Around this time each year, Glenmorangie release a new, limited expression. An experimental and innovative whisky of sorts, if you will. It’s the one time of year Dr Bill Lumsden gets to showcase something a little bit different. A whisky that falls outside the bounds of what people normally think of when they look to Glenmorangie’s house-style. The whiskies released under this banner are known as the Private Edition releases and they’re always a bit of fun.
Last year I reviewed the Milsean, a Glenmorangie matured in toasted ex-wine casks that was packed with sweet-shop flavours. The year before, I had the great pleasure of attending a dinner with Dr Bill Lumsden for the launch of Glenmorangie Tusail. Beyond that, I’ve tried (or owned) every one of the Private Edition releases, so you could say that I’m a pretty big fan.
This year marks the eighth Private Edition release and in a way, Dr Bill and his team have taken us back in time to the early 2000s when Glenmorangie had a Madeira ‘wood finished’ whisky in their core range. Enter, the Glenmorangie Bacalta.
The launch event
Here in Sydney, we’re pretty far away from the Scottish Highlands, so throwing together a tasting with Dr Bill isn’t exactly the easiest task. However, the wonderful world of technology solves that for us and the other week I had the pleasure of attending a Google-Hangout tasting. Invitees assembled in the classy surrounds of the Old Clare Hotel in Sydney and as the clock struck 9.00pm here, it had just ticked over 10.00am in the Highlands. The live feed came up, guests joined in from Mumbai and Seoul and we were greeted with the ever-jovial voices of Dr Bill Lumsden and Brendan McCarron (Head of Maturing Stocks).
What is Madeira exactly?
To better understand the magic of Glenmorange Bacalta (Scottish Gaelic for ‘Baked’), it helps to understand what Madeira wine is and how it’s produced. Thankfully, Dr Bill gave us the 101 on both and it went something a little like this.
Contrary to the way some people use the term, ‘Madeira’ isn’t really a form of wine in the same sense that sherry is. Madeira is actually an autonomous archipelago of Portugal found off the west coast of Morocco. On Madeira they make fortified wines from a variety of grapes, but the richest is Malmsey wine, made from the Malvasia grape.
What makes Madeira wine unique is the way in which it’s treated during maturation. Barrels are stored in the roof cavities of the bodegas where they’re heated by the sun and essentially ‘baked’ (hence the ‘Bacalta’ name). Leaving barrels of wine in these conditions has two distinct effects. First, it drastically changes the characteristic of the wine itself, oxidising it and bringing out the tart acidic characters that define Madeira wines. Secondly, the unforgiving conditions deteriorate the casks themselves and as time goes on, they actually start to fall apart and leak due to the harsh conditions.
With those harsh conditions very few ex-wine barrels make it out alive, so finding a consistent supply of casks in terms of quality and quantity is incredible difficult. It’s this challenge that ultimately led to the demise of the original Madeira wood finish expression back in the early 2000s.
Piecing together the Glenmorangie Bacalta
Not one to give up though, around seven or eight years ago Dr Bill embarked on a challenge to try things again. This time though it would be a bespoke project, one where he and his team would control every aspect of the process. A wine producer was found and Speyside Cooperage were engaged to construct a series of 250L hogsheads from tight grain, slow growth, air-seasoned American Oak. The casks were heavily toasted and shipped to Madeira to be filled with Malmsey wine, where they then sat and seasoned for two whole years.
After being brought back to Scotland they were filled with ten year old Glenmorangie and were set aside for what Dr Bill thought would be a three to four year extra maturation period. He and Brendan McCarron began tasting the casks around the two year mark and believed that at that point they’d already hit the sweet spot they were looking for. One where the balance was just right between the strong notes of the Madeira wine and the house character of the Glenmorangie spirit. So for those who like numbers, the Bacalta is essentially 12 years old.
Glenmorangie Bacalta Review
So with that context in place, we tasted our way through the Glenmorangie Original 10 year old, the Glenmorangie Lasanta (extra-matured in ex-sherry casks) and finally, the hero of the evening, the new Glenmorangie Bacalta.
On the nose there’s an immediate juxtaposition of aromas, from dryness (like oak, dried tobacco leaves and cedar wood spice), to sweetness (hard toffee, baked apples, tarte tatin and pastry dough), to an acidic element (citrus skins and aged sherry vinegar). It has a complex nose that flits between sweet and savoury.
Oily, creamy and sweet on entry, but immediately backed up by spice and stone fruit. Think peaches and apricots, orange marmalade, honeycomb, hard toffee and citrus zest. There’s a nuttiness on the finish with a peppery spice. The addition of water rounds out the palate and opens up the nose nicely.
I’ve enjoyed each of the Private Edition expressions I’ve tried to date. Some more-so than others, but this year’s release has really stepped up to the plate. The Bacalta is genuinely, genuinely good. It strikes this wonderful balance between sweetness, acidity, fruit and oak. To my nose and palate it’s expressive, comes across as maturely integrated and nothing dominates too heavily. I’ve not tasted the original Glenmorangie 15 year old Madeira wood finish, but I struggle to imagine it being any better than this.
The new, limited edition Glenmorangie Bacalta is available in global markets now.