Sunday, January 27, 2013

Glengoyne, The Teapot Dram

stats: single malt scotch, Highlands, 58.8%, £60 ($96)

I have to admit that I love a whisk(e)y with a good story. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m a sucker for one with a great story. However, I do have a fairly sensitive BS detector, and if the marketing wizards put out something that smells fishy or comes across as being disingenuous, I’ll be turned off pretty quickly.

But what I have before me is a bottle with a wonderful story, one that harkens back to what many would consider the golden age of Scottish malt whisky distilleries, at least from the workers’ perspective. The Glengoyne Teapot Dram brings us back to a period of time in distilling history that is rapidly fading from memory, and carries with it an endearing sense of nostalgia.

You may recall that this is a distillery-only bottling that I regrettably passed up only hours after arriving in Scotland. Over nearly two weeks, that regret turned into determination as I convinced myself that I had time for a 30 minute detour on the long drive from Campbeltown to the airport in Glasgow. With a successful mission, I had redeemed myself, and I was still on time for my flight home.

The Teapot Dram is a limited release of just 3105 bottles, at cask strength, comprised of a vatting of 5 first-fill sherry butts (three at 9 years in American oak, one at 13 years in American oak, and one at 14 years in European oak). This bottling was created to pay tribute to a lost tradition, I’ll defer to the official distillery account:

Up until the early 1980s Glengoyne’s men were given three large drams of cask strength Glengoyne a day - breakfast, lunch and afternoon break.

Once a week the Brewer, Ron Low, and the excise men would select the best first fill sherry cask they could find to become that week’s dram. However, if the younger men didn’t want one of their drams they would pour it into the old copper teapot that sat in the break room.

The more “seasoned” drinkers would then help themselves to additional drams from the teapot throughout the day – everyone was happy.

These days everyone concerns themselves with health insurance, paid vacation days and retirement plans. Three generous drinks a day, drawn straight from the cask – now that’s my idea of a solid benefits package.

In the bottle it appears quite dark, in the glass, more golden brown.
The nose is full, but not hot or over the top, with malt, dried fruit, and sugary baked goods coming through.
It is medium to full bodied, and actually seems restrained at first on the palate, with just a few pin pricks to the tongue foreshadowing what is about to come. Then, upon swallowing, it just explodes. Big and intense, it’s definitely fiery but with plenty of flavor (actually, just enough to keep the heat from pulling it out of balance). Molasses, apples baked in cinnamon and brown sugar, candied figs, and subtle oaky/nutty flavors all come together with amazing density.
These flavors continue to play tug-of-war with the almost numbing heat through the lengthy finish, as they meld into warming spice notes.
It comes across as being youthful and exuberant, but with depth and character.

This whisky gives a sense of time and place; I can imagine that a dram like this is just what would have been needed to satisfy the palate and warm the soul before heading off to shovel a few tons of barley.

I held back a bit of the miniature of 21 yr Glengoyne that I had, to use for the sake of comparison (at 43% and also matured exclusively in sherry casks). The flavor profile is similar, but with a much more delicate and refined manner; perhaps it would be a better choice for the more genteel drinker.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Longrow, CV vs. Living Cask

Longrow CV, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $60
     (200ml pictured, average price for 750ml shown)
Longrow Living Cask, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 49.2%, $70.40
     (350ml pictured, price for 700ml shown)

As I mentioned last week, Longrow single malt was first produced at the Springbank Distillery in 1973. But it was certainly not the first time a whisky of that name had emerged from Campbeltown. The original Longrow distillery, a former next-door neighbor to Springbank, was in operation from 1824-1896 (Springbank had its start in 1828). In fact, two of the former Longrow warehouses still stand to this day, and are being put to good use by Springbank, one as Warehouse #15, and the other as their bottling hall. The Springbank employee parking lot is located on the site of the original Longrow still-house. When the name was put back into use in 1973, I believe it was as a tip of the hat to the town’s rich distilling history.

As I continue my Longrow tasting, I’m moving on to the CV and the Living Cask. CV stands for Curriculum Vitae, and in common usage the term is essentially the European equivalent of a resume. It loosely translates from Latin as the course of my life. When I first heard about this whisky, I mistakenly thought CV stood for Cask Variety. In actuality, that is essentially what we have here; a marriage of 6yr, 10yr and 14yr, coming from bourbon, rum, port and sherry casks.

The Living Cask bottlings are fairly special, as they can only be purchased at the Caddenhead’s store in Campbeltown. The four casks (Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn and Kilkerran) are kept in the shop, and bottles are filled from a spigot in the side of the each cask. More single malt is periodically added to each cask as needed.

The Living Cask bottle that I have is particularly special to me. Apparently my overly inquisitive nature earned me the honor of being named “star pupil” of the Springbank Whisky School session which I attended. For this I was awarded a 35cl bottle from the Living Cask of my choice. It was only a matter of moments before I settled on the Longrow.

Filling that bottle was one of the last things that I did at whisky school, so I didn’t really have a chance to gather any info about the Living Cask program. I recently sent an email off to the Caddenhead’s shop manager asking him to shed some light on the subject. Grant got right back to me with the following response:

The 4 casks in the tasting room are what we call living casks. The Longrow has an average age of around 12 years old (sometimes it may be topped up with 10Y/O or maybe 14Y/O) as it works on a solera system where we keep topping the cask up before it reaches the tap. (the tap being half way up the cask). Every month or after we top up the cask we will check the strength. The whisky is selected by the Distillery Manager and could be from various cask types Bourbon, Sherry etc, but the Longrow is mostly from Bourbon.

My curious disposition being what it is, I had a few follow-up questions:

The bottle that I have is at 49.2 abv, which seems low for a 12yr at cask strength. Is that because the abv continues to drop as the whisky spends time in the living cask, or do you sometimes add whisky that is surplus from a bottling run and has been diluted down to 46%?
Also, can you tell me about the living casks themselves (size, type of wood), and do they contribute much to the flavor of the whisky, or are they casks that have been used several times previously and just act mostly as containers now?

Unfortunately, I never got a response to that email, so the subject still retains some of its mystery.

nose – The peat has a slight floral aspect to it, overall there is more depth / layering of aromas, presenting a subtle complexity
palate – The body is as viscous as the first two. There’s a quick blast of a floral element up front which quickly gives way to smoke and heat – another sustained attack marches into the finish, with a level of intensity that lies closer to the 10 than the 14. Warming spice notes build through finish, adding depth.
finish – again, very long. Beach fire and brine, but with a hint of licorice mixed in.

Living Cask
nose – I thought the higher abv might provide more intense aromas, but in that respect it is similar to the CV. The olfactory notes are a little different though, with aromas that are less floral and perhaps leaning more toward heather.
palate – The thick-of-body theme continues through to the last sample. While the greater alcohol level failed to bolster the nose, it certainly seems to enhance the palate. The Living Cask shares a similar potency to the 10 year, but while the 10 has tannic oak and sweetness contrasting the peat smoke, the intensity of the Living Cask is more peat-centric, and it seems to be the driest of the bunch.
finish – Rather than fading gently though the finish as the others do, it seems to hold its phenolic intensity until quite late in the game.

Overall conclusion:
The 14yr is the most gentle (and refined) of the bunch, and while the other three share a higher level of intensity, each does so in its own unique way - the 10 yr with a fruit/nutty/oak richness, the CV with its floral/spicy character, and the Living Cask with dry peat smoke as the main player, buttressed by its slightly higher abv. I’m not one to assign scores on a 100 point scale, but if I were to do so here I think that the latter three offerings would be within a point or two of each other, and the 14yr a solid five points ahead of the bunch.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Longrow, 10 Year vs. 14 Year

Longrow 10 yr (1995), single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $75
Longrow 14 yr, single malt scotch, Campbeltown, 46%, $120

Although Springbank is slowly becoming more well-known, I would still consider it somewhat of a niche / cult whisky. In that context, Longrow, the heavily peated single malt from the Springbank distillery, could surely be described as a niche within a niche. Of the roughly eight brands of single malt with aggressive peating levels that are currently in regular production, Longrow is among the three that you could easily argue to be the least well know.

But the lack of recognition certainly has no correlation to the level of quality, and you can well imagine my sense of fortuity and anticipation with four different Longrow bottlings laid out before me, awaiting my compare and contrast session. Even though I’m going to be tasting them all together, I’ve decided to split this up into two posts, covering the 10 year and 14 year here and going over the CV and Living Cask next week.

Before I get on the main event, a little Longrow background is in order. It was originally distilled in 1973 and 1974 as and experiment to see if an Islay style single malt could be produced on the mainland. I suspect this was done by J & A Mitchell and Co. in an attempt to become more self-sufficient and not have to buy heavily peated malt from other distillers for their Campbeltown Loch blend.

Needless to say, the experiment was a success and Longrow was made sporadically from 1987 until it went into regular production in 1992. In addition to being heavily peated, it is doubled distilled, in contrast to the two and a half times distillation seen by the moderately peated Springbank single malt. The current range includes 10 yr, 10 yr 100 proof, 14 year, 18 year and CV. Limited release Longrow bottlings that see some time in wine casks (Tokaji and Gaja Barolo to name a few) come out from time to time as well.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in the Glenrothes post, Longrow 10 year carried a vintage date from 1992-1996. The bottle I'm sampling for this post is a 1995 that a good friend was generous enough to let me borrow. Prior to travelling to Scotland, the only Longrow I had tasted was a bottle of 1994 10 yr, a gift from my sister which didn’t last long on my overcrowded whisky shelf. While in Campbeltown, I became intimate with many a variant of Longrow, but it was the 14 yr that stood out to me, and I swore I’d hunt down a bottle when I got home.

Back in the States, I found a few Longrow 14’s without too much trouble but felt that they were overpriced at $140. I was fortunate to come across a bottle on sale for $100 a month ago, and didn’t have to think twice about that purchase.

nose – The peat smoke is certainly there, but in a very smooth way, nicely integrated into the pervasive berry fruit background.
palate – Thick, oily body, backed up by a sudden burst of peat with a back-note of sweetness. The intensity builds quickly with a modest alcohol burn adding to the experience. Nutty oak notes and vanilla join the chorus, however the berry fruit that came through strongly on the nose is far less dominant on the palate. A little more angular than I remember my 1994 10 year being.
finish – The smoldering peat fire continues its sustained attack as the other flavors fade away, being accompanied by just enough balancing heat. The peat flavors linger on for an incredible amount of time, bringing to mind embers that glow slowly long after a fire has given up its flames.

nose – Still plenty of peat on the nose, but it comes across as being more eloquent and high toned compared to the 10 yr.
palate – Similar density on the body, and the flavors are not altogether different, but their intensity builds more gradually. Reminiscent of the sea and fish nets at one point.
finish – Another long, simmering finish
It’s very much like the 10 yr in some ways, but so much more refined, toned down (especially the sweetness/fruit) and mature. It has plenty of intensity in its own right, but with a very polished manner.
Interestingly, this is much closer to my memory of that first bottle of 10 yr I had several years ago. It has a certain smooth softness to it that is unexpected from a whisky with this level of peating.

As for color, they are all roughly the same shade of light amber, with the 10yr being slightly darker than the 14yr, and the Living Cask being barely a hint darker than the CV. As best as I could tell, the 14 and the CV were almost identical in color.

My overall impression of the 10yr and the 14yr? Each one is wonderful in its own respect – youthful and spirited vs. more mature and refined. I do wish I had some way of knowing what year the 14 was distilled in.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Yamazaki 12yr

stats: Japanese single malt whisky, 43%, $40

It was with great excitement that I procured a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 12 year, back in 2006. I had read that there was some high quality brown liquor coming out of the land of the rising sun, but other than knowing that Japanese whisky emulated Scotch whisky stylistically, I really had no preconceived notion of what I might be about to taste.

A whisky bottle adorned with Japanese script was quite the peculiarity at the time, as very few people in the U.S. knew that Japan made any whisky at all, let alone that it was one of the top 5 whisky producing nations. And as much as I wanted to love my newly acquired libation, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. Of course it was early on in my whisky connoisseurship, and I did consider the possibility that my palate was still developing and in need of broader exposure. Either way, the Yamazaki languished on my whisky shelf, partially consumed and largely ignored for several years.

My interest in that bottle was however reawakened eventually, sometime in 2010 or 2011, and I was surprised to find it much more to my liking. This newfound appreciation caused me to ponder – had my palate and my preferences evolved, or had the whisky actually changed for the better 4 to 5 years after the bottle was opened? But questions of this nature can be tough to answer with the tastings being done years apart and a heavy reliance on one’s memory.

Fast forward to just a few months ago: I was feeling obligated to put together a 12 yr Yamazaki post as a follow-up to the recent 18 yr Yamazaki write-up. But with the contents of my 12 yr bottle having dwindled down to a single drink and the bottle having been originally opened at least 6 years ago, I was concerned that the remaining whisky may have deteriorated to the point that I might be giving it an unfair review. Fortunately, a solution presented itself as I bellied up to the bar at a local watering hole and spotted a fresh bottle of 12 year Yamazaki on the shelf. Notes from that night:

mild nose of slightly sweet grain. medium body. comes across a bit hot. malt foundation mingles with perfumed floral flavors & a hint of nuttiness. flavors fight for dominance with alcohol burn. smooth transition to a long warming finish.

The whisky was actually just about how I remembered it from the first time I tasted it – not bad, but with much stronger floral / perfumed flavors than I prefer and too much heat relative to the intensity of the flavors. When I originally opened my bottle, one of my friends likened it to the propeller blades of a Japanese Zero lashing across his tongue, a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

As for my improved opinion of the whisky a few years ago, upon further reflection I think it was a combination of the fact that I’d become less sensitive to the strong floral element in the flavor profile, as well as the fact that over time the whisky seemed to have toned down and wasn’t coming across so hot, but without a corresponding loss of flavor.

I decided to go one step further and take the opportunity to compare the last drink in my bottle to a fresh sample. I managed to smuggle a wee dram out of the above mention bar for a proper side by side. Of course, this comparison should be taken with a grain of salt considering that the whisky most distillers put in the bottle isn’t entirely consistent from year to year.

The newer bottling has a nose of dusty corn, while the older one has aromas that are maltier, and surprisingly the older example seems to have a little more aromatic intensity than the fresh sample. The whisky from my bottle still has some heat, but definitely not as much. It also comes across as being less angular and with better continuity; it seems to have mellowed nicely with time.

This certainly doesn’t mean that all whiskies will get better as they linger in the bottle once the seal has been broken. Over the years I have observed some whiskies improve with time after the bottle was opened and I’ve seen others slowly drop off in quality.