Whisky showdown: Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona vs Laphroaig Quarter Cask

I recently tasted the Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhona immediately followed by the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. In my experience, a whisky can be much better assessed and appreciated when tasted in close succession with another. Both whiskies being somewhat peaty in nature and claiming to mix in some smoke and sweetness, I figured a direct comparison between the two was in order. Though not indicated, I believe both are aged about 8 years but you would be hard pressed to judge on age alone. The reason being that their respective production methods give them more than their share of character despite their relatively young age. You can read more about each in my previous entries.

This was an exciting tasting and yielded results I had not expected. I added a few drops of water to each before tasting. I find both whiskies benefit from a bit of water considering their alcohol content.

The Cruach Mhona comes on peaty on the nose with some smoke and sweetness, similar to the Quarter Cask, though the latter is more peaty and smoky.

On the palate, the difference is remarkable. The Cruach Mhona is sweeter, peaty, but with a honey sweetness as compared to the Quarter Cask, which is slightly sweet itself but less noticeably. The Quarter Cask shows much more wood in its character, more remarkable in its finish than on the palate, but clearly distinguishing itself from the Cruach Mhona. Both are smoky, but the Cruach Mhona better delivers the flavour and finish of the smoke.

The finish on the Cruach Mhona is more sweet as well, continuing the overall expression of peat alternating with sweetness. The Quarter Cask is less obvious and the flavours interact more evenly, with the wood giving it some more character.

Both of these are excellent whiskies and my penchant for the more sweet body and finish of the Cruach Mhona lead me to proclaim the Cruach Mhona the winner, if only by a slim margin.

Many will disagree and I would love your comments regarding this assessment.


What is bourbon?

Often, you’ll see that a bottle of American whiskey is called Tennesse whiskey or Kentucky straight or simply bourbon. Since I have already reviewed Knob Creek 9 Single Barrel, I should probably take the time to explain the process of making bourbon. You can refer to my previous post in single malt production to explore the differences and similiarities. My post on What are the Varieties of Whiskey also contains related information.

Bourbon production requires a minimum of 51% corn. To that, a distiller will also require some malted barley, rye, and/or wheat. The same distillery may choose to play with those ratios and produce a large variety of whiskies, each presumably having its own distinct taste. More corn makes the product sweeter, more rye adds some spice. The mix is called the mash bill and typically consists of 70% corn.

The ground corn is cooked in water and the other components are added while cooling down the initial ingredient. Mash from prior distillation may be added, resulting in what is known as sour mash. Once the other ingredients have been mixed in, the mix is allowed to cool again and the malted barley is added. This allows the starch to turn into sugar. The barley provides the enzymes required for the conversion. Yeast is then added and fermenting begins. Distilleries keep their own yeast character and believe that the yeast they use has a direct influence on the final product. Fermenting now begins and results in a beer of average commercial alcohol content after a few days.

The beer must now be distilled using stills. The alcohol is separated from the beer in the stills using steam to evaporate the alcohol which is then condensed into a spirit of between 60 – 80% alcohol by volume. A lower alcohol content gives more character to the whiskey, thus most producers will condense to a lower alcohol content. A second distillation takes place and in Tennesse, the product may be filtered through hard sugar maple charcoal.

The product is then matured in charred oak barrels. The charred wood will impart its colour and flavour to the product. The charring of the wood will result in sugars that will also give some caramel flavour to the final whisky. The whiskey is matured for however long the manufacturer wishes, but a minimum of 2 year is required. The warehouse also plays a role in the final flavour profile of the product. A warmer warehouse climate makes for quicker reaction and vice versa.

The product is then cut before bottling to about 40% alcohol by volume though, as noted in my Knob Creek Single Barrel review, it can be sold at much higher strength.

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much it. There are a whole bunch of legal requirements and variations on the theme and processes that have much more specific rules attached, but the basic principles are the same across all bourbons.

I’ll be reviewing more bourbons in the future, so keep an eye out. If you have any suggestions, I’d be glad to try them out.


Macallan 12

Today’s tasting is the Macallan 12 year old variety. Macallan is traditionally known for its rich sherry oaks in which its Speyside distillery produces some excellent Scotch whisky. The distillery has also established a Fine Oak range, which takes another approach altogether which I will not go into here. Macallan has become quite popular lately but has been known to produce fine whisky for a long time. Kingsley Amis referred to it in his book, Every Day Drinking as his “Drink of the Year”.

The Macallan is distilled in Spanish sherry oak casks from Jerez. These casks are filled with sherry and aged 2 years before being shipped to the Macallan distillery for maturing Macallan’s new make.

The product is a very rich amber colour, deep and satisfying to the eye. It is bottled at 43% alcohol by volume.

On the nose, the sherry influence is immediately apparent. Some fruit and orange peel are also present. A bit of smoke and wood even out the experience.

On the palate, there’s sherry again…so much sherry, and even cognac. The wood comes through much stronger on the palate than on the nose. Some smoke too. Fruit and orange peel, possibly some shades of chocolate orange mix in and provide some sweetness. There is a hint of spice somewhere in there.

The finish is long and satisfying. It is a dry finish mostly, with the fruit at the top giving way quickly to the wood. The wood finish reminds me of the smell of a wood fireplace or stove on a cold winter night. This would be a great a great drink to warm spirits on a cool night out on a deck.

A hint of water is all it takes to unlock more sherry notes, adding some sweetness to the nose and palate, but taking some off the finish. The water does a great job enhancing the experience on this whisky, but add too much and you quickly diminish the returns.

Overall, the whisky lives up to the hype. As Kingley Amis states in the aforementioned book, “the only drink you want after having some of it is more of it”. Highly recommended and a basis for comparing many other whiskies of the same kind, it does not come cheap. However, if you find yourself on a trip to the states, especially New Hampshire, I recommend picking up a bottle. It will cost you half of what you will pay in Quebec and Ontario.


Knob Creek Single Barrel

A while back I reviewed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. That is the only bourbon I have tasted for this blog to date and it’s time to change that with a tasting of a little known product from Knob Creek. The single barrel from Knob Creek is bottled at 60% alcohol by volume. A bold move that takes the experience to the next level, allowing the drinker to take on more water without adversely affecting the taste. Even a cube of ice could be considered without drawing my glare.

This is a Kentucky bourbon sourced from a single barrel, apparently chosen from amongst the highest quality honey barrels available to the distiller. Most bottlings are a mix of several barrels. It leaves me to wonder how uniform the experience is from one barrel to the other.

The colour is a deep, gorgeous amber. A nine year old bourbon and looking good for all that time in the barrel.

The nose is sweet and the notes of honey are unmistakable. Some spice and cinnamon are present.

The palate is rich. The complex mixture of honey, spice, and cinnamon leaves a warm feeling in the mouth. I feel like this drink would be perfect on a long, cold winter night with a nice book and a comfortable chair. In fact, it reminds be of the taste of the gingerbread men we make for Christmas.

The finish is not particularly long, but intense. Spice, cinnamon, and pepper give way to sweet honey before fading nearly completely in a relatively short time. However, a faint impression of sweetness lingers on the sides of the tongue for quite a while.

Note that this tasting took place with water added from the get go to correct for the alcohol content. If I try this variety without water at some point, I will update this space.

Overall, this is a fantastic whiskey. A wonderful blend of flavours that will assault your senses without offending them. Give this a try if you can find it, I first discovered it in the United States and have seen it crop up intermittently in Quebec. Much less expensive in the US though, I highly suggest you pick it up there if you have the possibility of bringing it back with you.


Highland Park 12

Yet another tasting from a friend’s collection, Highland Park 12 is a revelation in a bottle. If you have ever judged a whisky by the year indicated on the bottle, then you are not considering some excellent products. The age is not the only consideration as the quality of the barrel lends considerable flavour to the whisky.

Highland Park is located in the Orkney Islands, a remote part of the world north of Scotland. This distillery is the northernmost In the Highlands. Highland Park uses ex-sherry barrels made of American and European oak. The peat used is of a local variety and is known to be more sweet that those used on Islay. This sweetness mixes in with the smoke and lends its impression to the final product.

The colour is light gold and this whisky, sold at 40% alcohol by volume, smells of peat and seaweed. I’ll add that citrus plays a good part in the experience and makes for a rich preview.

On the palate, the peat comes through along with the citrus, but a soft milk chocolately flavour can be detected somewhere in the middle.

The finish is long and sweet. Some nut and wood at first, with peat mixing in and ending in a fruity experience that lasts until the final impression evaporates.

Adding water brings out some smoke on the nose and enhances the citrus on the palate. The smoke comes through on the palate as well, but some nut and fruity sweetness appear as well. The finish continues to be sweet, nutty, and woody. That milk chocolate turns into hazelnut spread. Quite satisfying.

Overall, this is a whisky that surprises on all levels. The smoke and peat are balanced with fruity sweetness and citrus, making for an experience that will make you want to try the other offerings in the range (a considerable variety is offered by this impressive distillery). The 12 year old is great for every day drinking and will not disappoint your guests.


What are the varieties of whiskey?

In one of my previous posts I discussed the production of single malt and its transformation from barley to whisky. Today, I will overview the various types of whiskey available without the production summary. I’ll save that for a later date. For my regular readers, if any, I would point out that I intend on providing tasting notes for all kinds of whiskey once I have done the round of the single malts currently available to me. As I acquire new malts, I will make sure to provide tasting notes on these, but I expect the pace to slow.

So, what are the whiskey varieties?

As discussed earlier, single malt is one type of whisky. Single malt comes from one distillery. It can be sourced from various barrels of various age. The age on the bottle is the youngest batch. Its source is barley. Most is made in Scotland, but Canada and Japan are regular producers.

Grain whiskey is used primarily in blends, sourced from wheat and sometimes corn.

Blends are single malts and grain mixed together to come up with a unique flavour. Costs are cut by using more grain whisky than malt. Some are blended malts, meaning they use single malts from several distilleries. According to this site, 95% of whiskey is sold as blended.

Bourbon’s main raw material (more than 50%) is corn. It must be aged at least 2 years in white oak casks that must have been charred. The other infredients are wheat, rye, or barley. Tennesse whiskey is differentiated by the use of Lincoln County Process. Briefly, this filtration method consists of passing the whiskey through a bed of sugar-maple charcoal.

Rye uses the same process as bourbon, but the raw ingredient here is majority rye (more that 50%). Canadian rye is different from American rye though, something I will explore later.

Irish whiskey is made using malted and unmalted barley. The product is distilled three time in the pot still process, rather that the two times common in Scotland. The product must be aged three years and peat is seldom used.

This is but a brief overview, much more can be said about each, and I will attempt to explore these all at later dates.


Glen Elgin 12

Once again, I must review a whisky not from my own stash but from that of a friend. The whisky in question is Glen Elgin 12. The distillery that produces this bottling is owned by Diageo and the production is mostly used in blends of Diageo’s other offerings. The only continuous offering of a single malt from this distillery appears to be the standard 12 year old edition with some special offerings once in a while, like a 16 year old cask strength edition released in 2007 and quite rare. I’m sure that can also be read “quite expensive” but may be worth a shot if you could find it. This is a Speyside malt bottled at 43% alcohol by volume.

The spirit is of a nice gold colour, looks quite rich in the bottle and in the glass.

On the nose, a soft fruity, predominantly citrus aroma permeates the senses.

The palate reveals that same fruitiness. Citrus, orange peel, wood, and a hint of nut dance on the tongue and take turns at tingling the sense. The is one of the more obviously fruity and aromatic whiskies I have tasted to date.

The finish is fruity with the taste of wood and nut drying it out. A nice experience overall

Some water appears to release a bit of vanilla on the nose and honey in the flavour. The product is little changed otherwise.

Overall, a reasonable whisky for every day drinking and something to consider in its price range. The Macallan is a better product, but much more expensive…unless you go across the border and can get some back. Consider also the classics like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie for you fix at a better price point.


Ardbeg 10

My tasting today consists of a whisky from a friend’s collection. No doubt the only thing better than drinking whisky is drinking someone else’s whisky!

Ardbeg was a distillery left for dead, revived only in 1997 by Glenmorangie. It was able to release its first 10 year old in 2008 and therefore has a limited age selection in its offerings. However, it has several non-age description bottlings and a few 10 year olds that are varieties in the theme of peaty, smoky, rich, and full bodied whiskies. Especially the peat, this is a distillery that prises itself on its Islay heritage. The result of the distillery’s hard work in restarting production of this famed whisky is an award winning product that is appreciated by experts and beginners alike.

What we have here is a whisky at 46% alcohol by volume of a light gold colour. The legs run somewhat thick at a medium speed.

On the nose, we get a light peaty frangrance but less smoke than I imagined. It also smells quite sweet. It’s a delicious mix of the two, but surprisingly my impression is that this is more sweet than peat.

On the palate, the peat comes through with some smoke, it burns, pleasantly. Some fruity sweetness to it as well, but the peat is stronger on the palate than it was on the nose.

The finish is long and smoky. Quite nice, would compliment a cigar very well I imagine.

With a few drops of water, the nose retains its sweet and light peaty qualities, however the palate becomes more smooth and the whisky burns less. The sweetness in the flavour is enhanced and makes for a richer experience. I also taste nut, maybe some cocoa at this point with hints of milk chocolate. Some hints of wood appear towards the end of a peaty, lingering finish.

Overall, this is a very good whisky, probably an excellent whisky that requires a second tasting to further explore its potential and full range. Though it’s only a 10 year old, it is as good as most older whiskies aged well beyond 12 years. I will be hitting up my fellow whisky drinker for another shot at this one.

How is Scotch whisky aged?

One of the most important parts of whisky production is a component that is hardly overlooked. In fact, most bottles mention it proudly right on the label. We’re talking, of course, about the type of barrel used in the aging process. The raw spirit produced in the distillation process is colourless and lacks the rich taste the wood in the barrels will provide after years of maturation. The barrels play a huge role in giving the final product its flavour and appearance. So what are the various types of barrels used? Well, Scotch is aged in oak casks. American or European oak to be precise. But that’s not all, there’s much more to it than just the cask. What these casks previously held before the raw spirit was placed in them for aging is even more interesting in terms of what the final product will taste like.

Most whisky, as any trip to the SAQ or local liquor store will confirm, is made from barrels previously holding bourbon. Bourbon casks are only used once, so it makes for a great relationship between the two industries. The casks, once used, are shipped across the Atlantic to Scotland to find a second life as ex-bourbon whisky casks. Bourbon casks are charred on the inside, and provide a distinct range of flavours. Many Scotches are produced using casks previously having held sherry. Again, different flavour profiles can be achieved though these ex-sherry casks. The remainder can be all kinds, the bottle of the whisky you are purchasing will normally indicate what you’re looking at. In some of my tastings, I have noted that the Scotch is principally aged in one type of cask and finished in another. This is clever play on tastes and differentiating one product from another, even within the distiller’s own line.

Of import is also how many times the cask is used for aging. The first time the barrel is used for whisky imparts more flavour, the more a cask is used, the less of its features will be transferred to the final product. Again, this can be used to modify the final product depending on what the distiller is hoping to achieve. A strong product using first fill ex-bourbon? A weaker bourbon cask mixed with a strong first fill ex-sherry to pull some more sherry and limit the effects of the charred oak cask? All kinds of possibilities are available to a master distiller.

Sherry casks come in many different types, the one I see the most on labels happens to be Oloroso. Sherry being a type of fortified wine, the grapes end up impacting the flavour of the final product.

I spoke about the size of the cask and its potential impact in my Laphroaig Quarter Cask review and won’t go into it further here. However, other conditions, such as allowing the whisky to age near the sea and let the salt water permeate the barrels, also plays a role in the final flavouring. The type of cask, ex-bourbon or ex-sherry, also plays a part in the colour of the whisky. Ex-sherry casks will give off a deeper amber while ex-bourbon is typically in the gold hues range. Some whiskies are even finished in a barrel holding another type of alcohol altogether, such as rum. Fascinating stuff really and only limited by the distiller’s imagination.

By law, Scotch must be aged at least three years to be called such. Most, of course, is aged longer. Longer does not necessarily mean better. As you can see, several factors play into the final product and everyone has a different definition of a good whisky.

Hope that helps, I’ll add more as I learn more about this subject and notify when I update this space.


Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Let us turn our attention to Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask edition of its famous Islay whisky. As you may recall from my previous post, Where is Scotch Whisky Produced, this area is known for peat flavoured whiskies.

The Quarter Cask is a double matured product. It is first matured in oak casks and then, for a short period, in what is known as a quarter cask. According to Laphroaig, this is the method used over two centuries ago and results in a “velvety sweetness” to compliment their traditional peaty whisky. The product is non-chill and barrier filtered. It is bottled at 48% alcohol by volume.

According to the box, the inspiration for using the quarter casks comes from the types of casks used in the 19th century to carry the product by packhorse. In order to become more efficient and economical, larger barrels were later used for both maturing and transporting the product.

Laphroaig claims that the smaller cask “gives up to 60% more contact with the wood compared to some of the larger sizes used today”. We are to assume that this enhances the flavour of the product.

The legs of this light gold coloured whisky appear to run slower than most, and a bit thicker.

On the nose, the peat is inescapable. Very strong and instantly recognized.

On the palate, we get a whisky tasting primarily of peat, wood, smoke, slightly chewy with hints of caramel. Fabulous first impression.

The finish is long and peaty mixing in some sweet notes.

Adding water remarkably improves this whisky. Add more than a few drops, you will not be disappointed. Slightly chilled seems to work best. In my experience, the higher the alcohol content, the more flexibility there is with the addition of water.

The nose is now more complex. The peat remains, but gives way to some sweetness. Fruits, honey, and figs. Also, some seaweed at the top.

The palate is once again primarily peaty, but rich hues of wood and honey come out in full force. Much sweeter than before, the figs come out and the whisky is more velvety than chewy. Fantasticly light, yet full of flavour.

The finish is once again long, sweet, and peaty. It leaves behind some of the wood experienced on the palate and ends dry.

Overall, this whisky is quite the adventure. Having not experienced any of their other products, I’m not sure what impact the lack of an age statement on the bottle has on the final result. However, this is a light whisky that still manages to provide a rich and fulfilling whisky tasting experence.

Available now at the saq at a reasonable price.