Maturity or Marketing: what’s the deal with vintage Scotch?
Generally speaking, things have gotten easier for us. It’s easier to phone than, say, to send a smoke signal. It’s easier to order in than to hunt in the wild. It’s easier to drive than to walk. (Okay, given what I encounter on the street every day, that might be a stretch.) And it’s way easier to use the latest Windows (insert trademark, copyright, etc. sign here — whatever keeps us out of court) operating system than it was to navigate MS-DOS (those of us that use the Mac OS probably wonder why anyone, anywhere, would ever use either, but that’s a whole other story for someone who’s even more of a geek than me).
Yep, things are easier these days. With the possible exception of understanding Scotch. Trying to come to terms with it requires some extremely sober cognition.
Choice … darn!
Back whenever, Scotch was whisky made in Scotland — pretty simple. Whip up a batch of more-or-less beer. Distill it, maybe a couple times to smooth it out. Age it in oak for a spell and … there you have it.
Then popularity happened. And marketing people were created. Now what you have (lucky you) is choice. Blended Scotch. Single-grain Scotch. Single-malt Scotch. Vatted malt. Pure malt. Blended malt. Scotch with an age statement. Scotch with no age statement. Cask-strength. Distillery bottlings. Independent bottlings. Specialty cask “finishes.” Clear Scotch. Yes, clear Scotch (Manxx, “clarified” on the Isle of Man, if you must know). Sparkling Scotch — just kidding (thankfully). And, of course, “vintage-dated” single malt.
Though vintage-dated single malts weren’t invented yesterday, they still represent one of the more confusing offerings out there. The Glenrothes distillery has been at the forefront of the vintage-malt thing and has released whiskies going back to 1966. So it stands to reason that Ronnie Cox, the director at The Glenrothes, might be able to weigh in on the issue. Vintage wine is a pretty simple concept: the year the grapes are picked is represented in a wine’s “vintage,” and nature deals up a pretty much inconsistent hand year in, year out (assuming you live a suitable toss from the Equator). Vintage Scotch is a bit of a different animal, however.
“Wooden” it be nice
When it comes to this stuff, Cox explains that the concept of vintage Scotch is based not on the quality of the raw material (barley doesn’t vary much in the same way that fruit does), but on the age of the whisky and the wood in which it is aged. This isn’t the easiest thing to bend one’s brain around, but allow me.
Wood (i.e., oak) varies in terms of char, porousness and age. When a distillery produces a year’s worth of spirit, it doesn’t all turn out exactly the same since the product is divided up among a pile of casks, each with a different character. Wood, you see, can be a bit of a maverick, and putting one batch of spirit into a certain cask one year may yield a very different aroma and taste than putting another batch into another cask another year. So, in a sense, there will be a variance even in a distilled spirit that, technically, ought to be consistent.
So far so good. The Glenrothes has won numerous accolades for its pioneering efforts in the vintage-malt arena. Embracing the “wood maketh whisky” theory, The Glenrothes favours wood over age (there are about a million possible turns I could take here, but I am a master of restraint). And now (deep breath), the distillery has decided to go one step further. Say hello to The Glenrothes Select Reserve — a blend of different casks from different years.
Same glen, different dram
Cox reports that The Glenrothes vintages have become somewhat popular amongst aficionados, and stocks of those whiskies tend to run dry in short order. So as not to deprive its fans (and to fish in a new revenue stream … yes, I’m an “objective” journalist), The Glenrothes has now introduced a whisky that maintains the true distillery “footprint” (citrus, vanilla, spice) yet doesn’t peg it to the “limitations” of the vintage offering. Did it succeed with this non-vintage-specific selection? I’d say so. Sláinte!
The Glenrothes 1994 Vintage
Toffee, lemon rind, marzipan and hazelnuts on the nose with warm marmalade, vanilla and cocoa in the mouth. Sophisticated and complex; highbrow Highland.
The Glenrothes Select Reserve
Raisin, spice, toasted marshmallow, vanilla and crème caramel aromas with a younger — though slightly deeper and woodier — impression on the palate. It reflects the character of the above vintage, but with its own distinct character … in other words, exactly what it was designed to be.
Tod Stewart is not as serious a person as he looks in this photo and will eagerly share a glass or eight of the most ordinary vin ordinaire with whoever’s buying.