Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Orval Trappist Ale

I've been on a bit of a Belgian beer kick lately. My interest was stoked by a recent trip to Wurstk├╝che (translation: sausage kitchen) - a great exotic sausage place in the LA arts district.

Described by Rachel's brother Zack as a "hipster German" joint, it serves up great sausages along with some sensational beers - many on tap all in a modern, slightly minimalist setting. Aside from offering a rarely seen style, Berliner Weisse, Wurstk├╝che seems to make something of a specialty of offering a broad selection of Belgian ales, many on tap, and served from the "proper" chalice - shaped glass with the brewery's mark on it.

Some of the highlights that night were Duvel Green (a light, draft-only version of Duvel that omits the in-bottle fermentation) and La Chouffe and Houblon Chouffe (the former a fruity, hoppy, yeasty, spicy golden ale, the latter an even hoppier and fruity india pale ale). Oh, and the sausages and mustard were great too.

Since then I've been drinking a variety of Belgian ales, mostly Tripels. When I came across this bottle of Orval, I tasted something unlike any beer I've tried before.

Orval is a Trappist pale ale. Only one beer is brewed and in only one format as far as I can tell - an attractive bowling pin-shaped 11.2 oz. bottle (pictured above).

The beer I tasted was bottled in January 2009, so it's just over a year old. Incidentally, it has a "best before" date of 5 years from the bottled date. The beer pours a deep amber with some haziness typical of yeasty Belgian ales. On the nose, it smells of cut flowers with some raspberry and citrus. On the palate, there is a fairly strong flavor of elderflower with some berry notes that follow through from the nose. The finish is clean with some nice bitter hoppiness and with the elderflower continuing to linger.

It's fairly readily available - I bought this bottle at the local Bevmo. If you're looking for something different from Belgium, this is certainly a beer worth trying with its exotic flavors.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Highland Park 18 year old

Highland Park 18 year old
Bottled by: Distillery
ABV: 43%
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Price: $100
Availability: Readily available in specialty shops

I first tried Highland Park 18 year old several years back when my scotch-drinking Uncle was in town for vacation. We picked up a bottle at Hi-Time and drank it next to the 12 year old. The differences are quite pronounced. The additional barrel age provides extra richness and brings forth more of the complexities from the sherry wood such as leather and nutty elements.

Today the bottles have changed to the "flask" shape shown in the Highland Park 12 year old post. I still have the bottle like the one shown above which has a nice impression of the Orkney islands molded on the bottom.

See the Highland Park 12 year old post for details of the distillery.

Tasting Notes
Color
Medium-dark amber
Nose
Delicate peat, dried fruits, a floral element. More sherry and oak than the 12y. Even more complexity.
Flavor
Medium-to full-bodied. As with the 12y, an incredible roundness and balance of flavors but richer and more elegant still. Retains the sweet honey, complex dried-fruit character of the 12y, with additional sherry and oak intensity. Some nuttiness. Leather. Vanilla. An endless cascade of incredibly well-balanced and integrated flavors.
Finish
Long, rich, round, oaky
Rating
97

Overall impression and notes: I've had this malt on many occasions now and I'm very comfortable saying that Highland Park 18 year old is the single best spirit of any kind ever to have passed my lips to-date. Period. Reserving the extra 3 points for a perfect score is really only wishful thinking on my part - some motivation to continue the search for something better, however unlikely.

Worth every penny at around $100, but an absolute steal at the $50-60 it was a few years ago...

Highland Park 12 year old

Highland Park 12 year old
Bottled by: Distillery
ABV: 43%
Region: Islands (Orkney)
Price: $35
Availability: Readily available in specialty shops

Highland Park has long been a favorite whisky. Ever since reading about it in the late Michael Jackson's definitive Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, I've had somewhat of a fascination with the malt. Its place on top of the pillar was firmly established in my first real blind scotch tasting (many, many moons ago) when both my friend Rob and I picked HP 12 as the undisputed victor among many other respectable malts. Since that time, I've regularly purchased bottles of the 12 and 18 year old versions and never cease to be amazed by the richness and bottomless depth of flavors they possess.

Highland Park distillery is located on the island of Orkney and is the most northerly in Scotland. Aside from their selection of dry Oloroso sherry casks for aging the whisky, the distillery makes much about the malting of the barley and the peat used. According to their website:

Highland Park is one of only a handful of distilleries where the expensive and physically demanding custom of turning malt by hand still takes place. Highland Park malt costs two and a half times as much as industrially processed malt. Some 20% of the malt used to make Highland Park comes from Orkney.

The remainder is either malted at one of its sister distilleries, Tamdhu (to Highland Park specifications), or comes from Simpsons, a high quality malt producer located in the Scottish Borders. The Orcadian malt is 40 phenol parts per million whereas that from Tamdhu and Simpsons is only 1-2ppm. Together they create the balance for which Highland Park is renowned.

Highland Park is one of only five distilleries that continue the tradition of hand-tuning malt on site. This process is very expensive and labour intensive – which is why most distillers have long since abandoned the practice.


Regarding the peat:

Samples of Orkney peat have relatively more carbohydrate derivatives whereas those from Islay have lignin derivatives more prevalent. Overall the conclusion is that there is a different chemical fingerprint in the peat which will probably make a difference to the overall flavour of the whisky.

It is no exaggeration to say that peat is the terroir of (island) whiskies. The smokey notes of Highland Park come from this degenerating plant material that is prevalent on the islands of Scotland. The peats of Orkney are some 9,000 years old (younger than those of Islay) and the deepest bogs are at most four metres deep. Highland Park takes its peat from selected banks on Hobbister Moor, combining cuttings taken from three distinct levels to create the required character. Fogg; the top layer, approximately 1,800 years old is taken from just below the surface is rich in heather and rootlets. Yarphie; the darker, more compacted second layer generates less smoke and more heat. Moss; the deepest and, therefore, oldest layer (approx 9,000 years) is lumpen and almost coal-like.


Following are my tasting notes taken during from a recently purchased bottle of the newer "flask" shaped variety pictured above. I can't speak to specific variations in flavors/quality over time other than to say that every bottle of HP that I've had at any age has the unmistakable richness and complexity that I've come to treasure from this distillery.

Tasting Notes
Color
Medium amber
Nose
Delicate peat, apricot, oak, sherry. Staggering depth and complexity.
Flavor
Medium-to full-bodied. Incredible roundness and balance of flavors. Begins sweet and honey-accented, then waves of rich smoke, flamed bitter orange peel and sherry follow.
Finish
Long, rich, round.
Rating
94

Overall impression and notes: Michael Jackson famously described Highland Park as being the "greatest all-rounder" in the world of malt whisky. There is no question about that. This malt fires on all cylinders - it is all at once characterful, balanced, sweet, smoky, and sherry-accented with some delicious fruit flavors. None of these elements dominate, but rather they're all there in equal measure as part of the overall symphony of flavors.

It's a masterpiece - deep in complexity and worthy of being a permanent fixture in any respectable Scotch collection. This is absolutely the single best under-$40 spirit in the world.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Longrow CV

Longrow CV
Bottled by: Distillery (Springbank)
ABV: 46%
Other: Vatting of 6, 10, 14 year old malts in rum, sherry, port, bourbon casks. Non chill filtered, no color added.
Region: Campbeltown
Price: $50
Availability: Readily available in specialty shops

Springbank is the best-known Campbeltown distillery and essentially sets the standard for that small whisky region. In addition to their namesake line of single malts, they produce a highly peated version known as Longrow, named for a nearby distillery that closed in 1896. Longrow whisky is double-distilled, as opposed to two and a half times for the standard Springbanks. Springbank is one of few distilleries (if not the only one) these days in which the floor malting, distillation, maturation and bottling are all done on the premises.

As with other Springbanks, this is bottled at a respectable 46% abv and without added color or chill-filtration.

I've long wanted to try Longrow, but their 10 and 14 year old bottlings are typically on the expensive side ($100+). This vatting was designed to be easier on the wallet, while still offering some of the complexities of the older age whisky. After reading through several online articles, it appears to be a consensus that the malt is a vatting of 6, 10 and 14 year old malts from port, sherry, rum and bourbon woods.

CV stands for "Curriculum Vitae" which is a common term for a "resume" in the UK. I suppose the idea is that the CV bottling represents a "first look" at the varied attributes of this malt.

Tasting Notes
Color
Medium-straw
Nose
Firm, but not overpowering peat. Some sweet, crisp malty notes. Appetizing. A faint hint of rum
Flavor
Medium-bodied. Nice malty, sweet opening followed by a wave of
complex peat and spice
Finish
Peaty, spicy, long
Rating
91

Overall impression and notes: I really like the sweet malty undertones of this malt - it is reminiscent of the character of Glen Scotia 14 year old - a Campbeltown trademark perhaps? The youth of this malt is apparent but, at the same time, so is its age - there is a lot of complexity for a malt at this price point.

For those looking for a peaty malt off the well-trodden Islay path, this is highly recommended.