Monday, May 12, 2014

Are There Any Underrated Distilleries?


A few years ago, I posted lists of the three most overrated and underrated distilleries.  I was thinking of doing it again, but I ran into a problem.  It's easy to come up with overrated whiskeys; heck, with the whiskey craze in full gear, sometimes I feel like almost everything is overrated.  The problem is, I'm not sure I can think of any distillery or company that is underrated.

Back in 2012, my three most underrated distilleries were Glengoyne, Four Roses and Charbay with runners up George Dickel, Midleton, Bunnahabhain, Dallas Dhu and Glenfiddich.  A few of those are still underrated, but many of them wouldn't qualify today.  Certainly Four Roses has gotten its due from the whiskey geek crowd (my list preceded the release of the highly acclaimed 2012 Small Batch Limited Edition which set off a full-on Four Roses craze), and Midleton has released a whole flurry of single pot still whiskeys that have put them on the geek map.  You could probably still make a case for Dickel, though it's getting more recognition with its private barrel program.  Bunnahabhain may be the one that still fits the bill, but who else?

Are there any other distilleries that could remotely be considered underrated in today's whiskey world?


44 comments:

David D said...

I think Benriach gets very little love considering how consistently good and interesting their whiskies are. They do sherried, unsherried, peated, unpeated, PX-finished, triple-distilled, etc. And they're all pretty damn good.

Anonymous said...

Despite the fact that it puts out a lot of standard lower-mid-shelf stuff, the Wiser's distillery is responsible for some the best Canadian whisky today. Lot no. 40, Pike Creek, Wiser's Legacy and 18yo, all excellent and priced a lot better than the $150 Crown Royal one offs.

sku said...

Anon, that would be the Hiram Walker Distillery right?

Mark said...

Bourbon - Wild Turkey.

Scotch - I'll say Glencadam, I love their 15 yo.

Anonymous said...

That would be correct, thanks for the catch.

Josh Feldman said...

As the whisky craze sucks out the glut stocks and makes mania of top tier new distilleries like Balcones, Kavalan, Amrut, Kilchoman, and Garrison Brothers I'd say that we are more likely to find underrated distilleries among the ranks of small scale craft distillers who are quietly upping their game. One that popped immediately to mind is Finger Lakes Distilling where Tom McKenzie has quietly been experimenting with some lovely whiskies. When I was doing my Old Fitz research Mike Jasinkski shared a sample of a young wheated bourbon that Tom has maturing and, tasted in the context of drinking dusty Old Fitz, was remarkably well balanced and fully flavored. There are crafts people out there with skill - but because good whiskey takes time recognition of their work may take time to come.

Matt said...

Does Willett count quite yet?

Florin said...

Tullibardine, Glen Ord, Fettercairn, Mannochmore - I could go on (Royal Brackla, Dailuaine, Teaninich, Glen Scotia, Ben Nevis...). And no, I'm not just picking them at random.

sku said...

Hiram Walker, with the Lot 40 and Wiser's is a good call.

As to Wild Turkey, I just haven't been very excited about anything they've done since American Spirit. They're lowering proof on the rye and Forgiven was a big bust.

Glencadam is an interesting pick. I can't say I have any real impression of them at all.

I'm sure there are micros who are going to be promising and somewhere out there, there probably is one that's underrated, but I don't know what it would be.

Keep 'em coming!

Florin said...

...Miltonduff, Speyburn, Cardhu, Tobermory, maybe even Benromach.

Recently overrated: Oban, Balvenie, even Glendronach.

Tim Read said...

Genfarclas.

Why?

Because they aren't participating in the race to the bottom of younger whisky in ever more inert casks.

Because they provide a quality product at a fair price, rather than tarting it up with metallic printing and more wood than a lumberyard.

Because they seem to have resisted the whisky-of-the-month-with-a-stupid-name-and-worse-backstory trend.

Because they blow the doors off so many distilleries and have managed to avoid becoming a household name.

Sure, they did a ridiculous edition for a bunch of wealthy eastern Europeans. Even after that happened, I can still go down and buy a bottle for a reasonable price and not feel like some venal brand manager is laughing their ass off at me for allowing another unit to move.

I'm sure this will be the laugh of the comments. I don't care. I'll just keep enjoying a high-quality malt for a fair price and shaking my head at the people choosing to buy a kosher-wine finished, sixth fill quarter cask, six year old seventh-tier-distillery Burns Malt for the low price of £89.

******
I'll pass on small craft distilleries as regular drinks until the pitch on them isn't "up and coming" or doesn't involve a lot of backstory and qualifications. I feel like even a lot of the beloved ones still need some serious caveats. Meanwhile, I can just go open a bottle of Jack Daniels Single Barrel, be out $45 and not be completely disappointed. Yeah, I'll still do random bullshit for blog stunts, but that only serves to underscore how fantastic many large distilleries manage to be on a regular basis.

*****

@DD: Maybe I'm still too whisky-geeked for my own good but I think BenRiach gets a fair amount of love - partially due to the Glendronach halo effect, but also due to the fact that their 70s offerings were stupid good. (Hell, one of the more recent ones was on FOAF alert...)

Now, applying the "common man" standard as I did with Glenfarclas above? Sure, way underrated. People may have heard of Glenfarclas; I think those same common consumers will think BenRiach is some Israeli ceremonial spirit...

David D said...

@TR -- very true. It all depends on who is underrating the distillery. We don't sell a lot of Benriach, which is why it came to mind. Yet, I think their whiskies are as good as anything we carry from anyone.

By the way, how dare you even insinuate disagreement with what I said. You are now my sworn internet enemy.

sku said...

Tim, everything you say about Glenfarclas is certainly true, and while they certainly deserve more recognition for their good work, I'm not sure I would call them underrated. Nearly every whiskey geek I know fawns over them.

Florin, those are certainly some of the lesser known distilleries, and I could see an argument for a few of them, but I can't say that I've been overly impressed with most such that I think they deserve a lot more respect than they are getting, but maybe I'm missing out on some great bottlings.

Florin said...

My own sample size is small (n=1) for most of those cited, but those bottles definitely left an impression on me. Here are a few:
Speyburn 10yo - very nice honest single malt, on par with $30-40 whiskies, that can't sell at $20
Tullibardine 18yo (old regime) - couldn't sell at $50 for a few years, great clean, ex-bourbon whisky.
Fettercairn - quirky but with personality, the K&L XM bottle was very very good.
Glen Ord - loved a CS ADR, MAO wrote about it. Soft and distinctive
Mannochmore - had a delicious Blackadder 10yo CS last year
Royal Brackla - a great GM CS, Binny's exclusive
Miltonduff - loved the Cask Strength Edition last year - reviewed by Mao as well.
I'll stop here.

So I'm not going to argue with you Sku, I'm fine with them staying underrated and off people's radar.

Scratch what I wrote, here's my new underrated list: Ardbeg, Glenmorangie, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich, Brora, Port Ellen, Clynelish.

Mark said...

As for Wild Turkey - I'm not crazy about Kentucky Spirit. The RR Single Barrel is one of my favorites, the 101 is as reliable a "budget" pick as you'll find in my book, and the 101 Rye is back (in limited quantities, but yeah not a fan of the "normal" rye being 81 proof now).

All that being said, Wild Turkey's profile generally just seems to suit my palate more than most people.

Tim Read said...

@Sku I'll defend the underrated on the basis that they should be in the Glenlivet/Glenfiddich/Macallan tier of popular awareness and are not. Quality, affordable, accessible, consistent, with a touch of unpretentiously pretentious luxury. It works. They're great.

I think everyone (in whisky nerd-com) knows they are great at the top end. I think a lot of people forget the lower end of the range is really great. It's easy to lose sight of that when the focus on them is 40+y bottlings and Family Casks. The 21 is $110-120! That's a screaming deal for a great whiskey. The 15 and 17 are totally reasonable. Rephrase it as "the standard range is underrated" perhaps, but there's such a rush to find the next thing that Glenfarclas just gets forgotten. I'm as guilty as the next guy, but come on, they're just killing year after year. So they're not unknown/undiscovered, but they still deserve a higher standing than they have, IMO.

... I've had more dodgy Port Ellens than Glenfarclases. How's that? ;)

@DD I'd have a witty comeback but I'm too drunk on this expensive gin to string it together.

sku said...

Florin, I like it. I've definitely enjoyed Glen Ord and Fettercain. I've had more mixed experience with the others, but have had precious few Tulliabardines.

Tim Read said...

I could definitely agree with Glen Ord. I don't have many noted but the ones I recall have been pretty solid. I feel similarly about Glen Elgin but there's a recent Glen Elgin that was so bad it held me back on that point.

Dg said...

Agree...

Sam Komlenic said...

Dad's Hat from Pennsylvania is the first to try reconstructing Monongahela-style rye whiskey, and even though it's currently a small barrel whiskey, the move to straight rye from standard barrels is moving forward as we speak.

Excellent white rye, great small barrel rye, and a superb vermouth barrel-finished rye now available, plus the occasional barrel-proof release.

They are distilled differently with the final product in mind, and each is bottled at a different proof to bring out the best in the bottle...and none are even close to bottom-of-the-legal-limit 80 proof.

Get yourself some!

Sam Komlenic said...

Oh, I forgot to mention the port-barrel finish, available only at the distillery. Lots going on here!

Funky Tape said...

The good stuff out of Wild Turkey unfortunately goes overseas. The 101 12 yr is truly fantastic.

Current Old Forester out if Brown-Foreman, esp the 100 prf is crazy good for the money.

I've tried 2-3 Balcones expressions and was pleased with all of them. I think the True Blue CS is great, though a bit young.

Stranahan's out of Colorado makes great young malt.

Most wheated bourbon is highly overrated, esp BTAC WL Weller. Weller 12 yr is a $20 whiskey and HH's Larceny tastes like a $2 one. You know the ass end is about to fall out when they start making a run on Larceny.

Thom said...

I think Kilchoman doesn't get the love it should - it's producing great stuff and it's released to little or no fanfare.

Florin said...

Kilchoman is everyone's darling (and rightfully so). Any more love and it gets spoiled.

Anonymous said...

I would add Delaware Phoenix, Forty Creek and Copper Fox (Wasmund's)

Delaware Phoenix makes (in my opinion) excellent whiskies (100% rye, bourbon, corn and more recently wheat) and equally excellent absinthes (Cheryl Lins is an artist!)

Copper Fox products are rather interesting and John Hall @ Forty Creek has been doing a wonderful job

Sam Komlenic said...

Goes to show how subjective taste can be. I think Larceny is a great pour at a great price...except that it's not available in the Peoples Republic of Pennsylvania.

I'll second the Delaware Phoenix recommendation, too!

t ball said...

I've enjoyed the work of Treaty Oak Distillery in Austin, though it's their gin I really love. They also make a fine rum.

Anonymous said...

I think A Smith Bowman is pretty underrated. Their John J Bowman Single Barrel and most of the Abraham Bowman limiteds are excellent. I think they only distribute to 20-25 states

Tim Davis said...

I'd vote for MB Roland as under-rated (and not well know in general, but produces small quantities). Their tobacco smoked whiskey transcends novelty and have all been excellent. Their recently released Bourbon is just fantastic.

I'd also vote for Balcones, but I don't think they are under-rated at this point.

For Scotch... Ardmore Traditional Cask. Great flavors and a great value ($25 locally) for mid-90 proof, 1/4 cask and NCF? Win-win-win.

Anonymous said...

What about Alberta Distillers LTD? A lot of their amazingly old and great tasting 100% ryes have (unfortunately?) been finding their way to the US market under some different names...

I would like to see some more of their aged stock hit the USA, in the form of straight whiskey, not the blended Canadian style of stuff.

Anonymous said...

@Sam Komlenic -- while I appreciate the shout out for a product near the offices of WA, even your own ratings have Dad's Hat as just average at this time. They need time and resources to get better. I also have two knocks against the product.

First, location, location, location. Instead of being in picturesque Upper Bucks, they are located in the shadows of the old Rhom & Haas / Dow Chemical plant in Bristol, PA.

Secondly, much like Larceny, their product is not available on a national basis. We do not have access to it here in FL which is a fairly open state when it comes to liquor laws.

As a person who enjoys rye whiskeys, I would enjoy nothing better than to see this company and product do well. However, at this time I would rather have a bottle of Rittenhouse 100 BiB at a lower price and readily available now in this market.

Anonymous said...

As for underrated distilleries, I am surprised that no one has yet to mention any of the Japanese distilleries. Do not think any of them get much coverage in ratio to the quality of the product they produce. Their products are not cheap, nor are they of low quality.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous (May 13, 2014 at 1:32 PM) -- in agreement on Alberta. Would love to see their stuff down here in the States. Have had their ryes on numerous occasions and have always found them to be quite enjoyable.

Justin said...

@anon: Japanese whiskies are truly great stuff and, in some ways meritorious of an "underrated" designation. However, all Japanese whisky available in my neck of the woods makes single malt scotch prices look cheap. So much for being underrated in my book!

Sam Komlenic said...

Anony, I appreciate your thoughts, and must let you know that I don't chime in on blogs as a representative of the magazine. These are just my own thoughts, which don't necessarily jibe with those of the reviewers.

That said, Lew recently wrote in his column that the standard Dad's Hat bottling had gotten better since his initial review, which came in at an 81 in 2012 (the same score that our Craft Whiskey of the Year had that same year). There are still few craft brands that have really risen to the top tier in the Buying Guide. I suppose it's still a factor of the short aging that's associated with most.

I'm not familiar with any craft whiskeys that are fully available nationwide. We can get dismally few here in PA, and they tend to be more regional anyway, based mostly on production and distribution capacity, which, like most small distillers, they don't have a tremendous amount of.

Also not sure why their physical location should necessarily correlate to the quality of the product. They're using Bucks County-sourced grain regardless, and plenty of other highly regarded craft distillers and brewers are located in industrial park-type facilities.

I also applaud their moving steadily to large barrel aging, and I think that will pay off for them in a couple of years. They could label it as straight whiskey now (at 2 years old), but choose to keep aging until it gets where they want it to be.

Plus, were I a reviewer, their Vya vermouth-finished expression would have gotten my Craft Whiskey of the Year award for 2013, but that's just me, and maybe my limited ability to purchase a lot of crafts.

I came of age drinking Pennsylvania rye decades ago, watched it disappear and now tentatively return. Though I have a bottle of Rittenhouse in the cabinet (and Wild Turkey 101 rye, and High West Double Rye, among others) I keep a Dad's Hat right next to it, which will insure that the small, local guys remain capitalized and can eventually bring the product quality to where it can be...to where all of these small distillers really WANT it to be.

By buying Dad’s Hat and other craft spirits that matter (and yes, there are those that don’t) I’m making an investment in a diverse American distilling future that will benefit us all, even those of you who may not feel that small investment is worth making at present.

mbroo5880i said...

Interesting topic. I typically think of smaller producers like Smooth Ambler and Willett as unrated. But, few of us have had the opportunity to taste their distillate. Everything to this point has been produced by someone else. However, I often prefer these selections over higher priced or limited release options from known distillers. If their own products match their tastes in others, then we will soon have additional underrated distilleries.

While the Heaven Hill is neither under or over rated, I do believe they have select products that are underrated by the general bourbon buyer (read not geeks who are in the know). For example, Evan Williams Single Barrel and Larceny. A lot of people walk right past these in their quest for Pappy or BTAC, and then back past them to pick up something with a flashy bottle or label when they strike out on Pappy or BTAC.

sku said...

Mbroo, great point on Smooth Ambler. While I haven't had the stuff they make themselves (Yearling), there Old Scout, distilled at MGP, is getting better and better.

Funny you should mention Evan Williams Single Barrel as I would consider it one of the more overrated whiskeys. The critics always seem to love it, but I've had very few that I consider at all impressive.

Funky Tape said...

True, many of these smaller companies don't have nationwide distribution...nor can you buy stuff like W12 or Larceny everywhere. But there are so many online stores which are very competive that practically anything can be found. W12 is essentially non-existent here, but I've bought dozens of bottles for our local group at prices lower than where you can buy it off the shelf in a well-allocated market.

Seems to me that if the underrated guys want to compete, they're going to not only produce quality booze, but they're going to have to master their online presence as well.

Anonymous said...

@sku -- while EWSB might be a bit overhyped/overrated, at least it is at a price point which does not dent the pocketbook too much which allows folks at least an opportunity to give it a try. It is also readily in stock, at least in the shops I frequent. Compared to those on your overrated list, this is not even close.

forego is my witness said...

I'm not as expert as most of you here, but I'd like to toss in Wathen's. Their Old Medley 12yo has really grown on me. Last night I opened up my third bottle and it's really a delight. Wathen's single barrel is also really dangerously drinkable.

JR said...

Osocalis

sku said...

JR, Osocalis is great, but I was thinking whiskey here. Brandy i the opposite situation. Pretty much every good brandy distillery is underrated.

My Annoying Opinions said...

I assume you mean "underrated by whisky geeks"--almost every distillery is underrated by the general whisky buying populace. And I assume you accept that "underrated" is consistent with "respected".

In the first category, I'd put in another vote for Glen Ord and Glencadam. And possibly for Longmorn and Tamdhu as well. Proof of how underrated Glen Ord is can be seen in the fact that the very excellent 30 yo from the 2005 Diageo annual release can still be found for $150 in the US.

In the latter, I'd nominate Bowmore, who are very well known, of course, but whose malt from the 1990s on still suffers from the FWP meme but is almost always very, very good. Similarly, Caol Ila doesn't get the respect it deserves--it has a good reputation but it's still highly underrated, neither as loudly touted as Ardbeg or Bruichladdich nor as iconic as Laphroaig or Lagavulin.

Glenfarclas, I think, is properly rated. The 105, the 15, 17, 21 and 25 are all beloved of plenty of whisky geeks.

My Annoying Opinions said...

Oh, and I meant to mention Tomatin as well. Everyone raves about the 1976 "vintage" but their regular line, especially the 12 and 18 are excellent value for money, and the 18 is very good. And the 30 yo is very good as well, and priced far more reasonably than 25 yos from most distilleries.