Welcome back to the second instalment of this ad-hoc series on blended scotch whiskies. The purpose is to highlight the fun, value and joy that blended scotches can harbour if you break that seal.
The debut brought 2 old blends against one another to showcase the value and range of blends. A sense of the unknown was well-pitched against the need to discover. The ultimate winner was the whisky on both counts and these bottles are still being enjoyed to this day. But we do need to look elsewhere and keep that sense of the treasure hunt alive!
So, I’ve picked out the theme of decanters for this instalment. Typically, the storage vessel that has whisky enthusiasts and collectors running to the hills. A ceramic is a frustrating storage vessel mainly because of the seals that they utilise. As they are designed to be more of a display feature, their long-term viability was always a bit of a grey area. Some are sealed with ceramic stoppers that can contract over time and those with a cork end will mostly decay, dry out and lodge themselves within the neck of the bottle. Neither is ideal but hope is not lost…
As the fill level and status of the contents is always obscured from view, you have to rely on tactile features such as holding the item in your hand, checking the seal and sensing how much space there is within; not options if you’re bidding online. Of course, if you’re dealing with a more elaborate decanter such as an Austin Nichols 1986 Wild Turkey, then this approach isn’t hugely reliable. There is always the auctioneers’ weight recording and this BMI might give you a sense of how things stand, but only if you know the original weight. Due to this air of mystery, such vessels are overlooked in favour of bottles with a visible fill level. These tend to offer more reliable seals such as screwtops and spring caps, leaving ceramics to be more speculative purchases fraught with danger.
Our destination is 1990, when Glasgow was given the status of the European City of Culture. A big boost to the image of the city at that time, which was more industrial and in the midst of urban decay and crime issues. To celebrate such a status, local independent bottler Douglas Laing put together a special commemorative bottling. During my preparations, I was trying to recall what I was doing in 1990, I remember the fuss around Glasgow, but I was more interested in the Stone Roses and reading the weekly issues of Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds. Wonderful times for musical discoveries and whisky wasn’t quite on the menu yet.
As expected, the cork on this distinctive blue bottle had dried out over time. Sometimes you get lucky and you can entice the cork out in one skilled movement. Sadly, in this case, it was firmly lodged with the upside that it was fairly intact; no need to worry about corked whisky. So, the best approach is to make a small hole and allow the liquid to be poured through a filter or sieve into a clean empty bottle via a funnel – one of my best buys. Make sure it is a clear glass bottle, so you can gauge the contents and if further filtering is required. Fortunately, here, we were good and I’d say we had lost about 20% of the contents to evaporation due to the seal over time.
Sometimes you get lucky, the liquid can withstand more evaporation. Quite often it’ll smell promising, but the actual taste confirms the degree of decay and wastage. I’d hate to think of all the whiskies I’ve had to pour down the sink due to a poor seal. Such memories don’t prevent me from rolling the dice time and time again – we’ll come to the contents soon enough.
You also have the option of whether you want to return the liquid to the original host. In terms of the ridiculous ceramics I tend to avoid this, but this Douglas Laing is a cute bottle and practically shaped, so a refilling was on the agenda. Prior to such an act you have to deal with the stuck cork. There are various ways to do this and each depends on the scenario. The most annoying aspect is when part of the cork breaks off and lodges itself in the bottle but don’t despair! Holding the bottle at an angle, gravity ensures where the cork will land (even if you cannot see it) and I tend to use a metal skewer to break any annoying object into smaller chunks. These can be poured out more easily and don’t underestimate the power of water and a good shake. After cleaning the neck, the bottle was good to go again and here’s when keeping some used corks in a safe environment pays off – a quick rummage and a suitable replacement was found. Sadly the unused stopped provided with this bottle had dried out and expanded to such a degree that you could only force a third of the cork into the neck.
I know this blend is of good quality having had it previously. Out of interest, I contacted Douglas Laing to see if they were able to provide any further information and was surprised to receive a response from Fred himself:
The shape was taken from one of our King Of Scots decanters sold mainly in the Far East through the 1970s and 80s. The artwork was supplied to us by Charles Randak whose design company still operates here in Glasgow I believe. He also had/may still have posters of the same architectural backdrop of our fair city – once the 2nd City of the British Empire.
I think I used a 5-year minimum blend, so the 2 Grain Whiskies were 5 years old and the malts ran from 5 through to 8 years of age. It was a blend also used in another King of Scots pack at the time (no longer sold), but was more heavily malted than normal; up around 35%, so if it is being consumed and the decanter has been well looked after it should still drink well.
There were about 6,000 units produced and sold. We could have sold more but you never know that at the time and potteries are notoriously slow to produce so we could have ended up with a superabundance after the Garden Festival finished.
Douglas Laing: Glasgow European City of Culture 1990 – review
On the nose: smoked toffee, warmed pecans, resin and a dulled orange. Some cask char, kindling, worn wood and leathery qualities. An engaging nose with ham hock, rubbed brass and some dustiness.
In the mouth: more smoked toffee, cracked black pepper and chewy in places. Chocolate, wholemeal, dried fig, vanilla and a touch of smoke on the finish that lingers nicely, but it is the peat beforehand that is enjoyable.
The 1990 Glasgow bottle might have faded a touch during its 3 decades of confinement. Being let out for good behaviour underlines the quality of the blend that still retains a touch of vibrancy and swagger about it. It reminds me of those Compass Box themed releases around Edinburgh that were light and elegant, to some. This blend is more Glasgow with a rugged core and some lovely external features. Pretty good and for the price as well. There is very little grain to be detected within this whisky and the high malt content, as Fred suggested, has stood it in good stead.
This is verging on a 7 in my opinion and possibly already there is a decanter that has a better fill level – something to watch out for at auction. But for now, we’ll move onto another blend as this exploration continues…