Ardbeg Wee Beastie
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedThis may be my first first-to-taste on this site! I went to a Glenmorangie event back in January (feels like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?), and they brought along a few Ardbegs to try as under-the-table drams. The standouts of the night were the Traigh Bhan and the 2019 Supernova, but they also had a sample of their upcoming Wee Beastie. I got a small pour, so I don't have highly specific tasting notes, but this was a perfectly pleasurable Ardbeg that felt like almost exactly what it is: a younger, punchier Ardbeg 10. Subtracting five years from the age didn't have a huge negative impact in my recollection, although it amped up the smoke, that Islay medicinal note (reminiscent of a young, 5-year-old peated Bunnahabhain I once picked up in Glasgow), and a wide array of herbaceous or grassy flavors. This bottle presents a very straightforward, classic peated whisky profile, and I think it's fairly priced at around $40-45. I'd slightly prefer Lagavulin 8, a close analogue that in rare instances can be found for under $50.
Highland Park The Dark 17 Year
Peated Single Malt — Islands, ScotlandTastedI tried this at a big whiskey event, so it wasn't the kind of experience where I could take detailed notes (not to mention the palate being pretty exhausted by the 17th or 18th mini-dram). All I can say is that this bottle beat the pants off an even more exclusive offering, the 15-year-old Florida exclusive single cask. That younger scotch came from a refill sherry and was predominated by nutty, bitter notes alongside classic Highland Park honey. The Dark is completely on the other end, and it tastes like a product aged primarily in first-fill PX sherry casks. It's not the most balanced, but it tastes like grape jam and a hint of peat. Strong in flavor, pleasurable, easy-drinking. I have mixed feelings about Highland Park and don't like it as much as, say, Talisker, but this is the second-best Highland Park that I've had the pleasure of trying. (No. 1 was Delilah's 13th anniversary single cask from about 12 years ago, which was the best sherry bomb I've ever had.)
Laphroaig 2005 12 Year Cask Strength (Alexander Murray & Co.)
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedI picked up this bottle from K&L Wines in San Francisco in spring 2019, after spending a few days hiking Yosemite with my mom (such a beautiful park, and such a lovely trip). Therefore, I'll always associate it with fond memories, although I'll try to avoid having those color my views of this whisky. Guys, this is not your typical Laphroaig at all. Typical Laphroaig is an ornery black bear coming at you with paws up and the stench of a long winter's hibernation. And, to be clear, I love that earthy, funky, peaty, smoky medicine. This is not that Laphroaig. This is a mule deer at Tuolumne Meadows at the early cusp of spring, sprightly and delicate. To drop the metaphors and provide some concrete tasting notes, the nose here is as sweet as treacle and whipped cream, and reminds of the first time I tried baba au rhum. It's also a bit boozy and reticent to give up more notes than that general, almost Highland-like sweetness. Peat appears when it hits the tongue with its rich and oily texture, and there must be some sherry casks in this batch because it has the citrus and tart candies that I associate with sherry-casked Islay whisky. The finish is fruit -- pears, grapefruit -- and mellow, herbal peat. It is not right in my wheelhouse but this is exactly why we buy independent bottles: to see a completely different facet of a distillery that we think we know, and know we love.100.0 USD per Bottle
BenRiach Curiositas 10 Year
Peated Single Malt — Speyside, ScotlandTasted10 years is a peak age for many peated whiskies. It's no coincidence that Laphroaig and Ardbeg age their introductory expressions for a decade, and that Bruichladdich's Port Charlotte line features a 10-year-old version. Peat in the single digits often manifests as overly harsh and ash-y, or medicinal and weird as hell (sometimes even producing hot garbage notes, which I truly but bizarrely enjoy). Highland peat and Islay peat are a little different, as expressions like the Balvenie Peat Week prove, but this bottle demonstrates that the decade mark is still a near-perfect time to bottle a peated whisky. Its signature is balance: smoky, earthy tones countered by beer-like malt and apple sweetness. It is not incredibly complex, but it is a simple, lovely pleasure of a whisky. It's an easy drinker and a great candidate for a daily nightcap whisky (alongside drams like Talisker 10, or Gledronach 12 for sweet-tooths). It's also reasonably priced in the $50-60 range, which makes it a realistic contender for that session dram role.
That boutique-y whisky company ? Islay #2 25
Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedWhiskey shows are such a wild, wonderful, frustrating mess. Tiny little thimbles in lieu of glencairns. People jostling on all sides (particularly unpleasant in this Age of Coronavirus). A meager handful of plates of food circulating for seconds before being ravaged by the masses. Not to mention the bombardment upon the palate. After the first few micro-drams, everything starts to blend together on the tongue, and buzzy-brain hardly helps. Glendronach 12, 18, Benriach 10 Curiositas, Jameson Cold Brew and Black Barrel, Aberlour A'bunadh Alba, Rittenhouse, Laphroaig Quarter Cask in quick succession. Sweet, rich, peaty, coffee (literal coffee, in the case of that Jameson), apples, mint, smoke. And then I had a chance to try this stellar, memorable Islay from an unnamed distillery, bottled by That Boutique-y Whisky Company. It was the secret "under the table" bottle from these folks. My understanding is that this retails for about $200 for a half-size bottle, which is pretty reasonable all things considered. Laphroaig 25 commands a similar price per volume. I guessed that this was a distinguished older Laphroaig, although the wiser distributor told me that he believed it was Ardbeg. Most authorities online side with him, although there are dissenting voices. Regardless, this is a muscular tiger of a dram, featuring waves of toffee, sinewy smoke, stewed pears, and well-oiled leather. My impression was that it's largely if not entirely ex-bourbon, although the person pouring it told me there may be a sherry cask in there as well. This one is smokier and less fruity than Laphroaig 25 and hits all of the classic older Islay notes. Even though it plays it a little safe, it was the liquid highlight of the night.
Bowmore Vault Edition First Release Atlantic Sea Salt
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedOne of the funniest recurring motifs in The Fantastic Mr. Fox is how characters keep referring to the main character's son Ash as a little "different" (with a signature hand gesture, to boot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uaClHZVvD0). This Sea Salt special release of Bowmore is definitely *waves hands around* different. It's not bad-different, exactly, and not amazing-different, just . . . different. Salt wasn't the dominant theme to my palate. Instead, this one tasted young, medicinal, and herbal, with heavy doses of acidic citrus and a slight drying effect that left me with a puckering sensation. That astringency may read as salt to some. This is a dram that doesn't taste like anything else I've encountered in Bowmore's lineup, and reminds me more of peated Bunnahabhain or some of the oddities that one would find from Bruichladdich. To the extent the goal was to create something entirely novel out of Bowmore's distillate, they accomplished that goal. Now the only question is whether people really want to pay $125+ for it.
Ardbeg Supernova 2019
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedTake this with a grain of salt (and there's quite a few of those in this whisky's flavor profile), for I've never tried the older Supernovas, but this is a bruiser of a single malt. I tried this back to back with the new 19-year-old Traigh Bhan, and they are incredibly different. Traigh Bhan has a mellower, better integrated profile with more chocolate and coffee notes that come from the union of bitter and sweet notes. In comparison, Supernova is ashy billows of smoke from nose to finish, with a generous dose of salinity. It is fairly similar to, although easier drinking than, Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength, and I prefer that bottle due to its superior availability and humbler price point.
Bowmore Vintner's Trilogy 27 Year Port Cask
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedI recently attended a Friends of Laphroaig tasting event that also featured some bottles from its sister Beam-Suntory brand Bowmore. I'm not an age snob (see previous review of Laphroaig 30 Ian Hunter for a longer explanation), but this is a knockout of a dram. It is heavily fragrant, with an alluring mixture of dark chocolate, raspberry coulis, and woodsmoke on the nose. The palate is richer than the ABV, while the bite is lower: toffee, more peat, and stewed fruits swirl together. I have found port finishes to be very hit and miss for Islay whiskies, with Laphroaig's 2013 Cairdeas Port Wood being an all-time high and Kilchoman's recent port finishes to be off-putting. This is a very successful port finish that reminds me of that old Laphroaig, albeit costing 5 times as much! This dram's final notes are classic sweet-and-peat, with more smoke than I'd expect for a scotch that's just a few years younger than I am, and I was sorry to see it go.
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year 2019 Edition
Peated Single Malt — Islay, ScotlandTastedArdbeg and Macallan provoke a lot of intense fan devotion and, as a consequence, have some of the most extreme pricing in the single malt market. The unfortunate reality is that those prices put their virtuoso expressions out of reach for the average consumer, including this humble whisky drinker. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to try this $300-400 bottle at a recent tasting that focused on sister brand Glenmorangie. In contrast to its Islay neighbors, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Ardbeg's malt seems characteristically "heavy." It's dense and oily, an effect that doubles when aged in sherry casks that darkens and enrichens the fruit notes already present in the distillate. What it shares in common with those other distilleries is that it reaches peak balance and complexity in its mid to late teens, so Mickey Head and team made a wise choice by fixing this new permanent lineup addition at 19 years old. At this age, the smoke has softened up enough that it doesn't aggressively attack the palate, instead blending together flavors of long-steeped tea, cedar woodsmoke, and barbecue char in an intoxicating combination. This whisky has pronounced streaks of brown sugar, caramel, and dark chocolate as well. It's an overelaborated Michelin star restaurant dessert of a dram, and one of my favorite Ardbegs. Although it's hard to find a direct comparison, Lagavulin Distiller's Edition has a similar profile and is close in age (around 17 years), for about $200 less. In light of the stratospheric pricing, I have to deduct a half-star or so for this bottle.
GlenDronach Master Vintage 1993 25 Year
Single Malt — Highlands, ScotlandTastedGlendronach is my favorite sherried whisky, but I'm afraid I have to say that this is far from my favorite Glendronach. One recurring theme that I've found in tasting older whiskies is that you are guaranteed to pay for rarity but can only hope for satisfaction. To be clear, I'm not saying that this is a bad whisky. It's a tremendously accomplished expression and one that highlights different facets of the distillery's inventory of incredible barrels. Compared to the dessert drams that characterize the standard lineup, such as the cherry compote of the delicious 12-year-old (which blows Macallan out of the water) and the supreme 18-year-old (again, Macallan who?), this whisky is dry and almost savory. Nutty flavors predominate: bitter walnut, almond and amaretto, and creamy cashew. If I'd tasted it blind, I wouldn't have guessed that it was 20+ years old, because some grassy or herbal notes remind me of younger whiskies. There are bitter components that can be quite pleasurable, like cocoa or coffee, but there are a few too many to achieve the ideal balance.