Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holiday Whiskyfest Tasting

Sometimes getting the opportunity to taste rare whiskies is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. While I was visiting Massachusetts around Thanksgiving I stopped by a few of the more reputable whisky purveyors in the area to see if they had anything interesting on their shelves.

While I was perusing the selection at Luke’s Liquors in Rockland, an announcement came down from above, promoting their Holiday Whiskeyfest, which was just a week away and would feature many limited and older offerings. Then I overheard another customer saying that he’d been to the event in previous years and it was the best five dollars that he’d ever spent.

While it’s unusual for me to come down out of the mountains and travel to the Boston area twice in little more than a week, luck would have it that I needed to be back in the neighborhood for a social engagement the first weekend of December.

I was near the store the night before the event and stopped by for a quick glance across the shelves. I struck up a conversation with a few of the people working there and pressed for a little information about the tasting. It was scheduled from 1:00 to 3:00, but they suggested that I get there before 1:00 just to find parking. The vendors would all stop pouring at 3:00, so getting there early would also maximize the tasting opportunities.

Punctuality not being my strong suit, I rolled up at 1:05 to a nearly full parking lot and a store packed with people. I paid my $5 entry fee and was given a guide book and a complimentary tasting glass. They ran out of those glasses about 10 minutes after I got there. A combination of spirits companies, importers and distributors had 30 tables set up around the store, each featuring anywhere from one to a dozen whiskies.

With roughly 150 bottlings on offer, there was no way to taste them all. I was anxious and jumped right into the action. In retrospect, I should have taken a few minutes to go through the guide book, prioritize and strategize. Some of the presenters only brought one bottle of each of their high-end offerings so some things that I would like to have tasted weren’t available toward the end. There were also some tables that I never even made it to. I probably spent a little too much time tasting whiskies that weren’t all that important to me early on as well.

Obviously this was no time for putting together detailed tasting notes, so most of what follows will be more along the lines of general impressions.

First up was the Dewar’s table, featuring several variants of that blend and two of its component single malts – Aberfeldy and Craigellachie. I’ve never been a big Dewar’s fan, but I tried the 15 year (they also had the 12 year and 18 year on offer). It was nice, and a far cry better than Dewar’s white label, but still not really my cup of tea. I passed on the Aberfeldy; had them before, not my style. I had seen the Craigellachie on the shelf recently but didn’t know much about it. This is a fairly large distillery located in the heart of Speyside that was established in 1891. In 1998 its ownership passed from Diageo to John Dewar & Sons. Very few official bottlings of Craigellachie had been released over the years, with the bulk of the distillery’s production gong into blends. That all changed with the introduction of a new line of single malts in the fall of 2014. It consists of a 13 year, 17 year, 19 year and 23 year. The 19 year is exclusive to Travel Retail, and there is rumor of a 31 year coming soon. I tasted the 13 year and the 23 year. While both were quite good, stylistically they weren’t really my favorites. That being said, they did earn my respect on several fronts. I’m always happy to see official bottlings from distilleries that didn’t get much attention in the past. The whole lineup is bottled at 46% abv, with natural color and non-chill filtered. Craigellachie is also one of just a handful of single malt distilleries still using traditional worm tubs to condense the vapors coming off the stills. This results in a weightier, more sulfury spirit (and I’m a sucker for traditional methods).

Next up was a new offering from Oban called “Little Bay”, which carries the sub-title “Small Cask” on the label. I had seen it on the shelf the night before and was curious about it but there was really no information online, so I was quite happy to see it at the tasting. The information on the tube says that mature Oban is given extra time in small oak casks to make the Little Bay version. Part of me wants to be critical of the rather vague term “mature” being used instead of an age statement here. But Laphroaig basically does the same thing with their Quarter Cask bottling, and I’m a big fan of that whisky. The lack of age statement is understandable if they are putting a wide age range of single malts into the smaller casks for finishing, as Laphroaig supposedly does. It would be nice to see some unofficial info from the distillery on the range of ages in the mix though. As for the whisky, it was definitely a bolder, spicier, more oak driven incarnation of Oban. Interesting, but I prefer the more elegant persona of the flagship 14 year.

I’ll just do a quick run-through of some other notables.

Jim Beam Single Barrel – not bad, but still tastes like Jim Beam. I guess I’m just not a fan of the funky flavors that are a characteristic of Beam’s proprietary yeast strain.

Johnnie Walker Platinum was nice but kind of pedestrian for the price (this has long been my opinion of Walker Blue as well).

Wild Turkey Forgiven (a vatting of their straight bourbon and straight rye; the concept was supposedly inspired by a barrel dumping mistake at the distillery) was a whiskey that I felt pretty indifferent towards when I tasted it. It seemed to me like it was a little too similar to the 81 proof Wild Turkey rye.

This was my first time tasting Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit (101 proof, single barrel, no age statement, but website says 8.5 to 9.5 years) and their Rare Breed (108.2 proof, no age statement, said to be a vatting of 6, 8 and 12 year). I liked them both, but did prefer the Kentucky Spirit.

16 year Glen Grant stood out to me with an enchanting spicy character.

I was quite impressed by the 18 year Talisker. I really like the flagship 10 year and Talisker Distiller’s Edition, even though they are quite different from each other. The 18 year is elegant and refined, showing another unique face of the only distillery on the Isle of Skye.

18 year Bowmore may have been the surprise of the day for me. The distillery has enjoyed a stellar reputation for the whiskies it produced in the 1960’s, but its image has been tarnished more recently. Whisky produced there through the 1980’s has an extreme perfume-like character. Some refer to this as FWP Bowmore (French whore’s perfume). I’ve also found their more recent non-age stated bottlings to be rather uninspiring. The 18 year I tasted was exceptionally well composed and actually smokier than I expected (Bowmore starts off moderately peated and that is a characteristic that generally fades with time in the barrel).

I thought the 12 year Glen Garioch was quite good, but another that was not really my style. I much prefer pre-1995 Glen Garioch bottlings, which were distilled before they switched to completely unpeated malt.

In the past I’ve said that I really don’t care for the house style of Balvenie, but I find it more palatable in older and/or sherry finished expressions, like the 17 year Double Wood. Apparently I was partly wrong as I found out when I tasted the 25 year Single Barrel Balvenie (at $500 a bottle I was unlikely to try this anywhere besides at a free tasting). It is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, and I found it just as unappealing as their similarly matured Founder’s Reserve 10 year old. I would be curious to try something from Balvenie that was aged exclusively in Sherry casks, but that seems to be a rare bird.

I’ve had a bottled of 17 year Old Pulteney that was thoroughly disappointing sitting on my shelf at home for a few years. The 12 year that I sampled at the tasting was good enough to restore my faith in that distillery. I wish I had gotten to that table before they ran out of the 21 year.

I tried a few vintage dated single malts from Balblair (a 1975 and the other was either 94 or 95) that were at least interesting enough to make me want to research the distillery and revisit the whisky.

One distiller has piqued my interest with their offerings that I’ve seen on the shelf lately. The product of the Knockdhu distillery, anCnoc single malts have gone by that name since 1994 to avoid confusion with the Knockando distillery, which has a rather poor reputation. The current owners, Inver House, restarted the distillery when they bought it in 1989, after a six year closure. The lineup consisted of just a 12 year and a 16 year for some time, but there have been a series of limited vintage releases over the last 10 years. They have also added an 18 year, a 22 year and a 35 year to the lineup. In 2012 anCnoc put out a series of limited edition bottlings in conjunction with Scottish born illustrator Peter Arkle. In 2014 they put out a range of peated single malts with various phenol levels (measured in parts per million, ppm). These were named for various traditional peat cutting tools. I was able to taste one called Flaughter (14.8 ppm). I was quite impressed even though it was toward the end of the event and I was suffering from palate fatigue. I certainly hope to revisit this series soon.

The part of the event that I found simultaneously amusing and annoying was the fact that I came across several people who were pouring whisky and dispensing blatantly incorrect information about it. The Buffalo Trace table had both Sazerac Rye and E.H. Taylor Rye. When I mentioned that they came from two different mash bills and that the Taylor had no corn in it (information which is readily available on the company’s website) he looked surprised before disagreeing with me and insisting that it must have some corn in the recipe. After tasting the 25 year Balvenie, and not knowing anything about it at the time, I asked if it was aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels. The response blurted out at me was “it’s aged in oak”. The gentleman representing Diageo’s Scotch selections stated at least three times that Oban was a completely unpeated single malt. The fact that Oban is lightly peated (actually, on the heavier side of lightly) is basic single malt knowledge and should be obvious to anyone who tastes it. I was too polite to correct him in front of a large crowd. When I asked him about the new Oban Little Bay, he admitted that it was quite new and that he didn’t know much about it. Then he told me it was aged exclusively in small casks. When I pointed out that the blurb on the packaging mentioned something about “fully mature” Oban, he changed his mind and told me it was a vatting of whisky aged only in small casks and whisky aged only in traditional sized casks, stressing that that makes a big difference in the flavor profile. I let the conversation go there, but re-reading the packaging later it was quite clear that Little Bay is primarily matured in Bourbon barrels before being finished in small casks. There was a woman pouring at one of the Beam tables who was likely recruited based on looks. After a brief conversation she deferred to one of her more informed colleagues for the details I was asking about. She also mentioned that I was probably more qualified to be behind the table pouring than she was. Her honesty was like a breath of fresh air.

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