Time and whisky are inexplicably tied. Indeed, a single malt is the metaphorical and literal distillation of one place in a single moment. It is the salinic sea-spray laden gusts of wind which roar into maturation warehouses and are breathed in by porous oak casks, imparting the whisky therein with a coastal note.
It’s the earthy, heather-accented smoke flavouring the barley with peat hand-dug from the bracken-topped bog behind the distillery. Peat which looks, feels and burns entirely differently to that from a field just a few miles away.
It’s the parcel of ex-port casks which the distillery managed to get their hands on that summer; the wine-soaked wood infusing that particular batch with notes of red berries and ripe plums.
And it’s the hands which operated the copper stills that day. Those who let fermentation run slightly longer than usual, creating a batch of malt more fruity than the last. Those who cut the raw, unaged spirit running from the stills ever so slightly differently each time, guaranteeing consistent inconsistencies from cask to cask.
The variables are countless. To take a bottle of Scotch and attempt to pinpoint the source of each flavour and texture within it would be a folly. We should instead make peace with the notion that even a scientific pursuit like distillation embodies more than a small degree of chance and circumstance.
It is, then, perhaps not so surprising that old and rare whisky is having its day. The prices are bonkers; paying thousands of pounds per bottle for some woody alcohol is objectively silly. It is. But, it’s also forgivable, to a degree.
Make peace with the notion that even a scientific pursuit like distillation embodies more than a small degree of chance and circumstance
Even more so when it is from one of Scotland’s ‘lost distilleries’. Those which have been shuttered for decades, often the victim of the whisky lochs of the early 1980s; the perfect storm of dwindling demand and careless oversupply which proved fatal for many names in the trade.
Much of their surviving stock was quickly sold on the cheap to blending houses by liquidators seeking to recover something from a failed business. Scarce few casks were kept aside by independent bottlers who sought to save spirit from these once venerable distilleries.
These surviving stocks are the last of legacies which ran for hundreds of years. The last liquid which ties the past to the present and which allows us to taste a spirit which can be replicated no longer.
One such bottler was Gordon & MacPhail, the family-owned spirit merchant which wisely held onto such stocks. One of the more obscure names among those stocks is Convalmore, a Speyside whisky that even many in trade know very little of.
As a workhorse site for what is now Diageo, virtually all of Convalmore’s spirit was used in the household blended whiskies of the day. And when deemed surplus to requirements during the mid 1980s, when distillery owners were gratuitously adding capacity while on the cusp of a cliff-end drop in demand, it was shuttered indefinitely.
As it was never a branded single malt in its own right, there was little need to hold back any surviving stock. We don’t know how many casks remain but even the spirit laid down in Convalmore’s last few months will now be over 40 years of age, around when many aged malts rapidly start to lose strength and plummet towards the 40% abv mark, below which they cannot legally be called Scotch. And given that very few casks have been released in recent years, there may be even less remaining stock than some in the trade thought.
The most recent bottling is that of a 1975 ex-bourbon cask from Gordon & MacPhail’s Private Collection which has yielded just 138 bottles of 46 year old malt.
At 47.8%, it may have had the strength in it to see 50 years old but Gordon & MacPhail is fastidious in its approach to bottling old whiskies; they are disgorged from the wood as soon as they reach their “peak”, the point by which the whisky has extracted the desired flavours from the oak. Prolonged aging may make for better age statements, and higher prices, but not necessarily better whiskies.
And that becomes clearer when tasting this Convalmore which is light and delicate; a re-fill cask – one that has been used to mature other malts previously – was a savvy call by the stillmen who laid this down in the mid-1970s. First-fill wood would have almost certainly trounced out these soft, lemony notes which sit on the nose but carry through onto the palate. This really is rather gentle at first, and almost too short in the front palate.
That said, it fills out over a few additional seconds with toasted almonds, a sort of burnt sugary thing and only then do the classic American oak vanilla notes come to the fore. The finish is slow rising but hangs around patiently while the texture thickens up into a mouth coating creaminess.
Some will find this too nuanced and almost underpowered, at first. But given time - both in the glass and on the tongue - to open up, this becomes a truly beautiful dram. Regrettably, it is also one we probably won’t have the chance to try again.
1975 Convalmore by Gordon & MacPhail, £3,250, thewhiskyvault.com