There is always a story, some better than others. This one is prosaic enough: someone bought The Sexton for my wife, as they heard she liked Irish whisky. (Long ago I’d introduced the good wife to Bushmills, which I had become attached to after reading The Eagle has Landed even longer ago. In that book, the Irish protagonist, Devlin, favored that whisky.) We usually have Bushmills in house so I’ll use that as the comparison dram.
Once again one of my friends comes through with a bottle of something I have not tried and turns out a pleasant surprise. This Glenlivet is a special edition presumably in the style of the original pre-licensed operation, but apart from that we don’t know a whole lot about what goes into it. It is 12-year, bottled at a hefty 48%, and not chill-filtered. While their website alludes to ‘smaller’ copper stills being used for the original illicit whisky, they don’t exactly say if this whisky is distilled any differently than the standard expression. Given the fact it is available across the U.S., which implies a large production run, I’m guessing they used their usual production stills for this. The ‘learn more’ button on the page above takes you to an ordering page which does have tasting notes but no more on the making of this dram.
Here it is, Whisky & Words #100. I have saved a good one for this, an old whisky, Laphroaig 25. Age does not improve everything (my joints for example) but it sure does magic to whisky. I have not had a lot of experience with really old whiskies: a Talisker 25 I ordered at a nice restaurant in Manhattan and a 34-year old valinched right from the cask at Balvenie are my benchmarks.
Those were very special whiskies and they made a deep impression on my palate. Other than those, I have tried a number of Scotches of moderate age, 15 to 18 years, and while those are quite good and show improvement over the garden variety 12, they did not have the magic of the multi-decade-aged spirits. That Talisker and the Balvenie cask belong in a different class of spirit.
Ardbeg has done well in presenting well-designed No-Age-Statement (NAS) releases that have proven worthy of their (usually) high prices. Their Corryvreckan (“heady, intense and powerful”) and Uigeadail (“deep, smoky notes with luscious, raisiny tones”) are uniquely flavorful, well-finished drams, and they should be, being in the over-$90 club. An Oa was introduced recently (for a whisky)—in 2017. I actually purchased mine in 2020 but it’s been waiting for a review, as other events (pandemic, political chaos, moving house—you know, the usual stuff) have taken my attention.
The CorryVee and Uigeadail had stories, and so does An Oa. On their website, Ardbeg tell the tale that in their new oaken “Gathering Vat” (marrying tun in other parlance) “whiskies from several cask types – including; sweet Pedro Ximenez; spicy virgin charred oak; and intense ex-bourbon casks….” they marry their final product to produce “smoky power, mellowed by a delectable, smooth sweetness.” Sounds good. I’m especially interested in the ‘intense’ ex-bourbon casks, so I sent an email to inquire.
As mentioned in the review of their 10-year expression, Glengoyne is run by a family firm (Ian MacLeod Distillers). It’s interesting to review the smaller producers, who manage to compete with multibillion-dollar giants like LVMH ($54b revenues) and Diageo ($18b revenues). The smaller companies cannot achieve equivalent economies of scale as these multinationals who have attendant pricing power. For an example take Glenmorangie. A holding of LVMH, Glenmorangie offer an 18-year expression available for $121 locally, to Glengoyne’s 18-year at $196.
Glenmorangie can offer lower prices as, with 12 stills, they have six times the yearly output of Glengoyne and, with LVMH behind them, benefit from large firm economies in marketing. Yet smaller distillers do flourish; they focus on their niche, messaging and product quality. They can be nimble and selective. The Glenmorangie malt master(s) have a huge stable to manage (not only multiple vintages, but also variants such as Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar d’Or, a line of ‘prestige‘ releases, etc.). How much focus can the Glenmorangie malt masters put on any one expression? Are they able to replicate at scale the obsessive attention a smaller producer can apply to an expression? It must be a challenge. For what it’s worth, I reviewed the Glenmorangie 18, and it was pretty good, but unremarkable. At a small distiller like Glengoyne, you’re going to have more focus from the malt master on their smaller line of expressions. That’s the theory.