For whisky enthusiasts, today's lack of supply of old favorites is creating a frantic buying environment. There are, however, whiskies that are available and delicious. Aberlour A'Bunadh is one of those whiskies. It's not cheap in any traditional sense, but it is affordable considering it's cask strength first-fill single malt scotch.Read More
I sometimes avoid defining “Single Malt Scotch” during whisky tastings because I get the inevitable questions that cause more confusion than clarity. Single malt scotch is a single distillery whisky made in Scotland of 100% malted barley. It's most often blend of hundreds of barrels, and so long as those barrels contain 100% malted barley whisky that was distilled in the same distillery, it's defined as single malt scotch.Read More
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) whiskies are highly sought after, rarely found, and cherished by the quarter-ounce when poured. I was at Buffalo Trace Distillery to do a tasting of the 2015 collection prior to release. When I posted a photo of the collection on Twitter, I was challenged with “why bother?" What’s the point of reviewing BTAC when there's so little supply released that it's nearly impossible to get?Read More
Redbreast 12 is the exact opposite type of drink I reach for, and yet it continues to be one I always have around. This isn’t a ‘staying out at a loud bar’ whisky, but rather an ‘at home reading a book’ sipper.Read More
Barrel Proof, uncut, unfiltered. This is the sort of wonderfully chaotic whisky that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go. It’s intensely loud from start to finish, and that’s no surprise—It’s over 64% ABV (ABV changes from release to release). When doing whisky tastings, the Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof is (using the baseball term) the “closer” whisky. At the end of the night, no matter what else that you’ve had, CEHT Barrel Proof will be the standout star (Unless, maybe, you’re drinking Stagg).Read More
To get the beauty of this drink, you need to nose it like a scotch drinker. That is, don’t breathe in, just let the vapours naturally come to you as you lift the glass to your nose. You can practically smell the soil the grain were grown in, the grains themselves, the fermentation process, and all those condensed flavours that were fortunate enough to survive distillation.Read More
I got tired of writing whisky reviews
There’s a format to each whisky review that goes something like this: Interesting factoid, some history, tasting notes, and a score. There’s definitely a place for long reviews, and there are reviewers that do this incredibly well (Hey Davin!), but these are not everyday reviews.
I’m tossing out my old (and long-since unused) whisky review format. I want to write reviews I’d like to read. The new review format is shorter and it’s driven by the current whisky market. The reviews will include a hundred-point tasting score and a rating. The combination of a taste score and star rating for whisky seemed ridiculous at first, but the more test reviews I wrote, the more it made sense.
The Whisky Cabinet Rating
With rare exceptions, there are no bad whiskies. As a consumer, though, navigating the waters of which whisky to purchase can be a challenge. It’s important to keep categories in mind: Rye? Bourbon? Scotch? That’s an excellent place to start when buying whisky. Next, what are you looking for? Oaky bourbon, or cheap rye, or well-aged sherry finished scotch? These are just some examples of the many categories whiskies falls into.
The theme of my book is The Whisky Cabinet—finding the most delicious whiskies in the world. The sub-theme has always been value, price, and positioning in the market. Taking this a step forward, I’ve worked on a simple four star rating system.
This four star system pits the whisky against other whiskies in its category and considers such factors as the taste, price-point, availability, and prestige (which can work for or against the whisky). It works as follows:
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ Not recommended
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ Good whisky, but not a ‘must-have’
★ ★ ☆ ☆ Your great regular rotation whisky that'll come and go
★ ★ ★ ☆ Excellent, a near must-have
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary, memorable, and original
The higher the star-level, the fewer whiskies in that category. Under this system, four star ratings are rare. And since the landscape of the whisky world changes (age statements are removed, new products are released), whiskies might gain or lose a star over time.
The Hundred Point Whisky Sipper Score
I have privately rated whisky for several years, but I never quite felt comfortable posting these scores. They didn’t tell the entire story. Alone, it’s not a perfect system, but with the star rating it has a place in the review. Each reviewer defines their scoring system differently. This is how I view it, keeping it simple:
- 90+ Remarkable, whisky that stops the conversation at a party
- 80-89 From good to approaching remarkable
- 70-79 An okay whisky
- Below 70, probably undrinkable for most whisky sippers
For the taste score, I break down the whisky to its core elements. Nose. Palate. Finish. Balance. Construction. Uniqueness. Flavour. A well structured whisky that offers a broad range of flavours and complexity is likely to get a higher score.
All whiskies are rated based on how they taste in tasting glasses at room temperature.
Difference Between Tasting and Drinking
I couldn’t possibly talk about rating whiskies without noting the difference between tasting and drinking whisky. Tastings are done at room temperature, in tasting glasses, and in a quiet environment. Scores are achieved by tasting the same drink repeatedly, and comparing it to other whiskies of the same or similar categories.
Drinking whisky is the pure enjoyment of the spirit. Any whisky scoring over 80 points will make for an excellent drinking whisky (assuming you like that category of whisky). When out in the sun, or at home with friends, the difference between an 82 and an 88 scored whisky won’t matter overly much.
However, like a delicious plate of food, a whisky that scores over 90 points should stop the conversation at the table. That’s how I score the whisky.
I’ll be posting whisky reviews regularly moving forward, and we’ll get to see whether or not we are in simpatico. As reviews get posted (there are plenty in the queue), this system will start creating it's own dialogue. More on that later.
My summary of the Laphroaig line-up for Spotlight Toronto:
Each time I have sampled the line of Laphroaig whisky, I leave with the same conclusion—The Quarter Cask is wildly brilliant for the price-point, and the 18 Year Old is complex and hard hitting with flavour.
Check out the rest.
The Bruichladdich Octomore series and Ardbeg Supernova series hold a special place for me. As a peated whisky fan, I purchased the 2010 releases on my first trip to Scotland, and have been following their progression since. There are similarities between these whiskies. They’re both pushing the boundaries of extreme peat levels, and they’re both bottled without an age statement. They both also have a big cult following with consumers willing to pay high price for them.
In 2010, these whiskies were ahead of their time. High-priced no-age statement (NAS) was a rarity saved for special releases. Today, that’s no longer the case. Expensive NAS whiskies are becoming the norm. The debate around NAS whisky comes down to price. Are you getting the same quality for the same price compared to whisky with an age statement? Revisiting Bruichladdich and Ardbeg peated NAS whiskies in 2014, I’m seeing the best and the worst of this debate.
One would think that NAS whisky and high levels of peat are a natural compliment. The assumption can be made that lengthy barrel maturation isn’t necessary with a whisky that is overpowering with smokiness. In many ways, the opposite is true. Flavours that come from barrel maturation (vanilla, spice) are necessary for balance. Otherwise you’re just drinking peated white dog. And that’s not a thing (Though I’m sure someone will make it a thing).
No-age statement whisky is a challenge to pull-off. NAS whisky was an important part of Bruichladdich’s strategy when reopening in the early 2000s. Octomore generated revenue from 5 year matured whisky, moving this young whisky into a high-priced range. They pulled it off beautifully, and while I haven’t had each edition of Octomore, the ones I have had I enjoyed a great deal. Ardbeg Supernova, on the other hand, had two releases in 2009 and 2010 and then went dormant leaving whisky fans pining for its return. In subtle ways, Ardbeg Supernova 2010 was a better product compared to Octomore’s release at the time.
But what about today?
I did several blind tastings of Octomore 6.1 and Supernova 2014. If their flavours were comparable to sports cars (work with me on this one), the Ardbeg is a deep throttling Mustang that bursts in heavy off the line with volume and speed. It dies, however, quite quickly toward the finish in a heavy slow loud mess. The Octomore bursts in with high-revving gear changes that take it through into a beautiful long finish like a well balanced sports car that takes turns beautifully.
To be fair to the Supernova, its biggest fault is it pales next to Bruichladdich’s Octotmore 6.1. To also be fair to other whiskies, I enjoy the much cheaper (and also NAS) Laphroaig Quarter Cask far more. Supernova 2014 does get better through the start and middle when allowed to sit in the glass for over 10 minutes, but I can’t get over the flat unpleasant finish. Maybe I purchased a spoiled bottle, but the reviews for Supernova 2014 have not been overly positive.
These drinks represent today’s whisky world. They’re both expensive. They’re both bottled without an age statement. The Bruichladdich represents an excellent example of a no-age statement whisky that’s rewarding in flavour. Ardbeg Supernova 2014 is an example of the concern around scotch whisky. High-priced, high-demand, and in my opinion, lesser quality. Ardbeg Supernova 2014 is a commercial success, but will it hurt the Ardbeg brand?
Ardbeg Supernova 2014
It’s fairly pale in colour. On the nose, the charred wood is unmistakable but not terribly intense considering the peat levels. Lots of cereal notes, and high on vanillas reminding me of cake. The longer your wait, the more happens, ranging toward the scent of distant darker fruits.
Lots of citrus notes to start on the palate, with heavy vanilla, but these flavours almost immediately are overrun by high levels of smoke. The smoke is more on the nose, and less on the tongue. The spice levels increase the longer you wait, but toward the extremely long finish there’s an unfortunate turn. There’s a start of this beautifully balanced finish, but just when you think the drink is done, the bitterness settles in. It’s like having an old dried steak that’s got no flavour, but all of the chewy unpleasant texture.
Overall, it seems like something went wrong.
Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1
Slightly darker colour compared to the Ardbeg. The nose is bright, peppery, with high levels of citrus that perk you right up. “Pay attention to me!” I’m hearing. There’s more depth here than just that, though, and the most interesting scent I get is that of recently sanded fresh oak. Dusty, (again) bright, attention grabbing. Oh yes, and it’s peaty like a bonfire in your face. Nicely done!
It’s hard to get the right adjective for the palate. I can tell you what it feels like. It feels like the best of a cold light beer on a cool fall day. Like the nose, it’s bright and welcoming, with lots of spice. The caramel notes are fresh—these aren’t the caramel candy that you found in your jacket from two years ago. Instead, this is artisan caramel just solidifying from its liquid form. The heat comes through. The smoke is present on the nose as you taste this drink, and settles beautifully on the toung wrapping it up. The finish is dry, smoky, and vibrant with spice.
A really excellent example of peated scotch that goes beyond the gimmick of peat-levels, and a stand-out in my whisky cabinet.