At a tasting of the Glen Garioch range last night Phil Nickson of Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD) treated us to a preview of the latest vintage release, a 1998 distillation matured in ex wine casks, specifically Saint-Julien, a Bordeaux red wine appellation.
We started with the core expressions, the Founder's Reserve and 12 Year Old. These are drams of which I think highly, in part at least because they taste just right at 48%. This is not a common bottling strength, suggesting that it has been chosen for reasons of taste (easier to do if you only shift 19,000 cases a year rather than say 120,000 like Bowmore). Two sweet and spicy drams, good to very good.
Next was the cask strength 1999 Sherry vintage, first released last year. Very much in the bold spicy Glen Garioch style of the first two whiskies, it also showed loads of somewhat rubbery sherry, and a pile of sweet red fruits; tinned strawberries perhaps. The finish was treacly and spicy. Excellent.
Glen Garioch 1991, released in 2010, is an ex bourbon expression, dating from when Glen Garioch malted its own barley with a bit of peat in the mix. A very elegant dram (most Glen Garioch is what I'd call powerful rather than elegant), with smoky honey and coconut notes and a milky waxy finish. Very Good.
And so to the drum roll dram, the new 1998 vintage. I have to declare an interest here. I am a claret fanboy, specifically the Northern Médoc, so I may be a little biased towards this dram. It's worth noting that Saint-Julien is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, a cask type which is also used in the assemblage for Dalmore King Alexander, a superb whisky, albeit overpriced, and in the cracking Longrow Red from Springbank.
The spice notes I found in other expressions this evening were much rounder and softer in the '98. There was a qualitative difference in the fruit character too, with definite fruit-yoghurt notes, where the other whiskies showed dried fruits and lacked the creamy, buttery note. On the other hand, there is a bit of spirit burn, which the other drams didn't have. The palate is complex, with typical Garioch spice, soft buttery-treacle notes, and a wee touch - hard to pin down - of something savoury. Most decidedly excellent.
The one caveat I have regards the price. This release, 15 years old, bottled at 48%, costs about £100. The 1991, at cask strength and 19 years old, can be had for £70. It seems to me that MBD are cashing in on the current whisky bubble.
Or perhaps I just didn't like the whisky enough. Certainly, after the tasting, three people thought it was good enough to pre-order and pay for.
By way of a bonus, Phil then treated us to a wee taster of two other expressions, the Virgin Oak and the 1986. The Virgin Oak is delicious, although it perhaps ought to be called Bourbsky or Whisbon, since white oak is such a dominant flavour (irrelevant aside: naturalists say that a typical oak tree is home to some three hundred species of other plants and animals. Is it unreasonable to call humans the three hundred and first, since the flavour of oak is so important in so many human beverages??).
The 1986 was a fine, fine drop, and made all the finer by the subtle thread of smoke running through it. Since closing their floor maltings in 1994, Glen Garioch has been made with unpeated barley. On the basis of the '86, I would call that a big fat mistake.