Abe Rosenberg made his fortune in blended Scotch, importing J&B to American shores for the better part of the 20th century. In years to come, however, the late businessman may well be remembered for his contribution to the exceptional single malts of 2003.
Rosenberg was passionate about the small-production single malts used in J&B and other popular blends. He began buying individual barrels from Scotland’s premier distilleries after World War II, and by the time of his death in 1994, he had amassed close to 4,000 barrels of the world’s finest Scotch.
Rosenberg’s holding company, Duncan Taylor & Co. Ltd., managed the barrels until 2002, when two Scots, Euan Shand and Alan Gordon, purchased the business. This year, much to the delight of aficionados, the merchant bottlers are releasing a limited selection of Rosenberg’s single malts in the States.
The arrivals hail from such esteemed distilleries as Springbank, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Glen Grant, Longmorn, Macallan, and Strathisla. All are being released under the Duncan Taylor label. “Duncan Taylor has more old Macallan than the Macallan distillery does,” exults Steve Fox, national sales manager for Preiss Imports of Ramona, Calif., an importer of the whiskies. Each of the Duncan Taylor releases is cask strength (undiluted with water at bottling), with ages ranging from 29 to 37 years and prices from $200 to more than $500 a bottle.
Other notable releases in the past year demonstrate the industry’s increasing attention to novel cooperage. Instead of utilizing the bourbon and sherry barrels traditionally associated with single malts, more and more distillers are turning to port, Madeira, and rum casks, even barrels from Bordeaux and Burgundy, to finish their whiskies. Glenmorangie recently released a single malt finished in Côte de Nuits Burgundy barrels, and the company plans to release a Scotch finished in barrels from the incomparable Château d’Yquem this October—a promising match for what is already the best-selling single-malt brand in Scotland.
No matter the finishing technique—or the tippled tales surrounding a Scotch’s origin—the sole basis for determining a truly distinguishable single malt is its taste. The following releases, the finest of 2003, are sure to please the palate of discriminating drinkers.
Light and Bright
A harmonious directness and clean, elegant flavors characterize the Dallas Dhu 1979, Murray McDavid, Mission Bottling ($160) from Speyside. A distillery long out of existence, Dallas Dhu leaves its legacy in the pure orange, lemon, and floral nose; the sweet malt and light caramel flavors; and the warm, comforting finish.
Macallan (Speyside) has reproduced the flavor of its 1861 whisky with its latest replica, the Macallan 1861 Replica, Cask Strength, Distillery Releas ($250). The dram is lighter and more delicate than the heavier, sherried Macallans released in the latter half of the 20th century and finishes with toffee, leather, and smoke.
The Auchentoshan 29 Year Old, 1973, Distillery Bottling, Cask Strength ($176) is a refined Lowland whisky with a creamy lemon finish—the perfect Scotch to stoke an appetite.
Perhaps the year’s most collectible single malt is the Ladyburn 27 Year Old, 1973, Distillery Release ($800), originally produced in the Lowlands for inclusion in the William Grant & Sons line of blended Scotch. The distillery subsequently closed, and the remaining Ladyburn stocks have dwindled, sending their cost soaring. You could sample the 1973’s pleasing nose, fruit and grain taste, and off-dry finish, but you may be wise to keep the bottle sealed and allow its flavor (and its value) to appreciate.
Mark Mitchell, the single-malt Scotch maven at D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco, regards the Glenmorangie Côtes de Nuits Wood Finish ($320) as “a strange and very, very complex Scotch.” The Burgundy barrels lend it a slightly reddish color, hints of red fruit flavors, a vinous texture in the mouth, and ample rich vanilla from the oak.
The Bruichladdich Legacy 36 Year Old, 1967 Distillery Bottling ($420) from Islay is garnering accolades for its apple-infused nose; its refreshing, cidery flavors crammed with nuances of raisins, cocoa, and oak on the palate; and its clean and honeyed finish.
The firm of Douglas Laing & Co. bottles its too-good-to-blend single malts under the Old Malt Cask label. The Port Ellen 23 Year Old, 1977, Old Malt Cask ($176) represents an exquisite example, with a lightly smoky, peaty, seawater nose; plenty of peat and malt in the flavor; and a hint of almonds and spice on the finish.
Springbank Distillery is one of only two distilleries in Scotland that performs 100 percent of every step of its operation—from malting its own barley to cask maturation and bottling. The Springbank Distillery 36 Year Old, 1967, Duncan Taylor ($510) is perhaps the finest of the releases from the Abe Rosenberg collection. The malt shows a pale straw to light amber color, and the nose gives aromas of melon, lime, citrus, and grass. It is sweet on the tongue, with tones of coconut, and the finish lasts for a blissfully long time.
Laphroaig’s intense qualities of smoke, peat, and medicinal iodine may not please the palate of every Scotch drinker, but the Laphroaig 40 Year Old, Cask Strength, Distillery Release ($600) is a taste worth acquiring. Its acute licorice opening fades to reveal seaweed and peat, an echo of its history. The whisky was made on March 14, 1960, from Golden Promise barley, and it matured in European oak barrels in Warehouse No. 1, the oldest maturation shed at the distillery, perched at the edge of the sea on the rugged and windy Isle of Islay coast. There the barrels remained for 40 years. The result is a remarkably smooth, rich, and mellow Laphroaig.
Situated in the Orkney Islands, Highland Park is Scotland’s most northerly distillery. Its water, it is said, falls on the Scottish mainland and seeps under the sea to the Orkneys. The Highland Park 25 Year Old Distillery Bottling ($245) makes our list of top releases for its heather and honey, chocolate, full and rounded nose; its cedary, nutty, toffee palate; and its spicy, dry, smoky finish.
Glen Grant 32 Year Old 1970 Peerless Bottling ($170) from Speyside is another gem. Peerless stocks now fall under the Duncan Taylor label (which just released the Glen Grant 1972 for $200), but the 1970 bottling still retains the Peerless label and can be found in a few choice shops. A rich, dark single malt, it begs for a splash of water to unfurl its orange creamsicle, cinnamon and clove, and brisk tea aromas. Malty and peaty on the palate, it ends with a bright finish.
Unusually rich for this distillery, the Springbank 15 Year Old Campbeltown Single Malt ($100) is a dark, russet color. Its sweet nose comes from the sherry barrels used in its maturation. The palate rolls out dark chocolate, figs, marzipan, Brazil nuts, and vanilla, and the finish is warming and elegant.
The folks at Springbank have revived the excellent Longrow distillery, and its Longrow 10 Year Old, Sherry Cask, Distillery Bottling ($190) yields a fresh, pine-woods scent and a creamy coconut palate.
Single Malt Sources
The following retailers will prove invaluable aides in your search for this year’s top releases and other distinguished bottlings.
• D&M Wines and Liquors, 2200 Fillmore St., San Francisco, 800.637.0292, www.dandm.com
• Internet Wines & Spirits, store.yahoo.com/randalls
• Park Avenue Liquor Shop, 292 Madison Ave., New York, 212.685.2442, www.parkaveliquor.com
• Sam’s Wines & Spirits, 1720 North Marcey St., Chicago, 312.664.4394, www.samswine.com
• The Wine Specialist, 2115 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., 800.832.0704, www.winespecialist.com
• Wally’s Wine & Spirits, 2107 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, 888.992.5597, www.wallywine.com
• Wine and Liquor Depot, 16938 Saticoy St., Van Nuys, Calif., 888.622.1414, www.wineandliquordepot.com