I’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!