Highland Park Week – Day 1: Highland Park “Leif Eriksson” (40%, OB, Travel Retail Exclusive, 2011)

Time for another of Master Quill’s weeks. This time around we’ll focus on Highland Park. When rummaging through my stash of samples or bottles I sometimes come across a few which have some sort of common link, usually being made at the same distillery, but there can be many others. In no way should it be a true cross-section of the standard range or should it be all official or recent bottlings. Nope, the aim is to have fun with seven Whiskies, more or less picked at random. In this case Highland Park gets the honor. I have picked seven Highland Park Whiskies to have fun with and put them in some sort of logical order. We’ll start off with Leif Eriksson, one of many travel retail offerings. Usually reduced to 40% and usually bottled in a convenient litre bottle. This time however it is the standard 700ml bottle that can be easily picked up outside of an airport…

I may have mentioned this before, but Highland Park is owned by the Edrington Group. A company that also owns The Macallan. With both these distilleries, or brands, Edrington do a lot of marketing. There is an obvious core range made up of Whiskies with age statements, and some of them have already featured on these pages as well. Besides that Highland Park, as many others, loves travel retail outlets and are keen on issuing special series (aiming at collectors).

I am a big fan of the Highland Park distillate and when we look at Highland Park, pré marketing, you would have a hard time finding even a mediocre bottling. Just have a go at an older wide neck bottling and you’ll know what I mean, or even ask Olivier Humbrecht about Highland Park and you are set for the day.

The beginning of the special series craze, I mentioned above, started with the release of Earl Magnus in 2009 (5.976 bottles). It is part of a trilogy called the Inga Saga. Earl Magnus is a 15yo Highland Park of impeccable quality, and back then was released at a more than reasonable price. It was followed up in 2010 with a 12yo called Saint Magnus (11.994 bottles), which was a bit less interesting and the series was concluded in 2011 with an 18yo called Earl Haakon (3.000 bottles). It was a hybrid of the standard ages of 12yo, 15yo and 18yo, but also bore names of mythical figures from the history of Orkney. Today its hard to imagine a company releasing only one special bottling a year! By the way, this 18yo was top-notch again. Many series like this were created since.

However Leif Eriksson is not part of any series I know of. It’s a bottling commemorating the Viking Eriksson who was the first European to set foot in North America. So it shall be no surprise this Highland Park was matured wholly in American Oak casks (probably all ex-Bourbon).

highland-park-leif-erikssonColor: Gold.

Nose: Starts with a hint of smoke and heather, and a nice funkiness I know from older Highland Parks. Initially also quite sweet. Nice sweet barley notes, honey and also quite fruity. Cold butter. A very appealing, and slightly dirty, nose. Lots of vanilla and creamy latex paint, as could be expected. Less expected was the coal dust and Aspirin powder I got next. Highland Park is a distillate that does well in any cask. Excellent nose.

Taste: Oh no. Aiii, sweet honey and sugar-water. What a shame. This one is definitely ruined by reduction. Maybe they felt it was too hot at cask strength and since it had to be bottled for travel retail they automatically reduced it to the lowest strength possible, 40% ABV. Sweet, creamy vanilla again. Hints of almonds. Lots of creamy notes as well as lots of vanilla. That’s the main marker of the taste. Not a lot of wood though, although there is a nice toasted cask edge to it. The palate matches the nose very well. This should have been a litre bottle, since to get the max out of this you need to drink this in big gulps and roll it around a lot in your mouth (needs a lot of air as well). Funny enough a slightly bitter oak note emerges in the aftertaste…

You can still taste the potential of this. It is almost as if has to be suitable for pilots who still have to fly. I hope not. The nose is wonderful and the taste does show the potential. It is not a bad Whisky. It could have been a very good Bourbon expression of Highland Park, but it was ruined by one bad decision. The amount of reduction. Still, it sometimes can hit a soft spot, and is still an example how Highland Park can be without the (big) Sherry.

Points: 81

Cognac Week – Day 4: Château Montifaud XO (40%, OB, 1981/2011)

Cognac Week LogoJust like I promised yesterday, Today we’ll return to Château Montifaud, and this time we will have a look at their XO expression. (Extra Old). By law an XO should be at least 6yo, but again we see that Montifaud age their Cognacs longer than necessary. This XO is 30yo! In 2016 however law will be changed, and an XO should be 10yo, but I don’t think Montifaud will age their 30yo XO Cognac even longer, now the law will change. Just like the VS, this is made with grapes from the Petite Champagne region. It maybe a “lesser” region than the Grande Champagne Region, but Montifaud will know what to do with these “inferior” grapes, if the VS is anything to go by.

Chateau Montifaud XOColor: Orange copper gold (ever so slightly lighter than the VS.)

Nose: Winey and with some added acidity, which smells as “age”. Deeper and more brooding. Old bottle effect and powdery. It’s different from the VS which already had a beautiful nose. This XO is really a fantastic Spirit to smell. It’s so nice, that I completely forgot to take notes when I was nosing this!

Taste: Winey and sweet. It’s even more winey than the VS and lacks the licorice, its younger brother has. Honey and green apple skins. Fragile old age. This one has more depth, (but not as much as I’ve come to expect from a 30yo Cognac). It does have much more staying power compared to the VS The finish has a well hidden burnt wood note that’s hardly there. When that dissipates it shows a slightly translucent acidic note that also quickly dissipates. The sweetness is less of a honey quality and more of plain sugar, and it’s always present. If the sweetness would be more refined, it would have been an even better Cognac.

Coming from a Whisk(e)y background, I find these Cognacs to be very…lovely and light. Even these old blended stuff of 25yo like the Jean Fillioux, and this 30yo Montifaud come across as a bit too simple in the taste, and I do believe the lowest possible ABV. for a Cognac is hurting the wealth of aroma’s these kinds of Cognac should have. So age isn’t everything when you start adding a lot of water. In fact I don’t want to write about this again. With this one I want to sit back and enjoy.

Points: 86

Rum Nation Barbados 10yo 2001/2011 (40%, Single Domaine Rum, Barbados)

After the peated Benriach and the chilly foreplay to winter, lets head back to a nicer climate and head towards Barbados. Although Scotland is a beautiful county, I’d rather be in Barbados right now. Edinburgh, not even 10° C. Barbados more than 30° C. What would you do? Remember my review of the Cockspur 12? Well the Barbados Rum I’m about to taste, actually comes from the same place. Both Cockspur 12 (not 12 years old though) and this Bajan Rum come from the same distillery: The West Indies Rum Distillery. You always hear about, location, location, location don’t you? Well, this distillery is located right at the beach, just like some of the best Scottish distilleries, with the one distinct difference I already mentioned above. I just image lying my tired bones on the beach, enjoying the sun, and then bubble up de gap to the distillery for some “refreshments” safe! This Rum was bottled by Italian bottler Fabio Rossi under his Rum Nation brand he founded in 1999. We maltheads already know Fabio as the man behind indy Whisky bottler Wilson & Morgan.

Barbados Rum 10yo 2001-2011 (40%, Rum Nation, Barbados)Color: Orange gold, amber.

Nose: Wonderfully complex smell. Oak and vanilla, short whiff of acetone with fresh air and clean alcohol. Most definitely not too to sweet. This is quite a breath of fresh air after all those sweet and sweeter Rums. Sure toffee and caramel, but this time with spicy wood, slightly burnt wood and without the sugary type of sweetness, although it does smell a bit like brown sugar. Hints of dark chocolate, bacon and even a pinch of cherry liqueur, salt and cola. It almost smells like an overly toffeed Bourbon, and I have to say the fresh and nutty smell of oak is just about right in this one. Maybe this is a Whisky drinker’s Rum. Well done!

Taste: Yes, this is no dud, in fact this is very good! Wonderful entry of sweet almonds and again wonderful oak. Long and warm caramel. The nuttiness, oak and caramel are aided by hints of licorice and orange rubber (lab rats will recognize it), to form the body of this Rum. It’s warming without ever being heavy. Great balance and quite a nice finish, with hardly any bitterness to it. Wonderful vegetal aftertaste too. It’s chewy and you just want another caramel from the bag, and another, and another. I love it and I will be sorry when it’s gone.

Well, dear readers, for me this is a hidden gem. I already thought Cockspur was nice, but this also is really something. Exceptional balance, all flavours are well-integrated and match up quite nicely. I even prefer this one over the Cockspur 12. Get it as long as its available. Today Rum Nation still bottles a 10yo Bajan Rum, but they have changed the bottle into a dumpy one. I haven’t tried that one yet, but I am sure it will be just as good as this one.

Points: 85

Grappa Week – Day 6: Sibona La Grappa Di Barbera (42%, 50 cl, 2011)

Grappa Week LogoToday we’ll have a Grappa made by Sibona. Looking at the picture below you might think it doesn’t look like much, but holding the adorable half litre bottle in your hand, makes you want to have a whole row of bottles like this, with Grappa’s made from every single grape variety that grows in the Piedmont region of Italy. The bottle itself has markings, warning you when another 10 cl has gone, and has a little extension preventing you from dripping the precious liquid, so not a drop gets lost. For this “Linea Graduata”, the label looks like someone typed it in his shed. Looks fantastic though. Even without tasting, I would like to have them all!

Barbera is a red grape variety that has grown very common to Italy. It is the most planted grape variety just after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Sibona hails from the Piedmont region, and over there, Barbera is the most used grape variety. Both Sangiovese and Montepulciano are not (really) planted in the Piedmont at all.

Sibona La Grappa Di BarberaColor: Light citrus yellow, straw.

Nose: Lots of hay, warm, basking in the sun. In the distance crickets are chirping and you are living the live of a God with an Italian beauty by your side. At least you are enjoying yourself very much. Hay, dry grass, dust, cereal, honey and some deep fruity notes and some nice citrussy notes as well. With some time, creamy notes develop with hints of vanilla coming from the oak ageing. Black tea, with a flowery note to it as well as some black fruits. Dry and very well-balanced. Hints of rural organics. Maybe not at first, but this has become a dream to nose.

Taste: The hay and dry grass return big time in the taste as well as some virgin oak. A sappy and tannic bitterness with grape skin aroma. It would be funny now, to say this isn’t sweet enough, but yes, it is on the dry side, which won’t make it your daily drinker, nor will it be a Grappa for everyone (starting to drink Grappa). Nevertheless, I’m glad this hasn’t been ruined by sugar. Having said that, apart from the honey, there is some hidden sweetness to this Grappa, and it is sugary in quality, not saying that this is sweet at all. So slightly sweetened black tea it is. The more it breathes the more black (and red) fruits emerge. very appetizing. A connoisseurs aperitif I would say. It’s far to elegant or subtle to function as a digestif even though Grappa is really a digestif, and this particular example is quite powerful. With extended breathing the naturally occurring sweetness becomes more and more noticeable.

I remember when I opened the bottle I didn’t like it very much, because all of the hay and it seemed not to be pleasant to smell as well. But even then, I had the feeling I would grow into it. At this point in time I really don’t know for sure which of us has changed, me or the Grappa, which got some air into the bottle to breathe and develop. This is a high quality Grappa showing off a single grape variety from the Piedmont. Not an easy Grappa, and something to savour once in a while. But when you need it, it’s great. The role the wood played is easily discernible. The Barbera has been aided by some ageing in oak, in fact, this is the darkest of all the Grappa’s from the “Linea Graduata”.

Points: 81

Laphroaig Week – Day 4: Laphroaig 13yo 1998/2011 (53.4%, Kintra, Refill Sherry Butt #700047, 96 bottles)

Laphroaig SignDay four, a.k.a. the middle, or the pivotal point in a week. We’re halfway through. We started out with three distillery bottlings of Laphroaig. An older 15yo, it’s replacement the 18yo, although not in its latest guise, and yesterday we had a look at a travel retail only bottling from last year: An Cuan Mòr. Up untill now Laphroaig hasn’t failed me yet. Today we’ll venture into more unknown territory. The territory of the independent bottler. Today we’ll have a look at a Laphroaig, Erik Molenaar got into his hands a while back. The market is rapidly changing. In 2011 Erik could get (part of a Sherry Butt) for a reasonable price. Today he probably would still be able to source such a Whisky, but unfortunately only at an unreasonable price. So even when this is from 2011, it can still be considered…well you catch my drift. So without further ado…

Laphroaig 13yo 1998/2011 (53.4%, Kintra, Refill Sherry Butt #700047, 96 bottles)Color: Gold.

Nose: Funky Sherry. Has someone just farted over here? My word, lots of the S-element is filling the room. Sulphur that is, and it comes from my glass into which I have not farted, nor has anyone else. Fruity and half sweet underneath “the fart”. Enough with the fart already, will ya? Ok, lets move the Sulphur into the realm of fireworks then. Toasted wood, but also toasted bread. Meaty big aroma.

Taste: Sweet and Sherried. Fruity with loads of ashes. Short shock of fruity acidity. Creamy but with a wave of a bitter sulphury edge. The bitterness also could come from the oak. Nevertheless, the bitterness is also kept in check, so it doesn’t hurt the overall taste. The ashes transform into a sweeter form with and acidic edge, and both do not overpower the palate. The sweetness and acidity show themselves and go under again, like the Loch Ness monster. Warming and full body. Cozy. Nice mix of peat and funky Sherry. Sure, it may be flawed but the whole still (fire)works for me. Hints of black fruits and some smoke late in the finish.

Lots of my Whisky-loving friends don’t like sulphury notes too much. Some seem to be even overly sensitive to the stuff, if not allergic. They can go on and on about it and I sure do understand why. We know from the olden days how Sherried malts should taste like. Some of you know the golden days of The Macallan, old heavily Sherried Longmorns from the sixties and seventies, Glen Grants and Strathisla from the sixties. Fruity, full of aroma’s, with steam and coal, the lot! Today that quality can’t be reached anymore, and I don’t have the room here to discuss why. More modern Sherried malts are prone to have sulphury notes, and it’s up to you, if you can stand that or not. If you can (like I do), this is a big and nice, yet sulphury, Laphroaig.

Points:87

Ledaig 6yo 2004/2011 (46%, Murray McDavid, Heavily Peated, Sherry Cask, 1.500 bottles)

Today we’ll have a look at another Ledaig, The peated Whisky made at Tobermory on the Island of Mull. Tobermory and/or Ledaig once had a bit of a shabby reputation for not being very consistent in quality, but the tide seems to be turned. Lots of very nice Ledaigs are turning up left and right, although the other young one I reviewed earlier wasn’t the best one around. However, quality today is good and even at a young age. This Sherried Ledaig is only 6 years old and looking good. The mere fact that Murray McDavid didn’t turn this into a Whisky with some kind of finish is saying something doesn’t it?

Ledaig 6yo 2004/2011 (46%, Murray McDavid, Heavily Peated, Sherry Cask, 1.500 bottles)Color: Full gold, almost orange.

Nose: Fatty peat and ashes. Nice note of cask toast and dirty Sherry. Smoked kippers. Tarry with hints of black fruit. Smoky and even a bit salty. Reminds me of good peated stuff from a while back, and in those days the peated Whiskies weren’t that old too. If I had smelled this blind I would have thought this was from Longrow, Laphroaig or Kilchoman (Isn’t that a kind of big spectrum?). Vanilla pudding, with a tiny hint of citrus freshness. Lemon, but also a hint of the aroma of sweet strawberries. Excellent nose.

Taste: Toast again, ashes again, but different from what I expected. First of all it is immediately clear that this isn’t in the taste a “heavy” as the nose was. The ghost of reduction? More wood here and much simpler than the nose. The wood gave off a bitter edge which helps the character of the Whisky along, but makes it a Whisky you’ll have to work with. In the finish, the Whisky falls apart. Thin, watery and especially the acidity stays, with the ashes, some almond and yes, the fatty peat, earthy clay and smoky bite.

Not bad, but something isn’t quite right here. Hard to tell, but maybe these weren’t the best Sherry casks around. The peated spirit itself tasted good, but not everything went well with the interaction with the wood. Maybe the Whisky also suffered here by the reduction to 46% ABV. We’ll never know, but I’m guessing this was a bit better at cask strength. Not bad, but could have been better is my obvious conclusion.

Points: 83

Glenfarclas 16yo 1995/2011 (53.9%, Kintra, Confidential Cask, Sherry Butt #5, 120 bottles)

In the depths of my ever-growing amount of samples, I found this sample of an undisclosed distillery named Glenfarclas. Actually, Glenfarclas isn’t stated on the label, but it has somehow become common knowledge that this Whisky was made by Glenfarclas and hand-picked by Erik Molenaar of Kintra from the Netherlands. Erik as well as Glenfarclas have been featured before on these pages, so why not continue immediately with this undisclosed Glenfarclas…

Glenfarclas 16yo 1995/2011 (53.9%, Kintra, Confidential Cask, Sherry Butt #5, 120 bottles)

Color: Copper brown.

Nose: Heavy on the Sherry there! Velvety but also a lot of sulphur. Licorice, dry air and wood. Black and white powder and cookie dough. Lots of aromas and all are on full volume. Meaty (cold raw meat), creamy, vanilla but also some mint and flint. Lot of aroma from wood, without being overpowering. Like the wood of an old door which has just been stripped of its thick layer of cracked paint (and cooled off) (no, I’m not on LSD, it’s an association).

Taste: Full on funky sherry, thick. Coal. Watered down red berry juice with (bitter and sweet) licorice (The Whisky is not watered down, mind you, nor tastes like it’s watered down). Quite sweet at first but quickly taking a turn towards the drier side. Sulphur here again, but all very tasty if you like your heavy hitters. Sometimes a whiff comes across like a rum (heavy on wood). Towards the finish some nice red fruits come to the front. Strawberries (not fresh ones, but ones that have been frozen). Spicy and prickly wood.

Definitely not your daily drinker type of malt, but a nice, albeit flawed expression of a nice Sherry bomb (hello NSA, it’s me again). I like this pick by Erik. It is a Whisky which is far from boring. A lot is happening in this, and not even all at the same time. However, a word of caution. This malt loses a bit of its balance when it gets enough time to breathe. The aromas start to unravel a bit, the wood gets weaker and even worse, a soapy component rears its ugly head, so no slacking with this one!

Points: 88