Wednesday 11 May 2016

"Now & Then" tasting with Charlie MacLean at the Hong Kong Whisky Festival 2016 (Tasted #288 - 293)

At the Hong Kong Whisky Festival back in February, we were incredibly fortunate to share a Balvenie lunch with Scotch whisky writer and industry legend Charlie MacLean. That wasn't our only whisky experience with Charlie, though. Straight after the lunch, we headed upstairs to one of the InterContinental Grand Stanford's function rooms (with sweeping views of Hong Kong Island across the harbour), for one of Charlie's famous "Now & Then" tastings.

"Now & Then" style tastings come in many forms, but usually involve examining whiskies of today against their counterparts from an era gone by. This tasting was no exception, with the focus on Speyside single malts, namely Glenlivet, Glen Grant and Cardhu. Specifically, these gems:

It's not often we get a chance to do such direct comparisons, but we've always found the opportunity to do so hugely enjoyable. This was no exception.

Charlie opened proceedings by explaining some of the background and history of each distillery, as well as some interesting insights that few would know (what Charlie doesn't know about Scotch whisky basically isn't worth knowing). Starting with Cardhu, Charlie talked of its "promotion" to a single malt product in 1968 (based on the success of William Grant & Son's Glenfiddich and others), and its subsequent yoyo-ing between being sold as a single malt and being reserved for blenders, before finally, its return as a single malt in 2006.

At that point we were all eager to dive into the first pair:

Cardhu 12 year old Highland Malt Scotch Whisky - 1970's (40% ABV, 12yo, Speyside, Scotland, £399)
Colour: Pale yellow gold
Nose: Hugely tropical (passionfruit, papaya, pineapple), with a hint of mustiness but also plenty of freshly cut grass. Sweaty socks. After 20 minutes, loads of creamy caramel.
Palate: Soft, musty, with a slight meatiness and sweet tropical vanilla notes.
Finish: Medium length, with vanilla sweetness to the very end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100. I suspect age may have slightly impacted the nose and palate, but there was enough going on to give an idea of what it would have been like ~40 years ago.

Cardhu 12 year old - modern bottling (40% ABV, 12yo, Speyside, Scotland, $74.99AUD / $768HKD / £34.08)
Colour: Pale orange gold
Nose: Sweeter and with more caramel than the 70's bottling. There's still fruitiness, but berries and bananas this time.
Palate: Lighter, thinner, still very sweet, with a slight floral acidity and a touch of earthiness.
Finish: Longer than the 70's bottling, but a little less polished, with a little more alcohol burn.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 88/100. There were similarities between the two, but clear differences too (as you'd expect).

Next up was Glen Grant - a distillery whose standard OB releases of late I have to be honest, I haven't been hugely fond of. Charlie talked us through the distillery's strong Italian connection (which stretches further back than 2005's Gruppo Campari acquisition), it's position as number 1 single malt in the Italian market, and displayed his incredibly detailed knowledge with tidbits like the fact that in 1916 Glen Grant didn't add the alcohol proof to their labels.

Glen Grant 10 year old - 1970's (40% ABV, 10yo, Speyside, Scotland, £175)
Colour: Light yellow straw
Nose: Big tropical fruit bouquet - whole oranges, apricots, pears, peaches. A touch of candle wax too.
Palate: Waxy, meaty, with a slightly earthy smoke and hints of wet grass.
Finish: Medium, rich, smoky with a rich toffee finish at the very end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100.

Glen Grant 10 year old - current bottling (40% ABV, 10yo, Speyside, Scotland, $61.99AUD / £29.89)
Colour: Pale straw
Nose: Strawberry cream and Iced Vovos. Hints of tropical fruit. Then some berries - Monte Carlo biscuits?
Palate: Thin, grainy and sugary-sweet. Not a whole lot to be impressed by.
Finish: Short, thin and bitter.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 86/100. Nice nose (initially), but a fairly disappointing palate and finish when compared to the 70's bottling.

With time running out and the small crowd eager to hear more about the whiskies in front of us, and their heritage, it was onto the final distillery of the day - The Glenlivet. Charlie being Charlie of course had a connection to the distillery - his first malt whisky tasting experience with with a school friend, whose dad just happened to own The Glenlivet Distillery at the time...

The Glenlivet 12 years old - 1970's (40% ABV, 12yo, Speyside, Scotland, £168)
Colour: Orange gold
Nose: Subtle ashy smoke (that was unexpected). BBQ-grilled pineapple, with a very slight mustiness.
Palate: A big robust oily mouthfeel gives way to smouldering smoke and BBQ'd meats. The nose implied this would be sweet, but it wasn't at all - instead rich smoked meats dominate.
Finish: Long, toasted oak, with as light earthiness.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 91/100. Not quite what I'd expected, but enjoyable.

The Glenlivet 12 years old "Excellence" - current bottling (40% ABV, 12yo, Speyside, Scotland, $498HKD)
A more heavily sherried 12 year old release from The Glenlivet only available in four markets in Asia.
Colour: Yellow-orange gold.
Nose: Light, floral, fruity - peaches and pear slices.
Palate: Smooth but a little thin. The floral and fruity notes continue, with honey-drizzled pears and a touch of Brazil nuts.
Finish: Medium to long, with a sweet nuttiness - think sugar-coated almonds.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100.

To experience a masterclass like this, and compare 3 of today's single malts with their 40+ year old (and yet same-aged) counterparts was truly a fantastic experience. To do so with one of the absolute legends of the Scotch whisky industry was just incredible. To then have Charlie sit down and provide detailed notes on my own little single malt small cask maturation experiment was amazing, but more on that later....

Martin. would like to thank InterContinental Grand Stanford for the media ticket and invitation to the lunch and masterclass with Charlie MacLean. A round of applause needs to go to John and James too (they know who they are), for putting on such a fantastic show - a first-year effort, no less.

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