Glenfiddich Malt Master’s Edition – A Long Night’s Journey To A Pleasant End

MaltMasterEdI’ve touched on this observation before, that one should not judge a malt whisky based on the first few drams poured from a newly opened bottle. A whisky’s complex of sensory triggers changes, often remarkably, in the first few minutes, first few hours, in the first week or even months, and those changes can transfigure one’s first impressions utterly.

So, what I am about to do is neither fair nor evenhanded as regards the malt whisky in question – Glenfiddich’s recent Malt Master’s Edition NAS bottling – but it is, I hope, instructive.

This is Glenfiddich’s first double-matured spirit, having spent 6-8 years in ex-bourbon casks and another 4-6 years in sherry butts. And the Malt Master in question is Brian Kinsman – that’s his picture on the tube – who combined the components of this limited-edition bottling in commemoration of Glenfiddich’s 125th anniversary.

But let us get back to the wrong way of judging a whisky. I cut the foil and pop the cork (how I love that sound!) and watch as the limpid, golden dram spills down into my nosing glass…

First Impressions, very first sniff, as the alcohol from the first pour wafts up: I am not impressed. In fact, the aroma is that of repugnant cheap blends that left their stains and traces in the luckless clusters of memory cells compelled to carry forward in time the appalling, raggedy-ass wreckage of my misspent youth. I’m smelling cheap Cutty Sark in particular, that real swilly stuff that was available for a few bucks a bottle in the late ‘70s (it’s better now). My worst ever whisky experience involved that foul intoxicant, but now is not the time nor place for reprising that cringeworthy tale. Let it suffice to say that my sister’s children, who found me on the bathroom floor the following morning, still remember that mortifying mise-en-scène with a nauseous mix of contempt and recoil!

Anyway… I’ve given this stuff five more minutes to open up and now I get more of a sour woody chewed pencil thing (if you’ve ever chewed a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 to splinters, that is exactly what I’m smelling, including the graphite), but it is still mixed with a bit – less, but still a bit – of that old late ‘70s blended cheapo menace. Up the nose, that is – I haven’t tasted it yet. Let’s give it a little more time.

It has now been 10, maybe 15 minutes since I last stuck my nose in the glass. The cheap Cutty foulness is just about gone. The wafting alcohol is more pleasant now, rubbing less harshly against the nerves descending from my dear, endearing olfactory bulb, but this is not that enticing candied honeydew alcohol that pulls the nose in closer when it is Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera in the glass.

I do, however, get some apple now, both fresh-sliced and stewed, and maybe just a hint of Bosc pear. The 4-6 years in sherry butts is also coming, just, into evidence. And then wafting traces of cantaloupe and black licorice. Golden raisins, too. We’re at a much better place now than where we started – much, much better – with the sherry slowly coming on, but there’s still something not quite right here, not as right as it could be, as if a very good whisky is masked, just a bit – a tinier and tinier bit the longer this sits in the glass – under a veil of masticated pencil splinters. Some of you older readers will recall, when nosing this whisky, the smell that rose from the gray metal school wastebasket when you emptied the accumulated shavings from a Boston Ball pencil sharpener into it. The more time this whisky has to open up in the glass, the less and less of that smell there is – but it’s there.

It’s been about 30 minutes now since I opened this whisky and the nose it offers does keep improving – but, let’s move along.

First sip… Second sip… hold… hold… slide about the tongue and… swallow. This is a nice surprise. The palate is much rounder than I expected. Third sip… Fourth sip… Here, I think, with its warm and full, silky and coating (but not sticky) mouth feel, is where this Malt Master’s Edition surpasses the 15 year old Solera, which, like the 18, is a tad thinner by comparison (though I’m pretty sure they are all chill-filtered). And I really like what I’m tasting. Lots of apples, now – Cortland and Braeburn and MacIntosh – with just a crick, as it were, of the sourness of Granny Smiths. Just enough. Below that, a nice reminder of fortified grape. And there is a pepperiness, more black than white, more Spanish oak tannin spice than anything ex-bourbon. And warm, liquid caramel toffee poured over candied Bing cherries, the lot of it crushed in a bowl.

Well, not quite that good, but close.

The color, a golden amber that is not quite as lucid as the golden amber of the 15, but nearly identical in its honeyed color-tone, barely even hints at the 4-6 years of sherry butt in this whisky’s past. Yes, it is a fraction of one shade darker, but, all the same, this strikes me as a little weird given the sherry’s influence on the palate. No summer evening magenta here. No ruby blush…

Nonetheless, we move along…

The bottle has been open and uncorked for nearly two hours now and I am drinking my third, umm, unselfish dram.

If you – yes, you – are trying to make a good impression, your comportment as you arrive on a scene is important, of course, as is the firmness of your handshake and the flow, intelligence and import of the first words you speak. But the one thing you absolutely must get right is the final impression you make as you leave. The finish, let’s say.

The nose on the Glenfiddich Malt Mater’s Edition, even now, leaves a bit to be desired. The palate is, if not excellent, at least very good. But the finish is this malt whisky’s greatest distinction. It is my favorite part of the experience of this whisky. The finish is long, very long, with a very good balance between honeyed sweetness, savory spice, and drying, oaky tannins. It is a mouthwatering combination of assets that makes me want to pour still more into my glass…

I hope this chronicle of the opening up of a malt whisky over the duration of an evening has been instructive. Whiskeys, after all, are people, too, and you must learn to give them time and a chance to impress you. Sláinte!

Glenfarclas 17 Year Old – Like French-Kissing Angels

lzdxsIf the saints in heaven drink water, I suspect it tastes like Glenfarclas. Every dram I’ve drunk at every age I could find it – 10, 12, 17, 21, 25 years old – is a fluid variation on profundity and lucid wonder. Pour a sweet measure of Glenfarclas on your tongue and you’ll be convinced you just French-kissed an angel!

Is that exaggeration? No! Is it absurd? Maybe!

In my opinion, Glenfarclas, as a full range, provides the most tenaciously dependable and the most richly sensual, sensuous experience offered by the world of sherried Scotch single malt whiskey. Drinking a Glenfarclas of advanced age, say anything 17 years or beyond, is like drinking poetry, like drinking the voice of Maria Callas or Jussi Bjorling. The 10 and 12 year olds are Billie Holiday in a glass.

Here’s what Sir Thomas R. Dewar – who, with his brother John, built the Dewar’s Blended Scotch label to international renown – had to say of Glenfarclas back in 1912:

“Glenfarclas [is] the King of Whiskies and the Whisky of Kings. In its superiority it is something to drive the skeleton from the feast and paint landscapes in the brain of man. In it is to be found the sunshine and shadow that chased each other over the billowy cornfield, the hum of the bee, the hope of Spring, the breath of May, the carol of the lark, the distant purple heather in the mountain mist, and the wealth of autumn’s rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.”

I agree, to the extent my experience allows, with every word mister Dewar says.

Well, you might argue, the Glenfarclas Tom Dewar was drinking back in 1912 is surely not the same Glenfarclas that is now available to us.

And I would reply: That, friend, is the difference between the carol of the lark and French-kissing angels – which is to say, there is no difference at all!

Seriously, though, Glenfarclas has been a family business – in the same Grant family – for 177 years, and they are known as very traditional distillers. While there have certainly been variations in the sherry casks, say, or weather extremes, or in the moods of the master distillers over the years, Glenfarclas is one single malt that very probably does taste at least quite similar to the way it did 101 years ago: In other words, I feel confident that, if Tommy Dewar were here with me tonight, he would thoroughly enjoy, and recognize, the distillery character of the Glenfarclas I pour into his glass.

It has taken me 10 or more sessions over three weeks or so, and nearly an entire 750ml bottle, to feel the least bit of confidence in describing this artfully contained mastery of nature. Everything in this whisky is so well integrated, so closely and firmly knit, that parsing it almost doesn’t feel like the proper thing to do, as if I were crassly to strip a good lady bare to catalogue her charms in public.

But, for you, dear reader, I shall overcome this reluctance…

The color is pale copper, a summer evening’s gold.

The nose is honey thinned with watery almond oil exuding unhurried wafts of fine sherry. With roasted herbs and charred hazelnuts, perhaps. A bit of citrus oil and just the slightest percolation of smoke. From the far distance, a breeze blows in through a cluster of sappy young pine trees.

The palate flows elegantly forward with ginger-spiced honey balanced perfectly with a drying sherried maltiness. There is a very slight, but sure, pine-needley, resinous, herbal trace, as if a tiny drop of the Carthusian liqueur Chartreuse had discreetly snuck onto the palate. On top of that, and nearly as slight, is an iota or two of peppermint. And just the faintest memory trace of smoke.

Some darker fruits emerge in the finish – dates and figs – but that balance of savory sweet honey and sherried malt predominates, drying slowly with scintillating richness and sure elegance.

The overall impression is one of balance – of weight and light, of crispness and pungent depth, of structure and lusty richness, as if Verdi had completely re-written a Wagnerian finale and secreted it into fine sherry oak and ex-bourbon casks for seventeen long and gentle years.

Here’s my suggestion: Buy yourself a bottle, pour yourself a dram, let it cascade neat over the rim of your glass onto your eager and excited tongue, close your eyes, lean your head back, wiggle your tongue and let your imagination do the rest…

Subaru isn’t love – this is!

Aberlour 18 Year Old – As If The Spanish Civil War and America Never Happened (Sort Of)

Aberlour_18yo_bottlepackagePlease bear with me. I will make a determined attempt to un-tie the Gordian pleasures of this whiskey a little farther on. First, I would like to take you on a time-traveling international road trip through Roman cooperage, French forests, British tastes, the Spanish Civil War, American whiskey law and, last but not least, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobia – all to explain to you just one of the reasons I love this luscious libation.

The short version is this: Whiskies matured in Spanish oak sherry casks, though now the exception, were once the rule. While the current Aberlour 18 Year Old is not aged exclusively in such casks (as earlier bottlings under this designation were), the nose and palate it provides have a very pronounced sherry-aged profile. It spends most of its years of maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, but does spend some time in American oak as well. Still, it is so damn good and has such a sherry signature that it got me wondering why the craft of maturing single malt Scotch whiskey ever shifted away from the use of Spanish ex-sherry to the predominant use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks.

Cooperage itself is an ancient art. There are references to it in ancient Egyptian painting and throughout the Bible. The word “cooper” is said to derive from cupa, the Latin word for vessel. A Roman, Strabo, writing in AD 21, high-fives the Celts in one of his books for being ‘particularly fine coopers’.

By now, coopering skills among the Celtic peoples must be inscribed in their DNA. And that’s a good thing: The whisky industry currently needs about 3 million coopered oak casks a year for maturing whisky. And coopering skills of the highest order are required for so-called “wet” cooperage – the building of oak casks that can hold a liquid without leaking.

All that need – millions of casks made of oak staves – and yet the British themselves have very few oak trees. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the belligerent empire-builders and Gallophobes clear cut most of their oak forests to build Royal Navy warships for use in fighting the French, among a world of others.

Think about that: Entire forests wiped out to build war ships: It took about 3,400 oak trees (70 acres of forest) to build one 74 gun ship. One well-placed cannon ball and 70 acres of British oak sank in splinters to the bottom of the sea!

For this reason, and with a level of acumen and foresight far beyond the piddling crania of any modern politician, the French planted immense acreage with oak saplings beginning in the early 17th Century. Once Napoleon came along, he forbade any oak tree in France to be cut down at less than 150 years of age.

On the British front, from the 17th Century onwards, various alliances, treaties and wars meant that Spain’s fortified wines – those suitable for long distance travel, such as Sherry, Port and Madeira – became available, and particularly popular, in Britain. Shipped in casks, these wines were bottled at the port of entry – Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bristol, Liverpool – and the emptied casks re-used by grateful distillers. Hence the use of fortified wine casks, primarily sherry, to age single malt Scotch whiskies.

When do American oak casks come into play? There is some evidence that American oak barrels started to be used by Scots distillers early in the first decades of the 20th Century. Just when, exactly, is hard to pinpoint, but the U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits requires that bourbon and rye whiskey be stored “in charred new oak containers” – “new” being the operative word for our purposes here, because “new” means those barrels cannot be re-used for the aging of bourbon or rye. Charring, by the way, came into practice when oak barrels used to transport fish were later used to transport whiskey! Charring got rid of the stink!

In any case, I assume those American distilled spirits standards were originally formulated after the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and maybe a couple of decades later when the fights over prohibition came to a boil and stern, opprobrious control over whiskey and its distillers became all the blithering rage.

Nonetheless, by writing those standards, tens of thousands of used-once bourbon casks became available to Scottish distillers. And in 1915, the Brits passed their law requiring that whiskey be aged in oak containers for a minimum of three years. Some things – not much – but some things in the realm of historical coincidence actually do work out for the best!

Still, there must be more at work here. Though I haven’t come across this notion anywhere else, it seems to me that a major cause of the shift from Spanish sherry casts to American ex-bourbon barrels lies hidden in the annals of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from July 17, 1936 until April 1, 1939.

But first came the phylloxera epidemic, which originated in North America and crossed the Atlantic in the last half of the 19th Century, ravaging the grape vines of France and nearly destroying the French wine industry (and thereby much enlarging the market for Scotch whiskey because Cognac, made from grapes and very popular with the British, became a very scarce commodity).

Eventually, in the last decades of the 19th Century, this epidemic crossed the Pyrenees and attacked Spanish grape vines as well. However, the desolation of the Spanish wine market was much less severe because the remedy – grafting American rootstock to European vines – had already been discovered by the time the epidemic hit Spain.

Anyway, a few decades pass and we come to the mid-‘30s and the Spanish Civil War, during which the entire Spanish wine industry suffered greatly as vineyards were neglected and wineries destroyed throughout Spain. Important regions such as Catalonia and Valencia were particularly hard hit.

Consequently, exports of fortified Spanish wines, and of the casks they came in, dwindled to almost nothing. It is worth noting that the Spanish Civil War began just two years after prohibition was repealed in the United States. And when prohibition was lifted, demand for Scotch whiskey soared in the U.S. The Scots had to get their barrels somewhere and the U.S. made perfect sense.

Further darkening of the prospects for Spanish wines came with the Second World War, which closed off European markets to Spanish exports and further damaged its economy.

Given all of these converging factors, there were far, far fewer ex-sherry casks available for use by Scottish distillers, and those that were available were exorbitantly costly (as they still are). So, following as it does upon the dictates of both history and finance, the general shift to the use of American white oak ex-bourbon casks comes as no real surprise.

The final nail in the sherry cask coffin came with the outlawing of bulk shipments from Spain to the UK in 1981, just one of the xenophobic laws enacted under that blunt-edged iron battle ax called Margaret Thatcher.

And thus, with all this, we arrive where we are today: Approximately 97% of all Scotch whisky now maturing is maturing in casks made of American white oak.

Meaning, unfortunately, that people who really know the art and craft of whiskey maturation with sherry casks are disappearing from the industry. And as a consequence of that, just a tiny fraction of Scottish single malt is now matured – as distinct from “finished” for a few months or a year – in sherry casks.

And thus we come back to the wondrous, sherry-soaked aromas and tastes of the Aberlour 18 Year Old. I hope you enjoyed our circuitous little trip!

The distillery manager and master blender at Aberlour – Alan Winchester and David Boyd, respectively, at the time the whiskey in this bottle was put in cask – surely knew what they were doing. While I am not sure why they made the recent shift from exclusive maturation in Spanish ex-Oloroso sherry casks, I do know that the overall character of this whiskey still shows a heavy sherry influence. Some reviewers say they can’t tell the difference between the earlier bottlings and the current product.

Here, for example:
http://www.whiskyadvocateblog.com/2011/01/05/review-aberlour-18-year-old/

So, finally, on to my review!

The nose on this coppery golden intoxicant gives wafts of sherry at first, without the least scintilla of sulfur. Soon enough, there are also raisons, baked apple, peach, some vanilla, melted sugar, a little allspice, a little caramel, rose petals and maraschino cherry juice. These aromas combine to give off something rich and rewarding, but not as powerful as one might expect. The alcohol, though only 43%, is noticeable.

On the palate, it’s the apples – fresh sliced Granny Smith and plain red baked Macintosh – that are first to pleasure the tongue, followed by more sherry, a bit of light honey, thin sugary vanilla extract, and a quietly sharp almost peppery spice – but not quite pepper. More a mix of ginger and cinnamon. Very nice, with a mouth feel that is both clean and moderately creamy.

The finish is lucid, warm and savory with vanilla on green apple slices followed by a slow, engaging alcohol burn that ends with a pleasant and mouthwatering ginger-spiciness.

From beginning to end, the high quality of this single malt is palpable.

If you do not like whiskies with a heavy sherry influence, this is probably not for you. If you like the Aberlour 16 or some of the older Glenfarclas bottles, the 17, 21 and 25, say, you should definitely give this a try. It isn’t like those, really, though its family resemblance to the Aberlour 16 (which exhibits a bit more ex-bourbon cask influence and is actually a tad smoother) is unmistakable. The comparison that is begging to be made, of course, is with The Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Cask – which is matured exclusively in Spanish ex-sherry casks – but I haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into that one just yet. Soon enough, you can be sure…

If you want more information on this whiskey, go here: http://www.aberlour.com/en/therange/aberlour18yearold.

I made liberal use of Wikipedia, several of my favorite whiskey books and the excellent Bruichladdich site in researching the shift from Spanish to American oak for aging whiskey – in particular, this page: http://www.bruichladdich.com/library/whisky-casks-and-oak

Finally, if any of my readers can tell me the date of the passage of the original U.S. Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits or lead me to a good source for such information, please do. Sláinte!