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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Single Malt Report: Linkwood 21 year old 1991 Sovereign (K&L exclusive)

For all that may be said (or has been said) about their spirits blog and promotional emails, K&L Wine Merchants usually selects very good single cask spirits (from Scotland, France, and the US).  Their general spirit selection (curated by The Davids to fit the limited shelf space) is difficult to fault as well.

Even when their single cask selections fall short of expectations -- from the oak issues with last year's Bowmore and Aberlour Exclusive Malts or the Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc cask -- these are outliers.  Many of us remember disappointment first and satisfaction second.  Also, tales of the Bruichladdich are fun to tell and hear.

This week I'm going to take a look at two of their single cask releases, one from 2012, the other from 2013.  I will tell you ahead of time that neither were disasters and one might even have been a pleasant surprise.

Linkwood.  The US gets very few bottlings of Linkwood Distillery's single malt.  There are no official bottlings from Diageo (surprise!) in The States.  On the indie side of things, I've seen a Gordon & MacPhail version and a Chieftain's bottling; apparently there's one Signatory floating around and perhaps one Exclusive Malt.  But that's it.  Many of us have enjoyed Linkwood as part of the late great Johnnie Walker Green Label.  It has also been in an unknown number of other blends.  The distillery cranks out 3.75 million liters of alcohol a year, so we've had Linkwood in some form or another, but didn't know it at the time.

In the late summer of 2012, the Davids bought three casks from Sovereign, one of the Laing family's numerous indie whisky brands.  These were a Caol Ila, Caperdonich, and Linkwood.  I liked the first, loved the second, and now here's the third.

There's not a lot of online feedback about this whisky.  The Davids have said that this cask did not sell well, to the extent that they "wouldn’t choose something that tastes like" it again.  Two of the LAWS dudes were less than enthused about their own experience with it.  But my friend Daniel, whom generously shared a significant portion of his bottle with me, liked it a lot.  So I thought, what the heck, let's get a Linkwood review onto Diving for Pearls, finally.

Distillery: Linkwood
Independent Bottler: Sovereign (Douglas Laing)
Retailer: K&L only
Age: 21 years old (1991 - Aug 2012)
Maturation: ex-bourbon hogshead
Cask numberHH8696
Bottle #:  ??? of 228
Region: Speyside (Lossie)
Alcohol by Volume: 58.8%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No

The color is a light to medium gold.  It's immediately very hot on the nose.  It's a sensory burn with hints of acetate and chlorine, so watch it!  Gotta air it out.  For a while.  The first notes that emerge are fresh peaches, apricots, and apples.  Then almond paste, peach yogurt, and caramel.  There's also this note where tapioca pudding meets paint fumes.  So that heat doesn't entirely go away, even after 45 minutes.  It's also hot on the palate, but not as aggressively so.  First there's lime peel, cracked black peppercorns, and barley.  Then, with time and air, vanilla bean and tangerine peel develop.  It's simple but pretty solid.  Citrus makes up much of the finish, along with vanilla and a hint of milk chocolate.  I think I get some tonic in there as well, but that might be the lime notes tricking me.  There's a decent length to it, but it's mostly heat.

Now lots of caramel notes develop in the nose.  Then peaches, brown sugar, flower blossoms, and cherry bubblegum.  The palate opens a bit.  Sweet lemons, vanilla, caramel, toasted grains, limes, and mint.  It's sweeter and buttery with spicier pepper notes -- all likely coming from the oak.  The finish mellows out, all citrus and malt.

Some main points here:
--It needs lots of air.  All of the online reviews I've read (though there aren't many) mention the big alcohol heat.  Yes, that heat's undeniably present, but it improves if you give the whisky 25-45 minutes to breathe.  Yeah, that's a long time for a whisky that's not 45 years old, but that's my recommendation for enjoying it more.

--It's much sweeter and oakier with water.  It's also an easier beverage when hydrated.  I appreciate that this was released cask strength, as this allows us to tinker with it on its own.

--It's reminiscent of Green Label, if one was to remove the peated elements from the JWGL's vatting.  That's a positive feeling, but it also made me which I'd had some Green Label at hand.

--This isn't very complex whisky, but it's reasonably solid across the line.  It just needs a lot of air in order to open up.  And if you're an oak fan, adding a little bit of water should improve the whisky for you.

My Linkwood experience is very limited, but I can see how it works very well in blends or vattings.  I'd be curious to know how the old Flora and Fauna release fares and how Linkwood stands up to refill sherry casks.  It seems like a solid Speysider, one that Diageo could release as an easy 43%ABV drinker, but in the meantime I may explore it further via the indie bottlers.

Availability - K&L Wines, though it has sold out
Pricing - It ran from $109.99 to $135.99
Rating - 84


  1. Since I had a bottle of the Chieftan's Linkwood, I went for the Caperdonich instead. But I did grab the Rattrey Glen Elgin the Davids selected so I did wind up with a rarely seen Diageo Speysider. Oh, in case you were wondering, the Glen Elgin is a tasty refill sherry bomb (more Glendronach-lite than Macallan-lite).

    I really wish the Flora and Fauna series would get a US release but I highly doubt that would ever happen. In Glen Elgin's case, Diageo did move it into the Classic Malts line but the 12 year old also never hit Stateside.

    1. In my opinion, you chose wisely with the Caperdonich. I enjoyed that one so much that I felt like there needed to be a ceremony when I finished the bottle. I'd be interested to hear how the Chieftain's Linkwood fares. I agree with you about the Flora and Fauna series, though I wonder if the Big D will snuff it out if the blend market ever does boom in Asia.

    2. It's funny how like Brora and Clynelish, Linkwood is a fairly new distillery built right next to an older version. But unlike Brora, Old Linkwood does get turned on for a few months to make whisky. Since both Linkwoods appear to have identical equipment and identical-enough flavor profiles, I wonder why Brora is put on a pedestal when a similarly aged Clynelish might taste similar? Oh, right because Brora is closed.

    3. New Clynelish was a scaled-up copy of Brora, which includes the stills. The changed surface area:volume ratio in the stills should have some effect, though it might be subtle. People are also nuts about heavy peating, so there's that too.

    4. Oh, I forgot Brora did make peated whisky for a period. That whisky was probably why Brora developed a reputation as a chameleon malt.

  2. It sounds like that was a really, really inactive cask. I wonder if the "we'll never pick one like this again" led to some of the over-oaked expressions that they picked last year.

    I actually have the Signatory 1995/2010 Linkwood. I'll make sure to set aside a sample for you. It's at 43%, so it should be a relatively easy drinker.

    1. Re: the cask. That could be the case, but there's an expansive middle ground between dead cask and oak syrup. Or at least there used to be. Personally, I'd take the former over the latter, but would prefer something in the middle. I know you know all of this but I'm really not excited about the prevalence of over-oaked whisky right now.

      Thanks for the Linkwood offer, that sounds great!

  3. After finally getting around to my Chieftan's Linkwood bottle, I found it a very typical fruity Speyside malt that didn't quite blow my mind (and it was over $100 so I expect some mind blowing). Even if this Linkwood weren't already sold out I don't think I would have gotten another bottle.

    1. Good to know. Thanks! I had pondered picking up a bottle on more than one occasion, and now I'm pretty sure the very bottle I was eyeing is now gone. I like me some fruity single malt, but as you mentioned once a whisky goes over $100 it'd better be excellent.