Time to put myself to the test once again.
I recently tasted one of my own barrel picks head-to-head against a friend’s selection. That went very well for me, if I do say so myself. Of course, being one’s own judge and jury should confer certain advantages. Still, I like to think that I made an earnest attempt at objectivity, no matter how difficult my internal biases make it.
I’m tripling down on that challenge today by revisiting one of my own picks: the Westland single barrel selected by myself, Kat, and David Jennings (aka Rare Bird 101), who was joined by two of his supporters. After what felt like an eternal wait, I was finally able to get my hands on a few bottles of our selection.
One of the reasons I agreed to a Westland barrel pick in the first place was that there aren’t many of them around. Westland’s barrels feel relatively more limited compared to other craft distilleries, who will frequently release dozens of single barrel selections at a time, flooding the market. By way of contrast: I seldom encounter a Westland pick in the wild, thus was more than happy to try my hand at one, content that we’d be offering our friends and supporters something not likely to be readily found at numerous retailers nearby.
I was delighted when that experience yielded a whiskey that I didn’t just like but loved. Following the selection process, I greedily devoured the remaining drops of my sample and dreamed of the days that I’d be able to open and pour my own full-sized bottles. My optimism was tinged with fear, however. I thought our pick was good… but how good was it, really?
Fortunately, in the intervening months I managed to get my hands on a trio of other Westland bottles that promise to give our barrel a run for its money. One is a distillery limited edition; the other two are barrels from our friends at Single Cask Nation. I’ll now be trying all three, followed by a re-tasting of our own selection.
First, we have Single Cask Nation Westland Cask 437. This was distilled in June 2013 and aged for seven years in an ex-bourbon barrel. Bottled in May 2021 at a strength of 62.75% ABV, there were 202 bottles produced. I paid $250 for the pair of these bottles, so will be evaluating them using a reference price of $125 each.
Single Cask Nation Westland Cask 437 – Review
Color: Pale maize.
On the nose: Abundantly smoky notes overwhelm the nostrils for a moment, but balancing aromas quickly emerge. An amply fruity note of Meyer lemon and the baked, buttery sweetness of hot cornbread provide delightful counterpoints. More sniffing reveals diverse scents of lime, cotton candy, freshly mowed grass, and homemade whipped cream.
In the mouth: Initially there’s an intense salinity to this that nods toward the most austere Islay malts. This grips the front half of the tongue in an iron grip of iodine, but abates somewhat as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. There, a reemergence of the citrus notes from the nose occurs, albeit these are now presented in a more tart form. This takes on a slightly bitter almond flavor with a vaguely stale woodiness as the whiskey moves toward the finish. The smoky notes bloom once again at the back of the palate, coating the throat and the roof of the mouth with a roasty and toasty flavor that again tips toward bitterness as the whiskey lingers. Texturally, the high ABV is evident throughout in the form of a persistent, radiant heat that is felt on every surface in the mouth.
The nose held lots of promise on which the palate, unfortunately, was unable to deliver. Most particularly, I was left wanting for a return of that buttery, richly sweet note (I presume imparted by the ex-bourbon barrels) from the nose that never made an appearance in the mouth. I admire the intensity of the aromas and flavors here, but the smoke and maritime notes could have used a balancing counterweight, especially on the palate. In light of that an considering the price, I would not be a repeat purchaser of this whiskey and am scoring it a notch below average as a result.
Next up, the second barrel from Single Cask Nation, number 4858. This was distilled in November 2013 and aged for seven years in an ex-Moscatel barrique. Bottled in May 2021 at a strength of 52.25% ABV, there were 266 bottles produced. As before, I’ll split the $250 purchase price for the pair and use $125 for scoring this bottle.
Single Cask Nation Westland Cask 4858 – Review
Color: Medium-dark auburn.
On the nose: The Moscatel cask influence is evident straightaway, with an ample nose of dried red and black fruits. Just beyond this are abundant orchard fruit notes of a very ripe nature; I am getting apples and pears galore. Deeper inhalation yields a spicy whiff of red pepper and some perfumed notes of bergamot and jasmine incense. The green, pungently oily scent of unripe walnuts makes a fleeting appearance here as well. Overall, the aromatic profile is very pleasant and inviting.
In the mouth: Not quite as luscious, this tacks more toward that underripe walnut note initially. The texture on the front of the tongue is slightly grainy – almost zesty or effervescent – which propels the whiskey into the center of the mouth. Once this passes the middle of the tongue, there’s a broadening out to incorporate some more woody notes as well as flavors of chestnuts and hazelnuts. As this reaches the finish, the fruit finally arrives in the form of dried sultanas, as well as more of those ripe pear notes. Regrettably, these don’t hang around long, being quickly replaced by a woody bitterness accented by spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. There’s an astringent, tannic texture that spreads out through the mouth after the last sip.
The better of the two Single Cask Nation selections by far, this is irresistibly appealing on the nose. The palate, again, tacks toward the more lean and austere flavors, though brief respites are offered toward the middle and the back of the mouth. Generally, through both the nose and the palate, this is mostly cask. While the Moscatel barrique imparts some lovely scents and flavors, it overwhelms the Westland distillate in a way that leaves me wanting more of the underlying malt to show through. I like this well enough overall and am inclined to score it positively; considering the price caps this at a notch above average.
Third, I’ll be tasting the Deacon Seat Tenth Anniversary Bottling. This was a special release by Westland, described thus:
“To mark Westland’s tenth anniversary we have created a limited commemorative whiskey, our second Deacon Seat bottling, that combines the core elements of our house style with the whiskey pulled from stocks of exploratory projects including Garry Oak, new barley varieties, and more.”
This is a vatting of three Westland casks: new Garry oak, first fill ex-Bourbon, and new American oak. Finishing casks include first fill ex-Washington red wine and first-fill ex-Washington port. Three barley varieites (alba, 5-malt and Washington Select Pale Malt) were matured for between 64 and 84 months, making this a minimum of five years old. It was bottled at 112.68 proof (56.34% ABV).
This bottle came in a set with the “Our West is Whiskey” book, previously reviewed here by Jacob. 400 sets were made, which I presume reflects the quantity of bottles as well. I paid $300 for the set, which included the book and the bottle. Assuming a price of roughly $40 for the book leaves $260 as the bottle price, which I’ll be using to evaluate this.
Westland Deacon Seat Tenth Anniversary Edition – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brownish-orange.
On the nose: An enthralling nose, presenting a dizzying array of aromas without any rhyme or reason. Lemon juice yields to pencil shavings which transform into barbecued brisket. There’s the burnt sweetness of caramelized sugar, the Christmas-y scent of freshly cut pine bough, and the chilled metallic, sugary edge of a freshly-opened aluminum can of cola. Revisiting this after a few minutes, I notice a dense bouquet of spices, herbs and perfumes that jumps out of the glass and into the nostrils. Musk mingles with crushed violets and dried, powdered ginger in an exotic dance that further transfixes the senses. With yet more time, I get the tart fruit-inflected coffee smell of espresso beans.
In the mouth: That acidic espresso note is felt first on the lips and tongue, where it puckers the mouth on the entrance. There’s a momentarily smoky or ashy flavor as this climbs the tongue, which tips over into an acrid bitterness for an instant. Regaining its poise, the whiskey shows a new fruit aspect in the middle of the mouth, this time of sour red berries. There’s plenty of malt backbone throughout this, though it is most evident at the commencement of the finish, where the cask overlays all recede to reveal a very pure sense of the underlying distillate. Some earthy notes mark the transition to the finish, which is mostly comprised of a grainy, tannic woodiness, though this is held in check before it becomes unpleasant or uncomfortable. The finish leaves a wonderful residual note of dark chocolate which covers the inside of the mouth gradually.
Being a commemorative bottling with a hefty price tag, the distillery set itself a high bar to clear. I’m happy to report they cleared it with ample room to spare; this is among the best, if not the best, whiskey I have ever tasted from Westland. The malt, the initial maturation casks, and the finishing casks are all integrated harmoniously. They impart their respective nuances in balanced proportions, taking turns without ever dominating the presentation overall. Very slightly short of perfection, but still one of the most delicious whiskeys I have had the pleasure of tasting.
Finally, it’s time to see how our barrel pick measures up. We ended up naming this “Symposium” to signify the meeting of minds that resulted in this ick coming to fruition. To recap the specifics: 5-Malt Barley was distilled 7/29/2014 and entered an ISC Coopers Reserve cask. On 7/18/18 it was transferred to a Rocky Mountain Barrel Company ex-Tequila cask for finishing. Bottled on 2/22/2021 at an age of six and a half years, at a strength of 105.05 proof (52.525% ABV), this ended up retailing for $100, at which price a few bottles are still available.
Westland “Symposium” Cask 5700 – Review
Color: Medium-dark reddish-brown.
On the nose: Tabasco sauce meets marshmallows roasted over the campfire in my first sniff of this, nodding toward both the tequila finishing cask as well as the initial oak barrel. Brown sugar, toffee, and sarsaparilla notes impart a rich sweetness to this that borders on decadent. Grilled nopales and the smoky meatiness of hot links play against a chalky minerality. A topnote of barley nods to the malt foundation, but there’s a distinctly southwestern orientation to this that serves as a continual reminder of the tequila finish, which is more pronounced here than my original tasting notes would suggest. After some time in the glass, a creamy note of berry yogurt provides another interesting twist.
In the mouth: This starts with that aforementioned minerality, focused in a much more intense form on the tip of the tongue. That gives way to an expansive mouthfeel, with a wood-inflected wave of nutty and savory flavor spreading across the tongue. As before, roasty tastes of coffee mingle with the rich acidity of balsamic vinegar, with a drying texture again suggesting the barrel influence. Immediately preceding the finish, this whiskey reaches its most intriguing point, with a savory note of MSG accented by a heavy dash of chili spice. The finish incorporates a mild aftertaste of tequila, but the dominant notes are once again sharp wood and pert stone, with a gentle sprinkling of cocoa powder.
I’ve tasted this several times since my bottles arrived, and it presents somewhat differently each time… in a good way. Occasionally the tequila notes are more forward; other times, the savory aspects are more obvious. It’s certainly never boring, which I say with relief, having purchased a few bottles of this.
To be completely honest: it’s not quite the revelation that the Deacon Seat anniversary bottling was. That’s balanced against the fact that it’s a fair deal less expensive, and shares some of best attributes of that whiskey: a balance between malt, maturation cask, and finishing cask that allows room for each to express themselves without overpowering the others. I really enjoy this whiskey, and I am relieved that it has been received with similar positivity by others. On net, I am awarding this the same score as when I initially tasted it.
As always, these scores are one man’s (obviously biased) opinion. Setting aside my relative ranking of these bottles, a more compelling conclusion emerges: Westland is one of the most interesting distilleries in the world right now. They’re producing a few immensely flavorful styles of distillate that respond well to diverse maturation and finishing techniques. There’s a Westland whiskey to suit every palate, so long as those palates are looking for character expressed confidently, without reservations.
I’d encourage you to snag a bottle of our “Symposium” pick (of course I would) or, indeed, most any other Westland single barrel you come across. I’m intending to do the same, but for now I’m mostly excited to share samples of these open bottles with friends and acquaintances. Whether our pick is judged the best of the bunch by others remains to be seen, but I speak from experience in assuring you that tasting these side by side is a whole lot of fun.
Deacon Seat image courtesy of Westland.