Like a Master Boatwright’s Apprentice: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Bunny22Bunnahabhain is one of those distilleries I can usually pick out of a line-up – especially independent bottlings of it. Its juice, in those instances, typically displays a very tight, subtle structure and has a core character that is quite distinct, with hard candy, lettuce, butter, cherries, wax and nuts at play, though the emphasis on each of these elements will differ.

Bunnahabhain ages well and age most certainly makes a difference with this elixir – which is not to say that the 8 and 12 year olds out there aren’t worthy of close attention and patient savoring – they are. But the older bottlings of Bunnahabhain I’ve had have nearly all approached greatness in one way or another.

So, if every good independent’s bottling of Bunnahabhain has strong similarities to every other (which is my experience), things like structure, level of refinement, signs of good casks and good cask management – and unusual characteristics – come forward to distinguish the best from the better and the better from the good (Bunnahabhain is always at least good). Therefore, less emphasis might be given to the flavor and aroma profiles, though there will be distinguishing individualities here as well that must be noted.

The Whisky 

This is a single cask bottling of Bunnahabhain from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line distilled in 1991, bottled in 2014 and reduced to an ABV of 46 percent. In appearance, it has a light golden honey color that, considering its 22 years in cask, suggests a second or third fill ex-bourbon barrel was used. Twirled in the glass, it displays multiple thin but slow viscometric rivulets. It was not chill filtered and is untainted by the duplicitous E150a caramel coloring.

Nose

Iceberg lettuce as ribbon candy; a large tab of sweet cream butter floating in a small cup of cherry juice; a refined earthiness (truffle?) over which a breeze of ozone floats like fog; pear juice and acetone spilled on a just-unpackaged flannel shirt; slices of Honey Crisp apple marinated in ‘lite’ caramel and Mott’s apple sauce on a slice of lightly toasted whole wheat sourdough bread. Mmm-mmm good… 24/25

Palate

Subtle, pleasant and warming. The oak comes through like the taste of the air in a small room where oak boards have been recently sawn – like walking into a room where oak floors have been sanded and tasting that! The sweetness is bitter and the bitterness is sweet, like biting into a sappy apple and chewing some seeds with the flesh. There’s a maltyness but it is tight and light. I suspect this juice came from a tight, secure, long-undisturbed cask – there are really very few signs of its rather advanced age. This drinks like a Speyside but has all the gustatory elements of the Bunnahabhain core. Which is an unusual thing but a good thing. 22/25

The Finish

Buttery candy with a whisper of white pepper and hot sauce that is thin and muted at first but follows through for a spicy, warming, moderately long finish. The kind of whisky that, once swallowed, causes one to pause for a long moment before speaking. 20/25

Structure and Balance

This has the tight architecture of The Exclusive Malts’ 26 year old single cask Bunnahabhain, but it is not cask strength and isn’t quite as good at balancing disparate elements. It also, like that 26 year old, lacks the mouthwatering maritime character that comes through in every distillery bottling I’ve had. The arc from nose through the palate is a good one, with consistent elements embellished by some unique differences, but interest falls off in the finish, which is notably simpler. Having said all that, let me emphasize that this is a very good whisky; I enjoyed drinking it very much. But I’ve been privileged to drink some very, very good Bunnahabhains and this falls a measure short of those. 20/25

Total points for this whisky: 86

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides” * or, Good Whisky Uncorks and Blows the Marketers Down: The Exclusive Malts’ 1987 Bunnahabhain 26 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

FullSizeRender copy 2I’m currently reading a history of Cognac (no surprise to friends who receive my wee hour emails on the subject) and find it interesting that, as advertising began to flourish among the sellers of cognacs in the nineteen-thirties – entre les guerres, as they phrased it then; between the wars – the equation of age and quality began to be emphasized. If it’s older and was properly matured, it’s better – that was the gist of their primitive marketing message. Now, however, the entire Scotch industry, with its deluge of no-age-statement expressions bearing more and more ridiculously romanticized names, appears hell-bent to deny the equation of quality with age. Say what they will, this 26 year old Bunnahabhain contradicts those Scotch marketers and their transparent mendacities at every sip. The idea that age equals quality is as valid now as it ever was.

The Whisky

Bunnahabhain is the northernmost distillery on Islay and it’s whisky tends to be the least peated of Islay spirits (with exceptions like Caol Ila’s unpeated 14 year old or the unpeated Bruichladdichs). But I don’t need to tell my readers these basics.

This particular bottling of Bunnahabhain juice was distilled in 1987, matured exclusively in a what I adjudge to be a second or third fill ex-bourbon hogshead, and bottled at an ABV of 47.8% in March of 2014. This is a single cask, cast strength whisky, unchillfiltered and unadulterated with the mendacious E150a coloring. This single cask produced only 297 bottles (but seek and you shall find: it’s still out there).

Appearance and Nose

The color in the glass is honey, or light amber, with no rufous blush of sherry or other wine aging or finishing evident. The relative intensity of the color suggests a second fill or (considering its 26 years in cask) perhaps a third fill ex-bourbon hogshead. The legs are thin but numerous and languid. Any whisky drinker would be seduced to follow this potion farther on…

On the nose, right up front, I get almond oil in a new rubber boot (peat?); ethereal wax, warm caramel, yesterday’s cotton candy, a creamsicle fortified with a wash of rum; white and pink Necco wafers in an old tobacco pouch; patchouli dripped on whole wheat toast; light truffle oil mixed with a smidgeon of shellac poured into a woven basket that recently held raspberries and lemons; also, as imagination whirls in this sedating mist, the smell of nylon stockings on a freshly bathed and well turned leg (smooth as silk it is, and not hirsute as that waft of patchouli might suggest); birch bark or – no, not that – balsa and cedar woods carved into a bowl that contains a mix of wet autumn leaves, garden soil, kandy korn, corn chips, salted caramels and a few maple sugar candies. And nutmeg.

This is the olfactory version of a gourmet meal (rubber boot and all!), rich without being overly pungent, enticing, tempting, drawing you forward. It’s all very subtle, but the mix of ethereal and earthly, of candied and organic and epicurean pleasures all in a keen yet beguiling balance of unlikely combinations, each element playing off the next, none overwhelming the others – yes, this is how a good whisky is supposed to greet the olfactory senses – and I like it! 23/25

Palate

Sensual, silky mouth feel. The honey, nutmeg, salted caramels and almonds find taste buds to connect to all over the top of the tongue, and then this nutty, sweet wash brings the toast and light truffle oil up and, slowly, a milder, lightly smoked paprika, which remains the dominant spice. The citrus and raspberries are still there, but are far more subtle now. While not quite as complex as the nose, this is serious pleasure. 22/25

The Finish

The paprika spice comes forward and it is the element of the finish that endures and lasts for several minutes, but it doesn’t completely overwhelm the honey-vanilla-truffle-oil sweet earthiness of this elixir. The creamsicle is still there, too, along with what seems to be a bit of unripe peach. As the spice grows in intensity, the experience slowly transforms from wet to dry and from sweet to savory. This is very good stuff. 22/25

Structure and Balance

The structure here, as with so many bottlings from Exclusive Malts, is a tight architecture of disparate but counterbalancing elements. Over the years of drinking whiskeys from this very consistent independent bottler, I’ve really grown to enjoy the challenge that each of their single cask tonics presents. Because the structure is so tight (is this the cut? the attention to and control over maturation? cask selection? all of these?), these whiskeys force the connoisseur – one who takes the time to savor and unfold his or her experience – to be patient, to give the whisky the time it requires to be properly and fully understood. This particular whisky is no different and it rewarded my patient parsing of its promise with one curiosity and delight after another.

Bunnahabhain’s own distillery bottlings are excellent, but their structure is more loose and their sweetness not quite as well balanced (as this Exclusive Malts bottling is balanced despite being an unblended product of a single cask) with other more drying and savory elements. However, I must say, the maritime characteristics are more prominent in the exquisite 18 year old distillery offering. And while I can’t say for sure if this Exclusive Malt single cask is the best Bunnahabhain I’ve ever drunk – one reason being that my memory of the distillery’s own 25 year old, which I only had once, is, though glowing and positive, vague – it very well might be. It is certainly one of the three or four best bottlings from this distillery I have ever had. 23/25

Total points for this whisky: 90

300_tennyson* This line in my title is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which you can read in its entirety here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174659

Fire Water from Planet Tar: Blackadders’s Raw Cask 15 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Ledaig 1998

LedaigSCRAW1999815y63_9PICTDear Warrior God of Ethanol – this is potent stuff! Really, this punctuates the evening’s previous sampling of one warming cognac and one lovely Speyside like the word “fuck” would punctuate a nursery rhyme. At 62.2% ABV, this isn’t the fiercest potion to ever scorch my tongue, but it tastes like it is. Fortunately, water tames and transforms this beast – somewhat – into something that can be sipped and savored without irreversible harm.

The last time I reviewed a Ledaig of around this age (the soul-smoldering cornucopia of Cadenhead’s Small Batch 16 year old Ledaig), I was immediately transported to a realm of power, poetry and mind-altering mists. The Blackadder I’m tasting here is not like that. It is powerful and there’s quite a bit going on, but it’s harder, less inviting, less organic, less yielding. Whereas Cadenhead’s luscious bottling seemed intended for peat smoke libertines, this one may be targeting masochists – which does not necessarily mean I won’t like it. Let’s see…

Appearance

Certainly more inviting than the Cadenhead, which was pale as a Chinese ghost. This is an amber-copper, almost like an older cognac but without the rufous hues, suggesting maturation in a first fill ex-bourbon cask for at least a few of it’s 15 years. And the legs are seductively viscid, treacly and oh-so-slow. At this very high ABV, I’m not surprised by any of this, but that doesn’t make its appearance any less inviting. (5/5)

Nose

Pine nuts – absolutely! In a dry old leather sack, perhaps. But the first thing one notices (before a liberal dash of water is added) is the stab of the untamed alcohol. This is certainly sharply brawny stuff, especially for a 15 year old, but even prior to a little dilution there are distinct aromas coming through. Above all else, the smell of burnt or toasted caramel. If there’s a fruit, it’s ripe banana. There is also whatever that tar-like, slightly acrid, burning-tug-boat-rope smoky peatiness from the Tobermory distillery on Mull is – and whatever it is, I love it! Both paving tar and tobacco tar aromas entwine around the scent of smoldering peanut shells. The pine nuts remain quite noticeable, even under this puissant potion’s barbed ethanol armor. Add a dropper or three or four of water (oh, the viscimitrical wonders of watching water added to such an oily demon!) and you get a bit more: Some sanded poplar comes through (yes, I was sanding poplar window trim this afternoon) and, weird to say, the smells of pewter and Vaseline. And just a hint of that singularly distinctive Springbank bloom. Is this as alluringly fulsome of wonders as the nose on the Cadenhead? No. Is this nonetheless an experience I would wish for my whisky-savoring friends? Well, despite the fact that it may burn out all of their nasal hairs – Yes, it is. (17/20)

Palate

The taste is predominantly honey, charred caramel, butter, crayons, pine sap and burnt toast. And maybe a bit of cowhide. Those are the only elements I can pull out of this thorny palate, six or seven of them, but that doesn’t make it simple or lacking in complexity. This is certainly a unique combination of taste elements, an appetizing soup of very angular sweets and savories. And the spice is like crushed black pepper inhaling a waft of ginger. And of course there’s the sting of the alcohol, like a red-hot-pepper infused clover honey. For once, I am a tad more intrigued by the palate than by the nose! (18/20)

Finish

This is where this whisky is most evidently lacking in sophistication. It is just too sharp and pungent – even with liberal squirts of filtered water added. It’s a very long finish because the burn of the alcohol won’t quit, but it is undeniably harsh. Add too much water and it lacks interest altogether – there doesn’t seem to be a happy balance point between fiery burn and insipidity (I tried diluting it with water, little by little, in three different glasses three different times, to no avail). There is honey and something bitter here, like a very overripe melon, perhaps, but this is not the long warming finish of a great whisky by any means. It scorches and dries the tongue, burns the throat like napalm, and any promise of heart-warming becomes heartburn much too soon. (14/20)

Balance/Structure

In one sense, this traces a perfect arc – from a harsh stabbing nose to less harshness on the palate to a ruinously harsh desert fire in the finish. So, yes, it is certainly in balance with itself, but is it the balance one would hope for? No. (14/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Okay, this is not the easy becalming mellow that some great whiskeys give; it just remains too harsh, even here in the realm of the mental-buzz. The unending harshness of the finish distracts the drinker from the thermal, affable place one hopes to arrive at in a long night of savoring good whisky; nor is this one of those bright-light intellectually keening experiences the highly refined cask strength Speysiders sometimes bestow upon a drinker. No, this is just too harsh – that’s the word for this one. And while the hope was certainly there at the start, to be carried to the land of the carefree by a compelling ethanolic beverage, this one is just too stingingly distracting to bring one peace or much pleasure at the end of the day. And if an expensive bottle of Scotch like this one can’t do that, what the hell is it good for? (9/15)

Total points for this whisky: 77

A Hiccup in Trueheartedness: My Sidetracking Affaire de Coeur with California Brandy

14 - 1-1Remember these names: Hubert Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale and Dan Farber. And this book: American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution.

I’m asking you to remember what I am convinced I shall never forget. The book, by James Rodewald, is compelling from beginning to end and provides a selective but relevant and informative overview of the art of craft spirit making in America. Though I am not typically a cheerleader for American distilleries – with a few very remarkable exceptions, I prefer Scotch malt whisky in every way – this book, consisting for the most part of interviews with the distillers themselves – is a delight to read and may persuade you to sample a few or a dozen American spirits that you might never have tried otherwise. I suggest you go buy the book right now and read it. I’ll wait…

There we go… The chapter that stood out as unique for me was #7, on the Germain-Robin and Osocalis brandy distilleries in California.

After searching through five large liquor stores in my region, I finally found a store that had one bottle from each distiller, both entry-level bottlings costing about $45 each. More searching in more stores in both upstate NY and in MA has turned up nothing. I resist ordering good spirits online, but again, as so often, I am left no alternative.

As I wait for the mail, and before I get to my notes on the entry-level brandies themselves, I’d like to quote a few things Ansley Coale and Dan Farber said to James Rodewald when he was visiting their distilleries in preparation for his book.

Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin:

We keep the varietals, or even individual vineyards, segregated. We vinify them, distill them and age them separately because that gives us the maximum complexity when we blend.… 

Another thing we do, we dilute with rainwater. That’s important. Distilled water is flat and dead; rainwater’s alive and beautiful.

He goes on to say how, using that rainwater, each distillate is diluted slowly, 4 or 5 percent at a time, and that the spirit needs “about nine months to recover” from each dilution. And, from there, he says, “the real work begins” – meaning the cellar work, which Coale estimates takes up about 85 percent of his time because it is very important to know exactly what’s going on in each of his fourteen hundred French oak barrels – some new, many used, with a few being 100 year old cognac barrels – at all times.

My point in quoting and relating all this is to show how thorough and thought-out and slow and patient the entire process is if you want to make brandy as good as Germain-Robin makes brandy.

And remember: All this is new. Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin didn’t start making American brandy until the 1980s. Yes, there’s a centuries-old tradition and practice to learn from and to look back on and to use as a guide, but in America the grapes are different, vinification techniques are different, the climate is different, the soil is very different, the whole process is different than in Cognac, France, where there are 100+ year old brandies maturing in casks built in the 17th century stored in chai warehouses much older than that. It’s a truth that needs telling: Germain-Robin and Coale invented great American brandy by themselves only about 35 years ago. When you taste what they’re making, you’ll find that hard to believe.

Daniel Farber of Osocalis

Brandy is the only brown spirit that can beneficially spend time in wood for the time scale of a human life.

If Ansley Coale is California brandy-making’s pioneering practitioner, its vanguard, pinnacle and most articulate advocate, Dan Farber is its fanatical, single-minded, selfless, soulful master. While the Germain-Robin distillery produces many things other than brandy – Hangar One vodka (now sold off to a conglomerate), Low Gap whisky, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, Russell Henry gin, an incredible absinthe and a line of Los Nahuales and other mezcals – all of them winners of many awards – Dan Farber’s Osocalis distillery makes only one thing: Brandy – one apple brandy and two traditional grape-based brandies including the entry-level juice I found in NY and a very highly regarded XO.

The art is to try to get the essence of great fruit, wherever it comes from. We don’t drink grape juice with dinner; we drink wine because of that transformative character that fermentation gives to that grape juice. In the same way, we ferment the fruit and extract from it the entire essence of the fermented wine. Then we put it in barrels for long periods of time to again have it undergo a transformative process and produce something new.

Having learned his craft in Cognac, France and through his friendship with Hubert Germain-Robin, Farber started out to make apple brandy but realized it could take as many as 25 years of maturation in his fine-grained French Limousin forest oak casks before he would consider it good enough for bottling; so, he turned, like Germain-Robin, to grapes. By doing so, however, he was not lowering his standards. It took seven years before he blended and bottled anything for the public – all of it from his own stills and casks, needless to say, unlike so many bottlers of bourbon and rye – and about 16 years before he blended and bottled his first XO. How he can afford to be such a high-minded, no-compromise distiller, I don’t know – but I’m certainly glad he has found a way!

Now, here’s something that, in all my endless hours of reading about Scotch and whisky/whiskey of all kinds, I never came across nor thought of for myself:

Part of the aging process of great brown spirits is the aging of the warehouse. You don’t get as much of that in bourbon because you have this rotation of new barrels in. You get a little bit of it in the rickhouse itself, but it never really gets to permeate the wood or penetrate into the whiskies because you never have that rich development of microflora on the barrels. Here, from the inception, we knew we needed to age the building, the barrels, the whole thing. You’ll never get that kind of character by just throwing spirit in a cask and putting it in a metal building. It’s not to say it’s necessarily bad or good, but if you like it that’s the only way to get it.

By “it” he means finesse and rancio, the first of which requires deep knowledge and precise, patient, unwavering application of very high standards, the best grapes, the best wood and very ancient techniques; and the second of which, rancio, does not even begin to develop until at least 10 years in cask (if the cask is the right cask, made from the right wood, its staves properly dried in open air before it is assembled and filled and stored in the right place in the right old wooden chai warehouse, I suspect). Farber is a man who, like Coale and Germain-Robin, knows his craft thoroughly and profoundly, puts all that he knows (along with all his money and time) into making his brandy, and who finds all the motivation he needs to pursue such a selfless craft in the very thing he is making: Brandy. Who wouldn’t at least want to try a spirit made by a man of such character?

TASTING NOTES

a2f97e4482498fb754cd19532c9589b9Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy 40% ABV

I opened both this bottle and the Osocalis the night I brought them home; at the time, this Germain-Robin struck me as slightly superior despite some real similarities between the two. The color on this is a gorgeous translucent copper. On the nose there is cedar and a fresh fruitiness that is mostly grape (not of the too-fragrant Welches grape juice kind; the components here are primarily colombard, with pinot noir, riesling, zinfandel, all of various ages, but each aged at least six to seven years, blended in); there is a hint of marshmallow, and oak sugars of a far more confectionary kind than one experiences with spirits aged in new white American oak, which seem far less subtle by comparison. In the mouth, one is immediately struck by the rich, refined quality of the drink, by how rounded this is despite it being ever so slightly spirity, by a warming grape-fruitiness and a very long, slow burning, fragrantly flavorful finish. The influence of the limousin oak cask is both ever-present and nuanced – yet there is a slight sharpness that I’m sure more time in such tight-grained casks would tame. Despite its relatively young age and it’s entry level status for this distillery, this is obviously an exercise in soft, fragrant delicacy unlike (though not necessarily better than) anything I have ever experienced in grain-based whiskeys. And for $45 this is absolutely superb.

OsocalisOsocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, Lot No. IX, 40% ABV

I am pouring the final drams of these brandies from their respective bottles tonight and I will replace them both as soon as possible. However, if I found myself staring at bottles of each, but having only enough cash to pick up one bottle, I would be going home with the Osocalis. Don’t get me wrong, the Germain-Robin is superb and, upon first impressions, it seemed a shade superior to me. The Germain-Robin was “easier” and more rounded at first, while the Osocalis leaned ever-so-slightly to a more monolithic youthfulness. Nonetheless, as the eight or so days I’ve been sampling these fine spirits have gone by, oxidation has blessed the Osocalis, in my opinion, with somewhat finer qualities. Though the color, a pellucid copper, is very similar, the legs here are slightly slower and the mouthfeel just a bit more oily and substantial. On the nose, the Osocalis has become far fruitier, far grapier than the Germain-Robin, though the influence of the limousin wood is less obvious here – making me suspect that the Germain-Robin has some older brandies in the blend. That only makes sense considering Germain-Robin was fired up at least a decade before Osocalis. Still, there is something here, in the fresher, more complex fruitiness and the less obvious influence of the fine-grained French oak, that makes this Osocalis experience one of immense promise – and for some reason I find that more exciting. The Germain-Robin is a better example of the art of blending, perhaps, but the promise contained in this Osocalis is, as I said, immense, and that, too, is of appreciable merit. On the palate, the Osocalis is a jot more flavorful, more intense, but still so well-rounded it could almost be called “smooth”. Yes, there is more youthfulness here, but there is nothing spiritous about it whatsoever. And the finish here is, if anything, even longer, more flavorful, more complex.

For the single malt Scotch drinker, I think the Osocalis may be more than minutely more satisfying because it is (just) more discernibly rich in complexities. But anyone who reads this – and especially you, my good friends and Ethanolics – should run out and buy both of these exquisite bottlings as soon as possible and give them a thorough savoring. You’ll be amazed, I promise – and, if not, well, I’ll gladly take those bottles off your hands!

Walking In Uninvited at a House Where You Do Not Live: Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 22 Years and Bottled at 46% ABV by Alchemist

14 - 1-5Being an inveterate drinker of fine Scotch whiskeys bottled by independents, I’ve grown accustomed to spirits matured in a manner the distillery itself might frown upon. Macallans and Aberlours aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks, for example; or, to the contrary, heavily peated Bunnahabhains or Caol Ilas deeply influenced by years at rest in a sherry butt. My last review parsed an 11 year old Mortlach aged entirely in an ex-bourbon hogshead – I liked it a great deal – and here we have another Mortlach, also matured with no influence of sherry casks but for twice as long, 22 years, and from an independent bottler I’d neither seen nor heard of before buying this bottle: Alchemist.

Here’s what I read about this bottler on scotchwhisky.net: The driving force behind the company is Gordon Wright who not only has significant experience in the world of single malt whisky – with his family connections to the Springbank distillery and, latterly, his involvement with the “re-birth” of Bruichladdich – but who also has had the opportunity over the years to gain considerable insight into some of the world’s other classic spirits.

Springbank is, bar none, my favorite distillery, and “latterly” I’ve become quite fond of Bruichladdich, especially of their Cuvee series (thank you, Dave). I’m also a big fan of Mortlach. So it’s safe to assume Gordon Wright and his Alchemist label have put something together here I may enjoy a great deal. Let’s see…

The Whisky

It’s Mortlach, and it isn’t. And what more there is to say about that, I say below. Here’s a great overview of the Mortlach Distillery from the indispensable Malt Madness site: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/mortlach.html

The Nose

The first aromas to pleasure my eager olfactory bulbs are clean, dry malt and sawdust. And Macoun apple slices – or maybe a grainier apple like a Red Delicious – and a bit of honey.

What is somewhat baffling here is the familiarity of this profile – and I’m not talking about other Mortlachs. What the nose on this reminds me of is Glenfarclas – something between or in the vicinity of the 17 or 21 year old distillery bottlings.

Unfortunatly, I remain in medias res here, still transitioning from MA to NY, and I don’t have any Glenfarclas open in my temporary living quarters. I do, however, have an open bottle of Blackadder’s 23 year old Blairfindy from their Raw Cask series and ‘Blairfindy’ is just a legally necessary misnomer for Glanfarclas (the Grants, the family that has owned Glenfarclas for generations, hale from Blairfindy Farm and are sometimes referred to as the Blairfindy Grants).

Pouring a dram of this Blairfindy 23 (48%) and then nosing it side by side with the Alchemist Mortlach 22 (46%), the similarity is indeed uncanny.

So, if this smells like a good Glenfarclas, what’s the point? Why not just go out and buy the decidedly luscious and elegant 21 year old Glenfarclas for about the same price? Or, for that matter, why not go out and buy this Blackadder 23 year old Blairfindy – if you can find it?

Hhmmm…

Closer attention does reveal some differences. For one thing, the Blairfindy has a faint warm floral character to the nose that this Mortlach does not exhibit. And the Alchemist Mortlach has a very modest suggestion of minty acetone that the Blairfindy does not possess. And some young and savory vegetable scent – I’m thinking salted celery. But, still, the similarities are both arresting and curious.

I am a vocal fan of the Glenfarclas distillery and have often remarked that the olfactory and taste profiles of one of the better examples of this distillery’s juice – the 17, 21 or 25 year olds, say – constitute for me the Platonic Ideal of single malt Scotch whisky, the immutable and eternal form or idea of what a single malt Scotch whisky is, and the standard or benchmark all other single malt Scotch whiskeys could be thought of as variations of…

That’s just me, of course. If my thoughts, expressed, sound like babbling rhetorical poppycock to you, that doesn’t mean I am not, myself, convinced by them.

All of which is to say, I very much like the nose on the better Glenfarclases and thus am drawn to consider the very similar nose on this 22 year old Mortlach bottled by Alchemist as something to admire and, thus, to rate highly.

On the other hand, I have never before had the experience of the juice from one distillery reminding me so much of the juice of another. In a side by side comparison! Yes, they are from the same basic region of Scotland, both from the County of Banff, in fact, but individuality is the be-all and end-all, the raison d’etre, the signature, fingerprint, aim and rationale of each and every distillery in Scotland. Redundancy cannot, should not and will not be tolerated. So, from this perspective, how can I possibly give high marks to the nose on this Alchemist echo of Glenfarclas called Mortlach?

Let’s be perfectly clear: I am not saying I find the products of these two estimable distilleries, Mortlach and Glenfarclas, compromisingly similar. I do not. All I am saying is that this one very limited Alchemist bottling of Mortlach is compromisingly similar to some of my favorite bottles of Glenfarclas. And thus, despite enjoying it, my score must reflect my bewildered disappointment. 18/25

The Palate

This will be a quicker study, I promise.

My first impression upon pouring this potion over my tongue is – well, if you can imagine biting into a thin-walled hollow globe of granular sugar that has been filled with viscous clover honey, that’s it.

In the second wave, it’s the unsullied malt and the apples, but this time the apples have been baked.

There’s a hint of chocolate and a bit of banana confection.

And there is woody oak, just enough to remind the palate that this was aged in a refill ex-bourbon cask for 22 years, but not so much as to suggest over-aging. Oddly, considering its age and years of maturation in American oak, there is a noticeable lack of spiciness.

All of which adds up to a good, pleasant, even interesting palate, but nothing particularly distinguished, sophisticated or refined, nor anything that sets this whisky above its peers in any significant way. 20/25

The Finish

Finally! If your palate is anything like mine, the finish on this whisky will not disappoint. It is big and bold with lots of malt and honey and baked apples, now with cinnamon, and, for the first time, overripe honeydew melon. And, pulling this all together is the pleasurably embracing sting of oaky barrel tannins, like a scratchy, itchy, tight wool dress being zipped up around the fruity sweetness and spice. Here, in the finish, for the first time with this particular potion, I know I am drinking Mortlach. 23/25

Balance/Structure

This is tough. In one sense, there is a pleasant arc to this elixir, an unbroken, arching, descending line that runs with nary a twist or turn through the nose and palate, and which then grows bold in the finish. And I suspect the cut on this was rather tight based on the oily, just-this-side-of-bloated mouth feel.* And this whisky gives a relatively firm sense of structure as well, which could be the result of a well-chosen cask.

The lack of individuality in the nose, however – with the nose being this particular whisky’s most complex, most interesting facet – is a real problem.

In my heart, in my whisky-drinking memory cache and in the summary of my senses, I’d say everything about the experience of savoring and sipping this whisky leads to the conclusion that it is a good but not a great whisky – which, pardon me, is something I expected from an independently bottled, bucksy 22 year old from one of my favorite Scottish distilleries. So what we have here is a bottling that is at once good and disappointing. 18/25

Total points for this whisky: 79 **

* When I first opened this bottle, I was not impressed, the experience being one of bloated honey sweetness and soft, simple, meandering malt followed by sawdust and sour tannins, much like some younger, overrated, bloated-with-hyperbole Dalmore distillery bottlings I’ve had. This, and many an example like it, should caution each and every one of us never to pass final judgment on a whisky the day or even the first week it is opened. Good whisky needs time to breathe.

** However… Let’s say I had never before tasted a good Glenfarclas – what score might I have given this whisky then? My rating of the nose would certainly have been higher, maybe +3 points. And that would have influenced my rating of balance and structure as well, by +2 points perhaps, meaning I might have given this whisky a score of 84 points if I hadn’t found its lack of individuality so disappointing.

An Alluring Blonde Among Swarthy Brunettes: The Classic Cask’s 2002 Mortlach 11 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

CCMortlach11Compared to the richly multifaceted 40 year old blended Scotch whisky from The Classic Cask I had such a torrid olfactory affair with in the course of my last review, this much younger Mortlach, from the same bottler, is a relatively simple pleasure. Still, the high caliber of quality here is no less evident, which speaks volumes for Spirit Imports and it’s The Classic Cask line. Like Blackadder’s Raw Cask range or Meadowside Blending’s The Maltman series or The Creative Whisky Company’s The Exclusive Malts bottlings – and perhaps a few others – The Classic Cask line is, in my experience, consistent in quality from bottle to bottle and from one distillery to the next.

In fact, I contend that one of the distinctions that sets independent bottlers such as these apart from distillery brands is their ability to offer a very wide variety of whiskies that are of consistent high quality. Of course, yes, you can find a distillery – Lagavulin is a good example, Glenfarclas another – that offers consistent quality throughout their entire range. However, their entire range is limited to one distillery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly confining.

With an independent bottler that offers reliable quality, such as those I’ve mentioned, the range of quality whiskies on offer may cover every Scotch region and a whole library of compelling taste profiles. Trusting Glenfarclas or Lagavulin to offer quality products across their ranges is one thing; trusting Blackadder or The Classic Cask or The Exclusive Malts or The Maltman to do so is quite another – because the range and variety they lay before us is so wide and so various by comparison. Long live the Independents, I say!

The Whisky

This is Spirit Imports’ bottling of an 11 year old Mortlach from its The Clasic Cask line. Like everything else I’ve had from this independent, this is very good whisky. And while I can’t say I’ve ever had a Mortlach I didn’t like, this bottling’s taste profile falls outside the usual Mortlach meatiness, heaviness and pungency. Distilled in 2002 and bottled at 46% ABV, unchillfiltered and untainted by the prevaricating E150a, this spirit is at once both rich and delicate, many-layered and fruity, a bit vegetal and even a little marine. Definitely Speyside, certainly very good, but captivatingly out of character for this distillery.

The Nose

As I said, this is not ‘meaty’ – as one often hears Mortlach described.

Rather, I get a lawn of sweet grass and star fruit.

It is tight and clean and relates the tale of an older (third fill?) but very firm and tight ex-bourbon cask.

While there may be a touch of oak in the nose, and some youthful spiritousness, that is not what this complex of aromas is about.

The aromatic sweetness here is that of confectionary sugar sprinkled on lemon drop cookies.

More citrus comes through – lime especially, but mango as well, and candied orange slices.

And still more fruit, but unfamiliar – maybe the aroma of cherry wood boards?

Beyond that, there is something vegetal and clean – like chopping rinsed heads of iceberg and Romaine lettuce together.

Another pass of the nose and this comes up: A dusting of sea salt on orchid petals by a white pepper mill.

While one often reads Mortlach described as ‘heavy,’ I would say this particular example of the juice is more ‘serious’ than ‘heavy’.

If this aroma were a color category, it would be strong, variegated pastels. 21/25

The Palate

A surprisingly silky, oily entry. Mouthwatering and sensual.

A blend of malt sugars with clove and vanilla.

The sweetness leads and coats the tongue like malted honey, then the various spices – ginger, cardamom, allspice – layer themselves in with casual patience. The slowness of the radiating spices here, broadening and developing slowly, is alluring.

The fruit presence is still strong but is now less citric. 22/25

The Finish

All of the above, slow and sweet and warming, leads into a drying, spicy finish that doesn’t quite embrace the chest but leaves the tongue and throat with a long, lingering, persuasive experience. 21/25

Balance/Structure

What we have here is the balance and structure of a well-selected elixir matured in a good, firm, somewhat spent cask – and by ‘spent’ I do not mean bad in any way, just not imparting as much wood influence as it might if it were a first or second fill. The delicacy and intricacy of the nose leads to a more direct, more sweet and more silky sensual palate, that then debouches in a very rich, spicy, long and lingering finish. So this doesn’t have the wonderful arc of, say, The Classic Cask’s 40 year old blend – but, then again, not much does. As an 11 year old single malt whisky that most Scotch lovers can afford, this is one fine specimen indeed. 22/25

To make a comparison…

The Maltman’s 13 year old Mortlach – I’m holding a Glencairned dram of it here in hand at the moment – is also bottled with a 46% ABV and has a more pungent, more vegetal and more commanding, but less delicate and layered and sweet, nose. On the palate, The Maltman’s dram is once again more commanding, perhaps richer and more various, but less sweet, less pleasant, less mouthwatering and alluring. The finish on The Maltman’s Mortlach is less spicy but less sensual and long. Is one of these potions better than the other? I honestly can’t say. And I know that, if I gave an answer to that question, I’d probably choose the other as best a day or two later. These are both very good whiskies and I’m very fortunate to have them both on my shelf.

Total Points for this whisky: 86

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

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 raisin 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.