Whisky (!) Review: Glenmorangie Tusail

3 11 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

A little PnP history.  Bring on the whisky.

A little PnP history. Bring on the whisky.

Let me bask in this one for a minute.  Last December, I got a whisky advent calendar for Christmas and on a lark decided to blog about it on a daily basis (which seemed like a great idea until about Day 9, although I’m doing it again this year, so call me a glutton for punishment).  It was my first experience writing about whisky and was a highly rewarding, if difficult, extension of my wine-soaked senses.  I was happy enough not to embarrass myself, happier still to get some positive feedback on the experiment, and now happiest of all to receive my very first sample bottle of whisky to write up on Pop & Pour.  Let’s make this happen.

This is the sixth version of Glenmorangie’s annual Private Edition release, a unique and special malt released in addition to the established Glenmorangie lineup.  Each rendition of the Private Edition is completely different from the one that preceded it, and many of the prior PEs focused on a particular type of maturation vessel to enhance the flavour and colour of the finished product, but this one is a new kind of mousetrap entirely.  It might be the world’s first single varietal malt whisky, made entirely from a rare and vanishing strain of barley called Maris Otter, a high-quality, low-yielding winter barley known for its wild rusticity and deep, rich flavour profile.  (I am as surprised as you are that there are top-end varietals of grain just like grapes.  Booze is so cool.)  Maris Otter barley fell out of favour with whisky distillers over the years due to higher-yielding strains coming available, but it was carefully kept alive by a few quality-conscious supporters.  After it came to the attention of Glenmorangie’s Whisky Director, he set out to secure a parcel of Maris Otter to make this one-off Private Edition spirit.

Single varietal barley.

Single varietal barley.

This bottling is called Tusail, which is the Scots Gaelic word for “originary” (which I wasn’t convinced was actually a word, but turns out to mean “constituting a source or cause”, so basically “original” + “primary”.  Sure.)  Apart from its Maris Otter source material, the other old school standout feature of this scotch is that it was “floor malted using traditional techniques”, a process that sounded so interesting that I had to look it up.  I knew that malting was the process by which the whisky grain (which can’t be immediately fermented like grape juice can) is steeped in water to trigger germination and convert the grain’s starch into sugar to make fermentation possible.  This procedure is now usually accomplished in large drums, often by suppliers before the grain even reaches the distillery, in an isolated environment and to controlled specifications.

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So is floor malting just malting done on the floor?  Unbelievably, yes!  The malting process used to (and in a few rare cases, still does) occur on the distillery floor, and that’s what Glenmorangie has done here.  This is tricky because it is much harder to create and sustain an ideal germination climate, as the floor of a large industrial factory is not exactly a controlled environment.  It doesn’t even necessarily have a flavour payoff in the end, but it is certainly a harkening back to the past and a hands-on way to get your sugars on.

The Tusail ends up being a study in contrasts, as Glenmorangie is known for being on the lighter, more delicate side of the whisky flavour spectrum (thanks in part to its crazily tall 5 metre+ stills, which were originally used for gin) while both Maris Otter barley and floor malting lead to more rough and rugged spirits.  Their intriguing marriage meets somewhere in the middle.  The whisky was a deep straw colour, like fresh honey, and I tasted it with a splash of water to tone down the 46% alcohol level.  It actually smelled a bit grainy, like dusty wheat, though this was quickly eclipsed by burnt sugar, candy corn, car tires, gingerbread and a pervasive maltiness, mildly yeasty and a little bit mealy, although not in an unpleasant way.

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The palate is where the Tusail exploded for me, starting with its immediately alluring luxurious satin texture, agile and smooth.  The flavours were a mix of the herbaceous (celery salt, autumn leaves, wet earth), caramel/nutty (peanut brittle, toffee, candied walnuts) and fruity (Asian pear, cantaloupe, Fig Newton), with a dash of icing sugar and cinnamon sticks and a cool woodsy touch like mint toothpicks.  It finished on almost a Cognac note, floral and elegant and high-toned.  The flavours lingered like smoke for well over a minute after I swallowed, indelibly imprinting their sensations, inviting them back even after I had sworn they were gone.

Cork Rating:  6.5/10 (The wood-on-wood is a nice touch.)

Cork Rating: 6.5/10 (The wood-on-wood is a nice touch.)

This is a crazy interesting and well-constructed dram, born from a yearning and a perspective that I now so commonly come across in the wine world.  It was fascinating for me to see the hyper-traditionalist/naturalist sentiment that has gripped segments of the wine community, this desire to avoid unnatural intervention and return to older methods seen to have a greater connection with the land and its products, extended to scotch whisky.  To me, it plays better in the spirit world, as Glenmorangie’s admirable desire to remain connected to the past manages to showcase new flavour and character without threatening the quality and integrity of the finished product.  If you’re a whisky lover, this is one to try – Kensington Wine Market is one place that currently carries it, although I’m sure there are others.  I’ve never given a whisky a score before, but let’s call this one…

91+ points

$100 to $120 CDN

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