KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 25

25 12 2016

Well, another Christmas is in the books, another Advent officially over, and another Whisky Advent Calendar now sadly, mercifully empty.  Over the past 3 Decembers I have written 74 different whisky reviews on 74 consecutive Advent days, expanding my whisky knowledge and probably seriously irritating all of the blog’s wine readers in the process, and while I’m not sad the mandatory daily reporting experience is over for another 12 months, I always look back on this calendar and appreciate all the work that must have gone into it.  Andrew Ferguson and the Kensington Wine Market do yeoman’s work every year to source a whole new set of never-used miniature whiskies so that every Whisky Advent experience can be fresh and interesting; it must be extraordinarily demanding and tiring, but every year it pays off.  Well done.


I’d be curious to know what your favourite bottles were in the 2016 calendar and how closely they line up with my list of Whisky Advent award-winners, the creme de la creme of this year’s Advent for me:

  • Best Value Dram:  BenRiach 12 Year (Day 4) — BenRiach is starting to own this spot, as its 10 Year won this same award last year.  $80 may be stretching the value whisky category to its limit, but this bottle delivered magic for that price and tasted like it cost well into the three digits, so I’m sticking to it.
  • Honourable Mention:  Hyde 10 Year Irish Whiskey (Day 9) — I loved this bottle and had it on the podium until the very end of deliberations.  Probably the best Irish whiskey I’ve ever tasted, and one that shows just how much potential that category has.
  • 3rd Place:  Ardbeg Uigeadail (Day 7) — Can I look you in the eye and say that this tastes “good”, by any traditional description?  No.  But it has depth and soul and identity, and it draws you in and leaves its mark on you, which is both rare and worthy of recognition.
  • 2nd Place:  Kavalan ex-Bourbon (Day 19) — Predictable, perhaps, but no less deserving.  An absolutely beautiful dram giving a glimpse into how Asia may soon be rising to the pole position in the whisky world.
  • 1st Place:  Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice Tomatin 1997 (Day 1) — Since when does the very first whisky in the calendar end up being the best?  It may be a bit anticlimactic on Day 25, but I liked the choice to start strong back then and I like it now.  This was absolutely the most enjoyable whisky of the month, with sneaky quality to back it up, made most evident by its amazing length and flavour development.  Amazing stuff.

Not sure why the first 10 days of the calendar seemed to dominate this year (last year’s picks were from all over the place), but these conclusions in retrospect match what I’ve felt contemporaneously while opening the calendar each day – a great start, a bit of a momentum lag in the middle third of Advent, and a recovery heading into the finish.  Thankfully the calendar ends on a high (and large) note, with a double-sized cask-strength monster offering from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), who obviously understood that what we needed most after 24 days of Whisky Advent was a stiff drink.


The SMWS is like an independent bottler crossed with a subscription whisky club:  they buy hand-picked single casks of whisky from a variety of top distillers, bottle them under their own labels (always with eye-catchingly descriptive names) and then sell them only to their own members at club-level prices.  If you’re not a SMWS subscriber, the only way you may be able to taste these whiskies is through this very calendar, so bring it on.  This year’s Christmas whisky is Society Single Cask No. 41.78, “Poker Night Whisky”, bottled at an abjectly terrifying 60.4% in an attempt to murder us all.  It has been aged for 11 years, but I know nothing else about it, not even the area in Scotland where it was made.  I can confirm that it smells incredible, however, a near-tropical mixture of cantaloupe, watermelon, sweet peas and honey.  If you don’t add water to this your throat will likely implode, but once you do you’ll be able to look beyond the alcoholic hellfire and notice the layers of lime zest, bakers’ chocolate, burnt orange and cinnamon, laid over dirtier notes of topsoil and sweat.  The finish is a little raspy, but if you were 61% alcohol you’d be a little raspy too.

Merry Christmas to all, thank you so much for reading this month, and I am DEFINITELY not blogging tomorrow!

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 22

22 12 2016

I have started to think of Glenfarclas as the official mascot scotch (mascotch?) of the KWM Whisky Advent Calendar, after 2014’s special Christmas Eve 40 Year and 2015’s Christmas Eve redux 25 Year, not to mention two other entries in calendars past.  I was sort of wondering if we’d see a third straight December 24th whisky from the distillery, but I also suspected we were starting to run out of super-old Glenfarclas releases to slot in that esteemed end-of-calendar spot.  Well, it got Day 22 this year, with the notably younger $95 15 Year Single Malt – still a respectable position if not an exalted one.  Glenfarclas is one of the few pre-20th century distilleries not to be shut down or sold to a gigantic beverage empire in modern times, owned by the Grant family since 1865 when patriarch John Grant bought it for just shy of £512.  That sounds astoundingly cheap even in 1865 money, and it is:  it equates to around £59,000 today, or around $98,000 CAD.  Nice buy, John.  We are now six generations of Grants (all of whom have been named either John or George) into the family’s stewardship of Glenfarclas, which is known for producing one of the classic examples of Speyside whisky out of the region’s largest stills.


To obtain the legal designation of “scotch whisky”, a spirit has to (1) be aged in oak casks (2) which are no larger than 700L (3) for at least three years (4) in Scotland.  Glenfarclas uses both plain new oak casks (which we haven’t heard much of in this year’s calendar) and ex-Sherry casks (with which we have been bombarded by this year’s calendar, and by the whisky industry in general), and it is definitely known for its emphatic use of the latter.  The 15 Year is a glimmering dark amber colour reflective of its barrel time and has a few different aromatic identities:  confectionary (butterscotch chips, and nougat, like the inside of a Three Musketeers bar), nutty (almonds, oatmeal), herbaceous (corn husks, grass).  Bold and fiery as soon as it touches the tongue, this is not messing around, slinging toast and spice, banana Runts, mandarin orange, Americano, char and vegetal flavours with authority and powering into a lacquered finish.  It is punchy and powerfully concentrated, coming across like a cask strength whisky despite its 46% abv.  Mammoth scotch.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 21

21 12 2016

Into the 20s, guys.  Five days left – and we start the final countdown to Christmas with a mystery.  I pulled out an old-school-looking bottle of Stronachie 18 Year Small Batch Release and thought:  “Cool, another lesser-known distillery find.”  Then I saw the A.D. Rattray logo, last seen in Day 14 with the independent bottler’s Cask Islay release, and thought:  “Cool, this must be like their Distillery Label series”, similar to fellow independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s collaborative set of releases with smaller producers tasted in Day 8 and Day 16.  Then I saw the tiny notation in the top right corner: “Distilled at Benrinnes Distillery”.  Um, what?  That’s one label headliner too many.


Here’s the story.  Stronachie IS a lesser-known distillery…but it’s lesser-known because it was mothballed in 1928 and destroyed in 1930.  It was first built in the 1890s in a (questionably chosen, in hindsight) remote, nearly inaccessible mountain location that required the construction of a 5-mile private railway just to get the spirit to a transportation route.  The initial distributor of Stronachie was actually a relative of A.D Rattray, and in the early 2000s, consumed by curiosity about the distillery, Rattray’s present owner bought at auction a bottle of Stronachie that was distilled a century prior, in 1904, one of only 4 bottles left in the world.  After tasting it (props to them for actually opening it), Rattray then embarked on a project to try to re-create the historic distillery’s flavour profile using spirit from a similarly situated high-altitude producer.  It’s one part honourable and one part creepy, like going from trying to commune with your dead aunt via seance to building your own effigy of her for your living room, but it is certainly bold and unique, two things I don’t get to say enough about the whisky world.

Benrinnes is another distillery that often does its work anonymously, not often receiving the single malt attention, which makes me feel sort of bad that it’s getting this particular star treatment as a sort of tribute cover band for another producer that’s been closed for 88 years and a pile of rubble for 86.  Its faux-Stronachie 18 Year was aged in a combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks (which is becoming the main maturation theme of Whisky Advent 2016) and smelled as pleasantly old-fashioned as it was probably supposed to, mixing saltwater taffy, unsweetened licorice, smoke and bitter orange.  Smouldering and long-acting on the palate, its flavours are almost on delayed release, starting spicy and peppery but then blooming into vast florals, citrus fruits, hickory, creme brulee and candied ginger.  In spite of that it never gets away from itself, staying straight-laced and minding its manners, like the quiet distillery up on the mountain that’s now nothing but a ghost, kept alive through loving tribute.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 16

16 12 2016

I’m learning.  I half-pulled tonight’s mini-bottle out of its cardboard home, saw the uber-Scottish name of a distillery I had never previously seen or heard of, and immediately hunted for the tiny Gordon & MacPhail logo tucked discreetly on the bottom of the label.  Another Distillery Label G&M Whisky?  You betcha.  On Day 8 it was the gleefully Scottish Miltonduff that got its quasi-day in the sun, and 8 days later it’s the equally blue-and-white Glenburgie 10 Year Single Malt (another Glen for the roster!) that has its turn.  As mentioned a week or so ago, the Distillery Label series is Gordon & MacPhail’s collaborative effort with a series of lesser-known distilleries to bottle a whisky that’s as close as possible to the producer’s own release through the invisible hand of G&M’s independent bottling empire.  The effort goes right down to the packaging, which is made to look like it came right from the distillery’s own marketing department; you almost need a magnifying glass on these mini-bottles to see that Gordon & MacPhail had anything to do with them.


Glenburgie is a Speyside-based distiller and yet another scotch producer that’s mainly used as feedstock for the Ballantine’s blend (a trait it shares with the last Distillery Label, Miltonduff, each of whom deserve a better fate).  This bottle was matured in multiple types of sherry casks and threw off some impressive depth of colour for a 10 Year whisky.  It began fairly understated, a careful combo of fruit, spice and herbaceous aromas:  peach iced tea, pepper, wood grain, celery root.  Then things ramped up on the palate, mostly thanks to the Glenburgie’s honeyed and almost waxy texture, mouth-coating even at 40% abv and bolstering more intense flavours of sweet orange Lifesavers, almond brittle, celery and peanut butter (together), sultana crackers and anise.  I don’t think this is a scotch I’m going to remember in two whisky days, but it’s definitely an enjoyable weeknight whisky.  It and Miltonduff are two peas in a pod that way; I could probably do without a third one in 8 more days, but we shall see.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 15

15 12 2016

A couple days ago I whined excessively in my daily whisky write-up that my family had gone through a particularly horrible run of consecutive sickness that was making the blog feel like a bit of a grind.  In the two days since, my son has gotten the flu and my wife has gotten a sinus infection for the fourth time in the last two months.  Far from dreading Whisky Advent anymore, I’m now starting to think it’s the only thing keeping me healthy, so let’s keep it going.

One fairly consistent theme of this year’s calendar posts has been me railing against the relative lack of originality employed by most distilleries in selecting their maturation vessels.  Like wineries and their coin flip of French vs. American oak, distilleries seem to make their choice dichotomous as well:  bourbon cask or sherry cask.  However, since (unlike wine) whisky gets many of its flavours not from the vessel itself but from what was previously aged in it, this opens up so many avenues of alchemy for distillers to coax new expressions out of the same duly processed malted barley.  Most appear either oblivious or uninterested in the challenge, but one distillery that has embraced the multiplicity of available aging options with élan is tonight’s calendar star:  the Arran distillery, named after the tiny round Isle of Arran sandwiched between the western shores of mainland Scotland and the peninsula housing the whisky region of Campbeltown, both due east of Islay.

fullsizerender-508Arran is a traditional distillery with modern foresight, which releases a wide array of scotches aged in practically everything possible — current highlights include a Sauternes cask, a Port barrel and (!!!) an Amarone cask bottling.  I love it.  If you’re so inclined, you can also BUY YOUR OWN CASK OF SCOTCH and then come visit it while they mature it for you.  I’m not even kidding.  £1,850 for 200L of ex-Bourbon glory – who’s in with me?  Of course, now that I’ve raved about how cool Arran is, I have to report that tonight’s whisky, from the 5th batch release of their 12 Year Cask Strength Single Malt limited edition, is aged in the boring-est ever combo of first-fill sherry butts, refill sherry hogsheads and first-fill bourbon barrels.  At 52.9% and only $80, though, it’s a lot of scotch for the money.  It smelled exactly like a cereal I’d eaten as a kid but had to Google search to remember the name of (Corn Bran, it turns out), mixed with cantaloupe, barley, corn husks and spice, but then ramped up on the palate and tasted like something out of a Christmas catalogue:  Bailey’s and eggnog, gingerbread, canned peaches, whipped cream and coconut milk.  Super friendly for a cask-strength whisky, it brought the fun and the charm in spades even if it wasn’t an intellectual heavyweight.  Time to buy a cask.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 14

14 12 2016

Back-to-back Islay for the first time in Advent 2016, but this particular bottling is shrouded in mystery!  Day 14’s dram marked the biggest unknown for me coming out of the calendar to date, with a label that looked like a film noir movie poster and that did not contain any immediately identifying marks or distillery names, only the opaque moniker “Cask Islay”.  Cask Islay from where?  Whose casks?  A closer look revealed that this was a scotch released by independent bottler A.D. Rattray that intentionally does not reveal the distillery that made it — but we know that there’s only one and that this isn’t a blend, as it still states itself to be a single malt.  Rattray’s website advises that for each batch of Cask Islay, they hand-select a few casks (5 to 10 at most) from the stealth distiller; these are then matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks for somewhere less than 10 years before bottling.  KWM’s rumour is that the black box producer of this whisky is Laphroaig, but no one’s talking.  The benefit that you get from all the secrecy is that the bottle only costs $75, a massive value play if the quality is there.

fullsizerender-507And it is, in spades, if you’re a fan of the Islay style of peated whisky.  The Cask Islay contains 35 ppm of peat phenols, chemicals released in the smoke of burning peat moss used in the distillery’s kilns while drying malted barley which are absorbed by the barley itself.  35 ppm is not overly high as far as peated scotch goes; the peat bombs that push the issue can get all the way up to 200 ppm (at which point they basically taste like solid charcoal).  But even the lower figure is enough to establish peaty dominance in the Cask Islay’s nose, all oily smoke, seawater brine, clamshells, beach fire pits, iodine and (weirdly) Comet cleaning powder.  Happily, it is more personable to taste than to smell, adding warm peach cobbler and baked apple fruitiness to the swirling peat mass of shoe polish, diesel, sulphur and topsoil, finishing hearty and rich.  This is a great fireside malt, although it would certainly not make a good pick for a whisky neophyte’s scotch initiation.  Frankly a spectacular buy for any Islay lover at this price point.  I’m in.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 13

13 12 2016

We have now crested the summit of the 2016 Kensington Wine Market Whisky Advent calendar and are starting the long trek down the other side, and I don’t mind telling you all that I’m a little bit wiped.  Call it the pre-holiday doldrums, the end-of-year blues, the 13-days-blogging-in-a-row sanity implosion, whatever you like.  One or more members of my family has been continuously sick, on a rolling or parallel basis, for the better part of two months — nothing serious, just enough to make me question any and all extracurricular activities and hobbies.  As a reward for persevering through 50% of whisky Advent despite the biohazard zone that is my household, and particularly for powering through a less-than-likeable Day 12, I was hoping to open the window on Day 13 and pull out a nice little OH COME ON.


I will not rehash my Kilchoman woes, covered off extensively in Day 2.  Suffice to say that it is a really cool new distillery on Islay that’s doing amazing things and that many people deeply enjoy, but that I just can’t bring myself to like despite multiple head-against-wall efforts.  I wish it nothing but success, but it was the last thing I wanted to see today.  However, there was some intrigue that snuck through my malaise with this particular bottling, especially thanks to the mini KWM logo proudly displayed on the front label, and in part also thanks to the almost-shocking 57.5% abv it recorded.  Yes, tonight’s Kilchoman is a Single Cask bottling (Cask 446/2011 to be exact) that Kensington Wine Market purchased and bottled exclusively for the store, which is admittedly awesome, as is the PX (Pedro Ximenez, the grape used for sweet dessert-based sherry) cask finish on the whisky.  While last night’s 18 Year was the oldest whisky in the calendar, this may well be the youngest, distilled in July 2011 and bottled just shy of five years later (and also only five months ago!) in July 2016.

I certainly got more of a sense of Islay on this Kilchoman than the others in calendars past and present, huge whiffs of bacon and sausage grease, rusty cast-iron pots, motor oil and seaweed, but that pervasive off-putting Parmesan cheese funk that has become unfortunately synonymous with the distillery for me was still there, lingering in the background.  This is as explosively fiery and alcoholic as you might expect for something that’s almost two-thirds pure spirit and absolutely requires water to soften and open, but once it’s hydrated it’s laced with butterscotch and molasses sweetness (thanks PX!) to go along with more transportive memory-based flavours:  freshly polished old leather boots, your favourite armchair with a wet dog on it, a log cabin in the woods with the fireplace crackling.  Concentrated and long-lasting, it leaves traces of oily peat lingering on the tongue for well over a minute after you swallow.  It’s still not my cup of tea, but I will say this:  best Kilchoman yet.  Maybe this is the ray of hope for the rest of December.  Bring on the next 12 days.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 8

8 12 2016

Through 8 days of Whisky Advent, it’s Gordon & MacPhail 3, All Other Whiskies In The World 5.  You may remember Gordon & MacPhail from seven days and three days ago; they are basically everywhere.  However, I will forgive the repetition in this case because (1) this is NOT a Connoisseurs Choice whisky and is from the separate Distillery Label series, which is as close as an independent bottler like G&M can get to releasing a whisky as if the distiller itself bottled it, and (2) the distillery in question is named Miltonduff, which might be the Scottish-ist word I’ve ever seen.  You hear “Miltonduff” out of context and you know it’s either a whisky distillery or a Braveheart extra.  Of course, you almost never hear “Miltonduff” at all, because the distillery doesn’t often get a turn in the spotlight, mainly reduced to being a core component of the Ballantine’s blend (with which I am all too familiar thanks to some law school whisky-regret purchases).  This bottle, inexpensive at $80, may be the closest thing to a distillery release of Miltonduff we ever see in our neck of the woods.


And it’s…fine.  Paler and less forward in colour, it also smells somewhat muted, delivering bold aromas like peaches and cream and carrot cake (with icing) laced with breezy florals, but all in a subtle, sepia-toned kind of way.  It is bigger on the palate, but not necessarily brighter, meandering and expansive, casually melding creme brûlée, honey and applesauce with graham crackers and a slight celeriac vegetal tinge, not in any hurry to get anywhere.  Mellow and chill, it is pleasant but likely not memorable; if I was writing a wine review I’d call it “quaffable”, but I don’t want to think about the personal health consequences of quaffing scotch.  To the next.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 6

6 12 2016

Tonight’s whisky is of interest for a number of reasons.  It’s the first blended whisky in the 2016 calendar (quick refresher:  a single malt whisky is one made from malted barley from a single distillery; a blended whisky is one made from a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky from multiple distilleries).  It’s by far the cheapest of the offerings to date, at $60.  And it comes from the garagiste negociant of the scotch world, Compass Box, a producer that doesn’t own a distillery or make its own whisky, but instead sources both selected whiskies from top distilleries AND selected oak barrels from top cooperages, then creates custom whisky blends that it runs through its own bespoke wood program.  Since single malt whiskies get the Bordeaux/Burgundy treatment in the whisky world while blended whiskies are lucky to get the Languedoc-Roussillon treatment, there can be obscene value to be found in an artisan blender who cares enough to do things right.  Compass Box not only brings the quality and the interest factor that is often missing from the bigger blends, but it also pushes the envelope on everything from whisky transparency rules (more on that below) to labelling, where they laughably outstrip anyone else in the UK.  Check out this bad boy:


Photo Credit:  The Whisky Exchange.  Pure artistry.

That’s what I’m talking about, although it’s not the bottle on tap tonight.  Instead we were treated to the other half of Compass Box’s entry-level Great King St. line:  in Day 9 last year we had the peated Great King Glasgow Blend, whereas this year we have the unpeated Artist’s Blend, a mixture of four different whiskies from four different distilleries, first aged separately and then combined for a secondary maturation in Compass Box’s own French oak barrels.  Most blends would give you absolutely no information about the identity and makeup of the underlying whiskies in the bottle; Compass Box gives you as much information as it possibly can.  The four whiskies are:

  • 46% Girvan, a Lowland grain whisky matured in American Bourbon casks
  • 29% Clynelish, a Highland single malt matured in American Bourbon casks
  • 17% a mystery Highland single malt matured in new French oak
  • 8% Teaninich, a Speyside malt matured in sherry butts

How cool is that?  One thing Compass Box is not legally permitted to do is reveal the ages of the various component whiskies, which for some arcane reason cannot be done except in response to a direct inquiry.  So they did the next best thing and actually put an automatic request button on the Artist’s Blend website where you can get the info via email.  Naturally I had to make a request, and when I did the mystery was solved via instantaneous mail arrival in my inbox.  I’m not supposed to publish the results of the inquiry, so click the link above and go do it yourself – the components may be further along than you think!


The Artist’s Blend was certainly paler, fresher and cleaner than its peated cousin, sort of making me want to do some housekeeping with aromas of Mr. Clean, tonic water, Honey Lemon Halls and wet quartz.  However, my attention was then drawn away from my kid-encrusted home by a jolt of verve and energy on the palate, where vanilla, woodsmoke and gingery spice wrapped around a centre of citrus-infused Bourbon (a tasting note I wrote before finding out about the 75% Bourbon cask aging this went through, by the way).  It’s a touch straightforward but plenty delicious for its minuscule price tag.  If you want a house whisky, this is calling your name.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 5

5 12 2016

It was an immediate case of double whisky deja vu tonight, as another Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice whisky emerged from the calendar, the second in five days following Day 1’s ultra-exuberant dram.  But the recall did not stop there:  rewind 10 Whisky Days to Day 20 of 2015, where the Connoisseurs Choice in question was a single malt from the little-known Inchgower distillery.  Now jump back to the present, where the Connoisseurs Choice in question is…a single malt from the little-known Inchgower distillery.  Um.  The cool thing about the 2016 version of Inchgower is that it was bottled this year and isn’t even available for purchase yet in Calgary; you can pre-order it at KWM now for $100.  While last calendar’s Inchgower was a 14-year malt, this one may be the first ever 11-year single malt I have ever seen, distilled in 2005 and bottled in 2016; whisky in prime numbers, I guess.


A familiar face, a familiar result.

Inchgower is the type of distillery that the Connoisseurs Choice lineup was created to showcase, a hardworking but under-the-radar producer that almost never sees its whisky bottled under its own name.  To paraphrase myself from 10 whisky blog entries ago in order to avoid unnecessary work, less than 1% of Inchgower’s production is labelled and sold as an Inchgower malt:  most of the fruits of its labour anonymously form part of the backbone of big-time Diageo blends like Bell’s, Johnny Walker and White Horse.  It’s located in Speyside, which the label of this bottle optimistically refers to as “the Premier Cru of single malt scotch” (inadvertently leaving open the question of who the Grand Cru is…I’ll let the Highlands and Islay fight it out).


They’re known as the WHAT??

This 11 year-old bottling is somehow darker than its 14 year-old older brother, despite both being matured in refill sherry casks.  A slightly grungy nose blends shoe polish, leather, salt lick, pinecones and almonds, and isn’t helped much by the addition of water.  Things thankfully get somewhat more pleasing once the Inchgower hits your lips, where you try to decipher a strange but interesting mix of peanut shells, apricot, pennies and celery salt, all of which hang around cautiously after you swallow like high school kids in a new social situation.  It’s fun to meet a new distillery once, no matter how the whisky is; with Inchgower, I think twice is enough.  Onward.

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.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 2

2 12 2016

Damn it.  2016 Whisky Advent was off to a happening start, excitement was building, I was sliding into my spirits-writing groove…and then Day 2 came along.  First of all, it took me about five minutes to get the cardboard mini-whisky box out of the calendar (unnecessary cardboard boxes:  not a fan).  Second, once the cardboard maiming was complete and the whisky was free, my heart sank as I again came in contact with the one Scottish distillery that I would LOVE to love, but can never seem to.  Kilchoman has a great backstory (it’s the first new distillery to be opened on the Scottish island of Islay in generations), is an incredible inspiration for the modern Scotch movement (they actually farm their own barley that is fermented and distilled into their whiskies, which is basically unheard of), has a ton of street cred and critical acclaim, but just never seems to have a flavour set I can fully get behind, often featuring an odd hard cheese-y aroma that just doesn’t do it for me.  Completely a personal preference thing, and not a slag on this revolutionary new producer.  I wish it weren’t so, but I am 0 for 3 in Whisky Advent history with my Kilchomans:  Day 15 of 2014 may of been the worst experience, but Day 11 and Day 21 of 2015 didn’t bump it by much.


I’m so sorry, Kilchoman.

This particular bottling couldn’t have played a part in the 2014 or 2015 calendars because it’s a new continuing release inaugurally revealed this year.  The Kilchoman Sanaig, with its rather fetching violet label, is named after a small inlet just northwest of the distillery in the far top left corner of Islay (as indicated on the semi-destroyed box below).  Its deep orange-y colour seems suggestive of lengthy maturation, but since Kilchoman’s only been around since 2005, that’s not possible.  The alternative explanation is the correct one, which is that the whisky has been primarily matured in my nemesis of aging vessels:  Oloroso sherry casks, villain of Advent calendars past.  The oxidized deep-hued Oloroso that previously occupied the casks left a dark stain behind that the Scotch greedily sucks up, lending maximum colour in minimum time.


The Bourbon-to-Sherry Cask Meter on the box is a nice touch.

I was feeling a bit better after the whisky’s visual intrigue, but I stuck my nose in the glass and there it was, that parmigiano reggiano sort of funk, overlaying everything, partially obscuring the supporting aromas of diesel/kerosene, moss, orange peels and molasses.  The Sanaig comes across as way boozier than its 46% abv, delivering heat and smoke and honey on the tongue in that order, begging for a few drops of water to help balance it out.  Hints of apple cinnamon try to peek through the grime, but this is neither designed nor executed to be a “pretty” scotch.  At $92 it’s a value for a Kilchoman fan; I just wish I was one.  Better luck tomorrow?

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 1

1 12 2016

All right, team:  let’s do this.  Another blogging year has come and gone, another December has arrived, and another 25 straight days of whisky blogging madness stands before me.  I will not break, although I will occasionally wonder what the hell I’m doing.  To set the stage, for those of you new to this year-end PnP tradition:  every year the indomitable Andrew Ferguson, the owner of Kensington Wine Market and (for my money) Calgary’s primary whisky authority, meticulously sources and compiles 25 mini-bottles of premium whisky that go into the shop’s annual Whisky Advent Calendar.  Two years ago I got such a Calendar as a present and decided to write up each whisky inside on a daily basis.  Last year I decided I probably couldn’t leave well enough alone and did it again.  This year I resigned myself to the fact that I’m a slave to precedent, and here we are.  Note that these mini-whisky bottles were NOT provided as samples for review purposes; I bought the calendar to support Andrew’s great work and am doing these reviews because I am clearly slightly deranged.


Bring it, 2016.

Day 1 of 2016 Whisky Advent was an instant flashback to many different days of 2015 Whisky Advent; the all-too-familiar beige and brown labelling of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice series haunted my dreams on many a December night last year.  Day 4, Day 10, Day 18 and Day 20 of the 2015 calendar were dedicated to Connoisseurs Choice whiskies (and yes, I know there’s an apostrophe missing in that possessive, and yes, it bothers me, but I didn’t name the whisky line, so blame Scotland).  That may sound repetitive, until you find out that there are ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FOUR DIFFERENT WHISKIES in the Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice line.  174!!  And that’s only one of G&M’s many, many ranges!  They are (obviously) one of Scotland’s largest independent whisky bottlers, purchasing barrels of whisky from a plethora of distilleries and bottling them itself.  The Connoisseurs Choice sub-label is largely intended to showcase distilleries that would not otherwise ever see the light of day as a single malt and would instead be stuffed into anonymous blends…but this one might be the exception to that rule.


This particular bottling is a 17 year-old expression from the Tomatin Distillery, which most certainly sees the light of day under its own name as one of the largest and best-known distilleries in all of Scotland.  (It’s also the first distillery in Scotland to be wholly owned by a Japanese company, which is not as surprising as it might seem given the latter country’s massive jump into premium whisky.)  Distilled in 1997 and bottled in 2014, this G&M expression starts off Advent with a bang thanks to a set of aromas as exuberant as a pent-up Golden Retriever:  sassafras, honey, cream soda, banana Runts, cinnamon sticks.  Smooth, lush and nutty, it unfolds repeatedly on the tongue, continuing to expand and unfurl every time you think it’s done, exploding with gobs of marzipan and almond rocca, maple syrup, pina colada, marshmallow, reams of spice and toasty wood.  As you might expect after the above slew of candied notes, this is absolutely delicious, thrilling and hedonistic if not overly intellectual.  It is also not fooling around with its $180 full-bottle retail price tag, the first time I can remember that KWM Whisky Advent has gone posh to start off Day 1.  I like the approach.  24 days to go!

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 25

25 12 2015

Merry Christmas everybody!!  I do not mind telling you that I will not be blogging tomorrow.  Or the day after.  Or the day after.  My calendar odyssey ends tonight with a special super-sized offering from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a group that buys single casks from renowned distillers, bottles them itself and sells them only to subscribed members, giving each bottling a unique name and number.  Christmas Day’s 100 mL bottle was from Society Single Cask No. 3.160 and was titled “Islay beach scene”; all I know about it is that it was aged for 10 years and is a highly potent 59.9% abv, making it (I believe) the booziest whisky in the calendar, just in time for the holidays [ed. note: not quite true, as it turns out, as Day 21’s Kilchoman KWM Cask clawed over the 60% abv mark].  The label also provides some handy, if overly poetic, tasting notes to guide your drinking experience:  this whisky is supposed to smell like “pork chops and lemony prawns on a beach barbecue, then hints of buttery mint” and taste like “burnt heather and barbecued meats with fruit”.  I did not get the pork chops, although I did quite enjoy the aromas on this whisky, which started out very clean for Islay, sea spray, breezy peat and mineral notes, before sneaking in the diesel oil and woodsmoke we were all expecting.  The peat is richly balanced and far from dominating on the palate, which actually did remind me a bit of BBQed meat, or at least a brisket smokehouse, along with sweet honey, oyster shells and canned pear.  With a dash of water, this SMWS offering holds together and restrains its monstrous alcohol exceptionally well — a strong finish to what I feel was a substantially better Advent Calendar this time around.  I only was really missing one thing in the 2015 calendar:  something from Japan.  Maybe next year?


I rolled through the Day 25 whisky so that I could end my string of calendar posts with my personal KWM Whisky Advent award-winners, my favourite bottles from the past month.  Here we go:

  • Best Value Dram:  BenRiach 10 Year (Day 16) — How this bottle only costs $64 is a complete mystery, but I would highly recommend that you grab it before somebody changes their mind.  Incredible balance and complexity for a scotch this young and inexpensive, from a distillery that keeps churning out winners.
  • 3rd Place (Tied):  Kavalan Sherry Cask (Day 23) and Gordon & Macphail Connoisseurs Choice 2003 Caol Ila (Day 18) — Kavalan is nothing short of a revelation in the whisky world to me, and everything I’ve ever tried of theirs has been just prime quality.  With a whopping 4 Connoisseurs Choice bottlings in the calendar, G&M stood a good chance of scooping a podium finish, and their deft handling of Caol Ila took them to the promised land.
  • 2nd Place:  Kavalan ex-Bourbon Cask (Day 5) — Call me predictable, but I don’t care.  I couldn’t get this bottle out of my head for days after tasting it.  The Kavalan Sherry was deeper, darker and more complex, but the ex-Bourbon hit on an emotional level and delivered amazing purity and a nose to be savoured for days.
  • 1st Place:  GlenDronach Revival 15 Year (Day 7) — Can you believe it?  For the second year in a row, a scotch from the GlenDronach distillery takes the heralded Pop & Pour Whisky Advent Calendar crown.  A worthy successor to its big brother Parliament from last year’s calendar, the Revival packed an unbelievable flavour punch in its teenaged frame and was simply one of the most abjectly delicious things I have ever tasted.  It is a no-brainer purchase if you ever come across it.

A quick thanks to Kensington Wine Market and its owner/whisky guru Andrew Ferguson for another year of hard work and brilliant sourcing to create a 25-day whisky experience like no other.  It cannot be easy to find that kind of array of quality 50 mL bottles year over year, and in some instances Andrew’s dedication took him directly to the distilleries themselves to have the mini-bottles made just for this calendar; the effort certainly shows through and the result is remarkable.  Same time next year?

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 24

24 12 2015

Merry Christmas Eve, everybody!  While the children are tucked all snug in their beds, I’m drinking scotch at my kitchen table and writing about it for the 24th day in a row.  The penultimate whisky of the 2015 Advent Calendar is giving me a couple different flashbacks, first to 12 days and half a calendar ago, when on Day 12 KWM rocked the Glenfarclas 21 Year Single Malt, and then to exactly one year ago tonight, Christmas Eve 2014, when the prior calendar’s final whisky was the $720-a-bottle Glenfarclas 40 Year Single Malt.  Tonight we fall somewhere in between, with the $215 Glenfarclas 25 Year rounding out the 50 mL selections in the current calendar (there’s a special bonus super-sized 100 mL bottling for Christmas tomorrow).  I heartily concur with the value distribution in 2015 as opposed to 2014, as I can say with certainty that there isn’t a $505 quality and flavour difference between the 25 and the 40 Year, and the savings from that selection had significant effects on what else was able to be offered this time around.


I don’t have many production details on this whisky, but like the 21 Year it was aged in sherry casks, although it doesn’t show it in the flavour profile quite as much as its younger brother.  A dense amber colour, it billowed out intense yet relaxed aromas of smoke, carrot cake, molasses, burnt honey, spicy oak, graham crackers and celery stalks, that last lingering vegetal hint keeping the surrounding sweetness grounded.  Its quarter-century in oak made it soft and mellow on the palate, dripping with chocolate orange, roasted marshmallow, mesquite, charred wood, pumpkin spice, honey and Fig Newtons.  This is basically the perfect fireside whisky on a cold winter’s night like tonight, the ideal Santa pick-me-up.  Important epilogue:  I swear to god I didn’t read or refer back to my notes of the Glenfarclas 21 before writing these ones, but reading them side by side now, you sure can tell they’re family, can’t you?  I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “carrot cake” to describe any wine or spirit before, but it’s the first thing that came to mind with this scotch, and there it was in the Glen 21 aroma writeup; “pumpkin spice” too.  Deja vu!  Have a great one tomorrow – one last writeup to come!

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