Friday, May 31, 2013

Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Vertical Tasting Revisited

The very first whisky review I ever wrote was about Glenmorangie's Original and Extra Matured expressions. I had stumbled upon the Discovery Pack, which contained a full bottle of the Original and miniature bottles of the EM whiskies. A good review from John Hansell and a reasonable price convinced me to take the plunge. The rest, as they say, is history (and an abundance of single malt in my liquor cabinet).

So last summer when I noticed that 4x100 mL packs of the same whiskies were available for sale in Oregon, I snapped one up. I had been interested in re-tasting the whiskies to see how my palate had changed over the intervening year and a half. While they absolutely blew me away at first, I wasn't sure if I would hold them in the same esteem after trying dozens of other single malts since then. So I did a couple of tasting sessions - here are the results.

Glenmorangie Original

Nose: very cleanly malty, honey and caramel, floral, jammy berries, vanilla, grain, sugar cookies. After adding a few drops of water, the sugar cookie dough becomes a bit more raw, more vanilla comes out, the floral notes become more grassy, and some grape fruitiness emerges.

Taste: a sour citrus punch up front that fades towards the back, which slowly shifts towards honey sweet malt with sugar cookies, vanilla, and light oak, fading out with green floral notes, lemon peel and pith, cacao and coffee beans. After dilution, the palate becomes more integrated, with the sweetness fading more quickly into tannic oak and black pepper with a sour tinge.

Finish: lightly bitter oak, with pepper, floral malt, and vanilla

Bottled at 43%, this whisky makes a fantastic introduction to the world of single malt whisky, presenting its flavors clearly without being overwhelming. This one changed the least for me, retaining its pleasantly light and malty character. I could drink it just about any day of the week and be perfectly happy with my choice. Glenmorangie's spirit seems to excel with a light touch from ex-bourbon barrels, accenting the spirit without squashing the underlying spirit. I can understand why people might move on from this after getting a handle on the basic character of single malt whisky, but it's a lovely one to keep coming back to.

Glenmorangie Lasanta

Nose: heavy sherried fruit, vanilla, light nougat, bubblegum, almond skins, rather dry, dark chocolate, slightly savory oloroso notes, malt sweetness underneath struggling to get out, a little floral and funky. After adding a few drops of water, the malt got a bit more strength and became somewhat nutty, the sherry became more recognizably oloroso, it became more savory overall, and the nougat popped out more, and some mint emerged.

Taste: moderately sweet with a little sourness up front, definite sherry presence, something nutty, then black pepper and oak tannins, a hint of chocolate at the back, and subtle floral malt underneath everything. After dilution, it became more integrated, with more balance between creamy malt and sherry sweetness, which fades into sherry/tannin bittersweetness, light creamy nougat, mint overtones, and pink bubblegum.

Finish: savory oak tannins and dried fruit, with some floral malt, mint, and chocolate.

It's a shame, but this whisky just feels out of kilter. The heavy blanket of sherry seems awkward, ill at ease with the lightly floral base malt. While the malt hasn't been completely smothered, it has to fight to make itself shine through. This seems contradictory to the Glenmorangie formula. I will admit that it gets a bit more balanced with water, though the nose loses so much intensity that it doesn't seem like a worthwhile trade-off. I think the ideal would be something more like Aberlour 12 Year - blending together ex-bourbon casks with ex-sherry casks to let each component shine while making a more harmonious whole. The cask finishing strategy is too heavy-handed for Glenmorangie's malt. More broadly, it's interesting to see how this has gone from being my favorite of the bunch to last in line.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

Nose: very rich, sweet wine notes over malt, lots of raspberries and blackberries, some cacao and cinnamon, floral around the edges. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes muted, with some creamy nougat, diffuse sweetness, fresh wood, more prominent cinnamon, malt, and berry compote.

Taste: integrated port, berry, and malt notes with black pepper up front, bittersweet overall with a lot of creaminess, slides into bitter almonds, tannins, and a burst of red berries at the back alongside some cacao/chocolate. After dilution, it becomes thinner but creamier, with less well-defined flavors, the oak tannins and pepper notes become more prominent but get a certain mustiness, and the chocolate notes become a little artificial like chocolate sauce.

Finish: tannic, port, a hint of malt and pepper, chocolate

Much like port wine itself, this is very much a dessert dram. Lots of berry sweetness, which is just held in check by pepper and oak. I feel like I have to be in the right mood to fully appreciate this one. While it hasn't completely overwritten the classic Glenmorangie malt and floral notes, the port cask comes in with a pretty heavy hand as well. Either using refill port casks or a bit less time might give it a more balanced and less cask-driven character, which I would be easier for me to appreciate. With all that said, the biggest flaw is how much it falls apart with water. I only add three drops and all of a sudden it's an incoherent mess. For being bottled at a very respectable 46%, it just drowns at the slightest provocation. Getting the most out of this whisky requires leaving it alone.

Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or

Nose: wine, toasted French oak, sweet floral raisins, a hint of malt, honey, caramel, vanilla cream soda, wildflowers, and orange peel. After adding a few drops of water, there is much more floral malt, wine integrates and retreats a bit, gobs of vanilla come out, and there are cinnamon and French oak notes.

Taste: citrus notes throughout, syrupy sweet up front, then big French oak spice in the middle, lots of underlying malt, light wine tannins at the back with bittersweet chocolate. After dilution, it becomes more integrated and bittersweet overall.

Finish: light oak tannins, a bit of sour wine/fruit, cinnamon, some residual malt

"When vice becomes virtue..." This was my least favorite of the bunch the first time I tried these whiskies, because it didn't seem to offer much on top of the basic formula of the Original. Now that seems like a plus rather than a minus. Unlike the other finishes, the sauternes casks seem to augment the Glenmorangie template - malt, floral notes, and fruit - without overwhelming it. There are wine notes and it is noticeably sweeter than the original, but it doesn't go off the rails. I also really like what the French oak brings with it, though I'd be even happier with a straight new French oak cask finish minus the wine to get something like Glenlivet French Oak or Compass Box Spice Tree. I feel like that would more cleanly integrate with the spirit.

To sum up, with the exception of the Original, my opinions have more or less flipped. Sherry is out, port is still somewhere in the middle, and sauternes is on top. Overall, I think the lesson is that I'm now less interested in wine casks being the dominant player in a whisky - I'd much rather they act as accents on the fundamental malt flavors. Hopefully I can come back to these again in another couple of years for another spot-check.

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