So I joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society at the prompting of my friend, let’s just call him Jerry, after going to the Whisky Extravaganza with him in LA shortly before our Scotland trip. I really like the premise of this whisky society as their focus is on the enjoyment of the whisky rather than the speculative investment aspect that entices most douche-bag types who claim to be ballers and drink whisky with cigars. I like that by NOT making the name of the distillery obvious on the label, you are in essence screening out the riff-raff that are purely buying for the status, or to resell at auction. They have a color coding schema for the flavor profile, one of the colors indicates oily whisky with a salinity to it, another color indicates more pine and floral notes, another indicates more fruit forward flavors like citrus, passionfruit, mango, etc, and another indicates more peated flavors. Then the number system categorizes into the names of the distillery.
It’s really an effort getting the name of the distillery out of these people, even their bartenders are trained to ask you two other questions before they disclose where the distillery is, so you are better off just keeping a cheat sheet in your pocket. Here is the list:
Here is the SMWS bar in Edinburgh. We came here after having dinner at Locanda De Gusti, which is a decent Napolitano seafood restaurant in Edinburgh with amazing shellfish.
Kids in a candy store. The number on the bottom left of the bottle tells you the age of the whisky. The color code I mentioned earlier refers to the flavor profile. The names give you a good visual/olfactory metaphor of what you will get on the palate. The number with the decimals above the whimsical names of the bottles is the code for the distillery.
So, “A Whale of a Time” brings to mind Moby Dick, I can almost taste the salt on my lips from the ocean spray. Images of a whale conjure blubber signaling an oily mouthfeel. This was an 8-year-old Linkwood. I believe this is a closed distillery, so all the rarer and worthwhile to be an SMWS member. This distillery closed in 1990, and Diageo bought it and uses it mostly for blending, but getting an aged single malt at casks strength from this distillery is rare in itself. This was like 58% alcohol. You can see another 8-year-old Linkwood from another cask called “Fun in the Sun” just to show you the bottle variation on a whisky from the same distillery, aged the same amount of time. This was also aged in an ex-Bourbon cask, so you get that nutty, caramel finish. My friend Eric, AKA Dr. Whisky, actually snuck into this place once like a stalker and convinced the guy not only to not call the police for trespassing but to give him a tour of the place.
The next one was called “Who’s for Dessert”. It sounds like something you would say at the end of an orgy. The whole “Dessert” aspect comes from how long this puppy has been in contact with the wood from the cask, 26 years. It is also a Linkwood. Look at the descriptor on the bottle, chocolate, oranges, sawdust. Again, due to the fact that the wood from these barrels comes from Spanish sherry, you get all these chocolate and fruit notes. This particular bottle was Oloroso sherry cask.
Then there was “Elevenses at the Furniture Emporium”. I didn’t even know what the hell elevenses meant until I looked it up. Here is the definition, a short break you take around 11am to get snacks and tea. So, this was an Aultmore 15 year. What a description, old furniture, waxes, and cola flavors. The tea and cake flavors come from the sherry casks again. Look at the strength on this, 58.3%. Surprisingly not so ‘hot’ on the palate.
The last bottle in the picture is a 19 year Laphroaig. As you would expect from the Islay peat monster, it is quite peaty and smokey. The 18 year Laphroaig is hard to find now as it was discontinued in 2016. But, given that it was refilled in an ex-Hogshead (name for larger casks) Bourbon cask, it did not pick up a lot of the sherry notes and needed water to open up. Though my favorite combo is “Sweet and Peat”, this was more like “Peat and Sweet”. Not one of my favorites.
It looks like the heavens opened as I was slamming down drams of cask strength, well aged single malts from rare distilleries.
I remember seeing an ad on Wine Spectator promoting Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate and Wine Spectator magazines with the quote saying, “With Knowledge Comes Enjoyment.” I thought that was so succinctly put and so poignant. It’s like a biblical mantra for a hedonist like me. There is the whole cerebral aspect that enhances what you are tasting and helping you make sense out of it all. Besides the food porn and comedic movie clips I portray in the blog, I hope this cerebral aspect comes across as well. Had I just gone for a blind tasting, not knowing what I was looking for, not knowing the importance of aging, not knowing the backstory about closed distilleries, and how rare some of these bottles are, and how the production and terroir lend to its final product, I would have missed so much besides just what I would have tasted tangentially.
Edinburgh was beautiful. Some people might find it stark and depressingly grey, but it suits the town so well. I loved all the whitewashed buildings, the lack of color almost made it more interesting, as it was various shades of white and grey everywhere. The bar itself was nicely appointed with an antique leather couch and Carrera marble table.
This is how the world looked as I walked out…Literally, “Is that you Jerry?”
After a nice Scottish breakfast, we headed to Pitlochry for the Edradour Distillery, where they bottle the Signatory whiskeys. If you only have 1-2 days in Scotland, forget everything and just come directly here. Go to the tasting bar upstairs, see what you like and buy whatever you can afford. My wife thought I was crazy to drop $4k here, but this is super rare stuff that you will not find anywhere else in Scotland. You will regret Not dropping your load here, front-load your spending here, trust me, I bought like 8 bottles here, and my collection back home is set for years. The price is totally worth it for the age and cask strength aspect alone. I bought a 1991 Ardbeg Signatory, I have never seen anything like this before. My favorite bottle though was a 25-year-old Mortlach. OMG, this is such a smooth sherry bomb, with such a nice oily mouthfeel, super high percentage alcohol.
With independent bottlers like SMWS and Signatory, I like that you can get some really rare older whisky that you cannot get anywhere else. Meaning, they have their own casks from various vintages from numerous distilleries all over Scotland. In a way, they are similar to Signatory, but Signatory is like the granddaddy independent bottler. Some other good independent bottlers in Edinburgh are Cadenhead and Gordon MacPhail. There are just too many to list for the purposes of this blog. For those that don’t understand this terminology, you are still getting a single malt whisky from an Ardbeg, or a Macallan, etc, but these independent bottlers have sourced distilleries for single barrels and batches from different years which they mature, mix and match, and bottle on their own over various periods of time. Often times, they are able to bottle weird age-statements that you cannot even find at the Distilleries themselves. Case in point, I bought several bottles of a 27-year-old Macallan from SMWS, which was out of this world for $1000/bottle but was totally worth the price. I will talk about this bottle in a later post. Here is the description of the Signatory Distillery in their own words:
“Signatory Vintage Scotch is one of the most discerning independent bottlers of Scotch in the world. We bottle one cask at a time, capitalizing on the unique color and flavor characteristics of each individual cask.
By sourcing all-natural malts from the best distilleries in Scotland, selecting the best single batches and bottling only the finest casks within those batches.
The resulting ‘single, single, single malt’ this is about as exclusive it gets.”
This is the entrance to the Signatory display room to the right. If you are short for time, skip the distillery tour, go straight up to the bar for tasting. You will get things to taste there that you could probably never buy due to the frank rarity of the bottles, besides the cost of some of the bottles on their own being in the mid five to ten thousand range. Once you know which ones you liked, go back to the store at the front entrance and “BUUUY IT!!” as Jerry says.
Encased in glass are some of their rarer bottles.
I wish I had bought this. We later went to Bunnahabhain and had their 46-year-old whisky, which was the whisky that blew me away on this trip. Erika almost bought a bottle to surprise me for my 40th birthday in June, but they did not take AMEX. I am fortunate as that would have set me back an additional $8k just for that one bottle. This was not too far away in age from that though, 32 years old. Look at the color on that. Totally worth it at around $500/bottle.
A 27-year-old Laphroaig. $3500 approximately. Damn.
A 40-year-old Speyside. Look at that box, this is something I imagine Gary Oldman drinking from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Almost looks like you are drinking blood. This is probably what Gary Oldman would see when looking at this bottle.
Wow, look at this guy. Super rare, from a distillery that closed in 1980. Refill sherry butt, then Oloroso cask to finish.
Here I am with my notebook. Freaking adult version of Toys R Us.
I have never heard of InchMurrin. Hopefully, it was not a nickname given to him by his wife, but for a cask strength 23-year-old single malt, that is an unbeatable price.
Here is my 25-year-old Ardbeg that is sitting on my bar cart at home. No regrets here. Sweet and Peat, my favorite combo. I’ve never had such an old Ardbeg. Most Ardbeg varieties are usually some offshoot of the Ardbeg 10 that they add something to, or char the cask, etc as with the Alligator.
Whisky spaceship was expansive.
Rare, collector’s item 22 year Port Ellen distilled in 1978. In retrospect another good 40th birthday gift given that I was born in 1978. Look at the strength on that, 60.5%. However, I wonder how the price will change now that this distillery is scheduled to open again.
This is what Michael Jackson and Jim Murray, the Gods of whisky have to say about this bottle:
- Fruity, seaweed, bay leaves, and olive oil.
- Big bodied. Slightly sticky. Chewy. Edible seaweed. Parsley.
- Hugely salty and equally peppery.
- Pungent, powerful and appetizing. A dram for the Islay-lover and connoisseur. This distillery should be revived.
- Almost kippery in its style of smokiness. Beguiling!!
- The sweet coating of malt is defenseless against the pulsing peat.
- Magnificently long. The balance is exemplary with the oak confined to bitter chocolate amid the intensifying malt.
- This is whisky for the true connoisseur; exactly how a great old Islay should be. But why, oh why, did this distillery have to die?
Brora of this age even rarer. I found this funny guy’s blog post describing this. He is mental when it comes to whisky. https://www.reddit.com/user/TOModera
Nose: Caramel, mango pie, evergreen, lemon coconut pudding, fresh vanilla donuts
This is mental. Extremely hard to describe. Most of us are speaking in emojis. Some of us in pantomime. There may be bad art that pops up because of this dram. Move over absinthe, the artists have something new.
Granted those poor sour souls can’t afford it, so screw them. And I’m not letting a whisky get the best of me. No more arts for me! I’m fucking doing this! Begin brain melting!
This smells like an outdoor bakery that specifically is run by someone of Nordic descent who likes to mix sweet and herbal. On a sunny day.
There’s your bullshit blurb. Better than most were able to.
Taste: Beef burnt ends, bacon, buttered peaches, peat moss, walnut, cranberry festival in Autumn
Okay, getting a little more insane.
Imagine the wife of the outdoor baker above is really into farming in swamps, but only fruit. She also has to keep… let’s say boars… yes, boars… She has to keep moose away, and thus has to burn things to do so.
There may be boar bacon leftovers. It’s hard to describe the different parts. Most of my fellow drinkers are speaking in tongues now.
Finish: Smoked croissant, juniper moose, rum sauce, strawberry-rhubarb, raspberry Italian soda
And by juniper moose, I mean the meat of a moose cooked with juniper berries.
Now when the Nordic man and the swamp farming lady come home, they eat and drink like we’ve never thought possible. The sickly sweet dripping sauces of their love are everywhere, and in the end, we’re left tasting it, like a musty room that once held a Roman Orgy.
Conclusion: This thing’s mental. Very mental. More mental than other Brora I’ve had. So mental it’s hard to describe. I went in thinking it’d be a letdown, and happy that I hadn’t bought it, and now I’m sitting around a bunch of people who are used to reviewing whisky, and none of us can convey thoughts properly. At all.
It’s complex. There’s no one flavor that sticks around too long. Nothing simple, or if it is simple, it’s the simple flavor that you wanted at that moment. The finish is really sweet, the taste is meaty/herbal/peat/fruit/what? and the nose is sunshine.
I’m pretty sure one of us is now in a coma and the others have to change their pants. Whisky of the year, this one.
Beautiful stream on the way to the bar.
View of the mash house from the bar area.
Let the shit show begin.
Port Dundas 26-year-old grain whisky was a fucking home-run from the moment we tasted it. I know it is a single grain whisky and people may look down on me for praising this over a single malt, but you gotta respect the age and cask strength on this puppy. If you like Bourbon, then this is the style of whisky for you. Sweet, well rounded, long finish. Jerry and I knew as soon as it hit our palates. We put 5 stars next to our tasting notes. According to my journal, I wrote that it had an oily mouthfeel and it was buttery in taste, with a very long finish. It was at 58.5%. It was aged 26 years in Hogshead cask. I bought another bottle as a gift to “Dr. Whisky”, Eric Bakhch-Pour, whose passion for whisky got me involved. You will see his tasting note on this bottle soon.
Next was the Linkwood 97, which was a 19-year-old single malt at 56.7%. I was not that much of a fan of this. It was too Pine-sol-ey, lots of bitter green herbal notes, with some strong peppery spiciness, too hard to drink.
Then, Tomintoul 88 which was a 24-year-old single malt at 56%, which was smoother than the Linkwood, but nothing so special that I would throw down too much money for. Again, a lot of astringent and bitter notes here. Maybe it was not good starting with the Port Dundas, may have fucked my palate for the less sweet whisky.
Then we had the Glenlossie 25 year at 59%. It was matured in a sherry cask. Again, it was too much pine needle and furniture lacquered notes for my taste.
Followed by a Bruichladdich 26-year-old single malt distilled in 1990 at 53%. Though it was sherry cask, I did not get so many sweet notes as I did peppery flavors, with a lot of green notes, green peppery sweet, but with a tangy bitterness, again, more flowers and herb. Someone said potpourri in their description online, which was spot on. Enjoyable, but not buyable. For 53% it was much ‘hotter’ on the palate than some of the 58% bottles I had. This is an interesting example of how you should not always anticipate that a high percentage whisky will be ‘hotter’ than a lower one, as the flavor profile can mute some of the heat, or as in this case, amplify it.
Then a Jura 27-year-old bottled in 1989 at 58%. This was very ‘hot’ on the palate, hard to swallow, almost medicinal with cough syrup flavor. Jerry thought it was the ‘weirdest’ of the ones we tasted. It did open up with water. Again, probably not worth dropping big bucks, not my cup of tea.
Back to some star power. The Laphroaig 18 year old distilled in 1997 at 55%. It was like a unanimous decision by the judges, TKO at first sip. Peaty, oily, and smokey, but in a nice savory mellow way, it was thick as glycerine on the palate. It was weird in that there is a difference between peat and smoke. Peat is more like coal, cigarette ash. Smoke, more like BBQ, pastrami, etc. Nice long oily finish. I really liked this but did not buy it stupidly.
Here is the full lineup we had at the bar.
I really wanted a 50-year-old plus whisky so I had to taste it before dropping a large amount of cash, so luckily we were walked back by the master distiller Andrew Symington who took excellent care of us. Besides letting us taste this, he turned us on to the Mortlach 25 year that I also bought.
The 1959 North British was aged 51 years in a refill Sherry cask. This was a special treat. Even after I had a few peat monsters at the bar, I pounded water to clear the palate and this was a very elegant, complex, full-bodied, caramel, cashew nut, brown sugar and Graham cracker flavor profile here. The mouthfeel was nice and smooth, and it had a medium to long finish. It had a really luxurious old dusty wood feeling to it, also a hint of like poached figs or something. I have only had one older scotch than this, which was the Macallan 55, which is on a whole other temporal plane, but there is this mysteriousness about 50-year plus whisky where you get these flashes of something that quickly disappear or that you can’t quite put your finger on. At this age, what is left is fleeting, you really have to pay attention to the nose and flavors and let it develop in your dram. See the picture of Macallan 55 I had below. I hope you can see why I can’t seem to stop referencing vampires in this blog.
Again, as I was researching bottles for comparisons online, most of the bottles I bought at the Signatory distillery were either sold out or double the price online. I am happy I bought the Borth British 51-year-old as well as 8 or so other bottles here.
Luckily Erika is a good smuggler and wrapped each bottle surreptitiously in our clothes and dirty laundry. Out of the 18 bottle we brought back, only 1 broke. Luckily for me, it was wrapped in Erika’s jacket. Unluckily for me, it was wrapped in Erika’s jacket. I woke up one morning several days after leaving Scotland for London to “What the fuck Paul, you fucking whisky got all over my jacket!” Like it was my fault or something.
Here are pictures from the tour that Erika took while I was pounding drams with Jerry at the bar.
Here are pictures of their copper stills. The shape of any still adds to the distinctive flavor of a whisky based on where the alcohol reaches in the still, and how often it falls back down and re-evaporates, etc. I am not going to pretend I know what the fuck I am talking about, as I sucked in chemistry. Maybe I would have paid more attention if I knew I would be into whisky as an adult.
Here they are preparing the malt.
Here is the mash that looks like a septic tank.
And here was the first of the little lambs we were going to see all along the countryside. OMG, the cutest and whitest baby lambs I have ever seen. Like straight out of a children’s book. The lambs were much dirtier and not as cute in the English countryside than in Scotland. Maybe because of some of the barrenness and scarcity in population in Scotland, the animals are not affected by the human footprint as much? In England, there were electric towers going over the fields where they were grazing along the freeway. Electric waves and diesel exhaust probably explained the English lambs’ PTSD look.
Now that I got my babies home safe and sound, it’s time to take them out on their first shit show at my house.
Pick your delivery vessel.
‘Dr. Whisky’ came to visit me with his dad from Geneva, and he made some special tasting notes that I have to share.
Time to bust out the tasting notebook from the vault. Eric was like Nosferatu writing notes with a feather pen he was dipping in blood as he wrote by candlelight. We were listening to Miles Davis, candlelight, taking notes with a pencil like we were in the 1800’s.
Here is Dr. Whisky’s assessment of my North British. It’s funny how Eric has tried so many more whiskies than I can imagine, and out of all these whiskies in the picture, he left liking Pappy Van Winkle 10 year the best. I guess that is hard to come across in Geneva. It amazes me how the grass is always green on the other side.