Tamdhu Batch Strength, 58.8%, $88
Tamdhu was always one of the quiet ones. You know, the distilleries who were happy to sit in the background, adding their qualities to blends, unknown by the vast majority of whisky drinkers. Since Ian Macleod bought the distillery from Edrington, however, there has been a slow emergence into the bright lights of the world of brands. The end of Edrington’s stewardship had seen the exclusive use of sherry casks, a policy its new owners have continued and benefited from. It makes sense. A great, balanced, sherried whisky is one of life’s pleasures. This is one of those. It cloaks its high strength in generous toffee fudge while allowing that extra alcohol boost to give more complexity and flavor delivery: dried fruits, nuts, date, chocolate. It’s amazingly easy to drink and at a great price. There will be slight variation between batches, but that’s part of the fun.—Dave Broom
Check back tomorrow for the Islay Single Malt of the Year Award winner announcement.
Blue Hanger 11th Limited Release, 45.6%, £89
Blends spun off in different directions this year. Johnnie Walker Select Cask Rye Cask Finish and Dewar’s Scratched Cask aimed to shift their flavor profile toward an American whiskey style. That Boutique-y Whisky Company launched highly accomplished blends in release sizes no larger than a single cask bottling. Douglas Laing completed their Remarkable Regional Malts range of blended malts, crowned by a special cask strength version of Scallywag. A strong contender for this award was the glorious blended grain whisky Hedonism Quindecimus from Compass Box. Variety and innovation marked this out as a notable year for good blends.
This year’s victor, however, is a marvelous blended malt whisky put together by Doug McIvor for Berry Brothers & Rudd that oozes with quality. Whisky Advocate ratings for Blue Hanger bottlings frequently exceed 90 points, the 6th release was a previous recipient of this award, and this 11th release has conquered with its charming personality showing through the layered complexity of the blend. The experience is drenched with citrus intensity, but a spectrum of other fruity flavors ricochets around the mouth: peach juice, mandarin, pineapple cubes, and lemon zest revealed in seemingly endlessly changing moments. A firm, unctuous finish shows a little charred wood and dark sugar cloaked in fine smoke. Doug McIvor’s talent for picking and blending exceptional single casks has not gone unnoticed, and this Blue Hanger 11th release is a masterful accomplishment. —Jonny McCormick
Our Speyside Single Malt of the Year award recipient will be revealed tomorrow.
Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus, 53.2%, 975 SEK
The Spirit of Hven distillery was founded in 2008 by Henric Molin on the attractive Swedish island of Hven in the strait of Öresund. The awe-inspiring structure of the Öresund bridge spans the same body of water further south, joining Copenhagen, Denmark to Malmö, Sweden. You cannot help but be swept up by Henric Molin’s infectious enthusiasm when he talks about his distillery. With a strong scientific background in chemistry, he maximizes flavor in his whiskies during production by calibrating the mashing temperatures, mixing yeast varieties, insisting on long fermentation times, and playing with the size of the spirit cut. His conviction of the need for full-sized cask maturation is backed by confidence in the quality of his wood policy.
Of course, this year’s award winner, Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus, was released in mid-winter in tribute to Saint Nicholas himself, who was patron saint of many causes including the protection of sailors and fisherman at sea: very apt for an island distillery. It was produced using their medium-peated recipe, distilled from a mix of pale malt and peated malt at 48 ppm. Fermentation ran for 120 hours, with a wide cut following double distillation in copper pot stills before the spirit was filled into French oak air-seasoned Merlot casks for the entire maturation. This single malt whisky was a bottling of three meticulously chosen casks with almost identical profiles, each in a run of 294 bottles at the same ABV, non-chill filtered, and with beautiful natural colors. One cask bottled for Sweden, another for Denmark, and one for the world.
The nose has puréed prune, dunnage, black licorice, clove, coffee bean, and raisin-studded chocolate. It’s like scorched earth after a wildfire. There is a syrupy, dark rum-like sweetness, a medley of cinnamon, cocoa, raisin, and vanilla essence. Water flushes out some gentle smoke and adds smoothness, but by God, it’s wonderful neat! —Jonny McCormick
Check back tomorrow for the Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year award.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony, 43%, $65
That there is an issue with available volumes of Japanese whisky is not exactly news. Indeed, there’s a whole feature about it in this issue. One of the solutions to this has been the creation of new no age statement (NAS) whiskies, of which this is one; though to be honest, the idea of a NAS blend is hardly news. The way in which Suntory’s chief blender Shinji Fukuyo has approached this is, however. In fact, you could argue that not having a minimum age to work with has opened up a new range of creative possibilities for him. It comprises a mix of whiskies from Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as the different ‘weights’ of grain whiskies made at Chita. There’s mizunara, there’s sherry, there’s American oak, there’s smoke. It is approachable, gentle, complex, and long, with typical Hibiki fruitiness: strawberry, pineapple, peach, cherry blossom, balanced by delicate oak, and a palate which has a gentle roundness. It’s a master class in blending. It’s also a master class in how great NAS should be. —Dave Broom
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s announcement: World Whisky of the Year.
Midleton Dair Ghaelach: Grinsell’s Wood, 58.3%, $270
This category was particularly competitive given the quality of new whiskeys emanating from Ireland this year. Three stood out, but ultimately Midleton Dair Ghaelach was chosen as the outright winner (though kudos to Redbreast Mano a Lámh and that brilliant pick by the Exclusive Malts from 2002).
This wonderful whiskey was the brainchild of Kevin O’Gorman, master of maturation at Midleton, and Billy Leighton, the master blender. Their vision was to re-introduce Irish oak maturation, a practice largely abandoned in the 19th century. Over the past six to seven years, they have conceived a whole new supply chain of sustainable Irish oak casks, starting with ten trees in Grinsell’s Wood, Co. Kilkenny. The trunks were quarter sawn in Spain, and the wood left to dry for fifteen months. After coopering, 48 medium-toasted Irish oak hogsheads were returned to Ireland and filled with mature Midleton whiskey. Over the next 10 months, the casks were studied assiduously as the flavors developed.
Straight off, Midleton Dair Ghaelach is utterly delicious: this is accessible and irresistible whiskey. It speaks to us of the landscape of old Ireland, when forests were more plentiful. You may be skeptical about the notion of terroir, but you must have a heart of stone if your soul wouldn’t be stirred by savoring a whiskey atop the stump of the very oak that shaped its flavors. It invigorates our expectations of Midleton in refill American oak: the native pot still spiciness is enveloped by chocolate-covered honeycomb, toasty oak, spotty bananas, and a barista’s coffee scoop, though a dash of water picks out lemongrass and rubbed mint. A silky-smooth mouthfeel of succulent fruits is shaken down with cocoa powder. Clove-spiked stewed apple weighs into a lengthy finish.
This raises the bar for Irish whiskey making, and comes at a fair price for the expertise and craftsmanship deployed at every level. The project was reminiscent of Dr. Bill Lumsden’s quest for the ultimate maturation vessel that led to Glenmorangie Artisan Cask. O’Gorman and Leighton have been as diligent at every turn: no shortcuts have been taken. —Jonny McCormick
Join us tomorrow for the Japanese Whisky of the Year announcement.
Crown Royal 75th Anniversary Blend, 40%, $75
King George and Queen Elizabeth loved their whisky. In 1939, a special one was created to celebrate their state visit to Canada. Ten cases of this regal dram, suitably named Crown Royal, were included in their provisions, to quench their royal thirsts as they crossed this enormous country by train. Canadians, thrilled with the royal celebrity visit, wanted to taste this nectar for themselves, and word quickly spread when Canadian military bases managed to add it to their supply shelves later that year. Soon, American whisky lovers wanted it too.
A blend fit for royals called for exceptional ingredients and initially, Crown Royal’s makers doubted they had enough fine whisky to support wider distribution. They began laying down more stock, until fully 25 years later they finally had enough superior whisky to extend the release into the U.S.
Today it seems ironic that an equally stellar blend celebrating the 75th anniversary of Crown Royal was originally destined for U.S. release only.
At the heart of the original royal blend was a zesty rye from an ancient Coffey still at the now-defunct distillery in Waterloo, Ontario. That still is now back in service at the Gimli distillery in Manitoba, providing the whisky that is the core of Crown Royal’s 75th Anniversary Blend. (A legal challenge required them to drop the original name, “Monarch.”)
Gooderham & Worts, Canadian Club Vintage Collection, Forty Creek Three Grain Harmony, WhistlePig Boss Hog, and many more fine Canadian whiskies were released in 2015. However, the delicate balance, complex elegance, and the smoothest palate combine to make this one of the finest Canadian whiskies in many years: a full 96-pointer. But note, with sadness and some urgency: what is on sale now is the last of it. —Davin de Kergommeaux
Join us tomorrow for our Irish Whiskey of the Year announcement.
John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve 20 year old, 45%, $300/375ml
When Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim distillery (and the Old Fitzgerald bourbon brand) in 1999, the deal included stocks of wheated bourbon produced at the original home of Old Fitzgerald, the now legendary (and silent) Stitzel-Weller distillery. Most of those stocks were dumped and bottled as one of the Old Fitzgerald expressions in subsequent years. However, twelve barrels were transferred from Stitzel-Weller to one of the Heaven Hill warehouses in Bardstown, where they remained until two years ago.
This whiskey is 20 years old. Twenty years is a long time for bourbon to be aging in oak barrels. The risk of becoming over-oaked is great. Indeed, many of the 20-plus year old Stitzel-Weller bourbons that have been bottled recently (including the famed Pappy Van Winkle line) are, in my opinion, over-oaked.
However, these twelve barrels were smartly transferred from Stitzel-Weller and stored on the first floor of the Heaven Hill warehouse, where the influence of the barrels was slowed. In 2013, when the Heaven Hill team decided the whiskey had reached its peak, they wisely transferred it into inert stainless steel tanks, where it remained until this year.
The result? A classic expression of an ultra-mature wheated bourbon. What impresses me most is the lovely, satisfying sweet notes that dovetail perfectly with the oak. It’s very complex, too, with vanilla toffee, marzipan, cocoa, nutmeg, black raspberry, maple syrup, teaberry, and dusty dried corn all thrown into the mix, along with warming cinnamon and polished oak on the finish.
This bottling has everything a whiskey lover looks for in a bourbon: a fantastic expression from a legendary distillery that hasn’t operated since the early 1990s. The icing on the cake? The luxuriously heavy glass decanter, fitting of the whiskey inside it. —John Hansell
Tomorrow’s announcement will be our Canadian Whisky of the Year.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye, 45%, $39
I wasn’t that impressed with Mountain Laurel Spirits’ Dad’s Hat rye at first. Like other craft distillers, they had quite a learning curve to overcome. The first few bottlings I tasted were muddled, just not focused on what they wanted to be, and it was likely that the makers hadn’t decided what they wanted it to be yet.
When I first tasted this new bottling at the distillery, back in August, I could see that the whiskey had evolved. Although they have a small amount of straight whiskey aged in 53-gallon barrels, the main label is being bottled at 8 to 9 months old, from 15-gallon barrels. Herman Mihalich—the distiller—is making his cuts to optimize the spirit for that age. Then John Cooper—the blender—samples, blends, considers, and makes the batch.
The result is an excellent young rye. The nose is clean and complex: crushed grain, grasses, sweet spice, and the bitter herbal note of rye. It’s all there on the tongue with a light barrel character, moving to a neatly integrated finish.
It’s locally-grown rye (I drive through some of the fields on my way to the Whisky Advocate offices), 15% malt, and 5% rye malt, a classic proportion for the “Monongahela Red” color and character of Pennsylvania rye whiskey. Rye is all they make, with a couple finishes. The focus has paid off. This is a rye any Pennsylvanian can be proud of. —Lew Bryson
Check back tomorrow for our American Whiskey of the Year announcement.
Photo: Todd Trice Photogrpahy
The 22nd Annual Whisky Advocate Awards will be announced here beginning this Friday, December 4th. As the awards are announced, they will also be posted 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 22nd year, the program is 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, always, 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 see 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 4th: Craft Whiskey of the Year
December 5th: American Whiskey of the Year
December 6th: Canadian Whisky of the Year
December 7th: Irish Whiskey of the Year
December 8th: Japanese Whisky of the Year
December 9th: World Whisky of the Year
December 10th: Blended/Blended Malt Whisky of the Year
December 11th: Speyside Single Malt of the Year
December 12th: Islay Single Malt of the Year
December 13th: Highland Single Malt of the Year
December 14th: Lowlands/Campbeltown Single Malt of the Year
December 15th: Lifetime Achievement Awards
December 16th: Distiller of the Year
Be sure to check in every day.
Demand for Maker’s Mark continues to grow strongly, and the distillery has been trying to catch up with it. A second set of stills, a larger dam on their lake to secure their water supply, new warehouses: it’s been busy outside of Loretto for the past ten years.
It’s not slowing down. Last week, spirit started flowing from a third set of stills at Maker’s. Like the previous expansion, this set is, as much as possible, identical to the originals, a mirror image. The three stills sit side-by-side-by-side to minimize any differences from siting.
You have to wonder how much room there is for this kind of thing to go on, because Maker’s Mark, like bourbon in general, shows no sign at all of slacking off. We promise: if you keep making it, we’ll keep drinking it.