Quiz time. Which answer to the following question does not belong in the series?
Nineteen hundred and ninety was a good year in:
b) the Rhône Valley?
c) Napa Valley?
It's a trick question, of course. One need know nothing about climatic history to nail down d) as the answer. For one thing, it would be safe to say 1990 was a lousy year for weather in Scotland because, notwithstanding the country's other great attributes, every year is grey and wet in Scotland. More to the point, Scotland's gift to thirst is whisky, not wine, and as we all know, weather fluctuations don't mean much in whisky-making.
Or do they? Glance at the premium Scotch aisles in Canada and you'll notice an increasing number of expensive labels with vintage dates such as 1990, along with the bottling date, rather than the usual age designation - the number of years spent maturing in wood. So, you get "Distilled in 1997, bottled in 2009" instead of "12 years old."
It's called vintage dating and it's one of several relatively new trends - along with specialty-wood-flavoured editions - adding a wine-market-style vitality to the whisky category.
Obviously, vintage dating is critical in fine wine. Grape quality can vary hugely from year to year, so the year on the label gives consumers a clue of what they're buying and how long to cellar it. But in whisky, the notion of vintages can seem at odds with the history and nature of the product.
Whisky, unlike wine, stops aging once bottled. There's no use cellaring the stuff; the flavour won't change. The vast majority of whiskies are not the product of a single vintage, anyway. They're blended from casks that have been aging for a variety of years. The objective is to craft a "house style" that's consistent from year to year, and the age designation - say, "12 years old" - is just an indication of the youngest age of the components.
While there's no use cellaring whisky, there is a solid reason, it turns out, to collect different vintages of the same brand.
The vintage-dating pioneer in Scotch was the Glenrothes, owned by Berry Bros. & Rudd, the famous London-based wine merchant, which wanted to introduce the fun of wine collecting to the whisky market. What may have started as a shrewd marketing hook turned into something interesting for whisky lovers. In creating a vintage-dated line, the Glenrothes by definition had to stop blending across multiple years. The upshot: Whiskies made from a single year's production can taste distinct, if subtly, from those of another year, thanks mainly to the different pace and way each year's inventory matures in all those wood barrels in the warehouse.
In the ultimate endorsement of the vintage-dating trend, Highland Park, one of the most esteemed Scotch distilleries, has joined the parade. Yesterday in New York, it launched two super-rare bottlings, a 1964 and 1968.
So, in a sense, 1990 was a good year in Scotland, or at least on the island of Islay. A 1990 whisky from Lagavulin distillery is one of my top premium-whisky selections this season. It, along with most of the others (just the first three are vintage-dated), is available in Ontario as part of the fall Premium Fixtures launch at 99 stores across the province. The 1989 Lagavulin is available in British Columbia, and some of the other selections in the following list are available in other provinces or across the country.
Lagavulin Distillers Edition 1990 ($114.95 in Ontario; $144.95 in B.C. for the 1989 edition). People go nuts for Lagavulin's classic 16-year-old bottling, a robust, ultra-smoky yet impressively balanced Scotch from the island of Islay. This vintage-dated behemoth has an added tweak. It spent the tail end of its 16 warehouse years luxuriating in used casks from Spain that had previously contained rich, dark Pedro Ximenez sherry. The second maturation in sherry wood has the effect of toning down the big Lagavulin smoke while adding body, fruit and hint of sweetness. Bigger and fatter yet more cuddly - the Loch Ness Monster as a plush toy.
Talisker Distillers Edition 1992 ($82.30 in Ontario). Finished in amoroso sherry casks, this comes from the only single-malt distillery on the Isle of Skye. Perfect yin-yang here between sweet fruit notes and smoke, with voluptuous weight and texture and a peppery-spice finish - fire from the Skye.
Caol Ila Distillers Edition 1996 ($89.95 in Ontario). Finished in moscatel casks, this single malt from Islay was bottled in 2008, making it 12 years old. Unusual taste trajectory here, starting rich and sweet with a sort of cappuccino essence, it turns spicy and slightly medicinal, with lingering note of iodine and wood smoke. A powerful whisky. Pour with a light hand.
Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or ($92.65 in Ontario). Not vintage-dated, but it has the distinction of being finished in barrels that had contained Bordeaux's famous sweet wine, Sauternes. Glenmorangie pioneered the specialty-cask-finished trend with port- and sherry-finished bottlings. This one is very compelling, with an unusual balance between the whisky's light grain character and notes of sweet apricot and lemon.
Highland Park 15-year-old ($94.95 in B.C.; $84.95 in Ontario). A relative bargain from the estimable Highland Park name, layered with toffee, orange peel, smoke and honey. Not quite a match for the transcendent Highland Park 18-year-old, but, hey, it's $55 cheaper.
The Macallan Cask Strength ($90.95 in B.C.; $99.95 in Ontario). Weighing in at just under 60-per-cent alcohol, this is a remarkably accessible drink. No water was added after distillation (virtually all other spirits are watered down to a more palatable strength of 40-to 45-per-cent alcohol before bottling), so you get a turbocharged treatment of the classic sherry-cask-aged Macallan flavour. Clearly richer in colour, this shows a delicious fruitcake core, with smooth vanillin oak rounding out the back end. Add your own splash of fresh water if you like; the aromas will pop out.
Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve ($69.95 in Ontario). Just 3,000 bottles were produced of this unusual Canadian whisky, blended from rye-, corn-and barley-based components and finished for two years on wood formerly used to age port. It's sort of a combination of Canadian, American and Scottish styles, with a smidgen of sweet, Portuguese fortified wine thrown in. It's delicious, full, round and brimming with dried fruit, spice, smoke and a hint of vanilla.
The Black Grouse ($32.95 in Ontario; $35.95 in B.C.; as low as $25.36 in Alberta). I am not going to end this column without a bargain. New to the market, this is a peaty, smokier version of the Famous Grouse, the blended whisky that's hugely popular in Scotland. Starts smoky, then turns sweet with notes of fruit, then smoky again with a hint of spice.
Chew, don't slurp
Gerry Tosh, Highland Park distillery's Global Brand Ambassador and Whisky magazine's Whisky Ambassador of the Year, has nifty tips for Scotch sipping. Don't swirl as you might with wine; there's enough volatility in high-alcohol spirits to blast your nostrils already. Just tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and turn, like a cement mixer. Then, after taking in a sip, "chew" the whisky three times before swallowing. Being liquid, whisky of course offers no resistance to the teeth, but this pantomime chewing tends to spread the elixir around to the right places in the mouth. Whatever you do, don't slurp or gargle violently like nutty wine people; you'll scorch your palate.