Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Years Old

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 107 proof, $77 

Van Winkle. The name is one which has become iconic in bourbon circles over the last decade. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’s product line-up consists of five bourbons and a 13 year old rye. As you move up the age range of their bourbons they become more elusive, more expensive and above all, more highly coveted. Even though the Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bottles (15 year, 20 year and 23 year) command most of the attention, the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 107 proof and the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year are both still quite hard to come by these days (there was also a 10 year 90 proof, but it was dropped from the line last year).

My introduction to Van Winkle bourbon came in the form of a bottle of 10 year 107 proof that was given to me as a gift (I think sometime in 2003 or 2004, all I know for sure is that I had polished it off by April of 2005). At that time everything I knew of good bourbon was limited to Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Booker’s, and possibly Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s. The Old Rip Van Winkle had opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole universe of bourbon out there that I had previously been unaware of.

A few years later I suggested to my sister that a bottle of 15 year Pappy would be an appropriate gift for me – back then these bottles could actually linger on store shelves for several months or more after one of their semi-annual (spring and fall) releases. I try to give my sister the benefit of the doubt, but I really wasn’t sure if it was through generosity or stupidity that she picked up the 20 year Pappy for me (at that time they were priced at $50 and $90, respectively). Of course I had no choice but to go out and buy myself a bottle the 15 year. I don’t recall the exact timing of these acquisitions but one of my early posts, where I reviewed the 20 year Pappy , was originally written in May of 2007. I don’t think I waited too long to get the 15 year, however the earliest I specifically remember it being in my possession was June of 2008, when I let a friend taste both Pappy’s.

The popularity of the brand has exploded over the last two or three years, and nowadays all things Van Winkle practically vaporize off of store shelves, if any bottles even make it that far after waiting list requests have been fulfilled. For many people these bottlings have become the Holy Grail of American whiskey purchases. But for some aficionados the cost of and effort needed to obtain a Van Winkle bottle outweighs the value of the liquid inside. To this group the Van Winkles have become somewhat of a sacrificial lamb amongst great bourbons; while still commanding a much respect, they serve to distract the hoarding masses away from other highly desirable, limited release whiskeys which garner far less media attention.

In order to explain this divergence of opinions and dispel a few misconceptions I’m going to explore a bit of history and delve into a topic that few people, aside from bourbon’s most ardent enthusiasts, are even aware of.

But those details will have to wait for the next post. This had started off as a comparison piece with the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old, and then it began to snowball. It was growing into an unwieldy literary blob until I finally made the executive decision to split it in two. I’ll tie everything together soon enough, and even explain the relevance of my rambling recollection of when I procured my Van Winkle bottles.

As a quick footnote I should mention that this bottle somehow got shuffled to the back of the whiskey shelf where it sat 3/4 consumed for several years. In past posts I’ve detailed my observances of some whiskeys improving after time spent in a partially full bottle and others deteriorating under the same circumstance. I recently polished off my Murray McDavid 15 year Highland Park bottle which had spent maybe a year with just 10%-20% of its original contents: it was a mere shadow of what it had been when I first opened the bottle. My fear was that the same fate had befallen my Pappy and I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair review. But then I remembered that a few years back I used to regularly spay a preservative gas mix into my open whisk(e)y bottles. Perhaps the remaining bourbon in this bottle had been protected by an invisible blanket of Argon.

There’s only one way to tell, time to open her up. It actually did taste a little peculiar at first, but I think that was just down to the fact that I’ve been drinking way more scotch than bourbon lately. A few more sips confirmed that we were good to go.

The color is a deep medium amber.
The aromas are dense but not overly intense, with sweet corn and deep oak notes riding up on a gentle cloud of alcohol vapor.
The whiskey is fairly viscous on the tongue and quickly brings the palate to attention. Gentle spice notes mingle with the heat of the alcohol as a backbone of oak inspired flavors rise up. The wood is prominent but not out of balance and as it moves along hints of sweetness emerge.
Many different flavors individually come to the fore as the whiskey progresses through its lengthy finish, which gently fades ever so slowly. Even though the whiskey is driven by strength and intensity, its character retains a certain quality of softness.
Overall, it embraces you like a firm handshake and shows great depth throughout. I can see what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kilchoman, 2006 Vintage Release vs. Machir Bay (2012)

stats: 2006 Vintage Release, single malt scotch, Islay, 46%, £50 ($80)
          Machir Bay (2012), single malt scotch, Islay, 46%, £45 ($72)

For the last post I tasted some very young examples of Kilchoman, and now it’s time to sample the two slightly older miniatures of the four that I picked up at the distillery. But before I get into the technical details and tasting notes, I’d like to talk a little bit about the relevance of the distillery’s location.

While many of Scotland’s malt distilleries have been around for hundreds of years, many more have come and gone over the last two centuries. When a new distillery is called for, many factors are taken into account when choosing its location. As the decades have marched on, circumstances have changed and different locations become more desirable.

In the 1500’s and 1600’s distilling was the domain of Scottish farmers. Whisky was a value-added product that they could make from their barley without too much trouble, and with a much longer shelf life than the grain it was made from, whisky could also be used as a hedge against poor future growing seasons.

Distilling became more commercial in the 1700’s, but unreasonable tax rates drove distillers to the remote locations of the coastal islands and mountainous highlands, where they were out of the reach of the excise men.

When the tax rates on whisky were finally lowered in 1823 the commercial distilling industry saw explosive growth and Campbeltown was the epicenter, with 28 new distilleries popping up by 1835. It had all of the essential elements: local farmers growing plenty of barley, a nearby coal mine producing fuel for the stills, abundant peat with which to fire the kilns, a reliable water source in Crosshill Loch, and a good harbor from which to ship the whisky to nearby Glasgow.

While the lower tax rates brought the highland distillers out of the hills and closer to the prime water sources in the Spey River valley, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that Speyside saw massive growth in distilling. It was then that the railroads connecting that remote region the major urban areas were developed. With the infrastructure in place to bring the whisky to market (as well as bring back any raw materials that were lacking), Speyside, with its abundant water supplies, was the place to set up a new distillery.

By the 1960’s the situation had changed again. With distillers starting to buy malted barley from large commercial malting operations, being close to farms and peat sources was no longer important. And with most distillers moving from coal fired stills to indirect steam heat (usually produced with fuel oil or natural gas), being located near a coal source was no longer an advantage. You could really put a distillery anywhere, as long as there was a good water source and access to electricity and transportation infrastructure.

In the past two decades, we have witnessed a further evolution. Prior to the 1970’s almost all malt whisky went into blends, and what little was bottled as single malt was sold domestically. Marketing was irrelevant to the individual distilleries; as long as they had a good reputation with the blenders sales were almost guaranteed. While the majority of Scotch sold today is still in the form of blends, single malts have grown into an important segment of the market. A few distilleries are even dedicating their entire production to single malts now.

So, marketing and tourism have grown into important aspects for Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries, and distillery location can be a critical factor for both. Let’s look at marketing first. From the perspective of building a brand image, Speyside is probably the last place you would want to set up shop these days. With more than 50 malt distilleries packed into about 2000 square miles it would be hard to stand out from the rest, and you’d really risk becoming just another Glen-something-or-other, lost in a sea of distilleries.

But give your distillery an island unto itself, and now you’ve set yourself apart from the crowd. Talisker has long been well marketed as the only single malt from the Isle of Skye, and while Tobermory (on the Isle of Mull) isn’t all that well known, it was my curiosity of island malts that drove me to seek out their bottlings, and ultimately to visit the distillery. I suspect that a lack of proper marketing keeps Tobermory from capitalizing on its uncommon location.

One of Scotland’s newest distilleries, Abhainn Dearg, which began production in 2008, is situated on the Isle of Lewis. Although the island is probably too remote for the distillery to draw in many tourists, it does have the distinction of a very unique location and as far as I know it is the first ever licensed distillery in the Outer Hebrides. Hopefully the difficult to pronounce name (ah-veen jeer-reg) doesn’t prove to be too much of a handicap.

Tourism is the other big driver for new distilleries, both in terms of the direct revenue it can generate and the brand loyalty that can be created through positive experiences during visits. As much as Speyside is a whisky tourist destination with its dense concentration of distilleries, any individual one would have to do something pretty special to draw my attention above the others in the region.

Of all the distilleries in Scotland, Auchentoshan may have the most ideal location for drawing in sightseers – less than a 15 minute drive from the airport in Glasgow. Just 30 minutes further outside of Glasgow, Glengoyne is an obvious destination for any malt fanatic heading north or west from the city. I can certainly attest to the fact that my awareness of each of these distilleries was raised greatly as a result of the memorable experiences I had while visiting them.

Another relatively new distillery named Daftmill began producing spirit in 2005. Located midway between Perth and St. Andrews, it is the first new Lowland distillery to open since the 1960’s. The operating costs of the distillery are being funded by revenue from the 1000 acre farm it is located on, and they don’t intend to bottle any whisky until it is aged at least 10 years. They currently have no visitor facilities, but should they choose to develop them once they have single malt for sale, they are ideally situated to tap into the steady stream tourists who fly into Edinburgh and travel north from there.

The Arran distillery, which came online in 1993, has a location (on an island in the Firth of Clyde) that is beneficial for both tourism and marketing. While Arran may seem a little off the beaten path at first glance, a short drive from Glasgow and a quick ferry ride will put you on the island with minimal effort. A ferry off the other side of the island will conveniently put you on the road to Campbeltown or a very short drive from the ferry to Islay. That is a tempting shortcut for the whisky traveler who’d rather not drive all he way around Loch Fyne. With island malts enjoying a rising tide of popularity, the distillery also enjoys the notoriety of being the only one on the Isle of Arran.

And that brings us to Kilchoman. The fame and popularity of Islay whisky has grown dramatically since the mid 90’s, and it could easily be argued that this has driven interest in the single malts hailing from other Scottish islands. Even though Kilchoman competes with 7 other distilleries for tourist visits, the iconic island has become the whisky tourist’s ultimate destination, and most visitors spend enough time there to see most, if not all of Islay’s distilleries. The timing of their whisky coming of age has coincided perfectly with the swelling consumer demand for all things Islay. Combine that with the ability to tout themselves as the first new distillery on the island in 124 years and you have the perfect opportunity for a young distillery to get its whisky into the hands (and minds) of consumers in an unprecedented way.

Again, my 50ml bottles are pictured but the prices listed typical for 700ml bottles.

Machir Bay (2012)  – A vatting of 3 year (60%), 4 year (35%) and 5 year (5%), all from first fill bourbon barrels, with the 4 year being finished for a further 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts.
The nose is full and peaty with a touch of sea spray, I think some of the “new make spirit” aroma is still coming through as well.
On the palate, there’s a backbone of peat smoke running throughout, but it’s less assertive than I expected. A wave of floral/grassy notes comes to the fore on the mid-palate, which subsides as the whisky moves through a lull in flavor intensity before it turns hot (in a spicey/floral way) on the finish. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it immature or poorly integrated; perhaps “angular” is a more appropriate descriptive term.

2006 Vintage Release – The first 5 year old from the distillery, a vatting of first-fill bourbon barrels (80%) and refill bourbon barrels (20%).
The peat aromas aren’t as robust (as the Machir Bay), and there’s a bit of a dry, earthy quality on the nose.
On the palate, the first thing that strikes me is how different the flavor profile is from that of the Machir Bay. The peat is certainly there, but running along with it is something I’m having a hard time putting my finger on; something along the lines of some sort of dry, earthy middle-eastern spice.
It does evolve as it moves through from the start to the finish, but in a very subtle way. While it lacks some of the complexity of the Machir Bay, it comes across as being much more well-composed.

I managed to hold back just a bit more of the Spring 2011 Release to compare. While I still give it the edge, these two expressions come much closer than their younger counterparts. As much as I loathe assigning numerical ratings, I’ll go 85, 87 and 88 respectively, just to put things in context with the last post.