2014 Year in Review

It’s that time of year again where whisky fans/bloggers/maniacs alike are likely posting their favourites from their 2013 journeys. A banner year for my whisky cabinet has made deciding this year’s favourites very difficult! Some of the same categories as last year, some new ones. Because I was able to try so many great whiskies this year, I’ve given suggestions for Gold, Silver and Bronze instead of winner and runner-up.

Eligible Whiskies:

Highland Park 18
Glenfarclas 15
Glenfiddich 15 Distillery Edition
Ardmore Traditional Cask
Glenfarclas ‘105’
The Arran Malt 12yo CS
Bowmore 12
Amrut Fusion
Auchentoshan 12
Laphroaig 10
Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006 (Dunlossit)
Bruichladdich 12yo (2nd ed.)
BenRiach 10yo Curiositas
Lagavulin 12yo CS (2012)
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)
Bunnahabhain 12
Caol Ila 12
Tobermory 10
1998 Caol Ila Distillers Edition
Glendronach 12
Macallan Cask Strength
Highland Park 10
Port Charlotte 10yo
Caol Ila 19yo TWE

*Eligible whiskies must have been tasted for the first time in 2013, and I must have owned at least a 20cl bottle, and had at minimum, 4 drams of it.*

Favourite “Daily Dram” (cost effective @ Ontario prices, non-cask-strength)
Bronze:
BenRiach 10 Curiositas
Silver
: Highland Park 10yo
Gold: Bunnahabhain 12yo

Favourite Cask-Strength/Overproofed
Bronze: Macallan Cask Strength
Silver: Caol Ila 19yo TWE
Gold: Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Peated
Bronze:
Lagavulin 12 CS (2012)
Silver
: Caol Ila 19yo TWE
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Unpeated
Bronze: Highland Park 18
Silver
: Glenfarclas 10yo `105′
Gold: Macallan Cask-Strength

Favourite No Age Statement
Bronze: Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 39)
Silver
: Macallan Cask-Strength
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

Favourite Overall
Bronze: Bunnahabhain 12yo
Silver
: Macallan Cask Strength
Gold: 
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin (2012)

After arriving too late in Montreal to grab the Cairdeas there this summer, a stroke of luck would have it that the LCBO stocked several cases in the late summer. Turned out to be my favourite whisky of the year. Sadly, the Cairdeas is a limited edition, but I’ve got 2 bottles in my inventory, one of which is ear-marked for my bachelor party in late summer. This year wasn’t without its unfortunate whisky news, with the Macallan Cask Strength being discontinued this year. It may be the last affordable Macallan of that level of quality we may see here in Ontario… or anywhere. Even with its dwindling worldwide stocks, it’s still worthy of this year’s Silver. Lastly, I’m excited by what Burn Stewart has done with the Bunnahabhain line, and I was thoroughly impressed by the 12yo, which is why it earns the Bronze spot for 2013, earning points for a combination of deliciousness, affordability and availability. While the 19yo TWE Caol Ila is better, it’s also considerably more expensive, and limited edition. I don’t know what the 12yo was like at 43% personally, but the 46.3% bottling has earned relatively more praise in the whisky community, and gets thumbs up from me. My hope is to try their 18yo before the year is out.

Here’s to another great year at “Whisky, Empirically”, where we will get to review #100. I’m about 15 drams shy of that at the moment. I have also recently tried the Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which will give any other whisky a fight for top spot in 2014… and we’re only a week in. Perhaps a worth contender, we will also finally get a review of my 1991 Mortlach Signatory from the Whisky Exchange that I picked up in November 2011. I have been saving it for the next meeting of the Scotch Lads, who have sadly been cities apart all year. With luck, we’ll remedy that this month.

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Tall, Dark and Handsome: Highland Park 18

Music: The Tragically Hip, “The Darkest One”

This is an example of why you should have whisky friends (of course, aside from the fact that whisky is best enjoyed with friends): trading samples. As a boy, I traded hockey cards. Now that I’m older, I trade whisky. Perhaps the best way to expand one’s whisky knowledge without spending a bunch of money.

A sample of the Highland Park 18yo came to me via a trade for a sample of the 2012 Lagavulin 12yo cask strength, and a sample of the Highland Park 10yo (40%).

Nose: Rich. Bready. Floral, Fruit salad, apples, malt and sherry in the back ground. Molasses and peat smoke.
Opens up with 3 drops of water.

Palate: Plent viscous. Sponge toffee. Oatmeal and brown sugar. Smoke and molasses. Cherries, chocolate, peat and spearmint.

Finish: Medium-long, warming. Pepper, cherry stones, sponge toffee and smoke.

Grade: A-

The reviews are right in that this dram is the most balanced one flavour-wise. It has a little bit of everything, and in that way its remarkable. It’s also balanced between nose and palate. At 46%, this dram would likely be an A. For all the nitpicking, I’ll join in the chorus to say that the Highland Park 18yo is one damn fine dram.

“Where the wild are strong, and the strong are the darkest ones… and you’re the darkest one.”

A Youngen, But a Good’en: Highland Park 10

Music: Jethro Tull, “Locomotive Breath”

I’m so often loath to lend a liver to these releases; the younger, weaker, attempts to make one’s stock stretch amidst growing demand. I had always figured I’d patronize these bottlings when all that is good in the Scotch world had either run dry, or was so far out of my price range that I have no other reasonable choice. However, I had heard good things about the HP 10yo from fellow whisky lovers, and at $60, it seemed worth a try. Now, to be fair, the HP12 used to be $60. Sadly, it is now $70 (a price it reached within a year), and it seems that for HP, the prices are already starting to take off. In hopes of picking up a reliable “daily dram”, I decided to give the HP a go.

Nose: Wow. This is 40%? Really? Given the recent night with some high-end Chivas, the big boys should take notice. HP’s new stuff is big. Honey heather and sponge toffee (think Crunchie Bar) like crazy. American Oak on the forefront, fudge and salted caramels. Give it some time and you get oranges and green apples. Also a hint of smoked bacon with some corn syrup.

Palate: About as viscous as the HP12, but enough for a 40%-er at 10 years. Honey biscuits, sponge toffee. Sea salt. Peat smoke and tart green apples.

Finish: Medium finish, light smokiness, bready, sweet and a tad tart.

Grade: B

At the (North American) Highland Park Standard of 43%, this would probably kick. I hear the cask strength is amazing (the whisky live bottling was 59.3%). This is one of those guaranteed daily drams. Fits the profile and the pocketbook. Of course, I really love HP, and to boot, I love a good clean American Oak whisky. If I want my thick sherried whiskies and my dark peat monsters, I know where to look. A good clean American Oak whisky isn’t so easy to find in these parts, at these prices. In that role, the HP 10 will have a spot in my cabinet for a while…

“Old Charlie stole the handle, and the train it won’t stop going–no way to slow down.”

Clynelish 14

It’s nice to get back to reviewing some drams that I’ve really loved.

Clynelish 14–now this is a great affordable dram! A respectable 46% ABV, (but probably caramel-added,) it’s rich, oily, with a great mouth-feel. It makes me sad just remembering that the bottle is empty! While about $80 in Ontario (recently discontinued), it runs about $50 in the US, on par with the Highland Park 12. A great cabinet standard that I’d take over the HP 12 as my resident highland (and I love me some HP 12).

Nose: Butter rum, berries, and a very light smokiness. A deliciously well-blended nose that works well as a ‘bouquet’. It’s hard to really separate much out, but it works together in it’s own way.

Palate: Big, sweet burst of cotton candy (I think I’m alone on this part), cool salty anesthetic feel. Fruity, with sherry notes. Peat and smoke on the end. Wonderfully chewy.

Finish: Medium-long, warming, with sweet toffee notes.

Grade: B

While somewhat expensive in Canada (for what you’re getting), I’ll say that the Clynelish 14 is definitely one of the best bang-for-your-buck whiskies in the US.

1993 Ben Nevis 17yr (Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection)

At times I look back on this purchase and think,

“$88 for only 70cl of such an obscure non-cask strength whisky? Really?”

But then I pour myself a dram and the thought subsides. “Really.”

I hadn’t heard anything about this bottling, nor had I heard anything about Ben Nevis for that matter, except that according to Ralfy, it mostly ends up in blends–what a tragedy. This one surprises you. It needs that touch of water (just a few drops) to open up. This one reminds me of all my favourite unpeated drams, and what’s more, it reminds me of them in turn, not muddled together.

Nose (w/o water): Smells of apples. Caramel apples in fact, if not a bit prickly–like a candied apple.

Nose (with water): Nutty, barley (almost auchentoshan like). It has that kind of faint popcorn/beer nuts. Not movie-butter popcorn, but more like a carnival snack stand. It makes me think of the carnival at night. Creamy caramel, and all around freshness. The nose is part Auchentoshan 18, and part Highland Park 12 (without the occasional eggy sulphur). It’s as if you’re standing at the gate to a carnival and can smell the caramel apples… then you put the water in and walk through the gate to the confectioner’s stand.

Palate: Oily, chewy, sweet–yum! Without water, caramel apples, with a touch of leather at the end. With water, and it’s a creamy, bursting saltwater taffy and sweets. Nuttiness, slight hints of smoke, and a little dairy (in a good way). Wow. This thing is just carnival confectionary in a glass.

Finish: Medium. Honeyed barley, some nuttiness. Hints of ‘vanilla milkshake’ is all I can say.

Grade: A-

For those in Ontario (though this will only aid to deplete a supply that is already limited,) this whisky is worth a go if you’re a fan of a good creamy highland with notes of (the LCBO discontinued) Auchentoshan 18, and the Highland Park 12. I had initially given this a B+, because I had thought that the finish was a little on the short side compared to an Ardbeg or a Port Charlotte. I decided to take it head to head with the PC An Turas Mor tonight, and no, this holds it’s ground. There is so much going on here that it deserves the A-.

This whisky is a real ‘experience’ whisky. There are so few whiskies that have the complexity to take me to a place I’ve been, rather than merely reminding me of this fruit, or that grain, or an assortment of flowers, etc. This was one of those.