Archive for the ‘review’ Category


A pour of HP 'Earl magnus'

Cool people might drink whisky, but drinking whisky does not make you cool. If you want to see what the cool kids think of HP Earl Magnus, check out WhiskyFun.com or WHISKYhost.com and get their take on this new special release from Highland Park. In this blog post, I will share my initial impressions of this 15 year, 52.6% special release, then I’m going to hit you with more pictures and packaging details than most self-respecting whisky drinkers would care to see. Basically, it’s a post for [geeks] whisky fanatics like me. This isn’t a full “review”, as I like to spend several tasting sessions establishing my thoughts on profile, and evaluating overall satisfaction level. For more background on the Earl Magnus release, check out this previous blog post.

Opening the bottle in true geek fashion

Having decided to go ahead and open my bottle of Magnus alone, rather than wait for a get-together with fellow whisky drinkers, I still wanted to spice up the experience. I mean come on, the packaging for this thing is SO Glen Wonka, it almost makes you feel guilty to be a drinker rather than a collector.

Ever since I saw the beautiful box that Earl Magnus is packaged in (pictures below), I had visions of the monolith and accompanying music at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey [I know, the Glenmorangie Signet box is the one that actually looks like a monolith]. So it seemed appropriate to play Also sprach Zarathustra (Richard Strauss) in the background while I unlatched the box, took out the bottle, removed the wax seal and popped the cork. Here, try it for yourself and see what you think:

Tasting Notes

Highland Park Earl Magnus Edition One;  15 Years; 52.6%

This expression is matured primarily in American Oak sherry casks, with a few Spanish sherry casks thrown in to create the right amount of sweetness (from HP via Twitter).

Nose: Take the honey from the standard 12 year and dial it up. Now take the 15 year profile and dial the citrus way down. Add a very rich, creme brule vanilla and a sprinkle of cinnamon and you have the HP Earl Magnus nose. Contrary to Gerry Tosh’s comments in this video, I don’t find that the high alcohol volume ratcheted up the smoke. There’s a soft peat smoke, but it isn’t nearly as smoky as the high proof older expressions (21, 25 and 30 year).
Palate: Ahh…there’s the citrus from the standard 15 year. A very juicy palate, but where is all of that alcohol? It doesn’t burn the tongue at all.
Finish: Pow! Here’s the big pay-off for Earl Magnus. Right as you swallow, your whole tongue starts drying, and it’s enhanced by a wonderful peppery spice. Citrus and smoke fumes fill the mouth cavity and loft up into the nostrils. It lasts for a pretty long time. I think the alcohol volume is just right. It’s a party in the mouth, but stops short of burning.

Comments: Well, I suppose I DID build it up a bit much, what with taking a ton of pictures and opening the bottle to music. However, it came pretty close to living up to such over-hype. I’m very satisfied with this whisky so far, and the combined taste and presentation make the $120 (shipped) I paid seem very reasonable. It fits very nicely between the standard 18 and 21 year bottlings in value. I look forward to spending more time with this bottle, but right now, I’d say it’s right on the B+/A- border in my scoring system (see the side bar).


I did do some brief comparisons with the standard 12, 15, 18, and 21 year, as well as a Scott’s Selection 25 year. It was interesting how, when nosed side-by-side, all of the other expressions seemed slightly farmy relative to the Magnus. It was in these comparisons that the honey and vanilla became even richer (reminiscent of The Balvenie Madeira Cask), and the sprinkle of cinnamon came through in the Earl Magnus. The Smoke on the 21 year and Scott’s 25 year was much more obvious, both on the nose and the finish.

Having worked my way through most of my standard HP 15 year 43% bottle, and doing this comparison, I’ve come to the inclusion that my original rating of 88 for the standard bottling was a point too high. There’s definitely a bit more separation between that one and the 18 and older expressions, as well as this Magnus special edition.

Pictures and Packaging Details (with info about the this release)

Click on any of the pictures to see them full sized.

  • The old-fashioned bottle making process results in an imperfect stance.

Leaning tower of Magnus

  • Left side of the box, with brass hinges and info about the bottling:

Magnus Box Left

The Highland Park archive is home to many venerable bottles; one in particular, dating from around 1870, fits perfectly as an inspiration for celebrating the life of Earl Magnus. We worked with Stolzle Flaconnage, Highland Park’s specialist glassware supplier, to ignore 150 years of technological advances in order to create a bottle complete with flaws and defects consistent with those of the original.

In 1870 the bottle would have been hand-gathered, mouth-blown into a wooden mould and kept wet to prevent combustion. The raw materials would have been sand and limestone along with naturally occurring sodium sulphate. Contaminants broadly determined the colour of the glass and a little effort would have been made to control capacity or functionality so long as it did not break.

This modern bottle matches the original in almost all regards other than that it is made in a factory, doesn’t leak, and conforms to all applicable legislation. The modern moulds echo the flaws in the hand-made one from two centuries ago; advanced techniques were used to generate bubbles and colour consistency in the glass. The artisans of 1870 would be most impressed with our efforts made in search of imperfection.

The image of Earl Magnus on the original label of the 1870 archive bottle was inspired by an ancient stained glass window. The impact of the label is shown to maximum effect by the development of this simple, open fronted and etched wooden box.

Highland Park Earl Magnus Edition One is a perfectly-balanced natural strength bottling of hand-selected casks containing Scotch Whisky distilled at Highland Park Distillery in 1994 and earlier years. To appreciate it fully, take your time and add a little fresh still water – a couple of drops at a time. This will release the subtle aromas and reveal the complexity of a single malt that has been made within a mile of St. Magnus Cathedral since 1798.

Whisky has been made in the traditional manner at Highland Park for more than 210 years. Released in 2009 this bottling is a tribute to the skilled and dedicated craftsmen who built the St. Magnus Cathedral.

For more information visit http://www.highlandpark.co.uk

  • Right side of box, with brass latch and information about Earl Magnus:

Magnus Box Right

Earl Magnus Erlendsson was born in 1075 when the Orkney Islands belonged to Norway. His Viking ancestors were terrifying warriors whose code of heroism, hatred and honour through vengeance framed their brutal lives. Into this world came Magnus, a man unlike any other Orkney Earl, spreading Christianity.

The pease-loving Magnus was unlike his cousin Haakon who remained imbued with the fighting spirit. Haakon was envious and ambitious, striving for self-glory. Their history is a classic tale of the struggle of good versus evil; the treachery and tragedy of the life of Earl Magnus accounts for his prominence in northern literature.

Magnus reigned jointly with his cousin Haakon from 1108 until 1115 when their followers fell out. Peace was negotiated and the Earls agreed to meet bringing only two ships each. The treacherous Haakon arrived with eight ships and captured his saintly cousin. The Norwegian chieftains decided that one of the Earls must die. After the refusal of his standard-bearer to undertake the task, Haakon ordered his cook to kill Magnus which he did by striking him on the head with an axe.

The life of Magnus is celebrated in two Icelandic Sagas and in the Orkneyinga Saga; he was buried where he died and legend has it the rocky area around the site immediately became a green field.

The fame of Magnus, canonized only 20 years after his death, has been maintained by the stunning cathedral built by his nephew in Kirkwall; St Magnus Cathedral was referred to as ‘incontestably the most glorious monument of the Norwegian dominion to be found in Scotland’ by J. Moodie Heddle, Orkney and Shetland, 1920.

Work began in 1137 and continued over several hundred years. In 1917 a secret cavity was found in one of the columns; in it was a box containing ancient bones including an axe-wounded skull. The influence of Earl Magnus spread far and wide; the forename became popular in Orkney, notably in the case of Magnus Eunson, a man forever associated with the founding of Highland Park distillery in 1798.

  • Back of bottle, with raised logo and wording:

Magnus bottle (back)

  • Highland Park logo on bottle:

Magnus bottle HP logo

  • Bottle top with wax seal. The ribbon hanging out cuts easily through the wax. Nothing like trying to open one of those freaking Aberlour A’bunadh bottles. 🙂

Magnus bottle top

  • An imperfect bottle surface and concave bottom, mimicking the style created in 1870:

Magnus bottle surface texture

  • Air bubbles in the bottle (upper middle):

Magnus bottle air bubbles

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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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Lagavulin 16 (2009)

I think this is my first repeat review, but I’m going to change my rating on this one, so I wanted to write about it again. I’m talking about Lagavulin 16 (43% abv), this one bottled in 2009. This expression is surely matured in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks, but I can’t find any concrete description of their “recipe” like HP provides for their various expressions. My previous Laga 16 review was based on a 200ml bottle from 2006 that came with my Islay Collection pack. The price of this well known Islay single malt has dropped at the local big box liquor store (in AZ) from $80 to $70, more in line with California pricing. I hope it stays that way!

Tasting notes

Lagavulin 16 (OB); 43%; Bottled 2009

Nose: Great balance of peat smoke and sherry fruits/sweetness. The sherry isn’t strong, hinting at mixed cask maturation, but the overall effect is a rich one. It’s smoky, but not quite the camp fire you get with Ardbeg. There’s oak, but not in your face like Laphroaig QC. Definitely some iodine involved in the mix as well.
Palate: A rich, creamy mouth feel with a pleasant drying sensation and a bit of subtle spice. All parts of the tongue are involved in the experience. It could be stronger, though, with more spiciness. I think it would border on perfection if they could infuse a Talisker-like pepper and bottle it at 46-48%.
Finish: Very long, with continued drying on the tongue, along with some sweetness. Peat smoke and dried fruits linger perfectly in the back of the nostrils.

Comments: I’ve probably tried 50 additional whisky expressions since I first had Lagavulin 16. I still haven’t found a better “standard” expression, and only a couple of the premium bottlings I’ve had can equal or beat Lagavulin 16 (for my tastes). I know there are still a LOT of whiskies out there to try, but no matter what I discover in the future, this one will stand as an amazingly balanced and rewarding dram. Sure, I’d like to see it bottled at a little higher ABV, but I’m not sure they can afford to do this. It might be too good of a core expression! What would they do for an encore?

I put this right below Laphroaig 30 and HP 30, with this one being a much better value.


  • Score: 92/100 (A)
  • Bottom Line: Amazing balance and grace for a smoky, medicinal Islay malt. One of the very best.
  • Score higher if: Well, 92 points is pretty high. You’re just going to have to try it and see if it’s “special” to you.
  • Score lower if: 43% just doesn’t cut it for you anymore; you prefer a more ashy/tarry peat in your Islay malt.
  • Value: Not cheap at $65-$90, but I have no problem with the price, as I think this tops all of the 18 year malts I’ve tried in the same price range.


I compared this new 2009 bottle to the end of my 2006 Laga 16 bottle. They’re very similar, but I felt like there was a little bit of additional toffee sweetness in the 2006 version. Both on the nose and the finish. I think it was because of this that the smoke and dried fruits seemed a little more muted on the nose in the 2006 bottling. I also tried a little bit of Laphroaig Triple Wood next to the two Laga 16 drams. I really like the Laphroaig, but the sherry cask finishing just doesn’t provide quite the same level of integration and balance that the Lagavulin 16 offers.

I would compare the Laga 16 and 12 year old expressions, but they’re really completely different beasts. The 12 year (most likely matured only in bourbon casks) reminds me of a cask strength Caol Ila. Much more ashy and peppery than the 16 year. Plus, the 12 year is bottled at cask strength. The 12 year is also excellent, but you need to try both. It’s not an either-or proposition.

Other opinions

WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge has reviewed a 2009 bottle of Lagavulin 16 and gave it a very respectable 90 points. Check out Serge’s great review.

The always entertaining Ralfy recently did a video review of the Laga 16. He also gave it 90 points:

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Chivas Regal 18 (200ml)

I’m sitting at my laptop, trying not to allow my rose-colored glasses to impact the content of this post. You may have noticed the plethora of Chivas 18 blog posts hitting the net over the past couple of weeks. Well, now it’s my turn to pile on.

A PR firm working with Pernod Ricard has been sending out samples of Chivas Regal 18 and Johnnie Walker Blue to bloggers as part of a campaign to raise awareness for Chivas as a premium, gift-worthy blend. I don’t know how I got onto their radar, but don’t you dare clue them in that I’m a second-rate hack. Getting free samples is freaking awesome!

Tasting Notes

Chivas Regal 18 “Gold Signature”; 40% ABV; $50 – $60

This is a Speyside-based blend, with the Strathisla distillery (bought by Chivas Bros. in 1950) reportedly playing a key role. According to World Whiskey (by Charles Maclean), Strathisla 18 is not available commercially, so Chivas 18 is the dram to have if you want some of this rarity.

Nose: Have you ever had Apple & Cinnamon Quaker Instant Oatmeal for breakfast? That’s the combination of scents that hits me with Chivas 18. There is also some honey, bordering on toffee, sweetness. Towards the end of a long whiff, I get additional fresh fruits like apricots and cherries.
Palate: The medium body is sweet and lightly fruity. The subtle spices are so light that you’ll likely miss them completely if comparing directly with other whiskies.
Finish: Subtle fruit and maltiness, along with a little vanilla. There is a delayed drying on the tongue, and no real alcohol burn to speak of.

Comments: Having previously referred to the Chivas 12 as “enjoyable but forgettable”, I was pleasantly surprised by the Chivas 18 year. The nose actually has quite a bit going on. The palate is a bit richer than the 12 year, and the finish lasts longer, but it’s still a blend that favors politeness over impact. I definitely enjoy this more than entry-level Speyside malts such as Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12, and feel it’s worth a jump in price based on taste alone. I’ll continue to evaluate this, but I’d give it a preliminary rating of B (83-87 points). Right in line with a single malt like Bunnahabhain 12. [Hmm…maybe a head-2-head between these two is in order]


Johnnie Walker Blue; 40% ABV;  $175 – $225

I would call JW Blue more of an “Island” blend vs. the Speyside focus of the Chivas 18. I’ve decided that there is little to gain by doing a full side-by-side analysis of tasting notes because of the different profiles. However, there are certain traits that are worth comparing. Both of these blends offer interesting noses, then yield to a more polite, accessible palate and finish. The JW Blue is especially impressive in its ability to melt away in the mouth and leave faint wisps of smoke in a way that won’t scare off the casual whisky drinker.

The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve 10 Year; 43% ABV;  $40 – $50

The Balvenie FR 10 is vatted from a mix of bourbon and sherry casks, and offers a profile that is VERY similar to the Chivas 18. The nose is very close to the Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal that I described above. I don’t get the additional cherries/apricots with the FR 10, though. Perhaps not quite as much sherry influence? On the palate and finish, I think there is a little more impact and last with the Balvenie, with more spices on the tongue. I was surprised at how close these are, though.

Longmorn 16 (2009); 48% ABV;  $80 – $100

Longmorn 16

Here’s a Chivas-owned single malt from Speyside that comes in very nice packaging and seems to disappear off of the shelves more quickly during the holiday season. It’s also a key component [the primary one?] in Chivas 18. Aged strictly in bourbon casks, the profile is different than the Chivas 18 and Balvenie FR 10. However, there are some common apple and cereal notes. What I wanted to draw out is the fact that there is much more impact on the palate, and a more aggressive drying on the finish, along with some bitter/sweet interplay. Having been focused primarily on single malts during the past year, I really appreciate these stronger traits in the mouth. However, I don’t think it’s quite as safe as Chivas 18 when it comes to gifting.


Q: Is Chivas Regal 18 worth $55, and would it make a good gift?

A: Yes. I think it fits nicely between some of the entry level Speyside single malts and something like the Longmorn 16. It offers an interesting nose while remaining very accessible to the occasional whisky drinker, and it comes in nice packaging (locally, anyway, it comes in a fancy gift box similar in quality to the Longmorn 16 box). I don’t think it provides much of an improvement over Balvenie 10 FR, which costs less. However, there’s often more to perceived whisky value than taste. You’re paying for the age statement, knowing that you can’t get 18 year Strathisla anyplace else, and 18 year Longmorn is also a treat.

Q: Is Chivas Regal 18 a valid gift substitute for Johnnie Walker Blue?

A: No. If you were planning to impress somebody with a generous gift of Johnnie Walker Blue, do NOT expect to substitute Chivas 18 and get the same results. I’m not saying this is right, or that there is a quantifiable difference in the whisky itself that makes JW Blue worth 3-4 times the price. However, there is a certain mystique associated with JW Blue that a $55 blend cannot match. I’ll touch on that in a separate post.

Mystique aside, I’ll probably be scoring JW Blue a few points higher than Chivas 18 when I cover it in a separate review. There are also plenty of reasonably priced single malts that I have scored higher than either of these very pleasant blends. That doesn’t really have anything to do with the perceived value of the Chivas, though. If somebody gave me a bottle of Chivas Regal 18 for Christmas, I’d be very appreciative, and it would likely be a part of some good times with good friends in the coming months.

Other Opinions

Here are a bunch of links to other blog posts resulting from this Chivas vs. Johnnie Walker campaign. Happy reading!

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Caol Ila "Unpeated Style" 2009

As with the two elder Taliskers and the Mannochmore 18 that I reviewed recently, I bought a 30ml sample of Caol Ila Unpeated 10 year from whiskysamples.eu as part of a set of 2009 Diageo Special Release samples. However, after taking a tiny sip of this CI, I proceeded to purchase a full bottle the day it became available at Loch Fyne Whiskies. I suppose I’m probably giving away the direction I’m headed with this review. 🙂

Caol Ila has historically produced their whisky primarily for blends, with the regular CS, 12 and 18 year single malts having just been introduced in 2002 [according to the Malt Whisky Yearbook]. Caol Ila is a key component of the Johnnie Walker blended whiskies. While their bread and butter is a peated malt (I love the 12 year), I guess Caol Ila has been experimenting with low/no peating for quite some time. Perhaps some of that was put into blends in the past, but their first unpeated single malt offering just hit the shelves as a special release in 2006. For the past three years, this unpeated special release was aged for 8 years, as opposed to the 10 years of the 2009 release.

Tasting Notes

Caol Ila 10 “Unpeated Style” 2009, OB, 65.8% abv

Disclaimer: I’ve been reviewing all of the cask strength special releases at full strength. In this case, the CI 10 smells great at full strength, but pretty much burns the taste buds right off my tongue. I’m going to provide my notes based on adding 1 part water to 4 parts whisky. According to my handy dandy Easy ABVs iPhone calculator, that brings it down to about 53% ABV. The great thing about CI Unpeated is that it holds up very well when adding water.

Nose: Lemon drops as the primary component, followed by rich vanilla cream and some fresh oak. With a little more time, the oak seems to turn into spices (nutmeg and ginger?).
Palate: Thoroughly entertaining. Fizzy lemon sherbet turns to ginger powder (and possibly white pepper). My tongue is all kinds of tingly.
Finish: Lemon and vanilla, with a return of the oak for a medium duration, while the spice continues to linger for a while.


My top two goto whisky experts for notes and opinions, Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be and Serge at WhiskyFun.com, both gave the CI 10 Unpeated a good score, but not a great one. This certainly isn’t the most complex whisky out there, and I can understand the desire to mark it down a little because of that.

Fortunately, I’m not a whisky expert, so I’m going to unapologetically state that I love this CI Unpeated. Sure, that wonderful Caol Ila coal smoke is gone, but the citrus is there, and it’s balanced with just the right amount of sugar and spice to make everything nice [that’s right…I just said that]. The fizzy lemon and spices make for a party in the mouth, and I can’t find anything “off” in the entire experience. This instantly became one of my favorite whiskies, and the bottle is disappearing fast.


  • Score: I’m going to say 89 points for now (same as Port Askaig 17). It could go higher.
  • Rate it higher if you’ve tried and loved some 15-20 year Rosebanks but wanted more excitement on the palate and finish (and fewer floral notes).
  • Rate it lower if you need high complexity to get close to 90 points, or if you require peat.
  • Value: The lowest price of the 2009 special releases, I think it’s a must buy if you can find it. [$60 – $70]

Other Opinions

In addition to the reviews mentioned above by WhiskyNotes and WhiskyFun, here are some other notes on this release from the whisky web:

Several bloggers attended a Diageo tasting of the whole Special Release lineup. Notes for CI Unpeated included:

I also sent a sample of the CI Unpeated over to Jason at WHISKYhost, and his notes have a lot of similarities to mine. I don’t think he likes quite as much as I do, though, based on his reference to Cragganmore.

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Continuing on my tasting journey through the Diageo 2009 Special Release samples that I got from whiskysamples.eu, I decided to compare the 25 and 30 year Taliskers to my bottle of Talisker 18 year. Talisker 18 has been one of my favorite whiskies for under $100, along with other great expressions such as Highland Park 18, several Laphroaigs, and Lagavulin 16.

I’ve been very curious about the older Taliskers, but at $200 to $350 for a full bottle, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. That’s why I love the concept of whisky sample services such as the one offered by whiskysamples. It wasn’t cheap…I payed around $80 for my 7 samples, but I’m getting to try several whiskies that go for $200 – $400 per bottle.

I forgot to take a picture of the 25 and 30 year olds in a glass, but the color is not appreciably different than the Talisker 18.

Three Taliskers

Tasting Notes

Talisker 18

According to the Oddbins website, Talisker 18 is aged in a combination of American and European oak refill casks, but I can’t find anything official to confirm. This standard expression is bottled at 45.8% ABV, and I think they made a very wise decision not to go with 40 or 43%. When the Talisker 18 could be found on the shelves here in AZ, it went for $70. However, it disappeared in the Spring and hasn’t come back. Fortunately, I have a couple of backup bottles to tide me over.

Nose: Toffee sweets up front are immediately replaced by earthy peat, light smoke and fresh oak. There is also a mild medicinal quality to it. Then vanilla, and finally a little lemon citrus.
Palate: Sweet at first, with a nice full mouth feel, you can taste that earthy peat, too. Then pepper starts to build and gets reasonably strong, if not as big as the 10 year.
Finish: Continued pepper on the tongue lasts quite a while, and the smoky peat comes up into the back of the nostrils, also lasting a long time. Actually, the earthy peat sticks on the tongue as well. Excellent!

Comments: This is one of my favorite semi-regular whiskies. Great balance between sweets, pepper, peat and smoke. The peat on this is the closest I’ve found to sniffing a block of actual peat (as I got to do in Edinburgh at the Scotch Whisky Experience tour). There is some iodine, but none of the tar that you find in some Islays. Still, this is VERY close to an Islay profile. I rate this the same as Highland Park 18, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the Talisker by a peaty nose. Plus, at $70, it’s an amazing value. 90 points.

Talisker 25

This is a limited release of 5862 bottles. It’s aged in a combination of American and European oak refill casks, with the American oak presumably being from bourbon casks. I’m not sure what the ratio is between the cask types. Being 100% refill casks, the color is not particularly dark. It’s bottled at the natural cask strength of 54.8% ABV. Recommended price in the U.S. is $200.

Nose: Much more citrus than the 18 or 30, but not as much vanilla. A little more oak than the 18. A little furniture polish, perhaps from the higher alcohol. Not noticing the medicinal notes of the 18 as much, and the earthy peat is hiding behind the citrus. With a couple of drops of water, the citrus dies down and it’s more balanced, with the vanilla and peat being more noticeable.
Palate: Huge pepper hits you over the head, with sweetness and earthy peat behind it. Wow, that is some serious impact!
Finish: The pepper continues for a long time, and like the 18, the light smoke comes up through the nostrils and brings the earthy peat with it. The pepper is still huge.

Comments: This is the 18 year on steroids. It seems slightly less complex at full strength, but with just a few drops of water, it becomes very balanced like the 18 year while retaining some additional pepper kick. Without taking price into account, I would say that I prefer this just a little over the 18 because of the extra punch, which can be toned down as desired. 91 points.

Talisker 30

There are 3000 bottles of Talisker 30 year for 2009. It is matured in a combination of American Oak and European Oak refill casks, and has a golden color. This release is bottled at 53.1% abv, and has a recommended retail price of £215 (around $350 if it’s shipping to the U.S.).

Nose: Less citrus than the 25 year, and probably a little less peat. There is still a little more oak than the 18 year. The big difference with the 30 year is a rich vanilla component that stands out more than the other two. It’s creme brulee rich.
Palate: Soft at first, without the big pepper hit, but that rich vanilla is still there, giving a luxurious mouth feel. Just as you head into the finish, the pepper builds up like you would expect with a Talisker. It’s kind of cool the way it comes out of nowhere later in the drinking process.
Finish: The pepper continues to build, then levels off and stays for a long time, and of course there is the smoke and peat in the nostrils. The oak is still present, but not in any way overpowering. Unlike the 18 and 25 year expressions, there is absolutely no bitterness to the finish on this one (I get a very slight bitterness with the other two).

Comments: With the extra richness and utterly flawless finish, the 30 year steps up to “special” status, but just barely. It’s not like it’s leagues ahead of the other two. This is the third 30 year I’ve tried, and I’ve loved them all. I wouldn’t rate this one quite as high as the HP 30 or Laphroaig 30, though. 92 points.

Comparison and Value

The Highland Park line uses varying combinations of first fill and refill casks, along with different ratios of European and American oak to achieve differing profiles between expressions. With these Taliskers, the profiles all seem very similar, and I haven’t read anything to indicate that there are significant differences in the maturation process. The reason for taste differences seems to come down mostly to age and ABV.

I highly recommend all three of these Talisker expressions, and the 25 and 30 year certainly qualify as “special” releases. The Talisker 18 provides the base profile from which the older expressions build, and I don’t think you can go wrong with it (if you like peat). Get a bottle if you can find it. The 25 year provides the goodness of the 18 year in an explosive package. Finally, the 30 year just exudes class, begging to be sipped savored with its richness and sophistication.

I’ll keep an eye out for a sale on the Talisker 25 and grab it when the opportunity presents. As for the 30 year, while it does seem “special”, I’m putting it in line behind HP and Laphroaig on my super premium 30 year wish list. The 18 year is close enough in quality to satisfy my Talisker cravings right now, and it’s a bargain to boot.

Other Opinions

WhiskyNotes.be – One of my favorite sites for tasting notes, Ruben has fantastic notes and scores for all three of these expressions: Talisker 18, Talisker 25, Talisker 30.

Several bloggers attended a Diageo tasting of the whole Special Release lineup:

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Mannochmore 18 Sample

Every fall, whisky connoisseurs look forward to Diageo’s annual Special Releases. These special, limited run bottlings come from a subset of Diageo’s active and closed distilleries. There are nine Cask Strength bottlings in this year’s release, and I ordered a set of 30ml samples from whiskysamples.eu that contains seven of these. The first one I’m sampling and writing about is an 18 year old from Speyside distillery Mannochmore, distilled in 1990.

Have you ever tried a Mannochmore single-malt before? Yeah, me neither. Ok…I guess there is a Flora & Fauna release, plus a few IBs, but there aren’t many expressions out there – especially in the United States. This bottling is especially interesting because of the way they have prepared it. It’s been aged using three different cask types:

  • Re-charred ex-sherry bodega European oak
  • Re-charred ex-bourbon barrels
  • New American oak casks that previously held sherry

Bottled at 54.9%, this is a limited release of 2,604 bottles, and sells for a recommended 105 GBP. Unfortunately, this one is not being shipped to the United States.

Tasting notes

Mannochmore 1990, 18 year, OB, 54.9%

Nose: Lots of spice, oak and vanilla, plus some toffee sweetness and dried fruits…very boubon-like. On first nosing, it’s a little “hot”, with some furniture polish notes due to high abv. That goes away after getting adjusted to it. As I continue to nose it, there’s HUGE vanilla, with apples coming through as well.
Palate: Sweet fruits and cinnamon spice. Maybe a hint of walnut. Starts hot at full strength, but pretty easy to drink still.
Finish: More spices, the oak comes back, and it’s a bit malty. Maybe some apple skins, too. This is a pretty long lasting Speyside malt!

Comments: Before I had even read about the re-charred casks, I opened up the sample bottle, took a whiff and thought…Bourbon! Except on continued nosing, the fruits are lighter, with Speyside apples/pears coming through. Still, this is the closest I’ve ever experienced to a Speyside bourbon (Spourbon?). It’s quite complex on the nose, has pleasant spices to keep things interesting on the tongue, and the finish is pretty long. I like it! That being said, it doesn’t have nearly as much going on in the mouth as my 1989 Macallan 18 (bottled at 43%). I can imagine the rating inching up if I had more time to spend with it, but based on my 30ml sample, I’d tentatively rate Mannachmore 18 at 88/89 points (B+).

At around $100 (or maybe even $125 based on the rarity of Mannochmore), I’d consider buying a full bottle. However, at $150 plus overseas shipping, I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger. Somebody want to send me a bigger sample to see if I change my mind? 🙂

Other opinions

Several bloggers attended a Diageo tasting of the whole Special Release lineup:

Additionally, Ruben over at WhiskyNotes.be provided his own stand-alone review of this Mannochmore. He really liked it and bought a bottle.

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This is part 2 of my look at the Highland Park core expressions. In Part 1, I shared some details about how HP creates their whisky, and compared the 12, 15 and 18 year offerings. In this post, I will continue with the 21, 25 and 30 year expressions, for which I ordered a 50ml sample of each. The only core expressions I’m leaving out of these posts are the 16 year and 40 year. I might be getting a sample of the 16 soon, though.

Three HPs

Highland Park 21, 25 and 30

Highland Park 21 (47.5% abv; $100-$120?)

Bottle Stamp: L0886H 22:10

The 21 year was released in 2007, exclusive to travel retail and duty-free. The 21 year is based on the DNA of the HP 1977 Bicentenary (singlemalt.tv video link) special release, with an emphasis on refill sherry casks. This is supposed to bring out more smoke. There is also a “slight emphasis” on American oak (from the April 2008 HP newsletter), but I don’t know what the percentage is. While the 1977 Bicentenary release was bottled at 40% (43% in the U.S.), this new one was released at 47.5%. However, this past year, Highland Park announced a shortage of casks for the 21 year, so they are now bottling it at 40%. If you see the 47.5% version, get it!

Nose: Take the 15 year and add raspberry to the lime on the nose, plus additional smoke and oak. However, the smoke seems to subdue the citrus relative to the 15.
Palate: Initial sweetness, then intense citrus on the palate. The extra 4.5% abv over the younger expressions really does seem to add impact as the liquid moves from the front to the middle of the mouth.
Finish: Smoke and citrus hit the back of the nostrils hard on the finish, but then dissipate quickly, leaving a medium smoke for a reasonably long time.
Comments:I kept wanting to compare this to the HP 15 43% expression. It really does seem to have a similar underlying profile, but with a purposeful infusion of smoke, and an impact on the palate that makes you want to sip and enjoy. The 15 year, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much of a challenge to the palate, but it’s extremely (dangerously) drinkable. Compared to the HP 18, I felt that this 21 year was less complex, but certainly offers more of a punch. It’s a trade-off between complexity/balance and smoke/impact. I call it a tie at 90 points.

Highland Park 25 (48.1% abv; $250-$275)

Bottle Stamp: L0914G 13:11

Highland Park introduced the 25 year in 1998, a year after the 18 year was released. The 25 year extends a pattern with the 12 and 18 year bottlings, with a focus on European oak, and an increase in the use of first fill casks with each successive release. The 15, 21 and 30 year (all introduced later) all break from this pattern in some way. Bottled with 50% first fill sherry casks, the HP 25 is the darkest whisky in the lineup (HP does not use caramel coloring in any of their releases). This high proportion of first fill sherry casks is also intended to provide a very sweet experience (the sweetest in the lineup).

Nose: We’re back to the dried fruits, figs and berries of the 18. However, it seems a little muted in comparison, and it’s more fig than berry. Not particularly smoky.
Palate: It starts a little flat and dull, then explodes with smoke and pepper at the back of the palate and into the finish. Only the fig remains of the fruits.
Finish: Big hit of smoke and dried fruit, but for me, it subsided much more quickly than I expected and turned a bit flat.
Comments: This is an excellent whisky, but I’m a little disappointed. I’ve seen a number of whisky enthusiasts expressing a preference for the 25 year over the 30, and at $200 less, that makes for the kind of “bargain” that I love (granted, we’re still in super premium range). However, the nose never seems to blossom with this one. It’s got nice impact on the palate, but the pleasure is fleeting, and to me, it lacks the complexity I was seeking in a 25 year HP. 89 points.

Highland Park 30 (48.1% abv; $450)

Bottle Stamp L 0999G 23:11

The 30 year was just introduced in 2005 as a regular release. The maturation “recipe”, if you will, for the 30 year differs significantly from the 25. In this one, only refill casks are used. 25% of them are American sherry oak, and the other 75% are European sherry oak. As mentioned with the 21 year, the focus on refill casks is intended to bring the smoke more to the fore, in order to balance the heavier sweetness that comes from the long period in European oak casks.

Nose: Rich toffee sweets turn to dried fruits, then it blossoms into fresh berries and kiwi. There is a light to medium smokiness. Surprisingly subtle oak given the age.
Palate: More fruit and sweets up front, then turns peppery approaching the finish. My tongue is all a-tingle.
Finish: This one just goes on and on, with lingering pepper on the tongue and fruity smoke dancing in the nostrils.
Comments: The 30 year is everything I hoped the 25 would be. Looking at other reviews now, I see mention of orange and chocolate for the 30 year, which I equate to the combination of American and European oak. However, my own sensory interpretation of this one is that the American oak takes the fig and dried fruit from the European oak and turns it into fresh berries. It reminds me of the fruitiness that comes from my all time favorite Laphroaig 30. I’m tempted to rate them as equals, with the HP 30 providing more impact in the mouth than the Laphroaig, but the Laphroaig 30 having a magical nose that I haven’t found the equal of yet. If I had to pick just one, it would be the Laphroaig. Let’s say 92.5 points.

Big HP, little HP

The three expressions in my Part 1 post were all bottled at 43%, while the three discussed in this post are in the 47-48% range. The additional abv definitely makes a difference in palate impact, and that seems to carry through to the finish.

When comparing the full lineup, I think it’s easy to get drawn into the impact of the higher abv (big) releases and suddenly find the younger (little) ones feeling weak and less satisfying. I urge caution when taking this approach.

For example, when I tasted the HP 18 immediately after the HP 30 (with some water in between), I had momentary doubts about my professed love for the 18 year expression. Should I really rate it as close to the 30 as I did, even with the obvious difference in mouth impact and smoke? However, when I pull out the 18 year and evaluate it on its own, the doubts disappear. It’s a fabulous, complex, well balanced whisky.


I’m thoroughly impressed with the whole HP line. Having learned a little bit about the way they use their casks in the maturation process, I’m also in awe of their blenders. I’ll feel very “safe” purchasing new expressions from this distillery (like the upcoming Earl Magnus 15 yr. cask strength). As for the six expressions from these two posts…

The HP 12 is a fantastic value at around $35, but as long as I can afford it, I’ll opt for a combination of HP 15 and HP 18 in my cabinet for regular Highland Park cravings. I love the lime and sheer drinkability of my 43% U.S. bottling of the 15 year, but not sure what to think of the 40% version based on my 50ml sample experience. If I could get my hands on the 47.5% 21 year, that would be a no brainer, too, but I’d like to sample the new 40% bottling first. In the super premium category, if I came up with $250+ to spend on an HP (not this year), I’d mail order a 30 year from the U.K. for about the same price as the 25 year goes for here in the States.

Finally, it’s the 18 year and 30 year expressions that stood out the most to me. I totally get it if some people feel the 18 doesn’t have quite enough smoke, or impact in the mouth, but I think that’s overlooking the amazing complexity and balance of that dram. Deciding between the 18 year and 21 year kind of feels like choosing between a luxury sedan and a sports car. Now, the HP 30…that’s a freaking Porche Panamera. Luxurious accommodations, but still does 0-60 in 3.3 and pulls 0.92g on the skid pad. The Highland Park 30 looks better than the Panamera, though. 🙂

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I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a Highland Park tasting event, but I did notice that they bottle miniatures of most of their lineup, so I decided to buy some of those and do an HP comparison in the comfort of my own home. I already owned full size bottles of HP 12 and 18, so I purchased miniatures of the 15, 21, 25 and 30. Later, I discovered that the UK bottling of the 15 year (and the 12 year for that matter) are at 40% vs. the U.S. 43% version, so I ended up buying a full size bottle of HP 15 locally for the comparison.

Highland Park lineup

In this post, I’ll share my tasting notes and thoughts on the 12, 15 and 18 year bottlings. I’ll then post a “Part 2” to compare the 21, 25 and 3o year, and discuss how those older, higher proofed bottlings relate to these first three. I’m leaving out the 16 year duty-free and 40 year bottlings from this comparison, as I wasn’t able to find miniatures of those two.

The Highland Park whisky making process

Highland Park seems to be known for its sweetness up front, which turns to drying and a light smoke at the end. The smoke comes from the use of some peated barley. The peat itself comes from Orkney, and the fact that it’s formed from the heathery moorland supposedly results in adding a honey sweetness to the barley, in addition to the smoke.

Assuming that they always start with the same basic spirit, coming from the same stills, I was curious as to what components go into the “recipe” for creating the individual HP expressions besides the length of maturation:

  • Cask type: HP uses only sherry casks in the making of their whisky, but they use a combination of Spanish and American oak casks. The Spanish oak contributes dried fruit flavors, while the American oak provides vanilla and citrus notes.
  • Refill cask ratio: They use varying combinations of first fill and refill sherry casks, with the ratio between these two being used for color consistency as well (they don’t caramel color their whisky).
  • Cask Harmonization: Each batch of whisky, after a primary maturation period in different types of casks, is vatted together, and then returned to casks for six or more months of additional maturation. The older HP expressions are “harmonized” for longer periods. This process adds consistency to the HP releases.

I don’t think they disclose the specific ratios for all three of these elements of maturation, but I’ll share what information I’m aware of as I discuss each of the expressions.

[Note: All prices listed are just the local price range from a couple of big box liquor stores (Total Wine & More and Bevmo)]

Highland Park 12 (43%; $35-45)

HP 12HP 12 was the first Highland Park single malt, and the only standard expression from 1979 until 1997, when they introduced the 18 year expression. The 12 year is matured predominantly in Spanish oak casks, 20% of which are first fill.

Nose: Peaches in syrup, a hint of leather (that’s right…I said leather, not heather), and something a little earthy/vegetal, though I hesitate to say peat. Sometimes the peaches seem more like candied orange.
Palate: A good mouth coating with more sweets, some spice and a nice tingle on the tongue. Becoming dry at the end.
Finish: Medium length with continued drying. The fruitiness is back, though muted, and enveloped in a light smoke.
Comments: Ok, is it just me, or does the HP 12 nose have a lot in common with Dalmore 12? However, the HP separates itself with more impact in the mouth, and a longer, more interesting finish. I felt the Dalmore 12 was worth 83 or 84 points, and this one deserves a couple more points for the improvements in the mouth. An excellent standard expression! 86 points.

Highland Park 15 (43%; $55-65)

HP 15The 15 year is matured in 30% first fill casks, vs 20% for the 12 year. Additionally, there is a higher proportion of American oak casks. I don’t know what the ratio of American to Spanish oak casks is, though. The 15 year was just introduced in 2003.

Nose: Seems simpler than the 12, actually. HUGE lime (like it’s infused with lime peels) with a little bit of oak, and just the slightest hint of smoke.
Palate: Citrus with some sweet spices. More drying than the 12, and a little more zip and tingle on the tongue.
Finish: Drying, with big lime coming back, along with the light smoke that seems to be a signature HP trait.
Comments: The 15 year is not a natural progression on the way from the 12 to the 18. The shift in focus from Spanish to American oak really changes the profile, and I can understand where some people would find this a bit disconcerting. I’m a big fan, though. It’s not super complex, but that infusion of lime perks me up and makes me take notice. I love the way it adds zip in the mouth, while still retaining the fascinating drying and light smoke from the 12 year. Personally, I’m inclined to reach for this one over the 12 in most cases. Is this one of those guilty pleasures? Will the lime start seeming excessive by the time I empty the bottle? I don’t know, but right now I’d give it 88 points.
[Update] I revisited the 15 year in my Earl Magnus blog post and the lime does seem a little more over the top now. The palate is a little more watery, too. I updated my rating to 87 points just to show a little more separation between this and the 18 year and Magnus. I still think the 15 is a great whisky.

A tale of two HP 15 year olds: I mentioned at the top that I had also ordered a mini of the 40% HP 15 from the UK. I wanted to provide notes on the 40% vs 43% bottlings, but I encountered a problem. My 40% sample was completely flat on the palate, and when it hit the finish, an off-putting soapy flavor came up into my nostrils and stuck with me until I washed it away with one of the good HPs. For now, I’m giving HP the benefit of the doubt, and assuming I somehow got a bad sample. If that’s not the case, and this is what the 40% 15 year old tastes like, that would be a real shame.

Highland Park 18 (43%; $83-99)

HP 18Now we jump up to 45% first fill casks, and predominantly Spanish oak like with the 12 year. The 18 year was the second core single malt expression introduced…18 years after the 12 year was introduced, funny enough.

Nose: Darker and richer than either the 12 or 15. Much more fruity. Starting with dried fruits and sweet spices and turning into fresh red fruits and berries. Not a sherry bomb, but the additional first fill casks are obvious here. I think I’m also picking up a little bit of fresh oak underneath the fruit.
Palate: Good body and fruity flavor. Bigger mouth feel than the 12 or 15.
Finish: More red fruits. There is smoke, and it’s starting to get bigger than with the first two…lifting the fruits up into the back of the nostrils and staying for a while.
Comments: Wow! Amazing balance on this one. The way the Spanish sherry cask influence comes out, but doesn’t completely take over is very appealing. It doesn’t seem quite as drying as the first two, actually, but still a great mouth feel. Sweets, spices, oak, fruit, smoke…they all enter and exit at the right points, and mix together in the right way. It’s hard to explain, but I just have a hard time finding fault. That’s not to say it can’t be improved upon. There could be more mouth impact and more smoke, and I wouldn’t complain one bit. Still…this is a pretty amazing whisky. I rank it right up in the neighborhood of my favorites at 90 points.


It’s interesting how they’ve used the sweet/smoky combination to  achieve a common, identifiable distillery character across the expressions, yet each is a very distinct experience. I don’t know that age has contributed to the differences between the 12 and 15 year so much as the maturation “recipe”, especially with regards to the use of American oak. The 18 year, on the other hand, seems to have a richness about it that indicates a sweet spot in the aging process.

If you just look at the point ratings I assign to these three expressions, it looks like I’m phoning it in and awarding a couple of points for every 3 years of aging. That’s not the case at all, though. These three expressions arrive at their satisfaction level and rating in completely different ways, with age potentially playing just a little bit of a roll in the 18 year story. I could imagine somebody switching these ratings around based on personal preference, but I find it easy to recommend all of these as high quality drams with a good value proposition (not taking into account that 40% 15 year sample).

Coming in Part 2…

In my next post, I’ll compare the 21, 25 and 30 year, which all have a higher alcohol percentage. I’ll also talk about them relative to these younger expressions with regards to profile similarities and value proposition. I REALLY want to like the 25 year more than the 30 because of the price difference, but will it be able to pull off the upset? Also, my take on the 21 year being voted the best whisky in the world this past year in the Whisky Magazine awards.

Update: Here’s the link to The HP core expressions – Part 2

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