I have a special weakness with Compass Box whiskies. The Flaming Heart 2015 was my favorite whisky of that year, and I have yet to write a review. I went through an entire Christmas bottle of Compass Box Peat Monster without writing a review. The problem is that they’re so good, and in such a particular way–which I attribute to the blending genius of founder John Glaser–that I get too absorbed in them to take notes. I just want to enjoy.
But revisiting the Peat Monster, I managed to get my act together. This beauty is a blended malt (also known as a pure malt), meaning it’s a mix of single malts, with no grain whisky. The malts come from Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardmore, Ledaig, an unnamed Highland distiller.
The peat is intense, but there are many peatier whiskies on the market by far. The priority here is on balance and nuance.
Nose: lively, fresh, grassy, but with the density and richness that only come from a fair proportion of older malt in the mix. Minimal sweetness. Dark vanilla. Almond flour. Mesquite. Lemongrass. Dry vermouth herbaciousness. I could nose it all night.
Three kinds of peat intertwine on the palate: briny, toasty, and savory/BBQ. The Laphroaig brings the ashiness and brine; the Caol Ila light lemony fruits, tilting from lemon to lime to grapefruit. Charred pear and watermelon candy later on. The finish is very long, with grapefruit rind, grenadine, white ash, and salty sea spray.
The Compass Box Peat Monster should be a staple in any peat lover’s cabinet. Sure is in mine.
What appealed to me in the Aberfeldy 12 was a good mix of approachability and heft for its age and ABV: 40%, as with the distillery’s other core releases (even, alas, the 21-year-old).
One particularity of Aberfeldy malt is its long fermentation time: 70 hours, as opposed to a more typical 55 or so. This creates more esters in the distillate, which should lead to a fruitier malt.
The 16-year-old Aberfeldy is matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks, then finished in Oloroso sherry casks for a “more pronounced sherry accent.”
What’s it like in the glass? I was struck by the bourbon-y notes on the nose–not bourbon-matured single malt, but actual bourbon: Four Roses-esque caramel apple. Sweet leather. Vanilla pipe tobacco. The sherried notes emerge gradually–dried fruits, plum–and are strong on the palate. Raisin bun. Stewed prunes. Cinnamon. The medium-short finish has black tea with raspberry and a touch of oak spice.
I’ll make my usual appeal for another 3-6% ABV, but overall, the Aberfledy 16 is a fine package and a welcome daily drinker for me.
This SMWS 4.222 “Ginger and honey sweet tea” (a 16-year-old Highland Park) is a classic example of why I seek out single cask whisky from independent bottlers.
Over a decade ago I fell in love with the standard Highland Park 18. The use of Orcadian peat and sherry casks strike a perfect balance for me when I’m not in the mood for an Islay peat monster or a dark sherried Highland. However, I’m always searching for that next bottle that will expand my whisky horizons, and this 4.222 fits the bill nicely.
From a single first fill ex-bourbon cask, this is Highland Park stripped of its familiar sherry notes. Laid bare on the nose are crisp, sweet heather, caramel, and gentle smoke. On the palate are fresh botanicals and a beautiful mix of sweet vanilla and saltiness. The signature light peat notes that I love then settle in and are the glue that keeps everything together. The medium finish adds cinnamon to the waning smoke.
A truly unique exploration of Highland Park. Cheers! – JTR
There are moments when this Axis gig isn’t too shabby. As, for example, when Highland Park’s senior brand ambassador, Martin Markvardson, walks you through some new expressions over dinner. I dig pretty much all Highland Park (though Baldo found the Harald and Dark Origins less than stunning), and I was very happy to see that the distillery continues its winning streak with the Valkyrie.
It’s the first in a “Viking Legend” series that will have two more releases over the next two years. This one is distilled from half peated barley, a considerably higher proportion than with the HP 12 or 18, which are about 20-25% peated. Orkney peat, which HP uses exclusively, contains no wood–it’s a different peat beast altogether than what’s used in other parts of Scotland.
The Valkyrie is aged in a mix of American oak and European sherry casks, and continues the no-age-statement trend. (HP is in the process of phasing out its 15- and 21-year-old releases entirely.)
The nose hints of beeswax and honey. There’s that less woody peat, then glorious honey. On the palate, slow-cooked smoked pork. Warm apple fritter. A seemingly mildly abrupt finish, but it’s sneaky, because half an hour later, you’re still catching the remnants of the peat and honied heather. It was one dram, but I can’t wait to try more.
Here’s to experiences that delight. Cheers, friends! – TM
Speyburn Bradan Orach – Distiller: Speyburn. Region: Highlands. No age statement. Age: 10 years. Price: $25.
Speyburn Arranta Casks – Distiller: Speyburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement. Price: $35.
We all love the fancy pours when a buddy is buying, but it’s crucial to have some value drams in the cabinet–everyday standbys, the kind of single malts you can bring to the party to enjoy yourself without feeling something die inside when some knucklehead mixes it with Sprite.
Speyburn is a Highland single malt that’s solidly in value dram territory while having plenty to offer a seasoned whisky lover. (It’s been picking up some award recognition recently.) Their core line consists of the 10-year-old, the no-age-statement Bradan Orach, and the Arranta Casks release. Let’s try ’em out!
Speyburn 10: Nose of fresh malt, field grass, heather. Coconut. Toasted almond. Fresh baguette. Palate adds lemon and grapefruit. Tart. Fairly tart. Toast with marmalade. Finish has a little smoky barrel char and dry grapefruit rind.
The Bradan Orach has lemongrass and wildflower honey on the nose, then candied orange and lemon wedges. The palate’s unexpectedly substantial for its 40% ABV. Wildflower honey. There’s less complexity than in the 10–the impression is of a quality blend: Loch Lomond, say. Dry, tart finish. Wet cinnamon stick.
The Arranta Casks release is so named for its all-first-fill bourbon maturation. It shows. Boldest and most robust of the line at 46% ABV. Big orchard fruit on the nose: apple, pear, peach. Hints at a young bourbon. More vanilla and sweet oak with time in the glass. The palate has fresh vanilla bean, toasted tobacco, and a white grape note. Finish brings more sweetness: vanilla cake with white frosting and toasted almond. Just enough bite.
Amid the numerous overhyped and overpriced letdowns these days, Speyburn is a welcome discovery. Hope your weekend’s been a good one!
Cheers, friends! – BO
Speyburn graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.
Wolfburn Northlands Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.
Wolburn Aurora Sherry Oak Single Malt – Distillery: Wolfburn. Region: Highlands. ABV: 46%. No age statement (3+ years old). Price: $55-60.
Even before my first taste of Wolfburn, I had questions. Why go through the massive expense and effort of setting up a new Scotch whisky distillery at a time when even the big boys have to fight to keep their market share?
“Fortune favors the brave,” Wolfburn founder Andrew Thompson told me. “Put it all on black and spin the wheel.”
Once I’d tasted, the question became: How did they make whisky this good this fast?
“I spend my life doing two things,” Andrew said. “One, convincing people to try a 3-year-old whisky–well, now mostly 4, but only just. Two, then explaining why it is good. The first one is irritating but the reward comes with the second one after they try it.”
They don’t have a secret, but they do have a method. Andrew’s full explanation deserves a staging as a one-man show–or at least a trip to the far-northern Highlands distillery, opened in 2011, to hear it yourself.
In a nutshell, it involves custom stills from legendary coppersmith Richard Forsyth, zero automation, 25-year industry vet Shane Fraser (ex-Oban, ex-Glenfarclas) as distiller manager, and a relentless focus on producing the best new make they can.
A little more than 3 years later, they’ve got a product that is changing people’s minds about just how good a very young single malt can be–mine included.
“There really are no secrets at Wolfburn, hence people like Ichiro Akito from Chichibu, amongst others, send their people to chat to us and learn,” Andrew said.
“A fully automated system creates one kind of consistency. A man using his nose and hands creates another. By no means a better one, just a different one. For us, as a new start up, obsessed with looking after the whisky above all else, with no pre-programmed set of rules, it’s the later type of consistency we look for.”
“So now we have our new make–it’s really good new make,” Andrew said, “Let’s now put it in the best casks we can possibly find and then put it in our own warehouses and stack it, dunnage style, ourselves.”
On to the results. Both current releases are 46% ABV, $55-60, just over 3 years old (the minimum by Scottish law).
“Would we have delayed if it wasn’t ready?” Andrew said. “Absolutely. Look after the whisky and it will look after you.”
Wolfburn Northland is matured in Quarter Casks that previously held peated Islay whisky. Nose: fresh grain. Salted caramel. Almond croissant. Faint lime custard. Palate: sweeter than the nose. Nice spice. Lemon tart with graham cracker crust. A suggestion of toasty peat from the cask, which compliments the brashness of the young malt wonderfully. Finish: salty. White chocolate. Charred baked apple bottom. Very, very tasty.
Wolfburn Aurora is matured in ex-sherry casks. Nose: fresh malted barley. Blueberry and blackberry. Mocha dusted with nutmeg. Palate: juicy, alive. Raspberry jam, restrained sweetness. Shades toward orange marmalade closer late on. The finish has white chocolate, bananas foster, and a little lemon pepper.
What a start for Wolfburn! The Northland is my favorite of the two, but both show huge promise–and are ready to be enjoyed right now.
What’s next, apart from steadily more mature releases?
“We have a lightly peated whisky coming out in September of –just 10ppm,” Andrew said. The original Wolfburn distillery, which was founded in 1821 but had long since been a pile of rubble by the time the new team came along, would have used exclusively peated malt, “so it would be a shame not to have tried some.”
Beyond that, “the warehouse has mainly American Standard Barrels, quarter casks, and sherry butts in it, so lots and lots to come in the future. And the maturation is going very well indeed.”
I’d say. Here’s to taking chances. Cheers, whisky friends! – BO
Wolfburn graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.