Single malt whisky - tasting notes

MaraMara is a special place for whisky enthousiasts. Founders Roland Puhl and Carsten Ehrlich are whisky legends and walking encyclopaedias.

 

Mara cellarTheir basement in the nice German town called Limburg an der Lahn is part whisky store (only classics, many of them not yet discovered by the whisky community), part “pilgrimage place” where whisky lovers from Germany (and further away) come to spend a nice evening. I was lucky enough to join Luc Timmermans (thanks again) so most of the time I was simply listening to what all these experienced connoisseurs had to say.

Most of the evening was filled with an extensive overview (and tasting) of Carsten’s recent bottlings in the Whisky Agency series. It’s amazing how many expressions he has released in the last couple of months. The tasting tempo was too high to take notes, but all I can say is they are all worth a try. Not one of them is below par, and some are absolutely stunning.

 

Here are just five of my personal highlights, in no particular order:

  • Glenallachie 39 yo 1971 (51,2%, Perfect Dram)
    Not the most popular distillery. Very good albeit a little quirky. Fruity with old-style elements.
  • Brora 28 yo 1982 (52,3%, Perfect Dram)
    All-round Brora with wax, smoke, citrus, herbs… Also available in a Daily Dram version.
  • BenRiach 34 yo 1975 (50,6%, cask 3061)
    Classic 1970’s BenRiach fruits, quite tropical and honeyed. A good match for the renowned 1976’s.
  • Ben Nevis 42 yo 1968 (40%, Private Stock)
    This can only come from Ben Nevis. Nougat, soft fruits, leather, wax… Stunning and very (very) limited.
  • Glen Scotia 38 yo 1972 (40,1%, Private Stock)
    Old-style fruitiness, beehive notes and pleasant dust. A little soft on the palate maybe, but a unique expression.

All of these would score well into the 90’s. The downside of the eminent quality is clear: the demand is extremely high and most of the Whisky Agency releases are sold out in a couple of days. Some of them don’t even reach major retailers outside of Germany, and reviewing them doesn’t make much sense – the advice will be too late anyway.

 

After the recent stuff and a lovely pizza (tradition, you know), we went into the cellars to crack open a few oldies. No matter how broad your whisky knowledge, a large part of the collection is unknown to anyone, so there’s always some doubt about what to choose.

  • Mara - malt raritiesPort Ellen 11 yo 1981 Wilson & Morgan (stunning young Port Ellen, so different from current releases)
  • Longmorn 28 yo 1974 Scottish Castles (review coming soon)
  • Caperdonich 35yo 1972 for The Whisky Fair (excellent nose, very rich)
  • A head-to-head of two old Bowmore 8yo’s (although apparently similar, they showed major differences – only one of them was convincing to me)
  • a 1970’s bottling of Bunnahabhain 12yo

 

We ended the evening with an out-of-this-world dark sherry Islay whisky of which the name is top secret (sorry). It’s a very old bottle anyway and chances are very low that another one would show up. Too bad, but good Lord, what a magnificent whisky!

I was told there are plans to sell most of the collection and close the cellar down. That’s a logical decision given the time-consuming activities for Whisky Agency and The Whisky Fair, but it’s still a important chapter that will disappear from our whisky book. I’m glad I was able to experience it.


CragganmoreThis was released as part of the second wave in the controversial Manager’s Choice series. It was a collection of rare single casks from the Diageo brands. While some of them seem to be of high quality, there was little interest because of the high prices considering the young ages.

I’m glad I could try this, as official Cragganmore releases have been few and far between. It was distilled in May 1997 and bottled in May 2009 from a European oak Bodega sherry casks.


Cragganmore 1997 Managers ChoiceCragganmore 12 yo 1997 ‘The Manager’s Choice’ (59,7%, OB 2009, cask #2398,
246 btl.)

Nose: white fruit aromas and citrus, summery and quite floral. Some vanilla and biscuits. Faint waxy notes and some oil. A hint of mint and undertones of smoke. Really nice but hardly any sherry. In line with the standard 12yo, only more complex and punchy. Mouth: strong and powerful, a bit hot even. Very thick and full of flavour. Rather sweet, with honey, vanilla and plenty of spices (mint, ginger, a little pepper). Oranges. Spicy fruitcake? Perfect amount of wood. Water rounds it off and makes it smokier in the aftertaste. Finish: spices (mostly ginger) and a hint of smoke.

A great Cragganmore that I enjoyed a lot. On the other hand there’s no way I can recommend a 12 year-old that costs around € 280.

Score: 90/100


Big Peat

13 Dec 2010 | * Blends

Big Peat is a vatting of four Islay distilleries: Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen. The fact that it contains older whisky from Port Ellen, makes this an unusual offering. While other bottlers can’t afford to use Port Ellen in a vatting or a blend, for Douglas Laing it’s not a problem as they have one of the largest stocks of this legendary distillery.

Note that Big Peat is such a success that they’re now somewhere around batch number 7 or 8, probably with (small) differences between them. As far as I know, there’s no way to recognize which batch you’re buying.

 

Big PeatBig Peat (46%, Douglas Laing 2010)

Nose: a summary of Islay, with salty peat, some vanilla and a great aniseed note. Some mocha. Overall rather sweet with a big emphasis on tarry notes. On top of this, I get some youngish fruit like pear and peach, which reminds me of Ardbeg Rollercoaster in a way. Nice ambiguity of younger and older elements. Mouth: very smokey and ashy. Quite explosive with a rubbery edge. Big peat indeed. Sweet liquorice and again some vanilla. Not much fruit here. Finish: peat and smoke. Slowly drying.

A benchmark Islay vatting. You get heavy peat but a charming vanilla sweetness as well to round it off. A bottle should cost around € 40 which is very good value.

Score: 86/100


Glenrothes 1991

12 Dec 2010 | Glenrothes

A middle-aged Glenrothes that sits between the 1970 – 1980’s vintages and the younger 1990’s vintages (1994 and 1998).


Glenrothes 1991Glenrothes 1991 (43%, OB 2008)

Nose: honeyed and buttery aromas (butterscotch, mocha). Caramel. Roasted nuts. Vanilla. Quite some heather. Cooked fruits with gentle spices. A hint of leather. Mouth: similar toffee / mocha notes. Baked apples and a lovely hint of coconut cream. Roasted nuts and barley sugars in the aftertaste. Fading on spices (ginger, cloves). Finish: not too long, with cocoa and subtle oak.

For me, this is one of the most archetypal Glenrothes expressions because of the buttery qualities, nutty flavours and spices. Of course the old versions offer more complexity and roundness, but this one is considerably less expensive.
Around € 55.

Score: 83/100


Following the success of last year’s Scottish Merchants’ Choice, Glengoyne has now invited some of England’s best known whisky retailers to select a single cask from their warehouses. It’s a 13 years old whisky from a European Oak sherry hogshead, distilled in June 1997 and bottled at the end of September 2010.

It’s available from the six participating English merchants: Master of Malt, Royal Mile Whiskies, Milroys, The Vintage House, Nickolls & Perks and Constantine Stores.


Glengoyne English Merchants ChoiceGlengoyne 13 yo 1997 ‘English Merchants’ Choice’ (54,6%, OB 2010, cask #2716,
291 btl.)

Extremely dark colour. Nose: sherry galore. Heavily influenced by the wine but perfectly faultless. Raisins, chocolate & raspberry ganache, balsamic syrup, caramelized ginger, dried prunes… Some leathery notes as well. Reminds me of the most juicy GlenDronach single casks. Mouth: lively impact, again very much on liqueur pralines. Kirsch or raspberry liqueur. Gingerbread and Christmas cake, orange peel, dried fruits… Just a tad drying in the end, with hints of walnuts. Finish: long, still very bold. Now turning a bit more herbal.

Great stuff, just in time for Christmas. Around
€ 120 which is expensive compared to (older) GlenDronach single casks, but certainly up there.

Score: 89/100


Even though there has been a lot of controversy about Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the year” award in the 2011 Whisky Bible, it surely raised some interest for the Ballantine’s 17 Years old. A blended whisky that is better than all those wonderful single malts?

Ballantine’s Finest, the basic version of the range, was not worth writing about when I tried it at a party last year. In the same Whisky Bible, that one picked up the award for best blended Scotch NAS, so let’s hope for a better experience this time.


Ballantine's 17 yearsBallantine’s 17 yo (43%, OB 2010)

Nose: smooth start with pancake aromas, vanilla and creamy milk chocolate. Soft fruity aromas (lemon / lime), almonds and cinnamon. Hints of smoke. Cedar wood and a touch of leather. Mouth: honeyed and spicy start, slightly peppery and gingery. Elegant peat smoke again. Oak and toffee notes. Developing on fruit cake. Not complex but well balanced. Finish: circling around the same core of chocolate, delicate smoke and spices.

Indeed an enjoyable dram and a big step up from Ballantines Finest. It’s still quite a stretch to call this the whisky of the year, but it’s a valid choice if you’re looking for a Christmas present for your dad. Good notes for a blend. € 60 around here.

Score: 81/100


A Coffey still is a column still or continuous still which is normally used to distill grain whisky. Simply put, they behave as a series of pot stills. The resulting spirit is higher in alcohol and usually contains more contaminants than pot still whisky.

Apart from the usual Coffey grain whisky, Japanese distillery Nikka had this limited release of malt whisky distilled in Coffey stills, which is quite unusual.

 

 

Nikka Coffey malt 12yoNikka 12 yo ‘Single coffey malt’ (55%, OB 2008, 3027 btl.)

Nose: very similar to grain whisky with a few bourbonny notes. Plenty of vanilla. Some white chocolate. Almonds and nutmeg. A little honeyed sweetness. Not too complex, and it shows a raw alcohol kick. A little better when diluted – it gets more fragrant and delicate. Mouth: again too close to plain alcohol for my taste, like eau-de-vie or vodka. Sweet vanilla again, some coconut and banana. Sugared cereals. More enjoyable with water, although the advantage over grain whisky is very small. Finish: quite long, in the same vein.

A one-dimensional experiment with a big emphasis on alcohol. I prefer many grain whiskies above this Coffey malt. Around € 120 at the time but sold out.

Score: 73/100


Dalmore 1980

06 Dec 2010 | Dalmore

While surprising the world with older and more limited premium expressions every year (Candela, Selene, Sirius), The Dalmore is working hard to strengthen the name of their regular range (check the recent Dalmore Mackenzie for instance).

This Dalmore 1980 vintage was launched in 2009 as a limited edition.

 

Dalmore 1980Dalmore 1980 (40%, OB 2009)

Nose: impressive fruity aromas to start with, mainly fresh tangerine and orange cake. Orange squash. Some peach liqueur. Very aromatic. Developing on nutty notes: walnuts, hazelnuts. A hint of ginger and wax. Sherried in very elegant way. I’m impressed. Mouth: just as smooth. More walnuts now and a bit of oak which makes it drier than expected. A bittersweet note (orange peel). Grapefruit. A dash of honey. Some spices (cinnamon, a little pepper, quite some cloves). Overall not too big – I won’t repeat the remarks about the bottling strength this time. Finish: not too long, with dried orange peel, a little pepper and dry oak.

Almost as sophisticated as the Dalmore Master Blender himself. If only the price was a bit softer. One of the best Dalmores I’ve tried so far. Around € 300.

Score: 89/100


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  • SK: And just to prove a point, all of the bottles are still available in places where they usually run out. Lets see how many will be still available whe
  • SK: 2 years ago I tried the Caol Ila 1982 from Archives. What a fantastic whisky. Since then I always try to stock these Caol Ila from the 80s. Sadly no
  • WhiskyNotes: The real problem is that Caol Ila isn't selling (mature) casks to independent bottlers any more, from what I've heard, so chances are low we'll see mo

Coming up

  • Inchgower 1975 (Maltbarn)
  • Octomore 6.3 258ppm
  • Peated Irish 1991 (Eiling Lim)
  • Elements of Islay Cl7
  • Benromach 5 Year Old

1680 notes by Ruben

WhiskyNotes - Ruben LuytenThis blog is my personal collection of impressions, written while searching for the ultimate single malt whisky.