Archive for August, 2013

John Walker Odyssey Rocks (but gently)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Johnnie McCormickJonny McCormick climbed aboard John Walker’s boat and had some whisky. Here’s his log entry.

3 McCormick_John Walker Voyager in Port of Leith 3Captain Mark Lumley safely berthed The John Walker & Sons Voyager at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, completing its Grand Tour of Europe. The luxury ocean-going yacht has been refitted as a floating Johnnie Walker House for this epic journey, which began last year with a 15 stop tour of the Asia-Pacific region. It has been exquisitely designed to tell the story of Johnnie Walker and the dynasty of master blenders that followed in his wake. Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker’s global ambassador, has been aboard for the duration of the journey. He estimates that he has personally conducted tastings for more than 14,000 drinkers on board and he’s not finished yet.

The focus of the endeavor is to launch the John Walker & Sons Odyssey, originally envisaged as a luxury whisky for the Asian market but one that has exceeded Diageo’s expectations around Europe too. Can it repeat that success in America too, I wonder? Arguably, the Voyager is acting as a flagship not just for Johnnie Walker but for Scotch whisky as a whole. As it docks at each global destination, this glamorous spectacle helps attract new people towards trying whisky, something we should all support as whisky drinkers. Once they’ve found their way in, we know they will be just fine exploring wherever their palate takes them.8 McCormick_John Walker & Sons Odyssey

Not everyone spotted the subtle shift in emphasis when the Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V edition was repackaged as John Walker & Sons King George V. Now Odyssey weighs anchor in the open sea between KGV and The John Walker and there were hints of more whiskies to follow. The bottle has that perpetual rocking motion of the Johnnie Walker Swing bottle but with a gentler amplitude due to its higher center of gravity. Oh, and before you ask, it’s $1,000 a bottle.

Intriguingly, it’s a triple malt, the first blended malt whisky to be created in the JW range since Green Label became extinct in most markets. Not to mention a technical challenge for master blender Jim Beveridge. “I’m a blender, I value grain enormously, and I had to think very strongly when asked to make this a blended malt,” he admitted. Blended malt whiskies are a relatively uncharted territory, though whiskies by Compass Box, Wemyss Malts, Monkey Shoulder, Big Peat by Douglas Laing, and the MacKinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt (Shackleton’s whisky) have done much to change perceptions.

To be clear, as a triple malt, the volume of Odyssey is greater than three single casks. The particular volume of each release dictates the parcels of stock available to the blender. Feasibly, that could include different vintages and ages of stock. “If it’s a relatively low volume, I can go to a part of the stock that is really special. The flavor for Odyssey had to match that John Walker style, so I can choose to create a blend around those ideas.”

Jim Beveridge

Jim Beveridge

While the precise distilleries remain part of the mystique, Beveridge alludes cryptically, “The distillery character would be typical of a Speyside style which will work well with the Highland style, both of which do well with European oak. The rich, dry fruit is the European oak, the fresher autumnal, berry fruits; that’s from the distillery. That’s how it comes together.”

He will be faced with the challenge of achieving the same taste profile for future editions. Shrewdly, this doesn’t commit him to only using stock from the same three distilleries. “We’ve got over eight million casks to choose from,” he noted, “and there are very few that could be used to make this particular blend. It is old, but age isn’t a defining character. No age statement gives me the freedom to choose casks when they’re right.”

At present, there is not a 750 ml version for the United States but that is expected to follow if plans materialize for the yacht to undertake its third tour in the Caribbean and southern ports of the United States.

Let me pose some questions, as this opens up a new frontier. I’ve never seen a major release of a quality blended malt positioned for the luxury market quite like this, nor backed by this kind of leading-edge campaign. Moreover, it looks to have been strikingly successful to date. Will the bow wave effect of this ultra-premium offering challenge your attitude to the values associated with blended malt whiskies? What is your experience with other blended malt whiskies and the flavors they achieve? On your own whisky journey, is this your direction of travel? This could be the vanguard of Scotch whisky. Can blenders produce a synergistic experience superior to the component single malts without the grain? The floor is open…

Four Bourbons To Buy This Fall

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

John HansellAll of these will be sold in the U.S. I’ve tried them all. These are all new and will be released over the next month or so. They are the best I’ve tasted this year (so far). In alphabetical order:

Elijah Craig Single Barrel 21 year old ($140)

My barrel sample (Barrel No. 42) tastes very close in flavor profile and quality to the Elijah Craig 20 year old single barrel (Barrel No. 3735) that was our “American Whiskey of the Year” in 2011. Those of you who were fortunate enough to get a bottle of that (sold only at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center) know what I’m talking about.

Four Roses “Limited Edition Small Batch” (2013 release) ($90-100)

Very close in personality and quality as last year’s 2012 limited edition release, our “American Whiskey of the Year” for 2012. Enough said!

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2013 release) 12 year old ($55)

The best tasting (and best balanced) OFBB release in many years.

Parker’s Heritage Collection “Promise of Hope” 10 year old ($90)

A single barrel bottling, but with no barrel number identified. Reminds me somewhat of the roundness, great flavor profile, and drinkability of the PHC Golden Anniversary release. And it’s for a good cause. Heaven Hill will donate $20 of every bottle sold to the ALS Association’s Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund. A bourbon that will make you feel good for many reasons.

 

Whisky Advocate’s Fall Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

John HansellHere is your sneak preview of Whisky Advocate’s fall issue Buying Guide: the top 10 whiskies reviewed. We begin with #10 and end with the highest rated whiskey.Few Rye

#10: Few Rye, 46.5%, $60

Solid, chunky bottle with idiosyncratic whiskey inside. Straightforward rye crisps out of the glass in no-nonsense style; dry grain, sweet grass, and light but insistent anise almost wholly drown out the barrel character. The mouth is as dry and spicy-medicinal as the nose hints at, laying down character like a winning hand: rye SNAP! heat SNAP! light tarragon SNAP! oak SNAP! and a warm wrap-up finish SNAP! Full house, flavors over sensations. Clean and interesting. Nicely played.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 89
Special09_SV_frilagd_cmyk_300dpi

#9: Mackmyra Special No. 9, 46.1%, $90

Mackmyra continues to play a far more sophisticated game than it is given credit for, releasing pleasant and easy drinking mainstream malts, and then packing a punch with one-off oddball single casks. So this is an utter delight and among the very best Mackmyras released. Vanilla, banana, sweet jellybeans, and some toffee all playing Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde pops up with earthy salt notes. Medical gauze and pepper for a savory finale.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#8: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, 45%, $30

An elegant bourbon, and very drinkable too! Its flavors are clean and tight, with bright fruit (nectarine, tangerine, pineapple), soft coconut, honeyed vanilla, cotton candy, and subtle gin botanicals. Polished leather and a hint of dark chocolate on the finish. Great anytime. (Exclusive to Capital City Package.)John HansellGlen Grant 5 Decades

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#7: Glen Grant Five Decades, 46%, £115

Created by Dennis Malcolm to celebrate his half century at Glen Grant, this uses casks from each of his five decades. Pale it may be, but this is no dainty little thing. There’s lots of buttery oak before classic Glen Grant lift and energy emerge: green apple, fruit blossom, William pear, and yellow fruits; lemon butter icing and nettles with water. The palate is vibrant and energetic, but holds to the middle of the tongue. A suitably celebratory dram. Congratulations!—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#6: Caol Ila Feis Ile Bottling 2013, 56.5%, £99

Although aged in refill, then active hoggies, and finally sherry, there’s more smoke than oak here, a smoke like the aroma of a fire clinging to a tweed jacket. A note akin to wilting spinach gives way to more conventional strawberries and cream, but always mixed with seashore breezes. This is Caol Ila in deep and bold mood with green fig, banana, and a sweet center. Water gives greater integration. You might (just) be able to get this. Do it. (distillery only)Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
ArdbogBottle&Pack_WB

#5: Ardbeg Ardbog, 52.1%, $100

The follow-up to last year’s Ardbeg Day, here’s the cult distillery in its funkiest guise with a nose that’s reminiscent (I’d imagine) of a frontier trading post: all pitch, furs, and gun oil. Some mint hangs around in the background alongside eucalyptus. This is an earthy, in-your-face Ardbeg with a hint of box-fresh sneakers indicating some youthfulness. The mouth is thick and chewy: wild mint, oily depths, and the slightly manic energy typical of Ardbeg’s young years.—Dave Broom
Nienty 20yr
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#4: Ninety 20 year old, 45%, C$48

Tucked away in the small Alberta town of High River, Highwood distillers has made large volumes of Canadian whisky and dozens of other distilled beverages since 1974. Undaunted by recent flooding and with more than three decades of aging whisky on hand, the owners recently decided to emphasize premium whiskies. Ninety, the latest of these, is simply gorgeous. Crispy clean oak, dark fruit, butterscotch, corncobs, and nutmeg precede candy cane, sour fruits, cinnamon, ginger, and citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#3: Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013 bottling (distilled 1995), 51%, £99

Though quiet to start, the impression is of a fog of smoke, balled up within a dunnage warehouse, ready to erupt to add itself to the cool spearmint and oxidized nuttiness. The palate is where it shows its class: mature, slowly unfolding and layered, with Latakia tobacco, menthol, nori, white pepper, pear, and a massive, tarry Bohea Souchong tea element on the finish. Everything from Lagavulin is touched with gold at the moment. Try to find a bottle. (distillery only)Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#2: The Exclusive Malts (distilled at Laphroaig) Cask #10866 22 year old 1990, 47.1%, $250

Clean and complex, showing a matured, somewhat restrained personality for Laphroaig: less medicinal, but more rounded. Tar, pencil shavings, anise, honeyed citrus, Spanish olive brine, and a hint of seaweed and white pepper on a bed of creamy vanilla, caramel, and light nougat. Lingering, satisfying finish. Frustrated by a dearth of 20-plus year old distillery-bottled Laphroaigs? Look no further. Delicious!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
Four Roses/ 070

#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel, 60%, $90

Thirteen years old, but it shows its age nicely. It’s peppered with complex dried spice notes (mint, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla), yet it also has interwoven sweet notes (maple syrup, caramel, honey) to keep the whiskey from being too dry. Hints of dark chocolate and berried fruit add complexity. Dry, spicy, tobacco and leather-tinged finish. Great complexity!—JH

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

 

 

Some new whiskies I like, and some I don’t (part 2)

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

John HansellEarlier this week I offered my thoughts on some new bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys. In this post, I address some new scotch whiskies, Indian whiskies, as well as some more bourbons that I’ve recently tasted.

Scotch

Delilahs-BottleIf you’ve been drinking whisky as long as I have, you remember those great Springbank whiskies distilled in the 1960s and 1970s. The distillery was shut down for most of the 1980s and the whiskies distilled after that have occasionally shown the brilliance of the pre-closure era, but it’s been sporadic. This new single cask Springbank 21 year old (Lombard  “Jewels of Scotland”) selected by D & M Wines & Liquors (Cask No. 172, 49.7%, distilled in 1991, matured in a bourbon cask) reminds me of those lovely pre-closure Springbank (but not sherried like many of those were). It’s nicely matured and, while a little soft in nature because of its age, it still expresses an appetizing freshness, spice and hint of brine.

Another scotch I’m really liking is the new Compass Box Limited Release “Delilah’s,” produced to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Delilah’s bar in Chicago. According to John Glaser of Compass Box, it’s a combination of single malt and single grain whiskies aged in a mix of experimental new American oak barrels. It’s designed to be a “shot and a beer” kind of whisky. It’s one of the most drinkable whiskies I’ve ever tasted, and very smooth.  Open the bottle with some friends and throw away the cork! (Note: this is a casual whisky. It was designed to be fun and easy drinking. If you’re looking for something incredibly complex and life-altering, look somewhere else.)

Two recent single malts (both from independent bottlers) that I was less impressed with were a Tobermory 18 year old (Maltman) aged in a sherry cask (polluted with sherry from my standpoint) and a 20 year old Longmorn 20 year old (Old Malt Cask) aged in a refill hogshead (here’s a case where a small amount of sherry would have added balance and complexity).

Bourbon

Blantons Giold EditionI tried two more bourbons that I really like since my “Part 1″ post earlier this week. Most of you are familiar with Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon (bottled at 93 proof). Well, I tried two “higher proof” Blanton’s single barrel offerings for the export market and like both of them more than the standard issue Blanton’s: Blanton’s Gold Edition (103 proof) and Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel (132.7 proof). It just seems that the higher proof works nicely with the Blanton’s flavor profile. My favorite of the Blanton’s family samples I tasted is actually the Gold Edition. It’s perfectly balanced, sophisticated in character, very drinkable for its strength, and complex. It’s easily one of the best bourbons I’ve tasted this year. (Keep in mind that these are single barrel bottlings and each barrel has it’s own unique flavor profile. My barrel numbers were Barrel No. 116 for the Straight From The Cask and Barrel No. 1 for the Gold Edition.)

India

Finally, I wanted to tell you about a new Amrut I really enjoy. ( New to the Whisky Advocate headquarters anyway–bottles are now available in the U.S.) Amrut has produced some delicious whiskies over the past several years, and this one is right up there at the top for me as far as quality and complexity. It’s called Amrut 100. (Bottled at 100 cl, at 100 British proof, only 100 bottles for each market.) This one is a smoky one, with lovely peat and spice notes, and a rich, balancing sweet underbelly.

P.S. If I get enough new whiskies over the next couple of weeks, I might do a Part 3 in this series.

 

Some new whiskeys I like, and some I don’t like (part 1)

Monday, August 12th, 2013

John HansellWhiskeys might be more expensive (and perhaps harder to find) these days but, after tasting my way through some new releases, it’s pretty clear that there are still plenty of high quality whiskeys coming on the market. Here’s a run down of the ones I like, don’t like, and why.

Part 1 focuses on American Whiskeys. Part 2, which I will publish in about a week or so, will address some new single malt Scotch whisky, blended Scotch whisky, and a new Indian whisky I’ve recently tasted.

Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskeys

Four Roses Small Batch 2013Let’s start with new bourbon releases. There are quite a few of them. For those of you who enjoyed the Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch (I did–I named it Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year last year), I think you will like the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch. It  is similar in flavor profile, with a little more oak spice and a touch less honey. This whiskey is already on my short list of favorite new bourbons for 2013.

Similarly, I am equally impressed by the new Elijah Craig 21 Year Old Single Barrel review sample that I have (Barrel No. 42). Heaven Hill has discontinued the most recent 20 year old offering and has replaced it with a 21 year old release. As you will recall, two years ago I named the Elijah Craig 20 Year Old  Single Barrel (Barrel No. 3735) our American Whiskey of the Year. The new 21 year old single barrel is very similar in profile to the award-winning 20 year old with a bit more oak influence. It’s elegant, subtly complex, with some intriguing tropical fruit, and–most important of all–not over-oaked, which is something we all need to be concerned about when buying bourbons that are 20+ years in age.

Let me be clear about one thing though, regarding these Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrel offerings: I’m giving you my thoughts on whiskey from just one barrel (Barrel No. 42), and I don’t know what the other barrels are going to taste like. Hopefully, they will be similar in profile. However, after I tasted our award winning EC 20 single barrel two years ago, I tasted two other barrels after that and both–whiles still very nice bourbons–definitely showed more oak in their flavor profiles. I am hoping to taste more of the Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrels as they come out. If I do, I’ll offer my thoughts here in the comment thread. Bottom line here: the barrel that I’m reviewing (and that other writers are reviewing right now) are review samples sent directly to us from Heaven Hill. Could they have cherry picked the best barrel or barrels? It’s possible. Fair warning…

EC 21I’ve been checking out the recent Booker’s Bourbon offerings. There’s one in particular I wanted to tell you about that I think really stands out. It’s richly flavored and nicely balanced. It’s my favorite Booker’s so far this year, and it’s just about get into circulation. (I’m not sure exactly where, though. Sorry.) It’s bottled at 127.1 proof and is Batch No. 2013-4.

You may have heard rumblings of a new George Dickel Barrel Program. Well, it’s definitely a reality. I’ve always been a big fan of George Dickel (especially the Barrel Select), and when I heard that they were going to start offering older, single barrels to retail accounts for purchase, I got very excited.

At the moment, there are two different ages of single barrels available to retailers to chose from: a 9 year old (bottled at 103 proof) and a 14 year old (bottled at 106 proof). Diageo was kind enough to send me two barrel samples from each year, and I’ve just tasted them. They are delicious! If you’re a Dickel fan, then you’ll want to track down a bottle. Based on the samples I was sent, here’s my advice: go for the 9 year old if you can find one. I think they’re a little more balanced (i.e. not as oak-driven) as the 14 year old and I suspect it will cost less too! (If any of you know where to find the 9 year old, let us know. I’d like to buy one myself!)

BTEC Wheat Mash Enrty ProofThe newest release of Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection is out, and this time there are four of them. They’re all wheated bourbons and the difference between them (from a production standpoint) is the barrel entry proof (125, 115, 105, and 90). In short: if you can find yourself a bottle of one of these, give it a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed, if you enjoy wheated bourbons. (My favorite is the 90 proof entry expression.) Some will rate a 90 or more when I eventually review them formally.

STAGG JR FrontOkay, and now for the bourbon that didn’t impress me: the new Stagg Jr. by Buffalo Trace. It is, according to my press release, a younger sibling to the more mature George T. Stagg releases. There’s no age statement, but it contains whiskeys aged for 8-9 years. Yes, Stagg Jr. big and bold like the original George T. Stagg, but it is harsher and more aggressive (with the spice and oak notes) than George T. Stagg. I just don’t enjoy it.

Don’t get me wrong. George T. Stagg is certainly no wimpy whiskey. But it’s usually also incredibly complex and well-balanced. Stagg Jr.’s aggressiveness crosses to line. My advice: save your pennies and spring for the older George T. Stagg if you are choosing between the two.

5 Things You Don’t Know about MGPI, America’s most misunderstood distillery

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Fred MinnickFred Minnick gives you a Whisky Advocate exclusive look behind the scenes at the MGPI/LDI/Seagram’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

When I requested an interview with MGP Ingredients master distiller Greg Metze, I imagined I’d be turned down to view this secretive Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery.

Imagine my surprise when the MGPI publicist granted my request. The full story will appear in the Spring Issue of Whisky Advocate and reveal all. In the meantime, here are five factoids to pique your palate about MGPI, formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), formerly Pernod Ricard, formerly Seagram’s, formerly Rossville Union Distillery.

5. Distillery Disclosure: Customer’s Choice. MGPI says its contracts do not require anonymity clauses. Keeping the distillery a secret is the customer’s preference, says Dr. Don Coffey, MGPI’s VP of research and development. “We have a lot of customers who say, ‘Please don’t talk about us.’ And some put [Lawrenceburg, Ind.] right on the label,” Coffey says. “If somebody puts it on the label, that’s fair game. But, we’ve been asked by a lot of customers to not disclose; it’s just safer for us not to.” Plant manager Jim Vinoski says this non-disclosure strategy is a part of the company’s business model. “We are not marketers,” Vinoski says. “That’s their world.”MGPI Distillery 2

4. Sticking to History. Established in 1847 as the Rossville Union Distillery, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc. purchased the facility in 1933. When Seagram’s folded in 2000, Diageo and Pernod Ricard split the beverage division, with Pernod taking the Lawrenceburg facility. Pernod sold to CL Financial in 2007 to form LDI. When publicly traded MGPI purchased the LDI group in 2011, MGPI made a strategic decision to fondly remember its Seagram’s and LDI history. “That’s our heritage,” Vinoski says. Blogs, magazines and social media still refer to it as LDI. Many publicly traded companies would use trademark lawyers to correct such errors. But, Vinoski says: “Call us Seagram’s or LDI. It doesn’t bother us.”

3. The first LDI customer was…Templeton Rye Whiskey or High West. Both came in came in around the same time, Metze says. (According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau label approval records, Iowa-based Templeton received label approval two months before Utah-based High West in 2007.)

MGPI Distillery 192. Only 2012 stocks are left. As soon as LDI created a website, suitors came for the whiskey. From 2007 to 2011, dozens, maybe hundreds, of new whiskey brands appeared on the market using LDI-produced whiskey. There were so many that nobody really knows how many brands the company supplies without looking at a computer. Thus, with the popularity of its rye whiskey and bourbon, MGPI’s oldest available rye or bourbon whiskey is 2012. Everything else is under contract.

1. LDI almost started its own brands.  “CL Financial bought the distillery with the intention of launching their own brands,” Metze says. “We were developing some bourbon brands.” CL also purchased the Old Medley distillery (in Owensboro, Ky.) in 2007, so there were high hopes for the CL’s Angostura portfolio to add its own bourbon brands. But CL Financial collapsed in January 2009 amidst the global financial crisis and those bourbon dreams were gone. What would liquor shelves look like today if CL Financial had remained solvent?

Photos by Fred Minnick