Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Tomatin 18

Tomatin 18
Price: $55-$70
Strength: 46%

This is about as cheap as you can get an 18-year-old single malt, and given Padraic's not unfavorable review of Tomatin 12, this looked like a good try when I saw it on sale last summer in the New Hampshire liquor store.  

The sherry casks are obvious on the nose.  Cinnamon raisin bread, grape jelly, vanilla almonds, and a touch of wood smoke.  Overall a very pleasant nose with a good mix beyond the sherry.

The whisky hits the sweet buds first with apple jelly and almond cake.  But then it turns intensely dry and woody with strong sherry.  I usually love dynamic whiskies like Talisker and Ardbeg that evolve on the palate, but this swings the pendulum a little too far.  The sherry and wood (eventually) breaks up on the long finish, which is a bit rough for an 18-year-old but gives a pretty nice aftertaste.

Overall, a complex, though incoherent, whisky.  The flavors are strong, but the sweet to dry progression is a little like eating ice cream before salmon.  Given the price and uniqueness though, I recommend picking up a bottle if you can find it.  86 points (B).

Other Tomatin reviews:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Slummin' It with Dewar's White Label

Dewar's White Label
NAS, 40% ABV
$20 - 25

Though I make no claims to be an expert of any kind, I often get asked for advice pertaining to whiskey. At work, I've gained a reputation as the "whiskey guy," and I cheerfully go along with it, advising that Evan Williams is a cheap, reliable place to start if you're interested in bourbon, and that you need to spend, well, at least a little if you plan to drink Scotch. The latter was in fact in reply to a younger guy who told me, I don't get how you can drink Scotch, I had some this weekend and it tasted like gasoline! What kind, you ask..? Well, Dewar's White label. So then, Dewar's is perfect fodder for a Slummin' It review. Bottom shelf blended Scotch, purported to taste of gasoline, oh my, could this be the worst Slummin' It entry yet, worse even than J&B?

I purchased my Dewar's in a very "classy" half pint bottle from behind the counter at my local liquor store, and sampled it a a crystal Glencairn, appreciating the ironic juxtaposition, not really, I like half pint and pint bottles, they make a great way to sample stuff, even if the staff at the store do sometimes look at you kind of askance. When I lived in Massachusetts and went regularly to my local liquor store, I only ever got carded if I was buying "hobo bottles" from behind the counter.

Three or four Slummin' It reviews in, I don't have big expectations. Johnnie Walker ended up being better than I remember, but everything else has been fairly rough stuff. Still, these reviews are fun to write, so off we go. The nose is ok, some sweet malt and a bit of rough grain. A cautious sip rolled around on the tongue...and hey, this stuff isn't that bad!

The principal malt in Dewar's is Aberfeldy, a Highland I've never had, but it's fair to say that there's a fair bit of Highland malt in here. The notes are sweet malt, with stewed apples and honey. Although it's not a distinctive profile, it's a nice one, and strong enough to offset the expected grain whisky taste, at least for a bit. The grain wins in the end, as we knew it would, with a somewhat off-putting sour note. Right at the end there's an unexpected mild splash of peat smoke. Although it's not strong, it's actually pretty well done, maybe because it's not so much "integrated" as with Johnnie Black, for instance. The finish is short and rough, as with all young blends, but still, better than some. Dewar's has some body to it, and escapes from that thin, flat feeling of Cutty Sark or J&B.

A few drams in and the sour note and grain build on me, though at no point does this taste like gasoline. Dewar's White Label is not terrible for a Slummin' It blend. I'm not exactly going to throw it in the back of the cupboard as a Tuesday dram, but it was well worth the try. I hear that the 12 year old version of Dewar's is actually pretty nice. I'd like to try to come if I can get my hand on it for cheap! Score: 70 (C-)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: Cragganmore 12

Cragganmore 12
Price: $45 -$50
Strength: 40%

One of Diageo's "Classic Malts," Cragganmore is the Speyside of choice for the massive drinks company. Although Cragganmore is fairly well marketed, it doesn't quite stand up to its contemporaries such as Oban, Lagavulin, or Talisker. In fact, my taste of this came in a classic malt sampler next to Diageo stalwarts Talisker 10 and Lagavulin 16. Samplers like this are of course a great way to try new stuff without going all in for a bottle that might not be quite what you were looking for.

Not that Cragganmore is bad by any means. It's sweet, grainy (in a good, barley malt sense, not a cheap grain whisky way), and mildly floral on the nose, and much the same in the glass. Speyside sweet toffee and cereal grains fade to hints of citrus fruit and flowers, leading to a rather dry finish. I quite liked the dry character; it's not one you often see, and in fact reminded me of Glen Moray, a bargain bottle I nabbed last year. Cragganmore is unfortunately bottled at a weak 40%, and could use a bit more body and a bit more kick. I get that 40% is what a lot of basic stuff is bottled at, but the rest of the Classic Malts sampler is higher proofs and just bigger whiskies. Much like the texture, the profile here is pretty straightforward, with no surprises or true complexity. Cragganmore is good perhaps for a beginner, but leaves me looking for something more, whether it be peat, sherry, honey notes, or salt air. As with a lot of rather basic, entry level whiskies, I suspect that much of Cragganmore's actual output is in fact destined for blends, in this case likely the various products in the Johnnie Walker line. Given my recent tastes of Johnnie Walker, I wish I could say I can pick out the Cragganmore, but I just don't think it's distinctive enough.

Overall, Cragganmore is not bad, but boring. It's not something I'd seek out, especially at the price. For a similar dram at about $30, go for the Glen Moray instead. Cragganmore is a fantastic name, though...try saying it out loud in a thick Sean Connery accent. 72 points (C-)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Johnnie Walker Green and Gold

Grab them while you can, if you don't mind the already inflated price tag; Diageo has quietly discontinued the best offerings in their lineup. Without much fanfare, Diageo has decided that the vatted 15 year old Green label and the blended 18 year old Gold label were taking up space on their product line, and I suspect tying up whisky that could be put into higher or lower end offerings. I suppose it makes business sense to focus on the high volume more affordable Red and Black, or the high priced (and I hear way overrated) Blue label, as well as shifting focus away from higher aged products, and indeed, age statements in general...but it's still a shame to lose these two great offerings.

Johnnie Walker Green label
15 years old, 43% ABV
Price: Variable at this point, $85 was the last I saw on a shelf

Now known as "blended malts," vatted malts are a sorely under-represented segment of the market. There's a lot of potential in the marrying of different flavors.The Green label is principally blended from four different malts, Clynelish, Talisker, Caol Ila, and (I think) Cragganmore...the four corners of Scotland, according to the label, though other malts are present in varying amounts, and indeed, it's hardly an equal vatting, as there's not a ton of Caol Ila smoke. Still, it's a great mix:  the flavors individually wander about the tongue, and I can easily pick out various aspects in different parts of the profile. I get a fair bit of sweet toffee from the Cragganmore and a really nice waxy character from the Clynelish, but not a ton of smoke from either the Talisker or Caol Ila. Perhaps my growing fondness for peat monsters has spoiled my pallet in that regard. The flavors really mingle without being over-mixed, which is a neat trick. For such a carefully crafted and engineered product, it doesn't have the over-balanced character of the Black label, with different aspects of the flavor profile rolling around the tongue. Bottled at 43%, the Green has a nice chewy body, and an appealing bigness that's sorely lacking in the Black label. Quite a nice dram indeed, and makes me wish that vatted malts had a bigger market segment. 80 points (B-)

Johnnie Walker Gold label
18 years old, 40% ABV
Price: variable as well, though I've seen it for as low as $90

The Gold label is a really great example of just how good a high quality blend can be. 18 years in the barrel really smooths out the rough edges, and lets the grain whisky gain a nice creamy custard flavor, which blends very appealingly with the malts. Minus the grain, this is probably a very similar blend to the Green, though the label reports 15 (undisclosed) malts, blended to Alexander Walker II's "Centenary" recipe, fashioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the company.

Much like the Green label, I find plenty of sweet Speyside toffee and caramel, and that Clynelish "soapiness," as well as a fair bit of nondescript smoke. I think the stronger smoke alone makes this my favorite Johnnie Walker product, and I'd like to point to the peppery granite note of Talisker or the briny, medicinal Caol Ila, but I just don't think it's quite strong enough to discern one or the other. Much as with the Green label, the flavors really mingle without anything getting lost. The texture is smooth to a fault, much like the JWB, but I think it works better here with a whole lot more flavor to keep things from getting boring. Still, it could use a bit more alcohol and a bit more body, though I guess that's not really the point of this release. Enjoyed on it's own terms, it's a great dram; a small step up flavorwise from the Green, but just a small step down in texture...smooth to a T, rather than chewy and full. 80 points (B-)

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I ended up enjoying these two. They're definitely quality products, and shame on Diageo for discontinuing them. Well, at least Compass Box is still blending and vatting.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Go Whisk(e)y Weekend 2013 Grand Tasting

Today was a murky, gray, wet, cold day...barely suitable for leaving the house, but not a bad day to ramble up to Westborough, Mass for the Grand Sunday Tasting, the culmination of Julio's Liquor's yearly Go Whisk(e)y Weekend. The usual anticipation started on Friday night, as the big list was released...I spent several hours pouring over the whiskies, weighing're given a bracelet at the door with ten tabs, each redeemable for a tasting of your choice. As in past years, vendors are casual about collecting tabs, so in actuality, I got to try pretty much everything I wanted to, and even revisited an old favorite or two. On to the hits and misses!

  • The Diageo table continues to be a disappointment. For the world's largest drinks company, they show up with an unvarying and rather dull range of expressions, especially given the huge range of amazing whiskies the company owns. JWB, Oban 14, Lagavulin 16 (certainly far from a bad dram, but how about something a little less standard?). As Jacob has noted in the past, you get the feeling Diageo senses themselves above such a "bush league"event, a sentiment thankfully not shared by any other distiller or distributor.
  • A big let down was terrible rep at the Balvenie/Glenfiddich table. Balvenie has a new 12 year single barrel and a 17 year version of the Doublewood that I was eager to try, and of course to spend some time at the table chatting about the various expressions as I have in years past. Not only did I not get to chat, the table was staffed by the worst rep I've ever come across, who pointedly ignored me standing right in front of him making eye contact. My friend, seek a new line of business.
  • I was looking forward to trying independent releases of Old Pulteney (21 year from Gordon and MacPhail) and Clynelish (15 year from Douglas),both coastal Highlands, and felt that both kind of fizzled. I've read solid reviews of similar expressions from both distilleries; perhaps these two bottles are better suited for more quiet circumstances than a crowded tasting. I do think I made the reps at both tables happy, since a lot of folks automatically go for the oldest bottle at the table (I saw a 36 year Glen Grant at the Douglas table).
  • Glenmorangie and Ardbeg each had their yearly or so "special releases," the 19 year virgin oak aged Eleanta from Glenmorangie, and the Marsala finished Ardbeg Galileo. The Eleanta was excellent. I expected an older version of the first fill bourbon cask Astar, but the Eleanta was something else altogether, big, oaky, and spicy, with less of the familiar Glenmorangie profile. Quite good, but also a pricey bottle at $125. The Galileo was way too sweet for my taste, candy and sugar overwhelming Ardbeg's wonderful notes of smoke and salt pork.
  • After missing them last year, the local craft distiller Berkshire Distillers was represented. I got to sample their bourbon, which was decent but a touch young, and their Ethereal Gin, which changes recipes from year to year (they also do a standard "London Dry" style). The gin was what I believe is known as New World Style, with less of an emphasis on juniper and more citrus and fruit botanicals. It's aged in former Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, giving the gin an unusual pale brown color and some further extra flavors. I really dug this stuff; it's a unique and excellent product, and a good sipping gin, which is kind of unusual.
  • Whistlepig Rye, a 100% rye aged in Vermont (from Canadian whisky, though the company is nearing completion of their own distillery) was excellent, though maybe not as remarkable as I'd hoped, and probably not worth $70 price tag. Still, clearly a high quality rye and very enjoyable. I've read less laudable reviews of the 11 year old 111 proof release, and stuck instead with the 10 year.
  • Having enjoyed Tomatin 12 in the past, I was interested to try the 18 year and their rather novelty "Decades" release, vatted from barrels from each decade since the 60's. The 18 was unremarkable but pleasant, while the Decades fell kind of flat...seems kind of a waste of what are probably some special barrels.
  • Kilchoman's limited release suffered the same fate as the Ardbeg Galileo, too much sugary sweetness knocking the smoky profile out of whack, while High West's Campfire whiskey, blended from bourbon, rye, and an undisclosed 8 year old peated Speyside, was a nice dram, with the flavors mingling better than I might have guessed. I'm not sure I'd run out and by a case of it, but it worked well enough.
  • The highlight of the day was the Balcones table. Balcones is a unique Texas distillery, who put out a single malt, a rum type product known as the "Rumble," and several corn whiskies made from blue corn. We deliberately saved this table for last, and I'd read a lot about this stuff, much of it pretty glowing, so anticipation was high. Happily, I think even if every other table had let me down, the day would still have been a success thanks to Balcones. The rep was friendly, knowledgeable, and very enthusiastic, clearly taking a lot of pride in his product. I liked the each expression more than the last, trying first the single malt, which was very much a thick rich malted barley whiskey, with some unique flavors. The Baby Blue was even better, 46% ABV, made from 100% heirloom blue corn, while the True Blue is a cask strength version of the same and better yet. Last and best was the Brimstone, again 100% heirloom blue corn, 53% ABV, and uniquely smoked...rather than smoke the grain, Balcones instead used Texas scrub oak to smoke the finished whiskey, which results in a really different mix of flavors. I left the event with a lingering taste of sweet barbecue...quite a nice way to end the day. The rep and I agreed that smoothness in whiskey is overrated, and that whiskey should be big, and have a bit of a kick to it, and he pointed out that the company avoids age statements, instead opting to vat barrels for a consistent profile, not unlike the solera system used to age sherry. Balcones finally began distribution in Massachusetts in November, available I think only at Julio's and often sold out. This is great stuff, and I'm excited it's finally available up here!

There was a somewhat smaller turnout this year, probably due to the weather, which was actually pretty nice from a taster's viewpoint. Shorter lines and smaller crowd meant more time chatting with reps, which is usually pretty rewarding. All in all, I'm happy; I got to try more than a couple whiskies I've spent the last year or so reading about (and drooling over). Can't wait til next year!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Bunnahabhain Toiteach

Bunnahabhain Toiteach
Price: $80-$90
Strength: 46%

Bunnahabhain is the self-described "gentle" whisky of Islay, so the peated Toiteach (meaning smoky) is a big departure for the distillery.  The label intimates a light peat by inquiring: "What if a touch of smoke from our peated malted barley was introduced in the distillation process?"

The result is no mere touch of smoke but a flat out peat monster.  Its not quite on the same level as the big Islay houses but is just a step below, about on par with Jura Prophecy.  Blind-folded, I would have guessed this is a Jura based on the peat style as well, which is buttery.  Unlike Prophecy though, Toiteach tastes pretty young with a basic sweet maltiness and a slight vegetal tinge on the palate.  The finish turns drier and ashy.  An enjoyable, straightforward dram, but not particularly engaging beyond the peat.  83 points (B-).

Other Bunnahabhain reviews:

Friday, January 4, 2013

Scotch Drammer's Most Overrated Scotch

At Scotch Drammer we like to make use of the full grade spectrum, so we have whiskies ranging from 50 to 98.  Maybe we would appear less like the amateur whisky swillers we are and more like serious, authoritative experts if we graded everything down a bit, but we really love drinking whisky here and the ratings reflect that.  That said, there are always a few you look back on with some degree of embarrassment and regret.  For me the most egregious review is that for Bowmore 18, which I gave an A rating to.  I liked it so much that that I "went deep" and bought a second bottle.  Well, I only have so much room for second bottles in the basement, and I decided to open that second bottle this winter.

Yes, I am underwhelmed.  My review got the flavor notes about right, but damn, that's just too much rubber and soap.  This whisky tastes like sucking on a band-aid.  And what before seemed like a wonderful aged texture tastes pretty thin now.  It still has some positives: a pleasant amount of peat for an 18-year-old, smooth, and an interesting mix of flavors.  But if I am rating this today I'm giving it a B.

I don't think this is a case of different bottlings (like with my Ardbeg 10 experience) but more likely my preferences shifting.  In terms of texture, "bigness" is more important to me now than smoothness.  After reaching triple digits in bottles of whisky drunk, pretty much everything is smooth.  My discernment in body now has more to do with oiliness and mouth-feel of the whisky.

However, I won't go back and adjust any prior reviews.  Each review is the product of its time and place and is as likely to be applicable to a whisky drinker at a similar point in their whisky journey as any review I write now.  And who knows where that whisky journey will take me in the future.