In the first posting of my experience at the Single Malt Whisky Society Extravaganza I gave a cursory review of the night, which I felt was fun, informative, interesting, and well worth the price tag ($120 for WhiskyParty readers with the passcode WP2010). Here I’d like to delve a little deeper and pass along some of the good stuff I learned from talking to the various brand ambassadors, distillery reps, and even one master distiller.
In the spirit of trying some different whiskies, I actually started out at the Dewar’s table, being that I’m more of a single malt guy. Jobeth Harris, the brand rep, very pleasantly led me through the range, beginning with the ubiquitous 12 year old that “hits every part of your palate.” Indeed there’s some honey and heather there, evidencing the Aberfeldy base of the blend. But the 18 year old comes across better, and was more robust, with some sherry dried fruits and a faint touch of smoke (and it costs $70 a bottle). The Signature is purported to be the prize of the range, though, comprised of over 40 single malts and clocking in at $200 a bottle. A muted and disappointing nose was followed by a slightly more heavily sherried palate, but I couldn’t really get into this one. I suppose it should compete with JW Blue Label, perhaps for those who like touches of sherry influence rather than hints of pepper and smoke.
From there I moved just inches over to try two Aberfeldys. I thought the 12 year old (43%) had a nice nose with burnt toast, becoming floral and earthy at the same time. The 21 year old, mostly aged in refill bourbon barrells, had an intruigingly pungent nose, with a honeyed entry on the palate followed by chocolate notes and a nice long finish. Quite good.
After running into Steve and Gene from Chicago’s great South Loop stockhouse of excellent beer, wine, and whisky, Warehouse Liquors, we hit the equally well-stocked Ardbeg table. Yeah, we started right off with the now discontinued Airigh Nam Beist, skipping over the 10 yo and Uigeadail. A nose of banana cream with a touch of soft peat and a palate like a bonfire, but sharp and intense like you’re right there getting slightly singed. Next up was the Corryvreckan, with an average age of 15 years. More mineral, this one, with decadent butterscotch and a crescendo of building peat. Bourbony nose; truly great legs.
Laphroaig had all kinds of good stuff, but I went right for the $400+ 25 year old. With whisky that had spent 25 years in casks, some in sherry and some in bourbon, the red-grape nose really stood out. It didn’t have quite the creamy richness of the now historical 30 year old, but the non-chill filtration brings a great coating mouthfeel and some of the tightest, slowest beaded legs I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a layered dram, with sweet peat topped by dried sherried fruits and fresher strawberry notes, followed by a delightful floral finish.
Afterward I crossed the room and had the good fortune of going in-depth with Stephanie Ridgway of Highland Park, and here’s what I learned: everything at the Kirkwall distillery in Orkney has been done the same way since 1789. A very high 20% of its malt is still floor malted on site, and the peat used for malting comes right out of Hobistor moore, where decomposed heather replaces the cut malt year after year.
The American oak used by HP to age its liquid is always seasoned with Olorosso sherry (never boubon), and handpicked in the Ozark mountains of Kentucky (which produces tighter-grained wood than Europe) before it is sent to Spanish bodegas for filling. European oak also comes into play, as does a high percentage of first-fill ex-sherry casks for all their products. 25% of the 12 year old liquid comes from first-fill sherry butts, whereas 30-35% of the 15 year and 50% of the 25 year come from first-fill sherry casks.
And then finally, everything is harmonised for extra time in the wood— this is the step that makes Highland Park truly stand out (they tell me). Well, let’s see. The 25 year old had a pungent, layered nose, with berries in cream and a smoke layer. A grass fire palate had notes of white chocolate followed by a plentitude of spices and then developing a sweetness in the finish. Very truly excellent. The 30 year old, looking like new, shiny copper, had hay, white wine, and a very delicate smoke on the nose. The palate featuered a crescendo of honey and flowers giving way to rich spices and a wall of sweet honey bbq smoke on the finish. Well now.
But the final two experiences I’ll share were some of the best of the night. Maria Rozas, one of the SMWS Extravaganza coordinators, led me down the line of the Society’s own single-barrel, unchill-filtered whiskies. All were truly excellent, but my favourite was a Lowlands featuring tobacco and some very tropical, very magical fruits on the nose. On the palate were mouthfulls of honey dew melon, black pepper, lavendar oil, and juicy fruit, with a lingering sweet finish. The name of the distillery, and all of the others offered at the SMWS table, will curiously have to remain a secret to all those who don’t attend the extravaganza, however.
And for the highlight of the night, I met Balvenie Master Distiller David Stewart. We mainly discussed the current trend in peating whiskies, even those of the Speyside and Highland regions. As a peated 9 year old Balvenie was continuing to age in a warehouse somewhere near Dufftown, Mr. Stewart informed me that Balvenie had been peated from time to time in years past, and that the latest peated efforts of the distillery are not as revolutionary as we might think. Well, that peated 9 year old began aging in new American oak casks that had since been emptied and used to finish about seventy percent of the liquid that makes up the newly released 17 year old Peated Cask expression. It seems as if Balvenie has had a (mostly) successful run with their 17 year old finished series; not the most common age for a Scotch, I asked if there was something special about Balvenie at 17 years old— no, apparently it’s an arbitrary age, but it has worked, said the Master Distiller.
But the Peated Cask is not just a wild experiment. It is a very specific flavour that they’re after, and to acheive that, they begin aging the liquid in ex-bourbon barrels, and then finish thirty percent of that 17 year old in new oak to keep it sweet. The end result is a nice combination of vanilla, spices, and peat on the palate.
The 15 year old single cask Balvenie, on the other hand, is a remarkable bargain, but I’ve always wondered how they are able to produce so many shelf-worthy single-cask bottles when what we’re led to believe by the industry is that such a fine cask is so rare (and thus sometimes worth hundreds of dollars per 12 year old bottle). But Mr. Stewart samples every barrel himself as it approaches 15 years old, picks the good ones, and has the “losers” recasked for further aging. This sampling is what he calls “the fun part.” Indeed. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other new expression from David Stewart and company, the 14 year old Carribean Cask. It’s a younger (and hence cheaper, but still great) version of their 17 year old Rum Finish from a few years back, with plenty of pineapples and papaya.
And that was just a sampling of the booths/whiskies/experiences from the Single Malt Whisky Society of America’s Extravaganza. Fortunately for you, there’s still several more events around the country over the coming few weeks, so go enjoy some special whiskies if you haven’t done so already.