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.
Compass Box is quite the opposite of the typical Scotch whisky maker. It is a very new entrant, having been founded in AD 2000. Instead of hailing their age-old styles and techniques, they have been innovative, sometimes pushing the envelope of where the Scotch industry is willing to go. They are like the old guard in that they are rather expensive—their signature lines start at over $80 here in Oregon, and the top of the line ‘Hedonism’ is over $140…for a non-age statement (NAS) blended whisky. Wow. I’ll get to that one some day.
Today’s pick is their relatively affordable Artist Blend. Artist Blend is also NAS (as most blends are). You can pick this up for about fifty bucks. Still, that’s a cool $15 more than Johnnie Walker Black, which is aged for 12 years. That’s nearly a 50% premium. So, from that perspective, the Artist Blend is a pricey find and I expect it to deliver.