Dram Review: The Glenlivet Alpha

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a number of other bloggers to taste the new Glenlivet Alpha as part of a twitter tasting hosted by Steve Rush of The Whisky Wire and Ian Logan of Glenlivet. Thank you for inviting me and sending me a sample of Alpha.

Also part of the tasting were the 12, 15 and 18 year old expressions. I will save notes on these for separate posts because, firstly, they deserve their own spotlight, and secondly, I have things to get off of my chest with respect to Alpha (see the verdict at the bottom).

The Glenlivet Alpha is somewhat historic. 50% ABV Glenlivet…. and that’s all we know about it. It comes in a black bottle with minimal labelling. This is supposed to be a product that encourages consumers to “let taste and smell lead their experience” (quoting the press information that accompanied the sample). I say “all” we know about it, we know something else: it is a very limited worldwide release with only 600 bottles for the UK for example.

The release of Alpha has certainly caused a stir, particularly online. I have to say the general mood of this stir has been one of indignation. The Glenlivet are asking £100 for what is essentially a bottle of mystery whisky. Can this be value? Is this really aimed at whisky drinkers? Is all of the “let yourself be led by taste and smell” for real, or is this release really just one for collectors and investors? Can £100 possibly be value for mystery whisky? I will offer my take on this at the end in what is my longest verdict yet. Here are the dramstats:

glenlivetalpha

  • ABV 50%
  • Price ~£97

Nose: Desiccated coconut, big pineapple, Lilt, a biscuity pastry note, rhubarb and custard boiled sweets. With water this shines. Tangerines and satsumas with vanilla custard and sticky toffee sauce.

Palate: My first reaction was “this tastes like 50% ABV Lilt!” There is an undertone of creamy buttery hob nob biscuits whilst tart tropical citrus sings above it. Water makes this 46%, 44%, 40% (or whatever you reduce to) ABV LILT. It has, what a fellow blogger termed “the nomnomfactor”.

Finish: Pepper and oak with biting pineapple cubes, grapefruit juice and gooseberry fool. It leaves the same Lilt taste in my mouth I remember from childhood.

Verdict: I love it. I really do love it. One of the tasters on the night said, “it’s nice but is it really twice as nice as the 18 year old”? I think a more pertinent question is: would you rather have 2 bottles of the 18 year old or one bottle of this. For me, I’d take a bottle of the alpha every time (and I like the 18, but that’s a story for another review).

Part of me admires The Glenlivet for this move. The value of the liquid in a bottle of whisky seems, at the moment, almost entirely driven by it’s age and the distillery it came from. Old=expensive. Certain brands too, such as limited release Ardbegs and anything from The Macallan sell for higher prices. But why should we judge what a good price for whisky is solely based on its age (and provenance)? Surely it’s what is in the bottle that counts. How is the nose and taste? What is the experience like?

I’ve had quite a few drams in their late 20s and 30s recently and yet the Alpha is one of 2 that I would be happy to pay £100 for. I was in a conversation the other day where someone was raving about how cheap a certain 40 year old was at around £250. They hadn’t tasted it though, yet it was great value! How do we know what the age of the liquid in the bottle is? It could be a blend of 30-40 year old Glenlivet with some younger spirit added to wake it up. At the end of the day, the master blenders at the big distilleries are good. In fact very good. And maybe they know better than us how to get the most out of the casks that they have. When the secret is finally out, if it turned out that Alpha was 30 year old Glenlivet, the online whisky community would be singing about the great value of the product.

I don’t like this. The value should be judged on the experience offered by the nose and taste. Taken at face value, the marketing for Glenlivet alpha seems to agree with this sentiment. I also have to say they’ve produced a cracking whisky to illustrate their point. Thus the part of me that admires this marketing move. I also have to say they’ve produced a cracking whisky to illustrate their point

However, there is another part of me. A cynical part that understands the way the single malt whisky market works at the moment and that understands that PR machines know what they are doing. Let us be realistic. On average, what type of person is going to buy a mystery whisky from a well known distillery for £100 without any tasting notes being published anywhere, any knowledge of the quality of the whisky in the bottle or any other information other than there are very few bottles available?

Will a large proportion of the customers be the rank and file whisky drinkers who don’t have unlimited funds? The customers who enjoy Glenlivet and want something for a special occasion perhaps? Or has this product fed the investor beast? By making this so unique, advertising it as “making whisky history”, making the bottle black and mysterious, and setting a high price tag have they not just guaranteed making the whisky collectable?

What’s more, you’d have to be completely naive to believe that the marketing teams don’t understand the investment grade whisky market nor factored it in to their marketing strategy for Alpha. Put yourself into a marketing teams shoes. There is a whole market out there for collectors and investors. You can’t ignore them. A good business needs to sell to them. But how do you advertise? “Buy this product, we reckon it will treble in value in the next ten years”. Ha! No they have to sell to them without mentioning investment or collecting.

I love the sentiment behind encouraging drinkers to taste blind and judge a whisky on the quality of the liquid itself. However, if the goal was only to encourage as many drinkers as possible to undo the shackles of age labels and tasting notes and to explore new mystery whisky, they could have produced more bottles of something interesting at a lower price. I doubt at this price, with such a limited run, many people will be converted. I doubt a large percentage of the bottles bought will even be opened.

And that is the real shame of it. Because inside the black collectable exterior  is a wonderful whisky and nosing and tasting it blind was very exciting. I always comment on value, and very very few £100+ drams make it onto my “yes I would pay that for it” pile. The Glenlivet Alpha does. I would buy it (though it’s sold out in the UK), and if you have bought one and intend to open it, I’m jealous. I really loved it.

This experience has taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes, with the right master blender, it can be worth taking a punt on relatively expensive whisky you havn’t tasted. These guys really do know how to put excellent whisky together. I’ve never, ever, had a disappointing Glenlivet, and I wish I’d have trusted their master blender whilst I still had the chance to buy a bottle. Because, I really loved the whisky and, at the end of the day, that is the only important thing for me.

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Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey Tasting

Firstly, I have to apologise for a lack of posts recently. I’ve been busy preparing for and attending job interviews and havn’t had time to blog.

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to join fellow whisky fans on twitter in a tasting of 4 single pot still irish whiskies distilled at Middleton distillery. Hosted by Steve Rush, the keeper of the excellent TheWhiskyWire website, this was another excellent tasting featuring Redbreast 12 year old, Green Spot,  Powers John Lane release and Middleton Barry Crockett Legacy. An excellent and intriguing line up and I’m about to tell you what I think of them.

Here are the dramstats:

Redbreast 12 year old

  • ABV 40%
  • 12 Years old
  • Price £38.95

Nose: Caramel, vanilla, caramac bars, condensed milk (the layer of caramel in a caramel shortbread), apricot, waft of raisin and vanilla wafer. After a taste there is some nuttiness. Chopped nuts on your ice cream sir?

Palate: Vanilla sweetness with wafers and caramac bars. Not getting a lot of fruit on the palate.

Finish: A hint, but no more, of spicy oak then a vanilla bomb goes off. After taste of Mr Whippy + wafers with mild raisin.

Verdict: At £38 this is a decent dram and a real session whisky or first dram home from work.

Green Spot

  • ABV 40%
  • Price ~£36

Nose: Hob nobs, buttery crumble note, herbal note and a touch of menthol, double cream.

Palate: Very sweet with black pepper, very creamy vanilla and bitingly bitter grapefruit.

FInish: Slight bitterness of grapefruit dries with the oak.

Verdict: I absolutely love the wave of bitter grapefruit in the finish and the lasting impression it leaves. I will definitely be buying a bottle of this. My pick of the night.

Powers John Lane Release

  • ABV 46%
  • Price ~£46

Nose: Spicy, vanilla, ryebread, menthol throat sweets (Halls extra strong), cut grass and parsley

Palate: Herbal note, vanilla, lots of spice with pepper, oak and foam bananas. Banana milkshake.

Finish: This has a great finish. Wave upon wave of spicy oak and pepper attacks a vanilla ice cream background. Looooong!

Verdict: I love the finish, but not as much as the unusual grapefruit on the Green Spot.

Middleton Barry Crockett Legacy

  • ABV 46%
  • £138

Nose: Vanilla, spicy, bread dough, citrus, worcester sauce, prunes, dark chocolate and oloroso soaked raisin.

Palate: Vanilla and some green apple before a hint of mixed herb, green banana and lemon tart filling. Wow!

Finish: Waves of fruit again with raisin then foam banana, mixed herbs, coffee whipped cream coated in chocolate. Finish of the night!

Verdict: The nose really didn’t suggest this palate and the finish keeps coming and coming. Pretty awesome! I really enjoyed it, but price wise it’s not for me. I’ll be buying green spot.

Overall Verdict: I’ve had a few irish whiskies and enjoyed them, but did find them to be not as complex as some single malts. This range of single pot stills though has been impressive. This is an excellent whiskey category and one that I hope continues to grow and deliver new exciting expressions.

 

 

 

 

Burns night mystery tasting

I recently signed up for a mystery twitter tasting on burns night called “whisky with a bite” and organised by @Girl_Whisky (from twitter). The idea was we all paid a small fee and, in return, received 3 drams of mystery whisky. On Burns night, we’d all get together, taste the drams, review them and learn something. Anyone who’s had to give a sample to the doctors in the UK might understand that these particular sample bottles concerned me. Don’t worry though, the whisky was all good 🙂

mtwta3

Dram 1: Michael Jackson Special Blended Whisky

Nose: Lots of vanilla with quite an Irish character initially. Tangerines, brazil nuts and coconut shavings. Honey and camomile tea come through. Lots of marmalade. After a taste, fresh pine comes through, coconut mushrooms and a salty note that reminds me of Springbank.

Palate: Sweet vanilla and plenty of wood.

Finish: Slight oak spice then vanilla with faint chocolate covered turkish delight.

Verdict: This is really very nice! The nose particularly is very enjoyable. The legend is that this blend was concocted using all the whisky found in the legendary drinks writer’s office. I wonder how much springbank he had. One thing’s for sure, that man had some seriously good taste in whisky!

Dram 2: Cardhu Special Cask Reserve 40% ABV

Nose: Initially some peat and mildly coastal. The peat quickly disappears though giving way to wet hay, fudge and butter. Then things get really buttery with salted popcorn and furniture polish.

Palate: Buttery vanilla and fudge with a touch of spice before huge melted butter.

Finish: Starts off quite oaky but the finish morphs into buttery vanilla fudge.

Verdict: Probably the dram of the night for me. Really enjoyed the buttery notes, but this was well rounded. I could see myself buying a bottle of this.

Dram 3: Nikka Bearded Black.

Nose: Cereal bars, golden syrup, varnish, workshops, paint, touch of dark chocolate.

Palate: Sweet vanilla custard creams with a touch of aspartame.

Finish: Creamy with aspartame, vanilla and white pepper.

Verdict: I did enjoy this and could enjoy a session with it, but it didn’t hit the buttons like I thought the king of blenders at Nikka would have. I wouldn’t buy a bottle, but if you offered me a dram.

Overall Verdict. In all this was a really enjoyable tasting. It was a real treat trying the Michael Jackson blend and I think I’ve added to my single malt knowledge with the Cardhu. A little disappointed by the Nikka, but they win so many awards, there must be some crackers to try in their range. The event was fun and well organised. We all had a lot of laughs and some innuendo on the night, and the only downside was clearing away the glittery confetti that came in our sample packs! I’d join another Whisky Girl tasting, but maybe not the cocktails one 😉

Milroy’s of Soho twitter tasting

On the 12th December last year I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with a number of fellow whisky fans on twitter to taste 4 whiskies from Milroy’s of Soho. Thanks to Steve Rush from The Whisky Wire for organising the tasting.

The four drams to be tasted were:

  1. Milroy’s of Soho Blended Malt
  2. Milroy’s of Soho Single Cask Longmorn 13 yrs
  3. Milroy’s of Soho Single Cask Cooley 2001 bottling, 11 years.
  4. Milroy’s of Soho Single cask Zuidam Dutch Rye, 4yrs.

I was particularly interested in the Dutch Rye which is a 100% rye mashbill. Here is my setup for the tasting:

milroys

 

Milroy’s of Soho Blended Malt

  • ABV 40%
  • Price £19.95

Nose: Slight Bruichladdich note (crumble and cream), buttery, dried apple then fresh pear, slightly coastal, creamy vanilla and madeira cake.

Palate: Creamy mouthfeel, touch of vanilla but spicy. A little young.

Finish: White pepper and a little dry oak.

Verdict: Where be the fruit? Nice nose but I wish there was some of the fruit from there on the palate. Good price for this one though.

Milroy’s of Soho Single Cask Longmorn, 13 yrs

  • ABV 46%
  • Age 13 years
  • Refill Hogshead
  • Price £35

Nose: Biscuits, umbongo, floral, tomato puree. Takes ages to open up.

Palate: Creamy mouthfeel like the standard 16, vanilla and barley with watery fruit juice.

Finish: Lots of pepper and creamy vanilla as with the 16.

Verdict: This is a nice whisky and the price is good. However, there are a lot of great Longmorns available from lots and lots of different companies and I think there are nicer ones out there, though you will probably have to pay a little more.

Milroy’s of Soho Single Cask Cooley 2001 bottling

  • Age 11 yrs
  • ABV 46%
  • Price: NA

Nose: Corn and rye. Big vanilla and banana milkshake. Bubble gum `cola’ bottles (the blue and pink ones).

Palate: There’s the rye! Vanilla, spice, like cinnamon-pepper. Slight liquorice note.

Finish: Liquorice, rye and hot oak.

Verdict: This is excellent. I wrote a note to myself to pick up a bottle after christmas and I’ve gone onto Milroy’s website and they don’t have any. This makes me sad!

Milroy’s of Soho Single Cask Zuidam Dutch Rye

  • ABV 46%
  • Age 4 years
  • 100% Rye
  • Price £75

Nose: Like being beaten to death with a sack of rye, in a rye field. Rye, sawdust, tea, iron filings, workshops, varnish.

Palate: Rye, creamy vanilla, freshly sawn oak shavings, cough sweets (fishermans friends).

Finish: More rye in a workshop with fishermans friends.

Verdict: This is a big Wow whisky! I’ve never tasted anything like it and to even have the opportunity to experience 100% rye was a real privilege. It’s £75 so it is not cheap, but, as they say on the website, this is the first ever single cask single rye whisky. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more 100% rye from Zuidam.

Overall verdict: Some very interesting whiskies to taste here. The Cooley and the Rye were real highlights. It just goes to re-enforce something I’ve been pursuing all year. The fact that some of the best whiskies can be found at really good prices bottled not by the distilleries themselves, but by independent bottlers like Milroy’s of Soho.

 

Cutty Sark tweet tasting 2

Part of Steve Rush’s enormously successful series of tweet tastings (follow him @thewhiskywire), this tasting was the second time the tasters had got hold of part of the Cutty Sark range of whiskies. This time, we would be tasting the blended whiskies Cutty Sark, Cutty Storm, Cutty 12 year old, Cutty 18 years old.

Cutty Sark is a very successful brand worldwide, but it is one of those blends that is not fashionable in the UK at the moment. Take a look at the blends in my local supermarkets and Cutty isn’t there. It’s very rare to spot it in a pub (unless it stocks hundreds of whiskies) and if you want to drink it here, you’ll have to go to a whisky shop or onto the internet.

I find that this is a shame because I like the design and I like the history. Of course, I buy most of my whisky at specialist retailers, but it would still be nice if more people over here were exposed to this excellent brand.

Before I report on the drams, it would be rude not to talk about the history I enjoy so much. Cutty Sark is the name of a tea clipper, “the fastest and most famous of all clipper ships”, back in the 19th century. There is always a picture of the ship on the bottle (I like ships) and, for me at least, this picture always invokes the fun part of the history.

During Prohibition, captain Bill McCoy (of a different ship) used to bootleg cutty sark whisky into America. He was teetotal and the whisky he bootlegged remained uncut. Hence the expression ‘The real McCoy”. Cool huh?

cutty-sark-whisky

OK I’ve waxed lyrical about this brand long enough. Time to actually taste and review their whiskies. Here are the dramstats:

Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky

  • ABV 40%
  • Price £17.50

Nose: Initially sickly peat turns zesty, with honey and pears.

Palate: Sweet arrival with vanilla, crisp barley and a very mild smoke.

Finish: Crisp, short and pleasant.

Verdict: This is very light and quaffable. A whisky I’d enjoy in the summer or just after work. It’s an entry level blend to be sure, but it’s definitely not over priced. I shall be picking up a bottle for the summer and don’t expect it to last very long when I do!

Cutty Sark Storm

  • ABV 40%
  • £24.95

Nose: Thick honey, touch of cinnamon and pepper, sherry, tabasco sauce and muscavado.

Palate: Treacle tart (made with real treacle not 100% golden syrup), bitter dark sugar and ginger cake.

Finish: Liquorice, rich muscavado, black jacks, coffee cream quality street.

Verdict: Delicious. Sherried but not fruity and I really like it. No qualms about the price. However, I may save up for one of the other cutty expressions…

Cutty Sark 12yo Blended Scotch Whisky

  • ABV 40%
  • Price £30

Nose: Sherried and spicy. There is a note of ragu, which I really enjoy. Salty, touch of smoke but light, old christmas cake, coriander, cardamom.

Palate: Briney, raisin juice, spicy with coriander.

Finish: Waves of grape and layers of raisin and barley keep coming. Excellent finish with a hint of that ragu from the nose!

Verdict: Tasty and different, enjoyable. I’m saving my money up though for the next dram..

Cutty Sark 18yo Blended Scotch Whisky

Cutty_Sark_18_orig

  • ABV 43%
  • Price £53

Nose: Chocolate, coffee beans, rich dark sherry, plums and jamaican ginger cake with almonds and soft brown sugar. This is an exceptional nose. Wonderful.

Palate: Pepper, ginger cake, very black cherries.

Finish: Dark cherry, long. Bitterness of very dark chocolate and freshness. Reminds me of Bendicts after dinner mints. Wonderful!

Verdict: As the last sip of my sample is gone and that dark chocolate mint note fades with the black cherry, I feel very sad that it’s gone. It’s like a blender has interviewed my palate for days before crafting a blend just to bowl me over. It is undoubtedly true that whisky is a drink meant to be shared, but ultimately the experience we have with each one is personal. This is the best blend I have tried. Thank you Cutty Sark! I will be picking up a 70cl bottle and I hope it tastes just the same as this sample.
Cutty Sark blend some terrific whisky. The standard blend is a great quaffable summer dram and the 18 is a really rich christmas treat. They might not be as popular as they should be in the UK, but they’ve made a convert out of me. Go Cutty!

Wemyss Twitter Tasting

Tonight I was picked to take part in one of The Whiskywire’s series of twitter tastings. A format where a group of chosen people gather on twitter and taste a series of whiskies. This time we were tasting a range of Wemyss products under the hashtag #WEMYSSTT.

Wemyss, or “weems”, as it’s pronounced, is named after the Wemyss family who’s estate was home to the first distillery built by John Haig (founder of Haig’s). They produce their own blended malts and blends, and also have a range of excellent single cask bottlings. Tonight, we were tasting their ultra popular 12 year old blended malt, ‘The Hive’; the 15 year old blend, Lord Elcho; A 24 year old single cask Tormore called “White chocolate torte”; and a 14 year old single cask Laphroaig called “Beach Bonfires”.

Here my set up for the twasting.

 

I’ll give tasting notes on each dram first, then add my thoughts on the range as a whole. The price indicated is the cheapest found via quick google search and my verdict takes that price into account. Here are the dramstats:

First up the popular and multi-award winning “The Hive 12 year old” Blended malt scotch whisky (Vatted malt to me).

  • ABV 40%
  • Price £35

Nose: Almost cliche to go with a first note of “honey” given the name and the little picture of a bee on the bottle, but this is the most honeyed dram I’ve ever nosed! There is also a touch of smoke, crunchie bars, toffee, pear drops, cream and a white wine note, possible sauvignon blanc.

Palate: Sickly sweet, clotted cream and honey. Smoke comes through with the lighter notes from the nose left behind.  The smoke is sweet like Ardmore and the mouthfeel is very oily as if Craigellachie is in there.

Finish: Slightly drying oak, followed by sweet honey and a kiss of smoke. Short.

Verdict: An excellent introductory dram for beginners. In fact it’s so sweet and rich it’s almost a liqueur! For the more experienced palate it’s a great session dram or a dessert whisky. One to start with before breaking out the peat monsters. I would certainly buy it at this price and would probably get through it quite quickly! Good one!

Next up we have Lord Elcho 15, Blended Scotch

  • ABV 40%
  • Price £50

Nose: Quite closed at first, glass needs warming to coax out the aromas. Once you do, wow! Raspberry ripple ice cream, campino, vanilla, raspberry sauce, marzipan, Pledge furniture polish. Some really nice grain in this

Palate: Sweet delivery, creamy vanilla, raspberry sauce, Szechuan pepper, black cherry, chocolate.

Finish: Sweet lingering honey and vanilla with cherry, oaky dryness, mocha, and a twist of pepper.

Verdict: Excellent blend. Lovely grain and an enjoyable polish note. Sweet, spicyish and a great finish. A blend to recommend. I shall be picking up a bottle of this, but perhaps I’ll wait to see if the price stays so high. I only found this available at one retailer and I suspect, when it becomes more widely available, the price may drop. We’ll see!

Onto “White chocolate torte” a single cask Tormore distilled in 1988.

  • ABV 46%
  • Age 24
  • Price £83.95

Nose:  Yogurt topped flapjack, vanilla, white chocolate, spirit (angels share) and oak like being in a bonded warehouse.

Palate: Bam! White chocolate mini eggs. They’ve named this very well. Ice cream, (a white chocolate magnum). Water brings out coconut cream and guava. Someone said “white chocolate bounty” and I think they were bang on!

Finish: Pepper, oak then creamy white chocolate coconut with a bitter aftertaste of artificial sweetener.

Verdict: The nose on this one is worth the £80. I’ve saved some for later and I’m really looking forward to it!

Lastly to the Laphroaig “Beach Bonfires” distilled in 1998.

  • Age 14 years
  • ABV 46%
  • Price £74.50

Nose: I’m sensitive to the medicinal TCP note and it’s the first thing that appears for me. The malt is very coastal. Salty, lobster traps, crabs, sweet BBQ sauce (mild) fennel, seaweed covered rocks.

Palate: Very sweet. The expected coastal peat takes an age to arrive. Firstly it’s sugared almonds and icing sugar, then the peat arrives like the American armed forces at the end of a James bond film.

Finish: Burst of salty peat and a rush of icing sugar into a bitter aftertaste.

Verdict: It’s not a bad whisky but the “Islayness” doesn’t shine enough and too often is dominated by icing sugar and sweetness. Not one for my palate.

Overall verdict on the tasting: We tasted some excellent whiskies today. The Tormore certainly stood out, for the nose alone. However, I think the blends are the ones that tempt me to part with my money. The Lord Elcho was excellent and will hit my shelf at some point (though I’ll wait to see how much Master of malt, single malts direct or the whisky exchange sell it for). I loved The Hive, but worry that if I bought a bottle it wouldn’t last a week!

In short Wemyss make some cracking blends and bottle some excellent casks. If I’ve gained anything from the experience it’s that I want to sample the other blends in their range. In particular “The spice king” and “Peat chimney”. Now, where can I source a sample from…?