Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Murray McDavid, 1995 Highland Park 15yr, Lafite cask

stats: single malt scotch, Islands, 92 proof, $90

Over the last century the scotch industry has slowly migrated from ex-sherry barrels to ex-bourbon barrels as the vessel of choice for aging its spirit. With bourbon barrels being far more plentiful and coming in at 1/10 the cost of sherry barrels, it stands to reason that they currently account for 90% of the containers used to age Scotch whisky.

While a handful of brands are exclusively sherry aged and quite a few are exclusively bourbon aged, many will marry the two together (normally with bourbon taking the higher percentage of the mix) to create their house style. There are, however, many other cask options available to the more adventurous distiller. At their disposal are barrels which formerly held a vast array of libations, such as port, various sweet dessert wines, rum, cognac and a variety of red and white wines, among others.

It is not unheard of to age whisky in one of these alternative barrels from start to finish, but the more common practice is to age in bourbon barrels primarily (say for 5 to 10 years or so), then transfer the spirit to the alternate barrels for a finishing period (typically for a few months to a few years). But the term “finish” seems to have gone out of favor for this process in recent times, with Bruichladdich using “additional cask enhancement”, or “ACE” and Glenmorangie preferring “extra matured”.

That leads us to another arrow in the quiver of the independent bottler – the option to explore an alternate cask finish on the spirit of a distillery that doesn’t normally partake in this practice. When wine barrels are employed, typically the grape varietal is specified, but for wines of a higher pedigree the appellation or even the producer may be given credit. I was lucky enough to recently stumble across just such an example.

Independent bottler Murray McDavid has taken Highland Park distilled in 1995 from its original bourbon barrels and at some point in the latter part of its 15 years of aging, transferred it to Chateau Lafite casks. For those not familiar with the red wines of France, Lafite is one of only five First Growth Chateau in Bordeaux. With their wine selling in the neighborhood of $1000 a bottle, I’m sure their used oak doesn’t come cheap.

I’m a big fan of the official bottling of Highland Park (at least the 12yr and 18yr that I’ve had), but the whisky has truly been transformed here.

It is a dark ruby-amber in color, with a hue more typical to bourbon.

The nose is big and bold, with a complex assortment of fruit, oak and peat elements. And that nose is only a prelude to what it has in store for the palate.

Great depth and length, with a labyrinth of intertwined flavors layered upon one another. It pushes the limits of sensory overload, and I feel I won’t do this one justice if I try to rattle of specific taste descriptors.

What really strikes me about this whisky is that it can keep such a level of intensity through the incredibly long, evolving finish.

This is clearly a heavyweight, but it refrains from going over the top and in spite of being so immense, it retains a certain gracefulness. I’ve tasted significantly more expensive whiskies that can only aspire to be what this one is – it’s well worth the price tag if you are lucky enough to come across one of the 1900 bottles from this limited release.

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