Old & Rare

Rare Batch 43

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For this rare whisky tasting, Angus MacRaild delves into the remarkable selection of long-aged single malts bottled by Gordon & MacPhail in the 1980s. MacRaild notes that, when talking about the upsurge of interest in single malts in the 1980s and 1990s, the focus is often on the Italian bottlers and importers, and emerging Scottish bottlers such as the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and Signatory.

However, Gordon & MacPhail’s contributions in the form of precious and remarkable stocks of single malts, largely from Speyside distilleries and often distilled around the time of the Second World War, should not be overlooked.

These are now historically significant bottlings that capture Scottish whisky at a turning-point in its evolution. At the time of their release, they were influential in engendering a new wave of single malt fascination; today they exist as bottled liquid history, an organoleptic window on a style of production that is long extinct.

First up is a 33-year-old Glen Grant distilled in 1949 and bottled for Italian importer Sestante. MacRaild finds a low bottling strength of 40% a ‘real issue’ here, noting that the expression hasn’t stood the test of time in bottle.

Things take an upward turn with a 37-year-old, 1939 Linkwood bottled under the Connoisseurs Choice livery, which MacRaild finds to be a ‘sublime’ example of wartime distillation. It is also, he adds, a perfect demonstration of how a slightly higher abv can help older spirit to survive in bottle.

The final whisky is a 37-year-old Macallan, distilled in 1940 and bottled for Italian importer Pinerolo. However, MacRaild notes that the whisky displays characteristics more in common with later, official Macallans – and wonders whether the liquid he’s sampling has come from a genuine bottle that’s been refilled along the way.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Glen Grant 33 Years Old, 1949 (Gordon & MacPhail)

    Glen Grant 33 Years Old, 1949 (Gordon & MacPhail)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    40%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    A surprisingly fat wedge of Dundee cake with an excess of glazed and crystallised fruits. The ethereal peatiness of the earlier 1940s vintages has been shed and in its place is an unctuous and pristinely earthen-floored, old-school Sherry aroma. The meagre centilitre of whisky in my glass reeks of rancio, sackcloth and coconut. Wee whiffs of Demerara and sultanas underneath.

    Palate

    Brown sugar on hot cross buns. Freshly baked bread. Treacle sponge. Perhaps a little cardboard-infused flatness, a marker of slightly excessive old bottle effect in my book. Still plenty of almond-flecked, light Sherry flavours at play, along with gingerbread and some runny honey-infused oatmeal.

    Finish

    A tad short and bitter. I suspect this one has suffered in bottle at a lower bottling strength.

    Conclusion

    You can feel that there is a stunning whisky inside this. The trouble is that it’s been obscured by such a merciless bottling strength and a good few decades inside a bottle which hasn’t travelled too well. As with so many older whiskies, the nose was stunning, but the palate was underwhelming. This bottled at 46% or even 43% abv would have been markedly better and would have exhibited far greater stamina.

    Right place, right time

    A melancholy revelation...

    (Image courtesy Whisky Auctioneer)

    Linkwood 37 Years Old, 1939, Connoisseurs Choice (G&M)

    Linkwood 37 Years Old, 1939, Connoisseurs Choice (G&M)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    43%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    A whole galaxy away from anything that’s produced today. You could almost be nosing a 1900 Château d’Yquem. This magnificent and breathtaking olfactory tundra of waxes, quince jelly, precious honeys, menthol tobacco and that coconut note again, only this time denser and more syrupy (I’m convinced this is a character from the casks G&M were filling in this era – most likely American oak transport Sherry casks). There’s a herbal, almost wreath-like peatiness wrapped around the whole thing, but it’s elusive and fades in and out between all these stunning tropical fruit syrups and waxy qualities.

    Palate

    Yes! That richness from the extra few degrees of alcohol strikes with precision and perfection. Wormwood, verbena, green Chartreuse, other assorted old herbal liqueurs, lanolin, ancient medicines, ointments, fir liqueur and some cannabis resin. Bandages, wood spice, cigar ash and various citrus oils, peels and dried tropical fruits.

    Finish

    A poem to older-style whisky production. A lengthy meditation of waxes, oils, camphor and various shades of fruitiness.

    Conclusion

    It’s hard to overstate just what a difference those extra three degrees of alcohol make to these more fragile and complex old whiskies, especially after many years in bottle. However, I suspect that the more peat-influenced and robust wartime styles of distillate they were producing in these years play a significant role as well. Eloquence and history in a glass.

    Right place, right time

    Wandering alone in the Highlands, watching the birds.

    Macallan-Glenlivet 37 Years Old, 1940 (Gordon & MacPhail)

    Macallan-Glenlivet 37 Years Old, 1940 (Gordon & MacPhail)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    43%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Flavour camp
    Rich & Round
    Nose

    Dampness, earthen floors, must, mulch, leaves, dark chocolate, soil. A sooty and unctuous style of Sherry which strikes more as a 1950s/1960s official style of Macallan. There’s an aromatic deviation from the G&M style that’s rather striking. However, this is still clean and all on dark fruit jams, sultanas, dates, old rhum, fig paste and molasses. However, we’re missing that wartime peat.

    Palate

    Big, dense, sticky and darkly-fruited. Lots of cinnamon, gingerbread, treacle sponge, toffee apple and nutmeg. Some brown bread, a little herbal liqueur and a broad and dense earthiness. Classical Macallan, but not really wartime in character or typically ‘G&M’, so to speak.

    Finish

    Good length. All on bitter chocolate, soft earthiness, dried herbs and various game meats, with a slug of old Pinot Noir.

    Conclusion

    I’m wondering if this bottle was entirely legit, as this series was notorious for refills. However, if it was a refill, then it’s almost certainly been done with another very good Macallan – just one from a decade or three later. This is the problem with these old bottles; if they were refilled in the 1990s, then there were what are now very expensive whiskies at hand for refilling. Then again, maybe this is just a different type of Sherry cask at play? I must say, in my experience such a whisky should be a notch or two more dazzling.

    Right place, right time

    Donning some dark sunglasses and grabbing a well-oiled cricket bat to go and see a dodgy Italian.

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