I try not to be a single-malt snob, but I can't remember the last time I had a blended Scotch whisky apart from a cocktail that calls for it specifically. Well, until recently. But I'll get to that momentarily.
The blender's art is, if anything, more challenging than that of the distiller, combining multiple whiskies (usually a combination of flavorful malt and lighter grain whiskies) to create a finished product whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and then do it consistently year after year. Now, that description doesn't apply fully in the case of the Cladach (57.1% ABV, suggested retail price $170). It's a one-off, released as part of this year's Diageo Special Releases campaign, so no need to worry about consistency. And rather than combining dozens of whiskies, it uses a mere six, all of them single malts from Diageo-owned distilleries: Inchgower from Speyside; Clynelish from the Highlands; Oban from the West Coast; Talisker from the Isle of Skye; and Caol Ila and Lagavulin from Islay.
You might think that it's easy to create a slam-dunk delicious blended malt (until recently known as a vatted malt) from a handful of great single malts. Don't believe it. When I was left with the dregs of a handful of last year's Special Releases, I decided to experiment and make my own blend, just to see what would happen. What happened was, in a word, godawful (wait, is that one word or two?). I added some powerful 12-year-old Lagavulin to try to obscure the mess I'd created under a veil of smoke and peat, only to wind up with a smoky, peaty mess. This blending business is not for amateurs.
And clearly Cladach has been left to the pros, because this isn't just one of the most sublime blends I've had lately, it's one of the most sublime whiskies, period, and my hands-down favorite of this year's Special Releases crop. It's grassy, a little peaty, and lip-smackingly sumptuous on the nose, while the palate starts off rich and fruity with ripe berries and a hint of candied orange peel, before the dry and ashy notes of the Islay malts grab the spotlight on the back of the tongue. The finish is long and woody without being overly tannic, with gentle smoke and just a smidgen of salt. Hot damn, this is good stuff.
So good, apparently, that Diageo didn't even bother to release it to us whisky cretins Stateside. Fortunately, it can be gotten through the good folks at the Whisky Exchange. It costs less than a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label and it's oh so much better. And it's a limited edition, so don't tarry.