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   Glenrothes have made a success of their unusual vintage concept and can justifiably claim to be one of the first, if not the first, whisky distiller to take this approach. Here, Ian Buxton samples a rare collection of vintage Glenrothes assembled in London.

Extinct Vertical Vintages

Ian Buxton, 04/08

Interestingly, Glenrothes' vintage concept has not been widely followed, though, as The Glenrothes is currently amongst the fastest-growing single malts worldwide, it must be drawing some interest and envious glances in competitors' marketing departments.

The Extinct Vintage Tasting was held recently in the cellars at Berry Brothers & Rudd, in London's West End.

This long-established firm of wine merchants has owned The Glenrothes in partnership with The Edrington Group for many years and its wine trade background was the decisive influence on the 'vintage' approach to single malt whisky.

The cellars are a wonderful and elegant space - very private and quiet and lined with fascinating historical displays, old and rare bottles (sadly empty) and a small library. There is also a dining room where the guests enjoyed a light lunch (this tasting business is hard work!)

The vintage concept implies that, by definition, supplies of whisky from a specific year will eventually run out. Hence the peculiar title of the tasting. An 'Extinct Vintage' in Glenrothes-speak simply means they've sold the lot. But we were to be singled out for a particular privilege. With some little difficulty, a sample of every single vintage bottling of The Glenrothes had been assembled for us to compare and contrast. Rather like an exam, in fact.

So there we were, faced with 18 (yes 18, I know because I counted them before I began) different whiskies to evaluate. It's an uncomfortable number, recalling Dylan Thomas' immortal last words to his companion, the ever-patient Elizabeth Reitell, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record."

Having no intention of following Thomas, raging or otherwise, I began slowly with the older bottlings, looking to identify a house style. These first bottlings were created under the supervision of the little-known R H Fenwick, Glenrothes' former Malt Master.

Today this role is fulfilled by John Ramsay, who adopts a more public persona. The shaggy-haired Fenwick is remembered though for his dogged personality, bloodhound nose and fondness for long walks. His 'nose' was reputedly more receptive than that of any of his colleagues, almost super-human in its sensitivity, and it's clear that he enjoyed a Sherry finish from the casks he selected.

From these earlier Glenrothes vintages I tasted the 1979, 1972 and 1981 releases (all vintages are listed here in the chronological order of their release) and they shared a rich, voluptuous character with ripe, fruity, vanilla notes and some spicy hints. Since you're unlikely to ever find or drink these, however, we'll pass on to whisky that's more attainable.

For that, we have to consider the 1991, 1975 and 1994 vintages and the latest release, the 30-year-old 1978 vintage. All are currently available, if you look hard enough.

Here a fruit note has developed, reminiscent of berries or soft fruit generally, together with toffee, vanilla and butterscotch. The 1991 and 1975 both shared a tooth-coating taste that reminded me of 'tablet,' that particularly sweet Scottish confection that has allowed so many dentists' children to enjoy the pleasures of a boarding school education.

   The 1994 was fresher in style, though I marked it as 6.75 out of 10, compared to the 7 and 7.5 awarded to the earlier years. I was delighted though to see that I had given 8.25 - my highest mark of the day - to the latest release, that from 1978, in whose honour this whole bash was really being held.

It was spicy and enticing, with a stewed fruit note and hints of toffee, vanilla and oranges. This was a whisky that held together well and finished consistently, with no harsh notes to be found anywhere. So I can recommend this whisky wholeheartedly - except for one thing. And it's a big problem.

Putting my scorecard aside, I checked the price of the 1978 vintage. It's 400. Now this is where I part company with my hosts. The whisky is good, it really is. I scored it very highly and I repeat my positive recommendation. But 400?

As part of Edrington, Glenrothes' stable mates are The Macallan and Highland Park. As everyone would agree, these are also very fine whiskies. A well-known independent retailer currently offers Highland Park's 30-year-old at 185 and The Macallan Fine Oak 30-year-old at 295.90. They also list 30-year-old Glenfiddich, a fabulous and under-rated dram, at 140, and have a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of 30-year-old Glenrothes for 71.

They're not alone. Another independent whisky specialist will sell you a bottle of the 1972, one of the earliest Glenrothes bottlings and now officially 'extinct', for 299 and presumably this is now principally aimed at the collector's market. They also list Glenrothes' own 30-year-old official distillery bottling at 249. To make things worse, this was bottled at 50.2% abv, whereas the 1978 vintage is a comparatively puny 43%.

So be warned: Glenrothes 1978 vintage - great whisky, shame about the price.

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