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Old Whisky

by Michael Orson     5. March 2010 14:43

 Macallan 1951 Whisky

Old whiskies have always commanded respect from the drinking public. It is widely thought that the older the whisky, the better. Distilleries have always pushed for this, because they can demand higher prices, and the increased rarity of old whisky has helped cement their éclat. At Master of Malt, we think whiskies have a life span; some require a lot of ageing to reach their peak, and others need only a few years. There are some very young whiskies which have reached their full potential very early in life; Ardbeg 10 is an awe-inspiring single malt and we’ve only got good things to say about the 3 year old English Whisky Chapter 6!

It is undeniable, however, that there is something very special about extensively aged malt. We’ve been lucky enough to taste some great 40 year old whisky recently. 

A single cask 40 year old Glenfarclas had this impression on us:

 Glenfarclas 40 Year Old Whisky

Nose: Angelica, marrons glacés, slightly mushrooms.

Palate: Absolutely astonishing, creeps up and bashes you on the nose with truffle… and mushroom risotto. So complex and savoury.

Finish: Long, long, long, so savoury and rich and complex. Literally minutes long…

Overall: Simply amazing. One of the most astonishing whiskies we've ever tasted.

and a Dalmore 40 year old whisky

 Dalmore 40 Year Old Whisky

Nose: A fantastic apothecary of musty oranges and cloves and potpourri. Rich, nutty depths of cocoa and spices, and a hint of fresh mint.

Palate: Possibly the most viscous whisky in the world! Utterly syrupy with intense flavours of treacle and top quality sherry. More cloves, cola, oranges and spices.

Finish: Interesting now that the finish is quite short, but it offers last fanfare of woody spices and marmalade before it peters out.

What is interesting about these particular single malts (and a host of other well aged gems) is that these are distilleries that are known for their rich, sherried whisky. These are distilleries that make spirit that can stand up to the intensity of a sherry cask and, by proxy, the intensity of oak. 

Oak offers an abundance of flavours like spices, caramel and, most notably, vanilla (a key element which gives the impression of sweetness, and one of the most pleasing flavours to humans!). Wood contains lignins - chemical compounds which form part of the cell walls in plants. From here we get tannins, and these bring body and alter the mouthfeel whilst developing during the maturation process. 

 Charring a Barrel

Barrel char, or toasting, is also a really important part of ageing. This literally involves charring the wood over a flame, and the resultant chemical reaction helps to develop rich flavours like toffee, coffee and smoke. Take bourbon, a style of whiskey which legally has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon is rife with notes of coffee, smoke and creamy vanilla sweetness.

As the whisky ages away in the oak cask, all of these wonderful flavours are imparted. The alcohol content drops as the spirit evaporates (known as “the angels’ share”) and so does the amount of liquid in the barrel. This concentrates the flavours, and is the reason for the gloriously syrupy texture we found in the 40 year old Dalmore. Think of the whisky as a sauce, slowly being reduced and more and more concentrated as it bubbles away on a hot stove.

Aside from the flavour, there are other facets to these “luxury” malts and rarity and prestige play a big part. This is something akin to owning a piece of history and when malts like Dalmore Sirius and Glenfiddich 50 year old were distilled, the world was an entirely different place. Thanks to the winning combination of great whisky, a beautiful-looking distillery, a rich history and a barrage of brilliant marketing campaigns, Dalmore can command a high price for their single malts. 

 Dalmore Sirius Whisky

With the charismatic brand ambassador and master blender, Richard Patterson, at the helm, thousands of pounds have been paid for malts like Sirius (the dozen decanters of very old whisky had an RRP of £10,000) and Oculus (a single decanter, personally filled by the master blender himself, which contained some whisky from 1868, and which reached a record-breaking £27,600 at Bonhams auction house!).

In 2006, Bonhams played host also to the sale of the oldest whisky ever! Whilst not necessarily well aged in the cask, this was literally the oldest bottle of whisky because it was filled some 150 years ago. This was Glenavon “Special Liqueur” Whisky and it was distilled at the Glenavon distillery (was licensed to John Gordon Smith, son of The Glenlivet founder, George Smith). And yes, you guessed it, this wasn’t cheap - this very old whisky fetched £14,850 at the prodigious auction house.

These luxury single malts are stunning and look beautiful to boot. But if you want to enjoy similar flavour profiles without paying thousands of pounds, there are some whiskies out there which offer the same great character as the very old whiskies.

In the Dalmore stable, there’s King Alexander III. Aged in six different casks (wine, Madeira, Marsala, sherry, bourbon and port) and a full degree of magnitude cheaper than the 40 year old (at £119.95 a bottle). We actually preferred this to its older brother, and there is certainly some very old whisky in it. 

 Dalmore King Alexander III Whisky

We detected…

Nose: Potpourri and intense stewed apple. Very umami rich black olive notes, and toffee tablet.

Palate: Syrupy and thick, not unlike the 40 now. Surge of spice and fresh parsley. Beautiful tannins.

Finish: Where the 40 YO drops off quickly, the King Alex develops majestically with cola, deep oak, dark spices and candy.

Overall: Just amazing.

 Master of Malt 30 Year Old Speyside 2nd Edition Whisky

And those after an old, classically style Speyside would do well to have a look at the Master of Malt own range. Jim Murray scored our 50 year old a whopping 95 points. At £249.95 it’s incredible value for a 50 year old whisky. And in the same vein as the Glenfarclas, our second edition 30 year old will delight at only £99.95.

- The Chaps at Master of Malt -

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