Today would have been the 71st birthday of Michael Jackson, the well-known and highly-respected whisky and beer writer, beloved in the whisky geek community for a number of reasons, not least of which is that he was the antithesis of the other contemporary whisky writer of similar renown, Jim Murray, who is known far and wide for being more than a little bit of what the kids on the street call a dick. Anyway, Michael Jackson passed away in 2007 of complications from Parkinson’s disease, and his birthday was subsequently anointed International Whisky Day, more or less informally, in the whisky geek world.There is a charity that benefits Parkinson’s research that you could give to in his honour on this or any other day; and on this day whisky geeks around the world have been raising glasses in his honour–many of them containing sherried malts, which were among his favourites, the Macallan in particular.
I don’t have any Macallan on hand, by which I mean my bottles of Macallan are at the other end of my whisky lair, and I would have to get up to get them. So I have decided to take this opportunity to do a head-to-head comparison of a few samples from Aberlour‘s A’bunadh series of NAS (No Age Stated), intensely sherried malts, vatted and bottled at cask strength, usually at eye-watering levels of abv. Aberlour releases new batches at a steady clip–we’re currently in the mid-40s, I believe–and these are a bit of a cult item among a number of whisky drinkers. There is a certain amount of batch variation from time to time, which is great for Aberlour as it leads people with OCD to want to collect or try as many of them as possible, and also great for whisky geeks who want to be able to claim a superhuman ability to tease out vast differences among what are not always terribly different whiskies. There is a point, I feel, and I know I am not alone in this, at which young sherry bombs with very high alcohol content begin to taste all alike and not terribly interesting. So, yes, I am not generally in the cult of the A’bunadh, but I don’t like to be dogmatic about these things and am happy to like them when I do.
But enough preamble. On to the small A’bunadh comparison! (Since these are all high abv whiskies I am pouring myself very small bits of each, about 20 ml or so.
Batch 27. (60.1%; a sample received in a swap with a fellow whisky geek)
Nose: Not intensely sherried, with notes of maple syrup and honey rather than raisins; shades of a fine dark rum. Not tannic at all; indeed a little floral. Very pleasant indeed. With a little time some notes of tobacco emerge along with what might be caramelized figs and a touch of clove. Really very nice. A little bit of water brings forth salty, nutty notes–maybe a little ham.
Palate: Doesn’t taste as hot as 60.1% might lead you to expect, and in fact it is quite drinkable without water (this may also be due to the fact that the bottle this sample was poured from may have been open for a while). Unfortunately, it’s also somewhat uninteresting without water–I get the feeling that all the stuff I got on the nose is there but coiled up tight in that alcohol embrace–and so I am going to add some. With water it does open up a little but doesn’t improve tremendously. It tastes a bit like a generic sherry bomb.
Finish: medium length, uninteresting.
Comments: A pleasant everyday drinker but nothing special. Much better on the nose than on the palate.
Rating: 82 points. Would be higher if I were just rating the nose.
Batch 28 (59.7%; the last of a bottle I purchased some years ago, 6 ounces of which were saved in a smaller bottle for future comparisons, and of which this is the last ounce or so)
Nose: Far more intense. Rum soaked raisins with cloves and a touch of cinnamon; some resinous oak spice as well. Once again, pipe tobacco emerges after a bit. Dark, concentrated soy sauce.
Palate: As on the nose, but with a dusty aspect which I ascribe to the fact that this sample has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time, even if in a 6 oz bottle. The alcohol content has clearly blunted–earlier notes refer to it being very hot without water, but this is not. There’s not too much point, I think, in spending very much more time with this.
Comments: The nose still holds up though the palate and finish don’t, and explain why I gave it 85 points on my spreadsheet back when it had not lost its oomph.
Original rating: 85 points; even in this faded state the nose pulls it up to the low 80s.
Batch 38 (60.3%; another sample received in a swap some months ago)
Nose: Much closer to Batch 27 than to 28. That is to say the aromas are bright, rather than dark. This is more raisiny than #27 though, and I also get some whiffs of cola and some whiffs of graphite (pencil lead). With time the sweet raisiny note intensifies with some salt around the edges. With the slightest touch of water the nose expands quite nicely, as salty, nutty notes (“salted nuts?” ed.) come to the fore. Pencil lead still there. After a little more time this begins to smell like a nice well-aged ham–not from Spain, but not from Oscar Mayer either.
Palate: Again, quite drinkable neat, but may need some water. Raisins, cloves, brown sugar, salt–in that order. Nothing very complex but very pleasant. Yes, improves with water as some oak and leather join the party. Really quite well balanced with water
Finish: Long, increasingly salty. Water rounds the finish out, bringing some sweetness and a little tannic grip.
Comments: Very nice indeed. The nose is good with or without water (though different characteristics dominate) but the palate and finish are much improved with water, in my view.
Rating: 86 points.
Batch 40 (60%; a sample from a friend)
Nose: The best of the bunch. Pretty much everything the others have but integrated into a package that arrives on first sniff. A slight hint of gunpowder (struck matches) but nothing offensive. Salt intensifies with time. A touch of water banishes the gunpowder and brings in notes of salted fruit leather, maybe some dried apricot.
Palate: That gunpowder note is to the fore on the palate. I like it, but you’re more likely to find friends in the whisky geek world if the vaguest hint of anything vaguely sulphurous causes you to get the vapours. I kid, I kid, some of my best friends are sulphur-phobes, and I really want them to know that this is not cabbage-watery, swamp-gassy sulphur. Still, it should be noted that all the other good stuff on the nose kind of takes a backseat to the meaty, savoury gunpowdery notes. And the good news is that, as on the nose, water drives the gunpowder away and makes this a very nice salty, savoury sherried whisky. Go ahead, try some, it won’t kill you.
Finish: Long, salty (and saltier with water).
Comments: The best of the bunch tonight, but the true sulphur-sensitive may disagree.
Rating: 87 points, which is what I had when the friend I got this from first opened the bottle.
Despite my earlier snarky remark about batch variation, I have to note that, larger family resemblances aside, batches 27 and 38 were appreciably different from batches 28 and 40.
It is probably not a coincidence that the batch I liked best tonight was the one whose sample came from the most recently opened bottle (2 ounces were poured into a 2 oz sample bottle 10 minutes after the bottle was opened about two months ago). It is hard to overestimate, I think, the impact that the state of a sample/bottle can have on the experience of a whisky. Whiskies change in the bottle once they’re opened–for better and worse–and it is hard to say which the representative experience is: the one from when the bottle was first opened or the one from after the bottle reaches the halfway mark. Then there’s the question of how soon the bottle gets consumed. A bottle that is finished in a few months (or less) is not going to be very different over its lifespan, especially at cask strength. However, if, like mine, your bottles can sometimes have a half-life measured in years you may see some change in primary characteristics (and many times for the better–my current bottle of Bunnahabhain 12, 46.3% was borderline unpleasantly sulphurous at first but those notes have blunted as the bottle’s sat at past the half-full month for more than 6 months now, and now I like it quite a lot). The problem, however, is that most reviews, professional or amateur, do not say anything about this, which may help explain why there are many occasions when the whisky you are drinking doesn’t seem very much like the whisky tasted by the reviewer who led you to buy/try it. Hell, most reviewers don’t even tell you if they are reviewing a sample (poured by someone else from a bottle in god knows what state) or a pour from their own bottle.