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.
Glengoyne is a property of a private company (self-described family firm) Ian MacLeod Distillers, who have in addition to Glengoyne another 4 single malt brands (Tamdhu, Rosebank, MacLeod’s, Shieldaig) as well as six blends, a rum and a gin brand. You’ll see Lang Brothers on the label of Glengoyne, but that’s a brand owned by MacLeod.
Most distillery brands have a hook, and Glengoyne’s is patience: “UNHURRIED SINCE 1833”, and “The slowest stills in Scotland” declares the web page of Glengoyne. A highland producer (distilled in the highlands, aged across the road in the lowlands), they claim their whisky takes about 3 times as long to distill. With but three stills, they produce about one million liters per annum. Compare to Glenfarclas, another family firm, 6 stills (4 active) and four times the output, Glengoyne is truly an intimate operation.
McCarthy’s is a product of Hood River Distilleries. The spirit itself is distilled by Clear Creek Distillery which has provided since 1985 a source for Oregon-made fruit-based liquors and purchased in 2014 by Hood River Distillers. By any measure, Clear Creek is a ‘craft’ scale operation, and in fact the bottle is hand-lettered for the batch and bottling date, as you can see in the photo (click for a high-res image).
According to the Hood river website, the spirit is “distilled in a Holstein pot still using one pass distillation from a fermented mash of 100% peat malted barley from Scotland.” The Holstein still is made from copper, like a pot still, but is an odd combination of pot still and columnar stills, so that in a single run you can produce a very pure spirit such as vodka and get in essence a dozen or more distillations (hence the reference to ‘one pass’ in the note above). This is is a different approach than in Scotland where a pot still is used for the first distillation (the wash still) and a second pot still (the spirit still) is used for the final distillation. Clearly, Clear Creek is taking the final cut from their Holstein long before they’ve distilled the flavor out (as you would with vodka.) Considering the different distillation approach as well as an aging of only 3 years (the legal minimum for Scotch), and different climate, you would not expect this to taste like a single malt Scotch.