Worth the Wait: 1991 Mortlach 20yo Cask-Strength (Signatory)

Music: The Tragically Hip, “Long Time Running”

I have definitely been waiting way too long for this one. I purchased this bottle, and had it imported by a friend in early December of 2011 when he came to stay with us for part of the winter break. Over a year later, a meeting with my two dearest friends finally permits it to be opened. I’ve met with them a few times each, separately, in the last year, but geography and time has kept the entire group apart all year. At the first opening, the bottle was a bit oaky and a tad sulphury, but once the bottle had settled down, it was a true winner. I also had the pleasure of introducing someone to a whisky that was distilled before they were born. A young lass of about 23, she was born about 9 months after this whisky was casked.

As it goes, I am sitting here on a wonderful February evening, enjoying a sliver of this wonderful stuff. With the bottle half gone, it’s almost saddening to know that the worldwide stocks of this wonderful cask (577 bottles) will be ever closer to depletion. It has already disappeared from most, if not all shop shelves that I am aware of.

Calibrator Malt: Robert Burns Single Malt (Arran)

Nose: Age, if you can say you can smell age. It’s rich, and has a complexity of years spent contemplating its existence in a barrel. Toffee and brown sugar, and malt all over. Bread and olive oil, like the the 19yo un-chillfiltered of yesteryear. A wee bit of sweet corn relish and brine. Slight peat and sherry, and a little bit of hickory. Comparatively, when you think that a decent entry-level malt like the Robbie has a nice strong malty nose, you are immediately set back by the unbelievable complexity and weight of the Mortlach. Going back, the Arran seems mild and thin. It’s not that the Arran is bad, it’s that the Mortlach is just that good.

Palate: (undiluted) Sweet and tangy. Oak, raisins, rubber bands (in a strange, but good way). Water it down, about five drops, and the tangy melts to sweet. This is a real malt. What I mean is that the notes at the forefront are a rich, soft, malted barley and oak. In that way, it is remarkable. A malt that tastes exactly what you’d expect a malt would taste like, unaltered by finishes and gimmicks. The re-fill sherry butt means the sherry isn’t as present, and that’s a good thing. Raisins, espresso, bright chocolate, and fresh cut grass. Truffle salt. The alcohol wears away, and though you’d expect the velvetly mouthfeel would disappear, it really doesn’t. Sure, it softens, but it really gets into every crevace of your mouth.

Finish: Malt, bittersweet chocolate and black pepper. A bit of menthol, and then a really brilliant watermelon note on the end that lasts forever. It’s a really deep, complete warming, and that’s saying something: it’s -20C tonight.

Grade: A+

This. Is. Amazing. You really feel this whisky in your chest. It’s hefty, and entirely complete. Not a dram for “newbies”, though. Many interesting notes in this one that don’t immediately lend themselves to the popular notion of sherried whisky. The best whisky I’ve had to date, and it made me re-evaluate my ranking system. Because I’m so coarse in my grading, the A+ isn’t equivalenty to say, a 100/100 on ATW or at ralfy.com. It is simply the grade that says, “that’s it, folks. I can’t think of anything better they could have done with this whisky.” I love the Ardbeg line-up, but having had this Mortlach, it makes me wonder if they could bring some more maturity and balance to the Corryvreckan and the Uigeadail. They’re still stellar, but this whisky, in all its brilliance, makes me see the cracks in the mortar with my favourite ‘A’ whiskies.

And that, my friends, is what makes an A+ here at “Whisky, Empirically”.

“It’s been a long, long, long time running… it’s well worth the wait.”

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A Year In Review

Updated January 7th, more in-depth.

It feels about that time of year, where whisky fans/bloggers/maniacs alike are likely posting their favourites from their 2012 journeys, and being my first real serious year as a whisky blogger, I’d like to do the same. The whiskies that I’ve tried this year for the first time, and thus, all those eligible for consideration, were:

Bowmore “Tempest” 10yr (Batch 3)
’93 Ben Nevis 17yr (Signatory, UCC)
Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 36)
Springbank 12 Claret Wood
The Glenlivet 16 “Nadurra” (0911P)
Bruichladdich ‘The Laddie Ten’
Auchentoshan Valinch
’91 Mortlach 19yr (Signatory, UCC)
92 Clynelish 18yr (Signatory, UCC)
Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich) An Turas Mor
Highland Park 12
Glenmorangie 12 ‘Lasanta’
Cragganmore 12
Aberlour 10
The Glenlivet 12
Dun Bheagan 8 (Islay)

*Eligible whiskies must have been tasted for the first time in 2012, and I must have owned at least a 20cl bottle, and had at minimum, 4 drams of it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to try a number of great whiskies this year, and when I look back on the one’s I’ve tried, the ones with the highest price-to-quality ratio, in a few different categories, were:

Best Nose
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Palate
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Finish
Runner-Up: Bruichladdich ‘Laddie Ten’
Winner: Springbank 12 Claret Wood

Favourite Peated
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Winner: 
Bowmore Tempest III

Favourite Unpeated
Runner-Up: Springbank 12 Claret Wood
Winner: ‘93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC

Favourite No Age Statement
Runner-Up: Auchentoshan Valinch
Winner: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength

Favourite Overall
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Bowmore really took me by surprise this year. If you would have asked me last January what distillery I would expect to try something truly great from this year, I probably would have said Ardbeg, maybe Auchentoshan or Laphroaig, but never Bowmore. My initial taste of the 12yo had really ruined Bowmore for me, and I’m lucky to have been not-so-stubborn so as to give the tempest a chance. I eagerly await Batch 4.

The Springbank 12yo Claret Wood was also an excellent pick from earlier in 2012, as was the “carnival-in-a-glass” pick from Ben Nevis. My hopes are still to get a hold of the 17yo Cask strength version from ’93 (or ’92) before supply vanishes. Lastly, the Auchentoshan Valinch was a huge surprise in the NAS category, especially for the price it came in at. It was also the best whisky under $65 this year. I would love to say under $70, but then it would have to contend with Laphroiag’s QC, and I don’t think it was that good. Caol Ila’s win in the NAS category wasn’t as much of a surprise, as serving their younger stuff at cask-strength seems like it would be naturally good, given the rave reviews that the 12yo gets. The Auchentoshan, though it wasn’t the best NAS whisky of the year, sure took me by surprise. The Auchentoshan Classic/Select gets mediocre reviews—average at best—for an entry-level NAS malt at standard ABV. I was initially skeptical as to the merits of amping up something so banal to cask-strength, but was easily swayed when I opened the bottle. You go, Auchentoshan.

Here’s to another great year at “Whisky, Empirically”, where we will get to review #50, (at least!) a special Signatory bottle from the Whisky Exchange that I picked up for Christmas. Expect that review around Valentine’s Day.

1992 Clynelish 18yr (Signatory Unchillfiltered Collection)

Upon the depletion of my magical bottle of ’93 Ben Nevis (Signatory), I began to seek out another Highland to fill the space in my cabinet. Having had good luck with the Signatory Unchillfiltered Collection, I decided to venture towards the last well-aged bottle at the LCBO: an 18yr Clynelish from 1992. Bottled from 2 hogsheads by Signatory in 1992, this bottling was limited to 771 bottles.

I have to begin, before the standard notes, by noting the colour. Master of Malt does not lie in their photo. It is a pale yellow, to the point of being the shade of your typical Chardonnay. Made me worry a little, seeing as it has apparently been in barrels for almost a full score. Perhaps it’s the hogsheads. I don’t know much about hogsheads, truth be told.

Update: Instead of hiding my earlier ignorance, I thought I’d leave it, and admit mistakes. Hogsheads are different from Sherry Butts, not in the sherry sense, but in the butt sense, as they are relative volume measures. Butts are larger than hogsheads (2:1 ratio). Strangely, this implies more wood contact than the sherry butts used in other Signatory UCC bottlings of similar ages. The only inference I can make from the colour of the Clynelish is perhaps it’s not a sherry hogshead? 

Also, I’d like to mention that Signatory, for me, underscores what I dislike about most popular distillery flagship bottlings (Cragganmore 12, Talisker 10, Glenmorangie Original, Springbank 10, and even Lagavulin 16, to name a few) by doing the opposite. The alcohol-y tinge that I get from the big boys, despite their being less than 46% percent, is completely absent from the higher strength Signatorys. The big boys’ flagships all have this roughness to them that I have yet to find in the non-chillfiltered, small batch, or cask-strength offerings as of late. The Clynelish gets points for passing this test.

Nose: Coastal sea salt, black pepper. Very much like Talisker with it’s freshness, plus those typical table shakers, and hints of leather. A sweet smokiness. Citrus in the background (lemon and lime, as far as I can tell). Like a margarita, actually. A hint of that agave.  After some time, there is a sweetness that comes in that turns the margarita into lemon merangue/key lime pie. What I’ve come to associate with these yellowy highlands as a bready, barley scent.

Palate: A little bit thin, but not watery. Lightly-peated, Malty, buttery, salt and pepper. A little minty, with noticeable lemon and lime. Slightly smoky. A tad of that agave. Deceptively chewy, given the colour (I associate deeper colours with thickness, though I probably shouldn’t). Ooh, and it’s a tad spicy on the end (something like cayenne pepper). Of course, the key distinction is that this spicy is flavour, and not heat.

Finish: Medium-long. Smoky, slightly sweet, with buttered-and-sugared toast. Tobacco and honeydew melon in the mouth when all is said and done. Overall mouth-drying effect.

Grade: B

Signatory has bottled another good one. What’s more, it’s a whisky with a purpose, should it choose to accept it: this Clynelish could show the folks at Talisker a thing or two. To me, I love the coastal salt, leather and lemon pepper package that Talisker delivers, but they do it so roughly and without the full craft presentation (non-chillfiltering, no caramel added) that it just comes out half-assed. This bottle shows a little more of what a good Talisker profile could be. Similar to the Laddie Ten, but not as sweet, the nose is fresh, but mature enough so as not to be harsh. Though, to be fair, that maturity is bound to come from the extra 8 years in the barrel.

The nose is quite lovely. Not too strong, but in a good way, as it lets you hunt for notes without being overwhelmed by any one scent. The palate is good, but not the earth-shattering brilliance of the Ben Nevis. It reminds me of a lightly-peated high-quality tequila at times, but a classic well-aged highland at others. It may not be as mouth-coatingly oily of the Ben Nevis, but it’s not watery. It does have that lovely smooth maturity I’ve come to expect from old Signatorys. Like the other Signatorys, too, it has definitely improved with time. A month later, and it’s settled down to deliver a more balanced dram.

An Unintended Experiment

To celebrate the winning of a much-sought-after award, I poured myself a dram of my 19yr Mortlach (Signatory, UCC). After a quick sip, I add a splash of water, and let it sit for 10 minutes in my Glencairn with the ginger jar top on. But then the wife gets home (quite late) and we get to talking. The dram sits 20 minutes. We lay on the couch, recounting the day, and I almost forget about it. The dram sits an hour. I then sit down with it, and upon first nosing, it’s sweet. Not the savoury baked good I had expected, nor the olive oil. Instead, it’s a beautiful caramel-coated cookie, with some salty, coastal notes. Strange, but only in that it’s unexpected. I assure you it’s delightful. Then I take a sip. It’s sweet.Very sweet. Almost like a Fig Newton. Also an undertone of peat. I don’t know where this came from, or who switched my Mortlach with a scotch soaked cookie, but thanks! While I do enjoy the savoury bouquet and spread that I normally get from this Mortlach, today’s dram was a welcomed dessert dram.

I’m still wondering what caused this major fluctuation in nose and palate. I guess we’ll have to see what the next dram is like, some days down the road.

Update: Never came across this nose and palate again with this dram. Quite a head-scratcher.

1991 Mortlach 19yr (Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection)

After such success with the Ben Nevis 17yr Signatory, I thought about wading further into the Signatory UCC. We’ve got a few other offerings here at the LCBO, and I decided to “go big” with the Mortlach, spending an extra $10. There isn’t much out there about this one, but I decided to give it a go anyway, as Ralfy had raved about a 19yo Signatory cask-strength Mortlach in one of his reviews. “Meaty” he said… and I was sold.

I must admit, before the tasting notes, that my initial experience with this whisky was a disappointment. I had never had a whisky with this nose and palate before, and so it just struck me as off. After revisiting it a week later, I finally got it.

Nose: There is an immediate whiff of sweet sherry, but that dies off with some time. After letting it open up, you get a baked good, and it reminds me very much of the Auchentoshan Valinch in that respect–only without all the peachy sweetness. It’s very savoury. When you dig deeper, the baked good is actually bread, slathered with olive oil. That olive oil is actually quite noticeable, and I really like it. To sum up the nose, it’s not the “British dinner” I was expecting… it actually strikes me as Mediterranean.

The nose is also gives off hints of oak, and in the right moment, a hint of candied cooked carrots.

Palate: Thick, buttery, incredibly smooth. Mostly savoury, freshly baked bread. Malt, toffee and prunes.

Finish: Very mouth-drying, medium-long finish, and warming. Sweetness, spices, oaky with a pleasant ‘toasted’ taste at the end.

Grade: B+

I tried not to let my hopes factor into the grade of this whisky, and I think I was fair on that. It’s a meaty whisky, but I mean that more in a robust sense, than actual meat. The finish could be a little longer, and the palate could be more complex, but all-in-all, a whisky to own a bottle of for the experience. (But if you’re in Chicago, or somewhere cheaper, why not go for the cask-strength version?)

Initially I was disappointed, especially given that for the same price, I could have purchased an Aberlour a’Bunadh (which is 5cl larger) but in the end I’m happy with the Mortlach. It fits a different speysider mood. It’s creamy, buttery, and oily without being a heavy sherry-bomb. One thing I can say for sure is that it has intrigued me enough that I probably will search out a cask-strength Mortlach.

1993 Ben Nevis 17yr (Signatory Un-Chillfiltered Collection)

At times I look back on this purchase and think,

“$88 for only 70cl of such an obscure non-cask strength whisky? Really?”

But then I pour myself a dram and the thought subsides. “Really.”

I hadn’t heard anything about this bottling, nor had I heard anything about Ben Nevis for that matter, except that according to Ralfy, it mostly ends up in blends–what a tragedy. This one surprises you. It needs that touch of water (just a few drops) to open up. This one reminds me of all my favourite unpeated drams, and what’s more, it reminds me of them in turn, not muddled together.

Nose (w/o water): Smells of apples. Caramel apples in fact, if not a bit prickly–like a candied apple.

Nose (with water): Nutty, barley (almost auchentoshan like). It has that kind of faint popcorn/beer nuts. Not movie-butter popcorn, but more like a carnival snack stand. It makes me think of the carnival at night. Creamy caramel, and all around freshness. The nose is part Auchentoshan 18, and part Highland Park 12 (without the occasional eggy sulphur). It’s as if you’re standing at the gate to a carnival and can smell the caramel apples… then you put the water in and walk through the gate to the confectioner’s stand.

Palate: Oily, chewy, sweet–yum! Without water, caramel apples, with a touch of leather at the end. With water, and it’s a creamy, bursting saltwater taffy and sweets. Nuttiness, slight hints of smoke, and a little dairy (in a good way). Wow. This thing is just carnival confectionary in a glass.

Finish: Medium. Honeyed barley, some nuttiness. Hints of ‘vanilla milkshake’ is all I can say.

Grade: A-

For those in Ontario (though this will only aid to deplete a supply that is already limited,) this whisky is worth a go if you’re a fan of a good creamy highland with notes of (the LCBO discontinued) Auchentoshan 18, and the Highland Park 12. I had initially given this a B+, because I had thought that the finish was a little on the short side compared to an Ardbeg or a Port Charlotte. I decided to take it head to head with the PC An Turas Mor tonight, and no, this holds it’s ground. There is so much going on here that it deserves the A-.

This whisky is a real ‘experience’ whisky. There are so few whiskies that have the complexity to take me to a place I’ve been, rather than merely reminding me of this fruit, or that grain, or an assortment of flowers, etc. This was one of those.