Usquaebach Reserve Premium Blended Scotch Whisky – Review

UsquaebchReserve

Sincere thanks to JA and Usquaebach for the sample.

In my previous post about Usquaebach’s Old Rare Blend, I forgot to mention a curious historical tidbit the brand highlights on their website. According to Usquaebach, the Old Rare blend was served at two U.S. presidential inaugural dinners – Nixon’s first in 1969 and George Bush Sr.’s only (thankfully) in 1989. Specific mention as to wines served at inaugural and state dinners is relatively commonplace, but I’ve never seen any other instances where a specific brand of whisk(e)y has been singled out in such an event…of course, I’ve never bothered to look for that kind of info, either, so…

In any case, we’ll take Usquaebach’s word for it. It would be an honor indeed to have one’s whisky poured at a president’s inauguration. In this case, though, it’s unfortunate that it was these two particular presidents. Nixon, while deserving some credit for being surprisingly musically competent and helping to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, will pretty much just go down in history for being a crook. Sadly, he’s set the standard to which so many politicians aspire to today. Bush deserves some credit for not inadvertently setting off world war III (not really) after barfing on the Japanese Prime Minister. Obviously, any positives from that event are offset by the huge, glaring, ruinous negatives of the man having fathered several other Bush’s.

Enough weighty political discourse, let’s get to the whisky. Usquaebach Reserve Premium Blended Scotch Whisky comes in the traditional glass bottle as opposed to the flagon-wearing Usquaebach Old Rare. This blend is 50/50 single malts to grain whisky, with the single malts being aged between 16 and 18 years old.

The Nose:  Well, well, well…weightier and more sherried than I was expecting. Thick, dark honey and vanilla pudding, along with plump raisins and stewed prunes. Nice notes of fruit cake, dried fruits and holiday spices, soft cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, along with subtler, rancio-esque, slightly vegetal notes of cumin, and old, damp oak.

The Palate:  A rich mouthfeel, more honey, raisin, and brown sugared sweetness which washes over everything. Sweet citrus, orgeat syrup, and nutty chocolate brownies march right into mature, balanced spice notes. of sturdy, nicely tannic oak, hot cinnamon, clove, ground pepper, and nutmeg

The Finish:  Medium-ish…kind of. That honeyed sweetness fades quickly, leaving more tannic oak, clove and pepper, which all hang around for a while longer.

Thoughts:  A mildly pleasant surprise. Of Usqueabach’s two blended whiskies, I suppose the Reserve is more deserving of a flagon. This one definitely comes across as an older whisky with a richness and depth the other is lacking. While there are some edgy notes that indicate younger grain whisky, in general, I think this one feels more single malt heavy than it is. The sherry cask influence gives it decent complexity and balance throughout. Its $40 price tag is consistent with other blends its age.

Usquaebach Reserve, Premium Blended Scotch Whisky, +/- 2014

43% ABV

Score:  83

Usquaebach Old Rare Blended Scotch Whisky – Review

Usquaebach_OldRare

Sincere thanks to JA and Usquaebach for the sample.

Obviously, the most striking thing about Usquaebach’s Old Rare Blended Scotch Whisky is the ceramic flagon that the whisky is sold in. One sees quite a few glass bottles on liquor store shelves, but flagons…not so much. The word “flagon”, of course, is derived from the 15th century Middle French flacon meaning “large bottle for wine or liquor”, and the 14th century Old French flascon meaning “small bottle”. And as we all know, those French, Old and Middle, got their flascons and flacons from the Latin flasco, meaning, simply, “bottle”. Usquaebach’s appears to be a pretty good looking flagon, though, to be fair, my experience with flagons is quite limited. There is, however, one piece of information on the bottle, sorry, flagon, that’s a little confusing. The line “Over 225 years of Tradition” strikes me as a little vague and random. I can’t figure out what 225 year tradition they’re talking about. According to Usaquaebach’s website, the original owners of the Usquaebach brand, Ross & Cameron, didn’t start selling their own whiskies until 1800 (215 years ago) and didn’t launch the Usquaebach brand until 1877 (138 years ago). Perhaps it means over 225 years of Scotch whisky making tradition, though that would seem a bit of safe hedge as whisky-making has been happening in Scotland for well over 225 years. Perhaps it alludes to flagon use in general though Romans were tossing flasconem around close to two thousand years prior. Perhaps 225 years refers to when most flagon-makers (flagoners? flagonists?) moved on from the bulky, ham-fisted, and often leaky Stone-Campbell design and began producing flagons in the far more elegant, smartly practical High Lamont style*.

All this talk of flagons is neither hear nor there. Though, as I mentioned before, the most unique thing about this whisky is the flagon, so there you have it. The whisky inside the flagon is a blended one, with a very high proportion of single malts (85%) to grain (15%). While there is no age statement, the company line states that 41 Highland malts, up to 20 years old, have been used to create the blend.

The Nose:  A rather young-seeming, straightforward, traditional blended nose with a bit of everything. There’s honey, malt syrup, and juicy sweet citrus initially with a little toasted barley and vanilla bean behind. Further back, there’s a subtle bit of youthful rancio, dried grass, and sawn wood…though not necessarily oak. Sweet cinnamon and candied ginger provide a bit of spice, and I’d swear there was the faintest whiff of dry woodsmoke in there as well. I say “young-seeming” because there’s solvent-y quality tucked in the background as well.

The Palate:  Quickly more robust than the nose lets on. A brown sugar sweetness has a tropical, almost Juicy Fruit quality to it that carries on throughout most of the palate. More toasted grain, and some semi-sweet chocolate and vanilla bean lead to more prevalent oak than the nose. Slightly edgy green spice wells up towards to finish; cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, ginger, a little clove, and fine ground pepper.

The Finish:  Just long enough, with more caramel-y, fruity sweetness, chocolate, and sharp, earthy spice. That subtle impression of smoke sneaks in at the last.

Thoughts:  A decent, somewhat old-school blend, though also my least favorite of the three Usquaebach whiskies. While there may be some older malts in here, I’d guess the majority is younger whisky. The solvent tones on the nose and rough edges of the palate would seem to indicate that. I enjoyed this, it’s certainly a step up from many of the more ubiquitous, $20-$30 bigger name blends, but in no way does it justify the high $130 price tag. I suppose you also get the ceramic flagon, but that ends up being one pricey flagon.

Usquaebach Old Rare Blended Scotch Whisky, ~2014

43% ABV

Score:  80

*I made that last bit up.

 

Usquaebach 15 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – Review

Usquaebach15yo

Sincere thanks to JA and Usquaebach for the sample.

As a result of the current boom in popularity, there are very few whisk(e)y brands out there that haven’t received at least a little slick, silver-tongued marketers’ magic. Whether it’s a new label, revamped line-up, hip ad campaign, or a hyperactive social media presence, these days, it can easily seem as if the marketing of the bottle is as important as the quality of what’s in the bottle. The Usquaebach brand is a bit of an anomaly in this regard. It’s a small, somewhat storied, though less-well-known line of blended whiskies that seems to quietly occupy its shelf space without all the flash and clamor other brands increasingly employ.

According to the brand’s website, the name “Usquaebach” is taken from the line in Robert Burns’ poem, Tam o’Shanter, which goes:

“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae*, we’ll face the devil!”

Yes, I, too, noticed that though the brand spells it Usquaebach, more often than not the poem spells it usquabae. Perhaps back in 1877 when the brand was established, usquaebach was the preferred spelling. Either way, usquabae is of course derived from the Gaelic, uisge beatha (or Irish uisce beatha) which is derived from the Latin, aqua vitae, meaning, as we all know, “water of life”. While it’s undoubtably romantic to think of whisky being the water of life, it is not. Water is the water of life. If you want to prove this to yourself, drink only whisky for a month, and only water your plants with whisky for a month and then see how life is going for you and your plants.

I digress. Like I mentioned, Usquaebach the brand was first trademarked in 1877 by Inverness booze company named Ross & Cameron. Ross & Cameron reportedly got their start as whisky salesmen in 1800. In 1926, the brand was placed in the hands of William Grigor & Son, who also went on to purchase Bowmore in 1950. In 1969, the brand was purchased by the curiously named Twelve Stone Flagons, Ltd. It is important to mention that the company was simply named Twelve Stone Flagons, and the brand was actually purchased by a human not a dozen entrepreneuring ceramic vessels. The person in charge of Twelve Stone Flagons, Ltd. was the gracefully named Stanley Stankiwicz, under whose reign the use of an actual stone flagon for one of Usquaebach’s whiskies began. In 2005, the brand changed hands again, this time being bought by the small New Jersey-based importer Cobalt Brands. Today the Usquaebach line is represented by three whiskies: the “Old Rare” Blended Scotch Whisky, which is the most visible of the trio thanks to its unique stone flagon, the “Reserve” Premium Blended Scotch Whisky, and this one, the 15 Year Old Blended Malt which is comprised of malts aged between 15 and 20 years old, and aged in a combination of cask types including ex-sherry.

The Nose:  A nice, casually sweet, rich nose with lots of honey initially, honey butter even, and maple syrup over vanilla ice cream. There’s also raisins in rice pudding, bruised apples, and a little grilled pineapple. Subtler notes of holiday fruit cake with the dried fruit and the usual spices. Further back, there’s cinnamon and sugar mix, old oak, and faint, musty notes of, and I hate to get this specific, an old Scotch dunnage warehouse.

The Palate:  A little more muscular and aggressive than the nose. The sweetness is now more burnt caramel and toffee than honey, with plump raisins and more vanilla. Very dark chocolate and salted nuts move quickly into more vibrant spice, rough oak boards, drying clove, allspice, coriander, and quite a bit of fine ground pepper. The palate comes across a bit more edgy than its age would imply.

The Finish:  Medium-ish, more of that burnt sugar sweetness, dark chocolate, oak, and drying spice. Is that a faint trailing wisp of smoke?

Thoughts:  Quite decent, though somewhat Jekyll and Hyde-ish. The nose is quietly rich, a little unassuming, languid and sweet. The palate is more up-front and robust, trafficking more in the spice notes with greater astringency. The two did find more common ground as the glass ran down. I would definitely not call this a heavily sherried whisky, but the sherry cask influence is pleasantly, subtly there. Overall, a nice, teenage blended malt. For around $70-$85, I’m on the fence as to its value, but for those who like a slightly sherried, slightly rugged, off-the-beaten-path whisky, it’s worth a look. Recommended.

Usquaebach 15 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

43% ABV

Score:  85

 

Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Review

BowmoreSmallBatch

*Sincere thanks to MS & AS at Savona Communications for the sample.

Not too long ago, I poked fun at the misuse and abuse of the term “small batch”. It’s not really my intention to beat that dead horse any further in this post, especially since there are so very many other booze marketing catch words/phrases that deserve the same amount of lampooning. “Craft”, “hand-crafted”, “reserve”, “rare” and “old” quickly come to mind. Hell, these days even “oak” has been nearly pummeled into meaningless…ness. So yeah, calling something “small batch” without offering any information on the actual size of the batch is lazy marketing at this point…especially when an expression is clearly a widely released, larger volume one. But, let us not belabor the point any further. Everyone in this game is guilty of at least a little silly hyperbole once in a while. Why, at this very moment, there’s probably some hack whisky blogger out there scribbling inane tasting notes like, “Smoky vanilla creme soda” or “faint brine-y sea breeze.” It’s a sickness not just limited to the professionals, you know.

Jim Beam is probably the most obvious scapegoat to blame for the proliferation of “small batch”. In the early 90’s, their introduction of the “Small Batch Collection” went a long ways to entrenching the phrase into the public lexicon. It’s always felt to me like a term more associated with the bourbon world. “Batch” fits in well with the rougher, Southern, less urbane, general image Bourbon likes to present, whereas Scotch usually strives for more sophisticated sounding buzzwords like “reserve” or “limited edition”. I guess this is changing, though. Perhaps bourbon’s surging popularity has Scotch marketing teams smelling cross-over appeal and lo and behold, we’re now seeing things like the Bowmore Small Batch. Actually, now that I think of it, back in 2012, Bowmore released an expression in the UK called “Small Batch Reserve.”. “Small Batch Reserve”…for crap’s sake, talk about gilding the lily with meaningless marketing speak.

Bowmore’s Small Batch is not alone in this tip of the hat to bourbon. Fellow Beam Suntory/Morrison Bowmore product, Auchentoshan American Oak showcases the influence of the ex-bourbon casks on a relatively subtle spirit, and emphasizes its bourbon-like warehousing and blending aspects. At this point, it’s beside the point as to whether or not Bowmore Small Batch is actually a small batch or not. No information relating to that is given and as it’s taking its place on the entry-level end of their range, it’s safe to assume that the batch probably isn’t too small. In any case, The expression is composed of whiskies aged in first-fill and second-fill ex-bourbon barrels. At the moment, it is not replacing anything in their core range, instead, it’s sliding into place after Bowmore Legend and before Bowmore 12 Year Old.

The Nose:  Smoky vanilla creme soda, and I mean that in the best possible way. Lots of vanilla…vanilla bean, vanilla syrup, vanilla rice pudding with raisins, etc. After that, there’s salted caramel, salted almonds, Meyer lemons and Clementine oranges, and a very subtle sweet floral quality. There’s also wafting wood smoke, a little toasted barley, and brine-y sea breeze along with dusty cinnamon stick, dried orange peel, peppercorns, and sawn oak.

The Palate:  This has a nice, creamy mouthfeel. More of that salted caramel and vanilla sweetness hits early, with more juicy, sweet citrus and even a bit of Juicy-Fruity tropical fruit. A handful of salted nuts follows along with a growing swell of dry wood smoke and some subdued peat. Charred oak, black pepper, and toasted vanilla bean lead to the finish.

The Finish:  Very nice length, vanilla bean, salted nuts, another bloom of smoke and a faint hint of tobacco leaf and…peppermint(?!) trailing in the distance.

Thoughts:  I enjoyed the hell out of this. While it’s definitely Bowmore, in a way, it’s a little un-Bowmore-ish at times, too. It’s put together very nicely and strikes a very drinkable balance of vanilla and fruit sweetness, and slightly toned-down Islay peat and smoke. I don’t usually think of this flavor profile as being fresh, but there is a certain lively freshness to it that works very well. I’d love to see this at a higher ABV, but it does manage to hold its own well at that lowly 40 %. A very appealing introduction to Bowmore and to smoky Islay whiskies in general. Recommended.

Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Islay, OB, ~2014

40% ABV

Score:  85

Sierra Nevada 2014 Narwhal Imperial Stout – Review

Narwhalsk“Strictly speaking, this horn is but a lengthened tusk, growing out from the jaw in a line a little depressed from the horizontal. But it is only found on the sinister side, which has an ill effect, giving its owner something analogous to the aspect of a clumsy left-handed man.”                                –Moby Dick, Herman Melville

The somewhat large, ocean-going mammal known as a Narwhal (Monodon monoceros), or Narwhale if you simply must have the “e” at the end, is a species of whale that spends most of its time trying to stay warm in Arctic waters. Any jerk with at least one working eye can see that the distinguishing feature of a Narwhal is the long horn protruding from its face. As Ishmael mentioned, this long horn is actually not a horn at all, but rather a tusk or tooth. Usually, it is the male who sports this rather daring bit of dental craziness, but occasionally females have one as well. Though it’s tempting to assume that Narwhals use these tusks for fighting, displays of dominance, breaking up ice, or making kebabs, it’s been recently discovered that they are actually sensory organs. The tusks lack the enamel most mammals have on their teeth, and this enables the them to act almost as filters. Narwhals are able to use their tusks to determine the water quality, the presence of food, and even the presence of nearby females looking for romance/to get knocked up. While not technically an endangered species, the somewhat mythic, elusive, fascinating Narwhal is a threatened one, its population affected by human hunting and the increasing ravages of climate change.

IMG_6911The somewhat high-alcohol, dark-as-the-night Imperial Stout from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. known as Narwhal, is a somewhat high-alcohol, dark-as-the-night Imperial Stout from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Released yearly in the early Fall, Narwhal is a relatively accessible entry in an arena filled with much more highly anticipated, highly coveted, more expensive special/limited edition brews.

The Appearance:  Dark, pretty much opaque black with a bit of chestnut light creeping in. Tan, lightly frothy head that dissipates quickly (see photo…the photographer was too slow, and by the time his iphone camera app loaded he got all his expensive, hi-tech camera equipment set up, it was too late.)

The Nose:  Nice, robust, sweet notes of roasted and toasted malt dominate, there’s even with a faint wisp of that roasting smoke swirling around. Nutty dark chocolate brownies and well-creamed coffee, perhaps even a bit of coffee liqueur. There’s a faint lactic quality to this as well, warm chocolate milk perhaps. Subtler hints of vanilla bean, pine-y hops, clove, and cherry cough drops.

The Palate:  Quite sweet, almost syrupy smoooooth. As with the nose, there’s not much trace of the 10.2% alcohol. Again, lots of roasted malt and sugar & creamed coffee. Much more dark chocolate here than on the nose, like chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream. Towards the end, those slightly bitter, piney hops show up again along with some Mexican chocolate and vanilla syrup.

The Finish:  Quite sweet…sticky-lips sweet. More roasted malt, more coffee, more Mexican chocolate, a bit more hops before it fades somewhat quickly.

IMG_6910Thoughts:  Very good. Narwhal seems to fly under the radar a bit. It’s relatively cheap, relatively easy to find, and relatively easy drinking. I say “relatively easy drinking” because, man, is this stuff is sweet. Personally, I found it a bit too sweet, though I also found many other redeeming qualities which sold me on it. I liked the malt forward flavor profile and thought within its sweetness, it was balanced and smooth. Certainly not to be missed if you’re a fan of the style, just bear in mind the almost cloying sweetness demands that you take your time with this one.

Sierra Nevada 2014 Narwhal Imperial Stout

  • Malt: Two-row Pale, Caramel, Chocolate, Honey, Carafa, and roasted barley
  • Hops: Magnum and Challenger
  • ABV: 10.2 percent

Stupid Tweet of the Month, May, 2015 – Woodford Reserve

Stupid Medal_2This may just be a one time thing…or then again, this could be a recurring feature. Given this country’s exuberant push to be as stupid as possible, it seems like a fairly easy thing to keep up. Then again, why would I want to? Not to mention, it’s just Twitter. Twitter is basically just one big over-valued platform for people to say stupid shit, how does one even begin to choose which stupid thing to recognize with some stupid recognition?

Ah well, at least it gives me yet another chance to poke around some whisk(e)y history. So without further ado, the first annual Stupid tweet of the Month award goes to Woodford Reserve for this bat-shit crazy head-scratcher:

StupidWoodfordTweet

See? Stupid. Blazingly so. Irresponsibly so, even. Here’s why…

BourbonResolution
1964’s Bourbon Resolution

Back in 1964, two congressmen from Kentucky introduced a little resolution that laid the groundwork for bourbon to be recognized as a protected, distinct product of the United States of America. It helped to define bourbon as it is in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, §5.22. For over half a decade now, bourbon manufacturers have relied on these standards to protect their product’s integrity, and to give consumers a relative guarantee of quality. They’ve also certainly relied on that little resolution to market their product, bourbon waves the red, white, and blue every chance it gets. It’s safe to say this resolution and the related standards have helped make bourbon makers money.

So, when Woodford Reserve decides to broadcast that they think bourbon is only made in Kentucky, they’re basically thumbing their nose at the standards that have helped their brand succeed since it launched in 1996. Nowhere in the 1964 resolution or in the Code of Federal Regulations does it say that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, as long as it adheres to the standards and regulations. Any serious bourbon fan knows this, and, one would assume, any bourbon maker would know this as well. I would think it’s widely agreed that these standards strengthen bourbon in general, Woodford Reserve apparently thinks the opposite. Yes, it’s probably just a simple, meant-to-be-fun tweet, but it’s also wrong. It’s blatantly false and pretty much celebrates some amount of ignorance. Why would a bourbon brand want to be seen as not knowing or caring about the standards it depends on? Why would a bourbon brand publicly try to marginalize its fellow producers? Why perpetuate a commonly held falsehood about bourbon? Does Woodford Reserve really think that a fun bit of factually wrong, petty provincialism would be a positive thing?

Ok, sure, Woodford’s twitter account it probably managed by some PR person…or a hapless intern, and maybe in the mint julep-fueled hype of the Kentucky Derby, they got carried away by all that regional excitement. Maybe they actually didn’t know that bourbon can be produced outside of Kentucky. Maybe they were just trying to funny. At the very least, it just ends up being a stupid, thoughtless, harmless comment. But in a day and age where ignorance is practically applauded and where, increasingly, the truth becomes the truth just because someone says so on social media, even a harmless little tweet like this does a disservice to their brand in particular and the bourbon industry in general.

Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Review

American Oak Bottle-hi

*Sincere thanks to MS & AS at Savona Communications for the sample.

Auchentoshan American Oak, the new-ish, entry-level, no-age-statement malt from the Lowland distillery, replaces (thankfully) the Classic, which was a very affordable whisky…just not one you’d want to buy. For this expression, Auchentoshan has, in a way, tilted its triple-distilled single malt towards bourbon. American Oak has been aged solely in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, an interesting choice given relatively heavy influence of that kind of barrel and the distillery’s relatively light distillate. In the accompanying literature, Auchentoshan also mentions that this one was created with barrels taken from high in the warehouse and low in the warehouse. Auchentoshan has both dunnage and racked warehouses, so I’m assuming they mean they’re plucking these barrels from the more vertical racked warehouses as dunnage-style warehouses pretty much always stack casks no more than three high. It’s hard to say how big a role this kind of cask selection would make in a Scotch. In Kentucky, thanks to a fairly dynamic climate, barrels on the upper floors of a racked warehouse are exposed to more heat and potentially different humidity than those lower down, and that has all kinds of different effects on a maturing bourbon. Southern Scotland doesn’t have nearly the same range of climatic variation one sees in Kentucky, so you’d think warehouse location would be less of a consideration. Still, that’s a very bourbon-esque way of building a Scotch.

Placing the emphasis on the wood and maturation is a mildly contradictory approach by a distillery that also usually likes to emphasize the unique subtlety of their distillate. It’s certainly not a new idea for Auchentoshan, their Three Wood has been a major part of their range since it debuted in 2002. But to emphasize that bourbon influence in these two ways for their entry-level expression strikes me as a rather interesting move.

The Nose:  A pleasing, but simple and mild nose. At the forefront, honey, cinnamon, and a lot of vanilla syrup, mingle with a bit of baked cherry cobbler. Notes of toasted malt, burnt toffee, lemon, and old oak boards hover behind. In the background are hints of toasted almond and furniture polish.

The Palate:  A bit hot for 40%, I guess that’d be the youth showing. Early on, there’s brown sugar, more vanilla syrup, and lemon curd. Mid palate, there are more almond notes…candied this time, along with a touch of nutty toffee. Mildly tannic oak, hot cinnamon, and fine-ground black pepper lead to the finish.

The Finish:  A medium sort of lingering with nice vanilla and citrus notes, a bit of burnt marshmallow, and just the right amount of oaky tannins

Thoughts:  A pleasantly sweet, easygoing, non-threatening single malt, this is leaps and bounds better than the startlingly mediocre Auchentoshan Classic it’s replacing. It’s definitely not the most earth-shattering whisky in the world, but it does what it sets out to do – show off the effects of ex-bourbon casks on a relatively subtle, gentle spirit. Given the lack of age statement, we can assume this is made up of mostly younger whiskies. Some older whisky and higher ABV would probably give it more depth, but I suppose it would probably make it more expensive then, too. At around $40-$45, this isn’t the greatest value in the world, but it’s a nice introduction to the distillery.

Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky, OB ~2014

40% ABV

Score:  81