Simple as a Diva’s Sotto Voce Resolve: The Maltman’s Mortlach Aged 13 Years

USA-MORTLACH-13Compared to The Maltman’s 19 year old Glenlossie that I reviewed a few days ago, this exquisite Mortlach is somehow less complex and yet at the same time more refined. Which is really saying something. Once again, this is as firm and well-made as any whisky out there – it presents itself to the nose and palate with the confidence of an archangel. You can taste the quality of the cask and of the patient, sophisticated hand of the master that guided its maturation in the solid structure this whisky exhibits, from the silken creamy texture and cool minty-peach-menthol center to the white-peppery dark coffee and nutmeg clove finish.

Surprisingly, there’s a slight suspicion of smoke in there, just the slightest wisp, as on a soft breeze coming in from a fire at a far distant candy store. The sweetness here is, in fact, what I’m having the most trouble identifying. It’s not honey. It’s not sugar, Demerara or otherwise. It’s reminiscent of a fructose of some sort, but also of those spongy orange circus peanut candies – and of candied orange and mango and lime. Malt sugars, I suppose. There’s a fruitiness, but it’s neither fresh nor dried. It’s almost the firm fruitiness of fresh cut cherrywood.

For all this talk of candies and sugars, there is nothing cloying about this whisky whatsoever.

Well-bred as an Olympian athlete, compelling as a Chaplin waif, yet as refined as the fingers of Alice Coltrane or Bill Evans. This stuff is Maria Callas singing an elegant, slow-burning Bellini aria. Add a drop of water and, well… If The Maltman’s Glenlossie Aged 19 Years was complex as the second great quintet of Miles Davis (with Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams), this 13 year old Mortlach is as simple, stirring and piquant as an earlier Davis, now soloing over Gil Evans’ orchestrations. Add another drop of water and it’s as if Davis has inserted his softly searing Harmon mute.

This is a fine – not a pungent nor especially powerful – but a fine, fine whisky. It’s both spellbinding and easy drinking, so, when pouring your own drams, be a bit more restrained than I have been tonight. I have several dozen open bottles of very good whisky not ten steps from where I’m sitting right now, but, drinking The Maltman’s Mortlach Aged 13 Years, all I want is more of the same. It’s that good.

I’m aware that I have not written this review out in the usual, speciously logical Nose then Palate then Finish manner. So be it. This whisky is an holistic experience. I’ve tried to communicate that.

For those of you who demand logic in your whisky reviews, there are clips of music attached below to give you a sonic sense of my experience with this whisky…

However, before closing, I must comment on a whisky tasting I attended a few evenings ago in Taunton, MA at Andy’s Market – that sparkling oasis in the midst of soot, skank and mill city squalor presided over by the very generous and civilized Bikram Singh. Every time I walk in there and scan the Scotch whisky selection, I simply can’t believe I am where I am.

In any case, on Friday, February 21, the global ambassador for The Maltman bottler, Meadowside Blending of Glasgow, Scotland, one Mister Andrew Hart, Keeper of the Quaich, and the very erudite Whisky Professor himself, Mister Brad Jarvis, presented a tasting of a range of bottlings from The Maltman to a dozen or so Tauntonian Scotch whisky dev-O-tays. The result was the best whisky tasting I have ever attended.

Seriously.

Most importantly, every The Maltman release presented, from the wondrously pungent Ledaig 8 year old to the exquisitely fulsome Glenlossie 19 year old, ten whiskies in all, was astoundingly good.

Just as importantly, Andrew Hart and Brad Jarvis know how to run a tasting for devoted Scotch drinkers, bypassing all of the “What is single malt whisky” and “What is peat” and “What does an age statement tell you” pablum that most ambassadors feel compelled to repeat again and again regardless of the sophistication of their audience. Rather, they focus, with humor and great detail, on the whiskies they’ve set out before us. Which is exactly what they ought to do.

Andrew Hart is soft spoken, humble and deeply knowledgeable of the whiskies he selects, matures and bottles in The Maltman series along with his dad, longtime whisky veteran Donald Hart. His explanations and descriptions of these single cask whiskies are so concise and well put that I’m tempted to suggest he may be the first truly poetic soul I have encountered among whisky ambassadors. It was a joy to be in the presence of such humble respect for the craft of making and maturing whisky.

Brad Jarvis is the perfect compliment to Andrew Hart. Jarvis is a man of sustained energy, deep knowledge, infectious enthusiasm and obvious, clear-eyed pride in the products he is pouring and representing.

What more is there to say? I’d go over the whiskies we sampled, but half of them are already sold out or will not be sold in the U.S. Were Brad and Andrew just teasing us? No, they were using what they had available to them to demonstrate the consistently very high quality of The Maltman’s releases. There was not a single whisky sampled that I would not have bought two bottles of on the spot if my budget were sufficiently flush. As it happened, the two releases available at Andy’s are already in my cabinet. But I can tell you this: There are releases from The Maltman series – from Linkwood, Tobermory, Ledaig, Ben Nevis, perhaps others – that will become available over the next few months and I will certainly be buying multiple bottles of those. For the foreseeable future, The Maltman is where my whisky budget will be spent. It is now my favorite independent bottler bar none.

http://www.meadowsideblending.com

Undiluted…

And with a few drops of water…

Harvesting Barley under a Pineapple Sun: The Maltman’s 19 Year Old Glenlossie

The_Maltman_Glenlossie_19This delightful whisky comes from a relative newcomer in the world of independent bottlers – the misleadingly named Meadowside Blending. While they do make blends under their Royal Thistle brand, their importance to single malt whisky drinkers comes in the form of well-managed single casks bottled under The Maltman marque. And though these names may be new, the company is run by longtime Scotch whisky veteran Donald Hart (of Hart Brothers fame) and his son Andrew, both of whom are members of The Keepers of the Quaich.

Anyhow… My first impression upon nosing this whisky is panoramic, taking in sharp, clean morning air while standing in a broad field of ripe barley. And my second impression is this: Savory Pineapple Vanilla Yeast Cake Heather and a Small Bar of Soap.

Really. All at once and clustered, but distinct.

There is an intriguing candy note in the nose here as well. Specifically, if you were to crush two orange (orange), one pink (wintergreen) and one green (lime) Necco Wafer, shake them all up in a bag and then put your nose to it – yes, that’s definitely here in this glass.

While this description of the nose may seem unnecessarily convoluted, an attempt at provoking cognitive dissonance just for the hell of it, I assure you each element I name above is standing straight and clear as a soldier bolt upright at attention. It’s like the music of Yat-Kha, mixing many disparate yet discernible elements while still inspiring you to join in its beguiling dance!

I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. In my experience, truly great whiskies are nearly always the result of a wondrous balance of desirable constituents. (Am I overstating the obvious here?) The ravishing balance of smoke, barley malt and wood in many Longrows and Springbanks, for example; the balance of sherry, spice and woody malt in a good Glenfarclas (which is most of them) or the different balances of fruit, sea salt and clean barley in the 17 and 21 year old Old Pulteneys. Mmm mmm good!

The balance here in this 19 year old Speysider, in both the nose and the palate, is an unusual one between pungency and delicacy, between billowy fragrance and earthy (not peaty – there is no peat here at all) substance. I’ve come across this before, most memorably in Signatory’s nigh perfectly balanced 14 year old Glen Scotia (the balance was a bit off by the time they released the 18 year old) – one of my favorite whiskies of all time. This Glenlossie 19 doesn’t offer quite the equilibrious thrills of the Glen Scotia 14, but it is certainly reminiscent of them. Everything about this whisky feels firm and well-made – and delightful. I’ve already bought a second bottle.

Aside from the outdoorsiness noted above, most of what one picks up in the nose remains in the palate, but now the pineapple gives way to cantaloupe, the vanilla cake to coconut, hazelnut and honey. There is also a touch of nougat here, but the overall impression remains very refreshing. Not light, but refreshing. In fact, based on descriptions of both the Lowland region and its most celebrated distillery, this tastes like I always expect an Auchentoshen to taste, but I’ve never had an Auchentoshen that tastes this good.

There is the slightest – way, way beneath the other layers of flavor – the slightest suggestion of a chewed wad of candy box cardboard and a whisper of the taste of re-chewing yesterday’s bubble gum. But these are very, very slight and only add to the complex pleasure of this drink.

The finish is interesting for the new elements it brings in: Ginger and a hint of ground clove – no pepper whatsoever – as well as something green and fresh – the taste of the smell of baby spinach leaves, let’s say. And a slight but unmistakable taste of banana arises here as well. The finish is long enough, but lacks the level of chest-warming warmth that would be – for me – ideal. And the spice in the finish is just a bit too pronounced for my taste, like the hoppiness of a somewhat over-hopped beer.

But these are mere quibbles. As I’ve said already, I went out and bought a second bottle of this and I look forward to sharing it with my most discerning friends sometime in the future.

http://www.meadowsideblending.com

Yat-Kha

Noble Blood: Longrow “Red” Edition Australian Shiraz Cask 11 Year Old Peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky

lgrob-1.11yov1Over the past six months or so (since I last wrote a review in Maltfreak – sorry!), Campbeltown has become my default Scotch region. From the figgy spiced vanilla malt promise of the newly young Glengyle (bottled as Kilkerran because Loch Lomond Distillery – in the Highlands! – owns, for no good reason, the Glengyle name), to the heathery hay floral wonders of Glen Scotia and – how, exactly, does one summarize this one? – the singular constellation of earthy, heavenly whiskies that pours like manna from the worm pipes of Springbank Distillery in county Argyll.

Between the many expressions of the Springbank Distillery, be they Hazelburn, Longrow or Springbank itself, my relationship with this one Scotch whisky maker has become like a successful marriage – which I’ve heard described as partners discovering in each other – and offering to each other – the infinite variety of the one. In every bottle from this distillery, the full round richness of the base malt is ever present no matter the age, the peat level or the finish. Perhaps it is fitting that I write this review on my 39th wedding anniversary!

THE BOTTLE

For this review, I could have chosen any bottle from a dozen and a half or so expressions of the Sprinbank distilling art that I’ve so far collected. I started tonight with a sip of the Longrow CV and a sip of the Longrow 14 year old cask strength, but ultimately settled on this year’s annual “Red” edition bottling of Longrow, this one 11 years old, matured for six years in refill bourbon hogsheads and for five years in Australian Shiraz casks. It has an ABV of 53.7%.

Overall, this is a bit lighter than many whiskies from this distillery, but it is pungent and powerful all the same. Its mouth feel is also a bit thinner, but just a tad.

UP THE NOSE

Old hand-worn steel tools closed up in an old wooden toolbox. The bell of a very old, much used, tarnished and long neglected cornet. A sharp, sweet mustiness that is almost a human muskiness. An old, dried catcher’s mitt. The soil where root vegetables were over-fertilized and left to dry in the sun.

But above all – in more conventional whisky terms – malt. Barley malt. Like flax seeds sprinkled over a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. This whisky, on the nose, is malty, woody and more specifically oaky with a light wisp of earthy Campbeltown smoke and a see-saw that goes up and down the balsamic scale from hay to vanilla to hay and to hay and to hay and hay again. And then it goes back, like a momentary shift in the breeze, to vanilla.

Some dried banana chips and dried pineapple are in there. And a smidgen of mint – or is that menthol? Putting your nose over the glass feels like putting your head halfway into a dry, empty Australian Shiraz cask this malt spent 5 of its 11 years in – plus the malt. Most definitely plus the malt. The malt is the dominant presence here – full, rich, round; a sophisticated balance of smoke, oak and barley malt – as is nearly always the case with this distillery.

And underneath it all, as under blankets of stratified aromas, the milk-sour scent of an aged farm cheese.

ON THE PALATE

This burns a bit, but it takes water well.

Leather on the tongue. Vanilla and nutty malt. Barley and milk chocolate. And gentle waves of that very distinctive, earthy Springbank smoky peat that colors and distinguishes all of this distillery’s bottlings – with the exception of the Hazelburns.

I really do love this stuff. Not quite as much as the Longrow 7 year old Gaja Barolo, but I’d say it stands as an equal – at least – to the Longrow 14 year old cask strength, despite this one’s many differences from that bottle. This may even be superior. It is not quite as richly pungent as the 14 year old Longrow Burgundy Cask (bottled at 56.1% ABV), but it is equally distinctive and just as alluring. And maybe a touch more refined as well. It is, without question, superior to this year’s bottling of the Longrow CV – which, for the money, is nonetheless a damn wonderful whisky.

FINISH

So, so long and so, so satisfying. The woodiness comes back at this point, creating a wondrous balance between sweet hay, vibrant malt, oak spice and oaky – or are they Shirazy? Or both? – tannins. And the gentle fire gets all the way down to mid chest, surrounding the heart. This is excellent stuff!

RATING

No, I will not put a number on this, nor on any whisky, despite all the cajoling, pestering and pressure from my very best whisky friends to do so. Take a look at the 2014 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and tell me numbers mean anything in this context! My personal Whisky of the Year would be, I think, the Cadenhead single cask bottling of a 16 year old Ledaig. Murray’s rating? 77.5 – which, on the Jim Murray dartboard, where nearly everything falls between 85 and 96, may as well be zero. Numbers belong to science. Drinking whisky is a passion. A single dram can shift in character over the time it takes to savor and drink it! I will not measure my passions with a ruler.