Archive for the ‘Irish whiskey’ Category

Irish Oak for Irish Whiskey

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Jonny McCormickIn the crisp morning light of southern Ireland, we regard the sentinel oak that has stood anchored to this hillside near Stradbally, Co. Laois for the past 150-200 years. Season after season, her buds have burst into leaf, unfurled, and stretched up for the light, the broad canopy sheltering the forest floor far below. But she has seen her last summer.

Today, bright pink spray can markings signal the end for this swaying Irish giant. The buzzing of chainsaws breaks the morning stillness and in less than ten minutes, she is felled with a splintering crump. Don’t get too sentimental: she was chosen selectively and the coopering grade timber harvested here is destined to flavor new pot still Irish whiskey.

1-18 McCormick_Chainsaw resting on the fallen trunkThere is a historical precedent for using Irish oak to mature native whiskey although it has probably not been practiced since the 19th century. Sure, you may remember that Cooley produced Connemara Bog Oak whiskey a few years ago, but that was never likely to lead to an industry revolution. At Midleton distillery, master of maturation Kevin O’Gorman had been nurturing the idea of Irish oak maturation for many years. As Billy Leighton, their master blender, recalls from a conversation seven years ago, “One thing that sticks in my mind is that Kevin said, ‘I don’t want to do this, unless we do it right,’ which is the way we do things at Midleton.”

O’Gorman began to assemble the expertise he needed, beginning with Paddy Purser, consultant forester, to help identify a suitable supply of quality Irish oak and to ensure its sustainability. Tentatively, they undertook a series of maturation trials in small Irish oak casks made by Ger Buckley, their stalwart master cooper. Paddy explained the need to choose knot free, straight-growing trees, free from unsuitable spiral grains. His search for the best led them to Grinsell’s Wood on the Ballaghtobin Estate, Co. Kilkenny. Landowner Michael Gabbett owns a map drawn in 1820 that clearly shows an established wood in that location nearly two centuries ago. Today, there are about 200 mature oak trees in Grinsell’s Wood and they harvested just ten back in April 2012.

Ireland has relatively few remaining ancient forests. Currently, landowners are encouraged to apply for afforestation grants from the government to establish new woodlands. After witnessing the felling, Paddy takes us to see a stand of slender, silvery oaks in Ballykilcavan Forest, near Stradbally to explain what we might see growing in the cleared woodland in 20 years’ time. Trees are taken in groups of four or five to remove enough of the canopy to create enough light for regeneration to occur. The entire project is managed sustainably, meaning that the regeneration of the forest is actively managed to produce high-quality replacement oak trees in the future. For every tree taken out, there may be ten more oak trees planted. Clearly, there is never any intention to take more than the forest can regenerate.

Regeneration is a natural process, though there can be active planting to ensure the right species diversity. In 2010, these saplings in Ballykilcavan were thinned to take out competitors. Daubs of red and white paint encircle the trees that have the best potential to become quality oak for whiskey casks in a century or more. The lower branches are pruned so that when the tree’s crown develops, the growth is concentrated in the better quality stems.

Oak is a light-demanding species and needs light to grow. Holly and beech trees are shade-tolerant species that grow beneath the canopy of oak in the understory and middle story respectively. These shade the oak trunks, preventing the formation of unwanted epicormic branches that could result in knots that limit the value of the cooperage oak. Epicormics are produced if the crown is suppressed and the tree tries to produce a new crown, or if the tree is suddenly exposed to a lot of light and tries to take full advantage of the conditions.

Ballykilcavan Forest is managed close to nature, meaning they encourage a mixed forest with a diversity of species and tree ages, making it more resilient than a monoculture of oak. The mild, wet Irish climate provides a long growing season, with faster growth rates than the U.S. or Spain. This produces a hardwood that is a little less dense but more porous. A more open structure results in a greater oak contribution to the flavor of whiskey. O’Gorman and Leighton have found that Irish oak produces higher lignin breakdown products in the whiskey creating flavors of caramel, toffee, and vanilla.

So what’s the reason I’m squelching through the woodland in a hard hat with my homecoming Dubarry boots caked in mud? The new whiskey is called Midleton Dair Ghaelach: Grinsell’s Wood, the first in the Virgin Irish Oak Collection (I can help you with the pronunciation: try saying Der Gway-lack with conviction and you’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about). Attending the tree felling is the owner of the Maderbar sawmill in Barella in north-west Spain who will oversee the quarter sawing of the Stradbally trunks.

The foresters quickly calculate the volume of the fallen trunk by measuring its girth and length with tape measures (like the volume of a cylinder, they use πr2h). They determine that it should produce 4.4 tons of wood (the secondary wood has other commercial uses and the crown goes for firewood). The Co. Kilkenny trees from Grinsell’s Wood left Barella for the heat of Jerez, to be air seasoned over 15 months to get the moisture down under 16%. The Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage made 48 Irish oak hogsheads with a medium toast from those ten trees. Then they were repatriated to Ireland.

1-37 McCormick_Kevin O'Gorman and Billy Leighton toast the new release

Kevin O’Gorman and Billy Leighton toast the new release.

The virgin casks were filled with Midleton whiskies from 100% second and third-fill American oak barrels (typical casks of the Midleton style). These were mature batches of pot still, ranging from 15-22 years with a full range of styles from the lighter, more herbal end of the pot still character, through to the heavier styles that bring leathery and peppery notes. The casks were carefully watched and sampled over 10 months by Leighton and O’Gorman before bottling. Timing was critical to get the balance right.

With a tangential nod to the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, each bottle is marked with the tree number so that each whiskey can be traced back to a tree stump in the woods. Remarkably, we visited the stump of the tree that made the casks that finished the very whiskey we were drinking; something I’ve never experienced before. Each tree’s casks have been bottled separately, so there is some variation in strength from tree to tree (strength ranges from 58.1% to 58.5%).

Cooperage oak need not always come from Spain, France or the U.S. as whiskies from Glengoyne Scottish Oak to Hammer Head Czech whisky have proved. It’s a small step, but Irish Distillers believe there is no reason that Irish oak cannot play a greater role in the maturation of their whiskies in the future. As Kevin O’Gorman concluded, “It’s our barley, our water, our oak. It’s tasting history.”

 

Jonny’s full review of Midleton Dair Ghaelach will appear in the summer issue of Whisky Advocate.

Latest DISCUS Numbers Confirm Whiskey Growth Still Strong

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Author - Liza Weisstuch

Partisanship nearly defines America today. But on Tuesday morning, the Distilled Spirits Council of the US offered some information that all parties can applaud: the American whiskey can claim a banner year. Again. The total whiskey category was flat for years, then in 2011 it picked up steam and it hasn’t shown signs of flagging.

This year’s industry review, which the trade organization presents each February, revealed that the total supplier sales in the US were worth $23.1 billion. With American whiskey, it’s the same happy story: the category is booming and it’s the high-end and super premium brands that are driving the growth. Supplier sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey across price segments grew 7.4% over 2013 to approximately 19.4 million cases, a jump of 1.3 million cases. That increase accounts for a massive chunk of the 4.4 million cases by which the overall industry grew in 2014.

The revenue growth for American whiskey tells its own story. Last year, supplier sales rose 9.6% to $2.7 billion, up $230 million over 2013. Breaking it down by price segment proves DISCUS’s oft-repeated dogma: premiumization, which is shorthand for “people aren’t drinking more, they’re drinking better,” drives the industry. Revenue on value products ($12 or less at retail) grew a mere 5.5%, about $181 million on 3.1 million cases. Revenue on high-end ($18-$30 per bottle) products, were up 8.1% to $1.6 billion (yes, billion). But the truly jaw-dropping growth quotient comes in the realm of the super-premium brands ($30+/bottle). These sales leaped 19.2% to $325 million.
Combined whiskey sales growth is accelerating (numbers include imported and flavored whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Whiskey category growth accelerates (totals include flavored and imported whiskeys; CAGR = Compound Annual Growth Rate)

Flavored whiskey was a factor in the surge. Sales of an increasing selection of flavored American whiskey products grew by 140,000 cases. But a more significant is the thriving export market. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS senior vice president for international trade, apologized for being repetitive year after year as she reported more record-shattering stats: the $1.12 billion revenue that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey bring home to producers accounts for 70% of the $1.56 billion spirit exports market.

The top export markets are Canada—which, with $212.6 million of sales, marked a colossal growth of 111% over the past ten years—and the UK ($177.6 million). Germany and Australia pretty much tie with their spending of $136.7 million and $131.2 million, respectively. Then there’s the bureaucratic activity (or mumbo-jumbo, depending on your appetite for granular examination of international relations.) Trade agreements in recent years have reduced or eliminated tariffs in countries like Korea and Australia, which open up more export opportunities.

All this American whiskey talk, however, didn’t drown out the news about Scotch.

“When you listen to single malt Scotch drinkers talk, it’s almost like they’re having a religious experience,” said David Ozgo, DISCUS chief economist. He proceeded to explain that, as with bourbon, high-end and super premium brands are propelling the whole category. While revenues from “premium” single malts (the least expensive brands), fell by 13.4%, high-end and super premium rose by 6.8% and 6.3%. respectively. This came as little surprise just days after the Scotch Whisky Association announced that the Scotch industry is worth more than £5 billion in the UK, which outpaces two of the UK’s giant industries: computers, and iron and steel.

A small but increasing role is played by America’s boutique brands. In 2010, there were 109 independent distilleries operating; today there are more than 700. With sales of about 3.5 million cases last year, these producers account for 1.7% share of the spirits market’s volume. Ozgo noted that estimated supplier revenues was between $400 and $450 million, a sum he calculated based on data from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which indicates taxes paid.

The information presented at the briefing skirted the ongoing debate around the increasingly contentious terms “craft” and “handcrafted,” which have generated class action lawsuits against false claims. DISCUS uses the term “small distillers,” which it defines as the 712 producers turning out less than 50,000 cases (the average in that group being an astonishingly small 3,000 cases). The data, however, also takes into account seventeen distilleries that produce an average of 80,000 cases.

When, after the presentation, this reporter asked about the “handcrafted” debate, Frank Coleman, DISCUS senior vice president of public affairs, noted, “Let them fight about it. Some of the finest craft products in the world are made by large companies. [Glenmorangie master distiller] Bill Lumsden is making handcrafted whisky.” It is a distinction almost unique to whisky that makes the category even more intriguing.

 

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Award: Irish Whiskey of the Year

Monday, December 8th, 2014

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.

21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards To Be Announced

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

The Whisky Advocate Awards are less than two days away!

wa.awards2015.logThe 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!

Top 10 Rated Whiskies from the Winter 2014 Issue

Friday, November 14th, 2014

The winter issue of Whisky Advocate will be hitting the newsstands in early December. Until then, here’s a sneak preview of the Buying Guide. It’s our biggest yet; with 157 whiskies reviewed. We start with #10 and conclude with the highest-rated whisky of our winter issue.

#10: Port Ellen 1978 35 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 56.5%, $3,300Port Ellen bottle&box LR

Scarcity and the secondary market have driven prices up, so either buddy-up to a rich guy, or club together to try this. Greater levels of cask interaction have added an extra dimension to a whisky that is often skeletal. The smoke’s in the background, as salted cashew, peppermint, tansy, furniture polish, and smoked meats take center stage. The palate is slowly expanding and smoked, with some chocolate and wax. Finally, a Port Ellen that is truly, classically mature. A killer. (2,964 bottles)—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res

#9: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40/375 ml

This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. Caramel kissed with honey provides a base for marzipan, cotton candy, cinnamon, clove, and a balancing leather dryness on the finish.–John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93The Joker Hanyu color label

#8: Ichiro’s Malt The Joker (distilled at Hanyu), 57.7%, £220

The final deal of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series, a vatting of Hanyu from 1985 to 2000. Highly complex, rich, and distinctly resinous. Typical Hanyu boldness, but with balance struck between weightiness, finesse, and intensity. There’s old cobbler’s shop, tack room, light smoke, incense, ink, autumn leaves, and sumac. The palate is sweet to start, then builds in power. Leathery, then praline, damson jam, and fine tannins. Water loosens the tension, allowing yuzu to show. What a way to go out.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#7: Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90

C2014LESmallBatch_Frontrisp clove, cool mint, cinnamon, and cocoa mingle with glazed orange, honeyed vanilla, caramel, and maple syrup. Polished oak and leather on the finish balance the sweet, fruity notes. More oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber (it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex), it gets close. Very impressive. –John HansellSpeyside

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#6: The Exclusive Malts Speyside 25 year old 1989 Cask #3,942, 48.8%, $200

Exclusive Malts doesn’t disclose the source distillery, which doesn’t matter when you’ve got a whisky that’s a gem. Apple cider defines the nose and is complemented by ginger and iris. On the palate this whisky is lush but well balanced, with honeyed apple cider, gingerbread cookie, and baked apple. In the center of all this is rancio. Ginger spice and baked apple define the finish, which is long and flavorful. Great balance, integration, and flavor. What more can you ask for? (U.S. only)
Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

Park_Avenue-Rare_Release#5: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Hunting Hound on Holiday 4.180 24 year old 1989, 51.3%, $225

From the nose you can tell this is a special whisky, with old, dark, lacquered wood, dusty cigar box, and sea salt combined with dark sweet cherry and a hint of rancio. On the palate it gets even better, with lush, dark cherry perfectly balanced and integrated with oak spice, salt, and peat smoke. There’s clear rancio in the center of it all that’s utterly delicious. This stunner finishes with a long, slightly spicy, and entirely lovely finish. (Park Avenue Liquor only) – Geoffrey KleinmanMidleton Very Rare 2013 Bottle

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#4: Midleton Very Rare 2014, 40%, $125

Make way. The nose is dense, oily, and mesmeric. There’s vanilla, sure, but it’s the intense aroma of vanilla pods split and scraped at knifepoint. Woven around it, there’s crème caramel and heavier cinnamon flaring at the margins, softening with dilution, but remaining sweet. The first Midleton to carry master distiller Brian Nation’s name is purposeful and assured, lacking some of the sappiness of the 2013 release. This is less about succession, more an emphatic statement of intent.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

Brora bottle&box#3: Brora 1978 35 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 48.6%, $1,250

This is the 13th annual release of Brora, which has been aged in refill American oak and refill European oak casks. Hessian and hemp on the early nose, with a whiff of ozone, discreet peat, and old tar. Fragrant and fruity notes develop, with ripe apples, and a hint of honey. The palate is waxy, sweet, and spicy, with heather and ginger. Mildly medicinal and smoky. Dries steadily in the finish to aniseed, black pepper, dark chocolate, and fruity tannins. (2,964 bottles) —Gavin SmithSazerac Rye 18

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#2: Sazerac Rye 18 year old, 45%, $80

A benchmark aged rye whiskey, and it’s similar in profile to recent releases. Vibrant for its age. Complex too, brimming with allspice, clove, mint, and cinnamon. The spice notes are balanced by soft vanilla, soothing caramel, and candied summer fruits. Impeccably balanced, and a pure joy to drink! –John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

Stagg#1: George T. Stagg, 69.05%, $80

No age statement, but distilled in 1998. A beautiful expression of Stagg, and a lot of bourbon for your buck. Easy to drink with the addition of water, showing caramel, nougat, dates, dark chocolate, polished oak, along with a hint of leather and tobacco. Slightly better than last year’s release—richer, thicker, and more balanced. I’m enjoying Stagg’s more rounded, less aggressive demeanor of late. A classic! –John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

It was revealed today that Beam, the all-spirits company spun off by Fortune Brands in 2011, has agreed to be acquired by Suntory for $13.62 billion, upon approval from Beam Inc. shareholders. Suntory already distributes Beam’s products in Japan, and Beam distributes Suntory’s products in several other Asian markets. The deal is targeted for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Given numbers from the Impact Databank, the deal will make Suntory the world’s fourth-largest spirits company, behind Diageo, India’s United Spirits Limited, and Pernod Ricard; Bacardi will now be fifth. By dollar amount, this is a bigger deal than the Fortune Brands/Pernod takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005.

Assuming the deal goes through, this will put a lot of new whiskeys under Suntory’s roof. In addition to their own Suntory, Yamazaki, and Hakushu brands, and Scottish brands Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and McClelland’s, they will now own all the associated Jim Beam brands, Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club, Laphroaig, Ardmore, Teacher’s, Alberta Distillers, Cooley, and the Spanish DYC brand. They’ll also own the still-growing Pinnacle flavored vodkas, Courvoisier cognac, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Gilbey’s, and Skinnygirl cocktails.

What’s this mean to you, the whiskey drinker? Probably not much. Beam CEO Matt Shattock and the current management team will be left in place to run the business. Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, and Scotch whisky are all growing strongly. Given Suntory’s record with Morrison Bowmore, it seems unlikely that they’d change anything with their new acquisitions. Should we worry about Suntory owning both Bowmore and Laphroaig, and possibly closing one Islay distillery as unwelcome internal competition? Not for now, when both are selling well, though it may become a factor if there’s a downturn; but in that case, everything is going to be in play anyway.

The deal will increase Suntory’s debt load considerably; Moody’s Investors Service indicated that they would be evaluating the company for a re-grading in light of it. Should we worry about prices going up to cover the debt? Realistically, at this point in the whisky market…would we notice?

This was a sale that everyone interested in the industry had been expecting, at least on the “Beam sold” end. As a purely spirits company that was neither family-owned nor large enough to fend off purchasers, Beam was widely considered as a very likely takeover target. The “Suntory acquired” part was more of a surprise, in that one company is swallowing them whole. That’s the only potential downside; that a richer purchaser might have been able to put more into the new brands than Suntory will, but that’s all speculation.

In the end, it looks like a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ moment. Just another swapping in the game that has gone on for decades. Suntory has a good track record; rest easy. We might even see more Suntory whiskies in the world market.

Meanwhile, in a much, much smaller deal that was also announced today, two Tasmanian distilleries are merging. Lark distillery will acquire Old Hobart distillery and the Overeem brand. Both companies will remain as separate brands and entities, Overeem becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Lark. Perhaps more importantly, Bill Lark will be reducing his time at the distillery and becoming the Lark global brand ambassador, and Casey Overeem will be doing the same. We’ll wait to see if this means more Tasmanian whisky in America.

Whisky Advocate Award: Irish Whiskey of the Year

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

I was going to say that the performance of Irish Distillers over the last couple of years marks the greatest comeback in modern times, but that honor has to go to the astonishing antics of the U.S. America’s Cup sailing team. Nevertheless, the owners of Jameson have well and truly Redbreast 21 Year Oldsnatched the initiative back from its competitors, and this year it pulled off a highly surprising double.

Shortly after our Irish whiskey edition, Irish Distillers held a “housewarming” and unveiled a new training center, new stills, and plans for twenty new pot still whiskeys in the next ten years. Then just a couple of weeks later, they unleashed this.

In a few short years Irish whiskey has been turned on its head. The Teeling family started the revolution at Cooley, but now Irish Distillers has carved out a separate path and firmly re-established the unique, distinctive, and wonderful pot still whiskey style.

Redbreast 21 year old completes a hat trick for Irish Distillers, but this is by far and away the best Irish release of the year. It’s an immense whiskey: oily, spicy, rich, gloopy, and with red berries, menthol, and citrus abundant. It’s complex, too, but you don’t have to live with it long to realize what a gem it is. And very well judged: the oak and spice suggest that these first fill bourbon and sherry casks had reached the edge of a cliff.

Sensibly the strength is bang on the money, too, and almost certainly a cask strength version would not have worked. Heaven only knows if Irish Distillers can continue to raise the bar like this. It’s going to be fun watching them try though. Stunning. Again. —Dominic Roskrow

We hope you’re enjoying these: the Japanese Whisky of the Year is next up, tomorrow.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
GeorgeTStagg2
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97

 

The Housewarming at Midleton

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Dominic RoskrowDominic Roskrow was at Midleton’s coming out party for their new pot still room, and a lot more.

Over the years Irish Distillers has built quite a reputation for making its major announcements with some style, and this week’s event in Cork was no different. But while the scale of the event itself was no surprise, the ambition from the flurry of news announcements certainly was. Irish Distillers is aiming for the stars…and then some.

The event, held at the Midleton Distillery, was called “The Housewarming,” and DC 040913 DISTILLERY 70was ostensibly to unveil the new (and not completely finished) still room for the production of pot still whiskey. It was staged in the heart of the old distillery itself, and about 900 people from across the world were invited to take part.

The party consisted of a generous number of stalls serving a diverse selection of quality food, live music, a limitless supply of Irish whiskey and cocktails, and the odd stylish flourish, such as the announcement that the old still room was to be named after retiring Irish whiskey master distiller and legend Barry Crockett.

But while all of this and a gorgeous late summer day gave the proceedings a carnival feel, it was the business end of the offering that made the day so special.

First there was the stillroom itself, capable of eventually producing an amazing 20 million liters of pot still whiskey: that’s equal toDC 040913 DISTILLERY 119 two Glenfiddich distilleries. Much of it will go into blends, but Irish Distillers showed its full commitment to the resurrection of the Irish category with the announcement that it will release two new pot still whiskeys a year for the next ten years. It hinted at Blue Spot and Red Spot products to join the existing Yellow and Green Spot ones, and suggested that very soon we might see an older Redbreast product, possibly 21 years old.

The big surprise, though, was the unveiling of an educational facility to teach about Irish whiskey, complete with a working mini-still made of glass, and stylish display and information material. It marks a clear commitment by the company to play a leading role in protecting and developing  Irish whiskey in the future. All the up and coming Irish craft distillers were invited to the event.

Impressive stuff, and proof positive that the Irish rebirth is not only safe from stalling, but is moving forward at pace.

Thoughts on some new whiskies

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

John HansellThe stream of new whiskies keep coming. Here are my thoughts on some that I’ve tried over the past month or so.

ArdbogStarting with scotch, I’m enjoying the new Ardbeg “Ardbog.” I must be. I’m halfway through my bottle. (Okay, so I had some help.) It’s contains some Ardbeg matured in Manzanilla sherry casks. I think the Manzanilla integrates a little better than the Marsala in Ardbeg, which was the sherry influence in Ardbeg’s previous release, Galileo. Plus, I find myself in the mood more for Ardbog than I do Galileo.

At WhiskyFest Chicago, I tasted the new Port Charlotte 10 year old (PC 10) from Bruichladdich and really liked it. Great balance to it, along with a nice maturity. This whisky has really come of age.

Regarding Irish whiskey, I tasted a new Powers Signature Release Single Pot Still whiskey at WhiskyFest, bottled at 46% and not chill-filtered. There’s no age statement, and it doesn’t taste as old as Powers John’s Lane 12 year old, but I really enjoyed it. It’s another nicely balanced, flavorful Irish whiskey. (I’m told it will be in the U.S. this September.)

Up north in Canada, Canadian Club has introduced a Canadian Club 12 year old Small Batch. According to my contact, it contains a higher percentage of barley and is aged in more first-fill casks than the standard CC 12. I think I would enjoy something light like this during the warmer summer months.

Port_Charlotte_TenHere in the U.S., there’s a bunch of new releases from Beam. The Limited Edition “Distiller’s Masterpiece” is an “extra-aged” bourbon finished in Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry casks. Those of you who know PX sherry won’t be surprised when I tell you that there’s a lot of raisonated fruit in there, along with layers of toffee and other caramelized sugars. It’s a polarizing whisky, given the fruit, but I’m enjoying it as a change of pace. It’s also expensive ($200) and only available at the distillery. Those of you drinking bourbon as long as me will remember the Beam released two previous Distiller’s Masterpiece whiskies over a decade ago, one finished in cognac and the other finished in port wine. They were older (18 and 19, respectively), and I liked both of these more than this new release.

Beam has also released two Beam “Signature Craft” whiskeys: one is a 12 year old (which will be a regular stock item), and the other is finished in Spanish brandy (the first of a series of limited edition releases). I like the 12 year old. It’s very traditional, polished, nicely rounded and easy-going. It’s not going to set the world on fire with excitement, but it is indeed very enjoyable with nothing to complain about (except perhaps for the ABV, which is 43%. I would like to see it at 45% or maybe even higher.) The Spanish Brandy  release is more of a mood whiskey, given it’s Spanish brandy influence. It’s rich, fruity and sweet. Just like the Distiller’s Masterpiece above, I think some of you might like this for variety, but “traditionalists” might not be so receptive.

Kavalan Solist VinhoHeaven Hill has released a Limited Edition Barrel Proof Elijah Craig 12 year old. It’s nice to see the age statement still on this whiskey. (It seems all too often that when a producer introduces a barrel proof version of a brand, they do away with the age statement and release it at a younger age.) I like it! It’s very much in the EC style: lots of chewy, nutty toffee notes. In fact, given its higher proof, I would describe it as chunky–in a good way. It’s not a polished or refined bourbon, but it sure is flavorful.

Finally, I would like to mention two other new whiskies I’m enjoying. The new Amrut Greedy Angels  (50% ABV) proves once again that this distillery from India can release lovely whiskies. Also, the whiskies from Taiwan’s Kavalan distillery will be here in the U.S. later this year. I recently tasted my way through their line-up. While I was pleased with most of their offerings, I was particularly impressed with the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique bottling. It was complex, distinctive, and nicely mature.

Updated: Two late additions I almost forgot about. (Thanks Adam for the reminder in the comment section on both.) My Editor’s Pick for the Summer issue of Whisky Advocate is the new Angel’s Envy Rye. I really like that whisky. I enjoy the spice from the rye and how it dovetails with the Caribbean rum notes. I also am enjoying the new Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon. It’s 13 years old, but the oak is kept in check, with plenty of spice, fruit and sweetness.

How about you? What new releases have you been enjoying lately?