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Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson

Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson

As many of you know, in addition to Drink Spirits, I also am on the Buying Guide team for Whisky Advocate Magazine. My managing editor there, Lew Bryson, is perhaps one of the most amazing figures in spirits media. Never have I met a more humble, loving, thoughtful writer with such an undeniable lust for life. When I found out that Lew was writing a book about whiskey, I knew it was going to be something very special, and it is.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits, which will be released on October 21, 2014, is a no-frills look at exactly what goes into making whiskey and how that impacts what you get in your glass. Lew’s guide goes further and helps the everyday spirits lover decode what exactly they are tasting and where in the process it’s coming from. Tasting Whiskey is written with the same kind of heart, humor, and insights that have defined Lew’s writing, both in whiskey and beer (where he’s helped foster the Session Beer movement).

When Story Publishing asked us if we’d like to give away three signed copies of Lew’s book, we jumped at the chance. Tasting Whiskey is a phenomenal book and we’re proud to give our readers the opportunity to try to win a copy.

Enter here for your chance to win one of three signed copies of Tasting Whiskey.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Once you’ve entered out giveaway, head over to Story Publishing’s site as they are giving away 2 tickets to 17th Annual WhiskyFest in New York (a $490 value)!

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Maker's Mark Cask Strength Whiksey

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Whiskey

Here’s a head scratcher: why would a company that had a controversial announcement about lowering the proof of their core product due to production shortages (and then reversing that decision) go ahead and release a cask strength expression of their whiskey? The answer is Cask Strength Maker’s Mark Whiskey is only available in extremely small quantities, and only at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, as well as a few select retailers in Kentucky. Even though it’s a small limited release, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark is an important release. Marker’s Mark is famous for their 50 year stretch as a single product company (which ended in 2010 with the release of Maker’s 46), so any time they bring out something new, it’s cause for significant attention. Released without an aged statement in 375 ml bottles, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark gives us a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of what makes Maker’s Mark the whiskey that it is.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey (113.2 Proof / 56.6% ABV, $39.95 per 375ml) – Maker’s Mark’s nose is typically so soft and sweet, it’s a little bit of a surprise to nose Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and be hit by oak. The oak here isn’t overpowering, just much more pronounced than in the standard 90 proof version of Maker’s. The nose on Cask Strength Maker’s also features stronger cinnamon, deeper caramel, and a more pronounced wheat grain. There’s a subtle marzipan note in the nose that is more difficult to pick out in the standard release. Side by side with 90 proof Maker’s, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength makes the standard release seem very tame and restrained. Cask Strength Maker’s is fuller, spicier, and more inviting without being overly fiery.

Everything that makes Maker’s Mark so enjoyable is right there in the entry, with a foundation of sweet caramel that supports bright cinnamon and oak spice. Even at the beginning of the taste experience the integration of flavors is superb. Cinnamon spice builds sequentially towards the midpalate where it’s joined by wheat grain.  Here in the midpalate you have the core of what makes Maker’s Mark so affable: a combination of caramel, cinnamon, and wheat, all well balanced with great integration and solid flavor. Towards the end of the midpalate the cinnamon spice peaks and is joined by black pepper and clove. Even though it’s cask strength, the alcohol never loses its supporting role, and although there’s some heat here, it doesn’t eclipse the flavors. The finish is medium length and slightly dry, driven by the cinnamon spice, soft wheat, and black pepper. There’s a noticeable cooling effect on the finish, the hallmark of impeccable distillation.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is a gentle giant if there ever was one, and even though it’s over 50% alcohol, it never loses its easy, affable character. It’s easy to understand what a revelation it must have been in the 1950s when Maker’s first launched, even when tasted straight out of the barrel. A world with a cask strength edition of Maker’s Mark is a world we want to live in, and so we’re happy that the company has made the move to pull some whiskey from their stocks for this release (even as limited as it is). It’s unfortunate that Maker’s Mark isn’t able to make this a much wider release as Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is beautiful whiskey, brightly flavored, perfectly balanced, and oh so good. 97 points.

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Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Whiskeys

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Whiskeys

Buffalo Trace is home to some of the best bourbon in the world, and each year they release a showcase series under the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. These whiskeys are are all priced at $80 even though they span a wide range of ages and proofs, and are often incredibly hard to find.  The Antique Collection hits store shelves sometime between mid-September and October and is often quickly snapped up. Buffalo Trace deserves a lot of credit when it comes to moving the needle for American Whiskey: the company’s Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon was the first single barrel American Whiskey released, and their whiskey stocks are the base for some of the world’s most sought after spirits (including Pappy Van Winkle).

This year, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is comprised of five whiskeys: George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy, Eagle Rare 17, and Sazerac 18. Instead of reviewing these whiskeys individually, we’ve decided to review them together in this one master review. We’re also doing something that many whiskey enthusiasts have asked us to do - giving them scores. Please let us know in the comments if scores likes these are something you’d like to see us do more. It’s a complex issue and we’ve shied away from them in the past.

George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (60.05% ABV / 138.1 proof, $80) – when someone asks which whiskey has made the biggest impression on us, the answer is always George T. Stagg. We’ll never forget the first time we had this whiskey and the fireworks that it produced. There are few whiskeys in the world with the sheer power of flavor that George T. Stagg produces. Last year, Buffalo Trace tried to make Stagg something that is more commonly available with Stagg Jr., but there’s simply no substitute for the real thing.

The 2014 George T. Stagg comes from Buffalo Trace’s warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q, and was distilled back in the spring of 1998 (making it ostensively a 16 year old whiskey). Buffalo Trace informs us that there will be more George T. Stagg on the market this year than last year. In 1997 they increased distillation for Stagg, which is good news, but the demand this year will undoubtedly be even higher than last, so it’ll still be a hot ticket to get.

The nose for the 2014 George T. Stagg is pretty oak forward with a slight varnished wood note along with old oak furniture. Beyond the oak is cinnamon, marzipan, coconut, and caramel. You can tell from the nose that this whiskey has some real power but the nose isn’t assaultive, just big. As always Stagg is a power punch right out of the gate, with the entry combining caramel, cinnamon, and monster oak.

Everything here is turned up to 11 – the caramel is lush, cinnamon spicy, and the oak strong. This year’s Stagg isn’t the smack across the face that some of the previous years have been, but more lush and round than previous years. The midpalate captures Stagg’s fire and it’s here where you’re getting the real impact of the 138 proof whiskey. Through much of the midpalate, Stagg manages to keep the caramel-cinnamon-oak balance, but things teeter at the end of the midpalate and come crashing down on the side of the oak. The finish is long and spotlights charred oak, overly tannic and slightly bitter – a slight left turn for an otherwise solid whiskey.

George T. Stagg is the archetypal power whiskey, and Buffalo Trace has again delivered another expression of George T. Stagg in that style. In many ways it’s a little bit of a head fake before the knock out punch. The entry is really good and we really like the integration between the strong flavors, but the end of the midpalate and the finish are over oaked. With so many other big oak releases out there, it may be what people are coming to expect, but it could have been handled with a little more finesse. Then again, Stagg is always more power than finesse.  A solid, but imperfect release that will appease Stagg fans, but fall short of winning a ton of awards. 91 points.

William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (70.1% ABV / 140.2 proof, $80) – this year’s offering was distilled in the spring of 2002, making it a 12 year wheated old bourbon. This year’s release was aged on the second, third, fourth, and sixth floors of Warehouses D and K, and weighing in at 140.2 proof, it’s the strongest Weller release yet.

Whereas the George T. Stagg lead with oak and caramel, the William Larue Weller is much more acidic in the nose with orange peel, dried wheat, and dried apricot making up the core of the nose. Underneath are almonds, toffee, and dusty oak. The entry for William Larue Weller is not shy about showing off the monster proof here. It’s much stronger out of the gate than this year’s George T. Stagg, but like Stagg there’s a sense of lush caramel right from the start. The entry for William Larue Weller is really engaging and manages to be both sweet and spicy, and slightly acidic. The transition from opening to midpalate is seamless as the flavors introduced in the entry progressively build. In the midpalate things get a little more spicy with cinnamon, clove, and oak accompanied by Wheaties, blackberry, and caramel. At the end of the midpalate there’s a real wallop from the alcohol – it’s big, bold, and impressive, but doesn’t take you out of the experience.

The opening and midpalate set the stage for William Larue Weller’s crescendo, and when it comes, it’s really spectacular. The finish is, of course, dry, defined greatly in part by the alcohol blast at the end of the midpalate, and accompanied by toffee and sweet charred oak. The William Larue Weller takes water extremely well - a few drops intensifies the lushness of the whiskey.

Good whiskey has the ability to take you on a journey, and this year’s William Larue Weller does just that. It’s a more complete whiskey than this year’s George T. Stagg and ultimately a much better one. 95 points.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (64.4% ABV / 129.2 proof, $80) – along with George T. Stagg, Thomas H. Handy has always been one of the all-stars of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. There are few rye whiskeys on the market that are as big and bold as Handy. This year’s Handy was distilled in the spring of 2008, making it a 6 year old rye whiskey. The 6 year age is a bit of a sweet spot for rye whiskey, the same point that the grandmaster, Jimmy Russell, bottled his Russell’s Reserve. The 2014 release was aged on the fifth floor of Warehouse M.

From the first nosing it’s clear that this year’s Thomas H. Handy isn’t in the same universe as previous years’ releases. After a vapor shot, an odd vegetal note emerges – okra?!? Yes, okra (it’s not a note we’ve gotten from a whiskey in the past). Beyond that slightly off-putting note are some of the traditional rye whiskey notes like rye spice, caramel, cinnamon, and oak. There’s really no other way to put it, other than saying the nose for this year’s Handy is just odd. Fortunately, the vegetal note that was so apparent in the nose isn’t as dominant on the palate, but what is dominant is the oak. The experience of the opening is like chewing on a caramel covered pencil, lead and all. In the midpalate we get to spit the proverbial pencil out of our mouth and we get cinnamon, marzipan, and rye spice, but the opening is so off-putting that there’s nothing that follows that can redeem it. The finish is fairly long with a fair bit of heat that carries the cinnamon spice from the midpalate along with the rye and a dash of caramel. The overbearing wood is there, too, and it ultimately carries things to a bitter oak end.

While Thomas H. Handy isn’t horrid, it’s not even close to the standard that Buffalo Trace has set for this brand. For us, this will be the benchmark whiskey in this collection for reviews. Read a review that raves about this misfire and you know that the reviewer may be rating the label more than the whiskey in the bottle. 80 points.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 proof, $80)  - Eagle Rare has always been an unsung hero of Buffalo Trace’s line, often underpriced and overlooked. It’s a little bit of a head scratcher that a 90 proof Eagle Rare is priced at the same price point as a 138 proof 16 year old Stagg and a 12 year old 140 proof Larue Willer. Perhaps Buffalo Trace has finally recognized the value of this brand and priced it accordingly. The 2014 edition was aged on the second, third, and sixth floors of Warehouses I and K.

The nose on this year’s Eagle Rare 17 year old leads with brown sugar and marzipan along with oak, orange peel, and cinnamon. The entry for Eagle Rare 17 is tightly integrated right from the start with cinnamon, brown sugar, and oak all perfectly entwined. The balance, integration, and presentation of flavors is exquisite and accompanied by a particularly pleasant mouthfeel. As we head toward the midpalate the oak spice ramps up, but it doesn’t steal the spotlight from the other flavor notes, especially the brown sugar and cinnamon, which do a great job of supporting the oak spice. The finish is long and slightly dry, driven by the oak, but again supported by the other flavors in the equation. The finish also has a slight coffee bean note added to the mix.

This year’s Eagle Rare release (like many of the other entries in the Eagle Rare line) proves that great whiskey doesn’t have to be so difficult: capture some nice flavors with balance, integration, a nice mouthfeel, and a good finish, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Eagle Rare continues its line of success with another standout release in this year’s collection. 93 points.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 proof, $80) – the nose on the Sazerac Rye is what we would have expected with the Thomas H. Handy. Rye grain leaps out of the glass along with clove, oak, ginger, mint, and caramel. The entry for Sazerac Rye is soft and round, capturing almost identically the aromas from the nose and presenting them as flavors on the palate, including rye spice, ginger, oak, mint, cinnamon, black pepper, and caramel. These flavors increase in the midpalate, but unlike the Eagle Rare they don’t lose the balance or integration established in the opening. Part of this is the sweet base of caramel and molasses which supports the rye, oak, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and black pepper spice. There’s a bit of an oak kick at the end of the midpalate with a touch of heat, but it fits well within the mix of flavors and helps give the Sazerac Rye some nice structure. Unlike this year’s Eagle Rare 17, the proofing for this year’s Sazerac Rye is spot on, balancing the flavors and heat perfectly.

The finish for the Sazerac Rye 18 is extremely long and fairly dry with the oak and rye spice at its core and the mint hovering right above. The mint and rye spice on the palate lingers around for a very long time after the whiskey has come and gone.  Sazerac Rye 18 is one of the most balanced and integrated whiskeys in this year’s collection. It’s not as stand-out spectacular as the William Larue Weller, but it’s much better than this year’s Thomas H. Handy, and ultimately it is very well-crafted whiskey. 92 points.

Most years, George T. Stagg and Thomas H. Handy are the stars of this collection, but this year the underdogs William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, and Sazerac 18 are the real stars of the show. The biggest disappointment is, of course, Thomas H. Handy – it’s unclear what went wrong with this batch, but the hard truth is that not all years of whiskey are good years, and that is especially true with Handy. The pricing for the collection seems a little unbalanced, as well. It’s hard to understand how Buffalo Trace is selling a 138 proof 16 year whiskey at the same price ($80) as a 6 year old rye, and yet again at the same price as a 90 proof Eagle Rare, but given the price that like spirits are hitting the marketplace lately, it makes some of these older, stronger releases a “deal”. The problem, though, is that age and proof chasers won’t be as happy as those who cherry pick this collection. Nit picks aside, Buffalo Trace has again presented some very fine whiskeys in a collection that shows their real range and capabilities.

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Reyka Vodka Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson

Reyka Vodka Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson

Iceland is an amazing country, forged by volcanoes and founded by Vikings, of only 300,000 people which sits at the meeting point of the North American and European tectonic plates. The volcanoes of Iceland (and there are many) really define the country, from the geography, how people live and work, and perhaps most profoundly, its water.

Hot Springs Used To Generate Power

Hot Springs Used To Generate Power

Iceland’s volcanic core creates a myriad of hot springs which pump large amounts of extremely hot water to the surface. Iceland has been very savvy about using this water to power steam electric generators to provide the majority of the country’s power needs. As a result, Iceland doesn’t have the need to burn fossil fuels or coal to generate energy (or heat their water), which helps make it one of the cleanest inhabited places on earth.

Natural Lava Filtration of Glacial Water

Natural Lava Filtration of Glacial Water

Given Iceland’s typography and its extreme northern location, giant glaciers dot the landscape and are a source of a tremendous amount of water in the country. The juxtaposition of glaciers and lava beds helps create a natural water filtration system which, combined with the pollution-free air, helps create some of the world’s best water. It’s really this water that makes Reyka Vodka so special.

When you buy a bottle of 80 proof vodka, the bottle only contains 40% of spirit, and the remainder is water. What water you put in there can have a significant impact on the final character of a spirit. Many vodka makers use highly filtered and often distilled water to dilute their vodka. Reyka simply uses untreated Icelandic water, the same that freely flows out of the tap. In almost any other part of the world, using tap water would be considered sub-par, but Icelandic tap water is like liquid gold, it’s just that good.

Iceland Imports and Exports A Lot

Iceland Imports and Exports a Lot

As with many things in Iceland, part of the Reyka equation comes from somewhere else. In this case it’s another island – Scotland, where William Grant & Sons ferment and distill white barley to create 96% ABV spirit. Some may take issue with the fact that this Icelandic Vodka has its first distillation in Scotland, but the kind of still that Reyka uses in Iceland, the Carterhead Still, isn’t capable of distilling up to the required strength to create vodka – this requires a column still. It’s not uncommon for vodka producers to use a grain spirit which has been initially distilled by someone else, including most notably Titos Vodka, Svedka, and in part, Ketel One Vodka.

Caterhead Still

Carterhead Still

Ironically, barley is a crop which grows in Iceland and is very much a part of the Icelandic culture, and it’s really the barley which works in concert with the Icelandic water to define Reyka Vodka. It is in the little town of Borgarnes, located 73 km outside of the capital city of Reykjavik, where Reyka really becomes Reyka Vodka. Here, one man, Thordur Sigurdsson, is completely responsible for creating every drop of Reyka Vodka. Thordur takes the barley spirit from Scotland, pre-heats it using a geothermic heat transfer system, and then loads it into a Carterhead Still for distillation. The Carterhead Still is a style of pot still that combines elements from traditional whisky and cognac stills with an additional chamber which can be used for the alcohol vapors to pass through something before condensation, typically botanicals for gin, but in Reyka’s case it’s lava rock. There are only six Carterhead stills in the world – William Grant & Sons owns three them, two of which are used to make Hendrick’s Gin and one is used for Reyka Vodka.

Geothermal Heat Transfer

Geothermal Heat Transfer

Using heat transfer to warm the barley spirit means there’s really not much ramp-up time in the still, reducing the chance of overheating the spirit, which could create a subtle burned note. As the spirit is warmed in the still it turns into vapor, where it passes through a number of plates that create condensation that aid in the distillation process. Reyka also goes the extra step to fill one of the plate chambers with stainless steel grommets, almost exactly like copper ones that Absolut uses for Absolut Elyx. These stainless steel grommets help create further condensation without adding any flavors or character to the equation.

Lava Rock Condenser

Lava Rock Condenser

At the top of the Reyka Carterhead Still is a unique lava rock basket that the distilled vapors pass through as they are being condensed into liquid. After condensation, the spirit is passed through another lava rock chamber, filtering it again as a liquid. Most vodka goes through some sort of filtering process, but this is often done after distillation. Reyka’s style of lava rock filtering is unique.

Second Lava Rock Filtration

Second Lava Rock Filtration

Once the spirit has flowed through the lava rock, it’s cut into head, heart, and tales with only the heart used to make Reyka Vodka. After distillation, unfiltered Icelandic water is added. This water is so prized that Martin Miller ships their gin to Iceland so that it can be blended and diluted with Icelandic water, and then bottled. For Reyka Vodka the journey doesn’t end there. Reyka is actually shipped back to Scotland and bottled at the William Grant & Sons bottling facility, which also serves Hendrick’s Gin.

Reyka Vodka

Reyka Vodka

The final result is a vodka which is slightly sweet, soft, and incredibly clean, with absolutely no minerality. Reyka Vodka maintains the character of Icelandic water while adding a touch of sweet barley grain to the mix. It’s a combination which stands up neat or chilled and is one of the few vodkas that can easily be enjoyed without mixing or diluting it in any way. Like Iceland, Reyka Vodka has been a fairly well kept secret since it launched in 2005, but like Iceland the word has started to get out about this vodka.
Watch our Behind The Scenes of Reyka Vodka for an in-depth look at the making of Reyka Vodka.

Also be sure to watch Fjalar Siguroarson as he explains the source for the elements of Reyka Vodka:

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Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey

Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey

It’s hard not to respect the work that the Garrison Brothers are doing out in Hye, Texas. In an era where so many micro-distillers are using merchant whiskey from other states for their initial releases, it’s refreshing to see a distillery take a true artisan approach to their products. On each bottle of whiskey, Garrison Brothers proudly trumpet that it’s “cooked, distilled, barreled and bottled by Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas.” The Garrison Brothers are also excellent about disclosing what’s in the bottle. Our bottle of Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey states that it’s made from #1 panhandle white corn, harvested in 2010 from farms in Dallam County, distilled and barreled in 2010 and released in Spring of 2014, bottle number 18953. Aside from disclosing their exact mashbill (which, in addition to the corn, contains Winter Wheat grown on the Garrison Brother’s distillery ranch, as well as barley), that’s about as much information as you’re going to get on a bottle of whiskey.

In addition to providing so much information on the bottle, Garrison Brothers are quite savvy with their packaging. The Garrison Brothers Whisky bottle features the Texas lone star front and center on the bottle as well as embossed on the wax-covered top. Garrison Brothers have managed to skirt the Maker’s Mark “dripping wax” trademark by expertly squaring off the base of the wax on the bottle. Again, it’s a smart move from a distiller who seems to have a very clear vision of what they are doing.

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (47% ABV / 94 Proof, $70-$90) – dark amber in color, this two year old whiskey seems to have been aged in smaller barrels to give it more surface exposure and therefore more color in a shorter period of time. Using small barrels is also apparent on the nose, which leads off  with young wood, with an aroma like walking into one of those unfinished furniture stores. Underneath this wood is caramel, coconut, pecan, cornmeal, and a touch of cinnamon spice. Two years is pretty young for a whiskey and that youth is apparent on the nose, which has some nice aromas, but they’re not very well integrated. You also have to dig pretty hard past the young wood and sawdust to get to them.

The entry for Garrison Brothers whiskey follows on with the nose pretty closely, bringing together the sawdusty raw wood with dry cornmeal. The opening would be too dusty and dry were it not for the support of caramel, which helps give it some balance and rounds thing out for a pleasant mouthfeel. The midpalate shows some promise as it seems to blow off some of the sawdust notes from the entry in favor of some spice with clove, black pepper, and cinnamon. There’s also a slightly bitter note underneath which reads like dark chocolate or coffee grounds. It’s here where the alcohol rears its head with a dash of heat that gives the whiskey some solid structure, which further benefits the whole taste equation. The finish is medium length, driven by the heat in the midpalate, and features that slightly bitter and subtle dark chocolate note from the midpalate.

While there is some promise in the mix with this Garrison Brothers’ whiskey, it’s greatly hampered by the same things that tend to hamper most craft whiskeys: it’s too young and it’s been aged in too small barrels. There’s simply no replacing time when it comes to whiskey, and while Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey has nice elements, it’s just not ready. If Garrison Brothers put this whiskey in 55 gallon casks and let it age 4-6 years, blending those casks to a unified taste, they might have something really special. Unfortunately, this isn’t that whiskey. The price is also absolutely astronomical compared to the taste experience. Tasted side by side with another wheated bourbon, Larceny (which is less than half the price of Garrison Brothers), and it’s clear that while Garrison Brothers is an interesting whiskey, it’s just not nearly as actualized, integrated, balanced or delicious.

We respect the hard work of craft distillers, but Garrison Brothers Whiskey is another example of the need for craft distillers to be patient with their whiskey. When it comes to whiskey, there are simply no short cuts. Garrison Brothers has gone to great lengths to use quality, organic, locally sourced ingredients for their whiskey, and lovingly and painstakingly “cooked, distilled and barreled” them. Now they need to have what’s impossible to ask of a small, independently run distillery: patience, lots and lots of patience.

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Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky

Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky

Non-age stated, single malt whisky releases are on the rise, and so far, consumers have shown that they have a good level of comfort buying Scotch Whisky that doesn’t disclose the age of the whisky inside. Highland Park has had some success in this space, and was an early mover with their Highland Park Warrior Series. The Highland Park Warrior Series features six non-age stated whiskies, ranging in price from $53 to $1300, available only through travel retail/duty free. Selling a whisky for over $1000 that doesn’t disclose age is a pretty amazing feat, and that success most likely emboldened Highland Park to add a non-age stated whisky to their core line. Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky isn’t a special or limited release – it’s meant to be a new and permanent park of Highland Park’s offerings.

The name for Highland Park Dark Origins refers to the sordid history of the Highland Park Distillery, which was started by a bootlegger named Magnus Eunson, famous for hiding whisky in the pews of his church to try to evade tax collection. It’s a nice nod to the origin story of the distillery, but a slight departure from the Norse imagery and mythology that has proven so successful for Highland Park over the past few years. Packed in a dark black bottle, Dark Origins looks distinctly different from the other releases in the core Highland Park portfolio. The bottle may be familiar to fans of the Warrior releases, as the jet black bottle is similar to those used for the Ragnvald and Thorfinn releases (although both of those are much more ornate).

Highland Park Dark Origins Single Malt Whisky (46.8% ABV / 93.6 proof, $79.99) – trumpeting “double first fill sherry casks”, Dark Origins uses double the amount of malt whisky from first fill sherry casks than Highland Park 12 Year. Although there’s “double” the amount of sherry cask finished whisky here, the color is very much in line with Highland Park 12. One reason is Highland Park doesn’t add any coloring to their whiskies, or chill filter them. This increase in sherry cask finished whisky is very apparent on the nose, whose sherry influence is unmistakable. Dark chocolate covered dried cherries literally leap out of the glass, while underneath there is fig, date, honeyed malt, a soft nuttiness, and a touch of smoke. Highland Park Dark Origins’ sweet chocolate cherry and honeyed malt entry is well in line with the soft and lush openings of Highland Park 12 and 15, but that’s where the similarities end. The opening is actually a little bit of a head fake, and the soft, sweet entry is quickly replaced by a bold, spicy, and smoky midpalate. In the midpalate the honeyed malt moves to a supporting note and the chocolate begins to dissipate. In its place a more acidic and spicy character emerges with green apple, black pepper, and allspice. There’s also a fair amount of heat  added to the equation, far more than with Highland Park 12 and 15.

It’s also in the midpalate where Dark Origins’ peat smoky character is most pronounced. You’d never guess from the nose that Dark Origins would get so peaty, but here in the midpalate it’s the peak smoke that’s the star. One of the things that a non-age statement release allows a company to do is use young malt. In the midpalate we get both sides of the young malt equation. On one side we have a level of heat you don’t see with old malt, but on the other you get a nice young peat smoke which is more earthy, floral, and wilder than older peat malt. How much you enjoy this flavor will greatly determine how much you enjoy Dark Origins. The younger malt, combined with so much sherry cask whisky, also creates a much drier flavor experience than the other releases in the core line. Highland Park has experimented with a much drier flavor profile with their last Valhalla Collection release, Freya, and that experimentation has clearly impacted the approach for Dark Origins. The head fake in the opening is also reminiscent of another of the Valhalla releases, Loki, which changed directions in a similar, although more sophisticated, manner.

The finish for Highland Park Dark Origins is fairly dry and a showcase for the peat smoke introduced in the midpalate. Dark Origins seems to do very well with a few drops of water, which especially helps the finish, but also helps with the overall integration. Priced at $80, Highland Park Dark Origins sits in the Highland Park line between Highland Park 12 and Highland Park 15, but stylewise it’s a completely different animal. Highland Park Dark Origins is a bold attempt to reach out beyond Highland Park’s core audience to reach whisky drinkers who may otherwise gravitate towards some of the peat smoky Islay malts as well as perhaps appeal to the American whiskey drinker’s palate with a drier flavor experience. With Dark Origins, Highland Park has sacrificed its pitch perfect balance and integration for bolder flavors and a slightly wilder flavor experience. It’s an interesting move that might not appeal to all Highland Park fans. Although we generally prefer balance in Single Malt Whisky, it’s hard not to appreciate what Highland Park is doing with Dark Origins, which could represent a bold new direction for the company.

Want to learn more about Highland Park Whisky? Watch our Behind The Scenes of Highland Park Video.