We recently received two bottles of Bourbon that we’d already reviewed in our book, The Bourbon Companion. A letter accompanied these whiskeys explaining that, since we had reviewed them, the distillery (Buffalo Trace, formerly the Ancient Age Distillery) had reformulated the bottlings and was now using a different chill-filtering process that they believe is at least partially responsible for the whiskey in the bottle being of higher quality than before.
This is a tricky subject. The only reason that whiskey is chill-filtered (and most of it is) is to remove impurities that make the whiskey appear cloudy after it has experienced low temperatures. Unfortunately, those same so-called impurities contain lots of flavor. Thus, to make good-looking whiskey they filter it, but you can guarantee that it had more flavor before undergoing filtration.
We tasted these whiskeys blind with two other bottlings not reviewed here, just so that we wouldn’t know which was which. Result? Both Bourbons gained higher marks than before, but even more startling was the virtually complete change in character. We realized that we’d been tasting completely different whiskeys. Both were better than the previous incarnations, although one was far better than the other. Whatever the new process is, it seems to have had the desired effect.
Add to that the fact that we retasted the 7-year-old Evan Williams bottling because we had recently tasted it casually at a friend’s home, and it tasted far better than we remembered. Whether or not this bottling has been reformulated, there’s no doubt in our minds that this whiskey, too, is far better than it was just a few years ago.
The lesson to be learned here is that not all spirits remain the same over the years, and it’s often useful to go back to specific bottlings every now and again to see if they’ve changed.
—Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan
96 Couprie Framboise au Cognac (CVI Brands, CA) 21% abv, $30. This raspberry-flavored Cognac is very similar in color to a pale rosé wine. The nose is unmistakably full of fresh raspberry aromas, but the Cognac is also evident here. The body is big and elegant, and the palate—full of raspberries like the nose—bears a wonderful tartness and a hint of lemon zest. The finish is fairly short and refreshingly dry. Best Buy.
95 A. B. Polentes Crème de Cassis (V.O.S. Selections, NY) 16% abv, $46. Ruby red—almost Port-like—in color, the aroma of black currants bursts forth from this liqueur, along with a pleasant earthy note. The body is big, and the palate, though sweeter than the nose suggests, is incredibly well balanced, with a tart note that’s reminiscent of sour cherries. The finish is long, elegant, and similar to the palate.
93 Couprie Abricot au Cognac (CVI Brands, CA) 21% abv, $30. Pale straw in color, this apricot-flavored Cognac brings fresh apricot aromas that almost jump from the glass, while in the backdrop there’s a faint nuttiness that balances the equation. The body is rich and buttery, and on the palate some other fruits appear, but the apricot remains dominant, and here there’s a faint brandy note that brings sophistication. The finish is long, fruity sweet, and also shows a slight pepperiness.
80 A. B. Polentes Crème aux Citrons (V.O.S. Selections, NY) 23% abv, $46. Chartreuse yellow in color. The nose yields fresh lemon-zest aromas along with a caramelized sugar note. The body is medium and somewhat syrupy, and on the palate the sweetness bursts through and almost eliminates the lemon flavors. The finish is medium in length and lemony sweet.
94 Murray McDavid 1973 Macallan-Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch (Barrique Wine Company, IL) 46% abv, $135. Medium gold in color. The nose is earthy, with some Sherry notes and dark-berry aromas peeking through. The huge, rich, buttery body holds a palate that is similar to the nose but far spicier, more peppery, and drier than expected. The finish is amazingly long and very spicy. This is an extraordinary bottling of Macallan. Sip it neat.
90 Glenmorangie 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch (Brown-Forman Beverage Company, KY/Glenmorangie Distillery, Scotland) 43% abv, $37. This sparkling straw-colored whisky has a delicate nose, with some citrus notes and hints of wildflowers and fresh heather. The body is medium and buttery, and the palate holds light malty notes, hints of honey, tobacco, and just a mere suggestion of peat. There are also some subtle fruits evident here (melons?) and just a touch of lemon zest. The finish is far deeper than the palate suggests it might be, leaving a rounder, long, sweet/smoky taste alongside some masculine tobacco notes. A classic malt with a style all its own—ideal at any time except perhaps for breakfast.
89 The Macallan 50-year-old Millennium Edition Single Malt Scotch (Rémy Amerique, NY) 43% abv, $3,500. Deep amber in color. The aromas are sherried, with some prune notes showing through along with a touch of highly desirable paraffin and a faint fruitiness. The body is huge, lush, and buttery, and the palate is highly spiced, a little smokier than most Macallan bottlings, and bears faint notes of dried cherries along with a touch of rancio. The finish is long and spicy. This is an idiosyncratic bottling of The Macallan—far spicier than any other we’ve tasted—and although it’s well knit, we’d expect a little more complexity at this price.
88 Laphroaig 15-year-old Single Malt Scotch (Allied Domecq Spirits, U.S.A., CT) 43% abv, $61. Medium amber in color; the peaty nose bears hints of licorice and cigar smoke. The slick, oily body holds a peaty palate that’s more subdued and refined than this malt’s 10-year-old brother and brings with it an almost Sherry-like sweetness (although no Sherry butts are used to mature this malt) and a faint nuttiness in the backdrop. The finish is dry, peaty, sophisticated, and very long. Although this is unmistakably an Islay malt, it has a sophistication that perfectly illustrates what five more years in the wood can do to a Scotch.
88 Oban 14-year-old Single Malt Scotch (Schieffelin & Somerset Co., NY) 43% abv, $40. Light amber in color; the nose holds the scent of fresh sea air and just a hint of peat, with sweet butter lurking in the backdrop. The medium body holds a deliciously salty palate with rich peaty notes and a nicely formed backdrop of light fruits (melons, peaches?). The finish is incredibly long, salty and smoky. If you enjoy Campbeltown malts, well known for their saltiness, this Western Highland bottling is for you. Don’t add water to this one—it sips very well neat.
87 Murray McDavid 1990 Rosebank Single Malt Scotch (Barrique Wine Company, IL) 46% abv, $66. This pale-straw whisky bears a sweet floral nose with hints of Sherry. The light to medium buttery body bears a dry palate with a light pepperiness balancing the honeyed character. Finishes long and warm. Here’s a Lowland malt that can be hard to find—the distillery closed in 1993. Although it’s not the most complex of drams, the balance is marvelous. Sip it with a few drops of spring water.
86 Laphroaig 10-year-old Single Malt Scotch (Allied Domecq Spirits, U.S.A., CT) 43% abv, $38. Burnished gold in color; this quintessential Islay malt has a nose that’s intense with peat, iodine, and stormy sea air. The heavy, oily body holds an unforgiving palate as it charges around the mouth with flavors that replicate the aromas precisely. The finish is rich, long, oily, and very peaty. This malt isn’t for everyone, and it would be hard to declare that it’s a well-constructed complex dram, but there’s something about this whisky that makes it perfect for certain occasions. Think about a cold, rainy night when all you want is to curl up by the fire and get some heat in your stomach as well as on it.
83 Bunnahabhain 12-year-old Single Islay Malt Scotch (Remy Amerique, NY/The Bunnahabhain Distillery, Scotland) 43% abv, $38. This burnished-gold malt bears light peat and a slight saltiness in the nose. The body is medium, and the palate very dry with notes of hazelnuts, a slight peatiness, and a very faint, medicinal quality. The finish is fairly long and far spicier than the palate would lead you to believe.
82 Tamdhu Single Malt Scotch (Remy Amerique, NY/The Tamdhu Distillery, Scotland) 40% abv, $28. Pale gold in color; the fragrant nose is sweet and heathery, with a touch of Sherry. The body is medium, and the Sherry character follows through in the palate along with a hint of peat and a touch of honey. The finish is short and sweet.
Brandies and Eaux-de-Vie
96 A. B. Polentes Eau-de-Vie de Poire William (V.O.S. Selections, NY) 45% abv, $63. Ripe fresh pears are immediately detectable in the aromas of this clear eau-de-vie. The body is medium, and on the palate the pear flavors dance with a tongue-tingling pepperiness and just a hint of paraffin that provides good balance. The finish is long. Here’s a pear eau-de-vie that’s head and shoulders above most others, since in many bottlings the pear flavor is barely evident, and in some others it predominates to the extent that the spirit is more like a liqueur than an eau-de-vie.
95 A. Edmond Audry Reserve Speciale Fine Champagne Cognac (V.O.S. Selections, NY) 40% abv, $89. This burnished-gold Cognac bears aromas that are initially dry, with hints of tobacco, but a rich subtle fruitiness presents itself as a counterpoint after not too long. The body is medium, bordering on big, and on the palate, the fruitiness is barely detectable. Instead, a superb dry, austere mélange of flavors—tobacco, leather, and "forest after a rainstorm"—are present in excellent balance. The finish is long, dry, and somewhat peppery.
89 A. B. Polentes Bas Armagnac 1986 Sable Fauve (V.O.S. Selections, NY) 47.9% abv, $91. Medium-amber in color; the nose is at once peppery and fruity (prunes) with a hint of rancio. The body is big and silky, and the palate holds the same prune notes as are found in the nose, plus there’s a hint of sweet butter. But here the pepperiness of the spirit is out front, and the rancio, though present, is barely detectable in the backdrop. The finish is long and spicy.
93 Chinaco Blanco 100% Blue Agave Tequila (Jim Beam Brands Company, IL) 40% abv, $35. This pale straw-colored tequila holds a deliciously vegetal nose with notes of green wood, savory and sage. The body is surprising since it enters slim but then immediately fattens up, becoming very round and supple. On the palate, we find flavors similar to the aromas in the nose, but here there’s a peculiar note that’s reminiscent of the candied nuts sold by street vendors—it makes for a very interesting palate. The finish is smooth, long and warm. Although "blanco" tequilas are, by definition, unaged, we found no sign of youth here. This is a highly recommendable sipping tequila.