Robust Rosewater Purr: The Creative Whisky Co.’s Exclusive Malts Glen Garioch 1994 20 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

GlenGarioch1994EM-kI have never had a full dram of the standard releases of Glen Garioch, the Founder’s Reserve, the 12 year old, etc., but I have been fortunate enough to indulge in several drams from the cask strength vintages. I remember in particular the 1991 and the 1994 and a single cask distilled in 1998 that was selected by and bottled at cask strength for Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, MA. That one was heavenly good! But they were all very good to wondrous, so the potential of this 1994 single cask had me salivating before I even opened the sample bottle…

The Whisky

Glen Garioch is one of the old ones, founded in the Eastern Highlands in 1798 near Inverurie. Its old style was that of the “smoky Highlander” (like its close neighbor, Ardmore) but the distillery now focuses on unpeated whisky – which is something you would never guess with this Exclusive Malts single cask from 1994: It hints at peat and smoke in several more or less subtle ways from many different directions. A return to the smoky Highlander style, perhaps.

As always, this Exclusive Malts bottling is unchillfiltered, unspoiled by deceptive coloration and bottled at a cask strength of 56.6% ABV after spending 20 years in a refill hogshead that (I suspect) was previously used to mature a more insistently peated whisky.

Nose

A rosewater lake dotted with islands of dark toast dripping with wildflower honey; toasted marshmallow clouds float by.

Now I walk into a shop where almonds dusted with confectionary sugar are served in waffle cones.

Open the window and a light breeze of smoky peat wafts in over the clean fur of a large sleeping cat.

I start to purr.

In a kitchen now, where apples were baking an hour ago; there is a chocolate covered cherry hidden somewhere in one of the cabinets. A young mother walks in and you can smell her infant’s hair.

Back in that confectionary shop, but, this time, warm vanilla ice cream is being sprinkled with powdered chocolate and served on charred oak staves from a dismantled cask that had previously held a peated whisky. (24/25)

Palate

Before you tasted it, you thought you would never like French toast with no butter and no syrup, but now you know you do.

Caramel being stirred over a peat fire and then poured over the maltiest of malted barleys.

Oat bread toast is fine by itself, but it is much improved with the addition of almond butter. (21/25)

Finish

A very protracted, long finish distinguished by a slow, radiating, blooming burn on the tongue that unfolds crushed almonds and oaky apples slowly, like a time-elapse flower, but suggesting nothing like a flower…

And it ends with – try to imagine this – the taste of the syrup inside a chocolate cherry, slightly peated but unsweetened. (22/25)

Overall Impressions

A very lush, satisfying whisky that combines many things I like to find in my glass and contains nothing that I don’t like. The nose is the clear winner here, but the palate, while less far-ranging and eclectic, and thus less wow-inspiring, is not a disappointment by any means. I have already made arrangements to buy a bottle of this and to have it shipped to my doorstep. (23/25)

Total points for this whisky: 90 

PS: Don’t look too closely at that illustration I used: It’s the 18 year old version of the 20 year old I’ve reviewed here that was previously released to the British market. I couldn’t find an illustration of the one I was reviewing and the label on the sample bottle was damaged.

Fandango in a Glass: SMWS 93.61 CalMac Welder’s Tea Break 14 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky 58.3% ABV

FullSizeRender copy 7This 60ml sample was sent to me by the generous people at Spirit Imports, Inc., “Purveyors of Ultra Premium Distilled Spirits” such as the distinguished lines from McGibbon’s Provenance and The Classic Cask, which are both among my favorite independent bottlers of single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve known of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) for years, of course, but I never got around to joining up and only once, long ago, had the pleasure of attending one of their tastings. So this (and another sample, which shall be reviewed soon enough) was a special treat for me – sent, as I understand it, as a sort of Valentine’s Day gift to reviewers. Ahh, yes, the perks make it all worthwhile…

With a bit of research, I found out that cask 93.61 came from the Glen Scotia distillery on Campbeltown. I’ve only had two other bottles of Glen Scotia, a 14 year old and an 18 year old, both from the Signatory Campbeltown range. I loved them both.

Getting back to the whisky at hand, let’s start with an antonym: Boring. By which I mean to say, this is one of the most compelling, most diverting whiskeys ever poured into a glass, lifted to my nose and poured over my tongue. You can inhale the aromas with your nose a good 16 inches above the glass. It’s really quite stunning, by which I mean to say hypnotic.

Nose

Dried fruits, especially raisins and pineapple. All soaking in ethyl alcohol. There’s a bit of new leather in there, a wisp of soured vanilla, marshmallow, the smell of a toasting plain bagel and maybe oak or red cedar of the type used to make the soundboard of a good acoustic guitar. A quick spray of Pledge, perhaps, but it isn’t lemon-scented. There’s something oily going on as well, some mixture of butter with equal parts almond and engine oil. And there’s the aroma (this is a first in my tasting notes) an aroma of fried chicken – not a strong aroma, but as if a plate of battered and fried strips of chicken breast was being served two tables away in a restaurant. Beneath the dried fruits I sensed on top, I also get a sliced green apple. And the aroma – late but unquestionably – of salty Spanish ham. Quite a feast for the olfactory passages! 24/25

Palate

On the palate, the butter and oil continue in terms of both taste and mouth feel. The darker crumbs from the toasted bagel have been swept together and added to some oleaginous seed oil of some kind – grape seed, maybe, but without the tannins and bitterness. Almond and maybe a touch of olive oil, too – especially if you taste it while breathing in through your nose. Baked apples but with no sugar or cinnamon. And I’d like to say green grape, but it’s something darker and older than that, an overripe burgundy wine grape, perhaps. But certainly NOT sherry. In no aspect of this whisky do I get any sense that it spent any time whatsoever in anything but an ex-bourbon hogshead of some sort, very likely a second fill. 22/25

Finish

The finish is big, long, spicy, a bit fiery and just a little smokey. I finished tasting it four or five minutes ago, but I’m still feeling its slow burn. 21/25

Structure and Balance

The structure here is tight but a bit cobbled, like a nicely wrapped croquet set that has been packaged, a bit weirdly, with golf balls and a baseball bat. Nothing bad in the package, mind you, it’s all useful to pleasure and of fair balance, but it leaves one feeling a little confused. There’s good follow-through from the nose to the palate, but the finish is less interesting than the rest and the palate is less interesting than the nose, which is a veritable smorgasbord of olfactory delights. In a book or a movie or a whisky, a too-stunning and wondrous first act can prove a detriment to the whole – and that, to a good extent, is the case here. Having said that, I would certainly like to get my hands on a bottle of this gripping, powerful elixir, if only to inhale it for hours on end. (22/25)

Total points for this whisky: 89

Like a Master Boatwright’s Apprentice: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Bunny22Bunnahabhain is one of those distilleries I can usually pick out of a line-up – especially independent bottlings of it. Its juice, in those instances, typically displays a very tight, subtle structure and has a core character that is quite distinct, with hard candy, lettuce, butter, cherries, wax and nuts at play, though the emphasis on each of these elements will differ.

Bunnahabhain ages well and age most certainly makes a difference with this elixir – which is not to say that the 8 and 12 year olds out there aren’t worthy of close attention and patient savoring – they are. But the older bottlings of Bunnahabhain I’ve had have nearly all approached greatness in one way or another.

So, if every good independent’s bottling of Bunnahabhain has strong similarities to every other (which is my experience), things like structure, level of refinement, signs of good casks and good cask management – and unusual characteristics – come forward to distinguish the best from the better and the better from the good (Bunnahabhain is always at least good). Therefore, less emphasis might be given to the flavor and aroma profiles, though there will be distinguishing individualities here as well that must be noted.

The Whisky 

This is a single cask bottling of Bunnahabhain from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line distilled in 1991, bottled in 2014 and reduced to an ABV of 46 percent. In appearance, it has a light golden honey color that, considering its 22 years in cask, suggests a second or third fill ex-bourbon barrel was used. Twirled in the glass, it displays multiple thin but slow viscometric rivulets. It was not chill filtered and is untainted by the duplicitous E150a caramel coloring.

Nose

Iceberg lettuce as ribbon candy; a large tab of sweet cream butter floating in a small cup of cherry juice; a refined earthiness (truffle?) over which a breeze of ozone floats like fog; pear juice and acetone spilled on a just-unpackaged flannel shirt; slices of Honey Crisp apple marinated in ‘lite’ caramel and Mott’s apple sauce on a slice of lightly toasted whole wheat sourdough bread. Mmm-mmm good… 24/25

Palate

Subtle, pleasant and warming. The oak comes through like the taste of the air in a small room where oak boards have been recently sawn – like walking into a room where oak floors have been sanded and tasting that! The sweetness is bitter and the bitterness is sweet, like biting into a sappy apple and chewing some seeds with the flesh. There’s a maltyness but it is tight and light. I suspect this juice came from a tight, secure, long-undisturbed cask – there are really very few signs of its rather advanced age. This drinks like a Speyside but has all the gustatory elements of the Bunnahabhain core. Which is an unusual thing but a good thing. 22/25

The Finish

Buttery candy with a whisper of white pepper and hot sauce that is thin and muted at first but follows through for a spicy, warming, moderately long finish. The kind of whisky that, once swallowed, causes one to pause for a long moment before speaking. 20/25

Structure and Balance

This has the tight architecture of The Exclusive Malts’ 26 year old single cask Bunnahabhain, but it is not cask strength and isn’t quite as good at balancing disparate elements. It also, like that 26 year old, lacks the mouthwatering maritime character that comes through in every distillery bottling I’ve had. The arc from nose through the palate is a good one, with consistent elements embellished by some unique differences, but interest falls off in the finish, which is notably simpler. Having said all that, let me emphasize that this is a very good whisky; I enjoyed drinking it very much. But I’ve been privileged to drink some very, very good Bunnahabhains and this falls a measure short of those. 20/25

Total points for this whisky: 86

A Hiccup in Trueheartedness: My Sidetracking Affaire de Coeur with California Brandy

14 - 1-1Remember these names: Hubert Germain-Robin, Ansley Coale and Dan Farber. And this book: American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution.

I’m asking you to remember what I am convinced I shall never forget. The book, by James Rodewald, is compelling from beginning to end and provides a selective but relevant and informative overview of the art of craft spirit making in America. Though I am not typically a cheerleader for American distilleries – with a few very remarkable exceptions, I prefer Scotch malt whisky in every way – this book, consisting for the most part of interviews with the distillers themselves – is a delight to read and may persuade you to sample a few or a dozen American spirits that you might never have tried otherwise. I suggest you go buy the book right now and read it. I’ll wait…

There we go… The chapter that stood out as unique for me was #7, on the Germain-Robin and Osocalis brandy distilleries in California.

After searching through five large liquor stores in my region, I finally found a store that had one bottle from each distiller, both entry-level bottlings costing about $45 each. More searching in more stores in both upstate NY and in MA has turned up nothing. I resist ordering good spirits online, but again, as so often, I am left no alternative.

As I wait for the mail, and before I get to my notes on the entry-level brandies themselves, I’d like to quote a few things Ansley Coale and Dan Farber said to James Rodewald when he was visiting their distilleries in preparation for his book.

Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin:

We keep the varietals, or even individual vineyards, segregated. We vinify them, distill them and age them separately because that gives us the maximum complexity when we blend.… 

Another thing we do, we dilute with rainwater. That’s important. Distilled water is flat and dead; rainwater’s alive and beautiful.

He goes on to say how, using that rainwater, each distillate is diluted slowly, 4 or 5 percent at a time, and that the spirit needs “about nine months to recover” from each dilution. And, from there, he says, “the real work begins” – meaning the cellar work, which Coale estimates takes up about 85 percent of his time because it is very important to know exactly what’s going on in each of his fourteen hundred French oak barrels – some new, many used, with a few being 100 year old cognac barrels – at all times.

My point in quoting and relating all this is to show how thorough and thought-out and slow and patient the entire process is if you want to make brandy as good as Germain-Robin makes brandy.

And remember: All this is new. Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin didn’t start making American brandy until the 1980s. Yes, there’s a centuries-old tradition and practice to learn from and to look back on and to use as a guide, but in America the grapes are different, vinification techniques are different, the climate is different, the soil is very different, the whole process is different than in Cognac, France, where there are 100+ year old brandies maturing in casks built in the 17th century stored in chai warehouses much older than that. It’s a truth that needs telling: Germain-Robin and Coale invented great American brandy by themselves only about 35 years ago. When you taste what they’re making, you’ll find that hard to believe.

Daniel Farber of Osocalis

Brandy is the only brown spirit that can beneficially spend time in wood for the time scale of a human life.

If Ansley Coale is California brandy-making’s pioneering practitioner, its vanguard, pinnacle and most articulate advocate, Dan Farber is its fanatical, single-minded, selfless, soulful master. While the Germain-Robin distillery produces many things other than brandy – Hangar One vodka (now sold off to a conglomerate), Low Gap whisky, Fluid Dynamics bottled cocktails, Russell Henry gin, an incredible absinthe and a line of Los Nahuales and other mezcals – all of them winners of many awards – Dan Farber’s Osocalis distillery makes only one thing: Brandy – one apple brandy and two traditional grape-based brandies including the entry-level juice I found in NY and a very highly regarded XO.

The art is to try to get the essence of great fruit, wherever it comes from. We don’t drink grape juice with dinner; we drink wine because of that transformative character that fermentation gives to that grape juice. In the same way, we ferment the fruit and extract from it the entire essence of the fermented wine. Then we put it in barrels for long periods of time to again have it undergo a transformative process and produce something new.

Having learned his craft in Cognac, France and through his friendship with Hubert Germain-Robin, Farber started out to make apple brandy but realized it could take as many as 25 years of maturation in his fine-grained French Limousin forest oak casks before he would consider it good enough for bottling; so, he turned, like Germain-Robin, to grapes. By doing so, however, he was not lowering his standards. It took seven years before he blended and bottled anything for the public – all of it from his own stills and casks, needless to say, unlike so many bottlers of bourbon and rye – and about 16 years before he blended and bottled his first XO. How he can afford to be such a high-minded, no-compromise distiller, I don’t know – but I’m certainly glad he has found a way!

Now, here’s something that, in all my endless hours of reading about Scotch and whisky/whiskey of all kinds, I never came across nor thought of for myself:

Part of the aging process of great brown spirits is the aging of the warehouse. You don’t get as much of that in bourbon because you have this rotation of new barrels in. You get a little bit of it in the rickhouse itself, but it never really gets to permeate the wood or penetrate into the whiskies because you never have that rich development of microflora on the barrels. Here, from the inception, we knew we needed to age the building, the barrels, the whole thing. You’ll never get that kind of character by just throwing spirit in a cask and putting it in a metal building. It’s not to say it’s necessarily bad or good, but if you like it that’s the only way to get it.

By “it” he means finesse and rancio, the first of which requires deep knowledge and precise, patient, unwavering application of very high standards, the best grapes, the best wood and very ancient techniques; and the second of which, rancio, does not even begin to develop until at least 10 years in cask (if the cask is the right cask, made from the right wood, its staves properly dried in open air before it is assembled and filled and stored in the right place in the right old wooden chai warehouse, I suspect). Farber is a man who, like Coale and Germain-Robin, knows his craft thoroughly and profoundly, puts all that he knows (along with all his money and time) into making his brandy, and who finds all the motivation he needs to pursue such a selfless craft in the very thing he is making: Brandy. Who wouldn’t at least want to try a spirit made by a man of such character?

TASTING NOTES

a2f97e4482498fb754cd19532c9589b9Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy 40% ABV

I opened both this bottle and the Osocalis the night I brought them home; at the time, this Germain-Robin struck me as slightly superior despite some real similarities between the two. The color on this is a gorgeous translucent copper. On the nose there is cedar and a fresh fruitiness that is mostly grape (not of the too-fragrant Welches grape juice kind; the components here are primarily colombard, with pinot noir, riesling, zinfandel, all of various ages, but each aged at least six to seven years, blended in); there is a hint of marshmallow, and oak sugars of a far more confectionary kind than one experiences with spirits aged in new white American oak, which seem far less subtle by comparison. In the mouth, one is immediately struck by the rich, refined quality of the drink, by how rounded this is despite it being ever so slightly spirity, by a warming grape-fruitiness and a very long, slow burning, fragrantly flavorful finish. The influence of the limousin oak cask is both ever-present and nuanced – yet there is a slight sharpness that I’m sure more time in such tight-grained casks would tame. Despite its relatively young age and it’s entry level status for this distillery, this is obviously an exercise in soft, fragrant delicacy unlike (though not necessarily better than) anything I have ever experienced in grain-based whiskeys. And for $45 this is absolutely superb.

OsocalisOsocalis Rare Alambic Brandy, Lot No. IX, 40% ABV

I am pouring the final drams of these brandies from their respective bottles tonight and I will replace them both as soon as possible. However, if I found myself staring at bottles of each, but having only enough cash to pick up one bottle, I would be going home with the Osocalis. Don’t get me wrong, the Germain-Robin is superb and, upon first impressions, it seemed a shade superior to me. The Germain-Robin was “easier” and more rounded at first, while the Osocalis leaned ever-so-slightly to a more monolithic youthfulness. Nonetheless, as the eight or so days I’ve been sampling these fine spirits have gone by, oxidation has blessed the Osocalis, in my opinion, with somewhat finer qualities. Though the color, a pellucid copper, is very similar, the legs here are slightly slower and the mouthfeel just a bit more oily and substantial. On the nose, the Osocalis has become far fruitier, far grapier than the Germain-Robin, though the influence of the limousin wood is less obvious here – making me suspect that the Germain-Robin has some older brandies in the blend. That only makes sense considering Germain-Robin was fired up at least a decade before Osocalis. Still, there is something here, in the fresher, more complex fruitiness and the less obvious influence of the fine-grained French oak, that makes this Osocalis experience one of immense promise – and for some reason I find that more exciting. The Germain-Robin is a better example of the art of blending, perhaps, but the promise contained in this Osocalis is, as I said, immense, and that, too, is of appreciable merit. On the palate, the Osocalis is a jot more flavorful, more intense, but still so well-rounded it could almost be called “smooth”. Yes, there is more youthfulness here, but there is nothing spiritous about it whatsoever. And the finish here is, if anything, even longer, more flavorful, more complex.

For the single malt Scotch drinker, I think the Osocalis may be more than minutely more satisfying because it is (just) more discernibly rich in complexities. But anyone who reads this – and especially you, my good friends and Ethanolics – should run out and buy both of these exquisite bottlings as soon as possible and give them a thorough savoring. You’ll be amazed, I promise – and, if not, well, I’ll gladly take those bottles off your hands!

A Fine Full Day in a Dram: Chieftain’s Glentauchers 1992 20 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

2014_07_09_22.40.28__76938.1405292116.1280.1280Life is good. That is a proposition that hadn’t occurred to me for months. There is so much stress and so little free time in my current situation – working a full time research and editing job, booking and promoting musicians and bands for a struggling venue I bought with friends about a year ago, renovating a house built in 1880, inside and out, down to the original studs and shingles, and taking on the responsibilities of a general contractor for the first time in my life, and so on and so on and so on and on… So busy, I declare, that I haven’t had sufficient leisure to make time for whisky, friends or reflection.

All that changed last Friday night. I made plans to visit with some of my old Ethanolics Club chums back in Massachusetts – let’s call them Bikram, Tom and Patrick (because those are their names!) – as well as with some newbies to the club – let’s call them Deepak and Nitish.

It is always good to meet up with old friends and to meet new people who share a common passion, and that was surely the case that night. Still, for me, the core experience of that gathering, the aspect of it that glowed most warmly and with such unstinting radiance, was the brimming generosity – of both spirit and spirits – displayed by all present. Some of the best whiskies I’ve ever drunk in my life were, in fact, drunk that night. An exquisite older bottling of a 15 year old Lochside, a luxurious 16 year old Laphroaig, a cool and very fine 18 year old Caol Ila, a fertile and sumptuous 25 year old Highland Park – each from a different independent bottler – were among the riches offered so freely that night. Good conversation and good food, great whisky and great friends… As I was driving away, circumspectly as you might guess, to stay at the home of another deeply generous soul – let’s call him Brad – I kept repeating something of which I was so glad to be reminded: Life is good. And indeed it is. Life is… Good!

The Whisky

I’ll tell you right up front, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I wish I had had it in hand to bring to my old and new friends that night. The bottle is very limited – only 265 bottles from a single cask – but it’s still around if you dig hard enough. I dug and I found it.

You can learn more about the distillery here: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/glentauchers.html.

And you can learn more about this storied independent bottler here: http://www.ianmacleod.com/brands/chieftains.

This particular single malt is quite light in color considering its advanced age; the color of white oak tears, perhaps.

With an ABV of 59.5% – after 20 years in an ex-bourbon hogshead! – you’ll want to get your distilled water ready right at the start; if you skip that step, the biting alcohol will overpower and conceal much that this dram has to offer.

The legs are narrow, both fast and slow, but mostly slow, and promising.

Nose

Rose petals macerated in ethereal rum oil sprinkled with cinnamon and oak bark dust.

Big Red gum dampened with a drop or two of Afrin nasal spray (Oxymetazoline).

Wildflower (“drier” than clover) honey blended with Japanese curry.

Or perhaps the spice is chat masala, made with coriander, cumin, dried red chile peppers and a touch of amchoor, but little salt and almost no black pepper.

Which is not to say this is too spicy: It is not. The spice rides over the soft warm fruit of this redolent dram like a warm breeze over supple, sunbathing flesh.

There’s just the slightest note of smoke, like the wet earthy energy that rises off fire-roasted tomatoes – but without the crushed tomato smell.

All of the above revealed itself with a bit of water. It is all a bit hotter and hidden if you nose it uncut.

Good complexity with some unusual, unexpected elements. 23/25

Palate

Straight, this nearly 120 proof elixir pulls no punches, but stings and numbs the tongue and lower gums.

Still, a wholesome wave of non-citric fruits poached in liquefied honey crystals pushes through the fire.

Add several drops of water and you get slices of ripe cantaloupe melon floating in light sugar and agave syrup.

And you notice a pleasant, sensual, slightly oily mouth feel.

The fruitiness has a nice astringency, like tannins slightly puckering a fruity Shiraz.

There’s a grassy barky earthiness to this, but with an un-cloying sweetness, like some craft sarsaparilla root or birch beer soda.

From the nose, the “dry” wildflower honey and the complex multicultural spice follow through to the palate.

And, again, good complexity (though a bit less complex and enticing than the nose) with earthy, sweet and spicy surprises. 21/25

Finish

The confluence of a high octane unfiltered ABV, warm fruit, measured sweetnesses and a global spice mix, combined with a tannin-like astringency that nonetheless holds itself a few paces back from “too dry” – and you have the formula for a long, tantalizing, warming finish – which is precisely what you get here. 23/25

Balance/Structure

The structure of this whisky is a weave of disparate elements that results in a very full, beguiling experience that brings the drinker across a single bridge from sight to nose to palate to finish – a bridge with remarkable twists and turns, all worth taking. This is well-tended, well-aged, well-structured and nicely balanced whisky that responds generously to close scrutiny. Lovely and robust simultaneously. 23/25

Total Points for this whisky: 90

A very special thanks to Adam Maur and to ImpEx Beverages for the samples.

Speyside Beauty: The Classic Cask’s 1993 Glen Keith 20 Year Old Single Cast Single Malt Scotch Whisky

IMG_20140613_225039_776~2~2Yesterday, 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 Whisky

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.

Nose

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)

Palate

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)

Finish

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)

Balance/Structure

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)

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Total points for this whisky: 95

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.

Icarus in a Bottle: The Classic Cask’s 1989 Bunnahabhain 24 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

icarus9In Greek myth, Icarus was the son of the master inventor Daedalus. When Icarus and his father are about to attempt an escape from Crete with wings that Daedalus constructed from feathers, twine and wax, the father warns his son first of being too complacent and then of pride, what the Greeks called “hubris”. Do not, daddy Daedalus told his son, fly too low, nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would weigh the wings down or the sun’s heat would melt the wax holding the wings together. Icarus ignored his father’s instruction not to fly too close to the sun and the melting wax caused his wings to disintegrate and Icarus to fall into the sea, where he drowned. Yes, this has something to do with the whisky here under review.

The Whisky

Oily in appearance when rolled in the glass, this elixir is a vibrant, brassy color, like soft, pure gold hammered so thin it becomes translucent. Like all the whiskies in The Classic Cask line (in my experience, anyway), this whisky is from a single cask, un-chill-filtered, untainted by the deceits of E150a and bottled at an ABV of 46 percent. Despite a couple of tastes and aromas that hint vaguely at a bit of sherry maturation, I suspect this juice was aged for it’s entire 24 years in a second- or third-fill ex-bourbon hogshead.

Nose

Juniper berries dipped in varnish and then rolled in watermelon flavored Kool-Aid powder. Below that, the compelling aromas of banana cream pie, a nutty maltiness and vanilla butter, if there is such a thing. There’s the ghost of an almost sour astringency, as if the person next to you bit into the white of a watermelon rind. The ghosts of peat and smoke are even farther off and more diaphanous. I get just a touch of rose water, too, and, above that, an approaching field of heather and carnations (we are driving through the country with the top down, evidently). Also some whole grain bread in there, last Saturday’s cut grass, and cookie dough – but cookie dough for which the recipe substituted lime juice in place of water. Quite a broad and diverse yet enjoyable sojourn across the olfactory bulbs… (23/25)

Palate

The warm and luxurious, mouth-coating light maple sugar sweetness of the delivery here may be the best I’ve ever experienced. For at least a few seconds after you take a sip, as this potion covers and coats the tongue, this is the best whisky you ever had. Anything this opulently perfect can’t last, of course, but that delivery may be worth the price of admission to this entire show. I sipped and sipped and sipped and sipped to keep experiencing that sumptuous few seconds of velvety tongue-bliss over and over and over again, as if I’d found a tiny fountain of splendiferous oral pleasures… And after those repeatable few seconds of heaven pass, you’re still in good territory, but now you’re back down on a recognizable planet. There is a whole grain bready wholesomeness to this second act, which is followed by alternating waves of malt and maple sugars. The nuttiness is still there, and just the slightest hint of nutty astringency along with a nice fluid saltiness and just enough spice to engage the back of the tongue. (24/25)

The Finish

Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe… Everything was going so well before this! Have I somehow swallowed a whisky other than the one that had just been bathing my tongue with such purring pleasures? I fear that isn’t the case. Beautiful Icarus, once again, has flown too close to the sun! Those ghostly whispers of astringency in the nose and palate become fully incarnate and unmistakable here. The malty sweetness is still present, but it is coupling with a pronounced bitterness. Are these oak wood tannins getting out of hand after 24 years? Yes, very likely, but that’s not exactly how this strikes me. It’s more a dance of sweetness and astringency and astringency is either a better dancer – winking at bitterness all the while – or it is just more noticeable because of the wondrous, complex waves of sweet one was experiencing just seconds before. It’s the contrast here that disappoints – this is really not all that bad a finish, but it is distinctly sub-par relative to the broad arc of complexity in the nose and the near perfection of the palate. And the spice becomes an assertive, radiating burn that swells and then fades rather quickly, leaving an astringent maltiness to slowly lose its luster at the back of the tongue. (18/25)

Balance/Structure

What can I say? This experience was like listening to a grand symphony being played almost to perfection when, suddenly, in the final measures, half the orchestra fumbles and drops its instruments to the floor. Yes, the rest of the musicians play on beautifully, but that’s just not sufficient to save the performance as a whole. Or, you might say this was like a ride in a splendid vehicle on a splendid day though a splendid park that ends with a fender-bender. Does that cancel and negate the pleasures of the full ride? No, of course not. Would I seek out and buy a bottle of this whisky? Yes, if only to re-experience that warm, soft, lavish delivery again and again. Should you seek out and buy a bottle? How can I say? I don’t know if your palate would respond as mine did – nor do I know that the awkwardness and bitterness in the finish would disappoint you as it disappointed me. I am very pleased that I got to try this whisky because it has given me a new touchstone for delivery. For all the pleasure it gives, I cannot judge it too harshly. (21/25)

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Total points for this whisky: 86

Many thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer at Spirit Imports for the samples.