Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review: Glenrothes Select Reserve, 1998, and 1985

Glenrothes was mostly known to me prior to this year as "the distillery with the funny looking bottles," and one of the distilleries whose names I could never quite figure out how to pronounce.  It turns out, it's pronounced Glen Roth-is, with a short 'o.'  The funny looking bottles are inexplicably a hit with women, and though I'm not sure if it's still the case, the labels were once filled in with ink, by hand.  Glenrothes also does not artificially color any of their Scotches.  Most notably, since 1993, Glenrothes sets themselves apart by bottling vintages, rather than specific age statements.  This seems rather confusing at first, but I find it pretty interesting.  I find bottlings still correspond to typical ages for malts; for instance, the 1998 was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2010, so it's a twelve year old.  What I think might be interesting, though, is that by bottling vintages by year, rather than mixing expressions from several years, we might see a nice variety begin to develop, with similarly aged expressions varying from year to year.

Glenrothes puts out a "sampler pack," a box set of 100 ml bottles with three different expressions, a practice I truly wish more distilleries would follow.  Glenfiddich does a three pack of  minis of their 12, 16, and 18, and Talisker releases a significantly more expensive set of three mini bottles, but that's the extent that I've found so far.  So, the Glenrothes variety pack was my purchase from Whisk(e)y-a-Go-Go.  I like the idea of trying three different malts from one distillery, and my wife loves the wee little funny shaped bottles, and that one of the malts was distilled the year she was born.
Glenrothes Select Reserve
Price:  $45 - 50
Strength:  40% ABV

Select Reserve.  Right from the name, you know we're in trouble here.  Whiskies with ostentatious names like "Select," "Classic," or "Legend" in lieu of an age statement are typically anything but.  Glenrothes Select Reserve is no exception; this is simply the worst single malt I've ever had.

I mean, I really had no expectations of this malt.  I bought the sampler for the 1998 and the 1985.  I figured, at worst, the Select Reserve would be like Bowmore Legend or Auchentoshan Classic:  a bit rough or undistinguished.  But no, the Select Reserve is the first single malt I've ever had that I flat out didn't like.  My tasting notes start out with the word NASTY, underlined.  What on earth went into this bottle?  My first impression is a nose full of alcohol, which is confirmed at the first sip.  This is a pretty rough, young malt, and honestly, for $45 or so a bottle, really ought to have been matured a bit longer.  The initial flavors behind the alcohol aren't bad; there's a fair bit of caramel or toffee, and some fruit notes.  Unfortunately, these are quickly dominated by a strong, unpleasant note of overripe fruit, a really strong flavor that I've actually tasted in a blend before, though I can't quite place which one.  A splash of water dulls the alcohol fairly well, but this only lets that nasty note of rotten fruit develop further.  Amazing...this is the first single malt I've ever had that I simply didn't want to finish.  I downed the second dram in a shot glass, a method of drinking I'd pretty much given up years ago.  50 points (F)  I'd rather drink corn whiskey from a mason jar.

Glenrothes 1998
Price:  $55 - 60
Strength:  43% ABV

Somewhere in the aging process, something good happens to Glenrothes.  The Select Reserve is simply the worst single malt I've ever had, yet the 1998 is a very pleasant dram.  I'd actually first tried this at last month's ALS benefit, and found it a pleasant if unremarkable Speyside.  My second dram grew on me a bit more.  The initial flavors are lemon or orange, with caramel or toffee notes taking over.  The alcohol is still noticeable, but a drop or two of water cuts the burn.  I found some nice, mellow sherry notes, and an interesting finish, with unexpected hints of mint and pepper.  The mouthfeel could be bigger or smoother, but the finish is decently long.  Overall, a good dram...miles above the Select Reserve.  Score: 80 points (B-)

Glenrothes 1985
Price:  $100 - 120
Strength:  43% ABV

Glenrothes really responds well to aging!  The 1998 was miles above the Select Reserve, and likewise, the 1985 is simply light years beyond the 1998.  The 1985 was bottled in 2005, and thus is a 20 year old malt.  An additional eight years in the cask lend the malt wonderful complexity in both taste and texture.

Right from the nose, this is an impressive whisky.  My initial impression is of pralines and dried fruit, a really nice, deep aroma.  My wife who is 7 months pregnant and currently can't stand the smell of Scotch, smiled and said "Wow, that smells amazing!"  A first sip brings huge flavors of honey and a wonderful creamy texture; this whisky just coats the tongue and sticks to the mouth.  The honey sweetness continues throughout, and notes of toffee and raisins slowly develop.  This mixture of honey, toffee, and dried fruit is excellent and balanced, and lasts right through a long, smooth finish.  The addition of water (three drops from my official Balvenie dropper, a piece of WAGG loot) ups the toffee, and increases the creaminess, but diminishes the dried fruit and obvious sherry flavors.  I like to dry a dram both with and without water for the purposes of tasting, but with this malt, I don't find it really necessary.

Overall, I am really impressed with the Glenrothes 1985.  It's well matured, well crafted, and simply a wonderful dram.  It's not cheap, but absolutely worth the occasional splurge.  90 points (A-)

Despite the Select Reserve essentially wasting a bottle in this sampler, I am very glad I got this.  It's a great introduction to a previously unknown (to me, anyway) Speyside distillery.  If only more distillers or distributors would follow suit, and start releasing variety packs along these lines!

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  1. Wow, 0 points, now I want to buy a bottle just to fully appreciate its extraordinary nastiness. "Go ahead and add a couple of drops of water to the select reserve and you'll taste the nasty, rotting fruit really open up." This raises a dilemma for the scorecard page, where I guess I assumed that any whisky we review would at least be drinkable enough to deserve a 60. How about if I make the new lower bound 50 and assign that to the select reserve? The grade scale can explain:

    50-59: F. Clean the sink drain with it.

    The 1985 sounds really nice and actually not a bad price for a 20-year-old. However, if I spend that much on a whisky these days, I'm going to insist that it be at least 46 % and non chill-filtered. I am quite a snob about that :-)

  2. I agree that the Glenrothes' bottles are weirdly adorable! And I don't even drink Scotch.

  3. Jacob - Fair enough, I suppose 50 is low enough. I certainly didn't expect the Select Reserve to be quite THAT bad.

    Beth - The bottles in the sampler pack are also quite wee, in addition to having the unique Glenrothes shape. I believe wee-ness also contributes heavily to cuteness.