Comparison: Two Wine Casked Single Malts – Aberfeldy 18 Year + Courage & Conviction Cuvée

ABERFELDY 18 YEAR
Batch 2920 finished in Pauillac Bordeaux Casks (2020)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 86

AGE – 18 years

DISTILLERY – John Dewar & Sons

PRICE – $114 (slightly discounted from its $120 msrp)

COURAGE & CONVICTION
Nancy Fraley Batch aged in cuvée casks (2021)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 92

AGE – 3+ years

DISTILLERY – Virginia Distillery Co.

PRICE – $64 (on sale from $87)

My first taste of Aberfeldy was in the Summer of 2017, in Sweden of all places. I was there for a theater festival in Norrköping, a medium-sized city just a short train ride from Stockholm. At a pub with a couple of my fellow American theater colleagues, I tried the Aberfeldy 21 Year. I recall it now as a glass of sunlit honey. Later that night I also had my first taste of Thomas H. Handy at our hotel’s bar. It was €30 a pour. I had two!

The fiery Handy made a stronger impression than the genteel Aberfeldy 21 Year, and had a stronger effect. Eventually we’d all had enough that I was able to convince my colleagues—all very serious and respected Bay Area artists—to re-enact the drinking contest from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lowbrow and highbrow art have seldom met so well, nor in a suburban Swedish hotel bar. All it took was whisky.

Remembering that honeyed Aberfeldy 21 Year, in the Fall of 2017 I brought a bottle of Aberfeldy 12 Year to my actor friend Rebekah Brockman’s apartment in Brooklyn, where for three nights we held a D.I.Y. workshop of one of my plays with two other actors. The characters were drinking, and so we did too. Rather than getting drunk under the table we got on the tables.

That’s the last time I’d had Aberfeldy until picking up this 18 Year release, bottled in 2020 but still gathering a bit of dust on a local store’s shelf in early 2022. Between now and that first taste back in 2017, I’ve had many more scotch whiskies. However, the vast majority have been from independent bottlers like Hunter Laing or Alexander Murray. That means most of the scotch I’ve explored have been single barrels, aged anywhere from 10 to 52 years, bottled at cask strength, not chill filtered and without added color. In other words, most of my scotch experience is not with mainstream scotch. Even the Caol Ila and Highland Park I’ve enjoyed, two quintessential mainstream brands, have been circuitously delivered by independent bottlers, with specs that would have had those bottles priced at double or triple the tab I paid had they come directly from their makers.

When I have had mainstream scotch, usually proofed down to somewhere in the 80s and inevitably with added color, I have often picked up on a kind of plastic note. I’ve gotten it with some mainstream Japanese and Irish whisk(e)ys as well, like Nikka Single Malt Yoichi and Mitchell & Son’s Red Spot.

I’ve wondered if this plastic note comes from the added color—the debate on whether added color adds taste is forever open ended. Whatever the cause, it’s not a selling point. Why buy mainstream when the side-streams are cheaper and often better?

But this 2020 Aberfeldy release had received excellent reviews, including high honors from Whiskey Advocate magazine, which ranked it #10 in their top 20 whiskeys of 2020. Other notable review sources, like Drink Hacker and Wine Enthusiast, also ranked it highly. So I gave it a go. At uncorking, alas, it had that darn plastic note…

As for the Courage & Conviction Cuvée, it’s my fourth outing with Virginia Distillery in the past year and a half or so. The first came recommended to me by a reader of this blog, and was the 2020 “Dr. George G. Moore” batch release. It made a strong impression. Then came the “Dr. Jim Swan” release, which blended just slightly older whiskeys and made an even stronger impression. What Virginia Distillery was accomplishing in just 3 to 4 years was exceptional. Their fine blending of whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry, and cuvée casks achieved a level of maturity in flavor that thoroughly belied the whisky’s youth.

Around the time of the Jim Swan release, Virginia Distillery began to release Courage & Conviction’s three components—the bourbon, sherry, and cuvée casks—individually. I picked up a bottle of the Bourbon Cask release while I still had some of the Jim Swan on hand, and did a comparison. They tasted very similar. I regretted not also having samples of the Sherry and Cuvée releases on hand as well. But at $80 msrp per bottle, it would be a steep investment. And given the Bourbon Cask release didn’t taste remarkably unique compared to the Jim Swan blend, a full side-by-side didn’t seem worth the expense.

But when the Cuvée release went on sale at a local shop, I thought why not? I can’t compare it with its siblings. But when I uncorked it I immediately noticed stronger red fruit notes than my sense memory recalled from previous Courage & Conviction bottlings. And, to my surprise, my sense memory also called up the recently uncorked Aberfeldy 18 Year, minus the plastic note.

And so here we are. Two single malt whiskies, one a big-name scotch and the other from a small American craft distillery. Very different in age and terroir, slightly different in proof, both influenced by red wine casks, one old school mainstream and one new school craft. The Aberfeldy has been open three weeks and I’m five pours in, and the Cuvée has been open two weeks and I’m three pours in. These brief notes were taken using traditional Glencairns.

COLOR

ABERFELDY – lovely variations on apricot

CUVÉE – lovely variations on sienna

BOTH – they are very similar, with the younger whisky showing itself a notch darker

NOSE

ABERFELDY – fresh and baked Summer orchard fruits, marzipan, white pepper, soft vanilla-caramel, that faint plastic note, a dry dusty quality, old with a good stylist

CUVÉE – fresh and stewed Summer orchard fruits, baked banana, some freshly crushed herbs, cashew, vanilla custard drizzled with caramel, a wet syrupy quality, young but mature

TASTE

ABERFELDY – a rich sweet and gooey caramel sauce poured over fresh red berries and stone fruits like peach and nectarine

CUVÉE – peaches and white nectarines baked into a pie with a lightly herbed cornmeal crust

FINISH

ABERFELDY – the caramel, stone fruits, black pepper now, and that plastic running parallel to oak tannins

CUVÉE – the herbed pie crust with dark caramelized sugars and some oak tannin

OVERALL

ABERFELDY – still charismatic but one senses the forced effort of its later years

CUVÉE – fruity, sweet, savory, and intriguing beyond its years

WORTH BUYING?

ABERFELDY – Ultimately no

CUVÉE – Yes, especially on sale

For all the reasons that these two whiskies are so different, this is a very interesting comparison—because they taste remarkably similar!

It’s really quite surprising. How can two whiskies from opposite ends of the world, aged many years apart and in drastically different terroirs, be so alike? The red wine cask connection can’t even explain it. In the Aberfeldy’s case, it’s French Bordeaux casks used to finish the whisky only toward the final few months of its 18 years, most of which were spent in a combination of first fill bourbon, refill and re-char casks (according to intel from The Whiskey Wash). With the Courage & Conviction Cuvée, the whisky spent its entire 3-4 years in unnamed European red wine casks that had been shaved, re-toasted and re-charred. Even if the Cuvée casks hailed from the Bordeaux region, the process they were put through revitalizes them in a distinct way from the Aberfeldy’s finishing casks.

Four other notable distinctions are (1) the ages, 18 versus 3+ years; (2) the Aberfeldy adds coloring and the Cuvée does not; (3) the Cuvée is not chill filtered and the Aberfeldy is; (4) the Cuvée is bottled at a slightly more robust proof by 6 points over the Aberfeldy.

I can smell the age difference on the nose. The Aberfeldy is immediately drier and dustier, the Cuvée sweeter and more syrupy. Both show oak tannins, but the Aberfeldy pairs them with that inexplicable plastic note. Both are easy drinking, yet the Aberfeldy feels somehow effortful in its ability to entertain as compared to the Cuvée, which rolls forward with greater momentum and ease. They are like a parent and child who have lived apart—family, but distanced by time, space, and circumstance.

Based on taste, I wouldn’t choose between them or rank one “better” than the other. Though similar, they nevertheless offer different qualities. Based on a price-to-experience ratio, I’d side with Courage & Conviction without question. I’ve had more exciting well-aged scotch whiskies than this Aberfeldy, at similar, lesser, and higher prices. But few young American single malts achieve what Courage & Conviction does in any of its handful of offerings.

Well, this has been a grand comparison touching on many issues at once—age, region, process, value. If I can conclude anything from it, it’s that my reticence to plunk down the cash for mainstream scotch is again validated. I just can’t justify it when the wide whisk(e)y world offers so many options.

Cheers!

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