Consumer interest in Scotch whisky continues to grow in the United States. This is due in part, to sheer variety and volume of product. New bottlings of single-malt Scotches keep appearing on the shelves of liquor retailers and back bars. These bottles are produced by the distilleries themselves as well as the growing roster of independent merchants who purchase entire casks of whisky from distilleries and then bottle the contents under their own label. This month, we look at a host of distillery and merchant offerings.
The philosophy behind independent bottlings is simple: purchase small quantities (normally one or two barrels) of high-quality or especially idiosyncratic malts, bottle them (usually at cask strength) under your own label, and charge steeper prices than the distillery bottlings. Independent merchant prices are routinely two to four times higher than distillery prices for whiskies of comparable age. The loftier prices are justified because each barrel is unique, the whisky is in limited quantity, the alcohol is typically higher than normal, the whisky is not usually chill-filtered and the endeavor is typically more labor-intensive.
The Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection and Gordon & MacPhail have been at the forefront of the independent merchant movement for many years. Compass Box is the brainchild of Scotch whisky maven John Glaser, who has acquired some obscure and rare grain and vatted blended malt whiskies and is offering them in a trio of bottlings. Grain whiskies are made from maize or wheat and distilled in towering stainless-steel patent stills. Vatted malts, on the other hand, have 100 percent barley malt as their base material, are distilled in small copper pot stills, and are comprised of several malts that are blended to create one whisky. Glaser, like most independent bottlers, does not chill-filter these whiskies nor does he add coloring.
In addition to Scotch, this month we also review a handful of exotic liqueurs that have recently entered the marketplace. A few of them should definitely find a way into your liquor cabinet. Happy drinking this May.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100) HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Cadenhead’s Linkwood 13 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 58.6% abv, $104. Old copper-penny color. The opulent, sap-like opening aromas are intensely oaky sweet; with six more minutes of aeration the honeyed bouquet turns remarkably concentrated, raisiny and woody. The palate entry is notable for its tastes of maple, butterscotch, vanilla extract and plum pudding; the addition of mineral water makes the flavor experience accelerate at the midpalate stage, where the oaky-rancio-nougat-sugar maple panorama of flavors go off the charts. The aftertaste is rich but not overly sweet.
Cadenhead’s Glengarioch 11 Year Old Eastern Highlands Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 56.6% abv, $89. Pretty, absolutely pure, yellow-straw color. Seductive aroma starts out sweet, malty, slightly peppery and intensely herbal; time in the glass deepens the aromatic virtues as composed, nutty and peppery scents of oak, malt, cigarette smoke and garden herbs wash over the olfactory sense. Palate entry is buttery, rich, nutty and malty sweet; midpalate explodes with generous, rich, honeyed flavors that include nougat, butterscotch, dark caramel and bittersweet chocolate. Aftertaste is long, dry, nutty and extremely satisfying.
Laphroaig 30 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Allied Domecq Spirits USA, Westport, CT); 43% abv, $225. Brilliant bronze color dazzles the eye. Early on, the aromas are rich, composed and mature, offering scents of oak char, medium-sweet malt, mild sea salt and spicy peat; later sniffings are treated to a quiet, serene sea air-seaweed perfume that hints at cigar tobacco and heather. The finest ever for Laphroaig: Mellow, perfectly melded flavors of soft peat, pipe smoke and sweet malt delight the taste buds. Finish is long, luxuriously sweet, slightly honeyed and slow. What Islay malt is all about.
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Bruichladdich 15 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Winebow, New York, NY); 46% abv, $65. Attractive amber/honey-gold hue. Aroma begins already much evolved in the glass as scents of sweet barley malt and pineapple make for an intriguing opening bouquet; aeration stimulates further fragrances including deft touches of oloroso Sherry, heather and sea salt. Palate entry shows enormous charm in the form of sap-sweet malt and the trace of peat that was missing from the aroma; midpalate focuses tightly on oloroso Sherry and dried flowers. Finishes warm, comforting, sweet and zesty.
Bruichladdich 20 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Winebow, New York, NY); 46% abv, $115. Pretty golden-yellow color. Initial two nosing passes within three minutes of the pour unearth an array of succulent, ripe fruit scents, most notably banana and nectarine; exposure to air encourages the fruit concentration to deepen; hardly any evidence of peat, oak or malt in this ambrosial bouquet. Palate entry is luscious, malty- sweet, and shows a dash of vanilla and maple. By the midpalate stage, the spirity heat pricks the tongue before the tastes of oaky vanillin and sweet barley malt. Finishes with a delicious flourish of malt.
Cadenhead’s Glenlivet 12 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 60.5% abv, $94. Autumnal amber/honey color. Opening sniffings come across floral, mildly sweet and elegant; air contact brings out lightly toasted, mildly peated aromas of dry cereal, oak, black tea and tobacco leaf—a clinic on what a Speyside bouquet should be like. On the midpalate, the flavors turn buttery and smoky as a deft trace of peat appears. Aftertaste is medium-long, gentlemanly, malty sweet and just a touch hot.
Compass Box Eleuthera Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); 46% abv, $50. Pale straw hue. Initial nosing passes immediately detect firm traces of seaweed, light peat, mint, fennel and dried herbs; aeration and swirling unleash assertive scents of licorice, brine and medium-peat. Palate entry is focused, concentrated and fiery; by midpalate the three-alarm blaze calms down and this reduction in spirity heat allows the flavor package of peat, dry malt and licorice to shine through. Aftertaste is embers-warm, peaty, briny and delicious.
Compass Box Hedonism Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); 43% abv, $75. Pretty gold-yellow tint. From the beginning nosings, the bouquet of almonds, hay and lanolin is something special; aeration adds succulent fragrances of sweet grain, mild oakiness and caramel. In the mouth, the flavors at entry are round, supple, grainy sweet and acceptably hot; by the midpalate, additional tastes of truffles, fried banana, butter and oaky vanillin contribute to the flavor experience. Finishes oily-sweet, almost buttery and immensely satisfying.
The MacTarnahan 15 Year Old Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; MacTarnahan’s Brewing Co., Portland, OR); 46% abv, $50. Attractive, deep honey hue. Opening nosing passes deliver supple, sweet aromas of malt, orange blossom and Sherry; aeration releases additional scents of light toffee, honey, cigar smoke and caramel—a nose that’s integrated and Sherry-sweet. Palate entry is honeyed, but firm and a bit warm from the 92-proof spirit; midpalate is fruity sweet, intensely malty, and Sherried, with just the slightest trace of peat smoke. Finishes lustily and spirity, showing background flavors of caramel and cigar tobacco. A delectable spirit with a fine balance reached between spirit, oak and malt.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Bruichladdich 10 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Winebow, New York, NY); 46% abv, $48. Pale yellow-straw hue is typical of Bruichladdich. Initial nosing passes reveal a soft malty sweetness that’s accented by sea salt; with time in the glass more floral, light peat, seaweed and wine scents emerge to enhance the salty-malty core fragrance. Palate entry is lightly peaty, grain-mash sweet and just a touch salty; the midpalate impression is meatier, as tangy tastes of sea breeze, unsweetened coconut and oak resin unite. Aftertaste shows a flash of spirity heat.
Cadenhead’s Aberfeldy 25 Year Old Central Highlands Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 57% abv, $199. Rich, amber/dark honey color. Opening aromas are tight, sap-like and oily; aeration over an additional six minutes serves to release dry to bittersweet scents of sweet malt, oak resin, beeswax and butterscotch. The palate entry is intensely caramelized, maple-like and spirity; the midpalate focuses tightly on the oak resin and malt; the aftertaste is long, supple and malty sweet. This is a solid, well-structured Central Highlands malt whose cask strength isn’t overpowering.
Cadenhead’s Bowmore 16 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 59.4% abv, $115. Deep amber color is gorgeous. Islay profile nose jumps from the glass in assertive waves of sea salt, medium-strength peat and dry breakfast cereal; exposure to air stimulates the brininess as the sea salt element takes charge, but not before wood char and vanilla surge into the nasal cavity. The entry is aggressive and spirity, but loaded with tastes of oak, tar, tobacco leaf and peat; the midpalate features tar and iodine-like peatiness, while the aftertaste is long, mildly sweet and intensely oaky.
Cadenhead’s Rosebank 11 Year Old Lowlands Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 57.5% abv, $89. Typical light straw-yellow tint. Enticing opening aromas offer fragile scents of asparagus, malt and green pepper; after five minutes of additional aeration the austere bouquet expands to include fresh herbs—in particular, dill and thyme—plus cardboard. Palate entry shows far better character than the nose, as evolved, assertive flavors of sweet malt and light toffee delight the taste buds. The midpalate phase is sweet and biscuity; the aftertaste firm, gently sweet and malty.
Compass Box Asyla Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Germain-Robin, Ukiah, CA); 43% abv, $38. Pale yellow/lemon-juice color. Opening nosing passes expose unusual fragrances of pear drop, banana and kiwi; after five minutes, further sniffings unearth a muted sweetness of grain mash, sunflower seeds and distant orange zest. Palate entry is aggressive compared to the aroma; at the midpalate stage, a strikingly rich and oily texture acts as the foundation for tastes of vanilla and intensely sweet grain. Aftertaste is fruity sweet, a bit fey and mildly grainy. Love that explosion on the tongue at palate entry.
Dun Bheagan 8 Year Old Islands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 43% abv, $30. Pale amber/flax hue. First nosing passes discover aromas of buttered toast, moderate peat smoke and a subtle hint of heather; after further aeration the emergence of semisweet malt, palm oil, cucumber and cocoa bean unite into a deliciously inviting, mildly briny-peaty bouquet. Palate entry displays flavors of dry breakfast cereal and burnt toast; at the midpalate point piquant flavors of honey, orange blossom, tobacco leaf, heather and light oak shine. Finishes politely in mildly sweet malty-fruity-heathery notes.
Dun Bheagan 8 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 43% abv, $30. Standard issue amber/harvest-gold hue. Opening aroma is properly fruity/floral for Speyside, with no surprises. Time in the glass affords the aroma the chance to gather some steam in the form of mild barley, paraffin, feathery-light peat smoke and cantaloupe. In the mouth, this malt is sound and assertive as the palate entry is lean, malty sweet, youthful but focused, while the midpalate shows an even wider array of tastes including marzipan, sugar cookie, vanilla bean and peppery oak. Aftertaste is long, sinewy and malty sweet.
Dun Bheagan 8 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 43% abv, $30. Pretty medium-amber/dusty-gold color. One whiff of this vigorous peaty/tobacco-like aroma tells me exactly where it’s from. The peat "reek-a-thon" continues in the later nosing passes—as air contact lights the fire under the bouquet, it emits pungent, smoky, briny and salty scents. Palate entry is gently sweet in a malty way, then at midpalate the peat smoke makes an appearance in earnest on the tongue. Finish is delightfully sweet and malty.
Cadenhead’s Auchentoshan 9 Year Old Lowlands Single Malt Whisky/Cask Strength (Scotland; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 57.4% abv, $89. Soft, pale-yellow straw tint. In the initial nosing passes there’s no aroma to speak of, then after two minutes a flowery bouquet emerges. With time in the glass, a typical floral Lowlands aroma develops that shows traces of malt and sweet marzipan. To my shock, the palate entry is potent, resoundingly sweet and almost syrupy in texture; midpalate flavors are punchy, flowery, malty and overly sweet. The aftertaste is long, slightly heated and woody sweet. I usually love Auchentoshans, but this merchant bottling is ordinary.
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Calanes Anis Dulce Liqueur (Spain; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 35% abv, $16/L. Crystal clear. Opening nosing passes are treated to a fine display of snappy, mildly sweet, anise perfume; aeration stirs a bit more assertiveness into the bouquet as the lead pencil quality of the anise takes charge of the aroma. Palate entry is charged with a creamy, zesty anise taste that makes the tongue tingle slightly; midpalate is gently sweet to the taste and velvety in texture. The aftertaste is deliciously herbal, correctly sweet and just a dash spirity. Best Buy.
Luxardo Caffe Sport Espresso Liqueur (Italy; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 27% abv, $20. Opaque, inky brown-black color. Forward nose is inviting and bitter, as in dark-roasted coffee beans. Time in the glass shows a softer, slightly sweeter side to this aroma in the form of traces of cocoa bean, tar and black pepper. Palate entry is bittersweet and intensely bean-like; midpalate stage is richly textured and tastes of espresso, bittersweet chocolate and tar or ash. One of the better coffee liqueurs I’ve tried. Best Buy.
Pontarlier-Anis Liqueur (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 45% abv, $35. Pretty greenish-yellow hue. Initial nosing passes detect lovely, lightly herbal aromas that highlight anise and lead pencil. With aeration, the bouquet expands to include licorice and slate. Palate entry is green, unripe, acceptably bitter and dry; by the midpalate, the taste profile deepens only slightly and becomes quite peppery. Finish is fresh, light-bodied, anise-y and bitter. A genuine find for anise-liqueur aficionados.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Angostura Caribbean Rum Cream Liqueur (USA; Chatham Imports, New York, NY); 15% abv, $13. Beige sand color is typical for cream liqueurs. Opening nosing pass offers piquant aromas of holiday spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) and soft cream; aeration adds a bit of chocolate fragrance. Palate entry is delicately creamy and medium-rich, while midpalate flavors are mildly spicy, milk chocolaty and easy on the tongue. Finishes moderately sweet and creamy. A nicely balanced dairy liqueur that doesn’t go overboard with spice, cream or sweetness. Best Buy.
Beirao Herb Liqueur (Portugal; Aidil Wines & Liquors, Rahway, NJ); 22% abv, $15. Brown/dark-amber color is pretty and pure. Nose at opening offers fresh garden-like scents of orange peel, honeysuckle, jasmine and rose petal; time in the glass affords the opportunity for other herbal fragrances to emerge, among them anise, thyme and rosemary. Palate entry is intensely sweet—almost red-fruit ripe—and remarkably minty; midpalate features spicy tastes of peppermint, tangerine peel and tea leaves. Finish is sweet but not cloying, herbal and minty. Best Buy.
Crème Boulard Cream Calvados Liqueur (France; Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, FL); 17% abv, $15. Standard-issue beige color. Initial nosing passes are confronted with a curious aroma that’s one part apple and one part cream, but the combination seems awkward and ill-suited at first; time in the glass sees the bouquet develop more roundness as the aroma takes on more of an apple-strudel-with-cream perfume that’s delightful. Palate entry is mildly apple-like, creamy and comfortably sweet; midpalate stage is medium sweet and pleasantly creamy. The aftertaste features more cream than apple. Best Buy.
Algarvinha Licor Almond Liqueur (Portugal; Aidil Wines & Liquors, Rahway, NJ); 20% abv, $10. Very pale straw hue. Opening sniffing finds a nutshell-like aroma; the nose is properly nutty and almondy, with a sweet twist at the end of the nosing phase. Palate entry is smooth, medium-bodied, sweet and almondy. By the midpalate, the almondy sweetness almost takes on a background taste of cherry pit. Finish is medium long, mildly sweet and correctly almond-like. Quaffable, but hardly in the class of Italy’s Lazzaroni Amaretto or Luxardo Amaretto.