Monday, May 18, 2015

Glenmorangie, Lasanta vs. Quinta Ruban

Lasanta: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Sherry cask finish, 46%, $56
Quinta Ruban: single malt Scotch, Highlands, Port cask finish, 46%, $57

Before I wrote my last post, which covered Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, I briefly considered comparing all three of the Extra Matured Glenmorangies together. But then I remembered that I’ve tasted them together before, and the Nectar D’Or clashed quite badly with the other two. I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, most notably with Crown Royal Cask No. 16 and Crown Royal Reserve. For the sake of giving them all a fair review, and in order to avoid torturing my palate, I decided to split the group into two posts.

In the Nectar D’Or review, I noted that when comparing it to Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year, its Sauternes cask finish had been “thoroughly transformative”. In retrospect this really shouldn’t have been too surprising. By design, Glenmorangie is made from a relatively light and delicate distillate. The shape of the stills is a big part of the reason for that.

As the liquid turns to vapor in the base of the still it is faced with an arduous journey before it reaches the condenser (or worm tub) where it is reverts back to its liquid state. Some of the heavier, less volatile components of the vapor don’t make it to that point, re-condensing along the way and falling back into the still’s pot. Still designs that encourage this effect will produce a lighter, gentler spirit.

What are those still characteristics that make it harder for the vapors to escape the pot? Tall and / or narrow necks, reflux bowls (a bulbous bulge at the base of the neck) and a lyne arm (the part of the still that connects the neck to the condenser) that is horizontal or angled upward. The stills at Glenmorangie are the tallest in Scotland, measuring 26’ 3” in total, with necks that are 16’ 10.25” tall. They also feature pronounced reflux bowls, necks that are quite narrow from that point up, and near horizontal lyne arms.

Starting with a relatively delicate distillate, it stands to reason that the influence that the casks contribute during aging should be more pronounced. Coincidentally, the biggest enhancements to the quality and consistency of single malt Scotch over the past 15 to 20 years have come through improved cask management. Glenmorangie has been leading the charge on this front, with a program that allows them to have precise control of the properties of the barrels that come to them after being used by the American whiskey industry.

Glenmorangie actually owns an area of forest in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where they selectively harvest white oak trees from north facing slopes (thus receiving less sunlight which results in slow-growth trees with a tighter grain pattern). The staves cut from these trees are then air dried for two years before they are coopered into barrels which are heavily charred and lightly toasted. The barrels are then filled with American whiskey (some are used for Jack Daniel’s, others for an unnamed Bourbon). After seasoning for four years, the barrels are emptied and shipped off to Scotland to be filled with Glenmorangie distillate.

As I’ve discussed many times before, the decline in popularity of Sherry over the last 30 or 40 years has resulted in a very limited supply of quality Sherry casks being available to the Scotch industry. While a few holdouts still age their single malt exclusively in ex-Sherry oak, it is much more common for it to be used during a finishing period after an initial maturation in bourbon barrels. Over the last 10 to 20 years Port casks have also emerged as an alternative to Sherry casks. While a few examples of single malts aged solely in Port casks can be found, they are usually limited production special releases, and it’s much more common to see Port finished Scotches.

Since Glenmorangie Lasanta and Quinta Ruban employ these two finishes and keep all of the other variables constant, they are perfect for a comparison of the two styles.

The Lasanta is aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in a combination of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. Oloroso sherry ranges from dry to sweet, PX is a very sweet style made from late-harvested grapes that are dried in the sun after being picked. The Lasanta is golden amber in color. The nose is full and malty with complex dark berry fruit notes. The aromas carry a bit of sweetness, but none of the nutty oxidized notes that typify the drier styles of Sherry. It’s fairly rich and expressive on the palate. There’s a lot of complexity riding on the malty backdrop; stewed fruits, subtle grassiness, a hint of nuttiness and maybe even a bit of minerality. It shows a graceful evolution of flavor with cocoa powder and mulling spices coming to the fore as it smoothly transitions into the lengthy, warming and dry finish.

The Quinta Ruban is also aged for 12 years, the last two of which are spent in ruby Port pipes. Ruby port is the least expensive and most commonly produced style, which is noted for being fruit forward and dark in color. Pipes are long casks with heavily tapered ends. Their volume ranges from 418 to 630 liters, but 550 liters is the most common size. At first glance the Quinta Ruban appears to be similar in color to the Lasanta, but a few shades darker. Examining it with backlighting reveals a distinctive pinkish hue. The nose is a little more subtle here. Malty aromas still provide the backbone, but the fruit is less pronounced. I’m also getting some clay-like earthiness. It comes across with some weight on the palate, but is certainly less assertive than the Lasanta. As with the nose, the malty backdrop plays host to subtle fruit notes. It also shows a hint of slightly vegetal grassiness. A reverberating spiciness builds as it moves into the finish. The Quinta Ruban is dry from front to back and showcases a more elegant, though less expressive style than the Lasanta.

As with the Nectar D’Or, both of these finishes add quite a bit to the 10 year Original that they start off as.

While recently hosting a private Scotch class / tasting, I explained that most of the names of the single malts were actually anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe the grounds of the distilleries. My last minute addition of the translations for the whiskies we sampled ended up generating an unexpectedly enthusiastic level of interest. In light of that experience I’m going to start incorporating that information into my posts. Glenmorangie (it should rhyme with orange-ey if pronounced correctly) means “valley of tranquility”. Lasanta translates to “warmth and passion”. Quinta is actually a Portuguese word for “estate”, pertaining to the places where the grapes are grown. Ruban is Gaelic for “ruby”, referring to the color taken on by the whisky.

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