Hailing from Jack Daniels country, I’ve always had an affinity for sipping bold, slightly sweet bourbons on the rocks or in Mint Juleps. In my endeavor to become a more well-rounded beverage imbiber, I’m temporarily abandoning my familiar Gentleman Jack and Woodford Reserve in search of a new world of whiskies. It’s an enjoyable journey, but one that comes with an overwhelming pour of information. All those styles by region and distillation practices, such as American, Canadian, or Irish made with rye, corn, or barley, can be brutal to keep straight, not to mention small batch, single barrel, sour mash and charcoal filtered. Time to get educated.
And then there’s scotch, which I was unfamiliar with other than a few chance drinks and Mad Men-esque thoughts of bottles being opened to celebrate business ventures. I was therefore delighted to recently snag an invitation to the Oregon Culinary Institute, where Mitch Bechard, scotch whiskey expert and ambassador for beverage giant William Grant & Sons, held court with students and whiskey aficionados alike on the history and merits of the prestigious Glenfiddich Scotch Distillery and to introduce us to the differences between scotch, whiskey, and bourbon.
In his heavy Scottish accent, Bechard led us through a virtual tour of the distillery while we sampled Glenfiddich’s range of 12, 15, and 18 year old famous single malt scotches. On screen, the property resembles the Pacific Northwest, nestled within a misty expanse of evergreen trees. Apparently, the large vats used for marrying the aged scotch are made of Oregon Pine. (Yay us!) Glenfiddich, meaning “Valley of the Deer” in Gaelic, is one of the oldest and most successful distilleries from the Speyside region of Scotland. Built by William Grant and his nine children in 1887, it’s still family owned and operated.
Glenfiddich is renowned for producing a light, slightly fruity scotch with a big taste. The 12 year old is svelte and floral, with big pear notes, followed by subtle oak, leather, and pepper on the end. The 15 year is denser, with more honey and warm brown sugar, and a sassy sweetness of sherry from the sherry casks that were predominantly used in its aging. The 18 year is exquisitely smooth on the palate with a rich complexity of earthiness and smoky oak finishing with sweet cinnamon and citrus flavors. New flavors, like new friends, can really turn your head.
At the end of the lecture, which touches on the company’s dedication to sustainable practices, among other subjects, we are presented with Glenfiddich’s latest progeny, an extremely limited release modestly named the Cask of Dreams.
Most of Glenfiddich’s barrels (or "casks" in Scotland) used for aging are older oak, but in 2011 Glenfiddich procured newer American oak barrels from Louisville to experiment with flavor textures. In celebration of Glenfiddich’s 125th anniversary, they decided to have a little fun and roll the casks through several major U.S. and Canadian cities, throwing parties in their wake. Curious bystanders were asked to scrawl their hopes and dreams all over the oak. In the end, the inscribed casks were returned to Scotland, where they were filled with a blended scotch aged 14-16 years, and then allowed to age an additional 3 months. Only 3,500 bottles of this "dream scotch" were produced, and priced at $99.95 each, About 300 will be available in Portland from spirits retailers upon release in mid-March.
The Cask of Dreams is a lighter golden-brown color with aromas of dried fig and vanilla. It is surprisingly smooth in the first sip and mid-palate with playful pear and apple flourishes, but in the finish the new oak becomes apparent with its shades of rich smoke and spice, and finishes with a lingering peat note coming through, a warming hint of the traditional Scottish fuel used in the fires that dry the barley.
Now that I have I’ve had a proper introduction to this noble spirit, I plan on spending some quality time with it. Bechard suggests that the best way to experience a scotch whiskey is to chill and pour it neat after dinner, adding just a splash of water to amplify the aromas and flavors. This is homework I’m actually looking forward to.