Lark Small Cask Aged Single Malt Review

Distillery: Lark. Region: Tasmania. ABV: 43%. No age statement (5-8 years).

This bottle of Lark Small Cask Aged Single Malt Whisky was a long way from its home when I found it here in Chicago. It travelled almost 10,000 miles across the vast Pacific Ocean from its birthplace in Hobart, Tasmania, to reach my glass. What a journey!

Lark’s Small Cask Aged release is distilled from Tasmanian barley, 50% peated, 50% unpeated. It’s aged in 100-liter casks (about 26 gallons) to accelerate the maturation process. It’s a technique common among many American microdistillers, which will use barrels as small as 5 gallons to maximize oak influence and move product to market faster than would be possible otherwise.

The nose is sweet with notes of warm brown sugar mixed with spice and cereal grains. The palate has notes of citrus fruits, with more subtle spice and maltiness, but also damp wood and light campfire smoke. There’s enough complexity within its thick oily texture to contemplate while enjoying its warm, medium-long finish.

As far as this bottle traveled, Lark’s Small Cask reminded me that sometimes it’s in fact the destination, and not the journey, that is most important.

Cheers! -JTR

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2016 Review

Distiller: Laphroaig. Region: Islay. ABV: 51.2%. No age statement. Price: $80.

We’re nearing that time of the year when pumpkins lead to turkeys, which lead to elves on shelves and best-of lists litter the proverbial ground like so much left-over Halloween candy. And since I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, now seemed the appropriate time to let it fly.

I’m not going to bury the lead. With just over two months left in 2016, Laphroaig’s Cairdeas 2016 Madeira Cask is the best new single malt I’ve tasted this year.

I loved Ardbeg’s Dark Cove (and fully plan on buying a bottle or two or three), but the Cairdeas 2016 just hits every one of my happy-happy-joy-joy spots.

There’s a faint scent of raspberry on the nose, which melds beautifully with the expected peat and ash, along with crispy smoked pork and the usual slightly medicinal aromas.

The palate has a delicate layer of brine, which works just wonderfully with the peat. I caught more of that slow-roasted meat around the edges, along with some spice and an ever-so-light citrus.

And, man, the finish is something to rave about all by itself. It’s quite long, which allowed me to linger on the roasted lemons, peat, and red wine that came to the fore.

All that’s left to say is that I heartily encourage anyone to discover it, but if you’re an Islay lover like me, this and the Dark Cove are the absolute must-haves of 2016.

There’s still around 65 days left in the year, so I’m not saying it’s my absolute favorite of the year, but there’s little question that it’ll crack my top five.

Here’s to beauty and complexity in our spirits, both those we drink, and those we have within. – TM

Loch Lomond Reserve Review

Distiller: Loch Lomond. Region: Highlands. ABV: 40%. No age statement. Price: $18.

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Loch Lomond–the lake itself–ever since Mrs. McDram and I spent a romantic weekend on it back in 2008. I was dimly aware at the time that there was a Loch Lomond distillery nearby, but I neither visited it nor saw much evidence of it on the shelves.

Fast forward to 2014, when a private equity group called Exponent swooped in and bought the on-again-off-again distillery–along with Campbeltown’s Glen Scotia distillery–and began a revamp of the brand. The Loch Lomond Reserve blended whisky is one of the results.

Loch Lomond is rare among Scottish distilleries in having a wide range of stills to work with in-house: traditional copper pot stills, pot stills with rectifying columns, Coffey stills for making grain whisky, and the rare Lomond still, which is also in use at Scapa and Bruichladdich. If you can dream it up, Loch Lomond can make it. (And they’ll have to make a little more than usual after spilling $1.2 million worth of whisky this summer.)

That makes this base blended whisky, the Loch Lomond Reserve, a good place to start. I’ll come right out and say it: this $18 whisky is better than it has any right to be. I enjoyed it more than blended scotch whiskies that cost 2-3 times as much.

It’s on the lighter side at 40%, but the nose lets you know there’s plenty of substance to work with: vanilla, peach, apple, candied grapefruit, and peanut brittle.

The palate is lemony and creamy, nicely balanced, with no bite. Nice oak vanillins. Again, on the lighter side, but never watery. A touch of chicken with orange glaze comes late–then the finish brings a delicate smokiness. Then lemon pepper and ground ginger.

I’ve found that the better blends are great for accompanying food–far better than most single malts, to my taste. The Loch Lomond Reserve fits this bill nicely. It may fall a bit short of the standard of the excellent Usquaebach blended whiskies, but it also costs less than half of what they do.

A great before dinner dram, during dinner dram, or surprise hit at a party. Well done, Loch Lomond! – BO

The Loch Lomond Group graciously provided a sample for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Low Gap 2-Year-Old Wheat Whiskey Review

Distiller: Craft Distillers/Germain-Robin. ABV: 43.1%. Mashbill: 100% Malted Bavarian Hard Wheat. Price: $65-75.

Crispin Cain of the American Craft Whiskey Distillery has been distilling for 20 years, and producing a variety of Low Gap whiskeys for about the past five. The distillery itself is one of the oldest microdistillers in America, dating back to 1982.

My favorite Low Gap so far has been single barrel No. 1 of the Two-Year-Old Bavarian Hard Wheat–winner of 2012 Artisan Whiskey of the Year by Whiskey Advocate. It’s distilled on Germain-Robin’s renowned copper cognac still from a mashbill of 100% malted Bavarian wheat, and aged in a new oak barrel.

The nose is heavily spiced, but the taste is surprisingly smooth, with floral notes dancing above the expected wheat profile–a balance of honey and light tropical fruits. There is a silky, medium-long finish.

I’m looking forward to tasting the non-single barrel version of the four-year-old Bavarian Wheat for comparison–along with the other good things Crispin Cain keeps cooking up.

Cheers! – JTR

Highland Park Dark Origins Review

Distiller: Highland Park. Region: Highland/Islands. ABV: 46.8%. No age statement. Price: $80.

The Dark Origins is a velvety no-age-statement dram from Highland Park that doubles the sherry cask influence of the standard 12, and is meant to replace the 15-year-old in the near future.

The release is matured 80% in first-fill sherry casks, 20% refill sherry. Needless to say, the sherry is strong with this one.

There’s light honeyed smoke on the nose, plus stewed and candied fruits. The palate adds loads of bitter orange, plus more oak tannins than the Highland Park usually brings. Dark chocolate and lingering smoke on the finish.

It’s a more substantial and interesting dram than the 12-year-old Highland Park, but it struck me as a bit unbalanced overall. It’s not cheap for an NAS, but sherry fans will want to check it out. I’ll be revisiting this one myself, but in the meantime I’ll be pouring myself another A’Bunadh.

Sláinte, friends! -BO

Nikka Taketsuru 17 Review

Distiller: Nikka. ABV: 43%. Age: 17 years. Blended malt. Price: $180+.

The Nikka Taketsuru 17 is so silky, I want to call it a dessert dram–but what that often means is cloyingly sweet and unbalanced. This is anything but.

The Taketsuru line is Nikka’s homage to its founder Masataka Taketsuru, who traveled to Scotland in 1918 to learn the art of whisky distilling at the feet of the masters. He returned to Japan with a degree in organic chemistry from the University of Glasgow, world of knowledge from internships at Longmorn and Hazelburn, and a Scottish bride.

The Nikka Taketuru 12 was a brilliant staple Japanese malt–until it was discontinued in 2015. Fortunately the no-age-statement Taketsuru Pure Malt that replaced it is every bit a worthy (and well distributed) successor.

Which brings us to the Taketsuru 17. The older Japanese malts are harder to find than ever these days, and often prohibitively expensive when you can find them. But let’s say you get lucky and find a bar with a dram at a reasonable price (I’m looking at you, Morrison Pub LA). Is it worth the splurge?

Oh yeah.

The 17 is sweet, yes, in a custardy creme brulée way, but balanced with faint smoke, substantial malt, and roasted nuts. It unfolds slowly and beautifully, with new layers of dried fruits, baking spice, and frangrant oak emerging bit by bit.

The younger Taketsurus have a certain wildness–not a bad thing at all–but that’s been fully tamed here. The 17’s all luxurious refinement. It asks for a patient approach and rewards it.

Kanpai, friends! – BO

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