Scotland 2016 - Day 2: Follow Your Instincts
One of my favorite whiskies of all time that we've purchased on behalf of K&L (or just in general, really) was the 1979 Glenfarclas vintage-dated malt we originally bought back in 2011. What made that whisky absolutely magical was that it had spent more than than three decades in a fourth-fill sherry barrel. The sherry residue at that point was almost completely spent, so unlike any other Glenfarclas whisky I had seen up until that point the whisky came out the color of pale straw. But much like a hearty stew that's been simmered for days over a low flame, that 1979 Glenfarclas was concentrated with flavor from a long, slow, and deliberate maturation. The beauty of that refill sherry butt was that it still imparted flavor on to the malt, albeit in the most dainty and ethereal manner possible. If you think about a great Bordeaux or white Burgundy wine, the most beautiful expressions often have just a faint touch of oak. The most legendary are the ones that have integrated that oak to the point that the fruit and wood become one unified, harmoneous note. These are the whiskies I went to Signatory yesterday in search of. Luckily for me, these are the whiskies that are currently being overlooked in lieu of big flavor. The market is still pushing for huge, beastly, over-the-top sherry flavor. I was told recently by one bottler that a major retailer in Europe will only buy sherried whiskies that are as black as coffee. My answer was, "Let him do that. That means all the really good whiskies will still be available."
So I was back in the Signatory warehouse with my old friend Des McCagherty, popping bungs and dipping the old dip stick. This is one of the few places left in the world where I feel completely at ease and where I can actually forget about everything else other than the task at hand. "Do you want to try this one?" Des would ask.
"Is it first-fill?" I would inevitably respond.
"You don't want any first-fill sherry butts?"
Des sat there looking at me, an untameable sea of stoicism. "Let's look at every second and third fill cask you have, as well as older hogsheads and Bourbon barrels," I said.
Four hours later we were still slogging down the list. I could sense Des was getting a kick out of my plan, but at one point he said to me: "There's a point where your boss wants the bottles to start moving off the shelf." I laughed because I knew what he was trying to say, but I stopped next to an old cask of 1974 "Rare Ayrshire"—the code word for Ladyburn.
"Do you remember when when we bought a cask of this?" I asked him.
"Don't you think this is one of the best whiskies you've ever had? Because I do," I replied.
"Let's taste this one and see if we can remember," he said. I was game. It had been years since I ran out of the amazing Ladyburn cask we purchased so long ago. For those of you who don't know, Ladyburn is one of the rarest single malts in the world, produced in a separate facility that was operated inside the Girvan grain distillery from about 1965 to 1975.
"I remember having to explain to our customers why they should pay $400 for a whisky they'd never heard of. It sold because of the rarity, of course, but we bought it because of the flavor," I said.
Des poured some of the whisky into my glass. I took a sip. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I looked at Jeff, who had also just tasted it. He was entranced. This 40+ year old Ladyburn was like the purest form of honey, sweet grain, vanilla, and butterscotch. It was awe-inspiring; a life-changing whisky in my mind. There's no peat. There's no sherry.
"There's nothing distracting you from the whisky itself," Des added in. A rare opinion from the oft silent sage.
"Exactly!" I said. "We all want that when it comes to wine. I think pretty soon the market is going to demand the same from single malt whisky."
After finding roughly ten solid candidates, we decided to call it a day. Des wanted to show us the new site where Edradour plans on building a second distillery—or an expansion of the first, really. It will still be called Edradour, but maybe it will operate similarly to a Brora/Clynelish situation. Since we were staying in Pitlochry overnight we made plans to grab dinner. Des met us at our hotel around 6:30 and we decided to walk the mile and a half to the restaurant. With the cold mountain weather at round 27 degrees, we walked briskly.
"Are you happy with what you found?" Des asked as we crossed the hydro-dam and looked at the reflection of the moon in the river below.
Three refill sherry butts, three Bourbon barrels, four hogsheads. Three peated whiskies, seven unpeated. Exactly the balance I had hoped for.
"Yes, indeed," I said with a smile. Then we sat down for dinner and ordered a bottle of Chablis.