Whisky and Words Number 56: Cragganmore Distiller’s Port Finish

Chromey bottle, lovely light amber spirit.

We’re back to a whisky you should be able to find in a well-stocked ‘class 6’ (that’s for you ex-Army brothers and sisters out there). This is on the pricey side at $76 a bottle in Oregon (post-tariff pricing). The Cragganmore visual style has an old-time flair to it (see photo, left), highlighted by a Victorian font with chrome highlights on a restrained olive background. Very small text on bottle and carton claim “the most complex aroma of any malt” which was according to Michael Jackson. You know, this Michael Jackson.

The Distillers Edition Cragganmore gets a scant buildup on their website, found on Malts.com, this being a Diageo brand. Sure there are tasting notes and a review but all they say about this expression is “The complexity of Cragganmore makes it an out-of-the-ordinary choice for a second cask finish. However, port-wine casks provide the perfectly harmonious partner.” That’s an odd statement. They are trying to say there is so much going on in the regular Craggie that adding a (moderately) exotic maturation would not be a benefit. I’ll have to try a regular Cragganmore next.

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Whisky and Words Number 55: Talisker 57° North

The 57 Degrees North. A fine whisky.

Normally, I review whiskies one can find at a reasonably well stocked liquor store. But now and then I cover something a bit harder to get. In this case, my wife had the Talisker 57° N shipped from Scotland for my (57th) birthday. I can imagine the cost of shipping rivaled that of the whisky. I have searched about 10 online liquor shops in the US and none of them had this expression. But if my wife can get it, so can you. It just takes will…and some extra cash.

Talisker intended this whisky to be a tribute to their remote location on the isle of Skye, 57° North latitude. What do they say about it? On their website, Talisker 57° is said to be “an untamed, natural expression of the Talisker’s full power: a volcanic, intensely appealing flavour that most drinkers will have only experienced in a cask strength bottling.” Indeed, 57% alcohol is pretty strong, a true 100 proof. True cask strength whiskies (except for the oldest) are typically higher than that, but 57% is on the cusp. Their flavor map has it dead center in weight, and pretty high on the smoky range. It’s not far from where they put their 10-year expression. I also find the label appealingly similar, the classic off-white label with Talisker in an embossed-style font.

Diageo kept the classic design for this expression.

There is a bit more on the carton, telling us they’ve aged the spirit in American oak refill casks, and it is “Sweet to start, and explodes with smoke and volcanic pepper.” Wow, I did not know volcanoes made pepper, got to get me some of that. I like pepper.

So, where’s the there, you wonder? On the pour, it doesn’t assault the room like a Laphroaig, but that’s not the Talisker way with peat. (Talisker tends to be medicinal in its phenolic content, not oily and ashy like the Islay peat monsters.) I find the nose very similar to the 10, but richer in the top end, where the grassier aromas from the oak are found and lighter on the bottom end, where the 10 brings more fruit to the nose. It’s nice – we probably have younger whiskies in this dram (it’s a NAS after all) but the malt master has done a great job selecting casks to bring out the best in young whiskies. There is no sting from the alcohol: they’ve really nailed the heart on this dram. There are 43% whiskies that sting far more than you’ll get from the 57.

The Talisker 10 (l) and 57 North (r) are very close in color. Sad day for lighting though.

So, on to the taste. I expected..well, it’s a NAS of which I am always dubious and the tasting notes were a bit over the top but yowee, they deliver on this whisky. At first, straight, no water needed, you notice the very nice caramel sweetness and then moments later, the ‘volcanic’ pepper does indeed explode. Holy cow. And then it gets smoky, in a less oily way than an Islay whisky. As I say in my tasting notes, a sip of this is like a drag on a truly good cigar. This is a roller coaster of flavor. Where the 10 is smooth, medical and subtle in its smokiness and spice, the 57 makes no bones about its flavor profile. It’s a big, but precise, flavor delivery engine.

Talisker 57° North, Island (Skye) Single Malt, NAS, 57% ABV

Nose: Very maritime: seaweed, earthy peat, like the 10 but more so. Sweet red apple, celery, fresh cut grass. Smoke is persistent but not overwhelming or oily. Surprisingly gentle on the nose for a near-cask-strength whisky.
Palate: Big toffee and caramel lead, and I get a bit of apple and strawberries. The sweet is quickly balanced by the traditional Talisker medicinal phenols (a bit Listerine, in a good way). Wow, yes it does explode in the peppery spice on the sides of the tongue, transitioning to a hefty serving of ashy smoke near the end, like a drag on a really good cigar. Remarkably smooth for a strong whisky; there is no harshness on the throat.
Finish: The ash stays with you once the pepper finishes its beat-down of the caramel and toffee; those spicy notes continue to balance as the smoke lingers.

Bottom Line: An exceedingly well done NAS whisky. And for a change, the tasting notes from the malt master are dead on. I have to say, the 57, along with the very solid standard ’10’ and the awesome 25-year-old I tried in New York really cements my appreciation for the brand. I am not letting my friends have any more of this. I’m totally going to hog this whisky. Kudos to the best-of-all-wives for ordering this from the Home Country!

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Whisky and Words Number 54: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Don’t step on my blue suede shoes, Johnnie

Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label is a no age statement blended whisky that sells for $200 for a 750 ml. bottle. That’s some coin for a blend! So what makes JW’s Blue so special? According to Johnnie Walker (link above) the Blue is:

an exquisite combination of Scotland’s rarest and most exceptional whiskies. Only one in every ten thousand casks has the elusive quality, character and flavor to deliver the remarkable signature taste.” They also give us some of the constituent whiskies: “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is created using a selection of rare casks from the Speyside and Highland distilleries – including delicate Cardhu and Clynelish, warm, rounded Benrinnes, as well as Islay malts for our signature smokiness.

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Whisky and Words Number 53: Ballantine’s 12 vs. Johnnie Walker Black

My  Dewars vs. Johnnie Walker Red post was so popular, I reprised with the Irish titans, Bushmills vs. Jameson. Today, it’s Ballantine’s 12 vs. the venerable (and titanic) Johnnie Walker Black, another 12-year old blend.

The Ballantine’s story

Ballantine’s 12 – a black label…coincidence?

So, who are behind Ballantine’s? George, the namesake, started his distillery in 1827, and gained some recognition in 1895 with a royal warrant. Ballantine’s Finest was developed in 1910. Their main expression, it sells 200,000 bottles a day according to their site. Assuming a 700 ml bottle, that’s 51 million liters a year! Prodigious. In 1959, they came up with the 12-year expression which is the subject of this review.

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Whisky and Words Number 52: Edradour 10-year

The Edradour 10-year Distiller’s Edition. Dark and lovely.

I first encountered Edradour whisky at The Ship Inn, located on the water in a little town called Stonehaven. Stonehaven is just north of Dunnottar Castle on the east coast of Scotland. The Ship Inn had a hefty book full of single malts to try and I liked their description of the Edradour 10-year. You can read the description in the photo below. It was a good dram, and I was pleased to find when I returned to the US I could find a 10-year ‘Distillery Edition’ in my state. I do not know if it is the same expression as I had at the Ship inn, as that might have been their cask-strength version, which is also 10-year aged (and non-chill-filtered).

Description of the whisky at the Ship Inn. Click to zoom.

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Whisky and Words Number 51: Bushmills White vs. Jameson Irish

Today we battle it out with two titans of Irish whisky: Bushmills white label and Jameson Irish. Both being blends they are made from grain whisky (made from any cereal grain, often maize, in a column still) and pot still whisky. To be called ‘pot still’ whisky, the formal rule states (quoted from an excellent article here from Pernod Ricard):

Two heavyweights duke it out.

The Irish Whiskey Technical File lists that Irish Pot Still Whiskey must be made from a mash which contains a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.

Note the use of unmalted barley, which differentiates Irish from Scotch whisky. Other rules state that the aging must be at least 3 years in oak. Like most Irish whiskies, the pot still component of both are triple distilled. The law states for a blend it must be “a mixture of any two or more of the styles of malt, pot still, and grain whiskey” (source whiskyadvocate).

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