Glenmorangie’s Private Edition range really took the spotlight this year when Jim Murray named the 19 year old, Ealanta, World Whisky of the Year 2014. Jim claimed Ealanta stole the show “because it went out and did something very different: not only did it blow [him] away with its deftness, beauty and elegance, but it gave an aroma and taste profile completely new to [him] in over 30 years of tasting whisky”. High praise indeed.
Soon after, Glenmorangie’s Director of Distilling, Dr Bill Lumsden, faced the unenviable challenge of creating a follow-up. After such a coveted title, any successor malt would surely pale in comparison, or at least one might think. We were expecting intensity of flavour, perhaps a big dose of sherry this time? Well, rather that playing it safe, Bill took the somewhat risky decision of releasing a red wine finish – something we’ve seen a lot of over the years, but very rarely done well. In fact, put bluntly, most of the time red wine ruins whisky. I won’t name names*, but we’ve all had an “experimental” whisky buggered up by overdosing with wine casks that have perhaps unnecessary pedigree (aside from marketing purposes, why anyone feels the need to finish in First Growth casks is beyond my understanding!). So – how would Bill’s latest fare?
Last week, Dr Bill Lumsden hosted a quiet unveiling of the new Private Edition, in the lovely La Chapelle restaurant, located in St. Botolph’s Hall in Spitalfields. A cavernous interior that does well to be at once slightly industrial and very sophisticated, it was a fitting backdrop.
The evening began with Scotch Old-Fashioneds, made with Glenmorangie Original, and I have to say, whilst I usually dislike Scotch whisky when used in place of bourbon, these actually worked pretty damn well. I put this down to the good proportion of first-fill American white oak used in maturation, and Original’s massive vanilla notes which really sing from nose to finish. Consider it blasphemy, but I reckon Ealanta would also work well for the same reasons.
Whisked away from the outdoor lounge area, we moved upstairs to the mezzanine, high above the hubbub of the main restaurant. Dr Bill presented a mini-tasting of two whiskies which included this year’s brand new Private Edition, and the Original for comparison. I always find beginnings like this very enjoyable. For one reason, in the industry one doesn’t always get the chance to reflect on the really mainstream stuff. Original is, however, one of the whiskies that got me into proper single malts in the first place, and it remains a classic. I’ve jotted down my impressions from the night:
Tasting Note for Glenmorangie Original:
Nose: Opens on apricots and custard. Acacia blossom honey, a touch of nutmeg, then something tropical – coconut milk maybe?
Palate: Soft, creamy palate entry, with almond to the fore. Plenty of spice, with marvellously effer-vescent notes of citrus zest. Late palate is like a big dollop of floral honey – think orange blossom…
Finish: Long and honeyed with spice on the tail. Almonds and hints of cherry linger.
Overall: As good as I remember – one of the best “entry level” malts around.
This preceded the main event, 2014’s Private Edition Glenmorangie Companta, but let’s save the notes until after a little backstory.
Dr Bill had been visiting some top vineyards around Burgundy and the Côtes du Rhône, sampling wines and examining casks. A cask supplier put him in contact with Grand Cru vineyard, Clos de Tart – a monopole owned by the Mommessin family, which produces some extraordinary red Burgundies based on the Pinot Noir grape. The wines exhibit, as Bill recounted, that wonderful truffle-like, umami character – a hallmark of really fine Burgundy. Interestingly, the casks used to make Clos de Tart are strikingly similar to those built for Glenmorangie – tight-grained oak and air-dried for 36 months. Interesting.
Bill ordered a parcel of Clos de Tart barriques and began experimenting. With about 29 Glenmorangie experiments on the go, he had plenty of choose from. However, to add even more body and a truly unique edge, he moved south to the Rhône Valley, and found barriques which previously held Rasteau. This is a slightly unusual, lesser-known sweet fortified wine made with Grenache grapes, offering up an earthy heartiness.
After numerous trials, the final recipe involved an initial maturation in American white oak ex-bourbon barrels before a wine finish in 60% Clos de Tart and 40% Rasteau barriques. Then it was a case of watching the maturing whisky with extreme care until it was ready. The final product was bottled at 46%abv, non chill-filtered, with a beautiful cherry-red hue. Here are my findings:
Tasting Note for Glenmorangie Companta:
Nose: Heady, fruity nose with notes of chocolate and spice. Then comes an umami-like delivery of truffles and the forest floor. Bill specifically wanted this character to shine through in the whisky, and it does, beautifully. The typical red berry notes arrive a little later, developing slowly with hints of toasted almond.
Palate: Huge palate, far “bigger” than one would expect from the abv. There is a massive spice note, then something akin to chewing on pipe tobacco – sweet and savoury all at once. Black pepper comes through in a big way. Hints of sherbet, ginger, stewed prunes and then molasses. It’s quite chocolatey too, and tremendously complex.
Finish: Sweet, very long finish with hints of clove oil on the tail. A hint of muscovado sugar develops, a touch of chestnut mushroom too. It remains oily and mouth-coating for minutes.
Overall: Put simply: astonishing. This is perhaps the first truly successful red wine finish I’ve come across. Yes there are some fine wine finishes, but they focus on the wine and not the whisky. With Companta, what is being so deftly done is the fact the whisky leads the way with a rich backing from the grapes. It does take a particularly robust single malt to stand up to this kind of treatment, and first-fill bourbon cask Glenmorangie appears to be up to task. Highly recommended.
Following the tasting, we enjoyed a three-course meal inspired by Companta with a sort of Scotland-meets-France theme. The chef had taken classic Scottish ingredients, and prepared them in a French style.
For starters, we had cured salmon served with shaved fennel, avocado and ruby grapefruit. This was served with Cloudy Bay’s 2011 Chardonnay. It was a great pairing – the tang of the citrus worked nicely with the steeliness of the wine.
The fillet of Scotch beef was superb, as were the accompanying truffle mash, sand carrots and caramelised shallot. This was served with 2007 Clos de Tart – a ripe, juicy red Burgundy with those truffle-like, earthy hints that Dr Bill spoke of. These were perhaps deliberately mirrored in the truffle mash, and the wine’s light, fresh acidity cut through the meat perfectly.
Dessert was Valrhona chocolate ganache with honeycomb, and mandarin sorbet. This came with that ultimate luxury: Glenmorangie Signet. The chocolate malt’s natural roastiness and intensely thick, rich flavour was a fine match for the dark chocolate. The slight savoury edge to the single malt gave everything a bit of backbone and sophistication which was jolly nice.
What an evening. Some superb food and some excellent wine and whisky. Glenmorangie Companta is on sale now for £66.75 – I highly recommend it.
*aside from Bruichladdich, who are wanton with wine.