Delicate. Fragile. Brittle.
They're synonyms, but their conotations depict increasing levels of vulnerability. There's more art and pathos in delicacy. Fragility depicts something whole that has the potential to be shattered if mishandled. Brittle paints a picture of underlying structural uncertainty, an anticipation of a rendering.
Whisky can take on any of these characteristics, especially as it gets older. It does not necessarily keep getting better the longer it's confined in the oak. Harsh edges are refined with barrel time, power becomes grace. But to a point. The whisky can become over-oaked or it can be mellowed into silence. Thus choosing when to bottle a barrel is a cautious science. Time and nature can be fickle with whisky. And when the angels descend to take their share, alcohol content isn't the only thing they depart with.
I have a difficult time sussing out elements of gentle whiskies. Currently my palate is drawn to rollicking young barrel-strength ryes and booming Scotch peat storms. It wasn't always that way, but one's tastes change. Twenty-one years ago, I was listening to MC Hammer. Twenty years ago, I was listening to Poison. Nineteen years ago, I was listening to Mike Oldfield. Eighteen years ago, I was listening to U2. Seventeen years ago, The Who. Sixteen years ago, I was drinking Coors Light and doing shots of Skyy and Tanqueray. Et cetera.
Its doors shut in 1993 after almost 200 years of production, the Rosebank distillery is now gone; its land sold to a developer and its copper stills stolen. When it was up and running, Rosebank's stills produced a triple-distilled whisky. The third round of distillation -- a practice shared by many now-defunct Lowland distilleries -- produced a softer, lighter spirit than that of the usual double-distillation practiced by the great majority of Scotland's whisky makers. Auchentoshan is the only Scotch whisky distillery that regularly runs a third pass, though Glenkinchie has a spirit that almost mimics the hushed style. Some Scottish distilleries, like Springbank, BenRiach, and Bruichladdich, produce occasional triple-distilled whiskys, but for the most part, Ireland's Midleton Distillery remains the largest practitioner of this process.
Bottler: Murray McDavid (Mission series)
Age: 21 years (1990-2011)
Maturation: Bourbon barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 54.6%
Limited bottling: 270
This Rosebank, from Murray McDavid, is delicate. It isn't falling apart, it isn't silent, it doesn't go blank after a couple drips of water. But it is soft as wilting rose petals. It was thus a challenge for this writer.
Its color is Sauvignon Blanc. The nose leads with vanilla beans, vanilla ice cream, and bourbon. Then it's pound cake, ripe peaches, and orange hard candies. So much comes from the oak and it only intensifies with time in the glass. The palate, though, is full of malt. It's sweet at the start, then the ethyl heat rolls in. Lemon zest, chlorine, some sour fruit candy, a little wood grain, then a tiny bit of vanilla. Its finish is extensive, probably much thanks to the cask strength ABV. There's a pleasant sour lemon squeeze, more vanilla, and a gentle wave of flower blossoms.
WITH WATER (approx. 43% ABV)
The nose becomes much more herbal, think juniper and other gin-like notes. There are ripe peaches and rotting apples, some mild cheese and pencil shavings. Sweetness and vanilla at the palate's start again. The alcohol still pinches a bit. Underneath that are fresh oranges and pipe tobacco. The finish is a bit mouth drying, but very mild. Some malt and barley sugar, maybe? It's certainly candied, along with the continuing notes of vanilla and pipe tobacco.
It didn't do much for me at first sip that night. The presidential election results had been called and the time was closer to midnight than eleven. I wondered if I was too tired to fully experience this whisky. Or perhaps this was just too quiet of a dram for me.
But with patience and time, I could see (and smell) its benefits. It's likely not one of the best recent Rosebank releases, but it left me curious for more of this old gem because just as I was beginning to appreciate this late Lowland rose's delicacy, the whisky was gone.
Availability - Once available only in the UK, but now difficult to find
Pricing - $160-$180 (the cheaper end of this distillery's bottlings)
Rating - ★★★