Disclaimer: the two progenitors of this notable website are obsessed with independence of thought and of reviews. So, in order to avoid being accused of conflict of interest as the former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi (who comes from the same part of Lombardy), they have decided to avoid judgements on some brands, distributed in Italy by the importer with whom they collaborate.
This remarkable purity of heart, however, is not in keeping with the hedonistic philosophy of this column, where, in spite of the politically correctness, the aim is the search for sensory pleasure at 360 degrees. And so, given that those “off limits” brands often give pleasure, there’s no chance we avoid drinking and describing them here, because this space is the House of Freedom. Don’t you like it? Ask the government to enact a law against the conflict of interest, if you can.
Instead, if you are trustful, grab a race-bib, put on your best tasting shoes and get ready to go: here – with the help of our favourite collector of bottles, the notary De Rosa – we’re off to a Cadenhead’s marathon, the oldest independent bottler (independence again…) in Scotland.
Creations Blended malt 22 yo “Light fruity & syrupy” batch #1 (2019, Cadenhead’s, 45%)
Forty-two kilometers in eight drams is no joke, a little warm-up is necessary to avoid annoying contractures of nostrils: we don’t want to be forced on the bench for a month, drinking only iced-tea and getting arnica nose wraps. To get in the mood, here’s a 22-year-old blended malt in an obese bottle with a catchy label, as only an underprivileged Campbeltown graphic designer could conceive it. Inside, mixed still juice from Ben Nevis, Blair Athol and Tomintoul distilleries.
On the nose – to stay on sport topic – next to a sumptuous ripe fruit (medlar, mango, peach and ripe citron), there is a mentholated dimension reminiscent of the camphorized massage oil: how many memories of amateur football, how many freezy mornings spent on the bench, how much mud… Going back to the glass: there are muscles in this nose. And also metallic streaks that whisper “Ben Nevisssssssssss”: when the glass is empty, an organic oxidation comes out, almost like artichoke… The third dimension is sweetness, among orange honey, white chocolate and a sugary tangerine. A touch of peony, at a distance. This time it doesn’t remember anything, because in the suburban fields at most there were nettles.
In the mouth it is delicious, incredibly easy to drink. The fruit takes off, it becomes a fruit salad. A fresh touch of mint leaves. It is not exactly silky, but persuasive for sure: honey again, hazelnut and lots of pink grapefruit. Toasted wood, a touch of spices (ginger) and a peat that sprouts without shyness, not dominant but dirty and cheeky, extending into a finish of extinguished candles, citrus fruits, wax and a salty touch. More, pour more…
Perfect warm up, we feel as tonic as an Indian water. The hard thing is stopping in time, because we can easily empty the bottle before the choke gunshot. A real satisfaction. 91/100.
Glenallachie 24 yo (1992/2017, Cadenhead’s, 54,2%)
We start off lustily and we follow this 24-year-old who bodes well. And yet, as soon as we get closer, a doubt seizes us: is this guy running the marathon with us or is he running to catch the bus and we’re following an intruder? That’s because the first impact with the nose is alienating: pungent and fermented notes, yeast and zero oakiness. It almost resembles a grappa, which is really saying. Luckily, the bewilderment doesn’t last long, we get back on track with dried fruit, white grapes and a curious mix of fruit skins and fruit salad sauce with lemon juice. Can there be a sour nose? However, a sharp but also oily whisky (sunflower oil, sesame seeds), which improves with time and also allows some heather and rosewater floral fluttering.
Of course, we didn’t start with the most docile running mate… He has a very particular gait, a warm, complex palate. It snaps on the bitter herbaceous side (absinthe, lemon peel); then it stretches on a sweetness of cereal and yellow fruit (apple biscuits). Then it suddenly slows down and retires to the edge of the track on notes of old drawers, licorice sticks and toasted hazelnuts. The premature finale of its race is spicy and it leaves a clean, medium-long memory of cardamom and woodiness.
As a rabbit, we expected something more. An athlete of its maturity should handle itself better. Instead, it stops and goes and it shows some unexpected and not fully integrated traits of adolescence on the nose. A diligent runner after all, but if we want to get on the podium, it is better to overtake him and make our own race. 83/100.
Bunnahabhain 22 yo (1994/2017, Cadenhead’s, 50,4%)
The first 5 km are gone, we start to set a gait based on the pleasantness and agility. This Bunna has all the characteristics to support us, we expect it to be as comfortable as a pair of super-cushioned shoes. And in fact, just sniffing it gives you a boost. Inebriating and immediately marine, with an adrenaline-filled minerality of chalk, ironing and lime. Splashed seawater and a platter of oysters on ice and lemon, but without the oysters (really bad if they serve you a dish like this at the restaurant, but here the effect is divine). There’s also some cedar, gooseberries, some white pear and mint. Maybe a thread of old paper. A whisky as clear as a terse January sky.
In the mouth it is sweeter than expected, the tide turns back and leaves room for vanilla, melon, honey and lemon candy. Mineral salts remain, which are important in a marathon. Intense and direct, powerfully citrusy – grapefruit and Sorrento lemon. Graphite and green tea, which sounds like a next-gen doping. The finish is again coastal, salty and direct, with raw cereal, ginger and lots of iodine. Maritime, wild, elegant. And suddenly you feel like you’re running on the shore of Islay among white horses. Or were they sheep? 90/100.
Bowmore 13 yo (2001/2014, Cadenhead’s, 46%)
Come on, we got in the rhythm, as you usually do at weddings, when after six Gin & Tonics even the bedside tables start dancing. Legs are flying, we need to hydrate. You can drink the smurf-coloured Gatorade yourself, we have filled the water bottle with this invigorating little Bowmore. Which – like many invigorating remedies – does not stand out for its pleasant scents: to the nose it smells like a middle way between mezcal and smoked grappa, with swirls of new make. Not exactly a compliment. But medicine must be taken. And like good children we get our reward, because more and more interesting island notes come out: grilled squid, to testify a coastal peat, a sugary sweetness (grapefruit juice) and something herbaceous, which smells like green tomato and coriander. Sour, sharp and naked, but also a bit split.
In the mouth it continues on the sugar side (energy for our marathon): smoked agave again, banana candy, stuffed liquorice. The distillate takes a step back, but the overall effect remains rather simple and sweet. Lemon, smoothed and less acrid peat that comes down to a finish of candied fruit and sugar on which ash has fallen.
We are in the middle of a competitive trance and we feel unbeatable, so let’s swallow the drink quickly. Also because frankly there is not much to brood over a rather straightforward malt. But we won’t penalise him for this: a sip of Islay, even if banal, is always better than Gatorade. 84/100.
Glen Scotia 27 yo (1992/2019, Cadenhead’s, 45%)
Bad blow, we suffered an injury. It happened when the path lapped a famous restaurant: there was a scent of Bourguignonne snails, porcini mushrooms tagliatelle and braised beef and our gourmand side wanted us to come in for a moment, so we sprained an ankle. We stop for the treatment and they give us a smelly ointment that seems miraculous. It’s a 27-year-old Glen Scotia as divisive as the vision of “Hostel”: filthy rubbish or a masterpiece of quotationism? The first impact is dramatic, we feel like retiring from competitive activity and playing cards at the bar forever. Dirty, grease, engine oil, metal, sulphur. A rotten garage where someone has forgotten a basket full of moldy barley. And tangerine peels. But when you would like to run away screaming, suddenly a light in the dark: notes of olive oil, cigarette tobacco. That dampness so typical in the Po Valley in November. There is also a memory of mustard. And with time some bread with butter.
Our sprain does not seem to improve, but we have faith in medicine and we rub with the ointment. Which is also very oily on the palate. Various oils, from synthetic oil for diesel engines to seed oil and rapeseed oil. There’s something stale that pervades everything: moldy orange peels, withered salad leaves. And something metallic, like verdigris (our hobby is licking cauldrons from the 60s, you got a problem with that?). Here too, you can hardly get over the wall of “off notes” and you can taste a cereal biscuit, which in the end gives way again to a bitter almond and citrus peel. Mouldy, of course.
Our ankle is better now, let’s start running again. But the treatment was not painless: an instinctive and bloody complicated whisky, which can disgust and intrigue. The suggestions are odd, the style is unorthodox, the drink swinging between repulsion and wonder. Let’s say 84/100, Oscar to the brave uniqueness.
Ledaig 23 yo (1992/2016, Cadenhead’s, 55%)
Like the emerodrome Phillipides, no sprain nor public announcement about the conscious consumption of alcohol can stop us. By now we are in the last third of the race and we have picked up the pace, overtaking the opponents who had to go home to their families. It’s time to grow a pair, maybe without taking a complaint for gross indecency. It’s time for a Ledaig, a characterful distillery that always gives strong emotions. This 23-year-old is no exception, even if the beginning of the nose is a bit stuffy. The dirtiness of Glen Scotia can still be felt, but here there is more than that note of dirty gears and exhausted oil. For example, a herbaceous dimension, ranging from tea forgotten for hours in infusion to Ricola candy and pine resin. There is peat, but not in large quantities, more like a trickle of sauna smoke. In the mouth it changes face. Actually, faces: because it takes the double path of sweetness (apple candy, condensed milk and Cedrata Tassoni to testify also a fizzy acidity) and burnt peat: burning embers, grilled marshmallow. Something eccentric like green pepper and a little alcohol. And a lot of ground black pepper that – together with a great sweetness and soot – goes all the way to the finish.
It was a good hit, it gave us motivation for the final sprint. We wanted edges to prick us and we got them. Not the most balanced of whiskies, but if you run 42 km, you want to put yourself to the test. 86/100.
Glen Garioch 25 yo (1991/2017, Cadenhead’s, 47%)
These are the last kilometres. Those in which you see the saints even if for once you have not named them in vain, those in which you envy the athletes who have chosen skeet shooting or curling. Sweat is everywhere, if it were possible to distill it, you could even overcome the production of the new Macallan: Single sweat whisky sounds good. And so, by now almost in apnea, while the legs advance by inertia, the brain receives less oxygen and escapes into parallel worlds. A world where Glen Garioch, 25 years old, gushes out of the tap. How nice it would be to make ablutions like that, with a fine, delicate, almost floral whisky. Maybe shy, but elegant, with notes of chlorophyll and white melon. And also with a sweetness that caresses everything: sponge cake, icing sugar, lemon-flavoured biscuits and lime honey. Wash your face with this jubilation of measured, chiselled sensations and leave the house smelling like barley, rhubarb and apple chips.
Evidently in a mystical stress crisis, we are delirious. And we imagine a whisky with a perfect, silky degree, with a sumptuous mouthfeel. Lively fruit on the palate (apple, lemon and pineapple), an unexpectedly sparkling ginger gummy candy and then – but are we still alive? – confectionery! Creme brulee, white chocolate and hazelnut ice cream, hot butter. A final effort of imagination and legwork: here are notes of crushed nuts, an idea of powdery peat and those glazed fennel seeds served before coffee at Indian restaurants. The finish is more like the nose, juicy, elegant, cedar essential oil.
We’ve arrived, we’ve made it, let’s see the finish. We were an underdog, like this whisky. And yet, we have focused on wisdom and measure, and here we are at the end. We and this GG of excellent style that propels us towards the final sprint with its 89/100.
Highland Park 28 yo (1989/2017, Cadenhead’s, 45,8%)
With the lactic acid dripping from our eyes and a pale face that would make John Wayne look as a Redskin in comparison, we cross the finish line. It wasn’t easy to taste 42 km of whisky, but this was the only way to reach the goal: without haste and without stopping. And now we enjoy the award ceremony: a Highland Park older than Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin when they died. We may be overheated at the end of the race, but it feels like a breath of lemon and fresh sea air. The fruit is veiledly exotic, between green banana and pineapple. Then the island’s soul rises to the podium: a blown-out candle and a very discreet, distant peat. Heather honey and a touch of grass (celery or lovage). Lemon again, which makes it go straight as a die.
Hamilton and the F1 drivers will be sprayed with champagne, we prefer this nectar that is very clean and dynamically sweet. What does it mean? It means that the notes of pineapple and custard pastry and cedar never derail into a sense of excessive heaviness. The layer of candle wax is of rare elegance and takes the place of the marinity, which retracts. Less salty and herbaceous, it tends to dry out towards the finish, where lemon cream, minerality and a touch of aniseed linger on.
The Nirvana after fatigue and emotions. A sharp yet enjoyable whisky, which interprets without fanaticism the spirit of the Orkneys, a land of ruggedness but also of gentle hills. Philippides has arrived, the war is over 91/100.