Friday, February 21, 2014

Oban Distillers Edition

stats: single malt scotch, West Highlands, 43%, $90

As much as I enjoy the solitude afforded by my 18th century farm house nestled in a narrow valley carved through the spine of the Green Mountains, I do appreciate an occasional dose of social interaction and even urban exposure. When the mood for adventure strikes, I'm fortunate to live a mere two hour drive  from Montreal. It's a world-class city, and quite honestly any excuse to visit Montreal is a good excuse. Just about four years ago I came to the realization that such a city must have a decent whisky bar or two. I've slowly acquainted myself with those dispensers of brown liquor (primarily scotch), and a comprehensive review of them has been on the back burner for some time.

That review will still have to wait a bit, as this post is merely a prelude. The last 12 months has zipped by, and it is nearly time for me to return to Florida for an encore performance, hosting another scotch dinner. But before that happens I have a few loose ends to tie up; namely to finish reviewing (as I promised long ago) the single malts that we tasted through at last year's dinner.

I took care of the Aberlour 12 year back in May. I have something special planned for the Auchentoshan 12 year, so I'm saving that to be the last of the four. The Oban and Talisker Distiller's Editions aren't available where I live but I've seen many of the DE bottlings (which are part of the lineups of several of the Diageo owned single malt distilleries) in Montreal. What a perfect excuse to visit the fair city and drink some whisky.

Oban DE presented itself to me on my first stop. Unfortunately Talisker DE did not. As I crisscrossed the city in search of it, I eventually came to the realization that there was no Talisker Distiller's Edition in the province of Quebec (the provincial government controls the liquor distribution there, much like the control states in the U.S., so a product will generally be everywhere or nowhere). Plan B would have to be put into effect for the Talisker DE (yes, there actually was a plan B).

The Distiller's Edition single malts all follow the same theme. They are always based on the particular single malt's flagship offering, which has been further aged in a cask that previously held fortified wine. That additional aging time varies from brand to brand, but seems to fall in the range of three or four months to about three years.

In the case of Oban, we have the standard 14 year (which is always aged exclusively in second-fill bourbon barrels), and the Distiller's Edition spends an additional 18 months in Montilla Fino casks. While the DE bottlings carry no age statement, they do show a "distilled" year and a "bottled" year. In this case, 1997 and 2012. As long as the distillation happened some time in the first half of 1997 and the bottling happened at least six months further into 2012, the math does add up.

The nose is rich but refined with malty notes and dark berry fruit cooked in baking spices. It's not as weighty on the palate up front as I was expecting after nosing it. My initial impression was  that it was a little thin overall, but it's growing on me as I work my way through the dram. There's a surprisingly strong floral component throughout. The floral aspect dominates briefly  before the spiced fruit elements reel it in. It actually has a fairly interesting evolution of flavor with graceful transitions and just enough grip to hold one's attention.

I sampled a bit of the standard 14 year to compare them. The floral aspect was still there, but much more restrained. The signature honeyed malt, orange citrus notes, and touch of brine all came through strongly. My overall impression was that the 14 year was more even keeled, while the DE started off mild-mannered, then picked up steam as it went along.

I found it kind of surprising that the 14 year was the base for the DE. I could see the similarity, but the differences were not what I would expect from Sherry cask finishing.

Being totally unfamiliar with Montilla Fino, a little research was in order. And that research did provide some interesting insight. Montilla is an area in southern central Spain, in the province of Cordoba, in the region of Andalucía. Jerez, the home of Sherry, is located west and slightly south of Montilla. Confusingly, wines from Montilla cannot be designated as Sherry, but they use the same five grapes and the same Flor producing yeast; they are aged in the same solera system, and they are classified with the same terminology (both use the terms Vino Joven, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado, Moscotel and Pedro Ximenez). The big difference is that unlike Sherry, wines from Montilla are not fortified and only ferment to natural alcohol levels.

When I stated above that all of Diageo's DE malts are aged in casks that formerly held fortified wines, that info came from their website; obviously a slight oversight on their part. Montilla Fino is described as having aromas of almonds, tobacco and licorice. It is said to be dry, bitter, smooth and persistent  in taste. This goes a long way in explaining why the Oban DE is quite different than the typical Sherry cask matured (or finished) single malt.

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