Molten Sunshine Raisin Cake: The Exclusive Malts’ 1995 Mortlach 18 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength, Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EMMortlachForgive me, father, for I have sinned. It has been nearly six weeks since my last whisky review!

Excuses? Oh, I have a dump truck load of them! There have been, no lie, ten thousand urgencies and complications of life that have intervened to trip, stump and stall me and to keep me from doing the things I love, such as savoring and reviewing good whisky. Perhaps foremost among my excuses – yes, for all their reality and impact on my life, these remain excuses – is the fact that I have moved from Massachusetts to New York since penning my last review. A scary move indeed!

Here in the mid-Hudson Valley I have not been able to find a single liquor store that carries even a tiny fraction of the treasures available to me at my beloved Norfolk Wine & Spirits back in suburban MA. It’s a three and a half hour drive back to Norfolk from where I live now, in a picturesque hamlet of emerging hipness and nascent sophistication called Beacon, NY, but I will be making that drive, as often as I can, just to get my hands on those sublime, rare bottles the profoundly good and industrious Bikram Singh* labors daily to bring to his shelves for his customers.

A particularly distressing disappointment I’ve encountered in the dozen or so liquor stores I’ve visited in this area is the lack – a nearly complete and total absence – of independent bottlings of single malt Scotch whisky. I may have seen one or two hardly-interesting Gordon & MacPhails here and there, maybe one Chieftain’s selection, but that’s it! Really! My fellow maltmen, ethanolics and whisky connoisseurs back in southeastern MA would not believe what a barren, arid wasteland this is!

So, please, good people, do listen up. If you’re reading this and you live in or nearby the Husdon Valley and you know the difference between a ‘farclas and a ‘fiddich, between a Longrow and a Longmorn or between a single malt and a malt blend, please please please do get in touch with me via this blog (or via Facebook if that’s where you’ve seen this) and we’ll get something luscious planted in this desert! I’m already in contact with a very good rep from an excellent Scotch whisky importer and he’s as eager as I am to get some good whisky flowing along the Hudson, but he and I can’t do it alone. Get in touch and we’ll make some noise – and, I promise you, we’ll share some very good malts.

The Whisky

If you think you’ve never had Mortlach, think again – it is one of the main components of Johnny Walker Black. Distillery bottlings have been very rare, but the evil (and necessary?) Diageo is now bottling it up in various expressions and selling it for exorbitant prices – which is not to say, if you’ve got the means, that those bottles will not be worth adding to your collection, sipping and savoring and drinking down. On the contrary, I’m sure they’ll be excellent. But you can find some outstanding, top-notch Mortlachs from independent bottlers at better prices. The whisky under review here is one such bottle.

The Exclusive Malts line comes from erstwhile whisky writer David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company, which consistently bottles and sells superb single cask, cask strength single malt Scotch whiskies. This Mortlach, un-chill-filtered and untainted by the specious E150a, was distilled in 1995, has been aged “in oak” for a full 18 years and was bottled at 54.3 % ABV. It is a wonderfully clear gold in color and has legs you want to lick from inside the glass…

Nose

Plump raisins bursting in the sun, then scooped up and pressed to the bottom of a deep dish of strawberries and cream; there is also a gourmet variant of a chocolate and coconut Mounds bar here, and melted banana-coconut ice cream and a warm (warming) raspberry lime ricky. Redolent pencil shavings and oak sawdust doused with fresh-squeezed lemon, lime and orange juices. Nutmeg shells. Sweet vanilla and burned marshmallow. Baked green apple served over brown bread made with gobs of molasses. Then that warming aroma of nutmeg again. (23/25)

Palate

Some kind of luscious melon that has a rather keen but pleasant bite. A gourmet jam of apple, strawberry and lime preserves spread over Ak-Mak crackers. Raisin and date cake that has been warming on a windowsill all afternoon. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this elegant elixir is to say its palate is very reminiscent of one of my favorite whiskies of all time, the 1975 Dallas Dhu bottled at 28 years by the (once and still) discerning folks at The Classic Cask. The core of that whisky, and of this one under review, is that succulent, overripe, mouthwatering cantaloupe juiciness – braced here by a dusting of nutmeg, baked apples and warm molasses. (23/25)

Finish

Raisins again, followed by that melting chocolate and coconut candy bar, nutmeg and melon juice, lots of sweet melon juice, long and bracing and warming warming warming all the way to the heart. (23/25)

Balance/Structure

This works, each element of the experience at once echoing and balancing the other elements like the fine-honed gears of a handmade Swiss watch. This is a juicy, flavorful, warming delight that also manages to be surprising, at least to Mortlach drinkers, by standing out as a quite different member of its tribe, distinguished by a juicy fruitiness that is unusual in a Mortlach and by a sense of exalted refinement. Not quite as meaty an experience as one expects from this distillery, but very good stuff indeed. (23/25)

Total Points for this whisky: 92

* The Whisky Lover’s BFF, the one and only Bikram Singh
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Puer Aeternus in an Oaken Vest: The Exclusive Malts’ 1985 Longmorn 28 Year Old Single Cask, Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

EM LongmornJohn Duff built the Glenlossie distillery in 1876, Longmorn in 1893 and BenRiach in 1897. That’s a great string of distilleries if ever there was one, but Longmorn – if the bottling under review here is any indication – may be the greatest of them all. Beloved for its contribution to blends, Longmorn has been called “the master blender’s second choice” – his first choice being his own blend, of course. The only readily available bottling of Longmorn is the distillery’s own 16 year old, so finding this 28 year old single cask is quite a treat!

The Whisky

The wash stills at Longmorn were converted to steam heat in 1993, so this whisky, dating from 1985, is from a period when the distillery heated those stills directly with coal fires. Like all bottlings from The Creative Whisky Co.’s The Exclusive Malts line, this particular Longmorn juice is from a single cask and was bottled without the duplicitous E150a coloring and without chill-filtration. It is cask strength with an ABV of 51.6%.

Nose

My first thought upon holding a dram of this up to my nostrils: Wow! – This is going to take some time! So rich and full, so much going on. A handful of fresh peach stones with some flesh still on them. Cherry stones, too, but drier. Apples, stewed, with citrus peels, nutmeg and a few crushed banana chips – or, maybe: A very dry, light Calvados? Some bourbon barrel characteristics arise – light vanilla and light caramel and some white oak spice – but the wood character is young and fresh, like opening a package of little balsa wood panels purchased at the craft store. The malt is tight, bright and full and there’s a weave of fresh grain and the wholesome bouquet of a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. Less strong but still there is a whisper of dry cornmeal. Confectionary sweetness, as if you’d just opened a bag of marshmallows or – something I get now and then in these cask strength Speysides – a bag of those squishy orange “circus peanuts” that appear on pharmacy shelves around Halloween. There’s also a dry candy minty-ness, like crushed wintergreen Necco Wafers. There’s a more natural flintiness as well, and just a tad of dry grassiness or moss. The high ABV is quite apparent on the nose but it doesn’t stab the nostrils. A few drops of water bring out even more fresh cherry stones and a candy sweetness, but this is never cloying. A very firm, fresh, full, rich and classy act is presented here and I can find no fault with it. (25/25).

Palate

Now that the nose has me salivating and has the maltfreak in me eager as an ermine in estrus, I close my eyes and take a sip, allowing this silky elixir to cover my tongue like a 1000 thread-count bed sheet. Wow. The surprise is how big, rich and warm it is. The repeated suggestions of “dry” on the nose have completely liquefied here. And again, on the palate, I don’t get the least hint that 28 years was too long to mature in this cask – oh, what a cask this must have been! Fruit comes more to the fore now, as in peach cobbler fruit and apple pie fruit prepared with just a pinch of cinnamon. The sweetness is now more honeyed than sugared and there’s a wonderful progression as the sweet awakens the tip of the tongue, followed by a wash of fruit and malt, which in turn is followed by oaky drying tannins and spice – but, wait: That’s the finish… (24/25)

Finish

As I was just saying, the sweet fruit and malt delivery slowly dissolves into a drier development at the back of the tongue, with oak tannins and a pleasant spiciness unfurling in a fluid continuum to the back of the throat and down into the chest, spreading a life-affirming warmth all round the heart. Not a very layered or complex finish, but I do like that warmth! (22/25)

Balance/Structure

This is a fine Speyside whisky, an excellent presentation of what Michael Jackson considered “one of the finest Speyside malts, cherished by connoisseurs”. Its 28 years in cask did not make it sluggish or woody or thick, but seem rather to have bred a refined integrity, a weave of aromas no less plush and complex than a fine, intricately detailed Persian rug. The nose, in my opinion, achieved a level of perfection, and I’m confident I could have continued finding new bouquets and fragrances beyond the many I did find if I’d resisted sipping this potion a while longer. The palate was excellent, but not quite the equal of the nose, and the finish, though pleasant and even deeply satisfying, was also just a bit of a winding down in the arc of exultation this presents. Still, this is a wonderful whisky. I can’t imagine any devoted whisky drinker, except perhaps the most cultish peat-freaks, finding anything but delight and satisfaction in this excellent dram. (23/25)

EM Longmorn
Total points for this whisky: 94

Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.

Youth in Age (The Incomparable Jimmy Scott)

Euclid Standing in the Morning Light: The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky

exclusive-malts-bunnahabhaain-1991For some reason, I’ve been more attentive to structure in the whiskeys I’ve been savoring these days. It’s a mercurial, vapory concept, I know, but I’ve been narrowly focusing directly in on it with many of the whiskeys recently crossing my lips, especially those from the independent bottling lines called The Maltman and The Exclusive Malts, each of which seems unabashedly proud of its solid structures, unfolding them under the glare of one’s senses with no resistance or compunction whatsoever.

Take the time to focus on and truly savor one of these heady elixirs and you will get the sense that you have entered a well-built room in a well-built house. The floors are level and the corners are square and you feel confident that there are no jutting nails, missing steps or untended splinters on which to snag and injure one’s senses. The several whiskeys I’ve had in these independent series immediately instill confidence that I am drinking a well-made, quality product.

The Exclusive Malts’ 1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky is one such product. Bottled at 52.6 percent ABV from what I imagine was a single refill bourbon cask (I don’t pick up a sherry influence here, except perhaps in the spicy tannins that come on in the finish), the experience of this whisky gives one the sense that everyone who had a hand in its making knew exactly what they were doing and did their jobs well.

Appearance

The appearance in the glass is lucid honey, pellucid amber, or perhaps unclouded pine pitch in the cool early morning sun. This whisky coats the glass and is patient, languid, slowly allowing the legs to form, and those legs in turn course very slowly down. (9/10)

Nose

My notes on the nose cover an entire page! At the top I wrote: “I smell precision, whimsical precision” – whatever that means!

The aromas reveal themselves slowly at first. My initial impression, returning my sniffer to the glass again and again, was of iceberg lettuce flavored sugar crystals. Then the flesh of sliced green grapes. But a savory saltiness soon arrives, high-cocoa-content baking chocolate mixed with freshly sawn hardwood, sweet malt, buttery butterscotch, cooling pastry dough on a cutting board (fig squares, perhaps, but not lemon squares). The aroma with the deepest color is that of cherry juice, but it is reticent. And one can also smell brittleness here, as in ribbon candy. Though the nose on this whisky isn’t the least bit spirituous, it is youthful all the same. This nose is all about daylight, sunlight, but it isn’t a spring or a summer day; it’s cold outside and all the vibrations are trebly, of a higher frequency, sequestered and apart from wet and dirty and earthy things. (19/20)

Palate

The palate is fuller, rounder, sweeter and warmer than the nose led me to expect. The sugar crystal aspects turn to mild clover honey here, but I also get a sprinkling of black (licorice) Necco Wafer. The only fruit I pick up is apple, but it’s a ruby-red candy-dipped apple. There is also some caramel and salt water taffy. Still, despite all these sugary and candy notes, this isn’t a cloying dram; what it offers is rather a wonderfully oily and well-integrated sweetness. Finally, we get a hint of darker things, earthier things, the slightest taste of leather, of oak, and the wispiest hint of peaty smoke, as if the source of saltiness and that alone were dried over peat fires. The mouth-feel is silky, slightly oily and coating – wonderful. (18/20)

Finish

The finish is perfect. Malty, buttery ginger candy with a sweet-cool caramel center and a breeze of white pepper. And it is long and warm and surrounds the heart without burning the throat. Perfect. (20/20)

Balance

From one perspective, I could say the balance here is unassailable because the arc from nose to palate to finish is very rich, complex and varied, even logical, without salient flaws or ill-fitting characteristics. On the other hand, everything here is on the bright side, the light side; it all (aside from the wonderfully warming finish) emanates from crisp, invigorating daylight. Is that a problem? No, not really. If whiskeys were divided into two categories – daylight and nightshade – and this were intended as a daylight release, I’d have to conclude the balance is nearly perfect. But we don’t divide whiskeys up that way and I’m left wanting a darker, earthier element to balance all the chill, giddy sunlight at play – some flinty musty autumn characteristics, say, so prominent in The English Whisky Co.’s drams, or the dark pungent soil and sweaty humidity of a Ledaig or many Springbanks and Longrows. Was this whisky (I almost wrote Speysider, and that is telling when we’re on the north of the isle of Islay!) – Was this whisky ever intended to evoke those darker, damper drams? No. However, though I can certainly appreciate how well balanced all the elements are that are at play here, I nonetheless feel that something is missing. Maybe the flaw is in my own taste buds and predilections, but that’s now for you to decide. (17/20)

Quality of the Buzz

Finally, how am I feeling after four unstinting drams of this wondrous stuff? Good, very good, but once again we’re dealing with a daylight twist, this time on inebriation – something almost intellectual and energizing informs this whisky. One cannot, of course, fault a whisky for being bright, linear and energizing, but the more of this electric elixir I imbibe, the clearer my head is and the more I’m energized to keep writing and assessing and reassessing my drink rather than leaning (or falling) back into an inviting, overstuffed chair to read, dribble, and buzzingly doze off, which is typically my wont at this juncture in the experiment… (8/10)

Total points for this whisky: 91

http://www.impexbev.com/exclusive-malts