Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nomad, Outland Whisky

stats: whisky, distilled and partially aged in Scotland, finished and bottled in Spain, 41.3%, $40

Back in the spring I had the opportunity to nick a sample out of a bottle of whisky that I’d never heard of before; Nomad, Outland Whisky. The information provided on the label was somewhat lacking in detail, but a little online research did shed some light on its background.

The label vaguely notes “A unique ageing process, beginning in Scotland and finishing in González Byass’ PX casks in Jerez……” While it is marked as a product of Spain, that’s a technicality; the vast majority of its production process did happen in Scotland.

The Nomad website gave more details, and related press releases filled in the gaps. This is actually a collaboration between González Byass and Richard Paterson. Byass is a prominent Sherry producer and many of his casks have made their way to Scotland for whisky maturation. Isle of Arran, Tobermory and Glenfarclas are just a few of the single malts that have employed his casks. Byass had already added gin and vodka to his portfolio of products, but this was his first foray into whisky.

Paterson is the well-known Master Blender who works for Whyte & Mackay. In addition to overseeing the Whyte & Mackay branded blend (which sells over 1 million cases a year, primarily in its home market), he also manages the bottlings of the company’s single malts; Dalmore, Fettercairn, Isle of Jura and Tamnavulin. Paterson’s most noteworthy project was the Shackleton blended malt. When 11 bottles of Mackinlay’s Scotch Whisky, which had been abandoned in Antarctica by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909, were recovered from their icy resting place in 2010 Paterson was tapped to extract a sample and create a replica whisky by blending together modern Scottish malts.

In the case of Nomad, Paterson has assembled a blend of 25 single malts (40% of the blend) and six grain whiskies (60% of the blend), sourced primarily from the Speyside region of Scotland. Those 31 whiskies range in age from 5 years to 8 years. After being vatted together, the blend is filled into Oloroso Sherry butts for another three years of aging in Scotland. It is then shipped to Spain, transferred to old Pedro Ximenez casks and aged for a minimum of 12 months in the hot, humid southern Spanish climate of San Fernando, in the cellars of the Byass bodega.

They claim to have experimented with the final finishing period in Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso and Fino Sherry casks, before settling on Pedro Ximenez casks as having the best result. Nomad debuted in key Asian markets in mid-2014 and made its way to Europe and the United States shortly thereafter.

You’ll note that this is not labeled as Scotch whiskey; it legally cannot be, as it was not matured exclusively in Scotland. Furthermore, this type of ageing scheme would not be possible with a single malt from Scotland, regardless of how it would be labeled; since 2012 it has been illegal to export single malt whiskey from Scotland unless it is bottled for retail sale.

Anyway, let’s see how it tastes:
The nose is an interesting dichotomy; delicate, fragrant tree fruit notes typical of Speyside malts are layered across the weightier, complex, dark berry fruit character from the heavy Sherry cask influence. The aromas are quite appealing.
It’s full bodied, with big, brash sherry fruit on the palate. The flavors show good range, with raisiny sweetness and slightly oxidized nuttiness. Things get a bit wonky from the mid-palate onward though, with a lack of integration and a bit too much heat.
But it does pull itself together on the finish as the flavor profile becomes more dry and earthy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 21 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 40%, $42
21 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $137

When I decided to write a post comparing Old Pulteney 12 year to Old Pulteney 17 year, I thought it would be a good idea to get the 21 year old in the mix too. It’s somewhat of a pricey bottle though, so I was trying to avoid buying one. I am, however, always looking for a reasonable excuse to visit some of my favorite whisky bars in Montreal. That was all I needed to head north one more time before the busy summer season got going at work.

I’ll pick up where my last post on this distillery left off, with a little more history. After being established in 1826, Pulteney operated continuously for more than 100 years and remained in the control of its founding family up until 1920. James Watson & Co. Ltd., the new owner, sold it on to John Dewar & Sons Ltd. in 1923. Just two years later it was sold to the Distiller’s Company Ltd.

With the Herring boom at its peak, there must have been some wild times in the port town; local authorities enacted a prohibition on alcohol, making Wick a dry town from May 1922. Diminished local demand combined with global factors detrimental to the whisky industry caused DCL to close the distillery in 1930.

The local prohibition came to an end in May of 1947 and four years later the distillery was purchased and resurrected by Robert Cumming, a lawyer from Banff. In 1955 he sold the distillery on to Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. They renovated and modernized the operation in 1958-59, bringing an end to its use of traditional floor maltings (though worm tubs continue to be used to this day). This is likely also when the original pair of 9,092-liter spirit stills were replaced by the single 17,343-liter spirit still that is in use there today.

Pulteney was sold on to Allied Brewers in 1961. That company later changed names several times through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the distillery was purchased by its current owners, Inver House, in 1995. They released the official 12 year old bottling in 1997. The 17 year old was introduced in 2004, originally at 40% or 43% abv (depending in its intended export market), but the alcohol level was raised to 46% in 2006. The 21 year old was added to the core lineup in 2007 or 2008.

There have also been limited releases of older bottlings, including a 30 year old in 2009 and a 40 year old in 2012, as well as several non-age stated bottlings that were special editions or sold only in duty-free shops.

Looking to clarify some information about the cask types used to mature Old Pulteney’s core range, I came across their online shop which had different product descriptions than their main website. The pages on that site have links to the online shop, but shipping is only available to the UK, so I doubt very many people click on over for a look.

For the 12 year old the cask descriptions are identical; “Matured wholly in air-dried, hand selected ex-bourbon casks”.

For the 17 year old the main web site gives the rather vague description of “Aged in both American and Spanish oak casks”. But the online shop goes into more detail, noting that it “…..predominantly features ex-bourbon maturation, with the addition of spirit that has been wholly matured in Spanish wood ex-sherry casks, predominantly Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso”.

Unfortunately, for the 21 year old the two descriptions contain conflicting information. The main site notes that “…..with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon casks with spirit from ex-Oloroso sherry casks. We mostly use second fill American oak, plus some Spanish oak first fill. However, there is a higher proportion of ex-Oloroso sherry cask compared to the 17 Years Old”. But the online shop states that “As with the 17 year old, with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon wood with spirit from ex-sherry wood casks. The crucial difference, however, is that the ex-sherry wood in this case is made from American Oak (mostly Fino Sherries)”.

If I can get any official clarification from the company, I’ll post an update in the comments below.

So, I bellied up to the bar in Montreal and ordered a glass of Old Pulteney 12 year to calibrate my palate. On my first sip I immediately knew that something was off. After a brief instant of self-doubt, I took a closer look at the bottle and noticed that this was the 40% abv bottling rather than the 43% abv bottling that gets exported to the U.S.

I usually harp on the difference in flavor that can be realized when distillers stop chill filtering; a move that usually goes hand-in-hand with the alcohol level rising to 46% or more. I found it very interesting that a three point drop in the alcohol percentage with no change in filtration was so obvious to me, even when I hadn’t tasted the higher proof version for several months.

The 12 year old shows biscuity malt aromas with some subtle tree fruit and briny coastal notes.
Somewhat full bodied, the palate has a good balance of malt and oaky spice notes with a touch of sea spray.
It gets thin on the finish, falling a little flat after a respectable start.

The 21 year old is much darker, with a beautiful mahogany color.
The nose is somewhat restrained, without much volatility. But the aromas that are there are full of complexity, with mature oak-driven notes and briny minerality.
The palate is very oak-forward, but not out of balance. Long-soaked staves, shoe polish, maple and warming spice notes all come through.
The finish is long and evolving with a coastal character reminiscent of old fishing nets emerging. Everything is very well-integrated.
Overall it is well-composed, and while bold and assertive it doesn’t get unruly.

Back in November I came across a bottle of the 21 year old in MA for $130, which wasn’t much of an difference over the 17 year old. Knowing how much I enjoyed it after my sampling in Montreal, I was tempted but decided to wait until I was back in the area a few weeks later. When I returned to the same store, that bottle had a price tag of $175.

I questioned someone working there to see if it had been marked in error. He did a little checking and found that the price from the distributor had jumped dramatically with their latest delivery. He actually offered to sell me one for $150, noting that their cost was now $144. I appreciated their effort to keep a customer happy in the face of quickly rising prices, but I passed and drove a few miles down the road to a store where I had recently seen the 21 year at $137. Fortunately they still had a few bottles on the shelf.

These are both stores with pretty aggressive pricing, so most places will probably have it priced in the $180’s, if not a bit higher. Looking at prices online, I got the sense that the 17 year is jumping from around $110 up to the $130 neighborhood. I haven’t seen any indication of the 12 year’s price rising at this point. If you come across any of the 21 year Old Pulteney at the previous price, snap it up while you can.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Updating the list of Scottish distillery owners

Back in October of 2015, a question about the ownership of Glenrothes (both the distillery and the brand) led me to write a post where I compiled a list of all of the malt distilleries in Scotland and who they were owned by. I only included the ones that were currently distilling at that time and had been running for at least three years. A major purchase of three Scottish distilleries in 2016 necessitated an update of the list, which I’ve just done. I’ll take a moment here to detail the backgrounds of the buyer and the seller, as well as the distilleries involved

Billy Walker, a veteran of the Scotch whisky industry since 1971, began his career as a distillery chemist at Inver House (which was owned by Hiram Walker at the time; no relation). By the late 1980’s Mr. Walker had stepped into a management role with Burn Stewart, and was part of a management buy-in in 1988 that gave him a 3% stake in the company. Burn Stewart was established in 1948 as a whisky blending, brokering and export business. During Walker’s tenure there, the company acquired two distilleries; Deanston (1991) and Tobermory (1993).

When Burn Stewart was bought out by CL Financial at the end of 2002, Billy Walker was left with a pile of cash and no job. Rather than retire, he went on to look for his next challenge. Along with two South African funding partners (South Africa was on of Burn Stewart’s major export markets), Walker began the hunt for a distillery to buy. In April of 2004 they purchased the BenRiach distillery, with the new owners forming the BenRiach Distillery Company Limited. The group went on to purchase Glendronach in 2008 and Glenglassaugh in 2013.

BenRiach was established in 1898 in Speyside, a bit south of Elgin. But it closed down after just two years, in the wake of the bursting of the industry bubble of the late 1800’s at the turn of the century. The floor maltings at BenRiach continued to be used though, supplying malt for the nearby and co-owned Longmorn distillery. This was made practical by the new private railroad which had been constructed between the two distilleries.

BenRiach was purchased by Glenlivet in 1965 and completely refurbished before reopening in 1966. It was taken over by Chivas Brothers in 1978 and a second set of stills were added in 1985, but its production was dropped to just three months per year in 1999. When Seagram’s, the parent company of Chivas Brothers, broke apart in 2001, Pernod-Ricard acquired many of their assets, including BenRiach. The distillery was closed entirely in August of 2002.

When Walker’s group took over the distillery in April of 2004 its greatest asset was in the warehouses; a continuous stock of aging whisky dating back to 1966. In September of 2004, five months after the purchase, the distillery was up and running again.

Glendronach was established 1826 in Speyside, just outside of Huntly. The distillery went through a series of owners over the course of its history. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1837, fell silent from 1916 to 1920, had a second set of stills added in 1966-67, and was closed again from 1996 to April of 2001. After being taken over by Pernod-Ricard / Chivas Brothers in 2005, the stills were converted to steam heat, ending Glendronach’s reign as the last distillery in Scotland operating with coal fired stills.

Likely needing to free up some capital for their purchase of Absolut, Pernod-Ricard sold Glendronach on to Billy Walker’s group in 2008. In spite of the five year gap in production, there were still 30,000 casks aging in the warehouses; plenty for the new owners to work with as they rebuilt the brand.

Glenglassaugh was established in 1875, near Scotland’s north coast and just west of the modern boundary that delineates Speyside, making it a Highland distillery. In 1892 it was acquired by the Highland Distillers Company, which was in turn acquired by the Edrington Group in 2001.

The distillery saw long silent periods, which lasted from 1907 to 1931 and from 1936 to 1960. It was renovated during 1959-60 before going back into operation, but the next downturn for the industry caused Glenglassaugh to close down again in 1986. The Scaent Group, a Dutch investment consortium, purchased the distillery 2008 and with a healthy investment, had it reopened by November of that year. In 2012 Scaent sold the distillery to Lumiere, an Amsterdam based private equity group. Glenglassaugh was then purchased by the BenRiach Distillery Company in March of 2013. Walker invested even more in the distillery, with the goal of getting it up to full production as quickly as possible.

Just 26 years of production had been followed by 22 years of closure, and during that time the distillery’s owners had used most of the aging stocks in the warehouses for blended Scotches. By the time of the 2008 sale, there were fewer than 400 casks still in the warehouses. This led to the current situation of the distillery offering rare older bottlings (they have ranged from 28 to 51 years old) at very high prices, as well as younger, non-age stated bottlings created from distillate produced after the reopening.

Then, on June 1st of 2016, the BenRiach Distillery Company (all three distilleries, a bottling plant in Newbridge and the company headquarters in Edinburgh) was purchased by the Louisville, KY based Brown-Forman Corporation.

The roots of Brown-Forman date back to 1870, though the company didn’t take that name until 1890. Its original flagship Bourbon brand, Old Forester, was introduced in 1873. The company acquired its first distillery in 1902, and survived Prohibition by obtaining one of the few licenses to bottle and sell medicinal whiskey during that period. Brown-Forman also purchased Early Times, which was a major Bourbon brand, in 1923.

In 1933 a new distillery and corporate offices were constructed in Louisville. In 1940 the company acquired two more Kentucky distilleries, one in Shively and the other in Versailles. The Shively plant was modernized and expanded in 1955, which led to the Versailles distillery going silent in 1957 and eventually being sold off. Distilling ceased at the Louisville plant in 1979, though that location continued to be used for bottling and warehousing. Brown-Forman also established its own cooperage in 1945.

What ended up being their most significant acquisition, though, was the 1956 purchase of Jack Daniel’s. While Early Times had become the number one Bourbon in the US by 1953, Jack Daniel’s would fuel most of the company’s future growth. Its Lynchburg, TN distillery has been expanded many times, and the brand has grown into the best selling American whiskey in the world.

With the whiskey industry on a downward trend in the 1970’s and 80’s, Brown-Forman diversified through the 1980’s and 1990’s, substantially growing its wine business and acquiring Lenox (makers of fine China, among other things) in 1983.

Then, with annual sales topping $2 billion at the start of the new millennium, the company took a new direction. It began to sell off many of its wine assets and in 2005 announced the sale of Lenox. At the same time, it diversified within the spirits realm, adding vodka, rum and tequila to its portfolio.

Plans for a second cooperage were announced in 2012. In 2015 Brown-Forman purchased Slane Castle Irish Whiskey Limited with the commitment to build a $50 million distillery in Ireland.

Finally, in March of 2016, Brown-Forman had completed the sale of its Southern Comfort (which it had owned since 1979) and Tuaca (a brandy-based Italian liqueur) brands to Sazerac Co. Three months later came the purchase of the BenRiach Distillery Company.

What I found interesting were the prices involved in these acquisitions. Since we’re dealing with a mix of currencies, I’ll convert all of the figures to Pounds Sterling so they are relatable.

Billy Walker and company purchased the BenRiach distillery in 2004 for £5 million. The 2008 sale price of Glendronach wasn’t confirmed anywhere, but I’ve seen speculation / rumor that it was in the neighborhood of £30 million. The 2013 sale price for Glenglassaugh was also not disclosed. But we do know that the distillery sold for £5 million in 2008 and the new owners immediately invested £1 million to get it up and running again. I found one article saying that the distillery was sold to Walker for a “tidy profit”, but I found another where Walker stated that he got a great deal on it as the sale went under the radar and there were no competing bids. Keeping in mind that the distillery had almost no stock of whisky with significant age on it, I’m guessing that it went for between £10 million and £15 million. Let’s say £50 million total for all three distilleries.

I’m sure investments were made in all three of the distilleries after they were purchased. There was also the addition of a bottling plant and a company headquarters. I’ll take a wild guess and say £20 million for all of that, which puts the total at £70 million. The 2016 purchase of the company by Brown-Forman was for £285 million. So, the three founders probably quadrupled the money they had invested over the course of 12 years. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with an underutilized / undervalued distillery if you are good at managing the product, marketing and brand building.

While some people scoffed at the sum paid by Brown-Forman, they had just sold Southern Comfort and Tuaca for the equivalent of £373.4 million. That seems like a really high valuation to me for two brands that are probably past their prime (if Tuaca was going to rise with the tide of the craft cocktail movement I’d think it would have happened by now, and I just don’t see So Co having a Pabst Blue Ribbon-like resurgence). But hey, maybe the folks at Sazerac know something that I don’t.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey vs. Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

Bernheim; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 7 years, 45%, $28
Parker’s Heritage Collection; Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, 13 years, 63.4%, $90

Unexpected circumstances will occasionally prompt me to open a special bottle of whiskey without much forethought. I was in a mood to open something interesting on New Years Eve, but a grueling 10 hour shift at work followed by a few last-call drinks at the local pub resulted in me being down for the count as soon as I hit the couch that night.

When I read about the recent passing of Parker Beam about two weeks ago, I knew it was time to open my bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection 13 year old Wheat Whiskey. The bottle of Bernheim Wheat Whiskey I wanted to compare it to would also tie in nicely with my last post (more on that later).

The Beam family is as massive as their participation in the Bourbon industry is pervasive. Several branches of the family tree through many generations have been involved with the operation of countless distilleries. I’ll try to simplify the lineage as much as I can for the purpose of this post.

It starts with Johannes Jacob Boehm, a miller and distiller of German descent who had changed his name to Jake Beam. He moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland to Kentucky and was distilling there, alongside his son David (one of 12 children) by 1795. Three of David’s sons (out of 11 children) went into distilling; Jack, Joseph B. and David M. Beam. The latter two brothers each had two prominent distiller sons, all four of whom gave birth to more sons who would go on to work in the industry.

David M. Beam’s two sons were Jim, who the famous brand that we all know today is named for, and Park. After Prohibition, they established the Clermont, KY distillery that still makes Jim Beam Bourbon today, although the company was bought out by one of its original investors after World War II. Park’s two sons, Earl and Carl “Shucks” Beam were distillers at that plant.

Joseph L. Beam, one of Joseph B. Beam’s sons started the Heaven Hill Spring distillery after Prohibition, but he had to sell out early on for financial reasons. He still played an important part in Heaven Hill’s first decade and his son, Harry Beam, was the original master distiller there. When Harry left the company in 1946, he was replaced by Earl Beam (his 3rd cousin, David Beam was the grandfather of both).

Earl’s son, Parker, started working at the distillery in 1960 and took over the master distiller position in 1975. Craig Beam, Parker’s son, started working at Heaven Hill in 1982 and worked his way up through the company, becoming the assistant distiller by the early 2000’s and joining his father as co-master distiller by 2006. Parker Beam still had the title of master distiller emeritus at the time of his passing.

Parker’s most notable achievements were the development of Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon in 1986, Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon in 1994 and the Parker’s Heritage Collection, a limited annual release of unique, one-off bottlings which began in 2007. Parker was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2010. When he went public with the illness in 2013, he decided to use the Heritage Collection to raise awareness and funds for the cause. The 2013 release was named the Promise of Hope and $20 from each bottle sold was donated to ALS research. Subsequent Parker Heritage Collection releases have donated $5 from each bottle to the Promise of Hope fund.

Jumping back to January of 2000, Parker Beam began distilling a wheat whiskey at Heaven Hill. This was America’s first commercially produced wheat whiskey, which would be introduced as a 90 proof straight whiskey in September of 2005. It bore no age statement, but was obviously about five and a half years old. The mash bill is not often mentioned, but reliable sources state that it is 51% wheat, 37% corn and 12% malted barley.

Wheat whiskey is clearly defined in the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 27, Part 5.22), but it took some digging to figure out when this definition came into being. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 defined a new class of whiskey, giving consumers an assurance of quality if it was so labeled. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought more rules and regulated what could be called Bourbon. Further clarification was provided by President Taft’s “Decision on Whiskey” in 1909, which specified that Bourbon must be made from a majority of corn. I couldn’t find a copy of that document, but as far as I could tell it did not define wheat whiskey. In 1935 the Federal Government created the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. In addition to a more detailed definition of Bourbon, the SIDS also defined several other styles of whiskey; rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, malt whiskey, rye malt whiskey and corn whiskey.

At that time the definition required wheat whiskey to be distilled to no more than 160 proof, bottled and no less than 80 proof and made from a mash of at least 51% wheat. The requirement for aging in new, charred oak (and possibly the requirement for a barrel entry of no more than 125 proof as well) was added in 1938.

But American whiskey distillers, by tradition, had primarily been making Bourbon and Rye for a very long time. Even with this newly defined style officially spelled out, it would be 65 years before anyone made a wheat whiskey. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was an interesting new product and got some attention, but never really caught on in a big way. I picked up a bottle of it early on, probably in 2006. I polished that bottle off long ago, so clearly I didn’t dislike it, but it doesn’t stand out in my mind as being overly remarkable.

Then some interesting things happened in 2014. The Parker Heritage Collection bottling that year was a 13 year old, cask strength wheat whiskey, which came from the original batch that was distilled early in 2000. By the end of the year, the packaging for Bernheim Wheat Whiskey had been redesigned and the new label had picked up a seven year age statement. In the midst of whiskey shortages (for certain brands at least), price spikes and age statements dropping like flies, this was quite unusual.

As I said above, this is a product that never really caught on in a big way. If they were consistently selling 20% less than the volume of sales they had projected for, the whiskey would gain two years of age over the course of 10 years. It’s probably been slowly creeping up in age and was likely a six and a half year old by 2009.

I mentioned up top that this post would tie into my previous post, where I discussed the dropping price of the Hudson brand of whiskeys. When I first saw the seven year age-stated Bernheim Wheat Whiskey in a store it was at $28, much less than I had ever seen the NAS bottling for. But a little research showed prices ranging from the mid-$20’s to the lower-$40’s through the past five or six years. When Bernheim debuted in 2005 the suggested retail price was $40. I finally found evidence of an official price drop for this product starting around mid 2010, but apparently it sells so slowly in some markets that there has been a huge disparity in its retail pricing for many years.

Unlike the Hudson Whiskeys, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey was made at a reasonable cost from day one. Its price drop was simply a function of its sales volume failing to live up to expectations for the first five years it was available. The increased age is pretty solid evidence of that fact.

Here in Vermont, a liquor control state where the prices usually reflect what the producer would like the product to sell for, Bernheim is still $42. Of course, we still have the NAS bottling; sometimes it takes forever to move through old stock around here. Hopefully we’ll get the lower priced, age-stated bottles before too long.

Anyway, on to the whiskey; I’m excited to try these. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted the standard bottling and I’ve been sitting on the PHC bottle for a few years now.

The nose is fairly aromatic, with a dense richness. Some sweetness comes through and there’s plenty of clay-like earthiness. Vanilla-forward oak notes show too. Spice notes are the obvious no-show (as one might expect with no rye in the mix).
The dry earthiness wins out over the sweetness up front. It’s approachable while maintaining some backbone, though a little one-dimensional up front. It does evolve as it progresses, with flavors subtly reminiscent of Jim Beam’s funk and George Dickel’s Flintstone’s vitamins note.
The finish has a slightly warm burn, but it seems to be strictly from the alcohol, rather than that along with a contribution of spice notes.
I like it, but I don’t love it. I can kind of see this as being a good backdrop for a respectable cocktail.

PHC Wheat
The nose shows more depth and a shift in the profile of its aromas compared to the 7 year old, but it’s less volatile than one would expect for the given proof. The clay-like aromas are toned down significantly and the oak is more obvious and mature, with notes of old books and a hint of maple syrup.
It’s quite full bodied and a bit rambunctious on the palate. The sweetness that briefly fights its way to the fore up front quickly gives way to an intense dryness. Warming spice notes take over as it moves through the mid-palate, but in this expression they are primarily oak-driven. More time in cask seems to have effectively diminished the funk-and-Flintstone's notes.
The finish provides a wild ride of fiery spice notes which are exceptionally dry, but there’s enough underlying mature oak character to keep things interesting.
A doubling of the age and a big jump in proof has proven quite transformative for this whiskey. It took me a little while to wrap my head around this one and really get into it; well worth the effort though.

From all accounts Parker Beam was much loved and highly respected throughout the Bourbon industry. I’m grateful to have a glass of some of his finest work with which to acknowledge his passing.

Monday, January 16, 2017

What's on the shelf? - Hudson, Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye

You’d be hard pressed to find a whisk(e)y whose price hasn’t gone up in the last 10 years. While some have risen up a little, others have gone up a lot. Many have crept upward incrementally over several years, but some have leapt dramatically overnight. When a whisk(e)y price goes down in the current environment, that’s something which certainly catches my attention.

Scanning the shelves of some of the New Hampshire state liquor stores during the latter months of 2016, I noticed an interesting price disparity. Sitting right next to each other were two bottles of Hudson Manhattan Rye; at $45 was the 375 ml sized bottle that the brand has been known for since its inception, and at $50 was a recently introduced 750 ml sized bottle. They also had both sizes / prices for Hudson Baby Bourbon.

In an ideal world these two bottles of whiskey would not have been sitting on the shelf next to each other, but there is only so much influence that producers can exert in the retail space. When a distiller doubles the size of their whiskey bottles and the price only comes up by 10%, they are clearly serious about selling a lot more whiskey. Let’s take a look at some background and see what’s going on here.

Tuthilltown Spirits was established in 2004, but it was born out of a failed business venture that dated back to 2001. That was when Ralph Erenzo purchased the Tuthilltown Grist Mill property in upstate New York with a vision of turning it into ranch for visiting rock climbers. Three years of legal challenges from neighbors who opposed his plans crushed that dream.

Looking for an alternative business use for the place, he came across some state regulations that could work to his benefit as a distiller. Right-to-farm laws that protected agricultural concerns would beep the pesky neighbors at bay and a new class of state distilling license introduced two years prior meant that the fee to start the business would be $1500 instead of $60,000, as long as he made less than 35,000 gallons of spirit each year.

Erenzo partnered with Brian Lee, an engineer and technical designer, and they spent the next two years building the distillery, figuring out how to distill and experimenting with aging in small barrels. By 2006 they were selling the first bottles of Hudson Baby Bourbon. Eventually three other aged whiskeys joined the lineup; Hudson Single Malt Whiskey, Hudson Four Grain Bourbon and Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey.

Tuthilltown Spirits was noteworthy for being the first distillery to open in New York since Prohibition and for being the first producer of Bourbon in the state, ever. The brand caught on in the New York City craft cocktail scene, and they quickly built a small but strong following. Then in 2010 they sold the Hudson Whiskey brand, along with the rights to its distribution, to William Grant & Sons (yes, the one that owns Glenfiddich and Balvenie). Erenzo and Lee still own and operate the distillery.

I did a little digging and found some interesting information about their maturation regime. An article from 2011 stated that the Baby Bourbon was aged for four months in three gallon barrels. A 2014 article noted that the barrel size used for these whiskeys ranges from two to 14 gallons. A comment on a blog post from someone who had visited the distillery in 2014 mentioned that the whiskeys were being aged for about a year.

I do take issue with the fact that the Hudson Whiskeys have carried (and still do) age statements of “aged less than four years”. They may be honest about their short aging times in interviews or on distillery tours, but the label is misleading at best. It’s also illegal. TTB regulations for most American whiskey styles (and certainly the ones made by Hudson) state that they must carry an age statement if they are aged less than four years and that the age shown on the label must be that of the youngest whiskey contained in the bottle. Quite honestly, I’m shocked that the TTB approves labels with such flagrant violations of their rules.

Digressions aside, an article from 2013 stated that the Hudson brand had sold 6500 bottles in 2012 and was on track to sell 60,000 bottles in 2013. While that’s a big increase, it’s still not that much whiskey. Remember, those were 375 ml bottles, which translates into 2500 9-litre cases (the industry standard for measuring sales volume). Just to put that into perspective, Glenfiddich sold 1 million cases in a year for the first time in 2011.

William Grant & Sons obviously would want to grow the brand, increase sales and see a good return on their investment. Aging the whiskey for a longer time in bigger barrels will help them do that.

Smaller barrels have a greater surface area of wood for a given volume of liquid compared to larger barrels, allowing them to age the whiskey much more quickly (many would argue that oak flavors are imparted more quickly, but that maturity can only come with time). But that greater surface area means there will be more loss to evaporation, even when aging times are taken into account. I don’t have exact numbers, but I’ll make some up to give you an idea of what I mean. Let’s say a three gallon barrel requires four months of aging. Its total loss to evaporation might be 40%. If you scale up to a 10 gallon barrel it will have to age for a full year to get the same effect on flavor, but it might only lose 30% of its content.

Since labor is a big part of the cost of a barrel, small ones cost much more, proportionally. A four gallon barrel might be around $75 where a traditional 53 gallon barrel can be had for less than $200. Small barrels will get a new distiller’s product to market more quickly, but their cost effectiveness in the long term is terrible.

Once a producer grows their operation to a certain point, everything gets less expensive. Buying grain by the truckload rather than is 50 lb bags costs a lot less. Buying barrels, bottles, labels, packaging, etc in larger quantities will get you volume price breaks. Shipping rates are going to be much better on all of these items if you can take a whole cargo container of them at once rather than paying to ship one palette at a time. The fixed costs of a distillery’s overhead (property taxes, heating the building, etc) all take a smaller percentage out of the bottom line when you start dealing with bigger sales volumes.

Once they had grown to the point that they could reduce the cost of making the Hudson whiskeys significantly, it was time to drop the price, which would fuel further sales growth. In Tuthilltown’s early years, consumers were much more likely to try the product if it was in a small bottle that didn’t break the bank. With a much lower price, it makes sense to shift to bigger bottles which means twice as much whiskey going out the door with each sale.

It will be interesting to see where they go with barrel size and aging time over the coming years.

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 doing 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 note 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+ does 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 a bit lately 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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lagavulin, 200th Anniversary 8 year old

stats: single malt Scotch, Islay, 8 years old, 48%, $65

For some writers, criticizing Diageo is practically a sport; and the company seems to feed them plenty of ammunition (see the “controversies” section of their Wikipedia page if you don’t believe me). While I really don’t enjoy writing negative blog posts, if the situation warrants it I have no problem castigating Diageo, or anyone else for that matter. I definitely laid into them when I wrote about my experience touring the George Dickel distillery. On the other hand, I’m happy to sing their praises when they do the right thing.

With Lagavulin celebrating their 200th anniversary in 2016, I was curious to see what would be put on offer for her fans wanting to commemorate the special occasion. This was especially true in light of the fact that the distillery’s two closest neighbors marked their bicentennials the previous year and Laphroaig got it so right while Ardbeg got it so wrong. They did bottle a 51.7%, Sherry cask aged, 25 year old Lagavulin. But at $1200, that one was for the high-rollers. We of more modest income got a limited release 8 year old bottling.

I know, some are bemoaning a special release that’s at half the age of the flagship 16 year old and priced only modestly lower. So, why was I impressed? We’ve been presented with a bottling of Lagavulin that is bound to be quite different than the standard expression due to the big age differential. It’s also bottled at 48%, a healthy step up from the 43% of the 16 year old.

This whisky also needs no marketing fluff to distract from a lack of an age-statement, and regardless of its relative youth, a limited-edition special release at $65 is pretty reasonable by today’s standards. Anything older than 16 years would have been exorbitantly expensive (in the mid-$70’s, the 16 year old is already steeply priced for a brand’s main bottling, but it’s not really out of line relative to other producer’s offerings in the 16 to 18 year range).

Many respectable single malts were bottled as 8 year olds back in the 1970’s, but age statements generally crept up as sales dropped off in the 1980’s. As supplies have run thin over the last decade, age statements have largely disappeared rather than retreat. I’ve been a proponent of modestly priced 8 year olds since Gordon & MacPhail introduced such a series about five years ago.

Most importantly though, this 8 year old expression is a tip of the hat to Alfred Barnard, a spirits journalist who toured most of the whisky distilleries in the U.K. over the course of 1885-1886 and published his combined essays as The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1887. While visiting Lagavulin his party tasted “some eight years old”, which he described as “exceptionally fine”.

I own a copy of Barnard’s book, and what was even more interesting to me was the sentence that followed his reference to the whisky he tasted – “The make is largely used for blending purposes, but it is also sold as a single Whisky; there are only a few of the Scotch Distillers that turn out spirit for use as single Whiskies, and that made at Lagavulin can claim to be one of the most prominent.”

Much to my relief, Diageo managed to invoke Barnard without any historical distortions. Let’s keep in mind though, this whisky was inspired by the 8 year old Lagavulin that Barnard praised, it’s not supposed to be a recreation of it. That would have been a fool’s errand; no samples of Lagavulin exist from anywhere near the Victorian era and we know from Barnard’s chronicles that back then the stills at Lagavulin were roughly half the size of the ones that are in use today. Additionally, it’s been more than 40 years since the distillery was modernized, leaving behind its floor maltings, worm tubs and direct-fired stills.

That being said, I did at least expect this bottling to free of artificial color and chill filtration, especially given its elevated alcohol level. But neither of those features was touted on the packaging.

Looking around online, I saw mixed reports as to whether or not this whisky has artificial coloring added. I could imagine them leaving off a “coloring free” statement, even if that was the case, because it might draw attention to the fact that Lagavulin’s flagship 16 year old is artificially colored. But then I started to see documentation of bottles shipped to Germany, where the labeling requirements are more stringent, bearing a declaration of added coloring.

Seeing how light the whisky looks in the glass, I’d say that if there is caramel coloring in the mix it’s an incredibly minor amount, as in just enough to make the color consistent across all of the bottling runs. Looking at the 16 year by comparison shows just how heavily colored that whisky probably is. I believe both expressions have a small Sherry cask component, so that shouldn’t be a factor in their differing color profiles.

I’ve also seen a lot of mixed opinions as to whether of not the 8 year old was chill filtered. Most of those opinions were based on speculation and conjecture. Finally, I came across a comment from someone who had heard Iain McArthur say at a distillery tasting that Diageo chill filters everything from Lagavulin, including the cask strength bottlings. Baby steps Diageo, baby steps.

First I tasted the 16 year old at 43% as a benchmark:

Color – Dark golden-amber.
Nose – The aromas are peaty and bold, with dry earth, dark fruit and coastal minerality.
Palate – It’s full-bodied, with complex, earthy fruit notes showing up-front. By the mid-palate a big wave of peaty intensity has risen up and overshadowed the initial character. Finally, dry spice notes come into play as it evolves further.
Finish – The peat smoke and dry spiciness go back and forth, vying for dominance as it meanders through the lengthy finish. Nuttiness and subtle fruit notes linger on to lend complexity.
Overall – Powerful and balanced; 16 years seems to be a very good place for this distillate.

Then it was on to the 8 year old at 48%:

Color – Lighter than pale straw, it almost looks like clear spirit when the glass is held up to a grey background.
Nose – Peat and minerality come through, but it’s more bright and floral, with some stone fruit showing.
Palate – Apple, peach and pear all show up-front, with the peat smoke becoming more dominant as it moves on. A minty floral character eventually emerges in the background
Finish – Dry spice notes come out to play and mingle with the peat smoke late in the game here as well, but minus the nutty, earthy character.
Overall – There’s a youthfulness to it. Not to the point of being detrimental, but just enough to bring back fond memories of tasting new-make spirit at Lagavulin when I toured the distillery. It may lack some of the refinement of the flagship offering, but it still shows quite well at half the age.

This may not be a ground-breaking expression, but it’s certainly interesting to see a different facet of Lagavulin, and I think that’s really the point of this bottling. Of course, drawing attention to the works of Alfred Barnard will always get a nod of approval from me as well.