Whisky and Words Number 34: Glenmorangie Astar

I thought ‘Astar’ sounded Far Eastern, so paired this one up with Ganesha.

I have my wife to thank for the Astar. She had spotted an unpeated Caol Ila she wanted to try. We went to the local shop together and spotted Astar. We both like Glenmorangie’s offerings – they are reliably well done, balanced and focused. Their 10-year is a standard for us and what I serve guests who want to try a single malt for the first time. We have had tastings with the sherry, port and sauterne finished versions and they were well received. I also have a bottle of the ‘very rare’ 18-year old, which is some serious whisky. At $115 locally, it should be.

The Astar is nearly as expensive at $99.95 and caught the good wife’s eye. If regular Glenmorangie was good, she reasoned, this expression, aged in barrels crafted with select woods, must be better. I was a bit more skeptical, noting the absence of an age statement. But given the malt master at Glenmorangie has produced so many good offerings, I relented and we decided to give it a go.

Often I like to start with the marketing of a whisky. While marketing can have a good dose of fluff and hype (‘viking heritage’ and such) sometimes there are hints of how the stuff is actually made. For the Astar (Scots Gaelic for ‘journey’ according to the box), the hook is the wood. The box mentions “the quest to design the very best oak casks…” I can support that. Whisky is moonshine if it isn’t aged, and the casks deliver the magic, hand in hand with time. Let’s examine the marketing collateral, there’s plenty.

Click for hi-res.

This expression, according to the box (picture at right) hearkens back to the 2008 Astar release that used bespoke casks from the Ozark mountains of Missouri. The marketing wags state that these casks are ‘rare.’ Maybe they have not heard of the Independent Stave Company, who are one of the biggest stave/barrels producers in the US and they are based in…wait for it…Missouri. So, yeah, lots of barrels come from there. The wood for Astar is specially selected from ‘slow growth’ oak trees (the famed slow-growing oak!), aged two years and toasted just so. A perusal of the Independent Stave website shows the barrel can be aged to request, and toasted to any of seven levels, so yes, we can say that barrels they sell are bespoke. The Glenmorangie barrels are then used for bourbon, four years aging in this case, then shipped to Glenmorangie to age the Astar. Pretty much standard practice.

So what do we know? The Glenmorangie people probably have a hand in selecting the wood, so we can assume they are starting with high-quality, first-fill (for Scotch) barrels. What else do we know of this whisky? Not a lot; beyond a ‘long slow maturation’ (not specified) and bottling at quite high ABV (52.5%), it is non-chill-filtered. So props to Glenmorangie for a modern ‘craft’ finish.

Astar is a lovely colored whisky.

Now to the taste. All NAS offerings are under scrutiny at Chateau MacNaughton and this is no different. At our first tasting we compared it to the 18-year, which probably isn’t fair, but hey, for a C-note, a whisky better be good. The thing is, both the Glen 18 and the Astar represent the pure Glenmorangie vibe (no fancy sherry or port casks to distract the flavor) but even more so. We expect Glenmorangie++. Our second tasting we contrasted with the Glen 10, and the wife found it sweeter on the nose than the 10. But twice as good? Maybe not, she said. Same with the palate: she found it richer, but not overwhelmingly so. She had no issues with the high ABV. My notes follow.

Glenmorangie Astar (2017), Highland single malt, 52.5% ABV

Nose: The Glenmorangie vibe: refined, gently sweet honeysuckle and a touch of citrus, mineral, vanilla and oak. Definitely a fuller, smoother nose than the 10-year. For 52.5% ABV, very easy on the nose.
Palate: Fuller but also spicier than the 10, a solid creme brulee, but the high ABV does light up the tongue, which is an odd counter to the deep, smooth midrange of this dram.
Finish: Spicy; the ABV really overshadows the nicer elements at first. I get vanilla custard from the oak when it settles, but this is not a finish I marvel at.

Bottom line: This is a tough call. I wish they told us more about the aging. I feel that these select casks combined with the standard 10-year maturation would result in a kick ass whisky. But the liveliness of the palate and finish make me suspect a shorter maturation, at least for some of the marry. Since adding a few drops of water does not significantly alleviate the aggressive pepperiness, I’m pointing my finger at younger whisky. Some whiskies such as Bruichladdich which, though young, highlight lighter, more lively flavors and thus work with spicy young spirit, but Glenmorangie’s forte is smooth luxury. Livelier whiskies in the mix create a jarring note. For me, the Astar just misses the mark.

And there is lies the rub with NAS whisky. The closest competitor to this expression, Glenmorangie’s own 18, is just 15% more, and that whisky is a whole different ball game. The Glen 18 in direct comparison blew away the Astar; the 18 is thicker, smoother, unctuous and luxurious, bringing butterscotch to the brulee. The Astar is nice, no doubt, but not quite worth the price of admission. If you want the experience of Glenmorangie++ and are willing to pay the coin for a special bottle to savor, go for the 18-year-old.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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