By Louis Perlman, New York
It is no secret that I enjoy peated malts in the colder months of the year. But when spring comes, peat simply doesn’t do very much for me. After a whole bunch of my lighter malts got polished off, I restocked for last summer. But the project seemed to have a life of its own, so it is only now that I am reporting my findings.
But before I go any farther, some more clarification is of the order. Had I simply done my write up last September or so, it would have been just in time for the cooler weather in the northern hemisphere. Great for SMS lovers in Australia, South Africa, and South America, but lousy timing for the majority of the Malt Maniacs readers, who reside north of the equator. So I’ll jump ahead a bit, and reveal that I have discovered that man (and woman) does not live solely on peat, even in the winter months. Particularly when you are at something like a holiday party, it’s not going to be very cold in a crowded room, and the more delicate Speysides may be more in line with the general ambience. So there are times in the colder months, when even a devoted peathead can take a break.
And second, these difficult economic times require out-of-the-box thinking. Just like the hapless automakers that had the bad luck to introduce a new line of pickup trucks or SUV’s just in time for $140/barrel of oil last summer, certain spirits conglomerates (or the distilleries themselves) and/or importers seem to be marching to the tune of a different dram (bad pun). So some of the whiskies described below may be deemed rather curious choices by many single malt scotch lovers. But have no fear, I will explain at the end.
So having dispensed with the formalities, it’s time to get down to business….
Balvenie 17yo (43%, OB Sherry Oak)
This is the latest in Balvenie’s 17 year old limited edition series, following the Islay Cask (terminology that is no longer allowed by the SWA), and the New Wood and New oak. It is the first Balvenie in a long time aged exclusively in sherry casks. And well worth waiting 17 years for, I might add. There is good balance between the sherry and the traditional Balvenie marmalade profile. Although bottled at 43% ABV, the body is firm enough. The street price is in the $80-95 range. For $80, it is an unqualified bargain, considering what the Macallan and Glenmorangie 18 year olds go for, but a bit less so at $95. Rating was a bit tricky. I figured that I should do a HTH with the Macallan 12, but at the end of a tasting session, I could barely tell the two apart. That necessitated a second round. The differences were subtle, but the there Balvenie showed a bit more complexity. To put it another way, the Mac was getting a higher percentage of its flavors from the sherry cask than the Balvenie. Don’t get me wrong, the Macallan 12 has been one of my favorite drams for many years. I really think that it is one of the best all around drams, while this Balvenie is clearly an after dinner dram. So while I rate the Macallan 12 85 as one on my ‘benchmark malts’, I’ll give the Balvenie two extra points and rate it 87 points . Note: Balvenie has since released the Rum Cask edition, at around $125, making the Sherry Cask look like a bargain.
BenRiach 15yo (46%, OB Dark Rum Finish)
BenRiach 15yo (46%, OB 15 Year Old Pedro Ximinez Sherry Finish)
Once BenRiach had their basic line on the market for a while, it was obviously time for some creativity. So we have three expressions, the above two and a port wood finished, all 12 year olds with three years of finishing. As I have already tried a (peated) port wood BenRiach, I just went for the rum and PX. For both, the finishing is on the mild side. The PX has about half of the sherry effect as the Balvenie above, and the rum finishing is really only apparent if you know what it is. These are pleasant malts, although the 12 year old isn’t the last word in complexity to begin with. My only quibble is the price, $70 apiece. For that kind of money, I expect a bit more. Rating for both is 83 points.
Compass Box Whisky Canto Cask #46 (54.2%, OB) Bottled for Park Avenue Liquors.
This was the second Park Avenue CBW bottling, the first being the Monster, which was seriously good stuff. Although it has long since sold out, I am still including it here, because it is a noteworthy dram. Well, John Glasser worked his magic again, this time in the non-peated sector . The Cask #46 is vatted/blended from Speyside/Highland malts, most often used for blending. Age ranges from perhaps just under 10 years old, to the mid to upper teens. Put simply, it is the best non-peated, non-sherried, non-Sprinbank I have had in house, and certainly in the top 10 that I have ever tried. It reminds me of the wonderful Scotts Selection Glen Elgin that I was fortunate to sample at Whiskyfest some years ago. And there is more than likely some Glen Elgin in there too. Crisp and clean, with a honey-vanilla profile, and a bit of spiciness. I think that this is the good kind of creativity that we need more of, rather than more wine finishing. Highly recommended, rating 91 points.
Macallan Fine Oak (40%, OB)
When the Fine Oak series was introduced about five years ago, I didn’t consider it to be heresy, as I have sampled, enjoyed, and purchased a number of un-sherried Macallan’s over the years. But while I enjoyed the 15 year old, at least as a summer dram, I didn’t really pay much attention to the 10 year old. Less sherry, less years, and less proof, three strikes and you are out, right? And back then, it was just a few dollars less than the regular (i.e. Sherry Oak) Mac 12 year old. hardly a winning proposition. But as it turns out, the FO 10 is a decent dram in its own right. You get the typical non-sherry Macallan profile, with a (just) slightly flowery profile. And while the 12 year Sherry Oak will set you back around $50 nowadays the FO 10 is still around $35. My provisional rating is somewhere is the low 80’s, and this is the perfect dram to have around for your ‘scotch is scotch’ friends and relatives who aren’t worth wasting the good stuff on.
And now for the friends…
Isle of Arran 10yo, 1996 (46%, Whisky Galore)
Wow, I can still remember getting hold of the first Arran release back in 1999. There was no age statement, but it was obviously barely legal (i.e. three years old). There was much promise back then, so I figured that it was high time to try the Arran malt at a more conventional age. The only reason that I went for the Whisky Galore bottling was that it was ten dollars cheaper, but there shouldn’t be any major differences between it and the distillery 10yo un-chill filtered release. And on a beautiful May afternoon, there couldn’t be a more delightful dram. Pristine fresh barley, with a touch of honey. A comparison with the Glenmorangie 10yo revealed the Arran to be more laid back, without the GlenMo’s spicy exuberance. The difference is really a matter of what type of dram you are in the mood for. Interestingly enough, the Glenmorangie had a slightly firmer body, even though it is presumed to have been at least somewhat filtered. So my rating is the same 83 points, and it will be interesting to try the Arran over the next five to ten years.
Springbank 10yo (46%, OB)
The first (recent) release of the Springbank 10 year old back in 2000 was a big disappointment to those who discovered the distillery via the 21 year old or the amazing 12yer/100 proof, which had either some or a lot of older malt in it (depending on which batch your bottle came from). But those drams are no longer available, and fading memory allows us to appreciate the 10 year old on its own merits. Two years ago, i was a a very fancy wedding, and the groom was toasted with a bottle of the 10yo Springer. I certainly wasn’t about to decline, and was very pleasantly surprised. There was plenty of youthful exuberance, a hint of the sea combined with a nice dose of fruit. But the bottle that I purchased maybe eighteen months later was different. Now there was a firm malty underpinning, and the sea is somewhat brooding. There is some sherry casking evident, and it remains in the background, This is a firmer dram than the last time around, but now I am curious to see what my next bottle will be like. So while the 10 year old isn’t likely to take you back to the glorious (for Springbank lovers) late nineties, it is worth keeping around. Rating 86 points.
Would you date an 18 year old?
Everybody likes 18 year old scotch, right? There is nothing not to like.
Except for the price, of course. In the last few years of so, the price of the better 18 year old single malt scotches has just about doubled, to somewhere in the $130-150 range here in the US. There are of course, a number of 18 year olds that you can get for a lot less, but by and large, I think that the market has sorted itself out pretty well. So I’d like to suggest an alternative, 18 year old blends.
Now I am well aware that the word ‘blend’ is one that should not exist in the vocabulary of a proper single malt scotch devotee. But the 18 year old blends being produced today are quite good, and are available at very reasonable prices, especially compared to the likes of Macallan and Glenorangie 18 year old single malts.
Blends are cheaper than malts for a couple of reasons. Single malt prices have shot up along with world wide demand, particularly from the Asian markets. But blends use malts from distilleries that are not well know to single malt drinkers, if in fact, they are even released as single malts altogether. And second, there seems to be a greater supply of 18 year grain whisky that makes up maybe 70% of these blends. So here are three blends that are worth considering if your budget or value system won’t accommodate the more expensive malts.
Johnnie Walker Gold 18yr (40%, OB)
The Gold has been always a real sleeper, far better (and very different) that the 12 year old Black Label, but hiding in the shadow of the far more expensive Blue. The flavor profile is similar to the Blue, with a base of honey and vanilla, and a nice dose of fruit in the middle. Body is surprisingly firm for only 40% ABV. And you should be able to find a bottle for around $60. While I haven’t had a chance to compare the Gold to similarly priced malts, my provisional rating is in the 85-88 range.
Chivas Regal 18yr (40%, OB)
The current release has been reformulated somewhat, as I didn’t think much of the original release.
It is more laid back compared to the JW Gold, the fruit component is stewed fruit here. The end result is an elegant aperitif, as I don’t think that it will stand up very well to food.. The Malt Advocate gave the Chivas 18 a 95 rating, but I am not prepared to go quite that high. But I would give it a provisional rating in the high 80’s, and I hope to get a bottle in-house eventually. And you can’t argue with the price, I just saw it for $54.95 in a local liquor store this week.
The Famous Grouse 18yr (43%, OB)
The Grouse 18 year old is a blended malt whisky, no grain whisky is used. As it is produced by the Edrington Group, it is made up of the likes of Glenturret, Highland Park, Macallan, and Tamdhu. No peated malt is used. And you can really taste the Mac, at least after a few weeks of break in. I have access to a bottle a couple of times in the month it lasted, and improvement was noted each time. The 18 year old Grouse is very hard to find in the US, you may have to have pick it up duty free overseas. No rating, as it’s been too long ago since I sampled it.
My wife and I were been fortunate to have been invited to six weddings starting with Thanksgiving weekend last November.
While the affairs are always nice, the quality of liquor is rather variable. Caterers certainly understand food, and may know wine as well, but some of them just don’t get whisk(e)y. At one place, the only single malts were 12 year old Glens Livet and Fiddich, and even then, the bartender that just about came out and said: ‘we only have this stuff because of snobs like you’. I am certainly not expecting older Ardbeg, Brora or Springbank, but come on folks.
Whenever there are decent malts, I am happy to find something that I have never tried, or at least a malt that I wouldn’t bother to have a bottle of at home. And I am happy to say that I have been pleasantly surprised from an unexpected source.
Glenfiddich 12yo (40% OB)
Glenfiddich 18yo (40% OB)
Certainly this is a distillery that does not get a lot of love from Maniac-like SMS lovers. But when the Special Reserve was replaced with a 12 year old bottling a few years ago, it was to good effect, despite what Jim Murray may say. While the old SR was pleasant but unchallenging, the 12 year old moves up a level. The basic distillery character is there, with a bit a sherry casking. I think the real problem here is that a single malt scotch saying that the Glenfiddich 12 is a really good dram is akin for a man to say that he really likes music by Celine Dion or Gwen Stefani. But I have no problem with an 82 rating , just a point behind my benchmark Glenmorangie 10. When I tried the GF 18 at Whiskyfest a few years ago, I found it to be so watered down/filtered that I actually preferred the 15 year old Solera Reserve. The Grant’s must have heard this a lot, and the current release was a big improvement. It is a medium sherried dram, much less than the typical Macallan ‘Shery Oak’, or even the Balvenie 17 SW. This works out well, as the typical distillery profile is still discernable, and makes good use of the extra six years of aging. The street price is in the $70-75 range, I would be even more enthusiastic at $10 less, but not too bad in today’s economy. My rating is probably about the same as the JW Gold, I will look for an opportunity for a HTH.
OK, so 18 year old malts are good stuff, so how about 21? One affair we were fortunate to be invited was first class all the way, including the liquor. There was not just one 21 year old single malt scotch, but three, and a more than adequate supply, rather than just one bottle of each . And as this was a long drawn out affair, I had plenty of time to do adequate research, as I didn’t need to drive home. So let’s see how just how much we gain with an extra three years.
Glengoyne 21yo (43%, OB)
Glenlivet 21yo (40%, OB)
Glenfiddich 21yo (40%, OB)
The Glengoyne distillery flies a bit under the radar, but certainly produces some excellent malt, as witnessed by winning the overall winner in the first Malt Maniacs awards. While they call themselves ‘the gentle highlander’, the 21 actually has the most satisfying heft of the three. The sherry influence was kept in control, and this is probably the best balanced dram of the three. My rating is 89 points.
OTOH, I have never been able to lock in with either the Glenlivet 18 or 21. There is something I just don’t seem to get, although the 21 was my wife’s favorite of the three. I have has several other opportunities to sample the 21 with the same (lack of) results, so I am going to pass on a rating. Look for a chance to try it without having to buy the entire bottle, and decide for yourself.
But once again, Glenfiddich carried the evening. It turned out to be a very elegant dram, while stealing the gentle title from Glengoyne. I could drink this stuff all day or all night. It’s the kind of dram you’d want to drink while wearing your best suit and tie. The distillery character is similar to the 12 and 18, just better. While the 21 is rum cask finished, it is very well integrated, and I didn’t detect any artifacts that gave away the finishing. Of the three, this was my favorite, although I will give the same 89 rating as the Glengoyne. It is really a matter of personal preference at any given time, they are both quality drams. As for pricing, all three go for somewhere in the $100-130 range. That’s not exactly cheap, and they are obviously better values at the lower end of the range. But I am backing my choice, as I purchased a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21 as my ‘luxury bottle’ for the year.
If a year ago, I had gotten into the Back to the Future DeLorean, I would have been shocked at what I would have discovered. But I have to give credit where credit is due. The Glenfiddich distillery has really done a nice job with the current range. If you are looking for a gentler dram at any of the age/price points that they offer, look no futher, as you will be getting a quality dram. The Glengoyne 21 is equally worthy, as are the JW Gold and Chivas Regal 18 blends.
Now, for those who think I am getting soft, let’s take a step back for a moment. When single malt scotch prices were rising over the last few years, the distilleries claimed it was due to rising energy costs (and the weak dollar for stuff imported into the US). So now that oil prices have plunged and the dollar is strong relative to the GBP, why are SMS prices still going up?
And as I mentioned above, some of them still don’t get it. Why is the Balvenie Rum Cask a third more expensive than the Sherry Cask? Sherry casks are expensive, but there is no shortage of rum casks. And then there is the Tomintoul 12 yr. Oloroso Sherry Finish, bottled at 40% ABV, with a street price of $70. Huh?!?!?!?
Most of us do not have an unlimited budget for scotch. A nightly dram of $50 SMS, which is what many of our favorite 10 and 12 year old malts are going for nowadays, may totally blow the budget these days. So when the industry keeps on pushing up their prices despite the world wide recession, we sometimes need to find alternatives. For everyday drams, or even some of the special occasion drams, there is nothing wrong with going outside the box (or should that be bottle?) to keep room in the budget for the malts that we can’t live without. Slainte.