Gordon & MacPhail Dream Drams

In the whisky world we have original bottlers (the distilleries, or brands themselves – bottling their own whisky as official product lines) and independent bottlers (often bottling single casks or small batches, and sometimes, not even being able to name where the whisky is from). And then there’s Gordon & MacPhail (G&M).

I’m not just saying that as some tongue in cheek comment, but if you really break it down, you could argue that they’re almost in a category of their own. The reason I say that is because throughout their 120-year history, they’ve certainly fulfilled the independent bottler role, but they’ve also been an official bottler (of sorts) as well.

In the first half of the 20th century, very few distilleries bottled their own whisky as a single malt, with the vast majority being used for blending. Instead, independent bottlers (like Gordon & MacPhail) released it for them and were very much pioneers of the single malt category we take for granted today. G&M’s relationship with various distilleries was valued so much that distilleries would effectively use G&M as their ‘official bottler’. They allowed G&M to create ‘distillery labels’ for their malts, a number of which are still around today (including the likes of Glenlivet and Mortlach). Fast forward to now and G&M’s relationship is still so strong that they’re able to continuing not only sourcing stock, but releasing whisky under these vintage distillery labels. So when I say that they’re in a category of their own, in some ways they really are.

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Given the historic relationship they have with many distilleries, when you see some of these incredibly rare releases from G&M, you can be assured that this is not some new kid on the block trying to flog you a third-rate cask that no-one else wanted. Rather, it’s highly likely that it’s been a cask that has been nurtured by G&M themselves from day one, either in one of their many warehouses, or at the distillery itself.

So with that in mind, get read for a long post, for I have in front of me five whiskies that I’m fairly confident I’ll never try again. They’re not just some new flashy, artificially limited, single cask things either. What we have here are three whiskies from closed distilleries, plus two that have each clocked up more than 50 years in a cask. It’s only early in the year, but it’s going to be very hard to top this tasting in 2018.

Glenury Royal 1984 – Rare Old Collection

Founded in 1825, Glenury Royal was one of only three distilleries King William IV granted permission to use the ‘Royal’ prefix (the others being Royal Brackla and Royal Lochnagar). For much of its life it had its own floor maltings, but these were canned in the late 1960s in favour of more storage space. A few years after, a second pair of stills were added, but this optimistic increase in production would be relatively short-lived with the distillery falling victim to the slump of the 1980s, closing its doors for good on 31 May 1985. This 1984 28-year-old expression is a distillery first for me.

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Nose – Quite closed at first, but once it opens up it’s quit tart with fresh cut pineapple, pine needles, oily citrus pith, cloves and old dusty polishing cloths. There’s some beeswax and a floral hint in there, in an earthy sweetness kind of wax.

Palate – Citrus rind, earthy coal dust (imagine sticking your head out the window of a moving steam train). Some pancake batter, waxy fruit skins, citrus, polished furniture and a hint of a floral lavender note (along the lines of an 80s Bowmore, but far more subtle). It’s a very savoury and dry palate, especially on the finish.

The cask hasn’t been overly active with this one and it definitely tastes like an old world distillate, the kind you don’t really come across in new expressions these days.

Glenesk 1980 – Rare Old Collection

This next one comes from a distillery with a rather interesting history. Highland Esk was born in 1897 when an old flax mill was converted into a distillery during the whisky boom at the turn of the 20th century. After closing during WWI, it was re-opened in the late 1930s, but this time as a grain distillery, operating under the name of ‘Montrose’ distillery. Grain distillation was relatively short-lived though, with the site switching back to malt distillation in 1964, under the name ‘Hillside’ distillery. For some unknown reason it was renamed to Glenesk in 1980, where it enjoyed five final years of production before it was eventually closed for good in 1985.

As a component of the VAT 69 blend, single malts from Glenesk – especially in the five years it was known as Glenesk – are seldom seen, so I’m rather excited to be trying this ~34-year-old example from 1980.

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Nose – Granny Smith apples, custard cream, home-made spiced apple loaf and a hint of furniture polish. After some time in the glass it turns quite grassy and herbal in a way, almost like dried bush leaves.

Palate – Firm stone fruit, tart apples and waxy green apple skins hit me first. There’s some citrus pith in there too and it finishes with an interesting menthol-ish note; a cross between fisherman’s friend mints, liquorice and Mukhwas (those colourful Indian mouth freshener seeds). A rather austere whisky that’s not overly giving; one to take your time with.

Convalmore 1975 – Rare Old Collection

Convalmore, the Speyside neighbour of Glenfiddich and Craigellachie, was founded around 1894, but terrible luck struck just 15 years into production when it was pretty much destroyed by fire. Re-opening in 1916, the owners decided to trial continuous malt distillation (ie using a column still) along side their pair of traditional pot stills. This quirky (innovative?) idea only lasted for six years though before the column still was eventually scrapped. Convalmore enjoyed success as a blenders malt for decades, with production capacity doubling in the 1960s when an additional pair of stills were added. As with the two malts tasted before this, the optimism of the 60s was short-lived, as Convalmore found itself on the 1980s chopping block, closing in 1985 (it’s a bit of a recurring theme, isn’t it?)

The buildings still exist today (and are used by William Grant & Sons for warehousing), but none of the equipment remains. Intended purely as a blenders malt, no official bottles from Convalmore were ever released whilst the distillery was in operation and even independent bottles were seldom seen, making examples of this spirit – like this ~ 40-year-old 1975 vintage – increasingly rare.

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Nose – Right off the bat this is juicy, with an amalgam of integrated tropical fruit notes. Tinned pineapple, lychees and orange flesh. There’s some coconut husk in there too, alongside beeswax sweetness and something green, like fresh palm fronds.

Palate – A nice medium weight to the palate on this, loaded with tropical notes. It tastes older than the nose suggests with papaya, pawpaw and some fuzzy kiwi fruit and pineapple chunks. There’s something slightly sherbety or fizzy going on and it finishes with a bitter orange pith and hop note (like a citrus IPA).

Really engaging, fresh and active on the nose, with more of that old-world tropical funk happening on the palate. There’s a lot to like about this one.

Strathisla 1960 – Rare Vintage Collection

We now move on to what I firmly believe is the most beautiful distillery in Scotland. Don’t believe me? Here’s a photo I personally took of Strathisla on a completely gloomy day in June last year.

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Established more than 100 years earlier than the three distilleries coved thus far, the picturesque Strathisla has been creating whisky since 1786. In more recent times, 1965 saw the installation of two additional steam-heated stills, to work alongside the direct coal fire units they were using at the time. If we pause there for a moment, that in itself makes this 1960 vintage Strathisla quite interesting as it would have been produced at a time when all of their spirit came from direct coal-fired stills.

These days Strathisla is the backbone of the various Chivas blends, with only a handful of ‘official bottlings’ from Strathisla ever released on the market. I’m led to believe that Gordon & MacPhail are the main source of single malt releases from Strathisla and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some incredible casks from their warehouses including a 1953 and 1954 vintage, as well as a couple from the 1970s.

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Nose – Dark, dark and dark. Cherry compote, cherry liqueur chocolates, black forest cake and a hint of orange. It’s so rich and the depth of the nose is immense. A touch of lacquer, juicy raisins, quince paste, raspberry jam and leather. Utterly enjoyable.

Palate – Thinner than I was expecting, but the depth of flavour is incredible. Sweet yet sour (think sour cherries), a hint of tobacco, leather, juicy prunes, orange marmalade, black currants and those red candy liquorice straps. More dense black forest cake, raspberry jam, sour plums and drying oak on the finish.

I’m a sucker for sherried whisky and this was a delight, especially the nose. So characterful and multi-dimensional, with so much fruit and a dialed-down sweetness.

Glen Grant 1957 – Rare Vintage Collection

Glen Grant was founded in 1840 and just like Strathisla they also used to direct coal fire their stills. Interestingly, at this time this whisky was made they were also using ‘water-wheel driven rummagers’ in their coal-fired stills. If you’re scratching your head, a rummager is basically a slow moving device (sometimes a bunch of chains) that sit in the bottom of the still, moving around in a circular motion to prevent solids sticking during distillation. They’re still used today in some distilleries, but they’re not driven by a water-wheel. That quirky fact won’t make a scrap of difference to the way this tastes, but it’s cool to think that was part of the production process back in 1957.

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Nose – Beeswax, honeyed oil and the remnants of a burnt-out fireplace in an old dusty heritage house. It’s sooty, mellow and has undertones of tropical fruit like papaya, overripe mango and pears. Turns savoury with notes of sir-dried meat, earthy soy and black tea and super-ripe plums. I guess ‘rancio’ is a good descriptor here.

Palate – Just as engaging as the nose, if not more. It’s oily, fat , slightly effervescent and deep, with lots of tinned fruits (peach segments, pear and nectarine), soot, honey and a floral, vegetal sweetness. There’s some of that savoury cured-meat note, along with fresh fig and peach skins.

Incredibly balanced and integrated. The oak doesn’t dominate at all and there’s so much going on. You could pour a single glass of this and study it for hours.

All five of these releases are currently available globally through specialty retailers. A very, very special thank you to Gordon & MacPhail for supplying the samples tasted here and for transporting me on an incredible liquid history lesson.

 

 

Glenmorangie Spios

It’s that time of year again! Christmas is over, we’re back into the daily grind and then Dr Bill Lumsden and his team come along a drop the latest quirky experiment in their annual Private Edition collection.

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The ninth edition in this annual collection is known as Glenmorangie Spios (Scots Gaelic for spice) and has spent its whole life maturing in American Oak casks. What’s so unusual about that? Well, these aren’t the typical American Oak ex-Bourbon casks, instead, this has been fully matured in ex-rye casks. For the non-Bourbon and rye whiskey drinkers in the room, that might sound like a trivial point, but it’s really not. Here’s why.

Unlike scotch whisky (made from 100% malted barely), bourbon and rye use a mashbill of different grains to create the base spirit. To be called Bourbon, the mashbill must comprise at least 51% corn, with the remainder often being made up of rye, malted barley or wheat. You’ve probably guessed it, but to be called a rye whiskey, the mashbill needs to be at least 51% rye.

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I drink/ own a fair bit of rye whiskey and it can be quite an interesting beast. It still has that backbone of sweet syrupy caramel and char (that you find in Bourbons), but you often get forward notes ranging from baking spice and pastry, to pickle brine, mint and dill. Above all, the one characteristic I always get is ‘spiciness’ and I’m yet to meet a rye whisky I would describe as delicate. So given the forward character that rye whiskey often exhibits, I was very intrigued to see what kind of influence an ex-rye cask would have on the lighter, citrus, highland malt characteristics that Glenmorangie is so famously known for.

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Launch night in Sydney

From the basement theatre of Sydney’s QT Hotel we joined a live global cross to Dr Bill and his henchman, Brendan McCarron, in a secret whisky lair somewhere in Edinburgh. In introducing Spios, Dr Bill and Brendan explained that this was a project that came to life around 10 years ago when they sourced a parcel of casks through Speyside Cooperage that had previously held rye whiskey for six years. The rye whiskey they held was made from a mashbill of 95% rye (the remaining 5% was more than likely malted barley) and the aim was pretty much to see what kind of influence these casks would have on the ‘house style’ of Glenmorangie (ie the Glenmorangie Original).

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With that in mind, in was time to taste and after re-familiarising ourselves with the Glenmorangie Original and the (completely moreish) Nectar d’Or, it was time for the main event.

Tasting Glenmorangie Spios

On the nose I got notes of melon, citrus, stone-fruit and chewy caramels – make that caramel topping, the kind you’d put on ice cream. Going back for round two; shortbread biscuits, a bit of ginger heat, cinnamon and clove. One other aspect I loved is that after being bottled at 46% ABV, you also get this great fatty creaminess on the nose that I don’t personally get in the Glenmorangie Original.

On the palate, there was something slightly herbal and savoury, a faint touch of citrus and grassiness, but give it a very brief moment and it launches into a wave of soft spice. I don’t mean alcohol heat, but fragrant spice; clove, big red chewing gum, dark cherries, toffee and cereal grains. The finish was long, remained sweet, quite lush and flavourful, with nicely integrated oak.

Some final thoughts

Is it a huge departure from Glenmorangie Original? I wouldn’t say so, no. But then again, I don’t get the impression that was the point in the first place. After listening to Dr Bill and Brendan explain their thought process, you begin to understand that aim of the Private Edition series is to release experiments – one-off projects – that showcase what can be done with the Glenmorangie spirit by tweaking an element of the whisky-making process.

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We’ve seen them play with peated malt (in Finealta), use an old barley strain (in Tusail) and finish what’s essentially Glenmorangie Original in a variety of casks (in the likes of Bacalta, Companta and Milsean). And now, we’ve seen what happens when you ‘simply’ swap ex-Bourbon casks for ex-rye casks.

Fans of Private Editions that have been finished in wine casks (eg Artein, Milsean, Companta, Bacalta etc) might be a tad underwhelmed by the more subtle nature of Spios, but I really appreciate what’s been done here. It’s a hugely educational release, a tasty, enjoyable whisky and I think they’ve nailed the brief. I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with for the tenth release.

Cheers to Dr Bill Lumsden, Brendan McCarron and Moet-Hennessey Australia for hosting another great evening.

Drambuie: The Original Whisky Liqueur

Drambuie – the whisky liqueur with 270 years of history under its belt – is back on shelves in Australia and around the globe, but this time in a stunning new bottle design.

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After being acquired by William Grant & Sons (of Glenfiddich and Balvenie fame) back in 2014, it was time for a refresh, but they’ve got enough experience in the trade to know that you don’t mess with 270 years of history, so fear not Drambuie fans, the recipe is still the same, it’s just the packaging that’s been given a well-deserved facelift! The amber glass, crimson cap and bold label work are a nice contemporary twist on the iconic Drambuie bottle design of the 50s, 60s and 70s and it really does look rather bonnie.

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Speaking of which, the story of this whisky liqueur actually harks back to the 1740s and goes a little something like this. ‘One of history’s most charismatic royals, Bonnie Prince Charlie, gave the secret recipe to one of his clansmen as a gift for unswerving loyalty after defeat in his remarkable 1745 uprising. For more than a century after, Drambuie was enjoyed among the islanders of Skye in Scotland, whose gently hospitable nature was personified by this warm and elegant liquid. Such was its quiet success that it steadily gained in popularity until it was patented in 1893, and eventually bottled for sale in 1914.’

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Tasted neat, the nose jumps out at you with notes of sweet honey, butterscotch, citrus and soft aromatic spices. The palate continues the theme with soft, creamy thick mouthfeel. There’s lots of sweet honey, buttery biscuity tea cake, a slight citrus tang, cinnamon quills and some background aromatic herbs and spices.

Sip it straight, over a large rock of ice, or mixed in a classic cocktail (such as the famed Rusty Nail). There’s really no wrong way to go about it, as long as you’re enjoying yourself!

Glenmorangie 1990 Grand Vintage Malt

Originally launched around 2010, the Glenmorangie 25 year old ‘Quarter Century’ has been Glenmorangie’s range-topping core expression ever since. The 25 year old was made up American Oak barrels, Oloroso sherry casks and even had some French Claret casks in the mix and whilst I never had a chance to try it myself, by all accounts it was one pretty luxurious malt. Earlier this year though the 25 year old ‘Quarter Century’ expression was discontinued for undisclosed reasons, but in its place, something equally interesting appeared, the Glenmorange Grand Vintage Malt 1990.

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Bond House No. 1 Collection

Where the 25 year old was more or less part of Glenmorangie’s core range, the new Grand Vintage Malt 1990 is part of new series, known as the Bond House No. 1 Collection. It’s series said to be focussed on luxury (something that LVMH know an awful lot about and do very well), but it also has another central theme to it. All of the bottles in this new series will be vintage dated (as opposed to age-stated) and if the first 1990 release is anything to go by, I’m sure they’re all going to ooze decadence and appeal very much to the well-heeled buyer who enjoys all things luxury.

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Thanks to the great team at Moet-Hennessey Australia, I was very generously invited along to try the 1990 Grand Vintage Malt recently, alongside accompanying drams of Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or and the 18 year old.

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The Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or is a long-time favourite of mine, with that sweet sauternes wine-finish working wonders with the bright and fruity Glenmorangie spirit profile. It somehow manages to take the lighter Glenmorangie house style and give it a great buttery, fat quality to it. I mean that in the best possible way – think of a french boulangerie – with loads of pastry, biscuits, honey, citrus and mineral elements. An effortlessly tasty dram with body.

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The 18 year old heads in a very different – though equally enjoyable – direction. Garth Foster, Moet Hennesy Brand Ambassador, filled us on the deliberate work that goes into constructing the 18 year old and it was genuinely interesting. At 14 years of age, 10-20% of the classic ex-bourbon matured Glenmorangie spirit is moved into ex-sherry casks for a further period of maturation. The process happens again at 16 years of age, so it’s not just a simple 6-month sherry finish we’re talking about here. There’s also a healthy dose of Glenmorangie’s ‘designer casks’ in the recipe, casks made of slow-growth American oak selected from the Ozark Mountains. When you put all of that together, you get a Glenmorangie with a richer sherry note with integrated dried fruits, vanilla and nuts (hazel nuts and brazil nuts). It’s creamy, nicely balanced and has good complexity.

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Glenmorangie 1990 Grand Vintage Malt

After tasting those two, it was on to the main show, the new 1990 Vintage, matured in a selection of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks for approximately 26 years before being bottled at 43% ABV.

On the nose I got notes of ripe juicy peach, tinned tropical fruits, dried apricot and crushed spice biscuits. The tropical notes continue to emerge with time, with firm cantaloupe, green stone fruits, perfumed honeysuckle and a touch of old waxed leather and tobacco.

On the palate the tropical theme continues. It’s soft, delicate and malty on entry with charred peach, firm green stone fruit, honey, a vegetal earthiness and something aromatic and floral in the background. The oak is there, but it’s nicely integrated and never turns overly drying.

One of the most complex Glenmorangie whiskies I’ve tried and also the one that is furthest from the ‘house-style’ I normally think of when I taste their other core range. It also works marvellously at the lower bottling strength they’ve chosen here. In short; luxurious liquid velvet.

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The new Glenmorangie 1990 Vintage is available in Australia now in very limited quantities and entry to the exclusive 1990 club will set you back a tidy $725 or so. A very special thanks to Moet-Hennessey Australia for the guest pass!

SMWS Exotic Cargo Review

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society are best-known for their ever-changing range of unadulterated, high-quality single cask Scotch whiskies. Whiskies that have been bottled straight from the cask with no dilution, colouring or chill-filtration. That’s been their ethos since they started back in 1983 and little has changed since.

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In more recent history they’ve branched out slightly, bottling grain whisky, Japanese whisky and Bourbon and in recent years they’ve even increased the number of non-whisky spirits they’ve been bottling, including rum and Cognac. But no matter what they’re filling into their iconic green bottle, there’s always been once central theme that’s never changed. Everything the Society bottles comes from a single cask and is bottled at cask strength. That’s always been the case – that is – until now.

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Say hello to Exotic Cargo, the Society’s first ever blended Scotch malt whisky. To quote the Society, Exotic Cargo is made up of “a selection of pre-blended Scotch malt whiskies, distilled in 2006 and matured from birth in exceptional first fill ex-sherry Spanish oak hogsheads for their full term”. The team responsible for its creation tasted the blended malt at a dozen different strengths before settling on 50% ABV, which they felt really brought out the best flavours in the whisky. It was then bottled at its natural colour without chill-filtration.

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The Society’s National Ambassador for Australia, Matt Bailey, tells us that the intention is for this to be part of an ongoing series, pointing out that the label proudly denotes that this is ‘batch number one’. As for the general profile of future incarnations? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

SMWS Exotic Cargo Review

Exotic Cargo is described as having “a deep yet delicate nose of warming nutmeg and cinnamon spice, followed on the palate by an intense sweetness, rich with moist ginger cake, treacle toffee, dark chocolate, marmalade and Turkish Delight, together with tannic wood, chilli spice, liquorice, walnut and leather”.

Being a big fan of ex-sherry cask whisky – and the Society in general – I was very eager to try the new Exotic Cargo and was fortunate to have the opportunity ahead of its official Australian release when Matt Bailey hosted an intimate gathering at Sydney’s best Society partner bar (in my opinion), Archie Rose. The intention of the get-together was to seek honest feedback from real members, so here’s what I thought:

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The nose was all things sweet and rich; sugared candy, frosty flakes, spun sugar, sweet juicy raisins and muscatel grapes. It’s deep, really juicy and syrupy, with notes of honey, treacle and maple drizzled over pancakes.

The excitement continues on the sweet and creamy palate. It’s just as clean as the nose, with loads of bright, juicy Oloroso notes. Big plump raisins, a touch of chocolate and some burnt brioche bread, all coated in sweet salted caramel. The faintest spice emerges on the finish, but it never turns overly drying or tannic – something you often find with heavily sherried, ex-European oak whisky.

In three words: Juicy, Sweet, Fun.

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I love single cask whisky, especially big sherry heavy-hitters, but generally speaking, with single casks something always gives slightly. Maybe the palate doesn’t quite live up to the nose, or the nose is hot and takes a long time to open up, or the finish turns overly tannic and highlights flaws. Whatever the case, single casks – while super fun and tasty – are rarely harmoniously balanced the whole way through. But that’s where Exotic Cargo excels. They’ve managed to take the best parts of multiple casks and deliver an overall package that works marvelously and is almost too drinkable.

The bits you need to know

Exotic Cargo from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is limited to just 1,937 bottles worldwide, with around 120 being made available to the Australian and New Zealand market. It will be released in the first quarter of next year, exclusive to members of the Society, at a very reasonable price (I’m guessing somewhere in the region of $120 – $170 but final pricing is to be confirmed by the Society). Oh, and one last thing. The queue for a bottle starts behind me.