On the Trail

The Return of Hepburn's Choice

David Driscoll

The huddled offices and town homes of Glasgow in between Hillhead and Finnieston are where we begin many of our journeys to Scotland. While we've become specialists at selecting single casks of single malt from single distilleries all over the country, most of that purchasing isn't done directly from the producer itself. Many of our barrel selections are permitted through a number of independent bottlers, former blending houses that have been contracting whisky for decades from Scotland's main players. The whisky industry has always been full of ebbs and flows, gluts and shortages, which is why third-party bottlers have always had a role within it. Sometimes finding a partner who will pay for young whisky upfront is better than waiting ten or fifteen years before cutting an invoice. Whisky takes time to mature, so a label like Hepburn's Choice—a portfolio we've been working with directly over the past two years—often purchases the whisky right when it's distilled, before it's matured, allowing the distillers to collect some capital in the short term.

We'll typically meet with the Hunter Laing Whisky Company in their Glasgow office, go over a few samples, check inventory lists, and try to narrow down our interests from that point on. From there, once we have an idea of what we want, we'll generally spend some of our days touring the distilleries whose whisky we'll be purchasing. Seeing that this year's crop produced an outstanding 17 year old single cask of Benrinnes, we wanted to drop by the Diageo-owned Highland distillery and check out their production facility. The women running the show were incredibly gracious and allowed us in without an appointment. We were able to taste the fermenting mash, as well as the whisky straight from the still, giving us an insight into how Benrinnes makes such a lovely, delicate, soft, and soothing malt.

We also ventured over to Islay to gain a better understanding of Caol Ila, from whom we would be purchasing a precocious five year old expression. Diageo is also the owner of this peat-laden producer, so getting an appointment was just a matter of using our connections. We toured through the inner-workings of the still room and gazed at the huge, towering copper pot stills, whose shape creates a fruity flavor and rounded mouthfeel to the whisky. The shape and style of the still can make a huge difference in the profile of a single malt, which is why visiting each distillery can be enlightening no matter how many you've visited previously.

We also selected an 18 year old Clynelish barrel, making our run of Diageo-owned distilleries three for three. Clynelish is located in the far north of the Scottish Highlands so we had to make a long trek up past Speyside towards the coast of the North Sea. We have a serious soft spot in our heart for Clynelish because of its rather delicate and subtle flavor profile, a gentle touch of lemon, wax, oil, and vanilla that will not make itself obvious on the first sip. Touring through the site we asked about the stills which are tall, but branch off into a swan's neck that creates almost a perfect right angle. Something about that shape allows for a refraction that results in an utterly graceful spirit. Clynelish is also coveted by blenders because it tends to play well with other whiskies. For years, Johnnie Walker made Clynelish the centerpiece of the 18 year old Gold expression. 

Now we've got our own 18 year old version, at cask strength no less. Look for these whiskies later this week.

-David Driscoll