A year in whisky

Last year was bursting at the whisky seams.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recapitulates the major new appearances during 2013.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The soaring popularity of whisky in the recent past (and ongoing I should add) is well documented.  We are living through a period where more whisky is being produced and consumed than at any other time in history.  I’d hesitate to describe it as a “golden age” – defined by the Oxford, specific to our purposes, as “the period when a specified art or activity is at its peak” and, more generally, as “an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness” – because peaks in volume do not necessarily (and in fact often don’t) coincide with peaks in quality, and any idealisation of our whisky era by future generations may well be somewhat imaginary, but it is undoubtedly a remarkable and an interesting time, as epitomised by the action in 2013.  We experienced a glut of new releases on the South African market at a variety of price points, so there was something relevant for any and every whisky lover.  In case you missed it, here are the highlights.  May the dram be with you!

(A bit of background on the review – all the whiskies featured were evaluated by a panel of four whiskyphiles during the course of a single evening).

Glenlivet Alpha

This high-intrigue launch created considerable anticipation as the marketing machine of the world’s second-biggest single malt shifted into high gear.   I must admit that my interest was piqued.  Here was a whisky with a cask profile that is completely unique (to the best of my knowledge): the Alpha has been matured in first-fill casks seasoned with Scotch whisky, instead of the typical Bourbon or Sherry i.e. the Alpha’s casks were virgins when they were first used to age Scotch whisky.  If you’ve been around the block and you’re struggling to find something genuinely different then I reckon this is worth trying for that reason alone.  Hats off to them for a bit of sparkling innovation.  But whilst it may yet give rise to illustrious progeny this first effort was be middle-of-the-road – a touch disappointing, given the expectations, and, dare I say it, a touch immature-tasting for the price point.  I think I need to revisit it in a quieter moment.

Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish

It may be lower profile and less newsworthy than the Alpha, and whilst it may not boast the same uniqueness this whisky is nonetheless unusual.  The technique of cask finishing is predominantly reserved for malt whisky, so it’s a surprise to see it featuring in a young blend; in fact Grant’s claims to have been the first to finish a Scotch whisky blend in a sherry cask.  The finishing period is short – “up to four months” – but the result is pleasing, particularly to a sherried whisky lover like myself.  It’s an easy drinking blend with some extra stretch – well worth the premium.

Glenfiddich 15YO Distiller’s Edition and 14YO Fine Oak

I reviewed these both in September last year so I’m not going to say too much more – save that we enjoyed them tremendously.  They’re highly credible, and highly recommended – just what you’d expect from the guys who bring you the benchmark 15YO Solera.

Monkey Shoulder

Blended malts are a hugely underrated (and underappreciated) style of whisky.  There’s not much by way of functional superiority of single over blended malt.  A single malt is representative of a singular place and style, in the way that a blended malt can never be, but a blended malt can call upon a variety of malts, and, catalysed by the blender’s skill, thereby draw from a much larger flavour palette to create something that might be just right.  Monkey Shoulder is just right – a sweet, smooth, fun addition to our serious limited selection of blended malts.  You may also be interested to know that “monkey shoulder” was a condition affecting hard-grafting, shiel-wielding distillery workers back in the more manual era of malting.  What’s next I wonder: Greenstick Fracture and Third-Degree Burn?  Not sure why they’d choose to name their whisky after an injury…maybe they just needed to justify the cool monkey icon on the bottle.

Macallan 1824

I wish I didn’t have to report on this range of whiskies.  The Macallan is one of my favourite brands of whisky, so it pains me to have to say something negative about it.  But unfortunately I must.  The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply.  These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth.  It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.  Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies.  More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one.  Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins.  Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover.  Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.  I think this is the case with 1824.  The mid-priced variant, Sienna, is some 70% more expensive than the previous 12YO Sherry Oak, but I prefer the latter (and I know many others who feel the same) and I think it’s a better, richer whisky (and probably on average older).  Or at least I think I do – I can’t get hold of a bottle to do a comparative tasting!  The 1824 whiskies themselves are good, no doubt – this is still Macallan after all! – especially the Sienna and the Ruby which retain the distillery’s trademark sherry flavours, but comparison with their predecessors is unavoidable and the taint of NAS is inescapable.

Glen Grant Five Decades

Wow!  Let me get that out the way.  This one blew us away with its delightful creaminess.  I have a lot of open bottles at my bar – it’s part and parcel of this whole whisky gig.  Some sit there for months, a few have been there for years.  Not so with this whisky.  Two bottles of Five Decades disappeared in short order despite my best efforts at restraint.  It’s that good.  Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm created this limited edition whisky to celebrate 50 years at Glen Grant, constituting it with casks from the previous five decades.  Interwoven with fruit, toffee, vanilla, and cream it’s a long, meandering, relaxing, convivial Sunday afternoon drive of a whisky; and at just over a grand a bottle it represents great value – the standout release of 2013.

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2 responses to “A year in whisky

  1. I know this is just the highlights list, but in case your readers don’t know, these were some of the other whiskies that made their way to SA (some limited releases, some not) : Two different Longrows, six different Glenfarlas are now available again, three different Tomatins, two new Kilchomans, three different Kilkerrans (Glengyle distillery), two different Springbanks, five different Kavalans, four different Japanese available again, four different Compass Boxes, three Redbreasts, one Dalmore and plenty of others as well!

    On the sad side, we have lost some whiskies too, but we did gain more than we lost. All-in-all, a great year for whisky in SA, and this coming year expect at least 20 new expressions that I know of so far, some of which are already hitting shelves! :)

    • Thanks for the supplement Marc. I wasn’t aware of some of these, so I’m sure that many readers will find this to be valuable information. Are you confident that these will all be reliably and consistently available?

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