Dec 212015
 

For some, December is all about Advent Calendars and the countdown toward the holidays. For others, it’s about blind competitions and getting ready for vacations. With Hanukka bouncing around between late November and December, I took the route of participating in the 5th annual Usquebaugh Society 2015 blind tasting competition. So how it going for me? Not well at all, but thank you for asking 🙂

Blind tastings are hard. Fun, but hard and honestly, I’m not all that good at the guessing game. At this point in the competition, I’m two thirds of the way down from the top, with some colossal wrong guesses. After 15 drams, I have 271 points, which translates basically into just under 20 points per dram, which is the equivalent of guessing the region of origin on each whisky. Drams are each rewarded 100 points for recognizing the region (20), the exact distillery (20), age (40 points – you lose 10 for each year you’re off) and ABV (20 points, a point deducted for every 0.1% you’re off giving you a rather stingy 2% leeway). To score anything, you have to get the region right (which is usually harder than in sounds because most of the competition are single barrel expressions, chosen for their weirdness and obscurity) and be within 4 years and 2% of the age and alcoholic strength of the expression.

The current leader has 805 points. Now it might seem that being 46 places below him and 534 points behind I’m doing really dismally. But I’m actually not. You have some outliers who do really well (and some who do really poorly) but basically, the 14th to the 69th place occupy a narrow 200 point strip covering 170-370 points out of 1500 awarded so far. Thus, with the current average score being 307, things don’t look that bleak. In fact, when you look at the daily scores list, there’s even less of discrepancy, as the average daily score is just a tad over 21 points.

Why is it so hard? First of all, distillery character  and regional commonalities is merely a myth. On most days, only 3-4 people guess the distillery correctly, including when it’s an official bottling. Both Glenfarclas 25 and Old Pulteney 17 (both “classic” Speysiders and Highlanders, right?) were identified by only 3 participants (and yes, even Port Charlotte was identified by 14, still well under a third!).  Official bottlings are carefully crafted creations, and playing around with composition to create different characters is rather easy. Keeping the exact same profile year in and year out is hard, but with enough casks on hand, you can basically create almost anything (minus the peat, if you don’t use any, but that’s about it…). Once you’re in single cask territory, all bets are off. The 12th dram, for instance, was a Cadenhead’s 1990 Clynelish. Not only was it horrible (Balvenie in pickles was my nosing note for it), it was uncharacteristic. But I’m not here to bitch about my daily trials in the competition, rather to share with you what is the best dram so far, a truly regal Linkwood.

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Adelphi 24 Year Old 1990 Linkwood, Sherry Hogshead 3535, 204 Bottles (57.5% ABV, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Amber, thin legs running down rather quickly, but there’s a lot of residue of droplets.

Nose: Orange blossoms, honey, hints of sour dustiness, vanilla, floral notes and gentle perfume. After some time in the glass, dark chocolate appears.

Palate: Palate gets covered with thick chocolate, then comes the honey and a light but felt spice. A lot of coconut and floral notes. The second tasting is fresh and floral.

Linger: Coconut all over the mouth with a lingering spiciness. The finish is long and is delicate. Not overly complex, but very rewarding.

Conclusion

Stunning single cask, obviously a refill sherry cask that did a marvelous job with the spirit. Gorgeous!

Jun 112015
 

Linkwood is one of those endearing distilleries that are hard not to like.

Linkwood is a classic Speyside malt, with a very fruity, floral and fresh character. This whisky plays a major roll in the Johnny Walker blends, including the now dis-discontinued Johnny Walker Green Label.

Photo Credit: geograph.org.uk

Photo Credit: geograph.org.uk

The distillery uses a very long fermentation (75 hours), the stills are only partially filled to improve copper contact and the spirit stills (there are three of them, each paired with a wash still) are rested between still runs to allow the copper to regenerate. The result is usually lovely. This makes it the perfect whisky for blends, and there’s a fair amount of it out there on the independent market, not least through Gordon and MacPhail’s seminal ongoing “distillery label” release of the heavily sherried Linkwood with a 15 and 25 year old, as well as several vintage single casks, including a totally stunning 1953 Private Collection Ultra which I got to review here.

The label on the Whiskybroker bottle I’ll review today is has an obvious typo in the distillation date, as it’s stated as 30.11.1990. Having been bottled on 25.11.2014, this would not give a full 24 years to the whisky. The mystery is solved, however, on Whiskybase, where the distillation date is stated as a more conceivable 30.4.1990.

 

Whiskybroker Linkwood 24

Whiskybroker Linkwood 24

Whiskybroker Linkwood 24, Hogshead 3450, Distilled 30.4.1990, Bottled 25.11.2014 (51.7% ABV, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Gold with thin, slow forming legs.

Nose: Delicately floral with light balsamic vinegar, a certain cerealness, light peppery spice and some sour notes.

Palate: Strong pepper, much more than foretold by the nose, some honey and a herbal note reminiscent of sage.

Linger: Spice and floral notes on the tongue, dryness on the sides of the cheeks, spicy pepper in the back of the throat.

Conclusion

Decent Linkwood, this expression is somewhat less complex than I would have expected.

Nevertheless, it’s a fine dram.

 

 

 

 

Dec 272014
 

Going through my tasting notes I just realized that yesterday’s 39.99 and the 39.92 are both ex bourbon hogsheads distilled in 1990. The 39.99 was distilled in April 1990 and the 39.92 was distilled in October 1990 and was exclusive to the Canadian market.

Photo Credit: wikimedia.org

Linkwood is a distillery that plays a part in many of Diageo’s blends, but chiefly in Johnny Walker and White Horse, and is considered to be a blender’s dream for its fresh grassy and fruity flavors. This is a whisky which has benefited from a long fermentation and a lot of copper contact, producing that gentle yet fruity whisky. Being mainly a blender’s malt, Diageo only has the Flora and Fauna 12 year old, and Gordon and MacPhail have a semi-official Linkwood 15, aged in G&M’s own sherry casks.

 

Scotch Malt Whisky Society 39.92 “Dessert Wine and a Smoking Jacket” – Linkwood 23, outturn of 226 (49.5% ABV,  NCF, NC)

Appearance: Dark amber, slow and thin legs.

Nose: Floral and sweet, spearmint, sweet white wine, and sweet spices, including  clove and nutmeg. You also get notes of pound cake.
With time, the nutmeg comes out strongly with hints of the older, dusty sherry like fruit.

Palate: Very winey not unlike sangria with a lot of peppery spice on the palate. This is a real spice bomb.

Linger: Bitter-sweet down the center of the tongue, nutmeg and sweet paprika in a slightly mouth drying linger.

Conclusion

I’d classify this one more on the spicy than on the fruity side, were I the SMWS. Somehow both this casks and the 39.99 got that gorgeous dusty quality I associate more with older sherry casks than with bourbon casks, but there it is.

Both these expressions are really nice, but the 39.99 is the more stunning of the two.

 

Dec 262014
 

My friend Richard Barr (@BarrRichard) is a miracle worker.

The Society in London has a monthly event in which you get a steak dinner and five drams out of the new outturn, and like all society events, this one sells out quickly. I get to London only once a year or so, but Richard – a fellow member of the Malt Mongers Israel Whisky Club – travels a lot and really gets to enjoy his SMWS membership. Richard called me right before I traveled to London the other month, and said that he’ll be in London the last night I will, and he got us tickets to the Steak and Whisky Tasting informal drop in. The event is less than a week away and it’s been sold out for weeks! Did I mention he’s a miracle worker?

Photo Credit: smwsevents.co.uk

Photo Credit: smwsevents.co.uk

We met at the Farringdon station and made our way up the Greville Street to the Society. There we got to choose our five drams, and ordered our steak dinners. I chose the 9.84 (25 year old Glen Grant in a refill sherry butt), the stunning 39.99 (23 year old Linkwood in refill bourbon hogshead), 76.121 (A lively 10 year old Mortlach in a first fill bourbon barrel), a fascinating Mannochmore (64.56, 13 years old in a first fill bourbon barrel) and I finished the evening with a lovely 18 year old Caol Ila (53.198, 18 year old from a refill sherry butt). Richard also got the Linkwood and the Caol Ila and enjoyed the 36.79 (a 14 year old Benrinnes), the 30.81 (a 23 year old beautiful Glenrothes designated the Tasting Panel’s Choice), and a rather peculiar Springbank (27.107, a 16 year old in a refill sherry gorda).

The steak was good, the whisky delicious and the company was excellent (cheers, Richard!).

Clans_Deep_Rich_Dried_FruitsScotch Malt Whisky Society 39.99 “Springtime in Andalucia” – Linkwood 23, outturn of 222 (58.9% ABV,  NCF, NC)

Appearance: Deep gold with slow legs.

Nose: The nose on this dram is absolutely glorious and very atypical to a bourbon cask. I’d make a cologne out of it. You’ll find orange spice, butterscotch, vanilla, dusty cinnamon and warm baked goods.

Palate: Old spices, caramel and toffee, dusty orange in a mouth coating and surprisingly light mouth feel for a whisky that’s 58.9% ABV.

Linger: Long and warming quality with notes of lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg and oranges.

Conclusion

This is nothing short than an incredible expression. While coming from an ex bourbon barrel, it has qualities akin to a sherry matured whisky and is absolutely stunning. I could smell this one all day.

To be honest, had we not been only at the second of a five course whisky tasting, I would have probably spent another hour or so with this dram. I had no more room for bottles, but there are two bottles I truly regret not buying in London, and this is one of them. I do take some consolation in the fact that I have 50 ml of it from a bottle share, and that at some point in the future Richard will open the bottle he so wisely acquired  🙂

Thank you, Richard, for the invitation. I look forward to us being in London at the same time again soon.

 

 

Nov 122014
 

Now we reach the final post in the series reviewing the dram I found to be the top of these top drams – the 1953 Linkwood.

Photo Credit: www.mrtattieheid.com

Photo Credit: www.mrtattieheid.com

G&M has a long standing relationship with the distillery, producing a 15 and 25 year old in the “Distillery Label” series, basically a stand in for official bottlings (like the Mortlach 15 and 21) for distilleries that don’t bottle. A notable exception, in both cases, is the Flora and Fauna releases (12 for the Linkwood and 16 for the Mortlach) and a curious three cask strength bottle series of 26 year old Linkwoods finished for 14 years in rum (54.5% ABV), port (56.9% ABV) and sweet red wine (55.5% ABV) 1,260 each, which were released by Diageo in small bottles (50 cl) in 2008 and popping up here and there on auctions.

Stephen Ranking discussing the 1953 Linkwood.

Stephen Ranking discussing the 1953 Linkwood

As I mentioned, each branch of the family chose one cask, and this Linkwood was chosen by Rosemary Rankin and her son, UK Sales Director Stephen Rankin. Like the Strathilsa, this is the oldest bottling of a linkwood, clocking in at 61 years. I’ll admit to being somewaht of a Linkwood fan and this was a special treat for me.

 

1953 Linkwood, G&M Private Collection Ultra, Cask #279, 55 Bottles in Total (49.4% ABV, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Deep bronze, thin and slow legs.

Nose: Furniture polish, dusty library, dried figs, old leather, oak and an old lounge with a faint smoke in the air.

Palate: Smoky sherry, leather, rose water, very dense dark chocolate and spices. Water brings out more of the wood spice and makes it a bit waxy.
Linger: Old tobacco (not stale…old), mouth drying sherry with notes of freshly ground pepper. The finish is long.

 

Conclusion

I liked this expression best of the four. But honestly, they were all outstanding. So saying “this one is better” is like trying to understand the difference between a 94 and a 94.5 on scoring reviews (yes, this was a jape 😉 )

Obviously, doing these reviews of ‘once in a lifetime’ whiskies is a lot of fun, but they’re novelties. Thus, I’ll be taking a short break from these reviews to focus on more readily available drams.

As for this amazing masterclass (which wasn’t cheap at £70), it was worth every penny and every moment. If there’s one thing I’d do differently, it’s make sure that a masterclass like this ALWAYS start on time or at least be kept to the original length (this one didn’t, and the tastings were rushed), and that company presentations be done between tastings, not before.

We simply didn’t have enough time to enjoy each dram, and these required time, they really do.