Layers upon layers upon layers…
This review might have the longest title of any Malt review I’ve done yet. We’ve got a whiskey from a craft distillery, matured in a (very specific type of) cask from another distillery, and brought to us by an independent bottler. Thus, you’ll forgive the interminable string of words at the top of the page, but I’m erring on the side of providing all the relevant details.
Speaking of details: the aforementioned independent bottler is Single Cask Nation, a personal favorite of mine. However, I did not purchase this whiskey directly from them. In fact, I declined to even enter the lottery for a bottle. As a customer, I consider myself loyal… to a point.
I’m always excited to see one of Single Cask Nation’s emails in my inbox. Even if I don’t end up buying whatever is on offer, I like keeping appraised of whatever Jason Johnstone-Yellin and Joshua Hatton have gotten their hands on. I believe that they generally price their wares as fairly as possible, given the constraints of current market conditions, making their outturn a good barometer of the state of whiskey at the moment.
However, the email containing this bottling felt like an insta-pass when I persued it. Why? Two of the bottles were Ohishi rice whisky, bearing price tags close to $100. I know Ohishi from the fact that bottles are always available in the “Japanese Whisky” section, next to the empty spaces vacated by more desirable Japanese malt whisky. I’m going completely on prejudice here (having never tasted any of the stuff) but it seems like a cynical ploy to exploit the frenzy for Japanese whisky by passing off an ersatz substitute to foolish or inattentive consumers.
The other whisky being offered caused me a few seconds’ pause, but little more. Catoctin Creek… OK, tell me more? Ex-PX Sherry Hogshead… sounds interesting. Kilchoman… not my favorite Islay distillery, but I’m not ruling it out. 64.2% ABV… solid. Price… $125?
You could mature a four-year-old craft rye in an ex-Château Pétrus cask; I’m still not sure it would ever be worth $125. Again, referencing current market conditions: there is so much young whiskey around, being peddled by every craft distillery who has passed the legally stipulated chronological mark for maturation. They’re often dressed up with a maturation or a finish in this or that exotic barrel; a fair few of them have been reviewed here. Most can be had for well under $125, and often for less than half that sum.
As I said, my loyalty has limits. As much as I’ve enjoyed the several Single Cask Nation offerings I have purchased or which have been shared with me (full disclosure: often by Jason and Joshua, who have my continued thanks for their generosity), I have become more judicious in my whisky purchasing of late. Thus, I demurred about this trio and went on my merry way.
Was I correct in doing so? I would never have known, but for the fact that Ryan took the plunge on the Catoctin Creek. As is his wont, magnanimous friend that he is, he bottled up a sample for me, which will be reviewing today (he also provided the bottle photo). Before I do, however, a few more introductory comments:
This is my first dalliance with Catoctin Creek. We’ve previously seen their work highlighted in this space by Mark, who tasted a Cask Proof rye from them back in 2016. This particular whisky was distilled in February 2017 and aged two years, seven months in new charred oak. It then spent an additional two years, one month in cask #2005124, a Kilchoman ex-PX cask. Bottled in October 2021 in a run of 182 bottles, this comes to us at 64.2% ABV. Price on release was $125, as previously stated.
Single Cask Nation Catoctin Creek Kilchoman ex-PX Sherry Hogshead – Review
Color: Surprisingly dark reddish brown.
On the nose: The first impression is of a marriage of young rye notes with some smoky, peaty overlay from the Kilchoman cask. More sniffing reveals rich sweetness and fruitiness; blueberry custard and fudge brownie are the standout aromas. A big sniff reveals a young, wood-dominant note similar to the craft whiskies I’ve experienced from a range of distilleries. Giving this some air reveals a light, sweet note of confectioner’s sugar, but also a green, twiggy scent, again nodding at the method of maturation.
In the mouth: First there’s a bloom of fruit and polished wood, accented by a slight burn from the high ABV that rises through the mouth in an aromatic cloud. The midpalate reveals yet more wood, this time of a less polished and more rough nature, reminiscent of a freshly planed pine plank. Another cocoa note of hot chocolate meets the sourness of very fruity espresso beans. Stale notes of cigarette butts round this out, though the lingering taste of lingonberries is a pleasant little surprise before this reverts to a tingly heat all over the mouth and tongue.
I’ve always found Kilchoman’s peat to be of a more fetid, acrid type. This whiskey is unfortunately marred by that note, but there’s also something else amiss. Despite a few very appealing aromas and flavors (the berry and chocolate notes are really scrumptious), I feel that the underlying distillate has several hallmarks of immaturity. The wood, rather than mellowing and melding with the spirit, pokes its head out occasionally in a bitter, tannic form.
As mentioned in the notes, this tastes like insufficiently mature craft whiskey covered with the slapdash influence of a domineering cask type. I’m a fan of neither the former nor the latter. Taking into account the couple of high points but the overall unbalance, I am forced to score this below average. The demanding price knocks an additional point off the score.
Subsequent to tasting this, I recalled an offhand comment made by Jason Johnstone-Yellin in the tasting video for the Laughing Frog release. He joked then that the next whisky Single Cask Nation would be able to release with a $395 price tag was a 8-year-old Ledaig (about 19:30 in the video).
There’s truth in every jest, and it doesn’t take an industry insider to know that competition for barrels has done nothing but intensify in the last few years. Single Cask Nation has not just bottled some of my favorite whiskeys; they have blazed trails with (for example) the first ever bottlings of barrel proof single barrel Wild Turkey. If this bottling (or, heaven forfend, the Ohishis) are indicative of an inevitable reversion of Single Cask Nation’s generally superlative output to the industry mean, it will be very sad. I’m willing to chalk this up to a difference of tastes between myself and J&J, but I can’t help but feeling that I will be casting a more critical eye on future Single Cask Nation results as a consequence.