Black Friday Blends: Thoughts on some Grand Macnish Drams

Happy Friday everybody!  It is my hope that despite all that requires change, some folks reading this found something to be thankful for yesterday.  As you might have guessed, I am thankful for whisky, in almost all of its forms.  So, what I am saying today is, don’t shop at Wal-Mart; drink good whisky with good people!  Today, I am reviewing two different blended Scotches, Grand Macnish 12 year-old and Grand Macnish 15 year-old “Sherry Cask.”

Grand Macnish was founded in 1863, and has been making quality blends since that time. Ever since 1991, with their buyout by MacDuff International, this blend has gotten even more global.  Since the importer for Grand Macnish is based in the Greater Boston Area, I see a lot of this blend floating around, and I have had a few folks ask my thoughts on it, so here we go.

Grand Macnish 12 year-old is a standard blend in the range, bottled at 80 proof (40% abv).  On the nose, this smells of the Scottish Highlands, with light heather, honeysuckle, roses, grass, and lilacs.  The palate is light-bodied with a backbone of smoked heather or smoked grasses, almost peaty.  There are also honeyed sweet notes, and some fine ripe pears.  The finish is a bit peated, evolving to a very pleasant honey sweetness.  My grade: B-/C+.  Price: $20-25/750ml.

Grand Macnish 15 year-old “Sherry Cask” is also bottled at 80 proof (40% abv), and would seem to have some sherry cask influence, but what that means exactly is left a mystery.  My guess is that there is just a bit of extra sherry cask-matured whisky in the blend (as opposed to a sherried finish), but that is just a hunch.  On the nose, this one is lightly sherried, with a little booze, oak, dry grapes, and dry sherry.  The palate is medium-bodied, with some malt, oats, raisins, dry tannins, old wood, and some sizzling steak.  The finish is medium-long with a light puff of smoke, burning wood, and some fino sherry.  My grade: B-/C+.  Price: $30-35/750ml.

Overall, both of these blends are crowd-pleasers and wallet-pleasers.  Neither of them will blow you away with complexity or velvety elegance, but they are both very tolerable drams that won’t break the bank.  Between the two, I probably prefer the 12 year-old, but I wouldn’t turn down a dram of either (unless it was being contrasted with a Chivas 25 year-old or some other elderly blend).  Next time you are having some folks over, and you are looking to put a blend in the cabinet, give Grand Macnish a shot.  Even if you are horribly disappointed, and it turns out that your palate is nothing like mine, you’ll only be out a third of what a single malt would cost you!  Let it ride!

WhiskyLive Boston 2014 Review

Earlier this autumn, I attended Whisky Live Boston with several of my very good, whisky-loving friends. The great food, great company, and excellent whiskies always make this a highlight night of the year, and this year was no different. Here are some of my thoughts on some of the drams I really enjoyed from this wonderful evening…

The view from the 2nd floor of the State Room during Whisky Live Boston 2014.

The view from the 2nd floor of the State Room during Whisky Live Boston 2014.

Coming into the evening, the American whiskey that I was most looking forward to trying was the new 8th release of Parker’s Heritage Collection, a 13 year-old straight wheat whiskey. I was, of course, very excited when I saw a bottle of this sitting on the Heaven Hill display table, but I was a little disappointed on the whiskey overall. Perhaps my standards were too high because I was really stoked to try this one, but I found it a little too grain-driven for my tastes. This is still a very good whiskey and a great idea, but I did not like it as much as I have enjoyed previous PHC releases.

Lest you think I stormed out of the venue and swore off whiskey for the rest of my days, I did have the chance to enjoy some fantastic drams. I really enjoyed the balance between fruit, spice, and oak in the Redbreast 21 year-old, certainly one of the finest Irish whiskeys I have tried to date. I got to try some of the whiskeys that Koval is bottling, and I am anxious to find more. I was also very impressed with some of the Benromach whiskies I sampled at the Gordon & MacPhail display table (more on that in the weeks to come). I thoroughly enjoyed getting to taste the two most recent Laphroaig Cairdeas releases side-by-side. I preferred the 2013 release to the 2014 release, but they are both fantastic. The 3rd edition of the “Islands” impression from Bruichladdich was a wonderful pour, and the Speyburn 25 year-old is not to be missed. However, none of these wonderful whiskies were left holding a medal in my book at the end of the night (these medals are not real, so I apologize if I got your hopes up). Without further ado, here were my three favorites from WhiskyLive Boston 2014.

Bronze Medal Winner: The First Editions – Bowmore 17 yr. This is an independently bottled Bowmore that was distilled in 1996, and bottled in 2013 from a single ex-bourbon barrel at cask strength (52.8% abv). I think the Bowmore spirit is definitely best with a little age under it, and this one was really a zinger. The age smoothed out some of the plastic, acidic notes of Bowmore’s younger whiskies, and left a wonderful whisky. The palate was a full-bodied cavalcade of Memphis barbecue, peat, ginger, and wet clay. This one balanced the spirit and the cask wonderfully, giving a very welcome dose of peat and spices with some dark sweetness mixed in. The price tag on this bottle ($150-175/750ml) would probably be a little beyond what I would pay for the contents, but this was definitely a wonderful take on Bowmore’s spirit.

Silver Medal Winner: Laphroaig 10 yr. Cask Strength (Batch 006). I will avoid ranting about this whisky here, as I have already given it plenty of praise on the blog with previous releases. That said, this was one of the best releases of the 10 year-old cask strength that I have had. It balances the sweet flavors of the ex-bourbon casks with the rich Laphroaig peat almost perfectly. This is always reasonably priced ($70-80/750ml) for the quality and strength, and is a very worthy addition to any winter liquor cabinet. I will certainly endeavor to buy a bottle of this wonderful whisky.

Gold Medal Winner: Bruichladdich Octomore 06.1 Scottish Barley. This was my first go at the legendary Octomore, a 5 year-old, cask strength peat monster (peated to 167 ppm, nearly four times as peated as standard Laphroaig), and I was lured into its mysteries. When the barley is peated to that level, something crazy happens, and this whisky shows a depth of character that I have rarely experienced. It smells and tastes like the earth after a bonfire, with a touch of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There are also some lovely citrus notes that mingle with the soot and coaldust, giving the palate a sublime workout. This whisky is not cheap ($150-175/750ml), nor is it easy to find, so I do not think a full bottle is in my future, but this was surely my highlight of Whisky Live Boston 2014.

I know that my highlights were all peated Scotches, but those were the whiskies that stood out most to me, so that’s what I picked. All across the board, it was a night of wonderful whiskies, great company, and a wonderful venue with a fantastic aerial view of Boston. If you’re in Boston, hope to see you at Whisky Live Boston 2015 next fall!

Koval Single Barrel Bourbon Review and Happy Halloween!

Well, Happy Halloween everybody. If I am honest, Halloween was never my favorite holiday, and I have never gotten too into it, but I know it is very popular in certain circles. So, if its your cup of tea, have fun and be safe. If you are in my certain circle, you are probably looking forward to enjoying some good bourbon on a cool New England evening. So, let’s get to that part.

Happy Halloween

Koval Distillery is a craft distillery in Northern Chicago that has been distilling actively since 2008. The proudly make organic spirits from scratch, take all their whiskey from the heart of the run, and bottle all their whiskeys from single barrels. Koval is one of the most refreshing distilleries in America nowadays. Unlike sourcing whiskey from Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill and selling it to the consumer for twice the price, Koval is contracting their own grain, and making unique whiskeys their own way. Koval does a great job balancing time-honored distilling traditions and pushing the envelope. They are not releasing gimmicks; they are releasing good whiskey with their own special touch. I have only sampled their bourbon and their rye thus far, and I was very impressed with both, and I have only grown more impressed I have learned more about the company. Let’s delve into Koval’s single barrel bourbon.

Like all bourbons, Koval is made from at least 51% corn in the mashbill and aged in a new, charred American oak barrel. However, unlike other bourbons, the remaining grain components are not rye, barley, or wheat. In an unprecedented move, Koval has used millet to fill in the grain bill of their bourbon, which adds a dimension to the bourbon that is wholly unique to Koval. The bourbon in the bottle is between 2 and 4 years old, un-chill filtered, and is bottled at 94 proof (47% abv).  For the record, I am reviewing barrel #946.

Koval’s nose takes a while to work with, as it is bringing flavors to bear that are rarely seen in bourbons. On the nose, Koval presents ginger bread, vanilla wafers, molasses, basil, black tea, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is herbal and spicy (but in a different way than rye-forward bourbons), with a backbone of sweetness. The palate is surprisingly light in body for being un-chill filtered and 94 proof. There are notes of sweet corn, gingerbread, molasses, zucchini bread, and black tea. If I tasted this blind, I would probably not guess this was a bourbon. The finish is short and sweet, with some lingering spices, gingerbread, bread pudding, and banana bread.

Overall, this is most certainly a different product altogether. However, once you move past the differences, it becomes clear that this is a very good whiskey, well-made and very flavorful. In the past, I have certainly ranted on “craft distilleries” for sourcing whiskey and peddling it or making gimmicky, flavored whiskeys to dull the palates of America, but Koval is doing none of that. I cannot wait to get my hands on some more Koval whiskeys and pass along my thoughts to cyberspace. My grade: B. Price: $40-45/750ml. The price may seem a little excessive for the age of the bourbon, but that is partly the price you pay for craft products, and in this case, the bourbon in the bottle holds fairly well in that price range, especially when compared to other craft whiskeys.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon Review

Kind of makes you want to drink a little bourbon, doesn't it?  getintravel.com

Kind of makes you want to drink a little bourbon, doesn’t it? getintravel.com

Every time of year is a great time of year to drink bourbon, and every part of the world is a great place to drink bourbon, but there is something special about a glass of bourbon in the cool autumnal months in New England. The leaves are painting the landscape vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows, and the breeze is crisp enough to warrant the type of warmth only bourbon can provide. Now that I’ve got the romance out of the way, on to the bourbon…

Today, I am reviewing a relatively new bourbon product from Woodford Reserve. About two years ago, Woodford Reserve released their Double Oaked bourbon (90.4 proof/45.2% abv), which starts its life as standard Woodford Reserve before it is transferred into heavily toasted (only lightly charred) barrels for a finishing period of approximately 9 months. The result is a quality bourbon, indicative of Woodford’s craft, but a bourbon that brings a slightly different flavor profile to the finished product.

On the nose, this bourbon is pleasantly sweet with marzipan, toffee, cooked apples, and a bit of cinnamon sugar. The palate is sweet, creamy and medium-bodied with a lot of butterscotch, caramel, toffee, marzipan, candied almonds, and apple pie. The finish is medium in length, with butterscotch and caramel hanging around for a good while. Overall, this is a very sweet inculcation of Woodford Reserve, but it is hardly cloying.

Overall, to my palate, the Double Oaked is a sweeter representation of Woodford Reserve. The rye content of the bourbon seems to get swallowed up in the flavor waves of toffee and butterscotch, which is hardly a bad thing. This bourbon is not quite my favorite style, as I tend to like sharper bourbon, but this is a soft, sexy, approachable bourbon that is soundly worthy of the Woodford name. My grade: B. Price: $45-50/750ml. This is a great bourbon for after a large meal because it is soft, sweet, and it just might be sexy enough to prompt a little lovin’.

Staying Power: A Few Bourbon Staples

One of the unique aspects of whiskey brands is that they do change over time. When you combine that change with the change in our palates, you can get some pretty intense discrepancies regarding the quality of different bourbons, especially over time. Personally, there are several different bourbons that I have found to vary a lot from batch to batch, barrel to barrel (Booker’s, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms), but there are also some bourbons that I have found to stay rock solid over all my years drinking the blessed spirit. Recently, I picked up two bourbons I had not had in a while to see if I liked them as much as I used to…

Ever since Heaven Hill came out with their Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases, bourbon lovers have been clamoring to get their greasy paws on some of this juice. The first release got rave reviews, as did most of their successive releases. I recently finished a bottle of their fourth release (134.8 proof, 67.4% abv), and it was absolutely fantastic stuff. It was every bit as dark, ominous, and beautiful as its predecessors. This is a complex, sweet, woody, and intense bourbon. Judging from what I have tasted to this point, I see no reason that this bourbon is going to slow down. All three bottles of this stuff that I have grabbed have been fantastic. If you see a bottle of this stuff chilling on a shelf at your local liquor store, grab it and thank me later.

The second bottle I picked up was a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (Barrel 87-4I), and it also did not disappoint. With some single barrel bourbons, there is definitely a lot of variance from barrel to barrel, with some barrels being great, and others being just average. Four Roses is not in that category. Every different barrel of their beloved OBSV juice is aged to damn near perfection. This particular barrel was a little bit spicier than some previous inculcations that I have had, but Four Roses’ bourbons always tend towards some spiciness anyway. Like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, when you see a bottle of this juice on the shelf, you are never missing the mark if you decide to walk out with a bottle or two.

Really, this is less of a bourbon review, but just a reiteration to all of my readers that there are still a lot of good bourbons out there. So many of the blogs are heralding the end of the great bourbon era with all the new craft distillers sourcing young bourbon, and the no age statement bourbons being released. To be sure, there is plenty of gimmicky bourbon out there, and even some of my old standards have let me down a bit recently (Booker’s, cough-cough), but that does not mean that all hope is lost friends. In a bourbon universe that occasionally looks bleak, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Four Roses Single Barrel are still standing tall as testaments to making really good bourbon with time-tested precision and patience.

Old Crow Bourbon Review

The Old Crow label is one of the most recognizable bourbon brands in the world, with constant music and movie references.  Interestingly enough, despite the bird on the logo, the brand itself is named after James Crow, a Scotsman who distilled in Kentucky in the early 19th century.  Nowadays, the brand is owned by the Beam Suntory giant, and is distilled at the James Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.  The bottle indicates that this juice is at least 3 years old, and it is bottled at 80 proof (40% abv).

On the nose, this is a pretty straight forward bourbon with a lot of corn, candy corn, caramel, and vanilla.  This is young and spry stuff, but not at all bad. The palate is a simple, sweet presentation of bourbon full of caramel and vanilla flavors.  Wood is hardly integrated, but that is to be expected.  The finish is short and sweet with caramel and a wee bit of sawdust.

On the whole, this is hardly an offensive bourbon.  It is noticeably young, which makes it a bit simple and straightforward, but I do not really find anything in this bourbon to be especially off-putting.  My biggest complaint is simply that the bourbon is too quick, which makes it a pleasant but uninteresting bourbon experience.  Jim Beam has a quality product here that just needs a little extra loving from the barrel.  My grade: C-.  Price: $10-15/750ml.  What is most appealing about this bourbon is the price point, and how good it really is for $12 a bottle.

Breaking & Entering Bourbon Review

Today’s review is of Breaking & Entering bourbon, a fitting whiskey to review following Independence Day weekend since bourbon is a domestic product, and the United States is responsible for way too much “breaking and entering” over the course of its time.  No matter what side of the fence you fall to on this one in terms of whether or not the United States should have broken in and entered, we have done it an awful lot.  In the bourbon world, Breaking & Entering is a small-batch bourbon out of St. George’s Spirits in California.  None of this bourbon is distilled on site, hence the name of the whiskey.  The guys at St. George’s went to Kentucky and came up about 400 or so barrels of bourbon, which they have then blended into a series of small-batch releases.  There is no age statement on this bourbon, which leads me to guess that the ages of the bourbon barrels brought back probably varied.  The specific batch that I am reviewing is No. 050624, and it is bottled at 86 proof (43% abv).

The nose smells of cornbread, caramel, banana bread, and rye.  The palate brings some bitter oak, toffee, caramel, banana bread, and herbal components.  The finish is medium, slightly tannic, and a wee bit sweet with caramel.  With a bit of time in the bottle, this got a little sweeter, but overall it held well with time.

In theory, taking the best of Kentucky’s different flavor profiles and turning into a bourbon-blending playground is a great idea.  In practice, it is a good result, too.  St. George’s has succeeded in making a straight-forward bourbon that gives you an overview of what Kentucky bourbon is made of.  Obviously, the specific potential of individual distilleries is lost in the final product, and I do not think Breaking & Entering bourbon is an instance where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  That said, this is a good bourbon, and it is very reasonably priced for a craft distillery; the only problem is that none of this bourbon is actually small-batch craft bourbon, just bourbon blended into small batch at a craft distillery.  My grade: B-/C+.  Price: $30-35/750ml.  This is definitely worth a shot, and since it varies from batch to batch, your next experience with Breaking & Entering could be a memorable one.

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