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.

Puissant Juice of Insouciance – The English Whisky Co.’s Classic Single Malt, Unpeated, Cask Strength

article-1231476-0760BC40000005DC-463_233x423A distillate of the sweat of Hercules – or, rather, of Geb, the Egyptian God of the Earth – or maybe it’s eau de Gaia, Goddess of the Earth – or, just as likely, a distillation of the Sirens’ song that nearly drove Ulysses out of his wits.

But perhaps it’s a distillation of the natural world itself, of that half that glows in sunlight.

This is a whisky of stunning amplitude and depth and, yes, undeniably, I am enthralled by it. Until now, all of the single malts I hold dear, those I go back to again and again, have been single malt Scotch whiskeys with a date or an age statement printed clearly on the label. This one has no age statement and it comes from, of all places, England, erstwhile scourge of the Scots, “Scotland’s Mexico” as I once heard a Bowmore distillery manager joke – and, surely not least among its many sins, the nation responsible for flooding the world with the gut-peeling, vile trepidations of gin.

Still, despite its provenance, let’s get in closer to what beckons from the glass: Hot smooth rocks along the banks of a tidal river; the sandy scent of old bleached bones long dried in the desert sun.

This is elemental stuff, earthy and mineral. Leaves in an overgrown hardwood forest that have fallen to the ground, before they rot. Dry bark; cereal grains; a smidgen of raw pollen. Dried wildflowers, pussy willows, cat ‘o nine tails…

Breathe it in undiluted and it’s almost indescribable, as if a new wet sponge had sopped up Autumn, a fermentation of the naked heat of time-smoothed river rocks drying in the sun.

A hint of camphor, perhaps? A whisper of organic solvents?

Take your time and more familiar elements arise. At this point, I have devoted nearly a week of nocturnal study to unraveling this libation’s recalcitrant code. The first night I spent with this spirituous soul-wash, the first thing I smelled was Dentyne Gum, the red version, in the old flat packs. And my second thought was: Rocket fuel! And yet, there are scents of malty sugars in there, and the brittle sweetness of ribbon candy.

Much more develops with the addition of water, but we should buck up and taste this muscular dram at its undiluted cask strength first.

That first night, I opened the bottle as soon as I got home from Andy’s and left the cork off for an hour or so before pouring a wee measure of its contents into my new Villeroy & Boch nosing glass. Enticing aromas filled the room.

Swirling it in the hand-blown glass, one thing struck me immediately. This whisky, a lucid gold in hue, does not form legs. As high up the sides as you get it, it simply and evenly coats the glass. After some time, small beads form and begin their very slow descent. And, night after night, it did exactly the same thing.

Cautiously, then, I bent my nose to the glass and inhaled its emanations for a good ten minutes. Finally, I poured it over my tongue.

This is indubitably powerful stuff, a fluid containment for a force of nature, the taste of the souls of mountain men, a distillate of nature untrammeled…

Still, there are real-world comparisons to be made. At full strength, this makes me think somewhat of the Caol Ila unpeated cask strength, but without the sherry mitigation of the newest edition of that dram. It also reminds me, just a bit, of the peated Connemara cask strength single malt from Cooley, despite this “Classic” being decidedly unpeated. I can’t explain that, I’m just reporting my experience…

My first note on that first night upon first tasting it: Red Hots candy, those compact little nuggets of concentrated cinnamon sweetness and heat. But I didn’t get that on subsequent nights nor even later that first night. More consistently, one gets a light, very pleasant oakiness in the taste, and drying woody tannins balanced against a sweetness that is neither sugar nor honey, but something in between.

ewc-245x300At 60.5% ABV, it’s more than recoil that counsels adding a bit of water to this. I did so using an eye-dropper, which is the best way to observe the mesmerizing viscimetric whorls that come alive when two liquids of different viscosity – water and cask strength whisky – mix. There used to be scientists called viscimetrists devoted to the study of this naturally occurring phenomenon, but they are long gone, disappeared with the likes of hepatomists and xylomancers into the opaque mists of time. Still, I highly recommend the essay “Awakening The Serpent” found in Charles MacLean’s compelling Miscellany of Whisky, which looks into this lost science at some length.

Adding water two eye-dropper measures at a time, I finally diluted this mighty distillation to what I imagine is its sweet spot, likely somewhere around 100 proof US. Thusly diluted, this is where the rose opens and unfolds above the thorns of this whisky’s formerly brawny bearing.

Where the undiluted nose was reminiscent of, among other things, a heady autumn day, adding water transforms the olfactory experience significantly and blows the calendar back to late spring, early summer.

Immediately, thin layers of raw green vegetables emerge, celery, crushed peas and their pods, iceberg lettuce. The smell of grass in the sun, wafting mint. A breeze coming through a small pear tree orchard. But also, surprisingly, way in the back, the scent of talcum powder. Weird, yes, but, in this particular aromatic context, not unpleasant. One of my notes adds an even more obscure reference: The smell of a fresh hide banjo skin! Still, in the mix, you find those river rocks drying in the hot sun and that unspecific but pleasurable sweetness.

The finish – even diluted – is long, very long, its sweet radiating burn embracing the heart. And it is sweet, malty, a bit nutty, full, with those woody tannins directing the experience to a drying and still pungent and delightful dissipation. But it never really ends. Never before have I drunk an unpeated whisky that still mingled on the taste buds the morning after, that remained ghostly in the nose while making the morning coffee and buttering the morning chiabatta toast. Octomore, yes, but an unpeated whisky? This is the first.

It took five long nights and more than half a 750ml bottle to get me this far in my assessment of this very special drink. And I’ve already bought a second bottle. And I am contemplating the purchase of a third. Evidently, only five six-packs of this unprecedented whisky were shipped to the U.S. and, if I could afford it, I would buy them all. This is something I want all of my friends and even a few of my enemies to experience.

Check out the distillery here: http://www.englishwhisky.co.uk

I don’t rate whiskeys, but, if I did, this unpeated Classic Single Malt from The English Whisky Company’s St. George’s Distillery, Roudham, Norfolk, England, would be the first non-Scottish single malt tipple to find its place in my top ten. This is the potent, burning side of glorious, and, every time I pour a glass, my estimation of it rises.

Here are a couple of music clips to accompany your ride through this whisky. First, something that, like this whisky, is young and indisputably amazing…

And second, something powerful, stunning, intoxicating and far from ordinary…

Bunnahabhain 18 – What Makes Scheherazade Glisten in the Night?

Bottle-Shots-040The deep, rich intricacy of a dear, luxurious Persian rug, with all the stories, from text and notes, found in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights – all of this taking place on and among the opulent textile’s deep pile of lusty fibers, on a dark, warm, humid night – that’s the experience of Bunnahabhain 18 year old. This is a deep, rich, luxurious whisky. Savor it or leave it to others who will. This is, as I’ve already hinted, the glistening perspiration of Scheherazade on a warm moonless desert night. And this generous, glorious elixir of Lethe seems to glow from within, the color of translucent gold held up before a ravaging sunset. My favorite color of any whisky yet. And the mouth feel is rich, fine oil and silk.

My notes on the aromas wafting up from this whisky are a weave of interlocking redolences, more various and extensive than I can remember writing down for any other whisky.

The nose, then… First sniff… There is a fragrant mustiness that is unmistakably musty but not unpleasant in the least. Long-closed damp old room in an abandoned Victorian garden house. Moist, damp, woolen socks in the laundry closet of an athletic youth with impeccable hygiene. But these are just a few layers among a myriad. As whisky personalities go, this is Sybil’s more complex sister. Not a monster in the mix by any means, but a liquid host for multitudes!

Going back in… Baked cherries, dried cherries, sweet butter, toffee, cheap chocolate wafers from the discount grocer, spilled dried vanilla extract, thin Grade A maple syrup, black licorice, an open can of crushed tomatoes, dry sherry, a touch of citrus – lime? – candy, whole grain wheat bread, malty cereal, salted almonds, honey baked ham, and a very slight influence of peat (from a water source?) but nothing I would specify as smoke per se.

Second and subsequent sips (as the first is always preparatory): A cool, sweet savoriness with late developing spice, drying sherry cask tannins balanced with a wildflower (i.e., not cloying, but understated) honey sweetness, a sensuous warm burn, salt and white pepper, rum-soaked green herbs, those cherries again, sweet maltiness, red grapes, butterscotch candy, and the slight, unexpected taste of Marshmallow Fluff on the roof of the mouth.

The finish is classic, long, with ginger, thin honey, dark raisins in the sun, sweet malt and drying tannins and, finally, a scintillating trace of clove.

This is really, really good whisky!

No, I didn’t even mention that it hales from the most remote and unconventional distillery on Islay, ‘the whisky island’ – what difference does that make?

You can check out the distillery here:
http://www.bunnahabhain.com/

Nota bene: Thanks to Bikram Singh, I was talking to that erudite, gracious hombre Ed Kohl at Andy’s Market in Taunton, MA, the other evening, sampling several of the wondrous malts he represents, and he mentioned that his Exclusive Malts of Scotland independent bottling brand will soon bottle and distribute a single cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain. Based on the quality of other single cask bottlings in this series (the Exclusive Malts of Scotland Bowmore 11 and Clynelish 15 were particularly exquisite – and reasonably priced – in my opinion), I couldn’t possibly be more excited about this forthcoming dream dram.

Here’s some Bunnahabhain 18 sipping music. Take your time and enjoy!

Beethoven

Holger Czukay

Glenfiddich Malt Master’s Edition – A Long Night’s Journey To A Pleasant End

MaltMasterEdI’ve touched on this observation before, that one should not judge a malt whisky based on the first few drams poured from a newly opened bottle. A whisky’s complex of sensory triggers changes, often remarkably, in the first few minutes, first few hours, in the first week or even months, and those changes can transfigure one’s first impressions utterly.

So, what I am about to do is neither fair nor evenhanded as regards the malt whisky in question – Glenfiddich’s recent Malt Master’s Edition NAS bottling – but it is, I hope, instructive.

This is Glenfiddich’s first double-matured spirit, having spent 6-8 years in ex-bourbon casks and another 4-6 years in sherry butts. And the Malt Master in question is Brian Kinsman – that’s his picture on the tube – who combined the components of this limited-edition bottling in commemoration of Glenfiddich’s 125th anniversary.

But let us get back to the wrong way of judging a whisky. I cut the foil and pop the cork (how I love that sound!) and watch as the limpid, golden dram spills down into my nosing glass…

First Impressions, very first sniff, as the alcohol from the first pour wafts up: I am not impressed. In fact, the aroma is that of repugnant cheap blends that left their stains and traces in the luckless clusters of memory cells compelled to carry forward in time the appalling, raggedy-ass wreckage of my misspent youth. I’m smelling cheap Cutty Sark in particular, that real swilly stuff that was available for a few bucks a bottle in the late ‘70s (it’s better now). My worst ever whisky experience involved that foul intoxicant, but now is not the time nor place for reprising that cringeworthy tale. Let it suffice to say that my sister’s children, who found me on the bathroom floor the following morning, still remember that mortifying mise-en-scène with a nauseous mix of contempt and recoil!

Anyway… I’ve given this stuff five more minutes to open up and now I get more of a sour woody chewed pencil thing (if you’ve ever chewed a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 to splinters, that is exactly what I’m smelling, including the graphite), but it is still mixed with a bit – less, but still a bit – of that old late ‘70s blended cheapo menace. Up the nose, that is – I haven’t tasted it yet. Let’s give it a little more time.

It has now been 10, maybe 15 minutes since I last stuck my nose in the glass. The cheap Cutty foulness is just about gone. The wafting alcohol is more pleasant now, rubbing less harshly against the nerves descending from my dear, endearing olfactory bulb, but this is not that enticing candied honeydew alcohol that pulls the nose in closer when it is Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera in the glass.

I do, however, get some apple now, both fresh-sliced and stewed, and maybe just a hint of Bosc pear. The 4-6 years in sherry butts is also coming, just, into evidence. And then wafting traces of cantaloupe and black licorice. Golden raisins, too. We’re at a much better place now than where we started – much, much better – with the sherry slowly coming on, but there’s still something not quite right here, not as right as it could be, as if a very good whisky is masked, just a bit – a tinier and tinier bit the longer this sits in the glass – under a veil of masticated pencil splinters. Some of you older readers will recall, when nosing this whisky, the smell that rose from the gray metal school wastebasket when you emptied the accumulated shavings from a Boston Ball pencil sharpener into it. The more time this whisky has to open up in the glass, the less and less of that smell there is – but it’s there.

It’s been about 30 minutes now since I opened this whisky and the nose it offers does keep improving – but, let’s move along.

First sip… Second sip… hold… hold… slide about the tongue and… swallow. This is a nice surprise. The palate is much rounder than I expected. Third sip… Fourth sip… Here, I think, with its warm and full, silky and coating (but not sticky) mouth feel, is where this Malt Master’s Edition surpasses the 15 year old Solera, which, like the 18, is a tad thinner by comparison (though I’m pretty sure they are all chill-filtered). And I really like what I’m tasting. Lots of apples, now – Cortland and Braeburn and MacIntosh – with just a crick, as it were, of the sourness of Granny Smiths. Just enough. Below that, a nice reminder of fortified grape. And there is a pepperiness, more black than white, more Spanish oak tannin spice than anything ex-bourbon. And warm, liquid caramel toffee poured over candied Bing cherries, the lot of it crushed in a bowl.

Well, not quite that good, but close.

The color, a golden amber that is not quite as lucid as the golden amber of the 15, but nearly identical in its honeyed color-tone, barely even hints at the 4-6 years of sherry butt in this whisky’s past. Yes, it is a fraction of one shade darker, but, all the same, this strikes me as a little weird given the sherry’s influence on the palate. No summer evening magenta here. No ruby blush…

Nonetheless, we move along…

The bottle has been open and uncorked for nearly two hours now and I am drinking my third, umm, unselfish dram.

If you – yes, you – are trying to make a good impression, your comportment as you arrive on a scene is important, of course, as is the firmness of your handshake and the flow, intelligence and import of the first words you speak. But the one thing you absolutely must get right is the final impression you make as you leave. The finish, let’s say.

The nose on the Glenfiddich Malt Mater’s Edition, even now, leaves a bit to be desired. The palate is, if not excellent, at least very good. But the finish is this malt whisky’s greatest distinction. It is my favorite part of the experience of this whisky. The finish is long, very long, with a very good balance between honeyed sweetness, savory spice, and drying, oaky tannins. It is a mouthwatering combination of assets that makes me want to pour still more into my glass…

I hope this chronicle of the opening up of a malt whisky over the duration of an evening has been instructive. Whiskeys, after all, are people, too, and you must learn to give them time and a chance to impress you. Sláinte!