March 29, 2016

The Best Tasting Ever. Period. Douglas Laing Old & Rare Platinum.

Sweet Tube 

When I was in high school, the words "sweet tube" would conjure up images of an expensive Graffix glass bong. Now that I've just hit 40 and spent far too much time talking about whiskey on Facebook, "sweet tube" has the infinitely less cool and exponentially more pathetic connotation of the packaging for expensive whiskey. Case-in-point: when I picked up my first Willett gift shop rye and saw the classy off-white cylinder, the words "dude, sweet tube" escaped my lips. I promptly looked over my left shoulder to try and spot the douche bag. It was me.

Let's be honest, there's just something special about whiskey in a nice box. Of course it shouldn't matter. The juice is the juice is the juice. You're just paying more for packaging. Yada yada yada. Yes that's all true. Yet no matter how many bottles I buy, collect, and drink, my eyes always light up when I see a beautiful box. Like this one:

Emperor's Clothes

Sure, there are examples of lackluster whiskies parading around in ludicrously over-the-top packaging to fetch a preposterous price tag:

The Arran Devil's Punchbowl

Highland Park Ice

Artful Presentation

But when there's a brand you already love and they take the time to release a really special bottle and take great care in the packaging, sometimes you just know you're in for a treat. Such is the case with Douglas Laing, my favorite independent bottler.  Douglas Laing always does a nice presentation:

Douglas Laing Director's Cut

Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask

But they really go above and beyond with their flagship product, the Old & Rare Platinum Editions.  (Note, due to some recent reorg, OAR is now exclusively under Hunter Laing.)  These velvet-lined, antique-fastened cabinets would make a luxurious coffin for any small family pet. The wood must be cedar because the smell inside is pure bliss, even before you open the bottle. And it simply reeks of class that they don't identify the bottle on the outside of the box. 

The Old & Rare Platinum selections are all single cask releases, aged over twenty years, and bottled at cask strength with no chill-filtering or artificial color. In other words, they're close to heaven for malt whisky fanatics. I've never seen OAR selections on the shelf in the states, though there are some popping up at KL (though they don't seem to come with the box??!???).  Also they're not cheap, with the entry-level bottles fetching around $300 and the more sought-after brands (Ardbeg and Macallan for example) in the $700 range. Then again if you have seven hundred bucks burning a whole in your pocket, there's worse things you could do with it.

Building Suspense

For my quarterly Beast Masters Club events, I always hide the identities of the whiskies to build suspense and then reveal the bottles one by one as we taste through them. And what better way to mask the goodies than to have four of these majestic Douglas Laing boxes on the table when everyone arrived? As we thumbed back the nautical looking hatches and opened each box, audible 'oooohs' and 'ahhhhhs' filled the room.  

The selections were as follows:

Rosebank 21 Year 1992/2013 52.3%

Lowland malts are generally not my thing. There are some perfectly fine brands out there like Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, but they're just not the big flavor bombs that we smoky beast aficionados are looking for. Lowland malts tend to be grassy and floral and they are traditionally triple distilled (similar to most Irish whiskies) giving them a mellower taste.

This Rosebank on the other hand was incredibly delicious. It was an ideal starting point for the night. Fruits and flowers dominate the nose with explosions of apples, pears, violets, and lilies, beautiful overtones of perfume and white chocolate. This was so surprising, even some of the most committed beast masters in the room had to pick this malt as their favorite for the evening! The palate is thick and dreamy with more fruit and flowers, and the finish is sweet but extremely balanced and nuanced. You'd never in a million years guess this was over one hundred proof based on the presence of alcohol, but the incredible flavor might clue you in. Sadly only one hundred and twenty-two bottles were released from this cask, so we're unlikely to taste it again. Really a dream and definitely a gem of a lowland whisky that came out of left field for the surprise of the night.

Highland Park 27 Year 1984 / 2012 51.6%

This is without question the best Highland Park I've ever tasted and a magnificent second bottle for the tasting. Moving up in the flavor / boldness category from the Rosebank, we're into some more lush tastes here in the caramel and stone fruit category. The nose shows a slight sherry influence with peach and apricot wrapped in some caramel and pound cake. There's some nice maritime elements giving it a little bit of salt and punch, and maybe just a hint of smoke. Highland Park has never been a standout distillery for me but it's very hard to find anything not to like here. A straight forward delicious malt, sitting perfectly with strong spirit flavor sweetness, smoothness, and balance.

Caol Ila 27 Year 1984 / 2011 51.9%

Now we're headed into serious beast territory. This twenty seven year single cask sherry matured Caol Ila is absolutely the stuff of legend. A huge rush of ocean campfire greets the nose with salty sea air carrying deep smoldering embers. Deep deep peat with that signature Caol Ila nuttiness, like candied pecans heated over charcoal. Then we get the big sherry influence with plums and raisins and strawberry jam. The sweet and the peat wrap up into the most awesome palate. Just flavor going on for hours here with the smoke, the sweet, and the big spirit integrating together for such an amazing refined taste. This can only happen when a great cask is aged perfectly, in this case for almost three decades, and bottled at precisely the right time.  (Which of course is the beauty of independent bottlers who are not beholden to releasing the same aged spirit every year!).  This is a real desert island dram right here, the kind of thing I could happily drink every night for the rest of my life.

Ardbeg 22 Year 1991 / 2013 55.8%

To finish the night we cracked this eye-opening twenty-two year Ardbeg. Moving way up in the peat direction, and topping out the ABV of the night at over one hundred and ten proof, this was another superb gem. Very much your typical Ardbeg, this was all peat and fire with little pops of citrus and pears. Wonderfully dry, with almost none of the sweetness of the Caol Ila, this was all smoke versus power. As great old Islay malts can do, the smoke balanced out the super high alcohol content for a real peat lovers dream. Another wonderful cask choice, this was a real killer to end the night.

In Conclusion

All-in-all, I think this was the best tasting I've ever put on. The sweet boxes lined up on the table had everyone's mind racing the minute they walked in. Moving from a marvelous lowland malt to a highland and then showcasing both sherry and bourbon-aged Islay malts really highlighted the wonderful diversity of single malts across the various regions. But above all, the cask selections from Douglas Laing were simply phenomenal. Discovering how amazing Rosebank can be, and tasting the best Highland Park ever, and then getting two of the finest bottles ever from two of my favorite distilleries was the kind of night whisky maniacs live for.

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