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Douglas Laing 75th Anniversary Tasting

It’s Christmas, after all. Around the world, these seasonal holidays are a time for rest and reflection, most take the opportunity to spend time with close family and more distant relatives, and to reconnect with friends.

It seems like a good time to celebrate a family business that continues into it’s third generation, a family that is synonymous with Scotch. Douglas Laing found their Scotch whisky business in 1948, and today it’s never been stronger.

The origins of the family business are not in Scotch, however, but a result of wartime connections that developed into Douglas exporting French Champagne to the USA. At some point Douglas realised that the national drink of Scotch might be a more lucrative enterprise, and in doing so the Douglas Laing we know today was born.

Selling whisky has not always been as easy a task as during the last 15 years. Back in the 50s and 60s, developing new markets required extensive travel around the world when those markets were truly new and exotic. Fred, Douglas’ son, has a repertoire of stories of adventures that sound like extracts from a risqué John Le Carre novel. It’s not many whisky brands that can take attendees around the world from Scotland, to India, to Copacabana Beach in a single tasting; such is the alure of Fred Laing’s travel tales. The products back then were different, too; before the rise of single malt Scotch, the King of Scots blend was one of their premium historical offerings.

More recently the business has developed a broad selection of affordable and recognisable brands from the Remarkable Regional (blended) Malts, which has charming branding. They also have some more unusual blended products such as the Double Barrel range, which is usually two casks for different regions of distilleries marrying together two distinctive styles. Blending remains at the core of the Douglas Laing business and director Cara Laing, the latest generation to manage the business, confirms that the success of these blended products is a focus on flavour not just on aroma.

All of the batches are tasted rather than nosed, with a focus on tasting at batch strength, not nosed at a watered down 20% ABV. This attention to detail cannot be achieved by large volume producers. Their approach to blending is to find a core recipe and aim to reproduce this with minimal batch variation. Each recipe is a baseline for further batch experimentation and variation, and as such there are countless small batch special editions on the Remarkable Regional Malts for fans to track down.

Such is the success of the Regional Malts that an extensive range of merchandise is available from the Douglas Laing website, ranging from a Scallywag Highland Blended Malt Dog Toy to Big Peat Islay Blended Malt Whisky Barrel Chips for your BBQ. Douglas Laing has a commercial tie-in with Rangers Football Club (which gives away the brand’s West Coast location) which has grown to a range of more than 10 well priced whiskies, rums and other spirits. If your sporting affiliations allow you to swallow these, you’ll find them very well priced.

When it comes to single malt Scotch, their entry level single casks begin with the Provenance and Premier Barrel and move upwards through the popular Old Particular, Private Stock, Xtra Old Particular and XOP Black Ranges.

All of this presents a picture of a large commercial business, which it no doubt has become, but it is also still a small family business. That’s why, in promoting their 75th anniversary, it was not a PR executive or brand ambassador hosting the tastings but Cara Laing herself; in our tasting, just two whisky pundits were online.

We talked a little about the whisky, including the incredible links that Douglas and Fred Laing had to Port Ellen distillery. Port Ellen is their favorite whisky by far, a drop of which still enters the recipe of each Big Peat Islay blend. Port Ellen stocks were a core of Douglas Laing for many years, a healthy remnant of the historic bounty remain in Douglas Laing’s own bonded warehouses carefully (very carefully) looked after for future bottlings.

But, we talked most about the good old days, about family, about kids and about what family means to the Laings. We talked about the future, too, because Douglas Laing will continue to fill their own casks direct from distilleries, where others have stepped back. Laing will continue to develop their own distilling business with the small Strathearn Distillery, and also pursue plans for the Clutha Distillery in Glasgow.

During our chat we talked about parenthood and the ways in which our kids influence or views and values, as we see the world through their eyes. I got the feeling that the fourth generation of Douglas Laing will take to the business very well when the time comes. Excellent succession planning!

It’s no surprise then that Douglas Laing are celebrating their 75th Anniversary – their own Diamond Jubilee – with an exclusive set of releases. These exceptional casks are released under the Extra Old Particular (XOP) range, with specially designed labels and luxurious diamond shaped gift boxes. In purchasing a bottle, you are buying some whisky history of suitable quality to match the family story.

Beyond the packaging, there are six single cask releases to choose from (if buying all six is outside your budget). Each cask represents a classic character of exceptional age, including a 30 year old Blair Athol, a 35 year old Macallan, a 40 year old Port Ellen, a 45 year old Cameronbridge, a 45 year old Port Dundas, and a 55 year old from Speyside’s finest distillery, which I believe could be Glenfarclas. In addition, a 50 year old King of Scots completes the range. We sampled three drams in our time chatting with Cara, and I revisited the samples in my own time to baseline the experience.

Before I get into the tasting notes, a comment on the price of the whisky. There is no doubt that the prices for these drams are high, but in the grand scheme of whisky prices these seem astonishingly reasonable. In addition to the diamond box, purchasers get a beautiful decanter which is of exceptional quality and style, and a matching whisky glass, that – having held one – I would say is a fantastic object. As a tumbler it’s maybe better suited to whisky sours, but nevertheless it carries the weight of the occasion appropriate for a Diamond Jubilee.

For me (an avid drinker) I rarely pay more than a couple of hundred quid for a bottle of whisky. Even then, it’s for special occasions only. So, it does not really matter for me whether these whiskies cost £650 or £100,000; they are comfortably unobtainable. I have, however, had the chance (through my whisky friends) to taste some exceptional whiskies in my time, and so my scores below are (on this rare occasion) based on taste and quality of the liquid alone, not adjusted for price.

Douglas Laing King of Scots 50 Year Old Blend – Review

A 50/50 blend of grain and malts. 46% ABV. £650.

Colour: Pale gold.

On the nose: Dusty oxidised fruit indicating age give way to polished wood of the grain, some crystallised pine resin, polished oak, dusty pine shelves, candle wax, dusty oak library, vanilla, a little dunnage and some sweet sherry.

In the mouth: Soft sweet malt, creamy crème caramel, resinous grain and oak, swept hearth, a little char, juicy vanilla, honey and toasted sugar, juicy sherry fruits, hints of oxidised soft fruit a little overpowered, a deep peppery spice on the finish.

Conclusions:

A lovely well aged grain underpins this blend, which at times overpowers the malt content, which is typically soft and gentle at this age. You have to work a little too hard to find the best of the malt. Still delicious.

Score: 7/10

Douglas Laing XOP Speyside’s Finest Distillery 55 Years Old – Review

Sherry cask. Bottled for their 75th Anniversary. 52.5% ABV. £5,000.

Colour: Chestnut

On the nose: Perfectly old sherry, that is: both rich and deep and fruity, but also bright and slightly sour with rancio. Cedar, sandalwood, an open air spice market, nutty almond, praline, dusty Chesterfield sofa and old books, thick luxurious toffee notes, the finest Medjool dates, resin.

In the mouth: A luxurious texture, candied orange peel, effervescent bright fruits, roasted grapes, earthy dunnage, tobacco and cocoa, worn leather, rancio sour notes, perfumed resinous wood, layers of soft dried fruits, cracked black pepper. A few drops of water allow more fruitiness to develop, and the oxidised fruit bursts up the back of the nose, with a lingering note of lit fine Cuban cigars.

Conclusions:

This is the archetypal well-aged sherried dram, what I would call “beyond sherry,” where the sherry and whisky are truly integrated into a single incredibly complex experience. One of those drams you can nose for hours without taking a drink. I’d only ask for a smidge more rancio for a perfect score.

Score: 9/10

Douglas Laing XOP Port Ellen 40 Year Old – Review

Bottled for their 75th Anniversary. 59.1% ABV. £5,500.

Colour: Pale straw.

On the nose: Creamy peat comes with smoke and soft spice, hay bale, hessian, gypsum, honeydew melon, and crushed pineapple. Dusty vanilla, a savoury note of charcoal crackers, chlorinated outdoor swimming pool, fresh tobacco, heather flowers, and a little gorse flower.

In the mouth: Soft, juicy fruit and bonfire smoke, big peat notes with loads of peaty spice, fragrant camomile flower and clove, curry leaf, white pepper, salty, petrichor, humidor, big aromatic juicy oxidised tropical fruits grilled over hot coals, gentle smoky spicy finish that lingers and finally gives way to a little mint.

Conclusions:

At one point, almost nothing else got drunk in the Laing house but Port Ellen, and a huge number of casks of Port Ellen have passed through their business, too, so you’d be surprised if they would not be able to deliver a perfect example of well aged Port Ellen for their 75th anniversary. One of the most startling aspects of Port Ellen is how the peat endures whilst the tropical fruits develop, with other peated spirits the peat falls away at this age. This is beautifully evident here.

Score: 10/10

Samples provided as part of a press pack from Douglas Laing; photos from Douglas Laing; views entirely our own.

Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

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