Tuesday, 25 August 2015

American Booty Part 2: Four Roses Single Barrel

It is time now to give a full and frank appraisal of  another of the special bottles I procured over there in the USA. This is a single barrel expression of the Four Roses bourbon brand and it set me back like, $42.99 plus tax for 75cl and 50 lovely ABVs. Let’s get categorical.


Bit spesh this, int it? No box, but the bottle is a shape that frankly, I don’t know how to describe… vase-like, we’ll say. It has a leather collar (that has proved to be a bit of a hindrance, all told), a label with cask details handwritten on and it is sealed with a particularly tight and tidy wooden stopper – the result of which is a commendable squeeeeeeeak… squeak-pop on opening.


All present and correct. It looks good, dark and mysterious.


Yep, that’s what I was expecting: rich and bourbonny.


My first thoughts were that it was sharp and bitter without water, and sweet but disappointing with, but soon the oxidation began to work its magic and open this spiky beauty up. It took a few tastings for me to realise there was a technique involved. The bitterness had vanished andat first I fooled myself into thinking that adding water was a waste of time and spirit. Wrong. There is a lot of good flavour there on entry but as you work your way down the glass those extra ABVs start to take their toll and the burn comes to the fore. You don’t want to bypass the undiluted product entirely though, so first, enjoy the lusciousness untainted, but have that water on standby. There are no unpleasant flavours to excise, but that burn just niggles away until a few drops of water start to be a good idea. Then just add enough to soothe, and continue.


As ever with your stronger whiskies, it has proved to be a very fine line that is easily overstepped in trying to take the edge off that burn. I have sadly ruined far too many glasses by adding just a little too much and occasionally caused myself (wrongly)  to question the overall quality of the product. If you’re careful, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to enjoy this bottle to the full.

So now that we’ve discussed all three of the bourbons I picked up last summer, we can arrange them in a definitive ranking and provide some help for you, should you be heading over there and thinking about picking something up. Obviously there are many, many more brands and varieties available than I have tried or can even dream of, but here’s the benefit of my experiences.

In third place it might surprise you to hear that I’m placing the Four Roses. While it may not be the product’s fault, I have to count the fact that I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I wanted to against it. That means the 8 year old Jim Beam Black can be runner-up. Working in that bottle’s favour was that it was so damn cheap and – surprisingly – that it was presented in so uncomplicated a fashion. It generally meant that I was able to be surprised at how tasty it was, and enjoy it without thinking I should be enjoying it more. On such arbitrary things are my conclusions based.

The overall winner then, as if there could be any doubt is the double oaked Woodford Reserve. I don’t want to repeat myself, so if you want to learn what made that so special, check last week’s post.

That represents the last time I’ll be focusing on bourbon for a while but there are plenty more reasons for you to come back – next week I’ll be taking you on a short booze finding expedition to to two major European cities; Amsterdam and Berlin. I know you’ll be back.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

American Booty Part 1: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and Jim Beam Black 8 year old Bourbons

I’ve been back home from Florida for long enough now to give two of my purchases a good going over, so let’s get right down to it: how good are the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and the Jim Beam Black 8 year old?

Ok, no messing about: I can confirm the WRDO (which is not a regional american radio station…) is superb. So much flavour is packed in there. Absolutely the best bourbon I have sampled up to this point.

If you peruse various opinion about the WRDO on the internet, it seems to swing wildly between love it and think it’s all right. Then there’s the issue of price. It seems Americans think $50 is a lot for 750ml of liquor. They should think themselves lucky because, to put that in context, that’s less than £30. It’s not often you can get a single malt scotch for under £30 here in the UK, never mind one as playfully tantalising as this bourbon is. So it stands to reason: I still think the WRDO is reasonably priced, in fact… I think it’s a bargain because it is superb.

I can’t really do a direct comparison with the standard bottling but, while I remember enjoying that one, I felt it was too woody – almost like gnawing on your parents’ furniture, not in a bad way just, in a way that keeps it from being great. This Double Oaked however, does have a bit of woodiness coming through, but it seems very much toned down – which seems counterintuitive since the product is just standard Woodford Reserve that has been aged for several extra months in new oak barrels that have been toasted (for longer than usual) and then charred (for as brief a time as possible – it would be interesting to know how briefly it is possible to char something for).  For some reason this has resulted in all the great flavours that I suspect are in the original Woodford Reserve but sadly subdued, coming to the fore and literally pogoing around your palate. You get a surprising jolt of pleasure in your first taste, every time you pour a glass. It’s tingly like sweets but also woody with a bit of tobacco.

You also get an extra 2 ABVs on the standard bottling with the Double Oaked (so, 45.2% is the overall standard), so it’s a case of slightly more all round.

So let’s move on and have a think about the Jim Beam. I wouldn’t advise trying the WRDO and Jim Beam Black 8 side by side all that often because the outcome is that the Jim Beam pales in comparison. That is not telling the whole story though - in fact, you’d be doing the Jim Beam a disservice as it still achieves quite a high standard – just not quite as high. Like the WRDO, in comparison to its younger, standard bottling brother, it packs in a good heft more flavour, a damn sight better texture, and removes many of the more unrefined characteristics.

The Jim Beam Black 8 (43% ABV) really comes into its own in terms of value – at $25 for a litre (in Duty Free) it would be rude not to give it a go. Since I bought both these products at the same time, I have the best of both worlds – the WRDO for occasions when I’m confident my tasting faculties haven’t been diminished by spicy food (and I fancy something special), and a litre of surprisingly enjoyable but great value Jim Beam for when I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m drinking, and I don’t want to worry about whether what I’m drinking is going to waste.

So in summation, you can’t go wrong in considering either of these. You want a lot of something cheap but full-flavoured? Allow me to introduce the 8 year old Jim Beam Black. You want something more expensive but correspondingly special? WRDO.

Two impressive bottles out of the three I’ve bought is a good return so far. Join me next week when I’ll be breaking the seal on a Four Roses Single Barrel. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Spirit Log: Bladnoch 12, sherry cask matured, sheep label

I’ve had a fairly interesting relationship with this distillery; first heard of it from the 101Whiskies book, which recommended the 8 year old, and pushed it as a way to support the man who had re-opened the distillery. I didn’t see that as reason enough alone to buy a bottle or include it in a definitive list of 101 whiskies, but by chance I came into possession of around half a bottle of the 10 year old, left over from the first Whisky Club meet. This also coincided with my acquisition of some glencairn glasses.The 10 year old was delightful, and currently sits in a proud 3rd place in my all time single malt rankings.

So, moving on,  I had implemented a method for helping me to sample all the different varieties of scotch, and determining what to buy next. It had decreed that a no age statement Highland malt would be followed by a Lowland aged 11-14 years. I had already determined that I would like that Lowland to be Bladnoch… when I heard the distillery was closing. I had just about enough in my booze budget, and it seemed almost like it would be my last chance. I don’t know how things will pan out, but I don’t need much excuse. It also helped that along with the standard 46% expressions, there are 55% ones – which this one is.

It doesn’t come in a box, and it almost appears like a cheap but obscure blend, but if you’re not going to go for intimidatingly impressive, this is what you’re looking for when buying whisky – presentation that is understated, quietly confident, unpretentious; a bottle that speaks to the whisky enthusiast who can see beyond fancy packaging, who stops and thinks, I bet that will be good.

You might not know of Bladnoch, but if you saw this on the shelf of your local stockist, you should be thinking, 55%? I’ll have it, though you might not be seeing much of it now. I notice since I bought my bottle that the various expressions of Bladnoch sold out pretty quickly on the various online retailers.

The Tasting Notes

Nose – immediate impressions were that it was buttery and cheesy with a hint of vanilla at the end. Cheese isn’t something I consider to be a particularly pleasant smell for whisky, but it is something I’d noticed before, with the Bruichladdich Organic. Mrs Cake suggested strawberries and cherries, but I got nothing of that.

The second time I popped the cork, this cheesiness had thankfully diminished and I was detecting fruity hints, though I couldn’t identify more specifically.

Palate – I left it for 12 minutes before tasting, and concluded that at 55%, it is definitely too strong to be taken neat. I added water by degrees to sooth that burn, but it seemed to take quite a long time to settle down – for the whisky and the water to amalgamate so that I didn’t feel they were working against each other. In the end I found it fairly pleasant, though I think I’d add less water next time. Until the optimum dilution level can be found I fear I’ll be left wishing I’d bought a 46% expression so that I wouldn’t have to concern myself with this. I remember being more immediately impressed with the 10 year old, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the whisky will open up when it has had chance to breathe and I will find a good whisky to water ratio in the fullness of time.

My dilution level was much better the second time around – just enough to quell the worst of the burn, but leave the solution rich and silky. Still not quite sure on flavours or the level of greatness this is likely to achieve.

By the third time, I’d got it spot on. It was only a little dribble, and this helped to preserve some of the heat while bringing out the Bladnoch character that I remembered from the 10 year old. I can’t think I reduced the strength to less than 50% and this helped to give a satisfying glow that I could bask in for the last half hour before bed.

Overall I have to say I’m a little disappointed with this expression. It isn’t that it isn’t good, just that it isn’t great – even in comparison with the 10 year old of previous experience. And that is surely down to my expectations more than anything else. If I hadn’t enjoyed the Bladnoch 10 so much, would this have made more of a mark? It’s hard to say with any degree of certainty.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

How did you do in the sales? Arran 1997 Sherry Cask and Highland Park Leif Erikssen

As a result of paying for the bourbons I’d picked up on my Florida trip from my wages instead of using what I’d saved up in my booze budget, I started October with a significant surplus, which I had intended to use for purchasing an expensive vintage Japanese single malt. However, I quickly elbowed that out of the way when I arrived in work one morning to find an e-mail from Drink Supermarket about a clearance sale with up to 50% off. 50% off. I had to have a look, didn’t I? Yes, sure enough, the vast majority of the discounts weren’t particularly spectacular, but there were some interesting items in there.  And I was pleased to find the following.

Arran 1997 Sherry Cask 719 (56.3%) at nearly 50% off (£79.99 reduced to £43.49 + P&P).

This 14 year old Island expression forms part of the Premium Cask Selection range, which is presented on the premise that Distillery Manager James McTaggart sometimes discovers a truly outstanding cask, the contents of which may be approved as exceptional examples of the malt. Depending on your source, either 500  or 562 numbered bottles were produced. At this price point, it sits as my 6th priciest bottle ever. If I’d paid full price, it would have comfortably been number 1.

Arran has been on my wishlist ever since a tweet tasting in which I recalled enjoying a sample very much – I believe this was the same tweet tasting that inspired my friend David to buy a bottle of Aultmore – another one I’d enjoyed. So with that kind of discount and the aforementioned booze budget surplus… get in me basket.

I had a bit of a trawl of the internet looking for reviews and didn’t find anything specific – in fact there wasn’t much about Arran at all. Given that it’s single cask I was thinking maybe the reason is that everyone else that bought one is collecting it rather than drinking it.

Are you going to collect it?” asked Mrs Cake. No. I’m going to drink it.

It comes in a really nice presentation box that you can display by opening it and standing it up. It’s a pretty standard bottle shape, but the label is quite classically stylish and the colours complement the rosy tinge of the spirit. Cask and bottle number details are handwritten on the label – mine's 272 out of 520.

Next: Highland Park Leif Erikssen (40%) was reduced from £74.95 to £53.64.

Even with £20 off it still jumps up to 3rd priciest bottle ever, meaning HP occupy 2 out of the top 3. At full price, this is actually more expensive than the Harald that I’d considered buying in Orlando duty free, and had thought was the top of the range until this point – aside from the ones that come in wooden display cases of course.

It is aged exclusively in American oak bourbon and sherry casks, unlike traditional HP, which is aged in European oak sherry casks.

Online research revealed lots of displeasure among its various reviewers, though one or two sources gave hope with the suggestion that it can open up nicely over time. To be fair, I’ve found that even with the excellent HP12. Jim Murray gives it an 86, which isn’t bad, but you should really be scoring in the 90s at the price.

According to thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk, it’s “surprising in the same way as a child jumping out from behind a sofa and nearly giving you a heart attack is surprising”, which represents the first time a whisky review has made me laugh through humour, rather than scorn.

The reviewer goes on to say, “There is no sherry oak influence at all in this malt, so it’s the metaphorical equivalent of Highland Park running down the street with no pants on”, and that represents the second time – though what he says about sherry oak isn’t exactly true given that some of the casks were American oak sherry casks rather than European ones.

I expect it probably is overpriced – even at £20 off – but I wanted to try it and probably would have paid full price one day in any event.

On arrival it turned out the Leif was a bit dusty and battered and might’ve been acting as a display item for a while so it’s lucky I wasn’t looking for pristine packaging and that I’m just going to drink it and tell you about it. I’ll actually throw the packaging away once I’ve opened it and assigned it a place in my special booze cupboard – same with the Arran actually, though that display case is pretty special, and might find a use as Ruby the cat’s coffin one day – though she’ll probably have to be smooshed up a bit to fit in it. It is notable that a couple of hours after I made my purchase, the price of the Arran had risen to £59.99. I was half expecting (can you half expect something?) to receive a notification of cancellation of my order. But I didn’t.

I’d never seen a booze sale like this before and couldn’t help wondering whether there is something wrong with these products, though as I say, there was at least reason to he hopeful about the HP. Inability to find anything specific online in relation to the Arran could probably be considered as much a good thing as anything else.

Well I don’t go by what anyone else says anyway, so let’s find out for ourselves, shall we?

Tasting Notes – Arran 1997 Sherry Cask

I opened it as soon as I’d gotten my sense of taste back, following a protracted Christmas time cold. It was like awaking from a nightmare you were convinced was real.

Nose: sagey

Palate: really nice balance between sweetness and wood. Hint of peach. As ever with whiskies of the cask strength variety there is an optimum level of dilution. With this one, a couple of [what I’m going to call] long drops achieves a point where the woodiness just comes through and complements the sweetness.

Tasting Notes – Highland Park Leif Eriksson

Real missed opportunity for Highland Park here. I’ve made no secret of my love for the HP12, but instead of building on that with some impressive, expansive expressions, they’ve gone on to disappoint in every case. The HP18, I’ve written about already and yes, it was classy but at that price I want something better than I can get from the same distillery for £25.

Then there was the Einar which has ended up being derided on these pages. Now we find the Leif Eriksson which would probably have made me renounce whisky if I’d paid full price. Instead I’m just renouncing any further expressions of Highland Park (except the 12). And it’s a real shame because I can’t begin to do justice to how good the 12 is. It’s almost like, if they just switched the prices round, there’d be nothing to complain about. You’d pay £25 for the Einar and go, “yeh, that’s decent value”. You’d drink the HP12 at £75 and go, “totally worth it.” Then you could price the Leif Eriksson where the Einar was and… it would probably be a bit too expensive, but more realistic. Don’t get me wrong though, what is there is good, but the flavours just aren’t strong enough for my liking and there’s a disappointing slight sourness.

I suppose I ought to give you some kind of conclusion before I sign off. If I was being flippant, I’d say “it’s whisky, and I enjoyed drinking it”. If I was comparing, which (oddly) I wasn’t, I’d say the Arran was the pick of the two, though they didn’t have enough in common to make any direct comparison logical. If I was going to talk about value, I’d have to say that, at these discounted prices, I did all right. I certainly don’t feel cheated. The Arran comes out with reputation intact – there wasn’t a reputation as far as I was concerned before, but I certainly don’t think badly of this distillery now. The HP though is a bit of a disappointment against high standards that it has previously set for itself. And I think we can leave it there.