May 18, 2016

Laphroaig Quarter Cask...

Laphroaig Quarter Cask (48.0%): Now this is an NAS whisky nobody ever complained about... If I don't remember wrong it was released sometime around 2004 and I didn't hear anybody bad-mouthing it ever since. We all knew that it was only a five to six years old ex-bourbon barrel whisky which spent an additional 7-8 months in quarter casks but we absolutely loved it. The growing frustration towards NAS whiskies is not caused simply because the brands do not print the digits on their labels. It is growing because distilleries and brands are jacking up the prices of their NAS whiskies constantly and they use NAS products as a tool simply to maximize their profit only. But there are great examples like Glenfarclas 105, Ardbeg Uigeadail or in this case Laphroaig Quarter Cask which proved in years that if you execute a quality whisky and ask a reasonable price for it people won't try to tear down your product. That simple... Laphroaig is my favorite one amongst the three neighboring distilleries of the southern coast of Islay and I am so glad that Quarter Cask finally found its way back to my cabinet after a long break. Now, let's start with the tasting, pouring now... Color: Light amber, bright, clear yellow gold. Nose: Gosh... Where do I start? First wave carries baskets of fruits: Grilled pineapple chunks, ripe mango slices and red plums. Then I close my eyes and I imagine myself chilling somewhere on a West Mediterranean coast: Olive brine, sea salt dried on skin and cotton rags soaked in gasoline. Beach sand and warm sea breeze. It connects seamless to the next layer after some time: Ashtray left on the dining table the night before. Half burnt fuming logs in the fireplace (same morning presumably...) and chimney soot. Like it wasn't enough on top of all there is some vanilla, burnt granulated sugar, fir and rosemary. A few drops of water add some citrusy qualities: burnt lemon peel and bergamot. I really don't want to stop nosing, Glencairn glass is glued to my nose... Palate: Toasted oak staves, tanned leather and hints of cardamom... Back to the beach: Salted smoked mackerel, cured olives and heavily toasted pine nuts. A little water makes it drier and smokier. Burnt milk, seaweed and dry black garden soil. Finish: A pleasant numbing at the back of my throat... Long, dry and loaded with tar. Cracked black peppercorns, charcoal and cigar smoke. Overall: Cracker whisky... One my favorites in Laphroaig's current line-up. If you have the 10 year old cask strength and Quarter Cask in your whisky cabinet you are pretty much covered. I hope they won't try to push the price of this bottle in near future. Nothing more I can say about this dram. Highly, highly recommended...

Laphroaig Distillery // Visitor Center, November 2009
Laphroaig Distillery // Still Room, November 2009

May 11, 2016

Blend Project #22 Bank Note 5yo...

Bank Note 5yo (43.0%): Bank Note is a five year old (extra points for the age statement) blended Scotch whisky from A. D. Rattray's portfolio. The press release says that its recipe contains 40% single malt whiskies sourced from the distilleries in Speyside and Highlands regions and the rest is grain whisky distilled in Lowlands. It is the second whisky from A. D. Rattray line-up I will review after the blended malt called Cask Islay. Bank Note is bottled at 43% abv. and the 1 liter bottle sitting on my desk carries a price tag of $19... So, since the whole story is too good to be true, I have to admit that I start the tasting a little skeptical. But anyhow, let's see what the whisky will deliver in the glass... Color: Light amber... Looks like a healthy dose of caramel coloring is involved. Nose: Ok, the first impression I have is something like this: It is early afternoon and you walk into a dive bar right after they open. There is nobody around except the old guy with a trucker hat sipping his beer slowly while watching the news on the local TV channel... Cheap dishwasher liquid, burnt oil smell from the kitchen, bleach on the floor and wet wooden counter tops... You get the picture. What else? Damp concrete sidewalks after a summer downpour, milk paint and moldy hay. Nothing to feel inspired so far... After letting it air a good five minutes I start to get some faint decent aromas: Table grape, unripened peach and green almonds. Breakfast cereal but young grain alcohol is still there and burning its way through. Palate: Well, way more pleasant than the nose. Creamy... Yellow gummi bears, lime juice and candied lemon peel. Too bad that the dishwasher liquid is still there. Some candle wax and young alcohol sizzling at either side of the tongue. Finish: Sudden death. Mostly with alcohol burn... Some artificial lemon extract and caramel sweetness. Overall: Well, let's get it straight: Nobody promised anything more than a five year old $19 whisky... And that's exactly what it is: A whisky you would get when you shout "Whisky..!" after entering a pub. And believe me, it would pair great with your pint of ale you are ordering with. It also can make decent highballs. I have to say that the nose reminded me a lot of Whyte & Mackay Special and that's why it threw me off mostly but I have a liter bottle now in my cabinet and I better find a way to make it work. Summer is almost here and I am sure that I will be drinking a lot of whisky highballs in coming months. So, there you go... Long story short, Bank Note won't make the list. There are many other blends to purchase if you are willing to pay a few bucks more.

May 6, 2016

Independent Bottlings and New Blends in American Whiskey...

I know that this topic is discussed hundreds of time on different platforms already but for what it is worth I also have a few things to say… As you all know lately people got pretty upset after some new distilleries scored very high points, win medals, awards and what not with whiskeys they actually didn’t distill but sourced from other distilleries. It fired up a debate about how ethical this whole business model is and whether we should bring more transparency in the industry or not.

Compass Box line-up in Boston Whisky Live, October 2014

For my two cents one of the most important reasons why this discussion reaches a dead end every time is that we still don’t have a strong and established independent bottler category in American whiskey industry and for some particular cases the category “Blended American Whiskey” is not really a term most whiskey producers are willing to print on their labels because of its definition and history.

Cooley 13yo Single Cask Nation bottling
Let's start first talking about blended whiskey in America. "Blended American Whiskey" is defined by TTB regulations as “Whisky produced by blending not less than 20% on a proof gallon straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies and, separately or in combination, whisky of any type or neutral spirits.” Therefore it is a term clearly defining cheap and “low shelf” products which potentially can contain 80% neutral spirit. You can see why distillers and blenders don’t want their whiskey to be identified as blended American whiskey. But in Scotland blended whisky is a totally different entity which cannot include neutral spirits and doesn't necessarily mean cheap and bland alcohol like its American counterpart. On the contrary from the old and widely distributed brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, etc. to the rather new, artisan and limited releases from Compass Box, Wemyss, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, etc. blended Scotch has always been a vibrant, respected, innovative, constantly improving and expanding branch of the industry. It is the best selling whisky category in the world after all... While master blenders are getting all kind of credits and honors on the other side of the Atlantic and promoting their products proudly as “blends”, master blenders here understandably do not label their whiskeys as blends to avoid possible confusions. For example while John Glaser (actually it is pretty ironic that he is an American…) is enjoying his worldwide fame as a master blender with his own label “Compass Box”, David Perkins from High West is deliberately avoiding the fact that he is actually creating some amazing blends.

Clynelish cask in Springbank warehouses, June 2014

At this point even the most snobbish single malt Scotch drinkers have their favorite blends and I don’t think that anybody is particularly interested in what exactly the recipes of them are. I personally don’t want to know what they are using to blend each batch of Bell’s or Campbeltown Loch. I just want to make sure that I will get the same experience every time I order one. But all of a sudden we started to demand more transparency from all American whisky makers forgetting that a small fraction of the whiskeys we are talking about are actually blends. We should allow Bourye or Campfire be known brands by themselves. They are great blended whiskeys, I like them a lot and to be honest I don’t want to worry about how David Perkins’s blends them.

But now I would like to comment on an entirely different and actually more important subject... There is a more common practice used by new distilleries rather than creating their own blends with sourced whiskey. They simply buy a cask (or multiple) from another distillery, fill the liquid into the bottles and promote them as their own whiskey. Most of the time the process is not well explained and/or deliberately hidden to mislead customers. They basically establish their brand on somebody else’s product in secrecy and hope that their own whiskey in the future will be as good as the sourced one so the transition can happen while nobody is noticing… We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There is already a category for this type of releases and it is simply called “independent bottling”. It is a pretty common business model and an accepted category in the whisky world again almost anywhere but for some odd reason in America it is kept on the hush.

Whistle Pig Boss Hog launch in Boston, September 2014
Well, this is exactly where we should demand for more transparency and honesty from the producers. Opening a distillery and entering a competition just months after with a whiskey sourced from another distillery and trying to promote your brand by winning medals and awards with somebody else’s product is not ethical. We definitely need the “independent bottler” category in spirits competitions as soon as possible.

At the end I have two separate suggestions here: 

First, since it is almost impossible to re-phrase or re-define TTB’s “Blended American Whiskey” category maybe a new term can be created to cover all the new blended whiskeys in America. I believe that the industry will benefit immensely from it. 

Secondly we should come up with a new category for sourced, un-blended whiskeys. It can be called as simple as "independent bottles" like anywhere else or if we really feel like it we can come up with a new term but it’s definitely needed.