Whisky Season 2012 Continues: Three Sleepers

One of the best alliances we formed last year in Scotland was with Sovereign, a label from the Laing Brothers located in Glasgow that we now bring in exclusively for K&L.  Sovereign has deep stocks from outstanding producers, always showcasing the essence of each distillery in the whiskies they bottle.  While we love finding powerful, bold, expressive flavors that leap out of the glass, there are many of us who appreciate delicacy and nuance - two terms I will use ad nauseum to describe these whiskies.  One of the most important skills I have learned as a taster of booze is the appreciation for fine flavors.  Not everything has to punch you in the mouth.  Some whiskies are so subtle that they are quickly written off by some as lacking or boring.  Last year's Banff cask we purchased is a fantastic example.  Some customers emailed me to tell me it was the best whisky they had ever tasted.  Others were entirely underwhelmed.  It all depends on what you want out of your single malt.  Expectations are everything.  With that being said, I think we've found three fantastic whiskies that exemplify perfectly what these three distilleries do best.  Whether those flavors are exciting or not, will be up to you.  Personally, I'm a big fan of the lighter style and I find them more satisfying in the end.  For enthusiasts looking to know Caol Ila, Linkwood, and Caperdonich more intimately, check out the following:

1996 Caol Ila 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - One of the most surprising visits from our 2012 trip was at Caol Ila distillery on Islay. The Diageo plant is so big, so efficient, and so sterile that our appointment was more about professional growth and crossing another distillery off our list. We didn't expect to be wowed. For all of the criticism Caol Ila takes as being a whisky factory, the single malt made on site is damn good. Caol Ila uses big, fat-necked stills that produce a round and fruity spirit. That soft and supple character compliments the peat smoke of Islay perfectly. None of their whisky is aged on the island, so the brine and salt character attributed to Islay aging never really appears. What's frustrating for U.S. customers is that most of the expressions that showcase the depth and potential of the distillate don't make it across the water. The 18 year old we tasted there was one of the best whiskies I had tasted all year, but since we can't buy casks directly from Diageo, we were going to have to look elsewhere for something similar. Last year's visit to Sovereign resulted in a 30 year old Caol Ila cask of supreme complexity, but we were so intrigued by the 18 year that we wanted something with less age and more fruit. Tasting the 15 year old cask on the mainland in Glasgow, we found what we were looking for. Soft, supple textures, youthful campfire smoke, brandied fruit on the palate, with vanilla accents that smooth out the finish. A tasty winner that we can't wait for you to try.

1991 Linkwood 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99 - Diageo's Linkwood distillery is generally considered one of, if not the best of, the Speyside distilleries that are not sold stateside.  We're lucky to find a delicious, independently-bottled expression from time to time and we're always on the lookout for something special.  While most Speyside distilleries use heavy amounts of sherry, Linkwood's elegant, fruity style stands on its own when aged in hogshead barrels as an alternative.  Unfortunately, getting that delicate nuance of fruit and vanilla takes time and we haven't seen older expressions of Linkwood very often.  Our friends at Sovereign dug deep into their inventory, however, and surfaced with exactly what we desired: unsherried Linkwood with more than two decades of time in the barrel.  Graceful, playful, and light with flavors of stonefruit, with the vanilla from the wood acting as a backbone.  Because it's bottled at cask strength, water is key to toning down the proof and releasing the potential for more flavor.  A few drops helps balance the power and brings out notes of baking spice, resinous oils, and more richness from the wood. This is a whisky we expect many to pass over in favor of our other, more exciting casks, before coming back around later to realize they've overlooked a true gem.  The sleeper of the older expressions we've had bottled.

1994 Caperdonich 18 Year Old K&L Sovereign Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - We love finding great casks of whisky from "lost distilleries," single malt institutions that are no longer in operation making their whisky more collectable and difficult to find.  While the buildings at Brora and Port Ellen still stand today 30 years after their closure, Caperdonich, closed forever in 2002, was completely gutted and destroyed just recently.  Nothing remains from the former Pernod-Ricard institution other than the single malt already sitting in cask.  Much like its demolished cousin Banff, which we featured in last year's K&L single malt lineup, Caperdonich has a distinct and understated character that doesn't jump out of the glass immediately.  It needs to be coaxed out.  Our single barrel of 18 year old malt is a tease at first - hinting at supple fruit on the nose, yet lithely avoiding any serious concentration on the palate.  Water is a must with the cask strength in order to temper the heat and bring out the nuance.  With the alcohol in check comes the classic character of the distillery - grass, hay, and notes of pepper with more stonefruit.  It's a keenly interesting whisky that offers a chance at understanding a fallen soldier.  Again, the Banff comparison will be key. Some people thought last year's cask was underwhelming, others thought it was the best they had ever tasted. This year's Caperdonich barrel will likely polarize drinkers much the same, wowing those who appreciate delicacy. Like the distillery itself, it will be missed after it's gone.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll