Fancy yourself a whisky connoisseur? I don’t – not yet, anyway. However, I do obviously spend a fair amount of time reading about and tasting whisky. But has all of this focused effort led to any kind of improved ability to discern whisky expressions by taste, smell and color? I’m not sure a single blind tasting is any way to determine that, but from what I’ve read of them, it’s a good way to gain some perspective, and perhaps a little humility. I’m game for that.

My local Single Malt Scotch Society (which I just discovered a year ago) periodically does blind tasting meetings, and I just recently attended my first one. This is a great group to drink and discuss single malts with. They’re much more experienced than I am, some of them being members of PLOWED, so it’s great to hear about the world of whisky from their point of view. Fortunately, it’s a laid back group, and the primary goal is to have a good time, not impress each other with our tasting prowess.

Let the games begin…

Rules of the game

There were 9 of us in attendance. We received a cheat sheet ahead of time listing 13 possible expressions. Of those 13, 10 would be chosen at random by a non-participant (the brother of John, our leader and host). Those 10 were to be poured into jars and numbered. The name of the malt was written on a card and placed in an envelope with the appropriate matching number.

The cheat sheet

Islay malts

  • Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990, 16 yr., OB, 46%
  • Lagavulin 16 yr., OB, 43%
  • Laphroaig 18 yr., OB, 48Q%

Speyside malts

  • Balvenie DoubleWood, 12 yr., OB, 43%
  • BenRiach 1994 Peated Oloroso Sherry Finish, 12 yr., OB, 57%
  • Cardhu 12 yr., OB, 40%
  • Glenfarclas 25 yr., OB, 43%

Highland malts

  • Ben Nevis 1986, 14 yr., Cadenhead bottling, 62.9%
  • Clynelish 14 yr., OB, 46%
  • Highland Park 18 yr. OB, 43%

Campbeltown malts

  • Springbank 15 yr., OB, 46%

Lowland malts

  • Auchentoshan Three Wood, NAS, OB, 43%
  • Rosebank 1990, 14 yr., Whisky Galore bottling, 46%

Upon arriving…we were each given a scorecard to fill out. For each malt, we would fill in the information below. You can get up to 10 points per malt. The winner earns bragging rights in the next society newsletter.

Scorecard breakdown:

  • Region (3 pts): Multiple Choice from:
    • Islay
    • Speyside
    • Other Highland
    • Lowland
  • Age (2 pts)
    • 12 yrs or less
    • 13-17 yrs
    • 18+ yrs
  • Strength (1 pt)
    • 40%
    • 43%
    • 46%
    • Above 46%
  • Cask type (1 pt)
    • Bourbon only
    • Sherry
    • Other Finish
  • Distillery (3 pts)

The Tasting

Malt #1 – BenRiach 12 year

My Scorecard: Speyside (3 pts); 12 yrs (2 pts); Above 46% (1 pt); Other Finish (0 pt); BenRiach (3 pts) – Total 9 pts

Comments: A sherry and peat combination came through clearly. Fortunately, I have tasted a couple of other BenRiach peated whiskies (and own one). There’s something distinctive about the BenRiach flavor of peated whisky (at least their finished ones) that just stood out right from the start. I questioned myself at first, as the cheat sheet didn’t say this was a “peated” BenRiach, but I decided to go with my gut. I’m glad I did! Unfortunately, I screwed up the scorecard on this first one. I put “Other Finish” because it is a “finished” whisky. The correct answer was “sherry.” Basically…I didn’t follow directions.

How I’m feeling (after the reveal): At this point, I’m thinking “hey…I’m going to completely kick ass at this!”

Malt #2 – Rosebank 1990 14 year

My Scorecard: Other Highland (0 pt); 13-17 yrs (2 pts); 46% (1 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Clynelish (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: I took one whiff of this, a quick sip, and immediately wrote down that it was the Clynelish. I thought it had kind of a rough and tumble highland flavor that I associate with Clynelish, and I decided to go with my initial instinct. It worked with the BenRiach. A swing and a miss, but the catcher dropped the ball, so I was able to run to first. While I completely missed this one, the age, strength and cask type just happened to match.

How I’m feeling: “Doh! Coming back down to earth, but hey…I’m not familiar with the Rosebank. It just fooled me. I’ll get the next one.” I don’t know if it was because it immediately followed a peated whisky, but most of us were totally surprised to find out this was a Rosebank.

Malt #3 – Clynelish

My Scorecard: Speyside (0 pt); 12 yrs (0 pt); 40% (0 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Cardhu (0 pt) – Total 1 point

Comments: I was completely stumped on this one. It seemed easier going than the previous dram (Rosebank), so I started down the Speyside track (I think I had Clynelish mentally blocked out because I had just guessed it on the previous dram). I also heard other comments in the group about it being smooth and easy. Only one of the four Speysides looked like it might have only a bourbon cask maturation…Cardhu. Well, it doesn’t seem as smooth and sweet as I’ve heard Cardhu described, but then, I’ve never had it before. A total guess on my part.

How I’m feeling: At this point, I’m thinking “hey…I completely suck at this!”

Malt #4 – Glenfarclas 25

My Scorecard: Other Highland (0 pt); 18+ yrs (2 pts); 43% (1 pt); sherry (1 pt); Glenfarclas (3 pts) – Total 7 pts

Comments: This one tasted a lot like the Glenfarclas 17 year to me, which I’m quite familiar with. However, I expected the 25 year to have a bigger “classic sherry” taste to it. Still…it seemed distinctly Glenfarclas. As we bantered a bit as a group, it seemed like a number of others thought it was HP 18. I couldn’t buy into that, but then, I was completely wrong on the last two. Ok…hedging my bet and going Glenfarclas, but putting “Other highland” for the region, just in case.

How I’m feeling: “Whew! Back in the game!” Although, my failure on the previous two kept me from fully committing. Oh well…I’d take 7s the rest of the way, no problem.

Malt #5 – Lagavulin 16

My Scorecard: Islay (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (2 pts); 46% (0 pt); sherry (1 pt); Ardbeg (0 pt) – Total 6 pts

Comments: This was obviously one of the three Islays. The color was darker than I remember either the Ardbeg ANB or the Laphroaig 18 being. However, I KNOW Laga 16. It’s one of my favorites. I’m not getting that certain iodine/fruit combination that I know and love from the Laga. Hmm…I know his bottle of ANB is 16 years vs. my 18 year bottle. Maybe it’s a little bigger with less vanilla at 16 years (at this point, my mind is playing games, and I’m forgetting about how dark the whisky in my glass is). Ok, if this was Laga 16, I would just “know it”, so I’m going to hedge my bet between ANB and Laga 16. At least they’re the same age, so I should get the region and age right, regardless.

How I’m feeling: I thought I’d be happy with 6 or 7 points, but…“I’m feeling like a complete fraud for not being 100% sure that this was Lagavulin 16, supposedly one of my favorites, and one I’m most familiar with. On top of that, I’m an idiot for not paying more attention to the color.” I felt a little better to find out this was an older bottle, and has been open for a number of years. That might play into it a little. Still…

Malt #6 – Highland Park 18

My Scorecard: Other Highland (3 pts); 18+ yrs (2 pts); 43% (1); Sherry (1 pt); HP (3 pts) – Total 10 pts

Comments: Sherry for sure, with a little peat, but not Islay peat. I hear a couple of people talking Ardbeg/Laphroaig. No way…I know this one. I’m going all in on HP 18, and feeling good about the fact that our host, John, just indicated that he feels the same way.

How I’m feeling: Back from the brink. “Ok…the whisky gods threw me a bone on this one. It’s good to know I can pick out at least ONE of my favorites.”

Malt #7 – Cardhu

My Scorecard: Speyside (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (0 pt); 40% (1 pt); sherry (0 pt); Springbank (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: Doh! I really let the group banter get to me on this one. After an initial sip, I checked “Speyside” on the card. Now I just had to figure out if it was Cardhu (which I’ve never had) or Balvenie. We then took a break mid-dram to get some food, as our palates were starting to get tired.

After taking a break, drinking some water and eating a few potato chips, I returned to taste some more. I heard others talking about Springbank. Hmm…maybe that sweetness on the close was a sherry cask sweetness. It didn’t taste like Balvenie, though. Maybe it was turning salty…or was that the potato chips? Time up – everybody else has marked their cards. I decide to quickly do a 3-way hedge between Cardhu, Balvenie and Springbank.

How I’m feeling: Like Charlie Brown: Wishy-washy. Sigh…

Malt #8 – Balvenie DoubleWood

My Scorecard: Lowland (0 pt); 12 Years (2 pts); 43% (1 pt); Sherry (1 pt); Auchentoshan (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: It seemed obvious on this one that it was either the DoubleWood or the Three Wood. I heard others debating the same thing. I’ve only had a single dram of the Auchentoshan before, and I remember it stood out as being very “woody”…more so than I expected from a NAS expression. Well, this one immediately struck me as being woody as well, and it just didn’t quite seem to have that Balvenie honey/apple combination that I THOUGHT I could easily recognize. I didn’t dare look at Adam on my right…he’s a big “Balvenie guy”, and I knew he’d probably be beaming if this was the DoubleWood. I wanted to get this on my own, though. I’m going with the Three Wood.

How I’m feeling: “Doh! (again)” I’m taking it all more in stride, though. It’s become clear that nobody in the group is able to nail these expressions consistently. Heck, even Adam (who sure enough got this one right) admitted that his taste buds are shot and it was the color that he thought gave this one away.

Malt #9 – Ben Nevis 1986 62.9%

My Scorecard: Other Highland (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (2 pt); ABOVE 46% (1 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Ben Nevis (3 pts) – Total 10 pts

Comments: Everybody nailed this one. This was the only high ABV whisky left on the cheat sheet. It was very good, though.

How I’m feeling: “I just coated my tongue with 62.9% of Highland goodness. Will I be able to taste #10?”

Malt #10 – Surprise…Laphroaig 30 Year!

My Scorecard: Islay (3 pts); 43% (2 pts); 18+ years (1 pt); Sherry (1 pt); Bowmore? (0 pt) – Total 7 pts

Comments: For this last dram, we had a surprise “off the cheat sheet” whisky. John and Richard disqualified themselves (Richard supplied the bottle). We knew, once they announced this, that it was something special (and it was). Up front, there was a gentle but prominent peat, but it lacked the big medicinal, tarry, oily notes you would get from a younger Laphroaig or Ardbeg. It reminded me of my favorite Laphroaig 30 year, but if that was the case, I would expect more red fruits to come out at the end. This one had some wonderful dried fruit notes, but I didn’t get any ripe berries. Certainly, this was an older (25+ years) whisky, and the proof was relatively low.

A few others speculated about the Distillery, with Bowmore mentioned more than once. I suddenly had visions of having the opportunity to taste one of the famous older Bowmores (Black, gold, etc.). Hey, with this group, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody owned something of that caliber.

How I’m feeling: “Oh, come on! This is supposed to be my all time favorite whisky and I couldn’t nail down the taste profile?” Oh well..at least I didn’t think it sucked! In fact, it was so good, I elevated it beyond Laphroaig 30 status and tried to figure out which famous, all but unobtainable whisky it might be.

Total: 62 points.


We added up our points, and believe it or not, I was tied for first at 62 points with Adam! Not so fast, though…after pumping my fists in the air, I realized that with Richard reporting 61 points, but taking a disqualification on the Laphroaig 30, he was clearly the #1 blind taster. Second would be John, who scored 55, but would have had 62 to 65 if he could have gotten points for the Laphroaig. Even with a point tie, I would put John before either of us, as I was “playing the game” and hedging bets, and Adam openly admitted to simply “guessing” the last 4 correctly after his taste buds were shot and his allergies bugging him.

I think a lot of the remaining tasters scored in the 40s, but when you take into account that many were going all in on their guesses (not hedging their bets), there were probably quite a few 1 point scores, even though they may have been close to guessing correctly. I’m also not sure how seriously everybody took it. I will admit, though, that I really, really tried. I was jumping up in between drams and blasting my glass with water in the sink and wiping it with a fresh paper towel, making sure it was as clean as possible. Michael, one of the long time society (and PLOWED) members was laughing at me…saying he used to be the same way. Today, he was just having a great time…he had nothing to prove.

So, what is my takeaway? Trying to guess a whisky based on a blind test is hard! Even if the field is narrowed. However, based on the few successes I had, and realizing how my mind played with me on some of the failures, I DO think there is room for a certain amount of olfactory training when it comes to recognizing distillery profiles. I look forward to practicing more blind tasting at home, and participating in another group event in the future.

How well do you think you know your favorite whisk(e)y, wine, beer or other spirit? Try putting yourself to the blind test to find out…the results may surprise you!



Continuing on with my Core Islay Expressions exploration, I’m stepping back from the big Ardbeg and Laphroaig malts and taking a look at the two entry-level Bowmore expressions. Bowmore presents a gentler, less phenolic side of Islay peat, and while the uber-expensive bottlings from the 1960s seem to get lots of attention, I never seem to see much written about the more common expressions.

Much of what I’ve seen on message boards about Bowmore focuses on some sort of “lavender” scent/flavor known as “FWP” that appears to have been introduced in the mid-90s, lasting into the early part of the last decade. I’ll let you read more about FWP in this distillery profile on the Malt Madness site. Some real damage seems to have been done to the Bowmore reputation (at least in whisky enthusiast circles) during this time. This issue seems to have been put to rest, though, and I don’t find my 2008 – 2010 bottlings to be off-putting at all.

Bowmore Legend and 12 Year

Tasting Notes

Bowmore 12 Year (2008; 40%; $40)

Nose: Orange and chocolate, reminiscent of Dalmore (more orange than chocolate, though). An equal helping of earthy peat, much like Talisker, but with more of a tea leaf note as it tails off.  This isn’t a strong peat, nor is it very medicinal. Finally, there’s something sweet going on here. I’ve read about Bowmore having Lavender notes before, but this doesn’t seem flowery to me. A pretty complex nose, really. One to sit with a while and enjoy.
Palate: Sweet peat on the palate, along with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.  It’s not big, but it’s not thin either. Frankly, it could use a bit more oomph, as it falls down a little here in comparison to Talisker or other standard Islay malts. However, if those big whiskies aren’t your bag, then you might find this to be a relief!
Finish: Peat and tea leaves in the back of the nostrils are accompanied by a return of  sweets and fruit. Although, now, instead of oranges, it’s more like passion fruit. On the tongue, I get some more of that Dalmore chocolate with some mild drying. Interestingly, as the dryness wears off, I’m left with a salty after-taste.

Comments: Dang, this is a pretty fine single malt! It has a lot to offer on the nose, and it’s great for sitting with and sipping neat out of a nosing glass. I think the nose promises a little more than the palate/finish can deliver, though. This might disappoint some people. Also, while I’ve decided that the sweet/peat combination is enjoyable, I’m not sure this will appeal to everybody. For me, this is a solid B whisky (84 points)

Bowmore Legend NAS (2010; 40%; $25)

Nose: Very “spirity” at first, screaming “I’m a young malt!” I think there might be a little lemon trying to get through, but it’s hard to say. Getting beyond that, I’m getting a fairly simple nose of peat smoke and toffee sweets. Interestingly, the peat itself doesn’t come across as particularly young. If you’re planning to spend some time nosing this one, let it sit for 15-20 minutes in the glass and the peat comes through more clearly.
Palate: You know those “Sugar in the Raw” packets at some restaurants? On the palate, this whisky is like a combination of that sugar and a reasonably juicy barley/grass component.
Finish: A one-note finish of peat, but it’s an enjoyable, somewhat “pure” peat. It IS a somewhat short finish, though. Nothing spectacular going on here, but harmless and enjoyable enough.

Comments: Ok, this is a pretty straight-forward expression, and the initial, youthful nose didn’t wow me. However, it quickly turns into an enjoyable and easy drinking whisky. For me, this will be a tumbler dram. No need to pull out the nosing copita…just pour a glass and enjoy the sweet barley on the mouth and the clean peat smoke finish. I think I found my Islay version of Glenfiddich 12. B- (80 Points)


The Bowmore Legend is not just a younger version of the 12 Year expression. They’re completely different animals. Actually, the Legend DOES seem kind of like a baby Bowmore Tempest, which I’ve sampled, but don’t have a full bottle of. My guess is that the Legend is matured in mostly (if not all) bourbon casks, while the 12 year is a combination of bourbon and sherry casks.

As I said in my comments above, I think the Legend is a perfect “tumbler dram.” Pour it in a glass and drink it neat, on ice, or mixed with something else for a smoky cocktail. I think @whiskywitch nailed it on Twitter when she said:

Legend has been the “go to” Islay Scotch for lots of my 20-something clients- it pairs well with pizza or burgers + fries

As for Bowmore 12 year, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of this expression over the past couple of years. When Islay whiskies were new and exciting for me, the Bowmore just didn’t seem to hold up to the higher peating in other Islay malts. Now I’ve chilled a bit and can appreciate the more subtle nuances in this whisky. Sometimes it strikes me as Dalmore’s pipe-smoking cousin, and other times as Talisker exploring its feminine side. Actually…if you have both Bowmore 12 and Talisker 175th anniversary on hand, pour a glass of both side by side. They’re really not THAT far apart in terms of nose profile. The Bowmore doesn’t hold a candle to the Talisker on the palate and finish, though. 🙂

I can easily recommend both of these whiskies given the right circumstances. However, if you’ve tried and liked Talisker and are looking to see what this whole Islay craze is all about, the Bowmore 12 isn’t going to break any new ground for you. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are where the main phenol frenzy is at, and Lagavulin is on a whole different plane. Still, the Bowmore 12 year offers a unique take on sweet peat and is very much worth a try. With the Legend, you can check your pretension at the door, party a little bit, and enjoy that smoky finish.



The Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza is a traveling event put on by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America (SMWSA). Apparently this is the 18th year of the Extravaganza, and the first year that it has come to Phoenix, AZ. I’ve never been to other, bigger whisky shows, but from what I can tell, this is a similar format for the main event (a bunch of booths where you can try whisky and talk to industry representatives), minus the additional “master classes” that are offered at some of the other shows.

The event appears to be run mainly by the Shayne family. Alan Shayne is the president of the SMWSA, and his daughter, Gabrielle, is the one who has provided marketing information to me and other bloggers on the event. Both were also active participants during the Extravaganza itself. There is a pre-show whisky panel session from 6pm to 7pm, then the main show from 7pm to 9pm.

The SMSW Extravaganza costs $120 for SMWSA members, and [theoretically] $135 for non-members. However, it’s easy to get a discount code for the member price. Gabrielle Shayne has worked with a bunch of whisky-related sites and blogs to get word out on the event and make discount codes available. There is a Scotch Hobbyist code of “SH2011” that can be used for this purpose. From one of my emails, it looks like I could have gotten a free ride for blogging about the event, but I actually paid the $120 and went as a non-press attendee. I met up with a friend, Adam, from a local Single Malt Whisky Society (not affiliated with SMWSA), and hung with him during the event.

Whisky Panel

Prior to the main “extravaganza” there was an hour long Whisky Panel session available on a first come first served basis. I got there just before this session started, and entered the room to find what felt like around 25 people in the audience, along with 8 or so Whisky Panel members. The panel was made up of industry representatives, including well known ambassadors such as Simon Brooking (Laphroaig), Mitch Bechard (Glenfiddich), Ricky Crawford (The Glenlivet), and David Blackmore (Glenmorangie). I think a few additional audience members joined in, but not sure of the total count. It wasn’t a huge group, anyway.

We each got a nosing glass, pre-filled with some Laphroaig 10 year. Apparently the Panel members take turns supplying the dram served during the session, and it was Simon Brooking’s (U.S. Ambassador for Laphroaig) turn. We also received note cards, upon which we could write down a couple of questions that we would like to have answered by the panel. The questions are chosen and read by Alan Shayne, and this Q&A process makes up the full focus of the session.

One of my two questions was read and answered. I asked why there are differences in ABV between some of the UK and USA bottlings. Specifically, we get an extra 3% ABV (43 vs 40) in a number of popular standard bottlings. It would appear that it really just comes down to money, and especially the fact that the standard expressions have been reduced to being something of a commodity item in the UK big box stores. They’re getting next to no margin on these bottles, so they’ve dropped the ABV.

My other question was not asked…I was wondering which is better, Ninjas or Pirates. Apparently Mr. Shayne didn’t feel this was the appropriate forum to have such a question answered. And so, I await a chance to ask somebody more in the know.

Main Event

The Whisky Panel Q&A session ended a few minutes before the 7pm official start time for the main show. They led all of us panel attendees in through the back entrance of the main event ballroom with the ambassadors, giving us first dibs at the whisky booths and the excellent buffet. There were booths lining the sides of the room, with food at one end, and large tables in the middle for dining and chatting. There were typically one or two distilleries represented per booth. There was a single booth for the Diageo Classic Malt distilleries, and SMWSA had two booths…one with five of their private bottlings, and another booth representing their “public” face (Spirit Imports), where they had a couple of Classic Cask expressions, some Douglass Laing, and Big Peat.

The booths were staffed by a combination of the ambassadors, other distillery representatives, and models. Alan Shayne spent a fair amount of time at the SMWSA booths, and his lovely (and knowledgeable) daughter Gabrielle was the primary host for the SMWSA private bottlings. There was also a booth where you could pick up a couple of cigars (Warlock and VegaFina) and register for a raffle at the end, where you could win one of a number of bottles of whisky or a full box of cigars. Finally, there was a booth dedicated to SMWSA membership information.

Glenfiddich Booth (featuring Snow Phoenix)

I have mixed feelings on the models at the booths. I mean, they looked great, but I also want to ask questions about the expressions and the distillery. I guess my vote is for a combination Ambassador/Model approach (or find more all-in-one hosts like Gabrielle). Win/win :-). It was also amusing to see the interaction of some of the attendees with the model hosts. I waited for the ridiculously good looking woman at the Aberlour booth to pour me a sample of the 18 year while some guy chatted her up. Nice try, but I don’t think so.

All in all, I was very satisfied with the layout and flow of the event. I got to try quite a few better-than-average expressions (detailed below), eat some great food, and enjoy some entertaining conversation. Towards the end of the show, they made an announcement that the “Super Pour” period had begun. Some of the booths pulled out special expressions that had been held back prior to that point.

Coolest Booth: Laphroaig/Ardmore – They had raw barley that you could chew on to get a feel for the taste, and blocks of peat representing both the Laphroaig and Ardmore styles of peat. They would light up the peat so you could take in the aroma, noting the differences between peat types, and better understanding how this fuel type influences the flavor of the heated barley, and ultimately, the distilled spirit.

Picking nits? A few of the booths offered underwhelming expression selection. Highland Park only had the 15 and 18 year. I sure would have liked to see a bottle of 25 or 30 year brought out for the Super Pour period. Some might have also been disappointed at not having the Glenfiddich 30 year make an appearance, but I get the focus on Snow Phoenix right now. Maybe next time. Also, if I had a ride, or was staying at the hotel, another 30 minutes to sample a few more expressions would be welcomed.

Whiskies I tried

  • Aberlour 18 – Perfectly nice, I tasted this towards the end of the evening. Hard to say if it’s worth the premium over the excellent 16 year. Didn’t seem like it tonight.
  • Ardmore Traditional Cask – I’ve had Ardmore in Compass Box blends, but never as a single malt. It’s actually better than I thought it would be. Not a huge peat, but some pretty nice spices. It has a notable pine taste that you could also smell in the peat at the booth.
  • Balvenie 17 Year Peated – This was very good. The barley isn’t actually peated. They start with regular Balvenie whisky casks, and then do a finish using barrels that previously contained peated whisky (peated Balvenie whisky in fact). The peat cask influence is fairly subtle, but makes for a very balanced whisky. Not sure about paying $120 for it, though.
  • The Classic Cask – Rare Scotch Whisky 35 Year Blend – This was the first and last whisky I sampled on the evening, and my favorite overall. If I recall the information on this expression correctly, it’s comprised of 30 or so single malts, matured for 25 years in varying cask types. They’re then vatted together with about 15% grain whisky (making it officially a “blend”) and matured another 10 years in first-fill sherry casks. A total of 600 bottles were produced. More notes on this one at the end of the blog post…
  • The Dalmore 18 Year – A solid dram, very much of the Dalmore profile. The subtleties of this one were somewhat lost on me, though, having tried it later in the evening.
  • Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix – Another solid dram. You’ve probably read about this one, produced from casks of various types ranging from 13 to 30 years old, plucked out of warehouses where the roof had collapsed in last year’s winter storms. I’ve not been a huge Glenfiddich fan (relative to some other Speyside distilleries), but I did enjoy this quite a bit. It’s another one that probably calls for a more controlled environment and a dedicated glass. Worth another try in the future.
  • Glenmorangie Finealta – This was my second sample on the evening, and I was very impressed with it. Peated to a mere 8-10 ppm (according to David Blackmore), you’re certainly not going to confuse it for an Ardbeg. However, I really liked the peat that showed up…very earthy like a Talisker or Bowmore, and a nice compliment to the vanilla and citrus notes more typical of a Glenmorangie whisky.
  • Glenrothes 1985 – Here we go…a sherry cask matured Glenrothes. I’ve been wanting to try one of these. It was a very enjoyable whisky, but not as bold as the Classic Cask 35 or Yamazaki 18. I’d like to try this one on its own sometime. It seemed like a very “clean” sherry presentation, with no sulfur to speak of.
  • Glen Spey 21 Year – A limited release for 2010, this Super Pour demanded a stop at the Diageo Classic Malts booth. Great dried fruits and wood spices on the nose, and the mouth was fantastic at the bottled 50-ish percent. No water necessary. A real treat!
  • Isle of Jura 16 – Another perfectly enjoyable whisky, but sorry, I just couldn’t get much out of it late in the evening after so many other whiskies. Another one to try on its own.
  • Laphroaig 25 – This was the Laphroaig super pour. I was really excited to be able to taste this. Now I’m especially glad I did, as it confirmed my preference for the less expensive 30 year old. The 25 year was great, don’t get me wrong. And it’s certainly bigger on the palate (at 51% ABV) than the 30 year. I just don’t find the sherry flavors to be as developed here. Interestingly enough, Simon Brooking stated that the 30 year only contains 20% sherry casks vs. 40% sherry casks in this 25 year expression!? I find this really hard to believe, but he said those extra 5 years in the sherry casks really drew out the flavors in the 30 year.
  • Scappa 16 – A pleasant surprise, this is very sweet, but also super clean and quite enjoyable. What a great warm weather whisky this would be! There’s probably a bottle in my future.
  • SMWSA – “Deep and Dynamic” Cask No. 41.46 (Dailuaine 7 year) – A young Speyside whisky from a distillery I hadn’t even heard of. I don’t recall specific flavors, but it was big, fruity and sweet. Big, and a little “hot” on the palate, yet not rough or even particularly immature. Pretty impressive for a 7 year.
  • SMWSA – “Master and Commander” Cask No. 93.39 (Glen Scotia 10 year) – Mmm…a sherry cask Campbeltown whisky. I’m pretty sure I like this better than the 10 or 15 year Springbanks.
  • SMWSA – “What a Magnificent and Handsome Nose” Cask No. 29.88 (Laphroaig 9 year) – Laphroaig spirit matured 9 years in a refill sherry butt. What’s not to like?!
  • Suntory Hibiki 12 – Wow, is this sweet and fruity! You really do get a sense that this was partly matured in plum liqueur casks. It’s not sickly sweet or syrupy, though. Very nice balance, and an impressive blend. I asked why it was so slow to work its way across the U.S., and it sounds like it’s just the economic reality of trying to get the masses to purchase a $65 12 year blend. Ok…so sell it to us cheaper! 🙂
  • Suntory Yamazaki 18 – As impressed as I was with the Hibiki 12, I followed it up with a sample of Yamazaki 18 for a little perspective. Boy does this one leap out of the glass and dance on your taste buds. Big, deep sherry and wood spices. Very much worth a premium over the Hibiki 12.

Glen Spey 21

Whiskies I wish I had tried

  • Auchentoshan 18 Year
  • Douglass Laing Double Barrel 10
    • Highland Park and Bowmore (this sounds very interesting!)
  • Glen Grant 16
  • Glenfiddich 21 – I’ve been wanting to try this for ages, and keep missing the local Glenfiddich tastings. In this case, Ambassador Mitch was out mingling with the 21 year in hand when I went to the Glenfiddich booth. I tried the Snow Phoenix instead, and never made it back to try the 21. Doh!
  • Isle of Jura Prophecy – I really would have liked to compare this directly to the Superstition…just ran out of time.
  • Loch Chaim – Isle of Arran 1996 13 Year
  • SMWSA – “Innocence and Depth” Cask #25.55 (19 year Rosebank)
  • SMWSA – “Gradual Seduction” Cask #125.88 (16 year Glenmorangie)

Awesome whiskies I could have tried

These are all great and/or unique whiskies worth trying, but I either already own a bottle of them, or have tried them on multiple occasions, so I focused elsewhere.

  • Ardbeg Corryvreckan
  • Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask
  • Balvenie 21 PortWood
  • Big Peat
  • The Glenlivet 21
  • The Glenlivet XV
  • Glenmorangie 18
  • Glenmorangie Signet
  • Laphroaig 18


After the raffle and “last call” from the whisky booths, I stopped back by the Spirit Imports booth and was given a pretty generous sample of the Classic Cask Rare Scotch Whisky 35 Year Old. I found my way to a comfy couch in the stylish Biltmore Hotel lobby and nursed it for 30 minutes while enjoying some conversation with Adam.

The Classic Cask 35 year has a huge nose of red fruits, and raisins, along with bourbon-like sweets and wood notes. It had ample body in the mouth (though not huge), and then a finish that lasted forever. Bottled at 43%, it didn’t feel weak at all (not that I’d complain if there were 3-5 additional ABV%). What really struck me about this whisky is that it had the same distinct, fantastic taste at the end of the night that it did at the beginning. Where other expressions seemed to start running together, this one held its own. It’s pretty expensive…$250 to $300 a bottle. Upon first tasting it, Adam and I both thought it was excellent, but kind of pricey for a “blend.” By the end of the night we agreed to go in on a bottle and split the cost. I can’t wait to try it again in my home to see if it’s all I thought it was.

Bottom line – I hope we (Phoenix) showed well enough to become a regular stop on the SMSW Extravaganza tour. Gabby Shayne said we had around 200 people, which is actually quite good for a first time venue. I will definitely sign up for the 19th Annual Extravaganza if it comes here. Kudos to the Shayne’s for putting on a great event! Now…what to do with these cigars. Don’t tell my wife, but I just might try one.

The Classic Cask 35 Year


With Ardbeg 10 (86 points) serving as a benchmark whisky for my Islay scotch reviews, I decided I needed another benchmark that I would rate closer to 80 points. The Islay equivalent of a Glenfiddich 12, if you will. Laphroaig 10 seemed like it would fit the bill. While I’m a HUGE Laphroaig fan, and their 30 year is my favorite whisky to date, my experience with the 10 year old (until recently), had been limited to a few drams in bars, where it was nice, but seemed pretty one-dimensional.

Once I tried the Laphroaig Quarter Cask expression, I quickly made the decision that it was enough better than the 10 year old to warrant a few extra bucks and a place in my cupboard. With the QC on hand, why would I reach for the 10 year? So, the 10 year expression has remained an after-thought for me over the past couple of years. However, with new ideas of journalistic integrity in mind, I finally caved and bought a 2010 bottling of Laphroaig 10 for $37. Let’s see if my opinion of this one changes when consumed in the comfort of my own home (and Glencairn glass), and how it compares to the excellent Quarter Cask expression.

Laphroaig QC and 10

Tasting Notes

Laphroaig 10 year [2010; 43%; $37]

Nose: Certainly not one-dimensional here. Fruity (apples/pears) and sweet, with vanilla and, surprisingly, a pretty gentle but ashy smoke. On first nosing, there’s an iodine presence, but I quickly acclimate and stop noticing it. So far, a pretty well balanced dram.
Palate: Peaty, but juicy barley on the mouth, with a little bit of pepper. Not as big and oily as Ardbeg 10, but not weak either.
Finish: Ok, there’s the big smoke I was looking for. Where the Ardbeg smoke is like a camp fire, Laphroaig 10 is decidedly more industrial. A strong tar smoke shoots up the nostrils and coats the tongue from top to bottom, nearly drowning out all of the other flavors. I can see why this seemed like a one trick pony when I had this at the bar. The finish is long, with the tar slowly turning to ash on the tongue.

Comments: One-dimensional? Certainly not on the nose, but very close to it on the finish. Overall, the Laphroaig 10 was better than I remembered. I definitely consider this a worthwhile purchase at under $40. It’s not as big or complex as Ardbeg 10, but what’s there is still good, and that tar on the finish is very unique. If you’re like me, you’ll wonder on first tasting whether you really should be enjoying such a flavor. Don’t be surprised if it grows on you over time, though. Just into the full “B” range for me. 83 points.

Note: I also went through a 50ml sample of Laphroaig 10 bottled at 40% for the UK. It had basically the same profile, but was quite weak on the palate. That one I would probably rate at 81 points. I’m glad we get the 43% bottling in the US!

Laphroaig Quarter Cask (NAS) [2007?; 48%; $50]

Nose: Similar sweet fruit, ashy smoke, hint of iodine and vanilla as the 10 year, but with a stronger fresh-cut oak component. If you like oaky scotches and bourbons, this should appeal.
Palate: Oh, I really like this 48% ABV. Very close to my theoretically ideal bottling strength of 50%. It’s bigger and thicker than the 10 year…closer in thickness to Ardbeg 10, but with even more zing.
Finish: Here’s where the QC really separates itself from the 10 year. Yes, there is a tarry peat smoke that blasts right up the nostrils, but the fruit and barley are still there. And hello there, vanilla…thanks for sticking around. That big oak presence stays very much in the picture through the long finish.

Comments: The Quarter Cask expression brings everything to the table that the 10 year does, and then some. It improves the balance in the process. Now, if you’re not a fan of super oaky whiskies, and you like the 10 year, I’d recommend you try before you buy. For me, this is right up there in enjoyment level with the Ardbeg 10 year. Two different takes on peat, both worth checking out. 86 points.

Final comparison thoughts

Sure, I like the Laphroaig Quarter Cask more than the 10 year. However, the 10 put up much more of a fight than I expected. If you buy Laphroaig almost solely for that tarry peat finish, then by all means, save a few bucks and enjoy the 10. It’s a great dram. I guess my search continues for an Islay equivalent to Glenfiddich 12 (assuming they keep sending us the 43% version of Laphroaig 10 in the US).

As for Laphroaig vs Ardbeg, I think the QC gives up a touch of complexity and balance to the Ardbeg, but that extra 2% ABV is nice. It’s really more of a mood thing for me, depending on the type of peat smoke I’m looking for. The enjoyment I get from drinking either is pretty much the same. Forced to pick one, I’d go with the Ardbeg.



Wow, it’s been quite a few weeks since I posted any whisky reviews. I’ve been busy with a work project, and while I’ve had my fair share of drams, and taken notes here and there, I just didn’t find the time to write an actual blog post. My plan now is to quickly post a series of notes on core Islay expressions.

In January, I read Serge’s great post about reviewing whiskies and establishing “benchmarks” for yourself on WhiskyFun.com. For the most part, I think I’ve done basically what he talked about in that article when reviewing whiskies. When I take tasting notes, it’s in a controlled, consistent environment. I always compare with familiar expressions, and I have personal “benchmark” expressions for different types/regions of whisk(e)y.

Ardbeg 10 has been an Islay benchmark for me over the past two years. However, after reading Serge’s post, I realized that I never actually wrote up my notes and provided a score on this expression. So here we go…

Ardbeg 10

Tasting Notes

Ardbeg 10 (2010; 46%; $50)

Nose: A combination of sweets and wood smoke, like eating smores at a camp fire. Some fruit (leaning towards citrus) and vanilla are also present.
Palate: Big and oily, turning peppery as it works towards the back of the tongue. Bottling at 46% was a wise decision! Don’t confuse “big” with rough, though. This is actually a pretty smooth customer.
Finish: Continued pepper on the tongue, and the camp fire comes back up through the nostrils. In fact, it’s as if the wind shifted and the smoke blew right in your face and stuck to your nose hairs. As the finish very, very slowly dies down, I feel like there is a hint of licorice or anise present. This is a flavor that I’m generally not fond of, but this whisky is so good overall, I’m able to work around it.

Comments: Relatively light in color, but deep and brooding at heart, I think Ardbeg 10 is the perfect drink for sitting in a cabin in the woods during the winter, near a fire and reading a book. It’s well rounded, smoky, and big without being overwhelming. I’ve had two bottles of this…one from 2006, and this 2010 bottle. From my notes, I found the two to be very similar. This expression is deserving of the many accolades it receives, and truly is a benchmark Islay whisky. Obviously, not an expression for the anti-smoke crowd. This is on the high side of a B rating for me; 86 points.

Ahh…back in the WordPress blog editor after a little over a month. My day job has been more of a day and night job since the start of the year. Fortunately, we’re in the process of wrapping up the project that has kept me so busy. I needed something to jump-start me back into writing about whisky, and the Single Malt Whisky Society of America (SMWSA) has provided just the jolt I needed…

(Click banner for link to official site)

I posted a couple of times last year about the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, and heard good things about it, but wasn’t able to get away to Los Angeles to check one out. I received a notice of the 2011 Spring schedule, however, and my very own Phoenix, AZ is now included as one of the tour stops! They’re coming to The Arizona Biltmore on Thursday March 24. Finally, a real live major whisky event in our sprawling desert metropolis! Dallas, TX is also a new venue this year.

Here’s the official blurb describing the event:

Ladies and Gentlemen are cordially invited to enjoy a connoisseur’s evening featuring over 120 rare & exceptional single malt and Scotch whiskies. The evening includes a delicious dinner buffet as well as a selection of premium imported cigars for our guests’ later enjoyment. The Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza brings the discerning enthusiast the opportunity to sample the participating whiskies in a sophisticated and elegant environment with genuine camaraderie and knowledgeable representatives from each participating distillery.

All events from 7:00pm-9:30pm. Registration begins at 7:00pm. Business casual, Jackets preferred. Jackets are required at the Chicago & Philadelphia events. No denim or athletic attire may be worn to the events.

The standard ticket price is $135 for non-members and $120 for members, but you can use the promo code “SH2011” to get the member price. Tickets are available for purchase here: https://www.amerisurf.com/singlemaltextravaganza/form_tickets.html.

I hope we can get a decent crowd to attend here in AZ, so that we can continue to attract this, and possibly other significant whisk(e)y events. If we can just find enough people here in the desert who actually own business casual attire. 🙂

There are six other venues in the spring tour as well, so take a look below and see if an extravaganza is coming your way (Note: I blacked out one of the venues, as they’re not allowed to advertise for it. Apparently there are a bunch of psychic whisky drinkers there who will just know to show up):

Spring 2011 Extravaganza Schedule


MoM Tomatin 19 Single Cask

I hadn’t really seen or heard much about the Tomatin distillery until mid-2010 when Joshua over at The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society generously sent me 50ml of his Master of Malt Tomatin 19 year single cask (cask-strength) as part of a sample swap. He was really impressed with it and thought I’d like it. I took one whiff and was hooked. Although, the oak is borderline too much on the palate. Still, a very impressive whisky. Later, when Master of Malt offered to send some review samples, I noticed that the cask-strength bottling wasn’t available anymore, but they do have a 40% version available. I was able to get a sample of that, and will share my thoughts in this blog post.

Next, I saw some comments by Steffen of the Danish Whisky Blog about the Tomatin distillery releases being much improved. He especially seemed to like the 18 year distillery bottling. A few weeks ago, I ordered a bottle of the Tomatin 18 year, newly formulated in 2009, with an Oloroso Sherry Cask finish, and bottled at 46% non chill-filtered. I’m going to cover this expression here as well, and compare/contrast with the MoM bottling.

I discovered over at Malt Madness that the Tomatin distillery had as many as 23 active stills in the 1970s, with most of the produced whisky going into blends. It had the largest production capacity in Scotland! Apparently, it’s that historical focus on blends (particularly Antiquary and The Talisman) that has prevented Tomatin from becoming a household name. The current owners (out of Japan), however, seem to be bringing the single malt releases more to the fore, with 12, 15, 18 and 25 year expressions in the standard range.

Tasting Notes

Master of Malt Tomatin Aged 19 Years (40%); 90+S&H

Nose: I’m struck by very “fresh” malted barley sweetness, along with plenty of oak and vanilla. Then…more malted barley. It actually SMELLS big and juicy and sets up big expectations for the palate.
Palate: Just as promised by the nose, a big, juicy, malty sensation on the palate. Now with a little fruit (apples/pairs) added in.
Finish: A little pepper, and then, would you believe, more of that awesome malted barley? It has a medium length.
Comments: I’m blown away by the malted barley sweetness on this one. So fresh, clean and juicy. In my experience so far (just a couple of years), this has got to be my reference for that particular flavor trait. I actually think this is  nearly as good as the cask strength version, as the oak isn’t quite as over-the-top on this one. However, when watering the cask strength version down to about 46-48%, I think the palate is a bit nicer.
Rating: B+; 88 points (89 for the cask strength bottling)

Tomatin 18 Years (OB; 2010; 46%); $60

Nose: Oak and vanilla, but not as strong as on the 19 year. It seems to be toned down by a fairly strong dried fruit presence from the sherry finish. There’s some of that fresh malted barley here as well, but it’s a part of the balanced presentation, not in your face. All of this is very clean.
Palate: Juicy and fruity, then white pepper kicks in, stronger than on the 19 year.
Finish: On the late palate and early finish, there’s more malted barley. It’s not at all stale like I often find in “malty” whiskies. The white pepper lingers for a medium-long period.
Comments: Very well balanced and highly refreshing. So clean from start to finish, and the dried fruits from the sherry finish integrate wonderfully with the oak and barley that were so prominent on the MoM 19 year. I’m guessing most would rate this a little lower than the MoM bottling, but what can I say? I’m a big fan of that dried fruit sherry influence.
Rating: B+; 89 points

Tomatin MoM 19 and OB 18


My favorite whiskies to this point typically have had some peat and hail from other regions, or they have a fairly heavy sherry influence. I’m not quite ready to put either of these on my best of the best (90+ points) list, but they sure move up to the top of the Speyside whiskies I’ve tried that aren’t heavily influenced by sherry (Aberlour a’bunadh comes to mind in that category). I had to mail order my Tomatin 18 bottle. I really hope to see a wider distribution in the U.S. soon!

I can strongly recommend the MoM release as a reference point for understanding what a brilliantly malty experience Tomatin has to offer, not to mention a wonderfully clean oak/vanilla component from the bourbon cask maturation. However, if you’re in the United States, it’s going to set you back over $100 with the exchange rate and shipping (you can always try a 30ml sample, though). That’s why I give the nod to the standard 18 year release as an amazing value whisky, with plenty of that malty goodness to go with the dried fruits and oak. At close to the same price as The Glenlivet 18 year, and bottled at 46%, this Tomatin is a no-brainer in the $60 and under price range.

Thanks to Master of Malt for the 19 year sample! You can check out MoM on the web here (and my disclaimer here):

Other opinions

Whisky Fun: Serge gave the 18 year a solid 85 points, although that’s actually a point lower than his rating for the previous release at 40%.

What Does John Know (Malt Advocate): 88 points for the 18 year from John Hansell.

The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society: Here is Joshua’s review of the 40% MoM release. He digs it.

Whisky for Everyone: A nice overview of the distillery, along with notes on the 15 and 18 year OB expressions.

The Whisky Bible: Jim Murry loves both of these (and the cask strength version of the 19 year), rating them in the mid 90s.

Whisky Notes: Also of note is Ruben’s 86 point review of the cask-strength version of the MoM 19 year.

Tomatin for Christmas


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.


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!



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…


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.


  • 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,


Can a glass of whisk(e)y be sexy? I’m not talking about some weird fetish here. Rather, are there certain drinks that work better than others on a romantic evening with your loved one? I’ve found that there are some whiskies that I reach for on date nights with my wife, and others that I purposely avoid. For example, a glass of Ardbeg, based on my wife’s tolerance for certain odors, would require me to sit in the next room. Not sexy. I’ve had some more expensive go-to drinks in the past for these situations…typically 18-21 year old Scotch whiskies with at least some sherry cask influence. These are whiskies where the spirit has been somewhat mellowed over time, and the oak from the cask has been kept in check.

But what about more accessible (affordable) whiskies? The Macallan or Glendronach 12 year offerings do the trick for me, but lately, I’ve found myself reaching more often than not for my bottle of The Dalmore 12 year. Hopefully this is based primarily on the taste. Of course, there’s also the power of suggestion. I read this article in Wired about Richard Paterson (The Nose), where they said of one of his tasting sessions:

Paterson talked constantly during the tasting session, describing each sip with words like “sensual” and “sexy.”

Then there’s the super duper ultra premium Dalmore expressions that sell for huge sums of money and are packaged in sleek decanters. Perhaps that plays on my mind when I’m looking through my cabinet for a mood drink. Regardless, my goal in this post is to compare the three expressions at the lower end of the Dalmore range in search of my go-to affordable and “sexy” whisky. I’m talking about the 12 year, Gran Reserva (previously Cigar Malt) and the 15 year. Many thanks to Laura from The Baddish Group in New York for sending me some Dalmore samples.

Dalmore samples

Tasting Notes

So, what is it about The Dalmore that puts me in the mood for love? It’s a combination of soft sherry fruit flavors (sometimes leaning towards orange), chocolate, caramel and subtle spices. Not overpowering, but not boring either. Let’s see how things shake out with these three expressions (prices are my local prices at a big box store in AZ):

12 Year (40%) $40 – Matured in 50% American white oak and 50% Oloroso sherry casks. This still comes across much like my previous tasting notes last year. A chocolate orange hits, then gives way to wood spices and pineapple upside-down cake. Fruity and sweet on the palate. Maybe a little fizzy, with some drying and some late spices. Relatively light on the finish, with a hint of smoke in the nostrils and a trace of tea. Soft and sexy, but still reasonably interesting. I think I like it a little more now than I did when I first got the bottle. Rating: B (85 points)

Gran Reserva (40%) $57 – Oh, baby, I can hear Marvin Gaye’s voice setting the mood as I take this one in. [Wait, I clicked on the YouTube link above. The point still stands, though.] It’s matured in all first-fill casks, 60% sherry and 40% bourbon, for 10-15 years, then married for 6 additional months in sherry casks. Where the 12 year was Terry’s chocolate orange, this one starts on dried fruits and turns to Godiva dark chocolate with orange liqueur. Brown sugar and cinnamon come through in whispers. The palate is a physical manifestation of the orange and cocoa nose, but also gets a little Coca-Cola fizzy like the 12 year. Not so much as to be distracting, though. The finish introduces some smoke and light mocha, and a 50% cacao chocolate flavor lingers on the tongue. This is one smooth operator. Rating: B (87 points)

15 Year (40%) $75 – 100% sherry casks,  a combination of Matusalem, Apostoles and Amoroso. Very noticeable sherry influence, but still light (not a sherry “bomb”). Going to the next level from Gran Reserva, this moves from dried fruits to ripe red fruits, then gives way to a bit of that orange I now expect from the distillery. There are dessert cooking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves), but they take a back seat to the sherry. The palate and finish are very polite, with some chocolate added to the mix, but it’s still light fruits that carry through to the short but enjoyable end. Rating: B (pending more tasting sessions)


Can you guess from my notes which of the three comes closest to serving as an aphrodisiac for me? 🙂  I find all three of these expressions to be of similar quality. Last year, when I reviewed the 12 year, I said that it was good, but I wanted more oomph. Granted, I’d gladly accept an update from Dalmore with all of these bottled at 46%, but I’ve also come to better appreciate more subtle and laid back whiskies. Today, I would rate all of these as solid B whiskies in the 85+ point range (based on my personal rating scale).

The 12 year is probably the most “interesting” of the three, actually, but also a little less refined than the other two. It’s clearly the best value of the bunch, though. The 15 year is a very nice, polite, medium-sherried whisky. However, if I want good medium sherry flavors and a nice personality, I’ll probably shell out 40% less money and purchase another bottle of Glendronach 12 year. The Gran Reserva is my new favorite “less expensive” Dalmore by a narrow margin. It’s so elegant and refined; so sweet and smooth; it’s the perfect mood drink for me on a romantic evening. I now own a full bottle of this (well, it was full last week). What’s your favorite whisk(e)y aphrodisiac?

Update: I mentioned above that the Gran Reserva used to be called “Cigar Malt.” What I forgot to point out is that the Cigar Malt was bottled at 43%. If I manage to find a dusty bottle of that somewhere, I’m definitely going to buy it and see if that extra 3% made a difference.

Other opinions

Ok, I don’t expect other single malt whisky fanatics to be quite as into Gran Reserva as I am. I totally get that it’s not as “interesting” as a lot of other malts, and if you compare it side-by-side to more agressive whiskies, it might seem downright boring. But the above is my own true reaction to these expressions at this point in time. Here are some other opinions, mostly positive, but more often than not, wanting for more.

  • Whiskyfun.comby Serge – All three rated in the same post. You know, Serge really doesn’t rate these that much lower than me. The Gran Reserva is his least favorite of the three, though. Although I’m surprised to see him describe it as “pushy.”
  • whisky-pages – You can find all three on their Dalmore page. Holy crap…they also have Terry’s chocolate orange in the notes! Although, they associate it with the Gran Reserva, as opposed to the 12 year. Splitting hairs, though. They also seem to like all three about the same.
  • WhiskyNotes.be – Ruben reviews the Gran Reserva. You know, 81 points is a pretty respectable score for Ruben. He certainly has a point that it would be nice to try it at 43 or 46% ABV.
  • Malt Advocate – John Hansell reviewed the full Dalmore lineup. Like Serge, he rates the 15 year a few points higher than the other two.

Ok, maybe the scores in these reviews by more learned palates than mine aren’t that far off from my own. Jim Murray, on the other hand, says of the Gran Reserva’s finish – “well, is there one?” before handing it a score of 78.5 in his Whisky Bible.