Talisker Distiller’s Edition: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 45.8%, $85
Talisker 10 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 45.8%, $65
Failing to come across even a trace of Talisker Distiller’s Edition in Montreal meant that I was going to have to hunt down and buy a bottle for my review. It is not an item that I would find close to home though, as Vermont and New Hampshire are both liquor control states that do not stock it. This would take a bit more effort.
My next best option was to try to find one when I was in the Boston area during the holidays. A quick search online showed that it could be had at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham. A respectable retailer with a single malt collection 300 bottles deep, I had visited the store at least twice in the past. But I was in the mood for exploration and decided to venture a little further from the city to Julio’s in Westborough. I’d heard great things about this store and had wanted to pay it a visit for some time. If I struck out on the Talisker DE there, I could always swing by Gordon’s on the way home.
Well, Julio’s certainly lived up to its reputation and I felt like a kid in a candy store. In addition to the usual single malt suspects and a solid array of limited edition bottlings, they also had a great variety of independent bottlings. The highly regarded Amrut whiskies of India were well represented and the store’s Japanese selection was outstanding, including most of the expressions that have only recently begun to appear in the U.S.
I even came across a non-chill filtered variant of Aberlour 12 year; something that I didn’t even know existed. But my whisk(e)y collection has grown to be unwieldy and I was only here for one bottle. As difficult as it was, I did manage to restrain myself and walk out of the store with nothing more than a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition.
The Talisker DE, like the Oban DE that I wrote about in my last post, starts off as the distillery’s standard expression before it is transferred to fortified wine casks for a finishing period. In this case that would be 10 years in Bourbon barrels before it is transferred to Amoroso Sherry casks. It carries no age statement, but the label lists the year of distillation as 2002 and the year of bottling as 2013. That gives a margin of 12 months on each end, so the finishing time could be anywhere from a few months to a few years, but I suspect it is in the neighborhood of one year.
Of course my next logical step was to try and find out what Amoroso Sherry is, as I was unfamiliar with the term. Sherry classifications are a little confusing to begin with, and it turns out that some of the regulations have changed recently so it took me a while to get the information all sorted out.
I’ll try to keep the Sherry lesson concise as it seems to be a subject whose details can easily snowball. There are two main styles of Sherry; Fino and Oloroso. All Sherries are fully fermented in stainless steel tanks before they are transferred (along with the yeast) to oak casks for aging. The indigenous yeasts of Andalucía used to ferment Sherry go through a transformation after all of the sugar has been converted to ethanol. They then begin to convert acids into other compounds, and at the same time the cells attain a waxy coating causing them to float. They form into a protective coating called “flor” on top of the liquid, shielding it from oxygen. Sherry casks are only filled to 5/6 of their capacity, leaving plenty surface area for the flor to occupy.
Sherry is only fortified after it is placed in cask. Fino Sherries will be fortified to an alcohol level of 15% to encourage the growth of flor. Fino Sherries are pale in color and light in flavor. The flor protects them from oxygen and also contributes to their flavor. Oloroso Sherries will be fortified to an alcohol level of 17.5%, creating an environment in which the flor cannot survive. This allows the wine to oxidize as it ages, producing a wine which is dark in color and has a rich, nutty character.
Manzanilla is an especially light variant of Fino that comes from a small coastal village. Amontillado is a style that starts off like Fino, aging for several years under a layer of flor. Then it is further fortified, which eliminates the flor, and it continues to age oxidatively. This produces a hybrid style mid way between Fino and Oloroso. Palo Cortado is Sherry that was intended to be Oloroso, but did not develop its powerful bouquet. Palo Cortado has the nose of an Amontillado with the concentrated mouth feel of an Oloroso.
Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are sweet styles for Sherry named for the grapes that they are made from. The grapes are laid out in the sun to dry, concentrating their sugars to the point that even after fully fermenting they still have residual sugars. They are then fortified to an alcohol level of 18-20%.
Sweetened versions of Oloroso Sherry are created by adding Pedro Ximenez or Moscotel to dry Oloroso. Names such as Rich Oloroso, Sweet Oloroso and Oloroso Dulce were used until new regulations went into effect in the spring of 2012. Those terms are now banned, and the word Oloroso can only appear on the label of its sweetened versions under certain conditions.
Categories for sweet Oloroso Sherry have been created and are defined by the amount of residual sugar (in grams per liter) in the wine. They are as follows:
Dry Sherry: 5 – 45
Pale Cream Sherry 45 – 115
Cream Sherry 115 – 140
Medium Sherry 5 – 115
This is fairly confusing as Dry Sherry isn’t “dry”, and the residual sugar range for Medium Sherry covers two of the other categories.
Now, back to where this all started; Amoroso. That is just an alternate term for Medium Sherry. So, the Talisker Distiller’s Edition has been finished in a cask that once held a sweetened version of Oloroso Sherry, one which covers a broad range of residual sugar levels (but not as sweet as Cream Sherry). I was unable to determine if the term Amoroso was banned with the new regulations that went into effect in 2012. But even if was, that wouldn’t really matter as the regulations apply to bottle labels for Sherry, not cask descriptions for Scotch.
I fortunately managed to line up my Talisker Distiller’s Edition next to a bottle of their flagship 10 year for a proper side by side tasting.
Talisker 10 year
nose: sea spray and peat (intense, but not overtly smoky).
palate: a quick hit of sweetness up front, followed by peat smoke which gradually intensifies as the characteristic black pepper spice starts to kick in.
finish: the smoke gives way as the black pepper element grows to dominate before slowly fading.
overall: the transitions aren’t harsh but it moves from one intense flavor to another, each being somewhat one dimensional.
nose: more restrained overall. the salt and peat are still there but with the addition of some fruit (tree fruit and dark berry fruit), and perhaps a subtle floral note.
palate: the sweetness up front is more flavorful here, with fruit notes gracefully combining with butterscotch. the peat rises up on the mid palate as the early flavors carry through and are joined by brine and delicate floral notes.
finish: equally long but not as intense. the signature black pepper is still there, but toned down and joined by other flavors.
overall: more depth throughout and very well integrated. it makes the 10 seem quite monochromatic as the 10 moves through each of its three distinctive phases (sweet-smoke-pepper). The peat intensity is probably about the same for the two, but it stands out more with the DE because its peppery finish is much less dominant than that of the 10 year.
Talisker is unique not just for being the only single Malt from the Isle of Skye, but also for its distinctive black pepper finish. While I think the DE is the better of the two whiskies here with its far greater complexity, I can see some people being turned off by its diminished black pepper character and still having a preference for the raw power of the 10 year. I can also see myself occasionally being in the mood for the simpler yet more forceful style of the 10 year.
Friday, February 21, 2014
As much as I enjoy the solitude afforded by my 18th century farm house nestled in a narrow valley carved through the spine of the Green Mountains, I do appreciate an occasional dose of social interaction and even urban exposure. When the mood for adventure strikes, I'm fortunate to live a mere two hour drive from Montreal. It's a world-class city, and quite honestly any excuse to visit Montreal is a good excuse. Just about four years ago I came to the realization that such a city must have a decent whisky bar or two. I've slowly acquainted myself with those dispensers of brown liquor (primarily scotch), and a comprehensive review of them has been on the back burner for some time.
That review will still have to wait a bit, as this post is merely a prelude. The last 12 months has zipped by, and it is nearly time for me to return to Florida for an encore performance, hosting another scotch dinner. But before that happens I have a few loose ends to tie up; namely to finish reviewing (as I promised long ago) the single malts that we tasted through at last year's dinner.
I took care of the Aberlour 12 year back in May. I have something special planned for the Auchentoshan 12 year, so I'm saving that to be the last of the four. The Oban and Talisker Distiller's Editions aren't available where I live but I've seen many of the DE bottlings (which are part of the lineups of several of the Diageo owned single malt distilleries) in Montreal. What a perfect excuse to visit the fair city and drink some whisky.
Oban DE presented itself to me on my first stop. Unfortunately Talisker DE did not. As I crisscrossed the city in search of it, I eventually came to the realization that there was no Talisker Distiller's Edition in the province of Quebec (the provincial government controls the liquor distribution there, much like the control states in the U.S., so a product will generally be everywhere or nowhere). Plan B would have to be put into effect for the Talisker DE (yes, there actually was a plan B).
The Distiller's Edition single malts all follow the same theme. They are always based on the particular single malt's flagship offering, which has been further aged in a cask that previously held fortified wine. That additional aging time varies from brand to brand, but seems to fall in the range of three or four months to about three years.
In the case of Oban, we have the standard 14 year (which is always aged exclusively in second-fill bourbon barrels), and the Distiller's Edition spends an additional 18 months in Montilla Fino casks. While the DE bottlings carry no age statement, they do show a "distilled" year and a "bottled" year. In this case, 1997 and 2012. As long as the distillation happened some time in the first half of 1997 and the bottling happened at least six months further into 2012, the math does add up.
The nose is rich but refined with malty notes and dark berry fruit cooked in baking spices. It's not as weighty on the palate up front as I was expecting after nosing it. My initial impression was that it was a little thin overall, but it's growing on me as I work my way through the dram. There's a surprisingly strong floral component throughout. The floral aspect dominates briefly before the spiced fruit elements reel it in. It actually has a fairly interesting evolution of flavor with graceful transitions and just enough grip to hold one's attention.
I sampled a bit of the standard 14 year to compare them. The floral aspect was still there, but much more restrained. The signature honeyed malt, orange citrus notes, and touch of brine all came through strongly. My overall impression was that the 14 year was more even keeled, while the DE started off mild-mannered, then picked up steam as it went along.
I found it kind of surprising that the 14 year was the base for the DE. I could see the similarity, but the differences were not what I would expect from Sherry cask finishing.
Being totally unfamiliar with Montilla Fino, a little research was in order. And that research did provide some interesting insight. Montilla is an area in southern central Spain, in the province of Cordoba, in the region of Andalucía. Jerez, the home of Sherry, is located west and slightly south of Montilla. Confusingly, wines from Montilla cannot be designated as Sherry, but they use the same five grapes and the same Flor producing yeast; they are aged in the same solera system, and they are classified with the same terminology (both use the terms Vino Joven, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Moscotel and Pedro Ximenez). The big difference is that unlike Sherry, wines from Montilla are not fortified and only ferment to natural alcohol levels.
When I stated above that all of Diageo's DE malts are aged in casks that formerly held fortified wines, that info came from their website; obviously a slight oversight on their part. Montilla Fino is described as having aromas of almonds, tobacco and licorice. It is said to be dry, bitter, smooth and persistent in taste. This goes a long way in explaining why the Oban DE is quite different than the typical Sherry cask matured (or finished) single malt.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Powers Gold Label: Blended Irish Whiskey, 40%, $20
Powers Gold Label: Blended Irish Whiskey, non-chill filtered, 43.2%, $25
I feel mildly guilty about the fact that I’ve been writing a whisk(e)y blog for nearly three years without a single mention of Irish Whiskey. I wanted to start off with a thorough historical background of the country’s whiskey industry, but the topic has been perpetually stuck on the back burner.
Then, about a month ago I got an email from a PR rep letting me know that Powers Gold Label was being re-launched with new packaging, a higher proof, and the elimination of chill filtering. Along with that info was an offer for a sample bottle. Now a free bottle of whiskey will never buy my opinion, but it will move you to the front of the queue of topics I’m planning to write about.
When it comes to Irish Whiskey, Jameson rules the world, at least in terms of sales volume and shelf presence. Bushmills and Tullamore Dew are both significant players, but basically tie for a distant second. All of the other Irish brands are left to fight for scraps. Quality however does not always go hand in hand with popularity, and Powers is a fine example of that axiom.
Case in point:A bar that I used to work at had a bottle of Powers on the shelf on a fairly regular basis. One day a guy from Ireland walked in and upon seeing it he said “You’ve got the Powers?” in a tone of disbelief. A moment later he followed that with “Oh bloody hell, they’re not supposed to let that out of the country.”
Since I already had a fairly favorable opinion of Powers, I was pretty excited to hear that they were raising the proof and doing away with chill-filtration; these are almost always beneficial changes. This wasn’t the only change to the Powers lineup that was being announced though, and it took me some time to cut through the fluff of the press releases and get a clear picture of what was going on.
I do need to clarify some definitions that really only apply to Irish whiskey first though. Like with Scotch Whisky, Ireland has malt whiskey (which is distilled in pot stills only from malted barley) and grain whisky (which is distilled in column stills, usually to a relatively high proof, and usually from grains other than barley). When the two are mixed together the result is blended whiskey. But there is a third type of whiskey that is unique to Ireland. Traditionally it was called “pure pot still whisky” and sometimes “Irish pot still whiskey”, however in recent years these terms have given way to the name “single pot still whiskey”. Whichever name it goes by, it is whiskey that is distilled in post stills and made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley.
Blended Irish whiskey can be made by mixing grain whiskey with either malt whiskey or pure pot still whiskey, and there is no requirement to make any differentiation on the label (beyond having the word “blend” present). Pure pot still Irish Whiskey bottlings were historically plentiful, but until making a recent comeback the style had all but died with just Redbreast and Green Spot remaining in regular production.
Going back just a year, the Powers lineup consisted of two bottlings: The standard Gold Label priced at $20 and the Gold Label Special Reserve 12 Year priced at $40. Both were blends bottled at 40% abv. Then, in the spring of 2013, Powers introduced their new John’s Lane Release. This bottling is a single pot still whiskey with a 12 year age statement, at 46% abv, non-chill filtered and priced at $70. Around the same time Powers Gold Label Special Reserve 12 Year was discontinued.
Fast forward to December of 2013 and we get two more bottlings from Powers. First the standard Gold Label was re-launched with updated packaging, non-chill filtration, a bump in strength to 43.2% abv, and a bump in price to $25. At the same time Powers announced the new Signature Release, a single pot still whiskey with no age statement, at 46% abv, non-chill filtered, and neatly filling the price gap at $45.
There is also some variance in cask types used among the three bottling. The Gold Label is aged exclusively in American oak, the Signature Release is age primarily in American Oak with a small amount going into Oloroso Sherry casks, and the John’s Lane Release is aged primarily in American Oak with a small amount going into Iberian Oak.
Wanting to do a direct comparison and assuming that time was of the essence, I convinced a local pub to let me smuggle in my sample bottle so I could have a head-to-head tasting with the older bottle of Powers Gold Label that they had on the shelf.
Powers Gold Label 80.0 proof
color - golden amber
nose - subtle but pleasant, malty grain and clay-like soil
palate - good mouth-feel, slightly sweet with grain and honeyed tree fruits
finish - clean, warming, gets a little hot as the flavors fade, but in a good way
overall - not terribly complex, but balanced and enjoyable. the late heat adds some backbone and keeps it from falling flat as the flavors fade
color - maybe a touch darker, but I’d be lying if I said I could see a difference between the two
nose - surprisingly less aromatic than the 80 proof. very little there, but it seems more fruit forward
palate - no more viscous than the 80 proof but the flavors are quite a bit different. slightly floral and more berry fruit than tree fruitfinish - the heat is still there but the flavors hang on a lot longer and are joined by some spicyness, adding a bit of complexity
overall - greater intensity in general (both flavor and heat, but a warming spicyness on the finish is especially noticeable). good balance. still not super complex but it has a lot more going on with the fruit flavors and spicyness carrying much further into the finish.
Chill filtration strips out congeners (esters, fatty acids, aldehydes and higher alcohols) to keep the whisky from turning cloudy at lower temperatures. Of course this can strip out flavor and body as well. Some of these congeners are soluble in alcohol but will precipitate out at lower temperatures, so most non-chill filtered whiskeys are bottled at 46% abv or higher to allow the consumer to add a little cool water without the whiskey going cloudy. In the case of Powers Gold Label we’re dealing with a blend, so the grain component is distilled in a column still (likely to a relatively high abv) and in this case the pot still component (be it malt whiskey or pure pot still whiskey) is triple distilled. Both of these factors result in a higher level of refinement compared to a typical double distilled single malt. This translates to fewer congeners making it through the distillation in the first place, and is why Powers can get away with bottling the Gold Label non-chill filtered at 43.2% abv.
I enjoyed both examples, but I would say the new offering is an improvement, and one that is roughly commensurate with the price increase. I’m going to make sure I hold back some of my sample bottle so I can throw it in the ring when I eventually get around to comparing the flagship offerings from Jameson and Bushmills.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
Scapa 14 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 40.0%, $40
Scapa 16 Year: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 40.0%, $74
My attention was drawn to the nearly depleted bottle of Scapa 14 Year languishing on the back of my whisky shelf when I mentioned the distillery in my Ledaig 10 Year post about a month ago. Not long after that I was trying to decide which single malts to get my father for Christmas. And then it came to me; if I got him the newer Scapa 16 Year we could have a little post-holiday, side-by-side tasting of the two.
Located on Orkney’s Mainland (the largest island of the archipelago collectively known as the Orkney islands), the Scapa distillery lies just a half a mile south of Highland Park which is Scotland’s northernmost distillery.
There was a time when most of the whisky produced at Scapa went to blends; Ballentine’s being the main recipient. But in recent years they have been putting more emphasis on promoting their single malt and seem to be making an effort to step out from the shadow of their much more well-known neighbor to the north. According to their website, only a minimal amount of Scapa goes to blenders these days.
When Alfred Barnard visited in 1886 (the year after the distillery was built) he noted that the malt kiln was “heated with peat in the ordinary manner”. The distillery stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1962 and has been buying unpeated malt since then. It is likely that the peat level was reduced (perhaps gradually) somewhere between 1886 and 1962, as I’ve seen references to bottlings of Scapa from the early 1960’s that were only mildly smoky.
While the more modern bottlings are made from unpeated malt, they do all have a heathery / peaty (but not in a smoky way) character that is said to come from the source water which is piped in from springs that are more then half a mile from the distillery. The water originates on the local hilltops, percolates through sandstone and then passes through a layer of “live” peat (I assume this means the organic material is still going through the process of decaying) before being drawn off to the distillery.
The distillery was purchased by Hiram Walker & Sons in 1954, and that is likely when it became a major component in the Ballantine’s blends, which had been under Hiram Walker ownership since 1937. Later changes of ownership at Scapa have been the result of larger acquisitions rather than the distillery itself being sold. Hiram Walker & Sons was taken over by Allied Domecq in 1987, and they were subsequently bought out by Pernod Ricard in 2005.
As I’ve said many times before, the 1980’s were a tough time for the Scotch industry. Many distilleries were lost in that decade, and the repercussions were still being felt in the 1990’s with several distilleries mothballed for many years and teetering on the brink of extinction while others closed forever.
A victim of the times, Scapa fell silent in 1994. Production did resume in 1997 on a limited basis, with the crew from Highland Park coming over to breath life into the place for about one month each year. This may have been to fulfill contracts with blenders or simply to give the equipment and annual workout to keep it from falling into a state of total disrepair.
Finally, in 2004, the prognosis for the industry was good enough for the owners to embark on a program of extensive refurbishment. Full production resumed in November of that year. The distillery was shut down again in April of 2005, but only briefly as the second phase of the renovations commenced. Later that year Allied Domecq was acquired by Pernod Ricard, but the distillery owner is often listed as Chivas Brothers as they are the subsidiary of Pernod Ricard that is in charge of the company’s Scotch whisky and premium gin holdings.
As for official distillery bottlings, Scapa has largely been a one-horse show. For many years their only bottling was a 12 Year old at 40% abv. Toward the end of 2004 the 12 Year was discontinued, giving way to a new 14 Year old, also at 40%. Late in 2008, that 14 Year was replaced by the new 16 Year, which retains the same alcohol level. For a time in the early 90’s there was also a 10 Year old at 43% abv, but that was only available in a 1 liter format and sold exclusively in Duty Free outlets. There was also a 25 Year old Cask Strength at 54% abv which came out in 2005, but that was a limited release of just 2000 bottles.
Scapa is certainly not the only distillery that has had to work through a gap in their whisky stocks caused by a period of closure and/or limited production lasting upwards of 10 years. Other recent examples include Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Benromach. There are several ways to deal with the issue. Limited edition releases of young whisky and no-age-statement vattings of young and old whisky have been two common solutions. Distillers that feature a lineup with a range of age statements will usually drop one or two at a time and bring them back eventually as the gap works past those ages. In some cases the age on the label remains the same but the whisky in the bottle gets older. Ardbeg is said to have done this with their much-loved 17 Year in order to keep loyal fans from thinking they had to switch to an older version that they may not be as fond of. I’ve heard that the 17 Year was well over 20 years old by the time it was dropped from the lineup.
Scapa 14 Year
color - pale straw
nose - floral (heather) with a hint of vanilla and a malty background
palate - grassy / floral, with subtle heathery peat notes. the malty / biscuit-like core adds some weight
finish - soft and gentle, of moderate length
Scapa 16 Year
color - light brownish amber
nose - same malty background and hint of vanilla, but a little less floral and a bit more fruit forward
palate - a bit more robust on the palate, with the grassy floral and heathery peat notes taking more of a backseat to increased fruit (dark berry / cherry) and just slightly more oak as the maltiness remains about the same
finish - slightly more bold, with a bit more heat and it goes a little further
First I’ll mention that they are both well made single malts with no obvious flaws, but my personal preference does lean toward the flavor profile of the 16 Year. Beyond that, my initial reaction was that these two were surprisingly different from each other. It may not be a “night and day” difference, but it is quite noticeable and more than I would expect from just two additional years of aging (that extra two years represents a mere 14.3% increase in aging time). I suspect that the 14 Year is aged primarily (if not entirely) in Bourbon barrels and that a significant proportion of the 16 Year has been aged in Sherry casks.
A look at the Scapa website revealed some interesting information. A page detailing the process notes that all of the spirit is filled into Bourbon casks. In another place they talk about the 14 Year being replaced by the 16 Year and mention that it has seen “an extra two years in first fill American oak casks”. My theory about the 16 Year having a Sherry cask component may seem shaky, but I’m not ready to give up on it yet. You can’t take everything on a distiller’s website as gospel; it is after all a tool to paint an image of the brand.
The statement that all of the spirit goes into bourbon casks may be true today, but that doesn’t mean it has always been that way. In a historic section of the website, the son of a former Scapa distillery worker talks about stenciling fill volumes onto butts and hogsheads in the 1930’s and a photo from the late 1940’s shows a cask labeled with a fill volume of 109. That would have been Imperial gallons at the time, which equals 495 liters. Clearly the casks in the photo are butts. 250 liter Hogsheads and 500 liter butts are the domain of Sherry, while Bourbon is always stored in smaller 200 liter barrels.
As for the statement about the 16 Year spending two more years in American oak, that does not necessarily mean Bourbon barrels. Oak trees are much more plentiful in North America than Europe and many Sherry casks (perhaps the majority of them) are now made from American oak. With a little more digging I was able to find a listing for a 1993 Scapa bottled by Gordon and Macphail which was aged in refill sherry casks. We now know that the distillery had a long history of using sherry casks and was still using them to some extent when they started distilling the spirit that would eventually become the 16 Year old.
Next I want to look at how the age statements and release dates line up with the distillery closure. Keep in mind that the whisky in the bottle can be older than the stated age on the label, but never younger. I was able to find an independent bottling of Scapa that was distilled in the spring of 1994, and I also uncovered a reference to the Highland Park crew operating Scapa for four weeks in late June / early July, during their maintenance shutdown. This happened annually starting in 1997, so we know the actual production gap lasted for just about three years.
The 12 Year was discontinued at the end of 2004, so it would have been distilled late in 1992 or earlier. They switched over to the 14 Year at that point and it was produced until late in 2008. That whisky would have been distilled from the end of 1990 through the closure in mid 1994 (assuming that the whisky in the bottle wasn’t much older than the age on the label).
The timing of the 16 Year is where things get interesting. It was first released late in 2008 (their website says 2008 on one page and 2009 on another, that former is correct) and was still being bottled at the end of 2013. That would put its range of distillation dates at late 1992 through the end of 1997, right across the three year closure.
There are two likely scenarios. They could have set aside enough casks from the second half of 1993 and first half of 1994 to get them through three years and just kept bottling progressively older whisky while keeping the 16 year age statement on the bottle, until mid 2013 when the distillate from 1997 reached the proper age. Or, they could have taken that allotment of casks from the last year before the closure and, once they reach 16 years, dumped them into large stainless steel tanks and bottle from them over the next three years. It’s basically the same thing, but the latter method will produce a more consistent product.
When they switched from the 12 Year to the 14 Year the price remained the same, in the $35 to $40 range. The release of the 16 Year saw a big jump, going up to the $70 to $80 range. I think this was done to temper demand as they knew that the last year of production before the closure would be spread over four years of sales (16 Year sold from mid 2009 through mid 2013) and for the next seven years after that the 16 Year would come from just four weeks worth of annual production. Perhaps the addition of some available sherry cask whisky was an effort to change the flavor profile and make the consumers feel like they were getting something for the big price hike.
I think we will see the 16 Year carry on for many years to come. If it does, it will be interesting to see if the sherry cask component is eventually phased out of it. Since full production resumed in November of 2004 I think the 16 Year will be joined by a 10 Year at the end of this year, or a 12 Year at the end of 2016, either of which should be more modestly priced.
Monday, December 23, 2013
Small Batch: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $30
Small Batch 2010 Limited Edition: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 55.1%, $65
For the last 11 years, Four Roses has been rebuilding their image and slowly but surely returning the brand to its former glory. Their standard lineup of the Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel provide a core of consistent quality and value. But it’s their Limited Edition releases that have been receiving most of the accolades and continue to propel their reputation to new heights.
I recounted the history of Four Roses a few years ago when I posted about their Single Barrel offering, and followed that up with a post about the Yellow Label where I discussed how the distillery’s single story warehouses largely eliminate barrel location as a variable in the bourbon’s flavor.
But with ten unique recipes (five different yeast strains applied across two different mash bills), Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has the ability to create a massive range of flavor profiles. The potential at his disposal had been realized through their annual Limited Edition bottlings.
Each of the ten recipes is identified by a four letter code, but only two of those letters describe the makeup of the recipe. The first letter is always O, which designates the bourbon as having been made at the Four Roses Distillery (I assume these codes date back to when the distillery operated under its previous name, Old Prentice). The third letter is always S, which designates the distillate as “straight”, meaning it came off the still at 80% abv or less (all Four Roses whiskey is “straight” these days, but under Seagram’s ownership there would have been plenty of whiskey floating around which didn’t qualify for the “straight” designation, making this a more relevant bit of information).
The second letter identifies the mash bill. It will either be E (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) or B (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley). Recipes with a higher percentage of corn will typically produce a sweeter bourbon, while those with a higher percentage of rye will usually result in a bourbon showing more of that grain’s unique spicy character.
The fourth letter identifies the yeast strain:
V – delicate fruitiness
savory, complex, slightly fruity, exceptionally well-balanced classic bourbon
K – spicy
full-bodied, slow-aging, with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain
O – rich fruitiness
plump, juicy and rounded with red fruit tones, complex and long in flavor
Q – floral
exceptionally floral with almost acacia-like tones, delicate and highly aromatic
F – herbal
hints of mint, pink peppercorn, and floral notes, soft in the mouth, mellow yet potent
The 80 proof Yellow Label, which was reintroduced to the U.S. market in 2002, uses as many as all ten recipes and though it carries no age statement, it’s said to be in the 5 to 6 year range.
The 100 proof Single Barrel, which debuted in 2004, has always come from the same recipe; OBSV. The labels are marked with the warehouse number and barrel number. Again, there is no age statement, but they target an age of at least 8 years.
The 90 proof Small Batch, introduced in 2006, combines four recipes; OBSO, OBSK, OESO and OESK (so two different yeast stains with each of the two mash bills). Like its siblings it lacks an age statement, but it is usually at least 7 years old.
In the spring of 2007 Four Roses began expanding their distribution to areas beyond Kentucky. New York City was first, and they have gradually been spreading across the U.S. since then.
In the fall of 2007, the first Single Barrel Limited Edition release appeared as a tribute to Jim Rutledge’s 40 years in the industry. It has continued as an annual release, but over the years the timing has been shifted back to the spring to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. The whisky is bottled at barrel proof after being aged substantially longer than the 100 proof Single Barrel bottling. The size of the release has ranged from less than 1500 bottles in the first year to about 4000 bottles this year. A barrel will yield roughly 200 bottles at full strength, and with the alcohol level varying quite a bit from barrel to barrel, any given year will see bottles ranging from roughly 100 proof to 115 proof. I’ve put together a list of the recipes and ages of the Single Barrel LE releases over the years:
2007 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESO, 13½ years
2008 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 12 years
2009 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESQ, 11 years
2010 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSV, 17 years
2011 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSQ, 12 years
2012 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESK, 12 years
2013 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 13 years
2008 saw the addition of a second annual Limited Edition release. For the first two years it was called the Marriage Collection, and then in 2010 its name was changed to Small Batch Limited Edition. Always a fall release, its arrival is timed to coincide with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Each year two to four recipes will be married together (although the proportions of each recipe are not typically revealed) to create a barrel proof offering which is aged quite a bit further then the standard Small Batch. Since all of the barrels for a given year’s release are vatted together they do have consistent proofs, unlike the Single Barrel LE. The release size grew gradually from about 2500 bottles initially to over 4000 bottles in 2012. Then, in 2013, the number grew dramatically to over 12,000. I’m sure they wanted there to be plenty to go around as this bottling was commemorating the 125th anniversary of the brand, but it was also the first Limited Edition release to see distribution in Europe. I’ve compiled all of the recipes, ages and proofs below:
2008 Marriage Collection
OBSV-13 years, OESK-10 years, 55.7%
2009 Marriage Collection
OBSK-10 years, OBSK-19 years, OESO-10 years, 54.8%
2010 Small Batch Limited Edition
OBSV-15 years, OBSK-11 years, OESK-10 years, 55.1%
2011 Small Batch Limited Edition
OBSK-13 years, OESK-11 years, OESV-12 years, OESQ-13 years, 55.1%
2012 Small Batch Limited Edition
OBSV-11 years, OBSV-17 years, OBSK-12 years, OESK-12 years, 55.7%
2013 Small Batch Limited Edition
OBSV-18 years, OBSK-13 years, OESK-13 years, 51.6%
Sorry if that was an overload of technical information, but I’m sure some will find it interesting. Tonight I’ll be dusting off my Small Batch 2010 LE bottle and comparing it to the standard Small Batch Four Roses. Both bottlings see a contribution from each of the two mash bills, and they both have two components made with the K yeast (spicy), but the 2010 LE also uses the V yeast (delicate fruitiness) instead of the O yeast (rich fruitiness) used in the standard Small Batch. The higher proof and greater age of the Limited Edition will make a big difference, but it’s really hard to predict how these will taste without knowing the percentages of the various recipes used in each vatting.
The color is a medium brownish-amber.
The nose is somewhat restrained with a subtle clay-like earthiness and complex spice notes.
On the palate there is just a hint of sweetness up front which quickly gives way to a dry earthiness and layered spiciness.
As it moves into the finish, red-hot cinnamon spice notes come to dominate. The flavors evolve and fade while the heat stays somewhat constant further into the finish.
It is certainly spice driven and full of character, but overall very drinkable.
Small Batch 2010 LE:The color, which is the same as above but a few shades darker, is what one would expect given the elevated age and proof.
The nose is also subdued, but the higher alcohol level is noticeable. The aromas are a little more brooding, with clay, leather and cinnamon showing.
On the palate it is bigger and bolder right off the bat and throughout. It’s drier up front, with a hint of middle-eastern spices joining in. While the red-hot cinnamon spice notes emerge as it enters the finish here as well, they aren’t as dominant. Bright fruitiness (in spite of what one would expect from the yeasts being used) and bold oak flavors add complexity and balance. It is also very drinkable, in spite of its elevated proof.
The only other Limited Edition Four Roses I have tasted was the 2012 Single Barrel; it was phenomenal, and from the reviews that I have read, the LE releases seem to be getting better year after year. Both of the bourbons that I tasted tonight are very good, but I would give an edge to the Limited Edition. That being said and looking at the prices, I would say that the standard Small Batch is a better value. The $65 price listed above is what I paid a few years ago; the current Limited Edition releases are usually priced in the $80 to $85 range.
Monday, December 2, 2013
stats: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 46.3%, $55
It’s easy to become enamored with the single malts of the Scottish islands; many of them seem to have an almost magical allure. Islay, with its eight distilleries, commands most of the attention and recognition. As for Scotland’s six distilleries located on other islands, picking the most inconspicuous of the lot would be a tossup between Tobermory and Scapa (there’s actually a seventh, but Abhainn Dearg is so new that I’m not taking it into consideration).
But taking the obscurity a step further would be Ledaig (pronounced led-chig), the peated variant of Tobermory. From the first time I heard about Ledaig I became mildly obsessed with learning more about this mysterious malt. I’m grateful that my curiosity led me to see the distillery in person; my visit to the Isle of Mull was truly a highlight of the time I spent in Scotland.
I wrote about my first encounter with a bottle of Ledaig almost two years ago. That 16 year old bottling from Gordon & MacPhail, which was distilled in 1990, was far less heavily peated than I was expecting. I wrote briefly about the history of the Tobermory distillery in that post, but I have learned a great deal since then. Tasting notes for the 10 year Tobermory and 15year Tobermory can be found on the posts written during my visit to Mull. A more comprehensive overview of the distillery’s history will provide a fitting lead-up to a tasting of the current 10 year Ledaig.
The town of Tobermory was established on the northeastern coast of Mull as a fishing port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, in part because of its superior natural harbor. The village located on that harbor prior to 1788 was named Ledaig, which translates from Gaelic as “safe haven”.
Ten years later, in 1798, a local merchant named John Sinclair established the Ledaig distillery in the town of Tobermory. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that he was initially only given permission to build a brewery and a year later he got the okay for his planned distillery. But as far as I can tell the sight never operated as a brewery.
The Excise Act of 1823 set reasonable fees and tax rates on distillers with the goal of curbing illicit operations. That was in that year in which Ledaig was granted a license, and why we see both 1798 and 1823 on the bottles as the “established” date. The company seems to have embraced the earlier date in recent years, and only 1798 shows up on all of the newer labels.
The distillery closed in 1837 for reasons that have been lost to history. That closure would last more than 40 years, and maps from the 1860’s show that the site was being used as a saw mill. Finally, in 1878, distillation resumed there.
Seven years later, in 1885, Alfred Barnard toured the distillery, giving us a detailed record of the operation. By this time the distillery was named Tobermory, although it is unclear when the change from Ledaig took place. Barnard notes that raw barley was shipped to Mull by steamers from the mainland, and was then malted at the distillery and dried in a kiln fueled by peat from a nearby estate. He also describes the two water wheels that powered most of the distillery, as well as the boiler that produced steam to heat the mash water and drive a five horsepower engine which ran the pumps necessary to move liquids against gravity.
But the biggest surprise in Barnard’s description is that the Spirit Still was heated by steam while the Wash Still was heated by fire (he doesn’t note if the fuel was peat or coal). I believe steam heated pot stills were quite rare at the time. Glenmorangie was the first to use pot stills with internal steam coils when the distillery was rebuilt in 1888-1889, but no one else followed that lead until the late 1950’s. Scapa, which was newly built in 1885, had stills heated by steam jacketing, which was apparently quite unusual at the time. Barnard doesn’t give further detail, but I am assuming that jacketing was the method used on the Spirit Still at Tobermory.
The distillery closed again in 1930. This time it was likely the result of decreased demand after 10 years of Prohibition in the U.S. In the ensuing years the buildings were used as a power plant and then as a canteen for marines stationed at a nearby naval base during World War II.
This second closure lasted more than 40 years until the distillery re-opened under new ownership in 1972. Unfortunately the owners went bankrupt in 1975 and operations ceased again. Even though the distillery name was changed back to Ledaig during this brief period, many casks were still labeled as Tobermory but almost all of the whisky was peated to around 40 ppm.
Whisky making resumed with another new owner in 1979. This is when the distillery began to make two separate styles of whisky; peated Ledaig and unpeated Tobermory. Extra money was brought in by renting some of the buildings for cheese storage and selling off the only warehouse for development into apartments. But that wasn’t enough to keep the distillery from closing again in the early 1980’s (I’ve seen closure dates ranging from 1981 to 1985, but I came across a listing for a Ledaig distilled in 1983, so they must have made it at least that far).
Production resumed once again in 1989, but it’s not clear if that involved a change of ownership. From 1979 through 1993 the peat levels of Ledaig were very inconsistent, but overall much lower than they had been in the early 1970’s, probably around 15 ppm. I could find no information as to whether or not the traditional floor maltings were used during this period. If they had been, that practice would have ended by 1993, when the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart.
With the latest owner came a period of stability which is still being enjoyed 20 years later. By the mid 90’s, the peat level of Ledaig had been raised to 37 ppm. Burn Stewart has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and used the extra warehouse space there to mature Tobermory and Ledaig casks. In 2003 the company acquired the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, giving them access to more underutilized warehouse capacity. In 2007 a micro-warehouse was built in the Tobermory distillery complex, allowing an aging experiment to be carried out. A batch of Ledaig was distilled and 1/3 of it was stored at each of the three distilleries. Samples from each site will be analyzed as they approach 10 years of age to determine the different influences of each site. During my tour, I was told that most of the Tobermory/Ledaig production is now aged at Bunnahabhain. This makes a great deal of sense; if it can’t be warehoused on Mull, it should at least age in a coastal location.
In 2010, Burn Stewart made the move of eliminating chill filtering and caramel coloring across the board for all of their single malts. The abv was raised to 46.3% at the same time. I know this provided a huge improvement for Bunnahabhain, and I suspect that it did for Tobermory and Ledaig as well.
Also of interesting note is that when Bunnahabhain was acquired, the Black Bottle brand of blended scotch came with it. Formerly composed of all seven single malts from Islay, it now has Tobermory and Ledaig in the mix as well.
Burn Stewart was purchased in 2002 by CL Financial of Trinidad who had a major liquidity crisis in 2009. Fortunately, Burn Stewart was sold on to a South African beverage company named Distell earlier this year, ensuring future stability.
It is pale straw in color, with a fresh nose of hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity before it fades gracefully though the finish.
It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement. The flavor profile lies somewhere between those of Laphroaig and Ardbeg (or perhaps closer to a vatting of the two).
I’m revisiting the 16 year Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig as well as the 10 year Tobermory for comparison sake. I wouldn’t say that the 16 year is bad, but it’s just not peaty enough and/or too floral (and in that perfumed way that I really have an aversion to). It is simply not in the same league as 10 year Ledaig. The 10 year Tobermory is very well made and does have a nice minty spice aspect and maltiness which balance the floral notes. For my personal preferences I view it is a good starting point, from which something really special happens when you add the peat level of Ledaig or the full sherry cask maturation of 15 year Tobermory. Perhaps some day the distillery will treat us to a Ledaig bottling that has been matured exclusively in sherry casks.