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.

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

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides” * or, Good Whisky Uncorks and Blows the Marketers Down: The Exclusive Malts’ 1987 Bunnahabhain 26 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

FullSizeRender copy 2I’m currently reading a history of Cognac (no surprise to friends who receive my wee hour emails on the subject) and find it interesting that, as advertising began to flourish among the sellers of cognacs in the nineteen-thirties – entre les guerres, as they phrased it then; between the wars – the equation of age and quality began to be emphasized. If it’s older and was properly matured, it’s better – that was the gist of their primitive marketing message. Now, however, the entire Scotch industry, with its deluge of no-age-statement expressions bearing more and more ridiculously romanticized names, appears hell-bent to deny the equation of quality with age. Say what they will, this 26 year old Bunnahabhain contradicts those Scotch marketers and their transparent mendacities at every sip. The idea that age equals quality is as valid now as it ever was.

The Whisky

Bunnahabhain is the northernmost distillery on Islay and it’s whisky tends to be the least peated of Islay spirits (with exceptions like Caol Ila’s unpeated 14 year old or the unpeated Bruichladdichs). But I don’t need to tell my readers these basics.

This particular bottling of Bunnahabhain juice was distilled in 1987, matured exclusively in a what I adjudge to be a second or third fill ex-bourbon hogshead, and bottled at an ABV of 47.8% in March of 2014. This is a single cask, cast strength whisky, unchillfiltered and unadulterated with the mendacious E150a coloring. This single cask produced only 297 bottles (but seek and you shall find: it’s still out there).

Appearance and Nose

The color in the glass is honey, or light amber, with no rufous blush of sherry or other wine aging or finishing evident. The relative intensity of the color suggests a second fill or (considering its 26 years in cask) perhaps a third fill ex-bourbon hogshead. The legs are thin but numerous and languid. Any whisky drinker would be seduced to follow this potion farther on…

On the nose, right up front, I get almond oil in a new rubber boot (peat?); ethereal wax, warm caramel, yesterday’s cotton candy, a creamsicle fortified with a wash of rum; white and pink Necco wafers in an old tobacco pouch; patchouli dripped on whole wheat toast; light truffle oil mixed with a smidgeon of shellac poured into a woven basket that recently held raspberries and lemons; also, as imagination whirls in this sedating mist, the smell of nylon stockings on a freshly bathed and well turned leg (smooth as silk it is, and not hirsute as that waft of patchouli might suggest); birch bark or – no, not that – balsa and cedar woods carved into a bowl that contains a mix of wet autumn leaves, garden soil, kandy korn, corn chips, salted caramels and a few maple sugar candies. And nutmeg.

This is the olfactory version of a gourmet meal (rubber boot and all!), rich without being overly pungent, enticing, tempting, drawing you forward. It’s all very subtle, but the mix of ethereal and earthly, of candied and organic and epicurean pleasures all in a keen yet beguiling balance of unlikely combinations, each element playing off the next, none overwhelming the others – yes, this is how a good whisky is supposed to greet the olfactory senses – and I like it! 23/25

Palate

Sensual, silky mouth feel. The honey, nutmeg, salted caramels and almonds find taste buds to connect to all over the top of the tongue, and then this nutty, sweet wash brings the toast and light truffle oil up and, slowly, a milder, lightly smoked paprika, which remains the dominant spice. The citrus and raspberries are still there, but are far more subtle now. While not quite as complex as the nose, this is serious pleasure. 22/25

The Finish

The paprika spice comes forward and it is the element of the finish that endures and lasts for several minutes, but it doesn’t completely overwhelm the honey-vanilla-truffle-oil sweet earthiness of this elixir. The creamsicle is still there, too, along with what seems to be a bit of unripe peach. As the spice grows in intensity, the experience slowly transforms from wet to dry and from sweet to savory. This is very good stuff. 22/25

Structure and Balance

The structure here, as with so many bottlings from Exclusive Malts, is a tight architecture of disparate but counterbalancing elements. Over the years of drinking whiskeys from this very consistent independent bottler, I’ve really grown to enjoy the challenge that each of their single cask tonics presents. Because the structure is so tight (is this the cut? the attention to and control over maturation? cask selection? all of these?), these whiskeys force the connoisseur – one who takes the time to savor and unfold his or her experience – to be patient, to give the whisky the time it requires to be properly and fully understood. This particular whisky is no different and it rewarded my patient parsing of its promise with one curiosity and delight after another.

Bunnahabhain’s own distillery bottlings are excellent, but their structure is more loose and their sweetness not quite as well balanced (as this Exclusive Malts bottling is balanced despite being an unblended product of a single cask) with other more drying and savory elements. However, I must say, the maritime characteristics are more prominent in the exquisite 18 year old distillery offering. And while I can’t say for sure if this Exclusive Malt single cask is the best Bunnahabhain I’ve ever drunk – one reason being that my memory of the distillery’s own 25 year old, which I only had once, is, though glowing and positive, vague – it very well might be. It is certainly one of the three or four best bottlings from this distillery I have ever had. 23/25

Total points for this whisky: 90

300_tennyson* This line in my title is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which you can read in its entirety here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174659

Fire Water from Planet Tar: Blackadders’s Raw Cask 15 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Ledaig 1998

LedaigSCRAW1999815y63_9PICTDear Warrior God of Ethanol – this is potent stuff! Really, this punctuates the evening’s previous sampling of one warming cognac and one lovely Speyside like the word “fuck” would punctuate a nursery rhyme. At 62.2% ABV, this isn’t the fiercest potion to ever scorch my tongue, but it tastes like it is. Fortunately, water tames and transforms this beast – somewhat – into something that can be sipped and savored without irreversible harm.

The last time I reviewed a Ledaig of around this age (the soul-smoldering cornucopia of Cadenhead’s Small Batch 16 year old Ledaig), I was immediately transported to a realm of power, poetry and mind-altering mists. The Blackadder I’m tasting here is not like that. It is powerful and there’s quite a bit going on, but it’s harder, less inviting, less organic, less yielding. Whereas Cadenhead’s luscious bottling seemed intended for peat smoke libertines, this one may be targeting masochists – which does not necessarily mean I won’t like it. Let’s see…

Appearance

Certainly more inviting than the Cadenhead, which was pale as a Chinese ghost. This is an amber-copper, almost like an older cognac but without the rufous hues, suggesting maturation in a first fill ex-bourbon cask for at least a few of it’s 15 years. And the legs are seductively viscid, treacly and oh-so-slow. At this very high ABV, I’m not surprised by any of this, but that doesn’t make its appearance any less inviting. (5/5)

Nose

Pine nuts – absolutely! In a dry old leather sack, perhaps. But the first thing one notices (before a liberal dash of water is added) is the stab of the untamed alcohol. This is certainly sharply brawny stuff, especially for a 15 year old, but even prior to a little dilution there are distinct aromas coming through. Above all else, the smell of burnt or toasted caramel. If there’s a fruit, it’s ripe banana. There is also whatever that tar-like, slightly acrid, burning-tug-boat-rope smoky peatiness from the Tobermory distillery on Mull is – and whatever it is, I love it! Both paving tar and tobacco tar aromas entwine around the scent of smoldering peanut shells. The pine nuts remain quite noticeable, even under this puissant potion’s barbed ethanol armor. Add a dropper or three or four of water (oh, the viscimitrical wonders of watching water added to such an oily demon!) and you get a bit more: Some sanded poplar comes through (yes, I was sanding poplar window trim this afternoon) and, weird to say, the smells of pewter and Vaseline. And just a hint of that singularly distinctive Springbank bloom. Is this as alluringly fulsome of wonders as the nose on the Cadenhead? No. Is this nonetheless an experience I would wish for my whisky-savoring friends? Well, despite the fact that it may burn out all of their nasal hairs – Yes, it is. (17/20)

Palate

The taste is predominantly honey, charred caramel, butter, crayons, pine sap and burnt toast. And maybe a bit of cowhide. Those are the only elements I can pull out of this thorny palate, six or seven of them, but that doesn’t make it simple or lacking in complexity. This is certainly a unique combination of taste elements, an appetizing soup of very angular sweets and savories. And the spice is like crushed black pepper inhaling a waft of ginger. And of course there’s the sting of the alcohol, like a red-hot-pepper infused clover honey. For once, I am a tad more intrigued by the palate than by the nose! (18/20)

Finish

This is where this whisky is most evidently lacking in sophistication. It is just too sharp and pungent – even with liberal squirts of filtered water added. It’s a very long finish because the burn of the alcohol won’t quit, but it is undeniably harsh. Add too much water and it lacks interest altogether – there doesn’t seem to be a happy balance point between fiery burn and insipidity (I tried diluting it with water, little by little, in three different glasses three different times, to no avail). There is honey and something bitter here, like a very overripe melon, perhaps, but this is not the long warming finish of a great whisky by any means. It scorches and dries the tongue, burns the throat like napalm, and any promise of heart-warming becomes heartburn much too soon. (14/20)

Balance/Structure

In one sense, this traces a perfect arc – from a harsh stabbing nose to less harshness on the palate to a ruinously harsh desert fire in the finish. So, yes, it is certainly in balance with itself, but is it the balance one would hope for? No. (14/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Okay, this is not the easy becalming mellow that some great whiskeys give; it just remains too harsh, even here in the realm of the mental-buzz. The unending harshness of the finish distracts the drinker from the thermal, affable place one hopes to arrive at in a long night of savoring good whisky; nor is this one of those bright-light intellectually keening experiences the highly refined cask strength Speysiders sometimes bestow upon a drinker. No, this is just too harsh – that’s the word for this one. And while the hope was certainly there at the start, to be carried to the land of the carefree by a compelling ethanolic beverage, this one is just too stingingly distracting to bring one peace or much pleasure at the end of the day. And if an expensive bottle of Scotch like this one can’t do that, what the hell is it good for? (9/15)

Total points for this whisky: 77

Walking In Uninvited at a House Where You Do Not Live: Mortlach Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 22 Years and Bottled at 46% ABV by Alchemist

14 - 1-5Being an inveterate drinker of fine Scotch whiskeys bottled by independents, I’ve grown accustomed to spirits matured in a manner the distillery itself might frown upon. Macallans and Aberlours aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks, for example; or, to the contrary, heavily peated Bunnahabhains or Caol Ilas deeply influenced by years at rest in a sherry butt. My last review parsed an 11 year old Mortlach aged entirely in an ex-bourbon hogshead – I liked it a great deal – and here we have another Mortlach, also matured with no influence of sherry casks but for twice as long, 22 years, and from an independent bottler I’d neither seen nor heard of before buying this bottle: Alchemist.

Here’s what I read about this bottler on scotchwhisky.net: The driving force behind the company is Gordon Wright who not only has significant experience in the world of single malt whisky – with his family connections to the Springbank distillery and, latterly, his involvement with the “re-birth” of Bruichladdich – but who also has had the opportunity over the years to gain considerable insight into some of the world’s other classic spirits.

Springbank is, bar none, my favorite distillery, and “latterly” I’ve become quite fond of Bruichladdich, especially of their Cuvee series (thank you, Dave). I’m also a big fan of Mortlach. So it’s safe to assume Gordon Wright and his Alchemist label have put something together here I may enjoy a great deal. Let’s see…

The Whisky

It’s Mortlach, and it isn’t. And what more there is to say about that, I say below. Here’s a great overview of the Mortlach Distillery from the indispensable Malt Madness site: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/mortlach.html

The Nose

The first aromas to pleasure my eager olfactory bulbs are clean, dry malt and sawdust. And Macoun apple slices – or maybe a grainier apple like a Red Delicious – and a bit of honey.

What is somewhat baffling here is the familiarity of this profile – and I’m not talking about other Mortlachs. What the nose on this reminds me of is Glenfarclas – something between or in the vicinity of the 17 or 21 year old distillery bottlings.

Unfortunatly, I remain in medias res here, still transitioning from MA to NY, and I don’t have any Glenfarclas open in my temporary living quarters. I do, however, have an open bottle of Blackadder’s 23 year old Blairfindy from their Raw Cask series and ‘Blairfindy’ is just a legally necessary misnomer for Glanfarclas (the Grants, the family that has owned Glenfarclas for generations, hale from Blairfindy Farm and are sometimes referred to as the Blairfindy Grants).

Pouring a dram of this Blairfindy 23 (48%) and then nosing it side by side with the Alchemist Mortlach 22 (46%), the similarity is indeed uncanny.

So, if this smells like a good Glenfarclas, what’s the point? Why not just go out and buy the decidedly luscious and elegant 21 year old Glenfarclas for about the same price? Or, for that matter, why not go out and buy this Blackadder 23 year old Blairfindy – if you can find it?

Hhmmm…

Closer attention does reveal some differences. For one thing, the Blairfindy has a faint warm floral character to the nose that this Mortlach does not exhibit. And the Alchemist Mortlach has a very modest suggestion of minty acetone that the Blairfindy does not possess. And some young and savory vegetable scent – I’m thinking salted celery. But, still, the similarities are both arresting and curious.

I am a vocal fan of the Glenfarclas distillery and have often remarked that the olfactory and taste profiles of one of the better examples of this distillery’s juice – the 17, 21 or 25 year olds, say – constitute for me the Platonic Ideal of single malt Scotch whisky, the immutable and eternal form or idea of what a single malt Scotch whisky is, and the standard or benchmark all other single malt Scotch whiskeys could be thought of as variations of…

That’s just me, of course. If my thoughts, expressed, sound like babbling rhetorical poppycock to you, that doesn’t mean I am not, myself, convinced by them.

All of which is to say, I very much like the nose on the better Glenfarclases and thus am drawn to consider the very similar nose on this 22 year old Mortlach bottled by Alchemist as something to admire and, thus, to rate highly.

On the other hand, I have never before had the experience of the juice from one distillery reminding me so much of the juice of another. In a side by side comparison! Yes, they are from the same basic region of Scotland, both from the County of Banff, in fact, but individuality is the be-all and end-all, the raison d’etre, the signature, fingerprint, aim and rationale of each and every distillery in Scotland. Redundancy cannot, should not and will not be tolerated. So, from this perspective, how can I possibly give high marks to the nose on this Alchemist echo of Glenfarclas called Mortlach?

Let’s be perfectly clear: I am not saying I find the products of these two estimable distilleries, Mortlach and Glenfarclas, compromisingly similar. I do not. All I am saying is that this one very limited Alchemist bottling of Mortlach is compromisingly similar to some of my favorite bottles of Glenfarclas. And thus, despite enjoying it, my score must reflect my bewildered disappointment. 18/25

The Palate

This will be a quicker study, I promise.

My first impression upon pouring this potion over my tongue is – well, if you can imagine biting into a thin-walled hollow globe of granular sugar that has been filled with viscous clover honey, that’s it.

In the second wave, it’s the unsullied malt and the apples, but this time the apples have been baked.

There’s a hint of chocolate and a bit of banana confection.

And there is woody oak, just enough to remind the palate that this was aged in a refill ex-bourbon cask for 22 years, but not so much as to suggest over-aging. Oddly, considering its age and years of maturation in American oak, there is a noticeable lack of spiciness.

All of which adds up to a good, pleasant, even interesting palate, but nothing particularly distinguished, sophisticated or refined, nor anything that sets this whisky above its peers in any significant way. 20/25

The Finish

Finally! If your palate is anything like mine, the finish on this whisky will not disappoint. It is big and bold with lots of malt and honey and baked apples, now with cinnamon, and, for the first time, overripe honeydew melon. And, pulling this all together is the pleasurably embracing sting of oaky barrel tannins, like a scratchy, itchy, tight wool dress being zipped up around the fruity sweetness and spice. Here, in the finish, for the first time with this particular potion, I know I am drinking Mortlach. 23/25

Balance/Structure

This is tough. In one sense, there is a pleasant arc to this elixir, an unbroken, arching, descending line that runs with nary a twist or turn through the nose and palate, and which then grows bold in the finish. And I suspect the cut on this was rather tight based on the oily, just-this-side-of-bloated mouth feel.* And this whisky gives a relatively firm sense of structure as well, which could be the result of a well-chosen cask.

The lack of individuality in the nose, however – with the nose being this particular whisky’s most complex, most interesting facet – is a real problem.

In my heart, in my whisky-drinking memory cache and in the summary of my senses, I’d say everything about the experience of savoring and sipping this whisky leads to the conclusion that it is a good but not a great whisky – which, pardon me, is something I expected from an independently bottled, bucksy 22 year old from one of my favorite Scottish distilleries. So what we have here is a bottling that is at once good and disappointing. 18/25

Total points for this whisky: 79 **

* When I first opened this bottle, I was not impressed, the experience being one of bloated honey sweetness and soft, simple, meandering malt followed by sawdust and sour tannins, much like some younger, overrated, bloated-with-hyperbole Dalmore distillery bottlings I’ve had. This, and many an example like it, should caution each and every one of us never to pass final judgment on a whisky the day or even the first week it is opened. Good whisky needs time to breathe.

** However… Let’s say I had never before tasted a good Glenfarclas – what score might I have given this whisky then? My rating of the nose would certainly have been higher, maybe +3 points. And that would have influenced my rating of balance and structure as well, by +2 points perhaps, meaning I might have given this whisky a score of 84 points if I hadn’t found its lack of individuality so disappointing.

An Alluring Blonde Among Swarthy Brunettes: The Classic Cask’s 2002 Mortlach 11 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

CCMortlach11Compared to the richly multifaceted 40 year old blended Scotch whisky from The Classic Cask I had such a torrid olfactory affair with in the course of my last review, this much younger Mortlach, from the same bottler, is a relatively simple pleasure. Still, the high caliber of quality here is no less evident, which speaks volumes for Spirit Imports and it’s The Classic Cask line. Like Blackadder’s Raw Cask range or Meadowside Blending’s The Maltman series or The Creative Whisky Company’s The Exclusive Malts bottlings – and perhaps a few others – The Classic Cask line is, in my experience, consistent in quality from bottle to bottle and from one distillery to the next.

In fact, I contend that one of the distinctions that sets independent bottlers such as these apart from distillery brands is their ability to offer a very wide variety of whiskies that are of consistent high quality. Of course, yes, you can find a distillery – Lagavulin is a good example, Glenfarclas another – that offers consistent quality throughout their entire range. However, their entire range is limited to one distillery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly confining.

With an independent bottler that offers reliable quality, such as those I’ve mentioned, the range of quality whiskies on offer may cover every Scotch region and a whole library of compelling taste profiles. Trusting Glenfarclas or Lagavulin to offer quality products across their ranges is one thing; trusting Blackadder or The Classic Cask or The Exclusive Malts or The Maltman to do so is quite another – because the range and variety they lay before us is so wide and so various by comparison. Long live the Independents, I say!

The Whisky

This is Spirit Imports’ bottling of an 11 year old Mortlach from its The Clasic Cask line. Like everything else I’ve had from this independent, this is very good whisky. And while I can’t say I’ve ever had a Mortlach I didn’t like, this bottling’s taste profile falls outside the usual Mortlach meatiness, heaviness and pungency. Distilled in 2002 and bottled at 46% ABV, unchillfiltered and untainted by the prevaricating E150a, this spirit is at once both rich and delicate, many-layered and fruity, a bit vegetal and even a little marine. Definitely Speyside, certainly very good, but captivatingly out of character for this distillery.

The Nose

As I said, this is not ‘meaty’ – as one often hears Mortlach described.

Rather, I get a lawn of sweet grass and star fruit.

It is tight and clean and relates the tale of an older (third fill?) but very firm and tight ex-bourbon cask.

While there may be a touch of oak in the nose, and some youthful spiritousness, that is not what this complex of aromas is about.

The aromatic sweetness here is that of confectionary sugar sprinkled on lemon drop cookies.

More citrus comes through – lime especially, but mango as well, and candied orange slices.

And still more fruit, but unfamiliar – maybe the aroma of cherry wood boards?

Beyond that, there is something vegetal and clean – like chopping rinsed heads of iceberg and Romaine lettuce together.

Another pass of the nose and this comes up: A dusting of sea salt on orchid petals by a white pepper mill.

While one often reads Mortlach described as ‘heavy,’ I would say this particular example of the juice is more ‘serious’ than ‘heavy’.

If this aroma were a color category, it would be strong, variegated pastels. 21/25

The Palate

A surprisingly silky, oily entry. Mouthwatering and sensual.

A blend of malt sugars with clove and vanilla.

The sweetness leads and coats the tongue like malted honey, then the various spices – ginger, cardamom, allspice – layer themselves in with casual patience. The slowness of the radiating spices here, broadening and developing slowly, is alluring.

The fruit presence is still strong but is now less citric. 22/25

The Finish

All of the above, slow and sweet and warming, leads into a drying, spicy finish that doesn’t quite embrace the chest but leaves the tongue and throat with a long, lingering, persuasive experience. 21/25

Balance/Structure

What we have here is the balance and structure of a well-selected elixir matured in a good, firm, somewhat spent cask – and by ‘spent’ I do not mean bad in any way, just not imparting as much wood influence as it might if it were a first or second fill. The delicacy and intricacy of the nose leads to a more direct, more sweet and more silky sensual palate, that then debouches in a very rich, spicy, long and lingering finish. So this doesn’t have the wonderful arc of, say, The Classic Cask’s 40 year old blend – but, then again, not much does. As an 11 year old single malt whisky that most Scotch lovers can afford, this is one fine specimen indeed. 22/25

To make a comparison…

The Maltman’s 13 year old Mortlach – I’m holding a Glencairned dram of it here in hand at the moment – is also bottled with a 46% ABV and has a more pungent, more vegetal and more commanding, but less delicate and layered and sweet, nose. On the palate, The Maltman’s dram is once again more commanding, perhaps richer and more various, but less sweet, less pleasant, less mouthwatering and alluring. The finish on The Maltman’s Mortlach is less spicy but less sensual and long. Is one of these potions better than the other? I honestly can’t say. And I know that, if I gave an answer to that question, I’d probably choose the other as best a day or two later. These are both very good whiskies and I’m very fortunate to have them both on my shelf.

Total Points for this whisky: 86

A very special thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer and to Spirit Imports, Inc. for the samples.

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.