Marks Shifting

In recent weeks, I’ve found that I may have spread my marks out too wide over time, when, in reality, the differences between those whiskies weren’t as wide as the grade levels suggested. As such, (perhaps in baseless anticipation for the Mortlach 20yo I’ll open in not too long,) I’ve downgraded a number of my B to A+ whiskies, and freed up the A+ level to be somewhat more difficult to attain (for a whisky that truly leaves me speechless). The relative rankings of these whiskies doesn’t change, though.

The Proof is in the Overproofing: Glenfiddich 15yo Distillery Edition ‘102’

After my success with the Glenlivet 16 ‘Nadurra’, I decided to give Glenfiddich’s mid-range cask-strength a try. After all, if I liked the Glenfiddich 12 more than the Glenlivet 12, what’s to say I wouldn’t like this as much, or more, than the Nadurra?

Nose: Noticeably sweet. Malty, apple juice with cinnamon right off the bat. Let it sit and we’re talking orange peel, sherry and burnt sugar. Some water brings in toffee, salt and pepper. I’ve read others call the nose “floral”, but it’s more minty to me.

Palate: Smooth, oily, mouth-coating. Rich and waxy off the bat with jammy notes and burnt sugar. It then turns creamy with sherry and orange chocolate. The palate then spices everything up with some chili and pepper. There is also definitely some peat here. Retaste: Similar, but a bit rougher and more sour than I remember.

Finish: A malty long finish with more of that orange chocolate, oak and honey. Mouth-drying. Right on the end, when your mouth goes bone dry and the finish feels like it’s died off, it comes right back with a bang of something you’d never expect: a mouth full of gummi bears. Bangarang!

Grade: B+

Quite superb. Not as great six months later than it was about half-way through the bottle.  It balances well in a way that other whiskies don’t: orange chocolate, peat, mint and pepper don’t mesh, so why not have it in stages? This whisky oddly compartmentalizes everything, and rolls it out bit by bit. I don’t know how, but it feels like it only ever gives you one note at a time, though in no particular order. I’ll mention, also, that the first dram was rather spiritous and rough, and the last few were similar. The first drams were much more savoury than the middle. It reminded me of a meaty, starchy British dinner with candied carrots, all coated with a maly flavour. While it wasn’t bad, it surely wasn’t the superstar the whisky is now. In short, it benefits from some oxidation.

Note: I must confess that I love orange cream chocolates, so there may be a bit of bias mark-wise when it comes to that, but it’s hard for me to tell.

Review Stub: The Macallan 12yo Traditional

At a local pub (with a fairly comprehensive selection of basic single malts,) last night after work, I managed to try the Macallan 12yo Traditional. The traditional line has removed that initial dislike of Macallan I had picked up after tasting the Fine Oak 10yo.

Nose: Baking. Cookies, probably, but something spicy like gingerbread cookies. Hella waxy, too, but in a good way. It has this end note that smells like watercolours—that is, the paints as they sit, hardened in the tray. It’s not bad, it’s just rather shocking to have a scent you may remember so distinctly from your childhood come back at you in this way.

Palate: Creamy, waxy, burnt sugar, oak and honey. Sherry, of course. This one is quite sweet, and I like it. Much of what Glenfarclas 15 was, but not as rough.

Finish: Much of that burnt sugar, oak and sweetness lingers.

Grade: B

An excellent entry-level showing from Macallan. At $65 a bottle or under, this would be a real cracker. It’s $95 in these parts, however, so I’ll probably pass on it. In my search for a nice medium-sweet, rich, waxy dram that began a couple months ago, this one was a step up from the Glenfarclas 15. I’ll say that after trying a few, the one that really satisfies my craving for that profile at the moment is the Glenfiddich 15 Distillery Edition. A deliciously rich and waxy auburn-coloured dram with some heft to it. Review coming soon.

A Year In Review

Updated January 7th, more in-depth.

It feels about that time of year, where whisky fans/bloggers/maniacs alike are likely posting their favourites from their 2012 journeys, and being my first real serious year as a whisky blogger, I’d like to do the same. The whiskies that I’ve tried this year for the first time, and thus, all those eligible for consideration, were:

Bowmore “Tempest” 10yr (Batch 3)
’93 Ben Nevis 17yr (Signatory, UCC)
Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 36)
Springbank 12 Claret Wood
The Glenlivet 16 “Nadurra” (0911P)
Bruichladdich ‘The Laddie Ten’
Auchentoshan Valinch
’91 Mortlach 19yr (Signatory, UCC)
92 Clynelish 18yr (Signatory, UCC)
Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich) An Turas Mor
Highland Park 12
Glenmorangie 12 ‘Lasanta’
Cragganmore 12
Aberlour 10
The Glenlivet 12
Dun Bheagan 8 (Islay)

*Eligible whiskies must have been tasted for the first time in 2012, and I must have owned at least a 20cl bottle, and had at minimum, 4 drams of it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to try a number of great whiskies this year, and when I look back on the one’s I’ve tried, the ones with the highest price-to-quality ratio, in a few different categories, were:

Best Nose
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Palate
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Finish
Runner-Up: Bruichladdich ‘Laddie Ten’
Winner: Springbank 12 Claret Wood

Favourite Peated
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Bowmore Tempest III

Favourite Unpeated
Runner-Up: Springbank 12 Claret Wood
Winner: ‘93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC

Favourite No Age Statement
Runner-Up: Auchentoshan Valinch
Winner: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength

Favourite Overall
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Bowmore really took me by surprise this year. If you would have asked me last January what distillery I would expect to try something truly great from this year, I probably would have said Ardbeg, maybe Auchentoshan or Laphroaig, but never Bowmore. My initial taste of the 12yo had really ruined Bowmore for me, and I’m lucky to have been not-so-stubborn so as to give the tempest a chance. I eagerly await Batch 4.

The Springbank 12yo Claret Wood was also an excellent pick from earlier in 2012, as was the “carnival-in-a-glass” pick from Ben Nevis. My hopes are still to get a hold of the 17yo Cask strength version from ’93 (or ’92) before supply vanishes. Lastly, the Auchentoshan Valinch was a huge surprise in the NAS category, especially for the price it came in at. It was also the best whisky under $65 this year. I would love to say under $70, but then it would have to contend with Laphroiag’s QC, and I don’t think it was that good. Caol Ila’s win in the NAS category wasn’t as much of a surprise, as serving their younger stuff at cask-strength seems like it would be naturally good, given the rave reviews that the 12yo gets. The Auchentoshan, though it wasn’t the best NAS whisky of the year, sure took me by surprise. The Auchentoshan Classic/Select gets mediocre reviews—average at best—for an entry-level NAS malt at standard ABV. I was initially skeptical as to the merits of amping up something so banal to cask-strength, but was easily swayed when I opened the bottle. You go, Auchentoshan.

Here’s to another great year at “Whisky, Empirically”, where we will get to review #50, (at least!) a special Signatory bottle from the Whisky Exchange that I picked up for Christmas. Expect that review around Valentine’s Day.

Now For Some Empirics

Finally, we have enough data to run a basic empirical analysis. While the data set is very small (47 observations) we can nonetheless run some rather back-of-the-envelope regressions.

I built a data set using the rankings chart, mapping the A-F scale to a 12pt scale (e.g. A–>11.0-11.9). I assigned each observation within each coarse grade bin a grade that accounted for the fact that some whiskies ranked higher within the bin than others (that is, not all As are exactly equal).

I then generated a set of whisky characteristics whose explanatory power I was interested in (with regards to marks). These were my selections:

1. Age (my interest is to test the Jim Murray hypothesis, “Age does not a good whisky make”. Set of dummy variables, control group is ‘NAS’)
2. ABV (Do I inherently prefer cask-strength whiskies? Set of dummy variables, control group is ‘ABV<43%’)
3. Research (Does my research of the online consensus help?)

I also generated some control variables:

1. Region (to control for any possible region/single malt bias. control group is ‘blend’)
2. Peat (to control for what I think is a personal favouritism for peated whisky)
3. Minsample (This indicator marks whether the whisky was tried fewer times than my minimum sample threshold [a 20cl bottle]).
4. lnpriceml (controls for the percentage effect of price per ml — a proxy for raw quality, but admittedly, also for marketing gimmicks)

Running a kitchen-sink regression, I find the following: minsample and peat are insignificant at 10%. Region is also jointly-insignificant at 10%, and if we re-cast the region variable as a single malt variable (vs. blends) we get the same result. Adding controls individually produces the same results. The price control is significant at the 1% level.

So, after all is said and done, what do I find?

1. Jim Murray’s hypothesis is rejected using my sample (0.006<p-value<0.05). Why is there an interval for the p-value? Well, the problem lies in the price control. The price control is necessary to be a proxy for quality, but unfortunately, my regressors for age and ABV are positively correlated with price. Because price is such a good proxy for unmeasurable quality (and I have no others), I would commit the sin of omitted variable bias if I failed to include price as a control, but if I include it, the coefficient estimators for age and ABV end up underestimated (but standard deviation does not meaningfully change). Thus, I provide an interval of the p-value here and say that this test is significant at a level between 0.6-5%.

I find that whiskies younger than 10 years are roughly 2 grade levels lower (on average) over no-age-statement whiskies, and that 10-16yo whiskies tend to get about a 0.75 to 1 grade bump. 17yo+ whiskies get 2 levels. This is as I suspected. Out of curiosity, I tested my suspicion that Jim Murray’s hypothesis may hold up unconditionally, and sure enough it does (p-value >0.26), but when you condition on ABV and price, age does matter. One can see this by comparing my marks for the Auchentoshan Valinch and the Lagavulin 16. The reason they are so close, then, is not because age doesn’t matter, but rather that the Valinch is cask-strength and the Lagavulin is not (Many will argue it’s because they’re is something wrong with me, and that might be true). Bottle the Valinch at 43% (something like the Auchentonshan Classic) and you’d probably see that Auchentoshan around a C+, according to these results (hey, that sounds eerily close to what a standard entry-level OB would get…).

2. ABV matters (H0: ABV doesn’t matter | p-value<0.001), with cask-strength whiskies earning a 4 grade level bump over their sub-43% brethren. Whiskies of the non-chillfiltered 46% variety earn ~2 grade levels, and those around 43-46% earn approximately one grade level. Even after controlling for the ‘single-malt’ bonus (blends are usually low ABV), it seems like my palate prefers CS whiskies. Doesn’t surprise me, as these are often smaller-batch and better crafted. There is also something to be said for the ability to add your own water, to bring the whisky down to the level where you enjoy it best.

3. Research helps. I reject the hypothesis that research is useless to my whisky journey, with researched whiskies getting (on average) a ~1.5 grade level bump over whiskies I try in a bar, or am given as gifts. This is probably not a surprise to anyone.

Some further points of note: I don’t seem to be biasing peated whiskies (whether they be Islay peat or otherwise). Also, Islay whiskies, and single malts in general, (all other things considered,) are not being favoured.

Note: The Breusch-Pagan / Cook-Weisberg test for heteroskedasticity cannot reject the hypothesis of a constant variance (Prob > chi2 = 0.525), so we run our regressions using standard OLS with non-robust standard errors.

Some Caveats: There are (quite a few) caveats worth noting about this “quick and dirty” study that anyone reading this should know before they pass it on to others.

1. Omitted Variable Bias.  This is perhaps the biggest one. What could I be forgetting?

2. Small Sample Bias. Goes without saying that 47 observations is very small. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change (or if they change!) as the data set grows.

3. Multicollinearity. This affects the magnitude of the age and ABV regressors. Because price is positively correlated with both of these sets of variables, it’s likely that their coefficients are underestimated.

4. Personal Preference. As a final caveat, note that this study measures how certain whisky characteristics affect my personal grades. There will always be some sort of unmeasurable personal component to these results (I am not a robot, after all). That means that the old saying “Your Mileage May Vary” is worth keeping in the back of your mind as you read this. If I had a panel data set that included marks from All Things Whisky, Ralfy, WhiskyBitch and LAWS, (with an appropriate way to convert all the different marking schemes) I might be able to do some analysis that removes the individual fixed effect.

5. Analyzing a Time-Series, Cross-sectionally. It’s clear that all these whiskies were not tasted on the same day. This leaves the study open for a possible bias due to the omitted time-trend. Controlling for the time trend may account for my getting used to the power of cask-strength whiskies (and thus enjoying them more as time went on). It might also capture the effect that broadening my whisky experience has on marks: the more I find whiskies that push the upper (and lower,) limit of my marks, the more my older marks become biased if I don’t go back and re-taste them (Laphroaig QC has continued to hold up, though).

Lastly, I’ll say that I’m not a professional empiricist. In fact, quite the opposite, I am chiefly a theorist. But it’s healthy to be able to do both, and so I am using this project to rehabilitate my once-adequate empirical muscle. These “results” are a first-blush attempt to analyse this data set, which will no doubt improve over time as more data, and better variables and techniques present themselves. If you have any comments as to how I might improve this analysis (techniques, variables, or otherwise) do let me know. Also, if anyone has a suggestion for a proxy for quality that may not be correlated with age or ABV, have at it.

Review Stub: The Arran Malt, Amarone Cask Finish

A friend’s recent birthday get together just happened to be at a bar with a decent Scotch collection, stocking many whiskies that I would be unlikely to buy a bottle of because of the price and/or review consensus. This is review 2 of 2 for that series.

Nose: Rich and thick with all sorts of berries. More savoury than sweet. Leathery. A little salt and smoke, too.

Palate: Spicy, woody, with plenty of chocolate cherries and sour berries. Not all that thick. The full-bodied dry wine characteristic is there, but not overpoweringly so. Almonds.

Finish: Medium length with almonds all over the place.

Grade: B-

This one was a bit of a step up from the Glenfarclas 15 I had that night. Still rougher than I’d like my whisky to be, but at what is about 7 years younger, this one was smoother than the Glenfarclas. A little different from what you expect in a Scotch, but I’m always up for new whisky experiences. Am I glad I didn’t buy a bottle when this hit the shelves? Mostly (if only for the fact that my cabinet was rather full at the time.) But, after two tastes of some relatively good Arran, am I going to buy the 12yo CS Arran when it comes out? You betcha.

Review Stub: Glenfarclas 15yo (and “Remembering the Family Cask”)

A friend’s recent birthday get together just happened to be at a bar with a decent Scotch collection, stocking many whiskies that I would be unlikely to buy a bottle of because of the price and/or review consensus.

Nose: Cookies. Butterscotch, cinnamon, orange peel and cherry. A real basket of great, sweet flavours. Smooth. Smells older than 15.

Palate: Rather hot and rough, with or without water, for a 15 year old. Creamy sherry, raisins and other soft fruits. Almonds.

Finish: Medium length with a noticeable dark chocolate note.

Grade: B-

Retasted and re-evaluated UP. See the updated notes HERE.

I really wanted to like this one. Going into it, I had heard great things, and I wanted so badly for it to knock me off my socks and make me buckle down and buy a bottle. The nose began with so much promise, but the palate was a rather rough let-down. Not terrible, not even bad really, but just your average speysider with some maturity. To that end, I’ve currently got so many other Speysides that, for a similar price, do the same thing so much better.

Coarse Notes on the ’97 Glenfarclas ‘Family Cask’ for Kensington Wine Market (Calgary, AB):

Something about this review really makes me think about the merits of cask-strength and small batch for some distilleries (the going consensus on the Scotch blogs I follow seems to be that Highland Park is fine, if not better, at the standard 43-46% ABV, for example). Upon tasting the 15yo Glenfarclas, I compared it to the (14 yo) ’97 Glenfarclas Famiy Cask I tried at Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, which came in at 56.3% ABV. It definitely makes the 15yo look flat-out boring in comparison. Neat, the nose is powerful, but not too spiritous—mostly a bowl of mixed nuts, brown sugar and sherry, all in beautiful balance. On the palate, the ’97 FC hits you like a ton of bricks, but they are delicious bricks. Mouth-coating, creamy, with sherry, raisins, brown sugar, nuts, and a whole fruit-bowl, just… just everything you could want in a Speyside, and all in turn. I had about 10 minutes to try it, so the notes were never clear enough in my head to write even a review stub, but man was it good. In hindsight, I should have bought the bottle, as it was only about $20 more expensive there than the 15yo is here. Sadly, it was limited edition, too, and it’s gone. My rational originally was “Oh, I have too many Speysiders at the moment”, and I’ve regretted rationalizing my way out of that bottle. To those that have found their way to this post searching for thoughts on the Family Cask series, the 14yo ’97 Family Cask is a solid A.