Single malt whisky - tasting notes

Oban 21 Year Old

03 Jan 2014 | Oban

The last Oban I’ve tried was like three years ago. It’s not a distillery which makes a lot of noise. This Oban 21 Years, a natural cask strength version, was matured in rejuvenated American Oak and second-fill ex-Bodega casks.

 

Oban 21 YearsOban 21 yo
(58,5%, OB 2013, 2860 btl.)

Nose: nice sweet toffee and buttery pastry notes at first. Honey. Maybe sugarcane. Then going towards waxy notes, grasses and finally also full-blown coastal notes like dried seaweed. Some leafy notes and mint. Hints of linseed oil and cinnamon as well. A great maritime nose, nicely balanced with sweetness. Mouth: again sweet and honeyed at the beginning, with some vanilla, but quickly turning spicy and surprisingly salty, while retaining its oily character. Mint chocolates. Dried citrus peel. Liquorice and ginger. Walnuts. Finish: long and slightly tangy. Salty and spicy, with brine but also nice echoes of fruits.

I really liked this one for its coastalness, sweetness and a special je-ne-sais-quoi that sets it apart from other coastal distilleries. One of the better value offerings in the 2013 selection. Around € 280.

Score: 91/100


Best whiskies of 2013

Happy New Year to everyone!

When looking at last year’s statistics, it has been a good year for this little blog. An increase of 28% in terms of unique visitors and almost twice the number of page views (well over 2 million now).

GlenDronach is the most popular distillery again, with Ardbeg now in second place. Among the specific drams, after four years, Laphroaig Triple Wood has lost some of its popularity, and Johnnie Walker ‘The Gold Route’ is now the most visited review (by far), followed by Ardbeg Galileo and Glenmorangie Ealanta. The Johnnie Walker Red Label vs. Black Label is also popular.

Other popular pages were the overview of Diageo’s Special Releases and my article Whisky is dying that has been read by more than 6.000 people. I won’t be looking back at trends of the past year, as I feel I already summarized them in this article. 2013 was simply another year with prices rising out of proportion, declining stocks of old whisky, more No Age Statement whiskies and lowering individuality among modern drams. I fear these trends will dominate 2014 as well.

 

Karuizawa 1964 cask #3603 for PolandHere are my highlights of the whisky year that was 2013 (only counting new releases):

 

 

If you spend hundreds, even thousands of euros a bottle, quality is still available, but in my opinion the real problem is in the category just below: whiskies that are expensive but still accessible to regular people with ‘normal’ budgets. People that aren’t looking for wealth solutions…

Some figures to explain what I mean. The last couple of years, my personal maximum had been around € 200 a bottle, for truly exceptional whisky. This year, it was around € 250-300. I simply can’t justify paying more, no matter what the quality is like. The thing is, in 2011-2012 I could still buy my favourite whiskies of the year, scoring 95 points back then. In 2013 though, the best I could get for my (higher) budget was whisky of 91-92 points. I guess everyone will see this decline, no matter how you set your personal limits.

Let’s also mention my highlights of this ‘affordable premium’ category:

Other highlights are of course the ever expanding list of great (but easy to miss) Karuizawa expressions, the very good (and plentiful) GlenDronachs, the middle-aged Bowmores, and a few surprising outsiders like the Strathmill 22 yo 1991 from Asta Morris which probably gave you the best whisky for money this year. Let’s see what 2014 brings. Slàinte!

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We’re seeing a lot of single cask Kavalan releases these days, bottled for different retailers around the world, mostly #S060821… casks. There’s cask #S060821049 that received a Gold medal in the recent Malt Maniacs Awards, sister cask #…047 bottled for LMdW among others and this #…045 for the Belgian whisky shop TastToe.

It’s quite surprising they are all said to be natural strength yet exactly 57,8%. Maybe Taiwan allows of higher deviations for alcohol measuring, and printing the same tube is cheaper? Or maybe the processes are meticulously executed, the Asian way.

While Kavalan’s bottles and tubes don’t mention ages or vintages directly, this information can be decoded from cask numbers and bottling codes. For instance #S060821045: S for Sherry, distilled 21st of August 2006, and the 45th barrel that day. The sticker at the back mentions the bottling date and hour, so you can deduct the age (just below 7 years in this case).

 

 

Kavalan Solist sherry for TastToe #S060821045Kavalan Solist sherry 2006 (57,8%, OB for TastToe 2013, sherry cask #S060821045)

Nose: an intense sherry nose which starts exclusively on polished oak, with hints of turpentine / oil paint varnish and eucalyptus. Really elegant. After a while these notes disappear and it grows wider, with lots of raisins and cherry jam. Redcurrants, plum juice and mirabelles. Cassis. Very fruity although the polished oak remains present, and brings some cinnamon and walnut skins. Mouth: again very intense. Balsamic notes alongside strawberries, black cherries and rum and raisins. Bananas flambéed. Prunes and blackberries. Big spices (cloves, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon bark) up to the point where it becomes velvety and rather tannic (although I’ve had worse from Kavalan in this respect). Dark chocolate, coffee and whiffs of menthol. Finish: long, dry, oaky, with bitter chocolate and herbs.

A sherry powerhouse, very dense and highly influenced by the wood. Impressive for a 6 year-old, I guess most of the quality is achieved by selecting an excellent cask. The dry palate made me hesitate to go up to 90 points, but the nose is just too good. Around € 150.

Score: 90/100


This is 16 years old Strathisla 1970, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail as a semi-official release for the Italian market. The spirit was distilled 29.09.1970 and bottled 29.06.1987 at natural strength. There’s also a version at 40%.

Intertrade was a company run by Ferdinando “Nadi” Fiori in Rimini, Italy. He owned the restaurant “Taverna degli Artisti” (famous among politicians, actors, directors… back then) and started in the 1970′s as one of the first Italian importers of whisky. He was one of the pioneers, not just for whisky which wasn’t very popular back then, but also for concepts like ‘cask strength’ bottlings.

He had excellent contacts with Gordon & MacPhail and sourced a lot of his bottlings from their warehouses. Most of his legendary releases (e.g. the Port Ellen 15 yo 1969) were bottled in the 1980′s. Later, Intertrade was restarted as Turatello for a short time until it evolved to High Spirits which is still active in whisky & rum as we speak. Mr. Fiori turned 70 this year by the way.

 

 

Strathisla 1970 G&M for Intertrade 16yoStrathisla 16 yo 1970 (61,3%, Gordon & MacPhail for Intertrade 1987, sherry wood)

Nose: dried prunes and black cherries. Hints of walnut liqueur. Coffee and chocolate. It’s got the old-style sherry character, including the hints of beef stock and jerky. Some earthy, slightly sulphury notes too. Mouth: very raisiny, with loads of dark chocolate. Mint. Star anise and cloves. Something of over-infused tea and strong liquorice. Quite heavyweight and a tad too bitterish and dirty for my taste. Slightly better when diluted but still… Finish: not too long, herbal, peppery and chocolaty.

The sherry is all over this whisky. Robust, dry and herbal, including an old-school dirtiness. Love it or hate it, I guess. Thanks Jens.

Score: 85/100


We’re seeing a lot of GlenDronach 2002 releases lately. Remember this is the year the distillery was restarted after having been mothballed for six years.

Note that GlenDronach is keeping a lot of these 2002 casks aside to create the new 12 year-old, which is now effectively much older as there is no stock from 1996-2002. Nonetheless some of them are now hitting the market as single casks bottled for different parties. It’s funny that this expression has the same cask number as one of these magnificent 1972 vintages. Anyway it’s a sister cask of the 2002 for The Whisky Fair.

 

GlenDronach 2002 cask #712 for The Whisky AgencyGlenDronach 11 yo 2002 (52,1%, OB for The Whisky Agency 2013, Pedro Ximénez sherry puncheon #712, 624 btl.)

Nose: rich and sweet, with loads of brown sugar, caramel, raisins, cinnamon syrup… Red berries (moving towards cassis), some leather and vanilla, giving it a bourbonny and rummy aspect (was this a re-racked cask?). Big honey notes too. Really nice. Mouth: similarly syrupy and honeyed, now a little more spices (nutmeg, ginger, pepper, speculoos). Sultanas, prune galore, dates and orange jam. The sticky toffee sweetness has something of old sherried blends, but I can’t put my finger on it. Finish: long, no need to mention the strong sweetness, with all kinds of liqueurs and honey.

I couldn’t do a direct head-to-head, but this one seems sweeter than cask #710, with less emphasis on spices. Almost too much of the (natural) caramel and syrupy notes, although it’s a perfect match for this time of the year. Around € 80.

Score: 88/100


Thosop is the label started by Luc Timmermans in 2010. A total of 18 releases have been bottled with handwritten labels (including one uniquely hybrid Glenfarclas 1968 OB).

This year a 19th expression was released, a Tomatin 1976, a final bottling which marks the end of a great series.

 

Thosop handwritten - the complete series

 

Note that there are only 24 bottles of this Tomatin. None of them are commercially available, only collectors who own the complete Handwritten series have been able to buy this bottle.

 

Tomatin 1976 - ThosopTomatin 1976 (49%, Thosop ‘handwritten’ 2013, ‘Never released stock’, 24 btl.)

Nose: this one needs some time to settle, but then it shows the lovely fruits (red berries, guava, plums, tangerines) with lots of raisins as well. It’s a heavy sherry version like the one for The Whiskyman. Then a certain greenness and some oak spices (cinnamon, mint, aniseed) and a little dusty malt. A hint of metal polish as well. Mouth: herbal and sweet at first (cough candy) before the tropical fruits come out, like mango, pink grapefruits, peaches, raspberries and passion fruits. Mint and a hint of pepper. Fruit tea. Finish: long, with the sweet fruits chilling alongside the herbal notes.

Excellent Tomatin 1976 again. Perhaps a shared part of the Whiskyman cask, or maybe a different cask… but that’s not important. A nice pre-finale for this series.

Score: 91/100


Lagavulin whiskyMerry Christmas everyone!

As the oldest and most expensive bottling of the pack, the Lagavulin 37 Years is the highlight of the 2013 Diageo Special Releases. Distilled in 1976, it could be the same batch of casks that also produced the Lagavulin 30 Year Old.

Old Lagavulin is very rare (Diageo calls it “dramatically limited”), due to the popularity of the younger expressions and a lack of anticipation in terms of production capacity. This expression was matured in refill American oak and European oak.

 

 

Lagavulin 37 Year Old 1976Lagavulin 37 yo 1976
(51%, OB 2013, 1868 btl.)

Nose: very nicely oily and elegant. Earthy notes up front (rather than big peat), with moss and plenty of tobacco leaves and soft soot. Behind this are some sweeter notes, a mix of almonds and heather honey. Also lime (not lemon). Subtle nutty notes (hazelnuts) and herbs (aniseed). Among the tiny notes, there’s menthol, orange, walnuts, incense, oysters and beeswax. It is wonderfully balanced and slightly understated, I love that. Mouth: slightly sharp, with a grapefruit bitterness and tangy oak as the first elements. Quite briny and very earthy (moss again, burnt grasses). Seaweed and oysters. Lots of leathery dryness. Green tea leaves and mint. Nutty notes (walnuts, chestnuts and pine nuts). Lemon balm and lemon zest. Tiny hints of dried fruits and Seville oranges, as well as some dark chocolate, but a bit of extra sweetness could have lifted this one even further. I have to say it does take a drop of water and becomes slightly rounder that way. Finish: very long, dry and oaky (although not tannic). Full of ashes.

A magnificent nose and a proud, powerful palate. Slightly robust (yet fragile at the same time), even a little austere but a masterpiece in terms of Lagavulin character and elegance. Around € 2750.

Score: 94/100


Johnny Drum is a sour-mash bourbon made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (also known as Willett). They have a Green label, Black label, a Black label 12 and this Private Stock label. It used to have a separate “15 years old” label on the neck but recently this has been left out so it’s possibly a little younger.

Note that the Willett distillery has been restarted in 2012, but this small batch whiskey is just a label – the spirit is bought from external sources (some suggest Heaven Hill further down the same road).

 

 

Johnny Drum Private StockJohnny Drum ‘Private Stock’ 15 yo
(50,5%, OB 2012)

Nose: fairly spicy and woody, with some gingery oak and cinnamon sticks up front. Soft rye elements. A little nutmeg. Maple syrup and vanilla. Nice hints of peaches and banana in the background. Also interesting earthy hints and a fresh minty top note. Rounded off by some varnish. Mouth: quite a surprise. Very savoury and spicy now, with the mouth-coating dryness of cinnamon, with leather and lots of pine and cedar wood. Juniper berries? Ginger. Something of a herbal gin indeed, strange. Burnt wood. Roasted pecans. Some medicinal notes even. Some late dark chocolate. Hardly any sweetness. Finish: shortish, a little toffee sweetness now but still mostly spices and oak tannins.

A slightly strange bourbon, especially on the palate where it displays some uncommon herbs and spices, and few of the classic vanilla / caramel notes. Heavy on the oak and rye notes as well. Let’s keep it at interesting. Around € 45 from UK retailers.

Score: 78/100


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Coming up

  • Benromach 1976 vintage
  • Littlemill 1991 (Eiling Lim)
  • Jura 1972 SMWS 31.4
  • Balblair 2002
  • Jura Origin
  • Kavalan Solist sherry (for LMdW)

1573 notes by Ruben

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