Sovereign Impressions

I've been a little anxious as of late.  More so than I usually am.  I've found myself tossing and turning at night, worrying in my free time, my thoughts scattering from here to there.  Part of the anxiety was due to the increasing activity we're seeing with distilled spirits here at K&L - more orders, more requests, more work, more responsibility.  Most of it, however, was stemming from the drama surrounding the Sovereign single malts.  It had been almost a year since David OG and I met with the Laing brothers in their Glasgow office, tasting barrel samples and discussing ideas for a new American independent label.  Now, with only a few days until their long-awaited arrival, I was beginning to fear the whiskies might taste different than we remembered them.  So many people had reserved the Caol Ila 30 in advance, hopes high for a great deal on an ancient Islay expression, but I could barely remember tasting it myself!  Not to mention the fact that we were bringing in two single grain whiskies (as if the public would even be interested in one!) that were so wacky all we did was giggle every time we sipped them.

Now facing a real life business situation, with customer expectations riding the trust they bestowed upon us, I was beginning to dread my eventual encounter with the Sovereign malts.  I always go through a bit of second guessing when a cask arrives - "What if it isn't as good as I remember?" - but these whiskies were risky from the beginning.  We were riding a wave of confidence when we selected these barrels, believing that the whisky geek crowd would revel in the bold character these whiskies exuded.  Nonetheless, the decision to purchase all four was dangerous because all of them are less inclusive than any project we've previously engaged in.  Now, almost a year later, facing the consequences of choices made long ago, my developing business maturity was causing me serious dread. 

What were the four whiskies that left me panic-stricken upon their immediate arrival? 1965 Caledonian - a single grain whisky from a large and legendary facility closed forever in 1988 by Diageo.  1990 Girvan - another whisky made from unmalted cereal grains.  2000 Bowmore - an oddball sherry cask with so much character that it may be too over the top for some.  1980 Caol Ila - a thirty year old beauty from the Islay giant with expectations through the roof.  Would they be too weird?  Too underwelming?  Too wacky?  About an hour ago, I drove to the store on my day off to meet the delivery truck and pop four corks on bottles we had been expecting months ago.  Now, sitting in my living room post-tasting, typing this article, I am breathing easier.  In fact, I'm quite giddy.  The malts are dynamite.  Here's the quick review from our second meeting:

1990 Girvan 21 Year Old Single Grain Whisky - Tingly, sweet vanilla right on the entry - really taking the front palate to task with caramel and oak.  Big richness that teases you because it's still grain.  The mid-palate thins out a bit and the back end is more dry and herbal.  This is classic grain whisky - it's like taking the backbone out of Johnnie Walker Blue and offering it as a separate entity.  This will make a fantastic intro to grain whisky for those looking to discover the true foundations of Scotch.  Easy, accessible, and tasty.  Very enjoyable.

1965 Caledonian 45 Year Old Single Grain Whisky - My notes held up well over time - the nose is still a load of sticky Sauternes, apricot, and honey.  The palate will completely throw everyone for a loop, however,  The richness vanishes and is replaced by an earthy peat-like flavor - even though these grains were never peated, you could easily convince someone they were.  The texture is absolutely fascinating and the menagerie of flavors is as complex of any whisky I've ever tasted.  I could pick this apart for hours, if not days.  Serious whisky geeks, rejoice.  Herbs, grains, smoke, earth, honey, caramel, nuts - wow.  Take into account the rarity of Caledonian whisky and this whisky is an even better deal.

2000 Bowmore 11 Year Old Single Malt Whisky - Bowmore is by far my favorite Islay distillery because it can be all over the place - the highs can be high, and the lows low.  I relate to that.  This is one of the most Bowmore-like Bowmores I've ever had.  It's like Spinal Tap turned up the Bowmore knob to 11 - the peat is super dirty and oily (in a good way).  The richness from the sherry butt isn't sweet, so much as it is tangy.  In my old notes I had written "tennis ball can," but now it's more like iced tea.  Iced tea and a pile of wet Autumn leaves next to a bonfire.  Water only opens the whisky up more and then you're just getting slapped in the face with Bowmore's true essence - I can see people absolutely hating this.  I can also see people going absolutely bonkers over it. 

1980 Caol Ila 30 Year Old Single Malt Whisky - The most terrifying of the four because we weren't sure we were actually getting the barrel we tasted.  There had been some confusion after it was bottled and I wasn't able to confirm the quality until today.  Jesus, is this good whisky.  Anyone who ordered this in advance is going to be thrilled.  $175 was an incredible price for this malt.  It's so elegant, so restrained, so in check - more so than any other peated Islay we carry right now.  This is like Talisker 25, but maybe better.  Sweet grains, lovely richness, brine with smoke, salted caramel with incredible length on the finish.  Once people taste this it's going to vanish quickly.  Easily one of the best older Islay malts I've ever tasted.

The part that makes me most proud is the fact that there are no whiskies anywhere (that I've sampled) that taste anything remotely similar to these bottles - they are unique, interesting, and they test the comfort zone of even the seasoned whisky drinker.  I want K&L to be taking risks, pushing the envelope, causing a stir, yet delivering the goods every time we do it.  When we bring in a cask, it should not only be because of the whisky's quality, but also because the whisky allows us to offer something outside the everyday norm.  These four whiskies represent David OG and I at our most confident - knowing that we don't have to please everyone to secure good whisky and understanding that there is an audience for something as esoteric as antiquated grain whisky or hyper-Islay Bowmore. 

As confident as we were when we purchased these casks last year, I've spent the last nine months second-guessing myself, watching the whisky industry attempt to streamline the palate of the boutique single malt niche.  These whiskies kick the mainstream in the mouth, and after tasting them today, my confidence is back and my anxiety is gone.  I cannot wait to give people these single malts. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll