Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Highland Park 18

Highland Park is an icon among distilleries and frequently wins awards. They cut their own peat, and apparently mix in heather, which might account for the honey notes. Where Bunnahabhain holds a special place in my heart for its particular style of oily, nutty, mildly peaty flavors, Highland Park's bottlings are my wife's personal favorites.

In the glass this dram is quite dark and reddish, an attractive jewel-like amber color. The texture is oily.

On the nose, there are some peaty phenols, a damped-down Listerine flavor, blended with muted vanilla and toffee, but not overwhelming caramel, and a very light toasted bread -- it isn't very malty. The chocolate in this one is a light milk chocolate. There's a complex set of floral notes that I'm not sure I can fully unpack: rose, lavender, carnation? Warm the glass and there are some intriguing fruits: pear, banana, raisin. Nutty notes: almond. There's a light honey, or maybe golden syrup? Spices: nutmeg, cinnamon.

On the tongue, the immediate impressions are creamy sweetness and a full-bodied smokiness. The fruits and nuts and flowers maintain a wonderful balance. The whisky is warm, but extremely smooth. The mouth feel reminds me of the wonderful smoothness of The Tyrconnell. This finish is long and the sweetness and smoke remain wonderfully matched, with neither predominating.

Whisky writers have a tendency to gush about this whisky, and can't disagree with them. It's extremely fine stuff! And yet, I can't help but feel that the flavors and aromas are all just slightly damped-down -- perhaps the aging has taken a little too much off the "edge" of this whisky? Or perhaps it just covers too many bases? Therefore, I rate it a 9, not 9.5. After exploring a lot of Islay bottlings, and some younger beverages, I seem to have developed a tasted for slightly rougher, odder stuff. So while I would certainly never pass it up, my quest to find the ultimate malt for my own personal tastes continues.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

The Quinta Ruban is an "expression" of Glenmorangie, given a little extra aging in casks that formerly held ruby port.

In the glass, the color is a little ruddy, a little tawny -- a bit darker red and brown than the standard Glenmorangie 12. The legs are short and it has a slightly waxy appearance.

The nose suggests immediately that this is an after-dinner drink: the usual Glenmorangie vanilla sandwich cookie and candied orange peel aromas are supplemented by a very rich blast of port wine smells, redolent of dark chocolate and peppermint, and a little bit of smooth tobacco smoke to cut the sweetness. There are a few other notes: cinnamon, candied fruits, and dark rum. A reviewer notes "maraschino cherries" and I think that flavor description is definitely applicable.

On the tongue, the texture is tannic and dry. There's an immediate hit of something tart, like green apple, and as the fruits roll through and the malt and chocolate notes linger the, subtle smokiness hangs on, so that the long finish is bittersweet chocolate and dark, almost bitter, burnt toast, yielding a net effect something like having just sucked up the last strawful of a hot fudge malt milkshake and following up the milkshake with a cigarette. (Yes, if you hadn't guessed, I'd advocate drinking this as a dessert drink, although I don't find that sweetness to be overly cloying). That slight oily/waxy quality also lingers, and is not entirely pleasant, but it isn't a deal-breaker by any means.

Overall, this whisky gets extra points for the very well-balanced blend of bourbon oak and ruby port oak flavors. The flavors seem slightly muted, and it pales a little bit in comparison to The Balvenie PortWood 21, but those dark chocolate and malt flavors together are really delicious, and at $40-$50 it costs a fraction of what the PortWood 21 costs. It would be a good introduction to the "extra matured" expressions; if you have the Original (12 year), the Quinta Ruban (Port), the Nectar D'or (Sauternes), and the La Santa (Sherry), even in sample size, you've pretty much got the material for a nice little tasting party all centered around one distillery.

I give this one an 8.0. Maybe at some point I'll get to taste the 18 and 25!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Talisker Distiller's Edition 1998

This one has been kicking around the kitchen for a month or so -- I've tasted it a couple of times, but didn't get around to reviewing it. It's about time!

The Distiller's Edition is finished in an Amoroso Sherry cask. I previously reviewed a standard 10-year-old Talisker here. That Talisker I didn't review very highly -- I gave it only a 7.5. Let's see how it compares to this special (and considerably more expensive) Distiller's Edition. This one was distilled in 1998, and bottled in 2009, making it (roughly) an 11-year-old whisky.

In the glass this is a rich orange-straw in color, with a bit of that oily cling and short legs. The nose is big, robust, and complex: dried orange peel, potpourri, wood smoke, that Talisker iodine, a lot of vanilla-inflected oak, and some dried fruit notes, like dates.

In the mouth the texture is soft and very lush -- not oily but velvety, reminding me a bit of a red wine with soft tannins. The heat is thrilling but not overhwelming. On the tongue this whisky is spicy, with pepper, cloves, and nutmeg, and is, intriguingly, both dry and quite sweet simultaneously. The extra sweetness seems to have come from the sherry, and is reminiscent of maple or brown sugar. There are some wonderful rich cocoa notes, hazelnuts, and a hint of spearmint. The nutty elements remind me just a bit of Bunnahabhain, one of my favorites. The smoke and peat remain in the background, deepening the flavor, while the sweeter flavors are up front. It's a very appealing and rich combination. This is seriously good stuff!

With water, the cocoa comes forward a bit, and the sherry notes become slightly more prominent, reminding me of apricot jam on toasted bread. That fantastic tannic texture is still present. Personally I like it better neat; it's not meant to be drunk quickly. But if you find the heat and sweetness too strong, try it with a little water.

This is 9.0 material -- highly recommended. And it's "more-ish" -- this bottle will not last us long!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: McClelland's Single Malt Islay

Tonight's dram is another of the McClelland's lineup of budget-priced malts -- this time, the Islay version. This leaves only the Lowland version to taste.

In the glass, this is a dark orange-gold, and clearly young -- the legs are short and brisk, but it lacks that oily, waxy texture.

On the nose, there is a goodly blast of peat smoke -- very medicinal, like Listerine, and just a little bit of sweet vanilla and malt, with a little iodine and salt -- it is hard to detect much else. The McClelland's site says "citrus," and I guess I can conjure a little orange peel.

In the mouth it is more promising. There's an initial caramel, maple (that is, Sherry-like) sweetness, with a little vanilla and honey. It's drying, but not exceedingly hot, with a lingering phenolic finish. The finish doesn't have the complexity and the "waves" of sweetness and peat that Laphroaig or Lagavulin has. It is pleasant, but doesn't really tantalize the tongue. It makes me crave a Caol Ila 12. There is something just slightly off-putting in the finish -- an undertone of bitterness, maybe, like a 90% dark chocolate -- that does not harmonize, and is not enjoyable. A reviewer I found called it "astringent," "green," and "raw." Another called it "grappa," and although I like grappa, a scotch whisky should not be reminiscent of a pungent liquor made of grape skins. My wife made similar comments -- that it tastes too much like moonshine.

With a little water, it sweetens slightly -- the smoke flavors become a little bit more subtle, and the vanilla (from oak aging) becomes more predominant. I'd say it is a little better wet, although not dramatically so.

It appears I may have mistakenly thought that the McClelland's Speyside was a 5-year old Bowmore. It seems that this one may be the Bowmore. The word is that the 8-year-old Bowmore "Legend" is better. Maybe I'll get the chance to compare them at some point.

Overall, where the Speyside was intriguing and complex, this one is too basic to really qualify as excellent. A few more years in the cask would probably make a world of difference. I rate this one only a 6, which is the lowest rating I've given out so far. As my wife says "there are things I like about it, but the things I like the most about scotch whisky aren't in it."

We're both unenthusiastic about finishing our glasses. This is the first whisky where I've actually poured the last of my glass into the sink, and so I can't really recommend it, even at the budget price point. Grace is going to try to figure out if it will work to soak some kind of cake. It's also the first single malt scotch I'd be willing to mix into a cocktail (McClelland's provides a recipe for a drink they call an Islay Smokestack that sounds tasty). I'd review that but we are missing some of the ingredients. Perhaps another time!

UPDATE: having tasted this a couple more times, I'm removing my rating altogether and just putting it in the category of "Avoid." Although the initial nose and flavor is still pleasant, that bitter, metallic after-taste follows you around, like chewing on foil, and it actually upsets my stomach. It almost seems similar to Pine Mouth. I'd almost believe that this was contaminated with something, but a more likely explanation is just that too much of the "tail" from the still was used and it contains some of the nasty compounds known as Fusel Alcohols.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beating the High Price of Scotch Whisky, Part 2: Bargain Bottlings

In a previous post I talked about using sample sets to give yourself an opportunity to taste a variety of whiskies, and train your palate, without having to lay out a huge amount of cash.

But let's say you want to buy a few bottles to keep on hand. Bottles don't have to be hugely expensive to be quite good! I'd like to be able to buy a bottle of The Balvenie PortWood 21, but they go for about $150. I'll do it at some point, but meanwhile, you could buy bottles of all of these for less than that one bottle:

1. Glenfiddich 15 is a very round, well-balanced, and enticing, "more-ish" dram that should appeal to both novices and more advanced tasters who just want something that isn't a peat or spice bomb. Its primary notes are butterscotch and citrus, and it has a great mouth feel and long, appealing finish.

2. McLelland's Single Malt Speyside is a great malt as well, with a number of fruity, creamy notes, like banana and dried fruit, on top of mint, menthol, dark chocolate, and pine -- very light and elegant, more like an Irish whiskey than a Scotch whisky in some ways! (You might try the McLelland's Highland while you're at it, although I rated the Speyside slightly higher).

3. The Tyrconnell, which is an Irish whisky, can be had at nice low price as well. This one is really intriguing, with flavors of shortbread, lime, green apple, and American cheese. It has an amazingly pleasing mouth feel as well.

4. The Singleton of Glendullan goes here for about $36, and it's a well-balanced dram with a lot going on, so I'll include it -- you'll find nice notes of orange, honey, vanilla, sandalwood, and dried fruits.

5. Finally, I enjoyed the Glenfiddich 12 quite a bit, although I did not find it quite as appealing as the 15. It's got butter pecan ice cream going on, and baked apples, as well as interesting floral notes that remind me of baclava made with rosewater.

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenfiddich 15

I've been meaning to finish this one for some time -- I have only half the sample-sized bottle of Glenfiddich 15 left, so I'd better review it before it is gone!

If you have been reading my reviews, you know that I enjoyed the flavor of the Glenfiddich 12 quite a bit, while I found the 18 to be disappointing. I had hoped that I might find the 15 to be just right. Let's see how it fits between the two.

In the glass, the color is very pretty -- a somewhat unusual orange-gold, with a hint of dried clover green. It clings well, with luxurious legs.

So what's on the nose? Right off the bat, there is a potent butterscotch aroma, taking me back to hard candies at my grandmother's house. There are some nice toasted nut aromas, particularly candied pecans. There's a definite toasted coconut note, and marzipan. It's got some peaty phenols in the background, too, that definite Listerine antiseptic note, and some pine forest. Perhaps a little dark chocolate and marshmallow, like a pinwheel mashmallow cookie? Give this one some time to warm and evolve -- there's a lot going on in the nose!

On the tongue, it is quite syrupy; the dry sweetness and butterscotch notes are very pronounced. It is hot and drying, like a brandy, but gently so. There's a little salt and smoke; there's a little bit of lemon, but it's in the background, like lemon oil. There's a bit of cinammon. The finish is quite long, with evidence of all kinds of nuts; I taste those pecans, but also hazelnuts and Brazil nuts. The up front butterscotch is quite different and quite distinctive. The lack of fruit and floral aromas is also distinctive -- I wouldn't use either "honey" or "heather" to describe this whisky. Maybe "treacle," but not maple.

I'm told that the 15-year-old is matured using an unusual scheme in which whisky from 3 different types of casks are used: ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and new oak. The blend is then aged in a vat made of pine! I'm surprised that I can't taste the sherry much -- I've found whiskies aged in ex-sherry casks to be quite distinctive, sometimes losing some of the other whisky characteristics as they absorb that sweetish, maple sherry note. I usually equate young oak with vanilla, as in a young Glenmorangie, but in this whisky the vanilla is very light. There is a little of that oaky dryness though, and this scheme explains that pine forest note that is always there.

Overall, this is a wonderfully complex balance of flavors. It's sweet, but never cloying; dry, but not burning; peaty, but not overwhelming. The long, buttery, lemony finish is very enjoyable. It would make an excellent dessert drink. I rate it a 9.0 and will probably buy myself a bottle to share with friends.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: McClelland's Single Malt Highland

My subject for today's review is another in the McLelland's series of low-priced bottlings (here in Michigan, it goes for under $25 a bottle).

These bottles don't indicate a distillery and don't have an age statement, but as soon as I nosed this one I realized that it had a familiar aroma. After a sip, I'd almost bet cash money that it is a very young Glenmorangie. Speculation is rampant online; some have suggested that it may be a 5-year-old Glen Garioch. Since I've never tasted a Glen Garioch, I can't comment, but I'll keep an eye out for a bottle in order to compare the two.

It's got a whiff of peat smoke on the initial nose, an attractive light amber color and a very round and slightly oily mouth feel. On the tongue, there's that nice sweet cookie note, some fresh apple (a crisp, sweet, soft champagne-like Braeburn, Gala, or Pink Lady), some banana, and an unusual, hot, spicy cinnamon flavor that reminds me of cinnamon toast. That note is a little odd but still quite delicious. I'm curious where it came from!

There are some nice nuts in the background, particularly hazelnut. This whisky is hasn't developed a lot of the more complex oxidized flavors that sometimes show up in older whiskies, like dried fruits, leather, tobacco, or dates. It doesn't seem to have been aged in anything else other than the usual bourbon cask.

The finish is long and satisfying and this whisky is "more-ish" -- I just finished a small taste and I'm going to refill my glass.

Because it is relatively light, I don't recommend watering this one. A little water actually brings down the fruit notes, makes it taste much hotter on the tongue, and brings that cinnamon flavor forward so much that it is like drinking an atomic fireball candy; it isn't very enjoyable that way.

It doesn't have the weight and complexity of some of the heavy-duty bottlings, but this is a tremendous bargain, and would make a very good introduction to scotch whisky in general for a newcomer. I'd give it an 8.5, but that intense cinnamon when watered is overpowering, so I'll knock it down half a point to 8.0.