Gordon & Macphail Vine & Table Selection- Coal Ila 8 y/o, cask strength.

Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin, Moray, Scotland.2015-12-23-15.16.36.jpg.jpeg

Distiller: Caol Ila, Port Askaig, Argyll, Scotland, UK

Region: Islay

Age: 8 y/o (distilled July 2006, bottled August 2014)

ABV: 58.8%

Price: $65 Exclusive to Vine & Table, Carmel (CAR-muhl), Indiana, USA

Notes: Single cask, natural color, not chill filtered. Aged in a refill sherry hogshead, cask #306213. One of 260 bottles. At cask strength, this whisky was all peat and smoke to me, so I diluted it to around 50% ABV for this review.

Appearance: Medium copper with thin, irregular legs.

Nose: Peat, smoke, black tea, drop of sherry.

Palate: Full bodied and hot. Some tropical fruit and vanilla in the beginning then the burn grows as does smoke, but without a lot of peat.

Finish: Ashy. Fireplace, old ashtray at grandma’s house back in the 1980s when people smoked inside. A belch after drinking this is the closest we humans will come to knowing what it’s like to be a dragon.

Parting words: Diageo’s Caol Ila is best known as a supplier of smoky malt for a myriad of independent bottlers and makers of blended malts. There’s also a 12 y/o distillery bottling that I reviewed here and friend of the blog My Annoying Opinions reviewed here. There was at one time a Distiller’s Edition, but I’m not sure how available that was in the US. In recent years there have also been a number of young, cask strength, independent bottlings like this one making the rounds. Most single malt Scotch doesn’t get bottled at anything less than ten years of age, but smoky malts often do because the smoke is more prominent at a younger age.

If fire is what you crave, this is the malt for you. A belch after drinking this is the closest we humans will come to knowing what it’s like to be a dragon. There’s not much else going on, though. There’s a hint of sweet malt and sherry, but it is hard to find behind the inferno. This Caol Ila is one dimensional, but it is only $65 and at cask strength which makes it more attractive than it might be at a standard proof. A volcano like this is especially good if you enjoy making your own blends at home. I mixed a little bit in with some Craigellachie 13 and some 16 y/o grain whisky and it added a nice extra bit of smoke to both of those.

If you enjoy smoky whisky like I do or if you’re looking for some smoke in your personal blending lab, Vine & Table’s 8 y/o, cask strength Caol Ila from V & T is a good choice. Recommended.

Crown Royal Reserve

Distiller: Crown Royal, Gimili, Manitoba, Canada (Diageo)wpid-2015-09-11-20.50.45.jpg.jpeg

Age: NAS (supposedly older than the standard Crown Royal)

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $44

Appearance: Dark copper (likely colored)

Nose: Alcohol, spoiled onion, discount deli ham, ghost pepper.

Palate: Full bodied and mildly sweet. Not much going on other than sweetness and a touch of caramel. No oak anywhere in sight.

Finish: Light anise flavor followed by mild heat.

Mixed: Due to the limited amount I had available of this whisky, I didn’t try Crown Royal Reserve mixed, except for with some soda. It was nearly impossible to taste in that application, but that’s probably for the best.

Parting words: I reviewed the standard Crown Royal a couple years ago and I didn’t like it. I was hoping the reserve would be better. I imagined something more rounded and refined. That is not what I got. Crown Royal Reserve is even worse than Crown Royal. The nose has gone from disgusting to putrid and CR’s grainy character has been replaced with a total lack of any sort of character beyond the garbage (literally) nose. The only pleasant part of drinking this was the delicate, but flavorful finish, but it doesn’t even come close to being worth the silly price.

In the interest of being helpful, here’s a list of “reserve” or equivalent Canadian blends that are cheaper and better than CRR: Black Velvet Reserve ($13), Canadian Club Reserve ($18), Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve ($27), and Gibson’s 12 ($28). Not to mention Alberta Dark Batch ($27), CC Sherry Cask ($22), Collingwood ($30) and Tangle Ridge ($18).

Don’t buy this. Crown Royal Reserve is not recommended.

I.W. Harper Bourbon Whiskey

Maker: Diageo, Louisville, Kentucky/Norwalk, Connecticut, USAwpid-2015-07-12-19.19.19.jpg.jpeg

Distiller(s): Unknown

Age: NAS

Proof: 82 (41% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $30

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cayenne pepper, leather.

Palate: Sweet and mild. Brach’s caramels, chocolate covered toffee, a little bit of alcohol bite.

Finish: Sweet but a little spicy. Caramel, cocoa, alcohol.

Mixed: Excellent in all cockltails- Manhattan, Perfect Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier. OK on the rocks and with soda.

Parting words: I.W. Harper was reintroduced to the U.S. this year after being gone for a couple decades. I.W. Harper begin life as the flagship bourbon of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s (d. 1945) distillery. After prohibition, the distillery and brand were sold to Schenley. Through a series of mergers I.W. Harper came to be owned by Diageo, even though the Bernheim distilley was sold to Heaven Hill in 1997. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey is a tribute to I.W. Berneim and his brother Bernard.

One of the first ever “dusties” I found was a bottle of I.W. Harper. It was also the first dusty I was ever disappointed with. It was bland and watery. The 15 y/o (a part of the Bourbon Heritage Collection) was bland and watery but with a little oak thrown in. This is a big improvement on those two. It’s not extremely complex, but it’s got a great mouthfeel and enough spice to keep things interesting. It also plays very well with mixers. There are better choices at $30, but I.W. Harper isn’t a bad one.

I.W. Harper is recommended.

Bulleit 10 y/o

Distiller: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (For now. Brand owned by Diageo)wpid-2015-07-10-19.53.00.jpg.jpeg

Style: High rye bourbon.

Age: 10 y/o

Proof: 91.2 (45.6% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $47

Appearance: Burnt orange

Nose: Alcohol, red pepper flakes, charred oak.

Palate: Caramel, toffee, oak, serrano chiles, lavender, grape bubblegum.

Finish: Oak, alcohol, circus peanut.

Parting words: This is the latest installment in the “cleaning out my liquor cabinet” series. I bought this bottle at the distillery. Well, not at the distillery it was distilled at, but at the one that serves as home to the “Bulleit Experience”, Stizel-Weller.

This this bourbon is fine. No flaws, drinks well, etc. But Four Roses Single Barrel is $42, 100 proof and almost always more interesting than this. There’s no good reason to buy this bourbon instead of that one. Bulleit 10 y/o is mildly recommended.

Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 15 y/o

Maker: Mortlach, Dufftown, Moray, Scotland, UK (Diageo)

Bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, Elgin, Moray, Scotland, UK

Region: Speyside- Dufftown

ABV: 43%

Price: $75 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Dark gold

Nose: Sweet malt, wildflowers, oak, caramel.

Palate: Thick mouthfeel. Brown butter, wildflower honey, beef bullion, alcohol.

Finish: alcohol, butterscotch, vanilla cream, toasted oak.

Parting words: Mortlach was one of the malts that made me reconsider my dislike of Speysiders. This bottling is an excellent example of why I fell in love with this distillery. Meatiness is a house characteristic of Mortlach and it’s in evidence in this bottling. It’s not heavy-handed, though. There’s plenty of sweetness and oak to round it off nicely. It’s complex without being busy. The price is high (for me) but not completely out of whack for a high-quality single malt and cheaper than the new distillery bottlings are going for. If you like the heavier Speyside style and see one of these pick it up. G & M’s 15 y/o Mortlach is recommended.

Dickel 9 y/o Single Barrel Head to Head: Spec’s vs. Red Wagon

Maker: George Dickel, Tullhoma, Tennessee, USA (Diageo)Dickel vs Dickel

Style: Tennessee Whiskey

Proof: 103
(51.5% ABV)

Spc= Selected by Spec’s, Houston, Texas, USA

RW= Selected by Red Wagon, Troy/Rochester Hills, Michigan, USA

Appearance

Spc: Dark copper, long, well developed legs.

RW: Brighter copper, similar legginess.

Nose

Spc: Alcohol, leather, lavender, char.

RW: Less alcohol, oak, peanut butter candy.

Palate

Spc: Well balanced with peanut brittle, a bit of maple.

RW: Sweet and bold with lots of maple and wood. A bit of peanut butter in the background.

Finish

Spc: Fairly hot finish that tingles for a long time with the signature George Dickel vitamin finish.

RW: Huge Dickel finish. Chewable vitamins, maple sugar candy and alcohol.

Parting words: Dickel’s single barrel program got kicked off a few months ago with a series of 9 y/o and 14 y/o retailer selections. The early reports had the 9 y/o barrels being superior to the 14 so I decided to invest in two of the 9s. In fact, I had been inquiring at Red Wagon about whether or not they would be participating in the program for weeks when I decided to just acquire one from an out of state store. The day after my Spec’s bottle arrived, I happened to be in Red Wagon and, lo and behold, theirs was sitting right there on the shelf. So, of course, I bought one of theirs too.

I was pleasantly surprised at the differences between these two bottles/barrels. Both were good but I give Spec’s the edge. Red Wagon’s tasted like an amped up version of Dickel #12. Lots of sweet peanut butter and maple with a touch of that famous vitamin note. I enjoy the #12 so I didn’t mind that, although anymore of that vitamin taste would have been unpleasant.

Spec’s had those signature Dickel flavors and aromas but they were more subtle and had a sweet leathery quality that reminded me of Elmer T. Lee and similar Buffalo Trace bourbons. It was surprising and showed how subtle and elegant George Dickel has the potential to be. Let’s hope it’s a sign of good things to come from Tullahoma.

 

Red Wagon’s 9 y/o Dickel Single Barrel is recommended and Spec’s is highly recommended.

Barterhouse Kentucky Bourbon

Maker: Diageo, London, UKBarterhouse

Distilled: Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky, USA (Now owned by Heaven Hill, then owned by United Distillers, a precursor to Diageo)

Bottled: George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tennessee, USA

Style: High corn bourbon

Age: 20 y/o

Proof: 90.2 (45.1% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $70

Appearance: Dark auburn with long slow legs.

Nose: Oak, walnut, caramel.

Palate: Full bodied and mild. A tiny bit of alcohol burn, hint of caramel, a little licorice. Very subtle.

Finish: Short and mild. Dry oak, black walnut, burn.

Parting words: Barterhouse is one of the first two releases in Diageo’s new Orphan Barrel series of overaged stuff they had sitting around their Louisville warehouses. The other is the 26 year old Old Blowhard (actual name) that was likely distilled at a distillery called at the site of what’s now Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Bernheim and its predecessor were home to the I.W. Harper and Old Charter brands. Barterhouse and its older sibling were probably intended for one of those two brands when they were distilled.

I usually don’t go in for bourbons this old. I find them one-dimensional and flat. They’re all wood and very little else. I bought this one because of its pedigree. One of my favorite out-of-production bourbons was the Bernheim-distilled version of Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve (distinguished from the other version by its slope-shouldered bottle). I was willing to pay the rather high price for Barterhous because I hoped it would bear a resemblance to that sweet, butterscotchy old favorite of mine. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear much resemblance at all.

Barterhouse bears a resemblance to just about every other bourbon over 16 years old I have tasted. It’s woody.  A little sweetness and spice manage to keep it drinkable but barely. It’s not bad by any means, but I expect more complexity out of something this expensive. Most bourbons at half the price have twice the flavor. Barterhouse is interesting as a piece of history, but I can’t help but get a little melancholy when I think about how great this might have tasted at 12-16 y/o. Barterhouse is mildly recommended.

New Orphan Barrel Project release

I received a press release from Diageo in my mailbox this morning and as I don’t receive many of these so I thought I’d pass the highlights along to you. It’s about the latest new release in Diageo’s orphan barrel series of premium, very old bourbons.

 

TULLAHOMA, Tenn., April 1, 2014 — From Tennessee to Kentucky to Ireland, stories of old whiskies forgotten in the back of rickhouses and warehouses drift among distillers the world over.  From lunch breaks to happy hours, their debates over which whiskey would taste best has become the stuff of legend.  To offer resolution and expand a new line of rare spirits to a growing base of whiskey aficionados, DIAGEO (NYSE: DEO) today announced the latest project of  the Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Company, Very Old Beaver Straight Bourbon Whiskey to be joining Old Blowhard and Barterhouse Bourbons this spring.Very Old Beaver is expected to begin appearing on select shelves throughout the U.S. in April 2014 under strict allocation due to limited supply of approximately 1,000,000 cases worldwide.  Very Old Beaver won’t disclose her age but enthusiasts will be able to tell that she’s been around the block a few times.

Very Old Beaver stocks were discovered in old warehouses at the Stitzel-Weller facility in Louisville, Ky.  Rumor has it warehouse workers have already begun lining up for a taste of Very Old Beaver with a soft aroma reminiscent of buttercream and smoked halibut.  The whiskey’s mellow taste includes notes of old leather box, salt cod, and aged gorgonzola cheese.  Very Old Beaver is filled in Tullahoma, Tenn. and will be expected to sell for a suggested retail price of $50,000.

Like the rickhouse and warehouse workers who uncover them and the consumers who drink them, Orphan Barrel Whiskies have distinctive personalities in taste and packaging.  Very Old Beaver packaging nods to the inspiration behind the whiskey’s name.  A vintage pink and brown label features a furry beaver after she’s been lightly groomed and stuffed.  Because when you’re tired of youth and immaturity, nothing is better than the warm comfort of Very Old Beaver.

Talisker Storm

Maker: Talisker, Carbost, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK (Diageo)
Talisker Storm

Region: Island

Age: NAS

ABV: 45.8%

Michigan State Minimum: $77

Appearance: Light caramel (likely colored)

Nose: Peat, dried flowers, smoke, alcohol, pine needles. Water brings out more smoke but doesn’t alter the flavor much otherwise.

On the palate: Full bodied and sweet. Smoke, cocoa powder, alcohol. Water brings out vanilla, white cake and then a burst of smoke.

Finish: Soot, alcohol, butterscotch candy, Mexican chocolate. Water doesn’t change much here.

Talisker Storm is a relatively new expression from Diageo. Price-wise it is situated between Talisker 10 y/o ($70 state minimum) and the Distiller’s Edition ($80). All three are bottled at the same proof. I have not had the Distiller’s Edition, so I can’t comment on how Storm compares to that, but Storm is definitely superior to the 10 y/o. Storm tastes more mature and shows better flavor integration than the 10, which seems to vacillate between sappy new make and murky maritime peat. Storm works better than the 10 as a gateway to Talisker and smoky Hebridean single malts in general. There is also a Dark Storm available in travel retail outlets that is aged in heavily charred casks.

If I have one criticism, it’s that it’s by-the-numbers with nothing in the way of surprises lurking in the nose or finish. That’s OK though, since it seems to be intended as a gateway or go-to type malt. It’s not cheap, but the price is firmly in line with comparable malts. If I have two criticisms, it’s that the label and packaging are cheesy.

In sum, I liked it, and could see myself buying it again. Talisker Storm is recommended. It’s worthwhile noting that this whiskyalso won Whisky Advocate’s Highland/Island Single Malt Scotch of the Year for 2013.

Lagavulin 12, Limited Edition 2012

Maker: Lagavulin, Port Ellen, Islay, Scotland, UK.Lag 12

Region: Islay

ABV: 56.1% (cask strength)

Michigan State Minimum: $120 (I bought it when the price was $90)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Peat, smoke, dried flowers, alcohol. Softens up a bit with water, but the peat is still front and center.

On the palate: Full bodied and aggressive. Burn, smoke, peat. Sweeter and more balanced with water. Butterscotch candy, fireplace, peat, amaretto.

Finish: campfire smoke, vanilla custard, burn. With water I get hardwood ash, vanilla pudding, and burn.

Parting words: Lagavulin 16 y/o (reviewed here) is still my favorite single malt Scotch, but this one has come very close. It’s not nearly as refined as its older sister but it has a powerful smokiness that rivals Laphroaig or Ardbeg. I’m getting into Malt Imposter territory here, but if Lagavulin were the Clash, the 16 year old would be London Calling and the 12 year old cask strength would be The Clash. The former is more polished and complex, but the latter has an urgency and power that is compelling.

The state minimum price in Michigan unfortunately went up by $30 recently so it is much less of a value than it used to be. Still, it’s a wonderful, delicious whisky worth trying and buying if it fits into your budget. I love and recommend Lagavulin 12 y/o Limited Edition 2012, Cask Strength.