With so many new whisk(e)ys coming into the market these days, it's a challenge to decide which ones will make the cut for review. But some bottles instantly prove they're something special, standing head and shoulders above the flood of middling booze. These 3 whiskeys stand out from the crowd of recent releases.
Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy
Jim Beam has taken the trendy concept of unusual whiskey finishes a step further with their Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy expression. Rather then aging the spirit in a brandy barrel, they add a measure of brandy straight into the bourbon. This direct approach keeps the resulting spirit from spending too much time in oak, yet still benefiting from the fruit and spices of the brandy.
The resulting blended spirit has a wonderful spicy aroma, with ginger, cinnamon, and anise blending with classic vanilla and oak bourbon notes. With a rich and creamy body and raisin custard flavor, the brandy influence comes through loud and clear.
It plays as well in a Sidecar as it does in a Manhattan, an makes a really amazing Boulevardier. But Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy really is best served neat—it's almost a cocktail straight from the bottle. If you really want to give it just a little kick, an ice cube and a splash of spicy bitters does the trick nicely. In national release as of August for $40 a bottle at 86 proof, it's an easy pick.
Ardbog is the latest release from Ardbeg in their continuing line of no age statement, mysteriously named single-word whiskies (also in the lineup: Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, Supernova, Alligator, and Galileo). A mixture of whiskies aged in bourbon and Manzanilla sherry casks, it's my favorite Ardbeg to come out in some time. It strikes me as one of the more sherry-influenced Islay whiskies, and yet does a wonderful job of balancing out smoke, spice, and sweetness.
Earthy peat mixed with fruity sherry aromas draw you in, while typical Ardbeg campfire smoke and sea spray drifts from the glass. On drinking you'll find these flavors deepen and evolve, with an underlying caramel sweetness that ties together the oak, fruit, and smoke. Finishing long, complex, and satisfying, it's a thick and chewy dram that will stay with you all night. In limited release for the past two months, it's listed around $100 a bottle and worth every penny, if it's up your alley. I enjoyed mine with just a drop of water to take the edge of the 104.2 proof.
Laphroaig Càirdeas Port Wood Edition
High on my list of dream vacations is a trip to the isle of Islay, home to many of my favorite smoky Scotches. I'm torn about when the best time to visit would be—a moody fall requiring thick sweaters and the warmth of a peat fire has deep appeal, and a spring morning with light breaking free of the clouds certainly is tempting. But for sheer ease of access to the distilleries on the island, visiting during the Fèis Ìle might be the winner. An annual festival celebrating all things Islay, with whisky front and center, it's a chance to hobnob with other Scotch nerds, as well as sample rare treats from the whisky warehouses.
This year, though, I've had to settle for traveling by dram. The Càirdeas Port Wood Edition is the latest in a series of limited release whiskies from Laphroaig, released to coincide with the festival this year. It's definitely a departure from the flagship 10 year expression, known for its intense peaty flavor. The Càirdeas PWE is the same juice as the 10 year, but after the 8th year it's transferred to port barrels for 14 months of finishing. And those 14 months make all the difference.
Lighter and nimbler than the Ardbog, this is a rosé of a Scotch—and it pours almost pink! It's initially smoky on the nose, but berries and barbecue begin to dominate. The flavor is lovely: ripe strawberry and plum, a nice balance of oak and smoke, and a sweet jammy body. The finish is nicely drying. Quite a departure from what you would expect in a Laphroaig bottle, yet with just enough peat to ground it, it's the definition of a sunny, summery Islay whisky. Add a tiny ice cube to emphasize the fruit and take the edge off the 102.6 proof, although it drinks just fine at bottle strength. Unfortunately the limited release is mostly sold out, so you'll have to quest for dusty bottles or cross your fingers and contact your specialty liquor retailers, where the pricing may vary dramatically. But it's worth the hunt.
What's your favorite whisk(e)y of the moment?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Samples provided for review consideration.