Highland Park Week – Day 5: Highland Park 9yo 1988/1997 (59.6%, Signatory Vintage, Sherry Butt #10700, 630 bottles)

Lets backup in time even some more. We stay in the land of the independent bottler, this time Signatory Vintage. We are going to take a look at another Highland Park matured in a Sherry cask, a butt even. This one is an even younger example at 9 years of age. The G&M/Whisky Mercenary bottling was 20yo, The Wilson & Morgan was around 14yo, and this Signatory Vintage bottling is a mere 9yo. Highly unusual back then, not so unusual today, since demand has risen dramatically. There is no time anymore to age the bulk of Whisky when there are so much of you around, dear readers. We’ll also go back in time bit since this was distilled in 1988. That is almost 30 years ago!

Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Funky Sherry, but this time with some quality behind it. Meaty and buttery as well, with some nice distant fruit going on. Dusty mocha and milk-chocolate. Dark chocolate as well. Steam, sowing-machine oil. Clean toilet notes, not to be mistaken by a freshly cleaned toilet odour. I know this sounds pretty peculiar, but I get it in this, so I couldn’t help myself and had to write it down. Deeper and more brooding. Probably Oloroso. Cedar wood with an oriental spice-mix and pencil shavings. Even though it is a young Whisky, it already smells like something from another era. Christmas spices. Christmas cake. Dusty and very thick. luxury and velvety, just like the box. The more it breathes the better is gets, give it lots of room for development. A much better Sherry cask than the one, the 1992 Wilson & Morgan expression matured in. After this, forget about that one.

Taste: Well this is almost 60% ABV and that shows. Its big, thick and a bit hot, but also very fruity (meaty blueberries), and amazingly pretty woody as well, but not too much. Luckily it also has some toffee sweetness to it, to balance it all out. Steam and coal. You are conned, by the initial sip, this is going to be sweet, but the sweetness is shoved aside by bullying tannins and Italian laurel licorice. I’m guessing this came from a first fill Oloroso butt, which impaired enough onto this Whisky, so it could be used as a very nice refill cask the second time around. Long oaky finish, with an even longer aftertaste full of black fruits and (cedar) wood. It isn’t all that complex, but when a Whisky is as tasty as this, it doesn’t need to be. It’s only 9yo, but it is bottled at the right time, believe me. Probably Oloroso, but Cream Sherry or PX might be possible as well.

Ohhh, I want one of these. 1988, wow, 9yo, wow-wow. This in my glass and some 80’s music, and I’d have a great day.

Points: 90

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Cragganmore 1988/2002 “Distillers Edition” (40%, OB, Double Matured in Ruby Port Wood, CggD-6553)

As could have been expected by reading the last review here is the Cragganmore Distillers Edition, and just like the 12yo this particular bottle, was also bottled in 2002. Cragganmore is seen by many as a top Whisky. Blenders see it that way, and especially Diageo see it that way too. Although it has been part of the original Classic Malts range from 1988, it never was the most popular of the six. I don’t have to spell them out for you don’t I? Well OK, the original six were: Lagavulin (Islay), Talisker (Skye: Islands), Oban (marketed as West-Highlands), Glenkinchie (Lowlands, which many thought it would be Rosebank, but economics decided otherwise), Dalwhinnie (Highlands) and Cragganmore (Speyside). Still some aficionado’s are very keen on Cragganmore because Cragganmore is said to be a complex malt by using hard water and have stills with flat tops. History also teaches us that Cragganmore used a lot of Sherry casks.

Cragganmore 1988/2002 "Distillers Edition" (40%, OB, Double Matured in Ruby Port Wood, CggD-6553)Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Creamy and waxy, this time with a winey note, which makes it instantaneously more interesting than the 12yo. Fresh air with licorice and black and white powder. The yellow fruits from the original 12yo have been replaced by the red (berry) fruits from the Port finish. Tiny hint of Calvados. Red apple skin. Creamy vanilla is still here though. Hints of Sinaspril (a children’s headache medicine I remember from the seventies). Fruity candy powder (synthetic).

Taste: Seems spicier, but still a bit too light. Watered down Ice-cream. Quite sweet. Sugar water with a tiny amount of forest fruit syrup. If this would have been cask strength, the harshness you get from Ruby Port finishes probably would have been easily noticeable. Instead, the reduction and the sweetness are able to keep the Ruby Port in check. Just like the 12yo I reviewed last, this has a pretty weak again and it has a finish with some cask toast thrown in for good measure, but it helps. Up untill the body, the Whisky has quite some good aroma, and then the finish comes which has the length of a snuffed out candle. It’s alight for one moment and gone the next. This really needs to be slightly higher in strength, as well as the 12yo. If 46% ABV is too much, at least adopt 43% as a minimum strength for Single Malt Whisky. Sure in the olden days a lot of Malts were 40% and held their ground, but today’s yield driven more modern Malts seem to need a higher strength than that…

Personally I find the choice for Ruby Port always very tricky. Whereas Tawny Port is easier to use and gives usually better results, because Ruby Port finishes can be very harsh and are easily overdone. Luckily here the finish seems to be OK. The 12yo was quite simple, fruity and sweet, but for me this Distillers Edition has something more to say, especially on the nose. Concerning the taste, the Port is not always good match for the sweetness of the Cragganmore Malt. The first time I tried it, it didn’t work, the next day I liked it, but maybe that’s saying more about me than the Malt. It still is an easy peasy Malt, not all that complex. It is quite interesting and I do quite like it. I prefer it over the 12yo.

Points: 84

Laphroaig Week – Day 7: Laphroaig 16yo 1988/2004 (52.5%, Douglas Laing, for The Whisky Shop, 614 bottles)

Laphroaig SignWell, weeks are only seven days so they are bound to be over very quickly over. Today is the seventh day so I hope to finish this Laphroaig Week over with a bang, but you never know. This particular Laphroaig was selected by the Whisky Shop from the stocks of Douglas Laing in the dumpy green bottle, Whisky geeks love so much. In the early days it was a mark of excellent quality, or maybe they just bottled it like this because it was bottled at cask strength. Obviously this Laphroaig is from a cask that once held SHerry, just look at the sheer amount of bottles yielded at cask strength. Great! I love the combination of (extreme) Laphroaig and Sherry…

Laphroaig 16yo 1988/2004 (52.5%, Douglas Laing, for The Whisky Shop, 614 bottles)Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Tar, salty licorice and raisins. Extremely brooding. Thickly clad Sherry, musty and funky. Intertwined some red berries and other aromatic red fruits like ripe little forest strawberries. This kind of Sherry-ness we’ve encountered before in a bottle of Scapa I have. Whiffs of freshly cut oak planks and oriental spices. Cardamom and saffron spring to mind. Nice whiffs of dusty dryness and sawdust from very old dry wood as opposed to fresh sappy oak. White pepper and dried out Marmite with black coal. The tar reminds me of a warm road. It’s not a thick tarry note, but just enough to add to the wonderful complexity of this Malt. The peat shines towards the end. What wonderful stuff this is. One of great complexity and balance.

Taste: Tarry with the typical ashes and licorice I also found in the Laphroaig I reviewed on day 5. Hefty Sherry, big body. Sweet and creamy, but not as fruity as the nose suggested. Noticeable is a slight fruity acidic undercurrent, that is almost hidden away. This is something I usually get from very old bottles, so its more than welcome here. This fruity undercurrent doesn’t show itself after a fresh pour. This needs time to develop, so this Whisky comes with an operating manual. Tar and coal. Steam locomotive. The Sherry plays a big role and gives of some nice subdued fruity notes, but the Laphroaig underneath is doing well too, with some great peat. This comes together nicely!

Laphroaig came through and never disappointed. Some conclusions you might ask? Well all in all Laphroaig is a pretty good Whisky. It is still one of the greats, but not as good as it once was, but which distillery truly is? None of these seven reminded me of the stellar old 10yo’s of yesteryear. Neither the 10yo @ 43% ABV nor the Cask Strength versions, but then again I didn’t review any 10yo in the Laphroaig Week now did I? The 15yo was a great malt from its day, different from the 10yo’s. The 18yo is decent but for me not as good as the 15yo. Simpler I would say. The An Cuan Mòr was is a well crafted surprise, which I can heartily recommend from the modern range of Laphroaigs. The independents did manage to get their hands on some great sherried Laphroaigs, although very good sometimes it is Obvious why some casks did find their way on the open market. Sulphur! Still I liked the Kintra expression. Douglas Laing also were represented here with some nice Sherried versions and an odd one that had all its aces up its sleeve. You had to work for gratification. The Laphroaig Week is over. A sad moment, but I hope to review a lot more Laphroaigs on these pages. Hope you liked it.

Points: 90

Aberlour 15yo 1988/2003 (50%, Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask, DL REF 875, 306 bottles)

After all that recent stuff, today it’s time for an oldie from Douglas Laing. Here we have an Aberlour that was already bottled in 2003. Almost all Aberlours that find their way into the realm of independent bottlers seem to come from Bourbon casks or sometimes unusual, or (atypical for Aberlour), Sherry casks. Looking at the color, the amount of bottles drawn from the cask (at 50% ABV), I’m guessing this will be not too far from another independent Aberlour I reviewed earlier.

Aberlour 15yo 1988/2003 (50%, Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask, DL REF 875, 306 bottles)Color: Sparkling light gold.

Nose: Fresh. Fruity, papaya and some passion fruit, with vanilla. Seems to me this came from a Bourbon Hogshead. Very clean and winey, but also some cold and fresh real butter. Some oak and residual sugar. Quite some aroma, since this leaps right out off the glass. Well balanced, but not very complex. Dusty. Low on spiciness, which is typical American oak.

Taste: Sweet, spicy and definitely some oak now. Quite hot. Somewhat fruity and sweet with typical vanilla and pudding aroma’s, and also some toffee and caramel. A desert in itself. Just like the nose, this is aromatic but not very complex. Medium length finish.

Totally anonymous typical ex-Bourbon casked Whisky. Lots of these Whiskies make a good dram and the beauty lies in the details. Just have a look at some bottles from independent bottles who get a chance to select their casks and find that beauty (like The Whisky Mercenary). With this example however, the Whisky is unmistakable good yet anonymous. This could have been anything. Lots of bottles like this were released by the bigger independent bottlers like Douglas Laing and especially Cadenhead’s, who for a while seemed to have some kind of monopoly on Whiskies from refill Bourbon casks. So not bad, but anonymous.

Compared to the Golden Cask Aberlour I mentioned above, I think the Golden Cask version had slightly more to say and was also slightly more complex. This Douglas Laing version was sweeter and therefore more easily accessible and likable.

Points: 84

Blair Athol 25yo 1988/2014 (46%, The Ultimate, Refill Sherry Butt #6918, 712 bottles)

Here is another Ultimate bottling I tried recently. Dutch outfit Van Wees are getting some pretty good bottles released recently and there is a buzz going on about this 25yo Blair Athol. Blair Athol isn’t a very popular distillery, so when something like this is “buzzin'” we can’t ignore it now can’t we? This is from a refill Sherry Butt number 6918. More casks from this series are bottled this year by Van Wees: 6922, 6927 and 6928. All reduced to 46% ABV. Meanwhile in Scotland…

In 2014 Andrew Symington is releasing 25yo Blair Athol’s from 1988 too. Signatory Vintage, his company, is releasing some pretty good Cask Strength Blair Atholls with the following cask numbers: 6914, 6919, 6920+6924 and 6925. Seems like some sort of gentleman’s agreement doesn’t it? Well nothing wrong with having some good friends. I’ve tried one of these and it was very good. Now let’s see how Blair Athol behaves when Van Wees add some water to it…

Blair Athol 25yo 1988/2014 (46%, The Ultimate, Refill Sherry Butt #6918, 712 bottles)Color: Copper gold.

Nose: Intense Sherry nose, and I don’t mean Fino people. Floral and perfumy. Nice and laid back. Funky wood and also some sulphur. Hard candy powder. Toffee and black fruit. Blackcurrant and blueberries. Nice fruity sherried Whisky. Well balanced nose. Dry and aromatic and with some hints of soap. No sight of raisins or cloying sweetness in this dark-colored malt. Otherwise a typically dark sherried nose, with some acidic oaky notes.

Taste: Toffeed Sherry, yet it doesn’t seem sweet. It does have its Sherry-sweetness but that is pushed back by the dryness of the wood. The taste is quite dry (the wood again) but all seems to be in check. Not a very sweet and cloying malt. In the distance some notes of coal and elements of old malts. The dark fruits return in the finish, which makes for an excellent finish. Still it’s not over the top. It’s not overly woody, and the fact it’s not sweet makes for an easier drinkable Sherry malt.

This is a pretty funky Whisky, if you ask me. The funkiness is there when it’s freshly opened, but also when it’s freshly poured into a glass. I hope you don’t drink your Whisky from the bottle now don’t you? This tells us the Whisky needs some air, and time, to breathe. The air gives it a more elegant feel, but also more balance, the aroma’s tend to fit better to each other. I must say, al be it from a sister cask, I like this one, way better at higher strength, but this reduced one is also pretty good by itself, uncompared. Recommended!

Points: 86

Bowmore 12yo 1988/2000 (50%, Douglas Laing, Old Malt Cask, Sherry, 702 bottles)

The Master of Malt version of an eighties Bowmore did not turn out to be a FWP-Bowmore after all. Looking though the whiskies that have accumulated at Master Quill’s castle, I found another eighties Bowmore. This time an oldie by Douglas Laing. At one point in time, the Laing Brothers thought they would have to show the public what are the ‘young’ whiskies in their Old Malt Cask range, so decided on red lettering and a red tube. Somehow this ‘experiment’ didn’t last for very long, so this look is rather scarce. Lets see if this time we have a genuine FWP-Bowmore on our hands? Is it lavender & violets or peat & smoke?

Color: Light Copper Gold.

Nose: Butter, popcorn, quite some hints of flowers, but not like a FWP. Peat and a decent amount of smoke. Deep almost brooding kind of licorice. Clay, smelly pond in summer, probably a sulphur compound. This organic smell is actually great in this Whisky. Ashes and gravy, meaty.

Taste: Nice elegant Islay. Soft tasty peat, with smoke on top. Lots of caramel, toffee. Nothing is over the top. Perfect non-sugary sweetness in the background. But as with the Master of Malt version, it breaks down a bit towards the end, and has a sweet yet ‘light’ finish. There is something else that is pretty similar with the Master of Malt bottling. Again, the acidity quickly follows the sweetness. They somehow are linked. Do I detect some soap at the end of the finish? If it’s there it doesn’t hurt the whisky much. On occasions it takes the properties of a rum.

Not a perfect Whisky. Has some distillation faults (butter) and some issues with the finish and stability (with air), but overall it’s a very drinkable and likeable Whisky. Again not a victim of FWP.

Beware, this whisky doesn’t take air very well, let this breathe and you’ll see how it breaks down in your glass. Break open a new deck of cards, invite some (lady) friends over for a nice and friendly game and drink the whole bottle in one evening, you’ll do yourself and the Laing Brothers a big favour.

Points: 88

Aberlour 1988 “Distillers Selection” (40%, OB, for Spain, Circa 2002)

A few days ago my whisky club had a tasting of Aberlours. Quite a unique one to boot since these were almost all exclusively official bottlings. We only had one independent Aberlour. It was from a Bourbon Cask and did show the distillery profile for a while, but that was quickly gone. We had a few out of the standard range and a few from the standard ranges from the past. A few bottles stood out. We liked one old 12yo double cask matured for its high dark Oloroso Sherry content (and costing next to nothing). An old 21yo from 2000 was very good and this odd one out. The 1988 Distillers Selection, that was released exclusively in Spain. After this one 1988 came only one other Distillers Selection, the 1989. Again for Spain only. For Aberlour this is quite special. It is said that instead of the usual Oloroso, for this bottling Fino and/or Manzanilla is used!

Color: Full Gold

Nose: Wood, caramel and spirity. Perfumed hay and a little bit of rot. Rotting leaves. It’s grassy and somewhat sherried. Malty with murky water. Very malty actually. Earwax and cream. Still the wood plays also a big part in the profile of the nose. Although the whole is pretty raw and dirty, there are some clean spots to it too. It’s a bit like the different markers come in and go out of the profile. Just like a blinking traffic light. Quite an experience. This definitely has to breathe for a while.

Taste: Thick and wood spice. Malty and sweet. Quite creamy at first, but it suffers a bit here of the low ABV of 40% (not much though). A whisky not to be taken moderately. Big sips are the way to go here. Some bread and mocha in the aftertaste, also a slightly bitter and sour woody note. The longer gone the more woody and bitter. When your palate is a bit tired (late in the day and evening), the wood isn’t such a big problem anymore, and the whole gets more toffee sweet.

As said above, we had this amongst a lot of other Aberlour official bottlings and it did stand out a bit. It’s not the usual Aberlour. It does seem to be more malty and does have some more wood. I’m very curious what’s the story behind this version. Still, I enjoyed it. And considering the Original price a very good bang for your buck, als with most official Aberlours actually.

The 10yo is an entry-level, hotel bar kind of Whisky. If you skip this and pick any other one from the range, like the 10yo Sherry version, you’ll have a good malt at almost no cost. Very interesting distillery with interesting bottles and marketing to match.

Points: 84

Thanks to Jose Juan for finding me this bottle. Thanks also go out to Heinrich and Ralf for the info!

By the way, here is Heinrich’s very nice site about Aberlour.