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Glenmorangie & the Smoke House

Long before people were brewing craft beers out of artichokes, yesterday’s leftover salad ingredients and non-deciduous trees, the Scots had already mastered the art of taking a base spirit and producing dozens, maybe even hundreds, of different, delicious variations on it. They even came up with the right word to describe these variations – “expressions” – that come from taking a basic malt and aging or finishing it in different vessels or after having applied different degrees of peat or no peat at all. With all due lack of respect, so much of craft beermaking is, conversely, about concentrating more on what goes in rather than on the final taste – something the Scots seldom lose track of. Weird versus wonderful.

A metaphor: The Scots begin with a dollop of rich vanilla ice cream and sculpt it into a hundred different sundaes.

I was thinking about this recently when a friend and I were being driven to North Philly for the introduction of the ninth and latest expression of Glenmorangie master distiller John Lumsden’s Private Edition series. It is called “Spios” or “spice,” and it has been totally aged – not just finished – in American rye casks. And where there’s a new expression of Scotch, then there has to be a story behind it. This one has a younger Lumsden travelling in America before the turn of our century, a time when rye whiskey had not yet made a comeback and good examples of it were hard to find. But Lumsden found them, and a light bulb went off in his head. Today, that light bulb has brightened into the LED brilliance of Spios.

Anyway, when we finally got to Holt’s Cigar Bar where the event was being held – along with electronically connected imbibing events in Miami, Calgary and San Francisco – the large barroom was filled with about 80 or so revelers, mostly men in ties, the majority of whom were puffing cigars and talking at full volume while consuming Glenmorangie cocktails and nibbling on fancy hors d’oeuvres. In an age of smokeless interiors, I was entering into a blue-hazed den of antiquity.

Because Glenmorangie does not exhibit the pungency of peat, I thought it wry – or rye – that it was being presented in an atmosphere with a far higher smoke PPM score than would be found in any malt house on Islay. What was in the glass was pure Highland sweetness; what was in the atmosphere of Holt’s tasting room was pure Ardbegian. Now I know what it is like to be a slab of bacon in a Smithfield curing warehouse.

But, oddly, it wasn’t unpleasant. Although I have probably smoked fewer than two dozen cigarettes in my life – including those hand-rolled jobs – I do enjoy the occasional cigar. But if having a cigar on the veranda of a chateau in Bordeaux after a sumptuous dinner with fine wine is like post-coital sex, then what we were experiencing at Holt’s was a Fellini orgy. I jumped in.

We were able to wrangle two seats at the bar where I enjoyed alternating neat sips of Glenmorangie’s Original and Nectar d’Or, the latter of which happened to be my friend’s house brand. In front of us were three nosing glasses – fortunately protected from the cigar fog by small glass lids – of those two as well as Spios in the third glass.  Eventually, by magic of the internet, we were linked on multiple screens to Lumsden and his sidekick, Brendan McCarron, who proceeded to conduct a session of tell (about the origins of Spios) and taste (the three expressions). By the time we got to Spios, Bill & Brendan were into a full-throated routine that could have been a “Saturday Night Live” send-up of their own seminar. By the time we got to the Q&A, everyone was feeling fine on all sides of the screen.

Having for years reviewed both wine and spirits, I find that tasting events are totally different in each medium. With wine, the tasters generally tease out three or four dominant flavors, then comment on structure and ageability. Whiskey tasters, however, may reel off a couple of dozen different descriptors after just the nosing and first sip. Bill & Brendan had reached 18 different tastes and aromas by the time I lost count.  My own notes were sparse, as they generally are. Plus I had cheated and tasted early, before told too.

After adding one drop of water, I found the dominant characteristics of Spios to be a light-bodied texture with a delightful compendium of wood spices, orange and orange peel, a light toffee finish, a touch of sweetness, and the nice bite of saltiness that comes with all high-alcohol spirits. But no smokiness. I could thoroughly enjoy Spios any evening, sip after sip, with or without a cigar.

An hour later, I arrived home where my wife was fixing dinner after returning from her studio where she had spent the afternoon painting.  My wife possesses a keen nose for aromas as well as my sometimes-fishy behavior. Even before I could say hello, she greeted me with, “Take off those smoky clothes and leave them in the garage.”

Another original expression.

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