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.

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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.”

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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’
 
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Glenmorangie Milsean

A review of Glenmorangie’s latest Private Edition

It’s that time of year again when Dr Bill Lumsden raises the curtain on Glenmorangie’s latest Private Edition expression. In it’s seventh year now, the Private Edition collection is Dr Bill’s chance to play with parts of the whisky production process and showcase the versatility of Glenmorangie’s spirit.

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Last year he brought us the Tusail, Dr Bill’s vision of an old-school Glenmorangie made with Maris Otter barley that rose to popularity in the brewing industry in late 60s/early 70s. Prior to that we’ve seen Glenmorangie made with lightly peated barley (Finealta), Glenmorangie matured in a host of different ex-wine casks (Artein, Companta) and even a 19 year old expression (Ealanta). And in terms of coming up with yet another crazy concoction, this year’s release is no different!

Milsean explained

The Milsean (‘meel-shawn’ – Gaelic for ‘sweet things’) starts life as regular Glenmorangie spirit matured in ex-bourbon casks for 10 years, before being further matured in ex-wine casks for an extra two and a half years. So whilst it doesn’t carry an age statement on the label, you can do the math on this one!

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The ex-wine casks in question are former red wine casks from Portugal that have been re-toasted specifically for this whisky. If you’re not familiar with the process of toasting, it involves heating the wood (in this case, with a direct flame) to scorch or lightly char the inside of the barrel. This process re-invigorates the cask and caramelizes both the natural sugars in the wood and those in the wine residue left behind. The result? Some super sweet toasty goodness, ready to impart bucket-loads of flavor into the Glenmorangie stored within.

Milsean: Tasted

The name Milsean translates to ‘sweet-things’ and the candy-striped packaging conjures up images of an old-school sweets shop, so I’m expecting this to be, well, pretty darn sweet. So is it?

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Very first impression on the nose? This thing is sweet. Confectionary sweet. Dig a little deeper though and its oh so rewarding. It instantly reminded me of a freshly opened bag of marshmallows, toffee nut brittle, gummy bears, sweet macerated berries and a hint of hot chocolate powder. There’s loads of creamy vanilla that reminds me of custard powder – the kind mum used to use when we were kids.

On the palate it’s got that classic Glenmorangie backbone you find in the ten year old, but it’s layered with an oily sweetness you definitely do not find in the ten year old. Oily chewy wine gum notes, honey, candied orange peel (including that bitter pith) and super ripe sugary plums. It’s followed by a fair whack of drying spicy oak on the finish, but I feel as though it’s accentuated by the preceding sweetness, which seems to linger into the finish as well.

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Australia has received an allocation of 200 cases of Glenmorangie Milsean and it’s available right now in both specialty retailers and through Moet-Hennesy Collection at a retail price of $150. If you – like I – have a bit of a sweet-tooth when it comes to whisky, I have a feeling this will be right up your alley.

Thanks goes to both Moet-Hennessy Australia and the great people at EVH PR for providing the bottle reviewed here.

Kilchoman tasting with Peter Wills

A 10th anniversary tasting in Sydney

Kilchoman’s Peter Wills (youngest son of founder, Anthony Wills) was recently in Sydney as part of Islay distillery’s 10th anniversary celebrations (gee they’re growing up fast!) I first bumped into him over the weekend at The Oak Barrel’s Sydney Whisky Fair, whilst he was presenting as part of Island 2 Island’s trade stand.

Peter Wills

Understandably he was being mobbed by fans of the young Islay all weekend, so it was great to be invited along to The Wild Rover’s Campbell Corner Whiskey Co-operative the following Monday for an intimate and casual tasting.

Kilchoman tasting

Ten years can sound like a long time. Ten years in the same job is a good stint these days. A ten-year-old mobile phone makes it damn near ancient. Yet ten years in the whisky world seems like nothing, especially when you consider that your next youngest neighbour has been making whisky at least 124 years longer than you. That in itself makes the whole Kilchoman story that much more interesting and exciting to me.

It’s been a good while since we last attended a Kilchoman tasting, so I was quite looking forward to it. First up was a 100% Islay head-to-head, tasting the 4th edition against the 5th edition. Both are solely matured in ex-Buffalo Trace bourbon casks, both are bottled at 50% ABV and both are peated to around 20 parts per million (ppm). The difference then? The 5th edition is slightly older.

Kilchoman 100% Islay

I got soft smoke, a creamy vanilla sweetness and light, fruity malty notes on the 4th edition. This was backed up by an oily, tangy palate of fresh citrus (like grapefruit) and a heavy charred note. The 5th edition is certainly cut from the same cloth, but I found the nose to be brighter, with sharper citrus and acidic notes (like fresh cut pineapple), loads of tanginess with a more ashy char as opposed to soft smoke. This was backed up by a dryer, ashy palate with a bit more of a coastal theme going with tangy saline notes and drying smoked hay on the finish. A really interesting head-to-head.

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Next up was the mainstay in their range, the Machir Bay, which I’ve tasted (and enjoyed) on a number of occasions before. Bottled at 46% ABV with some ex-sherry cask in the mix, I find it softer yet richer, with sweet vanilla on the nose, ripe fruit, bananas, a faint hint of strawberry sponge and light peat. The palate is sweet and mellow at first, with a rich peaty tang at the back. I found it more earthy, combining tropical fruit notes with the peat being slightly less apparent than the 100% Islay expressions.

Kilchoman 2007 Vintage

The 2007 vintage six and a half year old was up next, again bottled at 46% ABV. I found this dryer and ashier again on the nose, but a bit more balanced than the 100% Islay. Ashy hay notes, fresh and zesty. The palate echoed the nose closely with earthy peat notes at the back and fresh zesty notes at the front (tropical fruits like green mango and pawpaw). The smoke wasn’t there, but the peat was evident on the finish, which was longer. This tasted the most mature of the lot.

Kilchoman Cask Strength

We then moved into full-proof territory, with the 59.2% Original Cask Strength. One nosing of this and I was hooked. Super creamy and round on the nose, smooth smoke, buttery vanilla, zesty lemon meringue desserts with a light alcohol prickle. I found the palate oily and rich, loaded with zesty charred flavours. It was ashy, dry and tangy, with salted caramel notes and a long, peat laden, cheek tingling finish.

Kilchoman at cask strength is a very enjoyable thing. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting a couple of single casks over the years and now the Original Cask Strength too, and I’m a fan.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm

We finished on the sherry-matured Loch Gorm (which I’ve tasted here and here), whilst Peter shared some great stories; like flooding the floor with new-make as Anthony was showing some potential investors around, to honouring the ‘barley-to-bottle’ claim of the 100% Islay 1st edition by hand-filling thousands of bottles with teapots.

Anniversary bottling?

If you’re wondering whether there’s going to be an anniversary bottling, the answer is yes. But it’s very unlikely you’re going to taste it. Kilchoman filled their first cask in December 2005 and auctioned off one single bottle from this cask when it turned three (the minimum legal age). That bottle sold for 5,500 and they plan to bottle another single bottle from that cask and auction it in December this year. So for those of us with shallower pockets, we might have to wait a little longer for a regular ten year old bottling to hit the shelves.

Happy anniversary Kilchoman

Thanks to Peter for coming all this way to share the story of Kilchoman with us and to The Wild Rover for hosting another great whisky tasting.

Peter Wills Kilchoman

Over the past decade, Kilchoman have achieved a lot and in my humble opinion and they’re making some great whisky. Yes it’s young and yes it rarely has an age statement. But it’s got loads of flavour and character and it’s fun! I’m looking forward to seeing what the next decade brings for this youngster, but part of me really hopes that they keep releasing these young, bright and vibrant Islays.

Check out @whiskyledger on Instagram for plenty more whisky and drinks photography.

Eigashima Sakura

A quick glance at the label on this bottle confirms that this is a bit of an interesting one.

Eigashima Sakura

Distilled in July 2010, the Eigashima Sakura was matured in an ex-Shochu cask and a hogshead for a combined period of three years, before being finished is a red wine cask for a further one and half years before being bottled at 58% ABV.

I don’t know about you, but there are a few words on this label that I wasn’t immediately familiar with, namely the words Eigashima and Shochu. I have heard of both, but I must admit I had to hit the books (aka Google) and do a bit of research to really understand and appreciate this one.

Eigashima

We’ll start with Eigashima. You may not have heard of Eigashima, but you may have heard of another small Japanese distillery called Akashi. Well, in basic terms, they’re kind of one and the same.

Located just our of Kobe, Japan, Eigashima is the parent company that runs the White Oak Distillery, who produce whisky bottled under the Akashi brand. Interestingly, they only produce whisky for two to three months a year and with a team of just four people, they’re the smallest whisky distillery in Japan.

Eigashima Sakura

So if they’re only making whisky for a couple of months a year, what are they doing the rest of the time? Well that leads us to that second word I wasn’t overly familiar with..

Shochu

You see, Eigashima’s core business is producing two of Japan’s favourite distilled drinks, sake and shochu. Sake is essentially a brewed rice wine, but shochu is quite a bit different. It’s first brewed, then distilled and can be made from a variety of different ingredients including sweet potatoes, barley, buckwheat, rice, sweet corn or even brown sugar. After distillation it’s then matured for a relatively short time (compared to whisky), in either stainless steel tanks, clay pots or – you guessed it – wooden casks!

There’s a lot more to it and the history and production is quite fascinating, so feel free to check this out for further info.

Eigashima Sakura

Now that we know a bit more about Eigashima and Shochu, I’d say it’s time we taste. Kanpai!

Eigashima Sakura

When first poured, I’d say that the Sakura isn’t immediately recognizable as whisky. I get more of a plum wine and Slivovitz top note on a bed of raw white grain spirit and as it sounds – it’s not great. Air is its friend though. Fifteen minutes in the glass opens this dram right up to reveal a rich, thick nose of runny toffee, marmalade, balsamic reduction and heavily charred figs. I get a hint of potpourri, char and dark soy. It’s not sherried, it’s almost like an older complex Armagnac, but that grainy vodka-like spirit notes pokes it head through here and there.

On the palate it’s immediately oily giving rise to a burst of spirit heat which quickly fades to deliver sweet, chewy berry notes, brown sugar and a slight fizz. The residue is almost savory though, with a saline tang turning very dry and tannic on the finish with a slight bitter waxiness.

I would never pick this as a sub-five year old whisky and despite the young age and high proof, I have no desire to add water to this one. There’s so much going on which makes me think Eigashima have been very clever with their cask selection here. However, as is often case with heavy wine finishes, the drying bitter finish isn’t quite the crescendo I was looking for.

Eigashima Sakura

Having never tasted Shochu, I can’t really comment on the influence the shochu cask has had on this whisky. However, even before reading up on it, I did get a distinct white grain/potato spirit (almost vodka-like) note on the nose. I don’t know what type of shochu cask was used in the finishing (sweet potato, barely, brown sugar etc.), but this was a really interesting note, in a really interesting whisky.