Desert island malts

Desert island malts

Derek Cooper, the winner of the 1999 Glenfiddich Lifetime Achievement award, reveals his selection of the eight favourite whiskies he would take to a desert island and includes the world's first organised malt.

People | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Derek Cooper

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I started playing the game of choosing our favourite malts with a Manhattan American while on a cruise down the Nile 15 or so years ago. He had spent a year in Scotland and become an enthusiastic connoisseur of malt whiskies. In turn we chose our top eight single malts. We agreed to exclude blended and vatted varieties.Yet, however often I play the game I always start on the Isle of Skye, an island I first visited when I was six weeks old. At Carbost on the shores of Loch Harport they have been distilling a unique and egregious whisky since 1830 known as Talisker. It radiates power and pungency; in musical terms it is the brass band of malts, complex and uncompromising. The finest glass of Talisker I ever tasted was in the manager's office at Carbost. It was over 100 proof and had been drawn from a cask that morning. Recollecting the experience I noted that it was spirited enough to fire a jet fighter. The slightly oily, peaty ruggedness of the bouquet mounted into my nostrils. The corpus of the drink advanced like lava from the Cuillins down my throat. Then vroom! Steam rose from the temples, a seismic shock rocked the building, and my eyes were seen to water. Cheeks aflame I steadied myself against a chair. Talisker is not a drink, I decided, it is an interior explosive, distilled central heating. It depth-charges the parts, bangs doors and rattles windows.Next I'd like a bottle of The Glenlivet, historically the most famous malt of them all. The first man to take out a licence in the Glenlivet area, where they say at one time there were 200 illegal stills bubbling away, was George Smith. The date was 1824 and Glenlivet has maintained its reputation ever since. It is a straw-coloured spirit with a sweet and fruity presence and fullness on the palate. I can recall a perfect bottling by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. It had been 18 years in oak and came out at 103 overproof. My most memorable dram of Glenlivet was taken on New Year's Eve 1983 in Darjeeling, India. We were staying at the Windamere (sic), a small guesthouse, run by a charming woman of Tibetan origin called Phurpa Lamu Tenduf-La who unfortunately did not purvey alcoholic drinks. All was not lost; in our luggage was a bottle of The Glenlivet, part of which we demolished in the frosty shadows of the Himalayas.Along with The Glenlivet I'd like to take another Speyside whisky which more than deserves its very definite article. The Macallan is aged exclusively in oloroso casks and its sherried finish marks it out as a malt of great distinction. The ability of a whisky like The Macallan to survive even a shipwreck makes it a perfect contender for any desert island contest. On a January morning some years ago in the tasting room of Lang brothers in Glasgow, I was shown a historic Macallan. In 1849 the year of the Indian Mutiny, a ship carrying a mixed cargo including a parcel of Highland whiskies foundered in the Indian Ocean. In 1961 divers recovered some bottles of The Macallan which were in almost perfect condition. The most remarkable Macallan I have tasted recently is a limited edition vatted to reproduce the characteristics of a bottle distilled in 1874. I found it fascinating. On the nose it was like a slice of Christmas cake, the impact of this Victorian analogue is hard to describe. It had a majesty about it that was most impressive. For my desert island I'd like a bottle of the 18-year-old Gran Reserva distilled in 1979; that would tide me over nicely until a rescue ship hove over the horizon.For my fourth malt I'm going to the north-east coast of Scotland where the craftsmen of Tain have been making Glenmorangie (accent on the second syllable please) in their tall pot-stills since 1843. In the mid-1980s a sample was sent to Paris to be assessed by the educated nose of a leading perfumier Christian St Roche. He noted bergamot, gentian, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, verbena, peach, liquorice and the unmistakable odour of crushed apricot stones. Glenmorangie is always filled into American oak casks but there is an exceptional distillation, which receives the sherry treatment to great advantage. In 1986 the owners found that among the 100,000 casks maturing in the bonded warehouses overlooking the Dornoch Firth were 36 barrels distilled in 1963. The whisky had over the years lost some 50 per cent of its volume by evaporation – better known as 'the angels' share'. At Glenmorangie in the cooperage a wag has chalked on the wall “Here the angels don't get their share, God nicks it first!”What was left in those 36 casks was unmistakable Glenmorangie but over- exposure to oak had reduced the spirit's delicacy and vitality. It needed a little fillip. After due deliberation it was decided to rack the whisky into oloroso butts and let it lie for a bit. Dark in colour, flowery, this 1963 is a digestif comparable to any fine champagne or cognac. If the 1963 has run out then I'll settle more than happily for a 10-year-old bottled at natural cask strength on September 5, 1990. Cask number 4336 is a splendid Glenmorangie; spicy and aromatic, a floral tribute to the Men of Tain.I'm going next to the western seaboard where on Islay there is a wealth of choice. For sheer idiosyncrasy Lagavulin and Laphroaig stand out from their peers. You can almost see the peat in Lagavulin and you can certainly taste it; it is as if you are drinking the essence of Harris Tweed. Smoky, powerful, slightly honeyed, enormously big and robust. But I think Laphroaig has the edge. As oaky as a kipper, as peaty as an island burn, this to me is the apotheosis of whisky. It is also assertive, almost medicinal on the palate. I have a suspicion that in the last decade or so it has become slightly tamed, but that may be just my imagination. Laphroaig is an outdoors malt, a great reward after a day on the hills or for sipping in the bar of a Highland hotel before dinner.I had intended to include the world's biggest selling single malt in this list. It was the Grant family who, in 1963 and in the face of very little encouragement, began to market Glenfiddich in its single state. Those were the days when DCL, which owned 43 distilleries, sent almost their entire annual output to the blenders. It was a long time before they came to see that they were sitting on historic and highly desirable national treasures. Meanwhile Glendfiddich is often dismissed by the misinformed as a beginner's malt – easy to enjoy and therefore lacking the subtleties, which beguile the connoisseur. Nothing could be further from the truth. A few years ago limited amounts of a 50-year-old Glenfiddich were made available, a malt of pedigree and panache. But I'm going for Glenfiddich's sister distillery, Balvenie, that has recently excited attention. This produces a gentle sweet malt, big enough to take its place among the liqueurs and full of surprises.I have now come to a serious dilemma, six malts chosen and only two to go. I have the highest regard for Glengoyne, Cragganmore, Linkwood, Jura, Glen Grant and Bowmore. But what would a desert isle be without Highland Park, Glenfarclas, Ardbeg, Lochnagar, Dalmore and Edradour? And I haven't mentioned the Lowland malts. Among them I am tempted by Bladnoch (see page 28), the triple distilled Auchentoshan and Littlemill. But I shall opt for Rosebank, the most delicate of all the Lowland malts and also triple distilled which is a technique that bestows lightness and makes it an ideal aperitif.For a final bottle I am taking the road to Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. When the Victorian whisky enthusiast Alfred Barnard came by steamer and coach to Campbeltown in 1886 there were 21 distilleries at work there. Among them was Springbank, which was making 145,000 gallons of malt whisky a year for Glasgow and London blenders. Springbank bottles its whisky in a variety of ages from 10 years to 33 years. The distillery has always been open to new challenges. They certainly got one when in 1992 they had a telephone call from John Savage-Onstwedder, a distinguished cheesemaker of Scottish descent. John and his wife Patricia live at Glynhynod farm in Dyfed, Wales where they make award-winning Gouda-style cheeses called Teifi. John is a dedicated follower of organic husbandry and he was keen to make an organic whisky. He acquired half a ton of organic barley and Springbank malted and distilled it for him. The whisky has been given the name Da Mhile which is Gaelic for The Millennium. I am the delighted registered owner of bottle 319 from cask Number II. It was bottled in November and is an absolute triumph. It has a wonderful smell of Christmas cake and Christmas pudding and has an extraordinarily complex taste. If you want to find out more about this historic and unique malt you should address your inquiries to: Da Mhile, C&D Mactaggart, Castlehill, Campbeltown, Argyll.
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