Craigellachie 17 Year Old, 46%, £83
This was tough, almost impossible in fact. There was a stellar tranche of Glenfarclas Family Casks whose 1987 Cask #3829, was the best overall Speysider in terms of liquid for me. For sheer consistency, look no further than Glenfarclas. It was pushed hard by an amazing Cragganmore bottled for Friends of the Classic Malts. Then how could you ignore the remarkable revamp of Mortlach, which showed the layered complexity that lies in this distillery’s make, and that there is more to the beast of Dufftown than heavy sherry?
But for me they were shaded by the quartet of Craigellachie releases. Obviously, the quality is there. No one will be disappointed by these. The packaging is a thing of quirky beauty. All are bottled at 46% with no chill-filtering and no caramel. But Craigellachie gets the nod for what it says. This is one of those rare beasts, a statement whisky. Let’s face it, none of us had really tried Craigellachie. The odd single cask maybe, but these were never more than snapshots, often with a weird Instagram filter on top.
The Craig is defiantly old-fashioned. It’s proud to say the new make is deliberately sulfury. The 17 year old is fleshy, with heavy florals, a hint of pineapple, and a little of the vetiver which grows in time. Complex, in other words. It sticks to the palate and forces you to appreciate its complexities. It is uncompromisingly itself, so that you have to appreciate it on its terms. The liquid showed us that rare thing in single malt: something completely new. Yes, it is left-field, it is brave, it is bold, but it is also delicious…and you don’t need a second mortgage to buy a bottle. —Dave Broom
The Islay Single Malt of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.
The Last Drop 50 year old, 50.9%, $4,000
The story is compelling. In 1972, a batch of more than seventy malts and twelve grain whiskies were blended together and left to marry in sherry oak casks. Their intended destiny was to become an agreeable 12 year old blended Scotch whisky. Each of the constituent mature whiskies had been distilled between the 1940s and 1960. These days, we lament the loss of many of the distilleries where those historical liquids originated.
The sherry casks were disgorged for bottling and the contents consumed through the 1970s, around the dance floors of noisy clubs and across smoky public bars in provincial hotels. However, in the darkness of a warehouse at Auchentoshan distillery, three casks were overlooked, forgotten about for nearly four decades. By good fortune, they were uncovered by the gentlemen of The Last Drop Distillers Limited. They were astounded by the flavors and smoothness produced after this lengthy, inadvertent sherry maturation. Naturally, they set about acquiring the casks, subsequently releasing just 1,347 bottles. Back in 2008, The Last Drop 1960 was one of this magazine’s top ten whiskies of the year.
Guilefully (cognizant of the company name), they tactically reserved a quarter of the volume and risked re-casking it for further maturation in small, fresh sherry casks. After four years of careful observation, the youngest liquid in the blend had comfortably surpassed 50 years old. It was time to taste the results.
When I wrote my original review, I found a nose of maple syrup, roasted spices, pomegranate, cilantro, and mushrooms soaked with beefsteak juices. The luxurious mouthfeel oozed with malt, molasses, and sherry concluding with a dry, resinous finish. The amazement experienced in the texture and mouthfeel by those discerning drinkers who have developed their palates is something to behold. Be under no illusion: this is epic whisky.
While this blend was carefully selected for this award purely for its outstanding experiential qualities, there are only 388 bottles and the price tag cannot be ignored. Sure, it costs twice as much as The Last Drop 1960, but it is much scarcer: for every two bottles of 50 year old, there were seven bottles of 1960 released. Put it in context with the prices charged for some 50 year old single malt whiskies released in 2014, and this 50 year old blend of malts comes in at under one sixth of the price or less. Trust me, within the oeuvre of blended Scotch whisky, The Last Drop 50 year old is truly one of the greats. —Jonny McCormick
Join us tomorrow for the Speyside Single Malt of the Year announcement.
Broger Burn Out, 42%, €48
The World Whisky of the Year award has previously been bestowed upon whiskies from Asia (Yamazaki in 2007, Kavalan in 2013) and the Indian subcontinent (Amrut in 2010, and 2011), but only once to a European whisky (Millstone in 2012).
However, this year’s recipient is Broger Burn Out, a rather special Austrian single malt whisky. Brothers Bruno and Eugen Broger head up the family business, which has become a leading light of the Austrian Whisky Association. Their distillery is based in Klaus, Vorarlberg, in the far western tip of Austria, nestling close to the border with Germany, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland. Whisky production began there in 2008, though there was no shortage of technical experience, as earlier generations of the family had been distilling fruit brandies and other spirits for many years. Although their orderly range consists of just five whiskies, they bring a creative and enthusiastic approach to quality and innovation. For example, their Broger Medium Smoked whisky uses barley kilned over beechwood, like a Rauchbier. Further diversification of flavor comes from maturing whiskies in a variety of casks, from sherry, port, and Madeira to French Limousin oak and Château d’Yquem casks.
For Burn Out, they knew exactly what they wanted and imported heavily peated Scottish malt to create a burly, bruising, peaty style of whisky. Mr. Barley Farmer, your boys took a hell of a peating! Warm asphalt, rubber boots, iodine, and storm-lashed seaweed on the nose will enrapture devotees of the robust Islay style. Yet secretly, underneath that rugged, challenging exterior, it’s a big softy. Warm and tender sweetness pricked with roasted orange and plain chocolate, it treads lightly on the tongue, yet sustains a harmonious balance through to its flickering, sooty ending. It’s a magnificent creation and a worthy winner that deserves much wider recognition. —Jonny McCormick
Be sure to check back tomorrow. The Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year will be announced.
There’s been a bit of discussion in the comments sections of the Awards posts (and in other social media) that makes it apparent that our Awards process may be misunderstood by a few of you, so I’d like to clarify. While we do review whiskies all year long, and give them points—ratings—the awards don’t necessarily go to the highest-rated whisky for a given category. There’s a bit more to it than that. This holds true, not just for my American Whiskey of the Year pick, but for all the award selections.
We noted this in our December 3rd awards announcement: “As always, these awards are not simply assigned to the whiskies that get the highest ratings in our reviews. The winners might be the highest-rated, or they might instead be the most significant, or the most important, or represent a new direction for a category or niche. The awards process is not, in short, a mere numbers-based formula. It is recognition of a combination of excellence, innovation, tradition, and…simply great-tasting whisky.”
For example, my American Whiskey of the Year pick, the Sazerac 18 year old, wasn’t my highest-rated American whiskey in 2014. There were other whiskeys I gave higher ratings.
The reason I chose the Sazerac 18 yr. involved the other factors. For example, the way that Buffalo Trace had the wisdom to “preserve” a classic whiskey in its prime by transferring it to stainless steel tanks, rather than let it age further (and likely deteriorate) in oak barrels, deserves recognition. It’s something that consumers have been benefiting from for many years now, and it’s a key reason why I picked this whiskey. That’s the “tie breaker” I mention in my awards write-up. (And I use the phrase “tie breaker” in a figurative sense.)
I hope this helps everyone understand how we chose our awards. It’s not just about picking our highest-rated whiskies for the year; we could do that with a simple sort of the ratings database. It’s about identifying the landmark whiskies for a year, the ones that made a difference, or signaled a change…or in this case, a welcome and important non-change.
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker (Distilled At Hanyu), 57.7%, £220
At the time of writing, everyone is asking me about Japanese whisky, which is fantastic. Is it really good, Dave? Yes, I respond. I’ve been saying that for close on 20 years and am happy to continue to do so. When you consider that Japanese distillers have been perfecting their craft for over 90 years, it would be more surprising if they weren’t making award-winning, world-class whisky. It’s good to see people getting the message.
This year’s choice is a tinged with sadness, because it marks the end of an era in Japanese whisky. The Joker is the last of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series, his 54-strong release program of whisky from his family’s defunct Hanyu distillery, which was demolished in 2000. Each bottling was named after a playing card (there are two Jokers; the other is a single cask with a black-and-white label, so rare that I don’t know anyone who has even seen it, bar tried it).
Some of the Cards were magnificent, some didn’t rock my boat, but all were never less than interesting to taste and discuss. Hanyu made a bold whisky that was out of step with Japan’s palate at the time, but one that, with bitter irony, is the style which the world now wants. The Joker (color label), is a vatting of Hanyus from 1985 to 2000, and is one last flaring act of defiance. Highly complex, rich, and distinctly resinous, it manages to hit a balance between weightiness, finesse, and intensity. As with any Japanese whisky, the aromas are heightened, exotic, and more intense, in this case taking you to old-fashioned cobbler’s shops, tack rooms, incense-filled temples, wet ink blocks, and sumac. The palate mixes dense cooked black fruits, balanced tannin, and leather. It ain’t shy.
Hanyu, like Karuizawa, is no more. What Japan needs now is more distilleries. More in fact like Ichiro’s new distillery, Chichibu, which goes from strength to strength and whose holistic vision gives a model of what a local distillery could be. As one era ends, another begins. —Dave Broom
Check back tomorrow for the World Whisky of the Year announcement.
Midleton Very Rare 2014, 40%, $125
In living memory, Ireland’s whiskey industry has never been healthier. Irish Distillers has been reaping rewards for their consistent investment this century but they are not alone. The realization of the huge potential for Irish whiskey has led to a flurry of new distillery projects in the north and south. Over the next five to ten years, we can anticipate an abundance of provocative new whiskeys.
Thirty years ago, the very first Midleton Very Rare expression was released on an unsuspecting world. Over the decades that followed, the popularity of this whiskey has grown steadily; well received, but never fashionable. It was the one that earned quiet respect rather than runaway success, never winning the ‘must-have’ status of flagship pure pot still whiskeys such as Redbreast (a four-time winner of this category). It’s time to put that right this year.
This was master distiller Brian Nation’s first full year in charge since taking over the reins from Barry Crockett, now master distiller emeritus. This Midleton Very Rare 2014 is the first bottle from Irish Distillers to be inscribed solely with Brian’s signature. His state of the nation address, if you like. This whiskey has real personality, a distinct step-up from the innate sappiness of the 2013 release. We love this for its heavy, oily, vanilla-dominated nose through to the sweet, crème caramel and cinnamon flavors that saturate the taste buds. The triumphant arrival of this rewarding, well-constructed, moreish Irish whiskey heralds the beginning of an inspiring new chapter at Midleton. There is much to look forward to. —Jonny McCormick
Tomorrow we will be announcing the Japanese Whisky of the Year.
Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye, 40%, $27
The race for Canadian Whisky of 2014 was tight. Crown Royal Monarch was first out of the gate; probably the most flavorful Crown Royal ever. Scoring 96 points in the Buying Guide, Monarch tied the record set in 2010, when Forty Creek Confederation Oak became our top-scoring Canadian whisky ever. A perpetual favorite, Forty Creek followed with another solid contender this year: its 2014 Evolution. Then Highwood Distillers returned from a disastrous flood in 2013 with an even more flavorful, post-flood version of the already spectacular Ninety 20 year old. But everything changed on October 2 when Canadian Club released this year’s winner.
Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye is a glorious all-rye whisky and more than just another line extension. This whisky arrived with a rye-filled bang, loud enough to shake up the industry. For the first time in over a century, a mainstream brand has bottled an all rye-grain Canadian whisky. Finally, whisky lovers have been heard. With its robust, fruity spiciness, and limber balancing act befitting a chainsaw juggler, Canadian Club 100% Rye declares that when Canadian whisky is writ larger and louder, it remains Canadian whisky.
In the 150 years since Hiram Walker began distilling whisky in Windsor, Ontario, Canadian Club has been a blend of corn, barley, and rye whiskies. Now owned by Beam Suntory, the Canadian Club brand continues this tradition in Windsor. However, Beam Suntory also owns the Calgary-based Alberta Distillers, renowned for its all rye-grain whisky. This is where the Canadian Club blenders sourced their CC 100% Rye. Fear not this move to another distillery; Canadian Club’s dried dark fruit signature remains. When you own the distillery you get to choose the barrels you really want. —Davin de Kergommeaux
Join us tomorrow for the announcement of the Irish Whiskey of the Year.
Sazerac Rye 18 year old, 45%, $80
There were many great American whiskeys released this year, including Booker’s 25th Anniversary release, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and George T. Stagg. However, the winner this year is Sazerac Rye 18 year old.
It’s not just because it’s a classic—I rated it a 95—but it’s also because of its consistently high quality, year after year. That, to me, is this year’s “tie-breaker.” Limited edition whiskeys change from year to year. Since Sazerac Rye 18 year old was first introduced in 2000, its quality has mostly been stellar and unwavering.
Part of its consistent quality is the fact that, for many years now, the whiskey released is essentially the same. About a decade ago, the management at Buffalo Trace realized there was a gap in production between the 18 year old rye they had in stock and younger rye that would eventually become 18 years old. The demand for ultra-aged rye whiskeys caught distillers by surprise.
Rather than do what other distillers did, which was to continue aging their rye and selling it at older ages to the point where the whiskeys were past their prime and over-oaked, Buffalo Trace wisely transferred theirs to stainless steel tanks, releasing a limited amount of it annually until fresh stocks of 18 year old come of age in 2016.
Some whiskey elitists have viewed the tanking as a negative, seeking out the pre-tanked bottlings on the secondary market. However, the whiskeys are nearly identical in quality and flavor profile, and Buffalo Trace should be congratulated for preserving a great whiskey while still in its prime, rather than selling it at an older age, higher price, and lower quality.
Why is this whiskey so great? It’s fully matured but still maintains its vibrancy. It’s complex too, brimming with allspice, clove, mint, and cinnamon. The spice notes are balanced by soft vanilla, soothing caramel, and candied summer fruits. It’s impeccably balanced and a pure joy to drink! —John Hansell
Check back tomorrow. We’ll be announcing the Canadian Whisky of the Year.
St. George Single Malt Lot 14, 43%, $80
There have been a significant number of “American malt whiskeys” popping up recently, and a fair amount of talk about them. Are they a new class, are they “Scotch” (they’re not, period, end of discussion), and more importantly, are they any good? I don’t think any new type of American whiskey is going to be a class or a category for at least five years—it’s just too soon to tell—but I can taste them now…and this one’s most definitely good.
The St. George Spirits (Alameda, California) single malt releases have been on my short list for this award for the past three years, but this year’s stood out. The bottlings—the “Lots”— before were good, but I felt that they had integration problems; too much of one flavor, uneven transitions. The whiskeys that went into this Lot—eight different casks, 4 to 15 years old—don’t argue or mumble, they all sing in balanced choral harmony. There’s an overture, a beautiful middle section that recapitulates and enhances the overture, and a hauntingly teasing finale that brings it all to a circling completion.
For more detail, here’s the heart of my review. “Delicate fruit, nuts, and sweet malt combine like a perfect pastry in the nose. Add a bit of unsweetened chocolate on the palate, finishing with a lingering reminiscence of every bit of flavor, and you have a beautifully integrated whiskey that is unmistakably St. George. Delightful.”
I said “unmistakably St. George” and I meant it. Whatever small flaws the previous Lots have had, they have had an underlying consistency of malt purity and light fruits. The fruit was lost in the somewhat singular voice of the pear eau de vie-casked XXX release two years ago, but it’s nicely framed this year. I’m looking forward to more of the same from St. George…and even better whiskeys to come. —Lew Bryson
The American Whiskey of the Year will be announced tomorrow.
The Whisky Advocate Awards are less than two days away!
The 21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards will be announced right here on the Whisky Advocate blog beginning this Friday, December 5th. As the awards are announced, they will automatically be published to the Whisky Advocate Facebook page and the Whisky Advocate Twitter feed (@whiskyadvocate).
The Whisky Advocate Awards exist to recognize excellence in the world of whisky. Now in its 21st year, the program is simply about the world’s greatest whiskies and distilleries, and the individuals who make and promote them. As always, these awards are not simply assigned to the whiskies that get the highest ratings in our reviews. The winners might be the highest-rated, or they might instead be the most significant, or the most important, or represent a new direction for a category or niche. The awards process is not, in short, a mere numbers-based formula. It is recognition of a combination of excellence, innovation, tradition, and…simply great-tasting whisky. Our Buying Guide reviewers reach a consensus on the awards.
These awards are the oldest and longest-running annual whisky awards program. We taste and sample over the course of the year, at year’s end we consider and confer, and then we make our decisions based solely on the merits of the whiskies…as we have done for over twenty years. We give you our word: that’s how it will continue to be.
Stop by each day to get the winner and read our commentary on the whisky and why it was chosen. Here’s how they’ll roll out, starting with the American whiskeys and progressing around the world to wind up in Scotland, followed by our Lifetime Achievement Awards and the big one: Distiller of the Year!
December 5: Craft Whiskey of the Year
December 6: American Whiskey of the Year
December 7: Canadian Whisky of the Year
December 8: Irish Whiskey of the Year
December 9: Japanese Whisky of the Year
December 10: World Whisky of the Year
December 11: Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year
December 12: Speyside Single Malt of the Year
December 13: Islay Single Malt of the Year
December 14: Highland/Islands Single Malt of the Year
December 15: Lowlands/Campbeltown Single Malt of the Year
December 16: Lifetime Achievement Awards
December 17: Distiller of the Year
Be sure to check in every day, and join the lively conversation that these announcements always set off!