Opinions are, as they say, like… You know. Everyone has one but they think each other’s stink, and so on. It’s the cliché that has come to define our lives online. Never is this more of a statement than when it comes to tasting notes – which has merged with the solipsistic world of social media to rendered any expert on whisky to be not just useless, but digitally hung-drawn-and-quartered. Perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly – it’s nothing unique to whisky, of course, but the age of the expert has long since passed.
Not that we declare ourselves as to be experts in anything. Jason drives a BMW, and therefore cannot be trusted in a civilised society. Adam’s bottle photographs all now have the backdrop of a sheepskin rug (they’re coming, just you wait; and it would be annoying if he could take good pictures as well as type good words), which suggests we are mere months away from seeing his mugshot on the 6 O’Clock news.
Anyway, tasting notes were always hyper-personal, which is fine and dandy. But to me (see, there I go again – me me me) this personalised I’m the centre of the universe view of whisky never quite matched up with what was objectively ‘good’ criteria one sees in whisky production, particularly when debates around what create flavour crops up time and time again. For example, little clues like viscosity – things that create big fat oily whisky rammed full of flavour; or those troublesome production facts that basically say ‘we spent a LONG time fermenting this because we want, uh, flavour in our spirit’.
The thing that gets me is the basic unit of rushed spirit that’s been kicking around in a knackered old cask for two decades – sure, we’re entitled to enjoy it, but it’s not the same thing as a properly well-made whisky? We are allowed to like badly made things or mass-produced things – like a dirty McDonald’s, or like Phil enjoying dancing along to the latest K-Pop sensation. There ought to be no shame in that – I love a Coke Zero – but should we pretend that the things we enjoy are inherently brilliantly crafted? I offer these not as declarative thoughts, but opinions – these same self-indulged, ‘it’s all about my world-view’ keyboard mashings, which reminds me to steer at least somewhere near my point.
Where does that put us with tasting notes? What even is the point of them?
The gathering of a handful of miserable Malt writers sometimes solves this puzzle. Maybe you align yourself with one of us, maybe you don’t. But today you get four of us, independently sitting on our miserable arses in our miserable living rooms (apart from Adam, who reclines on his sheepskin rugs when he’s not up to his knees in apples; or Phil, who’s probably tangled up on his kitchen floor in guitar wires), offering our thoughts. We take tasting notes seriously – too seriously for some people, who like a bit of laid-back fluffy fun with their booze, but we tend to look up facts on distilleries, dig into production details, and try to appreciate the… holistic (god I hate that word) view. To see if Good Things happen in the glass when a distillery has theoretically done Good Things during production.
In short: is it possible to taste good intent?
Which I think is a good approach to take, if there are indeed any good approaches to tasting. It tends to steer away from the ‘YES BUT I ENJOYED IT SO IT MUST BE GOOD’ approach, which isn’t any use to you, and isn’t any use to us either, but seems to be the warcry of many other fellow keyboard mashers. And tasting notes themselves knot people up in all sorts of linguistic traps, because language is both a product of culture and individual experiences, so it cannot avoid tumbling into the ME FIRST abyss.
Perhaps we should just shove scores at the end, with no tasting notes at all?
Or just bang out a few emojis?
Anyway, whisky then. Peerless is one of those such ‘good intent’ distilleries under the spotlight again today. A lot has been written about this very quirky and interesting new (but yet very old – well, old for an American) distillery. In short, those in the community who value good production methods are very excited by Peerless. I urge you to first take a look at Taylor’s epic write-up here (go on) where he talks magnificently about as much production wonkery as you would like to hear. Back? Good. That article highlights just why people on the American underground are talking so much about this craft distillery. Because, indeed, there is a lot of noise out there in ‘Merica and not all of it coming from their President’s orifice.
Taylor’s article talks about mashbills, fermentations, grain, and wood – and everything they say sounds very healthy indeed. Aside from that I, too, have enjoyed Peerless whiskies in the past – notably this one, a bottling that equally enthused Adam, Malt’s most discerning judger of rye whiskies. (He also enjoyed the Peerless bottling for the British Bourbon Society too.)
But how does this knowledge of good intent cut across the most hardened of the Malt gang?
Today’s Peerless is a 3 Year Old Single Barrel – The Merchant’s Cask (Nickolls & Perks Exclusive), bottled at 54% ABV, and which clocks in at a very good value £80. Not a lot of Peerless makes its way into the UK, so we’re rather excited to see if the good intent is there to taste. Here are FOUR lots of self-centred opinions for you.
Good luck with this, Peerless…
Peerless 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye (Nickolls & Perks)
Colour: polished mahogany.
On the nose: lovely sweet toasted nose, but there are huge amounts of Christmassy fruits from this; dried oranges, cherries, mixed peel, mince pies. Let the fruits fade and a wonderful mix of hazelnuts, almonds comes to the fore. An absolutely huge hit of glacé cherries, with just a whiff of ginger and Amaretto.
In the mouth: a fabulously velvety texture – for a rye… and a lovely line between savoury and sweet flavours. The savoury edge – almost sundried tomatoes, green olives, and black pepper lead ahead of some classic cherry sweetness. Dried apricots, sultanas, liquorice and coffee, before the maple-syrup arrives. But just a little too much woodiness (yet not overly spiced) to stop it ascending into the ridiculous scores.
We all know that single cask whiskies lack the complexity of a well vatted single malt, but here is something you wouldn’t ordinarily guess is a single barrel. Which is to say, the flavours are so well put together even in this one cask – this one frame of a longer movie. For me, one notch better than the rye I tried in the first half of 2019. And £79.95 – you might think that a bit too much for a 3-year-old whiskey, but I am interested in the price for flavour quotient, not the price for age. This, in my self-centred opinion, is well worth your hard-earned pennies. Indeed, this cask was a very pleasing selection indeed.
On the nose: A sticky fruit assortment of plum jam, apricots, dried fruit and a cherry soda. An orange syrup, ginger, caramel, aniseed balls towards the end and elements of chocolate and rum fudge. A rye bread provides some foundation, tarragon and bizarrely an off note that is well hidden amongst the barrage, ok, a tinned cream of chicken soup. Vanilla of course, figs and a freshly baked cinnamon bun.
In the mouth: this is mellow and not as ferocious as you’d expect. Sweet tobacco, jammy as a jam shop during fruit harvest season and cinnamon bark. Dark chocolate flakes, brown sugar, green peppercorns, liquorice, figs, blackberries, cherries and more dried fruits. Quite an onslaught but wonderfully engaging.
This is almost an 8 in my book but falls just short because of a sense I get from this whiskey. It feels too clean-cut and engineered. It’s not fake, but there’s a synthetic nature to it all: the Hollywood of rye. I’m missing the dark spices of rye and that earthy grounding. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lovely dram and I’ll look to buy a bottle. Right now, it feels like it is trying too hard to impress. Still, for the age of it and the level of character, you have to say this Peerless lot are well named.
Colour: rich amber (“the kind with dead things in it”, added the geophysicist, helpfully)
On the nose: rather wood driven – sawmill, old furniture. Cereals are prominent – rye grass arm-wrestling the sweetness of corn oil. Char, and the lightest touch of Frazzles. (Do they have Frazzles in America?) It must be said that the alcohol vapours are in particularly vicious mood…
In the mouth: Texturally sits on the bourbon end of rye, which isn’t really a surprise, given the mashbill. Less voluptuously oily than the other Peerless ryes I’ve had, mind. Alcohol and grains are on the rawer side of feisty and fiery, which impedes the sweeter flavours of corn oils and caramels. Twists of herby, leaner rye actually accentuate the challenging austerity. A little wood and vanilla and pecan and peanut, but overall, given the quality of the distillery, I’d hoped for more.
Peerless has written a big cheque of expectation with the quality of its early releases, and this is my first time it has really failed to cash it. I think it rather shows the capriciousness of single casks, particularly at a young age; this one simply needed more time to knit itself together. There are some lovely moments, and unmistakeable flashes of Peerless’s sterling DNA, but on the whole its difficulties draw more focus than its qualities. Hence:
On the nose: A really inviting, wood spice laden nose. Sweet caramel, maraschino cherry and vanilla sponge. Sandalwood and beeswax. There is a little furniture polish note too. Marzipan, allspice, aniseed and orange oils.
On the palate: This is tasty – it’s like drinking an old fashioned without the ice and soda water. Heavy on orange peel, menthol cherry and maple syrup. Lovely rye spice with chilli chocolate and stem ginger. The sweetness is tempered by some citrus tartness and coffee grounds to finish.
I really like this I must say. The nose is absolutely delightful and really engaging. The palate though is a little less complicated than the nose but still with plenty to keep you entertained and returning to the bottle. I imagine this bottle would not last long if it was in my cabinet.
Note: a bottle was sent to split between the Malt crew by the kind folks at N&P. Usual disclaimers of misery apply.