Puissant Juice of Insouciance – The English Whisky Co.’s Classic Single Malt, Unpeated, Cask Strength

article-1231476-0760BC40000005DC-463_233x423A distillate of the sweat of Hercules – or, rather, of Geb, the Egyptian God of the Earth – or maybe it’s eau de Gaia, Goddess of the Earth – or, just as likely, a distillation of the Sirens’ song that nearly drove Ulysses out of his wits.

But perhaps it’s a distillation of the natural world itself, of that half that glows in sunlight.

This is a whisky of stunning amplitude and depth and, yes, undeniably, I am enthralled by it. Until now, all of the single malts I hold dear, those I go back to again and again, have been single malt Scotch whiskeys with a date or an age statement printed clearly on the label. This one has no age statement and it comes from, of all places, England, erstwhile scourge of the Scots, “Scotland’s Mexico” as I once heard a Bowmore distillery manager joke – and, surely not least among its many sins, the nation responsible for flooding the world with the gut-peeling, vile trepidations of gin.

Still, despite its provenance, let’s get in closer to what beckons from the glass: Hot smooth rocks along the banks of a tidal river; the sandy scent of old bleached bones long dried in the desert sun.

This is elemental stuff, earthy and mineral. Leaves in an overgrown hardwood forest that have fallen to the ground, before they rot. Dry bark; cereal grains; a smidgen of raw pollen. Dried wildflowers, pussy willows, cat ‘o nine tails…

Breathe it in undiluted and it’s almost indescribable, as if a new wet sponge had sopped up Autumn, a fermentation of the naked heat of time-smoothed river rocks drying in the sun.

A hint of camphor, perhaps? A whisper of organic solvents?

Take your time and more familiar elements arise. At this point, I have devoted nearly a week of nocturnal study to unraveling this libation’s recalcitrant code. The first night I spent with this spirituous soul-wash, the first thing I smelled was Dentyne Gum, the red version, in the old flat packs. And my second thought was: Rocket fuel! And yet, there are scents of malty sugars in there, and the brittle sweetness of ribbon candy.

Much more develops with the addition of water, but we should buck up and taste this muscular dram at its undiluted cask strength first.

That first night, I opened the bottle as soon as I got home from Andy’s and left the cork off for an hour or so before pouring a wee measure of its contents into my new Villeroy & Boch nosing glass. Enticing aromas filled the room.

Swirling it in the hand-blown glass, one thing struck me immediately. This whisky, a lucid gold in hue, does not form legs. As high up the sides as you get it, it simply and evenly coats the glass. After some time, small beads form and begin their very slow descent. And, night after night, it did exactly the same thing.

Cautiously, then, I bent my nose to the glass and inhaled its emanations for a good ten minutes. Finally, I poured it over my tongue.

This is indubitably powerful stuff, a fluid containment for a force of nature, the taste of the souls of mountain men, a distillate of nature untrammeled…

Still, there are real-world comparisons to be made. At full strength, this makes me think somewhat of the Caol Ila unpeated cask strength, but without the sherry mitigation of the newest edition of that dram. It also reminds me, just a bit, of the peated Connemara cask strength single malt from Cooley, despite this “Classic” being decidedly unpeated. I can’t explain that, I’m just reporting my experience…

My first note on that first night upon first tasting it: Red Hots candy, those compact little nuggets of concentrated cinnamon sweetness and heat. But I didn’t get that on subsequent nights nor even later that first night. More consistently, one gets a light, very pleasant oakiness in the taste, and drying woody tannins balanced against a sweetness that is neither sugar nor honey, but something in between.

ewc-245x300At 60.5% ABV, it’s more than recoil that counsels adding a bit of water to this. I did so using an eye-dropper, which is the best way to observe the mesmerizing viscimetric whorls that come alive when two liquids of different viscosity – water and cask strength whisky – mix. There used to be scientists called viscimetrists devoted to the study of this naturally occurring phenomenon, but they are long gone, disappeared with the likes of hepatomists and xylomancers into the opaque mists of time. Still, I highly recommend the essay “Awakening The Serpent” found in Charles MacLean’s compelling Miscellany of Whisky, which looks into this lost science at some length.

Adding water two eye-dropper measures at a time, I finally diluted this mighty distillation to what I imagine is its sweet spot, likely somewhere around 100 proof US. Thusly diluted, this is where the rose opens and unfolds above the thorns of this whisky’s formerly brawny bearing.

Where the undiluted nose was reminiscent of, among other things, a heady autumn day, adding water transforms the olfactory experience significantly and blows the calendar back to late spring, early summer.

Immediately, thin layers of raw green vegetables emerge, celery, crushed peas and their pods, iceberg lettuce. The smell of grass in the sun, wafting mint. A breeze coming through a small pear tree orchard. But also, surprisingly, way in the back, the scent of talcum powder. Weird, yes, but, in this particular aromatic context, not unpleasant. One of my notes adds an even more obscure reference: The smell of a fresh hide banjo skin! Still, in the mix, you find those river rocks drying in the hot sun and that unspecific but pleasurable sweetness.

The finish – even diluted – is long, very long, its sweet radiating burn embracing the heart. And it is sweet, malty, a bit nutty, full, with those woody tannins directing the experience to a drying and still pungent and delightful dissipation. But it never really ends. Never before have I drunk an unpeated whisky that still mingled on the taste buds the morning after, that remained ghostly in the nose while making the morning coffee and buttering the morning chiabatta toast. Octomore, yes, but an unpeated whisky? This is the first.

It took five long nights and more than half a 750ml bottle to get me this far in my assessment of this very special drink. And I’ve already bought a second bottle. And I am contemplating the purchase of a third. Evidently, only five six-packs of this unprecedented whisky were shipped to the U.S. and, if I could afford it, I would buy them all. This is something I want all of my friends and even a few of my enemies to experience.

Check out the distillery here: http://www.englishwhisky.co.uk

I don’t rate whiskeys, but, if I did, this unpeated Classic Single Malt from The English Whisky Company’s St. George’s Distillery, Roudham, Norfolk, England, would be the first non-Scottish single malt tipple to find its place in my top ten. This is the potent, burning side of glorious, and, every time I pour a glass, my estimation of it rises.

Here are a couple of music clips to accompany your ride through this whisky. First, something that, like this whisky, is young and indisputably amazing…

And second, something powerful, stunning, intoxicating and far from ordinary…

Bunnahabhain 18 – What Makes Scheherazade Glisten in the Night?

Bottle-Shots-040The deep, rich intricacy of a dear, luxurious Persian rug, with all the stories, from text and notes, found in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights – all of this taking place on and among the opulent textile’s deep pile of lusty fibers, on a dark, warm, humid night – that’s the experience of Bunnahabhain 18 year old. This is a deep, rich, luxurious whisky. Savor it or leave it to others who will. This is, as I’ve already hinted, the glistening perspiration of Scheherazade on a warm moonless desert night. And this generous, glorious elixir of Lethe seems to glow from within, the color of translucent gold held up before a ravaging sunset. My favorite color of any whisky yet. And the mouth feel is rich, fine oil and silk.

My notes on the aromas wafting up from this whisky are a weave of interlocking redolences, more various and extensive than I can remember writing down for any other whisky.

The nose, then… First sniff… There is a fragrant mustiness that is unmistakably musty but not unpleasant in the least. Long-closed damp old room in an abandoned Victorian garden house. Moist, damp, woolen socks in the laundry closet of an athletic youth with impeccable hygiene. But these are just a few layers among a myriad. As whisky personalities go, this is Sybil’s more complex sister. Not a monster in the mix by any means, but a liquid host for multitudes!

Going back in… Baked cherries, dried cherries, sweet butter, toffee, cheap chocolate wafers from the discount grocer, spilled dried vanilla extract, thin Grade A maple syrup, black licorice, an open can of crushed tomatoes, dry sherry, a touch of citrus – lime? – candy, whole grain wheat bread, malty cereal, salted almonds, honey baked ham, and a very slight influence of peat (from a water source?) but nothing I would specify as smoke per se.

Second and subsequent sips (as the first is always preparatory): A cool, sweet savoriness with late developing spice, drying sherry cask tannins balanced with a wildflower (i.e., not cloying, but understated) honey sweetness, a sensuous warm burn, salt and white pepper, rum-soaked green herbs, those cherries again, sweet maltiness, red grapes, butterscotch candy, and the slight, unexpected taste of Marshmallow Fluff on the roof of the mouth.

The finish is classic, long, with ginger, thin honey, dark raisins in the sun, sweet malt and drying tannins and, finally, a scintillating trace of clove.

This is really, really good whisky!

No, I didn’t even mention that it hales from the most remote and unconventional distillery on Islay, ‘the whisky island’ – what difference does that make?

You can check out the distillery here:
http://www.bunnahabhain.com/

Nota bene: Thanks to Bikram Singh, I was talking to that erudite, gracious hombre Ed Kohl at Andy’s Market in Taunton, MA, the other evening, sampling several of the wondrous malts he represents, and he mentioned that his Exclusive Malts of Scotland independent bottling brand will soon bottle and distribute a single cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain. Based on the quality of other single cask bottlings in this series (the Exclusive Malts of Scotland Bowmore 11 and Clynelish 15 were particularly exquisite – and reasonably priced – in my opinion), I couldn’t possibly be more excited about this forthcoming dream dram.

Here’s some Bunnahabhain 18 sipping music. Take your time and enjoy!

Beethoven

Holger Czukay