James MacArthur's Fine Malt Selection Caol Ila 14 Year

June 30, 2016

James MacArthur's Fine Malt Selection Caol Ila 14 Year

For a weekend in the country with friends and family we wanted a nice lightly peated malt for porch-top sipping at sunset. Digging through our bunker for something interesting, we found this independent bottling of Caol Ila from James MacArthur.

We couldn't find a lot of information about James MacArthur other than that they were founded in 1982 and produce uncolored and un-chill-filtered (yay!) limited release private case bottles.  This Caol Ila is from the lower proof line (43%) which seemed appropriate for our summer drinking plans, and comes from a sherry cask. Peated malt matured in sherry has always been a favorite. So far so good. 

Caol Ila is perhaps not as esteemed as some of their Islay neighbors like Laphoaig, Lagavulin, or Ardbeg, however they're one of our favorites. Perhaps it's this lack of acclaim that makes it a bit easier to track down interesting expressions and older releases. We picked this one up a few years ago for around $50. These independent bottlings of Caol Ila are pretty easy to come by if you keep an eye out and always fun to experiment with.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Simple and pleasant nose dominated by ocean scents. Sea air, mossy rocks, and light waves of peat. There's some sweet citrus - lemon meringue perhaps, and some vegetal notes like putty and hay. Very mellow nose with just the right amount of peat for sipping neat.

Palate: Very nice balance here with a mid-thick mouth-feel leaving a nice oil on the tongue. The peat fits in nicely with the sweetness and spirit warmth. More tropical fruits come out like a hint of mango and peach, and also some nice complexity of vanilla, white chocolate, and a little spice.

Finish: Mid-length finish, it's still a peater, but it's extremely smooth and leaves just a brush of smoke on the throat with honey and lemons lingering on the tongue.


This was a totally pleasant if not altogether remarkable malt. We'd buy this bottle again. It's a great Islay for people who aren't committed peat junkies like us. You can pass this around to your relatives without worrying about scalding their palates with an assault of ashtray Islay goodness. It has enough age to show maturity, enough sherry to bring forward a good sweet balance to the smoke, and a very solid mouth-feel and finish to complete the package.  Should you go hunting after this bottle to the ends of the earth? No. Should you pick it up if you happen to see it around? Yes.

Happy Drinking!  Cheers/SB

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013

June 21, 2016

Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013

For the past two weeks we've been sipping some highly indulgent bottles, limited edition releases from Islay's annual spring festival Feis Ile. Caol Ila's 2015 Feis Ile bottle was a real treat, combining grace and fire with a powerful seventeen year cask strength offering. Lagavulin's 24-year Feis Ile release was simply mind-blowing, combining huge gentle peat smoke warmth with an incredibly sophisticated and elegant flavor profile.

This week, our friend Al Pop came to town to see the Belmont Stakes. I took him and his son Brock to Koreatown for some Bibimbap. And of course he had a whiskey surprise up his sleeve - Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013. Sweet! So why not continue our Feis Ile reviews and dive in. 

Tasting Notes

Nose: Distinctly sweeter than the 2015, it's starts with leather, smoke, and honey. Vegetal aromas follow like okra or fresh cut green beans. Then it tails off with pink peppercorns and rock salt. It's actually quite similar to the 2015 overall but with a more sweet fruit-forward character.

Palate: OMG Yum!  (ok perhaps that was less than professional, but damn this is good). It's got a huge mouth feel with some signature Lagavulin elements. The smoke and sea air are there. The little pops of citrus and melon. The old men's club stuff like creaky leather and tobacco are here big time. It's definitely got more punch than the 24 year, which is kind of awesome.

Finish: Extremely well balanced finish with lingering smoke, strawberry jam, and tobacco.

Head to Head with Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

What a privilege to be able to taste these two beauties head to head. They're both just top top quality malts. The 2013 is sweeter, but also has more heat with a little spirit burn. The 2015 is pure elegance with perfect balance and no burn at all. But there's also something nice about the younger bottle, it's got more of the fire, a stronger finish, and definitely a more rounded taste with the additional sherry influence. We'd have to go with the 2015 as the winner, but these are both gems.


Continuing our vicarious trip to Islay - Caol Ila Feis Ile 2015!!!

June 3, 2016

Continuing our vicarious trip to Islay - Caol Ila Feis Ile 2015!!!

We've been sobbing ourselves to sleep thinking about how we're missing ANOTHER Feis Ile - the annual spring festival in Islay, Scotland where all our favorite distilleries celebrate another year with music, food, and malt malt malt.  One day we'll get there!!

Oh well, we are consoling ourselves by popping open some gems that have been patiently waiting on the shelf at SmokyBeast headquarters.  Last week we corked the mighty Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015, a truly magnificent 24-year old beauty that set the bar just impossibly high for what a subtle old smoky beast can deliver.  Today we're sampling the sister bottle, Caol Ila's 2015 Feis Ile release.

Caol Ila's offering, hand picked by distillery manager David Wood, is younger than Lagavulin's release. It's a seventeen year expression distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2015. It's cask strength, bottled at a whopping 57.3 ABV. It's triple matured, barreled in American oak, Moscatel (Spanish sherry) casks, and finally in "old oak puncheons". We're not sure what that last one means except that they're old and a puncheon is a very large barrel. They're about 150 gallons or three times the size of a standard whisky barrel.  Are the "American Oak" ex-bourbon barrels? Is it possible that they took these bourbon casks and some sherry casks and dumped them together into the large puncheons for additional aging?  Unclear, but that would make sense... In any case, we love Caol Ila 18, with the only gripe being that it's proofed down to 43%. So if this is similar juice at cask strength then let's get this party started.

Tasting Notes

Nose:  Wow again this nose is extremely delicate. First we get salted cashew nuts. Then cologne. Then sea air. Meyer lemons start to emerge with some tangy citrus notes. Then it wraps up sweet like that gooey honeyed crust on a lemon cake. The smoke is like a dark canvas on which all these flavors sit, definitely not in your face, but ever present.

Palate: Very subtle palate.  Are you kidding me, this is 114.6 proof????  That has to be a typo. But no, the flavor is there. Still, damn, it's just so smooth. We've maybe never tasted an Islay malt this smooth at this high a proof. You'd be crazy to add water. The palate pulls you right in with some lovely wood and leather notes, more of that gooey lemon cake, and a delightful mouth feel that's just a perfect thickness.

Finish: It's not a barn-burner. The finish just has great balance with the smoke fading slowly into some honeyed cough drops, pears, and lemons. There's absolutely no bite, just none, even upon freshly opening the bottle, the first sip is incredibly smooth out of the gate.

Couldn't help going back for another splash on this one. The smoke and power actually come out as the bottle opens up. This is surprising, usually cask strength whiskies can be harsh at first and then open up smooth. This one almost reverses it with a very smooth entry and then more fire and smoke coming out while it opens up in the glass. This is not a bad thing. The power and flavor increase as well and the whole experience is very welcome. The finish particularly gets longer and more satisfying with a big wad of peat smoke rolling around your mouth many minutes after the last sip is gone.


Caol Ila is quickly becoming one of our favorite malts. It's got all the beautiful beastly smoke of the big boys like Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but while those brands can sometimes be overly phenolic and have some of that "ashtray" quality, Caol Ila has kind of signature warmth and smoothness. It's probably the most like Lagavulin in that respect, which is still our all time favorite.

We were so ready to be let down by this bottle. Last week's review of the Lagavulin 24 year was absolutely mind blowing. This one is not nearly as old, coming in at a paltry seventeen years old. And, well, it's not Lagavulin. But it's really just damn good. It's got everything we look for in an Islay malt. Balance, warmth, smoothness, big smoke (after another dram it's definitely smokier than the Lag), a hefty sense of a seaside campfire with salty ocean spray mixing with rich smoke, and delicious sweetness mixing in. A superb treat. We've had thirty year old cask strength Caol Ila's before, and they're awesome, but this may well be the best expression we've tasted yet from this fantastic distillery.

Another dream dram here which makes us both happy and doubly sad we still haven't made the mecca to Islay.  Next year my friend, in the Hebrides!
The Long Awaited Pop of that Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

May 20, 2016

The Long Awaited Pop of that Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015

Ever have a best friend that you've never met, never spoken to, never emailed or texted?  That's how we feel about Thomas and Ansgar Speller, fellow bloggers who write WhiskySpeller about their travels and tastings around the world. How did the Spellers capture such favor? Well they know the key to a beasts heart: vintage Lagavulin. Thomas and Ansgar went to last year's Feis Ile (Islay's annual spring festival) and sent us a bottle of Lagauvlin's limited release Feis Ile 2015.

Feis Ile happens the last week of May. All week long, one day is dedicated to a specific Islay distillery. They open their doors with tours, parties, music and tastings. Malt whisky fanatics from all over the world come to celebrate the beauty that is Islay. It's also become tradition for each distillery to offer a limited release festival bottling. These are small batch releases of casks hand-picked by the distillery managers. They're often served up uncolored, at cask strength, and have some special characteristics like age or maturation. If that doesn't make your eyes light up, then we're just not speaking the same language.

We haven't been to Islay yet. It's in the cards, but with a 4.5 year old at home it's not so easy to hop over for a week of sipping malt, sleeping in a charming B&B, and watching the waves at Port Ellen. Just writing about it brings a tear to my eye. We'll get there. 

That's why when our bottle from last year's festival arrived, we were excited. Excited doesn't even really cover it. Ecstatic? Giddy? Something like that. As you know if you're a fan of SmokyBeast, Lagavulin is our first and still greatest love when it comes to whisky. And we'd never tasted one of their special limited release Feis Ile bottlings.

The 2015 Feis Ile bottle was a very special run, even by Feis Ile standards. Iain McArthur, Lag's legendary warehouse manager of 40 years, chose extra aged casks for a twenty-four year release that came in at a whopping 59.9% ABV. This will be the oldest, and the strongest Lag we've ever tasted.  in summary: Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!!!!!

We were so excited that we let the bottle sit on our shelf and gazed longingly at it for almost a whole year. It was like an unspoken pact that we would save it for a special occasion. Well almost a year later, with Feis Ile 2016 coming up next week, this seemed like as good an occasion as any.  

Tasting Notes

Nose: The peat is so subtle in the nose here it's all rose petals and heath and lavender. There's a healthy punch of saddle leather and expensive men's cologne. It tails off with a little more smoke, and some melons - cantaloupes and honeydew.

Palate: It opens up and shows its Islay roots in the palate with a big thick mouthfeel of peat and honey. More melons, apricots.  It's so integrated, the peat and the spirit and the sweetness are all wrapped up into a perfect balance.

Finish: Compared to the cask strength 12-year this is a very subtle finish. It's not a fire-breather by any means. The tongue is coated in honey and the smoke rests at the top of the palate drifting up into the nostrils.


It's just superb. At almost 120 proof we expected this to be a ripper, but it's just the opposite. It's a super mellow well balanced whiskey that hits all the right notes. It pulls you in with sweetness and florals before rewarding you with the desired smoke. We felt this one was just perfect with about two eyedropper drops of water (room temperature spring water of course) per ounce. The tiny bit of water opens it up beautifully and it's just a killer dram. Real desert island stuff here, probably in the top ten malts we've reviewed on the site.  A big SmokyBeast "A"!

Four Strikes and We're Out! Longrow Peated, Benrinnes 23, Tamdhu 10, Ledaig 2005

May 3, 2016

Four Strikes and We're Out! Longrow Peated, Benrinnes 23, Tamdhu 10, Ledaig 2005

Ok, some folks have been accusing SmokyBeast of throwing softballs.  Only a month into baseball season, that hurts.

"You guys seem to like everything!?!"

Well the truth is, we try plenty of stuff that we don't like. But that doesn't make for a very interesting article. Why would we recommend something to you that we didn't like? There's so much great whiskey around, we tend to focus on that. Also we don't like being mean.

But, since you asked, here are four bottles we tried recently that we'd categorize as a miss...

Longrow Peated

Springbank makes some incredible whiskies. So we were excited to try their heavily peated variation, Longrow. We'd heard really good things about the older release from this line "Longrow Red" and this is the newer addition from that label.

Nose: Salty dry ocean brine, mild smoke, light wood, lemon zest, angostura.  Smells a bit like cigarettes when the pack has been open too long and they get brittle.

Body:  Burn and spice. A bit sweet around the edges, curry / exotic spice mixture, coconut, berries. Not a big body and not a smooth body, so kind of like "well he's not good-looking, but hey he's got a lousy personality."

Finish:  Ends sour. Not very balanced and the smoke ends too abruptly, leaving you tart. Can't imagine many people preferring this to a Lagavulin 16 or Ardbeg... Maybe if you just want a little peat - who just wants a little peat??!??

Review: It's like if someone asks you what punk music you like and you put on Green Day.  "C+"

Benrinnes 23 Year

Look at this bottle, it's gorgeous! Cask strength 58.8% at 23 years, this was part of Diageo's special release program for 2009. It's super hard to come by these days (sold out at TWE and MasterofMalt at over $200) so expectations were very high.

Nose:  Chocolate covered cashew nuts, heavy sherry, purple grapes, chocolate, wet grass, heavy tannin bitterness, heavy heavy oak adding to the bitterness.

Body:  Plummy fruitiness, Welches grape juice, Luden's honey cough drops, reduced red wine. More wood.

Finish:  Honestly it's harsh for it's age (and price!). This one went too far on the oak to the point where the fruity / sweet elements fight against the bitterness but ultimately lose. Smokybeast "C-".

Tamdhu 10 Year

Nose:  A vegetal nose with heart of palm, aloe, and jade bulbs backed by a little bit of sweet malt and green grapes.

Palate:  Very mild, if somewhat uneventful.  Creamy, oily, and sweet, sort of like those little milk chocolate baking chips you use for cookies.

Finish:  Smooth, but at $65 bucks, it's tough to give this one a good review. Honestly we'd probably prefer a good blend, which might not blow out minds but would be drinkable with no surprises. A SmokyBeast "C".

Ledaig 2005

Nose: Wow we got a weird one here.  It's definitely peated that's for sure.  Not a peat bomb like some of our favorites, but it's got some smoke.  But the smoke is wrapped in this very strange mix of vegetable oil and..  what is that.. like palm fronds.  Not even sure if a palm frond is a thing, and if it is we've certainly never smelled one. But there's no doubt that this is what they smell like.  Kind of like that coconut water smell that removes all the sweetness and just leaves the putrid hand lotion quality.

Palate: This is a very ACTIVE palate.  Haven't ever used that word before, but it's appropriate here. There's a LOT going on. The peat is strong, there's a ton of sweetness too, and a lot of spice, and then a very weird sort of rubbery taste.  Perhaps this is the young age of the malt showing (to the eye it's almost as pale as water), but it's banging around the sides of the mouth like many of the new craft whiskies do when they just haven't had enough years in the barrel.

Finish: Well ok on the one hand for eight years old and a whopping 113.4 proof it's mighty smooth, you have to give them that. But it's a weird sort of nasty smooth. Kind of like a lot of good components (peat fire, honeysuckle sweetness, and citrus tang) all banging against each other instead of integrating together. This one's just missing the wood, and so there isn't that base flavor anchoring all the other elements.  SmokyBeast "D+".

A Wheater Tasting at Wheated Brooklyn

April 19, 2016

A Wheater Tasting at Wheated Brooklyn

People ask us all the time where to go for bourbon in NYC. The truth is, it's tough. Anyone with a decent selection gets swamped with investment bankers until they either run out or take a hint and raise their prices through the roof. Luckily a new solution has presented itself in the form of a slightly off-the-beaten-path whiskey & pizza joint near Prospect Park.  Meet Wheated.

The Bar at Wheated

"Lesson learned," says owner David Sheridan, "don't name your bar after a very specific spirit that's about to become nearly impossible to supply!" He's talking of course about the explosion in popularity of wheated bourbon that's been taking place over the last few years inspired by Pappy Van Winkle.

The solution? Buy your own barrel of wheated bourbon from a local craft distiller and make it your house brand. David purchased his cask of McKenzie Single Barrel Bourbon from Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York.

David Sheridan - Proprietor

You'd be happy too... It's a 4.5 year old high-corn wheated mashbill bourbon that only produced 129 bottles at cask strength.

The McKenzie is really nice, very fresh with a familiar rich wheat nose (not unlike a young Van Winkle) that's popping with mint and florals, vanilla, honey, and a nice drop of saddle leather. It definitely tastes older than it is and sits in a really smooth place for almost 110 proof.

The other nice part about this bottle is that it's sitting on a table full of brother and sister wheaters. It turns out Wheated is a good place to go if you like drinking wheated bourbon.

We taste through this lovely mix of craft wheaters and some all time favorites.

Dry Fly was a big surprise. Looking at the bottle you'd think "ok we're in for another super young marketing experiment gone awry." But not at all! Dry Fly is a serious farm to bottle operation with a real eye for quality and craftsmanship. The product was deceptively rich and lovely for a three year bourbon. They use a higher percentage of malt (20%) than you'd usually find in a bourbon. It was very drinkable, and captured some of that spice and molasses that you look for in an older wheated bourbon. A very nice surprise.  (Maybe a bottle redesign would help this brand??)

After our last experience with the Jim Beam Signature Spanish Brandy Whiskey, we almost passed on this one without tasting it. That would have been a big mistake! We were pleasantly surprised. The "Red Wheat" Beam bottle was lovely with a combination of smoothness with rich notes, sweets, and earthiness.  SOOO much better than the brandy, they're not even in the same league.

This Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project #168 was one of the best in this lineup that we've tasted. Another cracking wheater, it had a very dry and sophisticated palate going on with subtle spice, grass/hay, and vanilla.

For reference sake, David threw in a couple of old standards: Weller 12 Year and Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year.  These were superior bourbons to the craft brands, yet we both marveled at how well both the McKenzie and the Dry Fly held up. Considering folks are paying $300 a bottle for the Van Winkle, and the Weller is getting extremely hard to come by, it's great to see new wheaters coming out. If these two continue to put aside some stock for aging, we bet that in a few years they'll be right on par, if not better, than the older mass produced stuff. Still, both Weller 12 and ORVW are delicious whiskies and a righteous addition to any wheater party.

It's time for dinner. If we keep drinking at this pace on empty stomachs we're going to end up singing Commodores' numbers with our pants down (don't ask). Luckily David's crew makes the meanest meatball calzone in recent memory, served with homemade Sriracha sauce. Pair that with a smoked meat and hot pepper pizza and we're in heaven.

"Won't all that spicy food blow your palate?" you may be asking? Well luckily the next whiskey on our list is a real barn-burner (no pun intended).

We've been resisting the Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon because it's $200/bottle. Generally speaking, we need another $200 craft bourbon like we need a hole in the head. But lo and behold it's pretty fuggin awesome. The most comparable thing would be the Balcones Texas Single Barrel that we got to taste recently (aka the bottle that does not exist). It's like a huge George T Stagg of craft corn/wheat whiskey. Just exploding with richness and flavor. Are we going to run out and spend $200 on it? It's still a big ask, but we were surprised by how good it was for sure.

Finally, since we'd never tasted it, David brought out one more treat to finish the night. The Kavalan Soloist. Now here's a whiskey that's gotten so much fanfare we figured it had to be something special. And maybe it was just because we'd been drinking so much nice mellow wheated whiskey all night, but this stuff was so cloyingly sweet it was almost hard to get down. Sort of like a Speyside malt whisky with so much sherry influence it totally overwhelms the whisky. It must be a first fill sherry cask (really it tastes like they actually added sherry to the malt). This one was a big miss, but still a cool way to end the night. David carries an impressive menu of single malts in addition to the American whiskey list. We may have to go back and sample through more of those...

Anyway Wheated is a winner. A very warm environment, good family style place for an early dinner, and one of the best whiskey lists in NYC.  Cheers to David for showing us a great time and if you're in the area, tell 'em the beast sent you!

SmokyBeast leads a charity tasting!!!

April 15, 2016

SmokyBeast leads a charity tasting!!!

For anyone in the New York City area, we're working with our friends at Xavier Wine Co., to sponsor a charity auction to raise money for Promise Project.

We'll be doing a whiskey tasting for up to 8 people at the gorgeous tasting room at Xavier Wines, featuring some awesome and rare whiskies.

About Promise Project

GOAL at PROMISE PROJECT is that all children with learning disabilities get the chance to succeed.

THE PROMISE is to provide an educational path for underserved children who struggle with learning disabilities, evaluating their learning disabilities and getting them the support they need.

Learn more at: http://www.promise-project.org/promise/

Willett C22D - The Legend of the Wheated Willett

April 5, 2016

Willett C22D - The Legend of the Wheated Willett

You're A Wizard, Harry

Things that have proved magical in the past:

  1. Really old bourbon 
  2. Wheated bourbon 
  3. Willett Family Estate bourbon
  4. "Angel barrels" (barrels with very low yields)
Planetary Alignment

The last time all eight planets and the sun were in a straight line was in 561 BC.  The next time it's going to happen will be in the year 2,854. Unless we're all downloaded into the matrix by then eating popcorn in cyberspace, I guess I'll have to plan on missing it.

Luckily all our magical bourbon planets did happen to align, and in my own lifetime to boot. Yay! In life you have to take the wins where you can get them. This one comes in the form of a twenty-two year wheated bourbon barrel from Willett Family Estate that only produced ninety-six bottles. 

Bing, bang, boom, whoa. Planetary alignment!

Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Bourbon C22D
22 Years, 137.4 Proof  (Bottle 70/96)

The whole Willett sourcing scheme is still shrouded in mystery, but the general consensus is that these "C-Barrels" are all wheated bourbon. Every one that I've tried definitely tastes like a wheater, but no one knows 100% for sure. If they tell you they do know for sure and their name isn't Drew Kulsveen then they're lying.

These super old wheaters are only available at the Willett gift shop in Bardstown as well as a very very small distribution in retail stores like NYC's Astor Wines. Around the beginning of last year they were priced in the $250-$325 range.  Now the retail prices have climbed up to over $500. Granted that's pretty nuts for a bottle of whiskey (after taxes you're paying $45 a glass!), but in the context of other 20+ year wheated bourbons (Pappy Van Winkle, William Larue Weller) it's not that crazy. But regardless of your feelings on paying $500 for a bottle of liquor, your chances of doing so are pretty low and if you try to pick one up at auction or on the secondary market, expect to pay between $750 and $1k.  (and you said "yikes" before!!)

You can see just how dark and chocolaty looking this bourbon is in the glass. That seems to be the trend both with older bourbons and with angel barrels. There's so much influence from the charred oak that the color is almost like opaque root beer. This tends to coincide with massive flavor, both in sweetness from the sugars that are released by charring oak, and in richness from the "cooking down" of the spirit in the cask. With this cask only yielding ninety-six bottles, you have to figure that the original two hundred and forty bottles that fit in the fifty gallon cask have been reduced by about sixty percent!

Tasting Notes

Nose: Man oh man.  Tying to put this nose into words is a failed attempt at synesthesia. It's very sweet, salty, and punchy. Uber vanilla, tobacco, leather, bbq sauce, wood for hours, huge chocolate and molasses, baking bread, nutmeg, pine needles, mint, fresh pasta. It's starting to sound silly, I know.  I could go on and on.  It's so complex there's just a million things going on here. And it's so STRONG!  Seriously just a nasal conniption. Super amazingly great.

Palate: I'm one of those anti-water people for almost all my favorite whiskies.  For this one, I do recommend a tiny little bit (three eyedropper drops per ounce). Unless you've already been drinking all night and it don't matter! But seriously it's almost one hundred and forty proof, so if this is my first drink of the night I do prefer it with a tiny little bit of agua. The flavor opens up really nicely on the palate with water too. It's so tight and punchy. Wood definitely dominates and I love it, and you get all kinds of caramel, honey, spices, char, cocoa, vanilla, and hot chili peppers.

Finish: Red licorice, brown butter coating your throat, pops of cayenne, chocolate covered pretzels. It's a huge fiery finish, and this is a long finish for a bourbon.


This is definitely no whiskey for beginners, but if you've been drinking cask strength stuff a while it's an absolute dream. You can pour half an ounce and sip on it for half an hour since every little drop packs so much flavor. Should you run out and spend a grand on it? That's your call, but if you see one of these Willett "C"-barrels in a bar you should definitely think about spending a little extra to try it. This one's a real winner and we'll enjoy it to the last drop. After all, who knows if the planets will ever align this perfectly again?

The Best Tasting Ever.  Period.  Douglas Laing Old & Rare Platinum.

March 29, 2016

The Best Tasting Ever. Period. Douglas Laing Old & Rare Platinum.

Sweet Tube 

When I was in high school, the words "sweet tube" would conjure up images of an expensive Graffix glass bong. Now that I've just hit 40 and spent far too much time talking about whiskey on Facebook, "sweet tube" has the infinitely less cool and exponentially more pathetic connotation of the packaging for expensive whiskey. Case-in-point: when I picked up my first Willett gift shop rye and saw the classy off-white cylinder, the words "dude, sweet tube" escaped my lips. I promptly looked over my left shoulder to try and spot the douche bag. It was me.

Let's be honest, there's just something special about whiskey in a nice box. Of course it shouldn't matter. The juice is the juice is the juice. You're just paying more for packaging. Yada yada yada. Yes that's all true. Yet no matter how many bottles I buy, collect, and drink, my eyes always light up when I see a beautiful box. Like this one:

Emperor's Clothes

Sure, there are examples of lackluster whiskies parading around in ludicrously over-the-top packaging to fetch a preposterous price tag:

The Arran Devil's Punchbowl

Highland Park Ice

Artful Presentation

But when there's a brand you already love and they take the time to release a really special bottle and take great care in the packaging, sometimes you just know you're in for a treat. Such is the case with Douglas Laing, my favorite independent bottler.  Douglas Laing always does a nice presentation:

Douglas Laing Director's Cut

Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask

But they really go above and beyond with their flagship product, the Old & Rare Platinum Editions.  (Note, due to some recent reorg, OAR is now exclusively under Hunter Laing.)  These velvet-lined, antique-fastened cabinets would make a luxurious coffin for any small family pet. The wood must be cedar because the smell inside is pure bliss, even before you open the bottle. And it simply reeks of class that they don't identify the bottle on the outside of the box. 

The Old & Rare Platinum selections are all single cask releases, aged over twenty years, and bottled at cask strength with no chill-filtering or artificial color. In other words, they're close to heaven for malt whisky fanatics. I've never seen OAR selections on the shelf in the states, though there are some popping up at KL (though they don't seem to come with the box??!???).  Also they're not cheap, with the entry-level bottles fetching around $300 and the more sought-after brands (Ardbeg and Macallan for example) in the $700 range. Then again if you have seven hundred bucks burning a whole in your pocket, there's worse things you could do with it.

Building Suspense

For my quarterly Beast Masters Club events, I always hide the identities of the whiskies to build suspense and then reveal the bottles one by one as we taste through them. And what better way to mask the goodies than to have four of these majestic Douglas Laing boxes on the table when everyone arrived? As we thumbed back the nautical looking hatches and opened each box, audible 'oooohs' and 'ahhhhhs' filled the room.  

The selections were as follows:

Rosebank 21 Year 1992/2013 52.3%

Lowland malts are generally not my thing. There are some perfectly fine brands out there like Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, but they're just not the big flavor bombs that we smoky beast aficionados are looking for. Lowland malts tend to be grassy and floral and they are traditionally triple distilled (similar to most Irish whiskies) giving them a mellower taste.

This Rosebank on the other hand was incredibly delicious. It was an ideal starting point for the night. Fruits and flowers dominate the nose with explosions of apples, pears, violets, and lilies, beautiful overtones of perfume and white chocolate. This was so surprising, even some of the most committed beast masters in the room had to pick this malt as their favorite for the evening! The palate is thick and dreamy with more fruit and flowers, and the finish is sweet but extremely balanced and nuanced. You'd never in a million years guess this was over one hundred proof based on the presence of alcohol, but the incredible flavor might clue you in. Sadly only one hundred and twenty-two bottles were released from this cask, so we're unlikely to taste it again. Really a dream and definitely a gem of a lowland whisky that came out of left field for the surprise of the night.

Highland Park 27 Year 1984 / 2012 51.6%

This is without question the best Highland Park I've ever tasted and a magnificent second bottle for the tasting. Moving up in the flavor / boldness category from the Rosebank, we're into some more lush tastes here in the caramel and stone fruit category. The nose shows a slight sherry influence with peach and apricot wrapped in some caramel and pound cake. There's some nice maritime elements giving it a little bit of salt and punch, and maybe just a hint of smoke. Highland Park has never been a standout distillery for me but it's very hard to find anything not to like here. A straight forward delicious malt, sitting perfectly with strong spirit flavor sweetness, smoothness, and balance.

Caol Ila 27 Year 1984 / 2011 51.9%

Now we're headed into serious beast territory. This twenty seven year single cask sherry matured Caol Ila is absolutely the stuff of legend. A huge rush of ocean campfire greets the nose with salty sea air carrying deep smoldering embers. Deep deep peat with that signature Caol Ila nuttiness, like candied pecans heated over charcoal. Then we get the big sherry influence with plums and raisins and strawberry jam. The sweet and the peat wrap up into the most awesome palate. Just flavor going on for hours here with the smoke, the sweet, and the big spirit integrating together for such an amazing refined taste. This can only happen when a great cask is aged perfectly, in this case for almost three decades, and bottled at precisely the right time.  (Which of course is the beauty of independent bottlers who are not beholden to releasing the same aged spirit every year!).  This is a real desert island dram right here, the kind of thing I could happily drink every night for the rest of my life.

Ardbeg 22 Year 1991 / 2013 55.8%

To finish the night we cracked this eye-opening twenty-two year Ardbeg. Moving way up in the peat direction, and topping out the ABV of the night at over one hundred and ten proof, this was another superb gem. Very much your typical Ardbeg, this was all peat and fire with little pops of citrus and pears. Wonderfully dry, with almost none of the sweetness of the Caol Ila, this was all smoke versus power. As great old Islay malts can do, the smoke balanced out the super high alcohol content for a real peat lovers dream. Another wonderful cask choice, this was a real killer to end the night.

In Conclusion

All-in-all, I think this was the best tasting I've ever put on. The sweet boxes lined up on the table had everyone's mind racing the minute they walked in. Moving from a marvelous lowland malt to a highland and then showcasing both sherry and bourbon-aged Islay malts really highlighted the wonderful diversity of single malts across the various regions. But above all, the cask selections from Douglas Laing were simply phenomenal. Discovering how amazing Rosebank can be, and tasting the best Highland Park ever, and then getting two of the finest bottles ever from two of my favorite distilleries was the kind of night whisky maniacs live for.
The Bottle That Does Not Exist - Balcones Texas Single Barrel

March 21, 2016

The Bottle That Does Not Exist - Balcones Texas Single Barrel

"This bottle does not exist," Winston said. 

He looked very serious. We stared each other down for a few seconds. Smoke and ice.

"Well then I definitely have to taste it!" I finally responded.

Balcones had just announced yet another round of awards for their craft distillery in Waco, Texas. This time they had taken home four titles in the 2016 World Whiskies Awards including Best American Single Malt for their Texas 1 Single Malt Whisky and World's Best Corn Whisky for their True Blue Cask Strength.  Add these to the ridiculous trophy room the Balcones has been putting together and you get a sense of the magic going on down there.

As all the good things in life tend to be, this mystery bottle was not on the menu. In fact it was hiding behind the Balcones booth at WhiskyLive a few weeks ago at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers. I got my coveted taste and eagerly took a sniff.

Balcones Texas Single Barrel Whisky 63.5%

It's no secret that Balcones is SmokyBeast's clear choice for the best American craft distillery.  Our favorite of their whiskies will always be the Brimstone with its massive smoked corn flavor. but the Single Malt and True Blue are real standouts in the realm of hand-crafted American spirits.

Balcones is also known for their special, one-off cask experiments. Brimstone Resurrection was a mind-blowing example that we got to review a few years ago. We also got to taste their single malt aged in Resurrection casks, which was awesome as well. Needless to say that I was very excited to taste this new expression.

What Is It?

The Texas Single Barrel is a blend of 51%+ corn, with the remainder being aged single malt. The mixture was blended into a 60 gallon cask and then aged for another 3 years. It's a very interesting combination. A typical bourbon would combine a majority of corn with a second ingredient of rye or wheat and only a very small proportion of malted barley. Single malt is 100% barley.  So a combination of almost equal parts corn and barley is unusual. I didn't know what to expect.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Big big big! Just as big as George T. Stagg, but with some other mystery notes. Sassafras? It starts with huge ripe corn, super char flavor, and rain water (? not sure about that last note, it might just be that it was raining during WhiskyLive, but there's a distinct mineral water scent to it).

Palate: Uber-sweet but not cloying. It's got a lot of spice - traditional spices like chili peppers, BBQ sauce, and molasses - but then also some exotic notes like cumin.

Finish: Wow!  It's like a monster corn-heavy George T. Stagg. I've definitely never had this full-flavored a whiskey from an American craft distiller before. This is a new class. The finish is flat-out ballsy, with everything you look for in a monster bourbon, but obviously a completely different animal that's very corn-forward and has none of the rye influence of Stagg.  Honestly corn whiskey has just never tasted this good. Maybe it's the profile of the corn with the backdrop and smoothness of the malt that's the secret. I don't know, but this may well be the best craft spirit I've ever tasted.