Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: Auchentoshan Three Wood Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Well, I guess I find myself eating crow or humble pie (depending on which side of the pond you find yourself on).

You see, I wrote a review of a couple bottles of Auchentoshan.  Specifically, the 12, Three Wood and the 18 (click here).  I was not gentle in my opinion. And I stand by it with respect to the super mediocre Auchentoshan 12 and the shamefully overpriced and uninspiring 18.  But, I erred with respect to my comments concerning Auchentoshan Three Wood.

The Three Wood I had tasted was musty, of damp wood, bilge water, black coffee and pickled beets.  My whisky club friends agreed that the Three Wood was . . well . . . pretty dreadful stuff.  And guess what?  The bottle we had was terrible.

So, where am I going with this?

I received many comments on the Auchentoshan review I posted, and a fellow "JK" suggested that maybe, just maybe, I had a flawed bottle of Three Wood.  JK is in Los Angeles and also belongs to a whisky club.  Other comments he has made on this blog suggests that he knows quite a bit about whisky.  Bottom line:  I respect this dude's opinion, and when he tells me that maybe I got a flawed bottle, I gave it some serious thought.  To ignore JK's opinion is up there with dismissing out-of-hand Ben Bernanke's public musings on the direction of interest rates.

Accordingly, I inspected the Three Wood bottle I had.  There was no cork floating around in it.  There was no bad odour.  Just that damn mustiness on the palate.  Tasting of bad wood.  The master distiller at Auchentoshan could not have blessed this bottle, I thought.   Well, there was only one way to find out.

I drove like a maniac back to the liquor store, squealed to a stop, hopped out clutching the bottle, original receipt, some serious attitude, and tried to push open the entrance doors, but they parted automatically like the Red Sea, so I stumbled through like an idiot.  Moses would not be impressed.

Stocking a shelf was a pot bellied, 50ish, seriously grey haired, ex-hippie judging by his hair pulled back into an unkempt ponytail, yellow stained fingers, black tee-shirt, and jeans.  He had some tats on his knuckles too.  He was kinda of a what you would get if you crossed Ron Jeremy with Jerry Garcia, if such a same-sex mating was possible in some bizarre alternate universe.

"I want to exchange this bottle.  It's flawed," I said.


"It's flawed," I repeated.  Somebody's short term memory is seriously gone.

"Whadya mean it's flawed?" said Mr. Cannabis.

"It tastes bad.  Musty."  I was gonna add that it tasted like cat pee, but I feared he would ask:  How do you know what cat pee tastes like?"

"I never heard of scotch going bad," Captain Bud replied.

"Well, it's bad.  Taste it.  Check it out.  I just want another bottle."   I thought about hitting him over the head with it, pulling the cork and shoving it in his mouth for a taste.  I mean what's the harm?  He wouldn't remember the experience an hour later.  But, wisdom got the better of me and I continued the highbrow banter.

"So, you don't want your money back."

"No.  Just another bottle."

There was a painful pause.

He scratched his retro Yasser Arafat/Bjorn Borg, five-day old beard and continued his painfully slow thought process.

"Okay, I can do that."

. . .

Back home, free of Mr. Hippie, I settled into my lazy-boy, poured a dram of Auchentoshan Three Wood and was pleasantly surprised.  The mustiness and beet preserves on the palate were gone.

Nose (undiluted)
Peat and floral.  Really floral.  Fragrant.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet, smooth entry of chocolate, hazelnuts, malty notes, with oak and subtle orange rind.

Finish (undiluted)
Sherry/raisin, black grapes and peat.  Some black coffee.

General Impressions
The Auchentoshan Three Wood price point where I live is $63.  Too much.  If this was $44, I would be all over this malt like a bra on Salma Hayek.  Anyhow, at this price point, I feel I am paying too much.  I require more complexity and refinement.  That being said,  this is a good, decent malt that is pleasing.  It delivers its constituent flavors of oak, malt, milk chocolate with a zing of peat and orange rind quite well.  Kinda reminds me of a really good, well put together blended scotch.

Flawed Whisky
We should all remember that whisky is an organic compound that is susceptible to damage due to excessive heat, light, maybe cold, broken seal, air or bad cork.  When you get a bad bottle, it may not be readily apparent.  If it tastes seriously bad, maybe it is flawed.  Err on the side of caution and take it back to your retailer and tell them you don't want your money back but rather another bottle.  Usually as soon as they hear that you don't want a refund, you are representing to them that you are not some sort of a scammer.  If they still resist tell them that hey, you paid good money for a product that is defective.  The primary function of whisky is to deliver great flavor.  If you buy a TV that doesn't work, what do you do?  You return it.  And that is just what you are doing with a bottle of defective whisky.  Moreover, they can get a credit from the sales rep for the distillery so that they are not out of pocket.  How can they argue with that?

Quality Assurance Issues?
What makes me hesitant to buy another bottle is the past experience of a friend of mine with the Three Wood.  James bought a bottle a couple of years ago and regarded that experience as contributing to one of the worst single malts he ever tasted.  James, I must say, is not a fussy single malt consumer.  He's your average joe consumer.  He tends to like it all with rare exception.  So, was his bottle from a couple of years ago flawed too?  I dunno.

All this talk makes me think of Woodford Reserve, a bourbon that had problems a few years ago with quality assurance.  Lots of flawed bottles were making it to market.  I bought one so I have direct knowledge of this.  Click here for a discussion thread on the Whisky Magazine Forum on this issue.  Apparently, Woodford Reserve has addressed this problem.

So, the $64,000 question is:  Are there any significant quality assurance issues with Auchentoshan Three Wood, or just my bad luck?

If you have had the misfortune of a bad bottle, post a comment and let me know.

In any event, I like the current bottle of Three Wood I have in front of me this evening.  And, I like it more when I can pick it up at a good price.  This is not earth shatteringly good whisky.  It's the Teacher's Highland Cream of single malts.  What I mean is it's good single malt to chill out with.  Put that brain in neutral and watch TV, stare at the beach, read a book.  Listen to some Jerry Garcia too, but no, do not imbibe in this and watch any film featuring Ron Jeremy!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission, except photographs of Ron Jeremy and Jerry Garcia.  Those photographs are reproduced here pursuant to a Creative Commons License.  Specifically, photograph of Jerry Garcia was taken by Carl Lender.  Photograph of Ron Jeremy was taken by Nate Igor Smith.  Note:  All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.  Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.


  1. So the store took back an opened bottle? That's pretty cool of them. I'm sure if I walked into my local liquor store and asked for a different bottle because I said it was flawed, I'd be told they couldn't do an exchange.

    1. That's unfortunate.

      The sales guy was also persuaded by the fact that the bottle was more than 3/4 full. It wasn't a case of me trying to get a new bottle with the one I was returning half gone.

      Other reputable retailers will do exchanges, as they should. The deal is you pay a lot of money for their product. If they sell a defective product, they should take it back and give you another one in order to uphold their end of the bargain/contract.

      Now, we should not return a bottle simply because we don't like the taste. It has to be flawed, and that is the rub. Sometimes it is hard to know when a bottle is flawed.

  2. Jason, You may have beaten the odds in two ways on this second bottle. First, your liquor purveyor is someone one looking past just one sale, not always something one encounters. Second, you may have obtained a second bottle from the same "batch" or shipper's pallet from the supply chain but you got one NOT similarly infected with wood or cork taint. Cork infections seem to run in batches, as might those bottlings sourced from a barrel infection. I'm envious too; I've never tried to return a spirit before, though have done so with wine, several times. JK

  3. I'm amazed this doesn't happy more often but modern production techniques seem pretty reliable. The only incidence I've experienced was with a bottle of Talisker that was off the scale in peaty taste. Something had gone wrong being the standard bottle and having the opportunity to compare it against another bottle. Great, that the store swapped it. I guess they had plenty of bottles on the shelf after your last review!!

  4. Jason, Last evening at our local pub (Brendan's, Camarillo). I bought a round for our whisky group as we watched the LA Kings skate. We weighed in on the Auchentoshan Three Wood: Nose - Taffy, caramel and dried fig, hints of coconut and cooked breakfast cereals. Palate - cocoa, coconut, almond, lemon, beets; fat and syrupy in texture. Finish - caramel, milk, very grain-heavy flavor, slightly bitter; not particularly long or satisfying. Luckily not flawed, but not my style. Cheers. JK

    1. I have heard from many readers that it is not their style either. It's a decent malt, but not great by any means.

  5. Hello Jason !
    First of all I like humor You put in this story.
    Your expedition to store, adventure with door and whole conversation, which was illustrated with 3 photos. Musician, porn actor and politician. What a trio ha ha ha
    Very funny and clever.
    Second - You have my respect, that You try to be fair and objective in Your opinions. After bad notes about above whiskey, You did not forget about it, but You try to stay positive,try to stay on bright side of shadow, try to find reason for bad testing, other then distillery.
    I did not taste this whiskey, but I drunk Auch 12 and 18. Fortunately, it was in a bars and after that I am not interesting to try this one :)

    1. This world needs more humor and less negativity, and if it can be achieved in a whisky tasting note, so much the better.

      thanks for commenting!

  6. Well, between this retraction(?) and Chip Dykstra's review over at The Rum Howler, I'm going to have to update my own entry again!

    Regardless, I admire your journalistic independence and integrity on this issue. While there is always subjectivity and differences between palates when it comes to whisky tasting, I'm glad you gave it another shot (pun intended).

    While some of the other comments have indicated surprised that the store took the open bottle back, it shouldn't be all that surprising. To quote the LCBO's policy on returns:

    "How do I return a defective product?
    The LCBO Quality Assurance Department is committed to providing the highest quality beverage alcohol products available. All products listed must be laboratory tested prior to appearing on store shelves. And it doesn't stop there. Products are continually monitored by our lab even after they reach our stores. By bringing a problem to our attention, you are assisting the LCBO in maintaining these high standards.

    If you feel you have purchased a defective product from the LCBO, you may return the product to any LCBO store for a full refund. No receipt is necessary in this situation. When a defective product is returned, the pertinent information is forwarded to the LCBO’s Quality Assurance Department. If the problem is serious and widespread, the department may order a product withdrawal across the province.

    Return of a faulty product must indicate immediate discovery. Defective returns will not be accepted when the majority of product is absent from packaging."

    How are you to know if it is defective if it hasn't been opened and partially consumed?

    1. Similar customer service principles exist at New Brunswick Liquor Corp. While I often complain about state owned liquor stores, in Canada, they do seem to handle defective products efficiently and fairly.

  7. Hi Jason,
    I'm not that surprised to read about the big diferrences between bottles. I have recently bought a second bottle of Isle of Jura 16 year old, as it was keenly priced and the new bottle is much darker in colour than the previous one (bought at the same shop, within three months).
    More worryingly, I also just replaced an almost empty bottle of Old Pulteney 12y, and it has also been darkened in colour and reduced from 43 to 40% alcohol. I haven't compared them yet, but it's hard to imagine this being an improvement.

    Cheers, Boris

    1. I reviewed Old Pultney 12 a while ago and I found it to be very unexceptional, disappointing and well, I didn't like it. Mind you, I reviewed the 40% abv bottling. Other people really rave about it. I could never understand. Sounds like variation from batch to batch may play a role.

      When a malt is much darker than the last bottle of it you bought, you gotta wonder if the distillery heaped a bunch of caramel colorant into it?

      As you probably know, single malts are more susceptible to variation between batches than blends.

      Any how, it is really impressive how Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12 has been so consistent in flavor profile over the years.

  8. Oh I don't doubt it's coloured with caramel, because the label says so. The shop where I get my whiskies gets most of their stock through Germany and there they have to mention it on the label. The shocking thing is that the colour difference is at least two tones darker.
    I just checked the Old Pulteney site and they still state 43%, but you can see on the bottle thats pictured that is says 40%, so I guess that proves there is a lot of mixing and changing going on.
    I'm going to try to get hold of an older bottle and exchange it. It's hard to see why we should be paying the same amount for a lesser product...


  9. From your description of the flavors of the "bad" bottle, it seems to me that the culprit was likely TCA, or tricholoroanisole, a compound generated by fungus that can infect cork wood. As a winemaker I can assure you that this is a problem we worry about constantly. TCA, aka cork taint, has a high affinity for alcohol, and a very low sensory threshold (as low as 2 parts per billion). With the higher alcohol of Scotch, not to mention the delicate aromas, it's a wonder we don't hear about this problem more often.

    In the US, returned cork-tainted wines would be accepted by any reputable retailer, who would know they could simply pass it back to their distributor (who would pass the cost on back to the winery, who may even ask the cork supplier for a refund), but far too many consumers aren't willing to make the return, alas.

    Also, at lower levels (or at higher levels for less sensitive noses), TCA simply deadens the aromas. Nothing smells bad, exactly, there's just not much to smell. So a wine, or a malt, might just taste simple and dumb, rather than bad, with the producer, rather than the closure, blamed. As a producer, this is the nightmare scenario! At least with full-blown TCA the consumer knows something is wrong!

    1. Thanks for the expert knowledge on this issue.

      I do agree with you that consumers are hesitant to return wine or spirits if it is flawed. I think most people do not like confrontation or being accused of scamming, but there should be no such accusations. Fact is that quality assurance is never 100% in any industry, and the alcoholic beverages business is no exception.

  10. Hello Jason,

    It will sound a little off-topic but, reading about ABV differences of Old Pulteney described in the comments, came in mind a doubt I have a long time about Highland Park 12 ABV. The one sold in USA is 43%, in Europe is 40%. Is there a legal reason about that difference depending on the country?

    Because I have both bottles, and for me, the 43% has more flavours. And I have to always ask for the US version.

    Best regards,


  11. Just bought a bottle today, and I must say it has a wonderful nose and palate. The one thing that detracts, for me, is that the legs are so thin as to be next to non-existent.

  12. lovely wee dram !! i live in glasgow were its distilled but have never tried it until today, beats glenfidich 12 and 15 years hands down , very smooth and pungent.

  13. It sits in the mid - $90's down here in Aus. Having tried the lovely Glenmorangie Nector & Q.R.... Gee even the Aussie Starward and Hellyers Rd whiskys (bloody nice) are heaps better value

    AL (from OZ)