Monday, June 21, 2010

Father’s Day Whisky Week – Part 1 Single Malt Scotch


From June 15 – 19, 2010, Union Square Wines & Spirits held a Whisky tasting as a run-up to Father’s Day.  On Tuesday, June 15th, they featured Single Malt Scotch.

Starting off the evening was a 12 year old and 15 year old Balvenie from Speyside.   The 12 year old was somewhat spicy, with a hint of cinnamon; this one started out its aging process in a whisky barrel, but then was transferred to a sherry barrel for its last six months in the process to soften its taste.  I was surprised to learn that the 15 year old was aged in new oak barrels as I’m given to understand that Scotch is generally aged in barrels that were previously used to age bourbon – thus, it was given the distinction of being a Single Barrel Single Malt.  By contrast, this one had a floral nose with a fruity taste; coming from a different process as well as a longer aging, its taste could be easily differentiated from the 12 year old.

Next up was Highland Park from the Orkney Islands – a 12 yr. and an 18 yr.  Highland Park supposedly spends the most money on oak barrels – more than the other major Scotch producers combined – because barrels are used only once.  Weather – wise, the distributor says that the area from which it comes does not experience any temperatures in the extreme – in fact, he compared it to Anchorage, Alaska.  Highland Park is generally known for its depth and complexity.  The 18 year old spent 15 years in whisky barrels, then winds up in Spanish sherry barrels; this one is much more well – rounded than the 12 yr. old with a complex taste ranging from fruity and chocolaty to hints of cinnamon and smoke. 

At the middle table, they featured Highlands – based Scotches.  They started off with Balblair 1997, but I skipped this out of curiosity about the other offerings presented by this distributor:  Old Pulteney.  There were three of what they referred to as “expressions”, each with a different “flavor profile” (clearly, the vocabulary of the wine snobs being assumed by the whisky snobs):  a 12 year, a 17 year and a 21 year.  Promoted as a Maritime Malt for its saltiness, a characteristic attributed to the fact that the Highland is based in the northern region of Scotland, where the water is particularly salty from the sea.  I didn’t detect too much of the saltiness in the 12 year old, despite the fact that the distributor claimed that this one had the most pronounced saltiness.  To me, it seemed rather gently and mostly had a soft vanilla taste, with the saltiness only making a brief appearance once it hit the front of my tongue.   While the 12 year is aged only in ex – bourbon barrels, the 17 year is aged in both ex – bourbon and sherry casks that were made of Spanish wood; this wood is said to be more porous, allowing more of the sherry taste to come through.  Rather than being finished in the sherry casks, the aging here is a process called “marrying” where the whisky is aged simultaneously in both ex – bourbon and sherry casks for the same period of time, then blended together at the end of the process.  Finally, I tried the 21 year; one of the other attendees said that this one was like “drinking the ocean” because of its salty quality and I do have to agree.  Again, this is aged in a combination of ex – bourbon and ex – sherry casks, but here, the sherry casks are American oak, a wood that is considered more dense.  The taste has less of the sherry; despite its salt quality, it tasted dry and light. 

The next table featured a couple from West Highlands, plus one of my favorites, Lagavulin.  Starting with Oban’s 14 year Distiller’s Edition, we were told that it spent at least the first 13 years aging in ex – bourbon barrel, then finished the rest of the time in sherry casks.  Having a fuller taste, it is compared favorably to the slightly more expensive regular 14 year, considered a “beginner’s whisky”, which is also their most popular.  I spent most of my time with the Islay – Based Lagavulin 16 year; it is aged in ex – bourbon and sherry casks, but instead of being finished in the sherry, it spends half of its time in the bourbon barrels, then the other half in the sherry casks.   By comparison, it has a higher smoke content than Laphroaig; its great color features a deep, rich brown and is said to go very well with certain kinds of cheeses – specifically, blue cheese, gorgonzola and stilton. 

We wound up the evening with Glenfarclas, a Speyside – based Scotch.  They featured a 12 year, 17 year and 105 proof Cask Strength.  Because it was getting a bit late in the evening, I was, unfortunately, not able to taste the last two.  As far as the 12 year was concerned, it has a very light gold color, almost resembling a white wine.  Its taste has a certain sweetness to it when it first hits your lips and the front of the tongue, with just a hint of a burn in the aftertaste. 

Although I wasn’t able to purchase anything on this night (despite the 15% discount offered by the store), I would recommend the Lagavulin, but only if you really appreciate a strong peatiness to your Scotch; if that’s not your thing, but you do want to try something a bit different in a Single Malt Scotch, then I would highly recommend the Old Pulteney – in particular, the 21 year, which is the one I found to have the highest salty flavor.