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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Glendronach Cask Strength (Batch 3) Whisky Review!

One of my favourites from my favourite 'sherry-bomb' distillery, which is also pretty good value for money.

Glendronach are undoubtedly the kings of all-things sherried at the moment, and in my opinion only Aberlour's A'Bunadh comes close to challenging them for the title. But things may be changing. Glendronach put their extremely popular 15-year old on 'temporary hiatus' due to stock shortages, and is now very hard to find, and subsequently often over priced. Temporary hiatus may not sound too dire, but the distillery (and it's parent company and sister distilleries) has since been purchased by Brown-Forman, a large American-owned corporation, and to my knowledge there are no official guarantees the 15yo is still coming back. I'm also concerned for the future of the single cask releases, but maybe I'm being pessimistic. Large corporate ownership isn't necessarily a bad thing (look at Bruichladdich, for example), so let's try to stay optimistic!

Glendronach have also started using bourbon casks in some of their newer expressions, which is a big departure from their modus-operandi thus far, but I imagine that is largely due to the rising prices and demand for good sherry casks in the current environment. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, and there have been a few independent bottlings of bourbon-matured Glendronachs in the past which were well-received. But it's not what Glendronach is known for, and perhaps not why we love them so much!

But all is not lost, the excellent 18-year old and single cask releases can still be found, albeit with a little difficulty and expense for us in Australia. The NAS Cask Strength bottlings are still relatively easy to find, at least in the newer batches, and the pricing has remained relatively steady  at around $160-180 in Australia. That's expensive compared to the afore-mentioned A'bunadh, but these are quite different beasts and aren't really directly comparable if you ask me. This review is of a sample from batch 3, but I've also tasted batches 4 & 5, and while there is some variation, all are very good. All follow the same recipe: a mix of ex-Oloroso and ex-PX Sherry casks, no age statements, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and are bottled at a cask strength of 54-56%. Let's get to it!
Glendronach Cask Strength, NAS, 54.9%. Highlands, Scotland. 
Batch 3, released 2013. A mix of Oloroso and PX sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Copper. 

Nose: Lovely. Not the typical sherry bomb you might expect, though. Dark chocolate mousse, crystallised ginger, raisins & cherries in syrup. Dried zesty orange, a little fresh spicy oak, black forest cake, and a hint of something meaty in the background - bonox beef extract, but only subtle.   

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, syrupy and rich, very little and very slow movement in the glass. A little heat, but not much considering the strength and relatively young age. 

Taste: Rich & spicy, more chocolate and ginger, a little less sweet than it was on the nose. Dried orange, spicy fresh oak again, and a little sweet cream. 

Finish: Medium length, a little peppery heat here, but fades quickly leaving more chocolate, but more of a cocoa powder now, and ginger, but powdered now. Creamy again, with more cherry, orange and a little apricot. 

Score: 3.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Very good stuff, as we should expect from Glendronach. But it's not the cask-heavy sherry bomb we might expect from the distillery, I feel there's more spirit character here, which is very enjoyable. There is a little heat on the finish but like I said, considering the strength and of course relatively young age, it's not unpleasant or off-putting by any means. Very complex on the nose as well, a good balance of fruit, spice and chocolate which works very well. 

With the Glendronach single cask releases going ballistic in terms of price lately, in Australia at least, I think these often-overlooked NAS cask strength releases might be the next best thing. Plenty of flavour and punch, pretty good value for money, and a more balanced and slightly less sherried take on this distillery's great work. If you haven't given one of these a go yet, get on it pronto, since we don't really know what the future holds for our beloved bottles of Glendronach at the moment. But again, let's try to stay optimistic! 


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Ben Nevis 10 year old & 24 year old Whisky Reviews!

My first encounter with a Ben Nevis didn't quite manage to push my buttons, but that was quite an unusual bottling. Today we have their flagship / entry level 10 year old official bottling, which seems quite well regarded in the community, and a 24 year old sherry-matured cask strength independent bottling from Signatory, so we should get a better idea of the distillery's style.

Ben Nevis distillery is situated near Fort William in the Western Scottish Highlands, at the base of it's namesake mountain, the highest in the UK. Ben Nevis is the only 'foreign' distillery owned by Nikka, one of Japan's largest whisky producers, who purchased and revived the operation in 1989 after it had laid dormant for 2 years under the previous owners. As such the distillery does send some of its spirit production to Japan in bulk to be used in the parent company's blended whiskies. Interestingly, the distillery only uses brewer's yeast in its fermentation, which is widely believed to give more character and flavour than the more commonly used and more efficient (as in higher yield) distiller's yeast.

Ben Nevis regularly release a small range of official bottlings including a couple of blended whiskies and single malts, including the 10-year old bottling I'm reviewing here, and a handful of older single cask bottlings. I reviewed a 21-year old single cask around a year ago and wasn't impressed, finding it too tannic and bitter for my tastes, and a little hot for it's age. But that was quite an unorthodox whisky, having spent 13 years in refill ex-sherry casks and another 8 years in what I would say were first- or second-fill ex-port casks, before bottling at cask strength.

This 10-year old expression we're looking at first should be a little more conventional, and has obviously had far less time 'in wood' to be able to pick up those characteristics. It's obviously considerably cheaper as well, although at $100 it's slightly more expensive than most comparable 10-year old whiskies at a similar strength. Unfortunately there's very little useful information out there on this bottling, so I was unable to find whether it had been chill-filtered or artificially coloured. As we know, the Japanese whisky producers generally aren't averse to using spirit caramel, so judging by the colour I'm assuming this was the case with this Ben Nevis 10-year old. Since it has been bottled at 46% (which negates the need for chill filtration) you'd hope it hasn't been chill filtered, but we can't be sure without it being on the label.
Ben Nevis 10-year old, 46%. Highlands, Scotland. 
Very little information available, bourbon & sherry cask matured. Added artificial colouring, possibly non-chill filtered.

Colour: Gold

Nose: Fresh & herbal. Thick stewed fruits, a little honey. Some dried mint, juniper & anise, cooking chocolate. Roasted nuts, some yeasty bread and rich, warm oak.

Texture: Heavy weight, meaty & chewy. A little heat, but not unpleasant.

Taste: Thick meaty sherry, dryer than on the nose. More stewed fruits and cooking chocolate. Spicy, with a little chilli and more juniper, and some more rich oak.

Finish: Medium length. Spicy, and more of that cooking chocolate, and a little more of that yeasty bread.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Next up we have a 24-year old independent bottling from Signatory Vintage's Cask Strength series. It was matured in a single ex-sherry butt, and bottled at a cask strength of 54.7% without chill filtration or added colouring. Signatory are becoming one of my favourite independent bottlers, their bottlings seem to be consistently high quality and often quite reasonably priced ($240 here for this bottling), so I have high hopes for this one.
Ben Nevis 24-year old, Signatory Vintage bottling, 54.7%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask number 3833, single ex-sherry butt, 566 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Gold. Almost identical to the 10, in fact.

Nose: Massively different to the 10. Brighter, lighter, sweeter. Passion fruit pulp, light toffee, vanilla cream biscuits. Some milk chocolate & wet wool.

Texture: Medium-heavy weight, meaty again. A little heat, around the same as the 10 despite the increased strength.

Taste: Thick & chewy again, much drier than it was on the nose. Dried tropical fruit, spicy oak, more milk chocolate, and a little chilli.

Finish: Medium-long length, more passion fruit & creamy vanilla, malt biscuits and honeyed oak.

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: Both have a very impressive thick & meaty texture, which I really enjoyed! The 10-year old is more savoury and meaty than its older cousin, still fruity but in a darker way. The 24-year old on the other hand is very bright & fruity on the nose, but turns drier and meatier on the palate. Both are very enjoyable whiskies, and while I do prefer the Signatory bottling, the 10-year old does offer good value for money. But then so does the 24-year old, especially at cask strength! Not sure I would have picked the Signatory bottling as a sherry cask if this was a blind tasting, there isn't much in the way of the typical sherry characteristics here, but it's a delicious whisky regardless.

These two have certainly changed my initial impression of Ben Nevis for the better, that meaty, chewy texture in particular certainly makes a big difference. Very nice stuff. And I'm still very impressed with Signatory's cask strength collection, I haven't come across a bad one yet! Thanks to Craig from The Whisky Company, Signatory's Australian importer, for the samples, and for my first proper foray into Ben Nevis.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Jura 26 Year Old (Signatory Vintage) Whisky Review!

I've tasted a few whiskies from Jura Distillery, and so far they've all been quite disappointing. But they've all been relatively young official bottlings, so this cask strength independent bottling promises to be a little different...

Jura Distillery is located on the Scottish Isle of the same name, which is only a five-minute ferry ride from Port Askaig on our beloved Islay. The original distillery on Jura was dismantled in 1901 after around 90 years in operation, while the current distillery was built on the same site in 1963, making it one of the younger distilleries in the area. It's the only distillery on the island, which although quite large has a tiny population of around 200 people, and only a single road. Aside from the distillery, the island's only claims to fame are its large population of around 3500 deer, the three 'Paps of Jura' mountains, and the fact that George Orwell wrote his novel '1984' while living on the island. It's a rather obscure, quite remote and austere place, but there's also plenty of natural beauty, without masses of tourists or commercialisation spoiling it.

The distillery is currently owned by Whyte & Mackay, who produce quite a few blended whiskies, and also own Dalmore, Tamnavulin and Fettercairn distilleries. The distillery has four very tall stills, and has quite a large annual production capacity of around 2.2 million litres, with all barley sourced from Bairds commercial maltings on the Scottish mainland, and unfortunately they are big fans of both adding artificial colouring to, and also chill filtering their official bottlings. The distillery mostly produces un-peated spirit, although since around 1990 they have also been producing some heavily-peated (to around 30 ppm) spirit. The peated whisky is then either blended in with the un-peated to create the lightly-peated 'Superstition', or bottled on its own to create the 'Prophecy' expression (the only regular official bottling that is presented at 46% and non-chill filtered).

The bottling I'm reviewing today is a different story. An independent bottling from Signatory Vintage's cask strength collection, it's a 26-year old heavily-peated Jura, which was distilled in 1989 (which would mean it was one of the first heavily-peated casks filled at the distillery), and was bottled in 2016 at 59% without chill filtration or added colouring. While most whiskies in Signatory's cask strength series are single cask bottlings, this particular one is from two ex-bourbon casks, numbers 30736 & 30737, that were filled on the same day. This bottling is also quite the bargain for a 26-year old cask strength peated whisky, currently selling for $234 from Signatory's Australian importer, The Whisky Company, who generously provided the sample for this review. Let's give it a whirl!
Jura 26-year old (Signatory Vintage), 59%. Isle of Jura, Scotland.
Signatory Cask Strength series. Heavily peated, from two ex-bourbon casks, no. 30736 & 30737. Distilled 12/1989, bottled 06/2016. 338 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Gold. 

Nose: Interesting. Creamed honey, fresh herbs, a little acetone, and some dusty hay. A slight hint of fresh earth, and something a little acidic comes out with time - apple cider vinegar? 

Texture: Medium-weight, a little tongue-tingling spirit-y heat. 

Taste: Spicy and honeyed, some burnt caramel and more creamed honey. Quite spirit-y as well, despite the age. Hot chilli flakes, and that strange acidic cider vinegar note again. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Still hot & spirit-y, then honeyed dusty malt and that sour note again, but more musty now. Slightly floral towards the end as well.  

Score: 2.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Not too bad really, quite interesting in fact, and still one of the best Jura's I've tasted so far. Very little peat influence here, but that's understandable considering the age and relatively low ppm on the malt (Ardbeg for example use 55 ppm malt, almost double that used at Jura). Even with what was obviously expert cask selection, this Jura still has quite a bit of heat present, which leads me to believe the initial distillation might have been a little rushed, and after all it would have been one of the early runs of peated spirit made at the distillery. Regardless, it's not unpleasant, even that strange sour note was quite enjoyable & almost refreshing. 

Signatory Vintage really do know what they're doing, in fact they're quickly catching up with G&M as my favourite independent bottler. There are some great value malts coming out of their warehouses at Edradour, some from under-appreciated or slightly obscure distilleries (the beauty of independent bottlings) and the packaging and presentation for the cask strength collection in particular is very nice indeed. Great stuff, and we now have access to quite a good range thanks to The Whisky Company doing the hard yards for us and bringing in the good stuff. Thanks Craig & team! 


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Starward Wine Cask Whisky Review!

Starward single malt is produced by New World Distillery, located in Melbourne, Australia. The distillery was founded in 2007 by all-round gentleman David Vitale, who had initially set out to open a microbrewery, but then spent some time with Bill & Lyn at Lark Distillery in Tasmania, and decided to open a whisky distillery instead! David now serves as the sales & marketing director for New World Distillery, and can often be found manning the Starward table at the various whisky expos and events around the country.

While originally housed in an aircraft hanger at Essendon airport just North of Melbourne's CBD, New World has recently relocated to a new larger premises in Port Melbourne. The distillery made major news last year as the first Australian whisky distillery to attract investment from Diageo, the world's largest spirits company. There were some anti-establishment sentiments expressed at the time, but it's important to note that Diageo does not own the distillery, they are simply a minority stakeholder. And let's not forget that along with their own very successful distilleries and brands Diageo are also part owners of LVMH, the owners of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, who certainly aren't being held back from innovation and experimentation. These new funds from Diageo and other investors will enable New World to ramp-up their production and to move into overseas markets, and no doubt assisted with the massive costs of the recent relocation.

The distillery sources Australian products (including the stills themselves) and ingredients wherever possible, using Australian barley and Australian casks for the two Starward expressions, the standard release of which is matured in Apera (the official term for Australian sherry) casks, and the newer expression I'm looking at today, simply named 'wine cask', which is matured in ex-Shiraz red wine casks sourced mostly from the famed Barossa Valley region of South Australia. Speaking of which, New World do not shave & re-toast their casks, a practice often referred to as reconditioning or rejuvenating, which means they get the maximum benefits from the casks' previous contents, but conversely they do not get as much benefit from the filtering and flavour-inducing effects of that fresh toasting or charring. So these are definitely what you would call 'fresh' casks.

New World are producing relatively young whisky, usually around 3 years of age, but you wouldn't guess that by the taste or quality of the bottled product. The distillery utilises Melbourne's indecisive weather to give their maturing whisky a hurry-along, even taking full advantage of the conditions by painting their old hangar black to trap as much heat inside as possible, with the option of opening both hangar doors to rapidly cool it back down. The relatively young age and the low bottling strength of these whiskies does also help to keep costs down, which is why at the time of writing both Starward expressions can be had for $80-90 AUD in a full-size 700ml bottle. There's only one other Australian single malt in that price bracket, and it just does not come close when it comes to quality, consistency and drink-ability. So, let's get to it!

Starward Wine Cask, NAS, 41%. Melbourne, Australia. 
Aged for at least 2.5 years in 100- & 200-litre Australian ex-Shiraz red wine casks.

Colour: Amber

Nose: Sweet buttered toffee, ripe bananas (but not as prominent as in the standard Starward expression), spicy & rich toasted oak, musty red grapes, sweetened red berries, hint of toasted coconut and rich barley behind.

Texture: Light weight. Clean, sweet and well balanced. And no spirit-y heat at all. 

Taste: Sweet & rich. More buttery toffee and spicy toasted oak, musty red grapes and drying wood spices.

Finish: Some grape & oak tannins, more drying spices, hint of that rich barley again but quite dry now, and some bitter / high-cocoa raspberry dark chocolate.

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: A light and easy-drinking malt, almost a summer's day / breakfast whisky that would be a real crowd pleaser, keeping everyone happy! There are no off-notes, no spirit-y heat and more than enough flavour to keep you interested regardless of your level of experience. Great stuff. Having said that, I do prefer the standard Starward expression to this wine cask version, although I suspect that's down to personal taste more than anything else, there's not much of a gap here. This one has a beautiful nose, really quite rich for its strength, and also surprisingly complex for its age, but the palate and particularly the finish were not as impressive for me. 

Nonetheless, this is in my opinion the best value for money you can find in Australian whisky. It punches way above its weight, easily beating many others that are twice the price (or more), and absolutely decimates those that are a similar price. I think David & the team behind New World / Starward should be commended for their success, and for doing exactly what they set out to do, and I can't wait to see what they come up with in the future. If you're yet to take the plunge on a bottle of Starward, I definitely recommend giving it a go. Enjoy!