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.

Making Solace of Cioran: Longrow 14 Year Old Cask Strength Campbeltown Single Malt Scotch Whisky

IMG_20140409_164405_594~2For some ungodly reason, I will often, after pouring myself a dram of some elixir from the Springbank distillery, take a volume of the writings of that sad, incisive pessimist, E. M. Cioran, down from my bookshelf. I’ll then sit in a comfortable chair to sip, savor and read. Cioran is not for the gloomy. If you’re already glum or predisposed to despair, I suggest you avoid him. Cioran tasted long and deep of a troubled life and he proclaimed it a joke of which the punch line is always and inevitably some mix of mortification and misery. Still, for no good reason that I can discern, the older I get, the more I feel compelled to read him. His writings often force us to admit things our egos toil to keep us from reckoning…

I have all the defects of other people and yet everything they do seems to me inconceivable.

Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds.

Not one moment when I have not been conscious of being outside Paradise.

And the mood gets even lower, darker than that…

The more you live, the less useful it seems to have lived.

Now, I have long been married to a profoundly sensible, steadfast and caring woman; with her, I have raised two whole and healthy, intriguing children who continue to surprise me and to make me proud. I have had wondrous, inspiring experiences in theater and in writing and performing music. I have a handful – just the right number – of very bright, very captivating, very generous friends. So, why in hell do I so often get stuck on, and find myself nodding in agreement with, Cioran, that brilliantly unhappy man? And why, when I am feeling most compelled to read him, am I nearly always clutching a Springbank dram? Frankly, dear reader, I haven’t the faintest idea. That’s just how it is.

The Whiskey

This Longrow is heavily peated for a Campbeltown malt – don’t expect Ardbog or a Laphroaig or a cask strength Lagavulin – all completely different experiences from this. It was distilled on the Kintyre peninsula at the Springbank Distillery in June of 1998, matured for 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask, and bottled in December of 2012. It has an ABV of exactly 50 percent.

Appearance

This deep copper-gold fluid coats my nosing glass like a fine, crystalline wax. Hold it up to the light and you may glimpse a slight shading of pink – a Madeira sunset? – amidst the liquid copper and limpid gold, but you will have to wait a minute or two for any legs to form. Not that this whisky is thick as tar sands oil or anything of that sort – it’s just the nature of this elixir to hold on firmly with both grace and tenacity. This unusual characteristic is common among the cask strength bottlings of the Springbank distillery. (9/10)

Nose

This could not have come from any distillery but Springbank. No other distiller in Scotland employs such a broad, eccentric, unorthodox approach to maturation, which is often a double maturation (never a “finishing” in the conventional sense) in the likes of Australian Shiraz or rum or Gaja Barolo barrels, or single-mindedly single maturations in odd casks, from a dozen years in ex-Burgundy or Calvados wood to the present whisky’s 14 years in a fresh Madeira cask. And yet, hold your nose over a glass of any of these fluid eccentricities – be they unpeated Hazelburns or lightly peated Springbanks or more heavily peated Longrows – and you will know immediately it came from the Springbank distillery. There is a family resemblance to every product of this admirably sui generis manufacturer. If you fall in love with one of this masterful whisky-maker’s daughters, you should be (and will be) happy to marry any one of his daughters – really, they are all wonderful, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

But, moving along…

The first thing one senses, exhaling like breath from the whisky in this glass, is the aroma of intoxication. Earthy, autumnal, vegetal, smoky, mossy, grainy and intoxicating. The smell of moist earth crumbling in your hand, the aroma of a field ripe for harvest, the vegetal freshness and sweetness of sprouted barley, an old forest after a days-long rainstorm – and, coming through it all, the promise of forgetfulness and of the nearly erotic dissipation of the stresses and strains of daily life. If finding a reason to affirm even an unhappy life had a smell, this would be it. (19/20)

Palate

The sweetness here is neither honey nor sugar. There may actually be a gentle wisp of that darker, heavier demerara sugar, maybe even molasses-soaked brown sugar, but it’s all riding on malt, on the inherent sweetness of barley grain. Yet this is not what most of us would call a sweet whisky – far from it. Earthy peat, new leather and tobacco are evident, as are oak and a somewhat winey, murky Madeira. There is a pleasant saltiness here as well. And nocturnal loam, as if you were lying in a garden at 3am and turned your head against the trowelled bed. There may be some dried fruit in there, but it isn’t prominent. Coconut, a common characteristic of the Springbank profile, is quite pronounced in the palate – surprising considering I didn’t pick up even a hint of it on the nose. (19/20)

Finish

You have two choices here. You can accentuate the earthy leatheriness, sweet maltiness and a somewhat biting, white pepper spice by swallowing this undiluted, or you can add water and bring out a more floral earthiness, a lighter, sweeter maltiness, a more complimenting, less dominant spice and, much to my surprise, just a hint of juniper/gin on the finish. Try it both ways – either is good and, whichever way you choose, you’ll get that wondrous slow burn spreading like dazzling contentment through your chest. Good stuff, this is… (18/20)

Structure/Balance

The promise of that glowing, coating, copper-gold potion in my glass was manifest in the nose, palate and finish of this whisky. In fact, once this had oxidized a bit in the bottle (I didn’t care for it for a week after opening), every aspect here became compelling and even seductive. This whisky does not ape the experience of some slinky fling, as many NAS and “reformulated” Scotch whiskies do; this whisky is a good, long marriage to a good, long suffering spouse. This is the kind of drink you learn to respect – and to go back to again and again. It does not exhibit the tight, clear structure that I have tremorously enjoyed in several scintillating drams from, say, The Maltman or The Exclusive Malts; no, this feels a little less clear, but richer all the same – more like life itself. It isn’t perfect – whatever that means – but it knows to counter its malty sweetness with a pinch of salt, its savory leatheriness with coconut and pepper, and its deep, smoky earthiness with a slightly sweet, vegetal breeze. As balanced as it should be. (18/20)

Quality of the Buzz

For some of us (Cioran, me and a million more), there’s a rancor at the core of life that, by the time we’re twenty-five years old or so, we have distracted ourselves from sufficiently to believe, most days, we have found some sort of happiness. Meanwhile, that rancor eats away at our souls, satisfaction is never felt deeply or long, resentments breed like cancer cells and the sordid, ever more palpable unfairness designed into the mechanics of the human world becomes so conspicuous as to be unbearable…

So, how do we endure? How do we reconcile ourselves to such a shabby, short, ignoble life? To an existence that is rendered ever more dreadful and unsatisfying as age breaks us down and the children move away and we have less energy for illusion, less patience for blatant deception, and thus must begin to see our lives, and life itself, for what they really are: Arduous descents into oblivion or abject surrender to doom.

The most base and opportunistic among us turn to politics, a perfect escape from reality for soulless, thieving cowards, while others turn to gardening or drugs, art, bingo, pumping iron or porn; some embrace fear and join cults, others make cults of family, some fixate on sports or start whisky blogs, and the most tedious among us turn to the vulgar satisfactions of amassing filthy lucre. Albert Ayler found his way out with a saxophone; Van Gogh, more or less, with brushes and paint. Vaslav Nijinsky distracted himself with dance and, ultimately, insanity.

I’m 59 years old. I’ve been disillusioned since the age of 12 and a cynic since I met my first landlord. I have chosen many effective paths to escape the abyss – a good wife, raising fascinating children, art, theatre, music. But, now, getting older, hoping to expand and unbutton the end of each day, the means I choose to escape the whorish, tawdry chasm of daily life is single malt Scotch whisky. This 14 year old cask strength Longrow is intoxicating in every way – in all the deeper, more embracing, more permeating meanings of that term. It provides the prefect companion to Cioran and his ilk, and the perfect solace if we are compelled to drive blindfolded into the beckoning void, or to waltz with abandon across a lake of thin ice. That, in fact, is what all of us are doing, and as soon as we admit that fact to ourselves, the gladder we’ll be to have a bottle or two of this potent elixir of Lethe close to hand. (10/10)

Total points for this whisky: 93

The Distillery
http://www.springbankwhisky.com

Emil Cioran, The Philosopher of Despair
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emil_Cioran

Good whisky taking the form of dark but enriching song…