“The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”
This is the lyric to an American folk song but could be the anthem for a large proportion of Scotch whisky distilleries. As time has passed and corporate owners have increased their holdings, we’ve seen stylistic changes that have stripped their character away, resulting in increasing quantities of uninspiring output that all tastes very same-y.
With every passing transaction, it seems that owners become more and more remote from the elemental essence of a distillery. For reasons economic or… well… probably economic, the quirks and peccadilloes of individual distilleries seem to their globalized owners like inconveniences at best, and like liabilities at worst. Corners are cut, ingredients are altered, changes in kit and production methods are undertaken, until every rough edge of individuality has been buffed smooth.
The irony of this approach is that, having scrubbed their distillate of all defining attributes, the majors scramble to then find unique selling propositions for the dreary output. This frequently takes the form of questionable cask finishes that seem to add a flaw for every point of intrigue they introduce. In total the result is often lacking, arguing for more differentiation on the front end and less monkey business in the final years of a whisky’s maturation.
Take Glen Garioch – please! Started in 1797, it was sold in 1908, 1935, and 1937, closed in 1968, sold again in 1970 and reopened, closed again in 1995, and sold/reopened most recently in 1997.
The whisky being considered today is a post-revival Glen Garioch, meaning that it is unpeated, in contrast to the heavily-peated style of own maltings that once gave the house its signature flourish. Jason’s recent survey of Glen Garioch in the form of a vertical gave little reason for enthusiasm, with his conclusion that “Glen Garioch hasn’t changed for the better.” So, perhaps a poster distillery for the disheartening trends mentioned above?
However, you’ll be shocked to learn that this one has a twist: rather than being a finish overlaid on a standard bourbon cask, this release was “exclusively matured in the finest wine casks,” per the label. Having gone too far in the direction of creating a bland and anonymous whisky, parent company Beam Suntory is rectifying the lack of distinguishing features with some exotic maturation. We’ll see, shortly, if the result is an improvement.
My last run-in with wine cask maturation left lots to be desired, though this could be a function of a brief 2-year maturation rather than any inherent flaws with this method. Still, I’ve had a few experiences with the format, none of which has resulted in me becoming the premier global collector of wine cask matured or finished whiskies. It’s very challenging to get malt and cask to knit, resulting in some weirdly fruity and awkwardly-textured malts. Let’s see if a full maturation for nearly a decade and a half can offer any hope?
This is Highland single malt Scotch whisky, distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2014, batch number 24. It has been bottled at 48%, in a run of 6,000 bottles. It is discontinued, but retail price seems to have been in the $100 range. This sample was provided by Carl, who is both a wine lover and intrepid explorer of expressions.
Glen Garioch Wine Cask Matured 1998 – Review
Color: Copper color with rosy glints
On the nose: Winey, as promised, packed full of red fruit. Battling this is a thick, yeasty maltiness. There’s some sticky-sweet aromas of wood glue and stewed prunes. At its best this shows the doughy sweetness and spicy fruitiness of hot cross buns. With some time in the glass, the vegetal aroma of aloe vera emerges. Overall, there’s the slight awkwardness that I abhor in wine cask matured and finished whisky.
In the mouth: Starts firm and rich, with some pleasantly woody notes offset by dried fruits, in the manner of a good sherry cask. There’s the dry nuttiness of salted walnuts before the wood perks up again at midpalate, becoming slightly sour and astringent. This is still tart at the back of the tongue, lingering with a note of toasted oak and the airiest nip of strawberries and cream. As I swirl this more in the mouth the woody notes become more pronounced, with some sharp and spicy edges crowding out more of the fulsome nuances that were so well represented at the top of the nose.
The nose affirms my negative preconceptions about wine casks. A good cask, be it wine or sherry or anything else, needs to integrate with the spirit such that it’s not clear where the malt’s intrinsic flavor ends and the cask’s influence begins. In this example, as with others, the two seem to be fighting to be heard over one another like relatives with differing political opinions at a holiday meal. In both cases, the result is uncomfortable.
The palate is a slight improvement. I could have used a bit more fruit through the mouth, which comes off as angular and wood-dominated. Whereas the nose had basketfuls of berries, in the mouth this feels like my tongue is being poked and prodded by jutting flavors in a way that, again, produces discomfort.
This is a relatively expensive experiment, and as such has been docked a point. It’s also hard to find, and I wouldn’t encourage you to break either your neck or your budget tracking it down.