For the tasting of GLENDRONACH CASK STRENGHT BATCH 9, Stewart "Keeper of the Quaich" BUCHANAN's appointment was not at the soon to be bi-centennial distillery, but next to James ALLARDICE's former home (the GLEN HOUSE).
He wants to show us a gravestone in the herbs before leading us into the dining room of the Georgian house.
The plaque reads "Esmeralda my flamenco dancer 1808-1832 RIP". A strange inscription! This aroused our curiosity, as we had come to taste a whisky.
Stewart then tells us that the story of this dancer is completely linked to the tasting of batch 9 as it refers to an event that takes place every year at the distillery at the same time as the release of the annual batch of this cask strength.
Let's start with the story. Who is this Esmeralda? Stewart tells us that the story of this flamenco dancer is closely linked to James Allardice, and to one of the distillery's specificities: the ageing in Xeres casks.
The story takes place in 1830 during a stay of James Allardice ("Cobbie" for his friends) in the south of Spain in Andalusia, in Jerez de la Frontera. As he had been doing for the past 5 years, "Cobbie" and his team came to Spain to look for the Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso casks that would be used to age the distillates. But this time, during an evening at a bodega, he saw a Spanish dancer (the famous "Esmé") and fell completely in love with her.
OK these things happen even to a respectable Scottish Laird. The problem was that Cobbie, being a good Scottish Laird, was married and the Spanish exoticism was not entirely welcome in Scotland. A second problem arose when, after several parties, the famous dancer also fell in love with him! The impossible love of the Laird and the dancer (enough to write a book). Anyway, we are not here to talk about any other love story than whisky !
The fact is that our dear Cobbie, did not want to leave Spain without his dancer! So he came up with an idea so that no one would know about it: put her in a big sherry butt of pedro-ximenes (empty of course). Everything was set up to bring her back by boat to the highlands, but the month and a half crossing took its toll on the famous dancer. Already not very thick at the start (and despite some victuals) Cobbie found her rather dry (and especially dead) on arrival. OK, James was good at trading whiskies, but when it came to transporting passengers... The advantage is that his wife didn't know anything about it. The plate where we were was at the bottom of the garden, so she never knew it existed.
But what does this drama have to do with our tasting?
Stewart tells us that he will explain by tasting the CASK STRENGHT BATCH 9. To do so, he takes us to the famous GLEN HOUSE (built in 1771) which has housed many of the owners of the distillery and has seen almost two centuries of distillery activity. As he leads us into the recently refurbished tasting room, he warns us that the legend says that the ghost of the Spanish dancer haunts the place. So we understand the reason for the appointment in front of the tombstone and the story!
However, once in the room, Stewart warns us that supernatural events sometimes take place there, because, still according to the legend, from time to time, the dancer's ghost likes to come and taste some of the distillates presented on the shelves. He also tells us that his presence is all the more noticeable when the annual cask strength batch is released! The circle is complete and for once the shivers that run through our bodies are not only linked to the fact of tasting a whisky but to a feeling of fear.
But let's keep our minds focused on our tasting.
After the fruitiness of batch 7 and the spicy power of the 61% alc of the magnificent batch 8 (see the tasting here), what does batch 9 have in store for us (Third batch under the Rachel Barrie era) ?
Stewart presents it to us: of course, as in the past, there was no intermediary between the Pedro-Ximenes casks (the majority in this batch) and the Oloroso casks (which are in the background for this batch) and the bottle that Stewart is holding in his hand. This ageing has given it a nice light amber colour (which shows a moderately long ageing). But above all, on paper, the aromas are sweeter (Xeres PX) than dry (Xeres Oloroso). Its degree is "much lower" than the previous one (59.4% against 61% ;) ), but I don't think that's enough to turn it into water!
Just as Stewart was about to serve us, there was a loud bang. The front door of the room had just slammed shut! My god! Could it be the Spanish dancer inviting herself to the tasting? The fact is that all the guests looked at each other in a rather heavy silence! Only Stewart continued to serve our drinks with a little smile on his face.
Brrrr, back to the tasting of the GLENDRONACH CASK STRENGTH BATCH 9.
It is feverishly that we approach the nose of the glass. Already from afar we detect a beautiful smell of roasting, sugar and caramel. With fear in our stomachs we feel that we are going to have a good time.
When we plunge our nose deeper into the glass we discover a certain malty and camphorated freshness (youth and strength of the alcohol certainly). At one point we even detect a hint of cold tobacco.
The second passage puts the distillate back in the great Glendronach lineage with beautiful sweet notes of PX with ripe black fruits and spices that tickle then sting the eyelashes.
Just as on a third pass I feel a winey side and sun-kissed grapes, an empty glass spills on a coffee table.
My God, is the story of the dancer true? The tasting turns into a scare.
Stewart tells us "keep cool, it's normal! " ! He's funny !!!
Certainly to take our minds off things, before tasting the whisky, he changes the subject and tells us about the four stills of the distillery (one of them with a neck closer to a saxophone than to a swan neck). Their objective is to keep only the heaviest and most powerful molecules, and they give a distillate which responds very well with the wood exchanges of the sherry casks!
To calm us down, he invites us to slip a drop of water into our glass. Of course, it also calms the distillate and brings out chocolate and malty notes.
With his mind clear again (but for how long), he calls out "slainte mhath" and the tasting begins.
On the palate the distillate shows a great density of red fruits and heat. A few seconds after entering the mouth, a fine spicy bite appears on the tip of the tongue. Afterwards, it warms up more and more and reveals a thick buttery and pastry side. A few seconds pass and a furtive hint of bitterness appears. It precedes an end of tasting on woody notes linked to the young age of the distillate.
Overall, the memory will be sweet and pastry-like. The strength of the distillate is rather well controlled and not aggressive.
After swallowing this distillate, the finish will be moderately long on star anise and on a mellow impression. It leaves a sweetness in the mouth.
With water it is just sugar with just a hint of bitterness on the tongue.
The empty glass leaves a farmhouse malt but also very red fruit driven.
So it is finally confident and reassured that we finish the tasting. The 59.4% alcohol seems to have an effect and gives a certain assurance.
But that was without counting on the fact that once outside the house, we discovered a strange cloud in the blue sky of Forgue. It looked like a woman's face that seemed to be watching us....a Spanish dancer's face perhaps!