Most writing is, to some degree, an exercise in self-indulgence. Writing about whisk(e)y feels doubly so: the act of taking a beverage intended for consumption and breaking it down to the technical level, an alleged objective assessment of something intended for subjective enjoyment. This inherently is a fruitless endeavor, given the degree to which taste and perception are nearly completely contextual, affected deeply by our surroundings and general state of being.
But of course, this is sort of the point. Whiskey is about stories and people and places. The act of imbibing is only the tiniest portion of the experience, one that can never be – nor should be – fully removed from the whole. As Dave Broom marvels in A Sense of Place “…how complex the web of culture, craft, climate, geology, history, farming, distillation, and land is. None of these actors can be removed from this liquid…”
Less romantic variables also have an influence on our perceptions: do you have a particular vessel of choice? Perhaps you are on the rocks tonight. Or rather, sampling from a bespoke snifter? Other sensory factors also play a role. Is there a meal in front of you, or perhaps one slowly marinating in the oven? Is there a nice breeze from an open window or are you outside on a patio?
On the topic of whisky in different surroundings, I recently brought a trusty bottle of Glengoyne 12 single malt Scotch whisky with me on a road trip with my spouse and our two dogs. We rented a camper van and basically disappeared into the American Southwest for a week. Glengoyne 12 is not a new whisky to my palate, and I have tried a couple of their other offerings in the past. The choice was a deliberate one: it is a bottle that I already know, it is reasonably priced, and, given those first two factors, it is a whisky that I am comfortable drinking in front of a campfire out of tin mugs in the middle of the wilderness. The ideal camping whisky is not one that comes in a fancy case with an accompanying brochure to be subsequently bounced along highways for a thousand miles. For everything, a time and place.
The week was a beautiful escape. Some of the starkest landscapes on the continent reside in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, and Eastern Colorado. We have access to constant stimulation in this day and age, but it is rare to come across that which truly inspires reverence. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, the San Juan River Valley and National Forest… these remind us of both our fragility and strength. The opportunity and power we have to preserve, yet how quick we are to destroy, to dig up, to plow over. More gifted wordsmiths than I have spent lifetimes pondering our relationships with these sacred places.
Given that context, it seemed silly and impractical to bring some sort of deeply contemplative or expensive dram (spoiler alert: Glengoyne 12, while a respectable malt, is neither of these). This is no slight to Glengoyne, which boasts numerous award-winning iterations of their whisky.
The distillery itself is somewhat unique on a couple of counts. First, there remains some controversy over whether or not the whisky itself qualifies as “Highland” or “Lowland” in origin. While the distillery itself sits in the “Highlands,” a somewhat arbitrary designation for whisky (although one which does have a formal designation at least for tax purposes), the primary warehouses of the distillery lie just to the south across the road in what technically qualifies as “Lowlands.” They claim to utilize the “slowest distillations” in Scotland in order to maximize copper contact and increase reflux, preventing heavier compounds from percolating on into the final product. Their distillate carries the light grassy and fruity notes you might expect from that sort description, yet traditionally holds up well to primary sherry maturation. Their tradition lies exclusively with unpeated malt.
The 12 year bottling does not specify cask types, the box only stipulates “natural color from oak casks.” Presumably some degree of chill filtering has been performed. The 43% bottling strength is reasonable for what is somewhat considered a “gateway” whisky and is ideal for idly sipping. Which is beneficial in this case, given the aforementioned camping mugs.
In the interest of full transparency, despite using said mug on the road, my tasting notes come from drams sampled from a Glencairn. In terms of factors that can impact our perceptions of whisky, there was a clear difference on the nose and subsequently the palate when moving to the more traditional vessel: harsh ethanol was immediately evident when sampling from the more open tin cup, while the Glencairn helped mellow the bouquet and allow softer elements to come to the fore. So let’s get to it…
Glengoyne 12 Year Old – Review
43% ABV. MSRP approximately $60.
Color: Light copper, presumably majority bourbon cask matured, but likely some few sherry casks mixed in.
On the nose: Relatively simple. Green barley, vanilla, some sweet red fruits and spice suggesting a hint of sherry cask influence. A bit more ethanol than expected for the relatively friendly proof. Pleasant, but feels a little coarse or unfinished.
On the palate: Slow initial development, but quick thereafter. Those initial grassy cereal notes from the nose carry through, and are then followed by light apple, vanilla, the faintest whiff of cranberry sauce. There is a brief sweet and sour back-and-forth which adds a slight degree of complexity, but this is otherwise a straightforward, and somewhat staid palate. Present ethanol. Rapid dissipation of fruity notes followed by some drying oak tannins which do lend to a nice mouth-coating finish.
*A little water mutes the ethanol but completely drowns any identifiable tasting notes.
This isn’t a bad whisky. It does, however, feel like a somewhat incomplete whisky, as if it didn’t receive the full benefit of its 12 year maturation. This suggests to me the presence of some exhausted or lower quality casks potentially sneaking into the batch. The underlying distillate is pleasant and light, but there is more raw ethanol presence than I would expect for 12 years of aging at a strength of 43% ABV. I would be interested to try other batches of the 12 year to see how they compare given generally positive reviews out there. A few more robust sherry casks for added richness, or some high quality first fill bourbon barrels bringing in more sweet oak, could have done wonders to help round this out.
As for the trip: the company was unparallelled, the scenery otherworldly. The whisky was… perfectly quaffable, but ultimately below average in my book. I did enjoy pairing it with instant ramen the night we were caught in a downpour, however. Maybe for the next trip to the Southwest I’ll have to break out one of the more local malts.