Extra-aged Scotches crossing boundaries

They're doing very interesting things these days in Scotland's Glen of Tranquility, maturing whiskies in non-traditional ways.

Moet Hennessy, the international conglomerate that owns the Glemorangie distillery, can't be accused of standing pat. Although Glenmorangie -- the Scots Gaelic word for the aforementioned tranquility label -- is the No. 1 single malt in Scotland and one of the top-sellers worldwide, it has introduced a new line of what it is calling "extra matured'' or "extra aged'' whiskies.

I had the opportunity to try two of them at a by-invitation-only tasting at the British Consul General's residence in Manhattan last week. I think Glenmorangie is onto something big.

Three different Scotches 10 years or older are involved in the bold marketing project. Each gets at least an additional two years of maturation in used barrels that once contained bourbon or sauternes wine or port wine. Meanwhile, Glenmorangie is phasing out its Madeira and Burgundy wood finished whiskies.

The extra aging of the new products pushes the usual 43% alcohol by volume (ABV) level to 46, resulting in a trio of 92-proof
whiskies instead of the usual 86.

The names of the new products may sound French or international in scope, but Moet Hennessy USA's director of communications says that's a misperception.

"The names of all three products come from Gaelic words or phrases,'' Jeff Pogash told me. "That way they honor where they come from.''

Lasanta, the sherry cask matured whisky, means "warmth.'' Quinta Ruban, the port cask aged product, comes from "quinta'' for Portugal's wine estates and "ruban,'' Gaelic for "ruby.'' The sauternes product is called Nectar D'Or, with both French and Gaelic using "or'' for "gold.''

The idea of extra-aging spirits in used barrels from other products no longer is unusual in the industry. It has become, instead, a matter of how inventive distillers can be in their combinations.

The Canadian icon Crown Royal, for example, recently introduced Crown Royal Cask No. 16, an ultra-premium blend of more than 50 different individually aged whiskies extra aged in used Limousin oak cognac barrels.

On the other end of the scale, some distillers are making a point of offering high-strength, single-aged uncut whiskies with no tinkering. The most recent examples: Four Roses Barrel Strength Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, a 13-year-old offering, and Wild Turkey American Spirits 15-year-old bourbon bottled at 100 proof.

The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban has been aged in used bourbon barrels, then transferred for extra aging in port barrels. The result is a lovely combination of the essences that make bourbon so unique as well as the additional smoothing from the port-soaked wood.

Quinta Ruban envelops the tongue in a warm, smooth coating then moves on to release notes of chocolate, caramel and even a touch of mint. The complexity of flavors and aromas make this a whisky worth lingering over.

Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or goes from bourbon barrel aging to finishing in used sauternes casks. Sauternes is a sweet, delicate French wine, usually served as a dessert wine, made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot.'' Thus, the characteristics it imparts to the 10-year-old Scotch during the two-year extra aging process are truly unique.

The Nectar D'Or contains some of the distinct flavor notes of the partially raisined Sauternes wine, with a pleasing golden color. Fruit, honey, a touch of spice and a long, lingering finish make this a desireable whisky.

What we're seeing is the retreat of the traditional smoky Scotch whiskies in the face of emerging blends that cross all category lines. To many consumers, it is not an unwelcome change.

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