Queen Persephone’s Eau de Cologne: The Classic Cask 40 Year Old Single Batch Scotch Whisky Blend

ClassicCask40.jpgGood Scotch can be expensive, and, typically, the older it is, the higher the price. Are these upscale libations worth it? While I can’t answer that question for you, I can, when distributors and agents are generous enough to send me samples of their rarest and most exclusive bottlings, scrutinize, probe and appraise their product and render an opinion.

As a drinker inordinately preoccupied with independent bottlers, I find the current trend of such bottlers to create their own distinctive, high end blends both exciting and instructive. The good folks behind The Exclusive Malts line have proven, twice now, that they know how to do it. Let’s see what the good people behind Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line have wrought with this exclusive forty year old blend…

The Whisky

Here’s what I’ve heard and read from various sources.

This blend is 80 percent malt and 20 percent grain.

Every constituent, malt and grain, was distilled in 1972 and cask matured for 25 years, then vatted together in newly selected casks and matured for another 15 years, at which point those casks were themselves vatted and the ensuing blend bottled. 1,800 bottles resulted. For a blend, that is very limited.

It has been bottled at 43 percent ABV and, I suspect, as it is the common practice of this independent bottler, the whisky has undergone no chill-filtration and has had no misleading caramel coloring added.

Which is not to say it ain’t dark. It is very dark, a deep amber color with a dark mauve blush. The legs are thinish, numerous and slower/more viscous than one might expect at this ABV.

You can learn more about this bottle and its bottler here: http://www.spiritimportsinc.com/index2.php#!/HOME

Nose

Oh, man Oh man!

A cedar chest filled with crushed fresh cherries.

Leather tanned with raison oil.

Dried apricots, currants and banana chips on a small oak table where half a satchel of cut, moist, aromatic pipe tobacco has spilled.

Flat birch beer soda served in an unvarnished cup carved from tidal river drift wood.

A recently showered woman’s hands cupping shelled walnuts, oak pollen and lemon verbena.

Dried varnish on a brass goblet filled with Amontillado sherry.

Fresh pomegranate juice spilled on a recently sanded oak floor.

This is the perfume the goddess Persephone splashes between her breasts and below her navel as she prepares to rise from the heat of Hades back to a warming earth’s surface, bringing the nutrient-charged soils of Spring in her wake.

Really? Well, maybe not, but still…

What an abundantly rich, elegant, generous, measured nose! Measured, but not fastidious or shy. Measured as in presenting a perfectly balanced, broad array of many of the richer, more gratifying aromas this planet and good spirits have to offer. This is without question one of the most lavishly enchanting and sophisticated, multifarious and balmy bouquets I’ve ever experienced rising above a Glencairn nosing glass. 25/25

Palate

Again, it is the balance of riches that focuses the mind.

This sumptuous tipple is both pleasantly sweet and pleasantly dry. I’m not saying that for affect – it’s true!

It has a cooling sweet center and a rounded, warming, mouth-watering prickle that bathes the sides and underside of the tongue in a pleasant, measured mix of baking spices.

The sherry casks are more prominent in the palate than on the nose, but the honey and caramel of American white oak are also here along with a flow of liquefied dried fruits – citrus, yes, but also dried stone fruits, a bit of apricot and even a trickle of honeydew melon.

And a whisper of the taste of fresh baked oat bread.

Really, folks, this is astounding stuff. I hate to be the one to tell you, but this $400 blend is worth every penny.

Twice as good as the $200 Johnnie Walker Blue? I’d say yes. And that may even be an understatement, an undervaluation of the depth of quality of this Classic Cask blend.

This splendid potation is 40 years old and, while there is some dusty oak influence in the nose, this is not overly woody in the least. It gives absolutely no indication that it was over-aged. Not by a week!

Unfortunately, I can’t afford this bottle for myself, but I can and must admit that it is well worth the asking price. 24/25

Finish

Not overwhelming, not underwhelming.

This whisky takes its time finishing.

Only the most liquid sweetnesses remain and only at the first stage.

The sherry dryness and the spice take over after that, making this finish long, lingering, dry and spicy – and yet, despite those last descriptors, I would still say this libation is richly well-rounded.

I did not say “smooth” because that’s a ridiculously vague and overused word in whisky reviews that either means nothing or means something different to nearly everybody.

The finish is the only aspect of this wondrous elixir where the thought of extraordinary balance doesn’t immediately arise. 22/25

Balance/Structure

I don’t believe I’ve ever used the word, nor implied the concept of, “balance” so often in a review. As I’ve already said, this is truly astounding stuff. Its structure is clear. This whisky is the result of an experienced master blender putting everything he/she knows into a no-holds-barred blend. And this whisky is also the very successful result of balancing the characteristics of American ex-bourbon casks and French ex-sherry casks together in a manner that keeps those characteristics both balanced and distinct. Really, with fruit and honey, citrus and nuts, leather and tobacco, dried and fresh fruits, wine, mixed spices and pomegranates, a bit of soil and a smidgen of rose petals wafting on the breeze, nearly all the desirable notes of great Scotch are represented in this blend. Even the buzz one gets is both luxurious and refined. The only categorical omission that I can perceive is the lack of even the slightest suggestion of smoke. No mint or menthol, either (or were there? Hhmmm)… In any case, it’s quite obvious that smoke wasn’t a note this blender was aiming to include. I’m sure that’s true – but, still, that’s a challenge for this blender that remains, to add touches of peat smoke while maintaining a balance with all of the other elements that are already so distinctly present. Impossible? Maybe, and maybe even probably. But, don’t ya know, in a perfect world… 24/25

Total Points for this whisky: 95

A very special thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer and to Spirit Imports, Inc. for the samples.

A Fine Full Day in a Dram: Chieftain’s Glentauchers 1992 20 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

2014_07_09_22.40.28__76938.1405292116.1280.1280Life is good. That is a proposition that hadn’t occurred to me for months. There is so much stress and so little free time in my current situation – working a full time research and editing job, booking and promoting musicians and bands for a struggling venue I bought with friends about a year ago, renovating a house built in 1880, inside and out, down to the original studs and shingles, and taking on the responsibilities of a general contractor for the first time in my life, and so on and so on and so on and on… So busy, I declare, that I haven’t had sufficient leisure to make time for whisky, friends or reflection.

All that changed last Friday night. I made plans to visit with some of my old Ethanolics Club chums back in Massachusetts – let’s call them Bikram, Tom and Patrick (because those are their names!) – as well as with some newbies to the club – let’s call them Deepak and Nitish.

It is always good to meet up with old friends and to meet new people who share a common passion, and that was surely the case that night. Still, for me, the core experience of that gathering, the aspect of it that glowed most warmly and with such unstinting radiance, was the brimming generosity – of both spirit and spirits – displayed by all present. Some of the best whiskies I’ve ever drunk in my life were, in fact, drunk that night. An exquisite older bottling of a 15 year old Lochside, a luxurious 16 year old Laphroaig, a cool and very fine 18 year old Caol Ila, a fertile and sumptuous 25 year old Highland Park – each from a different independent bottler – were among the riches offered so freely that night. Good conversation and good food, great whisky and great friends… As I was driving away, circumspectly as you might guess, to stay at the home of another deeply generous soul – let’s call him Brad – I kept repeating something of which I was so glad to be reminded: Life is good. And indeed it is. Life is… Good!

The Whisky

I’ll tell you right up front, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I wish I had had it in hand to bring to my old and new friends that night. The bottle is very limited – only 265 bottles from a single cask – but it’s still around if you dig hard enough. I dug and I found it.

You can learn more about the distillery here: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/glentauchers.html.

And you can learn more about this storied independent bottler here: http://www.ianmacleod.com/brands/chieftains.

This particular single malt is quite light in color considering its advanced age; the color of white oak tears, perhaps.

With an ABV of 59.5% – after 20 years in an ex-bourbon hogshead! – you’ll want to get your distilled water ready right at the start; if you skip that step, the biting alcohol will overpower and conceal much that this dram has to offer.

The legs are narrow, both fast and slow, but mostly slow, and promising.

Nose

Rose petals macerated in ethereal rum oil sprinkled with cinnamon and oak bark dust.

Big Red gum dampened with a drop or two of Afrin nasal spray (Oxymetazoline).

Wildflower (“drier” than clover) honey blended with Japanese curry.

Or perhaps the spice is chat masala, made with coriander, cumin, dried red chile peppers and a touch of amchoor, but little salt and almost no black pepper.

Which is not to say this is too spicy: It is not. The spice rides over the soft warm fruit of this redolent dram like a warm breeze over supple, sunbathing flesh.

There’s just the slightest note of smoke, like the wet earthy energy that rises off fire-roasted tomatoes – but without the crushed tomato smell.

All of the above revealed itself with a bit of water. It is all a bit hotter and hidden if you nose it uncut.

Good complexity with some unusual, unexpected elements. 23/25

Palate

Straight, this nearly 120 proof elixir pulls no punches, but stings and numbs the tongue and lower gums.

Still, a wholesome wave of non-citric fruits poached in liquefied honey crystals pushes through the fire.

Add several drops of water and you get slices of ripe cantaloupe melon floating in light sugar and agave syrup.

And you notice a pleasant, sensual, slightly oily mouth feel.

The fruitiness has a nice astringency, like tannins slightly puckering a fruity Shiraz.

There’s a grassy barky earthiness to this, but with an un-cloying sweetness, like some craft sarsaparilla root or birch beer soda.

From the nose, the “dry” wildflower honey and the complex multicultural spice follow through to the palate.

And, again, good complexity (though a bit less complex and enticing than the nose) with earthy, sweet and spicy surprises. 21/25

Finish

The confluence of a high octane unfiltered ABV, warm fruit, measured sweetnesses and a global spice mix, combined with a tannin-like astringency that nonetheless holds itself a few paces back from “too dry” – and you have the formula for a long, tantalizing, warming finish – which is precisely what you get here. 23/25

Balance/Structure

The structure of this whisky is a weave of disparate elements that results in a very full, beguiling experience that brings the drinker across a single bridge from sight to nose to palate to finish – a bridge with remarkable twists and turns, all worth taking. This is well-tended, well-aged, well-structured and nicely balanced whisky that responds generously to close scrutiny. Lovely and robust simultaneously. 23/25

Total Points for this whisky: 90

A very special thanks to Adam Maur and to ImpEx Beverages for the samples.

Molten Sunshine Raisin Cake: The Exclusive Malts’ 1995 Mortlach 18 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EMMortlachForgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been nearly six weeks since my last review!

Excuses? Oh, I have a dump truck load of them! There have been, no lie, ten thousand urgencies and complications of life that have intervened to trip, stump and stall me and to keep me from doing the things I love, such as savoring and reviewing good whisky. Perhaps foremost among my excuses – yes, for all their reality and impact on my life, these remain excuses – is the fact that I have moved from Massachusetts to New York since penning my last review. A scary move indeed!

Here in the mid-Hudson Valley I have not been able to find a single liquor store that carries even a tiny fraction of the treasures available to me at my beloved Norfolk Wine & Spirits back in suburban MA. It’s a three and a half hour drive back to Norfolk from where I live now, in a picturesque hamlet of emerging hipness and nascent sophistication called Beacon, NY, but I will be making that drive, as often as I can, just to get my hands on those sublime, rare bottles the profoundly good and industrious Bikram Singh* labors daily to bring to his shelves for his customers.

A particularly distressing disappointment I’ve encountered in the dozen or so liquor stores I’ve visited in this area is the lack – a nearly complete and total absence – of independent bottlings of single malt Scotch whisky. I may have seen one or two hardly-interesting Gordon & MacPhails here and there, maybe one Chieftain’s selection, but that’s it! Really! My fellow maltmen, ethanolics and whisky connoisseurs back in southeastern MA would not believe what a barren, arid wasteland this is!

So, please, good people, do listen up. If you’re reading this and you live in or nearby the Husdon Valley and you know the difference between a ‘farclas and a ‘fiddich, between a Longrow and a Longmorn or between a single malt and a malt blend, please please please do get in touch with me via this blog (or via Facebook if that’s where you’ve seen this) and we’ll get something luscious planted in this desert! I’m already in contact with a very good rep from an excellent Scotch whisky importer and he’s as eager as I am to get some good whisky flowing along the Hudson, but he and I can’t do it alone. Get in touch and we’ll make some noise – and, I promise you, we’ll share some very good malts.

The Whisky

If you think you’ve never had Mortlach, think again – it is one of the main components of Johnny Walker Black. Distillery bottlings have been very rare, but the evil (and necessary?) Diageo is now bottling it up in various expressions and selling it for exorbitant prices – which is not to say, if you’ve got the means, that those bottles will not be worth adding to your collection, sipping and savoring and drinking down. On the contrary, I’m sure they’ll be excellent. But you can find some outstanding, top-notch Mortlachs from independent bottlers at better prices. The whisky under review here is one such bottle.

The Exclusive Malts line comes from erstwhile whisky writer David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company, which consistently bottles and sells superb single cask, cask strength single malt Scotch whiskies. This Mortlach, un-chill-filtered and untainted by the specious E150a, was distilled in 1995, has been aged “in oak” for a full 18 years and was bottled at 54.3 % ABV. It is a wonderfully clear gold in color and has legs you want to lick from inside the glass…

Nose

Plump raisins bursting in the sun, then scooped up and pressed to the bottom of a deep dish of strawberries and cream; there is also a gourmet variant of a chocolate and coconut Mounds bar here, and melted banana-coconut ice cream and a warm (warming) raspberry lime ricky. Redolent pencil shavings and oak sawdust doused with fresh-squeezed lemon, lime and orange juices. Nutmeg shells. Sweet vanilla and burned marshmallow. Baked green apple served over brown bread made with gobs of molasses. Then that warming aroma of nutmeg again. (23/25)

Palate

Some kind of luscious melon that has a rather keen but pleasant bite. A gourmet jam of apple, strawberry and lime preserves spread over Ak-Mak crackers. Raisin and date cake that has been warming on a windowsill all afternoon. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this elegant elixir is to say its palate is very reminiscent of one of my favorite whiskies of all time, the 1975 Dallas Dhu bottled at 28 years by the (once and still) discerning folks at The Classic Cask. The core of that whisky, and of this one under review, is that succulent, overripe, mouthwatering cantaloupe juiciness – braced here by a dusting of nutmeg, baked apples and warm molasses. (23/25)

Finish

Raisins again, followed by that melting chocolate and coconut candy bar, nutmeg and melon juice, lots of sweet melon juice, long and bracing and warming warming warming all the way to the heart. (23/25)

Balance/Structure

This works, each element of the experience at once echoing and balancing the other elements like the fine-honed gears of a handmade Swiss watch. This is a juicy, flavorful, warming delight that also manages to be surprising, at least to Mortlach drinkers, by standing out as a quite different member of its tribe, distinguished by a juicy fruitiness that is unusual in a Mortlach and by a sense of exalted refinement. Not quite as meaty an experience as one expects from this distillery, but very good stuff indeed. (23/25)

Total Points for this whisky: 92

* The Whisky Lover’s BFF, the one and only Bikram Singh
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Puer Aeternus in an Oaken Vest: The Exclusive Malts’ 1985 Longmorn 28 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EM LongmornJohn Duff built the Glenlossie distillery in 1876, Longmorn in 1893 and BenRiach in 1897. That’s a great string of distilleries if ever there was one, but Longmorn – if the bottling under review here is any indication – may be the greatest of them all. Beloved for its contribution to blends, Longmorn has been called “the master blender’s second choice” – his first choice being his own blend, of course. The only readily available bottling of Longmorn is the distillery’s own 16 year old, so finding this 28 year old single cask is quite a treat!

The Whisky

The wash stills at Longmorn were converted to steam heat in 1993, so this whisky, dating from 1985, is from a period when the distillery heated those stills directly with coal fires. Like all bottlings from The Creative Whisky Co.’s The Exclusive Malts line, this particular Longmorn juice is from a single cask and was bottled without the duplicitous E150a coloring and without chill-filtration. It is cask strength with an ABV of 51.6%.

Nose

My first thought upon holding a dram of this up to my nostrils: Wow! – This is going to take some time! So rich and full, so much going on. A handful of fresh peach stones with some flesh still on them. Cherry stones, too, but drier. Apples, stewed, with citrus peels, nutmeg and a few crushed banana chips – or, maybe: A very dry, light Calvados? Some bourbon barrel characteristics arise – light vanilla and light caramel and some white oak spice – but the wood character is young and fresh, like opening a package of little balsa wood panels purchased at the craft store. The malt is tight, bright and full and there’s a weave of fresh grain and the wholesome bouquet of a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. Less strong but still there is a whisper of dry cornmeal. Confectionary sweetness, as if you’d just opened a bag of marshmallows or – something I get now and then in these cask strength Speysides – a bag of those squishy orange “circus peanuts” that appear on pharmacy shelves around Halloween. There’s also a dry candy minty-ness, like crushed wintergreen Necco Wafers. There’s a more natural flintiness as well, and just a tad of dry grassiness or moss. The high ABV is quite apparent on the nose but it doesn’t stab the nostrils. A few drops of water bring out even more fresh cherry stones and a candy sweetness, but this is never cloying. A very firm, fresh, full, rich and classy act is presented here and I can find no fault with it. (25/25).

Palate

Now that the nose has me salivating and has the maltfreak in me eager as an ermine in estrus, I close my eyes and take a sip, allowing this silky elixir to cover my tongue like a 1000 thread-count bed sheet. Wow. The surprise is how big, rich and warm it is. The repeated suggestions of “dry” on the nose have completely liquefied here. And again, on the palate, I don’t get the least hint that 28 years was too long to mature in this cask – oh, what a cask this must have been! Fruit comes more to the fore now, as in peach cobbler fruit and apple pie fruit prepared with just a pinch of cinnamon. The sweetness is now more honeyed than sugared and there’s a wonderful progression as the sweet awakens the tip of the tongue, followed by a wash of fruit and malt, which in turn is followed by oaky drying tannins and spice – but, wait: That’s the finish… (24/25)

Finish

As I was just saying, the sweet fruit and malt delivery slowly dissolves into a drier development at the back of the tongue, with oak tannins and a pleasant spiciness unfurling in a fluid continuum to the back of the throat and down into the chest, spreading a life-affirming warmth all round the heart. Not a very layered or complex finish, but I do like that warmth! (22/25)

Balance/Structure

This is a fine Speyside whisky, an excellent presentation of what Michael Jackson considered “one of the finest Speyside malts, cherished by connoisseurs”. Its 28 years in cask did not make it sluggish or woody or thick, but seem rather to have bred a refined integrity, a weave of aromas no less plush and complex than a fine, intricately detailed Persian rug. The nose, in my opinion, achieved a level of perfection, and I’m confident I could have continued finding new bouquets and fragrances beyond the many I did find if I’d resisted sipping this potion a while longer. The palate was excellent, but not quite the equal of the nose, and the finish, though pleasant and even deeply satisfying, was also just a bit of a winding down in the arc of exultation this presents. Still, this is a wonderful whisky. I can’t imagine any devoted whisky drinker, except perhaps the most cultish peat-freaks, finding anything but delight and satisfaction in this excellent dram. (23/25)

EM Longmorn
Total points for this whisky: 94

Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.

Youth in Age (The Incomparable Jimmy Scott)

Dizygotic: The Exclusive Malts’ 2003 Speyside 10 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Speyside-10-Year-2003-from-The-Exclusive-MaltsPlease read through to the end: This moody tonic receives two different scores based on two different samples…

Calling this whisky “Speyside” rather than naming the distillery it came from has led to a bit of speculation online (and, as you’ll see, to further speculation below). There are a few Speyside distilleries that won’t allow the use of their names by independent bottlers: Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich, for example. I have seen Glenfarclas suggested as the source of this Exclusive Malts “Speyside” but that hardly seems possible given the typical Glenfarclas profile with it’s warm full body and refined bready fruitcake character. I’m going to hazard a different guess: Balvenie. I’m not the first to make this guess. At an Exclusive Malts tasting held at Norfolk Wine & Spirits nearly a year ago, the proprietor, Bikram Singh, responded to his first sip with that name: Balvenie. And I concur. If you can deconstruct the 15 year old Balvenie Single Barrel in your mind (having a dram of this expression in your glass, of course), imagining what the nose and palate might be like without any sherry cask influence, with considerably less bloated sweetness and with the ABV turned up from about 48% to more than 56%, it isn’t hard to understand this Exclusive Malts offering as the whisky that would result. I’ve spent many an evening with favorite bottles of Glenfarclas (17, 21, 25) and I don’t find the whisky under review here reminiscent of that distillery whatsoever. Then again, imagining Glenfarclas with no influence of sherry cask maturation is for all intents and purposes impossible, so I suppose that feasibility must remain open. Nonetheless, I’m sticking with my first guess: Balvenie.

Or am I? There is another intriguing, but highly unlikely, possibility: The Speyside Distillery, a very small affair on the upper section of the River Spey that produces less than 160,000 gallons of whisky annually. I have never had a drop of juice from that whisky maker, but the descriptions I’ve found sound similar to this Exclusive Malts single cask. Michael Jackson describes Drumguish, which was an NAS bottling from the Speyside Distillery, as “intense” with “jasmine” and a “slightly oily” body, “[a] creamy core” but with “dry (grassy) edges” – all of which, except for the grassy note, could be adjusted to fit with my take on the whisky here under review. And Charles McLean describes the palate on a distillery bottling of Speyside 12 Year Old as “richer and more full-bodied than you would expect from its restrained nose” – a description I could use, word for word, to portray this “Speyside” from Exclusive Malts.

The Whisky

Distilled April 14th 2003. Bottled September 2013 at an ABV of 56.3%. One of 296 bottles from a single cask. I have seen no official word on the type or size of cask used, but I have read that this whisky spent its entire ten years in an ex-bourbon hogshead and I suspect that’s true. Like all of this bottler’s offerings, this whisky is untainted by the misleading E150a caramel coloring and is un-chill-filtered.

Nose

I was having some trouble deciphering this one, so I looked at a couple of reviews online to find out what others had unraveled. One reviewer calls this whisky an example of “a classic sherry bomb”. I don’t get that, not at all. If this juice spent more than 10 minutes of it’s 10 year maturation in anything other than a (second fill?) ex-bourbon hogshead, I would be damned surprised. I find no sherry influence in this whisky whatsoever. What I do find most prominent on the nose is a clean, bright, hardy malt encased in a weave of rather sharp (French?) oak spices. Far below all that, I get some wildflower honey (i.e., not conspicuously sweet, as in some drier meads, which this is beginning in some ways to resemble on the nose) and, even farther out, like ghosts in a distant darkness, salt marsh reeds? a dusty shale-like flintiness? spilled, dried cherry juice on a just-opened package of high cloth-content copy paper? There is something distant but elusively floral as well – jasmine tea? withered carnations? The high ABV can be stabbing in the nostrils if you get too close, but I didn’t find that water did much to ameliorate this characteristic until it became too much water and washed the good away. What one can discern here is pleasant and varied, but, overall, this is a shielded, clenched and parsimonious nose that refuses to give much up. (20/25)

Palate

Well, now… This is where she divulges a few of her secrets – but only a few. The wonderfully silky, oily delivery displays that tight malted barley, a little less bright now, awash in an amalgam of light raisons, peach and cherry pits, less-than-identifiable savory elements and a touch of burnt caramel, all of it steeping in a light, thin sugar syrup. The spice is a constant after the first few seconds, but it rises along a gentle arc that never gets overpowering.

And that, for me at least, is all she wrote. She doesn’t do all that much but, what she does do, she does well – and she truly does nothing wrong. I should add, however, that a few of my friends and some reviewers refer to the palate on this whisky as cloyingly sweet and “ridiculously sweet,” as one friend described it. That was not my experience at all. Was my sample too old or too oxidized? I have no way of knowing; all I can do is review the sample I was sent. If I should have a chance to taste a fresh bottle of this potion anytime soon, I’ll write an update to this report [see the Addendum below]. (21/25)

Finish

A mouthwatering, long, slow-burning finish that spills raisons and dates across the tongue in a wash of not-really-very-sweet caramel and honey, all of this on a foundation of sturdy barley malt, savory spice and drying oak tannins that reach down into the chest with a bloom of searing, drying, slow-slow fading, high frequency alcohol. (21/25)

Balance/Structure

As an arc, this works – more or less. Thanks to the malt itself, there is a nice, tight, clean component that runs through the entire experience this whisky offers. The nose, though shielded and stingy, leads naturally enough to the palate – which has that wonderful silky delivery. The finish starts with great promise but ends with a slow-searing burn that won’t be to everyone’s liking. (20/25)

Total points for this sample of this whisky: 82

Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.

Speyside-10-Year-2003-from-The-Exclusive-Malts
ADDENDUM:

Thanks to Bikram Singh (once again!), who had an open bottle of this whisky at his store, I did manage to get my hands on a fresh sample. There is a big difference between this and the sample I was sent. On the Nose, one gets an even more vibrant maltiness, a nice light honey, river rocks drying in the sun and some cinnamon and white pepper spice, though the alcohol is still stabbing the nostrils a bit (+2 points). On the Palate, the silky oleaginous delivery is still there and one now gets – especially with some water – baked apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, pear candy, light raisons and thin honey (+2 points). The Finish is much the same, but – with water, especially – sweeter, less burning, longer and more flavorful (+1 point). As for the Balance and Structure, I’d say the Structure remains much the same, dominated by a nice firm malt, but the Balance is improved because every step of the experience has been improved. Is this as sweet as my friends and others said? Well, it’s sweeter, but not ridiculously so, and the additional sweetness balances in pleasant equipoise with the spice, malt and tannins. (+2 points).

Total points for this sample of this whisky: 89

That’s a big difference!

Speyside Beauty: The Classic Cask’s 1993 Glen Keith 20 Year Old Single Cast Single Malt Scotch Whisky

IMG_20140613_225039_776~2~2Yesterday, when I sat down with this delightful whisky to write my notes for this review, I didn’t own, nor had I ever seen, a bottle of it for sale. My tasting session was conducted with two 30ml sample bottles. Nevertheless, I do own a bottle of this extraordinary Speyside elixir today. Bikram Singh, proprietor of my favorite whisky store – Norfolk Wine & Spirits – took delivery of one case just hours before I arrived there for a Kavalan tasting this evening. Amazing synchronicity! I sometimes hear that my reviews are good but useless because the whiskies I spotlight are unobtainable. That simply isn’t true. I have found and bought every whisky I’ve ever really wanted and could afford to buy. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort, a circuitous Google search, a couple of phone calls, a long drive, extended, passionate, vigorous bartering… Still, let me assure you, dear reader: The whisky is out there. If you really want it and can afford it, you will find it.

The Whisky

The Glen Keith Distillery is younger than me. It was built by Seagram’s across the Isla River from the Strathisla Distillery, which they also owned, and not far from the Aultmore, Strathmill and Glentauchers distilleries, on the site of an old corn mill in Keith, country Banffshire. It was intended to turn out malt for Chivas Regal, Passport and other blends. First opened in 1958 – the same year as Tormore, to which it has similarities – it was the first distillery to use computers and direct gas-firing of the stills. Mothballed by Seagram’s in 1999 – six years after the whisky here under review was distilled – it was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2001 and reopened with an annual capacity of 6,000,000 liters of pure alcohol on June 14, 2013. There has only ever been one official distillery bottling, of a 10 year old in 1994.

This Classic Cask single cask bottling was distilled in 1993 and bottled – one of 270 bottles from cask #136 – at an ABV of 46 percent, 20 years later in 2013. Like all of this independent’s offerings, this whisky is untainted by E150a and un-chill-filtered.

Nose

If a lemon went to bed one night and woke up next morning as a melon (anagramized, you might say), this is exactly how it would smell. But there’s far more going on here than only that. I get weathered cedar hope chest out in a pear orchard, pear-flavored hard candy and just the faintest trace of Speyside solvent. I also get celery salt on almonds, pencil shavings, lemon oil polish, overripe honeydew and dusty dried dark fruit skins. There is also, as my friend Marco pointed out and I later confirmed, a mild breeze of Earl Grey Tea rising from the glass. And though this may not be proper whisky blog etiquette (is there such a thing as whisky blog etiquette?), I must say this particular Classic Cask potion presents itself to the nose in a manner very reminiscent of some of my favorite Speyside bottlings from The Creative Whisky Co.’s The Exclusive Malts range – of their 29 year old cask strength Tormore in particular. The similarities are these: There is a direct citric freshness and a startling prominence of very clean, tight, still vigorous barley malt despite decades of maturation; also fresh oak and melon scents and a patient (reluctant?) unfolding of olfactory riches. These whiskies seem to be testing you, scrutinizing your every gesture to discover if you will give them the time and focus they require. If you do, this startling Glen Keith will reward you handsomely. In my experience, this is a perfect Speyside nose; slowly, little by little, dispensing its many treasures. (25/25)

Palate

The malt on the palate is prominent but more mellow and rounded than on the nose. This is where two decades of patient maturation in a decent cask (a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, I suspect) pay off. The pleasantly oily body carries expressive soft spice along the sides and center of the tongue, never becoming forceful or sharp or overpowering. Honeydew melon peeks through the spice and malt sweetness, as does a mild, refined chocolate note that I didn’t expect. The other sweet here seems to be a mild vanilla frosting with just the faintest whisper of caramel. Dark dried fruits – dates, perhaps – seem to be calling from the distance, but they can’t quite distinguish themselves from the more conspicuous malt and spice. (24/25)

Finish

Splendid, rounded, mellow malt, mild chocolate, some oaky tannins and a patient blooming of spices at the back of the tongue that slowly cascades down into the throat to warm and stimulate the upper chest. Long, but not overly long, and not very complex, but a fine finish that does nothing wrong. (22/25)

Balance/Structure

There is both a tight, clean structure to this whisky and a very even and inviting balance overall. The arc of the experience it offers is smooth and pleasing, soaring highest at the beginning with the nose and descending slightly to the palate and finish, never exposing a significant lack or blemish or falling below outstanding. It is quite thrilling, truth be told, and one of the best Speyside whiskies I’ve ever had. (24/25)

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Total points for this whisky: 95

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.

Afterword: A Note on Presentation

I don’t usually complain about such things and I would never add or subtract points because of the aesthetic appearance of the packaging of a bottle of whisky, but the current presentation of The Classic Cask line, in my opinion, could be better. The shape of the bottle says wine, not whisky, and the layout of the label (informative, printed in legible fonts and appealing colors, I’ll give them that) looks like it was done entirely on a computer using an old version of Adobe Illustrator – with no consultation, evidently, with a trained designer or visual artist. And they shamelessly send their whisky out as such without a tube or box to keep it hidden in. I really don’t like it when my whiskies are without a tube or box to hide and protect them! Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is a line of very good whiskies – the one under review here is of stunningly good quality – but, when the nose, palate, finish and balance are as good as they are in this instance, a reviewer like myself feels the need to find something to complain about. I chose the whisky’s presentation.

Icarus in a Bottle: The Classic Cask’s 1989 Bunnahabhain 24 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

icarus9In Greek myth, Icarus was the son of the master inventor Daedalus. When Icarus and his father are about to attempt an escape from Crete with wings that Daedalus constructed from feathers, twine and wax, the father warns his son first of being too complacent and then of pride, what the Greeks called “hubris”. Do not, daddy Daedalus told his son, fly too low, nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would weigh the wings down or the sun’s heat would melt the wax holding the wings together. Icarus ignored his father’s instruction not to fly too close to the sun and the melting wax caused his wings to disintegrate and Icarus to fall into the sea, where he drowned. Yes, this has something to do with the whisky here under review.

The Whisky

Oily in appearance when rolled in the glass, this elixir is a vibrant, brassy color, like soft, pure gold hammered so thin it becomes translucent. Like all the whiskies in The Classic Cask line (in my experience, anyway), this whisky is from a single cask, un-chill-filtered, untainted by the deceits of E150a and bottled at an ABV of 46 percent. Despite a couple of tastes and aromas that hint vaguely at a bit of sherry maturation, I suspect this juice was aged for it’s entire 24 years in a second- or third-fill ex-bourbon hogshead.

Nose

Juniper berries dipped in varnish and then rolled in watermelon flavored Kool-Aid powder. Below that, the compelling aromas of banana cream pie, a nutty maltiness and vanilla butter, if there is such a thing. There’s the ghost of an almost sour astringency, as if the person next to you bit into the white of a watermelon rind. The ghosts of peat and smoke are even farther off and more diaphanous. I get just a touch of rose water, too, and, above that, an approaching field of heather and carnations (we are driving through the country with the top down, evidently). Also some whole grain bread in there, last Saturday’s cut grass, and cookie dough – but cookie dough for which the recipe substituted lime juice in place of water. Quite a broad and diverse yet enjoyable sojourn across the olfactory bulbs… (23/25)

Palate

The warm and luxurious, mouth-coating light maple sugar sweetness of the delivery here may be the best I’ve ever experienced. For at least a few seconds after you take a sip, as this potion covers and coats the tongue, this is the best whisky you ever had. Anything this opulently perfect can’t last, of course, but that delivery may be worth the price of admission to this entire show. I sipped and sipped and sipped and sipped to keep experiencing that sumptuous few seconds of velvety tongue-bliss over and over and over again, as if I’d found a tiny fountain of splendiferous oral pleasures… And after those repeatable few seconds of heaven pass, you’re still in good territory, but now you’re back down on a recognizable planet. There is a whole grain bready wholesomeness to this second act, which is followed by alternating waves of malt and maple sugars. The nuttiness is still there, and just the slightest hint of nutty astringency along with a nice fluid saltiness and just enough spice to engage the back of the tongue. (24/25)

The Finish

Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe… Everything was going so well before this! Have I somehow swallowed a whisky other than the one that had just been bathing my tongue with such purring pleasures? I fear that isn’t the case. Beautiful Icarus, once again, has flown too close to the sun! Those ghostly whispers of astringency in the nose and palate become fully incarnate and unmistakable here. The malty sweetness is still present, but it is coupling with a pronounced bitterness. Are these oak wood tannins getting out of hand after 24 years? Yes, very likely, but that’s not exactly how this strikes me. It’s more a dance of sweetness and astringency and astringency is either a better dancer – winking at bitterness all the while – or it is just more noticeable because of the wondrous, complex waves of sweet one was experiencing just seconds before. It’s the contrast here that disappoints – this is really not all that bad a finish, but it is distinctly sub-par relative to the broad arc of complexity in the nose and the near perfection of the palate. And the spice becomes an assertive, radiating burn that swells and then fades rather quickly, leaving an astringent maltiness to slowly lose its luster at the back of the tongue. (18/25)

Balance/Structure

What can I say? This experience was like listening to a grand symphony being played almost to perfection when, suddenly, in the final measures, half the orchestra fumbles and drops its instruments to the floor. Yes, the rest of the musicians play on beautifully, but that’s just not sufficient to save the performance as a whole. Or, you might say this was like a ride in a splendid vehicle on a splendid day though a splendid park that ends with a fender-bender. Does that cancel and negate the pleasures of the full ride? No, of course not. Would I seek out and buy a bottle of this whisky? Yes, if only to re-experience that warm, soft, lavish delivery again and again. Should you seek out and buy a bottle? How can I say? I don’t know if your palate would respond as mine did – nor do I know that the awkwardness and bitterness in the finish would disappoint you as it disappointed me. I am very pleased that I got to try this whisky because it has given me a new touchstone for delivery. For all the pleasure it gives, I cannot judge it too harshly. (21/25)

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Total points for this whisky: 86

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.