By Serge Valentin, France
We have almost 20°C here in Alsace on this very January 13th…F*ck*ng global warming ! And when are we gonna have the opportunity to enjoy our ‘warming’ winter malts again? The stocks of iceable Lowlanders are getting low and the thick, rich sherry monsters are shrugging on our shelves, powerless…
On the other hand, I could do a little reading on my terrace this morning. Reading (and sippin’ whisky) in the open is always more enjoyable, especially in January in he Northern hemisphere. The sun was shining brightly at 10 AM but what some writers were saying in their books was grim. “Scotch whisky is not as good as it used to be!” claimed one of them. Another one was concluding that, on the other hand, “change for the sake of change when your customers are looking for consistency may come expensive.” Hmm… Sombre times ahead indeed.
Yeah, except that the former author, R.J.S. McDowall, M.D., D.Sc., wrote his accusation in his book “The whiskies of Scotland”, published 1967 (when whisky was so much better than today, eh!) whilst the latter, Derek Cooper, did put his scary warning in his “Whiskies of Scotland” (creativity indeed), published 1978. Don’t get me wrong, these two books were otherwise very good and very revealing, but I couldn’t help trying to find out about these experts’ claims by digging into Whiskyfun’s tasting database.
Exactly forty years after the honourable Professor McDowall issued his rant, himself echoing Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, senior to him and another staunch partisan of the ‘whisky is getting worse’ line at the time, I tried to find a good dozen whiskies bottled in 2006 that I particularly enjoyed. And believe it or not, that was a very easy task. Actually, it came much harder to select just twelve!
So, here are these twelve wonders of 2006, from very best to ‘maybe just a tad less best’. Please note that I still have quite a bunch of 2006 malts to taste – I’ll try to do them justice later on Whiskyfun. Also, it’s true that all these twelve whiskies are quite old (age is still a asset to a whisky, although not a guarantee of quality). Supporters of the ‘whisky’s getting worse’ line may observe that in the old days, we had young whiskies that were stupendous (remember the 12yo Springbanks 100°proof?) whilst today, we have to rely on more maturing to get the greatest drams. They might be right, but it seems that it’s more a matter of disappearing ‘true bodega sherry casks’ than anything else. But without further ado, here’s my list with my original tasting notes (that may sometimes seem to be out of context, sorry about that). All are legendary drams that have gathered 93 points or more in my books!
1) Dalmore 50yo (52%, OB, 2006, Crystal decanter) – Of course this one will be the buggering counterexample, as it was distilled in the very old days… Best tasted in front of Richard Paterson waving a fake plastic Philoxera (Richard, what you’ve got is anything but a philoxera!) A proportion of the spirit was first drawn on the 4th March 1922, which in turn is reputed to embody some Dalmore from 10th June 1868 and 18th February 1878. Kind of a solera? Colour: deep amber, slightly darker. Nose: wow! Slightly shy for half a second (especially when compared with the 32yo) but then it’s the charge of the Light Brigade! First I get leather and cigar box mixed with menthol, eucalyptus and old Tarragones chartreuse. Then I get fresh seashells like ormers or clams, all kinds of dried fruits (no need to list them all), beeswax, old furniture, old wine, espresso coffee, chocolate, butter caramel, old orange liqueur… Stunning development! Quite some peat in there, probably, because there’s also notes of old pu-erh tea, wet hay, hints of horse sweat… What’s great is the strength of the whole, fab that they managed to come up with 52% instead of the usual 40%-ish very old whiskies. Amazingly great, with the menthol doing a remarkable comeback after quite some time. A malt to spend a whole evening with as far as the nose is concerned. Mouth: terrific news, it’s almost as great on the palate. Not quite, as almost always with old whiskies, but this mix of leathery, waxy, minty and oaky notes is just fabulous. Really full-bodied, almost invading, with again all sorts of dried fruits, all sorts of great old wines (not just sherry), all sorts of teas (notably blackcurrant leaves I think), coffee, black toffee, these raisins again, dried bananas, old calvados (with that slight bitterness), dark pipe tobacco… Gets more an more toasted and liquoricy after that, very ‘black’ if you see what I mean, almost heavy and thick (in a nice way). The finish is incredibly long and even fresh (sort of), superbly orangey and quite leafy/earthy, with hints of game, caramelized meat and… smokiness from the peat? S-t-u-n-n-i-n-g, and believe me, I’d have loved to bash such an extravagantly priced whisky 😉 but I’m sorry, it’s going to be no less than 96 points . (thanks to Richard Paterson and Whisky Live Paris)
2) Clynelish 1973/2006 (54.2%, The Prestonfield, sherry butt #8912, 405 bottles) – I loved this one by Signatory and La Maison so much! I’ve been quite disappointed by the fact that several other maniacs didn’t like it as much as I did at the malt maniacs awards 2006, which prevented it from getting gold. Maybe it’s not consensual malt but many have been raving about since WhiskyLive Paris. Colour: white wine. Nose: much more expressive, much fruitier but also much peatier (although a little less peaty than when I first nosed it and immediately though it was Brora). Starts developing on huge notes of beeswax, honey and pollen, it’s really like when you open a beehive (with appropriate protection of course). Then we have earl grey tea, pine resin, cough syrup, hints of fresh mastic… And then the much anticipated fruits, fresh oranges, guavas and papayas, quince, ripe bananas – then it makes kind of a U-turn towards old books, leather, tobacco and resins, with a beautiful peaty signature plus a little ginger, ginger ale and white pepper. Just beautiful, with a more than perfect balance and lots to say. Mouth: oh yes, here’s the peat I got last time, together with this beautiful, waxy and honeyed fruitiness peculiar to Clynelish. Lots of citrons, lemons, quinces and peat, with a superb smokiness plus quite some paraffin, mastic flavoured sweets, small bitter oranges, gentian spirit, quince jelly, a little nutmeg and black pepper… The peat first lingers in the background but really comes to the front after a while, with an obvious ‘Broraness’. Damn, this is so f******* good (please excuse my coarseness but it’s hard not to lose your self-control when in front of such a great whisky). Okay, the rest will be censored then… 95 points.
3) Ardbeg 1975/2006 ‘Islay Festival 2006’ (46.3%, OB, Fino cask #4717, 165 bottles) – A bottling that managed to create a new dictum that says that ‘It’s not because a malt’s overpriced that it’s bad whisky’. Or something like that… Most interestingly, the Ardbeg for the festival is at 299 GBP this year, three times the price they asked for the 2002 release. I guess you can get a small used car for that price. Why so much money? ‘Because we haven’t got many of these casks left’ did they tell us quite apologetically at Ardbeg while something like an embarrassed angel was flying around us in the Old Kiln Shop. No wonder many friends who used to collect Ardbeg already quitted since a few months or years. Anyway, no other comments needed except this: ‘better be good!’… Let’s try it… Colour: straw. Nose: very pure and clean at first nosing, vegetal and quite farmy. Lots of peat and lots of smoke (it’s hugely smoky in fact), with little fino influence I think, immensely clean. Gets then much more maritime, with notes of seashells, oysters… Goes on with quite some green pepper, curry, peppercorn, then lime… Really ‘straight’, really pure, with also quite some minerality. Mouth: starts quite lemony, with ‘of course’ lots of peat and smoke. Goes on with fresh almonds, marzipan, a little paraffin… Again, it’s very pure and straight. Not violent at all, rather soft… Finish: not too long but very, very classy, with quite some spices, nutmeg and pepper. A brilliant Ardbeg but again, at 299 GBP, it had to be good…
Yyeah, yeah… 95 points.
4) Glen Grant 1972/2006 (46%, Berry Bros & Rudd, Cask #1982) – I am a huge fan of Doug McIvor’s work at Berry Bros & Rudd’s, whether on old Speysiders or on much younger and more mundane expressions of various distilleries (ah, those Bowmores or Longmorns!) Here are my unpublished notes… Colour: full gold. Nose: a truly superb start on a whole basket of fresh and sometimes overripe fruits, both tropical and ‘western’. Apples, mangos, bananas, papayas, pineapples, passion fruits, longans, dates… the list is endless. Gets then magnificently honeyed, heathery and then slightly resinous and camphory. Let’s keep this short: it’s a fantastic nose that’ll arouse anybody’s enthusiasm, with also kind of an old bottle effect – yes, I know it’s not an old bottle. Mouth: a very good start, probably a little less demonstrative but really multidimensional. Kind of a ‘toasti-smokiness’, a little spearmint, dried fruits (not fresh ones this time), tobacco, marmalade, bitter chocolate, un-sugared espresso, superb hints of marc de gewürztraminer eau-de-vie (but then again, I’m Alsatian)… It’s getting better and better, fab, fab, fab. And the finish is long, very long, very very long, smoky and jammy but also ultra-clean. In short, a true masterpiece that will make your day just like it just made mine – 94 points.
5) Brora 30yo ‘5th Release’ (55.7%, OB, 2130 bottles, Bottled 2006) – Most of the time, I find the people who keep whining about ‘but why did they close this fa-bu-lous distillery in 1983?’ sadly boring (think ‘1983’, guys) but in this case, I think they are very right! Colour: pale gold. Nose: much more powerful and full of youth at first nosing, almost like if it would be 15 years younger. Rawer, rougher, starting mostly on huge farmy notes (wet hay, cow stable, wet dog), eucalyptus, wax, almonds, old books, wet cardboard, smoked tea, apple skin, walnuts… Well, the list is endless as expected. Gets even wilder after a moment (hare’s belly – having run on grass after the rain at 5 in the morning as some wine buffs would say -, civet, pheasant…) Hints of mint. Peatier than both the Talisker and the Lagavulin. Just amazing at 30 years, I guess there’s still quite some Brora from the early 70’s in the vatting. Mouth: bang! Rich, invading, thick, fat and almost oily, much more compact and ‘direct’ than both the Talisker and the Lagavulin. Truckloads of peat, apple skin, marzipan and liquorice, with a little vanilla in the background and also lots of quince jelly, strong smoked tea and spices (pepper, nutmeg, dried cardamom). Hints of horseradish and mustard. Amazingly punchy, I’m so glad I tasted the Talisker and the Lagavulin first. Very long finish of course, with again a little salt and quite some lemon skin, smoked tea and, of course, peat. Brilliantly compact, even if I feel the ‘2004’ version was maybe still a slight notch above this one. But let’s not split hairs, this is just what the doctor ordered! 94 points , just like the ‘2005’.
6) Ardbeg 1974/2006 (52.5%, OB for La Maison du Whisky, Cask #3309, 119 bottles) – A bottling that managed to create a new dictum that says that ‘It’s not because a malt’s priced a little more fairly that it’s worse whisky’. Or something like that… Colour: gold. Nose: an amazingly medicinal start again, but of a different kind: lots of camphor, eucalyptus, embrocations, old turpentine… The development happens on something nuttier (marzipan) and also on fresh butter, vanilla and old walnuts (definitely a fino character, even if it wasn’t a fino cask). Gets slightly resinous after that, toasty and meaty (smoked ham, fried bacon). Finally sandalwood, sour apples and old books, returning to Vicks and smoke. Brilliant as expected – how many of these great casks do ‘they’ still have (whoever the previous owner was)? Mouth: not extremely bold at the attack and slightly cardboardy but that’s not a problem at all because it’s soon to get just as medicinal as on the nose, quite huge and invading. Superb notes of pu-erh tea of the best kind, quite some salt again, fresh walnuts, ‘real’ liquorice Holland-style (I’m about to become an expert, thanks to some Dutch maniac!) cough sweets, old Chartreuse (I’m about to become an expert, thanks to some French maniac), beeswax, chlorophyll… Something definitely ‘old and resinous’, ‘polished’, ‘antique’… Totally irresistible. Finish: long but not monstrous, oily, salty and resinous with hints of big, fat oysters and mussels. Well, this is just another big Ardbeg from the magical years! Quite expensive (roughly 350 euros) but worth every cent if you don’t gulp it like if it was Coke. 94 points.
7) Bowmore 1968/2006 (41.5%, The Taste Still, Cask #3823, 144 bottles, Belgium) – More and more ‘non-Scots’ are doing great jobs on the whisky field. Of course there are many Englishmen but several German (fab Whisky Fair bottlings), French (La Maison du Whisky, Jean Boyer or Celtic Whisky Compagnie who did so well at the malt maniacs awards 2006 – cheer!) or, yes, Belgian guys are now bringing great whiskies into the market. This one comes from Corman-Collins in Belgium… Colour: straw with bronze hues. Nose: a superb fruity attack as (almost) usual with these old Bowmores but this time there’s also a little peat coming through, as if all the peat hadn’t been ‘aromatically converted’. That does give this version an extra-dimension. Lots of pink grapefruits, passion fruits and mangos plus hints of vodka-orange, orange drops, tangerine liqueur and lemon balm. A beautiful sharpness, quite unusual in these old Bowmores. It develops on various kinds of fresh herbs (parsley, dill, celery), with also something slightly wild and farmy (hay, smoked ham). Lots of presence, ending with quite some lemon juice and some great oaky tones. A tireless old Bowmore, brilliant. Mouth: the attack isn’t exactly powerful but rather ‘wide’, with the expected bitter oranges, grapefruits and lemon zests. A very pleasant bitterness (walnut skin, apple skin, dried ginger) mingles with all sorts of herbal teas and something waxy and rather resinous. Less complex on the palate than on the nose but still very expressive and pleasant. Medium long finish on quince jelly, bitter oranges and quite some salt remaining on your tongue and lips for a long time. Another excellent 1968 Bowmore, very interesting because it’s a little less of a fruitbomb than many of its twins. 93 points.
8) Inchgower 25yo (54.1%, Whisky Doris, 2006) – Another great example by excellent German retailer Whisky-Doris (the kind of retailer who isn’t just in it for the money, to quote the great Frank) and a rather obscure distillery that we saw a lot in 2006 (alongside Glenglasaugh). Colour: cognac. Nose: oh yes, this is the kind of sherry I like! It starts on a fantastic mix of smoked ‘stuff’, coffee and cocoa, with no heaviness at all. We have then quite some balsamic vinegar, grilled meat, old dry white wine (very old Montrachets, Château-Chalons), bitter caramel, hot brownies… Very little rummy, raisiny, fruity notes this time and kind of an austerity that’s all elegance here… The smoke grows bolder by the minute (I already had a few very smoky Inchgowers), with also notes of game (foul pheasant), sea air, coal, maybe also heating oil. Ah, yes, and linseed oil. Extremely classy, with not a single hint of sourness or vinosity. Mouth: yummy! It starts sweeter and rounder but still in a rather austere, almost rigorous way. Lots of cocoa, toasted bread, ristretto coffee, Smyrna raisins this time, grilled almonds with caramel… It’s beautifully dry in fact, all elegance. The bitter chocolate really starts to overwhelm the whole after a moment, and I love bitter chocolate and its dryness. It doesn’t really develop any further, but what we have is that excellent, that it’s almost good news. The finish is long, beautifully dry and, again, superbly austere. Bingo! 93 points (but you have to like dryness in your whisky).
9) Port Ellen 23yo 1983/2006 (55.2%, Monnier Trading, Switzerland, cask #2110, 300 bottles) – Yet another example for my theory, from Switzerland this time (via Signatory). They already had a 39yo Pulteney in this series, with a nice label showing an old motorbike. This one’s more ‘classic’. Colour: straw. Nose: extremely young yet relatively mellow, starting on apple juice mixed with lemon and a rather huge ‘coastality’ (oysters, seashells, seaweed and all that jazz). Nice minerality as well, the peat being maybe a little more discreet than what we’re used to but that gives the whole more elegance. Very nice notes of almond milk, grapefruit, apples, hints of green bananas… Unusually tamed, with no tarry / rubbery notes whatsoever. Crystal-clean. Mouth: superb attack, creamy, oily, much bolder than expected. Almonds, lemon, peat and oysters… And beautifully compact, at that. Superb palate. Gets then sweeter (possibly one of the sweetest unsherried Port Ellens I ever had), sort of candied, with a little vanilla fudge… It’s not exactly complex but the global feel is rather exceptional. Finish, medium long, peaty, smoky and jammy as well as spicy and peppery… Pure pleasure, an anti-hard Port Ellen. 93 points.
10) Tomatin 1965 (50.7%, JWWW The Cross Hill, sherry cask, 82 bottles, 2006) – The Germans again, this time with Jack Wieber, who keeps bottling great whiskies (but beware, sometimes they split a cask into several labels/series. Some have bought the same whisky twice, unknowingly). Colour: deep amber, almost brown. Nose: a very unusual start, with gallons of kirsch and tons of liquorice sweets. I love it, for it’s so far from ‘just another sherry monster’. It gets then extremely complex, with a very wide array of aromas (bubblegum, very old sweet wine, rancio, strawberry jam, very old Port, mint flavoured tea, black nougat, chestnut honey, dried kumquats… – note to self: beware maltoporn). Superb notes of liquorice and mint sweets (we call them ‘Batna’ here), old natural turpentine, walnut liquor… And yes, hints of peat. Just fab, as complex as, say, many Springbanks from the 1960’s. Mouth: oh yes, it’s fab again, provided you’re not put off by heavy tannins, sourness in whisky and hyper-dryness. I’m not, as long as the whole is as balanced as here. The attack is on chocolate, lots of balsamic vinegar, herbal liquors (Jägermeister, Chartreuse) and yes, wood. Lots of toasted bread as well, old fortified wine, Grand-Marnier, fruit eau-de-vie, liquorice (lots), old rum… And armfuls of herbs (parsley, chive, aniseed, rhubarb, lovage…) A very, very interesting experience! The finish is long, very sweet and sour, herbal, and frankly drying now… But the whole is just fab in my opinion and, you got it, most unusual. It’ll be 93 points as far as I’m concerned, but it’s probably not a very consensual expression.
11) Glen Keith 1967/2006 (53%, Gordon & MacPhail for La Maison du Whisky, cask #3876, 215 bottles) – Another proof that what we could call ‘metabottlers’ (companies that select casks from indie bottlers) can do fabulous jobs. Some 1967 Glen Keiths I had before were very dark and heavily sherried. Colour: amber (good news!) Nose: su-perb! Probably the best cough syrup ever, fabulous at first nosing. Starts on old turpentine, camphor, cellulose varnish, pine resin, tar and mastic, with also huge notes of crystallised quince and very ripe peaches. Lots of marzipan as well, fresh walnuts, vin jaune (fino)… Abfab! Gets more and more resinous (pine, fir, old Chartreuse) and almondy. Extreme compactness. Granted, you have to like eupyreumatic aromas in your whisky to enjoy this venerable Glen Keith but if you do, this is for you. Amazing. Mouth: very coherent! Lots of tannins but nice ones, together with something very earthy (gentian roots and eau-de-vie). Superb bitterness (old Chartreuse again, bitter orange liqueur) and then these camphory notes, eucalyptus sweets, mint drops, propolis gums… Lots of orange marmalade as well, dried ginger, notes of ginseng powder. Probably not amazingly complex and maybe a little cloying if don’t like this kind of profile too much but I do so I love this rather extreme Glen Keith. Yes, it may be oak infusion but the end result is really fab. Finish: very long, very bitter and resinous, tarry, like kind of a very old herbs liqueur with just a pinch of salt.
It’s extreme and I love it – 93 points.
12) Lagavulin 30yo (52.6%, OB, 2340 bottles, 2006) – This one has been a little controversial but I can’t see why. It’s not because we should have loved it that we shouldn’t (yes, Oriental philosophy at its best). Colour: pale gold. Nose: certainly bolder (maybe hotter and more spirity) and rather unusual, very different from what you’d expect from Lagavulin. Starts on rather bold notes of nutmeg, almonds, smoked tea , old books and maybe a little incense and starts developing on passion fruits, mangos, white currants and ripe peaches. Then we have a little mint, mint flavoured tea, peat smoke, liquorice tea, cigar box, hints of shoe polish… Finally apple skins, hints of ginger ale and old walnuts and we’re back to almonds (and a little coffee)… All that is rather subtle and I’d say it reminds me of the old 12yo. The fire’s gone but it left room for delicacy and subtlety. Mouth: just like with the Talisker, the palate seems to be bolder than the nose – and bolder than the Talisker’s. Also sweeter, fruitier and spicier, with lots of fresh nuts (macadamia spring to mind) and quite some lemon, grapefruit and liquorice stick. Grows bolder and peatier by the minute, with also a little ginger, cardamom, green, tea, apple skins… A fantastic development, from a maybe slightly shy start (considering it’s Lagavulin) to a bold, thick and extremely satisfying middle. The finish is long, almondy, peaty, smoky and salty (although a little less than the Talisker’s) and the whole is just a beautiful Lagavulin than doesn’t taste his age. I’d advise any taster to take his/her time with this one, it’s really the development that is fantastic – and I think this 30yo has more to tell than the 25.
Is that experience? 93 points.
Actually, two other drams were truly dazzling in 2006 I think: Bowmore 40yo 1966/2006 (43,2%, Duncan Taylor, cask #3317, 171 bottles) and Balmenach 1976/2006 ’30th Anniversary of Kirsch Import’ (52.9%, G&M reserve, sherry hogshead #1765, 230 bottles).
But our editor-in-chief said I should list only twelve… OK, OK!
So, I’ll end this little E-pistle by quoting our good friend Professor R.J.S. McDowall again, who wrote in 1967: “Whisky continues to improve in the bottle. It is said to ‘brandify’ by those who know but for some reason, which I do not understand, the idea that a change takes place in the bottle is not generally approved of. (But) this opens up the whole problem of whether or not bottled whisky should not be ‘laid down’.“
Interesting! In any case, there were several whiskies bottled in 2006 that certainly deserve to be ‘laid down’, if you ask me.