Now commanding international respect and record prices, the Scotch whisky industry has undergone a major transformation, says Craig MacLellan
Scotch remains popular in the United States and Canada, as well as mainland Europe, but it is in emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico where the whisky industry has seen exponential growth. This has been attributed to the growth of wealth in these countries, where ownership and consumption of Scotch whisky is seen as a sign of prosperity.
The market in what are known as ‘super premium’ whiskies has also exploded in recent years, in a bid to quench consumer thirst for the world’s most sought after and expensive expressions. The time and craftsmanship invested in creating these whiskies is truly astounding, so allow me to introduce you to a few of them.
GENERATIONS MORTLACH 75-YEAR-OLD BY GORDON & MACPHAIL, £20,000
On 17th November 1939 – just a couple of months after the outbreak of the Second World War – John Urquhart oversaw the filling of a first-fill Sherry butt with spirit from Mortlach Distillery. Seventy-five years later, his great grandson, Stephen Rankin, oversaw the emptying of the cask and the creation of the world’s oldest ever whisky.
To keep a cask for 75 years is an extremely impressive achievement. During maturation, as the angels take their share, the level of alcohol falls, and below 40% ABV it can not be called Scotch whisky. Surprisingly, this checks-in at a healthy 44% ABV.
Bottled in 2015, each of the teardrop-shaped decanters is numbered and handcrafted, with 75 multilevel ‘cuts’ representing each year of the whisky’s maturation. Mortlach is one of my favourite distilleries, but alas, none of this 75-year-old has passed my lips. However, the tasting notes describe it as an exceptionally complex whisky with notes of toffee, wood spice and peach,which sounds a lot like the whisky I know and love.
GLENFARCLAS FAMILY CASKS, £185 – £7,000
Truly independent and family run, Glenfarclas Distillery has been in the hands of the Grant family since it was bought by John Grant in 1865. And to tell the story of the family’s stewardship, in 2007 the distillery launched The Family Casks collection.
This unique collection of whiskies claims to be made from some of the best casks in the distillery’s numerous warehouses. When it first launched, it comprised 43 single-cask bottlings – one from every year between 1952 and 1994. Since then, the collection has continued to grow, with further additions bringing the distillery up to the year 2001.
Each of the whiskies has been matured in either a sherry hogshead or butt, and is bottled at cask strength, with its natural colour, and is non-chill filtered. All of this allows the drinker to explore the subtle differences between the different casks, as well as giving a snapshot of Glenfarclas throughout the ages.
If this is a journey you want to take, the entire collection comes in at just under £75,000, but this does not include the bottlings from 1952 and 1953, which the distillery has now sold out of.
THE GLENLIVET WINCHESTER COLLECTION VINTAGE 1966, £18,000
The 1966 is the second release from The Glenlivet Winchester Collection. The whisky was first put into its ex-Sherry cask in 1966 by former Glenlivet master distiller, Robert Arthur. Fifty years later, the task of releasing this precious liquid fell to current master blender, Alan Winchester, after whom the series is named.
Bottled on 25th May 2016 at a strength of 48.9% – an impressive strength for a whisky of this age – it is now one of the most sought-after malts in the world, with only 100 bottles created.
It is amazing to think of the world events that passed during this whisky’s maturation period, including man’s first steps on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the English football team’s inability to win a major football tournament – I am reliably informed the cask was filled after the 1966 victory!
“They are markedly different, demonstrating the substantial influence maturation can have over the final character”
Winchester’s ‘master distiller’ bottle was auctioned at Christie’s New York on 21st October last year and fetched $31,850, with all profits from the auction going to the British Crafts Council. The successful bidder also had the chance to lay down their own cask, which will be released in 50 years’ time. Who knows what the world will look like then.
THE BALVENIE FIFTY, £26,500
These two whiskies, which were bottled and marketed together, are the creation of legendary whisky blender, David Stewart MBE. Since first joining Balvenie way back in 1962, David has had a large impact on the wider Scotch whisky industry, as he was one of the first blenders to experiment with different types of casks and finishes – something which is now the norm.
The two whiskies have identical origins. They were filled from the same distillation into two separate European oak hogshead casks on 28th May 1963. However, the whiskies are markedly different, demonstrating the substantial influence maturation can have over the final character.
I was lucky enough to taste both expressions when they launched and the characters of both are noticeably different. The whisky from cask 4567 has a deep reddish hue, with a palate full of dark fruits and spice, whilst the content of cask 4570 has a rich golden hue, with an elegant oak/vanilla sweetness.
They are beautifully presented in hand-blown glass bottles and special wooden cases, with the latter consisting of 49 layers of wood and a closing layer of brass, which echoes the history and heritage of the distillery.
THE MACALLAN ‘M’, £3,000
When splashing out on an expensive bottle of whisky, I believe the bottle is just as important as the whisky held within. And The Macallan M is an absolute beauty.
Taking inspiration from Macallan’s past, this expression is viewed by the distillery as the pinnacle of whisky creation. And this is further reflected in the bottle… or should that be decanter? Designed by Fabien Baron, who is well known for his work in fashion, cosmetics and other high-end luxury goods, the intention with The Macallan M is to be a wee bit different.
The six-faceted crystal bottle has been hand-blown by Lalique – a regular Macallan collaborator. It is then presented in an elaborate box, with mirrored inside, which further shows o the decanter’s sharp angles and the whisky’s sumptuous red colour. And just in case you do not drink the whole bottle in one sitting, a crystal stopper is also included!
This has now become a regular release from the distillery, although the final flavour varies depending on the casks available each year. Traditionally, the Sherry characteristics (loads of spice and dried fruits) from the Spanish sherry oak casks will come through, although the expression still reflects the distillery’s signature style.
PORT ELLEN 37 YEAR OLD, £2,500
Previously located on the southern tip of Islay, Port Ellen ceased production in 1983. Since then, the remaining stocks from the distillery have taken on mythical status, with Diageo delivering a release of Port Ellen every year since 2001 – with the price gradually climbing.
Back when I started giving tours of Oban Distillery in 2005, I was amazed that anyone would pay £180 for the fifth release of Port Ellen. But fast-forward eleven years and this, the distillery’s sixteenth release, has just hit the shelves with a £2,500 price tag.
Having tasted 2015’s fifteenth release, I can confirm it continues to improve with age. The nose was rich, creamy, smoky and spicy. These rich flavours are joined by a sweetness on the palate of caramel, honey, raisins and dates. And the finish leaves you with that warm glow of knowing you are drinking a slice of whisky history.
APPRECIATING SCOTCH WHISKY
If you plan on investing in whisky, then you will want to fully appreciate what is in the bottle. I would recommend using a proper Blender’s Glass to enjoy your malt, as the shape holds and focuses the aromas, allowing for a more-rounded drinking experience.
Now, when it comes to ice in the glass, I would always recommend you enjoy your whisky as you please. Personally, I avoid ice, as not only will it gradually dilute the whisky, but the chill suppresses all those fantastic flavours.
The colour is best viewed held up against a white paper and will allow you to make an educated guess at the type of barrel used during maturation. As a rule of thumb, light whiskies are normally matured in ex-bourbon American oak and dark whiskies in European oak casks. The colour also gives you an indication of age, as whiskies become darker over time.
Perhaps the most important part in appreciating Scotch whisky: your nose will likely reveal more than your palate. First, give the whisky a swirl to release the aromas. Then, let your mind go wild! As whiskies are often linked to memories, everyone has their own, and so everyone will detect different flavours throughout.
Allow the whisky to wash across your palate. Do your nose and palate agree? Or are you getting something different here? Also, how does the whisky feel in your mouth? Is it light and refreshing or big and lively? Just like your nasal analysis, everyone gets something different on the palate.