By my standards, this will be an extremely short and snappy introduction. Skipping the leisurely meandering and going straight for the jugular. We have 6 whiskies here from the latest Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice outturn and a whole lotta exploring on the cards.
2018 is the 50th anniversary of this iconic range from Gordon & MacPhail. Earlier this year we pieced together a tasting to commemorate the fact and what fun that was let me tell you. It just underlined the breadth and range or aptly the choice, that has been produced over the years. By a stroke of luck, it is the Connoisseurs Choice range that offers us now a liquid library to go back through the decades and appreciate the subtilties of a distillery or era. The lost styles, the rarities and the moments in time where everything came together to create such a wonderful whisky.
The Connoisseurs Choice range was also revamped as part of this celebration. The name suggests a finer perspective and opportunity. Over the years the bottle presentation had become a little worn and rustic. Nothing wrong with that in my book, but in today’s modern era of the whisky enthusiast there is a greater demand for whisky knowledge. This thirst means cask strength and as natural as possible. A celebration of whisky and unfortunately an increased cost which we’ll come to later on.
For now, we have these 6 whiskies that have been selected on the basis that they are ready. Nature decides along with observers when that moment in time is reached. Regardless of a distillery name, reputation or age when its ready, then it is ready, or as Mark Watt simply put it when it tastes good. The Connoisseurs Choice range is distinctly a one-off expression. Always natural coloured, non-chill-filtered and now cask strength. They represent the core of Gordon & MacPhail today.
Before we start our exploration. My thanks to Gordon & MacPhail for the unexpected package that landed on my doorstep last week that prompted these reviews. If something catches my interest then it could be a candidate for Christmas.
Connoisseurs Choice Glen Keith 1993 – review
Distilled on 21st September 1993 before being bottled on 13th September 2018 at 24 years of age. An outturn of 205 bottles from a refill bourbon barrel #111152, at a strength of 49.3%.
Colour: worn pine wood.
On the nose: light and engaging, a wafer with a creamy note following by pencil shavings. Lemon drizzle cake, freshly made drop scones and a hint of banana and vanilla custard. A resin-like character that I find comes from a good bourbon cask, a floral aspect with a waxy note in tow. Given time lime appears.
In the mouth: not hugely complex but this isn’t a negative. What this Glen Keith offers is with a certain style. Real balance. Delicate vanilla notes, golden syrup and a buttery texture. Applesauce followed by a lovely honeycomb, more waxiness and a twist of lime.
Connoisseurs Choice Glenlivet 2002 – review
Distilled on 5th November 2002, bottled on 6th September 2018 making this 15 years old. An outturn of 200 bottles from a 1st fill bourbon barrel #800772 at a strength of 58.4%.
Colour: Apple juice.
On the nose: Very shy at first and quite limited. Coconut ice, a floral aspect and general sense of summer and lightness. Apples tick. A twist of grapefruit, icing sugar. It needs time to open up. Now the apples have become cooking apples, plums and with water more fruit.
In the mouth: Simple on the palate and not hugely detailed, a little youthful and dare I say it bland. Apple pie, sour jelly sweets, grapefruit, olives and it doesn’t come on leaps and bounds with water. A touch of bitterness on the finish.
Connoisseurs Choice Glentauchers 1991 – review
Distilled on 20th June 1991 before being bottled on 6th September 2018 making this 27 years old. Matured in a 1st fill sherry butt #6943, resulting in an outturn of 473 bottles at 56.8% strength. This will set you back around £210.
Colour: Rubbed brass.
On the nose: Leathery, cherrywood and tobacco. Really nice balance with hickory smoke and meadow fruits. Malty, maple syrup with vanilla fudge and maple syrup. An intoxicating mixture of beeswax, dried cranberries and liquorice.
In the mouth: The sherry influence comes through strongly now. Orange rind, lots of worn leather and tobacco flavours. Dark chocolate and a touch of smoke. A varnish quality alongside an assortment of dried fruits for the annual Christmas cake mixture.
Connoisseurs Choice Highland Park 1989 – review
Distilled on 7th March 1989, bottled on 18th September 2018 at 29 years of age. Matured in a refill sherry butt #1087, resulting in an outturn of 613 bottles at 57% strength. This will set you back around £285.
On the nose: A pleasing herbal arrival with a vegetative slant. Treacle, milk chocolate, cinnamon bark and vanilla pod. A little peat. A dense nose almost Springbank-like with the earthy aspect and peat interplay. Nutmeg, cardamon and with water red liquorice.
In the mouth: Yeah, this tastes like Highland Park and in 2018 I’ve been reminded many times. A good Highland Park it must be said. A brown sauce vibe, toffee, honey, black pepper, fudge, ground coffee and brown sugar. Not all cask. Speaking of which 613 bottles after 29 years? Really? Dark chocolate digestives and smoke on the finish. Water? Nah, don’t bother.
Connoisseurs Choice Scapa 1988 – review
Distilled on 2nd September 1988, bottled on 13th September 2018 making this 30 years old. Bottled at 53.8% strength from a refill bourbon barrel, cask #10585, resulting in an outturn of 148 bottles.
Colour: Gold leaf.
On the nose: Classic Scapa with soft fruits mostly peaches. I’m reminded of the foreign jelly sweeties with a dusting of icing sugar. A delicate cinnamon. Barley sweets, Golden Delicious and bubblegum with a brief squirt of a floral perfume. A beautiful simple balance. A buttery pastry, a touch of smoke and freshly baked meringues.
In the mouth: Where to begin? Nectar. Whisky nectar. Creamy vanilla and an everlasting summer finish with green apples and a light caramel, juicy pears (sorry Rose), Italian lemons and a fine Earl Grey tea. A salad element with chicory leaves, then gooseberries, peppered oatcakes, marzipan and that wisp of smoke. Beautiful interplay with a subtle cascade of flavours.
Connoisseurs Choice Tomore 1995 – review
Distilled on 14th June 1995, bottled on 5th September 2018 at 23 years of age. From a 1st fill sherry butt, cask #5383, resulting in an outturn of 615 bottles at 60.1% strength.
Colour: Golden caramel.
On the nose: A robust arrival, fennel, honey and toffee wafers. With time rhubarb and dried orange, apricot and a layer of chocolate brownie. A touch of smoke and memories of fresh cinnamon buns. With water more fruit steps forth with apples, mangoes and a vanilla caramel.
In the mouth: A sticky toffee sponge, chocolate, figs and walnuts and then a nutty granola. Baked apples no make that a buttery apple tart before elements of redness return with those shoots of rhubarb and freeze dried raspberries.
A well-aged selection it must be said, with a variety of distilleries being showcased. This is what the Connoisseurs Choice range has always sought to achieve. Regardless of whether you’re a Glendullan or a Highland Park, every release is given the same status and opportunity to shine.
Personally, I always seem to struggle with Glenlivet. As a whisky, it is well made and generally affordable, but it ploughs a rather pedestrian path. I guess it is by design given its aspirations in the mainstream market. The single cask here is ok but lacks real depth and character.
Being a default expert on Tormore these days I’ve had my share of single sherry casks in their 20’s. This particular example would have been better suited as a refill sherry butt rather than a 1st fill. The cask has had just a little too much control on the interplay and marriage. The outcome is a good whisky yet it steps into a competitive field of independent Tormore releases. I know of a couple Tormore’s that are ahead of it and offer more balance.
When I meet up with a group of friends on Speyside we often drink Glen Keith. An easy, approachable and classic dram, loaded with fruits and enjoyment. This 1993 would be perfect for such an occasion and the bourbon cask has done an excellent job overall. A highlight of this tasting alongside the Glentauchers. Classic ‘Tauchers that we’ve seen over the years from the independent sector with particular emphasis from Cadenhead’s. Single cask releases that showcase what a relatively obscure distillery – to the mainstream – can achieve. Whether sherry or bourbon, it doesn’t seem to matter. Glentauchers given time and the opportunity will showcase its class and that’s what we have here.
Then onto Orkney for a doubleheader. We’ve covered far too much Highland Park in 2018 and felt a little more Scapa coverage was warranted. Both distilleries have their own styles and here it is the Scapa that really shines. The Highland Park is rock solid, full of the characteristics that made this distillery such a fearsome proposition, but that Scapa… Unfortunately, I don’t know the price, which is an important consideration here. Glorious and a joyous whisky showcasing why so many enthusiasts love a Scapa. Potentially a 10, almost, a lovely moment to experience but I fear the price.
We always consider pricing here and there is an influence as you can see in our scoring guide. I’ve been watching these bottles starting to appear at retail, eager to see the final cost. Where possible I’ve mentioned it within each set of notes. There’s no debating that the Connoisseurs Choice range in its new guise has gone for a more premium price point. The cost of such whiskies is increasing generally, I can do without the packaging and added features as it just comes down to the actual contents.
You can see these releases doing extremely well abroad with the Tormore and Glenlivet being Asia & Oceania exclusives. The Scapa is being released in a wooden box so you’d expect it to be the most expensive on this page. In the UK where competition is more guerrilla based, looks and a name only go so far. The whisky will sell itself if the asking price matches the experience. Time will tell if the market will move in tandem with the new Connoisseurs Choice range.
Photographs kindly provided by Abbey Whisky.