Golden age

welcomes mature bottlings of classic malts

After even the sunniest of late summer's days, there have been moonlit late evenings in the garden when the lingering aroma of barbecues melded with the smoky peatiness of a malt whisky. I love a Scotch at bedtime, especially one from the western isles. Often, it is the rare Ardbeg, so peaty that it smells like a bonfire of autumn leaves. Every connoisseur of Scotches regards it as one of the greats.

The last time I looked for Ardbeg, it was hard to find, though I eventually located two versions. One was a 30-year-old, bottled at 40 per cent by the distillery's last owners. It had the orange colour and syrupy sweetness that can be imparted by sherry casks. The other, at a straight-from-the- cask strength of 63.2 per cent, was 17 years old: paler in colour but more assertive in the tar-like, oily, seaweedy aromas and flavours of its homeland, the island of Islay. The latter had been bottled by a merchant, Adelphi, of Edinburgh. I bought them both, as gifts for my love, a devotee of Ardbeg. I note that she has given less attention to the very mature smoothie than to the robust teenager. When the older of these whiskies was made, Ardbeg had plenty of first-fill sherry casks. I would guess they had previously contained a rich style of sherry. The 17-year-old speaks of another element: Ardbeg's own maltings, in which an unusual lack of fans made for an especially oily smokiness during the kilning of the grains.

The maltings closed in the early 1980s, and the distillery has operated only sporadically since. One problem was that its owning group was part of Allied Breweries. When it acquired the spirits interests of Whitbread, it found itself as owner also of Laphroaig, a better-known Islay malt in a similar style. Happily, Ardbeg has now been sold to an independent distiller, owner of the Northern Highlander Glenmorangie and the similar- sounding Speysider Glen Moray.

A new owner for Ardbeg is a very happy development indeed, but the distillery's years of silence will leave a gap in stocks of maturing whisky for future bottlings.

In Scotland, this week, on 16 September and England a day later, Ardbeg's new owners unveiled its own bottling of the 17-year-old, and there will later be a 1980 edition. I eagerly await both, though neither will quite be matched in the longer term. The casks will not be the same, and the maltings will not be working, unless the new owners go to the considerable cost of restoring and operating them. If they do that, they will be heroes twice over.

There are two reasons to splash out on very old malt whiskies. One is the taste of the past: varieties of barley were richer and sweeter than the higher-yield strains used today; kilning was typically peatier before marketing men had the power to dumb-down; and sherry casks were more readily available to the industry in the days when the wine of Jerez was more widely appreciated.

The other reason is what has happened to the whisky in the cask in the meantime. It has exhaled some of its harsher flavours and breathed in some Scottish air (briney and seaweedy if it is on an exposed island). It has taken some juicy, oaky, vanilla notes from the wood and, possibly, some flavours from the Bourbon or sherry that preceded it and has also undergone a gentle oxidation that can produce toffeeish, spicy, minty, flavours.

These flavours contribute to a complexity and roundness. Ardbeg's new owner is touting it as "the most balanced of all Islay malt whiskies". I hope this is idle marketing speak. From Ardbeg, I want attack. If I am looking for balance, I turn to Islay's Bowmore, or Orkney's Highland Park.

The latter two are also among the handful of distilleries with their own maltings. Among the many influences on the flavour of a malt whisky, the local peat burned in the malting kiln is a huge influence. Depending upon its age, peat can impart dark, dense, flavours or rooty, leafy, heathery notes. Local weather will also be an influence, especially if the peat is kissed by sea mists. Bowmore emerges with lavender notes, while Highland Park has a distinct heather-honey character in its diversity of flavours.

Highland Park is the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky - offering sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, maltiness, smoothness, fullness of flavour, and length of finish. This distillery, too, has recently raised the age question.

No two whiskies mature at the same speed. Nor even two casks of the same whisky. Was the wood grown in America or Spain (it is usually one or the other)? In which corner of the Ozarks or Galicia? Did it previously contain sherry (of what style?) or Bourbon? How many times has it contained Scotch whisky? Distilleries usually have several warehouses - in which was it stored (near the sea, or sheltered; earth floor or concrete)? Was the cask at the bottom of the stack or the top? How was the weather?

In general, the lighter tasting malts may peak at eight or 10 years, but fuller-flavoured whiskies are usually sold at 12 or more.

Until now, the only official version of Highland Park has been at 12, though older examples have been bottled by independent merchants.

Such bottlings vary considerably, depending upon the casks from which they are taken. Some can be delicious, others imbalanced or too old. A whisky that has spent too long in the cask can begin to take negative characteristics from the wood. It might smell musty or taste of matchwood, for example.

Recognising a growing connoisseur interest in older malts, Highland Park has now decided to bottle its own 18 and 25. Like most "official" bottlings of single malts, these will be vetted from a range of casks (in this case about 30) to ensure a continuity of character. By law, the age on the label represents the youngest whisky in the bottle, and, in this instance, each version will contain some that is two or three years older.

The company's "nose", John Ramsay, sampled from 200 casks before settling on a selection to comprise the 18, and 100 for the 25. The emphasis is on sherry butts: "first fill and damned good second fill". Based on his choices of wood, age, antecedence and storage conditions, there are enough casks for three years' bottlings, and Ramsay will be re-tasting annually with an eye to the longer term.

The 18 is rich, with fresh oak, vanilla, tobacco, cinnamon and ginger. If I smoked, this whisky might tempt me to a cigar. The 25 has more finesse, with lemony, nutty, chocolatey notes. I'll have that one with dessert. Roll on winter and steamed puddings

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