A Special Reserve

HK Golfer whisky editor John Bruce writes about the delights of Glenrothes, a malt he looks forward to enjoying more often

It has to be said that as names for single malts go, “Glenrothes” doesn’t quite evoke the sense of tradition amongst Scots that others do. Given that Glenrothes was officially only designed in the late 1940s as the second of Scotland’s “New Towns”, it seems a little like setting Shakespeare in Milton Keynes. But I’ve never really comprehended the intricacies of marketing, or indeed classical drama, and I approached a recent tasting with an open mind.

The Glenrothes tasting was itself a break from tradition; the five expressions we sampled were served along with a sumptuous five-course dinner at the Kee Club in Central and the host was an Englishman, Johnny Roberts, who admitted that his previous experience had been mostly in wines. So at first, I was not entirely certain that Berry Brothers had read their target market correctly. Of course, my glass half-full pessimism was entirely misplaced; there was a truly amazing display of sand art which depicted the history of The Glenrothes, the venue and food were magnificent and Mr Roberts knew and obviously loved his subject.

Whisky has been distilled at the Glenrothes distillery since 1879, though until the 1990s the single malt distilled was almost entirely used to “dress” or enhance the flavours of blended whisky which dominated the market. The Famous Grouse, probably the most successful of all blends uses Glenrothes as one of its “top-dresser” malts. There was a very small amount of the malt whisky enjoyed by a lucky few but it was a particularly well-kept secret. That changed in the 1990s and in 1994, the first bottling of vintage 1979 was produced and the popularity of the brand has grown exponentially. Many more were to follow and about 30,000 cases of their “Special Reserve” – the core expression of the distillery – are now produced each year.

The Glenrothes distillery is in the heart of rural Speyside and sits next to the Burn of Rothes. Like all of the great malts, the distillery recognizes the crucial role that the waters of Speyside play in the creation of the malt whisky and they have purchased the land that holds the spring, the Lady’s Well from which all their water comes. Quoting the distillery’s literature, “Unlike malt whiskies that are produced in line with the age concept, each vintage must have its own unique personality. However, it is important that each vintage is underpinned by the distinctive hallmarks of the distillery – in the case of The Glenrothes, ripe fruits, citrus, vanilla, an exquisite spicy finish encased in the creamiest of textures and a complex, well-poised balance.”

Of course, HK Golfer relies entirely on first-hand experience when reviewing the amber nectar, and I had a singularly enjoyable experience at the Glenrothes dinner. The hosts themselves described it as, “a night to discover the highly acclaimed malt” and I must confess that both Milton and I were new to this malt whisky.

As previously mentioned it may be that Scots tend to think of the town rather than the distillery when faced with the name but I have to say that I wish I had come earlier to the party. Having arrived at the Kee Club and reassured myself that we would not be confronted with either Lion or Morris Dancers, I was immediately plied with a pre-prandial glass of the Glenrothes Special Reserve and coupled with the delightful location and the host’s knowledge, things just got better from there.

The Special Reserve is a delightful tipple which I liked neat but it can equally be enjoyed with a splash of water. The nose is woody but not smoky with a ripe fruit undertone, but the taste is malty with a creamy citrus and slightly sweet length to it and also a final hint of warm, peppery spice. As a core expression, this must rank up there with my favourite younger malt, Glenfiddich 12 year old and if I were not set in my ways, the completeness of the Special Reserve might even displace my long time friend. It is highly recommended.

As ever, I find myself confronted with the constraints of brevity and I cannot do justice to each expression that we sampled, apart from saying that they were universally enjoyable. I must say that I was readily converted to the Glenrothes expressions although I remain unconvinced that they are truly best enjoyed with dinner. I feel that friends are the best accompaniment to great malt whisky, which this undoubtedly was. To finish, let me tip my hat to the allegorical prowess of one Gordon Motion, the Malt Master at Glenrothes. In writing a tasting note for the Vintage 1998, he said that it was, “like Carmen Miranda’s hat in a bottle”. My “a wee bit fruity” seemed dreadfully inadequate in comparison.

Click here to see the published article.