Tag Archives: Tasting

Glenfarclas tasting and independent bottlings

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.

Malt that's more mature than me

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.

Completely unrelated

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.

Big Jack

Well, the 1st of April tomfoolery is now past…for another year anyhow. I was easily unmasked – yes, Chivas is still Regal.  E-tailer Master of Malt had better success it seems (amongst the more gullible anyhow) with a story about putting a 105yo whisky on sale at £870k.  The most expensive whisky in the world if it in fact existed would probably taste like a mouthful of sawdust.

With the silliness over on Friday it was time to get down to more serious duties. My government was turning 35 and we were hosting a G2G, so I had to gather up some decent whiskies to mark the occasion in fitting style. As it happened I had recently been given a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel by blogmeister and burgeoning media mogul Seth Rotherham, South Africa’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi (I mean that in the best possible way).  It would do nicely. I might not be able to live the holiday (yet) but I could quaff some Big Jack and pretend.

His brother from another mother

For those of you who don’t know, the typical American whiskey (and whisky in general, including single malts) is bottled from a blending of multiple casks, often of different ages. This is done to ensure flavour consistency from one bottling to the next.  More rarely, as in this case, there are expressions bottled from a single cask. Single casks – or in the American whiskey lexicon single barrels – are special whiskies, considered good enough to bottle as is. They are also vintages by definition, although Big Jack does not claim such. A single cask Scotch is usually a one-off. When another single cask is offered by a brand, it would be as a distinct offering, because it would be a different whisky; since wood is a living thing, each cask is different from another, thus having a varying impact on the whisky within. American whiskeys however appear to operate otherwise. Brands such as Jack, Blanton’s and others, offer a perpetuating single barrel variant, for which it’s not possible to accurately maintain a flavour from one bottling to the next. This is an unusual and interesting proposition – a branded product that changes from one day to the next – and indeed the Big Jack label states: “for unique flavour and character”.

Big Jack’s particular claim to fame is that the barrels are individually and specially selected – so you’re getting the much-loved Old no. 7 product (I believe aged 6 years rather than the usual 4, although in both cases there is no age claim), but the crème de la crème thereof. They’re chosen from what’s called the “Angel’s Roost”, the top of the warehouse, where these barrels are exposed to the widest temperature variations: contracting in the winter, and expanding in the summer to aggressively draw the whisky in and out of the wood, and intensify the impact of maturation.

This makes great marketing copy. However, ageing is a complex endeavour, and things may not be as straightforward.  There is a body of thought which suggests that dunnage warehouses, short buildings in which 3 layers of barrels are stacked one on top of the other, are the optimal places in which to age malt whisky. Why? Because their thick brick or stone walls insulate the whisky from temperature variations. Big Jack is a grain whiskey but nevertheless, this opinion flies in the face of the basis for its existence. I personally don’t think there’s a right and a wrong answer either way. Many elements of this science are not precise, and some of the methods which created the flavours we love today were accidents of history that have subsequently become established practice more through sheer momentum than anything else. Pure pot still Irish whiskey for instance was only created because of a lower tax on unmalted barley.  New experiments mean that conventional wisdom is being challenged and re-evaluated constantly. Take the case of Amrut Indian whisky which is aged at altitude in a hot, dry climate, resulting in 5yo whisky tasting like an 18yo.  There is more than one way to skin a cat as they say, and sometimes things need to be evaluated on their merits rather than according to a particular fixed notion.

The bottom line is that Big Jack is a damn fine whiskey. Soft smoky nose, with an intense foresty freshness…pine rather than oak (?).   It reminded me of my days as a cub-scout building forts in forests on the foothills of the Drakensberg.  Great full mouthfeel. Smooth, balanced woody taste on the palate with traces of candy like-sweetness, perhaps a bit sherbety. Long, lingering finish with similar elements to the palate. It is what it makes itself out to be – an evolved version of its little brother. Thanks Seth, and thanks Dino at Brown Forman. You have my contact details – don’t be shy to send more samples.

Big Jack suited up in a groovy bottle

Glenrothes 1975

I once met FW de Klerk, Nobel Prize winner and maker of history, the man who held the destiny of a nation in his hands and changed it for the immeasurable good.  It was an awe-inspiring moment.  I’m overstating the situation somewhat but I felt a bit of that same awe when I sat down opposite a bottle of the Glenrothes whisky 1975 vintage.  Only 3708 bottles were released, making it one of the smallest vintage runs from a distillery where already only a small fraction of production ever sees the light of day as single malt.  Very little remains – if I’m not mistaken there are less than 20 bottles available in SA.  So this is a whisky not lacking in gravitas.  If I were to meet FW again, this would be a most appropriate drink to offer him.

A quick aside: a whisky, even a single malt, is usually a “blend” of products of different ages.  This is done to maintain flavour consistency from bottling to bottling.  A whisky claiming vintage status was all distilled and put in wood in the same year – the one specified in the label – and then later also bottled at the same time (although I suppose you could get two vintages from the same year bottled on different occasions).  In theory a vintage is individually good enough to be offered as a stand-alone bottling, and would typically have a distinct flavour profile to the standard bottling.

The Glenrothes 1975 was bottled in 2006, making it a whopping 31 years old.  My flavour-specialist mate and I licked our lips as we contemplated getting stuck in.   The nose was spicy, with an accompanying but subservient sweetness, hinting at what was to come.  We detected cinnamon, cloves and ginger in the aroma.  The palate was full and rich, with evidence of Christmas cake, vanilla, toffee, nut brittle and some restrained fruit.    The spice was thinner that was suggested by the nose, and perhaps the only detractor was an overstated woodiness.  I make this last point with an important caveat – I should entirely own up to the fact that I’m a pleb with limited experience tasting 30yo+ whiskies.  The finish yielded some precision on the fruit – dried pears, stewed apple, and maybe some peach.  Closing our eyes as the whisky lingered on our palates we called up images of baked apple pie dusted with cinnamon, and après-ski drinks around a roaring fire in the Swiss Alps.  Most enjoyable!

Not a drop left

At somewhere in excess of R3k per bottle this is not an everyday whisky.  I’ll endorse the advice given by Glenrothes: “If it’s to be shared, choose carefully”.