Whisky Advocate

And sometimes, a letdown…

January 1st, 2009

Every year around the holidays, I celebrate by opening up a special bottle of whisky. I also do this in June when it’s my birthday.

I started doing this about a decade ago, when I realized that I wasn’t opening up my special whiskies because I was too busy reviewing all the new whiskies coming on the market as part of my job. It seemed silly (at the time) to open up a bottle that didn’t need to be opened up, when I was already opening up whiskies every week for review purposes.

But I realized that if I take this approach, I’ll never get around to opening up and enjoying my special whiskies that I have been waiting for a special occasion to drink. They would just sit around and collect dust and then someday I will fall over dead and I’ll never have the opportunity to enjoy them.

This, of course, is unacceptable. And it’s why I now open up a bottle over the holidays and on my birthday.

I have dozens of these kinds of “special” whiskies. I purchased most of them when I was just a whisky enthusiast and my day job was being a scientist. They were bottled in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before there was a Malt Advocate magazine or a WhiskyFest. I purchased these bottles on blind faith, hoping they would be outstanding whiskies and well worth the cost (and wait).

On Christmas eve, I opened one of these bottles. It was a 1970 vintage Aberlour. I knew it was aged exclusively in bourbon casks, because there’s a long story on the back label and also on the inside of the box. I was hoping for a great whisky. After all, I had waited more than 15 years to drink it.

The verdict? I was disappointed. It’s a nice enough of a whisky, but the 30-plus years in bourbon oak left a significant mark on the whisky’s flavor profile. There’s a lot of wood there and it’s quite dry on the finish.

I couldn’t help think to myself how much better this whisky could have been if they blended in some sherry oak casks to have some sherry sweetness balance some of those dry notes. Indeed, there have been some 100% sherry oak aged Aberlour whiskies that have been outstanding, like the limited edition 18 year old from about a decade ago (not to mention the a’bunadh).

I realize that this is part of the deal when exploring new whiskies–especially back then when it was almost impossible to taste a special whisky before you bought the bottle. You just bought it and hoped it would be good.

What about you? Have you been through a similar experience?

(Oh, and incidentally, I treated this bottle the same way I treat the other special bottles of whiskies I open up each year–I took the bottle with me to parties and shared it with my friends. With all the people I shared the whisky with, not one person complained. It is, after all, a piece of liquid history and very special in its own right, even if it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for.)

12 Responses to “And sometimes, a letdown…”

  1. David S says:

    This is not exactly the same as it is specific to an individual bottle, but last year I opened a Glendronach 1968 that I had been holding on to for quite some time. My tasting notes are not printable. I am sure that it was only the cork that ruined this whisky as it was one of the worst whiskies I have ever tasted. The only comparable experience was with a Aberlour 18 which was a total sulfered mess (along with other bad notes). At least with the Aberlour I have had several bottles of the 18 before and after (thanks again John, for bringing that bottle to my attention in the first place, and also mentioning in Malt Advocate to stock up, as it was being discontinued) that were all up to par. Unfortunately, this was my first taste of the Glendronach and a complete waste.

    Closer to your Vintage 1970 experience, I opened a Connoisseurs Choice 1971 Speyburn 18 year old some years ago with high expectations. It was not spoiled in any way but rather just ordinary, with the most interesting part being the old G&M label from before they used the map label. It had more value as a curiosity on my shelf.

  2. lawschooldrunk says:

    Not really comparable but I wasn’t terribly impressed the first time I tried lagavulin DE 1992 or talisker 18. A bit of a let down. I guess the hype was better than the experience.

  3. sam k says:

    So John, It just might be incumbent upon you to mix a more sherried whisky with this one to achieve the intended result. Considering your potential collection, I’m sure you have something in your repertoire that may achieve the desired result.

    Sure, it’s better if the distiller hits the nail on the head every time, but if they don’t, shouldn’t it be up to you to unleash your creativity and mix another whisky with this to create the best possible dram?

  4. Curt G. says:

    A timely message, John, as I just today (1/1) opened a Laphroaig Quarter Cask and, although I can’t say I was disappointed, I’m wondering what all the the reviewers who find it superior to the 10 yr. are tasting that I’m not. To my palate, both are excellent expressions of fully peated Islays. I particularly enjoy a premium cigar with my Islays and, in fact, a CAO Cx2 robusto accompanied my dram(s) today. Additionally, as a long time pipe smoker too, I can recommend either with a bowl of any good latakia tobacco blend. The nose of the whisky and the aroma of the latakia are very similar. Happy New Year to you and yours, John!

  5. John Hansell says:

    Sam K, excellent point. I’ve done this many times both with whisky and beer. In fact, many times when I consult for whisky companies, I’m blending cask samples for them to find the right flavor combination.

    I have several variants of Aberlour open right now, including the 100% sherry cask aged a’bunadh. I’m going to slowly add a’bunadh to the 1970 vintage until I find a happy marriage (and maybe throw in a couple other expressions if need be).

    Curt G: I think the let down stems from our expectation that a give whisky will be very good. In my case, I expected it to be good because it was a limited edition vintage bottling. In your case, it was because you heard from other reviewers that it was very good.

  6. Louis says:

    My recently opened bottle of Laphraoig Cask Strength (55.7% ABV) paled in comparison the last ounce left from last winter, of the 57.2% bottle that was purchased in 2001.

    Also, a pair of wine finished malts (they were sister bottlings, but I am not naming the distillery because the intentions were good for these two) were pretty ordinary, despite the $200 they set me back. I really did want to like them, but my $45 bottle of Blantons bourbon was similar in character, and superior overall. My wife was in total agreement,

  7. Sku says:

    John, now that you receive samples for work, do you still buy bottles or do you just live off of the samples?

  8. Jon W. says:

    I’ve only been truly disappointed with two bottles.

    The first was the Longrow Tokaji finish which at the time was the most expensive bottle I’d purchased. I was just getting into malts and had a few days out of the Liquor Controlled state of PA and gave myself a budget to splurge on some random crazy bottle. Enough has been said about this particular whisky where I don’t think I need to go into details. Unfortunately, only in retrospect did I realize that I had sampled it previously at one of your Monk’s tastings. It currently holds the record for length of time being open on my bar (going on 2 years).

    The second was a bottle I opened a few weeks ago (intended to be my holiday dram this year), a Craigellachie (1982/1998 Scott’s Selection) which I find repulsive. Undiluted, it smells and tastes like a combination of cheap vodka and gasoline. By the time I’ve added enough water to make it palatable, it’s boring. Maybe it will open up. Or maybe I need to meet some more whisky buddies so I can “share” it with them.

    Of course there have been other disappointments, but none with the anticipation of these two particular bottles.

  9. John Hansell says:

    Sku, I still do buy bottles of whisky. They usually fall in one of two categories:

    1) Whiskies that I get a review sample of (say 50ml) that I really like and want a bottle of. The recent Longrow 18 release is an example of this.

    2) Whiskies that are not sold in the U.S. that I pick up in my travels overseas. Redbreast 15 year old is an example.

    So, while I do get a lot of review samples, I am still a whisky enthusiast at heart and will buy whiskies that I really want, even if I have plenty of whiskies already.

  10. John Hansell says:

    BTW, there’s a happy ending with my 1970 Vintage Aberlour bourbon oak aged whisky. I had a little more than 1/2 bottle left of it. I topped it up with some of my opened bottle of Aberlour 18 year old (a 100% sherry cask aged whisky) and a bit of Aberlour a’bunadh for youth and fortitude. I’m drinking it now, and I think it’s the best Aberlour I have ever tasted. It’s going up on my night stand in my bedroom as my designated night cap whisky.

  11. sam k says:

    Atta boy! I love happy endings!

  12. John Hansell says:

    Happy ending indeed, Sam. And since I now have an entire bottle if it, there will be many happy endings with this whisky.

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