Tasting the world's oldest whisky - and then some

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - and then some

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Tasting the world's oldest whisky - Thomas Kuuttanen and Stuart Urquhart On April 1 I was in Malmö, Sweden, on a very special mission. I was invited to taste the oldest whisky in the world - the Mortlach Generations 1939 75 YO from Gordon & MacPhail. This unique whisky was launched last Autumn, and is limited to only 100 crystal decanters.

At the Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in London last year a bottle of this whisky was served at a special masterclass. This was, however, not from one of the 100 crystal decanters (source). As far as I can tell this tasting in Malmö is the only occasion where one of the 100 crystal decanters have been opened and served.

This special tasting in Malmö was arranged by Symposion International AB, and they had brought in Stuart Urquhart, Whisky Supply Manager at Gordon & MacPhail to host the tasting. It was actually Stuart's great grandfather that selected and filled the cask back in 1939!

The build-up

I got a surprise email from Thomas Kuuttanen at Symposion a few weeks back, inviting me to this tasting. He was kind enough to also specify that this was not an April Fool prank. I immediately wrote back, accepting the invitation. I then (notice the order here) proceeded to check if I had anything else in my calendar for that day. Luckily, there was an open spot. Yay!

Now, how do you prepare for a tasting of such extremely old whisky? Can you compare this whisky to any other whisky? Can I give it a score? Is it even going to be any good?

Well, first of all - I have long since learnt that there is no automatic correlation between high age/price and high quality. I have tasted a few rather average whiskies that were very expensive (though not like the 250 000 SEK per bottle Mortlach Generations 75 YO!). I have also had a few old drams (1950s) that had an impressive nose but turned out to be way too oaky on the palate for me. So, reflecting on this, I knew I could not automatically expect this to be magical whisky.

When it comes to comparing whiskies and giving a score, I find that easier. My score is my way of trying to making something highly subjective into something slightly objective. This is ultimately only my personal opinion, and I score all whisky on the same scale (more here). I do not subscribe to the notion that a young whisky cannot have a high score, simply because it is young. If the whisky is good, it is good. This is an opinion, it is not fact. There is no right and wrong. So I will score any whisky I try, just because I want to and because I can!

The line-up

The tasting line-up was utterly decadent in its extravagance, just look at this:

  1. Highland Park 1973 36 YO, 43 %
    • cask #4980, 1st fill sherry butt
    • distilled 1973-04-12, bottled 2009-11-02
  2. Glen Grant 1955 57 YO, 40 %
    • cask #833, 1st fill sherry butt, chill filtered
    • distilled 1955-02-17, bottled 2012-09-28
  3. Linkwood 1954 56 YO, 40 %
    • cask #371, 1st fill sherry butt, chill filtered
    • distilled 1954-02-04, bottled 2010-11-24
  4. Strathisla 1953 58 YO, 43 %
    • cask #1614, 1st fill sherry butt, chill filtered
    • distilled 1953-12-19, bottled 2012-11-21
  5. Macallan Speymalt 1945 68 YO, 45,1 %
    • cask #106 & #109, 1st fill sherry hogsheads, un-chill filtered
    • distilled 1945-04-12, bottled 2013-08-15
  6. Mortlach Generations 1939 75 YO, 44,4 %
    • cask #2475, 1st fill sherry butt, un-chill filtered
    • distilled 1939-11-17, bottled 2014-11-18

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - pouring

The tasting

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - Stuart

I have a lot of respect for Symposion who decided to hold this tasting, and open these rare bottles. Yes, it was an expensive tasting (the cover price was SEK 3 795), but when you calculate the actual cost of the whiskies and the number of attendees, I cannot see that Symposion made any profit from the event.

Stuart Urquhart seemed a bit nervous at first when the tasting started, but soon found his stride. It was very obvious that he enjoyed the occasion and that presenting these whiskies, and the the 75 YO in particular, was something he took pride in.

The tasting started off a bit rushed, and a few minutes late. The Highland Park was said to be included in the line-up as a 'reference whisky', and it is a way younger whisky than the rest of the line-up. Still, I think we skipped over the Highland Park 1973 a bit too quickly, which was a pity as it is a very fine dram. Even if it is a youngster at "only" 36 YO, it is still a dram that deserves time and attention.

The whiskies were poured as we sat down. I do wish they had provided covers for the glasses, but they did not. The last dram, which we all looked forward to, was left to air for a good 45 minutes before we got to it. Next time I will bring my own covers!

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - the line-up

A delicate plate of hors d'oeuvre was served, which was a nice thought but not really thought through. The food was not used in the tasting itself, and it did give off a few aromas of its own. Once we had finished tasting the whiskies I tried the food, and while it was delicious, the tastes where far too powerful for the flight of whiskies we had been presented with. I was happy I did not take the food during the tasting.

The verdict

In summary I can honestly say that this flight of whisky was amazing. There was just one whisky that disappointed, and that was the Linkwood. It was way too oaky, on the level where it was not really pleasant to drink. I might be a bit over-sensitive to heavy oak influence, and this did not work for me at all.

The Mortlach 75 YO then? Well, it was surprisingly fresh and alive. I would never have guessed anywhere near as old as 75 YO for this whisky. Hardly any oakiness on the nose or the palate, but oh so delicate!

The highlight, for me, turned out to be the Macallan 1945. This is one of the best whiskies I have ever had. It was sublime! A perfect sherry matured whisky, rich and refined in every possible way. I get all dreamy just thinking about it...

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - the Macallan

Here are my (brief) tasting notes for the whiskies:

Highland Park 1973 36 YO, 43 %

Nose: Nice, light maltiness, soft and sweet peat, mild honey.

Taste: Fresh, light honey notes, a hint of mint.

Finish: Long, mild, a bit green, heather, heather honey, soft smoke.

Score: 91/100 (22/23/23/23)

Glen Grant 1955 57 YO, 40 %

Nose: Fresh, fruity, tropical, light Christmas spices.

Taste: Delicate spices, light smokiness, chewy.

Finish: Long and fresh.

Score: 91/100 (23+/23/22/23)

Linkwood 1954 56 YO, 40 %

Nose: Fruity, light, delicate, a bit darker thanthe previous drams, minty

Taste: Lots of oak and very dry. Way too much oak.

Finish: Very dry, perfume, mint, looong and very, very oaky.

Score: 79/100 (22/19/19/19)

Strathisla 1953 58 YO, 43 %

Nose: Berries, strawberries, cinnamon, just very cozy

Taste: Spicy, a bit oaky (borderline for me), fruity

Finish: Long, spicy, caramel, a bit of spring in its step. Very fine!

Score: 92/100 (23+/22+/24/23)

Macallan Speymalt 1945 68 YO, 45,1 %

Nose: Super delicate, spicy, refined and elegant, home made caramel pudding, dust, almonds, caramel, a bit dark, rich sherry notes. Simply amazing.

Taste: Spicy, caramel, quite fresh and lively, light tropical notes, dried fruits.

Finish: Long, hints of smoke, wet leaves, earthy, chewy

Score: 98/100 (25/24/25/24)

Mortlach Generations 1939 75 YO, 44,4 %

Nose: Almonds, caramel pudding, coconut, dust, delicate citrus notes, a whiff of smoke, very rich.

Taste: Soft oak (not too much! in fact surprisingly little), spicy, bright, lively, almost sparkling!

Finish: Long, rich, full, fantastic.

Balance: It's alive. Alive, I tell you!

Score: 95/100 (23+/24/24/24)

The bonus round

Magnus Fagerström, a good friend of mine, is crazier than most whisky nerds. He decided to bring along samples of the following three whiskies to this tasting, just to compare them to the Mortlach 75 YO! He was kind enough to let me have a small sip of each as well, and here are my extremely brief impressions:

Mortlach 1936/1972 Connoisseurs Choice (G&M), 43 %

A bit darker and more 'dirty' and rich than the 75 YO.

Score: 90/100

Glenlivet Generations 1940 70 YO (G&M), 45,9%

Lovey, a bit dark, medium oak influence.

Score: 92/100

Mortlach Generations 1938 70 YO (G&M), 46,1 %

More earthy and darker on the nose than the 75 YO. Darker and more spicy on the palate. Certainly a bit more oaky on nose and palate as well, although still not overwhelming in any way. Long and delightful finish.

Score: 93/100

The packaging

Before I finish this already long post, I have to add a bit more on the Mortlach Generations 1939 75 YO, and in particular the packaging and presentation. Here is a quote from Gordon & MacPhail on the topic:

Generations Mortlach 75 Years Old by Gordon & MacPhail is presented in the iconic teardrop-shaped Generations decanter. Each decanter is uniquely numbered and skilfully handcrafted with 75 multi-level “cuts”; each cut representing a year of the whisky’s maturation. The decanter sits on a white presentation plinth with two specially designed crystal glasses.

The decanter is packaged in a luxury Aniline leather travel bag and accompanied by a specially commissioned book, Seven Nights with Mortlach. Acclaimed whisky writer, Charles Maclean and international bestselling author, Alexander McCall Smith have joined forces to tell tales of Scotland, whisky and the people behind this special malt, accompanied by illustrations from up and coming Scottish artists.

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - unpacking

The bottle comes in a very big box, which also contains a booklet with instructions on how to unpack this special creation. The bottle itself even has a transport top, which you should exchange for the proper one...

Tasting the world's oldest whisky - Stuart Urquhart and Whisky Saga

Sláinte! - Thomas

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Please note that my participation on this tasting was  sponsored by Symposion. All the text and the opinions are my own, but you deserve to know.

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