Springbank Gaja Barolo

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Distillery/Brand: Springbank | Region: Campbeltown | ABV: 54.7% | Color: Gold
Nose: 22 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 21 | Balance: 21 | Rating: 85

Review
Springbank is pretty much a genius distillery in my opinion. The way it produces three different whiskies from one set of stills is quite remarkable. And the fact that each whisky is pretty darn good is further testament to it’s stellar reputation.

It’s fought it’s fair share of wars with sulphur but then who hasn’t? Springbanks are primarily sherried and gently peated with an air of coastal sea salt around them. Their 10 & 12 year old cask strength versions are a joy to behold. As is the rather pricey 21 year old.

This particular expression is not as old that. Bottled at nine years it spent it’s first four years in a bourbon cask and the last five in a fresh Gaja Barolo barrel.

The Gaja Barolo is a type of red wine produced in Northern Italy using the Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes. I’ve, frankly, never had a Gaja Barolo so I’m not really sure what to expect.

The sample I have was distilled in February 2004 and bottled in October 2013. It is one of 11,000 bottles and served at 54.7% ABV.

Nose: Quite grainy. Dusty. Green. Herbaceous. Hint of talcum powder. Very mild peat. Faint cardboard. Ginger gratings. Dry wood. Honey. Sea salt. Could have been stronger overall. Lacks the depth and complexity, in my opinion.

Palate: Lots of pepper. Oak. Berries. Sea salt. Mild peat. Cinnamon. Dark chocolate. Tannins. Tobacco leaves. Brown sugar. A bit rough around the edges and a touch bitter. It’s not a disaster, mind you. But it so easily could have been.

Finish: Woody. Coffee beans. Some spice. Berries. Bitter ash.

Not entirely sure whether the experiment is working. It’s interesting enough, I suppose. Not sure why this particular wine was chosen to mature the spirit. I wish I could get my hands on an actual bottle of Gaja Barolo just to understand.

Not my favorite Springbank, that’s for sure.

Rating: 85

Amrut Fusion

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Distillery/Brand: Amrut | Region: India | ABV: 50% | Color: Copper
Nose: 23 | Taste: 24 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 93

Review
Those of you who know me know that I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to anything Amrut. I heard about this distillery from Bangalore from an Indian friend of mine and was then pleasantly surprised to hear that a certain Mr Murray had rated it as his Top 3 for the year.

Intrigued I set about trying to snag a bottle but given the distillery’s ridiculously tiny output and (at that time) limited distribution it was proving to be an extremely tough assignment.

Anyway, after much perseverance (twelve calls to the distillery and a friend traveling from India) I somehow finally managed two. Luckily for me it was totally worth the favor I had to reluctantly pull.

At 46% they were intended for the local Indian market which gave me a hankering for the 50% export expression. By that time my local distributor had some in stock so it was much easier scoring a third bottle.

Amrut Fusion is a blend of peated Scottish barley and un-peated Himalayan barley. Distilled separately using water from Punjab both spirits are left to mature independently for three to five years in ex-Bourbon barrels and then married together to create what is, arguably, my favorite thing to come out of India.

PS: If my wife is reading this I meant to say second favorite thing.

This sample is from Batch No 10 bottled in May 2011 and opened over two years ago. The oxidization seems to have made this even better than I remember.

Nose: Strong barley. Honey. Peat. Salt. Coffee. Chocolate. Mocha. Perfectly ripe bananas. Crisp pears. All spice. Hint of husk and breakfast cereal. Funnily enough it has a sherry quality to it even though there is none involved. A warm captivating nose.

Palate: Creamy mouthfeel. Peppers. Orange marmalade. Honey. Raisins. Figs. Almonds. Cream puff. Chocolate. And that oak. It’s the perfectly crafted oak that makes this delivery quite sensational.

Finish: Oily. Long. Spices. And that magnificent oak.

This is the dram that put a traditional rum making distillery on to the whisky map. The expressions that followed were genius but they were dared on the back of this savant.

Rating: 93

Compass Box The General

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Distillery/Brand: Compass Box | ABV: 53.4% | Color: Full Gold
Nose: 24 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 24 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 94

Review
Everyone loves a good story. None more so than me when it comes to whisky. And Compass Box seem to have a ton in store. Given the lopsided state of the whisky industry where stories (read marketing gimmicks) trump whisky quality it is natural to be a bit weary of enticing tales.

But when the spirit inside the bottle just happens to be a cut above so many of the others then a good story makes it that much more special.

Which is precisely the case with this gorgeous and extremely unique blend.

Compass Box, in my opinion, are possibly the finest independent bottlers of blended whisky today. From the Spice Tree to The Flaming Heart and now to this beautifully crafted gem there is seldom an instance when they are sub-par at their craft.

One day a strange thing happened at the Compass Box offices. A cask turned up claiming to be around 33 years of age which included spirit that had already been blended when young and left to mature. Now this is a strange thing to have in ones’ possession.

However, what is stranger still is that another cask was brought into their possession which also happened to have blended spirit in it and this one had been maturing for over 40 years. But no one really knows for sure.

The delightful mystery is that no one really knows what kind of whiskies were in both casks or even what sort of casks they were. So Compass Box did what they do best. They experimented.

They felt the only way this could work was if both the spirits were blended to make one whisky. And so after many tries at the correct ratios they finally arrived at The General. This blend is named after the 1926 Buster Keaton movie where he takes an old steam locomotive (The General) on a wild ride to find the love of his life.

One of 1678 bottles and bottled at 53.4% this is one of the finest blends you can try.

Nose: Equally strong sherry as well as bourbon. Very dry. Lots of oak. A lovely weathered oak at that. Warm chocolate oranges. Clove. Nutmeg. Cinnamon. Wood varnish. Sweet brown sugar. Sandalwood. Maple syrup. Dry autumn leaves and the faintest of peat. A lovely and strong nose.

Palate: Cinnamon. Dark honey. Maple syrup. Chocolate. Apple stew. Hints of cumin. And that beautifully textured wood. So mature and held together with amazing poise.

Finish: Long. Oloroso sherry. Cinnamon. And the mature oak is back.

This is a lovely whisky which seems to have worked as a result of creative blending. And every time I try a different Compass Box release I fall in love with their style a little more.

Rating: 94

Highland Park Harald

Highland Park Harald
Distillery/Brand: Highland Park | Region: Islands | ABV: 40% | Color: Gold
Nose: 22 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 21 | Balance: 21 | Rating: 85

Review
I’m generally a fan of Highland Park. It was one of the first whiskies I had ever tried. Luckily for me it was a bottle of the 18 year old and I remember thinking Bloody hell! There is no way whisky can taste that good!

The entry level 12 year old is decent enough, in my opinion, while on the other hand the premium 25 and 30 are in a league of their own. Though, mind you, I have had a fairly ordinary 1998 once as well. Which is fine since there is no way you can hit everything out of the park.

Including this one.

Highland Park recently released six Travel Retail Exclusive NAS expressions named after Viking warriors from the ages. All of which have funny sounding Norse names like Sven, Kristoff and Olaf.

Wait, I think that’s from the movie Frozen.

Anyway, this particular one is called Harald, named after the 9th century Norse ruler credited to be the first King of Norway and the one who unified the country. Unfortunately, the only thing this whisky is going to unify is the people who think it’s quite average.

Produced using both American & European oak casks 50-50 first fill and refill and 50-50 Euro and American oak sherries it is bottled at a rather weak 40%.

Nose: Musty. Cabbage water. Mushy peas. Coastal sea-salt. Quite briney with a hint of malt balls. A touch of that Orcadian peat. Cherries. Red apples. The mustiness clears after twenty minutes in the glass leaving behind a more crisp sherry influence. It’s a decent enough nose.

Palate: Caramel. Cereal. Quite mousy. Mild black peppers. Nuts. Brown bread. Yeasty. Drying oak. The palate is a touch underpowered. I don’t know what another 6% could have done. No harm I’m sure.

Finish: So short. Chocolate. Cinnamon. Oak. But so short.

If you’re going to name your whiskies after Viking warriors make sure they pack a punch. This one just limply shakes your hand.

Rating: 85

Balcones Texas Single Malt

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Distillery/Brand: Balcones Distilling | Region: America | ABV: 53% | Color: Gold
Nose: 22 | Taste: 21 | Finish: 22 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 87

Review
The first two whiskies I had from Balcones Distillery were the Brimstone Resurrection and the Brimstone Blue Corn. Both spirits being uniquely treated to sun baked Texas Oak smoke.

The result was a truly unique flavor profile which can be best described as a spicy Texas campfire. Now for those of you who know me I’m a sucker for anything unique and anything that can challenge my palate and both of these wonderful whiskies ticked the right boxes for me.

With my curiosity piqued I got my hands on one of the very few single malts out of USA, the Balcones Texas Single Malt.

Chip Tate, the owner of this wonderful micro-distillery, uses a secret formula to mature his spirit – experimenting with used bourbon barrels of different sizes and ages to create his flavors.

The Texas Single Malt is distilled from Scottish malted barley called The Golden Promise. Produced by Northern Brewers this traditional strain has a sweet, clean flavor and is favored for making good Scottish ale.

My sample is from Batch SM12-10 (bottled 12/31/2012) and served at 53%.

Nose: So fruity. Lots of citrus. Floral. Light fleshy fruits. Banana. Apricots. Jack fruit. So much Jack Fruit it’s insane. Chocolate. More Horlicks. Fresh grass. Beeswax. Honey dew melon. And mango. This reminds me of a Yamazaki Distiller Reserve I recently tried. Like a tropical fruit basket.

Palate: Chili. Lots of it first up. Mellows out mid-palate with pink melon. Chocolate. Lots of oak. Fennel. Cumin. Banana. And there it is again. That jack fruit. That never-ending jack fruit. Such an overripe tropical fruit platter.

Finish: Long. Oak. Orange. Pink papaya. And the melon is back.

Now let me be honest. After the first two Balcones I had pegged this distillery to produce only highly smoked, insanely unique flavor profiles. However, this Texas Single Malt is more like a Scapa 16 and Yamazaki Distillers’ Reserve blended together.

That’s not entirely a bad combination but it doesn’t work for me given my first two experiences. One need not go to Waco, Texas to get this flavor profile. With some creative blending it can be found in Scotland.

Mind you, it’s not that bad but it certainly belies it’s heritage as a kick-ass Texan.

Rating: 87

Balcones Brimstone

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Distillery/Brand: Balcones Distilling | Region: America | ABV: 53% | Color: Dark Bronze
Nose: 23 | Taste: 22 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 22 | Rating: 90

Review
Up until a few months ago I had not heard of Balcones Distillery. The brainchild of Texan Chip Tate this micro-distillery is only six years old and has already won a Confederate pickup worth of awards including a WWA for it’s Brimstone Resurrection bottling.

After managing to get hold of the award-winning sample I decided this micro-distillery was far too exciting to just pass up after one experience. They have around seven expressions all of which are under two years of age. Using mainly blue corn for distillation the unique spirit is smoked with sun baked Texas Oak giving it it’s signature charred barbecue pit flavor.

Balcones Brimstone is made with 100% blue corn and matured for just under two years in American Oak but only after it’s undergone a thorough Texas oak smoking. My bottle is from Batch BRM14-1 bottled on January 22, 2014 at a lovely 53%.

Nose: So unique. I have not nosed a whisky this different. Sweet diesel. Cinnamon. Garam Masala. Charred oak. Bitter chocolate. Red chilies. Barbecue pit. Burnt caramel. Digestives. Jute bag full of husky grains. Imagine sitting in the desert around a campfire.

Palate: Medium bodied. Red chilies. Bitter chocolate. Sour cherries. Smoked oak. Dried tobacco. Bitter marmalade. Red win tannins. Leather. This is quite an intense delivery with the red chili leading the way. Sadomasochistically delicious.

Finish: Long. Herbal. Minty. Lots of wood. Husk.

I’m a sucker for anything out of the ordinary. Be it a creative process or unusual taste. And if something has both then it’s got me.

Can’t wait to get through the other expressions.

Rating: 90

Ardbeg Kildalton 2014

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Distillery/Brand: Ardbeg | Region: Islay | ABV: 46% | Color: Sunlight
Nose: 23 | Taste: 23 | Finish: 23 | Balance: 23 | Rating: 92

Review
Needless to say, and for those who know me, I have been an Ardbeg fan ever since I can remember. Which is basically to say I can only remember as far back as four years which is when my journey of whisky madness commenced.

Ardbeg was my muse and I collected and sampled as many expressions as I could humanly get my hands on. Of late, though, following on the heels of the Uigi, Corry and Alligator, it felt like my once favorite distillery was losing steam. The Fies Iles were not as powerful as the spirits that had captivated my attention.

Ardbeg Day was OK, not bad. The Galileo again missed the mark for me. Ardbog was decent. Auriverdes was so-so in my opinion. There was more mediocrity than there was greatness. And that was saddening.

And so when the new 2014 Kildalton came out I was skeptical of the spirit inside. But like a spoilt child in a toy shop I had to have it just so that it could sit on my shelf for all to see.

What I did not know was that my distillery had taken this moment to announce, what I hope is, a true return to form.

Bottled as a way of supporting the North Highland Initiative charity that supports fragile, rural communities across the North Highlands in Scotland.

Available only at the distillery Ardbeg Kildalton takes its name from the nearby Kildalton Cross. At 1200 years old the Kildalton Cross is an icon of Islay and Scotland and stands six miles along the coast from the distillery. Ardbeg also released a whisky by the name of Ardbeg Kildalton back in 2004.

It has been matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks (both 1st fill and refill) and comes in at a chewy 46%.

Nose: Mild peat. Warm tangerines. Touch of toffee. Melon fruitiness. More like Lovehearts. Delicate parfum with a hint of oak. Faint ash. And iodine that transcends into a more floral eucalyptus. It’s a wonderfully balanced nose and shows a lovely range of complexities the longer you sit with it.

Palate: Chargrilled citrus. Smoke and peat. Lemon sweets. Mild spices – more white than black pepper. Fruity vanilla and apricot. Hints of wood. The mouthfeel is quite deliciously creamy. Dries a touch in your mouth signaling good quality sherry.

Finish: Long with mocha wood and a touch of mint. The drying sherry is back.

After a really long time I was treated to some classic well-balanced flavors from Ardbeg. The intention and packaging behind the whisky are both noble. I would, however, love to know the age of the spirits inside. I’m going to guess nothing older than 9 or 10. But then age is just a number.

Welcome back Ardbeg. You were sorely missed.

Rating: 92