Glenmorangie was the distillery that first got me interested in single malt Scotch just over a decade ago. Granted this was largely because I was very attracted to the idea of their old lineup of wine cask finished malts; I had an ambition to one day own all of the releases in the old “Sherry/Burgundy/Port/Madeira Wood” range. I never quite got there–I think it was the Burgundy Wood that cured me of that ambition–and I grew to like the simpler 10 yo instead.
In the last 5-6 years I’ve lost interest in Glenmorangie. Some of this, if I am to be honest, probably springs from a desire to distance myself from distilleries and whiskies I was enthusiastic about when I was a less seasoned drinker; and some of it doubtless has to do with a distaste for the trend towards premiumization/bullshit in the Scotch world that Glenmorangie under the LVMH ownership have been one of the prime drivers of. Their new releases have often seemed more like “cool” ideas than whiskies I’d want to actually drink.
But those irrational/rational biases aside, it’s also true that I’ve not cared very much for the few whiskies I’ve had from their newer lineups in recent years: the Quinta Ruban (the new version of the Port Wood) and the Nectar d’Or (the sauternes finish) taste more like whisky cocktails than whisky to me (only a slight exaggeration) and the 10 yo seems to have slipped too. I will say though that I have really enjoyed the few pours I’ve had of the current 18 yo and I really liked a sample of the Signet (but there’s no way I’m paying close to $200 for a bottle). Still, when a sample swap offered the opportunity to taste some of the relatively recent “designer” releases I decided to go for it.
The first up is the Astar; reviews of the recent Artein and the less recent Sonnalta PX will follow soon. The Astar was first released in 2008. As per a quote from Bill Lumsden on John Hansell’s old “What Does John Know?” blog (now the Whisky Advocate blog) the Astar is matured in “slow growth, air seasoned, heavily toasted, lightly charred, ex-bourbon, American oak barrels.” For some reason I’d thought it incorporated virgin oak matured whisky as well but obviously I was wrong. You can find out more about it at that link.
Glenmorangie Astar (57.1%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Gentle malt and vanilla at first, then some apples and honey. Quite apparent wood but it’s mellow and toasted. The malty note gets a little more cereally (toasted wheat) and there’s also a hint of melon. Smells like quite a healthy breakfast (though I wouldn’t advise it). The fruitiness expands with time and melds quite nicely with the toasted wood. With even more time it becomes quite lemony and there’s a touch of ginger too now. With a few drops of water the vanilla and cream expand and there’s more peppery spice now too.
Palate: Ah, very oily and rich. Flavours are very much as advertised by the nose. The wood is not at all aggressive on the palate either, at least at first. Surprisingly drinkable at full strength with a nice spicy kick at the end–this is where the wood speaks the loudest–but it’s not tannic, more cinnamony. With time the spicy wood becomes the dominant note. Water mutes the fruit and amplifies the wood.
Finish: Medium. Not terribly interesting. And with time the woodiness becomes a little unbalanced and unpleasant.
Comments: I really liked this at first nosing and on my first few sips, but it began to get more astringent on the palate and especially the finish after that. And water accelerates that unfortunate progression. Luckily, it doesn’t need water to be drinkable. It’s an interesting whisky and I wouldn’t turn down a pour but I don’t know that I would want a bottle. And I can’t join the ever enthusiastic John Hansell in his 93 point rating.
Rating: 84 points.
Thanks to Alex S. for the sample!
I had always thought they’d used virgin oak as well. So much reference is made — in Lumsden’s interview with the Malt Maniacs, for Roskrow’s 1001 Whiskies book, and also on the official site — about the individually selected oak trees on the north side of specific Ozark Mountains in Missouri. And nothing was ever said about bourbon. So, I think most of us thought Astar was aged in virgin oak, especially with all of its spicy sweetness and vanillins.
Actually to add to the confusion, Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch book says the barrels had previously held Tennessee Whiskey for four years.
Thank you for pointing me to Lumsden’s Advocate interview. Now we know their “bespoke” oak has previously held bourbon. I actually enjoy Astar quite a bit, no matter how it was matured, but I’ve found the whisky’s so-called backstory cloudy and a bit silly.
Yes, as I was first writing up the review I described it as from virgin oak as well, saying it was not as woody as I expected from a virgin oak whisky. Then I remembered that I’ve earlier decried the echo-chamber’ish repetition of received knowledge among whisky geeks and decided to check. Most of the p.r fluff seemed unclear and Lumsden’s statement on What Does John Know was the only clear statement I could find.
I was recently watching a National Geographic documentary on Jack Daniel’s where they mention that the oak barrels destined for Jack Daniel’s get a toasting process that the camera crews were not allowed to see or record. The fact that the documentary got unrestricted access to the rest of the cooperage suggested it was a company secret. But now that I’ve heard that Glenmorangie supposedly uses lightly toasted ex-Jack Daniel’s barrels, it makes sense that Jack Daniel’s can’t show that part of production without LVMH’s permission.
In my opinion, I would still guess it to be Jack Daniel’s own company secrets that prevents them from sharing their barrel charring process. My understanding is that the barrel toasting and charring recipe of most brands is a trade secret.
Is it possible that Astar’s secret is what LVMH does with the barrels after they buy them from the bourbon producer? Unless LVMH is buying Jack Daniel’s casks before they’re used for bourbon, which is a possibility, I wouldn’t expect that random barrels of the world’s largest whiskey producer are generally so unique. So many other brands of all types of spirits also use Jack Daniel’s barrels, since there are so many of them available.
I’m just speculating, but could Astar taste like it had virgin oak in the mix because the barrels are scraped and toasted to a custom level? I don’t know how economical that would be to do on a large scale, although I assume Astar is produced in smaller quantities and certainly is sold for a lot more.
Thanks for the review, MAO. I’m also looking forward to your opinion of Sonnalta PX. It’s not subtle, but I like it for what it is.
From what I’ve read in Michael Jackson’s books, LVMH owns the artisan casks. They have a local cooper shape them into barrels and lend them to Jack Daniel’s for aging their whiskey for four years. Macallan, of course, has a similar system in place in Spain. So while Jack Daniel’s barrels are used by many distillers, the artisan casks are probably tagged (barcoded) so that they know to send them to Glenmorangie.
OK, good to know. Thanks!
Thanks all, for the great comments. As per Wikipedia (yes, I know) Glenmorangie also leases barrels to Heaven Hill. I wonder if there are any Glenmo bottlings that use ex-Heaven Hill casks exclusively.
Do any of you know how/if Ardbeg’s casks figure into all this?
Good question. I’ve read that Glen Moray also used the “artisan casks” when they were still under Glenmorangie ownership (the SMWS bottled at least one such cask of Glen Moray). It would make sense that Ardbeg has also gotten some of these casks to fill.
John Hansell tweeted this morning that Glenmorangie will no longer be producing Astar. I wonder if they might now be more inclined to reveal some details about how it was produced.
I’m not surprised by that. Bill Lumsden revealed a while back that Astar was slowly being added into the the 10 year old Original. If Glenmorangie intends for the 10 yr. to be a watered down Astar, it’s likely they need all the whisky from that product for the main bottling.
Good thing I still have a couple bottles. It’s my favorite expression from Glenmorangie but I’ll probably not miss it too much if I still have the 10 yr.