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SMWS1a

My wife brought me home the remains of some Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting bottles that escaped the clutches of the Australian tasting panel (thanks Andrew!). Not quite the crumbs from the table when we are talking about some very rare single cask, cask strength whiskies from one of the great independent bottlers of the whisky world. Particularly whiskies coming from three diverse and rather uncommon distilleries. Suffice it to say, I was very excited.

The SMWS tasting panel samples hundreds of casks each year and only a select number are chosen to be bottled and imported to Australia. In this case, and subject to confirmation, I believe the three samples were ultimately bottled as the following: (Mortlach) 76.112 “Spiced Champurrado”, (Glenlossie) 46.22 “An Italian Kitchen”, and (Springbank) 27.106 “A boiler suit in ballet shoes”. The Springbank I had previously sampled at the winter SMWS tasting event in Sydney and it was my favourite dram of the night, so I was very pleased to find this showing up unbidden at my doorstep.

The first two are mature Speysiders and find expression predominantly through independent bottlings. Mortlach has long been favoured by blenders for its complexity and heartiness created by a rather unorthodox combination of stills and the use of tradition wormtubs in condensing the spirit. The owners release a regular 16 year old “Flora and Fauna” edition and the occasional rare malt, but most of the spirit finds its way into blends, and if you are lucky enough to stumble across one, chances are it will be by an independent bottler.

Glenlossie, like Mortlach, belongs to the Diageo fold and is offered as a standard 10 year old. Although built in 1876 it remains a rather unknown distillery despite being a staple in the majority of the Haig blends. This was my first taste of a Glenlossie single malt and I was not disappointed.

The last whisky, the Springbank, comes from one of the three remaining active distilleries in Campbelltown. Springbank is renowned for its firmly traditional and artisanal approach to producing whisky and, along with Kilchoman, is one of only two distilleries that perform each stage of whisky production on the same premises – from the malting of the barley to bottling the final product.

Mortlach 1986 – 27yr. (Bottled as SMWS 76.112 “Spiced Champurrado”)mortlachstills
Bottled 23/09/13
58.1% ABV
Cask 2041
10CL SMWS sample bottle

Nose: A little musty, feels almost arid. Lacquer. Dried herbs – thyme, touch of rosemary. Slightly metallic – aluminium scouring brush.
Becomes oakier with time in the glass. Honey notes emerge with water. Shandy.

Palate: Sweet and gamey. Venison in a port reduction. Honey-glazed cashews. Just a hint of some citrus in there – candied orange peel. Bergamot tea. Lavender. Grains of paradise? Complex but subtle palate. (Refill sherry cask?).
With water some of this complexity is lost, but a honeycomb sweetness surfaces and the palate becomes more rounded.

Finish: Not particularly long. A quirky dialogue between the sweeter elements and a savoury meatiness. Bay leaves and oak are left on the fade, becoming quite dry. There’s a slightly chlorinated note, but it’s not at all off-putting.

Thoughts: A fascinating drop offering rather disparate elements, some a little unusual. There isn’t a solid core to latch onto with this drop, but age has instead imparted a lot of complexity to Mortlach’s often idiosyncratic spirit. I’m not immediately sold, but am left intrigued, feeling this is a whisky that may take some time to get to know and appreciate but with reward.

83/100

Glenlossie 1992 – 20yr (Bottled as SMWS 46.22 “An Italian Kitchen”)
Bottled 16/07/13
50.7% ABV
Cask 3000966
10CL SMWS sample bottle

glenlossieNose: Very closed at first. Wet paint and waxy crayon. Really needs to breathe. Opens up with some praline. Quite malty. Old hay and hessian sacks.

Palate: Flash of a mineral note. Chamomile tea. Then wow! This is the peachiest palate I’ve ever tasted on a scotch. Rich skins of ripe yellow nectarine. Very fruity – some guava and tropical elements on top of the orchard fruits. Gentle and floral but incredibly sweet. Quite rich but refreshing. Not at all anticipated by the nose!

Finish: Medium finish with the predominant peach flavour dissipating into green tea. Only a nod to the oak, which is perhaps surprising given its age. Likely a bourbon cask, but many of these vibrant fruity notes are reminiscent of a quality sauternes maturation.

Thoughts: A real disconnect between the nose and the palate. The former very closed and austere, but the palate a deluge of fresh, invigorating flavours. For an introduction to this distillery, one couldn’t be more impressed! [By the time I had sampled this and realised it was bottled and brought in by SMWS, it was long sold out. Disappointing, but in this case it did save me $293]

87/100

Springbank 2000 – 13yr (Bottled as SMWS 27.106 “A boiler suit in ballet shoes”)
Bottled 22/01/14springbankbarrel
49.8% ABV
Cask 164
10CL SMWS sample bottle

Nose: Peat and whiff of smoke – dry and minerally. Sweet, light sherry. Limes. (If I were to give this a quirky SMWS name of my own it would be: Key-lime pie in a woodfired oven). Golden raisons. Oily; inky. Golden syrup and cinnamon.

Taste: Immediate peat – zingy and clean. Very pastry/cake-like… Cinnamon cake or German carrot cake. Gingersnap biscuits. Chewy toffee. Mouthfeel is rich, full, and syrupy.

Finish: Long, layered and sweet. Still very mouth-coating. Plenty of wood, becoming nutty.

Thoughts: A quick look at the ABV will tell you this was a very active cask given its modest age and this is evident in the ample richness of this whisky. There is certainly no need for water, in fact it drowns easily. This whisky is just a great example of Springbank at its best, even at a fairly modest age. 

91/100

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It’s approaching two years since I last posted…. more on that soon. As I attempt to remount my blogging horse, I thought I’d ease myself into the saddle with some recent Scotch tasting notes.

macallan house

Today a couple of independent bottlings I just polished off from two very different distilleries.

The first, a Macallan, comes from one of the heavyweights of the Scotch whisky world (as of 2009, it was the second largest-selling single malt producer by volume, behind Glenlivet and ahead of Glenfiddich). Macallan is renowned for its traditionally* rich, sherried house flavour, and for its regular release of rare and older bottlings that often fetch astronomical prices. The bottle in review here is far removed from Macallan’s roots and should not be seen as indicative ofMacallan’s typically excellent releases (particularly in the sherried variety!). The Macallan 12 year old was in fact the first single malt that made me fall in love with sherry-matured whiskies and remains a special drop for me, despite its increasingly stupid price.

 Blair Athol Distillery

The second, a Blair Athol, while one of the oldest running distilleries in Scotland(built in 1798), is a rather invisible distillery in the Perthshire region of the Highlands, and likely unknown to most scotch drinkers outside of the most enthusiastic. This is not at all surprising as the vast majority of Blair Athol’s spirit goes directly into blends –particularly Bells, of which it forms the backbone. The owners dorelease a standard 12 year old “Flora and Fauna” edition but thisis typically only carried by boutique stores and specialty whiskymerchants. Outside of this, you may find occasional single cask releases by a variety of independent bottlers, as we have here, and at varying levels of quality.

On to the notes:

Macallan 15 years(Hart Brothers)

Distilled: December1992

Bottled: June 2008

46% ABV

macallan 15hb

Nose: Very muted.Overripe banana. Vanilla ice cream. Balsa wood. Hay, rolled oats, andpencil shavings.

Palate: Banana in continuity with the aroma. Glutinous rice and a touch of cinnamon.Dry bourbon notes. Flat cola and barley sugars.

Finish: Dry and a little starchy. A lingering vanilla sweetness and rather woody.

Thoughts: I suspect this was drawn from a refill bourbon barrel – a very tired one and it shows. From the nose to the finish on the tongue, the experience must be fought for. Look, while it’s not a bad whisky per se, it is definitely an uninspiring drop. The bottle never really grabbed me so I spread it out over quite some time and I will confess that ultimately it did grow on me a touch. Perhaps that is an understated complexity and the challenge of apprehending it. Still, I’d summarise it as a diffident whisky and not a Macallan to be proud of. (Keeping in mind that this was not an official Macallan release!).

Score:71/100

BlairAthol 12 years (The Old Malt Cask/Douglas Laing Co.)

Distilled:November 1995

Bottled:October 2008

50%ABV

1 of 760 bottles

Sherry Butt DL Ref. 4686

blair athol 12dl3Nose:Orange marmalade. Treacle. Honeycomb. The sherry influence is clear.Dried dates and grapeskins. Peanut husks. Continues to really open up into a very rich andcomplex nose with time in the glass. Light ginger ale or spritzer?

Palate:Sweet, malty, and quite spicy. Brilliant balance! Lively. Light fruitcake (and really very cakey or bready… think panettone). A lovelyinterplay between spice and wood notes. Plums. Cassia bark and a hintof star anise.

The mouthfeel is full and a touch oily. There is some heat coming from the higher ABV and it will take some water although it is delightful as it stands.

Finish:Butterscotch. A long, luscious fade. Woody andspicy… a touch bitter/sweet.

Thoughts:This bottle is areal cracker. It is in character with the distillery’s official Flora & Fauna release,
but is significantly augmented by the higher ABV and lack of chill-filtration. Richness,complexity, and balance in a glass.

Score: 89

The next review up within a few days, will be of some stellar recent Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings.

*Up until 2004 when Macallanintroduced the Fine Oak series, its whisky was matured solely inOlorosso sherry casks fromJerez, Spain. This turn hasbeen met with very mixed reviews, and more than a little heavycriticism in some quarters. Giventhe release of older age statement whiskies in the Fine Oak series itwould seem Macallan has actuallybeen aging quitea lot of their whisky in exBourbon barrels since at least the 1970s.

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Before I moved to the States my impression of American bourbons and whiskies was not a high one. I’m delighted to say that through the encouragement and generosity of some good friends that original impression has been significantly altered. It all started with Knob Creek… but that’s a story for another day. I claim no intimate knowledge of bourbon, and consider myself a fledgling evan williams single barrell 1999enthusiast, but I’m thoroughly enjoying  the ride small batch bourbons have to offer – not to mention the relatively cheap price tag when compared to our beloved scotch).

Evan Williams is no unfamiliar name to bourbon lovers, given that it is the second largest selling brand of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey in the US. But those sales are largely on the back of their blended black label bourbon. But today we’re reviewing the Evan Williams Single Barrel 1999, their 14th vintage. The E.W. Vintage series claims the impressive distinction of being the only vintage dated bourbon. The fact that each bottle is drawn from a single barrel, rather than a blending of barrels, means that even within a vintage each bottle is likely to express a slight range of unique characteristics. Each vintage year also equates to a novel bourbon, with often significant characteristics marking one vintage from another. What doesn’t seem to vary is the success with which they are greeted year after year. They have a swag of medals and accolades against their name, perhaps most impressively the first ever Whiskey of the Year title awarded to a bourbon by The Spirit Journal. So, let’s try it and see what all the fuss is about.

IMG_9442

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 1999
Barrelled on 10.12.99
Bottled on 01.20.09
Barrel # 112
43.3% abv

Appearance: Deep, slick amber

Nose: Waxy on first sniff. Then caramel popcorn and warm dark spices – nutmeg and cardamom. A hint of rose, and after adding a few drops of water, charred oak really comes out, as does a little spearmint.

Body: Mid to full, a little oily, very smooth.

Taste: Wonderfully smooth and sweet. The nutmeg is there, and dark, overly roasted butterscotch. A very mature bourbon.

Finish: Spice and toffee, then a mellow woodiness that credits the 9+ years in oak. As all fades away, the impression of raw, crushed almonds. Complex!

Overall Impressions: This is one smooth, complex, and sweet bourbon without being cloying. While this is no great claim, I have no hesitation in labelling this the best bourbon I’ve sampled to date. Well worth seeking out, and I look forward to buying a bottle of each new vintage.

Evan Williams 1999 Spider Score: 86/100.

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Here is a clip from the unveiling event of the 1999 vintage. They were sampling cask strength (60-70%) from the first barrel. The clip is worth watching for the inimitable molasses drag of an accent of Parker Beam alone, their Master Distiller. (Parker is a seventh generation distiller and has worked at Evan Williams for over 50 years. His grandfather was the brother of a certain James Beam).

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caol-ila-18yo-scotchOver the Christmas break I shared three bottles of scotch, all of them island malts, with my best friend who shares a penchant for peat as much as I do. I just thumbed through my notebook hoping to find some decent tasting notes, but instead found mostly half-finished scratchings suggesting I was too immersed in the drink and conversation to be diligent. Now that I think about it, I’m also recalling inordinate amounts of time playing Quake Wars. It’s hard to take notes while you’re intent on saving the world.

Still, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts one of the scotches we sampled. This was the Caol Ila 18yo, an Islay malt that is sadly too often drowned out by the more reputable and assertive likes of Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin.

islay-distilleries1

Caol Ila is tucked away near Port Askaig on the northeastern corner of Islay, with only Bunnahabhain, an even lesser known distillery in close proximity. Thus the owners have adopted the self-styled moniker, “The Hidden Malt”. The distillery was originally founded in 1846, although the current equipment is thoroughly modern, and produces whisky for several different blends.

This was the most mature Islay malt I’ve tried to date, and what drew my immediate attention was the complexity of the nose. Not only complex, but much more delicate than the likes of its Islay counterparts. The Lagavulin 16, boasting every bit of a multifaceted nose itself, appears brutish next to the subtleties of this gentle beast. From its smoky backbone rise wafts of leather and the gentle sweetness of clover honey. The scent is notably herbal, with some peppermint featuring prominently. Most of all, the impression is one of cleanness that is rare in Islay malts – linen comes to mind. The extra time aging seems to have mellowed the vegetal qualities of peat found in younger bottlings.

caol-ila-distillery1The palate, while thoroughly enjoyable, is somewhat anticlimactic after the enticing nose. At 43%abv it is also a little more biting than you would expect. The sweetness carries over in the familiar taste of honey, but the complexity is diminished. Mint notes are present, but the dominant flavour is woodsmoke which lingers into the finish. The body was also shy of what it appeared in the glass.

Overall I will definitely be trying the 18 again, if only for its amazing nose! 7/10

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