...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Single Malt Report: Rosebank 21 year old 1990 (Murray McDavid)

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.

Distillery: Rosebank
Ownership: Diageo
Bottler: Murray McDavid (Mission series)
Age: 21 years (1990-2011)
Maturation: Bourbon barrels
Region: Lowlands
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 - 83


  1. One of the local bars has a 12 YO and a 13 YO Rosebank. Now I'm curious to see if they're a bit more robust at a younger age.

    1. Supposedly the 12yr Flora & Fauna is good stuff. Whisky Exchange has it for about 130USD before shipping; steep for a blind buy, but still one of the cheapest Rosebank options around. If you try a young one, please report back. :)

    2. Keep in mind that the 12 yr Flora & Fauna bottle might be older than 12 years. The last release was a 2007 edition which suggests the whisky was made in 1995 except the distillery closed two years before. So it's probably closer to 14.

      Incidentally I've noticed quite a few independent bottlings that were made in 1990 (or earlier). Going by that, I have a theory that Diageo and the indies are holding back the stock from the last three years of production for future releases. But since no one likes to say how much stock is left, this is pure conjecture on my part.

    3. I had a Gordon & McPhail 1989/2002. I'll have a review posted up later this week.

    4. @Eric - I'd bet you're right. These dead distilleries are the bottlers' honey pot; all this rumor about Diageo buying up Port Ellen casks only confirms that. I'm still really interested in seeing (and tasting) how Rosebank ages with good oak and good storage, etc.

    5. @Jordan - Portland must have some great bars. There are probably a total of two bars in the entirety of the LA metro area (larger in area than a few states) that have indie Rosebanks on hand.

    6. Michael, at least when it comes to whisky, it's mostly one place - the Highland Stillhouse. They have ~350 different single malts and ~500 whiskies total.


    7. Ah yes, I have stared at their online whisky list many many many times. Someday...

  2. Keep an eye out for the Douglas of Drumlanrig 20yo Rosebank. It's very much worth the price.

    1. Ah ha, saw that on whiskybase. Will definitely look out that for that one.

  3. Littlemill, the other Lowlands distillery closed in 1993, apparently has enough stock left to sell a 12 year old whisky for $60 (found at Beltramo's). This might be the cheapest official bottling from a closed distillery yet. Not surprisingly this is totally due to Rosebank getting all the attention.

    Having tasted the Littlemill 12, I found it inoffensive with plenty of vanilla notes... and only vanilla. The flavor ends up flat and the finish is short and, again, inoffensive.

    1. I've seen that one too. I've almost bought it due to its closed status. Murray has said that their official bottlings are often considerably older than their age statements, due to that closing date. It sounds like their malt is pretty mild with those oak vanillans doing all of the singing.

    2. Very mild. Definitely a Lowlander but since the distillery double distilled, I'd almost call it a Lowland-Highland hybrid (also the distillery was pretty close to the Highlands border). Hmm, this might be interesting to compare against Glengoyne which is another distillery under the same regional confusion.

    3. A good excuse to buy a bottle! If an excuse is ever required.

  4. Incidentally, did you get the wife to have a taste? The way Michael Jackson described Rosebank as a "whisky for lovers" tells me the whisky might appeal to women. Which would have been a great way to market and sell the whisky if DCL kept the distillery open (in my dreams of course).

    1. Alas she was asleep by then. But it gives me a good excuse: "Hey, I bought this $200 closed distillery cask strength single malt for US."

      Rosebank could have been the Virginia Slims of Scotch Whisky. Opportunity squandered.