Whisky! Whisky! Whisky! and More Whisky!
With everybody bringing multiple bottles to share, plus those that Greg offered, we had an extensive selection! Here are a few pictures of just a sampling of the bottles that were available to taste!!
With this kind of selection, knowing where to start is a real challenge! After all, you can only sample soooo many at one session. As an avowed peat-lover, I had to refrain from jumping right into the peated whiskies. Instead I started with some of the Speysiders and Lowlanders before sliding over to Springbank, and then, finally, tasting one or two of Islay’s finest, finishing with a whisky from one of the dozen or so new distilleries in Scotland. I didn’t bother taking actual notes – so the comments will be short impressions of the whiskies.
I started off the evening by tasting of a Longmorn 15. What made this so intriguing is that this was a 1980’s bottling, meaning that this was distilled anywhere from the late 60s to early 70s! Longmorn typically has a big, meaty body, and leans toward the heavily sherried profile. This one, bottled at 43%abv, was surprisingly very lightly sherried and with some rather obvious bourbon-cask influences, too. It was a nice mix of orchard fruits, dried fruits, and softly spiced cocoa. This had a moderate, oily body with a good finish.
Following the Longmorn, I opened up the bottle of Scott’s Selection Bladnoch 20 year-old that I’d brought to share. This particular whisky was distilled in 1984 and bottled in 2014, and it was bottled at a cask strength of 55.1%. This Lowland distillery has a spotty history, suffering numerous closures over time. The good news is that it has now been purchased (again) by a new owner and it looks like it will restart producing whisky! This was a very pleasant surprise. Lowland whisky has a reputation for being light and delicate, but this had a rich body with a vibrant, fruity palate. I look forward to exploring this in more detail!
The second whisky that I brought was the Balvenie Tun 1509, Batch 1. As you might imagine with this group, finding whiskies that most have not previously tried is a real challenge, and this was one such whisky. Most had tried this before, although a few had only tried Batch 2. Oh well, I tried! Anyway, what can I say about the Tun 1509? For starters, Balvenie makes good whiskies, and this continues to demonstrate their very high quality. At the same time, the Tun 1509 has not achieved the universal reverence and appeal of its predecessor, the Tun 1401 releases. Where the 1401 whiskies had a core of richly sherried whiskies, this whisky has only 7 component sherry butts out of the 42 total casks that went into mix (Balvenie lists the cask number and type of cask on the canister). The result is actually a whisky that is more inline with the Balvenie main range, showing a nice blend of grains, honey, vanilla, and fruits. This is well-balanced, with a nice, rich body; a beautifully crafted, quality whisky that unfortunately can’t quite measure up to the earth-shattering experience that Tun 1401, particularly Batch 3, offered….and given the rather hefty price tag, that makes it a tad disappointing.
From there I moved to the Ben Nevis 10. Ben Nevis has become a real favorite distillery of mine recently. Like the Port Charlotte whiskies and the Broras that I’ve tried, Ben Nevis has this “funky, farmy aspect to it and I find this somewhat quirky nature very appealing. This whisky was distilled in December 2002 and bottled November 2013. It was matured in a “white” port pipe cask; it was bottle 334 of 2002, and was bottled at 56.4%abv. Sometimes port maturation can be overdone which leads to some balance issues, but this one was just right. The whisky maintained the Ben Nevis quirkiness, but there were these subtle wine fruit notes that just tickled the edges, making for an interesting tasting experience. For me, this was one of the best of the evening!
Next I poured a small sample of a whisky from the closed Rosebank distillery. This was a Gordon & Macphail single cask, cask strength bottling of a Rosebank 17. Distilled March 4, 1991 and bottled May 20, 2008, it came from cask 846, a refill sherry hogshead, and was bottled at 55.3% abv. Delightfully fruity, with soft toffee and cereal notes, and a gorgeous finish.From there I poured another Ben Nevis, this an 18 year-old bottling released under the Montgomerie’s label that was distilled 15 November 1995 and bottled June 2014. This was bottle no. 654, from cask no. 780, and it was bottled at 46%abv. While there were no notes on the label, I believe this was matured in an ex-bourbon cask, showing hints of vanilla, some ginger, with floral and grain notes and subtle white fruits. Quite good, but just a notch lower than the OB Ben Nevis I’d tried earlier.
Then I tried an interesting whisky, a bottle of Ballantine’s 17 year-old blended Scotch whisky that was produced somewhere between 1979 to 1983. This was bottled at 86 proof – listing the proof as opposed to the abv% is one of the indicators of its production age. There are regular discussions about the differences between “same” whiskies that were produced decades earlier and the more current releases. There is some pointing to the increased reliance of ex-bourbon casks and a reduction in ex-sherry casks (due to the rising cost of sherry casks), as well as a perception of a higher ratio of younger whiskies now being used. Anyway, this was a very good whisky, although an obvious blend as the grain whisky was somewhat prominent. The overall impression is of a very “soft” whisky, with light fruits, a hint of smoke, and a driving cereal component. It was fascinating to taste this whisky and mentally compare it to my experiences with more recent versions. I’d have to say that this does have a bit more complexity and body.
Following the Ballantine’s I selected a Cadenhead’s bottling of an Imperial-Glenlivet 17 year-old. This was distilled November 1979 and bottled Dec 1996 at a whopping 63% abv. Note the use of the hyphen Glenlivet in the name. At one time this was a fairly common occurrence as various Speyside distilleries tagged the Glenlivet name onto their own distillery name. This was probably an effort to leverage the success of Glenlivet by association into brand recognition for their whiskies. Ultimately, Glenlivet took legal action, prevailed, and this practice was stopped, with Glenlivet becoming The Glenlivet, the only distillery permitted to use the name. As to the whisky, Imperial is another “closed” distillery, with the actual buildings now converted into apartments. The whisky was full of fruits, vanilla and butterscotch, with some soft floral touches, and a very delicate, but lengthy finish.
One of the bottles that Greg had open for us to try was the Glenfarclas Family Cask 2001. Glenfarclas makes some fantastic, sherry-matured whiskies and the Family Cask Range is a set of “vintage” releases – the earliest I’ve seen is a 1953! The 2001 release has a bottling date of 19 September 2012, making this either a 10 or 11 year-old whisky. This came from cask no. 3923 and produced a total of 533 bottles at 59.7% abv. The particular release was specially selected for the staff at Astor Wines in NY. Sherry butts are much larger than the typical ex-bourbon casks, which results in less wood interaction, and frequently require longer maturation periods to show their best results. As a rather young, sherry-matured whisky, there was a youthful wildness to it that caused it to lack a bit of integration, and the high abv % made it extremely hot on the palate. Water helped, but I had just a small sample and didn’t really have enough time to let this sit to see how much it improved.
Another bottle of Greg’s that caught my eye early on was this Master of Malt Bruichladdich 12 year old, a single cask release from one of my favorite distilleries. This whisky had a very dark color to it, obvious even from a distance. As I reviewed the label, it confirmed that this was matured in a first fill sherry hogshead, producing just 86 total bottles. This whisky was distilled 28 June 2002 and bottled 26 Nov 2014, at a huge 62.3% abv. Interestingly, where the Glenfarclas Family cask was a bit raw and lacked a bit of polish, this Bruichladdich was elegant, rich and full-bore sherried. Even neat, this was approachable, but a drop or two of water brought out a beautiful creaminess that suited the intense dried fruits, dense cocoa and baking spices flavors.
After all these unpeated whiskies, I decided it was time to shift gears a little and get to some of the peated whiskies that were offered….and there were a lot of them! I decided to start with this official bottling of Springbank 15. The tan label precedes the current black with green lettering label and, with some help, I’m estimating that this was produced circa 2002. As are all Springbank whiskies, this was bottled at 46% abv. And, as I find most Springbank whiskies, this was very good, with perhaps a touch more sherried component whiskies, too. Great body, a delicate earthy peat smoke, dried and fresh fruit, and that fantastic Springbank essence of old workshop – oil, metal, aged wood. So good!
When I saw that someone had brought a bottle of Bowmore, The Devil’s Cask, this quickly went on to my mental list. Matured in first fill Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, and bottled 56.7 % abv, The Devil’s Cask has gotten some very good reviews. Now, I admit that I am not the biggest Bowmore fan….the reason, for me, is that their whiskies have a tendency to be too “manufactured” in the blending which causes them to come across somewhat muted, with all the interesting and fun edges trimmed off, leaving an impression of whiskies that are just a tad undefined and nondescript. I know that there are many Bowmore fans that may take umbrage with this, but I’m sure they recognize the role of personal preference….and be happy that I leave more for them! So, did this whisky change my mind about Bowmore? Yes, and no. This was obviously a quality whisky, and the sherry maturation was on show, blending nicely with the typically delicate Bowmore peat smoke notes. But I used the term “blend” intentionally as this whisky, as I find with most of the Bowmores I’ve tasted, to have this blend-like persona, which comes across to me as muted, where the flavors become a bit muffled.
My next whisky was a very bittersweet selection for me, personally. You see, each year, for the last “x” number of years, Lagavulin has put out a 12 year-old cask strength bottling matured in ex-bourbon casks and I’ve accumulated bottlings of these releases going back to the 2009 release – buying two when I could so that I could drink one now and have one for later. Unfortunately, this year the Lagavulin 12, 2015 Edition was included with the annual Diageo Special Releases series (along with their annual Port Ellen and Brora bottlings). The result of this premium exposure was a near immediate rush to buy these – even if the buyers had not tasted these whiskies before, I suspect. The rush was simply because most of the bottles in the Special Releases end up appreciating in the whisky investment market. So, after years of loyal purchases, I was aced out of getting any of the 2015 bottling. So, here was my chance! The 2015 Edition was bottled 56.8% abv. And it was just beautiful. While the Lagavulin 16 has a great balance of bourbon and sherry-matured whiskies, the ex-bourbon focus renders and absolute stellar taste which, in some ways, I prefer over the 16! It has all the requisite and expected Lagavulin peatiness, but the ex-bourbon maturation gives this superbly clean, crisp, vibrant whisky that is just bang on the mark for me.
Finally, my last whisky of the evening was a bottle of whisky from the relatively new Aisla Bay distillery, located within the Girvan distillery, and which started producing whisky in 2007. Owned, and built, by William Grant & Sons, which also owns Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Kininvie and Girvan (which produces grain whiskies), Aisla Bay was intended to operate as a “feeder” distillery for the Grant’s blends, with no expectation for any single malts to be released. Someone, somewhere, had a change of heart and they decided to produce a peated, Lowland whisky and to release it under the Aisla Bay label. This is the first release of Aisla Bay, a no age statement whisky, bottled at 48.9% abv, with a listed ppm 022 and a sppm 011 rating. The ppm rating is the relative peating level, while the sppm is a sugar part per million intended, perhaps, to demonstrate a relative sweetness level. This is the first time I’ve seen such a rating on any production information. The whisky itself was surprisingly light, definitely young, with a peat impact that was delicate enough to allow a nice fruit, sweet, floral profile to come through. Very interesting and I’m glad I had a chance to try this one!