A Stroke of Luck, Genius: Bowmore 15 ‘Laimrig’

Music: Daniel Mehrmann & Kara Baldus, “Missed Out”

A dirty ‘farclas. A candied Laphroaig. One of those great drams that straddles the line between two types of Scotch well: a briny, smoky peat bomb, and a sweet, rich sherry bomb. Sometimes they marry terribly, sometimes they’re well balanced. This one fits into the latter category.

Nose: Elements of salt and smoked meat, wood, and sawdust. Peaty. Sherry, cherry, berry! There’s noticeable fruit in the one, that’s for sure. The smoke on this one is a damp, hot tobacco. A bit of a solventy note, like shoe polish… Neat! This one takes time to calm down, as it’s sharp on the nose right off the pour.

Palate: Sour berries, smoked meat, peat and leather. The palate then turns to dark chocolate and pepper. A real mixture of the stormiest Islay and and the richest Speyside sherry bomb. Like a slightly younger Bruichladdich Black Art in many ways, at a fraction of the cost. It’s got more heat than the Black Art, but sometimes you have to ask yourself whether that’s a bad thing. I don’t want my whisky to be so mellow that it’s like drinking candied barley; I mean, I could just buy that instead, and it’d be a hell of a lot cheaper.

Finish: Long. Dark Chocolate, brazil nuts and sawdust. Lingering peat.

Grade: A

I’ve come across a number of great drams lately, after what felt like a long streak of average ones. This happens to be one of those great ones. It’s not the smoothest, easiest beast to get along with, but that’s what makes it great. It is smooth, no doubt, but if you want liquid gold, you’re going to pay.  In a way, it’s like a less mature (and more briny) version of the Bruichladdich Black Art. At 40% of the price, I’d take 2.5 bottles of this over the Black Art any day. While I thoroughly enjoy the Black Art, this is a great mature sherried Islay for the budget conscious. Also, given that it is only $3 more than the 15 yo Darkest, I better not see the Ontario stocks of Darkest drop before this is sold out in Ontario… else, someone is making a grave error. Laimrig + water > Darkest, 8 days a week.

“Do you ever wonder if you missed out, missed out on it? If you think it’s worth your time to try and find out, find out yourself.”

Scotch Party VII

This year, I was invited by an old friend to take part in a Scotch party (of which this was the 7th edition). Great drams, and great people. Nothing better than sharing whisky thoughts with those who really, truly, love whisky.

Glenrothes 1995 – B

“The Scotchiest Scotch that Ever Scotched”

This is your sweet, biscuity, desserty dram. It is complex enough to be interesting, but isn’t show-stoppingly enthralling. A solid B that may be something great at 46% or higher. Still reasonably viscous at 43%.

Glenrothes Robur Reserve – B

“A nice, light snack”

In the lineup this evening, this one comes across as the 1995′s little brother. Much of the same, but a little bit more sugary without much more flavour.

Glenlivet XXV – B+

“Aged cherry cough sweets”

Plenty rich, strong cherry and other berries, thick and present, and then it’s gone. Really no finish to speak of, but the rest is really quite pleasant. A plenty good whisky, but at 25 years old, you’d expect much more.

Talisker 57 North – A-

“Warm leather arm-chair”

I began the night with this one, and it was most of what I’d expected. Everything the Talisker 10 should be (and maybe used to be,) but isn’t. Strong peppery leather, coastal salt, and your typical Talisker flavours. Warming like nothing else I’ve ever tried. It’s an excellent whisky for what it does, but it is missing that either solid second gear, or a neat 3rd to get it into the A range.

Tomatin 12 – B-

“A good aperatif”

Sweet, somewhat thin, just all around inoffensive, if not overly interesting.

Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask – B+

“Banana marshmallows”

This one has those banana marshmallows all over it. Sure there is malt, and typical baked speyside goodness, but the note that hits you over the head first and foremost is the banana. It’s quite a delicious Balvenie, that makes me forget about their disaster of a triple cask.

Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve – D+

“Cinnamon Farts”

Just something awful. It’s like the Valinch gone wrong. Nothing but farm.

Bruichladdich Black Art 3.1 (48.7%) – A

“Pungent, sweet, leathery goodness”

The black art is tart, leathery, subtle, but complex. Berries, sherry, sour with light peat all around, and this nice leathery finish. Truly the star of the night.

Longrow CV – B

“Lightly peated, candied citrus.”

I was surprised by this in two ways: it wasn’t all that peated, more of a speysider than a wannabe Islay. It was also sort of disappointing, as I was expecting a show-stopper in this one, on the back of all the hype.

Bowmore 15 Darkest – B+

“Dark, rich, sherry almost-monster”

A bit of a dark horse for me. I was expecting something weak and slightly unoffensive. It’s sherry, raisins and chocolate. A bit medicinal on the palate, which makes it kind of a one-two punch of dark sherry sweet, and Islay smoky. They’ve done a nice job with this one, and might be worth about $80. The almost $100 that it comes in at here in Toronto is way too much to ask, however.

BenRiach Bernie Moss – C+

“Lightly peated, slightly sweetened new-make

A poor man’s Longrow CV. The peat isn’t very strong, and neither is much of the flavour.

All in all, a successful night with the lads. Looking forward to next year, when we raid the LCBO stocks again.

(Mis)fortune Favours the Brave: Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 46)

Music: Gentle Giant, “A Reunion”

Not sure if I’m alone here, but there is something exciting about taking chances with whisky. I had recently decided to revisit the a’Bunadh to see what had changed since batch 39, and, having read the praises lavished on batch 45, I thought it would be worth a go. I found nothing but batch 46, with Ontario having recently run out of batch 45. Fine, I thought. a’Bunadh is a’Bunadh, roughly speaking. If 45 is great, 46 can’t be far off! Much to my chagrin, when I read the (lack of) reviews on 46, it seemed as if the 4 reviews were mixed: 2 really positive reviews, two negative ones. Herein lies the excitement: I can, to the best of my abilities, be an informative reviewer on this dram, earning 20% of the opinion space on this dram. I may be one of the first to find a gem, or I could have wasted good money on something not so good. Excitement doesn’t come without some element of risk, and in that way, fear. What can be said comparatively of batch 46? As luck would have it, I have saved a sample bottle of batch 39 (early 2012), so cross-batch comparisons can be done. First off, the colour is a much deeper red. On a note of water, this one holds up pretty well and is not too fragile. In fact, it doesn’t need much water to be enjoyable (maybe half a teaspoon?), but you can win yourself two separate experiences with the amount of water. A little, and it’s dark, rich, powerful and more on the sherry side of things. If you add 2 to 3 teaspoons of water, (not quite doubling the volume of water, as Ralfy does in his review of batch 42) then you get the soft, light, bourbon vanilla side of this dram. While the former is more complex, both are reasonably enjoyable in their own right.

One last note: while it’s only about half a percent, this batch is starting to reach for the stars in ABV. 60.4%, wow!

Nose: Can you nose this one straight out of the bottle? Yes, provided that the bottle has been open for a week, and you’ve had a couple drams so as to let the bottle oxidize a bit. Can’t say that for many sherry monsters. Vanilla and freshly baked rum-soaked Christmas pudding (that is, not fruitcake). Marmalade on toast. Evergreen. Maraschino Cherries. Some full-bodied, spicy red wine on the tail. Softer than the 39. In some ways, I want to say very “Springbank-y”. Wood-fired oak on this one is a constant backdrop, and instead of being (at least to me) an over-oaked mess, it just makes me envision drinking this in a distillery warehouse, surrounded by casks. That is, of course, the ideal place to enjoy this, no? Of course, some light sulphur overall, but in a good, smoky way. Think matchstick fire rather than bad eggs.

Palate: Much less “winey” than batch 39, but the palate is a bit sour. A touch of sulphur. Rum-raisin (Jean-Luc Picard’s favourite ice cream flavour) and sherry. Adding some water, chocolate, brown sugar, molasses, and a touch of sherry. This is the un-sherry-iest sherry bomb I’ve had to date. Creamy vanilla and coffee, like a vanilla latte, almost.  Some of those maraschino cherries I found in the Glenfarclas ’105′. Sour again on the end. A shame, really.

Finish: As long as the day. This is where the sherry comes out. Sweet, and mouth-watering. Not a drying whisky in the least. This is, in part, what makes it a great winter dram. When the air in your house is dried out by the cold and your heater, the last thing you need is a drying whisky. Honey and marmalade on fresh bread.

Grade: B

Not as bad as I’d feared, but not as good as the earlier batches. In all aspects, the batch 39 is brighter, more tangy, and much more sherried than the 46, despite coming across much less redder in colour. That said, it’s not as bad to my palate as the reviews it has been getting: Misty at connosr had bad luck with batch 46, but they call it “Full Gold”, whereas this looks distinctly burgundy to me, so maybe their sherry butt was different? (Hehe, butt! [SFW]). Willie JJ at whiskybase calls it “sulphured”, but I don’t get the tire-fire and rubber notes. Perhaps this is a tempermental whisky, like the Springbank 12 Claret Wood, in that you need to find it’s best lighting. For me, this one handles water better than most cask-strengths, and is all the better for it. A full teaspoon will wash the bad sulphur notes away and soften everything nicely. It’s not bad, but nothing I’d rush out for when you could wait for the next batch to come along.

“Fate design playing natures mime, and today by chance we meet again after all this time; meeting in this way, no one could have known.”

Glendronach 15 ‘Revival’

Music: In-Flight Safety, “Silent Treatment”

Sometimes so few words says it best, so I will be brief, here. Of the middle-aged range sherry monsters (and perhaps the cask-strengths, too), Glendronach’s revival wins.

Nose: Sherry and oak. No alcohol, just flavour. It’s very soft, but also extremely complex. Espresso, berries and chocolate cherries. Mint and vanilla. A touch of classy match-stick sulphur.

Palate: Viscous and rich. Fudge, sweetness, and cookies. Sherry tang.

Finish: Long, chocolatey sweetness, espresso and berries.

Grade: A-

It’s a refreshing to come across a standard range bottling that is so magnificent, for so cheap (relatively speaking). Craftsmanship, plain and simple.

Note: I’ve also tried the old bottling, pre-Revival, and it is so awful that I can’t believe they come from the same distillery.

“Cause all these years have made you a soldier, you’re carrying the weight of two worlds on your shoulders.”

Worth the Wait: 1991 Mortlach 20yo Cask-Strength (Signatory)

Music: The Tragically Hip, “Long Time Running”

I have definitely been waiting way too long for this one. I purchased this bottle, and had it imported by a friend in early December of 2011 when he came to stay with us for part of the winter break. Over a year later, a meeting with my two dearest friends finally permits it to be opened. I’ve met with them a few times each, separately, in the last year, but geography and time has kept the entire group apart all year. At the first opening, the bottle was a bit oaky and a tad sulphury, but once the bottle had settled down, it was a true winner. I also had the pleasure of introducing someone to a whisky that was distilled before they were born. A young lass of about 23, she was born about 9 months after this whisky was casked.

As it goes, I am sitting here on a wonderful February evening, enjoying a sliver of this wonderful stuff. With the bottle half gone, it’s almost saddening to know that the worldwide stocks of this wonderful cask (577 bottles) will be ever closer to depletion. It has already disappeared from most, if not all shop shelves that I am aware of.

Calibrator Malt: Robert Burns Single Malt (Arran)

Nose: Age, if you can say you can smell age. It’s rich, and has a complexity of years spent contemplating its existence in a barrel. Toffee and brown sugar, and malt all over. Bread and olive oil, like the the 19yo un-chillfiltered of yesteryear. A wee bit of sweet corn relish and brine. Slight peat and sherry, and a little bit of hickory. Comparatively, when you think that a decent entry-level malt like the Robbie has a nice strong malty nose, you are immediately set back by the unbelievable complexity and weight of the Mortlach. Going back, the Arran seems mild and thin. It’s not that the Arran is bad, it’s that the Mortlach is just that good.

Palate: (undiluted) Sweet and tangy. Oak, raisins, rubber bands (in a strange, but good way). Water it down, about five drops, and the tangy melts to sweet. This is a real malt. What I mean is that the notes at the forefront are a rich, soft, malted barley and oak. In that way, it is remarkable. A malt that tastes exactly what you’d expect a malt would taste like, unaltered by finishes and gimmicks. The re-fill sherry butt means the sherry isn’t as present, and that’s a good thing. Raisins, espresso, bright chocolate, and fresh cut grass. Truffle salt. The alcohol wears away, and though you’d expect the velvetly mouthfeel would disappear, it really doesn’t. Sure, it softens, but it really gets into every crevace of your mouth.

Finish: Malt, bittersweet chocolate and black pepper. A bit of menthol, and then a really brilliant watermelon note on the end that lasts forever. It’s a really deep, complete warming, and that’s saying something: it’s -20C tonight.

Grade: A+

This. Is. Amazing. You really feel this whisky in your chest. It’s hefty, and entirely complete. Not a dram for “newbies”, though. Many interesting notes in this one that don’t immediately lend themselves to the popular notion of sherried whisky. The best whisky I’ve had to date, and it made me re-evaluate my ranking system. Because I’m so coarse in my grading, the A+ isn’t equivalenty to say, a 100/100 on ATW or at ralfy.com. It is simply the grade that says, “that’s it, folks. I can’t think of anything better they could have done with this whisky.” I love the Ardbeg line-up, but having had this Mortlach, it makes me wonder if they could bring some more maturity and balance to the Corryvreckan and the Uigeadail. They’re still stellar, but this whisky, in all its brilliance, makes me see the cracks in the mortar with my favourite ‘A’ whiskies.

And that, my friends, is what makes an A+ here at “Whisky, Empirically”.

“It’s been a long, long, long time running… it’s well worth the wait.”

An Ardbeg Double-Shot: Corryvreckan (2013) vs. Uigeadail (2011)

Music: Queen, “Ogre Battle”

This might just be it. I might just have to except that Ardbeg is my dram. Depressing as it may be in Toronto (it is prohibitively expensive here). So much so that my stock of Ardbeg has come entirely from other provinces/countries, by the good graces of friends bringing me bottles. This Uigeadail is a follow up to the 2010 I enjoyed a year or so ago, and the Corryvreckan is a 2013. The rumours that the Corryvreckan has fallen in quality makes me a bit giddy with delight, if something this good could have been much better under the stress of less demand. It means we may see that day again, in the far off, distant future.

Ardbeg Uigeadail (2011)

Nose: More caramel and less sherry than it’s 2010 brethren. Very sweet, actually. The chocolatey bog is still here, though! Peaty goodness. Give it some time and we get a dusty sticky toffee pudding. Smoked mussels underneath it all.

Palate: Creamy, sherried and peated dark chocolate. It really has that elegance that so many other Islays fail to marry with the brute force of smoky peat.  Seaweed and a touch of salt.

Finish: Long, drying, cocoa, brine and charred wood.

Grade: A

Ardbeg Corryvreckan (2013)

Nose: This one is sweet, too, but immediately brighter. Like salted toffee. Of course, “toffee and caramel” are pretty much the same, but the key point is the brightness of hardened, crunchy, SKOR-like toffee, vs. your typically dark and chewy square caramels. The big note after the immediate sweetness is freshly-shucked oysters; that salty, briny, but bright shellfish smell. Peat and smoke hide in the background.

Palate: Peat, tar, iodine, smoke and ash. A real peat monster if there was one. The attack is somewhat sharp, but it’s more an onslaught of Islay than ethanol. As the Islay tidal wave subsides, there is this creamy, sweet and bright toffee from the nose, as well as some marmalade. How in the world does peat just wash away to leave something so delicate behind? Unbelievable.

Finish: Less drying than the Uigeadail, but just as sweet. Sponge toffee (think the filling of a Crunchie bar). Leather, peat and smoke.

Grade: A

What some would call “unbalanced”, I call magic. Ardbeg does this sort of sleight-of-hand so well with their NAS whiskies: it gives you one thing in the nose, but then completely turns the tables on the palate. Sure, there are common themes throughout, but what is bright and forefront in one, is understated in the other. Together, these two provide a complete experience: the power of Islay, with the elegance of more mainland whisky. The Uigeadail manages to marry their brand of peat and brine with what I can only describe as a Glenfarclas 15, whereas the Corryvreckan marries itself to an american oak Highland Park (something like the 10 at cask strength). Ardbeg shows again and again that “Age does not a great whisky make”. Arguably, without the age statement, a whisky has to work just that much harder to sell you, and I feel like the fine folks at Ardbeg take that to heart.

And with this, the Corryvreckan takes my #1 spot. A momentus occasion. Cue the horns!

“He gives a great big cry, and he can swallow up the ocean.”

Three Bland Casks: Balvenie 16 Triple Cask (Travel Exclusive)

Music: Fastball, “The Way”

I acquired two ounces of this travel exclusive edition of Balvenie from a colleague in a trade, and I’m always thankful for the opportunity to get to trade whisky, because it lets you try things you might not otherwise be able to acquire, either by availability or cost. In this way, while the review is harsh, I offer nothing but thanks to the colleague who swapped me for the Glendronach 15. With hope, he found something he enjoyed (he should, the Glendronach 15 is brilliant… review soon, I promise!), and I was able to show the whisky community that yes, there are some expensive drams I don’t like. Winners, all.

Nose: Sweet, malty, brown sugar and indiscernable berries. Peppery. Some alcoholic tinge (How???). The nose is the best part, and that doesn’t really say much.

Palate: Thin. The 40% really hits here… it’s just so watery. Warming. It tastes more like alcohol than my a’Bunadh, and that always perplexes me. Malty, vanilla (bourbon cask, I guess) and somewhat tart (Oloroso?). Floral. There isn’t really much here, and I don’t really care to strain my senses to find notes in this one. First-fill casks, my ass. $110 duty-free, so I’ve heard. Yikes.

Finish: Short. White granulated sugar. Black pepper.

Grade: C+

Could be good at 43%, but then again, Auchentoshan 12 is also 40%, and is considerably better. Not much to say, unfortunatelye–except perhaps, “save your money.”

“An exit to eternal summer’s slacking, but where were they going without ever knowing the way?