SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — In the wooded hills above the Glenlivet factory complex in the Scottish Highlands, the view is of history and modernity blending as smoothly as the whisky produced by Scotland’s oldest licensed distillery.
On two marked trails, one used by distiller George Smith and one by smugglers of illicit whisky, I got a sense of the laborious work and persistence that has always gone into the making and distributing of the storied spirits of Scotland.
From enduring onerous taxes levied by the British crown to battles over operating illegal stills to internecine battles between rival smugglers and distillers has come today’s major industry that is second only to North Sea oil drilling as far as revenue is concerned.
The Glenlivet region, a valley in the Speyside area of Scotland, has for centuries been a leading producer of non-peated whiskies — single malts and blends without that signature smoky taste of so many others.
At one time, most distillers in the region appended the name “Glenlivet” to their products. But, after King George IV became smitten with George Smith’s particular spirit and asked for some of “THE” Glenlivet whisky during a visit to the region in 1822, eventually the competition was forced to drop the appellation and Smith co-opted “The Glenlivet” as his own brand name.
To this day, even though the distillery moved to a larger facility just 500 yards or so away at one time, the same water source — known as Josie’s Well — and Scottish barley are used in the double-distilled process.
Today, the Glenlivet portfolio has grown under the ownership of the international corporation Pernod Ricard to include six whiskies — the basic 12-year-old expression, a 15-year-old French oak reserve, the Nadurra (Celtic for “natural”) 16-year-old, as well as 18- and 21-year-old expressions and, for just the past eight months, the XXV, a 25-year-old. The Glenlivet Cellar Collection also has seven releases, with the 1972 expression the latest on the market.
I had the opportunity to take part in a tasting dinner this week, led by Glenlivet’s U.S. brand ambassador Ricky Crawford, at the Saratoga National Golf Course here at which we sampled the six whiskies.
Each sample, accompanied by various small plates created by Jason Saunders, executive chef of Prime, the restaurant at the club, was treated in the same manner, with a few drops of water added to break the surface tension, the chemical shell, of the whisky and allow it to release its full aroma and flavor profile.
Each of the whiskies starts out as the same basic creation. It is in the maturation process that the wonders of the whiskies are revealed.
Older is not necessarily better; that is a matter of individual taste. But, older usually is more expensive simply because when a distiller ties up a product for a long time, money is not being made and the return on investment must be recouped at some point.
My notes on The Glenlivet portfolio:
— 12-Year-Old: Much of the signature honey and floral flavors are immediately accessible, with a soft finish leaving a trace of vanilla on the palate. Suggested retail price range: $42 and up.
— 15-Year-Old French Oak: My particular favorite among the Glenlivets. It spends 12 years in used American white oak barrels, then a portion of it is matured in French Limousin oak before being returned to the whole. It is the only Glenlivet that uses French oak. It presents citrus and cedar notes in the opening nose and everything from pepper to mango on the tongue, with a long, clean slightly spicy finish. Suggested retail price range: $49 to $54.
— 18-Year-Old: This is aged in American white oak, with a small amount finished in used oloroso sherry casks to make use of the softer, more porous wood that helps intensify the notes of fruit, nuts and florals, with honey, banana and almonds the most pronounced flavors. Suggested retail price: $80.
— 21-Year-Old: Some charred wood comes through from the used American oak casks, along with slightly more fruit and spiciness than in the 18. The color runs to deep amber, and the flavor profile to pears, spiced oranges and vanilla with a delicate yet lingering finish. Suggested retail price: $100 to $112.
— Nadurra: This is a cask strength whisky (115.2 proof, or 56.1 percent alcohol by volume) best sampled as a 3-to-1 water-to-whisky mixture. It is non-chill filtered, which means it could get cloudy on the shelf. Nothing wrong with that. The flavor is light, yet crisp, quickly giving way to intense notes of honey and toffee. Long, lingering finish. Suggested retail price: $60 to $65.
— XXV: This is 23 years in American white oak, two years in oloroso sherry casks, and worth the wait. A creamy orange and honey flavor, with definite elements of almonds and ginger in a complex structure. Suggested retail price: $330 and up.
And, the food? Course by course the dishes were paired with the wines in the order listed above:
— Hors d’oeuvres: Grilled peaches wrapped in prosciutto. Citrus shrimp skewers with seared pineapple. Coconut chicken with mango salsa.
— Amuse bouche: Roasted beet and toasted almond tartlet.
— First course: Smoked duck breast, candied apricot, gopat cheese, candied walnuts and baby arugula tossed with a roasted shallot vinaigrette.
— Second course: Pan seared tournedo of beef tenderloin wrapped with bacon, toasted hazlenut braised Brussels sprouts, crispy gaufrette sweet potatoes and a Bing cherry demi glace.
— Third course: Anise scented poached halibut, purple sticky rice, ginger glazed baby carrots and vanilla caviar beurre blanc.
— Fourth course: Decadent flourless chocolate cake, Grand Marnier creme with a pear and orange compote.
(William M. Dowd covers the adult beverage world online at BillDowd.com.)
c.2009 Hearst Newspapers