Monday, August 03, 2009
Mega Fun at the Mega Tasting
Years and years ago, a friend of mine was talking about liking scotch and I told her I didn't like scotch. She looked at me as if in shock for a second, then leaned in and said in all seriousness, "You're not drinking the right scotch."
She was so right. I had only ever had a blended scotch, which often is over 70% grain whisky (corn, rye) as opposed to single malts, which are made only from barley. That's not to say there aren't some good blends. Johnny Walker Blue Label, Famous Grouse, Dewers all perfectly good blends, but it's the force of the single malts that drew me over to the scotch side.
I've often talked about our favorite pub The Dundee Dell in Omaha, NE. For scotch lovers like ourselves, it's a mecca with over 700 single malts offered. As far as we know, that's the largest collection the USA that is also open to the public. There are larger personal collections, but you can't buy a dram of their whisky. Luckily, this mecca is only 20 minutes from our house!
There's a great group of people who get together once a month, at least, to drink and talk about single malts. Yes, talk about them. The complexity of single malts is vast, with different regions of Scotland contributing a different flavor. A whisky from the island Islay will more likely smell and taste of the peat used to dry the barley and the brine of the sea air that swirls around the barrels as they mature. A whisky from the Lowlands will more likely be light and floral, with hints of heather. And we haven't even begun to talk about the difference the wood of the barrel makes on the taste. A whisky that spent all of its life in a bourbon barrel is going to taste completely different from one that spent its life in a sherry cask. Here's a map from Scotchwhisky.net that shows the regions.
Really, I could bore you for hours talking about whisky--it's a little embarrassing, but hey, I could just as easily talk about knitting.
On the first Sunday in August (then again on the first Thursday), The Dundee Dell hosts its annual Mega Tasting. People fly in from all over the country for this event. For $100, you get 10 tastings of some of the oldest, rarest scotches they have. $100 is a bargain when you realize none of those samples come from a bottle costing less than $150, and several are in the "priceless" range because you just can't find them any more.
Since we missed last year's tasting, we were very excited to participate in this years. We were not disappointed. Wanna know what we drank? Well, I'll tell you.
We started out in the Lowlands, with a nice heathery, floral Rosebank 25 (25 year old). It's pretty rare to see a Lowland that old. Since they are so light in taste, there's just not as much flavor when they get that old. This Rosebank is the exception, proving that I really shouldn't assume anything with my limited knowledge. This whisky is cask strength, meaning it came right out of the barrel and wasn't watered down to the normal 40% ABV (alcohol by volume). This Rosebank is 61% ABV. That means it was hot hot hot. I added a few drops of water to it (as did everyone else) to drink it.
Oh, a little note about water here--please don't add ice to your single malt. Not only is it cold and will cover up the taste of the whisky, but it will melt quickly and add more water, which will also cover up the flavor. That said, I don't have a problem adding a few drops of water to open up the nose and palette, but I want to control the amount of water I put in. If a whisky is so high in alcohol that it burns my taste buds, it's not enjoyable and adding water takes care of that. Think of it like taking the seeds out of a jalapeno pepper to control the heat in a salsa.
And one more quick note about age. The age on the bottle represents the youngest whisky in that bottle. Different whiskies from different barrels at the distillery are blended to keep a consistent taste profile. This way a Glenfiddich 15 always tastes like a Glenfiddich 15. That also means that a Glenfiddich 15 could have some older whiskies like a 25 year old in there, but the youngest whisky is 15.
OK, let's speed this up a bit or we'll be here all day.
Glenlossie 27 is a Gordon & MacPhail bottling, meaning it wasn't bottled by Glenlossie but by the independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail. Sometimes a distillery has a barrel or cask that doesn't quite fit in their usual taste profile and they will sell it to an independent bottler to sell. It opens a whole new world of single malts. Glenlossie is a Speyside, a large region in the northern center of the Scotland. This whisky smells and tastes of honey and green apple. To me it did, anyway. You may smell and taste something completely different.
Balvenie Rose is ultra special because you can't get it over here and it's a limited release. The general manager of the Dell bought it on her last trip to Scotland and opened it especially for this tasting. But this lovely 16 year old spent it's last 3 years in a port barrel, giving it a light pink tinge and a sweet, floral flavor with a hint of the oak it spent most of it's years. Several people thought it too light, being fans of the 12 year old Doublewood, but I thought it was a light and lovely change of pace.
Glen Keith 39 (Gordon & MacPhail bottling), a Speyside whisky, is known for being the first to use gas-fired stills and the first to bring in computers to run the distilling process. Spicy and sweet, with a hint of citrus for me. Others got baking spices like cinnamon and cloves.
North Port 23 (Rare Malts bottling) as a single malt is really rare because the majority of the whisky produced went into blends. A Highland whisky, the distillery, alas, is no more. There's a Safeway in its place now. But, thanks to Rare Malts independent bottler, we can enjoy a wee dram, even though I wasn't really impressed. Everyone else around me was, but I just didn't think it was exceptional. I got mostly baking spices, and the hubby smelled butterscotch.
Glenfarclas 40 (Scott's Selection bottling) is a rare thing. You hardly ever see Glenfarclas in an independent bottling because being a family-owned distillery, they are very careful about what is released. Glenfarclas is my of our favorites, not just for the lovely whisky, but also I love that they are still family owned after all these years. Therefore, it was sad to taste a Glenfarclas I was disappointed in. It was Glenfarclas-lite--it still had some spice, some sherry, maybe some anise, but it wasn't the full body experience I've come to expect of Glenfarclass. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't the normal great.
Bruichladdich 35 125th Anniversary is a special bottling that the general manager bought during our last trip to Scotland in 2007. With this whisky, we venture over to Islay. Ah, Islay. A small island that is the home to 9 distilleries (counting Port Charlotte); 9 tasty, lovely distilleries. Bruichladdich was one of our best tours in 2007 because of the passion of master distiller Jim McEwan. It's a kind of boutique distillery, with some pretty wild expressions. This particular whisky comes from a 1970 vintage which is legendary for being one their best, then it was finished in the barrels of a well loved Pinot Grigio. The original barrels give an oakiness while the wine barrel supplies fruits like banana and apricot. I also get some honey and vanilla. No heavy peating here, as with so many of the Islay whiskies.
Coleburn 21 (Rare Malts bottling) is the rarest whisky we tried, and you can't even get it at the Dell any more because we finished the bottle. Our taste was very little, but even in that wee drop of whisky the character and complexity were evident. Light and floral with a little peat on the nose, a sweetness like toffee in the taste, and a long, warm, peppery finish made this a lovely sample. Oh, and at 59.4% ABV, I added a drop of water.
Brora 25 is from a Highland distillery that has been mothballed since the 1980s. It used to be called Clynelish, but a new Clynelish was built across the street. Being aged in bourbon barrels, the nose and taste is earthy, with vanilla and oak. There's a little puff of smoke, not really typical of a Highland but the history of Brora is linked with Islay, helping out by producing peated whisky for blends. The finish is long and warm with that hint of smoke making this a really lovely whisky. If you hadn't guessed, this was one of my favorites.
Laphroaig Cairdeas was our last taste and as we usually do, we finished with a bang--a complex, warm, peaty bang. I'm not sure which year this bottling was, if it was for the 2008 or the 2009 Islay Festival. I don't even have notes because I knew what to expect and that this would be my favorite of the evening. The best thing about drinking an Isaly whisky is that I can close my eyes and as I nose the whisky, I'm back there. I smell the brine of the sea air, the smoke of peat drying the barley, the wood of the barrels, and the all over earthiness. The taste adds a little sweetness to the party and the long finish fades out on a light puff of smoke. Yummy.
All in all, a very successful tasting. As you might have noticed, I like back story about the distilleries and the whisky as much as I like the tasting. My tasting notes aren't very descriptive because I'm still trying to put words to what I'm tasting, but that will come. With more practice!
Oh, and for the grammar geeks, I apologize for tense being all over the place. I couldn't figure out which one to use. The event was in the past, but describing the scotch felt more natural with present tense because they are still present. Maybe someone can let me know how to handle it.
And because I like to end my posts with a picture of Cosette, the greatest dog in the world: