SMWSA Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza – Fall 2015

ExtravaganzaLogo2015The traveling road show of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, The Whisky Extravaganza, has long been one of my favorite large-scale whisky shows. With their focused pour list in often relatively elegant venues, if you’re a fan of Scotch whisky and one of these Extravaganzas is coming your way, I definitely recommend attending.

To that end, The Casks is happy to offer a discount code that The Whisky Extravaganza has provided for their 2015 Fall Tour. When ordering tickets, simply enter “EXTD2015” in the promotional code box and receive 10% off the ticket price.

2015FallExtravaganzaSchedule

Tickets available here.

The Exclusive Malts 2007 Balmenach 8 Year Old, Port Pipe Matured – Review

IMG_7892

*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

Having not yet had the pleasure of visiting, I had no idea that Cairngorms National Park was the largest national park in the entire United Kingdom. By all accounts it’s a fairly rugged region containing five of the UK’s tallest mountains, the River Spey, the occasional lake…I mean loch, and deep forests including remnants of the ancient, pine-heavy Caledonian Forest. All that ruggedness, it seems, has not blinded people from knowing a good tourist destination when they sees one. Within the park as there are several villages, ski areas, resorts, shopping destinations, and possibly an optometrist or two. Basically (aside from the optometrists), it doesn’t take much research (and I didn’t do much) to figure out that Cairngorms would be a place well worth visiting. It would take a while to visit, however, as the park covers more than 1700 square miles, which, for reference, is quite a bit larger than the State of Rhode Island.

I mention Cairngorms because this review’s whisky comes from Balmenach Distillery which is actually located within Cairngorms National Park. If it surprises you that a distillery can be found in a national park, then hold onto your hat because Cairngorms is actually home to six distilleries: Balmenach, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, Royal Lochnagar, Speyside, and Tomintoul. Again, not that it matters, but just for sake of comparison (and continued headgear grasping), there are two distilleries within the smaller-than-Cairngorms state of Rhode Island. So, from deep within the UK’s largest park comes this young, fully port-pipe matured single cask bottling of Balmenach from the Creative Whisky Company’s Exclusive Malts range. Inver House’s Balmenach has a reputation for being a very good malt, robust and complex, it has a savory edge to it along the lines of Mortlach. Unfortunately, it’s been used pretty much exclusively in blends for as long as anyone can remember.

ExMalts_Balmenach8yoThe Nose:  Looks like a Rosé, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end with this young head-scratcher. Initially, apple cider (alcoholic) and honey hold down the sweet end of things. There’s also some plastic-y band-aid notes, iodine, relatively smokeless peat, and wet, charred, beach bonfire wood. Very little wood spice, some cinnamon stick and pickled ginger stand out the most. Subtle, rather general red wine (or maybe Rosé, what the hell) notes with hints of candied bacon loiter in the background. The addition of water doesn’t do this many favors, playing up the hot youth and the band-aid/peat/wet wood thing.

The Palate:  The palate edges towards a more expected flavor profile, but continues to get yanked around a little.  Quite juicy, cherry juice and more spiced apple cider (non-alcoholic this time), along with orgeat syrup and a few of those odd-ish hospital notes from the nose. More wood influence is felt here, wine-y tannins, sharp green oak, clove, and ginger, with a bit of peat smoke creeping in. Unlike the nose, adding water seems to bring the palate together a bit more, calming the rougher, youthful edges without losing its interesting complexity.

The Finish:  Sweetly tannic and lingering with raw-ish oak, clove, and pepper giving way to the swell of smoke being hinted at on the nose and palate.

Thoughts:  A bit of an oddball. It seems to me that there’s a lot of distillate character here, and some Port influence, but, at only 8 years old, not a lot of deeper wood influence…and it could use some deeper wood influence. Without it, the Port and spirit make for strange bedfellows, especially on the somewhat jumbled nose. The palate and finish work better, especially with water, with some appealing more-ish, savory-sweetness. A hard one to judge, I wasn’t too impressed by its oddness at first, but did end up enjoying some aspects of it as it relaxed in the glass. If you like Port maturation and enjoy young, funky whiskies, then perhaps there’s something to explore here.

The Exclusive Malts 2007 Balmenach 8 Year Old, Port Pipe Matured, Speyside, IB +/-2015

57.6% ABV

Score:  79

 

The Exclusive Malts 1995 Highland 20 Year Old – Review

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*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

In the literature from the importers and other reviewers and sellers, I’ve seen this one listed as the 1995 “North Highland” 20 Year Old. As you can see below in the bottle shot, the label just says “Highland” and dispenses with all that confusing directional/compass stuff. In the interest of less, or possibly more, confusion, I’ll just refer to this one as the Exclusive Malts 1995 Highland 20 Year Old…just like the bottle says. Far be it for me to get overly specific in terms of geography. After all, I live in Minneapolis, where the twisty Mississippi can disorient the most stalwartly oriented, where the Uptown neighborhood is actually south of Downtown, the North Minneapolis part of town is more northwest, and wonderful Northeast is pretty much due north. Not to mention that east of Northeast, in the shadow of the mighty University of Minnesota (go Gophers), there’s a neighborhood called Dinkytown.

Where was I? See? I’m so easily disoriented. Be it North Highland or just Highland, this 20 year old, fully sherry cask matured (no mention as to whether it’s American oak or European) from the Creative Whisky Company’s Exclusive Malts range comes from an unspecified distillery. If they’d wanted the distillery specified, specifying would have happened, you can be sure of that.

ExMalts1995HighlandThe Nose:  Very nice, heavily sherried (as one might expect from a whisky matured in an ex-sherry cask), rugged and not overly sweet. Fruity in a dark and red kind of way, dried fruitcake fruits, and tart cherry pie with a bit of cherry cough syrup (a good thing) as well. Slightly burnt caramel sauce and pecan pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. There’s also a bit of baker’s chocolate, and weighty spice notes of polished oak, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Adding water replaces the slightly burnt caramel sauce with dark honey and calms those big sherry and spice notes a little.

The Palate:  Great, thick, oily mouthfeel, The fruit is a bit more citrus-y, but there’s still a lot of jammy red fruit – there’s both chocolate-covered and maraschino cherries, along with some stewed prunes. The nuttiness is more salted on the palate with continued notes of unsweetened cocoa. Lots of grippy oak, pepper, coriander, nutmeg rise up towards the finish. A little water adds more juicy citrus, tones down the chocolate, and adds a beguiling, almost spearmint-y edge to the spice and the finish.

The Finish:  Lots of lingering, slightly bitter spice, smoked peppercorns, cinnamon, tannic oak, and dark, dark chocolate.

Thoughts:  A very nice, very enjoyable, robust whisky with a few interesting twists and turns. Definitely sherried, though not overpoweringly so, this one is wears its time in wood on its sleeve. I enjoyed it more at strength, though adding a little water released some pleasant, unexpected surprises. I’ve seen mentioned that this might be from Glenmorangie or Dalmore. I have no idea, really, though if I had to guess, I guess I’d say Glenmorangie. At around $175, this is definitely pricey, but I think this would be a satisfying one to explore and get to know.

The Exclusive Malts 1995 Highland 20 Year Old, Highland, IB, +/-2015

54.6% ABV

Score:  86

Usquaebach Reserve Premium Blended Scotch Whisky – Review

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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

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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

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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

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*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