In my family, the primary tradition we have for celebrating someone’s birthday is to have a big dinner at home together, with the celebrant receiving the privilege of choosing what food will be served. During my birthday a couple of years ago, my dad and I were planning what food we’d have. I remember getting a little carried away and naming more than the usual number of viands, which prompted my dad to remind me that “less is more.” Is it, though?
“Simplicity is superior to elaborate embellishment.” While having been first used in a poem by Robert Browning, there is a consensus that the idiom “less is more” was popularized by Ludwig Miles van der Rohe, one of the fathers of modern architecture in the 20th century who advocated for simplicity in design and style. Today, I’d say that the idiom is most often used to promote restraint in different areas of life as a reaction – I’d like to think – to cultures of extravagance and greed.
When it comes to whisky, however, is less truly more? Perhaps it would depend on what we consider there to be less or more of.
On that same birthday of mine, my partner gifted me this Old Particular 20-year-old single malt Scotch from Craigellachie distillery. It was one of the bottles I’d been eyeing at that time because of a budding interest I had in independent bottlers. Old Particular is a brand of single cask releases under Douglas Laing & Co, a family-owned independent bottler of Scotch whisky. Let’s try using this single malt from Craigellachie as a sort of case study to see if the idea that “less is more” would hold water.
First: information. Compared to many official bottling brands, independent bottlers tend to share much more information about the whiskies they sell. As explained by this independent bottler of rum, this practice is partly done in the spirit of transparency, to help enthusiasts understand what they’re considering or drinking. According to Douglas Laing’s website, they “add nothing and take nothing away from [their] spirit, enabling whisky lovers around the world to come as close as they possibly can to sampling a dram straight from the cask.” Clearly, the information that Douglas Laing puts on the bottles’ packaging and labels contributes to that effect and upholds the value of provenance.
Instead of consumers only being told that they’re drinking a single malt with a particular age and from a particular region or distillery, Old Particular explains when the whisky was distilled, when it was bottled, what kind of cask it was matured in, the specific code of that cask, how many bottles were produced from that cask, and the fact that it is presented naturally.
I can imagine a marketing specialist pulling their hair out because of the lack of simplicity in the labels that present these details. However, those same details allow one to have a better grasp and appreciation of the whisky’s history, albeit still only a partial account of the production process that took place.
For example, knowing that this Craigellachie 20-year-old was distilled in 1999 causes me to marvel at the idea that I was only a kid in elementary school when this spirit was being made half the world away. Sometimes, the kinds of details on the bottles also help me manage my expectations about what the whisky would smell or taste like; in this case, this whisky was matured in a Sherry butt, so it leads me to wonder how the Sherry influence will present itself in tandem with Craigellachie’s house style. When it comes to information, is less more?
Next, let’s consider another factor: supply. Whisky is a limited product made from limited raw materials. In the case of single cask bottlings, that limit is much smaller. This 20-year-old is only one out of 208 bottles that have been charged from a single cask. In other words: there are only 208 bottles of this specific whisky in existence.
Does that make it desirable or enjoyable? For whisky collectors, perhaps. For consumers who value having something scarce that others don’t, maybe. For buyers who associate higher prices with tastier liquor, sure. For flippers in the secondary market who aim to take advantage of limited supply and resell whisky for higher prices, no doubt. For enthusiasts who relish in the romantic notion of finitude, definitely. But I’ve also had my fair share of limited releases that turned out to be disappointing or not worth the money, and I couldn’t care less about the concept of rarity. When it comes to supply, is less more?
Finally, let’s look at what many consumers and enthusiasts deem to be the most significant aspect of whisky: flavor.
Old Particular Craigellachie 20 (Cask no. 13710) – Review
Color: Mustard yellow.
On the nose: A first impression of oat crackers and digestifs. Muesli that’s a little heavy on the raisins and almonds. Buttery, with a sweetness that is deftly held back by sumptuous hot prawn salad. There’s a good balance of fruit and meatiness with it: cooked bananas, beef and raisin picadillo, and citrusy aromatic bitters. With time comes aromas of wet grass, a lengthened porridge note, and a hint of anise.
In the mouth: Noticeably thick and oily; it takes a while to fully go down the throat (which I find pleasant). A delicate layer of orange peel, honey licked off of a dipper, and iced gems (a kind of Filipino biscuit with meringue on top) that is rounded off by a spice and distinct cinnamon, garlic powder, and crushed almonds. It almost moves the same way a slow inhale and exhale does, with the end of the inhale having a layer of oat, starch, and old paper-bound books. You don’t get the strength of the ABV at all. The finish is long and malty, with some orange marmalade and lingering new wood. Slightly drying, too.
I must reiterate that I did not purchase this bottle, so my assessment of its value for money might not be as reliable compared to if I spent my own money for it. With that said, Master of Malt sells it for £113.95 (around $153), and from what I recall, it was sold locally, where I am, for around $150. While I wish it cost closer to the former, the latter wouldn’t stop me from recommending friends to grab a bottle of their own.
Generally, it comes across as having a stern but comforting character. The flavors follow a structure of development, yet eagerly flit and shift. I also like that the Sherry influence is not too strong, while also clearly accenting this spirit-forward whisky. The presence of a wide range of flavors is evident, but they do not overwhelm the senses, nor present themselves in a chaotic manner. When I was first able to try Craigellachie’s flagship 13-year-old, I immediately found it charming. Having this, however, hints at the idea that older Craigellachie single malt, or independently bottled Craigellachie single malt (or both!), might be more promising.
Old Particular’s Craigellachie 20 (cask no. 13710) has more information on it, does not have quality and value (to me) because of its limited supply, and has lots of flavors that are not crudely expressed. Let’s return to our principal query: Is less more? For me, at least in this case, it definitely isn’t… and that’s a good thing.