Reviews Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey

For many years, the Irish whiskey business was dominated by just a couple major players. Through consolidations, sales, and reorganizations, the names of the owners changed, but the status quo remained essentially the same. (Today those two owners are Beam-Suntory and Diageo.)

The only significant competition to those two was from the Cooley Distillery, founded in 1987 by John Teeling. Cooley produced a variety of whiskeys that were sold under various brand names — two of the better-known ones being Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell — in addition to doing contract bottling for other companies.

Eventually, the state of the spirits industry being what it is, the Teeling family sold Cooley to Beam. But that didn’t mean they were out of the whiskey business for good. Because now they have returned to the market with their own eponymous label.

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey is the company’s entry-level product, a blended Irish whiskey like Bushmills or Jameson. It is reportedly composed of 35% malt whiskey and 65% grain whiskey, and aged somewhere between four and seven years. Interestingly, the blend is then finished for an additional four-to-six months in Flor de Caña rum casks.

The color of light straw, this whiskey has aromas of caramel/toffee, vanilla, and coconut. A light whiff of alcohol, but not too much. It is light-bodied and slightly thin in the mouth, dry, and with a touch of astringent oak on the finish.

You can definitely taste the presence of the malt whiskey, with the flavor of cereal grain, plus the vanilla and coconut returning. I didn’t detect any contribution from the rum, none of the spice or “rumminess” you’d expect from the finishing.

I was surprised to see that this clocks in at 92 proof (46% abv), as it doesn’t have that much heat. I also liked the way the malt and grain whiskeys are in balance. Both are testimony to the quality of the blending.

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey costs a little more than some of its competitors, but it’s money worth spending. This is a fine whiskey.

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Whisky Review: Bowmore Darkest 15 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

The flavor profile of Bowmore whiskies is often described as “sweet and peat,” and that is very much in evidence here with the 15-year-old Darkest scotch. It has a lush aroma of sweet mesquite smoke, just like a good West Texas barbecue, that carries over to the palate.

Bowmore Darkest is aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels and a final 3 years in Oloroso sherry casks. That gives the whisky a very enjoyable rich and sweet character without going too far on the wine notes.

There are flavors of chocolate, raisins, toffee, and a molasses taste like a good dark rum. There is also a little phenol giving it a nice tingle on the tongue. It is somewhat thin in the mouth, but has a long, satisfying finish — not too hot, despite the 86 proof (43% abv).

One of the things that impressed me the most about this spirit is how the fruit flavors from the sherry cask are so well balanced with the smoky peat. Milder than some of the other Islay whiskys, the Bowmore uses its smoke as a grace note, not a solo.

A wonderful whisky and a fine introduction to the Islay style.

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Whiskey Review: Abraham Bowman High Rye Bourbon

Abraham Bowman bourbon is made in Kentucky by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and then redistilled, aged, and bottled at the A. Smith Bowman facility in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (This is what is generally believed to happen anyway. Sazerac, the owners of Buffalo Trace, are quiet about some of the details of this whiskey.)

The Bowman company has been using the Abraham Bowman brand in recent years to release experimental versions of the company’s whiskey. (I reviewed one of their standard bottlings, the John J. Bowman bourbon, a few years back.) The Abraham Bowman line has included such things as bourbon with a coffee or vanilla bean finish, and even whiskey aged in barrels previously used to hold Gingerbread Beer.

Does it work? The verdict is usually mixed (isn’t the verdict with whiskey almost always mixed?), but these limited edition bottlings have become highly desired among bourbon fans.

The latest is a “High Rye” bourbon, which means a bourbon that contains a high percentage of rye as the “flavor grain,” along with the requisitie majority of corn. (For more of the specifics about what makes bourbon, see the Professor’s Bourbon 101 post.) According to the distillery, this contains “five times more rye” than their standard recipe, which means this must clock in at something close to 50% corn, 45% rye, and 5% malted barley.

My particular bottle is Release #12, Bottle #1256. It was aged for 8 years and 10 months and bottled at 100 proof (50% abv).

The bourbon has a dark color in the glass — darker than I was expecting at under 9 years of age,  and has a strong smell of sweet fruit. (It made me think of bubblegum.) It also has strong ethanol vapors which prevented me from discerning much else.

The taste was equally fiery. I would have guessed this was higher than 100 proof if pushed. There is a lot of rye spice, some vanilla, and dry, almost bitter oak. Hardly any sweetness. Again, it seems older than its stated age; woody, and not necessarily in a good way.

The Abraham Bowman High Rye Bourbon felt somewhat thin in the mouth, although it did have a long, hot finish. The downside here is that I had to add a splash of water in order to appreciate more of the flavor, but that just made it even thinner.

I’m torn about this one. Looking at it as a bourbon, it doesn’t really match the profile I prefer. (I tend to go for wheaters like W.L. Weller, or just lower-rye bourbons like Elijah Craig.) But that doesn’t mean it’s bad — it just means it’s not for me. It certainly has a lot of flavor, even if I found it somewhat one-dimensional.

And if you look at it as a rye whiskey…Well, there are certainly a lot of ryes out there that I prefer for less money. (Like High West Double Rye or Templeton Rye, or just good old stand-by Rittenhouse Bonded.) Although I suspect that given the strength of this whiskey, it would make a very nice Manhattan.

Ultimately, I’d saw that the Abraham Bowman High Rye Bourbon is an interesting whiskey and worth trying, but I’m not sure I’d pay $70 for it again.

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Whisky Review: Balblair 2001 Single Malt Scotch

The first thing you notice about the Balblair 2001 vintage scotch is how light in color it is, despite being aged in ex-bourbon casks for 11 years. That is because, unlike many Scotches, this is not doctored with caramel coloring before bottling. But the age is definitely there.

It has the sweet aroma of cereal malt with vanilla (presumably picked up from the bourbon barrels). The flavor is also slightly sweet with caramel and cereal grain, along with a dry oakiness. There is some spice (cinnamon, perhaps) and notes of bitter chocolate, especially on the rather long finish.

The Balblair 2001 Single Malt Scotch is good, but unspectacular. It didn’t have as much balance as I was hoping for. There are definitely interesting elements there, but I didn’t think they all came together.

As this whisky is a little hot at 92 proof (46% abv), adding some water isn’t out of the question. I found that I could discern more of the flavor after doing so.

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Whisky Review: Aberfeldy 12 Year Old Scotch Whisky

Dewar’s is one of the most popular brands of blended Scotch whisky in the world. And the whisky that forms the heart of those blends is made in the town of Aberfeldy in the Scottish Highlands.

The Aberfeldy distillery was opened in 1898 by the Dewar family and has been producing whisky pretty much ever since. (It closed briefly during the two world wars.)

Their most popular expression is the Aberfeldy 12-year-old single malt. It’s a very pleasant, easygoing whisky, but still full of flavor. It shows great balance, with honeyed sweetness matched with dry oak, and fruitiness contrasted with just a touch of smoke.

The Aberfeldy 12 is a mild-mannered whisky, not a Scotch that grabs you by the lapels. Still, it demands attention for its lip-smacking flavor.

This would make a wonderful introduction for those who are looking to explore the world of single malt whisky. But even those who are dyed-in-the-wool Scotch drinkers will find much here to enjoy.

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Whisky Review: Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Scotch

Auchentoshan Lowland Scotch Whisky has released a new single malt that is designed to appeal to bourbon drinkers. The new American Oak Single Malt Scotch is aged in first fill ex-bourbon casks, the first Auchentoshan to be matured in this way.

It’s still a single malt Scotch, triple-distilled from 100% malted barley, but by aging it in barrels that were first used to mature bourbon, the idea is that the American whiskey will lend something of its character to the Scotch.

The aroma of Auchentoshan American Oak is light and slightly grainy. There are toasted malt and wood notes, but overall nothing really jumps out.

Sipping neat, this whisky is dry and slightly woody. The cereal malt is more pronounced in the taste, along with some of the flavors you’d expect from bourbon, such a vanilla and light spice. I don’t know that I would have made the connection to American whiskey on my own, however. The flavor is definitely Scotch all the way.

Auchentoshan American Oak is a straight-forward single malt, without much nuance or complexity. It doesn’t have an age statement, so we can assume it’s fairly young. The attractive price — relatively cheap these days for whisky — makes it appealing as both a whisky to drink straight, or to use in cocktails and highballs.

If you’re not usually a Scotch drinker and you’d like to give one a try, this is an affordable, pleasing option.

Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Scotch label

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Flavored Whiskey Review: Berentzen Bushel & Barrel

The flavored whiskey market has exploded in recent years, and now Germany company Berentzen has entered the fray with their own twist on things.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel takes Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and mixes it with their apple liqueur (which consists of  neutral spirits, caramel coloring, and natural flavors). The result is one of the more pleasing flavored whiskeys I’ve tried.

Not surprisingly, it smells like apples. Alcoholic apples, with bubble gum and cinnamon. The taste is sweet and cider-like, with the apple flavor shining through, along with some bitterness from the neutral spirits. There’s a little bit of oak and vanilla from the bourbon, but not much. The finish is very short and sweet.

Berentzen Bushel & Barrel reminds me more of a bottled cocktail than a unique spirit. But as bourbon and apples go together very well, it’s certainly not an unpleasant combination. If you love apples, a glass of it on the rocks would make for a nice, sweet treat.

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Whiskey Review: FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey

There’s been a lot of talk recently about “craft” distilleries that don’t really make their own products. In short, many of these companies are really just “Potemkin distilleries,” as Chuck Cowdery calls them, that buy whiskey in bulk and sell it under their own label.

The merits of such a strategy are a subject for another day. What’s more interesting to me is when a craft distillery does things the old-fashioned way, crafting their own spirit by hand, learning how to make the best product they can, aging it appropriately, and then selling it with their own name on the bottle.

FEW Spirits is a company that does just that. I knew this was a company I’d like when I first read their story. Founded in Evanston, Illinois, considered by many to be the birthplace of the temperance movement, FEW takes its name from the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard, the national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and one of the nation’s leading advocates for Prohibition.

A clever name isn’t enough to garner much favor, though. What matters is what’s in the bottle. And it’s there that the folks at FEW demonstrate that they really know what they’re doing.

FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey is made from a mashbill consisting of 70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% malted barley. It is aged for “less than four years” in new oak barrels, and is bottled at a robust 93 proof (46.5% abv). This whiskey is distilled in a 1,500-liter Kothe copper-pot still, if you happen to care about that.

It has an aroma of cereal grains and sweet fruit, with some very appealing hints of toasted coconut and brown sugar. Not surprisingly given the proof, it also has a fairly potent kick to the nose.

Interestingly, though, that heat doesn’t carry over onto the palate. It has neither a fiery alcohol presence, nor the harsh edges one might expect from a young whiskey. It tastes like toasted cereal, slightly sweet at first, with a dryer taste of spice (rye and cinnamon) coming after. There is very little flavor of oak, but there is a nice amount of vanilla.

Overall, it’s a well-balanced whiskey, and although it doesn’t have some of the richness that an older spirit might, it is quite impressive as is.

Few Spirits Rye Whiskey Side

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Whiskey Review: Stagg Jr. Bourbon

Stagg jrStagg Jr.
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Grade: five stars(Highest Recommendation)
Price: $50 (750ml)

Buffalo Trace Distillery
has long been one of the most aggressive whiskey outfits when it comes to experimenting with and producing new bourbons. Their latest is one that's already generating a great deal of interest: Stagg Jr.

A younger version of the highly sought-after George T. Stagg Bourbon, this new bottling is, like its Dad, barrel-proof, uncut and unfiltered; clearly a whiskey designed to appeal to the bourbon connoisseur.

The first batch of Stagg Jr. comes from barrels aged for eight or nine years. (The regular Stagg is aged for at least 15 years.) So it's not a young bourbon by any means. It's coming in at a whopping 134.4 proof (67.2% ABV).

The aroma of the Stagg, Jr. bursts out of the glass. Rich, candied fruit, with moderate ethanol fumes. You can tell it's going to be a strong one.

Taking a few sips, I immediately tasted a burst of caramel sweetness, followed by a delicious grain flavor, and finally closing with a lingering spicy finish. It has quite a kick, but it's a welcome one. This is definitely a hot spirit, but not an overpowering one.

A splash of water brought out even more of the unctuous, almost honeyed sweetness. Stagg is made from Buffalo Trace's "Mash Bill #1," which is their low-rye version, containing a higher percentage of corn. Even so, you can taste the rye influence. There are some pumpkin pie spice hints of cinnamon and clove that help balance out the sweetness.

Stagg jr bourbonInterestingly enough, just a little more water overpowered the spirit. You'd think that a bourbon this strong could handle a lot of dilution, but I found that the flavor started to drown very quickly. So add water with a very strict hand.

I have not had the pleasure of tasting the original George T. Stagg, nor many of the other highly acclaimed bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle. But I am quite confident when I say that this is the best bourbon I've ever tasted.

Expect this whiskey to be almost impossible to find. Once it hits the shelves, people are going to swarm on it like locusts. Stagg Jr. will be available in select markets beginning in August of this year — but not for long.

Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Blended Irish Whiskey

St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, which means many drinkers will be turning to Irish whiskey for their drink of choice. The Irish whiskey category is hotter than it's ever been, so there are more choices than ever before.

Here at Professor Cocktail we do the heavy lifting so that you don't have to. ("Heavy lifting" sounds better than "heavy drinking.") We sampled a variety of Irish whiskeys so that we could decide which to recommend to you.

For this taste, we focused on blended Irish whiskey. This is by far the most popular type of Irish whiskey available in the U.S., as well as the most widely available.

A blended whiskey is a combination of different whiskeys, including both single malt and neutral (or near-neutral) grain whiskey. Blending the whiskey gives it a lighter, less flavorful character that many drinkers find more pleasant. (It turns out that more flavor isn't always better.)

For our line-up we selected a variety of the most common blended Irish whiskeys, several submitted by the spirits companies themselves, and a few from our own stash. We also included one extra-aged whiskey for comparison. (All Irish whiskey is aged for at least three years — but often no longer than that.)

This group of whiskeys was defined more by their similarities than by their differences. As expected, all of them were fairly light in flavor and without a lot of complexity. The colors, tastes, and aromas didn't vary as widely as with many spirits. Even so, there were still some differences that allowed us to pick our favorites.

Irish whiskey
Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey ($24) — Straight-ahead blended Irish whiskey: a little sharp, a little sweet, with a malty flavor that reminds you of breakfast cereal. This is light and easy, and very drinkable.
three stars(Recommended)

Michael Collins Blended Irish Whiskey ($23) — The stand-out of the entry-level whiskeys. This spirit has a rich, honeyed flavor, with just a touch of smoke, that was very appealing. Vanilla notes contribute to the mild sweetness, but everything stays in balance. Overall, a very nice whiskey.
four stars(Highly Recommended)

Concannon Irish Whiskey ($25) — This whiskey, distilled by Cooley in Ireland, is aged in petite sirah casks at the Concannon Winery in Livermore, California. That gives it the expected "winey" notes, which aren't uncommon with Irish and Scotch whiskey. What was a surprise was the aroma and flavor of smoke. It was definitely the strongest char of the group, reminding us more of Scotch than the usual Irish. That could be an advantage for some drinkers, but the flavors didn't balance for us, making this one a disappointment. 
two stars(Not Recommended)

Bushmills Blended Irish Whiskey ($24) — A raw, grainy flavor on first sip gives this whiskey plenty of bite. It mellows out after that, though, and ends up more astringent and spicier than most of the others. Reactions were mixed, but the floral/vegetal accents were popular with some.
three stars(Recommended)

Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($38) — The only whiskey in the tasting with an age statement, this is a blend of whiskeys from 12 to 15 years old. The extra time in the barrel gives this whiskey the darkest color or any in the sample. It also gives it the most complex flavor. Less sweet than the others, it has a tart, fruity taste with elements of caramel and spice. Although one taster found it bitter, overall this got high marks.
four stars(Highly Recommended)

Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey ($25) — The expected grainy, sweet character, but little else to distinguish it flavor-wise. This whiskey seemed hotter than the rest, and consequently seemed even lighter in taste. (You can taste the alcohol, but the malt flavor is overmatched.) I prefer Jameson in cocktails, but if you're searching for that Irish whiskey "kick," this is the way to go. If you're looking for a subtle sipper, look elsewhere.
three stars(Recommended)

Tullamore Dew Blended Irish Whiskey ($21) — A typical Irish whiskey, produced at an untypically fine level. Medium sweet, slightly honeyed, slightly malty. This made us think of breakfast: cereal and toast. An excellent everyday whiskey and a nice finish to the tasting.
four stars(Highly Recommended)