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April 11, 2013

Cutty Collaborates

I have a whisky pen-friend, and his name is Jason R. Craig. Now and again he writes to me with news about his brand (everyone should have one) and occasionally there is a sample of liquid attached.

Jason happens to be custodian of blended Scotch whisky, Cutty Sark, a label of seemingly irrepressible energy. ‘You can’t discover a new ocean until you have the courage to leave the shore’ reads my new favourite mug, courtesy of Cutty round about Easter time. They took this mantra to heart recently with two projects worthy of mention: a new blend unashamedly affiliated with America’s darkest days of Prohibition, and another expression put together by a couple of bloggers as hyperactive as they are.

Few Scotch whisky brands acknowledge that the CEOs of today owe their territorial and economic pre-eminence to the deeply clandestine efforts of their predecessors. When America was desperate for a drink, but legal statute represented something of an impediment, Scotch whisky was not about to abandon its transatlantic customers. For some time this refusal to allow police to greatly hinder profit failed to come off as strictly commendable, but Cutty Sark will soon launch a celebration of their own audacity in the 1930s: the Prohibition Edition. With a nod to Cutty’s past alliance with Captain Bill McCoy, it is a ‘reimagining of the whisky that made Cutty Sark America’s favourite Scotch – even before it was legal’.

Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell was tasked with creating a deep and powerful blend, produced in the most traditional manner. Bottled at 100 proof, it is nevertheless hoped that a smooth and complex delivery will result.

Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition 50% (to be released in the USA, then other markets in 2013)

Colour – full honey gold.

Nose – toasted cereals, then the aroma of a heavily-used Scalextric track: singed and hot. The smoke gives way to a dab of spice (nutmeg builds later on) and a fixing dried fruitiness. Peanut butter ice cream. Tart lemon curd, more warming spice and marshmallow sweetness.

Palate – creme caramel and honeycomb. The alcohol is very well-balanced and maximises the sweet, gentle flavour. A spicy tail with barley sugar and vanilla.

Finish – progressively drying on a toased oakiness with a hint of butterscotch.

With water the nose became much fruitier, with baked apple, peach and especially apricot. The peat supplied only a crunchy texture with a fragrance of gingerbread men with time. The palate was soft and sweet with abundant cereals and earthy peat for balance, leading into a short finish with tropical fruit impressions of kiwi and passion fruit.

So…?      I was really impressed by the liquid on show here. Indeed, the serve Cutty Sark has in mind (or had in mind, back to Prohibition days) is manifested perfectly in this robust yet easy-drinking blend. I can foresee a great deal of today’s whisky drinkers slinging this down their necks quite happily, much as their forebears would have done under very different circumstances. In fact, I am seriously tempted by a bottle of this when it emerges in the UK very soon. I tried it in a highball with equal parts whisky and soda, some Bitter Truth orange bitters and lemon peel. I conclude that this would make a perfect summer mixer.

Irrespective of a brand’s activities back in murkier times, modern day blending operations have an ivory tower feel to them. Only highly-qualified and long-apprenticed blenders are given the keys to the honed, established DNA of the blended whisky in order to create the next iteration of the brand. Not so Cutty Sark, when they collaborated with Neil and Joel of Caskstrength.net. Though 90 years old last month, the brand is happy to indulge young upstarts.

The decision on the part of Caskstrength to release a blended whisky for ‘C’ in their A-Z of whisky series came as a surprise to some, but the ambitious bloggers have – I feel – judged this bottling run sagely. Blended whisky deserves far more exposure, especially in terms of its creative, experimental side. With renowned marque such as Cutty Sark on board, this project boasted every possible advantage: intriguing stocks to ‘play’ with, as well as undeniable expertise to call upon. Kirsteen Campbell was again on hand to direct Neil and Joel’s blending efforts in order that they remained true to the brand’s flavour heritage, but concocted something unique.

Only 500 bottles, tipping the scale at 51.4%, were released late last month, and some are still available at Master of Malt. How did the boys fare?

Caskstrength and Carry On Cutty Sark 51.4% £35

Colour – fresh and clean gold.

Nose – an immediate toasty sweetness at first which hints at grain spirit, but the subtle weight puts one in mind of the golden fruits of Speyside single malts. Vanilla ice cream, in a cone. A teasing rum-like sweetness, returning to the lime pith-like grain. Demerara sugar, chewy apple and caramel.

Palate – interplay of cereal, candied orange and ginger then lemon appears on top of a puff of peat smoke. The strength keeps everything focused.

Finish – continues on a drying, smoky theme but returns to barley sugar, lemon zest and the lightest oak. Gooseberry sharpness late on begs for another sip. Clever blending!

Adding a little water, more vanilla, honey and mascarpone appeared on the nose with a berry richness and freshly baked shortbread. Dessert is served! A spicier palate developed with ginger and a pronounced honey flavour. Lavender and a grassy maltiness were very appealing with a curious muesli and Cointreau tail. The oak emerged more fully in the finish, with a coconut fragrance and more spice in the shape of nutmeg and cinnamon.

So…?      This is some achievement on the part of Caskstrength and Cutty Sark: a blend that out-blends blends. By this I mean that all of the best flavours and aromas of a sturdy, satisfying blended Scotch are present and intensified, and the result is a product of far more versatility than their ‘B’ bottling, the otherwise excellent single cask BenRiach. At £35 it is a genuine bargain for such an assured performer and I can only hope that Joel and Neil have been making enquiries to Dewar’s about their ‘D’ bottling…

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