E-pistle 2007/037 – A Dozen Drifting Drams

By Luca Chichizola, Italy

I don’t usually care for compiling long tasting notes of the malts I try.
My personal notes just include the score, plus a brief summarizing comment like “wonderful orange notes”, or “very chewy and rounded”, or “unusually astringent”. That is for most of the expressions I try, especially the more mundane ones. Anyhow, sometimes I feel I have to take deeper notes for some of the truly greatest malts I stumble upon: the funny thing is that I don’t do it as a reminder of great bottles to buy again in future… because very often these bottles are the last one of their kind, found in a remote store covered by a layer of dust, or too pricey to justify another expense. Yes, it seems that in the last months I have tried some unusually fine and/or expensive bottles… it’s not going to become a habit (a couple of them were actually a stroke of luck, bought at a very reasonable price compared to their age), but it was great fun. And in these cases I feel compelled to write at least a few notes more than I am used to…

For posterity, you know.

One thing stands clear for these dozen great malts I have tasted in the past 9 months: my tastes are drifting.
I used to love the peat monsters, and nowadays I find myself more and more neglecting them, almost bored, and swaying to the opposite side of the spectrum… towards the big sherry beasts. I love their luscious and winey embrace, the decadent fruitiness and tannins of long maturation in sherry casks, their red/amber colour. Of course in this E-pistle there are some “neutral malts” too, standing out for their delicate but not dull flavour palette (I love those rare occasions when a cask’s influence is not in-your-face and the whisky is rich and full of complex flavours, perfectly balanced without woody excesses but lots of personality)… but the majority of the best drams I have had in the past months seem to come from sherry casks… and usually bold and lively ones, too. Apart from the two Port Ellens (which are not peat monsters anyway), all the other excellent malts in this E-pistle range from “unpeated” to “so slightly peated that it almost doesn’t matter”. What is NOT drifting in my tastes, is that I keep loving malts with lots of character: no boring or dull ones, no exercises in delicacy… Even the Bruichladdich 125th, which is certainly far from being powerful or bold, has a certain assertive richness which makes it soft but not “delicate” in the bad meaning of the word. Yes, it IS delicate and velvety, but it has lots of taste.

So, if you share the fondness of sherry with me, read on…
If you don’t, read anyway, as there are a couple of gems to discover anyway.

Tobermory 32yo 1972/2005 (49.5%, OB, Brown/Purple Label, 1710 Bts., Sherry Finish) – 93 points
Nose: Whoah! This malt spent a lot of time in wood… and it shows (well, already the dark brown color should have been a hint)!
Old, dusty and musty drawers, wood furniture (pine), wood polish/wax, damp bricks and concrete cellar, ancient leather book covers… A triumph of “old and stale” smells, but not in a tiresome or nauseating way. Very fascinating, instead! Slight wineyness from the sherry, but again very dark and not fruity or “lively” at all. An “Addams Family”-like profile, if you know what I mean… dark and gloomy, but intriguing.
Palate: Oaky, tannic, bitterish… but never astringent or unbalanced. Lots of bitter licorice (it tastes like an alcoholic extract of the “Saila liquirizia” candy drops you can find in Italy), Petrus Boonekamp liqueur (which is good… since I usually hate liqueurs but Petrus is one of the few I can tolerate), medicinal herbs, room-temperature Guinness stout, some hints of peat, bitter propolis, Latakia tobacco… and then a late dark malty sweetness. The wonderful thing of this malt is how it can be bitter but not unpleasant: it maintains a wonderful round taste, warm and enticing, quite extreme in its tannins but without going over the top. An original and daring profile that I love.
Finish: Again, licoricey and bitter but without excesses or any astringency. Anise liqueur.
Comment: If you like sweet, clean malts… stay away! This is a dark, brooding, moody old beast: not brutal, not bad-tempered, not quizzical… but also far from being a whisky for all tastes. It beats many old malts I have tried due to its sheer originality and boldness (not a simple dried/tropical fruit galore, not a winey and overly-dry sherry monster, not an ultra-sweet and soft honeycomb feast like many old malts are). But of course you have to love at least some bitterness…

Convalmore 28yo 1977/2005 (57.9%, OB, Limited Edition, 3900 Bts.) – 89 points
Nose: A little known silent distillery, and one that I loved from the first sip from a Convalmore 24yo 1978/2003 (59.4%, Rare Malts) a couple of years ago. Why did I love it so much? Because of a clear and distinctive note of candied oranges… the same note that I found again later in a Convalmore 14yo 1983/1997 (43%, Signatory, C#1639, 580 Bts.) and in the bottling I am reviewing here! Yes, three expressions tried so far, and all of three smell deliciously of candied oranges! This expression is the best one I have tasted: together with the candied oranges, a great clean maltiness, some dark chocolate fragrance, and some buttery biscuits too. Very intense, with camomille flowers and just a hint of oakiness. Very clean, natural and similar in “philosophy” to most bottlings of the Rare Malts series.
Palate: Again, a fierce and intense flavour… some water is recommended to bring out the great malty sweetness and the candied oranges. It’s a malt that (like the aforementioned 1978 Rare Malts expression) can gladly take some water, rigorously at room temperature, and some warming from the hand to bring out the best flavours: it becomes less burning but remains extremely tasty, not dumbed down at all and still very warming and rich. Crunchy wafers, tea (Earl Grey?), some apricots. Simply yummy, though not extremely complex.
Finish: Long, warming, again on tea, apricots and the always present candied oranges.
Comment: Not a cheap bottle, but very worth its price. A great fruity malt, though not overly sweet or “friendly” at all.
It beats the Rare Malts version thanks to its extra richness and maltiness.

Clynelish 1973/2006 (54.3%, The Prestonfield, C#8912, 405 Bts.) – 93 points
Nose: Pungent (but not harsh) and sweet, rich on gorgonzola mustiness, honey, propolis and wood polish. Obviously old, but not tired or excessively musty or stale. Bubblegum (banana flavoured?), candied orange and citron, very vague hints of peat, pepper… A whole array of intense and apparently contrasting flavours, so beautifully integrated that I can easily say that while I usually am not a huge fan of Clynelish/Brora’s profile, I could spend hours sniffing the glass from this expression. One of the best noses I have ever found EVER.
Palate: Quite similar to the nose, with the trademark waxiness from this distillery. Not cloyingly sweet and waxy like some other expressions, not too thick: rather, a beautiful balance between a clean malty sweetness and some great orange dryness. Chewy, dangerously drinkable and smooth at cask strength, with no need of water (though it can take a drop). Again, the peat and the mustiness are very subtle. Of course Serge says all of this so much better at http://www.whiskyfun.com/archiveoctober06-1.html#091006, so have a look there because I tend to agree on his comments (though I am much less sophisticated). No evident sherry, although La Maison du Whisky says it is from a refill sherry butt. Finish: Long, but not extremely complex. Very pleasant and rich anyway, on similar flavours like the ones found on the palate.
Comment: As I said, I am not a big fan of this distillery’s typical profile, but this expression really won my heart. Together with the Brora 30yo (56.6%, OB, 3000 Bts., 2004), which is mustier, peatier and with some mushrooms too, it’s the best I have tried from this distillery-couple of distilleries. Big thanks to Serge for pointing out this bottle on his Whiskyfun site, otherwise I would have missed it (which would have been a shame, as it has a great quality/price ratio).

Bruichladdich 20yo 1986/2006 ‘Blacker Still’ (50.7%, OB, first fill oloroso and port pipe, 2840 Bts.) – 87 points
Nose: Is it a wine or a whisky? I don’t usually like Bruichladdich’s wine finishing experiments (too weird, and applied on a distillate that is often too flat for my taste), but this smells interesting: you just have to accept that there’s more from the cask than from the malt itself. Extremely dry, sherried, winey: not necessarily complex, but bold and yummy. It truly smells like a bottle of fruity, lively and sparkling rosè wine! Dried plums, cherry syrup and vinegar complete the scenario.
Mouth: Again, very winey and dry. You really can’t say it tastes like port: the sherry is dominant here. Not a juicy and chewy sherry like in Macallan or some Glengoynes, rather an astringent, slightly metallic sherry like in some young Glenfarclases… but richer. Some spent ground coffee, but ultimately it’s just big fruity wine here. Extreme and not for all tastes, but I like it.
Finish: Mouth-drying, again on dried plums (and apricots and peaches, too). Must I say again that it’s winey?
Comment: Love it or hate it… this is one of Bruichladdich’s usual experiments, but one of the best I have had. At least it has a huge character, and it’s very lively and enjoyable.

Bruichladdich 1970/2006 ‘125 years’ (40.1%, OB, 2502 Bts.) – 90 points
Nose: Delicate and very Bruichladdich-ish. Bananas (both banana peel and the fruit inside), vanilla, wood polish, melon, buttery biscuits. All quite restrained, but rich, sweet and very classy. No overpowering wood astringency… no bad oakiness at all. The years just show as a vague mustiness, like sweet gorgonzola, and some mint. Just a slight hint of peat. Having not tried Olivier’s wine in which it was finished, I really can’t say what comes from the original bourbon cask and what from the wine: but if I had tasted this one blind, I certainly would have never even slightly touched by the remotest idea that this expression is wine finished.
Palate: Juicy, initially on fruit (orange, apricot, peach) jellies, then getting slightly more tannic and oakier, but always sweet, delicate (though not wimpy at all) and never betraying such a huge amount of time spent in a cask. Age shows as a wonderful rounded and quiet taste, not as wood influence. Some genepy liqueur, plus other herbs (mint, licorice) and of course vanilla. It’s really a “soft” profile, apparently quite bland but actually complex and ever-changing. Again, very refined.
Finish: Getting drier, more astringent and spicier (white pepper, cinnamon), but still soft and well-behaved. It leaves a very long pleasantly oaky aftertaste.
Comment: I am usually not a big fan of Bruichladdich, as I tend to consider most of their core expressions too bland and with some herbal/organic notes that I don’t like, and their wine finishes often too weird and masking the flavour of the original distillate. This one was really a surprise: the exact opposite of the ‘Blacker Still, very delicate and restrained but with lots to tell. A meditation dram.

Lagavulin 16yo ‘White Horse’ (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 1988, 75cl) – 91 points
Nose: Very smoky, but not only peat smoke… there’s charcoal, there’s cigarette smoke… It’s a thick and dense smokiness, not only a piercing and monochromatic one. Then malty, slightly sherried, but ultimately dry. More pungent than recent releases.
Palate: While some versions from the past years have reminded me of Adelscott beer (overly sweet, a bit too thick and “domesticated”), this one is sharper, peatier (though not a peat monster like some young Ardbegs) and drier. It has a full and chewy smokiness which perfectly complements the sherry, the malty sweetness, the licorice and the hints of salt. It’s more organic, more medicinal, more… Lagavulin! The newest batches have again partially returned to a more intense profile than the overly sweet and soft ones from the early 2000’s, but this oldie beats them all. Just think of the Lagavulin of nowadays but more intense, sharper and a bit livelier. As some others I have said, like the result of mixing 3 bottles of the “modern” 16yo with one bottle of the 12yo Cask Strength…
Finish: Long, warm, smoky and full of licorice.
Comment: It’s not that different from the Lagavulin you all know (and thus I won’t take too much time describing its qualities), but it’s slightly better in all departments. An effect of self-illusion, since I did not taste it blind? Maybe, but I enjoyed it a lot (and big thanks to Michel for the sample!).

Glen Grant 30yo 1972/2002 (46%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C#692) – 93 points
Nose: Deep, sweet, redolent with overripe cherries and strawberries. Medicated bandages. Very sherried and luscious, almost “rotting” but in a pleasant way (not putrid, just so overripe that it seems to be on the verge of going over the top). Not overly woody at all! Just some wood polish. Propolis, rhubarb. Barolo chinato. Antiques shop. Not extremely intense, but very rich, with a deep dark sweetness.
Palate: Syrupy, enormously sweet and winey. Like concentrated cherry syrup, or like a very old port. Then getting fruity and slightly sour. Very similar impressions like those found on the nose, with the addition of licorice. Dangerously drinkable, a true dessert whisky, a treat for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Finish: Getting moderately astringent and slightly oaky, in a very pleasant way. Orange marmalade, tropical fruits galore. And always that feeling of overripe fruit, almost rotting but never unpleasant or excessive.
Comment: A hell of a bottling, the best I have tried from Fabio Rossi and one of the best sherried malts ever. No sulphur, no excessive astringency: pure sweet pleasure. One complaint, though: if bottled at a higher ABV to gain some extra intensity, and if it had been just a little more extravagant and unpredictable, it would have been even more stunning and deserving of 95-96 points. But you really can’t complain about a malt so rich, rounded, luscious and “gourmand”. Good luck in finding a bottle of this around, as even Fabio Rossi doesn’t seem to have any more of this in stock… I bought the last one stocked by a little bar/wine-shop in Torino which is usually well-equipped with bottles and lots of other deluxe food articles for sale.

Macallan 12yo 1989/2002 (60.1%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, Sherry Butt, C#8273, 678 Bts.) – 90 points
Nose: Very oaky, dark and licoricey. Camphor, apples, strawberries. Red and very tannic wine. Balsamic vinegar (the good handmade one you can find in Reggio Emilia or Modena, not the supermarket kind). Very unique and stimulating.
Palate: Green apples, bitter orange marmalade. Full, juicy, sweet and slightly bitter but very rounded.
Sherried, but not verging on wine and fruit… rather on sandalwood, lavender (the GOOD one… not the Bowmore FWP!).
Also slightly smoky. Definitely bold, appetizing and ever-changing.
Finish: Not extremely long, but intense on licorice and again on green apples and bitter oranges.
Comment: A “difficult” malt to evaluate due to its contrasting flavours, and one that improves a lot with oxidation in an open bottle. It marries an “old” and musty character with remains of a young brashness, in a very exciting way: a great accomplishment, though, with such a young age. Not for all tastes due to the perhaps dissonant impressions, but quite original. Certainly very different than the ultra-sherried and luscious official bottlings: a completely different profile, but a very exciting and adventurous one. Not a common expression, but slightly easier to find than the other W&M bottlings in this E-pistle (which are definitely out-of-stock).

Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2002 (46%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C#5538) – 89 points
Nose: Moderate peat. Quite dry and winey (white wine).
Also a bit farmy like a Brora (hay, grass, organic notes, and a hint of beehive smell). Disinfectant, lemon peel.
Palate: Initially dry, then sweetly malty. Peat, farmy notes and a big mineral taste.
Clean, lemony and slightly bitterish like a good lager, with a distinct taste of yeast. A bit herbal, very balanced but still very lively.
Finish: Very much like beer, with a bitterish hoppy aftertaste and again a lemony and herbal impression.
Comment: An extremely classy expression from, released in a dry and clean bottling full of farmy notes and a very malty and hoppy palate. All the discreet peatiness of Port Ellen, combined with notes of German lager beer and a touch of lemon peel. Not as austere as other expressions from this distillery, but neither too “friendly” or immediate. Not as renowned as the two sherry cask expressions from the same period, but very interesting and probably more crystalline, mineral and “pure” (though I am still waiting to try the sherry version, which I am going to put my hands on hopefully soon).

Port Ellen 21yo 1982/2004 (50%, DL OMC for Sarzi Amadè Milano, REF479, Sherry, 385 Bts., D. 11/’82 Btl. 05/’04) – 91 points
Nose: Aaah, so Port Ellenish (refined peat, lemony and mineral notes) in spite of the heavy and lusciously sweet (but not cloying) sherry cloak ! Leather, licorice, a hint of denaturated alcohol, camphor and some fresh wall paint. Quite simple, but very enjoyable.
Palate: Quite full and bold, on licorice, peat, apricots, Belgian ale, spinachs and whole flour bread. Not as syrupy and chewy as initially expected (it maintains a slightly thin mouthfeel), but very impressive indeed. Of course the sherry and the peat dominate the scenario, but there’s some subtlety behind them, and anyway it’s a very enjoyable and solid profile.
Finish: Getting spicier, on peppers, bitter licorice and big tannins: very hot after a while, a really volcanic aftertaste, warming and tingling. Earthy.
Comment: A powerful expression of Port Ellen, maybe not overly complex but with a strong character. The sherry perfectly marries with the peat, for a stout and enjoyable malt, with a straightforward and delicious profile… a bit like an Ardbeg Uigeadail with more sherry and slightly less peat. It looks like it was a special bottling from Douglas Laing for Italy, so don’t hold your breath hoping to find one so easily.

Tomatin 33yo 1967/2000 (43%, Cooper’s Choice for VA.MA Italy, Sherry, 252 Bts.) – 92 points
Nose: Old but not tired, long on nutty and dry sherry notes. Winey, like those bottles of red wine which have already passed their peak age, slightly oxidized. Not many red fruits, this time: the nuttiness and the oak prevail. Enjoyable, a bit pungent and dry marsala-like, but not extremely complex.
Palate: Rich, luscious, chewy, shrouded in great dry sherry. Much more expressive than the nose, getting gradually sweeter. Chocolate powder, licorice, boiled chestnuts, yellow apples… and of course lots of wine. It’s not dissonant, though, as the sherry perfectly marries with the malt for a nutty and slightly honeyed ensemble. Very rich in spite of the rather low ABV, and absolutely not lacking in strength. Some late rhubarb and tannic astringency.
Finish: Lots of oak, but a good one. Not dusty or tired, simply very aromatic, on gentian and other herbs. You can taste it for several minutes.
Comment: Not a particularly “different” or unique malt, but a great example of long dry-sherry maturation: there are some more interesting, peculiar and complex expressions of this kind, but this one more or less summarizes all there is to say in its genre. And, in addition to that, it’s very enjoyable: a very autumnal dram (too bad we are in spring!). Again, not many of these bottles should still be around…

Glenlivet 25yo 1976/2001 (46%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C#5522) – 91 points
Nose: Very dry sherry, winey, oaky and full of dried fruits, nuts and balsamic vinegar.
Mouth: Bold, initially quite astringent, spicy (cinnamon, pepper) and citrusy. Then getting winey, with lots of good tannins. Definitely lively, crisp and not completely tamed. In spite of the age, it still has some edges: not as rich and ripe as the W&M Glen Grant above, not as sweet and luscious. But very interesting, with bitter oranges and, again, lots of oak.
Finish: Oaky, pleasantly astringent. Long and very nutty.
Comment: A dry, spicy and tannic expression of this legendary Speyside malt. Many years of Oloroso sherry maturation have erased the crispy , flowery maltiness of the distillate, bringing to it character, structure and complexity. For lovers of a drier sherry character and complex wine flavours rather than of simple sweet maltiness or sun-dried raisins character like in other old expressions of Glenlivet. Due to this quality, it might also be mistaken for a very old official Macallan from decades ago… Again, a bottle which is hard to find nowadays.

So this is all… An impressive array of expressions, I must say: some excellent recent ones (which you should try to find as they won’t be here forever), and some just as excellent older ones which you should grab by all means if you stumble upon them (good luck in case you want to try and find them!). I was particularly impressed by the often overlooked Tobermory, by the unusual Clynelish and by the confirmation that you really can’t go wrong with an aged sherry-cask Glen Grant. And, of course, by the Macallan: so different than the usual distillery profile, younger than the rest of the lot, but with really much to say. A very unusual expression, probably from a cask that the distillery gave away because too different from their standard profile… The fools!

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading, and that my E-pistle pushed you into looking around for some equally excellent bottlings… or into drifting a bit yourselves from your usual tastes and experiment a bit! Have fun!