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.

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