like some of the oily and nutty malts. I get an initial impression of smoke, very warming and drying. On the second sip: nice butterscotch. Some of the less pleasant flavors are evident, too: there's a bit of lighter fluid and charcoal, but these are in the background. After the Caol Ila my tongue is hunting for more complex flavors, but not finding much else to report. I'm not getting much that is floral or fruity. The finish is a lingering driftwood fire, but not overpowering, with a little hint of leather and perhaps spearmint. The finish is quite long and this dram leaves your mouth dry; I might need a glass of water in a few minutes.

A little bit of water doesn't hurt the Talisker -- it smooths out the drink, reducing the burn and the dryness, but it doesn't seem to reveal anything new. Try it both ways and see what you think.

Grace didn't care for this scotch very much, noting rubbing alcohol, caramel, yeast, and toasted bread. She dislikes the extended burn of the Islay scotches, in particular criticizing the smoke and the iodine.

Grace rates this scotch a seven. I rate it a 7.5 -- I think it's quite approachable and pleasant and wouldn't pass up the opportunity to drink it again, but there are more appealing whiskies out there in the price range. If you are not brand new to Scotch but have never tasted the Islay malts, this would be a good introduction, followed by the Caol Ila and the Lagavulin (going in order of how "challenging" they are to the palate).

Some Other Scotch Geeks

I found that the ScotchCast also reviewed the same two drams that I just completed -- the Lagavulin 16 and Caol Ila 12. I have not listened to their reviews yet, but I'm about to!

On Top of Old Smokey

Beating the High Price of Scotch Whisky

You may have found yourself wondering how it is that I'm casually reviewing these scotches -- after all, the Lagavulin 16 goes for $45 to $70 a bottle, the Caol Ila from $35-60, and you'll be seeing several more reviews including Talisker, Bunnahabhain, Highland Park, four Glenmorangie bottlings, Scapa, and perhaps some others. Did I buy all those bottles for the reviews?

The answer is no. I do have some whole bottles -- some of them I've had for five years or more, and some I bought in the past year or so. I certainly wouldn't be able to buy more than a bottle or two in a typical month's budget. But here is is a tip -- you can often find smaller bottles in gift sets, and these sets are often heavily discounted. This is a great way to taste multiple kinds of whisky without paying out for a whole bottle. And if you do want to buy a whole bottle -- shop around! Prices vary widely.

The Lagavulin, the Caol Illa, and Talisker are all from this Isles of Scotland box set of 200 ml bottles, which will make three or four glasses each. It cost me only a fraction of the price the site listed, and I found it at Stadium Market. They also have a boxed set of Glenmorangie bottlings, in 100 ml bottles, and I'll be reviewing them together. 100 ml is only a couple of glasses, but it's enough to get a good taste, and costs less than a single bottle of any of the four varieties. In fact, if you find that you like all the bottles in a boxed set, there's nothing saying you can't come back and buy another set -- figure out how to get the most bang for the buck for what matters to you, whether that is variety or quantity.

I will be keeping my eye out for more tasting-size bottles. I wish more distilleries would release their malts in the 200 ml size. I'd happily buy a half-dozen of these at a pop in order to taste a variety, and probably buy then buy one full bottle of the one I liked best.

It's interesting how very individual tastes are. The saying goes "there's no accounting for taste." This phrase is sometimes used to insult someone's poor taste, but I think what it really means is that it is impossible to account for, or justify or explain your taste preferences in a way that someone else is likely to find convincing; you're entitled to like what you like, and dislike what you dislike, and it may be ultimately inexplicable.

I was considering this while I was deciding what number rating to give the Lagavulin 16. Do I think I know better than the critics who give this a much higher rating? No. Grace and I agree that it is an amazing drink, fascinating, savory, intriguing -- but we also agree that while we'd love to explore it at a tasting, it is not the one we'd prefer to drink with modest regularity for dessert or before bed. She was also expounding on pairings. The Lagavulin would stand up to pairing with a cigar -- but I don't smoke. If you're looking for something to accompany a cigar, the Lagavulin might do it for you. On the other hand, we love Maya Gold chocolate, and I think the Caol Ila would probably taste very fine with a square of that chocolate. So consider the ratings to be "to my palate," and not necessarily yours.

Did I mention that Stadium market also makes fantastic pizza and egg salad roll-up sandwiches, and stocks great chocolates? I have not had great luck with their featured wines -- they have uniformly been somewhat disappointing for the price -- but if they would stock Red Bull Cola, my life would be complete. But perhaps it is best that they don't!

UPDATE: I stopped by Stadium Market today, and they had small "trio" boxed sets of 50 ml sample bottles of 3 Balvenie bottlings, including a 21-year-old port cask aged whisky that I'm looking forward to tasting. They also had a nice little set of 3 different ages of Glenfiddich. So we we will be tasting those in the near future too! And what's that hiding in the photo? Could that be a blended Irish Whisky? Hmmm...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Caol Ila 12

I've asked my wife Grace to join in with me in reviewing another whisky from Islay. So, tonight we're enjoying Caol Ila (pronounced, I'm told, "Cull Eela.")

Caol Ila is a pale amber dram, considerably lighter in color than the Lagavulin 16 I reviewed yesterday. On the nose, Grace reports a citrus tang (as in Tang, the fruit drink; I'm calling it Mandarin orange, which Grace says is "grilled.") She commented on the legs and the syrupy texture (but this Scotch is not oily), and says it reminds her of a nice white wine.

There's a light and pleasant smokiness, but it's not overpowering. Grace reports charcoal and an anise (licorice-like) flavor. There are modest notes of caramel and vanilla. There isn't much iodine or sea salt to speak of. The burn is mild, and the oaky, peaty, smoky finish is long and dry, tempered by some bittersweet spices, like nutmeg (Grace says cinnamon, I say bittersweet chocolate -- Grace suggests that it reminds her of Maya Gold chocolate, produced by Green & Black's, which is flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange -- and I concur! There's quite a strong resemblance.)

It's altogether very nicely integrated and pleasant. Grace gives it an 8. I'll agree with that -- it's flavors are milder and not as big and robust and showy as the Lagavulin, and that makes it more approachable and more suitable for regular sipping. It's not my go-to dram, the first one I think about when I contemplate having a glass of whisky, but it will definitely be on my short list.

Scotch Whisky Review: Lagavulin 16

In the glass, it has a really lovely dark gold color. When I stick your nose in, the first thing I notice is a medicinal, rubbing-alcohol, maybe even pine resin or turpentine smell, with a hint of iodine. Warm it in my hand and breathe a little deeper, and it's a campfire of oak logs blowing across the beach, stinging my eyes a bit. This scotch has a big, big aroma.

What else can you get just from the nose? There's a little something like dry sherry. It's notably lacking in some of the sweeter aromas, like caramel, although there is a little bit of vanilla in there to sweeten it up just a touch; as I progress through the dram, slowly, there's a build-up of a sweetness on the back of the tongue that reminds me of sweetened condensed milk. I don't get anything floral from it. I can imagine a little orange, or maybe bergamot, or cherry, but maybe that's just my imagination. There's just a touch of saltiness, and the flavor they call "sea air" -- the iodine reek of seaweed. There's something like black peppercorns.

On the tongue, the texture is immediately striking -- this is an oily scotch, with a smooth feel across the tongue, almost like cream or honey, but dry, dry, dry, as if there were some bee venom in that honey, and it leaves a burn in my throat, cheeks, and tongue that warms and lasts. It's not that it is a terribly high-alcohol beverage; the 16-year-old is 43%, which isn't unusual, and I'm attached to a bourbon -- Knob Creek -- that is 50%, but feels much less punishing to the mouth.

The sensation of peat, and even charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, sticks with me, and I notice it even more as I exhale, taking my little breaks to make notes in between sips. In fact, this dram makes me wake up feeling like I've spent the night face-down in a bog. It will kill everything that used to live in my mouth, in a way that some of the gentler whiskies don't seem to do. And that's not really a good thing. The flavors stick with me so strongly that ten minutes after finishing my dram, I'm still studying the flavors.

This isn't my favorite scotch. It consistently gets high ratings, but while I love the oily smoothness and smoke, the sting and the long-lasting charcoal and peat are a little much. Adding a little water -- not too much -- reduces the burn a little, and I get a little more vanilla, but it doesn't really open up any hidden flavors or reveal anything the way it works in some scotch whiskies. Lagavulin 16 is better straight.

Going against the scotch whisky critic consensus, I give it only an 7.5 out of 10. If you're having a tasting, it's definitely an iconic and intense scotch and you must include it. It's very good at being big and intense and I do love that oily texture and smokiness, but the lingering burn and peaty dryness in the throat means it's probably not the one I will turn to often when I'm looking for a little something before bed; it's just too much.

Lagavulin is distilled on Islay. Next time, I'll taste Caol Ila, also from Islay, and then maybe Bunnahabhain, and compare the three different Islay whiskies. I don't have any Laphroaig on hand, but maybe I'll see if I can pick up a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Spoiler: Bunnahabhain is one of my all-time favorites, although it doesn't seem to get the press and high numbers that some of the better-known malts get. Maybe we can talk about why that is.