Yesterday, when I sat down with this delightful whisky to write my notes for this review, I didn’t own, nor had I ever seen, a bottle of it for sale. My tasting session was conducted with two 30ml sample bottles. Nevertheless, I do own a bottle of this extraordinary Speyside elixir today. Bikram Singh, proprietor of my favorite whisky store – Norfolk Wine & Spirits – took delivery of one case just hours before I arrived there for a Kavalan tasting this evening. Amazing synchronicity! I sometimes hear that my reviews are good but useless because the whiskies I spotlight are unobtainable. That simply isn’t true. I have found and bought every whisky I’ve ever really wanted and could afford to buy. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort, a circuitous Google search, a couple of phone calls, a long drive, extended, passionate, vigorous bartering… Still, let me assure you, dear reader: The whisky is out there. If you really want it and can afford it, you will find it.
The Glen Keith Distillery is younger than me. It was built by Seagram’s across the Isla River from the Strathisla Distillery, which they also owned, and not far from the Aultmore, Strathmill and Glentauchers distilleries, on the site of an old corn mill in Keith, country Banffshire. It was intended to turn out malt for Chivas Regal, Passport and other blends. First opened in 1958 – the same year as Tormore, to which it has similarities – it was the first distillery to use computers and direct gas-firing of the stills. Mothballed by Seagram’s in 1999 – six years after the whisky here under review was distilled – it was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2001 and reopened with an annual capacity of 6,000,000 liters of pure alcohol on June 14, 2013. There has only ever been one official distillery bottling, of a 10 year old in 1994.
This Classic Cask single cask bottling was distilled in 1993 and bottled – one of 270 bottles from cask #136 – at an ABV of 46 percent, 20 years later in 2013. Like all of this independent’s offerings, this whisky is untainted by E150a and un-chill-filtered.
If a lemon went to bed one night and woke up next morning as a melon (anagramized, you might say), this is exactly how it would smell. But there’s far more going on here than only that. I get weathered cedar hope chest out in a pear orchard, pear-flavored hard candy and just the faintest trace of Speyside solvent. I also get celery salt on almonds, pencil shavings, lemon oil polish, overripe honeydew and dusty dried dark fruit skins. There is also, as my friend Marco pointed out and I later confirmed, a mild breeze of Earl Grey Tea rising from the glass. And though this may not be proper whisky blog etiquette (is there such a thing as whisky blog etiquette?), I must say this particular Classic Cask potion presents itself to the nose in a manner very reminiscent of some of my favorite Speyside bottlings from The Creative Whisky Co.’s The Exclusive Malts range – of their 29 year old cask strength Tormore in particular. The similarities are these: There is a direct citric freshness and a startling prominence of very clean, tight, still vigorous barley malt despite decades of maturation; also fresh oak and melon scents and a patient (reluctant?) unfolding of olfactory riches. These whiskies seem to be testing you, scrutinizing your every gesture to discover if you will give them the time and focus they require. If you do, this startling Glen Keith will reward you handsomely. In my experience, this is a perfect Speyside nose; slowly, little by little, dispensing its many treasures. (25/25)
The malt on the palate is prominent but more mellow and rounded than on the nose. This is where two decades of patient maturation in a decent cask (a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, I suspect) pay off. The pleasantly oily body carries expressive soft spice along the sides and center of the tongue, never becoming forceful or sharp or overpowering. Honeydew melon peeks through the spice and malt sweetness, as does a mild, refined chocolate note that I didn’t expect. The other sweet here seems to be a mild vanilla frosting with just the faintest whisper of caramel. Dark dried fruits – dates, perhaps – seem to be calling from the distance, but they can’t quite distinguish themselves from the more conspicuous malt and spice. (24/25)
Splendid, rounded, mellow malt, mild chocolate, some oaky tannins and a patient blooming of spices at the back of the tongue that slowly cascades down into the throat to warm and stimulate the upper chest. Long, but not overly long, and not very complex, but a fine finish that does nothing wrong. (22/25)
There is both a tight, clean structure to this whisky and a very even and inviting balance overall. The arc of the experience it offers is smooth and pleasing, soaring highest at the beginning with the nose and descending slightly to the palate and finish, never exposing a significant lack or blemish or falling below outstanding. It is quite thrilling, truth be told, and one of the best Speyside whiskies I’ve ever had. (24/25)
Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.
Afterword: A Note on Presentation
I don’t usually complain about such things and I would never add or subtract points because of the aesthetic appearance of the packaging of a bottle of whisky, but the current presentation of The Classic Cask line, in my opinion, could be better. The shape of the bottle says wine, not whisky, and the layout of the label (informative, printed in legible fonts and appealing colors, I’ll give them that) looks like it was done entirely on a computer using an old version of Adobe Illustrator – with no consultation, evidently, with a trained designer or visual artist. And they shamelessly send their whisky out as such without a tube or box to keep it hidden in. I really don’t like it when my whiskies are without a tube or box to hide and protect them! Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is a line of very good whiskies – the one under review here is of stunningly good quality – but, when the nose, palate, finish and balance are as good as they are in this instance, a reviewer like myself feels the need to find something to complain about. I chose the whisky’s presentation.