Radiant, Smiling Odalisque: The Exclusive Malts 1984 Tormore 29 Year Old

IMG_20140319_144118_246You’re at a dinner party when, suddenly, everyone ups and leaves the table, stranding you there alone with someone you know very little about. She’s beautiful, so it would be wrong to say you’re annoyed or feel abandoned by your crew, but this woman doesn’t seem to have much to say and her accent, at first, is impenetrable – she’s trying to communicate something, and you’re trying to decipher what it is, but you can’t make head or tail of it. There is something about her perfume, however; it’s compelling and becomes more compelling by the minute. You focus on that and, soon enough, you’re learning to unravel what she has to say and, ahh, what she’s saying gets you very excited!

Leaning in even closer, intimately closer, you see that she’s not as young as she at first appeared to be, but, getting to know and understand her now, you find her all the more engaging, enthralling even, and this experience once again confirms that the wisdom of age beats the sparkle of youth every time. After all, you’re no spring chicken yourself…

Appearance

She’s beautiful, as I said: A limpid gold like translucent copper shimmering in the morning sun. And she coats the glass like pellucid skin, dissolving into multitudes of threading legs that soon drape the glass like a flapper’s tasseled décolletage… Is it me or is it getting warm in here? (10/10)

Nose

First comes an aroma redolent of good bourbon or corn whiskey, but it’s vibrating at a higher frequency somehow. The overall impression is one of freshness and firmness, fresher than a 29 year old whisky has any right to be. But that is tempered by sweet malt and solid oak from what I can only imagine was a tight, high quality cask.

Other distinct aromas line up and present themselves: Granny Smith apples; the sound hole of an older guitar with a red cedar soundboard; banana chips; the breath of a colleague who’s been chewing a stick of Big Red cinnamon gum for ten minutes; freshly sawn oak flooring; Bolthouse Farms’ Vanilla Chi tea.

And there are two related, elusive aromas it took my brain a while to identify: Candy Corn, the Halloween candy, and those cheap gummy orange marshmallow confections called Circus Peanuts that never tasted like peanuts of any kind but had a very distinctive and pleasant, sweet, banana-orange-confectionary aroma.

Lots to like and nothing to dislike here, though it takes patience and effort to pull it all out. (18/20)

Palate

Where possible, the palate of this whisky reflects the nose – especially the bourbon, barley malt and fine oak, but adds fresh cooked sugar cookies, almonds, cinnamon, clove, a bit of prune juice and once again those cheap Halloween confections, Candy Corn and Circus Peanuts, but also the more immediate pleasure of demerara sugar melting on the tongue.

The demerara is emphasized by the addition of a little water, which also calms down the tannic dry ginger spiciness just a bit. Otherwise, water doesn’t do much to this elixir – it just gives back all of the good things that were there before, but amplified to a small degree. And it also brings out the Twinkies, which is a much better taste in a whisky than I would have thought.

The interest and variety found in the nose are expanded on the palate. Pretty damn wondrous if you ask me… (19/20)

Finish

Long, sweet, spicy, tannic and drying – all good things if kept in balance – but quite hot (not all that surprising with an ABV of 51.4%), even with the addition of plentiful water. And the combination of gingery spice and heat, though it does reach the chest, is more focused on the tongue and upper throat. A flaw, a failing or a foible, take your pick, but not one of sufficient magnitude to render this anything less than a fine whisky overall. (15/20)

Balance/Structure

Everything about this whisky is firm and fresh – by which I mean solid, intense and lively. Still, it doesn’t resemble a young or otherwise under-aged whisky at all. There is no spirituous taste here, but neither does it impress as overly rounded-off or subdued by age. The wood is there – this was casked for 29 years, after all – but it is distinct, firm and strong, not soggy or doddering in any way, as if the cask and even the cellular structure of the oak staves making up the cask were tighter than those in your typical barrel somehow. I suspect this was matured in a rather frigid corner of the warehouse. And again: Everything feels wonderfully integrated, nothing feels disintegrated. Nearly everything in the nose reappears and works to enrich the palate, which expands from there. The more I drank from this bottle, the more I savored and appreciated it: A fine, well-built, well-tended whisky. (18/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Sensuality as sensation, the soft vibration of a satisfied desire. It’s like waking up on a Sunday morning after a long, satisfying sleep, your head still buried in a soft down pillow while your elusive but unperturbing dreams dissolve. There is something, though: The room you’re waking up in, though not exactly chilly, isn’t as warm as you’d like it to be.

So, Femme, yes, but not femme fatale.

And while this isn’t the metaphysical vortex of seductive profundity one can reach after a few deep drams of some of the more outré Longrows and Ledaigs, it is a no less compelling pleasure. This buzz is more sensual, more sultry, more hedonistic and restful – Debussy at his most engulfed, a liquid equivalent of Jules Lefebvre’s glowing, smiling concubine, Djémilé. Was that her name, that woman at the table? (7/10)

Total points for this whisky: 87

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Lefebvre’s DjémiléJules_Joseph_Lefebvre_-_Djémilé

Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral

Unwashed Sirens and Poppy Tears: Cadenhead’s Small Batch Ledaig Aged 16 Years

IMG_20140310_123428_528Savoring this whisky is like smoking opium at 3am in a slat hut hidden deep in the humid Cambodian jungle while watching, transfixed, the mythical Sirens’ sultry and alluring dance. There is a warm steam rising through the floorboards, mixing with the protean opium ghosts that waft like smoke to the ceiling, and the pungent, earthy aromas of the perspiring dancers permeate the air. My heart is beating slowly and I feel a deep, penetrating calm, but thrill and excitement are cascading through me like a Beijing fireworks display…

Yes, this malt is that good. Which is, evidently, a singular opinion. The only other reviews I’ve found (two) rate this independently bottled single malt as lacking complexity and interest, scoring it in the mid-80s at best. I could hardly disagree more. I swear, this must be the whisky they serve the highest ranking libertines in the penthouse suites of hell. It is liquid heaven for the epicurean damned, a lost elixir of Sybaris, brimstone for the brimstone connoisseur.

Appearance

In the glass, it isn’t very promising. The color of pale straw or diluted apple juice, it appears to have taken very little from its cask – which I reckon was a refill bourbon hogshead. Swirl it about and you’ll see it coats the glass (not surprising at 56% ABV), leaving a very well-defined “high water” mark. Once the legs form, they are thin but languid and slow to descend. (7/10)

Nose

Rising vapors begin seducing the nostrils as soon as the dram is poured – not quite as explosively as with the Lagavulin 12 CS, but you’ll know there’s an open glass of peated whisky nearby. This is pungent with a hint of decay, as if late autumn’s dying vegetation has been dried over a raging peat fire. The odor is a bit narcotic. The smoke on the nose is Laphroaig-like, but not entirely. A mingling, say, of 65% Laphroaig peat smoke with maybe 35% Longrow peat smoke. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both Laphroaig and Ledaig purchase their malted barley from the same maltings house (very likely Port Ellen) and have them peated to more or less the same levels. There is none of that Laphroaigy maritime iodine in the nose of this Ledaig, just a similarity in the character of the smoke.

Fortunately, there is a lot more than peaty smoke going on here. Just beneath the smoke and necrotic vegetation, there is the scent of a rubber inner tube. There is tobacco and the aromas of both real lemon and Lemon Pledge – and a hint of wintergreen, as from a pink Necco Wafer. I also pick up burned toast that has been buttered and white fish grilled with a bundle of sage. There is both a mineral flintiness and an autumnal earthiness integrated into the nose here – sort of a full helping of natures flora before anything has bloomed.

You know there was a fire here in the recent past, but this is nature in a state of recovery.

And finally, a suggestion of sourdough bread. Sounds like a stretch, I know, but I had a loaf of sourdough bread in the kitchen so I went there and cut myself a slice. Sure thing, that was an element in the nose of this hefty Ledaig.

I found all these aromatic constituents in the nose over two long nights, savoring my drams both neat and with water. How a whisky can integrate all of these aromas and reeks into a coherent, savory redolence without losing its solid sense of care and freshness is beyond me, but the people responsible for this whisky have done it. (19/20)

Palate

The first thing that strikes one is the gorgeous mouth feel, both oily and coating, and that is followed by a wonderfully peaty, mineralesque and malty burn. The palate here is significantly better than that of the distillery bottling at 10 years old, which I find similar but simpler and a little off. Here, a pool of liquefied malt sugar delights the center of the tongue while fiery ginger spice excites along the sides and a saltiness bites softly at the tip – lachrymosa, the gentle saltiness of tears! I also get a suggestion of a dense apple variety – Macoun, perhaps. The oily viscosity brings on an impression of butter. There is also a nutty taste, but I can’t narrow it down – not walnuts, not almonds and certainly not peanuts. Pine nuts, perhaps. And, finally, there it is again – I’m tasting the crust from my slice of sourdough bread buried deep in the heart of this whisky!

So this whisky brings you your malt and peat, your fruit and your ginger, your nuts and salt and sourdough bread, all delivered with a silky, coating mouth feel. This is very, very good whisky, but not quite as complex and compelling on the palate as it is in the nose. (18/20)

Finish

This elixir doesn’t just surround the heart; it embraces it and wraps it in a blanket of soft, warm sensation. A sweet, savory malt is followed by a bit of citrus, a little salt, a zest of ginger and – appearing for the first time – a whisper of prunes. As it goes it dries, exposing soft tannins, and you feel it, delighted, all the way down. (20/20)

Balance

The integration of so many elements in this single malt – from peat smoke and earthy pungency to lemon and a whisper of wintergreen to grilled fish and sage, tobacco and bread, barley malt, ginger, butter, malt sugar, mild salt and nuts – is wondrous to behold. I spent a lot of time with this whisky and it kept me interested and sufficiently curious to stay devoted to my task through it all. It’s only flaw – and I hesitate to use that word – blemish, perhaps? foible, even? – emerges in the slight imbalance between the endless interest of the nose and a palate that was a smidgen less compelling. For that, it loses one point. (19/20)

Quality of the Buzz

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, stands before a mural depicting tragic battles of the Trojan War, and he says: Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
 sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent (“Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards; 
there are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”). That came to mind as I sat down to write this final section. It is very late, the wee hours, when “mortal things touch the mind”. And there is that breath-catching, mind-focusing, melancholy phrase: Lacrimae rerum, the tears of things. The most profound, moving experiences in life are often accompanied by that feeling for “the tears of things” – that sense of the melancholy core at the ontological center of all human things, all human history, all family history, of every individual human life.

This whisky, in my opinion, is made for those nights when our perspective on our own lives and on the cosmos broadens and we sense the diminutive part we play, our infinitesimal duration, and how much sweeter and more precious that renders life, time, and all we hold dear.

This whisky – and only one other in my experience, the Longrow 7 Gaja Barolo, which remains the benchmark for this experience – will help you get to that place of honesty, and to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Is that a ridiculous thing to write about a whisky? Am I claiming this malt has metaphysical qualities? Well, no, not quite, but it may help get you to a place where your thoughts attain such qualities; a place that, ultimately, will render you more deeply human than you might be now. It is – and I am only half joking here – an Elixir of Transcendence. You can’t seriously believe mankind has pursued inebriants such as this for so many centuries just to find a means of letting off steam and of having a laugh with the old gang, can you? No, this is confirmation: Drinking great whisky is an act of alchemy, of turning dross to gold, of daring to go deeper into one’s own mind. Sit alone with this whisky some lonely night and follow where it leads. (10/10).

Total points for this whisky: 93

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Euclid Standing in the Morning Light: The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

exclusive-malts-bunnahabhaain-1991For 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.

Appearance

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)

Nose

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)

Palate

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)

Finish

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)

Balance

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

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Esse Quam Videri: What Is a Perfect Whisky and Why Must We Give It a Score?

cas1There is probably no such thing as a perfect whisky – or is that only true if our standards are unrealistically high? If a single malt I’m drinking has no noteworthy faults, no glaring lacunae, no salient aspect I can imagine improved or wish were better – if it has captivated and delighted my senses – why not declare it perfect? Why not give it 100 points? We say Michael Jackson was conservative in his ratings while Jim Murray is perhaps too generous, but even Jim Murray, who evidently gets to taste everything produced in a still of any sort anywhere in the world, has never declared a whisky perfect. What’s he waiting for? What’s the ideal he measures his malts against? May I have a sip?

What whiskies did Michael Jackson choose to drink when sequestered in his favorite lair away from the demands of whisky journalism? What bottles do Jim Murray, Dave Broom, Dominic Roskrow, Gavin Smith or the great Ian Buxton and Charles MacLean go back to again and again? Being professionals, they don’t tell us – but we all know those bottles exist. We all know these men drink sometimes, or often, for the pure pleasure of drinking, reaching when they do for bottles they’ve reached for many times before and will reach for again and again; if that weren’t so, they wouldn’t be in the careers they are in.

But there’s something else. Even if we could know what these great whisky writers’ first choice malts were and are, there is one thing I strongly suspect: No two would be the same. What one great whisky scribe cherishes, the others might not esteem highly at all. Fans of these writers might even be appalled to learn how many blends would be top shelf in the cabinets of their whisky heroes. I know myself that I have tasted whiskies I only swallowed out of politeness because they were offered by friends who revered them – friends, I should add, whose taste in whisky I respect. I’ve spoken to many whisky ambassadors who prefer the 12 year old, say, from the distillery they represent, to the 25 or 30 year old. Mention Glenfarclas to malt professionals from any distillery or distributor and you are bound to hear a string of enthusiastic compliments. Even The Nose himself, I suspect, Mister Richard Paterson, takes great pleasure in whiskies other than Dalmores and younger than 50 years.

But let me try to funnel this torrent of words into something like a point…

Writing this blog, it is becoming clear to me that saying anything of lasting value about a particular whisky is probably beyond accomplishing. And scoring whiskies, something I have vehemently and vociferously resisted until now, is like writing your will and testament in sand even as the waves roll over it. A rating is simply a snapshot of a thousand variables, all at once – from the condition of your nasal passages to the mood you’re in to the unique sensitivities of your particular palate to the amount of oxidation the malt has undergone to the density of allergens and aromas in the air to the level of intellectual energy you can muster to what other whiskies you’ve recently drunk to the temperature in the room and the lamps in the room to how tired or razzled or manic you are to the dew point and the season and the barometric pressure to what you had for lunch and what you dreamed last night and the personality of the last person you talked to on the phone… At least a thousand variables!

Not to mention the level of alcohol in your blood by the time you finish scribbling your review…

But friends can be very persuasive, and my best whisky friends have made it very clear that they want to see a number or a letter grade at the bottom of my reviews. One good friend has even insinuated that my choice not to include such ratings could be a sign of cowardice on my part, an unfortunate flaw in my character…

Well, listen up, Buddy: It isn’t cowardice that’s been keeping me from scoring whiskies. I ain’t no pusillanimous milquetoast man. What has stopped me is my aversion to spending precious time doing meaningless things. And I still consider scoring whiskies to be too subjective and too narrowly time-stamped to be of any but the most superficial use to anyone.

Furthermore – and please be honest here – how many of you peek ahead to see the score at the bottom of a review before you finish reading it, and then don’t finish reading it? How many of you skip forward on Ralfy to check out his “malt mark” before sitting through all 20 minutes of his most-discerning-nose-in-the-world reviews? If you take reviewing seriously and would like to be read, are those not good reasons to not include a score?

But I’ve decided I shall do just that: Score the whiskies I review. For no better reason, perhaps, than to see my whisky buddies smile in triumph. To that end, I’ve been trying to come up with a meaningful way to do a meaningless thing. What aspects of a whisky am I looking for when I have time to really focus on savoring it? Here, with the weight (number of possible points) on the left and the savoring category on the right, is what I have so far come up with:

10 – Appearance / color, legs, etc.
20 – Nose / discernable aromas
20 – Palate / discernable tastes
20 – Finish / final discernable tastes, tongue, throat, chest, etc.
20 – Balance / of distinct and complimentary aspects
10 – Intoxication / the quality of the buzz

The first five of these categories you see everywhere and therefore I feel they require no explanation. You will easily determine what I mean by them in context. The final one, however, may need a bit of expounding upon. By “intoxication” and “quality of the buzz” I mean exactly what those words imply: The relative intensities of wafting sensations that delineate the altered state one enters when one has imbibed sufficient drammage of a distilled and oak-matured liquor. The buzz one gets from some whiskies can actually be agitating or, if finer, energizing, which I suspect is a consequence of more than ethanol alone, while other whiskies offer a buzz of pure warming pleasure or ease and a lulling vagueness as from the river of Lethe in Hades, whose waters when drunk made the souls of the vexed and disconsolate dead forget their happy lives on earth. I include this category because I am convinced, from a lifetime spent among good-natured drinkers, that almost nobody would imbibe this glorious stuff if the reprieve of inebriation weren’t an assured and inevitable portion of the experience.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. What is a perfect whisky? It is that drink that gives pleasure and opportunity to all of the senses, that eases the path to enjoyment of conversation and of the company of friends, family or strangers, that unfetters the tongue to speak from the heart, that helps us to forget, if only for an evening, our hardships and sorrows, obligations and trials; that persuades us to abide the nettlesome embarrassments and merciless inevitabilities of the human condition and of life on this planet in these maddening times and, instead, calls us to move with the music and dream with the dreamer, to express our loves and our friendships fully and, finally, that gives us courage sufficient to see ourselves as the forsaken specks of dust we are in a universe that expands beyond comprehension, which in turn makes our loves and affections all the stronger and helps us to be truthful even to ourselves, and to forgive ourselves, and to forgive even life and time itself. That is the perfect whisky.