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

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.

Queen Persephone’s Eau de Cologne: The Classic Cask 40 Year Old Single Batch Scotch Whisky Blend

ClassicCask40.jpgGood Scotch can be expensive, and, typically, the older it is, the higher the price. Are these upscale libations worth it? While I can’t answer that question for you, I can, when distributors and agents are generous enough to send me samples of their rarest and most exclusive bottlings, scrutinize, probe and appraise their product and render an opinion.

As a drinker inordinately preoccupied with independent bottlers, I find the current trend of such bottlers to create their own distinctive, high end blends both exciting and instructive. The good folks behind The Exclusive Malts line have proven, twice now, that they know how to do it. Let’s see what the good people behind Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask line have wrought with this exclusive forty year old blend…

The Whisky

Here’s what I’ve heard and read from various sources.

This blend is 80 percent malt and 20 percent grain.

Every constituent, malt and grain, was distilled in 1972 and cask matured for 25 years, then vatted together in newly selected casks and matured for another 15 years, at which point those casks were themselves vatted and the ensuing blend bottled. 1,800 bottles resulted. For a blend, that is very limited.

It has been bottled at 43 percent ABV and, I suspect, as it is the common practice of this independent bottler, the whisky has undergone no chill-filtration and has had no misleading caramel coloring added.

Which is not to say it ain’t dark. It is very dark, a deep amber color with a dark mauve blush. The legs are thinish, numerous and slower/more viscous than one might expect at this ABV.

You can learn more about this bottle and its bottler here: http://www.spiritimportsinc.com/index2.php#!/HOME

Nose

Oh, man Oh man!

A cedar chest filled with crushed fresh cherries.

Leather tanned with raisin oil.

Dried apricots, currants and banana chips on a small oak table where half a satchel of cut, moist, aromatic pipe tobacco has spilled.

Flat birch beer soda served in an unvarnished cup carved from tidal river drift wood.

A recently showered woman’s hands cupping shelled walnuts, oak pollen and lemon verbena.

Dried varnish on a brass goblet filled with Amontillado sherry.

Fresh pomegranate juice spilled on a recently sanded oak floor.

This is the perfume the goddess Persephone splashes between her breasts and below her navel as she prepares to rise from the heat of Hades back to a warming earth’s surface, bringing the nutrient-charged soils of Spring in her wake.

Really? Well, maybe not, but still…

What an abundantly rich, elegant, generous, measured nose! Measured, but not fastidious or shy. Measured as in presenting a perfectly balanced, broad array of many of the richer, more gratifying aromas this planet and good spirits have to offer. This is without question one of the most lavishly enchanting and sophisticated, multifarious and balmy bouquets I’ve ever experienced rising above a Glencairn nosing glass. 25/25

Palate

Again, it is the balance of riches that focuses the mind.

This sumptuous tipple is both pleasantly sweet and pleasantly dry. I’m not saying that for affect – it’s true!

It has a cooling sweet center and a rounded, warming, mouth-watering prickle that bathes the sides and underside of the tongue in a pleasant, measured mix of baking spices.

The sherry casks are more prominent in the palate than on the nose, but the honey and caramel of American white oak are also here along with a flow of liquefied dried fruits – citrus, yes, but also dried stone fruits, a bit of apricot and even a trickle of honeydew melon.

And a whisper of the taste of fresh baked oat bread.

Really, folks, this is astounding stuff. I hate to be the one to tell you, but this $400 blend is worth every penny.

Twice as good as the $200 Johnnie Walker Blue? I’d say yes. And that may even be an understatement, an undervaluation of the depth of quality of this Classic Cask blend.

This splendid potation is 40 years old and, while there is some dusty oak influence in the nose, this is not overly woody in the least. It gives absolutely no indication that it was over-aged. Not by a week!

Unfortunately, I can’t afford this bottle for myself, but I can and must admit that it is well worth the asking price. 24/25

Finish

Not overwhelming, not underwhelming.

This whisky takes its time finishing.

Only the most liquid sweetnesses remain and only at the first stage.

The sherry dryness and the spice take over after that, making this finish long, lingering, dry and spicy – and yet, despite those last descriptors, I would still say this libation is richly well-rounded.

I did not say “smooth” because that’s a ridiculously vague and overused word in whisky reviews that either means nothing or means something different to nearly everybody.

The finish is the only aspect of this wondrous elixir where the thought of extraordinary balance doesn’t immediately arise. 22/25

Balance/Structure

I don’t believe I’ve ever used the word, nor implied the concept of, “balance” so often in a review. As I’ve already said, this is truly astounding stuff. Its structure is clear. This whisky is the result of an experienced master blender putting everything he/she knows into a no-holds-barred blend. And this whisky is also the very successful result of balancing the characteristics of American ex-bourbon casks and French ex-sherry casks together in a manner that keeps those characteristics both balanced and distinct. Really, with fruit and honey, citrus and nuts, leather and tobacco, dried and fresh fruits, wine, mixed spices and pomegranates, a bit of soil and a smidgen of rose petals wafting on the breeze, nearly all the desirable notes of great Scotch are represented in this blend. Even the buzz one gets is both luxurious and refined. The only categorical omission that I can perceive is the lack of even the slightest suggestion of smoke. No mint or menthol, either (or were there? Hhmmm)… In any case, it’s quite obvious that smoke wasn’t a note this blender was aiming to include. I’m sure that’s true – but, still, that’s a challenge for this blender that remains, to add touches of peat smoke while maintaining a balance with all of the other elements that are already so distinctly present. Impossible? Maybe, and maybe even probably. But, don’t ya know, in a perfect world… 24/25

Total Points for this whisky: 95

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

The Arc of Life in Amber: The Classic Cask’s 1991 Glencadam 22 Year Old Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

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So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the path of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I would add: And to a very few bottles.

The combined genius of raw materials – water, malted barley, yeast and oak – and of time, and of the skills and patience of craftsmen and masters distillers, sometimes contract into bottles of fine whisky – a distillation of geniuses, you might say. I could go on and on about this alchemy-like process, but I want to get straight on to the whisky at hand from a distillery I’ve never had the chance to try before. I leave you, dear reader, to discover the possible connections between life, whisky and transcendentalism suggested by that Emerson quote. Just know that the story and the answers you seek may be right there in your glass.

The Whisky

The Glencadam distillery is in the Eastern Highlands, not far from Speyside, and that is manifest in this whisky’s straddling of the two districts. It is reminiscent of some Speysiders I’ve had – better Linkwoods and Tormores, for example – but also of some of its closer neighbors such as Fettercairn and Glen Garioch. This is not to say it doesn’t stand on it’s own with an individualism that distinguishes it from other malts; it just shares, as most whiskies do, some general characteristics of its region like an overall brightness and lightness and a fresh lemon-grassiness, especially on the nose. It was once, and may still be, a constituent of the Ballantine’s and Stewart’s Cream of the Barley blends. This particular expression, from Spirit Imports’ The Classic Cask range, gains significantly in individualism by being bottled from a single cask filled in 1991 and matured – expertly, I’d say – for 22 years. It is presented with an ABV of 46%, is un-chill-filtered and untinted by the deceitful E150a. So, we’re off to a very good start…

Nose

Wowza! This is effusively fragrant stuff! Fresh mown grass, lemon zest, strawberry jam, fresh celery and sliced green peppers. When first poured, I got a whiff of Play-Doh – not a bad smell, but it dissipated within a few minutes anyway. Then there arose an olfactory air show of delectable creams: Strawberry cream filling, lemon cream filling, mint cream as you might find it in a Viscount Peppermint Patty (without the chocolate, however). There are salted almonds and pear juice and maybe just a hint of graham cracker. Fresh, involving, compelling, delightful. This is well-made, well-tended whisky; that, at least, is what the nose suggests. Water brings out more maltiness and something unspecifically floral. (23/25)

Palate

Warm and creamy, which is a combination I love. Tight, bright malt surrounded by warm sugar cookie crumbles, a touch of overripe cantaloupe, almond cream or perhaps a less specific creamy nuttiness, or Brazil nuts, maybe, shelled and piled like eggs in a grassy nest. There is a mild taste that is hard to pin down, something like chewing gum once you’ve chewed all the flavor out of it. More distinct than that, there is the luscious taste of butter pecan ice cream – but warm and without the pecans! Good stuff. Water brings out more oaky spice, more malty sweetness and, uh, a quick trace of what struck me for a moment as ozone; still, a few drops of water did not diminish the creaminess of this elixir whatsoever. (22/25)

Finish

Long and lingering, like spiced, melted butter. It courses down the throat and massages the heart with soft, warm fingers. While there are traces of oaky tannins passing through like frightened, bashful, elusive ghosts, this is, I think, the most mouthwatering finish I’ve ever experienced. So, so good! Water brings out more spice and a thin, slight but surprising whiff of iodine. (23/25)

Balance/Structure

This is well-made whisky – that is obvious in every aspect of it. The cask, which I assume was a refill American oak hogshead, was evidently tight and firm despite previous use. The balance here between nose, palate and finish follows an arc that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in such a clearly defined manner before. The nose is all freshness and delight, offering up the best aspects of youth with all its fresh sliced peppers, celery, lemon zest, fresh-cut grass and pear juice among bakery and confectionary creams. The palate starts to bring in age with its creaminess and warmth, overripe cantaloupe, nuts and nut creams; you might say the palate is middle aged. The finish, long and lingering, easy on the throat, heart-warming and mouthwatering, has the comfort and easiness of age about it. Three stages of life in one potion. I have made these judgments, by the way, based on my experience of this whisky without water. Water didn’t diminish this nice old Highlander, but I preferred it at its bottled strength of 46%. (23/25)

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Total points for this whisky: 91

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