Single malt whisky - tasting notes

Pre-war whisky, it’s one of these things any serious whisky enthusiast should have experienced. The recent ‘Pre-War Whisky Tour’ that you may have seen on Facebook could make you think otherwise, but you don’t usually stumble upon these things easily. They’re lucky cellar finds or expensive auction items.

This Glen Grant 21 Year Old 70° proof is one of the best examples I’ve come across. It was bottled by Gordon & MacPhail in their semi-official distillery series.

We’re lucky when it comes to dating this bottle: it is sealed with a securo cap. That’s a special kind of screw cap, very effective and probably ahead of its time, but only used for a couple of years between 1961 and 1963. Gordon & MacPhail used it but you can also find it on bottles of Macallan or blends from this era.

The very narrow timespan of bottling, minus at least twenty one years of maturation, leads us back to a distillation date of 1940-1942 or earlier. Glen Grant was closed during World War II however, so the whisky inside the bottle is effectively 1930’s production.

 

 

Glen Grant 21 Years Old 70° Proof - Gordon & MacPhail - securo capGlen Grant 21 yo (70° proof, Gordon & MacPhail 1960’s, securo cap)

Nose: it’s a typical profile, but one we haven’t described too often on this blog. It starts with a rich, pastry-like sweetness. Honey, soft apricots and golden raisins. Bright citrus. Banana. This moves towards waxy notes (candles) and polished wood. But the unique part are old-style hints of camphor, heavenly silver polish and subtle peat. Such elegance. Also worn leather and dusty libraries. In the background, there’s a whole list of tiny aromas. Bay leaves, marjoram, ashes, dried chanterelles, almonds, pipe tobacco… Endless and priceless. Mouth: fairly savoury, with tobacco stepping forward again. Lots of oily things, huge wax and metallic notes. Then a vague fruity sweetness (fruit cake, maybe apple) and caramelized brown sugar. Plenty of spices and herbs (ginger, clove, cinnamon, menthol). Something of a herbal liqueur. Clear coal smoke and a ‘garage’ flavour towards the end, as well as the rancio side of an old Palo Cortado. Finish: alright, not huge, mainly a mix of herbs and bittersweet elements.

It’s difficult not to get nostalgic with such a whisky. It goes back at least 75 years. How did they achieve this complexity and these unique aromas? Were they originally present or is it a matter of half a decade of sublime ‘bottle refinement’? Will we ever witness the same effect with current production, after many years? A small masterpiece anyway, perfect to conclude 1500 blog posts.

Score: 96/100


Kininvie was the ‘secret distillery’ within the William Grant & Sons production site that also houses Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Although its stillhouse was separate, it used to share mash tuns and washbacks with The Balvenie. But now it has been expanded with its own dedicated equipment.

So far we’ve only seen a couple of Hazelwood-branded releases from these stills. They were only fired when extra blending whisky was required (it’s the core ingredient of Monkey Shoulder) and there was officially never any intent to bottle Kininvie as a single malt. Until this first official bottling that was launched in Taiwan last year. It’s a 23 years old composition of different bourbon and sherry casks distilled in 1990.

The fact that it’s called Batch 001 indicates the start of a series, maybe also releasing expressions in other parts of the world, although it looks like nothing is fixed yet and they prefer the future to be a little vague.

 

Kininvie 23yo 1990 Batch 001Kininvie 23 yo 1990
(42,6%, OB 2013, hogsheads & sherry butts, 6430 btl, Batch 001, 35 cl.)

Nose: an elegant nose but also a slightly spirity one. Even at relatively low strength it’s rather neutral. Kirsch or other types of fruit spirit. A lot of vanilla and almonds. Newish oak. A hint of apple, as well as apple blossom. Floral honey. Not bad, just not very expressive. Mouth: very sweet, plenty of apples and honey again. Citrus. Damsons. Maybe hints of strawberries. Sugared cereals. Some pepper and a general oaky note towards the end. Finish: medium long, with apple and hints of chocolate.

I really like The Balvenie and this Kininvie 1990 has a similar character, but on the other hand there’s a strange blend-like side to it as well, including the rough, grainy edges. A malt that’s made to replicate – or reinforce – a blend? Around € 250 for a half bottle – that’s a lot of money, even for one of the rarest names.

Score: 81/100


Another rare oldie brought to us by Sansibar. There seem to be different strengths and bottle amounts on the internet for this Balmenach 1979. I can only tell you what’s on the label.

 

Balmenach 1979 SansibarBalmenach 35 yo 1979 (53,4%, Sansibar 2014, bourbon cask, 127 btl.)

Nose: dry and herbal, with lots of forest associations. Dried flowers, moss and leafy notes. A proud nose but a little unsexy, although there’s a subtle fruity side of yellow apple and overripe banana. A little chalk, as well as milky cereals. Last but not least: a nice, dry layer of 35 years old dust. Mouth: thick and sweet, slightly milky / creamy again. The grassy notes are back, some grapefruit skin, apples… Dried coconut flakes. A good deal of old oak, with pepper and nutmeg coming along. A very subtle hint of sweet coffee. I’m missing a bit of fruits here, but they do get stronger when you add a bit of water. Finish: long, oaky, zesty, grassy and spicy. You can’t blame this one a lack of punch.

I really like the old-style charm on the nose, but on the palate it does start to show its lengthy time in wood. Slightly shy on the fruits. Around € 210.

Score: 88/100


Stagg Jr.

11 Apr 2014 | * USA

Stagg Jr. was the highly anticipated younger version of Buffalo Trace’s power bourbon George T. Stagg. Its age is still above average though, and they share the same recipe and strength, so ‘Junior’ may have an adverse effect of making it seem more approachable.

This American bourbon has no age statement, although the label says it was aged for nearly a decade. We’ve heard it’s slightly over 8 years old. Contrary to the yearly senior version, Stagg Jr. will have three to four batches a year.

 

 

Stagg Jr. (bourbon)Stagg Jr. (67,2%, OB 2013, first batch)

Nose: I believe my nostrils are gone. A very fierce ethanol kick. After some settling down, indeed quite similar to a senior George T. Stagg. Very rich, with lots of dry, oaky notes and rye spices like pepper and clove. Wood varnish. Toffee and honey sweetness as well. Chocolate. A lot of vanilla notes as well, if you let it breathe. Mouth: a nice combination of honey and bags of mint. Then some cinnamon bark and really dry wood. Quite hefty, alcoholic and tannic. A few drops of water make it slightly citrusy but the powdery dryness becomes even louder – I find it difficult to get a good balance with drinkability. Finish: long, dry with burnt notes and vanilla.

Good, but it goes downhill. The nose is rich and complex, but the palate is a slightly harsh oak infusion with a surprising thinness if you think away the alcohol. Around $ 50 in the US, or around € 90 if you find a bottle on this side of the ocean.

Score: 82/100


Highland Park Freya spent 15 years in first fill bourbon casks. After Highland Park Thor and Highland Park Loki, it’s the third release in The Valhalla Collection which unites whiskies named after Norse Gods.

This whisky was originally made for blending purposes. The barley was malted with mainland peat and then matured nearby Glasgow in bourbon casks. It’s technically not even Orkney whisky this way, but the result turned out too nice to be blended.

 

Highland Park FreyaHighland Park 15 yo ‘Freya’
(51,2%, OB 2014)

Nose: quite honeyed for a HP, with juicy pear, melon, pink grapefruit and a soft tropical touch of papaya. A lot of vanilla. Soft heathery notes and a little mint. There’s something more pungent (ashy / peaty) in the background. A subtle coastal note too. Mouth: quite fruity again. Apple, lemon pie, going towards biscuity notes. Some fresh oaky notes with accompanying spices (ginger, pepper). Some uncommon flavours as well: cardamom, something plastic-like, pine sap, lemongrass… Strangely bitter-sour in places, but there’s still a tropical edge (coconut) at the same time. Finish: long, still ‘green’ and zesty, even slightly perfumy, with very soft peat smoke.

I rather liked this one, but mostly because it’s different, even though this also makes your eyebrows raise at times. Thor is still my favourite. Between € 170 and € 270 depending on how greedy your retailer is when it comes to overhyped releases. Thanks Jack.

Score: 87/100


I must admit I haven’t tried many whiskies from the Zuidam distillery in the South of Holland (very near to the Belgian border). I hear some are good. For me, the Millstone 8yo French Oak was not quite there yet.

This Millstone 1999 was matured in a refill bourbon cask for 8 years (Kelvin Cooperage and Jack Daniels?) before being transferred to a Pedro Ximénez cask for a 5-year finish. It was bottled in August 2013.

 

Millstone 1999 PX CaskMillstone 1999
(46%, OB 2013, Special cask #1, PX)

Nose: a pleasant surprise. A slightly oriental mix of sandalwood, rose pepper and cumin, alongside a juicy sherry influence. Red berries, fig syrup and raisins. Some dried apricots and honey. Not totally classic but very entertaining. Mouth: very sweet, in a slightly strange way. It starts in a caramelly / syrupy way (brown sugar and preserved cherries) and then turns towards gingerbread and sweet liquorice candy. Lots of Dutch liquorice really. Plenty of spices again, mainly pepper and some aniseed. Bittersweet evolution. Finish: quite long, some bitter notes but the sticky sweetness overtakes them. Cough syrup.

A bit quirky again, extremely sticky, a bit too much liquorice for me as well. Not sure whether the spirit or the PX cask was responsible for this result. Around € 75.

Score: 77/100


Grant’s Ale Cask is probably the only Scotch whisky to be finished in barrels that have previously held ale, something from Caledonian brewery as far as I know. It was finished for 30 days.

The Ale Cask is part of a combo called Grant’s Cask Editions, together with a sherry cask edition. Launched in 2001, it contains around 40% single malt whisky from 20-30 distilleries and 60% grain (mainly from Girvan).

 

Grant's Ale CaskGrant’s Ale Cask (40%, OB ‘Cask Editions’ +/- 2013)

Nose: very grainy, lots of muesli and sugared cereal notes (Frosties). Nicely honeyed like other Grant’s, almost syrupy at times. Yellow apple. Hints of overripe melon in the background. Really not bad, but not very expressive, no obvious beer notes either, apart from some yeast. Mouth: again malty and very sweet, almost biscuity, with a bit of a synthetic apple sweetness and a hint of cheap liqueur. Something of stale beer now, or is that imagination? Vanilla cream. Finish: even more grainy, with cereals and a few yeasty hints.

Unusual whisky, not the best blend but still quite drinkable if you like them simple, sweet and malty – with a twist. Usually less than € 20.

Score: 73/100


Sansibar has a new series as well. Contrary to most other bottlers, they seem to have secured a couple of oldies as well: Glenturret 1977, Balmenach 1979 and Bunnahabhain 1980. Among the younger expressions there’s Mortlach, Glen Keith, Glenrothes and Glen Garioch distilled in the 1990’s.

 

Bunnahabhain 1980 SansibarBunnahabhain 34 yo 1980 (45,4%, Sansibar 2014, sherry cask, 220 btl.)

Nose: a slightly restrained sherry profile. Dried flowers at first, then some subtle praline, followed by sherry cellars. Tobacco leaves and walnuts. Soft herbal notes and honey. No wham-bam sherry, this is elegant with balanced oak. Mouth: definitely more oak now, with translates as strong tea and dried herbs, but there’s still honey and apple juice to keep a nice balance. Orange peel. Yellow raisins. A slight coastal tang as well. Cinnamon towards the end. Finish: long, dry, on ginger, aniseed, orange peel and oak.

A dry, herbal Bunnahabhain that’s oak-infused in a rather nice way. Maybe a little pricy but interesting nonetheless. Around € 210.

Score: 87/100


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Coming up

  • SIA Blended Scotch
  • Ardmore Legacy
  • Cardhu 18 Year Old
  • Clynelish 21yo 1992 (Cadenhead)
  • Ledaig 2005 (Maltbarn)
  • Aberlour 8yo (cube, small cork)

1644 notes by Ruben

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