This is Why Independent Bottlers Matter – an Anecdote

When I purchased a bottle of Macallan 15-year bottled by little-known independent bottler Alchemist, I was somewhat skeptical. I had tasted independent bottlings before, but this would be the first time I would pony up the sum to acquire a full bottle of one. In fact, based solely on the bargain pricing and the rave reviews of the retailer, I also purchased a bottle of Highland Park 16 finished in a Calvados (French apple brandy) cask, by the same bottler.

The Macallan 15 was just OK. Its interesting notes (jerky/teriyaki and a certain oiliness) are readily available (for less money) in GlenDronach 12. This is often the case with independent bottlings – you pay more… sometimes for cask-strength or non-chillfiltered bottles of your favorite distilleries… or perhaps for non-standard ages (extra young like an 8 year-old Ardbeg or extra old like a 35 year-old Macallan). Or, sometimes, you pay less, likely for a slightly inferior cask or somewhat failed cask experiment, or maybe for a surplus cask of a less-popular distillery. Either way, it’s a crap shoot. Are you paying more and getting less for distillery throwaways? Or will you get lucky and pay bargain dollars for something fantastic that will be gone forever once the last drop is consumed? For some (including me), that’s a lot of gamble for upwards of $50 to $80. On this particular day, I got lucky.

As I said, the Macallan 15 was just OK. The Highland Park 16, however, was glorious. Thus far in my whisky-drinking career, this Alchemist Highland Park 16 finished in a Calvados cask remains my favorite whisky of all time. I nearly shed a tear when I finished the final glass, tonight. I honestly raised a salute to the whisky gods that saw fit to bless me with this unbelievable bottle, for as long as it lasted. Sweet and fruity but not cloying, tart and bursting with green apples and earthy, raw oxidized cider. It retained the Highland Park character with spikes of citrusy peat and heather, but totally without the bitterness I associate with the 12 year. Several times, I’ve overheard or participated in conversations at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, CA, where the Alchemist Highland Park 16 came up. Hardened scotch connoisseurs and picky whisky geeks alike nodded sagely, rolled their eyes skyward, and uttered phrases like “yeah… that was a good ‘un.” I mean, what better praise?

Here are my notes, for all the good it will do you. The best I can say is – if you see this bottle anywhere, buy it without a moment’s hesitation. It’s worth whatever they’re asking.

Alchemist Highland Park 16
46% ABV
~$70 at K&L in Redwood City, CA.
16 years old, last 2 in ex-Calvados
June 1992 – September 2008

Nose: Ripe red apples, with a lemony twist. Perfect peat integration – that Orkney style of peat intertwines magically with the tart cider notes, at once fruity and tangy, with wisps of ethereal applewood smoke. The sweet & sour interplay keeps coming, with apple cider vinegar and honey, late harvest wine and sour apple candy.

Palate: Medium bodied, with nice smoothness. Minor tongue burn. While there is a little bitterness – bitter almonds? – the sweet & sour motif returns in force. Here the apple is coated in caramel, and the sour note is green apple skins and sour candy (Sour Patch Kids).

Finish: The peat shows itself, turning smoky and dry. Some wood tannin, and a trailing note of apple wine.

Overall: You rarely (if ever?) see a Calvados-finished whisky. I don’t understand why not, this stuff is magic. Something about the Highland Park style of peat plays perfectly off of the sweet/sour effect of the apple brandy. Everyone I’ve asked to taste this has fallen in love with it. Too bad there’s no more around. If you happen to see this in a leftover bin, grab it. I can’t recommend it enough.

With Water: Heightens the sour notes in the nose, lemongrass, grapefruit, and turn the red apple into green apple. On the tongue, it’s somewhat maltier – more cereal grains, butterscotch, and actually less cider. There may be less bitterness. On the finish, the malty notes remain, and you lose some of the sour/peat elements. Not what I’d expect the water to do. I wouldn’t bother with it.

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    • Eric,
      A rare thing, alas. This is the only (affordable) bottle of it I’ve ever seen, and it just happened that Highland Park is a perfect foil for the flavors remnant in a calvados barrel – it might not be as successful in, say, a Springbank (who’d be likely to experiment like that) or a Glenmorangie. I’m hoping that Alchemist does this again – I’m not the only one who loved it – and maybe sets a new trend.

  • Tried the Springbank calvados. At $100 (plus shipping, as they don’t seem to sell it here in the US) it is not as mind-blowingly good as a 12 year old whisky at that price should taste. I only bought it because I love calvados and I’d rather have a glass of calvados. Oddly enough, it’s aged for a very long time in the calvados wood – a full six years or half its maturation. It has the apple and bitter almond notes you mention, and a nice fruity nose, but the finish has a weird, vegetable/metallic finish, which really brings it down. It doesn’t taste as good as this one sounds. It might get better as I get further down in the bottle, but I’d be in no hurry to replace this bottle if it runs out. It would be good at $50.

    • That’s too bad. I have a feeling the Alchemist HP was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of whisky (for me, anyway). As it happens, I have a Master of Malt sample of that Springbank 12 Calvados. I’ll try to do a review of it soon.