After taking a curmudgeonly swipe at very old whiskies earlier this month, Ian Buxton has fallen for the charms of a 50 year old Glenglassaugh, a distillery that he has a fair bit of history with. Here he explains why.
Well, that didn’t take long. Only last month here I was criticising the trend to ever-older and more expensive whiskies and along comes another one.
My problem, if you can’t be bothered to look it up, is simply stated: all too often, in my opinion at least, they really don’t taste terribly nice. But that’s because they’re trophies, wrapped in increasingly lavish and frankly vulgar packaging and designed to be looked at, admired, possibly flipped for some inflated profit but never, perish the thought, actually drunk.
However, ever the optimist, I concluded with a note to the PR industry, “do keep sending those tiny little samples,” I wrote. “One day I’ll find one that I like.” Social media wasn’t impressed, with one Instagram keyboard warrior, outraged but anonymous, suggesting that I required “a palate mature enough to appreciate it”. Ouch.
The charms of a 50-year-old Glenglassaugh
However, the spinmeisters took me at my word and what I have in my glass today is 3cl of Glenglassaugh’s latest release, a 50-year-old single cask, finished in Pedro Ximénez and coming in just over the legal minimum at 40.1% ABV. It’s about £235’s worth apparently or just under £200 for a single pub measure with change for a packet of salt and vinegar crisps.
Sorry if that strikes you as flippant but it’s a great deal of money for a small glass of whisky.
Here’s the thing though: I’ve emphasised the price (it’s £5,500 for the full bottle and sadly there are only 264 of them) because, by the standards of these things, it’s actually remarkable value (not words I ever thought I’d write) not least because, Dionysus be praised, it comes in remarkably modest packaging.
Yes, there’s a nice bottle and a wooden box but that’s about it. No crystal decanter and matching glasses, no enormous display cabinet, no silver stopper, and no leather-bound, letterpress printed volume of sycophantic drooling praise from some tame whisky hack (I’m available, though).
However, I hope the oligarchs won’t be put off because they’d be missing a treat. Yes, this is actually very, very enjoyable whisky.
There’s treasure in those old dunnage warehouses
At this point, one of those sanctimonious disclosure statements: I’m familiar with the background to this whisky (hallelujah, you may say, he’s writing about something he actually knows about) because from 2008-2010 I acted as a sort of semi-detached interim marketing director for Glenglassaugh which was then undergoing the first phase of its revival. Subsequently, I then wrote a book about it (it’s now hard to find but I’m told the distillery may have copies).
I vividly recall nosing old casks with then-MD Stuart Nickerson and the late Dr Jim Swan, then wood consultant to the distillery, in the warehouse at Sandend Bay. We were, frankly, astonished by the quality and found it hard to believe that the previous owners hadn’t appreciated these unsung gems.
“These are gold medal winners in any competition,” said Swan and, of course, he was right. We bottled some as a 40-Year-Old and it swept the board at the 2009 IWSC awards, collecting the relevant gold medal, declared ‘best in class’, and lifting the blue-riband IWSC 40th-anniversary Trophy.
However, even then, the potential for further aging was evident and stocks were reserved for future extra-aged releases. Fortunately, though the distillery has changed hands, subsequent owners have seen the merit in this plan and now it has come together.
The merits of refill casks
But those old casks had aged remarkably slowly for one principal reason. While the Glenglassaugh warehouse is dunnage style and has a micro-climate unique to its coastal location the original distillers had used refill casks. Expecting the spirit to be quickly required for relatively young, mass-market blends they didn’t use the finest of casks – frankly, the barrels were showing their age when first used. But that meant extended, slow, undisturbed aging for the whisky and that, in turn, meant that Glenglassaugh’s distinctive tropical fruit character was maintained even as a richer, deeper character developed.
So, when I received details of this latest release I had just one concern, which was the finishing in a Pedro Ximénez cask which, on occasion, can overwhelm. However, my fears were unjustified: this is nothing short of a triumph. The last Glenglassaugh casks have been under the watchful eye of master blender Rachel Barrie who has judged to perfection the balance of distillery character and the contribution of the finishing cask.
I rang her to discuss and her enthusiasm and belief in Glenglassaugh was a pleasure to share. “This is the most luscious and silky single malt elixir I’ve ever known,” she told me. Simply check out her stellar career (SWRI, Glenmorangie, Morrison Bowmore, and now BeamSuntory) before you dismiss that as simply part of the PR.
It really isn’t. A decade or so ago I had my nose in this cask and the promise was clear back then. Since then, it’s just got better and better and better. I seriously doubt if I will taste a finer whisky this year.
So, note to the PR industry, do keep sending those tiny little samples of very old whisky. One day I’ll find another that I like.