Friday, December 30, 2016

Lagavulin, Distillers Edition vs. 12 year cask strength

12 year (2015 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 56.8%, $135
Distillers Edition (2016 release), single malt Scotch, Islay, 43%, $100

I was fairly excited by the prospect of Lagavulin’s 8 year old, 200th anniversary bottling and the opportunity to compare it to their flagship 16 year old. One thought that crossed my mind was to hunt down a bottle of 12 year Lagavulin and taste all three together to get a sense of the age progression.

With the 16 year at 43% abv, the 8 year at 48% and the 12 year at cask strength (usually around 57%), I’d have to make some adjustments. My plan was to bring the latter two down to 43% with the addition of precise amounts of distilled water. Cask types represented another variable; the 12 year is aged exclusively in American oak ex-Bourbon barrels, but the 8 year and the 16 year both see a small percentage of Sherry cask whisky in their vattings. Lagavulin is known for working with fairly heavily used casks though, so I wasn’t too worried about this added influence.

I had seen Lagavulin 12 year on liquor store shelves in the past, but not too recently. I did recall seeing it in the New Hampshire state liquor stores in the $90-something range, maybe about three years ago. Knowing that it is part of Diageo’s annual group of special release bottlings, I figured it would make an appearance some time in the fall as they all come out together at that time of year. I kept checking the New Hampshire liquor commission website to no avail, then started checking some of the bigger stores in the greater Boston area. When it finally popped up in a few places I was kind of shocked to see it going for $135 to $140.

I thought there might be a bit of special-release price gouging going on, so I was holding out that it would appear at a better price in NH, where prices are very likely to be close to the msrp. No such luck – it never showed up there and a little research revealed that the price of this bottling had gone through a series of increases over the last four years. I understand that whisk(e)y prices are going up all around, but sometimes as a consumer you just have to take a stand on what you are willing to pay for something. For me, this was one of those times. This particular whisky was just not worth that much money to me.

Hoping to make lemonade out of lemons, I went with “plan B”; a quick trip up to Montreal, which was long overdue anyway, where I could sample Lagavulin’s 12 year cask strength as well as their Distillers Edition, without having to buy a whole bottle of either. Diageo started producing the Distillers Edition bottlings of their original six “classic malts” (Lagavulin, Oban, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie and Talisker) in the late 1990’s and included them in their annual group of special release whiskies. Caol Ila and Clynelish were added to the DE offerings in 2006, as was Royal Lochnagar in 2008. The Distillers Editions of Clynelish and Royal Lochnagar were discontinued after 2012, however.

Each of the DE bottlings starts off as the same whisky (in terms of maturation) as the flagship bottling of its respective distillery. It is then re-racked into some type of fortified wine cask for a finishing period of six months to two years. Different types of finishing casks are used for each brand, but they do not change from year to year. In the case of Lagavulin, Pedro Ximenez casks are used and the finishing period is on the shorter end of the aforementioned range.

After a short walk from my conveniently located hotel in Montreal’s Latin Quarter, I bellied up to the bar at Pub L’Ile Noir and ordered the Distillers Edition Lagavulin. This was the latest release, having been distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2016.

The nose is dark and brooding with plenty of depth. The peat smoke aromas are densely packed, but not too assertive.
It’s full-bodied, and some dark, fruity sweetness from the PX casks does come through on the palate, but it’s really well balanced by the dry, earthy, mineral-driven coastal character.
The peat smoke builds through the mid palate, and then rides along in slowly fading waves as it moves on. Floral notes emerge late in the finish, rounding things out.
This is an interesting take on the Islay classic.

Next, I moved on to the 12 year cask strength Lagavulin which was last year’s release, having been bottled in 2015 at 56.8%.

The peat smoke on the nose is relatively assertive, but a briny, coastal edge and floral / grassy notes come through as well.
A blazing inferno of fiery peat smoke jumps out immediately on the palate. Some secondary flavors dance around on the periphery, adding complexity, but this is really all about the smoke-laden peaty intensity.
It evolves nicely, becoming drier with burning spice notes as it evolves through the long, smoldering finish.
I could add a few drops of water, but I won’t; it’s a wild ride, but an enjoyable one.

Not quite ready to move on to dinner, I decided to have one more whisky. It can be hard to turn back once you’ve gone down the peat road, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the relatively new Laphroaig Lore. I was ready to sit back and sip rather than scrutinize and take notes at this point, but I will say that it was quite exceptional.

I had opted for the ½ pour option with all three drinks, which I have a sneaking suspicion is a bit more than half of L’Ile Noire’s standard 1.25 ounce pour. Factoring in the favorable exchange rate, my tab came to about $22 plus tip. I think I made the right choice in taking a little road trip instead of adding to my bloated whisky collection for this post.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Glendronach 12 year

The new “What’s on the Shelf?” series of posts are normally reserved for items which I’ve seen in retail settings and wanted to comment on, even though I didn’t purchase them; I’m making an exception in this case. I purchased a bottle of Glendronach 12 year last week which I may not open anytime soon, but I wanted to mention it here now, as time is of the essence.

The current bottlings of Glendronach’s flagship 12 year old mark the end of an era. Historically, the vast majority of the pot stills used by Scotland’s malt whisky industry were coal fired. Most of them converted over to indirect steam heating (via internal steam coils) in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today, there are four distilleries that continue to use direct heat with a live flame under at least some of their stills; Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich and Springbank. But each of those four switched over from coal to either natural gas of fuel oil decades ago. Glendronach was the last holdout in Scotland to continue the tradition of making malt whisky with coal fired pot stills; until 2005 when they converted to steam.

Since 2016 is rapidly coming to a close I decided I should pick up a bottle of Glendronach 12 while I could still be assured that it was distilled no later than 2004. Of course, older bottlings of Glendronach that were distilled in the coal fired stills will be available for many years to come. Also, When I got this bottle home, took it out of the canister and gave it a good looking over I was happy to see that the bottling date was clearly printed on the glass, The year was even there with all four numerals and the date wasn’t embed in a complex bottling code that I’d have to figure out how to decipher. It was, however, in the slightly unconventional format of year/month/day; 2014/02/18.

Yes, that is correct; this one was bottled nearly three years ago. I guess there may be opportunities to buy Glendronach 12 which was distilled prior to 2005 for some time to come; as long as you are willing to take the bottle out of the packaging while you’re in the store and hold it up to the light to look for that date.

If you wanted to hunt for a bottle of Glendronach that was even more rare and special, you’d be on the lookout for something that was distilled prior to 1996. That’s the year that the distillery decommissioned its floor maltings. I’m not sure if they were supplementing with commercial malt back then, but they had been using local peat in the kiln to dry the malt they made themselves. In those days the average peating level ran up as high as 14 ppm. Most of the malt they buy today is unpeated, but they did come out with a lightly peated bottling last year. It is non-age stated and aged primarily in Bourbon barrels rather than the full Sherry cask maturation that Glendronach is known for. I’d much rather search out one of the older bottlings.

My intention is to sit on this bottle of 12 year for a while, until I can get another example that was distilled after the conversion to steam heat to see how they compare. We’ll see if I can hold out that long.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 17 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $42
17 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $110

Since my last post mentioned that Wolfburn had recently overtaken Pulteney’s status as the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland, I thought I should follow up with a long overdue Old Pulteney post.

The Pulteney distillery is somewhat unusual on a few fronts. You may have noticed that I’ve already been inconsistent with the use of the word “Old” preceding “Pulteney”. Keep in mind that a single malt Scotch is not required to bear the name of the distillery where it was made. Just one example of this is Springbank, which also produces single malts under the Longrow and Hazelburn brands. In this case Pulteney is the name of the distillery and Old Pulteney is the name of the brand of single malt whiskies which are produced there. It’s a small point of distinction, but one worth noting if you’re a stickler for details.

Most of the malt distilleries in Scotland have names that are mildly anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe their location or the water source they use. Pulteney is the only one in Scotland I’m aware of that is named for a person, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

Wick is a fishing village on the eastern shore of the northern tip of Scotland which was at the heart of the Herring boom from the late 1700’s until the start of WWI. The town straddles the mouth of the Wick River as well as Wick Bay, into which the river feeds. The original village was solely on the north side of the river and bay. In the first few years of the 19th century a major initiative to develop a new harbor in Wick Bay and a new fishing town on the south side of the river was led by Sir William Pulteney.

Pulteney was a British Member of Parliament and the governor of the British Fisheries Society. He commissioned Thomas Telford, Britain’s preeminent civil engineer at the time, to design and supervise the construction of these major projects. Pulteney passed away in 1805 though, a few years before his vision came to fruition. The harbor was completed in 1808, and a decade later more than 800 boats were operating out of the port. The new town, built along the south bank of the Wick River and the south shore of the bay, was established by 1810 and named Pulteneytown in Sir William’s honor. Although originally considered a separate town, it has been part of Wick since 1902.

With a rapidly growing population, demand for whisky would soon necessitate a local distillery. Founded by James Henderson in 1826, the Pulteney distillery was named for the new town in which it was located, and indirectly for the man who was responsible for the development of Pulteneytown.

In addition to the distillery’s uncommon name etymology, it is also one of very few urban distilleries in Scotland. That is a term which could be somewhat open to interpretation, but even if you include distilleries with small amounts of dense development in close proximity to them, the only ones that come to mind are Auchentoshan, Oban, Highland Park, Bowmore, Tobermory, Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

Old Pulteney’s core range consists of a 12 year, a 17 year and 21 year (which I’ll taste in an upcoming post). The 12 year, which is at 43% and presumably chill filtered, is aged exclusively in ex-Bourbon barrels. The 17 year, which is at 46% and carries an “unchill-filtered” statement on the label, is aged primarily in ex-Bourbon barrels with the addition of some spirit aged wholly in Spanish oak ex-Sherry casks. The 12 year is noticeably darker in color, though neither bottling has a statement claiming natural color.

12 year:
nose – The aromas are gently malty, with hay and beach grass, a touch of vanilla and slightly briny minerality.
palate – It has decent weight, and a nice balance of malt and tree fruits with a touch of vanilla.
finish – The malt carries through, joined by grassy notes and a soft spiciness. The coastal, briny character is well integrated throughout.
overall – Lively and thought provoking with a nice evolution of flavors.

17 year:
nose – The aromas show more maturity than those of the 12 year. There’s still some maltiness and coastal character, but notes of clay and old books overshadow them.
palate – The weight is still there, but it kind of falls flat on the palate. Malt is the obvious character but it’s fairly one-dimensional, with just a bit of salinity coming along.
finish – Generous spice notes join the malt and sea spray, but it still feels like something is lacking.
overall – I don’t dislike the 17 year, it just fell short of my expectations and pales in comparison to the 12 year. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was the lower-proof, chill filtered one out of the two expressions.

I should note that I’ve had this bottle for nearly five years (I tend to ignore the ones that I find underwhelming), so more recent incarnations of the 17 year may have improved. I tasted it close to the time of purchase and not long after thumbed through Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, noticing that he was lamenting the use of tired old casks to mature Old Pulteney 17 year. I tend to agree.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What's on the shelf? - Wolfburn single malt

Last winter I traveled to Florida to host a Scotch whisky dinner which had a theme focused on malt distilleries that had gone online since 1990. At that time the list included 20 facilities, but only nine of them had been operating long enough to have distillate that had aged for three years; the requisite minimum to legally qualify as whisky. Three of the nine were yet to bottle any of their whisky, at least not as single malt, and several of the others were very hard to come by. Needless to say, it was a bit of a challenge to round up four different whiskies to support the chosen topic.

All of that being said, I was excited to see another distillery from the list have its whisky come of age and appear on retail shelves this fall. The post I linked to above is kind of lengthy, so I’ll re-post the list of 20 distilleries here with the years that they began production shown.

(1990) Speyside
(1990) Kininvie
(1995) Arran
(2004) Glengyle
(2005) Daftmill
(2005) Kilchoman
(2007) Ailsa Bay
(2008) Abhain Dearg
(2010) Roseisle
(2013) Strathearn
(2013) Wolfburn
(2014) Annandale
(2014) Ardnamurchan
(2014) Ballindalloch
(2014) Eden Mills
(2015) Arbikie
(2015) Glasgow Distillery Co
(2015) Dalmunach
(2015) Kingsbarn
(2015) Isle of Harris

The Wolfburn distillery went online early in 2013, so the whisky they are selling now is just three years old, or perhaps slightly older.

There are some interesting points of note, both geographically and historically. Located in the town of Thurso, Wolfburn is now the northernmost distillery on Scotland’s mainland. In becoming so, it unseated the Pulteney distillery, which is in the nearby town of Wick, from that title. The only distilleries situated further north in the country are Scapa and Highland Park, both of which can be found on the largest island of the Orkney Islands archipelago.

The new Wolfburn distillery was constructed very close to the site of the original Wolfburn distillery, which was founded in 1821. All that remains of the original is its foundation and unfortunately it ceased production before Alfred Barnard made his tour of all of Scotland’s distilleries in the 1880’s, so our knowledge of it is quite limited. What little is known comes from tax records and Ordnance Survey maps. The distillery seems to have stopped operating some time in the 1850’s or 1860’s, but at one point it was the largest in Caithness County.

I first became aware of the fact that Wolfburn was being bottled and shipped to the U.S. when I saw it on a Florida distributor’s list of products in late September. Since then I’ve seen it on store shelves in NH and MA.

The Wolfburn website makes claims of long fermentations and slow distillations. They are also bottling their whisky without chill filtration or artificial color. All of this bodes well for a quality product. I’ve tasted some very impressive young whiskies from Kilchoman and they have noted that part of their strategy was to use small stills to maximize copper contact during distillation. The stills at Wolfburn are bigger than Kilchoman’s (5500 liters wash and 3600 liters spirit vs. 3230 liters wash and 2070 liters spirit), but nonetheless relatively small in the grand scheme of things.

$60+ may seem a bit expensive for a young whisky, but that’s the price of admission to sample the work of a new distillery when they’re trying to generate some cash flow early on. I’ve been trying to reign in my whisky spending somewhat recently and I hadn’t heard anything about this bottling yet, so I held off. But I am curious about it now so it’s probably just a matter of time before I get around to tasting Wolfburn.