Classic Malts

By Hunter

What is it to be a classic? If we are talking Single Malt Scotch Whisky, there is only one way gain the (dubious?) distinction: by being named on the back of a Diageo product. Who else should be the authority when it comes to determining the classic interpretations of whisky but a massive corporation with definitely no interests in showing bias towards their own bottles?

When I arrange my classic malts tastings I do my best not to be swayed by these definitive releases and other clunky definitions of classic malts, for representation of the vast lands of Scotland is no trifle. If one is to imagine for a moment what it is that defines a whisky, which the reader no doubt has knowledge of but I will divest for pedantry, their thoughts should not land upon an idea of a regionally based depiction of distillate. In what ways does the land itself inflict flavour upon the spirit? The answer, in the most subtle of brush strokes, the delicate nuance, the pretty highlights. True character though, that is derived from the distiller, the artisan, the one who crafts. These wrights of spirit are the basis of character, their apparatuses the tools which lay down the foundation of the hot liquor that flows forth. If this is true, how could the land be given credit for the wonders of these craftsmen? It would be an insult to devalue their work so.

With this in mind, how can we define the classics in such crude terms of region when each and every distiller endows their spirit with their own spirit, their own personality, its own life? It is a far cry from adequate to label distilleries such as Dalwhinnie as ambassadors for the entirety of the Highlands, an area so rich in diversity that the Dalwhinnie quails in contrast to its more muscular Highland brethren. I will stop my accosting here so as to withhold a shock to the audience, I know some are more faint-hearted than myself. What I will say though is that we must be brave in pursuing this idea of a classic malt, define our own path of what best represents the Highlands, the Speyside, the Islands, etc. for every one of ourselves. Take heart though, it is not an arduous task to undertake. The tasting of seven fine spirits is what we did this fine night labelled as the “Classic Malts of Scotland,” here is what we tried.

One of our Speyside entries, a wonderful sherry cask full of rich chewiness. I’ve become a fan of Glen Grant in the last while, originally feeling it an uninspired spirit, now approaching it as one with potential for unique surprises. Specifically, a wonderful autumnal character of leafy, October-esque vegetation falling into winter. I imagine it as the first reassuring smell of that time of year where one knows it is autumn. This character that is oft present in Glen Grant is paired with a turkish delight, soft golden molasses, sultana raisin personality. It is full of life, almost like old-timey trick-o’-treating, candied apples sans razor, cinnamon spices, freshly made treats; a truly wonderful spirit. Impressive for the price as well and a favourite of mine for the night. $80

A release speculatively chosen for the back bar and bartending scene, this bottle appears to be an effort on Scotch whisky’s part to take up a position in the array of cocktailing choices available to bartenders.  Long has the scene been dominated by bourbons, gins and vodkas; it is scotch whisky’s time to shine in those premium, $15 handcrafted creations. American oak influence heavy, this bottle shows its pedigree in spades by offering tons of butterscotch, vanilla, dried coconut bits, lemongrass, and hints of heather. Good for experimenting with in mixed drinks or for a classic representation of American oak whisky. Did I mention this is a lowland? No, but I don’t think that matters. $68

Another representative of the Speyside, this time with more American oak influence. This is a bit of a crossover between the previous two, a little bit of sherry with stewed orchard fruits mixed in with fresh lemon and orange slices, all thrown on top of a steeped barley stew or porridge. I would label this bottling par for the course of Strathisla, grain heavy, zesty and mildly fruity; the sherry adds a bit more depth that can’t usually be found in younger releases from this distillery. Overall a strong contender for a place in the hearts of attendees coming in fourth for the nights favourite. $96

A secret bottling masquerading under the name of Skara Brae, distilled on Orkney island in the northern reaches of Scotland, a secret which is near impossible to guess given the vast quantity of distillers there. Guessing from the feel of this whisky (and the fact there are only two distilleries on Orkney), it is likely a Highland Park given the likeness to a few of their more recent releases. This spirit is an expression of a tidal bay, full of seaweed, brine, tide pools and the discarded shells of sea life. The background is a wisp of ashen, dry smoke, emanating from some sort of beach wood or dried grass. Summarized, a pleasant trip to the ocean side during low tide, warming up near a fire pit fueled by brush. $110

Take heed, I am a bit of a Benromach fan; I can’t honestly critique them without a bit of bias. Perhaps that is a sign of good quality though, for it may be that there are too few lesser Benromach to sully one’s feelings towards them. To extend that sentiment, their reputation holds for this release. Triple distillation is an uncanny practice that is used only by a handful of distilleries, and in most cases sparingly. The result is an elegant, high toned spirit that is a touch finicky; triple distillation leaves you with a cleaner end product that adopts wood personality more readily making it bend to the will of the barrel. With this in mind, one might find that the whisky is likely to become dominated by the oak, losing all personality of the distillery and entirely adopting the barrels character. This character assassination is a death knell for such a personality-driven distillery like Benromach, and they don’t succumb in this respect. The beautiful, fragrant peat that is usually upfront in Benromach is now delicately tucked away in the background flitting about amidst the other silky tones of elegant tropical papaya, grapefruit, peach syrup, floral perfume, and slightly diesel like top tones. This is an excellent example of triple distillation, arguably better executed than many of the other releases from the more consistent producers. $93

Another secret distiller spirit, but another that is considered a relatively easy guess when it comes to its origin. Many Speyside bottlings bearing nondescript names are from the Glenfarclas distillery, the distillery mandating that product they sell off to independent bottlers like Sansibar be anonymously labelled. I have it on good faith that this bottling is not only from Glenfarclas but is also from old stock, making for a more distinguished spirit. This particular bottling has seen a ton of sherry barrels, being dark in appearance and decadent to smell. The nose is full of blackberry and cassis syrup, perfumed boxwood, delicate Maduro cigar tones, and a beautiful decadence that is unmatched in this lineup. Still full of flavour and life, this bottling has yet to be touched by too much oak. Ultimately the most impressive of the night, also the favourite of the crowd. $215

The last of the evening, and likely the record breaker for most secret bottlings in a single tasting. This one probably originating from Lagavulin distillery, one of the distilleries considered as a classic by Diageo. That said, this one could not be precluded on the basis of its pedigree. These “bastard” bottlings of Lagavulin are of interest due to the insight they provide with respect to the behind-the-scenes access it offers. The Lagavulin 16, the staple release from Lagavulin, is, relatively speaking, a contrived example of the distillery. To explain, the 16 year is a calculated attempt of a mega-corporation to make an omni-approachable, captivating, and perfectly balanced Islay spirit that captures those being introduced to the peated market. In attempting to create this spirit, many of the barrels that are created by Lagavulin do not make the figurative cut of the 16, perhaps by being outside the taste profile that the staple bottling requires. What this ends up precluding is many unique and personality-driven barrels of Lagavulin, of which these indie bottlings represent. Understanding Lagavulin outside the scope of the 16 is illuminating and not an experience to be missed. This post is getting a little long in tooth so I’ll end by saying come by and try this one. If you thought you knew Lagavulin this one might be a bit shocking. $98

As per usual, your whisky comrade bids you well fro

Apologies from the censor, this document has been redacted for incendiary comments against Big Brother. Commentary as such will be expunged from public record by Scotch Whisky Association for the public good in search of preventing consumer confusion.

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