I was privileged during the weekend to be invited by a good mate to taste a very special whisky; special because it was intrinsically so, and also because it’s a vintage dating from the year in which his late brother was born. We drank a toast in remembrance – rest in peace Warren.
The whisky in question was a Douglas Laing independent bottling of Glenfarclas that had been distilled in 1967. It’s part of their Old Malt Cask range, comprising uniquely of single casks all bottled non-chill filtered at 50% abv (sometimes referred to as “the golden strength”). They have their reasons but it seems restrictive to me. What would happen if the cask strength for a particular older cask was below 50%? Worrying, but I only let this view into the abyss deter me momentarily.
This is a whisky that was wholly matured in sherry casks, so I was expecting resinous, raisiny, leathery, tannic flavours, and I was conscious that at 42 years old it might be overly oaked. It turned out to be a tight, well-integrated, balanced whisky, purposeful and sure of itself, and without any excessive wood influence. Over and above I also identified some nutty aromas, restrained sweetness, and a bit of spice on the palate and finish. The only drawback was that I had anticipated something more vivid. The cultivation of tasting ability is a progressive exercise and I’ll admit that mine is still a work in progress, so I may well miss some subtle flavours, simply through lack of experience and education. I’m not going to get too hung up about it – I don’t want to transform myself into either an anorak or a Hilton old boy (the dark sides of the dram) – so I’ll just trust my instincts: good, even great whisky, made even better by the company in which I enjoyed it, but not animate enough to be spectacular.
This experience also prompted me to reflect on the whole concept of independent bottling, which I think is fascinating. Typically an independent bottler would secure new-make spirit from a distillery, mature the spirit themselves, and then release a single-malt under both its name and that of the distillery. Duncan Taylor, and Gordon and Macphail are two such well known examples. Some bottlers do not associate their single malts with the distillery of origin, either on the insistence of the distillery (to prevent dilution of their brand name) where this has sway, or so as not to be committed to a specific source of supply. In certain circles these are known as bastard malts, but I find this descriptor unfairly disparaging. I’ve tasted some that are simply magnificent. Some distilleries have employed practices such a teaspooning as a deterrent. It sounds kinky but disappointingly isn’t. The most famous practitioner is Glenmorangie, reputed to add a teaspoon of Glen Moray to spirit that they sold to blenders – under the name “Westport” – to prevent it from reappearing later as independent bottlings under the Glenmorangie name. Curiously I’ve seen Westport labelled as a single malt, and not a blended/vatted/pure malt, so either someone is taking a chance, no-one is too bothered about the teaspoon, or the story is a myth.
Fascinating indeed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – whisky appeals to me because of its integrity, its complexity and its variety, and independent bottlings really contribute to that variety. They allow for a wide range of different products to be crafted from the same new make spirit. Unfortunately availability is scarce in SA – the upper end of the market is not mature enough, and the process for bringing new liquor into the country is a contortion of epic proportions. These add up to be a roadblock for niche products. There’s hope however: SA is today the 5th largest export market for Scotch whisky (4th if you don’t count Singapore), and the premium segment continues to grow. Hopefully the dynamics will change as we continue to leap forward.