Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades Review

The second release in the Master’s Keep range

Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell has just notched up a not-insignificant 35 years in the family business. To celebrate the momentous occasion he’s put together a rather special release, recently unveiling the Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades, just in time for Christmas! If the presentation of this one looks familiar, that’s because it’s the second limited release in Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep series, the follow-up to last year’s 17 year old.

image

Don’t think of it as merely a follow-up to the the 17 year old Master’s Keep though, as this is an entirely different beast. Whilst this one does’t carry a specific age statement like last year’s, the ‘Decades’ reference is a nod to the fact that it’s comprised of quality bourbons aged for between 10 to 20 years, some of the oldest to be bottled by Wild Turkey to date.

The barrels that have gone into this release were all matured in Wild Turkey’s McBrayer Rickhouse. We’re told that “unlike other wooden rickhouses on the distillery’s property, the McBrayer Rickhouse is located at a lower elevation on the property where the temperature does not fluctuate as much, allowing for a higher proof and deep, bold flavour”. I’m no authority on the subject, but after tasting this bottle I’ll take them at their word on that claim – the Master’s Keep Decades is one rich, tasty bourbon, but more on that soon.

image

I know when it comes to whiskey that it’s really all about the taste, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t give two hoots about the packaging and presentation of my whiskey. And on that note, the presentation of this one is really on the money in my opinion. From the front-opening gift box, to the thick, weighed bottle base, raised-embossed turkey motif and that copper and wood stopper. It’s probably one of the best looking bourbon bottles I’ve seen. So, we’ve established that this thing looks good, but how does it actually taste?

image

Tasting notes

Nose: Straight of the bat with notes of caramel, hard toffee, dark dried fruits, peanut husks, sawmills, flaky dry pastries and baking spice. The nose is quite deep and complex, opening up and changing with airtime, but overall I’d characterise it as rich and dry.

Palate: Immediately this is oily and viscous on the palate, with a nice chew to it. Creamy honey-sweet notes role across the tongue before I got big notes of peanut brittle and caramel. A few seconds later, dried dark fruit and hints of fresh minty-rye spice that turn almost cooling-menthol in character. The finish on the palate stays sweet but turns leathery and drying with old oak coming through. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Wild Turkey quite like this before. It’s rich and complex and is the kind of bourbon I’d be happy to spend quite some time with.

Overall verdict? For me, the higher proof (52% abv) on this is a very welcome addition. It helps carry the rich, bold flavours of this well-aged bourbon and in conjunction with this being non-chill filtered it gives it a wonderfully chewy, oily mouthfeel. A few drops of water open it up slightly quicker than having it to air and whilst I personally don’t add ice to my whiskey, I imagine this would cope pretty well if you decided to add a rock or two. A really enjoyable release in my opinion and very different to last year’s Master’s Keep.

image

With the silly season just around the corner the new Master’s Keep Decades would no doubt make a great Christmas gift for the bourbon-fan in your family, especially given how darn good it looks and tastes. Oh yeah, and a 10 – 20 year old bourbon, that’s actually accessible, for AU$200? I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing that this Christmas! A pretty unique offering.

A special thanks goes out to Wild Turkey Australia for providing the bottle pictured (and enjoyed) here and for letting me write up my own thoughts and opinions.

Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish

Tasting & Review

I think it’s fair to say that Johnnie Walker are best known for their mainstay blended whiskies, the kind you’re likely to find on pretty much every back-bar across the globe. They’re not one to put their feet up and stop experimenting though. Their quest to continue focusing on developing and understanding alternative flavour profiles has led them to the launch of the new sub-range known as the Blender’s Batch series.

Johnnie Walker Red Rye.jpg

Johnnie Walker’s master blender, Dr Jim Beveridge, tells us that “At any one time, there are hundreds of experiments into flavour being carried out by our blenders which involve making adjustments to atmospheric conditions, the types of wood and grain used, cask finishes and other elements of whisky-making in the pursuit of exceptional new flavours.”

Canapes.jpg

The first release in the series is the Johnnie Walker 
Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish, which is the result of experiments that have been conducted into the influence of bourbon and rye whiskey flavours, on Scotch. For the non Bourbon and Rye drinkers in the room, American whiskeys can often be characterised by their particularly sweet nature, something that comes from their use of alternate grains like corn and wheat and also from the fact that they’re matured in heavily charred, virgin American oak barrels. Rye whiskey (where the grainbill is predominantly rye) often carries notes of fresh mint, spearmint or dill and has a general spicy character that sets it apart from a low-rye whiskey. So even before tasting this new expression, I suppose I had those notes in mind when I spotted that it had a ‘rye finish’
 
Johnnie Walker Cocktail.jpg

Tasting notes

On the nose I got some sweet vanilla grain notes, runny caramel sauce and a hint of soft spice. Digging deeper, a touch of fresh pineapple, grilled peaches and maybe the faintest suggestion of mint. If I had to characterise the nose, I’d probably refer to it as round and creamy.
 
It’s fairly thin on the palate (to be expected given the low ABV), but it carries that creamy sweet grain profile nicely. A touch of spice (baking/ mixed spice), vanilla and some orchard fruits present themselves in what is a fairly balanced delivery.

Cocktail 1.jpg

What’s in the bottle

As for what’s in the bottle? I’m not entirely sure to be honest! But we’re told it contains a decent amount of malt whisky from Cardhu (the backbone of most Johnnie Walker expressions), along with grain whisky distilled at the now-closed Port Dundas distillery. For those of you playing at home, Port Dundas closed in 2010 so the grain component would have to be at least 5 – 6 years old. The remaining malt and grain components could come from any number of Diageo’s other distilleries, but any guess on my part would be purely that. The components were all matured in first-fill American Oak casks, before being finished for up to six months in ex-rye whiskey casks.

Johnnie Walker Red Rye Scotch.jpg

You’ve probably already guessed it from the photos, but I was recently invited along to the Australian launch held at the brand new Bouche on Bridge Street, Sydney. Sean Baxter, a man who’s equally enamoured with the idea of developing magical flavour profiles – as Jim Beveridge and his team – treated us to an evening of decadent food and cocktail pairings with some help from the Bouchon on Bridge team.

Cocktail 2.jpg

Sean made no secret of the fact that the Red Rye Finish can be used as a perfect mixing whisky and we got to see this first hand in a series of pretty smashing cocktails, such as the;

Rye-talian: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Cascara Campari, blood orange and potato maple
Rye and Dry: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Capi ginger ale and basil
New Yorker: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, lemon and grenadine
Red Rye Manhattan: Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish, Dolin rouge, bitters
Whisky cocktails can be hit and miss in my opinion and rarely do I have a ‘wow moment’ when drinking them, but these were all executed to perfection in my opinion. Big props to Sean and Matt Linklater (pictured above) for brining us these seriously tasty treats.

Dessert.jpg
The new Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish is already available in good bars and has started to hit shelves at a retail price of around AU$50 a bottle. For more cocktail inspiration using the Johnnie Walker Blender’s Batch Red Rye Finish, check out this link.
As always, a sincere thanks goes out to the team from Diageo and Leo Burnett for the generous invite to an enjoyably decadent evening.

Westland Whiskey

Craft distillers of the world, take note

It seems like every other month or two someone, somewhere in the world is setting up the newest, craftiest ‘craft’ distillery. Don’t let the term ‘craft’ fool you into thinking that they’re all created equally though. Some of these ventures are far better thought-out than others and one of the ones that has really caught my eye is Seattle’s Westland Distillery. But we’ll get to that in a sec.
Often when I’m trying a new whisky for the first time I like to do a bit of homework and find out as much as I can about what’s in my glass. No, it doesn’t always add to my enjoyment, but occasionally it does provide me with new-found appreciation for what I’m drinking and it also helps to satisfy my inner whisky nerd.

Westland Whiskey.jpg

So when I was recently sent a few samples of Westland’s core range by the new Australian importer – Alba Whisky – I went on this same homework journey and the amount of information that was forthcoming really surprised me. With many big, established whisky brands, getting any kind of detail out of them can sometimes be like pulling teeth. But a few emails back and forth between Alba and myself yielded a goldmine of information and in my mind, it would be a total shame not to share it. It’s a long post, but I reckon it’s worth it.

Westland’s grain bill

All single malt whisky starts off with the same base ingredient of malted barley. But at Westland they’ve taken this slightly further and have come up with a “five-malt” grain bill which is used in their American Oak expression (among others), and it contains:
– 70% Pale malt from Washington State
– 10% Munich malt from Washington State
– 12% Extra Special Malt from Wisconsin
– 4% Brown malt from the UK
– 4% Pale Chocolate malt from the UK

The whole concept of a grain bill is not something you hear about that often with Scottish whisky and is far more prevalent in the bourbon and beer worlds. But Westland believe that each one of these malts adds a slightly different dimension of malt flavour, which is something they want you to taste in their whiskeys.

The source of their malt

You’ll note in the above list that most of the malt is sourced locally from Washington State and there’s a good reason for that. According to Westland, Washington State has two distinct growing regions that make it one of the best places in the world to grow barley. The first being the Skagit Valley (about 60 miles north of Seattle) and the second being Palouse (about 250 miles east of Seattle), which roughly correlates to a UK and continental European climate respectively. Climate is just one aspect of it though. Many of the farmers in Washington State operate outside of the commodity system which allows them to grow barley varietals that aren’t accepted on the commodity market. What that means is that in Washington State there’s effectively a system of academics (barley breeders), farmers, maltsters and distillers who are all working together outside of the commodities and can focus on new varietals. For Westland, this means that they’ve already been able to lay down casks with three new varietals of barley that no other distiller anywhere in the world has access to. And they supposedly have many more coming.

Westland Single Cask.jpg

Peated malt is absent from the above, but in the case of Westland’s peated expression, sometimes their peated malt comes from Scotland’s Baird’s Maltings, alternatively they source it locally from Washington State at Skagit Valley Malting. Irrespective of where the malt is coming from, they target their peating levels to 55 parts per million (PPM).

The yeast

At Westland they use nothing but brewer’s yeast, specifically a Belgian saison strain which they believe gives them “amazing citrus, red fruit, and spice element that balances the malt components quite nicely”. I’ve tasted a single cask expression that was bottled for Binny’s in the US and it had the most outrageous stout profile I’ve ever tasted in a whiskey, with bucket loads of roasted, toasty malt, chocolate stout notes. No doubt the chocolate malt barley played a big role in this, but I’m convinced that the brewers yeast was also a big contributor to that true, stout flavour profile.

Wood and maturation

For their new oak casks, Westland fill exclusively into casks made from slow-grown, air-dried oak which has been dried for a minimum period of 18 months where they believe they see more refined oak notes and less bitter and resinous flavours. When it comes to their ex-sherry casks, they work with Toneleria del Sur to source both PX and oloroso sherry casks. In a rather costly move, they ship the casks whole from Spain instead of breaking them down into staves for transport.
If you’re wondering why – Westland believe it provides them with a certain depth and fresh sherry character that can’t be imitated. They’ve also recently released a pioneering whiskey in the States that has been matured in a local species of white oak, Quercus garryana. This oak only grows in the Pacific Northwest around the cities of Seattle, Vancouver B.C. and Portland.

When it comes to maturation, Westland mature their casks outside of the city of Seattle, in a coastal town called Hoquiam, where humidity is always high, rainfall is prevalent, it rarely gets warmer than 23 C and it never freezes.

The whiskey

One of Westland’s chief concerns is balance.  They want the wood to be a part of the whiskey but not all of it and they’re upfront in saying that they want their whiskey to derive flavour from three sources: the malt, the yeast/ fermentation, and the cask. On that note, let’s see how that actually plays out.

Westland samples.jpg

Westland American Oak

The nose is loaded with rich malt notes, stewed apples and pears, light citrus and pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar (the thick kind you’d find in the crust of a homemade apple pie). There’s a sweetness to it as well that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s balanced, integrated and cosy.

Sweet, round and creamy on entry with some nice oily notes followed immediately by a massive malt attack. Those heavier roasted/ dark malts really burst through here with flavours of chocolate-coated coffee beans, powdered drinking chocolate and roasted nuts. Anyone who’s a fan of a good dark beer (or even the Glenmorangie Signet) will find much to love here.

Westland Sherry Oak

The sherry influence is immediately apparent on the nose here, especially off the back of the American Oak expression. There’s an elevated sweet note, malt again, tart mixed dried fruits (dehydrated apples and apricots included!)

Sweet, round and creamy again on entry, showing a whole lot more restraint when it comes to the malt notes. There are still hints of those roasted, toasty notes (especially on the finish), but it seems softer, more balanced and integrated on the palate than the American Oak expression. Liquified pastry with a hint of boozy cherry-chocolate brownie (go on, imagine it!)

Westland Peated Whiskey

Malty and oily on the nose with an underlying soft smoke, char-grilled pears and citrus. It’s quite a dry nose. It’s creamy, sweet and oily again on entry, but there’s a tangy, sooty, earthy peat note that soon becomes apparent. I’m not sure I’d call it smoky and I definitely wouldn’t call it coastal (like I would a Caol Ila), but it’s more mature and earthy. Again, a really nicely balanced and integrated palate that shows off those roasted chocolate notes on the finish.

In the words of Westland “We do not want to simply replicate Scottish whiskey in the United States, we want to make as authentic a single malt whiskey as we can. The sum total of Westland is a mixture of tradition, local terroir in the ingredients and the innovative culture of the Pacific Northwest and America at large. All of these factors come together to make our single malt whiskey as authentic and compelling as possible”.

I think that sums it up pretty nicely. Westland might be fairly young in the scheme of things, but boy are they already hitting home runs and they still have plenty of rock-solid ideas up their sleeve. Whilst it can be difficult for the established players to experiment to this degree, it’s something that smaller ‘craft’ distillers can certainly do and Westland are producing some mighty impressive results.

The Balvenie Craft Bar is back!

The Balvenie will be hosting their annual pop-up Craft Bar next week (25-28 August) at the historic Strand Arcade in Sydney. I went along last year and had a great time (you can check it out here!)

Balvenie display

This time ‘round the 12 year old Balvenie DoubleWood will be on taste alongside a series of craft masterclasses hosted by some very well-respected local artisans. From guitar makers, to book binders, to milliners and shoe makers, there’s bound to be something for everyone.

Bar

As always, it’s completely free, so if you like the sound of sipping a Balvenie whilst hearing about your favourite (or perhaps a new) craft, visit this link to see the full programme and sign yourself up!

 

 

Lagavulin 8 year old

One of Islay’s favourites celebrates its 200th anniversary

Lagavulin hits the big two-zero-zero this year and to celebrate the milestone they’ve released a trio of limited expressions. At one end of the spectrum there’s a 25 year old Lagavulin matured solely in ex-sherry casks. Then there’s the 18 year Feis Ile bottle that was only available at the distillery during the Feis Ile festival.

Lagavulin 8.jpg

They’re two expressions that sound absolutely incredible, but probably not what you’d describe as overly ‘accessible’ to the average Lagavulin fan. For that reason, I think Diageo has been rather clever in releasing a third expression, one that the vast majority of us fans will be able to access, afford and enjoy. Say hello to the 200th anniversary Lagavulin 8 year old.

Lagavulin to me

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Lagavulin. If I were to rewind the whisky clock a number of years, I can honestly say that the very first bottle of peated Islay whisky I ever purchased was the Lagavulin 16 year old. I vividly remember the first time I tried it. I was out to dinner for my birthday and being new to the world of whisky I thought I’d try something I’d never heard of. Out came a glass of this smoulderingly smoky, sweet yet salty whisky. At that point, my interest was well and truly piqued. It was the kind of whisky that made me riase an eyebrow each time I brought the glass close to my face and it was barely a couple of days before one of the three bottles on my shelf was a brand spanking new Lagavulin 16 year old.

Lagavulin 200 news

I’m not the only one who’s been charmed by it either. You still regularly see people post on facebook or message forums who’ve newly discovered the world of peat when trying their first Lagavulin. It’s quite incredible to think that the distillery has garnered such a fan base with essentially one core bottle; the mainstay 16 year old.

Lagavulin 8 launches in Sydney

So all of that being the case, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to trying the new 8 year old ever since it was launched overseas back in March and I recently had the chance when I was invited along to the Sydney launch event at The Wild Rover.

Sean Baxter

Diageo National Ambassador, Sean Baxter, was on hand to walk us through the 8, 12 and 16 year old expressions, but before we did so, we were treated to a sensory experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before – a 3D virtual tour of the Lagavulin distillery!

I’ve always found the whole 3D goggle thing to be a bit of a kitsch novelty, but using it for a virtual distillery tour? Now that’s pure genius! We donned our branded goggles, put on our headphones and were transported to the isle of Islay.

Lagavulin VR.jpg

Starting on the pier, we took in our surroundings before moving through to a field of barley, then to a malting room where the raging kiln was charged with peat. The still house was up next, followed by the warehouse and finally to the Lagavulin tasting room. I wish I could have somehow captured the tour itself in photos, but you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say it was pretty damn cool.

Peat.jpg

Our visual and auditory senses weren’t the only ones being tantalised. As the tour progressed, a team of helpers (or as I like to call them, scent ninjas) introduced various scents to complement the scenes. Think being misted with sea spray when we were on the pier, the smell of oak and earth whilst we were in the dunnage warehouse and even the the burning of peat whilst we were checking out the kiln (damn it smells good).

Lagavulin Oysters.jpg

Oysters were shucked, canapés were served and some blazing libations were crafted to round out the evening, but not before the hero was sampled.

Lagavulin Cocktail

Tasting notes

The new Lagavulin 8 year old is solely matured in refill American Oak casks and bottled at 48% ABV. Before I get stuck into the notes, I’ve got to hand it to Diageo for releasing this at a very respectable ABV and with a young age statement boldly (and proudly) printed on the label. Well done chaps!

Nose

Where the 16 year old could possibly be described as round, even supple, I’d say this is bright, punchy and active. A clean pronounced sweet peat note, oily charred citrus zest, face-puckering lemons, fresh tart pineapple and a salty saline tang. It smells youngish, a tad mescal-ish, feisty and fun.

Palate

Again, compared to the 16 year old, the palate is noticeably oily and creamy in texture, thanks in large part to the higher alcohol strength and lack of chill-filtering (a very welcome addition in my books). It’s bright and hits the palate high with a sweet rock-salt tang, crisp smoke, smouldering coals and ash before some fruit kicks in (green pears and underripe peach). On the finish I felt it turned sweeter again, whilst being both drying and ashy, with very little in the way of oak or bitterness.

Lagavulin

The 200th anniversary Lagavulin 8 year old is available in Australia right now at a recommended retail price of $95. A big thanks to Sean and the team from Diageo for inviting The Whisky Ledger along as a guest.