Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky

Maker's Mark shouldn't need too much introduction - it's one of the most ubiquitous bourbons out there. You'd be hard pressed not to find its distinctive wax-sealed bottle at even the most modest bars. Despite its ubiquity, Makers isn't mass produced - the distillery prides itself on its handmade production and sour mash fermentation method (that is, starting each new fermentation using a portion of a prior batch). Does this translate to a superior product?

Maker's Mark has a notably rich aroma - a bit of alcohol bite, but with plenty of honey, corn, and maybe even a touch of mint. The flavor is considerably more mellow, with the corn mash being prominent, and notes of honey, cinnamon, and vanilla. Despite the smooth flavor, it does have a bit of a burn, probably due to its reasonably hefty 45% abv. The finish is woody and a bit bitter, a drawback to an otherwise very drinkable whisky (yes, no e here, due to the Scottish origin of the distillers).

Maker's Mark is pleasant but fairly unremarkable. It's fine to sip on its own, and good in most bourbon-based cocktails. There are plenty of better bourbons in or around its price range, but it's not a bad choice, particularly if you prefer a mellower flavor.

Price: $25

Value: 16/20
Overall Quality: 15/20

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Crown Royal Reserve Whisky

Crown Royal Reserve - you know it's premium because it comes in a spiffy gold velvet bag, rather than the pedestrian royal purple of its little brother. Luckily, there's a lot more to it than a marketing gimmick - the reserve is blended from a selection of the top few percent of young whiskys at Crown Royal, and aged for longer than the original. Does it make a difference?

Well, in a word, yes. The color is a very deep amber, and the aroma is subdued and sweet - honey and molasses, with some fruit and floral notes. The flavor is also fairly mellow, but with a surprising and interesting rye kick immediately demanding notice. It's a little bit discordant with the rest of what's on the palate - honey, nougat, vanilla, and some spice - but still enjoyable.

I unfortunately don't have any regular Crown Royal around, so I can't do a side-by-side comparison, but if my memory is accurate, this is much better. Smooth and drinkable, with just enough complexity to keep things from getting too boring. Canadian whisky isn't really my bag, but I haven't found a better one than this.

Price: ~$40

Value: 17/20
Overall Quality: 16/20

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Gran Centenario Tenampa Azul Resposado Tequila

Gran Centenario is mostly known for their high-end tequilas, but they also make a line that's much more affordable - the Tenampa Azul tequilas. They have a silver and a resposado on this label - both are 100% blue agave, and taken from plants that are 10-12 years of age, supposedly the sweet spot for making tequila. In the resposado's case, it's then aged for a minimum of two months in oak barrels.

Tenampa Azul resposado is a golden straw color. Agave is rich on the nose, almost as raw and powerful as a blanco. The taste, however, is much more muted. Agave still dominates, but not in an overpowering way. The oak provides a lot of flavor too, and there's a hint of sweetness, particularly in the finish. Faint vanilla and citrus notes are also there. It's not too complex, but it's surprisingly sippable. Every bit as good, in my opinion, as Patron's resposado, and about a third as expensive.

This is a good tequila, and a phenomenal value. It's great in cocktails, good on its own, and only a couple bucks more than a bottle of Cuervo. Recommended for budget-conscious tequila lovers, and for anyone who's stocking a bar and wants a good tequila.

Price: ~$20

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 16/20

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: Gosling's Black Seal Rum

Gosling's might be a bit of a regional thing. I had never even heard of it until I moved out to Boston, but it's everywhere here. And that's not a bad thing - it's a very respectable rum. It's one of the two ingredients in a perfect Dark and Stormy cocktail (the other being Barrett's - not Gosling's - ginger beer). If you haven't tried one, get on it! And it's not bad on its own either.

Gosling's bills itself as a black rum, but it pours out closer to a dark maroon. The aroma is, well, rummy, with molasses, spices, and quite a bit of alcohol bite. The alcohol, however, is thankfully much more muted on the palate. It's a very sweet rum, but with a reasonable degree of complexity - molasses, caramel, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and other spices. It's a bit thin on mouthfeel, but it's still not half bad to sip on neat.

It's nothing earth-shattering, but Gosling's is very solid. It works well on its own, and it's a must-have for making Dark and Stormies. And, for the price, it can't be beat.

Price: ~$15

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 16/20

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: Highland Park 12 Years Old

Highland Park - an excellent distillery, with a somewhat misleading name. It's actually not in the Highlands at all, but rather on the islands of Orkney. This makes it the Northernmost distillery in Scotland, as well as one of the few that malts its own barley. They produce a wide range of single malt expressions; this one is their youngest, the 12-year.

This scotch is a yellow-brown, and medium in color. The aroma is complex - peaty and sweet, with strong notes of apple and a bit of sherry. The flavor is intense. It's very peaty, but it's not a smoke bomb like some of the Islays. And there's a whole lot of other things going on - sherry, heather, malt, fruit, honey, salt. It's all there, though not quite in balance - flavors drift in and out, sometimes mingling nicely, and sometimes not. Still, it's very tasty overall, and the complexity is appreciated.

This expression doesn't reach the excellence of the 18-year, which has most of the same flavors, but balanced exceptionally well. But, it's also much more inexpensive. If you don't mind a challenge, it's an excellent whisky.

Price: ~$40

Value: 18/20
Overall Quality: 17/20

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur

Ginger, for all of its ubiquity in cooking, doesn't work its way into all too many drinks. But that might change with the introduction of Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur (quite a mouthful, really). This French liqueur has a base of eaux de vie and cognac, and is flavored with several varieties of ginger, and infused with ginseng. It's been garnering rave reviews (e.g. best in show at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits competition), and showing up as a popular ingredient in cocktails. As a fan of ginger, I had to check it out.

Domaine de Canton pours out a clear, very light olive green, apparently a natural color (though I'm not quite sure from where). The nose is powerful fresh ginger, almost like a ginger beer, but with a sweet vanilla base. Ginger is also prominent on the palate, but much less forward. The vanilla flavor is strong, and the cognac gives the liqueur a rich base. Along with the spicy ginger flavor, there's also notes of orange, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The flavors are nice, but it's rather too sweet to drink neat. It's much better on ice - the water helps cut some of the sweetness, and chilling it makes it less cloying. It's an excellent cocktail ingredient, though - their website gives lots of suggestions, and it's rapidly making its way into featured drinks at bars.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the bottle - it's styled to look like bamboo, and it's really quite striking. Just be careful of the cap - mine came unglued.

If you like ginger, then Domaine de Canton is a great addition to your bar, particularly if you plan to use it in cocktails. And if not, then...well, you probably should have stopped reading a few paragraphs ago.

Price: ~$30

Value: 16/20
Overall Quality:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: Tito's Handmade Vodka

I'll admit it - I tend towards the opinion that the best vodka doesn't get any better than neutral and non-offensive, and that super-premium vodkas are far more about image than taste. So maybe I'm less than qualified to write a vodka review. But, I was impressed enough by Tito's high quality and low price that I feel compelled to write about it.

Tito's is made from corn rather than grain, then distilled six times in pot stills in Austin, Texas. It's then filtered through activated carbon to remove impurities. Despite its fairly humble presentation (no frosted glass bottles, or celebrity advertising campaigns), it's been garnering rave reviews from a number of different sources - the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Drinkhacker, Spirits Journal, etc. Even as a non-fan of vodka, I figured that I had to try it!

Tito's comes in a standard glass bottle, with a simple brown label, and a neat copper-colored (albeit plastic) cap. It's a simple, plain look, with none of the flair of, say, Grey Goose, or most other high-end vodkas. But isn't it what's on the inside that counts?

Tito's pours a nice crystal clear color (it's vodka, so no surprises there). The aroma is subtle - medicinal, but with a rich sweetness. That also holds for the flavor - it's definitely got that vodka medicinalness to it, but not in an unpleasant way. It's rich on the palate, sweet, and you can sip it without much of a burn, even neat. The finish is sweet and clean. Not complex in terms of flavors, but very nice.

I think that Tito's is every bit as good as the Grey Gooses and Belvederes of the world (if not even better), yet it's priced like Smirnoff or Skyy. Whether you like vodka as a drink in its own right, or if you just want to stock your bar with something solid, Tito's is a great choice. Highly recommended.

Price: ~$18

Value: 20/20
Overall Quality: 18/20

Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Grand Marnier

Ah, the classic Grand Marnier. This French liqueur is made from cognac and bitter orange, and is one of the best known orange liqueurs. It's good both neat and in cocktails, though I would caution against using it as a substitute for triple sec - the cognac base provides a different enough flavor that it can substantially alter a cocktail, and not always for the better. For simplicity's sake, I'll be reviewing this one neat.

Grand Marnier pours out a deep, clear orange-amber. The aroma is strongly orangey, but balanced with vanilla and brandy. A sharp note of orange and alcohol first hits the palate - this sharpness soon becomes muted, and balanced with sugar sweetness; honey and vanilla then factor in, and the rich cognac base becomes quite noticeable. The finish is distinctly oaky, and the orange flavor remains prominent throughout. The mouthfeel is thick, but pleasant.

In all, Grand Marnier is a high-quality liqueur, and makes for a nice after-dinner drink. Its sweetness is a bit much neat, but sometimes it hits the spot. And it's a fairly versatile mixer, though not quite as much as more conventional orange liqueurs like Cointreau. Its ubiquity is for good reason.

Price: ~$35

Value: 16/20
Overall Quality: 17/20

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey

Up for review today is Gentleman Jack, which is the main higher-end offering from Jack Daniels. Like the classic Jack Daniels Black Label, it's a Tennessee whiskey. This style is similar to bourbon, but has the distinguishing feature of being filtered through blocks of charcoal. And, you know, being made in Tennessee. This particular one is filtered two times through charcoal, which is purported to give it a mellower, smoother flavor than the regular black label, which is just filtered once. Does it? Let's take a closer look.

Poured into a glass, Gentleman Jack has the standard amber color of a bourbon, though a bit on the light side. The aroma contains an interesting rye character, and is sweet but fairly harsh, and frankly reminiscent of a cheap bourbon. Thankfully, the flavor is somewhat better. It's a little too sweet for my liking, but there's a fair amount going on. Charcoal is strongly present at first, which gives way to corn and a caramel sweetness. The overall character is indeed quite reminiscent of Black Label JD, though certainly smoother and sweeter. A bit of fruit is evident on the finish, which is somewhat astringent.

It's certainly a step up from Black Label, but I'm still not in love with this one - the flavors don't really hang together too well, and it still lacks a little bit in smoothness. If you're a fan of Jack Daniels or Tennessee whiskey in general then it's worth a shot, but there are plenty of bourbons in this price range that are much, much better.

Price: ~$30

Value: 13/20
Overall Quality: 14/20

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Don Julio Anejo Tequila

I'm back after a bit of a hiatus (lousy real-life obligations that don't involve drinking!), and today I'll be reviewing Don Julio's anejo tequila. Anejo refers to the age of the tequila - 100% agave tequilas (and why would you want to drink anything else?) are classified as blanco, resposado, anejo, or extra anejo, in order of increasing age. This particular anejo has been aged for 18 months in oak barrels, which gives it a nicely mellow yet flavorful character.

The tequila pours out a light straw color. It's a little bit light for an anejo, but this is probably a testament to the lack of any added caramel color to make it look like it was aged for longer. Oak and agave are dominant in the aroma, but lime works its way in there too. These are also present on the palate, but the flavor is substantially more complex than the aroma. Vanilla, grapefruit, and nougat all come to mind, with sweetness balancing out the sharp flavors from the agave. Salt and a bit of woody bitterness show up in the finish, the latter of which mars the flavor slightly.

In all, though, this is an excellent sipping tequila, and it also works very well in the couple of cocktails that I've tried it in - check out the Tequila Manhattan at Oh Gosh. Like most premium tequilas, it's expensive, but (in my admittedly somewhat limited experience in the tequila world) I haven't come across a better one.

Price: ~$55

Value: 16/20
Overall Quality: 17/20

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: Sazerac Rye

Up for review today is the entry-level rye whiskey in the Sazerac line from Buffalo Trace Distillery (they also make an 18 year old version which I haven't tried, but that has gotten some rave reviews around other parts). It doesn't have an age statement on the bottle, but I've seen it quoted elsewhere as being aged for six years, which sounds about right. This is the "official" whiskey for making a Sazerac, a classic New Orleans cocktail - you can read more about it here, from Jay at Oh Gosh.

Sazerac (the whiskey, not the cocktail) comes in a very nice bottle with a tall neck and a corked wooden cap. It pours out a fairly light yellow-amber, with scattered legs upon swirling. The aroma is nice - it has a sharp spiciness from the rye, which is balanced with a gentle sweetness. The flavor also has these elements, but several other aspects join the mix - oak from the barrels, some spices (clove?), and, of course, lots of rye flavor. It's fairly complex, despite its young age, and while it goes down with a fairly aggressive burn, it's far from unpleasant. The finish is oak and rye, marred somewhat by a slight bitterness.

Sazerac is an excellent rye whiskey - it's quite pleasant to drink straight, and yes, it does make for a first-rate Sazerac cocktail. And, given its very reasonable price, it's an excellent value. If you're looking to add a versatile, high-quality rye whiskey to your bar (which you should! It's a highly distinctive and underappreciated cocktail ingredient.), this one is highly recommended.

Price: ~$25

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 17/20

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Vieux Carre Absinthe

Ever since its U.S. re-legalization in 2007, absinthe has enjoyed a surge of popularity, with a number of brands flooding the market. These run the gamut in quality from artificially colored and flavored monstrosities trying to capitalize on absinthe's mystique, to authentic, artfully made spirits from small craft distilleries. Thankfully, Vieux Carre falls into the latter category - it's a fairly new offering from Philadelphia Distilling (which also makes Bluecoat Gin, most likely a subject of a future review).

Vieux Carre comes in an elegant decanter, fitted with a glass top. The bottle is overlaid with a dark green pattern, which has the effect of making the absinthe look substantially darker than it actually is. The bottom of the bottle contains a fine sediment. It's not the most attractive effect, but it's a testament to the fact that the absinthe is macerated with real herbs, as it should be. When poured into a glass (carefully, to avoid disturbing the sediment), it's a dark olive color, with an amber undertone.

Vieux Carre has a powerful aroma - anise and fennel are the main constituents, but wormwood and mint are also detectable. Despite being 120-proof, it has a nice sweetness that almost makes it drinkable neat. Almost, but not quite - the flavors are just too overpowering. As water is added, the absinthe gradually becomes opaque. This is called "louche," and it's due to components of the absinthe being more soluble in alcohol than they are in water - as water is added, they precipitate out, forming an opaque suspension. It's a neat effect, though Vieux Carre's louche is somewhat understated - it's gradual, with none of the oil trails seen with many other absinthes.

At a 3:1 water-to-absinthe ratio (I wouldn't recommend going higher than that with this one), Vieux Carre is quite pleasant. Wormwood and anise are the primary flavors, with fennel, hyssop, spearmint, and citrus also present. Complex, yet highly drinkable. The finish is mint and wormwood-dominated, though a bit too bitter for my liking.

Vieux Carre is one of the better absinthes that I've tried. I will caution that it's somewhat overpowering in cocktails - I've used it in recipes that call for just a dash of absinthe, and it's still a bit too much. But really, absinthe is a spirit for drinking, and Vieux Carre does the job well. At about $60 a bottle, it's by no means cheap, but is still less expensive than most other (often inferior) brands of absinthe. Whether you're a fan of absinthe, or just someone who wants to discover what a good absinthe is like, Vieux Carre is a very solid choice.

Price: ~$60

Value: 17/20
Overall Quality: 17/20

Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: Ron Zacapa Centenario 23

Hailing from Guatemala is Ron Zacapa's well-regarded 23 year old rum. Guatemala isn't really thought of as being one of the typical rum-producing countries, and indeed, Zacapa isn't a typical rum - for one, it's distilled from sugar cane, rather than molasses. It's then aged in bourbon and sherry casks; though the bottle says that it's 23 years old, that's actually a bit of a misnomer, as Zacapa is aged according to the solera process. In this process, the rum is aged in a series of casks; each cask contains rum of a certain age. Occasionally, a portion of the rum from the oldest cask is bottled, and then the portion taken out of the oldest cask is refilled with some of the rum from the next-oldest cask, and so on and so on, with newly-distilled rum finally being added to the youngest cask. That's a bit confusing, but the point is that at any given time, each cask contains rum with a fairly continuous spectrum of ages. Here, the oldest rum in the bunch is about 23 years old, and so that's the age given on the bottle.

But this is a rum review, not a logic puzzle about cask aging, so here goes. The rum comes in a sharp-looking corked bottle, wrapped in a ring of woven fiber, which is kind of a neat touch. It pours out a dark brown - it's a little lighter than your typical dark rum (e.g. Gosling's or Myers'), but not by much. Subtle aroma of sugarcane (with a bit of cachaca character), vanilla, and cinnamon; these sweet smells contrast with an alcoholic edge. Sugarcane also dominates the flavor, but the cachaca character is gone - it's now undoubtedly rummy. Nicely sweet, it has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and just a hint of citrus. The mouthfeel is excellent - rich, with little burn. The finish comes with a nice lingering sweetness, and a bit of woodiness.

This is an excellent rum, and given its age and quality, also an excellent value. The sugarcane character really makes it quite unique, and it's hugely pleasant to sip on. Highly recommended.

Price: ~$42

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 19/20

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon (2000)

I must admit that Evan Williams is inextricably linked in my mind with cheap booze, given their ubiquitous black label bourbon, which can often be found for under $10 a bottle. (The black label, by the way, is an excellent value - a respectable entry-level bourbon at a rock bottom price, though not something that I'd be too inclined to drink on its own merits. But maybe that's a story for another day.) However, Evan Williams also makes a range of other products, some of which are on the fancier end of the spectrum. One of these is their single barrel vintage bourbon series: as the name suggests, it's bourbon taken directly from barrels of a given vintage, without blending with other barrels. The 2000 vintage is the latest to hit the shelves, and it's gotten rave reviews from whisky expert John Hansell, and the always excellent Drinkhacker. Given that, I just had to give it a shot.

The whiskey is a nice amber color, and comes in a simple but attractive glass bottle, with a wax seal, and hand-numbering on the back, indicating the barrel number (mine's #34), barreling date, and bottling date. The aroma is interesting - very sweet corn and honey scents contrast with spiciness and charcoal. Very complex, but it doesn't quite all work together. The flavor is also rather complex. It starts out like a fairly by-the-books bourbon, though citrus-heavy and very spicy. A bit of charcoal flavor then comes into play (puzzling, given that it's not charcoal-filtered), and then honey and vanilla. The finish is the weakest part - it leaves an odd medicinal taste and astringent mouthfeel, certainly not pleasant. I also found it to be a bit watery on the palate. Adding a touch of water brings some of the sweetness and citrus flavors to life, but dulls many of the other flavors.

It's a decent bourbon all in all, and quite fairly priced, but I'm not too impressed, especially after setting my expectations so high. It's quite possible that there's a lot of barrel-to-barrel variability, given its nature as a single-barrel whiskey. Not to be too cynical, but it's also quite possible that the real reviewers got sent samples from the best barrels!

If you're a bourbon enthusiast, then this isn't a bad one to pick up, but temper your expectations (or hope for a good barrel!).

Price: ~$26

Value: 16/20
Overall Quality: 15/20

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Aberlour 16 Years Old

Up for review today is Aberlour's 16 year old scotch. Aberlour is known for its bold, strongly sherried whiskys, somewhat akin to other Speysides such as Macallan and Glenfarclas. This particular expression is double cask matured - aged first in an oak cask, and then finished in a sherry cask, for a total of 16 years.

The time spent in sherry casks is clearly evident from the whisky's color, which is a very nice deep amber, with long, thin legs upon swirling. The aroma is powerful - honey sweetness, sherry, earth, and apples. The flavor is similarly rich, and quite complex. It's sweet throughout, with flavors of vanilla and sherry soon giving way to honey, apple, and peaches. Nice long finish, with hints of wood and tobacco. The mouthfeel is very smooth and pleasant, with the 43% alcohol content providing considerable warmth, but little bite.

This is an excellent scotch - it's pleasant enough to sip on for quite a while, and complex enough not to get boring while you do. If you enjoy big, flavorful sherried scotches, then this is not one to miss.

Price: ~$50

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 18/20

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: Old Monk 7 Years Old XXX Rum

I feel like Chris Hansen is going to show up at my door for having a blog post with "7 years old XXX" in the title. But thankfully for everyone, this post is just about rum.

When I think of the quintessential rum-producing countries, I can't say that India is the first one to come to mind. Or the tenth. But that's exactly where Old Monk hails from. It's a vatted (blended) rum with a seven year age statement. I imagine that seven years is the age of the oldest rum in the blend, rather than the youngest, given that this seems to be the standard for most rums, and that Old Monk is quite inexpensive. But is it good? Let's find out.

Old Monk comes in a squat little bottle, with a snakeskin-like texture to the glass, and hastily glued-on labels. It's an interesting effect, adding to the uniqueness of this spirit. It pours a deep amber brown, similar in color to a dark rum like Gosling or Myers. Its aroma is strong: butterscotch dominates the nose, with sweet caramel and alcohol also in the mix. The flavor is similar - butterscotch is still dominant, with hints of molasses and cherry coming into play in the background. Old Monk is also unusually sweet, and quite easy to drink, though not much for complexity. It's very nice neat, but probably lacks in versatility; I haven't tried it in any cocktails, but I imagine that its distinctive and strong flavor would make it hard to mix with, and tough to substitute for a more conventional dark rum in most drinks.

But, the price is definitely right. If you like butterscotch, and want a new sipping rum that's a bit off the beaten path, then you can't go wrong with Old Monk.

Price: ~$16

Overall Quality: 15/20

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Review: Linie Aquavit

To say the least, Linie Aquavit is an interesting spirit, bearing little similarity to any of the commonly encountered classes of liquors. Hailing from Norway, it's distilled from potatoes, and flavored with caraway and other herbs and spices. It's then placed into sherry casks, which are carried inside of a ship on a journey that crosses the equator (the "linie" in Linie Aquavit) two times. Indeed, the inside of the label gives the dates of each bottle's journey. This process supposedly imparts the spirit with unique flavors as it rocks inside the cask and is exposed to the sea breeze and frequent temperature changes. It all reeks of a marketing gimmick, but at least it's a creative one with some tradition behind it.

But what's it like? Well, it pours out with a light yellow-brown color, revealing its time spent in sherry casks. Its aroma is fairly subtle, but with definite notes of anise, caraway, spearmint, and quite a bit of alcohol. A bit reminiscent of an herbal vodka. On the palate, however, the flavor is considerably richer, with the sherry aging imparting a nice smoothness and a bit of sweetness. The caraway is the dominant flavor - Linie is definitely more akin to rye bread than rye whiskey, and this caraway gives the spirit quite a bit of bite. Anise is also mutely present, and a mintiness shines through, making the spirit nicely refreshing, albeit a tad medicinal. The finish comes with a bit of bitterness, but not in an unpleasant way. In all, it's not too complex, but fairly enjoyable.

Linie is an interesting spirit, but in all honesty, I'm a bit at a loss for what to do with it. It's quite refreshing, especially when chilled, but it's not something that I feel like having very often. And I'm not really sure what sort of cocktails you can mix with it (but I'm completely open to suggestions). Maybe it would go well with some corned beef, swiss cheese, and thousand island dressing...

If you're looking for something unique, this could fit the bill, but unless if you're a caraway junkie, I don't think it's a must-have.

Price: ~$28

Value: 15/20
Overall Quality: 14/20

Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: Lagavulin 16 Years Old

Starting this site on a high note, I'm reviewing one of my favorite spirits - the excellent 16 year old scotch whisky from Lagavulin. The Lagavulin distillery, for the uninitiated, lies on the island of Islay, known for its strongly peated whiskys. Like its neighbors on the Southern coast of Islay, Laphroig and Ardbeg, Lagavulin makes a particularly peaty whisky, with phenol levels weighing in at a reported 40 parts per million, imparting a richly smoky flavor. The 16 year old is Lagavulin's core expression, and it's widely regarded as one of the premier single-malt whiskys. But does it live up to the hype?

Well, the first sentence was probably a bit of a spoiler, but let's take a closer look. The whisky comes in an attractive bottle, similar to the other members of Diageo's "Classic Malts" line, but tinted an olive green, making the whiskey inside look strikingly dark. This isn't much of a stretch - when poured out into a glass, it's a deep brown, with hints of orange and red, likely indicative of its time in sherry casks (and perhaps a bit of caramel color to help matters along). Legs are thick and slow to develop. But enough about looks - let's get to the more important stuff.

Lagavulin has a rich aroma of smoke and sea salt, with a touch of spice and vanilla sweetness. These components are also present on the palate - the whiskey starts off with a rich, salty smokiness that is powerful without being harshly medicinal. A note on the bottle attributes this to the aging process, which "takes out the fire, but leaves in the warmth." More than just good advertising copy, this is a pretty apt metaphor. The sweetness of sherry remains detectable in the background, but complements the smoky flavor, rather than rising to the forefront. The finish is quite long, with a sweet honey fruitiness coming into play along with the smoke. The blend of flavors is fantastic - each complements the other, making the whisky complex yet exceptionally well-balanced. A rich mouthfeel adds to Lagavulin's charm.

Bottom line - Lagavulin's excellent reputation is well-deserved. If you like strongly peated whiskeys but don't want something one-dimensional, then this whisky is a must have.

Price: ~$70

Value: 19/20
Overall Quality: 20/20