Sunday, March 2, 2014

Talisker, Distiller's Edition vs. 10 Year

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.

Talisker DE
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.


Charlie said...

>>> 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<<<

Yes, that is definitely how it was for me. I really, really wanted to like this whisky but the sherry finishing seems to smother the underlying 10 and the kick-in-the-balls Talisker identity gets lost. I know the Talisker is somewhere in there but it could just as easily have been a fruity speysider that was peated. In final summation, trying to understand the point of the DE, I was left with a somewhat nagging and perplexing question. Why?

Unknown said...

Well, well, well. First, I am a big Talisker fan. I think the 10 is robust, packs the right amount of peat with a monster peppery finish. The Talisker 18 is arguably the finest dram I have ever had, (so balanced without losing that pepper kick, including all the big ones under 200 dollars.) The Talisker SE fits right in between. I agree with the previous reviews. Fantastic fruity nose with a hint of smoke, great mouth feel, wonderful balance and a delicate smoke and pepper and a lovely sweetness on the finish. Could get into trouble with this one!