Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Elijah Craig 12 versus 18: The Effects of Aging

Next up in our series is this comparison of Elijah Craig 12 year and Elijah Craig Single Barrel 18 year. The most obvious and most dramatic difference between these two is their age. The 18 is from a single barrel and is 2% lower in ABV, but otherwise these guys start off as the same 75/15/10 distillate at DSP-KY-1. (Thanks Eric, I totally forgot that this 18 was distilled in 1990 and so would have been made at DSP-KY-31; the 12 was at the new plant).As such, these provide a good example of the effects of barrel aging.

When bourbon is aged in its required charred oak barrels, a number of things happen: flavors are extracted from the wood, very slow chemical reactions take place, and evaporation occurs. All three are important, which is why just putting the stuff in a small barrel (as many start-ups do) or mixing it with wood chips does not result in good whiskey as oak flavors are extracted, but little else occurs. (Thanks to my fellow reddit users, especially the flavor chemist, “Flavorless” for expanding this. I have also heavily relied on the text and references from the excellent blog Whisky Science)

Charred Oak Extracts
All bourbon and straight rye whiskies are aged in new, charred oak barrels. Charring is a process where flame is applied to the inside of a barrel to form a layer of charcoal. This can be done for varying lengths of time, resulting in the different “char levels” used by different distilleries. Burning the oak in this way produces reactions that form free sugars that react with proteins. Well these sugars burn (caramelization), they form a lot of the aromas that we associated with caramel, bread, burnt sugar, beer, coffee etc. This burning process has made a lot of new chemical species that are released through smoke, but after the charring is done some compounds remain in the charred wood.

Some of the compounds related to flavor are as follows:

Hemicellulose is broken down by heat of charring and time to furfural (nutty aromas), hydroxymethylfurfural (musty, waxy, caramel aromas), maltol (malty aromas) and cyclotene (maple, caramel, licorice).

Lignins are polymers (long and chain-like molecules) that in the case of oak lignins, have different sugars and aldehydes attached to them. These compounds break down during charring or toasting, but also over time in the native wood to provide a number of characteristic aromas like smoke, spice or floral notes. Most notably, though, are the vanillins, which lend the characteristic vanilla flavor to bourbon.

Lactones occur in a number of conformations and impart coconut-vanilla aromas or a more incense-like aroma; I love the latter when I come across it.

In addition to imparting beneficial flavors to the spirit, the char layer also serves to reduce unpleasant and immature ones. Simplistically, charcoal tends to bind and draw some off flavors out of the whiskey (like your Brita filter), while others are extracted into it.

Native Wood Extracts/Reactions
Beneath the char layer of the barrel, native, uncharred wood remains. As you might predict, this contributes flavors and aromas that one would expect from dry wood, specifically oak. The compounds in this layer contribute to the "oakiness" of the whiskey over time. Oak from different areas and of different species may contribute different flavors. In wine this is why American oak (much more vanilla flavor) is very different than French oak (spicy as well as dill-like flavors). For the whiskey to extract compounds from the native wood, the liquor needs to first pass through the char layer. It is a slow process for the spirit to diffuse through the char layer, and again a slow one for it to extract native wood flavor compounds.  

Most of these compounds are actually bound to polymers (such as the lignins above) that do not readily extract into the spirit, and so must be liberated by hydrolysis reactions that “clip” them off the chains of larger molecules to which they were bound. Once freed, these compounds can be incorporated into the spirit, which must then diffuse back through the char layer (which may filer out other compounds, see below).

As the spirit slumbers away in the wood, seasonal variations in temperature cause the barrel expand and contract and spirit is drawn in and out of the wood, allowing passage of the spirit through the char layer as discussed above. The rate at which this occurs is dependent on a number of factors, including the humidity and temperature of the warehouse as well as the temperature shifts that occur; the more dramatic the temperature changes are, the greater the transit of the spirit in and out of the wood will be. The tightness of the oak grain and the species of oak can also affect this (though American whiskey uses almost exclusively the Quercus alba species).

Other Reactions
In addition to extraction of the charred oak flavors there are other, slower reactions that take place in the barrel. Notably are those involving tannins; familiar to anyone who drinks red wine. These compounds lend mouth-drying astringency to red wine and this effect can also be found in whiskey. Tannins are also involved in a number of chemical reactions that break down unpleasant flavors in the spirit and oxidize alcohols to the ethereal top notes so valued in extra-aged bourbons (the acetone or ether-like aromas in Pappy or Stagg, for example). Tannins also serve to stabilize color.

The important thing about all of these factors is that they take time. The extracted flavors (lactones, vanillins and others) actually come out of the wood relatively quickly (likely by the time a standard 4 year-old bourbon is dumped), but the breakdown of polymers and the reactions with tannins are not very fast at warehouse temperatures and are actually slowed down by alcohol, so it is not unreasonable to expect years or even decades worth of continued flavor evolution from a barrel of spirit, accounting for the increasing complexity of extra-aged whiskies.

In addition to imparting wood flavors, the barrel also serves as a semi-permeable membrane that allows passage of water and alcohol but little else. As such, part of the contents leave the barrel as the "angel's share" each year; about 8% the first year and about 3% per year thereafter. If this occurs in hot, dry environments (high warehouse floors), more water is lost, leading to higher proof spirits (like Stagg); lower floors and higher humidity lead to more alcohol loss (e.g. barrel-strength Four Roses at near 100 proof). Either way, the flavors are concentrated. This typically leads to a more intense spirit, and also one that is significantly more expensive (by our math an 18 year-old barrel will have lost 60% of its original volume)!

So, there really seem to be two phases of barrel maturation: an initial, extractive one and a longer maturation phase. Most young bourbons on the market are basically bottled after the extractive phase (they have pulled out a lot of oak flavors and have had new-make flavors tamed by the charring). However, the truly special whiskeys make it through many years of concentration and chemical reactions that lead to much more complex complements if volatile chemicals and thus more complex aromas and flavors. That said, it is actually an art to produce such whiskies, as there is a reasonably high risk that too much time in a barrel can lead to whisky that is just too "woody."

Anyway, on to the reviews at hand:

Elijah Craig 12 year-old KSBW 47%ABV ($24)
Nose: Lots of caramel and honey, some corn and vanilla, no overt oak.
Palate: Very smooth, medium sweetness, some popcorn, lots of caramel, touch of oakiness
Finish: Simple: predominantly again vanilla and caramel, but clean and nicely warming.
Overall: 90/100

Elijah Craig 18 year-old Single Barrel KSBW 45%ABV ($43) Guest note by Greg
Nose: volatile, acetone, vanilla, nutty
Palate: possibly the weakest part, slight astringency and a little alcohol poking through, nice buttery and vanilla notes (I like the tannins here, however)
Finish: long but subtle finish, the flavors and tannins coat the mouth and are slowly released over time or after a drink of water, very nice.
(Bottle was from Barrel #3893)
Overall: 92/100

Both of these bourbons were far and away better than their Evan Williams cousins. The 12 year just exceeds the EWSB in every way and is the same price, higher proof and is easier to find. Everyone should go buy one of these that has not tried it and should give it serious consideration for official bourbon of the summer: it is great neat, actually handles rocks well and is cheap enough to share with your friends that want to put coke in it.

The 18 year was for many years the most affordable extra-aged bourbon and is now universally missed. It has become, in Greg's words, the girl from high school that you never really noticed until she was gone. I will pull a hipster and assert that I liked it before it was cool: I thought it stood up well to Pappy and was criticized for this. But even I took for granted that I could pretty much wait for the periodic sales when it would dip below $40 and not give it too much of a second thought. Now it is off the market in favor of the $130, 20 year version. God I wish I had bunkered a case of this stuff. That said, your experience may vary a bit as with all single barrel products, but definitely buy this if you can find it. If you do not enjoy it I will happily dispose of any unused portion.

Overall, I think these are two excellent examples of the best features of Heaven Hill: very well-made, very well priced, and very classically styled bourbons. These may not be the absolute pinnacle of bourbondom, but I'm pretty sure that if you don't like these, you don't like bourbon.

Greg's Thoughts
Elijah Craig 18 year is not a current product.  This makes me sad.  I had only had it two times before it got the axe - presumably to make way for the MUCH more expensive 20 year version on shelves now - and was underwhelmed the first time, and modestly impressed the second.  The second experience motivated me to grab 3 bottles when I heard it was being retired, and that is what makes me sad.  I should have gotten more.  A lot more.  The EC 18 is somewhat similar to the Eagle Rare 17, and that is a great thing.  While the 2011 and 2012 ER 17 needed a few months of air to transform into something wonderful, this bottle has been great from the first pour.  It has those wonderfully interesting tannins that you only get from a long time in barrel and I love it.  I am not as good with flavor descriptions as Ryan, so I will sum up my review thusly: my Evan Williams vintage 2000 has been open for over a year and is 40% full, the EC 12 open for a year and is 25% full, the EC 18 was opened 2 weeks ago and probably won't make it to a month old.  The only caveat is that the EC 18 is a single barrel product and I have read reviews of variable quality.  That being said, if I can find any lightly dusty bottles still on the shelf for sub $50, I will not hesitate to purchase more.

Next: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, PHC 2012 and Chill-Filtration

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Heaven Hill and the Variables of Bourbon

I have been thinking for a while about the different influences that lead to the profiles of our favorite bourbons. Almost everyone goes on about mashbill (the complement of grains), but while this is very important to the final flavor, there are a number of other important factors.

Wanting to explore this further, wanting to talk about something more interesting than a straight review, and really wanting to drink some of these, my friend Greg and I dipped into our hoards for a very diverse set of bourbons that (with one exception) start off as the exact same whiskey and end up very different. It is also time for Greg's long overdue entry into writing about whiskey.

For our first comparison, we evaluated 2 bottles of Evan Williams Single Barrel, bottled in 2000. What makes this comparison potentially interesting is the variable known as barrel selection. The reason "single barrel" bourbons are potentially fun (but not always superior) is that they can show off just how different seemingly identical barrels can become. Bourbons distilled identically and aged for the same amount of time can differ for a few reasons. Warehouse placement may lead to a barrel experiencing more heat (often in the higher floors of the warehouse) leading to an increase in water evaporation and thus a concentration of flavor, color and alcohol. They may also be exposed to more dramatic temperature changes: this leads to more dramatic wood influence as the spirit is drawn more deeply into and out of the barrel staves. Differences in the barrels themselves may also impart differences (they are from non-identical trees after all); apparently the grain of the wood can also impact flavor. And sometimes, there seems to be no real way to know why one barrel is different from another. Here's a great video  on Drink Spirits by Heaven Hill's Larry Kass about the subject. But on to the bourbons:

Evan Williams Single Barrel 2000, Barrel 655 vs Barrel 192 (Both 86.6 proof, 9 years old, $25)

This is an annual release from Heaven Hill, adhering to their standard 75/15/10 mashbill. Notably this is not actually a limited release as such; they continue bottling to meet demand each year. It has regularly been around 9 years old is reasonably priced and is a darling of critics, especially the 2000 vintage we opened: John Hansel gave it an incredibly high 95 points in Whisky Advocate, and most other reviews followed suit.

In this case, barrel 192 went to sleep in the wood 11/8/2000, while 655 stayed up until 12/16/2000

Barrel 655
Nose: Oak and polished furniture first, then vanilla buttercream, faint cloves, cinnamon and dried herbs.
Palate: Medium weight, obviously corn-heavy: popcorn, vanilla, some caramel. Hint of butter.
Finish: Flavors from the palate persist briefly,  fading over 30s. Some roasted nuts and bitterness (hazelnuts?).
Overall: 80/100

Barrel 192
Nose: More muted. Corn and light vanilla predominate with a hint of sawdust.
Palate: More interesting with an incense spiciness, more cinnamon and cloves and more caramel. Some tannins here as well.
Finish: Nearly identical to the 655
Overall: 80/100
Sitting in the corner 

These bourbons are "correct." Really they most evoke the thought: "Yep. That's bourbon." This is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a really boring thing. If this were a student it would get a "C." The kind of "C" where you really want to give a "D," but you know they will just go bitching to the Dean for an appeal... I really wanted to like these.

Anyway if there is some interest that can be wrung from this experience is how different they are: the nose on the 655 was actually rather nice, while the palate on the 192 had significantly more wood and interest for me. We have no idea where the 95 point rating came from, but I suppose that it may illustrate how different single barrels offerings can be.

Given that the nose of 655 excelled and the palate of 192 won, we decided to vat them together and see what happened. While this was certainly no scientific experiment, we decided our "extremely small batch" bourbon was actually a small improvement, which I think argues for the potential benefits of "vatting" or "batching" (just don't say mixing as it implies the addition of neutral spirits), but more about that  another day.

Greg's Thoughts:

As Ryan mentioned, these two are clearly bourbon, but just that.  I think Heaven Hill deserves a good deal of respect on the consistency front as both barrels were very similar.  As for differences, 655 had a slight edge in the nose, and 192 a slightly better palate, but both were pretty boring.  In general, I have found that I prefer older American whiskey (old wheated bourbon and really old rye) that are at least 90 proof and neither of these bottles changes my opinion.  At 9-ish years old there is plenty of age here - the vanilla and tannic notes are present and really nice - but I can't help but think that these bourbons would be much improved with a slight bump in proof to say 90-95 (all the Evan Williams single barrels that I have from 2000-2002 are 86.6).  Oh yeah, and let's drop the cold filtration as well and leave in some of those possibly delicious fatty acids.  Both are tasty and inexpensive whiskeys that would be excellent introductions to those new to bourbon - they are lower in alcohol and have no burn when drunk neat and offer very typical bourbon flavors.

But let's move on to why I am so critical of the Evan Williams bottles: Elijah Craig.  More specifically, Elijah Craig 12 year and the recently departed Elijah Craig 18 year (more about that soon).  The 12 year version is routinely available for sub $30 in my area while the 18 year was purchased for $42.  Herein lies the issue.  The EC 12 and Evan Williams can be had for the same price, and I liked the EC 12 more in every way. The additional age and proof gave it a better nose and longer finish.  Plus, the 94 proof makes it a great candidate for a few ice cubes on a hot summer day.  Now, if you are very sensitive to the drier notes that come from extra oak - they are definitely present here - then this may be a negative, but for me this is one of the great values in bourbon.

Anyway, it gets better. This was only a warmup. Next we will look at the effects of aging (Elijah Craig 12 versus 18), the effect of proof and chill-filtration (EC12 versus Elijah Craig Barrel Proof), and just for fun we'll compare ECBP to Parker's Heritage Collection Mix of Mashbills.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Evan Williams Black Label Review

While preparing my upcoming series on EWSB, Elijah 12, 18, barrel proof and PHC, I realized that I had not had the regular old black label in many, many years. Picked up a 200ml at a really sketchy place while dusty hunting (found a WT American Spirit!), so I thought I’d give him a shot for a quick review as the basic prototype of the whole Heaven Hill Range. For comparison is a bottle of EWSB 2000 (barrel 655).

Evan Williams KSBW, 43%ABV ($4.59 the 200ml, just found out it’s on sale for $11.50/ 750mL in PA)

Nose: Classic Heaven Hill and reminds me most of the Current VSOF. Mint, cinnamon lime rinds, caramel
Palate: Relatively thin, sweet entry. Lots of cinnamon and caramel. Vanilla is here but only a touch of actual “oak” flavor. Hint of light roast coffee.
Finish: Sweet and about 45s long. Echoes the palate and then finishes minty and with a very faint hint of gummy candy Overall I am shocked by how good this is. Where was this in college? Why would anyone drink JBW? Anyway, this will be my go to recommendation for anyone looking to save money and have a nice drink. 83/100

What is most notable is that this earns 3 points more than the EWSB for my palate (that review is upcoming). While the black is fresh and has a lot going on (especially like the cinnamon), the single barrel I have just tastes like very generic and watery bourbon (though the nose is trending toward nice.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Beam Bourbons Part 2: Small Batch Collection

Sorry for the short break, but I'm back, it's Friday and I finally have time for a  tasting session.

Having started tasting the "Small Batch Collection" with the comparison of Basil Hayden's to its younger, OGD brethren, it is only natural to finish out the Small Batch Series. Unlike "single barrel," "small batch" is a term in the whiskey industry with no mutually agreed-upon definition. Operationally, it tends to mean a product produced in significantly smaller batches than the base level product (in this case "Jim Beam"). Also presumed (sometimes incorrectly) is the idea that these smaller batches allow the distiller to target a more specific profile through barrel selection favoring characteristics that might be otherwise obscured if they just mixed them all together.

The term and marketing idea itself was created by Booker Noe, then the master distiller at Jim Beam in 1987, and began with his namesake Booker's, a barrel-strength and unfiltered bourbon aged around 7 years. This was in the early days of premium bourbon offerings and was likely in response to offerings like Blanton's, the first single barrel bourbon, itself released in 1984. Since the release of Booker's, the Small Batch series has expanded and now includes:
  • Booker's: aged 7 years, 120–129.2 proof (60–64.60% ABV)
  • Baker's: aged 7 years, 107 proof (53.5% ABV)
  • Basil Hayden's: aged 6-8 years, 80 proof (40% ABV); recently lost it's age statement.
  • Knob Creek: aged 9 years, 100 proof (50% ABV), with a 9 year, 120 proof (60% ABV) single barrel expression.
As noted in the Basil Hayden's post, that bourbon uses the OGD mashbill of 27% rye, while Booker's, Baker's and Knob Creek all share a traditional high-corn mashbill with 15% rye (the same as Jim Beam). The latter 3 will be the subject of this review and will serve, I hope, to illustrate how important barrel selection and aging can be in imparting a flavor profile to bourbon. As I've said before, mashbill is important but I think we can get too hung up this one variable. These will be tasted in order of proof so as to avoid burning out my palate unfairly.

Knob Creek KSBW 9 years old, 50% ABV ($32/ 750mL)

Nose: Oak, vanilla, earth and citrus first, then noticeable cinnamon candy. No trace of acetone or other volatile aromas. Intense overall and here the earthy yeasty quality is well matched by the other aromas.

Palate: Medium bodied with noticeable alcohol on the attack despite the 9 years. The palate brings more earth, lots of oaky/vanilla flavors, cinnamon, cloves and small amounts of orange. A bit hotter than would be preferred for a 9 year 100 proofer.

Finish: The initial finish continues the palate quite pleasantly and is rather warming, but then trails off quickly, leaving a faint and less than ideal bitterness.

On Ice: Interestingly, this is one of they few bourbons that I have had that can not only stand up to ice but improves on the rocks. Perhaps this should not be surprising as I'm sure most of the KC made is drunk in this fashion. I find that ice fixes the hot palate immediately, and brings much more prominent vanilla and clove notes to the fore. Apparent sweetness also increases. The only part that suffers is the nose, which becomes predictably more muted.

84/100 (but a champion on ice will be my go to once temperatures dictate ice in my drinks this summer)

Baker's KSBW 7 years old, 53.5% ABV (~$40/ 750mL)

Nose: Notable for much less Beam yeastiness. Very prominent caramel here as well as oak, honey, cloves and a wisp of acetone. More of a dry attic/ furniture oak aroma here.

Palate: Thinner than the Knob, but apparently less hot despite the increased alcohol. The palate here is much more balanced with caramel, toasted bread, and popcorn along with caramel, honey and vanilla. Very well balanced.

Finish: The finish is more focused on vanilla, has less of the bitterness I found in the Knob and fades gradually and more cleanly, leaving a note of apples.

Overall I like this one, and find it far more refined and pleasant to drink neat than the KC. It is on the generic side, but it is clear that this batch was selected from barrels than show an impressive degree of balance, versus the more raw intensity of the Knob Creek. This, as has been said elsewhere, seems a good crossover for brandy drinkers and I am now sad I missed the PA closeout sale of this ($25). For the full list price, though, it is a bit generic: it has no real flaws, but has little of special interest. I like the departure from the Beam house style into something more elegant, though.


Booker's KSBW 6-8 years old, 63.7% ABV, ($50)

Nose: Much more intense; round. Lots of earth, lots of vanilla. Seriously lots of vanilla. Otherwise more similar to the Knob than the Baker's, but I can't overstress how powerful the vanilla is here.

Palate: Good Christ. This is anesthetic at full proof, and while vanilla, oak and toast flavors arrive, they are fleeting and lost in the alcohol.

Finish: Alcohol and maybe some apples. Really just feels like GERD.

So, this is not really pleasant at full proof, as I think tends to be the case with most barrel strength American whiskies that reach into the 120s. Some bottles of Stagg are an exception; this is not. However, while I rarely enjoy a mouthful of alcohol like this, I do favor high proof bottles for the reason that you can taste them undiluted, and then make your own decision about how much water to add. And so:

Watered to 107 proof and rested for 5 min:

The nose remains very pleasant, with the vanilla toned down a bit and a bit more nuttiness coming forward along with some honey and citrus. Smells more like dessert than a bottle of vanilla extract and is really rather nice. The palate is really much improved as well and is very different from the Baker's despite similar age and proof. This is much more forward, still hotter, but sweeter and more focused on desert-like flavors than spices or oak. The finish too is more manageable and fades into apples, vanilla and a cooling sensation that I usually associate with good distillation.


Tasting these together, as I had hoped, has been an interesting exercise in the effect of barrel selection and (maybe) aging on flavor, considering they all enter barrels as basically identical spirits. The Knob Creek seems like it was designed to be iced, and in this capacity I will likely see it again this summer; even with the extra 2 years in oak factored in, this seems a very different bourbon from the other two.

The Booker's and Baker's comparison at 107 I think is the most illustrative: they are totally different. Baker's has a much more refined and balanced profile, though maybe to the point of boring, while the Booker's is much more aggressive if rough.

Overall these are all well-made and pleasant bourbons, but other than waiting for a sale to buy some Knob to drink in the rocks on my roof deck this summer, I probably won't buy these again. I like the other 2, but I just don't think they represent a good value at the prices for which I usually see them listed. The Booker's and Baker's are about equal to each other in price per proof, but the former is too rough and too much a vanilla bomb, while the latter lacks interest. There is just too much good competition for these to move me to spend $40-50. At a 15-20% discount, however, I might be swayed.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Glenlivet 12 year and 15 year French Oak Reserve

Or, how to move from Bourbon to Scotch comfortably

Like many, I cut my single malt teeth on Glenlivet. Prior to this, I thought I did not like scotch whisky, having been exposed to Dewar's white label, J&B and worse. Compared to the Wild Turkey I was drinking at the time (mid 1990s), and even to Jim Beam, I could not really understand how anyone found these enjoyable. I persisted, however, and was thankfully introduced to the Glens by my local bartender, and then later to more esoteric whiskies by my uncle and some of my older friends.

Also, like many, I then transitioned to heavily peated stuff: Ardbeg before they went on hiatus, Laphroaig and (when bought for me as a gift) Lagavulin. Oh how I loved this stuff: I both genuinely loved drinking it and also how off-putting it was to many others. I felt a bit superior, I admit. And I immediately turned my back on the Speysider that gently took my malt virginity. A typical immature young man story. Also typical of younger men, I was broke and so I did not risk my meager cash or gift requests on anything I wasn't sure to like; I had in my house almost no scotch other than Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Talisker until recently. Don't get me wrong: I still have all of these in the house and continue to love them, but as I have matured a bit and my tastes have changed, I have begun to appreciate the occasional subtlety in favor of power. Once in a while.

The two malts I will review today are from Glenlivet. This is the self-proclaimed originator of the single malt phenomenon; virtually all malts prior having been made to be a part of blended whiskies (as is still the case with the majority of whisky produced in Scotland). For those unaware:

  • single malt Scotch whisky: all from one distillery, 100% malted barley mashbill, aged at least 3 years in wood
  • blended malt Scotch whisky (formerly vatted malt): blend of single malts
  • blended Scotch whisky: blend of malt whiskies and grain whiskies 
  • grain whiskey: more neutral spirit made from a variety of grains (increasingly corn), also aged in wood
Glenlivet is the best-selling single malt in the United states, and is number two in the world, behind Glenfiddich. The distillery, now owned by Pernod Ricard, is the oldest in the Glenlivet parish; part of the Speyside whisky subregion of the Highlands (that around the river Spey). These guys produce about 6 million bottles of single malt per year, with a smaller portion going to blends. Today, I will review the two most entry-level malts they produce: the ubiquitous 12 year and the 15 year-old French Oak Reserve. The latter is by all accounts the former finished in new, uncharred Limousin oak casks (the sort used for cognac) for an additional 3 years.

Glenlivet 12 year-old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, 40%ABV ($42)

Nose: Green apples  trending almost toward Jolly Rancher territory, but with some supporting brown sugar. Crushed pineapple. Less prominently vanilla and cereal grains. Not a very intense nose, but rather pleasant.

Palate: Very mild and surprisingly round. Apples and pineapple are back, but along with it some definite vanilla, caramel and toffee flavors. Roasted nuts, mild oak and some ginger.

Finish: Short but with building sweetness. Trails off cleanly with a bit of candied ginger and a return of the more bourbony vanilla/wood flavors


Overall, this is far better than I remember it. This is a well-made, very gentle but pleasant whisky with not a trace of off-flavor to be found. The lack of sherry or peat reveals a pleasantly fruity distillate that is made more interesting by the obvious bourbon influence. It is somewhat mild however, which is not helped by its 40%, and much of its nuance would likely be lost in a setting other than quietly and somewhat autistically studying one's dram. This is a good go-to in a less than well-stocked bar or airplane and would make a pretty good standard to have around the house, as it is very well priced (for scotch).

Glenlivet 15 year-old French Oak Reserve Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, 40%ABV ($55)

Nose: Slightly more intense. Much like its brother but with noticeably more caramel, vanilla and a touch of Asian spices. More caramelapple than apple pie.

Palate: Spicier attack. Alcohol seems a bit pricklier. Five-spice powder, vanilla/toffee, a hint of coffe. Other flavors as with the 12, but drier overall.

Finish:  Warmer and more drying, but again spicier and more complex. Longer. Flavors evolve more and seem to switch between bourbon and cognac. Maybe a hint of cough syrup, oddly. Finally the palate is left cool.


This too, is much better than I'd recalled. The extra aging and/or oak treatment lend additional interest that, more than it's sib, invites another sip. This is a lovely dessert whisky that is less subtle than the 12 and combines some interesting spice and new-oak notes with the bourbon and apples profile. My only real gripe with this one is that it's pretty expensive for what it is. Scotch prices are what drove me to American whiskey in the first place, and I just can't see this as worth the same money as Blanton's or the like. Even among single malts, this was only three dollars less than the 94-point beast I reviewed yesterday. I get that this is a different style, but I'm not sure it's worth the money.

In tasting these, I think I have found the perfect gateway from bourbon to Scotch that I did not previously appreciate: the Bourbon barrel influence in both of these is both very clear and very pleasant. Here, though, the vanilla and caramel flavors really play well with sweet fruit and nut notes in an overall more gentle and elegant whole. I cannot imagine a bourbon drinker who would find this unpleasant; maybe just boring. For this reason, I really look forward to trying the NĂ durra sometime soon: I suspect 16 years and an increase in bottling strength could lift this stuff to a much better place.

Overall, I think an occasional return to less intense whiskies is likely a good thing, and these are better examples than many I've had, despite their huge production. Peat in particular, and also sherry are very distinct and, to many, acquired or polarizing flavors to have in ones drink. I think that many start off into single malts and get either big sherry or lots of smoke and end up fleeing back to bourbon or blends, and that is a shame. Starting with one of these bottles is a really nice exercise in retraining the palate to appreciate more gentle and subtle flavors

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Arbeg Uigeadail Review

Scotch, STAT!
"Oo-geh-dahl", before you ask.
(Don't worry, I will finish the Jim Beam Small Batch series soon)

Readers of this blog may have noted thus far a suspicious absence of Scotch Whisky from this blog. This is in no way due to a lack of esteem for the spirit, but mainly from my relative lack of understanding of it versus American Whiskey; in general, you are perhaps better off reading someone else's blog if you want a deep understanding of the stuff. However, I have for a while now been more in the mood for whisky than for whiskey and so I will attempt a few posts on the matter from the perspective of an American whiskey drinker.

I, like most, started my love affair with single malt whisky with Glen-something (I think Glenlivet) and quickly followed this gateway malt into the dark and intimidating world of Islay whisky. I have recently rediscovered the pleasure a well-balanced Speysider can have (more on that soon) but the bulk of my malty affections remain rooted to the smoky and peaty whiskies from Islay and the Islands.

That I happen to have a bottle of this beastie around is very good timing as tomorrow is the Reddit r/scotch community tasting of the Oogie, and I am also coming down with something that has started in my throat (but that has not yet reached my olfactory apparatus); I know of nothing that better helps a sore throat than Islay (the flavor one gets from peat is phenol, the active ingredient of chloraseptic. I'm not making this up). I will have more to say about Islay at some point, but as I mentioned, I am not feeling all that well and so will save a long discussion about bogwater etc for later.

This particular specimen is a doozy and high in my running for the only Islay I need at all times. Peated to within an inch of it's life: Check. Unchill-filtered: Check. Cask Strength: Check. Sherry finished and well-aged: Also check. If there is something else you can offer in this style of whisky I can't think of it. This is a regular release product from Ardbeg and combines 1990-1993 distilled whisky aged in bourbon barrels with "much older" whisky that had been aging in sherry butts.

Arbeg Uigeadail NAS 54.2% ($58.99 from K&L)

Nose: Peat, bonfire and barbecue.Roasted nuts. Beneath all that some vanilla, smores and a hint of olive brine.

Palate: Huge and fiery attack with good body.  Fireplace ash, grilled bread, caramel, salted nuts, vanilla and apricots. Successive sips just continue to reveal waves of evolving flavors: smoky then salty then sweet.

Finish: Long and warming. Echoes the palate then fades to a combination of apples and phenol-inflected sweetness. Slight anesthetic effect.

Water: A few spoons of water tame the nose significantly, but not in a good way: band-aid/hospital smell predominated with maybe a hint of raisin. The palate suffers less and the above flavors are easier to pick out, but not more pleasantly. The finish is creamier and spicier at the same time.

Overall this is a fantastic experience of a whisky and currently my favorite Islay. I have for some time been drawn to sherry-finishing in peaty whiskies as I think the sweetness and fruit/nut flavors bring a really nice balance.  This, while enormous, actually still succeeds in balancing a tremendous amount of flavor together in a well-integrated package that seems like it might otherwise overwhelm. I will definitely keep buying this as it is an absolute steal for the $60 I paid, and is probably worth closer to $100.


Of note, this is not for the faint of heart, palate or esophagus as I tend to taste this for hours and am nearly sure it is made in part of liquid GERD (in these respects overshadowed only by the Octamore Comus).