Archive for January, 2010


Penderyn Welsh Whisky

What do they know about making whisky in Wales? Quite a bit, apparently. Check out this awesome Penderyn Distillery Visit blog post over at Whisky for Everyone, based on their recent tour. This isn’t just a copycat operation Penderyn has going…they’ve come up with their own unique whisky-making process, from the mash used to the unique combination pot/column still used for distillation. In this Malt Advocate blog post from October, 2008, Ed Minning of Penderyn stated that the average age (at that time) of Penderyn was 4.75 to 5.5 years, with eventual “peak” maturation to take place in 6.5 to 7 years.

Disclaimer: The bottle I’m reviewing here is another freebie, but it was NOT sent to me specifically for review. I just happened to win one of the many contests that Penderyn has held on their Facebook page. Actually, I might have been the first contest winner, after which they changed their contest rules to UK-only participants because of difficulties in shipping alcohol to the United States. Many thanks to the folks at Penderyn for jumping through the necessary hoops to get my bottle to me, though.

How did I win it? Well, one of the people I follow on Twitter recommended following Penderyn there. I did so, and the first tweet I saw from them said that there was 5 minutes left in their contest to win a 700ml bottle of Penderyn. Just complete the following sentence: “I thought Penderyn was just another whisky until…” I quickly followed the link to their Facebook page and entered:

I thought Penderyn was just another whisky until I tasted this charmer with its sweet, fruity, spicy balance. A perfect example of the Scottish heritage that…What? It’s Welsh?! I must go there.”

I certainly didn’t expect to win anything, but thought somebody might find it amusing. To my surprise, whoever was picking the winner really did have a sense of humor and selected my entry!

Tasting Notes

Penderyn Aur Cymru NAS; 46%; Bottled Nov. 2009

This is the standard Penderyn [pronunciation] expression, finished in Madeira casks. The label says “Aur Cymru”, which means Welsh Gold. It’s a NAS (No Age Statement) whisky, but based on the Malt Advocate link in the intro, I’m guessing it’s at least 5 1/2 years old.

Nose: Sweet and fruity, leaning to the tropical side with fruits like mango, grape, green apples and melon. The first time I tried it, the melon especially stood out. Straight out of the bottle, it’s a bit sharp, and there’s some fresh oakiness, but both of these traits die down with time in the glass, with the oak turning to vanilla.
Palate: Because of the initial sharpness on the nose, I prepared for some roughness on the palate, but it was surprisingly gentle. There is a slow developing bitterness, but it’s not very strong. As I swallow, the initial sharpness from the nose seems to playfully reach up and grab my uvula.
Finish: Melon floats up through the back of the nostrils. On the tongue, there’s a sweet bitterness like you get from orange marmalade. The finish is relatively short, but it’s longer than the likes of Chivas Regal or Glenfiddich 12 year scotches.


I talk about tropical fruits, especially mango and melons, because that’s the closest I’ve been able to come so far to describing a particular part of Penderyn profile. It doesn’t quite tell the whole story, though. There’s some other element, maybe grassy or floral, that plays a part in making this a totally unique whisky relative to the others I’ve tried. I know they talk about Penderyn maturing quickly, but I’d definitely be interested in tasting an older expression in the future, as this still feels a tad on the young side.

I like this Penderyn, but for me, it’s a mood whisky. Maybe an afternoon or early evening dram when I want something light on the palate, but with a bit of a zing to it. It’s light, but it’s certainly not boring. So, is it a novelty or the real deal? I’d say both! It’s novel, in that it is unique, but I think it has staying power…the real deal.


  • Score: 81/100 points (B-) [My personal score relative to other whiskies I’ve tried]
  • Bottom line: Light and tropical, with a bitter-sweet finish. A unique whisky likely to evoke mixed reactions. Definitely worth a try to see where you stand.
  • Score higher if: When choosing a Jelly Belly pack, you go for the tropical mix; you prefer marmalade over jam.
  • Score lower if: You’re not looking for something “different” in your whisky; you don’t like sweet whiskies.
  • Value: Penderyn is $60 here in Arizona. I’m a bit torn on the value proposition. I rate this similar to $35-$40 whiskies I’ve tried and liked. However, I understand that this is a relatively small distillery and they probably can’t achieve the economies of scale that a Glenfiddich or Glenlivet can. I really think any whisky lover should try this at least once, though. You could try a 50ml sample to see if you want a full bottle.


Normally in this section, I would talk about other expressions by the same distillery, or whiskies I’ve tried that offer a similar profile. In this case, I have nothing to offer in either of those areas. However, I could compare this Penderyn expression to The Glenlivet 12 year in terms of overall level of enjoyment. The Glenlivet is more gentle on the nose and finish, with a focus on honey and floral notes. It’s VERY drinkable, and would be less divisive than the Penderyn when used as an introductory malt. The Penderyn, with its tropical and bitter-sweet profile, is equally smooth on the palate, but there is a sharpness on the nose and finish that keeps me alert. We’re comparing apples to melons here, but I get similar enjoyment out of both, depending on my mood. I think that’s actually pretty strong praise for the Penderyn.

Other Opinions

I’ve talked about the unique qualities of the Penderyn profile, and that uniqueness seems to lead to quite a difference in opinion by whisky afficianados. I can certainly understand this being a divisive whisky, but I definitely recommend trying for yourself to see where you stand.

  • Whiskyfun.com – A 2004 bottling of Penderyn is one of the few expressions to be completely panned by Serge, coming in at a lowly 45 points. Now, the one he tried was probably closer to a 3 year, so he may like recent bottlings more, but I would be surprised to find him suddenly rating it in the upper 80s or 90s. Note that he also got melons on the finish, likening it to a melon liqueur.
  • Jim Murray (Whisky Bible link) – No direct review link, but I just wanted to point out that Jim Murray LOVES Penderyn. He’s been sampling and rating the releases monthly since 2007, with scores ranging from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, with most being upper 80s and above. The scores have varied from month to month, so it’s not just a progression based on maturation. It sounds like the flavor can vary a bit from batch to batch.
  • Whisky for Everyone – In addition to the link a the top of this post, Whisky for Everyone has posted a full review of the Penderyn Madeira. They mention an herbal grassy note that might not be to everyone’s liking. This is probably the same element of the profile that I was having difficulty describing.
  • whisky-pages – They give the Penderyn a good rating, but feel the Madeira might be masking an underlying immaturity that keeps peeking through.
  • caskstrength.net – A good, but not great review of a Penderyn bottled one year before mine. They admit, though, that they were coming off a string of Islay whiskies before trying this one, which might have influenced their reaction to the lighter profile.
  • Edinburgh Whisky Blog – A comparison/competition between Penderyn and Highland Park 12 back in 2007. The Penderyn came pretty close!
  • Whisky Israel – Gal tries the Penderyn and really likes it. He noticed the oakiness on the nose, and also mentions melons in the profile.
  • Dr Whisky – [Update] Dr. Whisky just added a blog post on this very expression. He finds it to be light and refreshing; an alternative to ordering a round of Jamesons in a bar. Interesting take, given the distinctive flavor in this malt.
  • Drink Hacker – [Update] Another recent review, Drink Hacker also notes the bitter-sweet finish. They find some faults, but give bonus points for “moxie”, with a final rating of B+.

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The Balvenie 17 Madeira Cask

This past holiday season was a great time to be an amateur whisky blogger. Marketing companies are into social media big-time these days. In addition to starting up Facebook pages, blogs and company-owned Twitter accounts, they’re reaching out to “real people” with these same types of accounts to get their message out. Around the same time I was contacted about receiving samples of JW Blue and Chivas 18 for review, I was contacted by a PR company representing The Balvanie, wondering if I was interested in trying out this year’s 17 year special release, finished in Madeira [fortified Portuguese wine] casks. Yes!

On December 23rd, a couple of weeks after I was told the sample would be shipped, a good sized package arrived that required signing. It was my sample, and I soon discovered why it had taken a little while to get here: the Liquor Fairy [amusing disclaimer mechanism from The Pegu Blog] had turned my small review sample bottle into a full 75oml retail bottle of The Balvenie 17 Year Madeira. Merry Christmas to me, and thank-you Balvenie! [Officially, it’s “The Balvenie”, but I’ll probably fall back on just plain Balvenie much of the time]

Tasting Notes

Ok, after 2 weeks of a head/chest cold followed by a couple of healthy days, and then a week with a stomach virus…here, finally, are my tasting notes on this Christmas present. Not that you were dying to hear my take on it, but it’s been frustrating for me.

The Balvenie Madeira Cask Aged 17 Years; 43%; 2009; $120

Nose: This is easy to nose, with the alcohol staying out of the way. Sweet spices hit me straight away. Cinnamon & sugar for sure, and maybe I’m influenced by other tasting notes I’ve read, but I’ll go with nutmeg as well. It’s also reasonably fruity. Perhaps some apple, but it’s more like baked apple, not a fresh/crisp fruit. Also more than a little raisin. Finally, a rich vanilla comes through, and as I pull away, just a hint of fresh oak.
Note: On a couple of occasions, I felt there were some chocolate/orange on the nose, not unlike that part of the Dalmore 12 profile. However,  the above notes represent a more consistent picture of what I’m getting from this bottle.
Palate: More than most other whiskies I’ve tried, the nose prepared me perfectly for the mouth experience. Sweetness is quickly balanced by fruit and followed by the spices. There’s a bit of spicy tingle, but it’s pretty tame. I wouldn’t call this heavily bodied, but it’s not watery either.
Finish: No surprises on the finish. The taste just carries straight on through and slowly fades after a medium duration. Perhaps just a bit of added maltiness lingering at the end. With other Balvenies I’ve tried, there has been a little bitterness on the finish (not necessarily in a bad way), but there’s none of that here. There is some marginal drying on the finish.

Comments: I was struck by the consistent story this dram tells from first nosing to finish. That doesn’t mean it’s overly simple, though. While nothing particularly new was introduced on the palate and finish, nothing was really taken away from the multi-dimensional nose, either. This whisky is very smooth and accessible, and should appeal to a wide audience. Also, [not taste-related, but…] I love the Balvenie bottle shape. It makes a great glug-glug-glug sound when pouring. 🙂


  • Score: 87/100 (B) I’ll still reach for a peated malt most of the time (even lightly peated like HP), but for a Speyside that’s not heavily sherried, this ranks pretty high for me.
  • Bottom Line: Very impressive Madeira cask integration, providing an extremely balanced and accessible whisky. The Madeira finish provides some nice spices that you don’t get every day with a Speyside scotch, without blocking out the fruitiness of the spirit. Enjoyable from start to finish.
  • Score higher if: You’re a big Balvenie fan to begin with, and/or Speyside is your favorite scotch region.
  • Score lower if: It’s all about peat and/or big sherry for you. This one won’t change your mind about more subtle Speyside offerings.
  • Value: This is definitely a step above the younger, very nicely priced Balvenie expressions. I think the Edinburgh Whisky Blog hit the nail on the head when they put this in their Christmas Gift Guide, as it would make an excellent gift, and appeal to both the occasional drinker and the connoisseur. At $120, though, I don’t see a lot of people buying this by the case. To consider the premium Bavenie expressions “values”, I’d want to see the Bavenie 21 year Port Wood come back down below $150, and these 17 year releases at or below $100.


Younger Balvenies

I did some direct comparisons with the 15 year Single Barrel and 12 year Doublewood Balvenie expressions. You can definitely taste the family resemblance when comparing to the Doublewood, which brings fresh apples, vanilla, some spices and a bit more oak to the nose. The Madeira takes this base profile to the next level. Everything is richer and smoother. There’s less fresh oak, but the vanilla is much richer. The 17 year also brings those additional spices from the Madeira cask. As for the 15 year, it’s got HUGE fresh oak. I like oak with stronger whiskies (Laphroaig QC comes to mind), but it’s almost too much for me here. I definitely like the way the finish tones this down in the 17 year Madeira expression. I also find the 15 SB to be much more “spirity” than the Madeira Cask, with the alcohol being more prominent on the nose.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

My first dram of Balvenie 17 year Madeira immediately called to mind the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, a 12 year finished in port casks. Madeira and port casks, both having previously housed fortified wines, seem to offer similar contributions to the whisky, at least where the spices are concerned. I’d love to see a review of this expression by Serge over at Whiskyfun. He doesn’t seem to be a big fan of the Glenmorangie finished expressions. However, to my [admittedly much less experienced] palate, this finished Balvenie feels very nicely integrated and balanced. Much less “constructed” than the Glenmo bottlings. That being said, I like the Quinta Ruban very much, and it does manage to scratch the same itch for me that the Balvenie Madeira does at a 60% discount in price.

Other opinions

There even more reviews than this out there, but here are some that stood out to me:

  • What Does John Know (Malt Advocate): – John was impressed by the balance of this whisky and awarded it a very impressive 90 points. I probably could have just copied and pasted his notes to represent my own findings.
  • Dr. Whisky: The good Dr. considers this one of the best in the Balvenie 17 year series.
  • whisky-pages: They also mentioned the shift from fresh fruit with their “stewed apples” reference.
  • Edinburgh Whisky Blog: Definitely some different references in the tasting notes, but I can see where they’re coming from.
  • Drinkhacker: An A- rating, but with a disclaimer that some might be put off by the Madeira finish. Perhaps, but I still think this is an amazingly accessible whisky.
  • discover whisky: Why wasn’t I aware of this blog already? I really like their notes in this review.

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Hi. My name is Jeff, and I have a bias toward whisk(e)y distilled from peated barley. I also keep notes about the whiskies I drink and publish them, along with ratings, in a publicly accessible blog. Are these two statements at odds with each other? There are a growing number of whisky blogs with tasting notes. Some have ratings, some don’t. I never really thought of one approach as being right and the other being wrong. I just figured this was a case of communication preference on the part of the authors.

This blog post is really a follow-on to my recent post pointing out my new Google Docs ratings spreadsheet (link in the side bar). There are a couple of things that prompted me to continue the ratings discussion here. First, I’m still getting over a cold that has kept me from posting whisky tasting notes for the past 7 days. Second, I was just revisiting my trusty Malt Whisky Yearbook 2009 and read the following quote in the “Classifying Whisky” article by David Stirk:

Because scores are personal and very biased it is actually an arrogance to print them as it is the author stating: ‘This whisky is better than that whisky. Why? How dare you ask! Because I say so!’

Wow! Talk about forcing your personal bias on others (and putting words in their mouths). I decided to go to my favorite whisky ratings web site, WHISKYFUN.COM, and see what Serge has to say about his scoring system. I found a link in the sidebar to one of his E-pistles from Malt Maniacs #102 titled Serge’s Simple Tasting Tips. This is a great article on the topic of doing “serious” tastings. On the subject of scoring, he had this to say:

This is rather controversial matter… Some aficionados hate scores, some others will score even orange juice.
I do use scores myself, mostly because it’s the best way to remember to which extend I once liked a whisky without having to read my notes. But a score is not a judgment, it’s just a summing up of various feelings and likings.

Obviously, Serge isn’t trying to make a universal, objective statement with his ratings. His description very well summarizes my own feeling about doing ratings. It’s a way of summing up and tracking my whisky preferences over time. Why a particular score? There are corresponding notes explaining why, and I have yet to read or write any tasting notes that are likely to be paraphrased as “Because I say so!”

Let’s go ahead and assume that the majority of whisky hobbyists feel the same way as Serge when it comes to scores. They’re personal opinions at a point in time, and they’re likely to reflect any bias of the author. If we recognize that there is a bias, is it still appropriate to share our personal scores with others? I think so.

First, there is the obvious case where you find somebody whose preference seem very similar to yours for a particular kind of whisky. Once you’ve established such a connection, doesn’t it make sense to be interested in that person’s personal evaluation of whiskies you haven’t tried before?

As for bias, the key is getting to know a person’s preferences and taking them into account when you read their scores. I’m always on the lookout for “interesting”/different whiskies. One way such whiskies come to my attention is from an uncharacteristically high rating by a whisky enthusiast for a distillery not typically associated with their preferred tastes. Maybe I’m just too much of a whisky geek, but that kind of thing gets my heart rate up a little bit and makes me want to research that expression further.

Perhaps Mr. Stirk’s remark about arrogance in whisky rating is aimed more at the professional reviewer, such as Jim Murray. Admittedly, Mr. Murray comes across as a bit more “confident” than most others in his analysis. He states in his Whisky Bible that he’s honed his skills and ability to recognize certain traits in whiskies over 30 years, implying that he really DOES have a more objective viewpoint than most other whisky drinkers. Hey, I’m willing to give Mr. Murray the benefit of the doubt, and I appreciate the amount of time he’s invested into learning about and appreciating whisky. That doesn’t mean I have to treat his ratings differently than I do any others. It’s another source [with its own set of merits to consider] that I’ll compare against my own tasting impressions in order to help me pick my next bottle. I’m glad to have one person’s take on several thousand expressions available in an easy to browse reference.

Finally, I have this to say about ratings. If you’re looking for help picking a whisky, don’t forget to look beyond the number of stars, or points out of 100. Try to get familiar with the author so that you can apply a filter to their scores based on bias, experience, and relative consistency with your own findings. If you’re dead set against scores, then ignore them and focus on the corresponding tasting notes. No need to get your panties in a bunch. Just take what you will from a whisky review and enjoy your next dram.


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I’m taking advantage of my down time with a head/chest cold to do some non-drinking whisky enthusiast activities. In this post, I want to point out my new Ratings Spreadsheet link in the side bar, which points to a Google Docs spreadsheet containing my ratings history. The spreadsheet lists the classification, numeric score and grade for each expression I’ve rated, along with a link to the blog post where I provided my tasting notes.

Why do ratings?

The whole point of the ratings is to help articulate my enjoyment of a particular whisky, both on a “good/bad” scale, and relative to others that I’ve tried. I don’t fancy myself a whisky “expert”, and I don’t believe there is such thing as a “universal” rating for whisky expressions that will apply to everybody. You need to understand the tastes and history of the person providing the scores for them to be useful. I talked more about this in a previous post on rating whiskies (and in the comments for that post).

About the spreadsheet

I created this spreadsheet as a convenient index for looking up previous reviews and scanning my ratings. The whiskies are ordered by Distillery and Age. If you’re so inclined, you can create your own Google Docs copy (if you have an account), or download to Excel (File | Download as…) to change the sort order. A little more info on some of the columns:

  • Classification: This is a distillery classification from Whisky Classified: Choosing Single Malts by Flavour, David Wishart, Pavilion Books, London 2002. On the web, here. The idea is to group distilleries based on similar traits in their whiskies. In some cases, I filled in a different Classification than is associated with the distillery. I’ve marked these with an “*”. An example would be a peated expression from a typically non-peated distillery.
  • Rating: This is the numeric rating that I gave to the expression in a blog post on a 0 to 100 scale. I discussed the scale in this previous ratings blog post.
  • Grade: This is a less specific rating than the numeric one. If I only try a small sample of a whisky and don’t feel comfortable giving a specific numeric score, I’ll use this broader rating only.
  • Blog Link: Note that if you click on this cell in Google Docs, you’ll get a link indicator on the left side of the cell that will take you to that blog entry.


Between the time I posted the spreadsheet and got to this point in the blog post (less than a day), I got caught in the cross-hairs of this Dr. Whisky blog entry (I do like his blog…you should check it out if you haven’t already). Therefore, I feel compelled to sneak some time on my lunch break, finish this post, and once again point out that I’m not publishing this spreadsheet as a “whisky expert.” I’m one of an increasing number of whisky enthusiasts taking advantage of blogging software to share a passion for whisky, and the processes and history behind its making.

[Update: Ok, maybe the good Dr. wasn’t picking on my ratings, so much as just making the same point I just did…that there are a lot of folks on the web with opinions about whisky. It’s kind of cool that he’s aware of a bunch of us amateur enthusiasts, actually.]

Providing a grade for the whiskies I drink is a personal choice, and just a small component of what I’m trying to share on this blog. If you’ve decided to follow my posts, and you’ve discovered a consistent similarity or disparity between my preferences and yours, perhaps these ratings will help point out other whisky expressions that would appeal to you. I’d certainly encourage you to do additional research (check out my Whisky Resources page), or take a leap and try new expressions as part of your own discovery.

Oh, and if you accidentally stumbled upon my ratings list in search of a mythical “matrix” of whisky ratings by the closest thing there is to whisky experts, the least I can do is help you on your quest. Follow this link and hit the yellow or red “MM” buttons.


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