I was priviledged to have Ronnie Cox, Director for The Glenrothes, show me around the distillery and taste me on some whiskies. Ronnie is a very engaging person, well traveled, and knows a thing or two about whisky too!
After an interesting tour of the distillery (details in the 4th Quarter 2008 issue of Malt Advocate), we worked our way over to the tasting room. Glenrothes’ signature has been that they focus on vintage bottlings, not age statements. There have been a few reasons for this, which Ronnie explained to me:
“We’re looking for maturity, not age. But you must also realize that (brand owner) Berry Brothers & Rudd have a wine background, and the wine industry is more focused on vintage. And at one time, the quality controls weren’t there to make the same whisky twice. They would all be a little different. Releasing vintages shows people the different personalities of the whisky. It’s more about style than anything else. We don’t want to keep making the same whisky. We want to make different styles of whiskies for different moods.”
Ronnie told me that there have been 17 vintage releases of Glenrothes so far from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He mentioned that they still have some casks from the 1960s, but, to quote Ronnie, “They may not be ours. At one time we used to fill casks for private individuals and age the whisky in our warehouses.”
I didn’t recall ever seeing a Glenrothes in a port pipe, Madeira casks, or something even more exotic, so I asked him about it. He told me that Glenrothes whisky is aged in nothing but sherry and bourbon casks. “We have enough to experiment with working within these parameters,” he said.
Glenrothes did finally release a non-vintage “Select Reserve” a couple years back, which contains the basic house flavor profile. It’s a relatively young whisky (when compared to the vintage releases) but still adequately matured and economically priced. The vintage releases all evolve from the Select Reserve’s flavor foundation.
We sampled numerous expressions, including a 1966 & 1967 limited release around 2000 which, according to Ronnie, at that time were selling between $1,500 and $2,000. The 1966 was from a first-fill sherry cask, very rich and nicely balanced. The 1967, a little bit less expensive than the 1966, was from a second fill sherry cask and was fantastic!
Another whisky that really impressed me besides the 1967 vintage above was the 30 year old bottling released in Duty Free (Travel Retail) a little while back. It’s replacement, a more heavily sherried 25 year old , is no slouch either. It’s not as elegant as the 30, but will romance you with its sherry and wood spices.
There are also some really good new releases from the 1970s, namely a 1975 that was released in the U.S. (A 1978 expression was released in Europe as the sister vintage for those of you across the pond.) Another one from the archives to track down was the amazing 1972 vintage released several years back. That whisky, along with the 30 year old release, may well be the two finest Glenrothes whiskies I have ever tasted. And if you look hard enough, you can probably still find the odd bottle somewhere.
But, steer clear of the 1979 single cask, cask strength whisky that was released to the U.S. a couple years ago. The excessive sherry and sulfur just ruined the show for me. That’s one style of Glenrothes I didn’t need to see. No mood exists for that whisky. Not in my personality, anyway.
Here’s another insider tip for you: There will be no more vintage releases from the 1970s. That’s now common knowledge. But, according to Ronnie, the distillery is also running low on casks from the 1980s (just like many other distilleries I visited in Speyside). Indeed, he told me that the next releases will be from the 1990s. So, now is the time to go out and get those vintages from the 1970s and 1980s that you enjoy and stock up!
One final note. Glenrothes is a key component to the Cutty Sark blend. I tasted the Cutty 25 year old while I was in Speyside and it was amazing. I loved the combination of drinkability, flavor, complexity and balance. It’s one of the best blended whiskies I have ever tasted. Even my wife, who doesn’t normally drink whisky, finished her entire dram. And if she hadn’t, I would have finished it for her! The only problem: it’s not sold in the U.S.
So, for all of you who email me and ask me what you should buy when you are overseas, you now know my answer.