Sunday, September 9, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

The town of Rothes in Speyside is probably best known as the home of Forsyth's, a maker of copper pot stills used extensively in Scotland and throughout the world. It's also home to a number of Scotch distilleries (it is in the heart of Speyside, after all, and distilleries are packed cheek by jowl there), one of which is Glenrothes. It dates to 1879, during the golden age of whisky, and it is another of those rare few that has had a remarkably stable ownership throughout its life. Its original owner was Highland Distillers, whose properties later passed to the Edrington Group, which owns the distillery today. Perhaps one reason for the remarkable stability is the fact that Glenrothes forms the heart of the Cutty Sark blend. Cutty Sark is not as important as it was thirty or forty years ago, but it still is one of the top fifteen Scotch blends worldwid; and those sales provide Glenrothes with a reliable consumer for its whisky. Too reliable, perhaps: over 98% of Glenrothes's production goes into blends.

When Edrington decided to offer Glenrothes as a single malt, they decided to try something different from anything else on the market: they would bottle their production as vintages. I'm not aware of any other Scotch distillery that does this on a regular basis, and I'm sure that most of them would say that the entire idea is crazy. They try very hard to maintain a consistency of character in their products, and that implies that they blend different casks of different ages. If you're going to sell as many cases per year as Glenlivet or Glenmorangie, consistency is paramount. If you're a bit player like Glenrothes, having something that appeals to enthusiasts is probably the smarter marketing play. Every new vintage release has its own character and its own nuances, and that's what drives sales to Scotch geeks. The packaging does, too: that bottle design is very similar to the sample bottles that Scotch distillers and blenders keep of their product, and Scotch geeks would know that.

One of the downsides to vintage releases is that they're expensive (the current 1991 vintage of Glenrothes costs nearly $70 a fifth). So, to provide a tickler for those who are interested by the Glenrothes concept but are unwilling to shell out $70 to see if they like it, Glenrothes came out with a multi-vintage Select Reserve bottling that retails for under $40 a fifth. That's what I decided to try. Glenrothes claims that the dominant characteristics of its whisky are citrus, vanilla, and spicy aromas and flavors and a creamy mouthfeel. I don't get the vanilla so much, and I only get the citrus toward the end of the dram. I do get the spice, and I get a bit of peat, too. I also get the creamy mouthfeel: this whisky is big. I liked it, although I'll probably try to find one of the vintages at a bar before shelling out $70 for a whole bottle.

One bad thing: the bottle has a fake cork. Now, I completely sympathize with the desire to get a closure less prone to problems than cork is. But fake cork is hard to get out and put back into the bottle. Please, Glenrothes, just use a screwcap.

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