A month or so before everything got “real” regarding the coronavirus, I received an email from a Public Relations person inquiring if I would like to have lunch with a European industry-type who was in Houston for just a few hours.
As I indicated last week, this invite was categorically different than almost every such invite I had received in the past as this rendez-vous had nothing to do with wine. It was a Scotch producer, Tomintoul.
Prior to meeting up with IainForteath, the Global Brand Ambassador for the Speyside Single Malt producer, it is very safe to say that I knew far more about Scotch tape than I did about Scotch whisky.
For several years now, however, I was determined to dive into the (at least to me) mysterious world of spirits and Scotch in particular. And this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Last week, I reviewed four whiskies that were produced following the same basic process: aged in the essentially the same, used, American bourbon casks. The only difference was the amount of time that the whiskies have been aged in cask.
Today, I go over five “special” whiskies made by the house that vary at least slightly in the process imployed. The first of these, the 12-year Sherry Cask finish, saw the same treatment, for the first ten years, as the four reviewed last week. Then, for the last two years of ageing, the whisky is transferred into a used Sherry cask (it had been in American oak, used bourbon casks).
Without getting too far into the weeds, the Scots have loved Sherry since they started importing the Spanish fortified wine in the 16th Century. It was around that same time that whisky production started to explode and since there were no forests in Scotland to make the necessary casks for whisky production, the Scots repurposed the casks used for the Sherry transportation. (It obviously also encouraged a more rapid consumption of said Sherry, which no Scotsman protested. Ever.)
The Sherry cask finish is used to add a bit of sweetness and fruitiness to the whisky, which is clearly evident in the Tomintoul.
Tomintoul 12-year, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Limited Edition Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish, Speyside Glenlivet:. Retail $72. 10 years in bourbon casks then 2 years in Sherry casks. Decidedly sweeter on the palate with more vinous aspects: vanilla, plump raisin, and a lovely sherried characteristic on the nose. The sweetness is also noticeable on the palate along with cherry and red fruit. Medium-bodied. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
All of the whiskies I have reviewed up until this point (the four from last week and the 12-year-old above) have all been 40% ABV (80 proof), the level where most Scotch is bottled and sold. Why? My research revealed a rather complex reason. The short version is fairly straight forward: distilleries have to pay higher taxes on whiskies above 40% and they are forbidden to pass those additional costs on to the consumer.
Well, you ask, why not lower? Another good question. Basically, as the alcohol levels are decreased (essentially by adding water), it loses the more delicate aromas that make Scotch particularly delightful to the aficionados.
Another oddity (at least to a wine guy), most whiskies at 40% ABV have caramel color added so as to maintain uniformity. On higher ABV Scotch, however, color is rarely added in part to maintain the integrity of the whisky but also to make it more readily identifiable. Typically speaking, these higher ABV Scotches are more expensive, so it is up to you to determine if the consumer is absorbing the cost of the increased tax…
This first whisky, the 14-year-old also introduces another variable: Chill-Filtered. Almost all whiskies under 46% ABV are chilled down to zero degrees Celsius, and then force filtered to remove residue (mostly fatty acids). Why? Well, if this did not happen, the whisky would become cloudy if water or ice were added to the glass (both fairly common practices to release different aromas and flavors, but, given my wine background, I find sacrilegious).
The cloudy problem, however, does not happen (for a technical reason) when the whisky is at 46% ABV or higher.
My head hurts, too.
Tomintoul 14-year, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Speyside Glenlivet:. Retail $80. 46% not chill-filtered, natural color. Considerably lighter than the others, but also more fragrant as it is quite fruity on the nose (strawberry) with toffee and a touch of smokiness.. There is no doubt that there is a whole lot more going on here than with the others. Chill-filtered seems to be a flashpoint for many lovers of Scotch and I think I see why. Excellent. 91-93 Points.
Iain then pulled out two bottles that were not on the tasting list, both at 43% ABV and both literally changed my world. I am not entirely sure, but it is certainly probable that I would not have written about Tomintoul or Scotch at all had I not tasted these next two (although I likely would have).
Tomintoul 25-year, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Speyside Glenlivet: Retail $450. Very small batch. 43% ABV. I am not sure why an extra four years of ageing results in a tripling of the retail price (the 21-year is around $150), but… Wow. Baked chocolate chip cookies or even a freshly baked pain au chocolate. Wow. And whoa. Holy cow this is lovely. Outstanding. 95-97 Points.
Tomintoul 37-year Reserve, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Speyside Glenlivet: Retail $650. Apparently, this was only made for the American market, and technically it no longer exists. There are a few bottles still floating around and one of them happened to be at the Total Wine store where we met for the tasting, So Iain opened it. Whoa. All from 1976 stock. I sat and just sniffed this whisky for a very long time before tasting and I was sad to pull drop it the centimeter to put the glass to my lips. Elegant and beautiful. Whoa. Clean and lovely vanilla and caramel. Holy cow. Sweet, lovely, a finish that lasts forever. Whoa. Outstanding Plus. 98-100 Points.
The last whisky in Iain’s arsenal was a different animal altogether. Up until this point, we had been tasting unpeated whiskies, which is what most of the distilleries in Speyside (where Tomintoul is located) produce. Without getting into the whole history of peat (which is rather interesting, actually), it was once the main fuel source in Scotland (remember above I mentioned the lack of forests) and as such it was used to malt the barley, essentially heating up the grain so that it would release its sugars which would then be converted to alcohol and then distilled. The burning of the peat, however, also created a distinctive smoke, which was absorbed into the whisky
Once the railway came to Scotland, coal (or more precisely, coke) was available as a more reliable and consistent fuel, many abandoned peat, resulting in a smoother, perhaps more approachable whisky. While many (most?) distilleries adopted this new process, some, including distilleries in Islay to the west, continued to produce whisky using the traditional peated method.
Thus, for whisky drinkers who prefer this smokier style, Tomintoul produces a couple peated whiskies. We tried one and, well, it was certainly not my favorite.
Tomintoul with a Peaty Tang, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Speyside Glenlivet: Retail $35. There is also a 15-year peated whisky (which was not part of the tasting). Much more pungent than the others, dominated by savory, meaty notes, almost sausage-like. The palate is completely different as well, again savory and smoky, but with some discernable sweetness on the finish. After the first eight, I decided that this is not my preferred style of Scotch, but Very Good. 87-89 Points.
Thanks so much to Iain for providing a much-needed education and to the great folks at Total Wine for hosting the event and offering up that amazing 37-year Reserve!