Douglas Laing’s Rock Island – Sherry Edition review

What is it about blended scotch and blended malt that turns some people off? Is it the level of the shelves many of them are placed on? Or the low price they are being offered for? Or even the false notion of their lack of quality?

It is true that some blends are not always of the highest provenance, but I could easily say the same of some single malts. And believe you me, you’ll be far more disappointed given the prices so many single malts go for these days.

When I first got into scotch, one of my first bottles was the Johnny Walker Green Label. Bottled above the JW baseline of 40% and even indicating the distilleries that it came from, I really loved this one a lot. Far more than the first bottle of scotch I ever bought (Oban 14).

Then something happened to me. I went through some weird phase where I saw blended scotch as being beneath me. Like it was a lesser product only meant for the newbies. After a year or so of this inexcusable snobbery, I got to know a crowd in the local community who were singing its praises.

After this, I decided to get out of my head and give blended scotch and blended malt another try. I have never looked back. The number of blends I have in my collection is still small, but is steadily growing…and that’s a good thing.

Before I go any further, let’s define some terms. Blended scotch is a mixture of grain and single malt. Blended malt, however, only consists of single malts from different distilleries. Any age statement that is on the tin denotes the youngest whisky that is part of the blend.

In particular, blended malt scotches are going through a bit of a renaissance these days. One of the companies leading the charge is the independent bottler Douglas Laing & Co based in Glasgow. Their Remarkable Regional Malt lineup of blended malts includes Scallywag (Speyside), Big Pete (Islay), Epicurean (Lowlands), Timorous Beastie (Highlands), Gauldrons (Campbelltown) and Rock Island (Islands). Each one exemplifies the character of its respective region, but Rock Island is a little different than the others.

When you talk about a blended malt coming from the Scottish isles, that’s a pretty all inclusive proposition. Traditionally, Rock Island brings in malt from Orkney (read Highland Park), Islay (your guess is good as mine, but there’s probably Caol Ila in there), Arran and Jura. 

The Sherry Edition, sitting in my glass, is not just a sherry cask finish. All of this whisky was matured exclusively in ex-sherry casks. This is an NAS whisky, but the minimum has to be three years. This is bottled at a respectable 46.8%.

Nose: Well, there’s peat in here. Surprisingly, I’m actually getting a lot of notes that remind me of a Ledaig matured in a refill sherry butt. It’s the slight burnt rubber note that’s tipping me off in that direction. But there is no Ledaig in here, so let’s turn off that road. There is definitely quite a “walking out on a tidal flat” note about this. The salty air, the seaweed drying in the sun, crab shells not yet picked clean. A sweet smokiness lurks in the background. Perhaps from a BBQ smoker rather than a campfire. It’s hard to get past these peated whisky notes, but there is some lingering fruitiness in there. Smoked raisins, plums and some lemon peel. There’s just a little bit of the Highland Park heathered peat and honey, but it does become more prominent over time. Earthy spices such as ginger, nutmeg and a hint of clove are in there too. I could nose this all night, but I’m just dying to take a sip!

Pallet: The entry is luscious and oily. Big Seville orange marmalade note right off the bat. My favourite, especially with thick chunks of orange peel. The really good stuff is slightly more sour and bitter than sweet. A good dose of ginger and dark chocolate as well. It’s slightly salty and mineral as well. The development is actually quite light on the peat. It’s mostly a sour note in the form of lemon peel. The influence of the European oak is kept in check by the marmalade and dark chocolate that are carried over from the entry. This is joined by raisins and dark stone fruits along with a good dose of ground cloves. Towards the end of the development, there’s the beginnings of a rich, warm, spice cake fresh from the oven.

Finish: That spice cake note carries over from the development and lingers all the way through the finish. At the end, it’s like a gingerbread cookie you rescued from the oven just in time. All of this helps to balance out the oak. Given the light color of this whisky, I’m not surprised this whisky is not aggressive in that department. A citrus zing and some dark chocolate are also in the mix. There’s a bit of wet ash right at the end.

With water added…

With water, the earthy baking spices and oak start to make their presence more well known. The clove note is really shining here. Interesting. That orange marmalade note, although still present on the entry, actually builds during the development. Now that spice cake is being slathered in marmalade towards the finish. Also, that burnt rubber note follows from the nose now, but it’s not very strong. The finish is pretty much unchanged with no noticeable differences.

Conclusion

I love this whisky both with and without water. I’m not a fan of overly oaked whiskies, but I was actually craving some of it as it was barely present without water.

Personally, I think this would be a great introduction to peated whisky for those that aren’t fond of or want to start to explore the genre. There’s enough peated notes on the nose and pallet to introduce you to the standard flavours without blowing your mind (and taste buds) with iodine, heavy ash and smoke. As an added bonus, the sherry influence adds a good dose of flavours that will be familiar to those that like ex-sherry finished or matured scotch.

As for me, I am very much looking forward to more of what the other Remarkable Single Malts have to offer.

Instagram: @paul.bovis

Boulder Spirits Bourbon Whiskey – Sherry Cask Finish review

Nestled just east of the Rocky Mountains and a short drive northwest from Denver, Colorado lies the city of Boulder, where I was born. The backdrop is breathtaking and actually served as the opening scene for The Shining. It’s a hiking and nature lover’s paradise, home to Colorado University, is a burgeoning tech hub and has a thriving research community, particularly in the field of meteorology, my profession.

My parents came to Boulder by way of Libya, where they were working as ex-pats at the time. My dad as a teacher at Benghazi University and my mom as a secretary. They met on the tennis court and got married shortly after. In 1969, Gaddafi came to power and my parents fled to the USA, settling in Boulder shortly after.

Just as my parents came to Boulder seeking a new life, so did Boulder Spirit’s owner Alastair Brogan. After wearing a few career hats, he took the plunge and came to Boulder, along with his family and a copper pot still. Over the last few years, his distillery has been making waves both in the media and among bourbon and single malt enthusiasts alike.

In their bourbon expressions, they have been turning heads with their unique mashbill of 51% corn, 5% rye and a whopping 44% malted barley. This mashbill has led to their whisky’s unique flavour profile and sits between a traditional bourbon and a single malt. It’s really unlike anything out there and is a terrific gateway for single malt drinkers who want to dip their toes into the world of bourbon.

Sitting in the glass today is the Boulder Spirits Sherry Cask finished bourbon. This was aged for 2-3 years in #3 char virgin American oak barrels before being finished for at least six months in ex-Oloroso sherry European oak casks. This is bottled at a very healthy 47% or 94 proof.

Nose: This has such a unique nose. The high barley content gives me those malted cereal notes that I love in young Scotch and Irish whiskey. On the traditional bourbon/virgin oak side of things, I get lots of sponge toffee and a hint of cherry. The sherry cask finish has definitely pushed that to the background. The combination of European and American oak gives me a very Christmas cake vibe. Cinnamon and allspice predominately, but also a touch of nutmeg, ground clove and even ginger. After some time in the glass, a very rich vanilla bubbles to the surface. Plums and raisins from the sherry cask finish round this off. The nose is promising a lot of what the pallet will hopefully offer.

Pallet: The entry can only be described as a gooey cinnamon bun with raisins and a generous slathering of icing. Counterbalancing all this rich sweetness is the virgin oak, which makes it’s presence felt straight away. The oak influence usually doesn’t make itself known until the development, but that’s not the case here. This is mostly dark toffee and deeply toasted peanuts. For it’s age, this is very oily and mouth coating right from the start. The oak spice from both casks again helps to cut through the sweetness during the development. Smacking my lips to let in air gives me more toasted peanuts and a little bit of orange zest. As the development progresses , I get cooked down plums and even some dark chocolate.

Finish: This is surprisingly long for it’s age. Fading oak spice and dark chocolate predominantly, but that orange zest introduced during the development carries through the finish and counteracts the drying sensation of the oak.

With water added…

The nose becomes spicier with quite a bit of citrus mixed in. It’s drowning out quite a few notes that I got without water though. More than anything it’s transformed the nose into a slightly more traditional bourbon. The entry and development are much more oak forward. The increased oak influence from the ex-Oloroso casks makes for a spicier and drier development and reminds me far more of a sherry cask finished scotch than a bourbon. The finish is longer and a little more bitter with water.

Conclusion

If you are a fan of sherry matured or finished Scotch, you’ll be a big fan of this with water. If you love bourbon, I would probably recommend that you sip this neat. But, by all means, do try both. They deliver quite different experiences.

Let’s talk value. In Alberta, which is the only place in Canada this can be found at the moment, you’re looking at a price point of about $85 CAD. This may sound expensive, but you should consider two things. First, Boulder Spirits, like most craft distilleries, are not a high volume operation. Costs are higher. Also, good quality ex-sherry casks don’t come cheap these days.

Ultimately, if you decide to purchase this, you’re buying into an experience that really can’t be found anywhere else in bourbon today, which is a fascinating intersection between an ex-sherry cask finish and a unique high barley mashbill. Trust me, it’s worth the plunge!

Instagram: @paul.bovis

Kavalan – Solist – Sherry Cask Strength

Picture taken in Edmonton River Valley

For our inaugural tasting we elected to start off with an internationally renowned Taiwanese Whisky from Kavalan. From the Solist series, this single malt, cask strength aged in Oloroso Sherry casks, possesses a completely natural and beautifully aphotic like colour and is a favourite for most from this distillery. Due to Taiwan’s humid and tropical climate, the maturation of their whiskies are accelerated which has afforded Kavalan the capability of producing some fairly high end juice full of rich aromas and flavours wonderfully complex. An essential edge for a young brand still in their infancy compared to the whisky giants around the world.

ABV – 59.1% / Age – 5-6 years / Mash – 100% Malted Barley / Region – Taiwan / Cask – ex-Oloroso Sherry

This bottle was probably the most controversial. Being a full flavoured and cask strength whisky, everyone’s tastes buds and palate maturity clearly varied as I witnessed the differing expressions light up the table while everyone felt this Kavalan out. 

NOSE – I always love the nose at cask strength as the scents rush to you quickly and come easier to identify, especially the prominent notes. For me, a dense Sherry and some fennel/anise or black licorice is at the forefront, mixed with a low lying spread of chocolate, tobacco, raisin, assorted berries and vanilla.

PALATE – A lot of the same here on the palate. The Sherry influence is precise with a ton of dark fruity elements like black berries, raisins and prunes. Underlying when the fruitiness fades a bit is some slight baking spices and a bitter nut like taste.

FINISH – Spicy and warm as it finishes. Not a baking type spice but a
fruitier spice like ginger and caraway. this coupled with a subtle note of
tobacco and cocoa or even coffee like hints.

Overall, nice complexity and an array of good flavours and aromas. not crazy about licorice/anise/fennel notes which is a common thread but the mix of those with the other attributes married quite well. I really enjoyed this choice and have always enjoyed the Kavalan whiskies I have tried in the past so I gave it a 8.5/10.

The group was not as generous, averaging out at 6.7/10. Which the high proof may have been the microcosm driving the scores.