One of the more intriguing controversies involving Scotch whisky revolves around the so-called "merchant bottling" single malts. These are cask-strength, or unreduced (not diluted in alcoholic potency), offerings by independent bottlers who purchase entire barrels from single-malt distilleries such as Macallan, Glenlivet, Bowmore and Lagavulin, and bottle and sell them under their own label. The most prominent merchant bottlers include Cadenhead, Gordon & MacPhail, Hart Brothers, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Murray-McDavid, Scott’s Selection and Signatory.
The controversy comes mostly from the distilleries themselves, who fear that the merchant offerings won’t live up to the distillery bottlings. Does a Macallan 15 Year Old bottled at 43 percent alcohol by volume (abv) at the distillery measure up to a merchant bottling that might be a cask strength of 58 percent abv? Is one better than the other? Or are they pretty much the same? I personally find that the majority of merchant bottlings hold up to formal evaluation as well as the distillery bottlings. After discussing this situation over the past several years with distillers, merchant bottlers and consumers, my feeling is this: If more Scotch whisky is being consumed and appreciated and the merchant bottlings are properly clean and representative of the standards set by the Scotch industry, what’s the harm?
As always with cask strength whisky, my evaluation method starts with smelling and tasting undiluted, then I add room-temperature mineral water in a ratio of three parts whisky to one part water and smell and taste once again at the lower proof. The final rating combines the two impressions. The appearance notes are from the undiluted state only. The following notes include both recent merchant and distillery bottling releases.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100) Highest Recommendation
Balvenie 25 Year Old Single Barrel Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Cask #13143 Bottle #153 (William Grant & Sons, New York, NY) 46.9% abv $99. Attractive copper penny/burnished orange hue. Opens with sweet fragrances of paraffin, rose petals, old oak and honey; the interplay of honey, oak and yellow fruit make it a clinic in Speyside aromatics. The flavor begins dry and tightly wound; at midpalate there’s an explosion of oak and honey, backed by zesty fruit. The aftertaste is toasty, oaky, concentrated and seemingly infinite; rivals the now-legendary 1966 bottling in grandeur and presence.
Cadenhead’s Caol Ila 1989 Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 57.1% abv $100. A light amber tint akin to an Amontillado Sherry. The dazzling bouquet leaps from the glass in salty, crisp waves of seaweed and soy sauce. With mineral water, the bouquet takes on a creamy, vanilla-wafer scent that doesn’t block the sea breeze or brine. On the palate, the smoke-and-embers flavor is luscious, dry and intensely oily; the midpalate offers refined, slightly sweet oak and vanilla. The aftertaste is full-bodied, oily, briny and loaded with maritime character.
Cadenhead’s Dalmore 1987 Northern Highlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 59.9% abv $112. Medium amber color. The bouquet is warm, biscuity, sweet and fruity-ripe, especially redolent of white grapes. Mineral water brings out exotic scents of banana-nut bread, nutmeg, allspice, butter and walnuts. In the mouth, the taste is toasty, sweet and ripe through midpalate; the aftertaste is long, warming, oaky sweet and almost smoky and sooty. One of the two best bottlings of Dalmore I’ve encountered.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cask 61.6 Brora 18 Year Old (Clynelish Distillery) Northern Highlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd., Sunrise, FL) 60% abv $105. Resembles white wine—Burgundian Chardonnay, to be precise. The soft bouquet is well-developed but polite, not a bruiser; the Highland aromatic thrust is all flowers, heather and ivy, backed by dry malt. After dilution, the nose turns slightly peppery (both green pepper and black peppercorn) and spicy-hot. In the mouth it’s silky, stunningly oily and malty sweet; the midpalate focuses more on alcohol, oak and traces of vanilla bean and grass. The aftertaste is medium long, green pepper-like and a touch salty. A masterpiece.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cask 4.18 Highland Park 17 Year Old Orkney Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd., Sunrise, FL) 55% abv $80. Honey-amber tint. The aroma is brisk, more woody than briny, dry and regal, with layers of fragrance: roasted almond, dry cereal malt, mild Hobbister Moor peat and light toffee. Mineral water brings out a sweet, supple maltiness. Heavenly, succulent, lip-smacking, oaky sweet flavor. The midpalate and finish are toasty warm, slightly resiny, intensely grainy and a bit sweet. Another exciting, satisfying expression from this magnificent distillery.
SUPERB (90-95) Highly Recommended
Aberlour a’bunadh Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Austin, Nichols & Company, New York, NY) 59.9% abv $60. Pronounced a-BOON-arh. Aged in Oloroso Sherry casks and not run through the chill-filtering process that most single malts are subjected to. Medium amber color. Toasty and malty on first sniffing; exposure to air brings the piquant spirit alive, but it doesn’t overshadow the toasty malt. On the final pass a trace of sherry emerges. First taste is sassy, oily and spirity; midpalate is very oily, sleek and rife with bittersweet flavors of cocoa, soot and fruit pit. To its credit, the tangy spirit is quiet at midpalate but explodes in the aftertaste, making for a combustible but exceedingly pleasing finish.
Ardbeg Ten Years Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY) 46% abv $35. Vivid straw yellow. The opening nose gives a jolt of what makes Ardbeg a cult malt: mesmerizing peatiness that’s borderline medicine chest and fresh cigar ash. On subsequent sniffings the intense peatiness settles down into an ashy-sooty but mellow and composed bouquet. First taste is dry and concentrated; the midpalate turns surprisingly sweet, oily and only moderately peaty-smoky. The finish is long, embers-warm, ashy and a bit unruly. Though ardent fans might think this Ardbeg was neutered in production, it’s by far the most drinkable offering I’ve evaluated.
Cadenhead’s Macallan 1989 Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 60.5% abv $110. Brandy-copper penny color. The nose is wine-like, almost grapey, clean and a bit austere. Mineral water brings out aromatic notes of light caramel, oak and malt. Palate entry shows richness: sherried, opulent and sweet tastes blanket the tastebuds in a medium-to-thick texture. Midpalate is malty, sherry-oak sweet and delectable. The aftertaste turns plummy, raisiny and sweet; this malt takes off once it’s in the mouth.
Glenrothes 1987 12 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Skyy Spirits Inc., San Francisco, CA) 43% abv $50. Light honey-amber tint; immaculate clarity. First whiff hints at buttered walnuts, pine nuts, caramel and Bourbon casks; further nosings reveal a dry, almost heathery quality that’s stately and composed—a politely opulent bouquet whose primary virtues are serene scents of sautéed nuts, pine, mild oak and a judicious touch of peaty smoke. Palate entry is dry, woody and slightly resiny-sappy. Midpalate shows oak with slight sweetness, malt and delicate nuttiness. The finish is elegant, dry, medium-long and supple. Another understated winner from this outstanding distillery.
Isle of Jura 16 Year Old Jura Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY) 40% abv $44. Pretty honey-topaz color; some floating debris. First sniffing offers deliciously toasty, sweet aromas of malt and mild sea breeze. In the glass, a true malt bouquet develops, emitting succulent scents of marzipan, light toffee, mild salt and cake batter—a meaty, substantial bouquet. Palate entry is unabashedly sweet and back-slappingly expansive. Midpalate is friendly, intensely malty, toffee-sweet and round, bordering on voluptuous; curiously, the brininess of the bouquet vanishes on the tongue. The aftertaste is medium-long, caramel sweet and biscuity. A major-league step up for Jura.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cask 50.7 Bladnoch 23 Year Old Lowlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd., Sunrise, FL) 50% abv $90. Pretty yellow-gold color. The zesty, undiluted aroma is pleasingly piquant and comfortably malty, with no layers to wade through. Once diluted, the aroma takes on mild peatiness, but more than anything it becomes wonderfully malty and sweet—a true Lowlands bouquet. The tangy taste mildly stings the tongue with an old-embers warmth. Primary flavors are light malt and light toffee. The aftertaste is medium-long, delectably sweet, and enchantingly polite; this offering would be satisfying as an apéritif or afternoon tot.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cask 3.15 Bowmore 12 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd., Sunrise, FL) 50.4% abv $90. The amber-honey yellow tint is typical of Islay, as is the iodiney, medicine-cabinet, marginally sweet bouquet. At full strength, the peaty, creosote-like aroma is antiseptic, yet warm, vigorous and inviting. With mineral water, the aroma takes on an appealing musky quality. First taste is definitely sweet, yet peaty and briny. Midpalate is succulent, sweet, oaky, peaty, smoky and elegant. The finish highlights sweet smokiness more than anything else.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cask 24.15 Macallan 15 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd., Sunrise, FL) 54.5% abv $95. Medium honey color. The piquant nose brims with sweet notes of vanillin, butterscotch and marzipan; with mineral water, tangy butterscotch becomes the primary scent, although Oloroso Sherry, candied pecans and holiday spice lurk beneath the surface. In the mouth, there’s a sweet sherry thumbprint of Macallan. At midpalate, an oily pecan taste emerges. The finish is luxuriously long, intensely candied, sweet and downright luscious
VERY GOOD (85—89) Recommended
Cadenhead’s Ben Nevis 1986 Western Highlands Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 62.9% abv $120. Dullish, straw-yellow color. The undiluted nose is brisk, acceptably prickly, a little biscuit-like and surprisingly floral; the diluted bouquet loses steam but offers vegetal, garden-like scents. Far more drinkable with mineral water than at full strength. Delectable, oily flavors of linseed, mild brine, roasted malt, light caramel and toffee. The aftertaste is roasted, caramel-like and texturally impressive. The best of Ben Nevis’s oily, tactile side.