Whisky Advocate

Five new releases — no, make that six!

July 11th, 2014

Author - Ian BuxtonTruly the whisky gods have smiled on me. Great are their blessings, as I bring you tidings of five (yes, five: read it and weep) interesting new releases that I have tasted recently on your behalf. To be even-handed, I’ll mention them in alphabetical order.

First up, then, is the Balvenie Single Cask 15 Years Old expression, the second in Balvenie’s Single Cask line. Drawn from a sherry butt, cask number 16293 (not that any of us would know the difference, but it lends corroborative detail to the label), this full-flavored 47.8% dram drew me in with its rich, warming color, and then engaged my palate with an explosion of spices and sweet dark fruits (think candied pineapple and chocolate coated raisins) that lingered gently for minutes afterwards.

With a mere 650 bottles available worldwide, and a comparatively modest $99.99 price point, I don’t expect supplies will last long, but a further Single Barrel release, drawn from a refill American oak barrel and aged 25 years, will complete the range at the end of 2014. These Single Cask releases are another sublime illustration of the hand of a master; in this case, Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart. Grab one while you have the chance.

Glenfiddich ExcellenceStraight on to another from the William Grant & Sons’ stable, this time Glenfiddich Excellence, a 26 year old from the world’s best-selling single malt brand that, a trifle worryingly, they described as a “luxury expression” (worryingly, because that’s generally bad news for wallets). All too often, such language from the PR folks speaks more to ritzy packaging than the quality of the liquid.

This is the first time Glenfiddich have released a whisky wholly and exclusively matured in bourbon casks. It struck me as a curiously subtle whisky, strangely pale for its age, and one that will slowly seduce you with its evolving complexity rather than make an immediately dramatic entrance. It’s none the worse for that, but I imagine buyers will need to take some time to fully get to know and explore its undoubted depths. (43%, around $600).

GG Wine Cask MaturedMy third selection is from a distillery as obscure as Glenfiddich is well-known: Glen Garioch. Part of the Morrison Bowmore stable, it tends to be over-shadowed by its more famous Islay cousin. I rather fancy that if it was in Speyside it would enjoy greater fame and appreciation but, as it is, somewhat tucked away in rural Aberdeenshire with no near-neighbors, it languishes in obscurity as a result, with much of the output historically going into blends.

That’s a shame, but perhaps this latest release will win it a few fans. This is the Glen Garioch 1998 Wine Cask Matured which (the hint’s in the name) has spent the last 15 years aging in the finest ‘tonneaux de vin rouge’ (that’s red wine casks to you and me) from an anonymous Bordeaux chateau; annoyingly, they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me which one. Never mind; while plenty remains of the distillery’s fruity and spicy Highland character, the casks have added loads more intriguing flavors: berries, chocolate, ginger, and coconut to name just a few that rolled over my palate. Bottled at 48% abv, the 5,400 bottles available will be shared between the UK, the U.S., and, fittingly, France. Look for them this Fall at around $170.

Next up is the only blended whisky of the five, but a notable one. This is John Walker & Sons Private Collection, the first in a series of limited releases from this Diageo behemoth. While the Johnnie Walker brand is huge, the folks behind it have also cleverly managed to introduce some variety with the Private Collection and, if this new release is anything to go by, there’s every chance they will even please single malt mavens. This is an exquisite blend specially prepared to highlight different facets of the brand’s character: master blender Dr. Jim Beveridge has showcased the smoky Highland and Island single malts in the blend, but introduced a delightful sweet note into the bargain.

Just 8,888 bottles will be available worldwide, and while that number might suggest Diageo have their sights set firmly to Far Eastern markets, their spokesman assured me that the U.S. will be their most important market. This isn’t a cheap whisky by any stretch of the imagination—expect a retail price of $750+—but unusually for products with this premium position, the packaging is relatively restrained, letting the whisky do the talking. As, in my view, it should.

Beveridge drew on some rare experimental casks for the blend and gave the whiskies a long marrying period to integrate their complex flavors. No age has been declared, as is the current fashion, but there are some very mature whiskies to be found in the blend, which will never be reproduced, so scarce are the constituents.

And, finally, back to William Grant & Sons (haven’t they been busy?) for a very rare and special release of their little-known Kininvie single malt, from a distillery opened in July 1990 essentially to supply the blenders. If you’ve ever visited their distilling complex at Dufftown, Kininvie is housed in the anonymous building behind the Balvenie tun room. If you didn’t know it was there, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and the guides don’t generally point it out.

They are offering two expressions, at 17 and 23 years old respectively, both with an identical cask mix (80% hogsheads and 20% American oak sherry; both at 42.6% abv). The younger whisky is reserved for travel retail, but the older version will appear in whisky specialist shops in domestic markets. With very limited quantities released and a price point of over $300 for a bottle equivalent (sold only in half bottle sizes), Kininvie is never going to be an everyday drinking whisky.

No doubt single malt enthusiasts will welcome the overdue arrival of this rarity, though, and will be interested to try what Kevin Abrook, Grants’ global whisky specialist for innovation, described to me as a hitherto “hidden secret jewel.” I found lots of vanilla sweetness, floral, citrus, and cut grass notes in my dram, finishing with a suggestion of fragrant sweet lemon mint.

STOP PRESS: As I file this report, Highland Park have sent me their new Dark Origins release. The whisky gods really are working overtime.

14 Responses to “Five new releases — no, make that six!”

  1. Ol' Jas says:

    This whole post feels like a sales pitch.

  2. Louis says:

    Not wanting to be a spoil-sport here, but the whisky gods seem to smiling more in the direction of the reviewer, rather than at the consumer. The Balvenie 15 SB on Binnys’ website is only 86 proof. Meanwhile, the last bottle of Glendronach 15 that I picked up was only $72, ant it’s 46% ABV.

  3. Ian Buxton says:

    Ol’ Jas – ‘sales pitch’ – well, if you say so, but I really did like and enjoy all these. Only fair to say so. Sorry if I seem too enthusiastic.
    Louis – I’m not sure that’s the same bottle. It was def. 47.8%. and I doubt shipments have reached many shelves. Baffled by the reference to GlenDronach. Nice product but not sure what it has to do with the whiskies under review here.
    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Ol' Jas says:

    Ian, thanks for the reply. I probably shouldn’t have been so short. Let me expand a bit.

    Much of the language in this post is, in my ears at least, the kind of polished praise that usually comes from people SELLING the stuff, not just reporting on it (examples: “explosion,” “sublime,” “slowly seduce you,” undoubted depths,” “exquisite,” “rare,” “scarce”)—especially when there’s so little critique on the other side of the scale.

    I guess you really did just love all these bottles. The following is my take, though, as a guy who’s read past a lot of marketing fluff in his day and who has to spend his whisky dollars wisely. Your report is all I know about these bottles.

    •The Balvenie single cask is good and pretty well priced. Buy soon if you want one. Makes sense.

    •The Glenfiddich is expensive and underwhelming. Pass.

    •The Glen Garioch is a sweetened-up and expensive version of their usual malt. (Any chance it’s one of the exceptional wine-finished whiskies that will appeal to the many malt drinkers who usually dislike such finishing? No idea.) Pass.

    •The Johnnie Walker is a prestige bottle. It seems to have the usual smoky + sweet taste of a decent blend. Its price is justified by “rare experimental casks” and “scarce” “very mature whiskies,” but all that bragging is unexplained. Pass.

    •The Kininvies are rare and they seem to be trading on that rarity rather than any especially good flavors. And they’re expensive. Pass.

    •The Highland Park: No idea, but it’s attributed to the whisky gods.

  5. Lew Bryson says:

    And if Ian had written what you have, he’d have been hung for being judgmental and brief, and too focused on the price.
    Y’know…it’s not easy reviewing whiskies. We’re expected to tell you if a whisky’s “good” and a “good buy for the money,” but at the same time, we’re not allowed to simply say “good,” “great,” “not so good,” “bloody awful,” or “expensive,” or “reasonable,” or “bargain.” People expect more…unless they expect less.

    Okay, that’s what we have to deal with by putting our tastes out there on display. But I will tell you this: saying a review sounds like a sales pitch is a direct insult to a writer’s integrity. We develop a thick skin, because it’s the quickest response from someone who disagrees, but it’s still an insult. If you didn’t know that before, you do now. I’m not suggesting at all that an apology is in order, as Ian’s clearly moved on. But maybe think about not being so quick with it next time.

    • Ben Stendahl says:

      I love your reply Lew. I think a lot of people forget that writing about whisky is often a very personal task for a personal experience. There’s a lot on the line for each of you when writing as it’s often the very first glimpse we enthusiasts get when a new whisky is introduced. Please keep up the good work. We can’t all agree on everything with our tastebuds being genetically different but I rely on the objective evaluations from the writers at Whisky Advocate more than any.

      With regard to language, I love the verbose vernacular associated with whisky reviews. I mean, we can’t all be Dave Broom but I’d rather listen to an overly expressive review when compared to a drab description as often posted on amateur tasting forums.

  6. Ol' Jas says:

    Maybe I’m just more used to John’s reviews, which I think are more tempered—if you don’t mind me saying so. His reviews seem to often include comments like those in your second paragraph, in addition to the more poetic stuff.

    Or maybe some unofficial “off the cuff” scores from Ian would help put his commentary in context. (Are you allowed to do that?) From the text, these all sound like 85+ if not 90+ whiskies.

    In any case, thanks for the news on the new releases.

  7. Ol' Jas says:

    By the way, I really am curious what they vat into those super-expensive blends. Can you give us any details on the rare experimental casks?

  8. Lew Bryson says:

    Well, Ian’s not one of our reviewers (for his reasons, not ours), so no, he wouldn’t do “off the cuff” scores. John’s the only one who does that.
    There are differing schools of thought among reviewers on these types of things: do we rate with numbers, should we consider the price in our rating, should we consider the price at all. Our reviewers — both formal and informal — are all different people, with different views. John and I agree on bourbons more often than not, for instance, but not always.
    It’s always going to be subjective. There’s no substitute for actually trying the stuff, in the end.

    Cheers, have a good weekend. I’m going to go out tasting in a much less formal atmosphere!

  9. Francesca says:

    I understand that your career wouldn’t last long if no distiller would share (or you could go broke buying your own). For all I know, you may have no taste, but Ol’Jas, I like the way you write !

  10. Mark says:

    The Balvenie release is an ongoing release to the core range, it is *not* 650 bottles only.

    The bottle you have was 1 of 650 bottles from that 1 cask, multiple casks are being released with each putting out 650 bottles. There are thousands of bottles lined up and plenty of stock maturing for this to be a member of the core range for years.

    Please. Facts. Correct. Important.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      I’m inclined to agree with this, I’ve got a single cask Balvenie 15 y.o. down stairs. One from the first release. I’d have to go and fetch it out to check the details, and I can’t be bothered, but I’ve had it for a few years.

      • Ian Buxton says:

        Hi. I think we’re talking at cross-purposes here. I do say that it’s part of the ‘line’ so I would hope that was clear; sorry for any confusion. But any single cask is by definition from every other release, that’s the point. These 650 bottles are unique – they may be subtly different or quite dramatically different from other Balvenie single casks but they will be different. The skill comes in selecting varying casks that highlight different aspects of distillery character or wood impact. Yes, the have ‘000s of casks but every one is different and unique; hence, single cask. Ian

  11. Scotty Freebairn says:

    Some of you continue to appear confused about the Balvenie Single Cask SHERRY BUTT. This release is not the same as the single cask which has been on the market for many years. I have two bottles of the SHERRY BUTT version and it is a terrific whisky. Ian Buxton is right on target! And, so is Lew Bryson.

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