For some reason, I’ve been more attentive to structure in the whiskeys I’ve been savoring these days. It’s a mercurial, vapory concept, I know, but I’ve been narrowly focusing directly in on it with many of the whiskeys recently crossing my lips, especially those from the independent bottling lines called The Maltman and The Exclusive Malts, each of which seems unabashedly proud of its solid structures, unfolding them under the glare of one’s senses with no resistance or compunction whatsoever.
Take the time to focus on and truly savor one of these heady elixirs and you will get the sense that you have entered a well-built room in a well-built house. The floors are level and the corners are square and you feel confident that there are no jutting nails, missing steps or untended splinters on which to snag and injure one’s senses. The several whiskeys I’ve had in these independent series immediately instill confidence that I am drinking a well-made, quality product.
The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky is one such product. Bottled at 52.6 percent ABV from what I imagine was a single refill bourbon cask (I don’t pick up a sherry influence here, except perhaps in the spicy tannins that come on in the finish), the experience of this whisky gives one the sense that everyone who had a hand in its making knew exactly what they were doing and did their jobs well.
The appearance in the glass is lucid honey, pellucid amber, or perhaps unclouded pine pitch in the cool early morning sun. This whisky coats the glass and is patient, languid, slowly allowing the legs to form, and those legs in turn course very slowly down. (9/10)
My notes on the nose cover an entire page! At the top I wrote: “I smell precision, whimsical precision” – whatever that means!
The aromas reveal themselves slowly at first. My initial impression, returning my sniffer to the glass again and again, was of iceberg lettuce flavored sugar crystals. Then the flesh of sliced green grapes. But a savory saltiness soon arrives, high-cocoa-content baking chocolate mixed with freshly sawn hardwood, sweet malt, buttery butterscotch, cooling pastry dough on a cutting board (fig squares, perhaps, but not lemon squares). The aroma with the deepest color is that of cherry juice, but it is reticent. And one can also smell brittleness here, as in ribbon candy. Though the nose on this whisky isn’t the least bit spirituous, it is youthful all the same. This nose is all about daylight, sunlight, but it isn’t a spring or a summer day; it’s cold outside and all the vibrations are trebly, of a higher frequency, sequestered and apart from wet and dirty and earthy things. (19/20)
The palate is fuller, rounder, sweeter and warmer than the nose led me to expect. The sugar crystal aspects turn to mild clover honey here, but I also get a sprinkling of black (licorice) Necco Wafer. The only fruit I pick up is apple, but it’s a ruby-red candy-dipped apple. There is also some caramel and salt water taffy. Still, despite all these sugary and candy notes, this isn’t a cloying dram; what it offers is rather a wonderfully oily and well-integrated sweetness. Finally, we get a hint of darker things, earthier things, the slightest taste of leather, of oak, and the wispiest hint of peaty smoke, as if the source of saltiness and that alone were dried over peat fires. The mouth-feel is silky, slightly oily and coating – wonderful. (18/20)
The finish is perfect. Malty, buttery ginger candy with a sweet-cool caramel center and a breeze of white pepper. And it is long and warm and surrounds the heart without burning the throat. Perfect. (20/20)
From one perspective, I could say the balance here is unassailable because the arc from nose to palate to finish is very rich, complex and varied, even logical, without salient flaws or ill-fitting characteristics. On the other hand, everything here is on the bright side, the light side; it all (aside from the wonderfully warming finish) emanates from crisp, invigorating daylight. Is that a problem? No, not really. If whiskeys were divided into two categories – daylight and nightshade – and this were intended as a daylight release, I’d have to conclude the balance is nearly perfect. But we don’t divide whiskeys up that way and I’m left wanting a darker, earthier element to balance all the chill, giddy sunlight at play – some flinty musty autumn characteristics, say, so prominent in The English Whisky Co.’s drams, or the dark pungent soil and sweaty humidity of a Ledaig or many Springbanks and Longrows. Was this whisky (I almost wrote Speysider, and that is telling when we’re on the north of the isle of Islay!) – Was this whisky ever intended to evoke those darker, damper drams? No. However, though I can certainly appreciate how well balanced all the elements are that are at play here, I nonetheless feel that something is missing. Maybe the flaw is in my own taste buds and predilections, but that’s now for you to decide. (17/20)
Quality of the Buzz
Finally, how am I feeling after four unstinting drams of this wondrous stuff? Good, very good, but once again we’re dealing with a daylight twist, this time on inebriation – something almost intellectual and energizing informs this whisky. One cannot, of course, fault a whisky for being bright, linear and energizing, but the more of this electric elixir I imbibe, the clearer my head is and the more I’m energized to keep writing and assessing and reassessing my drink rather than leaning (or falling) back into an inviting, overstuffed chair to read, dribble, and buzzingly doze off, which is typically my wont at this juncture in the experiment… (8/10)
Total points for this whisky: 91