Last wednesday was Burns night and I didn’t post anything which was immediately a source of annoyance to me, in fact I haven’t posted anything for about ten days now so this only magnifies my frustration. The demands of having a real job finally seem to be hitting home. Anyway, the arrival at my desk of an old miniature of 12yo Lagavulin from the 1980s seems to have breezed the dust of off these pages and re-booted my whisky mojo. There is no evidence that Robert Burns had a particular fondness for Islay/peated whisky over the others. Although he did die at the age of 37, partly from terminal romanticism and melancholy, but also because he was a colossal piss head so I suspect he didn’t mind which distillery it came from (so long as it wasn’t Ferintosh). So this seems a fitting dram to belatedly celebrate his birthday, lets crack on…
Lagavulin 12yo OB. White Horse Distillers. 1980s rotation. 43%. 5cl.
Colour: Rosewood (surprisingly dark)
Nose: Wow! Unmistakably Lagavulin, an old style one with plenty sherry. It has something of these old 12yo white label editions from the 1970s but it is also very much like the current 16yo except punchier, earthier, rootier and more coastal. There is also something a bit ‘old Ardbeggy’ about it in the sheer tarry, oily density of the phenols. Big sizzling peat, loads of oils, medicine, seaweed, frying bacon, crashing coastal notes, seashore, lemongrass, coal dust and fresh oysters. This is quite different the even bigger than the other full size bottle versions that I’ve tried in the past. Quite spectacular really. Goes on with lots of mints and dark chocoalte (Bendick’s bittermints), wiht peat syrup, more tar and just an endless plethora of coastal, medicinal, farmyard and industrial qualities. Pretty stunning.
Palate: Is this really 43%? A large slab of peat upon delivery, fat, oily, juicy and drying. Kippers, smoked mussels, brine, seawater, creosote, some flickers of dark and dried fruits from the sherry but it’s mostly bags of coastal and medical qualities that dominate up front. TCP, mouthwash, germoline, a mouthful of dried seaweed then salt and vinegar crisps. Balsamic vinegar now with spearmint, more of these super fat phenols, oils, peated honey (?) and coarse black pepper. Wonderful.
Comments: I’ve been fortunate enough to try quite a few old Lagavulins in recent months and what strikes me is the seemingly never-ending consistency of brilliance between them all. There are patters of personality and quirks of character that you can trace from the 1950s right though to the 1990s so it seems, especially when sherry is involved. This one was spectacular as excepted but the sherry and peat combination was a great deal more intense than expected. I think there was almost certainly some caramel in there but it wasn’t to a point of detriment if you ask me. I think Burns would have approved.
I wouldn’t do a post like this without a bit of music. When it comes to Burns I’ll not waste my breath by laying out what marked him as a genius when his words are still echoing though our psyche centuries after he committed them to paper. I think it would be better to just shut up and listen. It is hard to choose a particular poem or song over the others, so many of them already seem like perfect and ancient lynchpins of modern songwriting that to have a favourite would be to miss the point a little. However, there is one that springs to mind in these heady Scottish days when we are ruminating on nationalism, independence and the ramifications of severing our ties to the rest of the UK. Much poetry and polemic is spun about it in both directions by our ceaseless politicians but perhaps Burn’s 1791 slice of national navel gazing that is A Parcel O’ Rogues, with its sadly angry bitterness over Scottish greed and waning of willpower, says as much today as it did then.
By way of a short interlude in my little Glenfiddich/Balvenie trip reports, today we’ll have a quick solo tasting.
I was waiting to get another Glenugie to oppose this new release by the SMWS but I can’t be bothered anymore. New Glenugies are preposterously slow in appearing so we’ll just do this one on its tod with a bit of music I think. Besides, where Glenugie is concerned, I just don’t care about all that comparative flapping about, it’s one of those rare whiskies that any opportunity to taste it automatically becomes a special occasion.
I've used this particular image before for a Glenugie tasting but I always loved it. It's certainly prettier than the silly new SMWS presentation.
Glenugie 1980-2011. 31yo. SMWS. 99.13 ‘Exotic Scenes In A Bedouin Tent’ . Refill Hogshead. 98 Bottles. 43.8%. 70cl.
Nose: A huge pile of dense fruits in the form of papaya, mango, greengages, pineapple and melon. There is also a wonderfully stinky note of fresh guava running through it with all kinds of sub fruity complexities going on as well little hints of pink grapefruit, green banana, lemon skin and blueberry curiously enough. What a stellar start. Develops into territories such as brown bread, caramelised brown sugars, fruit syrups, hints of fino sherry (although this is from a refill hoggie), delicate touches of wax and fresh blood oranges. There are many super fruity drams in the world but Glenugie just seems to have a fruit style all unto itself. Now gets kind of leafy with wet earth and forest flora notes, even some floral touches of wild flowers and then a little fruit compote bringing it back to the denser fruit aspects. This is just utterly beautiful.
Palate: Again there is just a wall of fruit, those hugely distinctive notes of guava and papaya are dominant and very consistent with the nose. Then gets very farmy and rustic with notes of hay, earth and motor oil, if you dropped a tractor into a swimming pool full of tropical fruit… ? Lemon rind, wax, muesli, more oily notes, camphor, resin, petrol, notes of aged muscat, it goes on… probably best to stop.
Finish: Long but not super long, subtle and all on tropical infused green tea, straw, muesli, baked nectarines, custard and flowers. Then a slow and typically coastal fade.
Comments: It’s a popular question these days “Out of all the closed distilleries which one would you bring back?” I find it very hard not to taste Glenugies like this and not think of that forgotten, and for so long unloved, wee distillery. There really isn’t another distillery that has this kind of profile, it’s just stunning. I think it’s great but not worth a super high score for various technical reasons, but on an emotional level and in terms of pure enjoyment, this is probably one of the best drams I’ve tried all year. I love it. Well done to the SMWS for bottling it.
If you fancy some light music while you are sipping contemplatively on your Glenugie I suggest this: Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. I’ll not go into all the ‘face melting’ stuff that has already been said so much better by many other writers. Suffice to say that by the sound of this track Eddie Hazel, the guitarist, was probably a whisky drinker (amongst being a connoisseur of a variety of other substances as well). Instead I would just recommend pouring a large glass of a Glenugie at about 2.37am in the morning (or thereabouts), switching out all the lights and playing the record at a level of volume that befits its magnitude.
You might have noticed, or possibly not, in fact I suspect not, I suspect that the absence of this blog for the past two months has come as neither burden nor emptiness in the operation of your lives. But you ‘might’ have noticed that this is the first post I’m writing since August. There is one very good reason for this and that is that I had my laptop stolen.
Farewell old friend. Enjoy your new life in one of Oakland's many misery soaked crack dens.
The story is not worth repeating at any great length here, suffice to say it involved a hippy commune in the bay area of California, a pointless police report and the sum of £200 pounds from my insurance company that somehow felt this was adequate remuneration for a £1600 Macbook Pro. I am not a material person by any means but this was a very useful tool, especially for writing purposes, so sadly all blogging activity dropped off to nil. However, I am now returned from travels, tired but glad to be home and happy to see once again friends, family and Scotland. There will be, in the coming weeks, several retrospective blog posts that deal with certain aspects of my adventures in American drinking culture, these include my trip to Kentucky and my ruminations on the cult of US micro-brewing amongst various other rants, raves and drunken meanderings. But for now I am glad to be home after what I can easily describe as the best year of my life so far, a fact that calls for a celebratory tasting of some magnitude. So without further ado lets kick off with a couple of drams that have cased quite a stir in recent times…
I stole this image from G&M's shiny website. I'm sure they don't mind. If they do mind then they should consider how much more annoying it would have been if I'd stolen one of their laptops instead of just a wee digital photo.
Nose: At first there is plenty oak but it is hyper-clean with a lot of fresh eucalyptus character and aroma oils, some very light background phenols arise quickly as well. Very subtle but there is still some nice complexity even after all these years, notes of dandelions, fir trees, honeysuckle, fresh melon, tangerine liqueur, very light whiffs of dried herbs du provence. Big notes of camphor and resin also come through which is so typical of this wartime/pre-war style of whisky. The age here seems to have magnified the lighter, more elegant aspects of this ancient style of whisky making. The usual rich, concentrated and oily aspects seem to have been calmed and subdued by the extra years. More honey notes such as old mead arise, the development isn’t too great but the profile is very elegant and quite beautiful. The oak is definitely there but it is polished and brilliantly clean, never cloying or arid. Lets drink…
Palate: Wow. Ok at first the delivery is hugely oaky with literally tons of wood derived spice notes but this is quickly followed by a very green fruitiness of greengages, ripe bananas, apple pie, golden syrup, demerara sugar and more melon notes. Very intense in the mouth and really impressive for the strength. Oily, concentrated and quite a powehouse compared to the nose but it is still quite different from many other wartime distillates that it is possible to try. It seems age really has done something ‘different’ to this one. Background notes of ancient peat, oily phenols, a little saline minerality, crystalised ginger and lemon rind. Then more rustic notes of hessian and dunnage, paraffin, buttered toast, muesli and brioche all flicker about. A great complexity for such an old whisky.
Finish: Medium to long and full of spice, mocha, oak, more toasty notes, a little dark chocolate bitterness, cocoa powder and eventually a fading green fruitiness again.
Comments: Several other commentators have already stated that it is very difficult to score a 70 year old malt, it is almost a different set of organoleptic rules, never mind the intense emotional problems involved with tasting something so ancient. I will say that I have tasted plenty 50 year olds and several 60+ drams in my time and this gives them all a run for their money. Certainly for the age it is hugely impressive. Parts of it are worth beyond what I will score it but I think, in a real turn up for the books as far as old malts are concerned, the palate is worth more than the nose in this instance and that will balance out the score a bit. So it’s…
Let’s see if the Mortlach can beat it…
Once again I pinched this one from G&M's lovely website. Thankyou G&M.
Nose: This one is quite a bit richer on the nose, dark fruits like figs and dates come first then some big notes of polished furniture and typically clean oak (like in the Glenlivet but more subdued). The fruit is much more direct here, there are hardly any of the phenolic qualities that appear in the Glenlivet, presumably because it was a pre-war distillate and coal was still available for malting purposes. Very lush and very polished, a beautiful nose, hints of ancient cognag and old demerara rums, quite raisiny with notes of stewed fruits, balsamico and dried wild mushrooms. Develops some notes of putty and turpentine with something a little antiseptic in the background. Quite a stunning and very rich nose, it seems the age didn’t subdue these old pre-war attributes so much in this one, the potency seems quite alive on the nose. The oak starts to get bigger now, more antique furniture aspects with lots of old wax polish and resin. Very beautiful.
Palate: The delivery here is not quite as powerful as the Glenlivet, very thick oak and dark fruits at first, the oak is a little too clying in this one perhaps. But there are some stunning notes of ancient rum, rancio, pipe tobacco, leather, green bananas and more old wild mushroom vegetal qualities. There is also quite an intense earthiness with more old balsamico notes and mint liqueur. Big notes of eucalyptus, mead, listerine mouthwash, some little flacks of creosote and old rope, prune juice and camphor. The palate on this one seems to dance around a fair bit suggesting it was really absolutely on the brink in the cask, any older and it probably would have gone to pieces very quickly. The balance is not as poised and masterly as the Glenlivet but the highs are a little more wild and somehow make up for the slightly lower lows. If any of that makes sense. Mores spice and chocoalte after time with notes of maraschino cherries and espresso.
Finsih: Quite long with an odd fragrant quality, more chocolate, fig rolls, dates, camphor, resin and big shiny oak notes. An ancient workshop in a glass.
Comments: Yet again it’s the emotion that’s the problem here. It’s a rare and wonderful privilege to taste such an ancient spirit. Just thinking about the changes that have happened across the globe while this one sat in it’s little wooden caravan for seven decades is, as you might say at university, ‘a real mind-fuck’. I think this one is not quite as technical ‘good’ as the Glenlivet, it is not quite as balanced or complex so it gets a lower mark for that reason but really there is equal joy in drinking both of them. They are amazing whiskies.
And now… THE SACRELIDGE…An equal vatting of both (don’t kill me).
Nose: Hugely fruity and oaky in unison, like an epic showdown between the two flavour profiles. More resiny, more saline, more fruity, more phenolic and more spicy. As usual with this ind of experiment the best of both casks seems to have come through.
Palate: Big and powerful on the palate again, lots of damsons, chocolate, huge polished, spicy oak. More camphor and reisnous qualities, everything is just magnified.
Finish: Long and complex. A bit of everything.
Comments: It’s interesting how people often talk about oak in older whiskies in a negative light but I think these whiskies both show oak in it’s best light, beautifully elegant, polished, super clean, rich, spicy and wonderfully flavoursome. True that the quality of casks these days is never really in the same league as the ones they were using back then, particularly in terms of sherry. But I think these whiskies are great examples of how oak can be really beautiful as a bold and important flavour in whisky. I’d probably score this little vatting 92/100 so the answer is very clear, buy one bottle of each and mix together.
A huge thankyou to Nick for giving me these samples. Now I just have to hope G&M don’t release a third 70yo thereby ruining the ‘completism’ of this little tasting.
As a bonus here’s a little song from 1976 by Scottish duo Gallagher & Lyle (whom you may or may not remember). The themes juxtapose either of these drams quite nicely I think. It’s also one of the songs I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard it again during my last few weeks of traveling. Very appropriate sentiment I think in this fast paced and materialistic day and age. Sorry about the daft surfing footage but versions are thin on the tube of you.