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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.








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