Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 1894

Wild Turkey are probably best known for their easily accessible and affordable bourbons, things like the classic Wild Turkey 101, their Rye and the Rare Breed expression. But every now and then they come along and surprise us with what can best be described as a premium release.

The great thing about their ‘premium’ releases though is that they’re not show-pony bottles of unobtainium; things that look good on a shelf, but that you’d never actually enjoy. Rather, they’re generally bourbons that carry the classic Wild Turkey profile, but give us something a little bit different to the core offerings. And the best part? They’re still accessible and affordable.

In recent years we’ve seen a few premium releases such as the Master’s Keep 17 year old (2015) and then last year’s Master’s Keep Decades release (hugely enjoyable – tasted here). At that point it became apparent that the ‘Master’s Keep’ was going to be an ongoing series, but that wasn’t always going to be the case. According to Eddie Russell, the Master’s Keep was never intended to be an ongoing release, but once they saw how nice the new bottle design had turned out, they knew they wanted to keep using it.

So ever since the Decades release last year, many bourbon fans have been patiently waiting to see what the next instalment would be in the Master’s Keep collection. Well, say hello to the new Wild Turkey Master’s Keep 1894.

The man himself, Mr Eddie Russell, made the trip all the way down here to Australia to launch the new Master’s Keep 1894 and I had the pleasure of being invited along to an intimate dinner at Chiswick to celebrate the occasion. If you ever thought Kentucky was south, trying coming all the way down here to Australia. It’s about as south as you’re going to get before you hit Antarctica, so I genuinely mean it when I say that it’s always a delight when distillers make the effort to come and visit us.

A delicious meal ensued whilst Eddie talked us through tastings of the two previous Master’s Keep releases, along with the new 1894.

What’s in a name

The previous Master’s Keep expressions were fairly self-explanatory in terms of their names corresponding to what was in the bottle. The Master’s Keep 17 year old was just that; some super old Wild Turkey that had been aged for 17 years (in brick warehouses) before being bottled. The Master’s Keep Decades was a nod to the fact that the whiskey inside was a blend of bourbon aged between 10 and 20 years. So when the Master’s Keep 1894 was announced, I struggled to make the connection.

Google wasn’t a whole lot of help, but thankfully Eddie filled in the blanks with a bit of a back-story behind the significance of 1894. It was in that year that the oldest rickhouse at Wild Turkey was constructed, now simply known as Rickhouse A. Fast forward nearly 100 years to the year 1981. A spritely 21 year old Eddie Russell has just started his first job at the distillery in the summer as a General Helper (yes, that was his official title!), pocketing the princely sum of $6.58 an hour.

He’s been there for a full week now and on his second Friday of work, he noticed a group of guys knocking off around 3.30pm and heading into one of the rickhouses. The invite him along and it’s here that he gets his first taste of whiskey straight from the barrel. That warehouse was Rickhouse A. To this day, Eddie claims it was the best bourbon he’s ever tasted and so he decided to dedicate this release to that memorable moment. You may have guessed it already, but all of the whiskey in the new Master’s Keep 1894 has been hand-selected by Eddie Russell, exclusively from Rickhouse A.

The nitty gritty from the man himself

I had the chance to sit down and ask Eddie a bit more about the 1894 and whether there was a specific profile he was searching for when he put it together. He happily tells me “I knew there was a parcel of 2003 vintage barrels in Rickhouse A that had this amazing fruit profile – full of pears and apple spice – so when I was asked to create the 1894, I knew I wanted to use these”. These barrels were around 13 years old and were eventually paired with a parcel of barrels from 2005 and 2011. So for those who like to know the nitty gritty, the new Master’s Keep 1894 can be described as a vatting of 13, 11 and 6 year old bourbons.

Master’s Keep 1894 Review

Bottled at 45% ABV (90 Proof) the nose is very much the way Eddie describes it – fruity! I got notes of honey, slightly underripe banana, stewed rhubarb, dried pears and apples. These notes were balanced nicely with lashings of caramel, spice and vanilla.  The palate is quite thin, but delivers more of those fruit notes, almost like a fruity banana/ apply split with sweet creamy vanilla ice cream, soft rye (baking) spice, runny caramel and whipped cream.

Now, depending on where you’re reading this from, there’s some good news and some bad news. If you’re reading this from Australia, the good news is that 10,000 bottles of the new Master’s Keep 1894 have just landed in the country and should start hitting shelves soon, so keep an eye out for them!

If you’re reading this from somewhere other than Australia, the bad news (for you) is that the new Master’s Keep 1894 is exclusively for the Australian market. Fear not though! A fourth installment of the Master’s Keep series will be released next year (yes, this one will reach other markets), along with another special project that Eddie is working on with actor – and Wild Turkey Ambassador – Matthew McConaughey.

An experience like this is not one I’ll forget anytime soon, so a sincere thanks goes out to Wild Turkey Australia for the generous invitation and to Mr Eddie Russell himself for making the effort to come all the way down here.

Auchentoshan & Ale

I’ve heard of drinking beer and whisky as a boilermaker combo, but beer ‘in’ whisky? Apparently it is a thing and the folks at Auchentoshan are big fans. So much so that they recently hooked me up with the essential ingredients to make their signature cocktail, the Auchentoshan & Ale. I actually tried this very cocktail at the distillery a little over a month ago and really enjoyed it, so let’s break it down.

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Start by adding two teaspoons of sugar to a cocktail shaker. If straight sugar isn’t your thing, try making up a batch of sweet honey-syrup (that’s what they used at the distillery and it worked a treat!) Squeeze over the juice of half a lemon and stir.

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Add 30ml of your favourite Auchentoshan (I used the American Oak expression), top with ice and shake away.

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Strain into a chilled mule mug topped with fresh ice.

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Top with your favourite ale.

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Finally, garnish with a lemon twist or wedge, sit back and enjoy.

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Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

A tasting and review

It was the year Queen Elizabeth II visited my home country of Australia, the first time a reigning monarch had ever done so. It was also the year an unknown hipster by the name of Elvis recorded his first demo and the year Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. That year was 1954 and it also happens to have been the year this particular whisky was distilled by Glen Grant.

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A lot has changed in the years since this was distilled, including the way whisky is made at Glen Grant. Back in 1954 Glen Grant operated with four coal-fired stills, which you could argue would’ve produced something of a rich, heavy spirit. In 1973 two further stills were added, but this time they were gas heated. Impressed with their performance, the distillery added a further four gas-heated stills in 1977 bringing the total to ten. At some point in the future coal firing ceased altogether.

Aside from this being incredibly old whisky, the bare bones of it – the spirit – are fundamentally quite different to what is being produced at Glen Grant these days, which makes it even more a piece of liquid history in my mind. Thanks to a generous sample from the kind folk at Gordon & MacPhail, I recently had the chance to sit down, relax and a spend some quality time with liquid time capsule.

Glen Grant 1954 Rare Vintage

The first thing that struck me about the nose is how active it still is. It’s slow moving, but there’s a lot in there. Old oak, cedar boxes, melon (cantaloupe) with honey drizzled on it, leather, earthy dried tea with a hint of soft smoke, tobacco, some soft stone fruit notes (fleshy blood plums, peaches, apricots) and raisins. Really quite fruity for something of this age and very well integrated, as you might expect.

On the palate it’s slightly oily but light in weight. I found it had a rum-like sweetness to it with lots of integrated soft oak spice at the front. After a few seconds lots of juicy tropical fruit salad/ oak notes emerge (like green mango, papaya, paw paw). There’s some light acidic sourness to it (grapefruit and orange marmalade) and some menthol or eucalypt notes. Toward the finish sweet rum-soaked dried fruits emerge before the finish turns drying with fragrant wood, light spice and lots of oak tannins.

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The idea of whisky that’s been deep in slumber for more than half a century is always alluring, intriguing and attractive. However from the limited selection of old whisky I’ve tasted, the reality of it is not aways so grand and I’m sure there are plenty of hyper-aged whiskies out there that are simply an over-oaked mess. This is not one of them though.

It has a gorgeous nose, almost ‘Japanese’ in the way it manages to integrate fruit, smoke and a leathery-tobacco in a sophisticated way. It took me right back to the times I sat at The Mash Tun in Tokyo, drinking some incredible Japanese whiskies at the bar.

There are just 610 bottles in existence and this expression is available now globally. What’s more, it has recently been awarded a double gold medal – the highest award – at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, as well as gold at the 2017 International Spirits Challenge. So I guess Im not the only one who thinks this whisky is pretty great? A very special thanks to Gordon & MacPhail for the sample tasted here.

A Benromach whisky quartet

Tasting four whiskies from Benromach

Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Benromach has had an eventful history of ups and downs over the years. It was originally founded back in 1898, but over the course of the next one hundred years or so it was sold, closed and re-opened numerous times, before falling under the ownership of Diageo (known as DCL back then). It was then closed for last time in 1983.

If that year sounds familiar to seasoned whisky fans, that’s because it’s the very same year DCL closed numerous other distilleries inducing the likes of Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene.. and we all know what happened to them; they were lost forever. So the simple fact that Benromach managed to survive the 1983 closing-spree is something quite special in itself.

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Fast forward to 1998 and the distillery was eventually purchased by one of Scotland’s oldest independent bottlers, Gordon and MacPhail. It is they who lovingly brought things back to life at Benromach and are essentially responsible for producing the whiskies I sampled below.

Benromach Organic 43%

Organic eggs, organic yoghurt and now organic whisky! Not just a health-food fad, the Benromach Organic truly is an organic whisky. When it was originally certified, it was the first whisky to meet the rigorous standards set by by the UK Soil Association which cover the full whisky production process, from barley growing through distillation, maturation and bottling.

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The nose smells quite bright, fresh and young with green notes of cut grass, underripe banana, orchard fruits and fresh oak. There’s also some light vanilla, honey and dry malty cereal in the background.

A nice medium creamy weight to the palate with flavours reminiscent of honeyed oats, porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and some toffee. Much sweeter on the palate than the nose would suggest, fading to a medium length finish loaded with a good whack of young toasty oak spice and coffee grounds (many of these notes coming from the virgin oak maturation, I suspect).

Benromach 15 year old 43%

Not long after Benromach released the highly anticipated 10 year old 100 degrees proof (tasted here), a slightly more mature and demure sibling was announced, the Benromach 15 year old. As I raise the glass to my nose for the first time – fresh from tasting the spritely Benromach Organic – I find myself in a whole different world.

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The nose is rich and deep; slow-moving if you will. There’s a heady old-world combination of sherry, malt, wood and funk. Stewed apples, dusty bookcases, leather chesterfields, butterscotch and orange skin. There’s also a peated vegetal note in the background with the faintest trace of dry earthy smoke. Really quite complex and plenty here to keep you entertained for a long while.

Another nice medium creamy weight to the palate, this time softer in its delivery with lots of sweet stewed fruits, runny honey, poached figs and vegetal earthy peat. There’s a decent amount of oak on the finish, which runs for quite some time. It tastes stately and has a definite old-world charm that you really don’t come across too often; especially not in any other modern 15 year old whisky I’ve encountered.

Benromach Sassicaia 2007 45%

The next expression starts life as ex-bourbon cask matured Benromach before being finished for a little over two years in former Sassicaia wine casks. Sassy-what now!? Sass-ih-kay-ah. A single-estate Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Bolgheri, in Tuscany, Italy. It’s an estate that is so critically acclaimed it was even granted its very own DOC (controlled designation, similar to the appellation system used in France).

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On the nose it’s almost somewhere in between the Organic and the 15 year old, but with a big berry-whack to it. It’s got that youthful fresh, bright note with an undertone of tart red currants, berries, oak, jam and some earthy smoke.

Slightly thinner on the palate than the 15 year old with bright punchy fruits, menthol, earthy spice, crystallised ginger, citrus pith and cracked pepper. There’s a definite berry sweetness in there from the wine casks with a lot of earthy oak, spice and smoke char on the finish.

Benromach Peat Smoke 2006 46%

When I see the word ‘peat’ I know I immediately think of those big smoky, briny whiskies from Islay, but although this is peated, I’m expecting it to be a little different as we’re dealing with Highland peat here, decayed vegetation that has a very different composition – and flavour – to that found on the rugged west-coast of Scotland. Peated to a hefty 67 parts per million (PPM), these small-batch peated releases are full-term matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels.

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On the nose it’s immediately crisp, dry and ashy with some lemon zest, cracked pepper, green apple skins, light floral honey, and some light oak. A fresh, crisp light campfire smoke lingers in the background somewhere.

Nice and oily on the palate with the crisp, dry theme from the nose continuing. Stewed apples, a touch of honey, star anise, tobacco leaf, macerated strawberries, lemon, earthy tea and dry smoke on the finish.

The Benromach range

Whisky drinkers can be a funny bunch sometimes. It seems like everyone talks about the whisky they can no longer find, the whisky that’s too expensive these days or the whisky that’s lost its age statement or become homogenised. In my mind, here we almost have the complete opposite of the whisky described above. We have a whisky that’s widely available and affordable, a core range that proudly carries age statements (or vintages) and a whisky with loads of individual spirit character, especially in the 10 and 15 year old expressions. Yet even with all of that up its sleeve, Benromach still seems to fly under the radar for so many. Wake up people!

In a few months time I’m hoping to visit Benromach for myself, so watch this space. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you some interesting tidbits on my return.

A special thanks to Ian and the team at Alba Whisky (the Australian importer of Benromach) for providing the samples tasted here.

Diageo Special Releases Collection

Tasting and Review

There are so many so-called ‘special’ or ‘limited’ release bottles coming out these days that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with them all, even for someone like me who spends a good deal of time following everything whisky online. But if there’s one series that has the pedigree and really does deserve the ‘special/ limited’ moniker, surely it’s the annual Diageo Special Releases series.

Diageo Special Releases

Simon McGoram, Australian National Whisky Ambassador for Diageo, tells us that over the past 16 years there have been more than 143 different bottlings released under the annual series, including regular appearances by rarities including Port Ellen and Brora. This year’s (2016) release is no exception, with bottles from these two closed distilleries appearing again, alongside eight other distilleries from Diageo’s extensive portfolio. Before getting into my tasting notes, it’s worth exploring exactly what these bottles are and what they represent.

Diageo Special Releases Tasting

Diageo owns more distilleries in Scotland than any other company (27, not including closed distilleries). Whisky from some of these distilleries can be found in bars and on store shelves the world over. Others though are seldom seen as a single malt or grain (when was the last time you saw a Linkwood or Cambus on the shelf?). The annual Special Releases give Diageo a chance to change all of that though and they release official bottles of single malt (and grain) from their portfolio that are rarely seen, or considerably different to the standard core expressions you might encounter.

Port Ellen Brora

The 2016 Special Releases featured ten different bottles and I recently had the chance to sit down and taste the following five.

Caol Ila 2000 15 YO unpeated 61.5% ABV

Whilst Caol Ila is famed for their heavily peated whisky, for quite a few years now the Special Releases series has featured an unpeated Caol Ila expression. Interestingly it’s not just a case of producing standard Caol Ila with unpeated malt. Simon informed us that they actually use a longer fermentation to specifically develop more fruity esters in the unpeated spirit. This particular release has then been matured in a combination of refill American Oak casks and European Oak butts.

Caol Ila 2000 unpeated

On the nose it’s definitely quite vibrant and fruity, with waxy orchard fruits, pine , sweet grassy notes and toffee. Despite being unpeated, there’s still a good whiff of steam-train smoky soot in the background but overall it’s quite a clean nose. The palate was thick and oily, almost syrupy in mouthfeel. More of those waxy orchard fruits, quite a lot of dry cereal, nutty wood spice and lemon skins with that dry coal soot in the background.

I’ve always enjoyed these unpeated Caol Ilas (the Stitchell Reserve is one of my favourites) and this one was no exception. I would love to see a well-aged (20 year +) unpeated Caol Ila in this series one day. I suspect it would be pretty magical.

Cragganmore (No Age Statement) 55.7% ABV

We’re used to seeing Cragganmore with an age statement (the 12 year old and the annual Distillers Edition) but this year’s Special Release is the only one in the lineup presented with no age statement. That doesn’t mean it’s young, of course, but an interesting move, similar to last year’s Clynelish.

Cragganmore Special Releases

Thick and honeyed on the nose with porridge and spiced stewed fruits. I found it to be quite oily, earthy and almost savoury, with nutty cereal notes on the back. Sweet and rich on the palate with a savoury apple tart note, citrus pith, baked stone fruit, tannic and quite spicy on the finish.

It doesn’t exactly leap out of the glass, but it delivered such a rich spirit character with loads of texture. The milkshake of the lineup.

Glenkinchie 1991 24 YO 57.2% ABV

As with the Cragganmore, we normally only see two different expressions from this Lowland distillery. This release is the oldest Glenkinchie bottled by Diageo, having been matured in European Oak for 24 years.

Glenkinchie 24 year old 1991

If you describe the Cragganmore before it as a bit of a slow mover, this would be it’s brighter, zingy counterpart. Sweet fruity citrus, green apple skins, dried flowers and furniture polish on the nose. Tropical fruits, prickly tart pineapple and hot oak on the palate and finish.

We’re told this was fully matured in European Oak, but I’m not sure I would have ever picked that as it’s missing the darker, spicier fragrant wood notes I would normally associate with something that’s spent 24 years slumbering in Quercus Robur (that’s botanical-nerd for European Oak).

Brora 1977 38 YO 48.6% ABV

First appearing in the Special Releases back in 2002, Brora has featured every year since and is always one of the most sought after. Although Brora closed in 1983, many don’t realise that the peated malt runs it’s famous for actually ceased in 1977, so given the vintage of this particular release, it’s a rarity indeed.

Brora 1977 38 year old

Immediately complex on the nose. After mere seconds you know this is the kind of dram you’d love to spend some time with. Thick and oily with a salty maritime note, waxy lemons, sooty coal ash, bees-waxed leather, poached pears and fermenting pineapple. It’s coastal, earthy and has a meatiness to it as well, like a quality wagyu Bresaola.

The delivery on the palate is calm, with big oils, smoked tropical fruits, papaya, green banana skins, shredded green mango, leather and honey and a long sooty, iodine finish. It’s balanced and stately. A dram that slows time down.

When quizzed on how much Brora Diageo still have in stock, Simon responded with ‘we’re told it has been depleted.. but as to what that actually means, I don’t really know’. I think it’s safe to say that there can’t be too much of this still lying around.

Port Ellen 1978 37 YO 55.2% ABV

Featuring every year since the Special Releases were launched back in 2001, these annual Port Ellen bottles are probably the most well-known bottlings from this long-lost distillery. It’s the only distillery that has featured every year and this year’s 37 year old is the not only the oldest Port Ellen bottled under the series, but at the time of writing, it’s the oldest Port Ellen bottled by anyone to date.

Port Ellen 1978 37 year old

On the nose it was surprisingly lively for something of that age. Rich honeyed biscuits, shortbread, oily brine, soft fragrant wood smoke, hessian sacks and ozone. It carries a coastal maritime note but definitely not something you’d describe a peaty. The palate is rich again, honey and cracked pepper, bright tropical fruits, pineapple chunks, smouldering cinders, soot and citrus finishing dry and oaky.

The Special Releases in Australia

Nine of the ten 2016 Diageo Special Releases will shortly be availably through specialist retailers in Australia, with pricing and available quantities listed below.

Auchroisk 25 year old, distilled 1990
RRP $520, 3.954 bottles worldwide, 216 in Australia

Brora 38 year old, distilled 1977
RRP $2,800, 2,984 bottles worldwide, 108 in Australia

Cambus 40 year old, distilled 1975
RRP $1,400, 1,812 bottles worldwide, 68 in Australia

Caol Ila 15 year old, distilled 2000
RRP $170, limited quantities worldwide, 450 in Australia

Cragganmore NAS
RRP $750, 4,932 bottles worldwide, 180 in Australia

Glenkinchie 24 year old, distilled 1991
RRP $520, 5,928 bottles worldwide, 282 in Australia

Linkwood 37 year old, distilled 1978
RRP $1,100, 6,114 bottles worldwide, 300 in Australia

Mannochmore 25 year old, distilled 1990
RRP $550, 3,954 bottles worldwide, 240 in Australia

Port Ellen 37 year old, distilled 1978
RRP $5,000, 2,940 bottles worldwide, 128 in Australia

It was an amazing experience to be able to taste these five and not one I’d be able to repeat without the generosity of Diageo Australia, so a sincere thank you for the great afternoon.