Do you love Irish whiskey but you don't want to be a sheep and drink it for St. Patrick's Day? And would you rather eat moldy shamrocks than drink those horrid green cocktails that every bar whips up around this time of year? Believe me, I know the feeling. Not a day goes by that I don't get multiple emails from various PR firms alerting me that next Thursday is, oh, National Peppermint Schnapps Day for instance, and here are some great cocktail recipes for your readers. Or maybe, next week is Arbor Day, and did you know that the official spirit of Arbor Day is Limoncello? And it seems like every other week there's a National Tequila Day or a National Margarita Day or a National Tequila Body Shots Day or... well, you get the point.
What I'm trying to say is, I don't like being told what to drink, whether it's mint juleps on Kentucky Derby day or Irish coffee on St. Paddy's Day or margaritas on National Margarita Day. (Actually, I don't mind drinking mint juleps pretty much ever, but you get the point.) So for this St. Patrick's Day, I'm not looking to Ireland but a wee bit to the north -- a little place they call Scotland. And while Irish whiskey sales were the fastest growing of all spirits in America in 2011, the Scots make some mighty fine whisky (minus the "e" when you hit the Scottish border) themselves.
In particular, I'm talking about the 2012 edition of the Classic Malts Selection Special Releases, which was made available to a grateful and thirsty world a couple of months ago by the good folks at Diageo. Diageo, by virtue of being a very, very large spirits company, happens to own many of the finest single malt distilleries in Scotland, or anywhere else for that matter. The Classic Malts Selection Special Releases are limited edition (anywhere from about 1,500 to 30,000 bottles in this case) bottlings of some of the finest and rarest whiskies they've got -- in a few cases from distilleries which are no longer operating. This batch has all been bottled at cask strength, meaning no water is added before bottling, so you get more bang (and booze) for your buck. They're rare, super-collectible, and as a result, pretty expensive. I'm listing the seven whiskeys starting with the cheapest and working my way up, so once you've hit your price limit you don't have to read on and torture yourself.
Irish or not, these are some pretty amazing whiskies. Drink them for St. Patrick's Day. Heck, you can drink them while wearing a green thong and a "F*** Me I'm Irish" button. The rules are, there ain't no rules. As the Irish -- and not coincidentally, the Scots -- say, Slainte!
CAOL ILA 14 YEAR OLD UNPEATED STYLE (Islay; 59.3 percent alcohol by volume, suggested retail price $103). Caol Ila is an Islay malt, but it's not quite as heavy and smoky and peaty as its more famous Islay kin like Laphroaig and Lagavulin. Which makes Caol Ila a perfect candidate for an unpeated bottling, meaning the malted barley from which the whisky is made hasn't been cooked over a peat-fueled fire. There's still a hint of smoke, but what we're left with is a rather delicate little gem, with lots of tart fruity sweetness to go with the honey and vanilla notes and a dry, slightly bitter edge on the finish. This is the cheapest of the Classic Malts lineup this year, and in this case it's a relative bargain.
LAGAVULIN 12 YEAR OLD (Islay; 56.1 percent ABV, $111). Along with Laphroaig, Lagavulin is, for me, the quintessential Islay malt -- a big, heavy maritime flavor, full of smoke and peat and salty sea breezes and romance and... oy, don't get me started! The 16 year old is the classic Lagavulin. This younger sibling, aged for a dozen years in American oak, is a little bit sweeter, with more pronounced hints of rich chocolate, dark fruits, toffee and vanilla. But that awesome smoky peaty flavor comes back with a bang on the finish, just in case you forgot what you were drinking. I don't know if I prefer the 12 to the 16, but I loved doing the A-B taste test.
DALWHINNIE 25 YEAR OLD (Central Highlands; 52.1 percent ABV, $289). Dalwhinnie gets its water from Scotland's highest mountain source, 2,000 feet above sea level, which gives it a leg up on the competition when it comes to turning that water into whisky. Standard 15-year-old Dalwhinnie is a fine example of a Highland malt -- a little sweet, a little peaty, a little grainy. Age it in wood ("rejuvanated American oak hogsheads," I'm told) for another decade and what do you get? More body for sure, but it's still recognizably Dalwhinnie, with malty, grainy flavors blending with notes of pear and cherry and hints of rich cocoa. A very nice whisky. Whether "very nice" is worth $289 is up to you.
AUCHROISK 30 YEAR OLD 1982 (Speyside; 54.7 percent ABV, $359). This Speyside malt has only been around since the '70s, and it's been used primarily in blends, which is why you may not know the name. The 30-year-old, aged in both American oak and sherry butts, is their oldest bottling yet released. Age aside, you can tell this baby is a Speysider from sip one, with rich, luscious honey notes, dried figs, vanilla and candied orange peel on the palate. Sad to say that three decades in wood seems to have been a little too long, as intense oak and pepper notes obscure the lighter and sweeter flavors somewhat. It's still well worth trying, but I'll be searching out some younger bottlings to really taste what Auchroisk is all about.
BRORA 35 YEAR OLD 1976 & 1977 (Highlands; 48.1 percent ABV, $624). I don't know much about Brora whiskies, which isn't surprising considering the distillery closed in 1983, when I was still far from drinking age (I would raid my mom's liquor cabinet for Sambuca Romana from time to time, but that's another story). So I can't tell you how this stacks up with other Broras. I can, however, tell you that this is the longest-aged Brora bottling to date, having been laid down back in 1976-77, when I was even further away from drinking age. Like the best super-aged whiskies, this is surprisingly lively and fruity (taste that mango!) for a whisky that was laid down when Elvis was still alive. Sure, it's got its share of smoke and wood too, but you don't feel like you're licking a piece of oak. This may be my favorite of the bunch, and of course it's also the rarest, with less than 1,600 bottles being produced. Leave one for me, please.
LAGAVULIN 21 YEAR OLD 1991 (Islay; 52 percent ABV, $624). If Lagavulin's 16 year old is already a big whisky, how enormous can the 21 be? Surprise, surprise -- it's actually quite mellow in comparison. Keep in mind that this baby was aged entirely in used sherry casks, which can add a lot of raisin-y sweetness to the affair. Surprisingly, the sherry notes don't bonk me over the head the way they do with a lot of other whiskies that have spent a lot less time in sherry casks. There's a lot more honey and toffee and a lot less raisins and other fruits than you'd expect. Yes, you get smoke and peat and seaweed and iodine and all that other good Lagavulin stuff, but don't go in expecting a bigger version of the 16. That said, if you're not looking for a peat monster, this is an excellent whisky.
PORT ELLEN 32 YEAR OLD (Islay; 52.5 percent ABV, $936). Another whisky from a long-gone distillery, shuttered along with Brora in 1983. This issue was laid down in 1979, the heyday of disco, and I thought I heard a faint echo of the Bee Gees as I poured myself a dram. This is a great one, and at close to $1,000 a bottle, it had better be. It's got something for everyone -- a little fruit, a little honey, a little custard, a little smoke, a little citrus, a little chocolate... my mouth is watering just thinking about it. It finishes off quite dry, cocoa powder notes mixing with a faint taste of smoke and ashes, but in a good way, like you're sitting around a campfire rather than puffing on a cigarette. There are fewer than 3,000 bottles out there, and given Port Ellen's collectibility, $900-and-change will seem like a bargain in a few years. You've been warned.