KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 20

20 12 2016

As we near the finish line of 2016 Whisky Advent, we’re coming a bit full circle, back to the distillery (if not the bottler) that brought us Day 1.  We started off Advent with Gordon & MacPhail’s take on a Tomatin whisky, and tonight we let the distillery speak for itself, continuing the calendar’s now-three-year streak of Tomatin releases, after 2014’s blasé 18 Year on Day 12 and 2015’s awesome Port-aged 14 Year on Day 17.  The difference between those bottles and this one is twofold:  this one is cask strength, as the largest capitalized letters on the front label tell you, and it also has no age designation whatsoever, suggesting that it’s probably too young to market as a number.  The $73 price tag would go along with that theory.  (Incidentally, if you’re a whisky spendthrift, you should probably focus your scotch dollars on cask strength whiskies — you get the same volume of whisky at up to 50% higher alcohol, without a price premium in many cases, and when you pour yourself a serving you have to add water to it, something the distillery does itself to get its non-cask strength releases down to 40% or 46%.  In other words, you often pay the same price for post-dilution bottles as for pre-dilution bottles which you then dilute yourself, giving you way more whisky concentrate for your money at cask strength.)


This bottle’s packaging is an exercise in earnest oxymorons:  lilting italic script informs you that this whisky represents “The Softer Side of the Highlands”, immediately below the double-sized block letters stating “CASK STRENGTH” and immediately above the 57.5% abv listing.  I could describe this whisky in many different ways and it would not end up on the softer side of anything.

This is Tomatin’s first cask strength bottling in its core range of whiskies and saw (an unknown amount of) time in a combination of Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry casks before being bottled.  It was a fairly eye-catching dark golden wheat colour for a bottle coy about its age, yet unlike most whiskies which are aromatically the sum of its parts, this one just smelled like the parts, like barley and barrel and fermentation:  malt, grain, yeast, spice, salt, seawater.  You then completely forget about that, and everything else, once this Tomatin hits your tongue and your brain starts bubbling like it’s on a griddle.  The whisky is massive, overwhelmingly lush and nearly gelatinous in texture, to the point where it almost doesn’t even feel like a liquid.  A strange mixture of honey, baby oil, firewood, shortbread, spackle, flaxseed and rye bread, it is a raging beast of decidedly cautious flavours, a meek monster.  On an oddly bitter yet sweet-tinged finish, it leaves me with no other concluding thought than:  this is just so weird.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 4

4 12 2016

Usually I crave new finds and tasting experiences in these calendars, but today I was pleased to open the little cardboard door and find a familiar face.  BenRiach distillery has been sort of my anti-Kilchoman through 2.2 years of KWM Whisky Advent:  this will be my fifth whisky pulled out of a calendar, and all of the previous four (2014’s trio from Day 2, Day 11 and Day 21 and 2015’s Day 16) have easily exceeded expectations.  Like many distilleries that stumbled their way through the 20th century, BenRiach’s origin story is so crazy that it’s almost unbelievable it’s still around.  It first started producing back in 1898, but a near-immediate industry crash led to it being shuttered a scant two years later, in 1900…and it stayed closed for another SIXTY-FIVE YEARS before coming out of mothballs.  That is some kind of business model.  Most distilleries nowadays are being consolidated under the umbrellas of a few giant global beverage companies, but BenRiach skewed the other way in 2004, purchased from Seagrams by three individual entrepreneurs after another stint in mothballs in 2002.  Thankfully it has stayed open since, and is churning out some beauties.


BenRiach: quickly becoming my Old Faithful. A going concern for 118 years, but closed for over half that time.

Tonight’s BenRiach is the 12 Year from the distillery’s Wood Finishes collection, which highlights the effect of different types of aging vessels on the glorious liquid inside.  It is an eye-catching amber colour, very deep for a 12 Year (which, according to the KWM website, may be because it’s secretly a fair bit older than that).  The BenRiach 12 Year is the Sherry Cask expression, which shows itself in the sea breeze aromas lightly lingering over friendlier notes of coffee, salted caramel, clove, tangerine and Cabane a Sucre; the added approachability and sweetness associated with these smells as compared to sherry casks past comes from the partial use of dessert wine Pedro Ximenez sherry casks alongside the more rote Oloroso sherry casks.  It makes a massive difference.  The palate is rich yet focused, full of maple and fruitcake, chocolate-covered cherries and raisin, chalk and peach iced tea, all rolling up into a sweetly drying finish.  The whisky ramps up and crescendoes quickly on the tongue, then slooooooowly glides back down over at least a minute, letting you enjoy the lingering ride.  Beautiful work for $80, and another check mark in BenRiach’s PnP column.  16% done!!

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 3

3 12 2016

As far as widely available, broadly distributed supermarket whiskies (intended non-pejoratively) go, Macallan has always been near the top of the list for me.  It’s often a gateway drug into single malt whisky, as its flavour profile tends to be approachable and mellow, pleasurably neutral.  This may be the first time a Macallan whisky has graced the KWM calendar, and the vanguard Advent mini-bottle is…nothing much like the above description of the distillery’s standard profile at all.  It’s from Macallan’s 1824 Series line of whiskies, which all have two things in common:  (1) they were aged for some period of time in 100% Oloroso sherry casks (sigh), and (2) nobody knows what that period of time is, because the bottle doesn’t say.  Unlike most whiskies on the market, this one has no aging designation on it at all, and the various scotches in the 1824 Series only hint at aging time through a series of ever-deepening colour names:  Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby.  This is the Gold version, about which Macallan’s website reveals hilariously little other than the fact that it is “a whisky to treasure”.  Try harder, Macallan.


Great looking bottle/box.  What’s missing from the label?

One thing Macallan does not seem to be trying to do is pull one over on anyone here:  the deep burnished golden colour of this whisky suggests that the lack of any age statement isn’t any indication of maturation shortcuts, and the $80 price tag is not one that would cry out for a ton of time in barrel in any event.  The sherry cask evil empire does its thing on the nose of this whisky, a funky/briny swirl of seawater, oyster shells and kelp hiding submerged hints of peach and orange.  Thankfully (for me at least) the palate is much more open and outgoing:  rich, round and pleasantly oily, it first comes across as a dead ringer for a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, then adding malt, honeycomb, coconut oil and crystallized ginger, leaving only a trace of that sherried salt for the finish.  A much more assertive, forward and daring endeavour than the standard Macallan lineup; not my favourite set of flavours, but an easy value for the price.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 23

23 12 2015

Well, I’m officially on Christmas holidays from work…but not from this blog or my daily whisky spirit quest, which is now three days away from completion.  So close.  The Whisky Advent Calendar usually finishes with a flourish, and tonight did not disappoint in that regard, as we returned to Taiwan and a producer that’s quickly becoming a podium distillery for me, the world-renowned Kavalan.  Taiwan’s only distillery first showed up in the calendar on Day 5 with its superb cask strength ex-Bourbon bottling, a whisky so good that my father-in-law promptly (and quite properly) went out and grabbed the last bottle in the province after trying it.  That whisky was a pale transparent gold in colour.  This one, not so much.  Same cask strength series, same base spirit, likely a similar aging period (that is:  not that long a one, as Taiwan’s heat and humidity supercharges the maturation period and allows for maximum barrel character transfer in a minimal time window), but different aging vessels, as we go from Bourbon’s brightness to the colourful depths of Oloroso Sherry casks.  Oloroso is an oxidative style of sherry where the wine is aged with full exposure to oxygen for many years, giving it a deep tawny colour like fresh coffee, and that hue obviously sticks with the barrels, because tonight’s Kavalan cask strength (54%) Sherry Oak Single Malt was easily the darkest whisky yet, an amazing shadowy bronze.  It’s clearly darker than yesterday’s Balblair 1990, and that one aged in oak for 24 years; Kavalan’s only been in existence for 10, and I bet this malt only saw barrel for half that or less.  How crazy is that??


This whisky smells EXACTLY like fresh pancakes and maple syrup, almost to the extent that I don’t want to write another aroma note about it.  It’s eerie.  If I must expand, I would go with French Toast Crunch (Cinnamon Toast Crunch’s lesser-known cousin, which also smells like pancakes and maple syrup), cinnamon twists, cabane a sucre, raisins and mincemeat.  You will not be surprised after looking at this that it was hearty and warming on the palate, with mind-warping depth of flavour for a whisky so young.  There was a purity to it, like tasting French press coffee as compared to office coffeemaker coffee (particularly since it actually did taste like coffee), with warm accompanying notes like marzipan, salted caramel and walnuts mixed with toasty oak, elastic bands, fruitcake and suntan lotion.  The finish was extended and all Oloroso – deep, rich and sherried.  I would call this a value for $160, even though stylistically I may prefer the ex-Bourbon slightly; the margin between the two is razor thin for me.  Kavalan just can’t lose.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 19

19 12 2015

The last weekend of 2015 whisky writing is upon me.  I can smell the end of this December blogging marathon; it smells like scotch.  This is the fifth time in the past two years that I’ve opened a calendar door to see a black cardboard box wedged inside, which can mean only one thing:  a trip back to Campbeltown and its dominant Springbank distillery.  This time it’s the main label whisky as opposed to its sister labels, the triple-distilled Hazelburn (as seen in Day 13 this year and weirdly also in Day 13 last year) and the heavily peated Longrow (as seen in Day 20 last year, and with five more days to make an appearance this time around).  Last year the KWM Whisky Advent Calendar completed the triumvirate with the Springbank 10 Year on Day 18; this year we graduate to the Springbank 15 Year, the staple of the distillery’s core lineup, which runs for $112 at KWM.  Springbank distillery was established in 1828 on the site of an illicit still run by an Archibald Mitchell, and four generations later it remains run by Mitchell’s great great grandson, remaining in the family for close to 200 years.  100% of the whisky-making process for each label’s lineup occurs on site at Springbank, an extreme rarity in the scotch world.  The distillery’s website describes its 15 Year Single Malt in a way that requires remedial English lessons:  “Like a storm gathering off the Kintyre coast, our 15 year-old Springbank is dark and ominous, yet delicious.”  Um.  OK.  How is a gathering storm delicious??  Simile police APB – calling all units.  This sentence was a train wreck from about the third word in.


Grammatical terror aside, this is a beautiful dram that should please all comers, regardless of their flavour preferences and sensibilities.  It is a rich amber, almost orange in colour, and (especially without water added) smells strongly sherried at first, salt and seashells and yeast added on top of leather, raw pumpkin and Elastoplast aromas.  A few drops of water bring out softer, more welcoming baking spice notes like brown sugar, gingerbread and clove.  Like a storm gathering off the Kintyre coast, this Springbank is concentrated and fiery on the palate, yet delicious, with a viscous mouthfeel and a lingering set of flavours crossing multiple taste groupings.  There’s a sweet honeyed wheatiness to it, like breakfast cereal, a hint of peaty mossiness and smoke, a touch of sherry nuttiness and brine, and a dollop of caramel and fig maturity, all in roughly equal proportions.  This is the Goldilocks whisky, likely to come across as just right to a host of different palates.  Clearly a way better metaphor than the storm thing.  Into the 20s tomorrow!

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 13

13 12 2015

I could have sworn that I had read or heard somewhere that the 2015 KWM Whisky Advent Calendar would contain no duplicate whiskies from the 2014 calendar, which I’m sure was a logistical challenge due to the so-so availability of mini-bottles, but which I thought was an excellent choice to maintain the intrigue for repeat buyers.  So far this year we’ve had a couple of distillery overlaps, but zero identical bottles, as was expected.  But that ended tonight, as 2015’s Day 13 whisky was strangely the exact same as 2014’s Day 13 whisky:  the Hazelburn 12 Year Single Malt from Campbeltown, Scotland’s least prevalent whisky region in the southwest corner of the country.  I will not try to hide my disappointment at this development, particularly since I was sort of meh about this scotch last year; of all the ones to repeat in the calendar, why this one?  Hazelburn is a relatively new line of whiskies from the Springbank Distillery, which is by far the largest and most important remaining in Campbeltown.  This lineup was first distilled in 1997 and features triple distillation as its calling card:  the whisky is run through old copper stills three separate times during distillation, with each run removing more and more impurities and heightening the proof level of the spirit.  Removing impurities isn’t exactly the distilling goal of scotch whisky (if you removed almost all of them and ended up with a nearly pure spirit, you’d basically have vodka), as what keeps the spirit impure is the flavour and character of the land and grain, but the extra distillation results in a lighter, more subtle dram that is Hazelburn’s signature style.


The 12-year maturation in sherry casks gives this scotch a lovely deep golden colour, and I am an admitted fan of the Oakland Raider-style silver and black label design (with the aforementioned three stills front and centre).  The nose was a swirling melange of rubber, chemical, peaches and cream, popcorn kernels, char and citrus, with the fruit notes mostly overtaken by the industrial ones.  As I remembered from last year, the Hazelburn 12 comes across as heavily wooded when you taste it, like the barrels used were strongly toasted or something, as smoke, hickory and ash are at the flavour forefront, with banana and cantaloupe fruit, honey, vanilla and varnish sneaking through the oak wall at various points ahead of a dusty, papery, fiery finish.  Looking back at the tasting notes in last year’s writeup, I see a number of similarities emerge, although my notes are clearly less identical than the bottles are.  Let us hope this will be the last time we’re able to do this kind of head-to-head 2014 vs. 2015 comparison.  Bit of a letdown night overall, I have to say.

Whisky Advent Calendar: Day 22

22 12 2014

With a scant two days left in Advent after this, I feel like we’re finally hitting our stride scotch name-wise.  Three days ago I drank The Antiquary.  Yesterday I feasted on the gladiatorial glory of SEPTENDECIM!!!  And tonight it’s back to aristocratic class with GlenDronach’s 21 Year Highland single malt, simply called Parliament.  If you’re not going Latin, go governmental – I approve.  I hope GlenDronach has a Senate, Cabinet and Supreme Court in the lineup somewhere.

Just look at that colour.  #nofilter

Just look at that colour. #nofilter

This is the second GlenDronach whisky in the KWM Advent Calendar, following up Day 9’s disappointing (and disappointingly named) Allardice.  Believe me, after tonight, all is forgiven.  This is a top 3 calendar whisky for sure, maybe even higher.  It’s sherry-based and I don’t even care.  It’s fantastic.  And at $130, it is an absurdly smoking deal.  If any of you are my Secret Santa this year, I know what you can get me.  (Quick tip:  add a bit of water to your dram – at 48%, it’s a little much to have on its own.) Read the rest of this entry »

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