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Archive for December, 2010

Introduction

Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive a free bottle of The Balvenie Madiera Cask 17 year for review from William Grant & Sons (parent company for The Balvenie). I really liked it, but wasn’t completely sold on the value proposition. So, that’s it for freebies from them, right? I guess not! This year, I was sent another 750 ml “sample”, this time of the new U.S. only Caribbean Rum Cask 14 Year release. I was told that this expression was developed especially for the U.S. market by David Stewart, as he wanted to create a release that U.S. whisky enthusiasts could enjoy on an ongoing basis. This is a permanent addition to the core range. Thank you Mr. Stewart!

I’ve already been asked on Twitter about the difference between this release and the previous Rum Cask 17 Year and “Golden Cask” 14 Year limited releases. Here’s the scoop from The Balvenie:

  • While the idea for the 14 Year Caribbean Cask release was based on the popularity of the limited Rum Cask release, and those flavor characteristics were kept in mind, this is a new and different product.
  • The 17 Year Rum Cask release was matured exclusively in rum casks, where Caribbean Rum Cask is just finished in rum casks. Plus, there’s the three year age difference.
  • The 14 Year “Golden Cask” is a limited, Travel Retail only release. It’s produced using casks that previously held golden rum, and it’s bottled at 57.5%, non chill-filtered, vs 43% chill-filtered for Caribbean Rum Cask.

Tasting Notes

I decided to do a full comparison of The Balvenie expressions that are available for $60 or less. Basically, I want to figure out what my “go to” expression will be in this price range.  I had collected the other expressions over the past couple of years.

12 Year DoubleWood (40%) – $40

Finished in sherry casks, DoubleWood offers up soft fruits (peaches, light citrus) and brown sugar, then a hint of vanilla and oak. Light malty palate, with a fairly short finish. There’s some lingering maltiness, but not much else. This is a VERY accessible malt. A nice alternative to Glenfiddich 12 or Glenlivet 12, and a great “beginner” whisky. 81 points (B-)

10 Year Founder’s Reserve (43% in the U.S.) – $40

Reverses the DoubleWood profile. This time, it’s vanilla and oak that stand out. The fruit is more of an apple, but takes a back seat to the vanilla. The initial hit on the palate is fairly light, but it builds to an almost peppery late palate and finish with a pleasant drying effect. I kind of liked the style of fruit on the DoubleWood more, but this one wins out easily on the palate and finish. This was discontinued last year, but has continued to occupy shelf space in the United States. Worth picking up! 83 points (B)

15 Year Single Barrel (Cask #3442; 47.8%) – $60

This is a pretty cool expression, as it comes with the barrel and bottle numbers hand-written on the label, and offers the excitement of differences in each batch. I believe they seek to offer a reasonably similar profile between batches, though.  This one has less fruit than the other mixed cask Balvenies.  It’s sweet, with LOTS of vanilla and fresh oak notes. It’s also a bit hot on the nose and early palate. It’s sweet and malty on the palate, but with my bottle, that maltiness turns a bit stale going into the medium-length finish. I really enjoyed the strong vanilla and the impact on the palate that the higher ABV provides, but the staleness on the finish brings it down a notch for me. I’m sure there’s a batch out there with my name on it, though. 84 points (B)

12 Year Signature Batch 1 (40%) – $40 to $50

Matured in a combination of first fill bourbon, refill bourbon and refill sherry, I think the introduction of this release last year might be the reason Founder’s Reserve was discontinued. On the nose, there’s a great balance of the peaches and citrus from the DoubleWood expression, with the vanilla and oak spices from the Founder’s Reserve, plus some cinnamon. Oh…and is that coconut? This is probably the best nose of the whole group, with lots going on. On the palate, it’s similar to the Founder’s Reserve at first, but doesn’t build like that one. Although it does have the same pleasant drying. Compared to the nose, the palate and finish are a bit of a let down. It’s is worth buying for the nose alone, though. Kudos to Mr. Stewart for that!  85 points (B)

14 Year Caribbean Rum Cask (43%) – $60

A great balance of fruit, vanilla and toffee sweetness. A little spice, but surprisingly, not as much as the signature.  In this expression, the fruit starts on apples, then leans slightly towards the tropical side, reminding me a little of Glenmorangie 18 year. The palate is much thicker than the Signature 12. It’s sweet and malty. The maltiness continues into the finish, with some spice and a nice drying sensation. The finish is medium-long, with the spices lingering. Not quite as impressive on the nose as the Signature 12, but the palate and finish make for a very well balanced whisky, elevating it above the other expressions. It’s not quite as rich and elegant as the 17 year Madeira Cask, though.  Overall, very impressive! 86 points (B)

Note: A review like this shows why I use a 100 point scale to do ratings. I think these are all good to very good expressions, with several falling into what I would consider to be a “B” range. Still, as I go back and review my spreadsheet/notes down the road, I want to be able to recall how these expressions stacked up in my mind relative to each other. Those fine-grained point differences allow that, and show that I felt there was a nice little bump in quality from the Founder’s Reserve to the Signature and Rum Cask releases.

Conclusion

Ok, I think I’ve found my new “go to” Balvenie in the Caribbean Rum Cask release! I’m putting my money where my mouth is, too. I’ve already purchased a bottle as a Christmas gift for a friend who likes The Balvenie. When I first tried the Caribbean Cask, I thought I might like it even more than the Madeira Cask release. However, having now compared them side-by-side, those extra three years of aging for the Madeira Cask really do make a difference. In fact, I think I’m going to update my ratings spreadsheet and move the Madeira Cask from 87 to 88 points. I just wish the price was lower.

Still, for $60 or less, the Caribbean Rum Cask is a fantastic whisky, and a welcome addition to the range. That being said, if they were to somehow add a little more zip to the palate of the 12 Year Signature, and maybe bottle it at a higher ABV, I think it would jump to the top. What an amazing nose on that one! Finally, keep in mind that I’m a big fan of sherried and peated whiskies. If you’re a big Speyside fan in general, I can see where you might rate all of these a few points higher in your own system.

I liked The Balvenie before, and found the lower priced expressions to be a good value, if unexciting. With the introduction of 12 year  Signature and 14 year Caribbean Rum Cask, I think there is a lot to be excited about across the whole range!

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

Dear Santa,
You take the milk and cookies, and I’ll have a nip of whatever made your nose that color!

I see that my 2009 gift guide has been getting a bunch of hits the past few days, so perhaps it’s time to do another one. Not that I’m an expert on such things, but I am a whisky enthusiast. Perhaps some of the things that I’ve enjoyed in the past year, or want for Christmas, will apply to the the whisky lover in your life.

I think most of the items in my 2009 gift guide would still apply, so rather than repeat those, I’ll supplement with some new whisky expressions, and some that are just new to me. There are also some new books, and additional accessories that I’ve discovered in the past year. I’ll include prices, with a link, where I can find good online deals…

Whisk(e)y!

Whiskies under $40

  • AnCnoc 12 – New to the U.S., both the 12 and 16 year have started hitting store shelves. A great alternative to the ‘livets, at $35 locally, the 12 year is a bargain!
  • Maker’s 46 – The first new expression from Maker’s Mark (in the U.S.) in 52 years, it’s got a beautiful bottle to add to the gift presentation. Less than $30 at my local Total Wine & More.
  • Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2010 – A special annual release, with a nose to die for. This one is for the “woody” whiskey lover. I got it for $32 at a local Total Wine.
  • Redbreast 12 – I got a sample of Redbreast 15 this year, which is finally available in the U.S., but I’m sticking with the 12 year. If your whisk(e)y lover is new to Irish whiskies, or has only tried Jameson/Bushmills, introduce them to this beauty.

Whiskies under $60

  • The Balvenie Caribbean Rum Cask 14 year – I’ll post a review of this in a couple of days. For someone lamenting the disappearance of The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve 10 year, a bottle of this new U.S.-only release will cheer them up. ($53 online)
  • Dalwhinnie 15 – I got to sample this, but would love to have a bottle. This isn’t an “exciting” bottling, but it’s very approachable and a great whisky to share with the occasional drinker.
  • Tomatin 18 – I love this bottling, and for an 18 year, the price is right. A fantastic speyside with sherry influence and enough spice to make it interesting. One of my favorite discoveries this year. ($59.99 online)
  • Hibiki 12 – I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read so many good reviews, this Japanese blend is on my own Christmas list. The bottle is really cool looking, too. ($55 online)
  • The Dalmore Gran Reserva – I reviewed this recently, and while it’s a subtle whisky not likely to wow some single-malt aficionados, it’s another great one to share with friends who don’t drink much scotch. Good presentation, too. ($56 online)

Whiskies under $100

  • Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX – For the Glenmorangie lover in your life, this new release is a must buy. ($67 online)
  • Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990 – Make sure they like peat, but this one is more approachable than the rest of the Ardbeg line, and it’s going away for good, so it’s a great gift. The price is right, too. It’s going for half of what it sold for when it was in production! ($62 online)
  • Laphroaig 18 – Another peaty whisky, but also more approachable than the rest of the current Laphroaig line. Released last year, but slow to hit U.S. shelves, this will make your Islay-lover happy. ($70-90 online)
  • Compass Box Flaming Heart – A special release celebrating the Compass Box 10th Anniversary. I overlooked it initially, because i seem to generally like, but not love Compass Box (Hedonism being the exception). I’ve heard great things about this one, though, from others who feel the same way about Compass Box. Seems like a perfect gift whisky. ($80 online)
  • Compass Box Hedonism – Another one on my personal Christmas list. I tried it in a vertical Compass Box tasting, and this was easily my favorite of their expressions. It’s a vatting of older grain whiskies, and was quite the revelation for me. There’s more to grain whisky than you might gather from an inexpensive blend!
  • Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon – Released in small batches, the latest bottling is probably already disappearing from your store shelves. This one seems to be the sweet spot in the PVW line. One of my favorite bourbons.
  • Parker’s Heritage 4th Edition bourbon – A limited release, the 3rd Edition “Golden Anniversary” is probably my favorite bourbon to date, and this one, just released this Fall, has gotten solid reviews, so a great gift. ($70 online)

The expensive stuff

  • The Glenlivet Archive 21 year ($130) – This was my Father’s Day whisky this year. Fantastic presentation in wooden box, and oh so drinkable.
  • The Dalmore Mackenzie ($150) – 90 points in my rating system, and my favorite Dalmore so far. This was to be a limited release only in the UK, but you can actually get it at Binny’s right now! ($150 online)
  • Parker’s Heritage Golden Anniversary ($135) – My favorite bourbon, made from a vatting of casks from 5 decades. If you’re going to spend more than $100 on a bourbon gift, it’s hard to do better than this. ($135 online)
  • Glenfarclas 1974 31 Year – I almost forgot about this one. I was lucky enough to get a sample of this (thanks Sean!), and if you like big, thick sherry bombs, this is absolutely incredible! It’s a U.S.-only release. For a heavily sherried Glenfarclas fan, this will be very well received. I want a bottle. Bad. ($190 – $230 online)
  • The Last Drop – Ok, who’s going to get this for me? I’ll share. 🙂 I only got to try a few ml of this, but it was amazing! ($2,000)

Not whisk(e)y

  • Germain-Robin XO Brandy – It’s made here in the U.S., but it’s made with an imported, antique cognac still by a guy with a cognac family background, and it’ll give more expensive cognacs a run for their money. I got it last Christmas and it’s amazing.
  • Remy Martin XO Cognac – Remy Martin XO is good stuff, too, with a really cool bottle. I mention it here because the price seems to have dropped recently. You might be able to get it for under $100.

Books

  • 101 Whiskies to try before you die – Not intended to be the “best” 101 whiskies, but rather, a sampling of expressions to educate you (and your palate) on what the whisk(e)y world has to offer.
  • Whisky Bible 2011 – Worth picking up yearly for Jim Murray’s entertaining tasting notes, whether you agree with his scores or not. Thousands of whiskies reviewed, it’s great to have so many expressions discussed in a single source.
  • Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011 – I’ve got the previous two books, but for some reason, haven’t gotten around to ordering the latest version of this one yet. It’s definitely on my Christmas list, though. Another one worth buying yearly. Some of the best whisk(e)y writers in the world team up to share information about all of the major whisk(e)y distilleries, talk about the year in whisky, and point you to useful whisky resources.

Whisky accessories

  • Whisky glasses – Always a good gift. You COULD buy these Riedel Vinum glasses, but I think they’re over priced and don’t funnel the aromas very well. Get some Glencairns or copitas that work better and cost less.
  • Bottle Tote – Now that I’m regularly taking whisky to friend’s houses and attending whisky society meetings, I need something to tote my bottles around in. I think this one looks pretty cool. Although, this rolling wine luggage would be pretty handy (don’t know anything about that retailer, though)!
  • The gift of peat smoke! – You’ve tasted peaty whisky. Ever wondered what actual peat smoke smells like? These Ardbeg Peat Cones from the Ardbeg online store just cost a few bucks plus shipping. Light them up and take in the smoky aroma. Anybody know if they smell like the real deal or not?
  • SMWSA Membership – I’d enjoy getting a membership to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America for the new member kit alone. Even better, being a member gives you access to an exciting assortment of single-cask bottlings from various distilleries. Follow the link to find out about additional benefits. It’s pretty cool.
  • Tickets to a whisky event – What a treat this would be! Give your whisky loving friend/relative a chance to sample whisky, attend seminars, and meet some of the giants in the industry. [WhiskyFest; SMWSA Extravaganza]
Happy Holidays,
Jeff

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