Monday, December 31, 2012

The Glenrothes, 1985 vs. 1998

Glenrothes, 1998 vintage (bottled 2010), single malt scotch, Speyside, 43%, $60
Glenrothes, 1985 vintage (bottled 2005), single malt scotch, Speyside ,43%, $120
prices listed for 750ml bottles, 100ml bottles pictured.

The grape is a fickle fruit, and as hard as vintners work to cope with the challenges of difficult weather the quality of the harvest can vary wildly from year to year. Having the vintage of a wine identified on the bottle is essential for the informed consumer.

The barleycorn is far more hardy, and the quality of the harvest varies little from season to season, regardless of the vagaries of the weather. While vintage dated single malts are uncommon, they are far from unheard of. So, when it comes to whisky, does vintage dating serve a purpose or is it just a marketing tactic? And most importantly, can the extra information on the label ever be useful to the end consumer?

As The Glenrothes uses vintage dating more extensively than any other producer of single malt scotch, this comparison/review is an ideal opportunity to explore the topic.

Most distillers reserve the use of vintage dating for special editions and limited release bottlings. One such example is the small batch series from Glen Garioch. On occasion, the practice will make its way into a producer’s standard lineup. 10 year Longrow had a run of declared vintages from 1992-1996, but the practice seems to have been given up in more recent bottlings. 18 year Macallan has carried a vintage date for more than two decades, in opposition to their10 yr, 12 yr, 25 yr and 30 yr offerings. Vintage dating is the rule rather than the exception at The Glenrothes. Instead of a standard lineup of set age statements, they rotate through a series of bottlings produced in different years. New vintages are released as others sell out, and there appear to be seven choices currently available. While the bottles don’t expressly carry an age statement, it can be easily determined as they show a date of bottling in addition to the distillation date.

With very little (if any) variance in the quality of the barley crop from season to season, combined with the fact that most distillers use grain sourced from across the UK (with many importing additional barley from mainland Europe), it would seem that vintage dating is just a marketing tool used to make consumers seek out multiple bottlings of the same single malt from a variety of production years. I feel that this is likely the case more often than not, but knowing what era the liquid in the bottle hails from can be quite useful none the less.

I’m slowly becoming fascinated with the effects that changes in the production methods employed by distillers can have on the final product. As time marches on, the process continually evolves at most distilleries, for better of for worse. The following are examples of major distillery changes that vintage dates would be helpful in identifying.

Springbank takes great pride in being the only Single Malt Scotch made with 100% of its barley malted in-house. However, this was not the case from 1960 until 1992, when the old floor maltings were restored. You never really hear anything bad about this era, and Springbanks from the 1960’s are highly revered, but that likely due to the abundance of high-quality sherry casks available at the time.

Historically, most Scottish pot stills were direct fired by coal (and rarely by peat), but in the 1960’s most of the industry converted to indirect heat, via steam coils inside the stills. A handful of distillers continue to use direct fire, but with more modern fuel oil burners. Glendronach was the last coal fired holdout, until they converted their stills to steam heat in 2005. The youngest Glendronach with an age statement is their 12 year, so in 2017 it will start to become harder to tell if a bottle from that distillery was produced in the era of direct coal heat or indirect steam heat.

For many years The Macallan was made entirely from Golden Promise barley. But as whisky production rose and farmers switched to more modern, higher yielding varieties, that became something that was no longer possible to do. In most of the years since 1994, The Macallan has been produced with between 20% and 30 % Golden Promise.

Many critics claim that Bowmore had a decade-long run of sub-par whisky. While no one knows what the distillery was doing differently, (and they deny that a difference even exists), vintage dates would help the savvy consumer to avoid Bowmore from the 1980’s.

Glen Garioch is known to have had peating levels that varied quite a bit over the last 4 dacades. This is a single malt that was traditionally lightly to moderately peated. But then a new maltster, who had been trained on Islay, joined the team in 1973 and the amount of peat smoke going through the malt increased dramatically during most of the mid 1970’s. The levels gradually eased back, until 1997 when the old floor maltings were decommissioned and the distillery began purchasing unpeated malt.

Vintage dated single malts may be rare, but it seems to be common for most brands to update their label design and/or bottle shape every ten years or so. This does make it possible to at least determine what era and older bottle has come from, in the absence of a vintage dated label.

With all that being said, I’d love to tell you that I uncovered some paradigm shift in the production methods of The Glenrothes that occurred between 1985 and 1998. Unfortunately this is not the case, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be relevant as The Glenrothes aims to put out a unique flavor profile with each vintage release. I am still pretty excited to compare these two whiskies.

nose – big, fruit (especially banana), cereal, hay that comes across in a perfumed manner
palate – light fruit and grain flavors start nicely before being joined by a blast of vanilla, but they all fade as perfumed grassy notes come to the fore and the whisky goes slightly out of balance.
finish – pleasantly warm and long but could use a little more intensity of flavor toward the end.

nose – berry fruit, candy corn, more masculine / spicy perfume notes.
palate – berry compote, slightly tannic oak, becomes less fruity and more floral as it transitions into the finish.
finish – alternating waves of heat and cinnamon spice, with the perfumed notes as a background element that gains a little momentum in the latter stages of the finish. 

The 1985 is better balanced and has more continuity overall. It is certainly more to my liking than the 1998, but I think this is another example of a whisky whose house style simply doesn’t suit my personal preference.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hill Farmstead, Damon vs. Grassroots, Viola Sofia

Viola Sofia: barrel aged Imperial Stout, 10.8% abv, Denmark, $8-$10 (330ml)
Damon: bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, 10% abv, Vermont, $15-$17 (500ml)

My little stash of oak aged beers is down to just two; their origins may straddle the Atlantic, but they share a common thread. The two beers are Damon from Hill Farmstead and Viola Sofia from Grassroots Brewing. To understand the connection will take a brief history lesson.

Over the last two and a half years Shaun Hill has emerged from the rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont as a preeminent craft brewer in the United States. But his rise to glory was preceded by a long personal journey of introspection, philosophy, and international exploration.

A high school science project would provide his first brewing experience and he went on to start a home-brewing club while attending college in Boston and studying as a philosophy major. After moving back to Vermont for a teaching job, he picked up part time work as a keg washer at the (now defunct) Shed brewpub in Stowe. This eventually led to Shaun taking the head brewer position at the Shed, where he was given a good bit of creative freedom and started to make a name for himself. He held that position for two years before going to Trout River Brewing, where a gained more production experience for the next year.

Inspired to eventually start his own brewery during his last year of college, Shaun began to develop a plan to turn his vision into reality on the old family farmstead in Greensboro VT. His original idea was to lease a small facility in a nearby town and operate Grassroots Brewing there. Once that operation was profitable enough, he would rebuild a barn that burnt down on the family property in 1978 and use that space to setup Hill Farmstead Brewery, either with the equipment from Grassroots, or possibly keeping the Grassroots facility in operation, and running the two brands simultaneously.

But 2008/2009 brought about some significant changes in his plan. The reputation he built and the connections he made during his time at The Shed and Trout River led to an opportunity for Shaun to go to Denmark and be the guest head Brewer at Norrebro, a microbrewery and restaurant in Copenhagen. During his 20 month stint there, from March 2008 through November 2009, Shaun expanded his sphere of contacts and friends within the industry, as well as his reputation. He also set up the oak aging program at Norrebro, and three of the beers that resulted from that effort ended up winning medals (2 gold, 1 silver) in the 2010 World Beer Cup in Chicago.

While in Europe, Shaun’s future plans went through a metamorphosis. He had established an industry network with enough depth that he was able to raise the capital necessary to start a brewery on the land that had been in his family since the late 1700’s, with the intermediate step of setting up the Grassroots Brewery no longer being necessary.

And then came another opportunity, Fano Bryghus. The Fano Brewery, located on the opposite side of Denmark from Coppenhagen, was established in 2006 but operated for only 2 years before going bankrupt. After lying dormant for 6 months, the facility was purchased by Norrebro, and Shaun found himself splitting his duties between the two breweries. It was here that the Grassroots brand took on a new life, as Shaun began brewing his own beers under that label in the Fano Brewery. It would become Shaun’s European brand, brewed under contract (by him at first, and for him after he returned to the US) at Fano.

On to the beers. Viola Sofia is an Imperial Stout that was aged for 3 months on top of cocoa nibs in Jack Daniel’s barrels. It was brewed to celebrate the birth of a close friend’s daughter, whom the beer is named after. Damon is an Imperial Stout brewed in honor of his family’s Black Lab (1993 – 2004). I’m sampling the 2011 release which was aged in Blanton’s Bourbon barrels for 8 months. Future releases of Damon will spend time in a variety of barrels (wine, port, multiple bourbon brands, etc) which will be bottled separately.

Viola Sofia
visually, both beers are black and essentially opaque.
nose: wood and chocolate, but somewhat restrained, especially compared to Damon.
palate: thick in the mouth with plenty of body. the roasted malty sweetness up front is quickly reigned in by a balancing bitter component (I’m assuming from both hops and the cocoa nibs). a wave of chocolate flavors builds to a crescendo on the mid-palate, only to be cast aside by the bitterness which eventually dominates and then gently fades through the incredibly long finish.
overall: great depth with an entertaining evolution of flavors.

nose: dense and thick, dark and sweet
palate: viscous, syrup-like body. while there is a decent amount of complexity, the sweetness is an overriding theme. richly toasted malt, vanilla and dark chocolate sauce are interlaced with subtle oak notes, and these flavors dominate until a mild wave of bitterness comes to the fore late on the finish.
overall: well made, but a little more sweetness than I prefer. this is a pretty big contrast to the Viola Sofia, which brings more depth and balance to the table with its edgy bitterness.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Harviestoun, Old Engine Oil vs. Ola Dubh 12 and Ola Dubh 16

Old Engine Oil, Porter, 6% abv, Scotland, $4 (11.2 oz)
Ola Dubh 12, Highland Park cask aged Porter, 8% abv, Scotland, $7 (11.2 oz)
Ola Dubh 16, Highland Park cask aged Porter, 8% abv, Scotland, $9 (11.2 oz)

The next group of oak aged beers lurking in my fridge comes from across the Atlantic - Alva, Scotland to be exact. Ola Dubh (pronounced oh-la dew) starts off as a higher alcohol version (8% abv instead of 6% abv) of a beer called Old Engine Oil from the Harviestoun brewery. As for the type of beer, the bottle I have is labeled as a Black Ale, I’ve seen bottles pictured online that say Dark Beer, but the official website (as well as what seems to be the current label) has it listed as a Porter.

The Ola Dubh version is then transformed by spending 6 to 8 months aging in former Highland Park single malt scotch casks. While many oak aged beers aren’t too specific about the former contents of the cask (bourbon, rum, pinot noir, etc), quite a few do specify a particular distillery or winery (Jack Daniel’s, Sokol Blosser, etc), but Harviestoun takes things a step further, producing several different expressions of Ola Dubh, each of which has been aged in Highland Park casks that were used for a different age variant of the single malt. The current lineup consists of Ola Dubh aged in casks that formerly held 12 yr, 16 yr, 18 yr, 30 yr and 40 yr Highland Park.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the age numbers; the standard Highland Park range has a 12 yr, 15 yr, 18 yr, 25 yr, 30 yr and a 40 yr, but no 16 yr. A little digging through their website revealed that the 16 yr was a Duty Free exclusive offering, which was in production from 2005 through 2010. Harviestoun must have secured quite a few of these casks.

The next question I began to ponder was whether these were bourbon barrels or sherry casks, prior to having been filled with single malt. A good bit of research uncovered an interesting fact, and a common misconception. I learned that Highland Park is aged exclusively in sherry casks, but those sherry casks come from both Spanish oak and American oak. Many assume that the use of American oak implies bourbon barrels, not so in this case.

A little more digging revealed that the 12 yr and 18 yr are aged primarily in Spanish oak, with the 15 yr is aged mainly in American oak. I didn’t come across any information about the type of wood used for the 16 yr or any of the other expressions for that matter.

Visually, all three are essentially black, but the Engine Oil does appear to let through a little more light than the other two.

The nose of the Old Engine Oil is more delicate than expected, with just a little roasted malt and chocolate coming through. Comparing the nose to that of the two Ola Dubh’s, I think there is some subtle difference in each of them, but the aromas are just too light for the differences to be obvious.

Engine Oil
Medium bodied (I expected it to be much more viscous, in fact; I had it on draught last year and remember it being somewhat heavier). On the palate roasted malt, toast, coffee and bitter chocolate all play together fairly well. Slightly floral hop flavors evolve into hop bitterness on the moderately long finish, adding depth and balance.

Ola Dubh 12
There’s a noticeable increase in body, I’d classify it as medium to heavy. The first thing that jumps out at me on the palate is the peat smoke. Sure, it doesn’t slap you in the face like a dram of Laphroaig, but it certainly is there. The flavors are actually pretty similar to those of the Old Engine Oil, but joined by peat smoke coming across as Lapsang Souchong tea. Compared to the OEO, the flavors here seem to be more well-integrated.

Ola Dubh 16
I actually went into this tasting half expecting there to be no discernable difference between this beer and the Ola Dubh 12. After all, as I’ve discussed in recent posts, the difference in flavor between various age expressions of a single malt can be minimal – and these beers are aged in casks that simply used to hold Highland Park for varying lengths of time. But my skepticism was unfounded. The peat smoke is there, but toned down relative to the 12yr. Also, the chocolate flavors come across as more sweet than bitter relative to the younger cask variant. It would be interesting to know if the casks used for the 16 yr are primarily American oak.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Founders, Breakfast Stout vs. Kentucky Breakfast Stout

BS: Imperial Stout, 60 IBU’s, 8.3% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $4 (12 oz)
KBS: bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout, 70 IBU’s, 11.2% abv, Grand Rapids, Michigan, $6 - $8 (12 oz)

As winter gently sets in, every opening of the fridge reminds me that I have a small stockpile of beer for which the weather is becoming most appropriate. They are all dark and heavy, and most of them have been aged in whisk(e)y casks. A few of their non-oak-aged counterparts are in the mix, which will make for good comparisons.

The phenomenon of oak aging beer primarily started in the American craft brewing scene with the use bourbon barrels in the early to mid 90’s. After a slow start followed by a decade or so of steady growth, the popularity (and production) of barrel aged beers has really taken off in recent years. And while beer can be found slumbering in casks that formerly held almost anything, from wine to rum to calvados to Grand Marnier, the majority of aging is still done in whisk(e)y casks.

Of course there is more to it than simply putting any beer in a random cask – I’ve definitely tasted a few barrel aged beers that fell short of the mark. Beer style, former cask contents, number of times the cask has been used, and how long the beer will be aged are all important factors. There is definitely an art to the process.

I’m going to start off with one of the early success stories of bourbon barrel aged beer – Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. I also have the non-aged Founders Breakfast Stout to taste, but it appears that these are two different beers - the KBS is not simply Breakfast Stout which has been barrel aged.

The Breakfast Stout is described as a “double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout”. The KBS may have changed recently, as the current website description is “an imperial stout brewed with a massive amount of coffee and chocolates, then cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for an entire year”, but a previous description found online calls it a “strong stout brewed with a hint of coffee and vanilla then aged in oak bourbon barrels”

appearance: black and thick
nose: full, pungent and sweet at the same time, chocolate milk and gentle espresso.
palate: the mouth-feel is rich and thick, but not cumbersome. good complexity with nicely evolving flavors. the coffee is obvious but not overdone and well balanced by the dense malty flavors. interesting interplay of bitterness from the hops, coffee and chocolate. the enduring finish fades off very slowly.

appearance: blacker and more viscous looking when pouring
nose: intriguing, chocolate and vanilla, but it has a unique quality that I can’t quite put my finger on.
palate: extremely dense and rich, the Breakfast Stout almost seems watery in comparison. the flavors explode in a massive blast and continue on in a sustained attack. syrupy chocolate, vanilla, oak, gentle spice. the flavors evolve and mingle playfully through the long, smooth finish.
As I’ve been writing and drinking slowly the beer has warmed up, and it seems more comfortable closer to room temp than fridge temp.

Each of these is actually a great beer in its own right. It feels like an “apples to oranges” comparison - the KBS does things that the BS is simply not capable of, but that doesn’t really take anything away from the greatness of the Breakfast Stout. With the BS you get the roasty, toasty nature as its dominant feature, whereas the KBS is defined by a thick sweetness that is only kept in check by a chorus of elements that are able to act as a counterbalance.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Glengoyne 17 Year vs. 21 Year

Glengoyne 17yr, single malt scotch, Highlands, 43%, $58
Glengoyne 21yr, single malt scotch, Highlands, 43%, $125

In my Springbank 10yr vs. 15yr and my Bunnahabhain 12yr vs. 18yr posts I focused on examining the efforts that distillers make to create more difference in flavor between whiskies in their core ranges with different age statements. As I mentioned previously, I’ve experienced scotches which taste very similar even when one has been aged 50% (or more) longer than its sibling.

In the example of the two Springbanks, as well as that of the two Bunnahabhains, I’d say the difference was moderate. While being enough to set the two expressions apart in each case, it wasn’t so much that they seemed like entirely different whiskies.

Glengoyne is a good example of a single malt where this differentiation between the various ages is taken quite a bit further. I had tasted the 17 year for the first time a few months before going to Scotland, and I liked it enough that I was pretty excited to visit this distillery that I actually knew very little about. The distillery tour started with a short video and a healthy dose of the 10 year. Much to my surprise it was significantly different than the 17 – a lot lighter in color and considerably more fruit forward, especially bright tree fruits like apple and pear.

I think (I was pretty sleep deprived at the time) the tour guide said that all of the Glengoynes had “some” sherry cask whisky in them. I asked what the percentage of sherry cask whisky in the 10 year was, but couldn’t get a straight answer. I suspect that it has very little, if any content that has seen time in sherried oak. It’s obvious from the taste and color that the 17 year that there’s a much higher proportion of sherry aged malt in it. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say 60%.

Thankfully, the distillery shop at Glengoyne had a good selection of miniatures, so I was able to bring back a 17yr and a 21yr in addition to the 700 ml Teapot Dram bottling I came away with.

I noticed that the label on the 21 year has “sherry matured” printed on it, which is absent from the labels of the younger bottlings. I’m taking that to mean it is 100% sherry matured. Just looking at the color difference between the two, I’m expecting a big difference in flavor as well.

color - medium golden (between dark chardonnay and light amber)
nose – gentle fruit with subtle floral notes
palate – the signature apple and pear notes are still obvious, but instead of being dominant like in the 10yr, they mingle with more dry oak notes and mild dark fruit
finish – dry spice notes are joined by floral / grassy flavors
It’s been a while since I tasted the 10yr, but I think it may have had some of the same floral qualities. The 17yr really brings this whisky a long way from the 10yr. There is a substantial difference between the two, and the 17yr is much more to my liking.

color - medium amber brown
nose – fruit with dry oak notes
palate – spice box up front, then a wave of bright tree fruit that quickly gives way to darker baked fruits, there’s still a hint of the floral aspect, but it becomes a quiet background note in this expression.
finish – dry oak spice finish which turns slightly nutty at the very end
nicely balanced, great complexity (cedar, cinnamon and unsweetened cocoa all pop up along the way) right through the long finish.

The 17yr is very nice, but the 21yr has been refined into something quite special. The difference between the 21yr and the 17yr is not quite as dramatic as the difference between the 17yr and the 10yr, but their dissimilarity is still very significant, especially when you consider that the time spent in cask has increased by less than 25%.

Of course the jump from the 10yr to the 21yr is striking enough that in a blind tasting many people might not even recognize them as being from the same distillery. I appreciate the variety, and find it interesting to see what sort of magic can happen in the warehouse. But there is the downside that someone could try the younger expression, not like it, and pass up its elders which they could potentially have really liked.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Nostradamus effect

When I was a much younger man, I was in awe of the apparent clairvoyant abilities of Nostradamus. As I grew older and wiser (and significantly more cynical), I came to realize that he was likely nothing more than a charlatan. As far as I know, none of his prophetic writings have ever predicted anything correctly in advance. They are merely retroactive prognostications – cryptic writings which have been interpreted to have predicted events only after said events have transpired.

You may be wondering why I’m blathering about a 16th century figure whose story is better left to the History Channel – well, I’m about to go out on a limb and make a bold prediction. Of course my forecast is related to whisky, a subject of which I have some knowledge. And I’m only going to prophesize a year into the future at most – I have no intentions of telling you what people will be drinking in the 25th century.

A little less than a year ago I wrote a blog post comparing Johnnie Walker Black to the new Double Black. A quick look at the stats reveals that this is far and away the most viewed post on the blog - obviously the subject is of great interest. In recent months my father has been lamenting about his inability to locate the Double Black in the greater Boston area. My arrogance got the best of me as I proclaimed that I’d have some for him in no time. A little online research showed not a single bottle in New Hampshire and a stock status of “Unavail (Do not order)” in Vermont.

I think it’s safe to say that Johnnie Walker is having supply issues with their new Double Black. You may remember my post about Bulleit Bourbon from early October, where I analyzed how the brand dealt with a shortage of product around 2008. Since both brands are owned by Diageo, I think we may see some similar actions in response to the current issues.

The Double Black carries no age statement, so it would be easy for them to reformulate the blend with some younger whiskies. I think this is likely to happen, but only to a minimal extent. Considering the great reviews it has received along with the marketing being heavily focused on its flavor profile, they would be playing with fire if they were to alter the way it tastes too drastically.

As for simply adding water to dilute the whisky and stretch existing stocks (like Bulleit did in select markets), the Double Black was already at 40% abv. Since that is the minimum legal strength for Scotch whisky, lowering it further is not an option.

Limiting availability (at least on a continual basis) doesn’t seem to be the way of the scotch industry in general or Diageo in particular, so I don’t think that will be a part of any long term strategy once we get past the current shortage.

That leaves just one last option – a price increase, and I fear it will be a fairly drastic one. Also, when you consider my original opinion of the price versus quality of Double Black and regular Black label, I think the new whisky had the potential to really decimate sales of Walker Black. The easiest way to keep that from happening and not have one expression steal sales from another expression is to vastly widen the price gap between them. Last year you would pay a 10% - 20% premium for Double Black over Black. Whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately, so I’m probably not making too bold of a prediction here, but I really think that by the end of 2013 it will be impossible to find Double Black for less than 50% more than the price of Walker Black.

Interestingly, I wrote most of this post last night and went on a little whisky hunting mission south of Boston before proof-reading and posting – and sure enough, at the third store I stopped by there was the elusive Double Black, at $60 a bottle! I suppose this store could have stumbled across some forgotten inventory and engaged in a bit of price gouging, knowing that no one else in the area has what they have. But I really think that this price is the new normal and will become widespread over the next 6 to 12 months. Time will tell.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bunnahabhain 12 Year vs. 18 Year

Bunnahabhain 12yr, single malt scotch, Islay, 46.3%, $40
Bunnahabhain 18yr, single malt scotch, Islay, 46.3%, $80

When I went on the tasting tour of the Bunnahabhain (pronounced boona-ha-ven) distillery back in April I sampled both the 12 year and the 18 year. They seemed quite similar but I had them one after the other rather than side by side, which makes it harder to compare. At the time, I also tasted a new-oak aged Bunnahabhain and a heavily peated expression. Each of those was different enough to make the 12 and the 18 seem identical by comparison.

In light of the Springbank 10yr / 15yr comparison I did last week, it makes sense to revisit the Bunnahabhain 12yr and 18yr and see how they measure up to each other. On a side note, I was perusing the Springbank website a few days ago, and noticed that they actually give some composition information for the various expressions. The 10yr is 60% bourbon / 40% sherry matured and the 15yr is aged 100% in sherry casks (they are a little vague with the 18yr listing it simply as bourbon/sherry, and strangely more specific with the 12yr cask strength’s description of 60% fresh sherry hogsheads / 40% refill sherry butts).

Before the tasting, a little Bunnahabhain history is in order. The distillery was established in 1881, and in 1887 a merger led to Bunnahabhain being owned by the newly formed Highland Distilleries Company Limited. In 1999, the Edrington group took over Highland Distillers and Bunnahabhain entered a period of relative neglect, with the company paying much more attention to the higher profile distilleries in its portfolio. In 2003, Edrington sold the distillery to Burn Stewart, owners of Tobermory and Deanston, and a much needed revival began.

For much of its history, the only regularly available official distillery bottling was the 12 year old, and occasional special releases would be put out on a limited edition basis. In 2005 the standard line was extended to include the 18 year and a 25 year. In 2010, all three expressions were raised from 43% abv to 46.3% and all chill filtration was eliminated.

a dark brownish red in color
malt and baked goods on the nose
a little dark fruit on the palate (dried fig, baked apple pie) adds depth to the core of sweet malt, butterscotch and ginger snap cookies
finishes long, with warming dry spice notes (cinnamon) balanced by some lingering malty sweetness

very close in color to the 12yr, maybe just a hint darker.
similar nose, but much less malty richness
on the palate, the malty sweetness is quite toned down, with the butterscotch edged out by toasty oak notes
the finish is equally long, but noticeably drier, with gentle spice notes lingering on for some time

The 12yr possesses a beguiling juxtaposition of flavors, while the 18yr comes across as being more subtle and refined. The difference between these two is more significant than I had originally thought, probably close to the degree of difference I saw between the 10yr and 15yr Springbank last week. I’m actually quite enchanted by each of them, but for an everyday drinker, the 12 year is much more attractively priced. Looks like I may have to hunt down a sample of the 25yr Bunnahabhain after all.

It’s interesting to note that I did taste the 12 year Bunnahabhain that was at 43% abv several years ago, and it was much lighter (body and flavor), and less malty but more floral on the palate, if I recall correctly. I was a little suspect of that bottle as I knew it had been opened and partially consumed for several years, but I now have a feeling that chill filtering had stripped out much of its character. 

The 8yr Bunnahabhain from Gordon & Macphail that I wrote about back in March is much more dramatically different compared to the current 12 year than the 12 and 18 are compared to each other. None of the three is chill filtered, so I guess the dissimilarity comes down to age, proof and cask selection.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Springbank, 10 Year vs. 15 Year

Springbank 10yr, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $69
Springbank 15yr, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $104

I think I expounded on the inner workings of the Springbank distillery during my time there (starting here) to the point of leaving nothing to discuss for this post. But fear not, another burning topic will lend itself to this tasting quite well.

Over the years of comparing various whiskies, I’ve noticed that many times different age variants of the same whisky can have very little difference in their flavor profiles. I think this first came to my attention five years ago, with 12yr Chivas Regal and their 18yr old. Slightly less smoke and slightly more oak was all that really stood out to me. All of that for a fairly significant jump in price (not to mention that I kind of preferred the 12yr). Around the same time I compared 10yr and 18yr Glenmorangie, and found them very similar.

But I’ve recently seen this trend reversing, and current releases of 18yr Glenmorangie taste quite distinctive compared to the 10yr. I suspect that many consumers grew wise to the fact that a considerable increase in age, along with a much bigger price tag, often didn’t correspond to very much of a difference on the palate. And I’m guessing that many distillers, eager to drive sales of their more expensive offerings, realized that they had to take extra steps to make their older bottlings taste more unique.

Bottling the different ages at different proofs is one quick and easy way to achieve this. Chill filtering the entry level offering and going unfiltered on the older examples would also do the trick. For distillers that use a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, varying the percentages in the mix seems like it is becoming more common, usually with the amount of sherry cask whisky in the vatting increasing as you progress through the age range. Some prime examples of the last technique would be Tobermory 10yr and 15yr, Glengoyne 10yr and 17yr, and An Cnoc 12yr and 16yr (in this case the younger of the two sees more sherry wood). Another method is to simply utilize cask management / selection. The distillery manager will pick casks with a certain flavor profile for the flagship age, and hold back casks that taste different / better for further maturation.

So, how do the two Springbanks compare?

light golden amber in color.
fruit and mild peat on the nose.
amazingly full flavored, with plenty of fruit (apple and orange), followed by a hint of vanilla and brine. as the fruit fades, dry oak spice and gentle, but firm peat smoke take up the slack. wonderful complexity and a long, enduring finish. a true classic.

very close to the 10yr in color, just a touch darker.
the nose is more restrained, with dry oak spice notes leading the way.
there’s plenty of flavor here as well, but the fruit is less bright, more along the lines of dark and baked fruits (apple pie, etc). the oak spice is drier and warmer (cinnamon spice). the brine and peat smoke are still present, but toned town quite a bit. the finish is also lengthy, but much drier.

I think the folks at Springbank have done a nice job of making some differentiation between these two expressions without taking it too far. They aren’t radically different from each other, but still distinctive enough so that consumers wouldn’t feel like they wasted their money on the 15 year. I have to admit that, even though I’d be happy to drink either one, I do like the 10 year a little more. I would put that down to personal preference though.

 I’m guessing that there is slightly more sherry aged whisky in the 15, and possibly some cask selection leaning toward a drier profile. Unfortunately, one thing I missed at whisky school was the process for selecting the group of casks that would be vatted together before bottling. Given the opportunity, I’d be sure to explore this topic further.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yamazaki 18yr

stats: Japanese single malt whisky, 43%, $135

I find it surprising that I’ve been writing this blog for a year and a half and haven’t yet broached the subject of Japanese whisky – it’s something I’ve had a mild fascination with for several years.

Of the five major whisk(e)y producing nations, Japan’s whisky industry is the youngest and the only one whose history can be traced back to just a few men. One of those men, Masataka Taketsuru, is generally regarded as the father of Japanese whisky.

Born in 1894 to a family which had owned a sake brewery for many generations, Masataka went to work for the spirits producing company Settsu Shuzo, after graduating from the Osaka Technical High School. Just three years into his career there, he was chosen to go to Scotland and learn the secrets of that country’s whisky industry, toward the end of 1918.

He enrolled in chemistry classes at Glasgow University, and by April of 1919 had landed a brief internship at the Longmorn distillery. After marrying a Scottish native in January of 1920, Masataka and his new wife moved to Campbeltown, where he began working at the Hazelburn distillery. By November of 1920, the couple had made their way to Japan.

Whisk(e)y from the Europe and North America made its way to Japan after the 1850’s, when the country started to engage in trade with the West. In the early 1900’s many firms in Japan were trying to emulate these whiskies by producing spirits flavored with herbs, spices and perfumes. Unfortunately, the post World War I economic depression caused Masataka’s employers to continue on that path, and give up their plans to use his newly acquired knowledge to produce proper whisky. He left the company out of frustration in 1922.

But not all was lost. In 1899 Kotobukiya, a wine and liquor importing business was started by Shinjiro Torii. He was fascinated by whisky and aspired to start a whisky distillery in Japan. In 1923, Shinjiro hired Masataka Taketsuru to oversee the building and operation of his Yamazaki distillery, near Osaka.

Authentic whisky was finally being made in Japan in 1924, but Torii and Taketsuru could never agree on a house style. Masasaka remained true to the Scotch Whisky flavor profile he knew from his formative years abroad, which was powerful, robust and smoky. Shinjiro favored a much lighter style of whisky that would have mass appeal to the Japanese consumer. The two men parted ways in 1929.

Masasaka’s wife, Rita, had been teaching English for many years and it was through her connections that he was able to secure investors in his new firm, Nikka, and build his Yoichi distillery in 1934 on the island of Hokkaido. Nikka added a second distillery, Miyagikyo, in 1969.

Shinjiro Torii’s firm, Kotobukiya, became Suntory in the 1960’s. In addition to the Yamazaki distillery, they opened the Hakushu distillery in 1973.

These are the four major whisky distilleries in Japan today, although several smaller, less significant outfits also make Japanese whisky. For many years Yamazaki 12yr and 18yr were the only Japanese whiskies exported to the U.S., but that has started to change in recent years.

Enough of the history lesson, let’s get on to the tasting.

The color is a dark, rich amber, almost mahogany.
The full, complex nose has nutty, floral and malty sweet aromas.
It is full bodied, complex and evolving on the palate. It starts of nutty and slightly floral (just enough to add depth) with a malty richness, before giving way to the dark, cooked fruit flavors typical of sherry cask maturation.
Then it moves into the warming, slightly spicy, long finish with some of the earlier flavors lingering gently.

I really like this whisky, it’s well made and nicely balanced, but it has a sense of intrigue about it. Even though it could pass as Single Malt Scotch in a blind tasting, there’s still a certain uniqueness to it.